One of the thrilling things about Tyler Gore’s new essay collection, My Life of Crime (2022, Sagging Meniscus), is the way it slides so suddenly and effectively from one mode to another. Funny, self-deprecatory tales of nude beaches, prank calls, and sandwiches discovered in public bathrooms morph to a thought-provoking (though also hilarious) lengthy depiction of an appendectomy at a Brooklyn Hospital a few years before Covid. The collection is punctuated with an invented genre called “entertainments,” madcap incursions into fictional territory. I spoke to Tyler about his essays.
One essay has you going through your father’s house while he is in the hospital, close to death. A novella-length essay details and somehow manages to make funny your experience of an appendectomy. This is non-fiction. These events actually occurred. At what point while going through something or having gone through something in your life, do you decide to turn it into an essay? Can you tell us about that process?
As a lifelong reader, I’ve had since childhood the habit of mentally narrating my own recent experiences to myself, as if I’m a character in my own story—which, of course, I am. I suspect a lot of writers have that habit. It’s a way of distancing oneself, I suppose, but it’s really a way of imposing structure and meaning on the random—and often miserable—experiences assigned to us by the universe.
Both of the events you refer to were, of course, extremely unhappy experiences at the time. That’s just life—you can’t control what suffering the universe has in mind for you. But our human freedom lies in our ability to tell stories about all the crazy shit that has happened to us. And for me, finding the absurdity and humor in the worst events is essential. I suppose it’s a different version of Camus’s idea that scorn conquers all fate. Well, so does a good punchline. You can laugh at the gods.
Can you talk a bit about “other entertainments,” when the collection slides off into fiction?
So you’re referring to “A Sketch of My Childhood in the Country,” which—alongside “Three International Recipes” and “The Elderly Widow Problem”—is one of the three “other entertainments” in a collection that otherwise consists entirely of personal essays. Those three pieces are representative of my gonzo absurdist side—a very different mode of writing than the personal essays, but one that brings me much joy.
I adore absurdist humor—Monty Python, The Firesign Theatre, the Marx Brothers—and I wanted to include those three pieces as a kind of intermission. A breather, sort of like when they used to show cartoon shorts at drive-ins halfway through the movie, so everyone could go load up on more popcorn and soda.
They occur just after the eight short personal essays that make up the first part of My Life of Crime, and right before “Appendix,” the novella-length essay that is the cornerstone of the collection and takes up the last two-thirds of the book.
Speaking of absurdist humor, there are hilarious, sort of death-defying digressions, very much part of your style, particularly in “Appendix,” the longer essay. Opening a page, I see you discussing Cuomo and de Blasio. On another, the notion of the “sentimental.” How did you develop that prose style?
I’d say the underlying influence is my attention deficit disorder!
I’m only half-joking—I do indeed have that diagnosis, and my mind sometimes feels like a tweaked-out monkey piloting a jet fighter. I always want to say ten things at once, and I spend much of the day looking for my keys.
In “Appendix,” I wanted to harness that scatterbrained tendency, to turn it into a feature rather than a bug, the way Monty Python did with “And now for something completely different. . .”
A digressive approach gave me the freedom to shape a narrative ostensibly about my “routine surgery” into a detailed portrait of my world and my state of mind during those two particular weeks of my life. My marriage to Natasha, our beloved but anorexic cat Luna, the crummy Brooklyn apartment building we live in, and, yes, Cuomo and de Blasio, because everyday life in NYC is very much affected by the power-hungry buffoons who run it—but also my weird discursive musings about evolution, mortality, skiing, Kafka, and The Matrix.
In your introduction you mention that these essays were written over a wide span of time. How did you choose which pieces to include? Did you find yourself revising earlier works?
I’ve lived in NYC most of my adult life, and I have very passionate feelings about this city.
It’s nearly impossible to live here, it’s ridiculously overpriced, the living spaces are brutal, the people who run the city are in thrall to developers who are constantly bulldozing everything that makes this town so special, and if you live here long enough, you will have your heart broken over and over. All longtime New Yorkers have experienced this in one way or another.
And yet I never grow tired of it. There’s no bottom to this town, it’s a universe stuffed into a few square miles. All sorts of fascinating people come here from every corner of the world, and nearly every day I’ll have some interesting random encounter—not always pleasant, mind you—with someone I’ve never met. Every day, just going about my business, I’ll stumble across something weird, beautiful, or disturbing. And so, in spite of all the frustrations of living here, I constantly find myself falling in love with the place again.
And so the pieces I chose were intended—when taken together—to offer a kind of multilayered portrait of a life spent in New York City, including, of course, my childhood in the suburbs, just across the Hudson.
As for revisions—I made some minor edits to some of the pieces, little things that had bothered me after they’d originally been published in various magazines and journals. Prepositions, slightly awkward phrasings, that kind of thing.
At one point, I’ll confess, I began to get carried away, fueled by anxiety, I suppose, and attempted to make more substantial revisions to some earlier pieces. My publisher, Jacob Smullyan, wisely put a stop to that and made me revert them. And he was right.
It’s an easy temptation for a writer—none of us, I think, are ever fully satisfied with the words that wind up on the page, but there’s a point when the work has been fully realized and you have to set it free, let it out into the world.
What do you have in the works for your next project? Something you’ve started? Something you’ve contemplated?
There is a long book-length essay I was working on for quite a while—a story about me and Natasha—that I put aside to work on “Appendix.” I learned a lot while battling my way through “Appendix,” so I’m considering revisiting that older project, much of which is already drafted. There is another longish project I’ve also been thinking about for quite some time, which primarily concerns our relationship to the animal world.
But in the immediate future, I’m planning to focus for a while on shorter personal essays, and also some more absurdist “entertainments.” I have a lot of fun stories in the hopper that I’ve been looking forward to working on.
Excerpt from “Appendix,” My Life of Crime: Essays and Other Entertainments
by Tyler C. Gore (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2022)
I’m a social person and I felt the need to entertain my visitors. I had never entertained guests from a hospital bed, and I found it awkward. I didn’t know what was expected, socially, in my situation, but I did my best to be charming under the circumstances. I thanked everyone for coming to my operation. Some lame attempts at gallows humor: I’d like you to know that none of you are currently mentioned in my will, but that could change. . . Ugh. It was hard to be a good host in bed while my guests towered over me in customary adult verticality, and exhausting to generate a stream of witty banter while slipping in and out of consciousness mid-sentence like a junkie on the nod, later waking up to realize that the clever remark I’d formulated was for a conversation that had moved on without me some time ago.
An additional challenge was that Natasha kept interrupting my urbane monologues to point out that I had once again kicked off my sheets and my junk was hanging out of my gown on full display.
“I don’t care,” I said defiantly. This was true.
“I know,” she said, pulling up the sheet. “But have some consideration for other people. No one wants to see that.”
Within minutes, I’d twist and squirm and kick the sheet off again. My brain may have been numbed by pharmaceuticals, but my body knew that I was actually in agonizing pain and thrashed about accordingly. All I knew was that it felt good to squirm, and I didn’t care if everyone got an eyeful of my floppy bits because I had discovered a secret long-known to heroin addicts throughout the world. Narcotics don’t just remove pain, they remove shame. At last I understood why junkies were capable of such astonishing things. Liberated from a sense of shame, you were free to do as you pleased. You could take a nap on the floor of a Toys “R” Us, or take a shit on the sidewalk. The world was your oyster.
* * *
In retrospect, my overall impression is that in spite of my compromised circumstances I was nonetheless very charming indeed. That impression is, of course, dubious. The record of my memory has numerous lapses, but also inexplicable artifacts. For example, I have a distinct memory of the three of them—Natasha, Sean, Sylvia—sitting on the end of my bed eating noodles out of Chinese take-out containers. You don’t forget something like that. I even remember feeling sorry for them; it seemed so dreadfully unappetizing to have to eat dinner right next to my unwashed feet and in full view of my exposed nethers.
* * *
“That never happened,” Natasha said when I mentioned it later.
* * *
But I know it did.
I distinctly recall Sylvia dropping one of her chopsticks on the floor and saying, “Ah, shit.”
And then I said, “Oh, just wipe it off. I mean, what could possibly be cleaner than a hospital floor?”
Now that’s a pretty good line. You don’t just make something like that up out of thin air—you have to have actually witnessed someone eating noodles on the end of your hospital bed and dropping a chopstick on the floor.
Natasha disputes this. “We absolutely did not eat noodles on your hospital bed! That’s disgusting, why would we do that?”
And it’s true, why would they? They could’ve gone outside to the waiting room to eat their noodles. And I can’t think of why Natasha would lie about this, unless she’s simply ashamed. I mean, I certainly would be.
But if they didn’t eat Chinese noodles on the end of my bed, then who did?
To read another excerpt from Tyler’s collection in StatORec, click here.