This essay prefaces Matteo Pericoli’s Windows on the World: Fifty Writers, Fifty Views, out this week. We’ve featured Matteo’s work for years on the Daily, and his sketch of the view from our old office graced the cover of our Summer 2011 issue. To celebrate his new book, we’re offering that issue for only eight dollars, and only until Thanksgiving. We’re also holding a Windows on the World contest—submit a photo of your view and you could win a sketch by Matteo.
Can you picture John Kennedy Toole, the author of A Confederacy of Dunces? I can’t. Say his name and I see his hero, Ignatius Reilly. How about Willa Cather? What comes to mind isn’t a person at all—it’s raindrops in New Mexico “exploding with a splash, as if they were hollow and full of air.” What did Barbara Pym look like, or Rex Stout, or Boris Pasternak, or the other writers whose paperbacks filled our parents’ bedside tables? In most cases we have no idea, because until recently, the author photo was relatively rare. You could sell a million copies and still, to those million readers, you’d be a name without a face.
Things are different now. Nearly every first novel comes with a glamour shot, not to mention a publicity campaign on Facebook. The very tweeters have their selfies. We still talk about a writer’s “vision,” but in practice we have turned the lens around, and turned the seer into something seen.
Matteo Pericoli’s drawings recall us, in the homeliest, most literal way, to the writer’s true business, and the reader’s. Each window represents a point of view and a point of origin. Here’s what the writer sees when he or she looks up from the computer; here’s the native landscape of the writing. If you want an image that will link the creation to its source, Pericoli suggests, this is the image you should reach for. Not the face, but the vision—or as close as we can come. To look out another person’s window, from his or her workspace, may tell us nothing about the work, and yet the space—in its particularity, its foreignness, its intimacy—is an irresistible metaphor for the creative mind; the view, a metaphor for the eye.
It is crucial that these window views should be rendered in pen and ink, in lines, rather than in photographs (even though Pericoli works from snapshots, dozens per window). In his own writing and teaching, Pericoli likes to stress the kinship between draftsman and writer, starting with the importance of the line. His own line is descriptive, meticulous, suspenseful—one slip of the pen and hours of labor could be lost, or else the “mistake” becomes part of the drawing. Labor, it seems to me, is one of Pericoli’s hidden subjects. That is part of the meaning of the hundreds of leaves on a tree, or the windows of a high-rise: They record the work it took to see them, and this work stands as a sort of visual correlative, or illustration, of the work his writers do.
Of course, most writers tune out the view from day to day. In the words of Etgar Keret, “When I write, what I see around me is the landscape of my story. I only get to enjoy the real one when I’m done.” I think Pericoli has drawn the views of writers at least partly because they are seers as opposed to lookers—because they blind themselves to their surroundings as a matter of practice. The drawings are addressed, first of all, to them, and their written responses are no small part of the pleasure this book has to offer. Each of these drawings seems to contain a set of instructions: If you were to look out this window—if you really looked—here is how you might begin to put the mess in order. Yet the order Pericoli assigns is warm and forgiving. His omniscience has a human cast. His clapboards wobble in their outlines. He takes obvious delight in the curves of a garden chair, or a jar left out in the rain, or laundry flapping on a clothesline. He prefers messy back lots to what he calls (somewhat disdainfully) “photogenic views.” He knows that we are attached to the very sight we overlook, whether it’s tract housing in Galway or a government building in Ulaanbaatar. These are the everyday things we see, as it were blindly, because they are part of us.
Some of the writers in Windows on the World are household names. Many you will never have heard of, and a few live in places you might have trouble finding on a map. That, it seems to me, is part of the idea behind this book. Here are streets and alleys you won’t recognize that someone else calls home and takes for granted; look long enough and they will make your own surroundings more interesting to you. In Pericoli’s sympathetic—you might say, writerly—acts of attention, the exotic becomes familiar, and the familiar is made visible again.