I know, it’s ridiculous.
I am, by a significantly large margin, the most cynical person I know. At times, I border on misanthropy. Show me a miracle and I’m sure to be the one who runs over and yanks back the curtain, revealing an elaborate projection system and its red-faced operator.
My philosophical role models are Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Swift–heavy on the satire, please, and spare no one the whip hand. When it comes to contempt for our species, I make Stalin and Mao look like a couple of octogenarian nuns. It’s time to own up to it: humankind is a failed experiment, rinse out the petri dish and start again.
Except…around mid-December my normally un-sunny demeanor undergoes a marked change. Having kids has something to do with it but, when I think back about it, I’ve always loved Christmas. The closer it gets to the 25th, the more excited and tingly I get. This reaction is completely unconscious and involuntary but, regardless, I offer no defense for the shameful sentimentality that overcomes me every December. True confession: if I could, I’d spend the last two weeks of every calendar year walking around, giving money to orphans and kissing old ladies on top of their wispy, age-spotted pates.
The origins of this revolting affliction are not known to me. I have hesitated to share it with you lest I provoke the ire and scorn of my fellow curmudgeons. We aren’t exactly known as a tolerant, open-minded bunch.
I can remember very clearly, the recollection dating back over 35 years now, sitting in my pajamas and listening to an announcement on the local news that Santa’s sleigh had been picked up on radar and he was definitely on his way…
My fondest childhood Christmas memory was when I was nine (ten?). I contracted a mild form of hepatitis and missed two months of school. As an added bonus, I cleaned up at Christmas time: a couple of Hardy Boys books and one of those electronic football games, which ended up maddening me because most of the magnetized players spun in slow, futile circles on the vibrating field. My one regret was that my specialized diet meant I couldn’t have any chocolate. Watching my sisters stuff themselves just about killed me.
As I’ve gotten older, the holiday season became an opportunity to sit back and assess the year; tote up the amount of work accomplished and berate myself for everything left undone.
During that week between Boxing Day and the New Year there’s always a strong sense of something impending. Maybe 2009 with be the year. Just like 2008 was supposed to be. And 2007, come to think of it. Oh, well…
Anticipation. Expectation. Something is coming. Something important.
Waiting. Waiting. Sam Beckett made a whole career out of it.
The curmudgeon in me curls up his lip when the Hallowe’en decorations come down and the Christmas displays start going up. People have staff Christmas parties starting in mid-November. And the Santa Claus Parade often takes place a month before the fact–as a kid I often wondered how the Old Man could take time off during the busiest part of the year to haul himself up on to a float and wave inanely for two hours.
Christmas specials on TV start the first week of December. It’s the old favorites that still appeal. “Charlie Brown Christmas” and the animated “Grinch”, with Boris Karloff narrating. Alastair Sim in “The Christmas Carol” (although, in a pinch, the Muppet version will do).
We’re big fans of the “Wind in the Willows” series too so that one will likely resurface during the holidays. Anyone who has ever seen me trying to assemble something or figure out printed instructions quickly recognizes that I am the very spitting image of Toad. And my friend Dan is undoubtedly a Badger…
I haven’t seen either “Wall-E” or “Finding Nemo” so I’ve promised my family I’ll sit down and watch those two with them; I miss out on too much, sequestered away upstairs in my office. All the movies Sherron and my boys have sat through without me…
We’re not a family who believe in big, extravagant presents. It’s just not us. Small, heartfelt gifts…combined with great food, friends dropping by, the chance to spend lots of time together, no school, no work, no obligations or duties.
Sprawled on the couch or draped across the big arm chair, engrossed in a new book. My boys are teenagers now so, admittedly, there isn’t the same sort of excitement present as there was when they were little gaffers. Up until a few years ago, the house would rattle with their excitement as the big day drew ever nearer. A friend used to buy them an advent calendar and after breakfast the boys would get the calendar down and pull open the little hinged hatch to retrieve their allotted square of chocolate. It became part of our ritual, like scones on Christmas morning (we tried champagne and orange juice once but I ended up passing out at 11:00 a.m.).
Well, we’re all older…but we still enjoy sharing time and space with each other. We laugh a lot and if I was a betting man I’d say this old house will be fairly ringing with mirth in the next couple of weeks. And if this cold snap ever breaks, we’ll get a game or two of shinny in and go for long walks, gawk at the gorgeous river valley, pristine in the sharp, white light of winter.
It’s hard for even a confirmed curmudgeon to maintain an appropriate air of disdain when he is perpetually surrounded by good cheer, a loving family and devoted friends. The barbed remarks and wisecracks stick in my throat, refuse to budge.
There will be other opportunities to prick balloons, pontificate gloom and doom. This is a chance to give thanks for the blessings and good fortune that sustain me even during my darkest moments.
We’ve had enough despair. Now let us sing songs of thanks and praise for what has been bestowed upon us and be all the more grateful and deferential, knowing it can’t possibly last.
Initially, I read to escape.
Found my way to the neverlands and never-will-bes as part of a protracted and determined effort to seek refuge from a real world in which I was vulnerable, helpless.
Books also helped assuage the loneliness, the sense of otherness that frequently assailed me. I’ve always had an earnestly held desire to isolate myself from an indifferent, possibly hostile universe lurking just outside my front door. It’s a type of agoraphobia, I suppose, a reluctance to leave an environment where I wield power and control and venture out into the Chaosium.
Ray Bradbury was an early companion, The Golden Apples of the Sun an important reading experience when I was ten or eleven. So was Arthur C. Clarke’s tale “A Walk in the Dark”. I went through many anthologies and short story collections (I have a love of short fiction that persists to this day). Candidly, I was an indiscriminate reader. Popular fiction, history and, when I was particularly desperate, books plucked from my grandmother’s shelves: Daphne DuMaurier, Harlequin Romances, just about every offering in the Companion Library Series (I was bored by Hans Brinker but loved Baum’s Wizard of Oz and also, surprisingly, The Five Little Peppers).
Science fiction dominated my young adulthood: Lucifer’s Hammer (Niven & Pournelle), Childhood’s End (Clarke), Voyage of the Space Beagle (van Vogt) and every story by Robert Sheckley I could lay my hands on. Sheckley was a fortuitous discovery—I can reread his fiction today and still enjoy it. There’s something about the combination of SF and satire that definitely appeals to me. Some of Sheckley’s best stuff is in Citizen in Space, a volume that shouldn’t be too hard to find. Check it out.
By my mid-teens I was writing a fair bit (mainly bad poetry) and seeking out literary role models, authors whose sensibilities came closest to my own. I found I liked tales with a Twilight Zone-ish aspect to them, something not quite right with the world, fate lying in wait for our hapless hero just around the next bend. Enter Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont; Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Jerome Bixby. They became big influences–I think it could be fairly said that their grim(m) worldviews and melancholy ambience still inform the work I produce today, twenty-five years later. That’s how strong an impact their books and tales had on me.
By the time I was eighteen, I’d given up on poetry and was turning my hand to short stories. Slowly, incrementally, I got better and that’s entirely due to the excellent tutelage of my literary heroes. I’ve never taken a writing class or workshop; my “education” is entirely the product of a lifelong addiction to the printed word. I’ve evolved into a better, more critical reader by seeking out authors and books that challenge me intellectually and aesthetically. In the process, I’ve also become a better writer, more demanding when it comes to evaluating and critiquing my own work.
My literary tastes are constantly progressing, expanding. For a time I was enamored with the surrealists and then Samuel Beckett, J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs, authors and movements bent on distorting or eliminating traditional narrative. I was also drawn to the intricate, cerebral mazes constructed by Jorge Luis Borges.
Over the past decade or so, other writers have instructed me, helped propel my work in interesting new directions: Paul Auster and Jonathan Carroll (his first novel, Land of Laughs is a magnificent effort). Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy. James Crumley. Robert Stone. Jack O’Connell. Irvine Welsh.
Each passed along important lessons—I luxuriate in prose by good authors, immerse myself in it, dissect and analyze it to discover how a certain effect was achieved. My hyper-critical mind has little time for those who resort to “hackdom”, it recoils from the discordant, tuneless prose produced by such derivative or porous imaginations.
Lately, my reading has ranged all over the place—one day, Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, the next something lean and mean by Charles Willeford. Nonfiction in the morning to get my brain moving, fiction to wind me down at night. I may go two weeks without reading a book, then binge on them, blasting through six in the next six days. For the longest time I didn’t read science fiction; now, thanks to authors like Tony Daniel, John Barnes, Charles Stross, Peter Watts, Vernor Vinge, James Morrow, Iain M. Banks, Paul Di Filippo, Dennis Danvers and others, I’m back in the fold.
Can’t say the same for horror, unfortunately. The field is in a dreadful state. Do most of the guys and gals scribbling zombie stories these days even know who Matheson and Beaumont are? Do they understand that a well-told tale is a beautiful and enduring thing? Doubtful. They’re too busy ministering to their printers. All that blood and viscera keeps clogging up the works. Such “writers” have nothing to teach me.
Right now I’m really attracted to condensed narratives, brief and fierce and tight. Many books these days are afflicted by clutter and bloat…so I seek out authors who have pared down their prose to the bare minimum. Providing descriptions and back stories with a few well-chosen words. Those fat tomes by Proust, Tolstoy and Durrell will have to wait for another time.
I think it’s important for an indie writer these days to be aware of the DIYers and mavericks who preceded them. Independent spirits like Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Poe, Lovecraft, Kafka, Celine, Artaud, Dick and Ellison. Non-conformists and originals, determined to protect the integrity of their work, willing to risk rancor, exile, public indifference or disapprobation. While our themes and objectives may differ, the examples they set as individuals of great fortitude and perseverance have served to inspire me when I’ve questioned my talent, the direction my life and/or career is going in.
Each of the authors I just cited suffered mightily for their art, endured great privation and ignominy…but their books and stories are still read today. Their travails have been vindicated by slow posterity, their creations consigned to the ages. Art that ennobles the human experience, that faithfully reproduces the pleasures and pains of existence and depicts without flinching the true state of the soul will prevail over yesterday’s bestseller, today’s flavour-of-the-moment. Count on it.
We will always have cause to empathize with Lear’s rage and despair and have it within us to hate with the virulent malice of the Count of Monte Cristo. A thousand years from now the persecution of Jean Valjean will still move us to tears (virtual or otherwise). As a species, we’ve been imbued with the capacity to love and the capability to do enormous harm. Great art does not allow us to shrink from such notions nor concede responsibility to outside agencies. It is a mirror, the ultimate reflecting surface; it does not lie and when we balk, commands us not to look away.
Cliff’s Reading List:
A few years ago my nephew Jesse asked me to put together a reading list for him—this is a revised and updated version of that roster of faves. Books I commend without reservation for their intelligence, savagery, grace and wit:
Martin Amis DEAD BABIES (vicious/hilarious)
Paul Auster ORACLE NIGHT; THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS (magic realism)
J.G. Ballard RUNNING WILD (chilling short novel)
Wilton Barnhardt GOSPEL (brilliant!)
James Carlos Blake IN THE ROGUE BLOOD (terrific western)
Joseph Boyden THREE DAY ROAD (Sherron & I loved this book)
Anthony Burgess EARTHLY POWERS
Benjamin Cavell RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE (brilliant, edgy stories)
L.F. Celine JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT; DEATH ON THE INSTALLMENT PLAN
Michael Chabon AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY; YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION
Nicholas Christopher VERONICA; A TRIP TO THE STARS
James Crumley: (anything by this author)
Don DeLillo UNDERWORLD
Philip K. Dick A SCANNER DARKLY
Katherine Dunn GEEK LOVE (shocking, bizarre…one of our faves)
Steve Erickson DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS (surreal, well-written)
Timothy Findley NOT WANTED ON THE VOYAGE (brilliant)
Ken Grimwood REPLAY (suppose you had your whole life to live over?)
Jim Harrison TRUE NORTH (great American novelist)
Ernest Hemingway FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (his best book)
Nick Hornby HIGH FIDELITY (avoid Americanized movie)
John Irving HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE (still his best)
Denis Johnson JESUS’S SON (grim, powerful stories)
William Kotzwinkle THE FAN MAN (another big favorite)
Ira Levin A KISS BEFORE DYING (very suspenseful; terrible movie)
Lee Maynard CRUM
Cormac McCarthy BLOOD MERIDIAN; OUTER DARK
Ian McEwan BLACK DOGS; CEMENT GARDEN
Martin Millar LUX THE POET
Henry Miller TROPIC OF CANCER; BIG SUR & THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH
David Mitchell CLOUD ATLAS; BLACK SWAN GREEN
Seth Morgan HOME BOY (staggeringly good; author died tragically young)
James Morrow TOWING JEHOVAH (blasphemous; hilarious)
Chuck Palahniuk LULLABY; CHOKE; FIGHT CLUB
Stephen Pressfield GATES OF FIRE
Mordecai Richler COCKSURE (very funny); BARNEY’S VERSION (what a swan song)
Tom Robbins ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION; STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER
Bruce Robinson THE PECULIAR MEMORIES OF THOMAS PENMAN
Abraham Rodriguez SPIDERTOWN (amazing novel); THE BUDDHA BOOK
J.D. Salinger THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (legendary)
George Saunders (anything by Saunders; he’s one of the best)
Jim Shepard PROJECT X (he’s a great short story writer too)
Robert Stone OUTERBRIDGE REACH; DAMASCUS GATE
Donna Tartt THE SECRET HISTORY (excellent first novel)
Hunter S. Thompson FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (changed my life)
John Kennedy Toole CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Guy Vanderhaeghe MY PRESENT AGE (very funny & sweet)
Rich Wallace WRESTLING STURBRIDGE (great YA novel)
Evelyn Waugh DECLINE & FALL
Colson Whitehead THE INTUITIONIST
Karen Armstrong A HISTORY OF GOD
Thomas Cahill DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS
Wade Davis ONE RIVER (travels in Amazonia & elsewhere)
Annie Dillard HOLY THE FIRM
Richard Ellmann JAMES JOYCE (biography); OSCAR WILDE (biography)
Jon Krakauer INTO THIN AIR
Bill McKibben ENOUGH (too much technology is gonna kill us)
Margaret McMillan 1919 (story behind Versailles negotiations)
Graham Robb RIMBAUD (biography)
Eric Schlosser FAST FOOD NATION; REEFER MADNESS
Andrew Smith MOON DUST
Anthony Storr SOLITUDE
Barbara Tuchman MARCH OF FOLLY
Elie Wiesel NIGHT