[W. W. Norton; 2023]

When I heard that Chris Bachelder would soon publish a new novel, Dayswork, my first feeling was, shamefully, ambition. After a long year of being defeated by my dissertation and a summer breaking my promise to myself to write something, a new Bachelder novel seemed to be the perfect opportunity not only to write but to write something big, something with scope. The moment had come! I would write a sweeping essay on his whole body of work, a body of work that is (a critic’s favorite two terms) rich and under-considered.

There’s so much in those four novels! Bachelder’s 2001 debut, Bear v. Shark, imagines American political discourse destroyed by the spectacles of late capitalism, its white-knuckled grasp of our libidinal and attentive energies. And also a bear fighting a shark. Or the ingeniously silly device in U.S.!—an immortal Upton Sinclair, cyclically assassinated and resurrected over the twentieth century—that exposes the political and literary failures of the American left. Then there’s Abbott Awaits, a novel about a suburban dad, and I like it anyway. Abbott is the sort of suburban dad who holds political conversations with his imaginary friends like Vince, who is obsessed with “the access to the means of production. This is Vince’s answer to everything. He’s right, of course, but Abbott still wishes he would shut up.” And the National Book Award-nominated The Throwback Special, which makes a difficult product (a formally experimental novel) from unlikely materials (an NFL game from 1985, omnidirectionally anxious middle-aged dads). Genuinely funny novels are rare; politically sophisticated novels rarer still. Chris Bachelder’s novels are both.

But Dayswork isn’t a Bachelder novel: It’s a collaboration between him and Jennifer Habel, an award-winning poet who, like Bachelder, teaches at the University of Cincinnati (not incidentally, the two are married). And this new book is not about bears fighting sharks but rather, as the jacket copy describes, “about marriage, mortality, and making art,” about a woman “sorting fact from fiction in the life and work of Herman Melville.” Really, Dayswork is about ambition. The novel acknowledges and then rejects the desire to evaluate your life and work (and those of others) exclusively in economic terms, by productive capacity: what you’ve made and whether people like it, or recognize it at all. When I finished Dayswork, not only was it clear that the time was not right for a sweeping essay, but also I asked myself why I was so desperate to write a sweeping essay in the first place—why I thought about my writing in the terms of size and scope.

The first-person narrator of Dayswork is a writer at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many of us, she spends it online. After reading a blog (“Words Herman Melville is Reported to Have Spoken”), she becomes obsessed by Melville and the circumstances of his work. Seven novels in seven years: how did he get it done? Under what domestic arrangements did the writing actually happen? In other words, how did America’s most famous customs officer learn to lean in? About half the novel contains archival sources and historical facts as the narrator wanders around Melville and his biographers: Hershel Parker (known derisively as “the Biographer”), Elizabeth Hardwick, Henry A. Murray. Plus other people of historical or personal significance: the Ciaglo brothers, local bison ranchers; George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen, who rowed across the Atlantic; the poet Mary Ruefle. The novel’s other half collects the narrator’s reflections on her own writing life and her relationship with her husband, with whom she, a few years previously, underwent what she calls the “Bad Time.”   

Because the novel’s marketing materials emphasize its collaborative composition, it would be easy to map the novel’s writers, the narrator and her husband, onto Habel and Bachelder. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else: Regardless of critical training, it’s often difficult not to commit the biographical fallacy when you read, in part because the ever-available biographical details of contemporary writers seem to resurrect the old image of (some) writers as sexy mavericks: Camus, the Beats, Sontag, all the writers who photographed well and whose personal lives took on a kind of outsized cultural influence. And sometimes it’s even true. Rachel Kushner is cool enough to ride fast motorcycles; Helen DeWitt does speak eleven languages.

But Dayswork is suspicious of the way we talk about authors, authorship, and authorial collaboration: Whose labor is recognized, and whose is elided? By emphasizing the material work that makes writing possible, the novel turns an abstract notion of collaboration (Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver as floating heads, deliberating sharp sentences) into a network, an economy, of variegated relationships. The novel also resists the temptation to make collaboration into a liberal political allegory, to liken collaboration to compromise—what Rachel Greenwald Smith calls “compromise aesthetics,” which corresponds politically to the “general impulse to eschew extremity in favor of moderation.” Let’s just find middle ground, in other words, whether on the page or on the ballot.

The marriage of the title—days, work—doesn’t point to a productive fusion, but rather to a dialectical contradiction that’s legible in the novel’s narration. Concepts like collaboration and voice are set into motion. The novel contends that most everything singular is always already composite, especially an author figure or a narrating I. Other voices speak everywhere in Dayswork, all the citations and quotes and historical facts the narrator lays out. And outside the diegesis of the novel, the marketing material constantly reiterates the collaborative fabrication of the I. Even the author photos seem suggestive: On the inside flap, there’s one photo, Habel and Bachelder sitting together; on the W. W. Norton website, this same double photo appears twice, once for each author.

Late in the novel, the narrator tells her husband that

“James Merrill’s partner, a failed novelist, used a Ouija board to generate the material for Merrill’s three-volume epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover.

Merrill once said in an interview . . . that the poem should perhaps have been published under both of their names.”

Here, the “single” voice of the narrator becomes a nested series of voices: first, the voice of historical research into Merrill, which reveals Merrill’s own, recorded voice. And both of these voices are talking about multivocality, the fact that Merrill’s poem encodes not only his voice but his partner’s, too, and also perhaps the Ouija board’s—or, in my mind, at least its manufacturer’s labor. By destabilizing ideas of singular authorship and collaboration, the novel also asks us to rethink concepts like obsession and, indeed, ambition. If every author is really a composite, then who makes up Melville? Whose labor, whose days and work, are present but invisible in the novels? Most obviously, the labor of his wife, mother, and daughters. In Elizabeth Hardwick’s words, “The famous carry about with them a great weight of patriarchal baggage—the footnotes of their lives. . . . These ‘attendants’ are real people: mistresses and wives, sometimes but not often husbands . . . there they are, entering history with them, with the celebrated artists, generals, prime ministers, presidents, tycoons.” Footnotes is precisely the right term, because Dayswork lays out its ideas about writing and labor in an aphoristic style that connects it both to Habel’s poetry and to recent literary history, especially David Markson’s Notecard Quartet: a set of novels comprised almost entirely of blunt facts about writers and artists, especially their causes of death.

Compare this example of Markson’s catalogs of death from This is not a novel:

Longfellow died of peritonitis. Frank Norris died of peritonitis. Selma Lagerhöf died of peritonitis.

to this catalog of readerly affinity in Dayswork:

Lewis Lapham’s mother read Moby–Dick to him when he was six.

Faulkner read it to his daughter when she was seven.

David Foster Wallace’s father read it to him when he was eight.

Marilynne Robinson read it herself when she was nine.

E.L. Doctorow read half of it when he was ten—”fair sailing until the cetology stove me in.”

and the punchiness of Habel’s poem “Warp and Weft”:

Nothing is known about the life of Nancy Batchelder.

. . .

Nothing is known about the life of Lydia Marden, who stitched the gravestone of

Sarah Pervier, who died at eight months.

. . .

Nothing is known about the lives of Mary Shields and Mary Bishop.

Markson lays out artists’ deaths; the poem and Dayswork both wonder about the lives of the people never famous enough to have their causes of death noted, the people who made the work of those artists possible. All writing, including the canonical novels like Moby–Dick around which networks of readerly affinity form, are themselves products of everyday (and in some cases, everynight) labor. For example, Melville, the narrator informs us, raised his youngest daughter from bed

at 2 a.m. to read proof of his book-length poem Clarel, the longest poem in American literature . . . Longer than the Iliad, longer by far than Paradise Lost.

And Melville’s daughter never forgave him.

His biographer did, however.

A few lines later:

If Melville’s daughter was tired, having been awakened by her father at 2 a.m. to read proof of his epic poem, could she not, the Biographer reasoned, take a nap during the day?

The Biographer is famous Melvillean Herschel Parker. His milquetoast rationalization stands in for literary culture’s general misunderstanding of the work of writing. We rationalize the monstrosity of writers all the time—sometimes implicitly, and other times explicitly. In a 1997 issue of the New Republic that the novel’s narrator quotes, James Wood is explicit, declaring that in its genius “Moby–Dick ‘justifies Melville’s life.’” But can we really talk about a life, whether an artist’s or anyone else’s, as justified by its creative production? How can anyone engaged in creative work justify their decisions to themselves, to the people who share in their lives?

Dayswork presents two possible answers. In the first, work is justified by its excellence. As we’ve seen, this can lead to some unpleasant conclusions. Plus, this answer remains unavailable for almost everyone who isn’t Herman Melville, who cannot write Moby–Dick. The second option: Work justifies itself as daily devotional practice, as ritual. But this second option has its own problems. Just because you’ve chosen to do something every day doesn’t mean you’ve chosen wisely. And making work inherently virtuous can become pathological; in any case, it’s certainly political, ideological, as the logic of the Protestant work ethic and neoliberal welfare reform.

Plus, all justification becomes impossible when selfishness spills over into serious abuse. Dayswork illustrates as much through the “Kring find,” the discovery of letters with “anecdotal evidence, derived from family stories and letters, that Melville verbally and physically abused his wife.” Regarding one report of Melville “th[rowing] Lizzie down the stairs”:

“It may not be true at all,” wrote Melville’s great-grandson. “On the other hand, worse may be true.”

“Who knows?”

The Biographer does:

“He didn’t beat his wife.”

The narrator cites the scholar Elizabeth Renker, who wrote in the early 90s on the Kring find, and the bristling response she received from the “tempest” of “’lathered’ Melvilleans,” which speaks to “the kinds of emotional investments scholars made in Melville.” Reports of Melville’s cancellation have been greatly exaggerated; Renker has traded an older, less accurate Melville for a newer, clearer version, and as any writer (including Melville himself) would attest, moving asymptotically via careful revision towards something truer is difficult and unpleasant.

Despite ourselves, we don’t always want truer versions of the people whose work we’re attached to. Justification works two ways: as an attempt to excuse the monstrosities of others, and to excuse our own shortcomings. In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick’s narrator finds her own historical figure: Billie Holiday, whom she calls “the ‘bizarre deity.’” The reason Holiday—like Melville—seems bizarre when scrutinized in writing is that we find it nearly as difficult to imagine our deities as regular everyday people as it is to acknowledge them as monsters. Some parts of Holiday’s or Melville’s biographies are easily mythologized—say, the drugs or the poverty. But it’s funny, weird, to imagine Holiday, as Hardwick writes, as “someone real and sensible who carried money to the bank, signed papers, had curtains made to match.” Likewise, it’s hard to picture Melville, moved by some mixture of duty, care, and pride, and despite being flat broke, sending “engraved silver spoons to all three of his namesakes.” When figures like Holiday or Melville return to us not as myths but as people, we can feel threatened, because it’s more difficult to excuse their cruelties, and also because if real people can, with practice and talent and the support of others, sing “I’ll Be Seeing You” or write Moby–Dick, then it’s more difficult to accept the fact that we have not. Much safer to imagine them as somehow stamped from birth by a judicious muse, in manner of Habel’s poem “Seven Students,” which borrows lines from interviews with seven canonical women writers, including Hardwick: “I thought WRITER was written on their foreheads / and they saw it when they looked in the mirror.”

But the problems of justification exist for any ambitious writer in a relationship, even outside contexts of outright abuse. Hence the narrator’s interest in Hardwick and her marriage to Robert Lowell, a domestic situation that was difficult and asymmetrical—like the Melvilles’s situation, and the narrator’s own. Whereas Lowell was manipulative and Melville exploitative and probably abusive, the narrator’s husband constitutes a different kind of problem. He spends much of the novel, after exposure to COVID, quarantined in the basement. Towards the novel’s end, he asks the narrator, sitting upstairs, to read him a letter from Melville to Hawthorne over the phone.

It was late—

It felt too late for Melville’s precipice, but my husband doesn’t ask for much.

He requires a lot, but he doesn’t ask for much.

Here, the narrator distinguishes her husband from Melville and Lowell. Melville had no difficulties asking for much, and Lowell was more interested in doing than asking (for either permission or forgiveness). There’s ambiguity here, especially in the last line. The husband possesses not the monstrous neediness of Lowell but the gentler neediness of a gentler man. At the same time, the fact that he still “requires a lot” points at once to the fundamental state of dependency common to all people and to the thwarted development of many (white) American men, who like psychological homunculi are exaggerated and distended in some directions and atrophied in others. It’s familiar ground for Bachelder: The Throwback Special is full of such men, who break with certain masculine tropes of violence and domination but remain emotionally semi-literate and self-absorbed, lacking healthier ways to manage their real psychic pain.

Through its ambiguous treatment of the husband, the novel suggests that, just as the attempt to “justify” a life by the quality of aesthetic creation is ridiculous and myopic, trying to “justify” reasonable amounts of care, whether in response to mental or physical illness or economic precarity or something else, might also be impossible. Like love, you cannot earn care, because care resists a calculus of deserving and undeserving. Care can only be given and received, and the best thing you can do is to offer it yourself, as much as you can, whenever you happen to be able.

Also, don’t wake your family at two in the morning to read your poetry.

In his book On Not Being Someone Else, all about the spectral people we could have but did not become, Andrew H. Miller writes, “Stories of lives unled encourage some ways of thinking and feeling and discourage others; they raise some questions and hide others; they amplify some experiences and hide others.” This is true, says Dayswork, also of the stories we tell about the people who write stories. The great story of Great Authorship makes some led lives seem unled by rendering them imperceptible, buried beneath other, bigger lives. But, by the same stroke, Dayswork holds that lives—your own and others’—are readable, and in that sense subject to the possibilities of criticism. And—terrifyingly, mercifully—reinterpretation is inevitable. In this way, we might be able to trade the ambitious anxiety of justification, all its dangers and cruelties, for something more ethically and politically robust. Maybe even something playful, a little funny, as in James Wright’s poem about lying in a hammock: twelve lines of farmland pastoral and then the ending, the last line: “I have wasted my life.”

Ryan Lackey is a writer, critic, and PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley. His criticism and fiction have appeared in Post45, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Commonweal, the Kenyon Review, Cream City Review, and elsewhere. He tweets @rlackey15.

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