Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Vaunted Venn / Heart of Darkness

I'm reading Slaughterhouse-Five, and for all intents and purposes I have never read it before. I "read" it when I was a teenager but found it so confusing that I couldn't follow it and remember nothing about it. I am ashamed to admit this, but it's true. This year I find it revelatory, and I find Vonnegut a master.

My most recent brush with him was a lengthy essay by Steve Almond in which he (Almond) related witnessing a panel consisting of Joyce Carol Oates, Jennifer Weiner, and Vonnegut. Then 83, Vonnegut was essaying about the horrors of war, and Oates jumped on him by asking him to note which gender had perpetrated all this crap. Almond thought this was horribly unfair, and while I didn't think it was horribly unfair, I thought the time and place for her to make this point was maybe not then and there, and that the person she should have attacked to make this point was pretty decidedly not Kurt Vonnegut. (The essay is quite long but mostly interesting, although I warn that Almond's a pretty caustic writer and determined to defend Vonnegut to his last breath.)

There's a lot to say about Slaughterhouse-Five, most of which has been said or will be said by people smarter than me. The thing that strikes me on a page-by-page basis about this writer, though, is how much more there is to read. How much broader and deeper this piece of work is than most of what I've read this year. I talked to Matt about it last night, and applied a quote from Dana Stevens on Daniel Day-Lewis, "an actor who is to other actors as Nijinsky was to other dancers of his time: He seems to be engaging in a different art form entirely." I couldn't agree more, and I can think of other artists who fit this bill, who work and create art in a circle that's completely removed from the Venn diagrams of all other artists. 90% of what I consume is in the normal Venns, but some stuff is just...different. The films of Dreyer. The music of Bach. The throat of Callas. The writing of Wallace.

The difference is command, a grasp of the medium that clangs throughout every single moment and dizzies the consumer. Yes, I think I could be a little vaguer, maybe, but this is part of what's interesting about this quality of art. You can't really pin it down any better than with words like command and mastery and virtuoso. Like pornography, you know it when you see it.

I was looking at my bookshelf when explaining this and spotted Wicked, certainly one of my favorite books. It's a deft, brilliant, complex piece of work. But it does not demonstrate this kind of virtuosity. It's just at the very top of the heap that sits in the normal dimension of art.

Do you know what I mean?

Vonnegut demonstrates the vaunted thing in Slaughterhouse-Five. It takes my breath away. I kind of want to gulp it down in one sitting, but I'm trying to take my time to let it sink in.


In entirely non-virtuosic news, I finished the urn story yesterday morning after rewriting much of the first half Friday night. Matt read it, and despite its subject matter, he has decided to remain married to me, for which I am thankful. Indeed, he liked it. He suggested one thing that was already on my mind, and I changed that and sent it to a reader.

I mentioned offhand the other day that I was drawn to writing dark material because that's the way I am, and I've been mulling that over ever since. Bad things happen to people in my stories, and I don't foresee that changing as I continue to write. There's so much weird stuff out there that I want to explore, so much bad truth on this planet, stranger than fiction, that I want to shove into print and put my name on.

But why? I know that conflict and drama can't occur without negative events; Paradise Found is a clunker for a reason. But when I think about the stories I've written in the last six months, I think that maybe I'm overdoing it a little bit on the negative, and as I'm generally much in love with life, I don't really get why. Why am I fascinated by serial killers? Why don't I like watching comedies nearly as much as dramas? Why do I love horror? These are questions I genuinely can't answer about myself in a general way - each question has a separate true answer, but together the questions add up to me being bent toward darkness, and I don't have a straight answer for why.

Maybe "because that's the way I am" is the truest answer, in the end. When I was studying the chakras a few years ago, I asked Anodea Judith in workshop if you could assign any trait or trouble to an imbalance in one chakra or another. She gave me a long and interesting answer, but somewhere in there she said that there was a distinction between chakra issues and just your own personality. Huh, I thought. Personality is a part of the picture too. My most recent therapist said more or less the same thing in passing, that there are mild psychological disorders and then there's just personality quirks.

This led me to question what the heck a personality consists of, anyway, but I think I'm getting far off the point. Another explanatory anecdote and then I'll wrap up. David Lynch is famous for his dark and surreal subject matter, but he's led a pretty happy and successful life. By all accounts he had a thoroughly normal suburban childhood in Missoula, with no sudden deaths or abuse or anything like that. Why does he make fucked-up movies? He doesn't know, and neither do I. He just does.

Drawing from our imaginations leads writers to wonderful and terrible places, of course. It's how I write the ucky stuff I write, because really I've suffered little to no trauma in my life, comparatively. I use my imaaaagination. But why I like going in the dark tangled scary forest, instead of the nice sunny Robert Frost forest, I honestly do not know.

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