Like many bookish children, Heidi Julavits kept a diary with dogged regularity, prizing her persistence as evidence that she would one day mature into a real writer. Years later, as the author of four novels and co-founder of the literary journal “The Believer,” Julavits revisited her childhood journals and found that they revealed not latent literary genius but the mind “of a future paranoid tax auditor.”
Still, in her fascinating quasi-memoir “The Folded Clock,” Julavits demonstrates how the flat daily record of a diary (“Today I woke up and watched TV”) can offer unexpected creative possibilities.
The book finds its rhythm in the repetition of the seemingly banal formula of journal writing. Each entry begins with “Today.” Sometimes, the records describe events — “Today we went to a party where the food was very tiny” — and sometimes, conspicuous non-events: “Today I almost told a woman I barely know that I loved her.”
From these mundane musings come leaps of the imagination, as Julavits zigzags her way through the past, into books, through real or imagined disasters or back into the writer’s head. The entries are scrambled, creating an antic record of two ordinary years, which Julavits occasionally describes as a “contemporary take” on Thoreau’s “Walden” (which she has not read) but taking place inside, where it is comfortable and there is company.
Shuffling a diary shakes up place, mood and consequence. March bumps up against August, which collapses into November. An argument with her husband in a supermarket in Germany follows a story about yard sales in Maine and is followed by a lament for the renovation of a favorite corner of a library at Columbia University.
The disrupted chronology throws up unexpected connections and coincidences, which are themselves a way of collapsing time and reordering the world, and, depending on your frame of mind, can mean everything or nothing. A dispute between friends over the name of their unborn daughter inspires a story that becomes Julavits’s big professional break. A few years later, she borrows a name from a tombstone for her own unborn daughter and discovers it is the same name her friend wanted for his daughter. The odd title of this book, she tells us, will be “stolen,” too — from her daughter’s future misunderstanding of the phrase “folded cloth.”
Most of the stories in “The Folded Clock” are this small and this large: social quandaries that, through Julavits’s distinctive, distorting lens, become moral quandaries. What’s in a name? What are the ethical boundaries for a writer at work in the world? Julavits, who teaches writing at Columbia, can spin a tale as easily from watching “The Bachelor” with her husband, the novelist Ben Marcus, as she can from being invited to give a talk at the Museum of Modern Art. As someone who habitually develops crushes on other writers when cloistered at an artists’ retreat, she takes seriously the idea that reality-show contestants really can fall in love on television and then fall out of it once they’re back in the “real” world. “Fakeness gives rise to realness,” she says, just as fiction inspires genuine emotion.
As she describes herself in this real/fake diary, Julavits is a person beset by frustration, vanity and guilt, for whom awkward interactions can be oddly revelatory: She can elevate the decision not to respond to an e-mail into a philosophical exploration of the nature of friendship. Many of her anecdotes are outlandish, drawing moral lines in unexpected places, and delivered with a deadpan wit. Trapped in a window seat on an airplane next to two sleeping passengers, for instance, she maneuvers herself into trying to pee into the airsickness bag but reassures the reader that “I would never hand it to an air steward.”
Both the humor and the pathos of the book arise from this mismatch between the urgency of a decision in the moment and the awareness that always runs beneath it: that time will eventually make most things not matter.
Scutts is a freelance writer and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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THE FOLDED CLOCK
By Heidi Julavits
Doubleday. 320 pp. $26.95