In aging, the body gives in to a whole horde of clichés. I rise from a chair, my hand at my hip, and I’m a faceless man in a TV ad, the red bolts throbbing radially. I’m given the title Professor and within a year go grey at the temples. Something put a hemorrhoid on my asshole, and hangovers last a day. My body, I’ve been forced to see, is so sadly unspecial.
I’m 34 years old. The other thing to know about aging is its privilege. Older people won’t allow at cocktail parties or within web essays the aging of the young to be expressed, much less felt. I imagine the septuagenarian’s despondency at no longer hitting a full swimmer’s mile each morning equates Weltschmerzlich to the tween too suddenly big for her dolls, but to that tween I am old and to myself I am old, and while to 52.3 percent of the U.S. population I am young I plan, as an old man, to wallow in it. We’re all old.
Frank Conroy published Stop-time when he was 31. In its weariness does his narrator-self read old. The book came out in 1967 when Conroy was a young nobody no one could trust. Said critic Roger Ramsey:
Stop-time is not read for information about the author nor for the exposition of a philosophy of life. As a consequence, the question of adherence to the facts is beside the point. My own experience with the book tells me that the facts are relatively unimportant, but also that the literary imperatives demand and produce an illusion of fiction in which facts are manipulated and interpreted—“invented”—for aesthetic purposes.
Those words got published in 1974. I wasn’t even born yet.
Stop-time pleased critics and sold modestly. David Foster Wallace once called it “arguably the best literary memoir of the twentieth century.” My Penguin copy reads “A Memoir” on its cover, but these words don’t appear on the first edition. Conroy’s book antedates this marketing category the way I do millennials, which is to say just barely, which is to say I score just 7 points away from true millennial on the Pew Research Center’s How Millennial Are You? quiz.
Now Conroy’s dead, as is Wallace. Once, in a poetry workshop, a fellow student pointed out how the poem at hand captured the experience of a dying person.
“We’re all dying,” our professor said, helpfully.
Of siblings, of peer groups, I’ve been the youngest. It’s a way to get away with being ignorant. We expect nothing from them, the young, running at reunions through the legs of the grown-ups looking one another respectfully in the eye.
Youth’s a kind of womb, too safe a place to stay in. We can grin, patronizingly, at the grandma who pronounces herself, delusionally, “eighty-four years young” because to say “I’m old” is, we understand, to take a dim view of aging. It is not. It’s to embody it. “Wherever there is power, there is age,” Emerson tells us. “Don’t be deceived by dimples and curls.”
Emerson’s older than I’ll ever be, and ditto the genre he climbed aboard. That there is no new thing under the sun is a lie, unfortunately, and so our work slouches on.