Studies have shown smell is the most evocative sense for remembering, just like it’s the most evocative sense for sex. I knew this before they proved it, though, and maybe so did you if you think about it. The smell of a place, of a person, of a time: it doesn’t really “take you back” or “throw you” into anything, which would be the trite things to say. It doesn’t. What it does, in my experience, is it suddenly, sneakily, altogether implicates you – it accuses, interpellates, decries you with the realization that you were a previous version of yourself once. It’s a sense so sharp and bare it grazes guilt, teases embarrassment. Oh.
The sensation at that naked moment, when smell sails and sings and worms through the stream into the keyhole latch of your active lobe is this: it’s halfway that dull stare forehead throb as you realize the drink you just had is about to make you drunk. It’s halfway the panic-warmth red that rises in your chest as you keep nodding along with some ordinary conversation after realizing you really fucked something up really bad earlier that day. That’s the direct line. Between the present and the past, smell is the red phone.
There have been times when the imagined phantom smell of ex-girlfriends has sucked the breath from my lungs and not given it back for hours. There have been times when the faint smell of spring at the beginning of a season has done for me what I imagine all the brass bands and pure uppers in the country’s coffers couldn’t. It’s raw, for humans, smell. It’s a thing about our kind.
But here’s the thing. Ready? It never does anything the first time. Right? The first time in your life that you smell something, someplace, someone, it might be nice, or bad, or even ecstatic – but it won’t have power. The power comes from experience over time. It’s the repetition – that kitchen for breakfast every morning, that neck you rest into, again and again – and it’s also the progression and passing of just plain time: the days, weeks, months, years. All the different things changing around you, and this constant grows strong.
Some time ago, I posted a review of Neil Gaiman’s classic graphic novel series Sandman implying that it was mediocre. I’d like to set out now to correct that, and this is why. When you read, you’re doing something that takes time – sometimes a lot of time. A story is real and alive and dynamic and moving inside you but outside you life is going as well, and even if you don’t notice it consciously, your brain does – it remains aware. The books we read can act as anchors, posts, marks for memories as much as pictures, music, smells. When you go back to it, the story won’t just take you where you imagined, but where you’ve been. The living we do between the back cover and the return of the front is part of reading too.
I’ll always remember reading The Perks of Being A Wallflower for the first time on a Westbound Metra train to Elgin from Chicago, in its entirety, one sitting, on the way to buy a motorcycle. The movement of the world outside the windows, and how, unexpectedly, the train rode through the town that I lived in when I was very little. As a kid, I’d sat in my parents’ car and been stopped at the tracks as this train went by over and over and never rode it until then. And I’ll remember reading the book again, at the Banned Books Festival in Bughouse Square before Stephen Chbosky signed it, that same copy.
I’ll remember the first time I tried to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, lying across multiple seats at LaGuardia airport in New York, waiting for a jet on a worried day – the padded blue of the seats, the overly prim lines of the phone chargers between them. And then the second time, when I succeeded, years later, standing out in the frigid cold on elevated platforms over highways, lit by lamplights in late dark waiting for trains to take me back, exhausted, on my night commute from Northwestern.
The first time I tried to read Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale as a teenage student at University of Illinois, sitting alone eating lunch in the warm green leaf-and-tendril-drawn arboretum that’s on the ground floor of the Psychology Building, staring out, awkward, isolated, as drunks toppled on the street at 11 AM during Unofficial. The second time, many years later, after actually knowing what sights Grand Central shows in person, what sounds the streets of the Bowery make firsthand.
Books aren’t about paper, and paper doesn’t matter. Ink doesn’t matter and whatever pleasing, warm cuddle-up-with-a-nice-book ideas you have about reading do not matter. They’re all meaningless layers, the clothes of the person, and it isn’t the clothes you want to fuck. Forget them, don’t look back.
If I was going to answer what makes a good story, I’d say forget the New York Times Book Review and forget the professors and forget the Times Bestseller List and forget the Amazon ratings. You’ll know when you just had a good story because it’s like an assassination: you’ll remember where you were when it happened. It will implicate you when you meet it again. It will make you remember something you shouldn’t or would rather not. When you can’t forget even though you want to, that’s the story right there. That’s the story.
So Sandman, right, okay. When I first wrote about it, I was just starting the series. Over the past year, I’ve completed it. Does it do the thing? Yes, like many other great stories, it does. It’s often called a “sweeping” epic, but it meets the real criteria. A real epic is less about what it sweeps and more about the latent residues it leaves behind, ready to well up in you again, know you, make you, without your permission. You should let them inside of you. Breathe deep.