Dear Eli: I’m in the middle of the ocean. I haven’t left my room in four days. I’ve never been more lonely in my life, and I think I’m in love with Margot.” With these words Richie Tenenbaum, a sad-eyed, fallen tennis pro with a tall, cool glass of Bloody Mary telegraphs an emotional tempest to his closest friend Eli Cash, an English professor-cum-novelist with a ten-gallon passion for the Western frontier. Eli reads this confession in advance of Richie’s return from sea, and upon his arrival, Eli welcomes him. But he does not open up about his drug problem. Or his secret tryst with Margot. Or how these are symptoms of his feelings of inferiority from years of viewing the Tenenbaums as an unattainable ideal, a townhouse heaven of precocity beyond his reach. Perhaps if Eli had gotten it off his chest in a letter instead of in a mescaline trip, some of what ensues wouldn’t have, or at least would’ve been more transparent.
Our inability to communicate—or to notice when others are trying to—is a central theme in The Royal Tenenbaums, a film that plays as an adaptation of a fictional novel by the same name. But while the book version isn’t real, its significance as a framework is. Knowing that we are watching a cast of characters in fur, Adidas, and sweatbands lets us enjoy the fashion of the fiction while also being moved by the real-life problems that unfold. Handling, unfolding, and reading Ben Greenman’s latest project Correspondences, a packet of seven short stories letterpress-printed on three pocket accordion books and an outer casing (designed by Brendan Mise, retailing for $50), has these same effects—much of the writing, in the form of intimate letters, is cruel, heart-worn, darkly humorous, or bleakly hopeful, yet its precious presentation tempers the emotional content. In one letter, a depraved man describes his sexual habits with another woman to his discarded wife. Instead of feeling stung, however, we can take pleasure in his guiltless delivery and the physical act of reading his letter; the texture of the paper, the sunken text, and the words themselves both act together and compete for consideration as a work of art. (Another feature of Correspondences is the story printed on the casing, which invites readers to submit letter responses to one of a series of numbered points throughout the text; certain letters may be included in future editions or on the project’s website: http://www.hotelstgeorgepress.com/mail/. The current, limited-edition run of Correspondences provides a postcard for this purpose.)
The format of Correspondences reminds us that reading can be a tactile, un-isolated experience. Its stories remind us that, throughout time, letters have provided a time-rich opportunity for attempts to make ourselves known to others—that once some parcel of a life is committed to paper, its chances of reaching not only the original receiver, but posterity, increase. Greenman expresses the private confessions of distinctive characters—mostly dating to the 20th century—to the characters who have motivated their confessions. In a letter titled “You Know Jack,” a famed actress debunks her second husband’s thesis on time: “You say that the past recedes from us. But all that is, really, is an excuse for you to act like it’s small.” Her focus on the past brings her own memories to the fore—of her mother, whose “past almost did her in,” and her uncle, a man with “a healthy respect for the past” who gave a toast at their wedding: “He said several nice things about the future and his hopes for us in it.” Greenman’s introduction to the letter tells us it is included in The Letters of Alice Fogarty: 1971-1978 after an entry on “Watergate, Skylab, and the so-called Zodiac Killer” (a letter “…full of events, and as a result uneventful”). His prologue tells us that later that day, Alice initiated “a four-hour lovemaking session” with Jack, described in “frankly pornographic” terms in another letter; they divorced weeks later. As in other works, here Greenman makes an unhappy history laughable.
And that is the beauty of Correspondences. No matter where these lives in letters seemed to be heading, or how distraught we imagine they were (“Life has been a struggle since I rose into adulthood”; “My sorrow raised you. I hope that it did not poison you”), we don’t feel trapped by their circumstances. We are left, rather, to appreciate the drama of reading and the craftsmanship of writing and bookmaking. (As with the Tenenbaums, a pair of fashionable rose-colored glasses makes a struggle look much cooler.) We are also left to reflect on our own measly rates of expression. As Tinto, one of Greenman’s letter-writers, warns, “A man who has discovered love…can pretend to wait before making a declaration…But that would be like visiting a museum, standing before a masterpiece, and reserving judgment.”