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Youth, an estate misremembered until it becomes an estate superintended, is, in every way, The Folded Clock (Doubleday, $26.95) — which is also the title of a new diary by Heidi Julavits. Its pages hold the promise of a tell-all. Here is everything you need to know about the author, from her clothing and food preferences to her abortion, her sex habits, and her marriage (to the novelist Ben Marcus) — everything, that is, besides her four sly novels (including The Vanishers and The Uses of Enchantment) and her founding editorship of The Believer, which go unmentioned. Instead we have two kids, including a daughter, whom Julavits introduces to Egyptian hieroglyphs at a museum. One of the glyphs, Julavits explains, is based on the shape of a folded cloth, which her daughter mishears as “folded clock.” Julavits corrects her, but “pickpocket[s] her accident.”

Detail of a hieroglyphic inscription on a block statue of Amenhotep, circa 1400 b.c. © Album/Art Resource, New York City

Detail of a hieroglyphic inscription on a block statue of Amenhotep, circa 1400 b.c. © Album/Art Resource, New York City

Youth is something to pilfer; from the mouths of babes come titles, and from their precocity come careers, or so Julavits once thought. Asked by a geriatric audience, in a different scene, about her origins as a writer, she cites some lore: when she was a child, her father took her to the mall — that other museum — to buy the family’s first color TV. He also bought her a diary, after she promised to make entries regularly. Julavits, in her account of this in the book, shrugs off the banal dichotomy — the mind-slaughtering TV versus the mind-sustaining page — by quoting her first entry: “Today I woke up and watched TV. Subsequent entries are just as blah: “Today at school I got a 100 on my math test and I finished my science assignment. I am all set for my literature report but I’m really scared.”

Revisiting that diary to confirm her account, Julavits finds that the prose doesn’t suggest the mind of a future novelist but that of “a future paranoid tax auditor.” The Folded Clock is her attempt, decades later, to redeem herself, and even to redeem the pressures attendant on childhood — the pressure only adults can impose on childhood — as a time of fuller, or deeper, experience.

Julavits takes us through two years of teaching (at Columbia, which isn’t named), hanging with friends and family in coastal Maine (where she “summers”), and avoiding writing during a writing fellowship in Berlin. But if everything seems orderly at home, or at her multiple homes, it isn’t orderly on the page: the entry for March 3 gives way to the entry for July 29; July 18 is next, then August 2; there are no years marked. Throughout, awareness means self-awareness, and consciousness of others means consciousness of how Julavits is perceived. Her visits to libraries invariably lead to observations of other visitors, or of her own moods; books are discussed only in terms of their placement in bookstores. The body becomes the locus of all nonliterary neuroses: health is monitored on the nanolevel and becomes a matter of deciding between consuming or not consuming some berry, nut, or seed; hydration is a must.

In chronicling her privileged life with a pretense of honesty — or transparency — Julavits is taking the great millennial risk: the risk of being “unlikable,” which is a contemporary American word for “human.” Then she goes beyond that, to the verge of becoming unlikable to herself. That’s where her book — a diary written for an era that has consigned fiction to the world of children or Young Adults — becomes aching, and solacing. Her four-year-old son suffers an illness, or possibly a “misery fugue state,” that makes him weep. Julavits rubs his back to calm him, but also to calm herself; she hates wasting time like this, and might as well be “sharpening a knife”:

I tried to think of how this motion might, in the future, come in handy. I thought, If my son dies, I will sit at the shore, and swoop my hand like this back and forth over a smooth rock that has been warmed in the sun and feels humanlike as a way of remembering him. Then I thought this was melodramatic and gruesome. I thought instead: Maybe I’ll write a story in which a character’s son dies, and she could, as a means of coping, go to the shore and do this. Then I thought this was stupid. I thought instead: I must remember to do this when I am seventy. I must remember to find a rock that feels exactly like my son’s four-year-old back. I must remember to close my eyes and imagine that I am me again, a tired mother trying to teach herself how to miss what is not gone.

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