This entry will fit somewhere into the "What We're Reading
" feature, since I've been reading a lot lately (this is my attempt to digest it all, and I must say, I'm feeling a bit dyspeptic). But it seems just as important to mention what I've been listening to lately, since I'm a member of Generation Mixed Tape and I believe religiously in the schematic importance of the soundtrack of daily life. There are mass transit songs, walking downtown songs, cooking dinner songs, have sex songs, doing the dishes songs, reading in the afternoon songs, and, for me, writing a novel songs.
Like Bolton, I too am one of the unlucky bundles of flesh and nerves born with the urge to create something. I have to admit that, right now, the novel's not going swimmingly. I mostly blame myself: sitting down to write every day, even when you love it and were born to do it, can be a terrifying and humbling experience. But I also blame the world (by which I mean humans, mostly), which, in case you haven't noticed, is conspiring to kill us all and everything we love.
A few weeks ago, sitting in my favorite green chair, listening to Low's The Great Destroyer, I read Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes From a Catastrophe. My favorite Low songs have the feel of dirges, with spare lyrics, slow, plaintive drum beats, and harmonized perfection courtesy of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk. With Low in the background, the text of a take-out menu would have sufficient pathos to bring tears to my eyes. Still, Kolbert's book paints a scary, sad picture of the future: glaciers melting, climate change-inducing evolution and extinction in various species, ecosystems destroyed, populations displaced. Kolbert visits Alaska, where both my parents grew up, and where I lived until 1989. Though she visits places I never knew while I lived there, I know from her descriptions that the first landscape I ever knew has unalterably changed.
Then, last night I put on Rachel's systems/layers (my favorite antidote for hopelessness), curled up on the couch, took a deep breath, and read Seymour Hersh's New Yorker piece on Iran's nuclear program (and U.S. plans to use tactical nuclear weapons to destroy it). As a writer, reading this article makes me wonder whether there will even be a country ? and citizens free enough to read ? in which I might someday publish my novel, or other novels. I'm not talking apocalypse here, but the way I see it, we go on living our lives as if we're on a sitcom or ? on bad days, perhaps ? a WB melodrama. Only in terrifying moments of clarity do we realize that, actually, we're halfway down the basement stairs in the dark and there's a man in a ski mask with a hatchet at the bottom. What pulls me out of my glassy-eyed terror is listening to "Water From the Same Source," a wordless post-9/11 anthem that somehow manages to convey both the dire straits we're in and the human capability to continue creating something meaningful and even, yes, beautiful, in a truly destructive world.
In better moods, I've been reading criticism, reviews, and journals, seeking out fellow writers whose concerns mirror my own. For those moments, I generally listen to Morrissey. (He's boycotting Canada, you know, because of the baby seal massacre. And getting all kinds of flack for it, poor lad.) Bona Drag is my favorite, and has been for some time. "Every Day is Like Sunday" manages to evoke the atrocities of World War II and our present, dangerous ennui in the face of the nihilistic policies and practices of world leaders.
In the Tournament of Books, Dale Peck made one good point (go ahead, let your knees jerk, just hear me out). My favorite part of his tirade (which otherwise feels hilariously hyperbolic) is this, which arrested my laughter:
The idea that a novel might do anything other than augment readers' cocktail party vocabulary ? or, worse, their blogs ? has been ceded here, along with any real political resistance to the tragedies that are steadily, quantifiably destroying the world, and that here function as "backdrop." Fiction like this saps our strength with false catharses even as it encourages us to congratulate ourselves that we know ? and care! ? so very, very much about the doom with which novelists are fully, sanctimoniously complicit.
If you want to, as the Bush administration would say, "play the blame game," Peck is sort of right. As readers and consumers of art, we want artists to transport us, to express our fears and then mollify them. Sometimes. Right now there are more things to be afraid of than ever, not the least of which is our own death wish ? we are all complicit. Has there ever been a more important time to pay attention?
As a writer himself, though, he has to know how bloody difficult it is to create something that expresses the "the tragedies that are steadily, quantifiably destroying the world" without rendering them trite, or being criticized for exploiting them. Has he been able to accomplish it? Maybe that's why he's so irate, because ? as the talk show psycho-babble goes ? we hate in others what we hate in ourselves. It's not a Sunday drive, this writing business; sometimes we just can't make ourselves express it, whatever it is. But these are the important questions: what is the role of art in times like these? Do artists have an obligation to address their historical moment? Or is it only effective when artists don't have an agenda?
Slope put out a call for writers to answer questions like these in their next issue, and I'm interested to see how my fellow writers answer them. For answers now, I turn to author Jan Clausen, who has a fantastic blog which tackles them almost daily. Other writers, particularly poets, seem to be able to capture the ephemera of our times. Ethan Paquin's The Violence and Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, for example. Another of my favorite writers, Selah Saterstrom (The Pink Institution), talked about the development of new forms in an interview with Tarpaulin Sky a couple of years ago. What she said has stuck with me:
After atrocities forms emerge, often called avant-garde forms. Looking at avant-garde as a literal translation, these forms may be "forward looking" but they feel more to me like forms of present moment witness. How does one speak after a violence that literally reconfigures the cellular structure of things, that, in its erasure, records the shadow of what is no longer present? Out of necessity forms arise to speak a language that must also speak these losses and transfigurations.
What she says makes complete sense. After World War I, writers and artists recorded a new vision of the world. Virginia Woolf saw it. Gertrude Stein saw it. James Joyce saw it. T.S. Eliot saw it. We are living in a similar age, when our "present moment witness" is necessary ? in whatever form it takes. To Dale Peck, and all the rest of us, I would quote Eliot's "East Coker" (soundtrack: "Silver Rider" from The Great Destroyer):
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years ?
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate ? but there is no competition ?
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.