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One City

Reif Larsen Gets Sympathetic Joy

Jealousy strikes us all in different ways. Sympathetic joy, (mudita for those of you pali/sanskrit geeks) refers to a  a series of  guided meditations offered by the Buddhist tradition to overcome the insidious human poison of envy. I have found the practice to be quite helpful, as I find all Buddhist practice to be helpful, but there is one group of people who incites the need for the practice in me more than any other sentient beings, and I’m not sure why. My “jealousy gang” consists of young male writers who are sometimes younger than I am and have a tremendous amount of success. And the group that gets me going has a brand new leader for me to visualize in the space in front of my body. Move over Dave Eggers (you were minor league), get outta here Jonathan Safran Foer (you were cute and harmless anyway), Reif Larsen is here.



Reif Larsen received a $1 Million advance for The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, an illustrated novel about a 12 year-old cartographer.

I know what you are going to say. You’ll say “Ethan, you’re doing great! You’re first book was published when you were 29. You do good work. You write for a great blog. You’re working on rewriting a novel you are very proud of. If all goes well, it has a good shot of getting published by a small publisher. You’re book has been translated into German and Dutch (btw, I have two copies of One City in each language I have no idea what to do with). By all measures, you are a success. So chill out, homie, and don’t ponder others.”


But it doesn’t matter what you say. Because I will tell you, from Mara’s mouth to your ears, that you are right. I got plenty. But it ain’t about what I got. It’s about what I ain’t got. Reif (is that really your real name, man?) got an advance 150 times the size of mine (for real). Reif went to the same college as I did, and is two years younger (that strikes a bit close to home). Reif’s in Vanity Fair! And you know what else, turns out Reif’s all into…wait for it…Zen Buddhism! That was the dagger. Dude’s Buddhist! Why can’t he be an alcoholic nihilist like other writers and leave the dharma niche to me? If you start a blog about Zen and mapmaking, Reif, I’m gonna lose my shit!


Jealousy has nothing to do with what we have; it always operates as a relative comparison of lack. Because what we have is not solid, and our experience moves ungraspably onward toward an inevitable anti-climax, leaving us to wonder if someone else figured out the key to contentment. Don’t worry, they didn’t.

Nobody here but us fools, saddled with our lack, raging against the intricacies of day-by-day boredom. And it turns out, when you meditate on mudita, the only thing that fills the lack is the production of spontaneous joy, which has no solidity either. Go figure.

So here’s to you, Reif Larsen. You look like a nice guy (way cooler than Dave Eggers). I’ll buy your book. And I’d even like to interview you for our podcast to ask you about Zen and your creative process. I’ll buy you a drink at the Brooklyn bar of your choice (like you need me to!).

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Julia May

posted May 12, 2009 at 2:57 pm

I long ago trained myself out of artistic or creative success-oriented jealousy. It was beyond corrosive to my process. That was very easy, as I’ve learned the only way for me to make anything succesful creatively is to be interested in the puzzle that My Work presents and disregard its potential cache. Every time I start to think about its cache the whole thing gets crap.
That said I am, to my chagrin, jealous of tall women. Maybe because there is no possibility of ever changing my shrimpdom.

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posted May 12, 2009 at 3:35 pm

a million . . .thats a lot of clams for a book that sounds weird

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Paul Griffin

posted May 12, 2009 at 4:11 pm

You forgot about Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision.
As for Eggers, though he’s become his own brand, I still find his work compelling. His What Is The What was terrific. Did you see the all-star hipster team that collaborated on the new movie Away We Go? Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida wrote the script; Sam Mendes directs; Maggie Gyllenhaal, John Krasinski, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara, and Maya Rudolph star. But in all honesty, I do deeply appreciate the work of these artists, and I feel sympathetic joy for them.
If anything, I’m still jealous of Fitzergald, who published The Side of Paradise at age 24.

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Patrick Groneman

posted May 12, 2009 at 4:48 pm

There is a seemingly practical aspect to the jealousy experienced within the creative field in a capitalist context. There is a creative window within popular culture that closes once a style has become “cliched.” William Bayer spoke to this idea in his guide to young filmmkers “Breaking Through, Seling Out and Dropping Dead”
“Easy Rider fulfilled a craving by a particular segment of the audience (alienated young Americans)…the moment it appeared it was instantly recognized by millions of young people as certifying a certain fantasy and a certain truth they had come to hold…once a certain fantasy has fulfilled an audience, the territory it has covered is burned out…”
This to me is the real disaster involved in mixing art, capitalism and a global popular culture…Those who would have the most to share in terms of intimate creative dialogue have to view each other through the eyes of competition rather than sympathetic joy!

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posted May 12, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Relative success and failure, esp in the writing world, is so very odd. It’s interesting to look at Pulitzer Prize winners that are out of print (even one from the 90s, I recall) and to read their reviews. How perfectly insubstantial is literary “buzz.” Isn’t there something about the 8 worldly somethings that deals with this?
I am wary of $1 million advances for many reasons, mostly publishing economic ones. But sympathetic joy is somehow not that big an issue for me. My business partner has often remarked that that makes me a less-than-cutthroat competitor in the marketplace.
Hmm: can joy at competitors’ success serve a good capitalist purpose in the marketplace? another blog post a comin’ . . .

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Julia May

posted May 12, 2009 at 5:35 pm

We can all feel sympathetic joy that we didn’t grow up with a name like Reif. I’m sure Reif loves his name now. But I’m sure he didn’t love it at eleven years old.

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posted May 12, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Oh its an ILLUSTRATED novel. Well that makes sense. God forbid there’s a book without a gimmick. Maybe you should illustrate your next book on Buddhism seems to be where the MONEY is. Just being honest here.
The adventures of…another ‘adventures of’ book. Oyeee. NOOOO!!!
Please make them stop.

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Emily N.

posted May 12, 2009 at 6:37 pm

I hope Larsen can use his (probably shortlived) influence and cash to even an eighth of the positive effect Eggers has through the network of free tutoring centers he’s established in needy communities- the man is all about exertion in the best Buddhist sense:
These centers put wannabe McSweeneyites where they can do the most good- not just writing their own graphic novels etc. but tutoring kids.
I am jealous of the tireless energy that can simultaneously write novels, movies, edit magazines and establish brand new nonprofit organizations, for sure.

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posted May 13, 2009 at 8:36 am

@Emily: Agreed. Although I didn’t like Eggers first book, the work he has done in the world is pretty cool. And all joking about jealousy aside, if a million dollars has to go to writers (and it should – we only scoff at that sum because it’s a lot for WRITERS, who don’t make anything, but it is certainly not a lot for bankers, who routinely see that kind of bonus), then I love the fact that it’s going to someone young with a meditation practice. Here’s hoping he puts it to good use and enjoys a long career. Why do we assume, when someone has a huge landing on the scene, that it’ll be short-lived? Eggers stayed around a while so far, and has only gotten better, as a writer and in his nonprofit work.

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