Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pure Flux: The Writer Revisits His Murdered Darlings

Like Depression-era mothers, we fiction writers hate throwing things away. Instead of hoarding used Saran Wrap and dunked tea bags for rainy days, we squirrel away used words: titles, phrases, sentences, paragraphs—sometimes whole chapters or scenes—stuff that never made it into our finished stories or novels, or made the first cut only to be excised during the ruthless process of revision. Some of mine:
Story idea: A letter written from a far-away planet, in every sense an ordinary correspondence but with occasional passing references to alien weather, flowers, fauna, etc. A romantic letter from a lover in outer space.

Campaign against public buses masquerading as trolley cars.

Dust settled onto the knick-knacks, on the lids of canned fruit and tomatoes, on the brown shoulders of the gallon bottle of Taylor Cream Sherry, into the nooks and crannies of doilies, the braids of the rug, the folds in her Japanese fans, the slats of her blinds, the gold-pocked fabric covering the speaker holes of her brown Phillip’s radio, made of brown Bakelite.

Park Slope yuppie talk: "We've kept the grand ballroom intact and we have a library."

Woman wetting dry dog's nose.
The injunction telling us to “murder [our] darlings” says nothing about where or how to dispose of the bodies. And so many of us do with them more or less what Norman Bates did with his mother. Stuffed into sagging shelves, tucked into file folders and notebooks—reams of dead inspirations on yellowed paper, to be perused during fits of writer’s block, as if somehow our own dead words might spring to life and rescue us from artistic decrepitude.
WASP eating habits: potato salad, macaroni salad, borcht w/ yogurt, Russian salad. Mayonnaise fetish. Arterial sclerosis.

“Be careful going down those stairs.” Lights turned on and off. Sort of house people get murdered in. Smell of basements. Dust and debris. People who never throw anything out. “When it doubt, throw it out.” You can learn a lot about people from their basements.

Mr. B's wife's former husband Congressman.

Titles of books put on shelves. June suspects him of stealing book; sees it in his shoulder satchel; he thought Mr. B had lent it to him.

Tell me you’ve never had so little faith in your power to generate new words that you’ve gone, in despair, after the old ones like a kid prying chewing gum from the bottom of a church pew, that you’ve never been so creatively down at the heels that you’ve gone slumming in your own refuse heap for an inspirational bone or two. We’ve all done it, all of us who justify ourselves by filling pages with words. We excavate our verbal compost heaps in hope of finding a fresh carrot or potato growing there, and turn up nothing finer usually that orange peels, sodden coffee grounds, egg shells.

Yet sometimes amid the rinds and refuse a glimmer catches my eye. I’ll read a sentence with curiosity, admiration even, fragments equivalent to unpaired socks, and as useless.
X spilling his salad dressing, blaming the world for his clumsiness, cultivating his phobias like a squirrel hoarding nuts

I have never been enlightened in my life, not for a day, or an hour, or even a minute. Wisdom is not something that sticks to me.

When do we get to be artists?

“The frilly skirts of waves teasing the shore.”—Nabokov

Blue of:
  • —cheap cigar smoke
  • —blue whales
  • —distant mountains
  • —Siberian Husky eyes
  • —cardiac arrest
  • —frozen winter nights
  • —faded color movies
Black of:
  • —black holes
  • —subway grime
  • —metal stained fingers
  • —tarnished silver
  • —dried blood
  • —missing teeth
  • —wet streets at night
  • —eclipsed moons
  • —electrical tape
Of all the things I've ever written, none are more pleasing to me than the random jottings in my notebooks. The finished plays, essays, stories, novels—I can hardly stand to look at them anymore, so dead are their words on the page. They have nothing left to offer me, none of the unexpected and sometimes even jolting surprises that the random jottings in my notebooks give me. That's what I want most for myself as both a writer and a reader: to be continually surprised, to write, or to have written, words that, no matter how many times you read them, they come to you fresh and clean as if you've never read them before.
Scratchy looking trees, naked branches crackling against the winter-white sky

Poetry: the “radiance”—words that open us up to eternity, that break through the walls of reason and time, that go beyond our so-called understanding to give us a taste of Eden, the “heavenly moment.”

Tinnitus—this “om” in my head, the undercurrent of the universe, all vowel sounds combined, existential feedback, the humming universe, a silver needle threading its way through my skull, the immortal/eternal silence announcing itself.

Our worries grow old.
I've dreamed of writing a book of such random fragments, a plotless masterpiece. And why not? Miller, Becket, Genet, Joyce, Durrell—all wrote books with little if any plot. Prompting the following syllogism:
  1. Tropic of Cancer is a great novel.
  2. Tropic of Cancer has no plot, therefore
  3. To write a great novel, simply dispense with plot.
Ergo, Pure Flux, the title of my projected plotless wonder of a book. Not only would it hold no trace of plot, there'd be no characters, so settings, no scenes, no useful information, and few if any worthy ideas, nothing of psychological, historical, scientific, or social significance. It would be a pure book, unsullied by such things, consisting entirely of fragments detached from whatever meaning[s] they might have had within a context—as pure and without reference to external things as an abstract expressionist painting, something by Rothko or Kline or maybe Richard Pousette-Dart. Archibald McLeish said, “A poem should not mean but be.” My novel would mean nothing and be entirely irrelevant to everything.
“Like trying to preserve soap bubbles.”

All these people who think bottled water will save them.

He breathes rare air.

Beckett counting his farts.

He lay splayed on the rock with his eyes closed, the noon sun painting abstract masterpieces under his eyelids. The sun warm, the air cool, no sound but the wind through the trees, the honking of geese, a distant dog bark.

So long as things are in flux, everything is possible. As soon as they solidify all the bright possibilities turn to gray stone.

“It was evening. I had just crawled out of the shelter for my evening guffaw and the better to savor my exhaustion.”—Beckett, Malloy

“When you lay in the grass you were under the azure map of clouds and sailing continents, you inhaled the whole geography of the sky.”—Bruno Schultz

Tsvetaera: The Noise of Time
To my knowledge such a book has never been written. Tropic of Cancer —a book that is by turns shocking and shockingly dull (much duller now that I'm no longer eighteen and in love with all things audacious), Miller's book is about many things—misogyny, hunger, sex, bodily functions (especially digestion). There are scenes in Tropic of Cancer, characters, too—surreal scenes and caricatured characters, vicious assaults on the men and women who were foolish enough to offer the starving author their beds or their bankrolls—or both. A gob of spit in the eye of God, Miller calls his book, but this serves him too well; it's more like a bucket of bile spewed up by Miller by way of thanking his benefactors.
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
But long before Miller spewed his bile there'd been other plotless novels, Huysman's A Rebours (Against the Grain or Against Nature, 1884), for instance, with its
garden of poisonous flowers, mouth organ of chromatic liquors, and banquet of all-black foods (olives, caviar, blood pudding). But Huysman's book too is about something: fin-du-siècle decadence. And what it lacks in plot, characters and drama is more than makes up for with its bravura set-piece descriptions. My plotless tour de force would go further, dispensing with narrative altogether. It would describe nothing. It would be anti-descriptive, the literary equivalent of one of those black holes in space.
We are death. What we call life is the slumber of our real life, the death of what we really are. The dead are born, they don't die. The words are switched around in our eyes.—Bernardo Soares, The Book of Disquiet
To my "black hole" standard two other novelists—if you can call them that—come closer than Miller or Huysmans. One of these was Fernando Pessoa, the Portugese poet who, when he died of cirrhosis in 1935 at age forty-seven, left behind a trunk of unpublished writings, thousands of pages of poetry and prose scribbled mostly on loose scraps of paper, and attributed to a retinue of imaginary characters or heteronyms, each with his own biography, including one Bernardo Soares, whose temperament most closely matched Pessoa's. Pessoa credited Soares as the author of his planned but never completed Book of Disquiet
(Livro do Desassossego), a "factless autobiography" consisting of most if not all the prose fragments found in that trunk. To the extent that a "book" exists at all it exists not thanks to Pessoa, but to the intrepid editors, scholars and translators who compiled and collated these fragments, and the publishers who slapped them between covers. Would that every dead writer with a trunk full of scraps were so lucky! In spite of which, The Book of Disquiet remains a fragmented, arbitrary, infuriatingly redundant performance, held tenuously together by nothing more than its author's obsessive love affair with gloom and ennui. Strip away all of the biographical baggage—Pessoa's and his heteronyms'—and what's left is a commonplace book of tedium, and more than a little tedious itself.
Title: Damn it all to Hell

Cupcake Monologues: jokes about cupcakes.Differences between cupcakes, muffins, brioche, etc. discussed. Muffins as renegade or reformed cupcakes: puritan, Episcopal cupcake. Lutheran cupcakes. Purged by the Inquisition. Hidden by the Dutch under floorboards. Do you know the Muffin Man? And did he really wake up so early in the morning? Brother asleep on couch, downing aspirin, in constant need of analgesics, always in pain. “Do you mind if I lie on your bed? I promise I won’t mess it up too much.”

Title: If You Must

Walking with Brother, each telling the other what book he should write. “Why don’t you write a book called Crap?” Write your own crappy book. Peter examining G’s wristwatch, imagining the pain and unhappiness of the man who wears it. The pain absorbed by the face of the watch.

Story: Too Close to Home
Closer to our own time and place are the plotless "novels" of David Markson, one of which is in fact titled This is Not a Novel. Most readers won't disagree. In place of the usual ingredients of a novel, Markson serves up a tapas menu of trivia mainly to do with famous authors and how they met their ends (Gibbon died of complications from a hydrocele). Mixed in with these morbid factoids are occasional lines devoted to the book's only "character," and I use the term loosely, referred to simply as "Writer" (note the capital 'W')—who's goal, we learn, is to write a novel without plot, characters, and so on: i.e. the one we're reading.
Katherine Anne Porter died of Alzheimer's disease.
It's a "Look ma, no hands!" performance. Does Markson bring it off? Arguably, provided one describes a novel very loosely as a work in prose of a certain length that holds a reader's interest and ends well. With its litany of
highbrow morbid trivia, Markson's book does indeed hold one's interest, much the same way a bag of potato chips ("Bet you can't eat just one!") satisfies one's appetite while not amounting to a meal. As for ending well, the book simply ends, but then one doesn't expect it to do anything else. In fact with its ample white spaces I found Markson's book irresistible. I kept it on my night stand and would drift off usually after learning how three more famous writers had died.

But even Markson's book has a subject—its author's unwillingness to bow to the requirements of a standard novel—and thus fails to live up to my dream of Pure Flux. It was left up to me to write such a book. If theme was the stumbling block, my book would do away with it.
He had a terror of crowds, afraid their ordinariness would rub off on him.

He looked with infinite kindness upon the elderly, who wore their sufferings like pearls and could no longer bear the future. The liquid sadness in their eyes reflected his destiny, the future a sky-blue tear.

Worst possible name for a dairy: Golden Flow Dairy
Closer to Pure Flux are the so-called "Waste Books" of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (produced between 1765 and 1799), books that make no claim to being formal literary works but are merely observations or aphorisms collected by the author as one collects seashells.
François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac (1613-1680) is best known for his maxims, most of them only two or three lines long. Produced around the same time, Pascal's Pensées appear at first to be nothing but random notes and jottings, many incomplete at his death, though most scholars agree that had Pascal lived he would have cut and pasted these draft notes into a more coherent form, very possibly to their detriment. Then there are writers like Goethe, whose maxims have been culled from other writings and made into books without their author's aid or approval, so they don't count. On the other hand, commonplace books or "commonplaces" were albums or scrapbooks of quotes compiled by readers who who, like the hermit who builds sculptures out of junk, wished to create something uniquely their own out of other people's words.
My brother danced like a professor, something halfway between a foxtrot and fornication.

Title: The Treachery of Everyday Objects

Game: walking down the sidewalk deciding which faces belong to people who would save your life (good faces/bad faces). Man plays this game with wife/girlfriend.

The eternal question: what do I think about when I think about nothing?
My dream of Pure Flux is nothing more or less than the alchemist's dream of making something worthwhile (gold) out of something worthless (lead), something new and fresh that lives on the page as if composing itself before our eyes as we read—not written, but thought or felt, without purpose, without plan, without premeditation, without contrivance . . .

And best of all without much effort, with the fragments accruing like lichen on the surface of a rock. Anyone who's ever studied lichen knows what beautiful colors, shapes, patterns and textures it often forms, the abstract masterpieces it produces on the surface of rocks. I ask you, Gentlemen: What purpose does lichen serve? None. I rest my case.

No comments: