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."

OCTOBER 22• Dear Diary, I did not tell Swartz the following. It's not that I was shy but because it happened after the interview and I didn't want to call him back because it would've meant more diary entries and how much can you take? But I just finished Margaret Scanlan's Plotting Terror; I would have wanted to say, "Oh Mark, you're part of a grand tradition of novelists preoccupied with terrorism—James, Dostoyevsky, Conrad. Remember the 1870s, radicals blowing up political leaders in Europe and Russia? And of course today we have Don DeLillo. I know you love Don, how he takes the writer-terrorist doppelgänger equation furthest in Mao II. The Lebanese intellectual says, "Isn't it the novelist . . . who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels?" Oh do we.

But let me tell you, Dear Diary. After I finished DeLillo's Players, where the man gets involved with terrorists and has sex with two of them, I had a dream that someone was pouring hot Bolognese sauce on my head so I had to lay off the DeLillo for a while.

OCTOBER 23• Dear Diary, I woke up this morning thinking, what if Mohammed Atta had gone to Yaddo?

OCTOBER 23, later than before• Dear Diary, another lightbulb! I just returned from looking out the window and realized what a perfect literary form the diary is for a terrorist. A revelation that certainly should interest you, though does this make me a terrorist? Are you scared? Let's be honest . . . small person in a small room . . . I'm reflecting on the world at large now . . . who wants to do something big, public—little book, little suitcase, big bomb, bursting with emotion, always written in the present, I hate you, I love you. Oh yes.

There's this Hugo Ball quote in Instant Karma: "People who keep a record of their experiences are resentful, vengeful people whose vanity has been wounded." I don't know about that, though I wasn't invited to any Halloween parties. I guess diaries have a lot of whining. Even in The Turner Diaries—the horrendous racist novel that's the bible of all those paramilitary types—the diary writer says, "Every muscle in my body aches. Yesterday we spent 10 hours . . . carrying loads of weapons through the woods . . . "

But as Mr. Pooter says, "It's the diary that makes the man." Mr. Pooter's not a terrorist but a clerk in the Grossmith brothers' Diary of a Nobody, which should be the title of all diaries. (If I were at fancy balls all the time, do you think I'd have time to write to you?)

Dear Diary, we've run out of space and I want to go outside in the sparkling pumpkin autumn afternoon. Maybe I'll go see if Mark wants to take a walk. Goodbye!

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