by Jeffrey Thomas
(First of all, an apology for missing my turn the last several months, something I swore I’d never do. I had my July essay written but I was in Viet Nam at the time, and the eleven hour time difference and my dependence on internet cafes meant I missed the deadline anyway. I ended up posting it at my own blog site, at www.jeffreyethomas.com. And the next month, well, I guess I just got too busy with other projects. Huh, like you missed me, right? Anyway, I’m back, so here we go!)
I’m certain there are many writers, and even readers, who feel that a story’s author should be an invisible entity, who leaves not so much as a fingerprint on the scene he or she creates. An absent God, if you will; Oz behind the curtain. I can understand this line of thinking. It may be akin to the notion that if a movie’s director were to come in front of the camera, it might jar the viewer out of the plot, remind them that they’re watching a movie. Hey, wait a minute, didn’t Martin Scorcese do that in no less a classy movie than TAXI DRIVER, playing the scary passenger who sparks Travis Bickle’s obsession with the .44 Magnum? And didn’t Hitchcock do that, again and again?
Of course, there are countless novels and short stories that are so inspired by the authors’ own personal experiences as to blur the line between fiction and autobiography. So it isn’t really an issue of drawing upon one’s own life. I think it’s an issue of style that I have in mind. Critics of film-maker David Lynch might argue that his style is so strong and bizarre, so self conscious, that it overwhelms and obscures whatever story he might be trying to tell. Of course, Lynch’s quirkier-than-thou approach is what endears him to ardent fans like myself. But this kind of self conscious or “artsy-fartsy” style in the writing of fiction can alienate certain readers. Case in point is Mark Z. Danielewski’s new book, ONLY REVOLUTIONS.
I call it a “book” instead of a novel because I guess it’s hard for some people to classify it, due to its unconventional approach. My local bookstore has it listed in their computer as an anthology, of all things (because the story is narrated by two characters whom the cataloger mistook as co-authors?). And the store couldn’t even locate the copies they had received only days earlier so that I might buy one of them, said copies perhaps having vanished into the strange void between the terra firma of clear-cut genre and traditional approach. In any case, I have not read ONLY REVOLUTIONS, but I’ve been supporting and defending it based on the fact that Danielewski’s first novel, HOUSE OF LEAVES, is one of my favorite books. Even if I am disappointed with ONLY REVOLUTIONS, I feel compelled to champion it against a surprisingly hostile reception from some readers (who have not read it yet, either, and seem disinclined to even give it a chance). Words such as “arrogance” and “pretentious” have been slung in its direction. First of all, I think a writer has to be arrogant in the first place, to believe their book is worthy of trees sacrificing their lives, arrogant to think a reader should sacrifice their time and hard-earned cash. As for pretentious, well, one man’s pretentious is another man’s ambitious, challenging, thoughtful. To again use film as an example (hey, I’m a child of my times), one could say REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is pretentious and that one should still to watching purely entertaining stuff like AUSTIN POWERS. Me, I have no problem loving both those films, baby. In a comment responding to an earlier essay I posted here, in which I talked about how the names I choose for my characters often have hidden symbolic meaning, it was suggested that such efforts were “artsy-fartsy” and meaningless. Maybe that’s the case. Or maybe I’m having fun, and sharing that sense of fun with the one or dozen or hundred people who might catch on to what I’m doing, and maybe it doesn’t hurt anybody if I have hidden meanings in my characters’ names even if not a single soul catches on to them. But there is ever this animosity toward the dreaded “A” word…Art. Artsy is a bad thing, to some. It implies flatulence. Well, to each their own. As I say, my diet is pretty diverse. But you want to talk arrogance? One could say it is more arrogant to mass produce another bland, unoriginal paint-by-numbers book or movie that apes last year’s (or last decade’s) bestseller or smash hit again, and again, ad nauseam, with no real personality behind it, no sense that someone put their own soul into the proceedings.
I’m not saying I don’t feel some works – some creative people – aren’t artsy-fartsy, to put it that way. I’m not part of any crowd or camp; I take what I like or dislike one book or movie or artist at a time. For instance, I can see what Andy Warhol was doing with his soup cans, with his silk screened reproductions of other people’s photos (of Marilyn, Brando, etc.), but when I recently heard someone in a documentary say how terribly “important” those cans were, how “powerful,” I just sort of groaned inside, especially when they went on to suggest that the full collection of can paintings (bought for $1,000 at the time of their creation) might be worth $100,000,000 today, well…pass me a Norman Rockwell calendar instead, please. And let’s not even get into Jackson Pollock’s…messes. But that’s just me. That’s my tastes. If you’re into these guys, good on ya! See, though? I can scoff and sneer at what I’m not into, with the best of them.
Some writers, artists, singers and so on end up looming bigger than their art; I think Warhol is like that. I think Yukio Mishima is like that, but Mishima I love; one of my very favorite authors. Mishima was a brilliant writer who became a bodybuilder, a modern day samurai, started his own fanatical paramilitary group (which ended up storming and taking over a military school), a movie director, a movie star, and whatever else I’m forgetting at the moment. This week I watched Mishima as the star of the 1960 Yakuza film AFRAID TO DIE, directed by respected film-maker Yasuzo Masumura. Mishima does a great job as a sleazy, bitch-slapping, leather-clad antihero scratching himself and slouching around enough to make James Dean and Marlon Brando proud. *Spoiler alert!* The end has the shot and dying Mishima (like DeNiro in HEAT, trying to change his ways – with the help of a good woman – too late in the game) running in place against the flow of an escalator, a great symbol for how it is too late for him to run away from his dark past (regardless of having traded in his black leather for a sacrificial-white sports jacket). It’s a cool little flick, but most of its appeal for me is that it’s Mishima there, hamming it up tough-guy style to self consciously compensate for his homosexuality, the same Mishima who ended up disemboweling himself a decade later. An incredible writer, playing a gangster! Should his work be treated any less seriously for such antics? Was he overstepping the boundaries, becoming far from the invisible writer, wearing Oz’s curtain as a cape instead of hiding behind it? Well, that’s for you to decide. Me, I was eating up AFRAID TO DIE’s nasty grittiness and jazzy dialogue. Mishima’s ex-girlfriend: “You call yourself a man?” Mishima: “Me? Nah, I’m a Yakuza.” Coool! Bring it on, Yukio! The thing is, beyond his egotism and narcissism, it would be hard to dispute that Mishima had the talent to back it all up.
On Mark Z. Danielewski’s web site www.onlyrevolutions.com there’s a video clip from the Conan O’Brien Show of the singer Poe performing her song “Hey Pretty (Drive-By 2001 Mix),” which starts out with Poe’s brother Danielewski reciting an excerpt from HOUSE OF LEAVES, wearing a purple silk shirt and gripping the mike like a rock star. This is sure to be a turn-off for many a book reader, sure to further alienate th
em from this artsy-fartsy author*, but again, I thought it was, well, pretty cool. Why the hell not? Don’t hate the guy because he’s flamboyant, because he likes attention; a writer is all about getting attention, isn’t it? Whenever I get tired of hearing the words HARRY POTTER or DA VINCI CODE, I remind myself that these are books! Books, that people are getting so excited about in this age of movies and TV and X-Box. Let’s hear it for books, and authors getting themselves seen and heard, and strutting and showing us what they got. Hell, if Jewel can put out a book of poetry, I think Mark Z. Danielewski can have his moment on stage, and Mishima can have his drawn-out death dance on an escalator (oops, the spoiler slipped past me that time!).
Author know thy place? And stick to your “traditional” storytelling – so you won’t rile or offend or intimidate the opponents of ONLY REVOLUTIONS, who sadly seem afraid or at least unwilling to be challenged by it? Nay, I say. Be big, flashy, noisy, full of eccentric personality, if that’s your gig. I’m not knocking the legions of stolid and solid storytellers who puts it out there in the tried and true approach. I read it all. More than being disappointed, I might end up disliking ONLY REVOLUTIONS very much, in fact (if my bookstore can ever find the damn thing)! But no matter how I feel about the book itself, I defend Danielewski’s right to be brave, and idiosyncratic, and experimental, and…a celebrity.
(* I saw one message board thread where people expressed their hostility toward the word “author,” seeing even this as pretentious. That any reader or, worse, writer would reject this term depresses me. It suggests an aversion to the outrageous notion that literature might be literary. Or called literature, for that matter. Well, you know what I’ll do if anyone ever asks me, “You call yourself a writer?” I’ll scratch myself, slouch a bit, and retort, “Me? Nah, I’m an author!”)