In "A Book of One's Own," his 1984 study of diaries, Thomas Mallon made the debatable assertion that "no one ever kept a diary just for himself." This is clearly true of Heidi Julavits' "The Folded Clock," which is billed as a diary but is actually a collection of meditations written very much for publication. Part of a new, less formal trend in personal essays, these carefully composed, often intimate mini-essays have more in common with blogs and Facebook posts than with either Montaigne or private, uncensored inky outpourings. (Sheila Heti, who co-edited the recent anthology "Women in Clothes" with Julavits and Leanne Shapton, is another practitioner.)
Julavits explains things to readers that she wouldn't need to clarify if "The Folded Clock" were just for herself. This book, sparked by her alarm at the rapid, unaccountable passage of time, "is an accounting of two years of my life," she writes. "Since I am suddenly ten years older than I was, it seems, one year ago, I decided to keep a diary."
She begins each of her 93 entries with "Today I," a form borrowed from her long-abandoned girlhood diary, about which she is scathingly funny: "They reveal me to possess the mind, not of a future writer, but of a future paranoid tax auditor."
"The Folded Clock" replaces slavish chronological record-keeping with a playfulness that allows Julavits to thumb her nose at time. For starters, she scrambles the sequence of dates: Nov. 5 is followed by Oct. 13, and Aug. 7 by June 29, with no identifying years attached. The lovely title, which she says she "pickpocketed" from her daughter's mishearing of "folded cloth," suggests a Dali-esque image of hours and days folding in on themselves to disappear altogether or, with craft, become something else, a sort of temporal origami.
Julavits writes, "Like Thoreau, I am pretending that I wrote this diary over the course of a year, when in fact I wrote it over the course of two years, two months, and two days (give or take)." It's evident that much care has gone into the order of entries, with various leitmotifs — a friend's husband's possible infidelity; July Fourth parades; fear of sharks — providing narrative through-lines.
Occasionally, Julavits becomes tangled in time. In the book's final entry, she drifts from "today" to a story that happened 10 months later and a continent away. Further on, she confesses, "Speaking of lost. I seem to have lost 'today.' Now it is six months earlier than it was when I started this entry. I am in Maine, and it is a year since I began this book, and I am trying to finish it."
Although this capriciousness may sound confusing, it's oddly exhilarating. Freed from the day-in-day-out drudgery of linear chronology, we come to recognize the rhythm of Julavits' overstuffed, fortunate life, in which she juggles what she refers to as "four or five half-time" jobs. (She does not spell them out, but they presumably include writing, editing, teaching at Columbia and parenting two children under 10.)
She's least content in New York, yet during a month's residence at an artist's colony in Italy, which should be a welcome break of concentrated writing time, she's haunted by worries about her children — a sentiment working mothers, especially, will well understand. Above all, Julavits looks forward to summers in Maine. She loves antiquing, visiting E.B. and Katharine White's nearby graves and marathon bay swims. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of entries are written during July and August. None bear February dates.
Diaries, like personal essays and blogs, are only as interesting as their creators. Julavits, as we know from her inventive novels — including, most recently, "The Vanishers" — is a pro at spinning stories. Many anecdotes are at her own expense. Several reveal her impatience with others' illnesses or confess to having used men heartlessly in her youth. There's plenty that's baldly confessional and some that's cringe-worthy — such as descriptions of her 8-year-old daughter as "sexy." Most hilarious is a story about trying to pee into an airsick bag from her window seat rather than disturb two sleeping passengers during a night flight. She admits being charming to a fault, even to her therapists, and — reader beware — to sacrificing "the truthiest truths" to the goddess charisma.
This is not an intellectual work; don't look for philosophical contemplations or deep analyses of art. There's nary a mention of the books Julavits and her second husband, novelist and fellow Columbia professor Ben Marcus, published while she was writing it. Instead, her avid curiosity tends toward local gossip and "The Bachelorette." Julavits is a material girl who unabashedly asserts that eBay "has measurably improved my quality of life more than doctors or drugs." A self-described jack-of-all-trades, social maniac, misanthrope and burgeoning self-help guru, she lavishes attention on her close friendships and emails.
Above all, "The Folded Clock" is an engaging portrait of a woman's sense of identity, which continually shape-shifts with time. In her mid-40s, Julavits says she is "looking for the next age I will be."
McAlpin reviews books regularly for the Los Angeles Times, NPR.org and the Washington Post and writes the Reading in Common column for the Barnes & Noble Review.
The Folded Clock
Doubleday: 299 pp, $26.95