• The Profoundest Interruption: In Defense of Distraction

    Caitlin Horrocks

    Spring 2024

    Evil is whatever distracts.

    —Franz Kafka

    I’ve had this quote on my phone’s camera roll since September 2021, when I saw it written on a sandwich board sign outside a skate shop in my neighborhood. Kafka’s declaration stopped me in my tracks: Evil? Really? Maybe? I hope not.I took a photo so I could keep thinking about it. Then I mostly tried not to think about it. I had, at the time, highly distracting one-year-old twins, plus a nearly-as-distracting five-year-old, plus the various distractions of constant daycare-borne illnesses and work and life and the friends my husband and I almost never saw and missed, and the writing projects we had no time for, and missed. Still, I did not think of those things as evil.

    Trying to focus on something despite the pings of notifications or the mental buzzing of our own worries, through the physical demands of needy children or of our own bodies, seems to me a near-universal experience in our current age. But the relationship of distraction to creativity or contemplation is usually viewed as a straightforward obstacle or personal weakness to be overcome. The “proper” response to distraction is resistance. To meet it willingly, with abandon, is the capitulation of a lazy mind. Distraction can be destructive, keeping us splashing always in the shallows. But rather than Kafka, the quote I want to believe comes from a poem entitled “On Buzz Aldrin’s Birthday” by Marianne Chan:

    But the mind
    has its sundry destinations
    where it lands to find
    sources of water.

    My mind has its sundry destinations, frankly, whether I want it to or not, and I would like to believe that there is water there, rather than barren doomscroll desert.

    When I could finally bring myself to think again about that quote on the sign, what I wanted was a loophole, some version of #notalldistractions. I found what I needed in Attention and Distraction in Modern German Literature, Thought, and Culture by Carolin Duttlinger, which discusses the lesser-known Kafka work of nonfiction, “Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines,” written for his day job at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in 1910. In it, Kafka warns that industrial planing machines are so poorly designed, and the work conditions so inherently dangerous, that no level of vigilant attention can keep the worker completely safe, or even in possession of all his fingers. In general, Kafka’s insurance work treated moments of distraction, even those with physically disastrous consequences, as inevitable. As, Duttlinger puts it, “a statistical constant rather than a matter of personal responsibility.”

    Kafka’s fiction, as well as his diary entries and letters, also wrestles with distraction, but in conflicted and less forgiving ways. In the short story “The Hunter Gracchus,” the momentary distraction of a mountain goat causes the hunter to fall to his death. In his daily life, Kafka famously felt besieged by ordinary domestic noises. To a girl he was ostensibly courting, he wrote that his ideal mode of existence would be to live “in the innermost room of a spacious locked cellar with my writing things and a lamp. Food would be brought and always put down far away from my room, outside the cellar’s outermost door. . . . How I would write! From what depths I would drag it up! Without effort! For utmost concentration knows no effort.” The pairing of “drag it up” and “without effort” is striking to me, but Kafka knew what he was trying to describe: such a perfect state of creative flow had produced his short story “The Judgement,” written over the course of a single night in 1912. He spent the rest of his life attempting to re-achieve such a state of “utmost concentration.” But he also acknowledges that this would not be a sustainable state; the animal protagonist of a late career story, “The Burrow,” is eventually driven mad by the pursuit of a perfectly silent underground fortress.

    We may at least occasionally wish for someone to set our food outside a locked cellar door and leave us be. But most of us are responsible for feeding ourselves. Some of us are responsible for feeding very small people, who demand their food from our physical bodies every ninety minutes to three hours. What does attention look like in a life in which not only is there no cellar, and no one putting food outside it, but one in which you are the food, and the creative existence Kafka idealized comes, if it comes at all, in hard-won snatches at the very edges of your existence?

    Sarah Vap’s genre-bending book, Winter: Effulgences and Devotions documents her yearslong effort to distance herself each morning from what she calls the “family-animal” (literally, in this case: the family co-sleeps, and she has to extract herself from the bed without waking anyone) and write a single poem, usually titled “Winter.” Page after page begins with this same hopeful heading, “Winter,” only to have the poem cut off, abandoned, as some part of the family-animal wakes, pulling her away to wipe butts, feed chickens, go to work, and monitor fevers that rise without regard for whether the family has health insurance that month. These poems accrue into a book-length work of nonfiction: a memoir of Vap’s life over twelve years but also an unpacking of what exactly the “Winter” project is and means. “What happens if I smear a single question across time—” Vap asks the reader, and herself.

    How can Vap answer that question, or any question, with her attention frayed by both mundanities and terrors? The header and footer, in small letters on every page, is “Drones are probably killing someone right now” without a period at the end of the sentence: they are killing constantly, over and over, and while some of Vap’s chronicled distractions are sweet or humorous, there are also constant intrusions of a more violent world outside the family-animal, where, for example, sonar technology damages the brains of whales off the shore of the Olympic Peninsula where she lives in a rural cabin.

    The constant interruptions of Vap’s life are reflected in the punctuation; while the drone sentence is period-less, many other sentences end abruptly, with dashes or unexpected periods. When they come after the “I,” these periods are not just breaks, thoughts abandoned or shut down prematurely, but an offering of possible definitions, possible selves: “Glut, I.” “Excruciatingly tender explosion, I.” “The longevity of this profoundest interruption, I.” “. . . a tenderness to insanity, I.”

    Who is she, this new “I,” this mother-self? “I have sometimes tried to describe my mind, in the months and years after the births and the breastfeeding of my children, as having experienced a kind of brain damage,” Vap writes. She continues:

    But I don’t mean brain damage in a pejorative or a funny or a damning sense—I mean a kind of important human damage. I mean damage in the way that adolescence can feel like damage—when our human brains break, and then change.

    Vap is open about her longing for quiet, for a road back to a prior self, but she is also interested in how that self has been fundamentally altered, destroyed and rearranged. The use of the singular “mind,” and singular “brain” in “brain damage” are rare in the book. “Brains” almost always appear as plural, even though she is most often referring only to her own.

    Her children interrupt her so often that they make the task of completing a single poem seem impossible, but their existence, and the changes they have wrought in Vap’s life, expand the concerns of that poem immeasurably, just as they have expanded Vap herself, with her plural brains. Vap could perhaps do with fewer interruptions and poop jokes, but she expresses no longing to be shut up in Kafka’s cellar: “The family-animal is holy to me,” she writes, and the act of writing each morning both about and in spite of this family-animal becomes a devotional act.

    I first read Winter in February and March of 2020, before and then during the earliest of the pandemic shutdowns. My husband and I were both writers with full-time jobs who had once valued those remaining stabs at Kafka’s “utmost concentration.” But now we parked our four-year-old in front of Pokémon videos for hours a day, so that he was a ball of explosive energy when we turned them off. I was pregnant, and it was not a good time to be pregnant. A drumbeat had started in my brain: You can’t take care of the kid you already have; why on earth are you having more? When I read Vap’s book, I felt not only admiration or connection but also a sort of small-minded satisfaction at the fact that Vap had three boys, and whatever happened with the child I was carrying, surely I would never be quite as inundated with penis jokes.

    I soon found out I was pregnant with twins, both boys, and that Baby A’s umbilical cord was badly formed, and badly placed. It seemed to be working fine so far, but was at significant risk of rupture, especially later in the pregnancy, when pre-labor contractions might start. If it ruptured, the baby would die. I spent months in a mental monologue than ran something like this: You have forty student portfolios to read. But first let’s skim five more articles about COVID. Was that a contraction? Well, then, your baby is going to die. Well, you were terrified of having two babies in the first place! Jesus Christ, you fucking monster. You know people who would kill to be pregnant with two healthy babies. Speaking of, you should text X about the IVF. Try not to sound like the monster you apparently are. Yes, I’ll get you more Cheez-Its. Just hold on a minute while I finish this email. Can you poop on your own this time? I’d rather not play Pokémon charades in the bathroom again. Augh, those edits are due. Which one’s Typhlosion? Hey, is it recycling pick-up this week or just garbage? Ow ow ow, I get that I’m five feet tall and you have nowhere to go, but could you get out of my ribcage? Oh, the one in my ribcage this time is Baby A, who could die at any time, and if he does, I will feel so, so guilty.

    This was distraction in its most destructive, miserable form: there was nothing positive or pleasurable or redemptive about it. Throughout the spring and summer, I clung to Winter—not the pages, which I could barely read by then, but its existence. As only nonfiction can be, the book was its own implicit happy ending: whatever a nonfiction narrator has suffered or experienced, you know by the existence of the text that they have emerged from the experience able, physically and emotionally, to write about it. Vap had not only survived her three boys’ early childhood; she had managed, day by day, and distraction by distraction, to build a book from it.

    I went looking for other such talismans, for moments of distraction that weren’t destructive, or not only destructive, but were life-giving, perhaps even lifesaving. That were not just failures of personal responsibility, but doors or windows leading to moments of possible illumination or transformation. That expand our minds instead of, or maybe while, they fragment it.

    In the short story “Nice and Mild” by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated into English by Kari Dickson, the narrator has finally dragged himself to IKEA after six months of promises to his wife that he’ll buy blinds for their son’s bedroom. His narration is constantly split between what he’s doing, how it looks to others, how he feels about what he’s doing, and what he wishes he were managing to do instead. Stumbling on the stairs leads to a full page of worry about how clumsy he might have looked to bystanders, in a nine-and-a-half page story. Soon after the stumble:

    I suddenly spot the neighbors, they’re standing discussing a couple of transparent salad bowls, and I almost run and hide behind the poster display racks. You have to pass through that section to get to the blinds, and I look through the posters while I wait for them not to notice me, to decide whether or not to take the salad bowls and move on, I go through sunsets and Monet’s water lilies, and the thought that I’m standing here hiding makes me want to scream, today when you wanted to sort everything out and breathe, to start the virtuous circle that has already started by recording Anna Kournikova on the DVR, you have to stop hiding here behind the posters, you have to go and find the damn blinds, you have to say hello to the neighbors, say that you think the salad bowls are very nice, say everything is fine when they ask how things are, and then carry on.

    Occasionally the narrator’s feelings are positive (he’s very pleased with himself for DVR-ing the match rather than staying on the couch to watch in person) but more often negative, self-scolding or self-lacerating. He has a clear sense of what he’s supposed to be doing, and wants to scream at himself for his inability to do it. The narrator’s mental state is not comfortable, for him or for us, but we also see how the web of distractions knit him to his life: he thinks of his son, who has been dealing with sun glare on his computer screen for six months. He thinks of his wife, who is clearly worried about him, about the inertia and anxiety that has delayed this errand for six months. He is here for himself, to begin sorting out his life, but he is also there for other people, and we understand this errand’s true importance through the disjointed thoughts.

    When he finally makes it to the blinds department, he sees his wife. Her presence here means she at some point gave up on him ever completing this task, and the narrator is torn between walking up to her and slinking away unseen. He tries to slink, and accidentally backs up into the display of salad bowls. Distraction in this story is both the villain and hero, both hampering and motivating. It’s deeply internal but also prompts external action; in leading the narrator to forget the presence of the salad bowls he ultimately backs into, distraction saves the day. The wife looks up and is glad to see him. The blinds may yet be acquired, the marriage may yet be saved.

    Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s short story “Suicide, Watch,” also opens with the protagonist assigning themselves a task. But instead of buying blinds, this story’s narrator, Jilly, resolves to kill herself. (The story’s tone is darkly comic: at no point do we think she’ll actually follow through.) She posts a farewell poem to social media, then tells herself she won’t check the post for four hours. She lasts five minutes: four notifications. She wonders what the likes mean and why there aren’t more of them. She puts her phone in the microwave in an effort to avoid checking it too often. Being in the kitchen makes her think of the utility drawer, and she takes out a box cutter; she considers using it on the couch, then in the kitchen, then in the bathtub, which makes her think of that time in Sociology class when they watched Harold and Maude.

    A trip to the refrigerator makes her recall an old therapy appointment (one of many, we gather, collecting pieces of the inner life, or perhaps the lack of an inner life, that drives this performance of distress). Eventually, hunger prompts her to grab a ramen packet from the cupboard, which spurs memories of various high school classmates. And so on. As she assembles the bowl and chopsticks and spoon, she acknowledges that no, she is not going to kill herself today. After all, “what good was a funeral if she couldn’t, like Tom and Huck, witness the mourners and see how much they had all loved her?”

    Eventually the ramen makes it into the microwave, which, the first time I read this story, I, like Jilly, had forgotten still contains her phone. The final paragraph:

    Later, those who mentioned her asked whether anyone had noticed anything different about her. Were there any warning signs? And why did she set the whole house and the poor ginger cat on fire? Why did she use the phone instead of a more traditional way? But in the moment, Jilly saw only the bright crimson of the explosion. It came in four red pops, like notifications, friend requests.

    The story is that rare example of a surprise ending that truly satisfies, not just surprises, because Jilly’s constant distractions are also the reader’s. Her zigzagging trains of thought take us with her ever farther from a shared departure point, until we arrive together not just at Jilly’s comeuppance, but at the same shock of recognition. Distraction allows Thompson-Spires to pull off a story that features both a twist and an impressively dislikeable protagonist; the story invites us to sit in judgement of Jilly’s posturing and self-aggrandizement, even as it forces us to share in the flood of associations, to forget about the phone, to be reminded of the moments we reached for our own phones too often or for the wrong reasons. Distraction here is not a positive experience for the protagonist, but it’s a delicious one for the reader, a Hunter Gracchus for the smartphone age.

    I found two unexpected rhymes to “Suicide, Watch” in two very different books: first, in the novel Several People are Typing by Calvin Kasulke, in which the consciousness of Gerald, an employee at a PR firm, somehow accidentally gets uploaded to Slack. The entire novel is told in Slack exchanges, most crucially between Gerald and Pradeep, the coworker who ends up tending to Gerald’s physical body, and between Gerald and Slackbot, who grows ever more threateningly sentient. There’s a happy ending, but before we get there, Gerald goes venturing in the wilds of the virtual world. He finds, at least sometimes, genuine transcendence: “there’s nothing visual you can cram in a glowing rectangle that fucks with your brain quite like a sunset,” Gerald writes, “so if we can’t seek the physical sublime what are we supposed to look at.” The answer he comes up with:

    the incomprehensibility of all the stuff.
    **all the people.
    the things everyone says and makes and does and manages
    to post online the daily outrages and minor amusements
    and short videos and updates from people whose
    worldviews are uncannily aligned with your own, brand
    new each morning like a fresh loaf of the same bread, like
    the rising sun
    The sublime plopped right next to everything else

    Gerald is referring most immediately here to the stream of photos posted in “a minor northeastern city’s Facebook group dedicated to the town’s ‘fallen soldiers’”: he finds in the ephemera the holiness Vap finds in the chaos of her family-animal. “We love to say the digital is fleeting,” Gerald goes on to say, “like a sunset. but these scraps of ourselves we fling into the ether will outlive most of us, like the sun.” A single evening’s sunset and a Facebook post may both be ephemeral, but that does not preclude the possibility of grandeur.

    The many, many, many distractions of our online world are often represented on the page as the shallow performativity of Jilly’s social media posts in Thompson-Spires’s story. In real life many of us have at least occasionally found genuine connection and community online, and not just garbage pits of misinformation, but in fiction the most common impulse seems to be to play online discourse for laughs or for alarm. Kasulke’s novel is very funny, but not at the expense of anyone’s ephemera. All this people-stuff, which might initially seem like fleeting distraction, is the virtual version of a sunset, too sublime to stare at directly. Taking insubstantiality seriously lends sublime substance to Gerald’s misadventures.

    Within the first five lines of the nonfiction book On Bullfighting by A. L. Kennedy, the author places herself on her window ledge; by the next paragraph, we understand she means to jump. The next two pages describe what has brought her to this point, and then she overhears her “least favourite folk song in all of the world,” playing somewhere in the distance:

    I can’t wait here and listen to Mhairi’s Wedding and still prepare myself to die with even a rag of credibility. Equally, I can’t face jumping while the bloody thing is still being sung. Murdering myself to this accompaniment is more than I can bear. So now I can’t even die.

    Distraction here, by a song Kennedy hates, literally saves her life. It’s a great scene, a surprising reversal of the deaths-by-distraction in “Suicide, Watch” or “The Hunter Gracchus,” and prepares us for how important distraction will be to the rest of the book.

    On Bullfighting exists because Kennedy needed a distraction to keep herself alive. “I was simply asked if I would write this and I simply agreed. . . . I wanted to keep my mind occupied,” Kennedy writes, “because—left to its own devices—it might very well manage to kill, or at least torment me.” In pursuit of this macro-distraction, micro-distractions accumulate: a train trip to Grenada leads us also to Lorca; the thought of Lorca’s murder leads to Hemingway’s suicide; Kennedy’s desire not to think about that leads her to Lorca’s ideas about duende. Though Kennedy has no preexisting interest or expertise in bullfighting, she walks gamely down every path the subject presents her with, physically crisscrossing Spain and researching everything from proper torero attire to aurochs, the prehistoric precursors to bulls. She pries up layers of tradition and stereotype and iconography with respect but without any particular loyalties, and with periodic reminders that her alternative to this intellectual project is oblivion. The authorial persona is unusual for a travel book, or a sports book, or a book about anything, really: she is writing about bulls as a disinterested observer; she is writing about bulls to save her life.

    It works. It works to save her, and it works as a book, as a stimulating and occasionally harrowing and often unexpectedly funny experience. But it is not a cure-all, as Kennedy explains:

    I wanted to discover if the elements which seemed so much a part of the corrida—death, transcendence, immortality, joy, pain, isolation and fear—would come back to me. Because they were part of the process of writing and, good and bad, I miss them.

    Kennedy eventually gets an accurate diagnosis and treatment for the physical pain that plagues her throughout the book. She finishes her book. It’s a strange and smart and beautiful book. I love it despite having no more innate interest than Kennedy in the subject of bullfighting. But it has not entirely restored for her the joy or transcendence of writing. Still, Kennedy’s acts of thinking and writing are fundamentally hopeful, life-sustaining ones. Like Sarah Vap’s Winter, On Bullfighting is talismanic to me, meaningful not just for what it says, but that it exists at all.

    Ross Gay celebrates a similarly powerful devotion to the possibilities of distraction in his first essay collection, The Book of Delights. Many of the short essays, written as a project over the course of a single year, emerge from momentary distractions, for example, the sight of a slightly more architecturally elaborate than normal carport, which he anoints an “interruptive delight” to his suburban walk. Every essay in the book features an openness to these moments, but he addresses them most overtly in the book’s second essay, “Inefficiency”:

    I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness—staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb—and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions. . . .

    Gay’s difficulty in separating “supreme attentiveness” from “supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions,” is part of a long tradition of wondering what exactly we mean when we say attention and distraction. During the Enlightenment, attention was seen as a crucial aid to reason, but not one that humans possessed automatically: the ability to pay sustained, focused attention was something to be cultivated by pedagogical programs, and put to demanding tests. Carolin Duttlinger writes, “The Genevan naturalist Charles Bonnet, who observed a single aphid from 5:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. every day for over a month, and was disconsolate when it disappeared . . . exemplifies a form of scientific attention seemingly boundless in its scope and endurance.” Duttlinger describes this aspirational attention as being “at the heart of an optimistic anthropology, which held human beings to be capable of self-mastery and self-perfection. In the nineteenth century this optimism gave way to a growing sense of uncertainty.” To my twenty-first-century sensibility, Bonnet’s feat seems superhuman in the original sense, an act truly alien to my own human abilities or goals.

    In the early days of the field we now understand as psychology, researchers designed experiments and built machines specifically designed to test attention. What they quickly discovered is that humans are terrible at paying sustained attention to single, isolated things. Duttlinger translates from German this claim by scientist Hermann von Helmholtz from his 1867 Handbuch der physiologischen Optik: “The natural tendency of attention when left to itself is to wander to ever new things; and so soon as the interest of its object is over, so soon as nothing new is to be noticed there, it passes, in spite of our will, to something else.”

    And yet here we are, sharing productivity tips, locking our phones in drawers, and using that webpage that makes background coffee shop sounds, trying to bootstrap ourselves into a state of “utmost concentration” that Aphid Guy would approve of. Against this cultural backdrop, Gay’s book is not only a call to delight, but also a call to a certain type of attention: What if, instead of “utmost concentration,” we aspire instead to those moments of “fleeting intense attentions” that Gay experiences sitting in his garden? Gay notes that “I come from people for whom—as I write this, lounging, sipping coffee, listening to the oatmeal talking in the pot—inefficiency was not, mostly, an option.” Leisurely, suburban carport-spotting strolls were unavailable to his hardworking parents, in the same way the gardens or fresh food that are dear to Gay are not equally accessible to all. My profession has given me the opportunity to write this essay without risking the loss of any of my fingers, a privilege not available to Kafka’s factory workers. Inefficiency may be a luxury, but “fleeting intense attentions,” however they are given or received or seized against the odds, are presented in Gay’s book as equally life-sustaining as fresh vegetables. They are, or should be, a shared human experience, not the province of a lucky few. The call in Gay’s book is not just to individual delight, but to the possibilities and promise of shared, collective delight.

    Caitlin Horrocks is author of the story collections Life Among the Terranauts and This Is Not Your City, both New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice selections, and the novel The Vexations, named one of the ten best books of the year by the Wall Street Journal. Her stories and essays appear in the New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her family.

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