Being a five-act meditation on Dark Matter,
design, music, memories and broken crockery . . .
I've seen you astride
the wind and the tide
my dark angel, you greet me
with a samurai sword,
close the chapter . . .
This book is ended
and I put it down,
find I'm befriended
in a foreign town,
I'm here, but nearer to the future . . .
But only yesterday night
I stood in the pouring rain,
shouting at the thunder:
I said "Lord, I'm starting to understand
the hidden mystery."
Lord, the compass falls in my hand,
I can sail to the far horizon . . .
Could you conceive a mirror
where you could never see yourself?
--Peter Hammill, "This Book"
Dark Matter 1: I'm starting to understand. Remarkably (and against all odds), my three projects keep lurching forward, each exhibiting something that resembles Progress--at least from a distance and when backlit. In the absence of film-star looks or a saint's patience, this is seeming proof that an industrial-strength focus complements my previously noted relentlessness. And here John Irving has my back, having noted, "You've got to get obsessed and obsessed." (Though on some days, I wish being Cary Grant had been an
option . . . )
Recently I unthreaded those strands of the novel collectively called "The Composition of Dark Matter" and rewrote them as a reconstituted whole. And afterwards, they had to be rewoven into the fabric of the book. Spending so much time with this distilled version of Tony's Dark Matter caused me to consider the way writing invisibly takes up most of my time, giving shape to the smaller, observable part of my life.
If someone doesn't know what I'm engaged in, I wonder what it is they assume I'm doing? The only certainties are (1) the solitary nature of the endeavor and (2) the repeating cycle that shifts through apparent day dreaming, sporadic scribbling and then full-bore, speed-lashed keystrokes. And in between these "episodes," well, there's a lot of wandering about, waiting to again lock onto inspiration, increasing the amplitude until it's discernible amidst the ambient noise of more predictable approaches.
The only thing giving away the game is the flying-fingers-on-keys phase. Remove that bit, and there's not a lot of difference between writing and being one of those disturbed souls who wander the streets talking to themselves. Okay--except for the in-tow shopping cart. (Though toting a messenger bag full of Moleskines comes uncomfortably close.) And yeah, maybe the imaginary friend part. (But thinking about it, that pretty much describes having an agent.)
Writing is the 95 percent of my personal universe not visible to anyone else. And the only way to know it's there is by studying the impact on my public life--how it invisibly frames my daily actions. So, yes: Dark Matter.
I've been thinking about this as I continue to grapple with why I persist in blogging. Let's face it--it's not like I need to bang down even more words after my daily dance with the novel's neurotic characters. And yet from the outset, I understood this site was a necessary adjunct to the current set of interlocking projects. I couldn't have articulated why I knew this, but the certainty was there. Now, after rewriting the book's embedded novella, I finally realize this blog has been a similar, serialized analysis of my own Dark Matter--reportage as gravity lens.
Someone more anxious to appear Really Smart might claim this was an intentional strategy. I, however, only claim Modest Intelligence, since this blog's groove was intuitively found. In the main, it's been a series of alerts on what's roiling through my unseen writer's life. Public Me needs no cataloging--there's not a shred of diarist in my DNA. The simple explanation is to cite my shyness, but the more complex reason is my daily activities are only noteworthy as they connect to the writing. Thus the absence of the banal lingua franca of too many other weblogs: Those endless lists of meals, lovers, vacations, car repairs, funny signage and tiffs among friends. In other words, everything which drives me to call that online community Your Space--because it sure as hell isn't mine. (Insert a retro-Catholic crossing of myself here. There, but for the grace,
etc, etc . . . )
Case in point: I spent last night in a rehearsal room discussing the logistics of mounting a musical. Important to me, yes--but for you, well, not so much. And reasonably so, because you lack the necessary decoder ring. The important thing is not my presence among all those theater types--it's the reason I ended up there. Which once more brings us around to the Dark Matter--my invisible writing life. Without an understanding of that, well, it's just a more glamorous version of my potentially bewildering writerly walkabouts toting that messenger bag.
This blog is an intellectual bonfire: It fills the atmosphere of Planet Me with enough contextual particulate to reveal usually unseen rays and stirring currents, if only momentarily. The inherent update nature of blogging isn't the problem: The critical thing is from where the dispatches are being issued: The creative frontlines or the backwaters of the Everyday. All news is not equal, even if the Web makes everything louder than everything else.
So I've given up being self-conscious about the briefing-book dynamics of this site--at least for a while. Despite the holiday-letter rhythms, it's dealing in a different kind of granularity. This blog is of me, but not about me. Could you conceive a mirror where you could never see yourself? I can . . .
A tenuous acceptance of updating having been established, let's get on with it before I convince myself otherwise:
Dark Matter 2: Here, but nearer to the future. Demonstrating that a horse still out in the field needs an occasional glimpse of the barn (if not the actual door), I'm quite pleased with the preliminary dust jacket design that serves as the graphic for this entry.
I had developed a set of criteria for the ideal jacket: Among my requirements were commerciality, legibility at ten feet from a bookstore shelf or table, an echo of the sexual obsession in the novel, a capturing of Beatrice's disguised/unknowable nature, a suggestion of the book's reverse Pygmalion structure, a reflection of the novel's minimalism, and a hint of Tony's yin/yang approach to life. Finally, I wanted some sort of graphic void emphasized over the object of desire, thereby thematically tying cover to narrative.
Within the context of the criteria, there were some short-list candidates, but none instantly resonated with me. And then last week Bingo was closely followed by Wham.
The cover's stark color palette, design and Had-To-Be-Helvetica typography will effectively pop the book against the usual jumble of polychrome dust jackets. Plus, the type placement drives home the many kinds of absences in the novel. The design also clearly differentiates the book from the bright packaging of the theater piece. (The thumbnail above is not black-and-white: It's a color image.)
Dark Matter 3: Sailing to the far horizon. Having invited his muse to dinner and drinks, Bazz has completed the overture for the theater piece. The impressive result can be heard here. As planned, this allows me to move my place-holding string quartet to the novel, to serve as a model for one of the cuts on That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stranger--the release that triggers Tony's meticulously planned career suicide.
I couldn't be more pleased with the overture; it qualifies as yet another retelling of the Tony-and-Beatrice saga. In doing so, it further underscores the emotional predestination that connects novel, recording and play: The same characters in significantly different circumstances neverthless fail to sidestep their fates. With the overture, Bazz has opted to elevate the story, giving it a kind of tone-poem majesty. I hadn't anticipated this, but having heard it, I want to go back into the manuscript and revisit the various descriptions of Dancing With Architecture (Op. 1). Although not structurally symphonic, it succeeds in articulating the mood of the classical piece described in the book.
This is another example of the cross-pollenation occurring between the CD, the play and the novel. The ways these narrative variations influence each other are surprising and ongoing. The affect of one project on another is subtle--it's more about deflection or deformation. The three works remain in separate orbits, but their proximity to each other alters the respective shapes of those circuits. See it as the pull-and-push of fictive gravity--the astrophysics of associated prose. My triptych has its own built-in Dark Matter: Any two projects in the triad unavoidably affect the third. I'm tempted to argue that all three versions of Tony-and-Beatrice exist as simultaneous, unseen dimensions folded into each other--the String Theory of associated prose, if you will--but fear doing so will cause my head to do that messy David Cronenberg/ Scanners thing . . .
Dark Matter 4: Astride the wind and the tide. A set of impressions of the book emailed since the last post demands response. While I'm always glad for feedback, this take-away is fascinating because it praises the precise opposite of my intentions. My correspondent sees the novel's narrative as a mystery story variant--not a who-done-it, but, rather, a what-really-happened. The most recent morphings of Tony's memories are valued in terms of a superseding linearity--the latest recollections evidently being the greatest (ie, truest). To paraphrase, Tony's memories are seen to be upgraded in the same way patches are issued for a computer's operating system: As in the world of downloads, newer is always better. While this interpretation leaves me speechless, if it's meaningful to that reader, who am I to point out it's, er, wrong? After all, clever artists quickly learn to smile cryptically at reader cluelessness because instructing critics and the public to go back and think about it some more is not a sound commercial strategy. But, again, I'm not particularly clever--just focused and relentless. So, yes, go back and think about it
some more, okay?
In the book, memories are fluid, constantly readjusting self-mythologies--but there's no hint that earlier, varying recollections are superseded. In terms of any incident, the newest memory-iteration takes its place alongside earlier recollections. It may be foregrounded--for a while--but there's no indication it's a recall-based riff on The Invasion of the Body Snatchers: The new simply doesn't supplant the old--because, well, that would be simple. And where's the fun or artistic challenge in that?
The best way of describing Tony's relationship to any memory thread is to say he's a composite of all its shifting variants. Think about HDR imaging. There, multiple digital exposures of the same scene are composited to create an impossibly detailed image. In other words, a series of "untrue" shots (since choosing one exposure is the rejection of other settings) are overlaid to create an image far more accurate than any constituent layer--and yet false because of the inherent exaggeration. Individual narrower-range exposures aren't superseded--they're integrated into a more detailed picture that's ultimately no truer than any individual shot. In my country, we call this Paradox.
Tony has a very HDR relationship with his recollections: Each morphed memory is the equivalent of the same scene shot at a different exposure. And cumulatively, his meta-memory of an incident is the overlay of all these temporarily useful iterations.
The problem, of course, is what--if anything--should I do to head-off the wrong-headed interpretation of superseding linearity? Dumb-down the story? Arrogantly dismiss those readers who still don't get it after they've gone back and thought about it some more? Ultimately, I'm inclined to embrace Zadie Smith's vision of text and its readers. She rejects the Entertainment model of reading--the one based on watching television: A pushed message passively received. Instead, she maintains a piece of writing is like a musical score--something that demands the owner engages by playing it. A Beethoven sonata unfolds in direct proportion to the skill of the player--a first-year piano student will wind up with a performance very different from that of an internationally renowned musician. But importantly, Beethoven doesn't accomodate varying skill. The lesson, of course, is to always write for the ideal, consummate reader. Because the less-experienced, with commitment, can always grow to meet the challenge of the work.
Thus, I'm not particularly worried about what-really-happened interpretations of the book. The novel will unfold as intended for truly attentive readers--and less so for the Grisham Crowd.
Dark Matter 5: Befriended in a foreign town. This neatly segues into another Deep Exchange about the book that occurred at a dinner party. Call it the second installment of the newly minted series, Things I Really Want Your Book To Be About (aka, The Death of Textuality). In this instance, it was pointed out that since Tony and I share a beard, songwriting, a passion for Vancouver and a deep distaste for manipulative people, I must be engaged a kind of autobiography.
This half-baked insight goes beyond Lazy Reader Syndrome and ties back to our old friend, Dark Matter in a Good News/Bad News way: There's an understanding the story is wrapped in an invisible envelope that affects its shape. But despite this progress, it all goes wrong at the assumption about context. The mind-numbing deconstruction of fiction using authorial biography has a long and limiting history: To the extent a reader is busy wondering if Daisy Buchanan is actually Zelda Fitzgerald, he's probably not pondering the ways in which Daisy is emblematic of the American Dream--and that's a shame from an artistic standpoint.
Similarly, brazenly prodding for the source code of Julia utterly misses the point. Passing me the Cabernet Sauvignon while announcing that Julia must be (fill-in with any of the long line of Brit Chicks I've known--nicotine-addicted English women having long ago reached fetish status with me) is irritating because it ignores the real work. It's like saying Chet Baker's "Funny Valentine"--or Miles Davis' version--is best understood by identifying Rodgers and Hart as the composers. Frankly, I'm not sure if this even qualifies as a first step in comprehending the respective accomplishments of Baker and Davis in terms of the song.
So next time, as I'm refilling my glass with that excellent Cab, try considering something more on-topic. For instance, exactly how Tony is befriended in that foreign town: Julia is a liminal character who lives just off an island across from a city already described as a temporary autonomous zone. The island has been famously settled by a century of squatters. Moreover, she lives in a home that literally floats atop a body of water called False Creek. Discuss this, and who knows? You might advance to the Lightning Round. Or at least escape my baleful gaze.
The best way to understand the actual interplay of autobiography in my book is consider the so-called "plate paintings" of Julian Schnabel. His cover for Elton John's collection, The Big Picture, is a good, non-estoteric example. The portrait's foundation is broken crockery--it's painted on shattered dishes. Some of the shards provide shapes that influence the overpainting, but essentially we're presented with a view Elton John. Idiosyncratic post-modern conceit or not, the plates are not primarily what the image is about. If we could scrape away some of the overpainting and indisputably determine the shards are Haviland rather than Royal Doulton, how is our understanding of the work deepened in any way other than technical? It's far more important, I think, to contemplate Schnabel's choice of green for the background of the portrait--especially in terms of its subject.
My novel's relationship to my life is precisely the connection of Schnabel's portrait to its broken crockery. It's art built upon jetsam purposely shattered and then cherry-picked for interesting shapes. (In this, it's also freely admitted sleight-of-hand: Repurposed, reworked jetsam used to convey a story about emotional flotsam.) The fragments of personal history are shockingly utilitarian--like the pottery scraps below the foundations of the Parthenon, they form an easy, readily available landfill that's part of the preparation for building something else--in my case, fictive characters. In these circumstances, the Dark Matter isn't the origin of the shards (seductive because it sidesteps critical thinking about the story). Instead, it's the artistic intent and attendant meaning (usually not a first analytical choice since art tends to be harder than archaeology).
While my tart insistance that conversations about the book actually be about the book may make for less comfortable dinner parties in the future, it also ensures they'll be significantly less glib. Which, for me, is a thoroughly acceptable cost/benefit trade-off . . .
This entry is ended. Close the chapter.