THE ATMOSPHERE IN THE OFFICE was too glum to be productive, so I rode the F to 14th, then switched to the uptown 1. At Columbia, school was in sesh. Skinny freshmen weighed down by backpacks, skinny hipsters weighed down by existential despair, everyone weighed down by debt.
I admired these kids and coveted their freedom. It would end eventually, but for now they could read Judith Butler and Edward Said, pursue an ethnographically diverse array of friends with benefits, friends with benzodiazepine prescriptions, friends with parental benefactors. College is the last bastion of free love and dining dollars, the best aspects of hippie sixties mixed with seventies excess, eighties dad-funded decadence, and nineties wide-leg denim. With the millennium came drugs like 2C-I and Molly, the spread of flash-frozen sushi to landlocked areas.
Despite these amusements, the library was jam-packed with students. I had access via a not-yet expired Columbia ID purchased from a recently graduated junior colleague. I bore little resemblance to the ID photo, but campus security was surprisingly lax, especially considering the scourge of school shootings. Or maybe, as a white man with clipped fingernails and no facial tattoos, I’d slipped from the profiler’s purview.
I was a regular by now, arriving most evenings under the delusion that I’d hack out a couple chapters. In reality, I’d written nothing. Or rather, I wrote things — page-long sentences replete with semicolons, remixed nineteenth-century pantoums, an allegorical flash fiction in which Eminem is reimagined as the charismatic leader of a colony on Mars — and then deleted them. I was still finding my form. There were ideas I wanted to touch on: the way hip-hop had misogynized the male psyche; the music industry as microcosm for the global economy; the health risks of hair bleach. But I was missing something major, the binding agent that would cohere these ideas into a thesis.
Mostly, I spent my library time embarked on a kind of vague research. One evening I might make headway in volume two of Marx’s Capital, but the next I’d read only back issues of glossy women’s mags, or online consumer reports, or Insta feeds chronicling the daily deeds of certain superlative LOLcats. I read and reread Em’s lyrics, spending hours self-debating semantics and attempting to justify his scrim of sociopathy. The project was hopeless.
I chose a seat in the second floor reading room, sniffed the varnished desk wood, lit my desk lamp, sucked on a cough drop, put on my nicotine patch, bit the cough drop, swallowed it, nibbled my sticky inner cheek, blew my nose, chewed two Tums which were chalky and awful with a weak citrus undertaste, so I opened my laptop and called up a blank document which I renamed Chapter 1.
Before coming to prominence in the field of hip-hop, Marshall Mathers worked as a pizza chef at the Little Caesars Family Fun Center in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan.
The sentence was slightly misleading. For most of his twenties, Em was a busboy and fry cook at Gilbert’s Lodge, a sports bar decorated in moose-head taxidermy. Gilbert’s was his self-proclaimed second home, and any true scholar knew of Em’s on-the-job free-styling, an incessant stream of invective that amused his fellow busboys, creeped the female servers, irked the shit out of management, and may have led to his firing days before Christmas, 1996.
Em worked at Little Caesars for six months before being rehired at Gilbert’s. Gilbert’s had played a much larger role in the saga of Marshall Mathers, and yet, mentioning Gilbert’s, out of context, in the first sentence of my book, would not pack the same punch as mentioning Little Caesars. With its charming logo and inoffensive pizza, Little Caesars was a universally recognized symbol of mediocrity, and there was no more efficient way of indicating Em’s humble beginnings than by revealing his stint at the chain.
What’s more, Em hadn’t worked at any Little Caesars, but a Little Caesars “Family Fun Center.” For a reader schooled in the vulgarity of Em’s lyrics, the fact that he’d worked at such a venue would be downright disturbing. One imagines an oblivious mother handing her offspring to a demonically grinning young Mathers, followed by a montage of bubbling mozzarella and third-degree burns and maniacal laughter as a pizza cutter severs tiny fingers. On top of that, the phrase “Family Fun Center” would hint at one of my book’s major themes, an exploration of masculinity and American fatherhood.
Another issue was that the clause “Before coming to prominence in the field of hip-hop” had a dry, academic tenor that was nicely balanced by the pedestrian familiarity of “Little Caesars Family Fun Center,” a balance that wouldn’t be as successfully achieved if I replaced “Little Caesars” with “Gilbert’s Lodge.” I wanted the opening sentence to reassure readers that this was a serious work, but that its seriousness wouldn’t alienate the common pizza-eater by bombarding her with academic jargon.
Ultimately, however, something felt disingenuous about beginning the book by mentioning Little Caesars. I felt an odd sense of loyalty to Gilbert’s Lodge, and worried that, in banishing Gilbert’s to the purgatory of Chapter 2, I was suppressing factual truth in favor of self-serving mythology. Stumped, I deleted the sentence and X’d out of the doc.
Adam Wilson's novel Sensation Machines comes out in paperback on September 7. He is previously the the author of the novel Flatscreen, which was an Indie Next Pick and a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, as well as the short story collection What’s Important Is Feeling. A recipient of the Paris Review’s Terry Southern Prize for Humor, his work has appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, the Paris Review, and The Best American Short Stories, among other publications. Wilson has taught in the creative writing programs at Columbia and NYU. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.