Diary of a Nobody

Reading 'Instant Karma'; or, The Terrorist With a Library Card

 OCTOBER 7 • Dear Diary, I just read a book about a diary. It's called Instant Karma and it's hot off the press from City Lights and Mark Swartz wrote it and he says it's fiction but that's what they all say. Anyway, the diary writer is David Felsenstein, and unlike me, he wears a red magnet on his head and he's in love with librarian Eve—"a thing of beauty and a joy for none"—and he wants to blow up the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. How about that.

OCTOBER 8 • Dear Diary, Mark Swartz invited me to his apartment. Ahem. First we were going to meet in the library near his house but it was too hot and I began to feel faint. On the way out we saw Swartz's picture on a poster about Brooklyn writers. If I get an apartment in Brooklyn, can I be a Brooklyn writer?

OCTOBER 14 • I don't know why I waited so long to tell you, but Mark and his wife, she's a lawyer, live in a brownstone. I saw her picture. She was wearing a red satin dress. When we sat down, he was near a begonia. He told me he's 34 and this is his first book. It's pretty clever. His character Felsenstein makes a book (the diary) out of books (that he reads) in a place of books (the library) that he wants to blow up. There are 202 footnotes—Foucault, Maimonides, Nicholas von Hoffman. People who love Nicholson Baker and Pale Fire are going to be jumping up and down but the footnotes gave me a headache. It's like those Mystery Science Theater puppets who will not keep quiet.

Instant Karma novelist Mark Swartz shines on (pictured at the library of the Grolier Club of New York).
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Instant Karma novelist Mark Swartz shines on (pictured at the library of the Grolier Club of New York).

But for Felsenstein, the footnotes are important because he is making this Dadaist, anarchist case for blowing up the library—like an informal lawyer or something. He screams in his diary, "I have an urge not just to write incendiary prose or create a blazing spectacle, but to ignite, detonate, explode . . . "—so it's all part of the larger picture.

OCTOBER 15 • Dear Diary, Don't you love how you and I spend these long afternoons together? I forgot to tell you that Swartz works in MOMA's advertising department—he was on strike in 2000 for four months! Anyway, he got the idea for Instant Karma's plot from a 1994 news clipping about the Salt Lake City Library where Tibetan monks had been making a sand painting and then a man jumped on the table and yelled, "I have a bomb." Swartz had never been to Salt Lake City so he just put the story in Chicago—that's where he was then. You won't believe this but he'd just taken a job as a manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press's American Journal of Human Genetics. A month before he started work, the main editor opened a package and his hands were blown off. The Unabomber did it. I almost didn't tell you this, dear Diary. It's so awful.

I had to go lie down a minute. My head was screaming. Swartz said that the Unabomber wasn't an influence on his book, though the idea of him writing a manifesto, justifying what he did, struck a chord. We talked about Felsenstein (I just realized it sounds like Frankenstein), born in 1968, the year of the Chicago Democratic Convention, who starts his diary on Guy Fawkes Day, 1994, and is always going on about Foucault: "He is my theoretician and I am his artist. . . . He exhorts me, by way of a bomb metaphor."

This Felsenstein is a real smarty-pants. He's a lot smarter than, say, mohawked Robert De Niro as the assassin in Taxi Driver. But Swartz said that when he was in college (Michigan, then U. Chicago, art history graduate program)—oh Diary, did I ever tell you so much about one person before?—he was writing these truck-driver characters, maybe one was a car salesman or something, and his friends said they were patronizing. So Swartz thought, hey, I'll write about someone smarter than me—of course, Swartz is pretty smart. I think he was just being modest. People are so crafty in interviews, unlike how they are in their diaries.

Excuse me—I got a phone call. Now I'm back. (Don't you wonder where I go when I go away?)

So Swartz said he was using books as an index of smartness—like if I read 2000 books I'm smarter than the person who reads 20, though I don't know if you can count comic books, anyway this equation is mine, not his.

Then he talked about what a relief it is to have a plot. (Remember the Salt Lake City news clipping that he found?) I'll just cut-and-paste here: "I had that plot, to hang things on. In a novel, it's hard to figure out what to say next, and if I were going to tell someone else how to do it, I would say, have it all mapped out beforehand. You can't improvise a crime."

Swartz said he himself is not a terrorist, "just left-liberal." His father was a plastic surgeon. He grew up in Northbrook, that's a Chicago suburb. There's all this great Chicago stuff, like if Chicago was in a dream—Clark Street: "the crooked spine of a crooked city."

Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets