Being the Author’s ruminations on the myth of
mental Handicams and post-post-modernism . . .
Feels like I feel too much
I've seen too much
For a little while
I want to forget
I wanna be numb
--Pet Shop Boys, "Numb"
What you're gonna say in private
You still want my love,
we're in this together
And what you're gonna do in public
Say you were never in love
that you can remember
--Pet Shop Boys, "In Private"
Back in the library
His revenge is his story . . .
For Casanova has the last laugh
Creates the myth and vindication . . .
--Pet Shop Boys, "Casanova In Hell"
A Note Regarding Weblog Reincarnation
If you're curious about what I'm doing back here, these are the tenuous explanations. But be forewarned--I still don't have a clue about the latest purpose of this blog. Not yet, anyway. The only certainty is that what I write here will be thoroughly Not Like My Book--although I suspect it may often be about my struggles with it.
William Gibson famously said that "The street finds a use for things." And similarly, I'll eventually understand what to do with CultureHack (Mark IV). I'm guessing we'll all find out what I'm up to at the same time, when whatever this site is supposed to do reaches critical mass and manifests. But in the meantime, I'm not worrying about it: After all, I always do my best work (and feel most comfortable) in interstitial spaces . . .
Lately, I’ve been spending significant time making sure that the memories depicted in the book are both behaving as they should and as I want them to. And no, this isn’t obsessive attention to a small facet of the story. Formal Absence is chockablock with memories--it could be argued it’s comprised of nothing else. So not getting the memories right--especially the various ways they function--pretty much leaves me screwed.
Earlier and elsewhere I’ve outlined how the novel examines the fluidity of memory and, since--done correctly--this is one of its flashier aspects, you’d be forgiven for assuming this is the book’s defining conceit: Shards of backstory crosscut like a late ‘Sixties art film; the prose equivalent of a Nic Roeg movie (which on one level, I still hope it is). But no--the threadbare exoticism of shattered linearity isn’t the main point (except when it attracts film studios that want to option the book, in which case, yes--it’s totally why I wrote the thing).
Here’s some mind-numbingly obvious news: The workings of memory are much more complex than Hollywood’s classic spinning-room montages or its more recent penchant for nearly subliminal jump-cuts.
(Thinking about it, pretty much anything is more complex than its Hollywood depiction, which suggests why mainstream films avoid genuinely X-rated scenes. It’s not fear of the ratings system or public outcry--it’s the fact that sex is something we’re all aware is complex. Hollywood might fool most of us into believing an atomic bomb can be built from a toaster and the radium from a watch face; it can probably cajole us into assuming that emptying two clips from a Glok into someone’s chest is not necessarily fatal or, if it is, that the zombie-fication process is quick, easy and inevitable; and it may even be able to get us to buy into the presentation of vigilante rubber fetishists as superheroes. But sex? No way--because we’ve all been there and done that. We may not know squat about atomic bombs, gun battles, zombies or deeply disturbed, insomniac millionaires in body armor--but is there anyone out there without first-hand knowledge that with sex there’s always the tug of some sort of backstory? That the context always finds its way into the act--if only as the brutal logistics of performing while holding two cameras and trying not of slide off the plastic sheeting so as not to domino the last-surviving and oiled members of the Munchkinland cast into the frat-boy spectators? Or, uh, so I’m told . . . )
The reason the writing has taken so long is due--in part, at least--to my wrestling with the multifaceted nature of memory. Because if it’s already a slippery business in terms of the neuroscience, well, artistically memory’s like Vasoline-coated ice (and, thankfully, in no way like the corners of Barbara Streisand’s mind). The best way to explain the artistic challenge of memory is with yet another self-indulgent tangent. (Since you had to know this was coming, I’m not even going to pretend to apologize; it is, after all, this blog’s price of admission.)
In my significantly misspent youth, I frequently won bar bets by challenging easy marks to calculate how many ways there were to make change for a dollar. The answer is a startling 293 variations. For our purposes, the take-away is that all those configurations of coinage are equally valid--the “normal” ways are merely those variants popularized by pricing practices and vending machine traditions. In terms of depicting memory, the aforementioned spinning-room montage is the equivalent of a safely obvious four quarters, while the jagged jump cut is the more esoteric five dimes / one quarter/ five nickels. But outside of these Big, Predictable Depictions of Recall, the less-obvious workings of memory are left unexamined pretty much in the same way the other 291 ways of making change are ignored.
Memory rarely--if ever--behaves like total recall. Filmmakers like to pretend it does because budgets can be much leaner if the more authentic surrealism of the recollections in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can be avoided. The prospect of standard sets, regular wardrobe and practically no special effects is more than enough to make most directors pretend memory is simply subjective documentary footage of the past. To me, that old lady’s granular recollections in Titanic are deeply disturbing--the hand-beaded gowns of passengers never spoken to can be absolutely remembered, as can the side dishes of dinners on other tables yards from her and the contents of a storage hold for more than 1,000 people. Absolutely recalled after more than 70 years. From this vantage, the film is more a deluxe Twilight Zone episode than a tragic romance. I kept expecting Rod Serling to stroll in after the she tosses the necklace into the sea: “Submitted for your consideration, Ms. Rose DeWitt Bukater, an elderly woman incapable of forgetting the smallest
detail . . . ”
Novelists also like to pretend that their characters possess photographic memories--even in literary fiction. When the otherwise perfect John Banville begins to wax over a remembered (and usually pastoral) scene, I usually find myself grimly soldiering through. It’s breathtakingly beautiful writing in and of itself, but as a depiction of memory it almost always jars me out of Banville’s narrative. Here’s a for-instance from The Sea:
“Mrs. Grace poured wine for herself, tasted it, grimaced, and sat down in a folding chair and crossed one firm leg on the other, her beach shoe dangling . . . The sand around me with the sun strong on it gave off its mysterious, catty smell. Out on the bay a white sail shivered and flipped leeward and for a second the world tilted. Someone away down the beach was calling to someone else. Children. Bathers. A wire-haired ginger dog. The sail turned to windward again and I heard distinctly from across the water the ruffle and snap of the canvas. Then the breeze dropped and for a moment all went still.”
Gorgeous, honed writing. The kind that I’d give my left testicle to consistently produce. But here’s the thing--this is a 50-year-old memory; it’s someone at 60 recalling an incident from when they were 10. Do you remember in this fashion? Because I certainly don’t. For all Banville’s craft and post-modernism, inside his densely remembered landscapes there’s frequently a 19th century novelist struggling to the resurface.
Here’s my take on artistically dealing with recollection: I don’t think memory is a total capturing of surfaces, as if it our minds were handicams with limitless storage cards. I don’t think memory behaves like a computer instantly accessing a piece of prose written years ago--not simply because of the instanteousness, but also the binary cleanness of the retrieval; the thing being not there one second and then completely present the next. I don’t think memory is a series of finite, preserved moments, like so many mason jars of last year’s peaches or a succession of flies in amber.
Rather, I think a memory is like a coral reef--it’s formed by accretion: The never-objective reality of the remembered incident is wrapped inside of your initial reaction to the event--which is further embedded in a series of morphing interpretations driven by the inherent shift of perspective that occurs over the years. I think a recalled memory is a faint echo of what happened in the same way that the shape of a coral reef only vaguely suggests the hull of the sunken ship beneath it. Further, I think what’s remembered is the entire metaphoric reef--the incident and also its evolving deformation. I also think memories are both selective within themselves and massively compressed: In order to remember, we must significantly forget; in order to recall, we need to selectively unpack and unfold, dealing with inevitable wrinkles that are revealed. There is no perfect, conjured-up image of a briefly glimpsed hand-beaded gown; only a nebulous impression of cobalt blue and perhaps a sense of formally draped fabric; we imaginatively fill-in the rest from our current position in time, not by retrieving a carefully archived photograph. We remember the gown not as it was but as it best fits into the current narrative that has replaced the incident.
Memories are inherently impressionistic and multi-subjective--aggregated shards from various and biased vantages of our successive selves; every recollection is faceted by each of our Shakespearean seven ages and then further cut to fit into our current reality. We are all jewelers of recollection: The current, sparkling memory is the result of artful crafting and bears no resemblance to the thing originally buried eons ago . . .
This is what I’m struggling with--one of the major challenges that keeps slowing down the writing--getting fictional memory to function in a way that makes more sense to me than the docu-recall that figures into most poems, novels, plays and films. Up until this point I’ve been sane enough to understand that I’m not creating anything genuinely “new” prose-wise. I’m merely trying to get my story down in a way that satisfies me and pays scalable dividends to readers according to their attentiveness. My mission is to essentially get things finally right rather than break new ground. In this, I suppose I’m analogous with Apple: While inventing neither the MP3 player or cell phone, it has made significant contributions by fully realizing the inherent intents of those products. Sometimes getting something right is more powerful than creating something unprecedented. Though often used interchangeably, innovation is not necessarily invention. So yeah, on one level I’m working very hard to make the book the iPod of Flashbacks: Novelistic recollection done right--or at least as right as I can manage.
And in trying to nail the quintessence of memory, I’ve necessarily wandered into the interstitial. The work is too impressionistic, too lean and too structural to be modernist, but at the same time, it’s missing the pastiche, parody and playful irony of post-modern fiction. In serving the narrative first and foremost, I’ve arrived somewhere that’s post-post-modern; a place that seems--depending on the week, day or even hour--either subtractive, fractured modernism or like a post-modern literature stripped of its distancing but not the temporal distortion and meta levels. Here, the challenge is two-fold. On the creative end, it’s about operating without the navigational benefits of neat labels and category conceits (and in post-modern literature, those conceits are so rigorous as to nearly reduce the category to a genre). At the other end--the marketing pole understandably beloved by publishers--the challenge is ironically identical: It’s about selling the book without the promotional benefits of neat labels and category conceits.
These twin challenges are also slowing the writing. My artistic integrity demands I let the book go where it will, but having gone there, I also need to make that place and prose as accessible as possible, given the context. At no point have I wanted to write something obscure, but the realist in me understands that to large segments of the reading public, complex structure and dense writing are often mistaken for obscurity. So I do what I can to add a semblance of pop to the art. It’s an odd balancing act--adding a touch of crowd-pleasing polish to uncompromising passages; trying to simultaneously nod at the aficionados of both modern literature and post-modernism--even though neither group feel will totally catered to in the end.
All this extra work could easily have been avoided. It simply would have been a matter of accepting the memory-as-handicam trope and then switching to clarifying autopilot by going -Esque: Henry James-esque or Thomas Pynchon-esque or James Joyce-eque or Chuck Palahniuk-esque. (Paradoxically, precisely which -Esque wouldn’t have mattered as long a choice had been made.) While writing, I could have easily gauged how things were going by using, say, a Pynchon-esque yardstick--Not Pynchon-y Enough or perhaps Too Pynchon-y. And of course, the publisher’s marketing division could then efficiently apply time-tested genre-promotion--Just Like Pynchon, But Brand New! (This, of course, is the Holy Grail of marketers: Just Like Something You Already Love, But Different In A Highly Desirable Way!)
But nooo--I’ve had to go and make it hard for everyone concerned: myself, the reader and the marketing department. The selfish refusal to budge from my artistic vision means that all of us will have to actually break a sweat: I can’t phone-in the writing; you can’t casually read it and the marketing folks can’t reach for one of their templated promo campaigns, swapping out Thomas or Chuck or Don for me. (Sometimes I can be such a problematic bastard, I even annoy myself . . .)
And this, friends, is the current State of the Work. It’s also proof of Jacques Barzan’s proposition that “all writing is rewriting”--to which can now be added Sheridan’s Corollary: “All rewriting--done right--is a bitch.” Luckily, however, I’ve proven indestructible, stubborn and slightly masochistic--so that’s alright, then. Bring it on, Book. I didn’t start this project thinking it would be easy and, for good or ill, I certainly haven’t been disappointed. At the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole extinguishes a lit match with his thumb and forefinger. When his aide attempts to do the same thing, he burns himself and asks what the trick is. O’Toole gives him a tight-lipped smile and says “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” Indeed.