1POSTCARDS FROM THE LAND of BEFORE I COULD WRITE:
Came across this, just now:
While Turkish eugenicists were trying to establish the whiteness and Europeanness of their civilisation, Hitler was fantasising about a superior race that availed itself of what he saw as Islamic immorality and ruthlessness. In his memoirs, Albert Speer, the Nazi Minister of Armaments, noted that Hitler expressed admiration for the ruthlessness of Muslim Turks. Hitler wished Turks had conquered Europe and converted the continent to Islam. He imagined a superior race of ‘Islamised Germans’ who could circumvent the moral limits of Christianity.
Which made me think of a sprawling story I wrote about 16 years ago. The story was based on something that really happened , although the part of the story that reminded me of the passage above was the fantastical element (a dream sequence). Maybe the story was difficult to wrestle into a literarily aerodynamic shape precisely because it was so heavily based on (and distorted by) autobiography, but, no matter, because I wrote it while straining on the cusp of being able to really write; it would have failed, on the levels I later came to understand, anyway. I developed a much bigger toolkit a year or two after this story was Frankensteined together and I did so by getting serious and sluicing my stables of writerly horseshit. Metaphors abound.
Lots of talented writers have published material they created on the cusp of developing a workable style; the embryonic writer of future renown is often just as guilty, as the rest of us, of the tendency to string together glittering metaphors and similes in clattering sequences that don’t quite add up to Lit. Even Mr. Roth himself: see how quickly you stub a toe on a glittering (or too-earthy) metaphor in this excerpt from the very beginning of Roth’s early story The Day it Snowed:
Second sentence features a doozy* of Sophomore Overreach, doesn’t it? It seems to want to put Aunt Wilma on the prow of a Viking ship. The very next sentence, Aunt Wilma is a little more Druidic; neither her straightness nor her quietness come alive in the image of the elm because both qualities are quite banal, as is the elm, and neither is worth mentioning without a particularizing twist for Wilma or the elm she seemed to emulate. Why not banally metaphorize the size or shape of her nose or ears, or the lankness of her hair, while you’re at it? Just as unnecessary: call her “tall and straight and quiet” and leave it at that.
In neither sentence are we handed components from which to assemble a sense of Aunt Wilma the person (as opposed to the tree-like, Viking-inflected object)… these metaphors/similes, to use a metaphor, are jellybeans in the bouillabaisse. Uncle Carl fares slightly better with a simile that works, at least, in the kitchen we first see him in, but, still: meh. The Writer as Nymph! It’s good to see that even the Greats start somewhere. The rest of us start somewhere strikingly similar. Just because you can compare a thing to another thing doesn’t mean you must or should. But if you must: make it count. Pretend that the story is a billboard or a telegram and that you’re on a restricted budget. Whatever you do, don’t look at the page as a place of infinite possibility; infinite possibility = low stakes. Low stakes inspire half-assery and profligate waste.
This old piece of mine (below) is an excerpt from a broken short-story machine; it doesn’t work; it glitters and jangles and clatters, loose components in a sack. When I wrote this I was just about to emerge from my long apprenticeship. This passage is from very near to the very end of the story and, along with instructing yourself using the failed installation of its metaphors as warnings, you can find a minute’s entertainment in its day-glo luridity. It is extremely lurid.
Somewhere in that big old sack of broken devices is a proper little horror story… but the story of how the story fails to work is the dominant narrative.
[Key: red ink= failed/ blue ink = valid / purple ink= hybrid / green ink= unintentionally comedic]
[Which is not to imply that the sizzle-or-fizzle metaphors are the only thing wrong with the story]
Eleven years after finally breaking all contact with Miriam, Ginger has this dream:
A long white van eases into a BP station. Panel door slides open and the van disgorges a phalanx of the biggest, most square-jawed skinheads Ginger has ever seen, hopping backwards out of it like precision sky-divers. The light bulb skulls, stovepipe jeans, bomber jackets and high-laced steel-toed boots. The works. A half dozen of them are stretching (knuckles and spines cracking like distant sniper fire) out on the tarmac and then another half dozen creatures emerge.
They look like fiercely blue-eyed nuns. But too young for nuns with their teenage eyes, lashes and eyebrows so fair they’re invisible. Ginger knows there are piles and piles of wild blonde hair under all that satin as everything but the eyes is swaddled in voluminous white burka and the eyes blink and flare like cold electronics under the mercury arc lamps, nervous teenage eyes, teenage Euro-eyes in chador. Ginger sees it, a blue insignia in the shadowed upper right corner of the van, a crescent moon the tips of which are closing like delicate fangs on a swastika. Cloth-covered females go off in twos, heads bowed, to the gas station’s WC, around the far side of the building, while the men enter the store in an orderly fashion. One of the females is standing nearer the taxi. Ginger sees he is in that taxi. The female nearest the taxi has noticed him and comes nearer the taxi window and with a deft flick of an arm from under the burka shows her face.
He jogs around the left side of the station, across the bright wet tarmac and behind oil drums and into the blind rain, slipping on the gravel beyond the tarmac’s edge, sliding on mud beyond the gravel, steadying himself against the cold dark wall of the building. The tarmac, the gravel, the mud and even the wall: they feel so real. So convincing. Each icy syllable of rain striking his face in a complex sequence is designed with such care and precision that he can’t help feeling an immense admiration for the craftsmanship. The instant she revealed her face from under the veil, of course, he knew it was a dream and he moved quickly to seize the opportunity. At the very back of the building he finds the WC door. He eases the door open and lets himself in.
He looks at his hands and wiggles his fingers. They look like a perfectly ordinary version of his fingers. Just as he knew it would, the WC door opens and in steps Miriam in her burka, ultraviolet eyes darting, cloth billowing, she closes and locks the door behind her and removes her veil with cinematic intensity and pushes back the cowl to expose shivering ringlets, that blood cloud of hair and Ginger stands at one end of the WC and Miriam at the other.
She squirms out of the burka, steps naked towards him. Steps naked in her terrible state. Her skin twang-tight from bone contour to bone contour and translucent as a jellyfish. Breasts are melted lenses magnifying the fossil spider of her rib cage and in the harsh light Ginger can make out the slopped coil of her intestines, the rubber red wings of the lungs, the twin-fetus kidneys, the scrape-and-bruise-tinted sacks of stomach, liver, spleen. A shimmering body tattoo, an inverted illusion, her organs shift and shimmer with parallax as he moves around her to see. Her bush floats like ruddy kelp over the neck of the submerged amphora of her womb. Ginger sees her wincing heart in its Christ-struggle, jerking up and falling slack in its crucified agon and he will scream.
She is the most horribly beautiful thing.
I discovered, quite by accident, a few days ago, that Harlan Ellison, my first great Literary Inspiration**, died last June 28th. Unsung pioneer of the postModern, Harlan was too popular, and earned too much money, and was too suckered by the lure of producing, too easily, exactly what his fans wanted, to be “taken seriously” by the kind of critics writing about Pynchon, Coover, Gaddis, DeLillo, et al. I know this bothered Harlan Ellison***, but I also know it would have bothered him even more to have been obscure, poor and critically respected. You pick the door, on the Gameshow, that you pick… and you walk through it.
To quote the intro of The Deathbird, one of Harlan’s experimental masterpieces:
This is a test. Take notes. This will count as ¾ of your final grade. Hints: remember, in chess, kings cancel each other out and cannot occupy adjacent squares, are therefore all-powerful and totally powerless, cannot affect one another, produce stalemate. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion; the sect of Atman worships the divine spark of life within Man; in effect saying, “Thou art God.” Provisos of equal time are not served by one viewpoint having media access to two hundred million people in prime time while opposing viewpoints are provided with a soapbox on the corner. Not everyone tells the truth. Operational note: these sections may be taken out of numerical sequence: rearrange to suit yourself for optimum clarity. Turn over your test papers and begin.
*Googling “doozy” to verify the spelling, I thought: “Of course there will be a band called Doozy, a product-line called Doozy…”
**In fact, there’s not a little of Ellison in that old and failed story, of mine, the one I critique up top.
***Ellison once wrote me a note of appreciation, for something I’d written, and I mention it here, bottom of the page