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Problem Novel

October 18, 2010

Well, I’ve got a stock of material for the week after my trip to New York.  I want to write about the Chaos and Classicism exhibit at the Guggenheim, as well as something about the Gossart show at the Met.  But I wanted to start off by talking about the movie Howl, which I saw on Thursday night (I was wrong about the Dragon Tattoo movie coming out this last weekend, dammit – not sure when I’ll get to see it now). 

OK I admit it, I went to Howl because James Franco is hot hot hot.  I’m shallow, see?  It was quite an eye-opener – I had a set of preconceived ideas about the Beats, and about Allen Ginsberg, that the movie broke for me.  I imagined someone who talked like a hippie, who blathered about the Man, man – the wild, unkempt-looking later Ginsberg and everything you were invited to conjecture about someone who chose to look like that.  But a large part of the movie consists of interviews with Ginsberg, discussing his early career and Howl, and he comes across as…well, as a craftsman.  Someone who’s given a great deal of thought to every word he ever put to paper, no matter how free-form and “improvisational” the end product may have sounded.

What struck me most was what he had to say about honesty – I wish I had the movie, or that the movie’s website had links to the interviews used therein and not just to the poem itself.  If this was a paying gig, or if I wasn’t so backed up on other things to write about, I’d try and find them.  But for now I’ll just have to recall the gist of it. 

Essentially, Ginsberg said that when he wrote the poem, he felt free to write whatever he wanted because since “my daddy” would never read it, it could never be published.  After trying to write to please Jack Kerouac, for whom he had a massive passion (“crush” doesn’t seem to cover it, does it), he finally broke free and wrote something new.  In one of the interviews, he talked about how we are honest with our friends – we talk about who we fucked or who fucked us and what we did when and where, and yet at that time certainly, you were expected to leave so much of life out of your work – not just the sex but the feelings it engendered or that engendered the sex.  Ginsberg said, essentially, that we need to be as honest with our art as we are with our friends.

To be honest, the reason I’ve abandoned the novel is because it requires an emotional honesty from me that I’m not really even capable of having with my friends, because I’m not capable of having it with myself.  The novel certainly had its technical problems – as Redditors noted, it has too many pages of description of Caroline’s day, too much setup before the action, such as it is, starts.  There’s also the technical problem that the novel is about a woman sitting in a room, and unless you’re writing “luminous prose” that is language for language’s sake, that can be tiresome and hard to keep rolling.  Those are solved easily enough; I could make Caroline’s time alone with Alex shorter and sharper, give it a cinematic treatment that would propel the reader and the plot into the second half, where Caroline goes in search of the real people who Christopher used to “compose” Alex.  But those aren’t the problem that blocks me – the problem is that Caroline must confront the things that have made her lonely and isolated and susceptible to the lure of an Alex, the lure of someone who “could never hurt him, never leave him,” to quote that ultimate Bad Robot film, T2.  And to do that, I’d have to confront those feelings in myself, their own origins, and be honest about them with both myself and, dangerously, with an audience.  I overshared several times in my life, to my great regret – I can’t say the Internet didn’t exist when I did, but I had no idea that everything you ever said to every little paper (or everything that was misquoted and appallingly attributed to you by incompetent journalists) would live forever, available so easily.  I’m really not interested in going through that gauntlet again.

It’s a Catch-22 of sorts – let’s call it the “Catch Neck Tattoo.”  I.E., there is a certain kind of person most of us associate with a neck tattoo, namely convicts.  So when you, young hipster and avatar of coolness that you are, literally stick your neck out and get a tattoo on it, you are taking a risk that you will be taken for a convict yourself.  You are making a statement that you will never ever need a job in an office or have to work anywhere that your neck tattoo would preclude you from working.  You are declaring to the world that you are part of a subculture that is thriving and will thrive, that your friends and connections are legion, that you’ve got mad skills as a web designer or DJ or something else creative and lucrative, and you don’t give a fuck what people like me think of you.  So the catch is, if you do it, reveal yourself, expose yourself, you’re at high risk of disaster; if you don’t do it, you’re going nowhere, but you won’t be destroyed by keeping your mouth shut.  Either way can destroy your life.

Yeah, I know – the solution is to write characters who aren’t based on yourself, say to hell with “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” and establish that MFA-like distance from the marriage under a microscope you’ll be picking apart in cool precise prose.  Speaking strictly practically, that’s not a career option for me, self-educated and unconnected as I am – and also it’s of no personal or creative interest to me whatsoever.

I see now why people become critics instead of artists.  Your most passionate engagement with a work of art can be channeled through your cold intellect, your working knowledge of the subject and the references it makes.  Let the artist travel the dark passage through the narrow straits, and be the one who describes the difficulty of the journey, not the one who has to make it.

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