In a Perfect World

Last Friday was my final day at my job. I quit it to launch a new business (sorta; it’s complicated).

The last time I was unemployed was 1995. I was 24, finished grad school in May, moved back to NJ, and started looking for a gig. I pored over the local papers’ and New York Times’ help wanted ads (this is 1995, remember), looking for writer, copy editor, and other writing-related jobs.

I had some interviews that didn’t work out. At one, I explained to the publishers of a massive, multi-volume hotel/resort guide for travel agents that they should be working to create a digital version that would be accessible via CD-ROM (it was 1995, so the idea of having all that stuff on a website was still nascent), and updatable more often than the print schedule permitted. They were looking for a “wordsmith.” I didn’t get that job.

In another interview, I was asked, “In a perfect world, what would you be doing?”

I thought it was diplomatic of me to say, “In a perfect world, my girlfriend would have a high-paying job and I’d be free to work on my fiction,” because my real answer was, “In a perfect world, I’d have heat vision and be able to destroy my enemies with a glance.” I didn’t get that job.

Another place told me that the starting pay was $18,000; that meant I was likely going to lose money just commuting back and forth to NYC for that one. They didn’t offer me the job.

During the months of unemployment, as my savings ran down (I was living in my old house, and my dad was covering the mortgage, so I wasn’t as desperate as a lot of people), I read The Recognitions, the 956-page first novel by William Gaddis. It had been recommended to me over the years in college by people who took my Pynchon poseurism as a genuine sign of literary connoisseurship.

I don’t know how much I got out of The Recognitions in 1995. My mind was faster back then, but I wasn’t as smart as I am now; that is to say, I knew so much less when time and swiftness were on my side.

By October, I cashed in a $250 savings bond given to me as a baby or something. It was the last of my assets. A week later, I finished Gaddis’ book. One day after that I was offered a job as an assistant editor for two business-to-business magazines. I went on to another company 17 months later, worked on more trade magazines, and got to launch my own in 1999, where I stayed until this past Friday.

On my podcast a few weeks ago, I mentioned a passage from The Recognitions that always stuck with me, except it didn’t stick with me well enough to remember it exactly. One of my listeners e-mailed to let me know where the passage is, so I opened that book up again to check it out. The line doesn’t say much by itself — Now, what if there was no gold? — but it implies the absence of God by pondering the use of alchemy in a goldless age (or the point of art in an age without genius). I backed up around 10 pages to the beginning of that section, and found myself getting drawn back into that immense, artful, postmodern cosmos of a book.

Gaddis published The Recognitions in 1955, at the age of 32. It wasn’t a critical or financial success, and he worked in corporate gigs for 20 more years until publishing his second novel. That one, J R, won the National Book Award and he was pretty much able to write full-time after that, thanks to grants and awards.

Tomorrow will be the first day that I’m not employed in almost 19 years. I have some paying gigs that’ll help me get by until I can afford to pay myself. No need to cash in the last savings bond — or take a loan from my 401(k) — yet. Startup costs will be hairy, but I’m confident I can make it work.

I’m tempted to take up The Recognitions again, to read it from a 43-year-old perspective. But I’m afraid that I won’t get my first big business win until the day after I finish it, and who knows how long that’ll take this time around?

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