This blog is now ten years old. Ten years to the day.
Well, well, well.
Who could’ve imagined “Beautiful Desolation” would still be around? I’ve seen the stats: most blogs sputter out after a year or two, the individual(s) involved eventually losing interest or not finding the time or unable to post regularly enough to keep it up to date and viable.
I can understand that. Over the lifetime of this blog, I’ve written 450+ posts, averaging about one every ten days or so. Which for a full time scribe and stay-at-home dad is a pretty hefty investment of time and energy. Plus, I’ve never posted just for the sake of posting, I’ve always had something to say or share (even if it’s frequently, especially in the early days, invective and bitter, icy fury).
Right from the beginning, “Beautiful Desolation” was a platform, a bully pulpit from where I could hold forth on subjects near and dear to my indie, contrarian heart. My thirty+ years as a professional author provides me with a host of experiences and encounters to draw from, and I must say it gives me considerable pleasure when young writers contact me and tell me how a certain article or mini-essay or rant I’ve posted inspired them or bucked up their courage during a low patch in their life. My entire career, from the get-go, has been all about empowering myself as an artist and not allowing others to tamper with my work, diluting its emotional, aesthetic and spiritual intensity and passion. That was an obsession for me even before I “turned pro” way back in 1985. I have always fiercely defended my work and questioned the effectiveness/competence of editors who take it upon themselves to “improve” my writing, “smooth out” the rough spots, etc.
I made it plain from those initial posts that this blog is devoted to the celebration of literary, intelligent, innovative, genre-busting fiction that defies fashion and formula and seeks truly new and unique representations of the world around us. I’m contemptuous of amateurish drivel and people who think insisting on proper grammar and syntax is “old school”. I respect authors who make herculean efforts to write and revise their work, laboring tirelessly, excellence their only goal. I’ve been a full-time author for a long time and struggle each day to find the courage and inspiration to go on. It takes me weeks to polish a story, years to finish a full-length manuscript. So you’ll excuse me if I say that, by those standards, dabblers and weekend scribblers and NanoWriMo wannabes just don’t make the grade, sorry.
It’s been interesting to go back to some of those early posts on “Beautiful Desolation”—some of them are very, very angry and confrontational. I’m thinking of my pointed words on contemporary science fiction, Cormac McCarthy’s rather lifeless interview on “Oprah”, the mediocrity that is CanLit and my repeated diatribes against the idiocy that is National Novel Writing Month (“part-time writers unite!”)
The nastier stuff kind of flickered out after the first couple of years, though I’m still capable of delivering withering scorn on command. I’ve said a few things about paranormal romance and shapeshifter-erotic-fiction that had a few people gnashing their teeth and hastily “unsubscribing”.
Ah, well. Some folks are touchy about being sub-literate and dull-witted.
Recently, this blog has taken on a more overtly political tone, which reflects my growing interest in leftist politics, socialism, Marxism…really, anything that is an alternative to the capitalist juggernaut devouring all the resources on this planet, rendering it unsuitable for a growing number of species (a list that will eventually include, y’know, us).
The election of CEO Trump to head Corporation America, the emergence of the far right around the world, as well as the on-going shenanigans of the neo-liberals and their wealthy sponsors, have alarmed progressives and activists, who view the rising intolerance and racism as part and parcel of a system that disenfranchises and impoverishes the masses, in order to fatten the wallets of the elite.
A concerted effort to unite disparate voices and causes under the banner of freedom, true freedom, must be undertaken or we are headed down a long, dark, scary road. I hesitate to predict what our society will look like when we reach the end of that particular journey. My imagination quails at the notion, quite frankly.
But, as I’ve come to realize, one can’t always dwell on these gloom and doom scenarios; for the sake of balance (and sanity), you have to be able to conceive of a better, healthier, more equitable world, a chance at a brighter tomorrow. And so I’ve sought out individuals and organizations, voices that offer entirely different perspectives on where the human adventure might lead us, given the right kind of moral and spiritual leadership. I’ve been fortunate enough to discover people like David Harvey and Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek; Paul Mason, Naomi Klein and Tariq Ali. The LEAP Manifesto and the existence of good, ideologically committed leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders offer at least the hope for change, the introduction of real ideas into a partisan, over-heated discourse.
Books like Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism, Klein’s This Changes Everything and Karl Marx’s Capital provide us with workable blueprints for correcting our course, indicating different, less spooky paths to travel, and once absorbed they alter your whole mode of thinking—I’m talking a complete paradigm shift. We don’t have to live the way we do, there are methods we can employ, mindsets we can adopt to alter our lives, our ingrained habits and actually make the world a better place, just by our example.
I’m sure I’ll be writing about this in more detail in the months/years to come.
In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed “Beautiful Desolation” in its various guises. Ten years has given me the time and scope to cover a lot of ground and during that interval I’ve undoubtedly said some things I probably shouldn’t have and managed to piss off an impressively wide assortment of people. But all along I’ve made it manifestly clear to even the most desultory, unwary visitor: if you’ve come to this blog looking for reassurance and treacle, a collegial atmosphere and warm, fuzzy support system, you’ve opened the wrong door, I’m afraid. This site is about the price we pay for having feelings, for being alive and sentient in a world that’s increasingly chaotic and disorienting, our “civilization” gradually losing its thin veneer of humanity, revealing the glistening skull beneath its skin.
“Beautiful Desolation” is, in that sense, the perfect title for this blog.
The more I think of it, what could have been more appropriate?
* * * * *
A few recent developments I should mention:
The Mindful Word, a site devoted to conscious creativity and holistic wellness (hey, how can you argue with that?), has published two short essays I composed, offering advice to young, developing writers…and warning of the possible perils of semi-autobiographical fiction and memoirs. Pop over there to check them out and then take some time to poke around–it’s a cool site.
I also somehow managed to place an extremely odd piece, “A Personal Cosmology”, with The Oleander Review, a literary journal published by the University of Michigan—the issue in question is due out in April. Here’s a sample from “Cosmology” I posted awhile back. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
Finally, “Happy Birthday” to my pals Laird and Karen—who share the same birth date and the unfortunate tendency to root for two historically dreadful hockey clubs (the Leafs and Canucks, respectively). This lifelong Bruins fan tries not to hold that against them, although sometimes, I admit, it takes concerted effort to restrain my natural tendency to trash talk. But, then again, it’s hard to feel smug when your favourite team includes an unrepentant arsehole like Brad Marchand.
Note: the accompanying pictures are drawn from our Summer, 2016 visit to Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Istanbul, in particular, continues to haunt our memories (and sometimes our dreams). What a magical, terrifying, wondrous metropolis. One day, we hope to make it back…
During the summer, I tend to favor faster, more plot-driven narratives–thrillers, mysteries, noir—but once the leaves start turning, taking on brighter hues, I seek out more somber, atmospheric efforts.
John LeCarré, for instance, is the perfect fall read. His complex novels, populated by morally compromised characters and deep, dark secrets, are well suited for cooler, drabber days and nights. British novels, in general, are better enjoyed during autumn and winter than they are brighter, cheerier times of the year. Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel aren’t really appropriate for the beach and only a complete fool would pack Orwell or Rushdie in with the suntan lotion and towels.
Glancing at my bookshelves, I can tell you in an instant which books match each season.
Contemporary Fiction (Spring-Summer)
Literary Fiction (Autumn)
Historical Fiction (Summer)
Biography and History (Winter)
Science Fiction (Summer-Autumn)
Critical Essays/Creative Non-Fiction (Winter)
Breaking it down by individual author: Jim Harrison (Spring); Cormac McCarthy (Autumn); Jonathan Franzen (Spring); W.G. Sebald (Autumn); Colson Whitehead (Autumn); Richard Russo (Spring); Raymond Chandler (Summer); Don Delillo (Autumn); Alastair Reynolds (Summer); David Mitchell (Spring-Summer); Italo Calvino (Autumn-Winter); Denis Johnson (Autumn); Thomas Pynchon (Autumn-Winter).
There are exceptions, of course, cases where those generalizations don’t apply. Works relating to politics, ecology, religion and philosophy are sprinkled throughout the year. And every so often I can’t resist plucking up some big, fat biography (ex: Robert Caro’s magisterial portrait of Lyndon Johnson) and just having at it. A two or three day binge that leaves me disoriented, out of step with everyday life. Barely able to prepare and eat a five-minute boiled egg. And, no, I do not exaggerate.
It’s become sort of a tradition that I tackle a real forearm-strainer right after Christmas and heading into the New Year. The kind of tome you have to bench press. Hardcover, if possible. A single volume history of World War II or the collected essays of Christopher Hitchens. To counteract the effects of all that turkey, red wine and good fellowship.
Tell me I’m not alone, that someone else out there has to deal with their own version of Seasonally Adjusted Reading Disorder (SARD). Perhaps we can start our own support network, help each other overcome our entrenched habits, learn to read what we want, when we want.
Oh, and, by the way, did you hear there’s a new LeCarré book out this month.
Wouldn’t you know it?
You might call that a coincidence but I’d say it’s right on time.
by William Gay
(Anchor Canada; PB; $22.00)
“…he climbed up a chimney to a corridor above the stream and entered into a tall and bellshaped cavern. Here the walls with their softlooking convolutions, slavered over as they were with wet and bloodred mud, had an organic look to them, like the innards of some great beast. Here in the bowels of the mountain Ballard turned his light on ledges or pallets of stone where dead people lay like saints..”
Cormac McCarthy; Child of God
The comparisons are inevitable.
Two southern writers, both of whom employ lyrical, macabre prose to delineate the wicked hearts of people inhabiting places far from the lights of the city, an outer darkness where ordinary rules don’t apply.
Rather than shy away from any association with his celebrated colleague, Mr. Gay acknowledges and embraces it, to the extent that he quotes from McCarthy’s Suttree—“The rest indeed is silence”—to begin the second half of Twilight.
The similarities are there but Gay’s worldview is nowhere near as dense, unrelenting and hopeless as McCarthy’s. McCarthy is a poet, his method studied, deliberate, his word choices rich and sinuous but always scrupulously measured and metered; Gay practically gushes:
“The wagon came out of the sun with its attendant din of iron rims turning on flinty shale, its worn silvergray fired orange by the malefic light flaring behind it, the driver disdaining the road for the shortcut down the steep incline, erect now and sawing the lines, riding the brake onehanded until the wheels locked and skidded, then releasing it so that wagon and team and man moved in a constantly varying cacophony of shrieks and rattles and creaks and underlying it all the perpetual skirling of steel on stone.”
-opening sentence of Twilight (italics in the original)
Gay’s Granville Sutter finds his closest fictional relative in McCarthy’s oeuvre in Lester Ballard, from the aforementioned Child of God. Both kill without remorse and don’t shy away from the bloody part of the business. There is much to fear from a man who is capable of terrible deeds, acting without flinching, proceeding without so much as a backward glance. Such a man is to be avoided and you certainly wouldn’t want one as an enemy…
Corrie and Kenneth Tyler finds themselves in Sutter’s murderous sights owing to a combination of bad judgement, a desire for vengeance and, it must be said, a certain amount of plain, old fashioned greed. They stumble across the grisly postmortem shenanigans of the town’s resident undertaker, Fenton Breece. Breece likes to ah, tamper with the cadavers he has access to in his professional capacity. Corrie is determined to make the mortician pay for interfering with her father’s body and inflicting all manner of macabre indignities on his helpless clients.
The first twenty or thirty pages of Twilight make for tough sledding as the evil that Breece is enacting is revealed to the reader. Corrie convinces her reluctant brother to help her extort money from Breece and it’s at that point that Sutter is called in, charged with the job of putting an end to the blackmail.
The second section of the book is a protracted chase scene. There’s too much foreshadowing of Sutter’s eventual fate and I never quite figured out his odd fixation with Kenneth Tyler. The roots of the connection remain undisclosed and, to my mind, quite unfathomable.
Twilight is a dark book, not only in terms of the disturbing imagery but also in its depiction of the backwoods people, the bleak secrets they harbour, the corruption that engenders. They are a hard and mean bunch, seasoned by grim fortune, embittered rather than ennobled by suffering and privation. Young Kenneth Tyler has no resources to fall back on when he runs afoul of Sutter, no assistance or relief forthcoming from the hostile and suspicious community he was born and raised into.
“He ate and tossed the bones beyond the circle of firelight where they were contested with snarls and he could see their green eyes moving about like paired fireflies. When the meat was gone and he’d lain down to sleep with his rifle for bunkmate he could see a circle of their eyes drawn about the fire and in his mind he could see them stretched out, chins on paws, warily studying the fire and this strange god they’d adopted. As if they’d wearied of this wild life of freedom and hoped he could give them back what they’d lost of civilization.”
Mr. Gay tells a tall tale but at least he tells it well. The territory is remote, barren, depopulated, pocked with sinkholes, dotted with abandoned factory towns, overgrown graveyards, dissolving machinery. Ghosts of the past loom up everywhere.
Few acquit themselves well in Twilight and there’s no deliverance here, redemption in this case amounting to survival and little more. It’s a primal, ferocious novel, a thriller and then some.
It makes no apologies for itself, eschews pretension and therefore earns our respect.
Note: At no point during the course of this critique did its author once use the term “Southern Gothic”
by Laurence Bergreen
(Knopf Canada; HC: $36.95)
Marco Polo, the dauntless explorer. World traveler and raconteur. Shameless liar and self-promoter. Confidante of Kublai Khan. “Il Milione” and his bottomless store of fanciful tales. Respected merchant of Venice. Prisoner of war…
Held under house arrest by the Genoese after a calamitous naval battle, Marco, in his mid-forties but already packing the experiences of ten lifetimes under his belt, entertains his captors and fellow prisoners with stories of his adventures in the realm of the Mongols. Another prisoner, Rustichello, proposes they collaborate on a written account of his rambles and the two of them set to work. Rustichello is more partial to Arthurian romances, it’s true, but this Polo fellow tells a fine tale and, besides, it’s something to do to while away the long hours of captivity. Sometimes their imaginations get the best of them; Rustichello, in particular, is never one to let mere facts ruin a good story.
The embellishments they concoct diminish a great work, testifying against its veracity as an historical document. Sometimes, not content to be a mere observer, Marco puts himself front and center, undeservedly claiming credit, exaggerating his importance. Before we get too far into his Travels, his father and uncle (arguably greater explorers than their kinsman), disappear from its pages, reappearing only sporadically. Brazen egotism, a reluctance to share the spotlight…or an editorial decision, axing them to streamline the plot?
Mr. Bergreen’s conversant and agreeable biography of the Venetian explorer makes for a good introduction to the man and the era he lived in. I had no idea there were so many different versions of Travels extant, miscopied and incomplete, fragmentary or expurgated, some renditions twice as long as the others. There is no definitive text. Which is closest to the original? Historians finding it difficult resisting the temptation to fill in the gaps with speculation, extrapolations. These might amount to learned guesses…or, on the flip side, unproveable notions (Marco may have become addicted to opium during a lengthy sojourn in Afghanistan). Without hard evidence they contribute little to the historical record, suppositions based on the slenderest evidence, a tidbit of malign gossip, deserving of a footnote, nothing more.
Mr. Bergreen does an admirable job of setting the scene for us—his descriptions of 13th century Venice are convincing. He recreates the Polos’ arduous expeditions with clarity and we get a keen appreciation for the ordeals they endured throughout their three year trek to the court of Kublai Khan.
Mr. Bergreen’s biography makes it clear that young Marco experiences quite an extraordinary transformation in the course of his journey through the Near East and Asia. When he first sets out he is full of loathing for the disparate cultures he encounters, their perverse sexual practices and savage, pagan beliefs. But gradually his haughty Catholic sensibilities are won over by the courage and toughness of the Mongol people. Whereas he has been led to believe they are a savage and uncivilized race, he recognizes a different reality and has a complete change of heart. He becomes their biggest fan.
The Great Lord’s court is a melting pot of cultures and he is not averse to using intelligent and trustworthy agents of all nationalities to fulfill his schemes and designs. Marco’s admiration for the Khan is profound: here is a canny ruler who displays ruthlessness and guile, a shrewd intelligence and, as a result, has achieved the highest seat in the world. Surely he must be the greatest of all men, wise and just in his way.
But Marco’s admiration for the aging Khan is severely tested by the evidence he sees of the ferocity of the Khan’s reprisals. Troops loyal to the sovereign lay waste to great swathes of land, killing or uprooting many people. Any uprisings or displays of disloyalty are severely punished…as Marco discovers when his duties take him through present-day Burma and Vietnam. The Mongols wage total war; frequently none are spared.
After seventeen years of devoted service to the Khan, the Polos approach their master and patron, expressing a desire to return to their homeland. He is not immediately receptive. There have been embarrassing military setbacks in Japan and, most recently, Java. The Mongols’ air of invincibility has been shattered. The Khan has lost face and feels that the foreigners in his court enhance his prestige.
But a pretext presents itself and the Khan reluctantly allows them to accompany a princess to the lands of an important ally. From there, they will have royal fiat to go where they wish within his empire.
They make it back to Venice but find that during their extended absence, relatives have presumed them dead and divvied up their possessions. They manage to settle their affairs and, thanks to the riches they’ve brought with them from the East, are able to establish themselves among the city’s gentry.
But Marco finds the sedentary life of a merchant rather boring after sharing a ger (tent) with the fierce and noble Mongols, the boldest and finest people on earth. He’s middle-aged when he’s captured after the Battle of Curzola and incarcerated at the Palazzo di San Giorgio with Rustichella.
After his release he returns to Venice, where he does well for himself. Despite his affluence and excellent circumstances, Marco earns a reputation for being difficult, litigious. He marries and sires three daughters but one gets the impression that for Marco, like Ulysses in the Tennyson poem, his friends and family “know him not”. His time in the East changed him irrevocably, set him apart from his fellow men. He is a stranger to them; he has seen things with his own eyes they cannot conceive of.
At the end he is bedridden, wasting away, a sad fate for such a vigorous and ambitious man. He dies during his 70th year, at home, likely the last place his restless soul wished to be.
His Travels grew in fame and stature, his name acquiring the trappings of legend. Columbus read and re-read his copy of the world’s most famous travelogue. Coleridge recognized the mythic power of the stories…
After all, that’s what drew so many people to his Genoese prison: to hear wild and thrilling and bawdy yarns of exotic, far-off lands; the flora and fauna, the untamed wilderness, but, mostly, to learn of the people who lived there, their bizarre, heathen practices:
“One Mongol custom in particular astounded Marco: the marriage of dead children…‘When there are two men, the one who has a dead male child inquires for another man who may have had a female child suited to him, and she also may be dead before she is married; these two parents make a marriage of the two dead together. They give the dead girl to the dead boy for wife, and they have documents made about it in corroboration of the dowry and marriage’…”
The two families behaved “as if the bride and groom walked among them, erasing the boundary between life and death. Afterward, ‘the parents and kinsmen of the dead count themselves as kindred and keep up their relation…as if their dead children were alive’.”
Whether secondhand or first person, real or imagined, factual or fabricated, the Travels amounted to grand entertainment to people whose perspectives were narrow and blunted. After all, foreign excursions were perilous in those times, involving no small amount of danger. Conditions on sea and land were harsh, danger ever present, travelers constantly set upon by marauders. Most never ventured far from the safety of their home villages and cities. They made for an eager but skeptical audience, their imaginations fired by accounts of worlds they would never see, while their practical mindsets insisted none of it could be real.
“Here where others offer up their works I pretend to nothing more than showing my mind.”
“What’s important, finally, is that you create, and that those creations define for you what matters most, that which cannot be extinguished even in the face of silence, solitude and rejection.”
The Forest For the Trees
I’ll be turning forty-four later this month and, naturally, with the passing of another year I can’t help taking stock, appraising the state of my life and work. That can be a tricky proposition, especially when you have, ahem, depressive tendencies.
The first thing that comes to mind whenever my birthday rolls around is the line from that old Pink Floyd song that goes “another day older, another day closer to death”. Some people actually celebrate their birthdays but not me—I have to dwell on mortality, my mind taking a sharp, left turn toward morbidity. Typical.
But the point of this post is not the inevitability of death (thank God), it’s about change, rites of passage, the sense of moving into another phase of my life and, especially, my writing life.
I’ve written a number of journal entries (don’t worry, I won’t reproduce them here, I have more respect for you than that) in which I state that I feel my literary apprenticeship is over and I now have a strong sense I can take all that I’ve learned and can finally start establishing my own unique voice.
Does twenty-two years seem like a rather extended apprenticeship? Not to me. Over the course of that time I have immersed myself in the best writers I could find, reading them, studying them with the rapt attention of a monk scrutinizing ancient holy texts.
Applying all I’ve learned and assimilated from the Masters has taught me technical craftsmanship but it has also reminded me of the importance of discipline, self-sacrifice and perseverance. They’ve given me crucial insights into the level of commitment and devotion required to create something of lasting worth. I’ve always admired authors who are original and innovative and now, more and more, I want to see those virtues reflected in my work.
And I don’t mean literary experiments, self-referential, modernist (or post-modernist) tripe composed for my eyes only and readers be damned. I’ve gone down that road before and while it produced some interesting prose, I found, after awhile, that it didn’t speak to my heart and spirit and resulted in closed, claustrophobic bits and pieces that seemed to obscure rather than illuminate. In the end, I abandoned that approach as a creative cul de sac, a road that went nowhere.
What I’m talking about are new approaches to characterization and, also, incorporating more cinematic elements to structure and story, employing multiple viewpoints, juxtapositions, flashbacks, superimpositions, fadeouts, cutaways…all in an effort to deny that old canard that “there’s nothing new under the sun”.
Nothing new…what a bunch of horseshit.
The first time I read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist I knew I had found a writer with fresh ideas, thematically and stylistically. Every Cormac McCarthy novel I read is an epiphany. Project X by Jim Shepard body-slammed me with its remarkable authenticity.
The best authors have their own distinct perspective they bring into play…and after twenty-some years I can finally say that I’m ready to tell my stories my way. The history of the world from the standpoint of an agoraphobic neurotic obsessive-compulsive perfectionist with delusions of grandeur.
Or, looking at it another way, I can grace my stories with the hard-won insights of a man who has now lived more than half his life, who’s gotten married, has two sons, lost friends, gained friends, fought, fucked up, suffered, laughed, seen and done things I couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago. Thanks to a host of life experiences my work is informed by a richness and maturity that wasn’t there previously, deeper shades and tones I couldn’t have managed as a younger author.
I’m not as afraid as I used to be, not as prone to ungovernable fits of rage and frustration. That doesn’t deny my work passion, it means I can better channel, direct and control those passions that used to send me shooting off in all directions, dissipating my creative energies.
I’ve written extensively of futility on this blog, the despair that sometimes overwhelms me because of my brain chemistry and bad genetics. Some people have then turned around and used these confessions in other forums to attack my credibility on subjects relating to literature. I’m a “failed writer”, don’t I even admit it myself?
Yes, according to my high standards, my literary output seems pretty insubstantial. But look at who I’m holding myself up against, geniuses like Louis Ferdinand Celine and Joyce and Beckett and Bobby Stone. Who wouldn’t come off as second-rate compared to those lads?
But when I look at the wannabes out there, the ones who insist on calling themselves writers because they published a romantic fantasy novel in e-book form, I come off pretty well, don’t you think? These twats actually have the nerve to announce to the world they’ve written 80 or 100 (or more) novels in the course of their illustrious careers…and yet when you “Google” their names, none of their work seems to be kicking about. Funny. And they’re the first ones to get biscuit-ersed (Irvine Welsh’s hilarious phrase) when I talk about “aesthetics” and “critical reading”.
“I write to entertain,” they sniff daintily, demurely paging through a fat forest-killer with a dragon or unicorn on the cover. And when I call them on their silly pretensions, their transparent lies, I’m dubbed “elitist” or a “pompous ass”.
Go back to your fucking knitting, you hobbyists. How do you manage to see your keyboards with your heads so far up your own arseholes?
Worse yet are the horror hacks I’ve come across with their brain-sucking zombies and superannuated vampires and misogynistic rape fantasies. They go ballistic when I remind them of the subtle, cerebral horror of Roman Polanski. Their tastes run more toward the latest Rob Zombie abomination, great gouts of blood spraying everywhere to the accompaniment of a throbbing, crunching soundtrack. Subtlety to them is a body count under a hundred.
Horror fiction has been in the doldrums for a long time and I blame the splatterpunks, who unzipped their flies and pissed all over the genre in the late ’80’s and early 90’s. It’s never been a field that features good writing but, Christ, the stuff that’s been proliferating in the past ten to fifteen years is scraping the muck and slime off the bottom of the barrel. It’s time to take the genre back from these fuckheads—where is our generation’s Ira Levin or Clive Barker or Richard Matheson? Who will save us from these purveyors of shit?
Well, it won’t be me. I want nothing to do with horror until it cleans up its act. And that means smarter editors and more talented writers—and the chances of those things coming to pass are roughly the same as the Rapture sweeping up all the worthy Christians next Thursday (and good riddance to them).
In any event, I’ll still be here, in this 10 X 12 office, composing my strange, little stories, dreaming of a readership in the tens of millions. And I’m content with that.
An unjaundiced look at my career tells me things might be looking up. My novella “Kept” may or may not be made into a movie that may or may not be pretty good. I’m working on a new project, feeling more engaged than I’ve felt in a long while. My marriage is solid, my family the greatest support system a guy could ever want or have.
Success and riches may never come…but I made a conscious choice a long time ago that regardless of what happened I would never compromise, never sell out, that I would aggressively defend my offerings from the predations of those who are not worthy to pass judgment on any title more sophisticated than a Dick & Jane reader. That stance has probably cost me a shot at fame and fortune…but, conversely, my work can’t be accused of being derivative or formulaic and I’ve composed some truly original fiction that I believe will stand the test of time.
“Tell a good story and the readers will come…eventually,” I wrote on another blogger’s site and I believe that.
You found me here, didn’t you? And now you might just scroll down and read more screeds by this crazy fucking Canuck…or click on Stories and tackle the excerpt from my smashing great novel So Dark the Night (it’s worth it, believe me).
Thanks for taking the time to pop by—and I’m grateful, as well, to my regular readers, the repeat visitors to Beautiful Desolation, folks I’ve come to know through their comments and personal communications.
Let’s give it another forty-four years, shall we? See what happens. I’ll keep putting one word ahead of the next, telling my stories in my own inimitable style.
Yes, the apprenticeship is officially over. From here on, whenever you read one of my tales, the only voice you’ll hear is mine.
Listen to my song…
(Reviews of Charles Simic’s Dimestore Alchemy, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man & Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse)
A remarkable and inspired short volume, consisting of prose poems devoted to the mysterious boxes Joseph Cornell conceived and constructed over the course of his life.
Mr. Cornell’s singular creations , some of which are reproduced in the book, were assembled out of found objects and thrift store knick-knacks. These “irrational juxtapositions” were the products of a man who received no formal training in the arts. Many relate to his obsession with 19th century ballerinas and film starlets that caught his restless eye. He was a surrealist by nature and temperament, although never a formal acolyte of the movement. A reclusive and intensely shy man, he counted among his acquaintances Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali.
In his brief Preface to Dime-Store Alchemy, Charles Simic praises the “genius and originality” of Mr. Cornell and, it is clear, his literary responses are homages not only the actual works but the man—and mind—responsible for them. A good number of the proems in Dime-Store Alchemy are reminiscent of the “automatic writing” championed by the surrealist movement. There’s an intuitive and unfettered quality to the pieces, the way they so successfully emulate the dreamlike world Mr. Cornell inhabited and delineated—fanciful, perplexing but never trifling or fey.
It is the perfect marriage of two great minds. Mr. Simic is a poet renowned for his minimalist approach to writing and that spare, unadorned style is well-suited for the task at hand. His enormous regard for Mr. Cornell’s vision and untutored talent is apparent in every word. There are sentences/stanzas (what does one call them?) that are perfect capsule summaries of the Cornellian universe:
“The father of our solitude is a child.”
“Making deities is what we do in our reverie.”
“To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions.”
“The forest is a place in which everything your heart fears and desires lives.”
“Every art is about the longing of the One for the Other. Orphans that we are, we make our sibling kin out of anything we can find. The labor of art is the slow and painful metamorphosis of the One into the Other.”
With Dime-Store Alchemy, Mr. Simic enters the mind of a master artisan and with great care and empathy offers a fitting tribute to an artist who made no great pronouncements, affected no airs and left only puzzling artifacts to mark his passage in the world. Out of his solitude he brought forth cryptic montages, evocations of lost times. His lonely endeavors led him to produce insoluble puzzles, boxes of trinkets and bric-a-brac, manifestations of a mind “without precedent, eccentric, original and thoroughly American”.
Mr. Simic respects the integrity and inviolability of Joseph Cornell’s secret and sequestered life while still managing to hint at the man’s motivations and sources of inspiration. The combined effect of these short pieces is a portrait that is graceful and impressionistic, respectful and convincing, as close to truthful representation as fiction can be.
by Don DeLillo
(Scribner; Hardcover; $32.00)
“These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after…”
(Falling Man; pg. 138)
The events of September 11, 2001 horrified the Western world and permanently altered its sense of invulnerability and comfortable complacency. Our way of life was now firmly within the crosshairs of cruel, resolute enemies, our cities and reservoirs and power installations potential targets for attack. A state of siege followed, emergency measures declared, laws enacted, constitutional limits exceeded, all in the name of national security.
In the six years since that sense of urgency and fear has abated but, as we are frequently reminded, threats still exist and plotters are hard at work in their secret lairs and redoubts, devising new means of inflicting terror and chaos on a grand scale.
This past week, while waiting for an appointment at my bank, I happened to pick up a copy of an American news magazine. I flipped through it and came across a three or four line dismissal of the latest Don DeLillo novel, which is set against the backdrop of the World Trade Centre attacks. The unnamed commentator curtly opined that although the book relived those terrible days, Falling Man was not the great 9/11 novel we’ve all (apparently) been waiting for…
I was appalled that one of America’s pre-eminent writers was accorded such shabby treatment—a few lines devoted to latest DeLillo?—but what bothered me most was that the reviewer believed Mr. DeLillo, an author of unsurpassed poise and intelligence, would give serious thought to attempting some grand, definitive take on September 11, 2001.
Falling Man, compared to Mr. DeLillo’s epically proportioned Underworld, is a modest offering, an account of how the events of that fateful day affected the lives of the Neudecker family: Keith, his estranged wife Lianne and their seven year old son, Justin. Keith worked as a lawyer for a firm in the North Tower, the second to fall, and his escape and odyssey through the rain of ash and debris make for harrowing reading. Those scenes frame the book, beginning and ending it, an effective structural device.
What Keith experiences that day has a profound affect on him. He is reconciled with his wife and child, although he maintains enough emotional distance to embark on an ill-advised affair with a fellow survivor whose briefcase he carried with him as the Tower threatened to collapse around him. Keith has little interest in returning to his pre-9/11 existence and gradually spins out of the close orbit of family life, taking up professional high stakes gambling and flitting about America in search of poker tournaments. Lianne is a freelance editor and serves as a volunteer with a support group for elderly men and women suffering the initial onset of senile dementia. It’s a tough assignment, watching week by week as her charges lose themselves, personality and memory on a steep “slide away from the adhesive friction that makes an individual possible” (Falling Man; pg. 30).
Forgetfulness and coping are important components of Falling Man. People, as a necessary survival mechanism, wish to escape the raw emotions associated with traumatic events; beta blockers are often prescribed to dull the intensity of searing memories. The “falling man” referred to in the title is a performance artist who suspends himself from buildings and venues throughout New York, assuming the posture and attitude of those who plummeted from the heights of the Trade Centre towers, ghastly images that remain with many of us to this day. His appearances outrage New Yorkers anxious to get on with their lives. He will not let them forget the last moments of those doomed men and women and is arrested, even pummeled, following his unannounced exhibitions.
While the intensity of 9/11 fades, the emotional and psychic effects of that day persist—for the survivors and everyone else old enough to remember. Keith’s reintegration with his family and society is, in the end, impossible to manage—he has seen things they will never understand. He is not a part of them, their lives, any more. Mr. DeLillo is too good a writer to provide a comforting conclusion to his novel and throughout his distinguished career has never resorted to treacle or, as fellow author Rick Moody puts it, “…appeals to sympathy (that are the) only allowable response. This is precisely how melodrama and sentimentality do their worst”.
Those expecting, like the anonymous reviewer, a big, soppy, emotional take on 9/11 (a la Oliver Stone’s bombastic “World Trade Centre”) had best look elsewhere. Don DeLillo would not be so stupid and deftless to attempt such a thing. In the days, months, years following the destruction of the towers, Keith Neudecker’s awareness of the small, insignificant gestures and details of life is heightened but, in the final analysis, the events of 9/11 do not ennoble him or make him a better person. Instead he chooses to remove himself from his family, the rituals and banalities of ordinary existence. It is Lianne who finds reluctant solace in such things, even returning to the church of her childhood despite intellectual misgivings, existential doubts.
“But isn’t it the world itself that brings you to God? Beauty, grief, terror, the empty desert, the Bach cantatas. Others bring you closer, church brings you closer, the stained glass windows of a church, the pigments inherent in glass, the metallic oxides fused onto the glass, God in clay and stone, or was she babbling to herself to pass the time?” (Falling Man; pg. 234)
Lianne’s spiritual groping is nothing like the certainty and religious fervour that possessed Mohamed Atta and his eighteen co-conspirators as they unerringly steered their planes into the Towers, making course corrections right up to the last second. Mr. DeLillo has Atta and his fellowship of death make fleeting cameo appearances at several points during the novel—he felt the necessity to at least partially convey the thoughts of those who served such pivotal roles in that day’s destructive narrative.
The rabid faith of the terrorists was an important motivating factor, to be sure. It provided them with the moral rage they required to carry out their heinous acts. Their twisted beliefs, perverse interpretations of religious doctrine, precipitated enormous loss of life and suffering. Lianne’s grasp of the essence and necessity of God is, by comparison, far more tentative and precarious. For her, religion is a source of comfort for the weary, solace for the forlorn. Her faith, as flimsy as it may be, threatens no one and offers no possibility of harm or offense. In these dangerous, fraught times, that kind of spirituality is eminently preferable to literal truths and blind obedience.
It always fascinates me when authors cross genre boundaries, boldly venturing forth into other branches of writing. Science fiction, in particular, attracts numerous mainstream scribes with its various and diverse worlds, the infinite permutations and possibilities they present. Sometimes the results are mixed—P.D. James’ Children of Men comes to mind, an admirable effort that turned on a neat concept but suffered from flaccid, bloodless prose and an overly optimistic resolution.
In some instances the dabblers achieve spectacular success and here I’m thinking of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things and, most recently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. These offerings are thrilling reminders of what speculative fiction can produce when you combine creativity, intellectual vigour and transcendent prose. Literary writers are technically and aesthetically superior to their genre-dwelling colleagues, capable of composing evocative, daring prose, imagineering plausible worlds and fully-formed, three dimensional characters. The abilities of Messrs. McCarthy, Auster and Hoban reveal the weaknesses and bad habits many SF hacks have accumulated due to laziness, stupidity and the minimal demands of their eccentric fan base.
Count Jim Crace as another of the successful dabblers. The English author has never shied away from big ideas and never failed to deliver on them. His first novel envisioned a seventh continent and he provided it with a history, eco-system and topography, populating it with denizens boasting their own mythologies and unique stories. He has also taken us into the Judean desert and explored the psychologies and beliefs of the early Christian mystics who sought out their god in remote, hostile places and paid a daunting price for a face to face meeting with their pitiless deity (Quarantine).
The Pesthouse, Mr. Crace’s ninth novel, is his most ambitious yet. He presents us with a future America that has fallen from predominance, regressing to savagery due to some unknown, unnamed disaster. America is now longer a place to come to, a haven for the poor and weary, but a place to flee from—
“…nothing familiar was in sight, not a single building, not a reminiscent shape, not even any cultivated land, and only the footings of ancient walls and lines of metal spikes, rusted thin, as evidence that this had once been farmed many years before but now was wilderness. People had been here in better times, had lived there possibly, had died, but there was little chance that anyone would come again. People were becoming scarce. America was emptying. The land was living only for itself.” (The Pesthouse; pg. 142)
The only “Americans” left to eke out an existence are those too old, infirm or unskilled to emigrate, board the tall ships that voyage across the ocean to the new, old world for a fresh start, a second chance…or, just as likely, a lifetime of indentured servitude. But what alternative is there? To remain in a lawless environment where raiders steal your last possession and slavers pluck up those hardy enough to work and kill the rest? Plagues are rampant, superstition rife, the structures of society and civility swept aside by the need to survive, safeguard those precious resources that make survival possible.
As they journey through this barren expanse, Mr. Crace’s characters bear witness to terrible scenes, experience close brushes with death (or worse) and come to see the “dreaming road” and fabled ships for what they are. Through the eyes of his protagonist, Margaret, we experience a world that has reduced her sex to mere chattel. She is thrown into a partnership of convenience with Franklin, a big man with the heart and spirit of a boy. A strange bond forms between them and, in time, they become a formidable team, determined to do what they must to preserve their undistinguished lives and cling tenaciously to whatever existence this blasted terrain allows. They will scratch out a modest future for themselves even if that means abandoning their dreams and reclaiming a past they thought they’d left behind. It is a courageous choice and possibly a foolish one but circumstances deny them all but the most meager aspirations.
The Pesthouse does not conclude in false optimism and for that we’re grateful. Margaret and Franklin are attractive creations but not entirely deserving of redemption. We do come to like and accept them, despite their character flaws and foibles, which Mr. Crace exposes with skill and discretion.
Science fiction hacks would have stretched this book into a fat tome (or even a bloated series), positing all sorts of strange societies and enclaves, straining our credulity with far-fetched accounts of mutants living in the crumbling ruins of abandoned cities, fantastical beings of all shapes and sizes. Jim Crace resists such silly notions and, instead, offers a credible vision of an America in decline, a ruined dystopia made up of the hopeless and unwanted. In this bitter landscape metal and technology languish and civilization and all its attractions exist elsewhere, on far, unreachable shores.
If the Americans are to prevail, restore their blighted legacy, they have daunting work ahead of them. History has been lost, science relegated to myth…it is only the will and strength of those who remain that will win the day. The prospects aren’t promising, Mr. Crace has seen to that.
In the end, all we can do is leave Margaret and Franklin to their difficult endeavors and wish them the very best. Better a life of quiet desperation than no life at all. For the odd, mismatched couple, that impossibly slender reed of hope will have to suffice…
The body language said it all.
Throughout today’s much-touted interview on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, master writer Cormac McCarthy sat slumped, his head resting heavily on his hand. Was this the posture of a man who had lived to regret his decision to agree to his “first television interview ever”?
Oprah clearly couldn’t believe her good fortune and repeated that boast three or four times during the course of the broadcast. His first television interview and, yessir, she was the one who nailed this journalistic coup. Not “Sixty Minutes” or Charlie Rose, not Katie Couric or that cow Barbara Walters. It was Oprah who got her man.
But what exactly did she get? Certainly no great epiphanies. It was a minimalistic performance on McCarthy’s part. He wasn’t guarded or unforthcoming, more like indifferent or, at best, bemused. Opie started off with a truly sparkling observation, “You look just like you do on the back cover of your book” and it hardly got any better after that.
Their little chat was conducted, at his behest, in the comforting surroundings of the library at the Santa Fe Institute where he likes to hang out. He slouched back in his chair, trying to put as much physical space between the two of them as possible. Every few minutes there would be odd, jarring breaks, cuts to talking head shots of Oprah describing the narrative of the book before darting back to the interview.
McCarthy’s responses to her softball questions were…well, I don’t think it would be unfair to characterize them as monotonic. There was no depth to his answers. I scribbled notes on a pad as I watched and I’ve underlined words like sheepish, deadpan, neither alert nor particularly attentive. When Opie asks him to sum up the message of THE ROAD, the best McCarthy can do is murmur: “We should appreciate life more, be grateful for what we have”. This from a man noted for his mastery of the English language, the complexity of his prose? Oh, brother…
A thoroughly uninspired and half-hearted effort on his part. There was one particularly awkward moment when he stated that he has trouble understanding women and Opie piped up indiscreetly “But you’ve had three wives!” For a man noted for his privacy, I thought this a particularly stupid and indelicate comment. “You are a different kind of writer,” she giggled at the conclusion of the segment and I had to cast my eyes heavenward. Lord, forgive her for she is too dumb to know any better…
My notes conclude with the following observations:
If this interview was a magazine piece, it would have been rejected by every print publication of note. VANITY FAIR or ESQUIRE would have turned it down with a form reply. It is pure fluff, the subject exposes nothing, reveals nothing. He didn’t play with his interviewer a la Dylan or Brando, he merely reveals his utter indifference to the entire process. He foolishly accepted the interview and as a polite Southerner was determined to see it through to the end. It was an obligation to be fulfilled with the minimum expenditure of effort on his part…
McCarthy’s taking the Oprah gig was a head-scratcher to start with. His non-appearance neither redeems nor exonerates him. It was an ill-advised move on his part, a rare misstep for a man I still admire, despite his ill-fitting feet of clay…