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Beautiful shirts

In spring 2007, shortly after the publication of n+1’s “Symposium on New American Writing,” I received an email with the youthful subject-line, “hello!,” from a young person called Ezra Koenig, a recent Columbia graduate and a former student of Caleb Crain (who was next to me in the n+1 symposium, because of the magic of alphabetical order).

My piece in the Symposium was about how I didn’t very much care for most of the Best American Short Stories of 2004 and 2005. Upon reading it, Ezra Koenig was somehow inspired to ask for my permission to mail me a short-story collection he had written in college, along with a self-produced CD of his band Vampire Weekend, performing songs that were loosely based on the short stories.

At the time I got his email I was in low spirits. I was just starting to realize that I wasn’t going to make Stanford’s spring dissertation deadline, and thus owed the university $3,000, because that’s how they operate: you have to be enrolled in order to file a dissertation, so if you miss the deadline, you have to pay another term’s tuition. If you write to them asking them to waive the tuition—pointing out, for example, that it’s going to cost the ancestors of Leland Stanford Jr. precisely $0 for you to sit at home for another three weeks writing a conclusion and bibliography for an almost-finished dissertation—then what you get is a really educational letter, telling you that deadlines are a part of adult life (I have established this empirically).

Later, I actually got a personal letter to me, Elif, from the Stanford University Registrar, Roger O. Printup. I’m not joking—that’s really his name. I really like the O, which reminds me of a 0, and thus of Nikolai Gogol, who signed his early prose works: 0000. Gogol’s signature has been interpreted as a sign of “bureaucratic subjectivity” in that Gogol was, at that early stage in his career, employed by the Department of Crown Lands as… a Collegiate Registrar. [See Stephen Moeller-Sally, “0000, or the Sign of the Subject in Gogol’s Petersburg.”]

Anyway, I get this personal email from Roger 0.:

Dear Elif,

I regret to inform you that as of 8:00pm on June 14, 2007, the Office of the University Registrar was unable to approve your Spring Quarter 2006–2007 application to graduate for the PHD in Comparative Literature due to the following reason:

DID NOT SUBMIT DISSERTATION.

So that is the emotional state I was in when I got this message from Ezra Koenig, asking if he could send me short stories and a CD. I said “yes,” but not enthusiastically.

The stories came stapled into a book, with full-color covers, titled Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa; the CD was likewise attractively packaged, enclosed with a note on a small square of lined paper, which appeared to have been cut, thriftily, from a larger piece of lined paper. In this note, Koenig wished me good luck on my dissertation: “I’m sure it will be next-level.”

I read the stories. Here is the thing: they were really fun. What jumped out at you immediately is the amazing eye for fabrics. When since Balzac has a heterosexual male had such a keen historical eye for the “stuff” of clothing?

Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
Koenig’s book: the front cover (right) shows that he likes clothes;
the back cover (left) shows that he is heterosexual.
Some of the stories in Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa are kind of drug-trippy—young people, I discover, continue to be interested in drugs—and I am not a huge fan of drug literature. Nonetheless, one of my favorite passages comes up in the story about the acid trip of a college-aged “steel heir” in Jamaica (which is supposed to “sum up the history of the world since 1491,” by means of Joseph Conrad, Bob Marley, and a novelistic “prehistory” that connects the young heir’s acid experimentation to the vitiation of the family line). The passage I really like is an illustration of the colorfulness of the acid trip, using a quote from The Great Gatsby:

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

The characters in Koenig’s story are invited “to read this passage of Fitzgerald without any regard to context, plot, or symbolism”; so, “ignoring Gatsby and Daisy, [they] focus on the ever-mounting heap of shirts”:

We see the coral swirl around the apple green, while the faint orange floats as a mist all around. The Indian blue moves like a delicate firefly, looping and looping and looping. The heap touches the ceiling… We are pushed to the wall as the heap fills the room to its limits. The window breaks. The house bursts. A heartbreakingly fine Scotch plaid passes before our eyes. Pinstripes carry us into Manhasset Bay.

It’s druggy, but I really like the (impossible, pointless) idea of reading the Gatsby passage as if it were “all about the shirts”; and I also really like the observation about the profound sadness of beautiful clothes.

Why are beautiful clothes so sad? There are lots of reasons. I could write more about it later. But one reason is the “historical” sadness of fashion, of how tenuously clothes are tied to a particular and irretrievable moment of time. Despite his youth, Koenig expresses this very well, especially in a story about the sales table at Brooks Brothers. In this story, the collegiate narrator has inexplicably set out, on a rainy day weeks before spring break, to buy a bathing suit at Brooks Brothers, which appears as a gigantic museum of empty clothes, “a big glass box on the corner of 51st and 5th… like a diorama at the Museum of Natural History”:

Through the clear glass you simply see the store—the bright, folded sweaters and beautiful shirts of high-preppiness…. Immediately after entering, I was faced with a wooden table displaying a rainbow of sweater vests and linen shirts. The table was so large and ornate that seeing it covered in merchandise was jarring. It seemed to belong in the dining room of a gentleman. Was this his going out of business sale? A sad situation—somewhat analogous to the Maharajah of Jaipur throwing velvet ropes across the doorways of his palace for the ticketed masses.

The central action of this story is—spoiler alert—they don’t have bathing-suits yet (it’s too early in the season); instead, the narrator almost buys a pair of seersucker pants from another sad, post-imperial sale table—“These are very interesting,” says the saleswoman, of the pants—before changing his mind and going back into the rain without buying anything.

The sad thing in these stories is how much the beautiful clothes cost; not just that one can’t afford them, but also that the world order that sustained them was so expensive. Colonialism/ imperialism is always lurking in the background (“At the Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue, the leather boat shoes are displayed on a converted bookshelf,” just under “The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, a fifteen-volume set bound in brown leather”). One feels how sad it is that such an order ever existed, and also that it ended, having produced things of such beauty.

Anyway—I read Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, and even played the CD once on my 10-year-old computer speakers (I liked it); I wrote to young Koenig about his stories that I especially enjoyed the parts about clothes, more so than the drug-trip passages, and wished him “the best of luck,” and thought that would be the end of it.

As it happens, though, Koenig’s band, Vampire Weekend, really took off that summer. They went on a national tour, and in July, my webmaster and I went to hear them at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco. Here is the thing: it was great! Way better than the CD (or at least how it sounded on my poor computer). I lack the necessary training to describe music, but you can listen to songs on their website. It’s incredibly uplifting, although similar, in certain ways, to that sale table in Brooks Brothers.

Subsequently Vampire Weekend got a contract with XL Recording, toured the Continent, and was written up in the New York Times—all this before even releasing their first album, which is coming out today. So, I will post this entry now, to be timely, even though much of the story still remains, like that of the historical novel,

to be continued…

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4 Responses to “Beautiful shirts”

  1. burcu Says:

    Elif, I agree with you on Balzac, but what about decadent heterosexual beaus and their keen eyes on clothing + colors?

  2. kizmok Says:

    Elif, I enjoyed reading your thread. Do you know if Ezra’s short stories are available to read on the internet or anywhere else? Thank you.

  3. Elif Says:

    Dear Burcu, dear Kizmok,
    Thank you for your comments, and please forgive this very delinquent reply!
    Dear Burcu, you’re absolutely right and I started to write a long message in response (it was actually about “Tony Takitani,” a short story by Haruki Murakami, which I think must be inspired by that passage in The Great Gatsby with the beautiful shirts—because there is also a passage where a girl is in a closet surrounded by the most beautiful dresses she has ever seen (belonging to a dead woman whom she has never met), and starts to cry because they are so beautiful).
    Then I somehow lost this response and now I don’t remember exactly what it said.
    I think the gist was that even if you set aside the association between decadence and homosexuality (which is a problematic association, I agree), there is still something different about this particular (heterosexual) form of clothing obsession (as in VW and Murakami, and maybe even in Fitzgerald). You know, even though it has elements of dandyism, and even though postcolonialism and late capitalism, it doesn’t seem decadent. It just seems too early-morning/ nautical—even the form of sadness seems very different to me from the melancholy of decadence, although I can’t quite think of why. Interesting.
    Dear Kizmok, as far as I know, Ezra hasn’t yet published any of his stories, but I do know that there has been some interest from at least one book publisher—maybe they will convince him to do a book…
    yours as ever,
    Elif

  4. bryan Says:

    one of his stories is in Tablet, one of columbia’s lit mags…from a few years ago tho, probly impossible to find it now

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