Detritus

ReadingRainbow-Kermit-1985

Currently Downloading: Building Excellent Sentences. Part of The Excellent Lectures series, informed of via the catalogue they sent my way because of that Harper’s Magazine subscription. Might as well. Suppose I’m downloading in bad faith, but it might also be bad faith to send me so many targeted ads, and this one is in American prices, with multiple pages on multiple lecture series devoted to the “American Civil War” or “The American Revolution”, but with a cover that proclaims it is the “Canadian Edition” of their catalogue, underneath a great big Maple Leaf. Not that those subjects aren’t interesting, but Boy Do They Know Us: we’ll take whatever, and we’ll enjoy it, just tell us it’s just for us, even if it isn’t

I feel guilty talking about this on the internet, but it’ll work out in their favour, anyway: in forty years (or four) when I’m an old man in a Gilligan-cap, khaki shorts, and a maroon polo, I’ll probably buy one of their series, to enjoy in my home (if I have one) or my car (ditto, that)

Why did I bring it up? Because the first lecture is called: “A Sequence of Words”, which, though I’ve no-doubt is interesting, is a bit underwhelming on first, second, and third glance

***

Floating-Opera-Quantum-Solace

I just finished reading Coming Soon!!!, by John Barth. It’s a “Post-modern” (emphasis on Po and Mo) novel about a competition between an aspiring novelist (the young Johns Hopkins Johnson) versus an accomplished novelist meant to be John Barth himself. Perspective switches back and forth between “aspirant” and “emeritus” which is how they are, for the most part, referred. Who really wrote the novel? Aspirant, Emeritus, or a mysterious a-gendered third character, Ditsy? Allusions and metaphors abound, to the Bible, to One Thousand and One Nights, to Barth’s first novel The Floating Opera, and to showboats and Showboat, inspiration for that first novel. For long sections of Coming Soon!!! it feels like you are picking your way through a weed-tangled, inter-textual, marsh (which may have been the point), but it’s too long on weeds and short on scene to provide any real pleasure

What makes the book even drier is that two of the three voices are so caught-up in their own vernaculars and syntax that at many points I considered putting the book down without finishing. (The young characters speak with a “Gerbil! Exclamation-marked! Urgency!” a sixty-nine year old man might find amusing, but to everyone else reads difficult/annoying, while the Ditsy character speaks with a South-something twang that requires re-reading after re-reading, for those not familiar with it). But CS!!! settles into “Barth’s” voice somewhere before the midpoint, and, so settled, finds a rhythm, and sticks to it. The story develops, and it concludes in a way that is satisfying, but maybe not worth the two-hundred and fifty marsh-cramped pages in the middle. It drains you in a way that only much larger books can. There must be a way to make it shorter and more compelling, without so much endless re-treading of the same material…

I could say a lot about the book. I liked it, but conditionally. Read it if it’s your “Thing” (the best of Douglas Coupland mixed with the worst of Dave Eggers, spiced with the clock-ticking comprehensiveness of Midnight’s Children) or you’re curious, but otherwise stay away. It’s hard to regret a book, any book, but I haven’t felt this drained after finishing one since Water for Elephants; at least Coming Soon!!! is more aware of itself and provides lots to talk about. I’d want you to read it for that reason, but I don’t want the responsibility of being the reason for your reading it, understand? It’s the kind of book I’d suggest for a book group, only suggesting it would be sadistic and/or masochistic. It makes me want to read more Barth, because now that I’m aware of him, his other books sound more coherent and more interesting (The Sot-Weed Factor and The Floating Opera are up there on my list somewhere, now), and I think I might enjoy them in a way that I didn’t Coming Soon!!!

***

Kispiax Village E Carr

If CS!!! was overlong and overwrought, Klee Wyck, by Emily Carr, is the exact opposite. The book is written in a spare prose that is elegant, poetic, and unpretentious. Carr, known more as a painter, was not well-read, but she applied herself to reducing her words in the same way she reduced her famous paintings, paring down the elements until only the essentials remained. I read Klee Wyck in about two days, and her haunting stories about abandoned Haida villages and their totems sustained and nourished me for the latter half of Coming Soon!!! If you think either Canadian literature or Emily Carr is boring (I thought both once, the latter most recently), you should probably read Klee Wyck.

Obviously, I think more reviews should end with Reading Rainbow-style reccomendations.

An Interview from the Future

What do you think is the future of humanity?
The consensus seems to be “time travel”. One cannot avoid it. We are the very cusp– or have already attained it, if the Mendecans are to be believed– of one of the greatest scientific revolutions in history, greater even than the “life-serum” of the mid-21st Century… and, I’m sure, equally confined to the wealthy. But to tell you the truth, I don’t buy it.

Why not?
“Nostalgia for all” will not make a very effective war-cry. That’s in the very best-case scenario, if the technology will really be as accessible as our medial hallucinations seem to suggest. “The power to fix all of your mistakes”, yes, and the power to revisit them too, and to watch them over and over, to relive them… I think people underestimate the necessary attachment we have towards our failures. We tell ourselves we want to fix them, but to do so is to fundamentally alter our brain chemistry so we never learn from our mistakes in the first place. It’s agonising, yes, but also pleasurable to be able to go over, at any moment, a “top 10” list of all the times we’ve put our foot in our mouths, say, or failed to explain our feelings, at a crucial juncture, to someone that we love. Even if the feelings are “bad”, they are still feelings, and it is the bad feelings too that make up our lives. And suppose we go back and we find out that we don’t want to, or we can’t– even if it were physically possible– change our mistakes?

Life would become a kind of play.
Yes, and the most intimate and relevant. It would mean the death of art. “Nostalgia for all”. The slogan implies regression. To that extent, those that seek it are already lost in it– you’ll excuse me if I say they are a lower form of humanity.

Aren’t such distinctions inherently dangerous?
No. I don’t think so. The danger is in enforcing them. A regressive is just as likely to pull himself out of a regression as a non-regressive is to put himself into one. The distinctions are fluid. What I’m really describing is a physical state: today the puddle is frozen, tomorrow it might not be.

So you don’t think that time travel will bring on Armageddon?
Did television? Did the internet? Did virtual reality? The ones who live in those worlds forfeit ours. The math is very simple. You can’t be in two places at once. I know there is some concern that the wealthy will go back in time and re-align historical distributions of wealth… There is that ad-campaign, I can’t remember the name of the organisation, that goes: “Do you want the rich to not only bleed you dry, but Montezuma as well?” And there are the commercials with a destitute Genghis Khan, the Romans, the Pharoahs, etc. I find those spots very clever. And I’m sure that’s what the wealthy would try and do, if given half the opportunity. That being said, I’m not sure the opportunity will ever be granted them. My own readings have suggested that time travel, insofar as we can accomplish it, will be highly personal. There is also that old argument: if something bad was going to happen, why hasn’t it? We are a barrier between the future and the past. One would think that to alter either would mean our own obliteration… and who knows, maybe that’s already happened. I’m comfortable living for ever in an off-shoot Universe that will never come to anything.

So you’ve ruled out the “classic” idea of time travel?
No. I didn’t say that. I’m just not very concerned about it. As I’ve said, it might already have happened: perhaps in a parallel life I was a convict, or a mosquito. I could be a king too, but I can’t complain about the life I have now. I do, however, like the idea that all of history is a constantly shifting illusion. But for practical purposes we can’t treat that as anything other than a thought experiment.

Ideas for Screenplays

A MULTI-PURPOSE OPENING TO A MONSTER MOVIE OR A MOVIE ABOUT PERSONAL CRISIS

It’s a slow morning. Our protagonist, a twenty-something male, struggles out of bed. He’s obviously tired. He wipes his eyes out in front of the mirror and splashes water on his face, then he puts on shorts, a grey t-shirt, and running shoes. He wonders whether or not his body is capable of generating energy.

In a single shot our protagonist bounds out the front door of his basement apartment and up the concrete steps. He hits the street and starts running. Next shot, chest level. Houses pass us in the background. The day is warm and sunny, but it’s still early and the streets are deserted. A contemplative, eccentric, yet slightly upbeat song with French lyrics, sung by a male vocalist, plays in the background.

The runner stops. Something in the distance, away from the camera, worries him. He puts a single hand on his forehead to shield his eyes from the light. His uncertainty is jarring, especially in contrast to the music. What is he looking at? What’s wrong? In the background a child runs in the opposite direction up the street.

TENSION

At Bloor Station on the Yonge line, early evening. The station is packed with commuters. The line is deep and wide at the lottery kiosk, which, in the cramped subway tunnel looks like a medieval butcher counter. Men and women wait in heavy, dark-coloured coats, each clutching their own ticket. No one scrambles or pushes, but the press from the crowd is overwhelming.

AN EXPERIMENTAL ENDING

The final shot of the funeral is framed from a distance. It’s mid-spring. Trees have all of their leaves and, from somewhere in their boughs, birds twitter. The black-clad funeral-goers, the priest, the white flowers arranged on the black coffin, all seem an extension of nature.

Fade out to a series of shots in a forest. The shots are long. The vegetation breathes, its sighs caught on the audio. We see and follow a bird as it chirps and flits from tree branch to tree branch. The bird is not a transcendental symbol of the dead person’s eternal soul, he is simply another character in the drama. Perhaps there is another bird or two about, a nest. We watch as the birds go about their business. Somewhere in the distance a woodpecker hammers at a dead log. We follow him as well. And so on.

The coffin is lowered into ground. Dirt splashes on it. Some kind of hymn or baroque, continental music plays in the background.

Excerpt: Sleeping Alone

As a young boy we visited my grandmother very often. I dreaded these visits. There was nothing for me to do, and the trips seemed the equivalent of rattling the cage of a molting and miserable parrot. My grandmother was always very feeble; thin and withered, unsteady. I imagined that she constantly walked along the fine line dividing the land of the living from the land of the dead. The only surprise to me, when she died-by this time I was twenty-two, I hadn’t seen her in four years-was the fact that she managed to hang on for as long as she did. Terrible thoughts, I know, but I could muster no sympathy for her.

Throughout my childhood she was the omnipresent spectre of death, the most mundane, and therefore effective, of nightmares. When we stayed overnight at her old house in Leaside (as we sometimes did, for special occasions) I was forced to sleep alone in a musty and seldom-used guest bedroom hidden away in the basement. Everything about the place was old, and therefore terrifying: it wore the fine perfume of the long dead. The sheets seemed to me one hundred years old, the paint might have been, for all I knew, applied by my great-great-grandfather, or perhaps the Roman Caesar Nero. The furnishings, I was sure, came from Europe-an old place that carried with it the thick stench of death-or from Canada’s unmapped interior, resonant with dark and ancient magics I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. The paintings I remember quite vividly. With the lights off the darkness was not so complete as to completely eradicate the ghastly visages of those Princes, Saints, and dancers that are now burned into my memory. I had no cousins, none of my aunts and uncles were ready to stoop to children; no avenue of comfort was available to me. And yet what I feared most-what made me hold my tongue even when I felt the icy hand of some cruel oil Duchess on my shoulder-was still my grandmother. I could not risk calling into the room the woman who was, and still is, my most poignant symbol of death… what’s worse, I knew she would be totally helpless. There was nothing she could do to comfort me… Oh, I know now, looking back, that my parents wouldn’t have been very far behind. That any moment alone with my grandmother would be cut mercifully short, that upon their arrival she would melt into the oak panelling or quickly find some excuse to leave. Even still, I remain glad that I managed to avoid as much time with the woman as possible.

Dorset and Thule Inuit

raymi

It’s a diner at the end of the world. Music plays loudly over the speakers. Men and women dance and do the limbo. The pictures taken that night will be developed sometime after the apocalypse. Backgrounds will be lost in a dark-grey haze. Faces will be unrecognizable, lost in shadow, perhaps not even facing the camera. Caught by the camera flash: naked limbs, skirts, wrists and fingers spread wide in the air. All is in constant motion.

In the corner Dorset is eating dinner with Thule Inuit and Eric the Red is watching them from a nearby table, ignoring his date, talking continuously, keeping his mouth moving to hide his awkwardness and shame. He mentions fjords, whale meat, the price of ivory in Europe and how it is much higher than what they are forced to accept at the dockyards. Across from Thule Inuit, Dorset is looking a little embarrassed. She blushes when Thule Inuit touches her hand, pinching her lanky knees together underneath the table. Thule Inuit strokes her fingers gently, tells her a story. He’s a scientist. Dorset is fascinated, but she doesn’t understand anything he says. Instead she concentrates on the charming way his face moves and bobs underneath his shock of jet-black hair. Continue reading →

An Interview

I.N.: Where have you been?

B.: That’s hard to say. I don’t know if I can express that in terms that are physical. For a time, I felt lost. I cannot quite explain it… it’s not that I lost the desire to work or to be social. It’s more that I felt myself almost hyper-consciously aware of my surroundings–like a drop of gas in a puddle, if you get my meaning. I was everywhere and I was nowhere; I was everything and I was nothing. I was not exactly productive. I was not even the slightest bit productive. Still, as in everything, I think I am the better for it.

I.N.: The image of gas in a puddle somehow reminds me of that famous line of Fraser’s.

B.: Oh? Which one? “A turnkey in the evening, a turkey in the morning”?

I.N.: No, I’m thinking of something from much later in his career, from his most transcendental work, in fact: A Study of the Nineteenth Century. “The world has yet to coalesce. The world coalesced at noon.”

B.: Yes! Yes, that’s it exactly! I was perpetually on the verge of coalescing; to describe it in finer terms would be bordering on blasphemous.

I.N.: You’ve said that the past several years haven’t been easy.

B.: That’s right. I hesitate to get into it. Continue reading →