As someone who kept a diary as a kid and still does on an albeit infrequent basis, diaries as an art form are a very attractive draw for me. I love to read them and then get really depressed because my diaries are never so interesting as that, never so well written or filled with exciting things or deep thoughts. No, my diaries were about school and friends and who was being mean and how I was feeling lonely. Now they are about work and friends and who is being mean but not so much about being lonely so I guess that’s an improvement.
As Heidi Julavits discovered when she found a childhood diary, they usually end up telling us a different story about ourselves than the one we have currently concocted. As she says at the beginning of The Folded Clock, she has told people that her childhood diary keeping was the seed of her becoming a writer. So when she read her old diary looking for evidence of the future writer, she was surprised to find her absent and instead discovered the mind of a future “paranoid tax auditor.”
The really interesting thing about diaries is that even though they generally have no plot or narrative structure (unless you are writing for publication), the writer thinks she is relating facts but in reality she is assembling a story or an explanation, she is creating something and stamping it with her point of view. And then time intervenes and during those span of years the story created in the diary morphs into something else as the “narrator” becomes more sophisticated and gains more knowledge and experience. We really want our lives to be like a story with a plotline, we want to see in our past selves the beginnings of who we have become and like to think that who we are today is the key to who we will be in the future. But diaries have a tendency to point out the fallacy of narrative desires.
The Folded Clock is written like a diary but it liberally plays with the genre. The entries are dated (month/day but no year) but they are not in order; July 16th follows July 31st and is followed by May 2nd. In homage to her childhood self, Julavits begins each entry with “Today I.” And while it might start with today, it rarely ends with today. Instead it turns into a mini essay of sorts that are sometimes only a page long and sometimes two or three. We get meditations on time and losing things and people, lots of mulling over identity from various angles in more than one entry, thoughts on middle age and adultery, and musings on needs and desire. We also get lots of self-deprecating humor, worries over what is proper friend etiquette in various situations, arguments with her husband, thoughts about her children, and everyday life stuff. The high mixes liberally with the low and all is told in Julavits’s pitch perfect voice. I mean, how can you not like someone who writes this:
Today I read a book while holding a fountain pen. I often have a pen in my hand when I read. I am trying to fool myself into thinking I am writing when I’m not. I read with a pen in my hand because it helps me think. If I underline a sentence, I temporarily own it. It’s mine. I have bought real estate in this book, laid down stakes, moved in. This does not mean I remember where I live. I turn the page. I lose my place.
The Folded Clock is a fun, thoughtful read, never heavy even when talking about a serious subject, but not flippant either. It is serious without taking itself seriously. And because of the diary format, it makes for perfect before bed or in between activities reading.