#43: Polo Catalog, Fall 2012

Dear Ralph,

I just looked at a calendar and realized if I am going to reach my goal of 50 letters about 50 objects by the end of the year, I’ll have to write you twice a week to get there. I knew I had missed a couple of weeks, but I didn’t realize I was so far behind. Or more accurately, that the New Year was so close.

I mentioned to you that I’m keeping to a pretty stringent writing schedule that has nothing to do with these letters. Writing a novel is pretty demanding work. You gather scraps as you go: pieces of paper with notes in hand-writing you can’t read, links to stories online that at one time might have meant something, but now seem unrelated to the project, pictures torn from magazines and newspapers that look vaguely like a place you might want to describe.

The novel I’m working on now will be, when I finish, the fourth I’ve written. The first one, written in a frenzy the year I quit school, was an awful mash-up of a 21 year-olds’ idea of what a book co-written by Thomas Pynchon and Gabriel Garcia Marquez would be like. Youthful doesn’t begin to describe it. I can’t remember much about the basic plot, but I remember it involved a pioneering doctor who discovers an isolated tribe in the jungles of Central America who for some reason don’t dream. The doctor brings dreaming with him like a sickness, a pathology that infects the whole tribe.

I didn’t write anything for a long time after that. But for some reason, just before I turned 30, I started to write something closer to a true first novel. This was a big, sloppy, messy family story with a character loosely based on me at the centre of it. I saved every draft I printed. I saved all my notes. I saved two copies of a New York Times Magazine that features in an emotionally climactic scene. And I thought I saved a copy of the Polo Fall 2012 Catalog.

The character at the centre of the story, the one based on me, has a pretty complicated relationship to everyone and everything in his life, including clothes. A big section of the book is devoted to disastrous suit shopping expedition undertaken by members of a wedding party. In a notebook I did save that outlines the whole novel in broad thematic statements, that section is described: “The QUEST: suit shopping as a right of passage/the failure to be MEN!”

The Polo Catalog didn’t factor in the book, but for some reason it featured heavily in my life during the time that I was sweating out my first draft. It had an almost permanent home on my bedside table. I thought I had saved it with my notes and drafts because it represented, better than anything else I could think of, the gap between what we want and what we’ve got. That gap was central to the crisis of my character. Clothes were one of the less harmful ways he dulled the pain created by the gap.

When I wrote that first book, I didn’t give a shit about clothes. I was borrowing an epic language from writers whose voices were shaped by an experience of life that had nothing to do with the way I lived. My second book was a little more honest, but despite having a two-page digression about how different men would qualify Nantucket Red pants, the voice didn’t belong to me either; I had moved from being a shitty imitation of Marquez to being a shitty imitation of Philip Roth. But in an odd way, despite the stylistic differences, the concerns of both these youthful projects overlap: the bringers of dreams and the damage they do.

I think more than anything, this catalog is the reason Polo is first in my pantheon of brands. Like all of the great Polo ad campaigns, it brought dreams. And like all great dreams the damage they do is far reaching, mutable, and unending.

It turns out I didn’t save that Polo catalog. Going through my working folder I found page after page of notes I can’t remember writing, scenes that were abandoned had disappeared from my recollection, and entire characters whose names and faces and stories are totally gone to me. And yet I remember those quilted jackets. And the camel over coats. And the fair isle sweaters. And the puffy vests. Is it any wonder I still remain unpublished as a novelist when the details that burn brightest in my mind are about a pair of socks I saw five years ago and really wanted to buy?

And to think, I only sat down to write you about this catalog so I could share a Raymond Chandler quote with you. But it just doesn’t seem to fit.

Expect more from me soon,

S

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