Diary — October 26, 2012, 1:49 pm

Love in the House

On fiction, reality television, and why crushes thrive in small spaces.

From the age of eight to thirteen, Heidi Julavits kept a diary, writing one page per day, and beginning each entry with the words, “Today I …” Recently she decided to resume the practice for one year. The following was written on July 18, 2012.

Today, or rather tonight, my husband and I will be watching “The Men Tell All.” This is the penultimate show of The Bachelorette, Season Eight. On “The Men Tell All,” the men whom the bachelorette, Emily Maynard, has rejected over the course of the season are interviewed by Chris, the host of what my husband and I call “The Franchise.” The Franchise comprises three shows: The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor Pad. It is my husband’s contention that everyone on the planet will eventually be part of The Franchise. We dream of this happening.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter.

On “The Men Tell All,” the guys don’t dish on Emily; they dish on the other guys. They dish about inter-guy relations. The guys live in a house called “the house,” and “the house” remains the name for their communal living situation, even if “the house” is a hotel suite in Dubrovnik. In the house there are assholes, there are sweetly misunderstood wallflowers, there are asshole wallflowers, and, on “The Men Tell All,” everyone accuses everyone of being exactly what they are, and a studio audience boos when jerky guys refuse the mantel of jerkhood, and applaud when the jerks are called out by the narcs, who would probably be jerks themselves if the bigger jerks hadn’t been around to fill the role.

I am asked by apparently more sensible people why I watch this show. It’s so fake, the sensible people say; it’s totally rigged. The contestants are actors. They just want to become famous. To enjoy the show, to these people, is to fail to remember this, and to be swept up by a fiction you think is not one.

But I believe there are a few more floors to the house of fiction/reality than these people, and maybe even the contestants, realize. I honestly believe that people fall in love on these shows. I do. Here is why: Crushes thrive in small spaces. Humans must be programmed to respond in a certain way when faced with a small sampling of other humans in, say, caves. You’re stuck in a cave with three other people—all mankind, presumably, was hidden away in such tiny groups during the winters until the thaw—and so, in order for the species to thrive, you must biologically be compelled to fuck at least one person in your cave, despite the fact that, when surrounded by a plenitude of Neanderthals at the Neanderthal summer barbecue, none of them struck your fancy. Without the element of choice, and in conjunction with captivity, you find love, or at least you find lust.

This has happened to me many times. It happened to me on a canoe trip; the minute we returned to civilization, I recanted my crush on the guy I’d angled to sit next to at the nightly campfires. I have been so cognizant of this phenomenon, and its inevitability, that I got nervous in college while waiting for to hear where I was to spend my semester abroad in France, because I knew that a guy my friend was dating, and who I’d always abstractly found cute, was also going to France. Fortunately we were sent to different cities. Had we been in the same place, I am certain we would have fallen in love, or the sort of love that occurs in those situations, call it what you will, probably a mistake. This is also why I get nervous going to art colonies, especially now that I am happily married to a man I met at an art colony. I don’t want to fall for anyone else—I am pointedly not looking to fall for anyone—but these situations conspire against our best intentions. Art colonies, often located in remote woods or on beautiful estates, are communities that sever all ties to the real world within hours of arrival; they are like singles mixers for the married or otherwise spoken for. (I was married when I met my now-husband, who was otherwise spoken for.) When I arrive at a colony these days, I take a measure of the room, I identify the potential problems, I reinforce my weak spots, and then I relax.

Even the big world can conspire to trick its inhabitants with caves of a sort. A few summers ago I developed a crush on a guy working on the barn outside my studio in Maine. He worked every day while I worked, so for many hours we were working in the same approximate air space. I’ve known him for years; he and his partner are good friends of ours. My point is that this crush had no basis in reality; it had so little basis that I couldn’t even fantasize about a next move, because there was no fantasy. I couldn’t even imagine kissing him. He was just a fun reason to go to work each day, and he reminded me how, during the eighteen months that I had a real job, i.e. an office and not a waitressing or teaching job, I had to develop a crush in order to want to go to work. My office crush was a married Norwegian whom I think about often these days, because he said to me once, when I was twenty-five, “you will always be beautiful.” He probably wasn’t predicting quite this far into the future, but I’m hoping that he was, and that he possesses Scandinavian alewife wisdom about women and their face trajectories. Regardless. My crush on this guy working on my barn explained much that I’d formerly failed to understand—how, over the course of a Maine winter, husbands and wives manage to fall in love with other husbands and wives they’ve known forever.

However, as a believer in The Franchise, and as a believer in my own marriage, I feel the need to defend the attractions that can arise in such deceptive environments. My husband, for example, is not the sort of man I would have been smart enough to date and marry until many more years of dating and marrying the wrong kind of man. Were it not for the intense art colony exposure to my husband, who was so different from the husband I had at the time, I may never have fallen in love with him. And yet he is the perfect human for me. Were it not for my own personal version of The Franchise, I’d have made some honestly terrible mistakes.

Which does not explain much about the actual Franchise—for example why the bachelors and bachelorettes always select the hottest person, even if that person’s hotness is massively iced by their personality. I got really excited, for example, when I thought that Brad, the man-boy with abandonment issues from Season Fifteen, might pass over the obvious, beautiful girl for the cute-enough girl with the cool father. I was really touched by the idea that Brad might choose to marry a woman because he wanted her dad to be his dad too. Of course Brad chose the obvious, beautiful girl.[1] Does that mean Brad didn’t love Emily, because she was obvious? I think he did love her, and I think she loved him. Sometimes we love obvious people. I also think that all of the rejected women who claimed to love Brad really did love him. Most of the men who claim tonight that they love Emily really do love her, even if they’ve barely spoken to her. Is this normal? No. But that doesn’t mean it’s dismissible as acting. Fakeness gives rise to realness that, granted, given The Franchise’s dismal record,[2] may not survive when the fakeness ends. But the contestants do, or did, experience real feelings as a result of fiction. The readers of novels experience real feelings as a result of fiction. And what about the characters? They don’t not fall in love, just because a writer orchestrated it.


[1] This girl was Emily Maynard. A few months after their televised engagement, she and Brad broke up. Emily then reappeared as the star of Season Eight of The Bachelorette.

[2] Twenty-three seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have resulted in two marriages to date. (Ashley and J.P. will be the third couple from The Franchise to get married; their televised wedding will be aired on ABC in December.)


Heidi Julavits’s story “This Feels So Real” appears in the November 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Subscribers can read it here.

Share
Single Page
is the author, most recently, of The Vanishers (Doubleday), and a founding editor of The Believer .

More from Heidi Julavits:

From the April 2014 issue

Diagnose This

How to be your own best doctor

From the August 2013 issue

Restlessness

From the August 2013 issue

Are You Sleeping?

In search of a good night’s rest

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Article
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Article
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Article
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Number of toilet seats at the EU Parliament building in Brussels that a TV station had tested for cocaine:

46

Happiness creates a signature smell in human sweat that can induce happiness in those who smell it.

Trump struggles to pronounce “anonymous”; a Sackler stands to profit from a new drug to treat opioid addiction; housing development workers in the Bronx are accused of having orgies on the clock

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today