Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Compassion bids me to go on reading

I keep on reading but it appears as though I've read these stories before. The one set in the suburbs following the dissolution of a marriage. The one about the kid growing up poor. The one about sexual predation, an older man who abducts a young girl. The one about alienation, lovelessness. The one about a crime without a motive and a cop without a conscience. The one that would make a good movie. The one about two grandparents who live on a farm. The one told in the first person who is, of course, unreliable. Aren't we all, in the end?

I listen to Victoria's
Requiem, surrounded by noise.

I get lost. These stories blend together, begging for attention like someone else's kids. This one is set in Northern California and it's about three boys. This one takes place in Afghanistan, one girl. This one happens somewhere unnamed but recognizable in upstate New York. Why not name the town? This one takes the reader from Edinburgh to Zanzibar, episodically. This one's in Adelaide, this one New York. Ah, good old New York. In the mornings on the ferry the old line comes to mind: "The city lay before me like a silver turd." Michael Palin, wasn't it? As the Hudson's greasy waters churn behind us, we turn away from the lavender bands of sky above Jersey. One place becomes another place in the imagination. London, Paris, Tokyo. Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans. Austin. Brooklyn. Postmarks on a bundle of letters stashed in a rotting trunk. Cairo. Oz. This little narrative is set in Zurich, then it moves to Berlin. This one takes place in Canada, unfortunately -- Canada's a hard sell.

"Convergence" by Jackson Pollack, a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces strewn across the dining room table. I was eleven, my brother was five. Johnson was in the White House. The kid across the street had blown a hole in his gut with an M80 to get out of the draft. We loved puzzles. Pollack was difficult but not impossible. Our mother would join us, bringing a pitcher of fresh-made iced tea, and try to fit a few pieces together. The strategy was simple -- start with the outer edge and work in from the corners. This was out on the island, when ordinary people could afford to live in Montauk.

I keep on reading these stories. They come via email in an endless stream of PDFs, Word docs. The one with the lyrical voice, the author a poet. The one that sounds like Beckett. The one without punctuation whose author likes to employ big words. The one told in dialogue. The one hammered out in short paragraphs. The one that goes on in purple prose for pages. The one in which the writer shows us how extended metaphors collapse under their own weight, exhausted. The one that wants to be artless and reads pretentious. The one that is truly artless, meaning unreadable. The ones written in workshop prose, undercooked and overspiced. Everywhere competence, learned behavior, and good manners. Their syntax moves me. Their voices bring tears to my eyes. Striving for authenticity, shown how to inject little doses of verisimilitude into the proceedings whenever their imaginations run dry, they struggle to make something out of words. Something that might last.

I look at a reproduction of a Turner watercolor, "Norham Castle on the River Tweed." I can barely make out the figures in the foreground, on the riverbank, under the shadow of the ruined tower. The picture's overall effect is sad, that I can tell, or is it me? Turner painted this castle often, in varying light, at different times of the day. That was his life. There was nothing else to it. The reproduction is lousy. You know, sometimes when going through these manuscripts, I'll stumble on the easiest words -- what does it mean, to "replace" or to "last?" To "love" or to "make?" What does it mean, to "lose" something, or to "be lost?" In New York City, the epitome of civilization, in the half-light, not knowing whether it is dawn breaking or twilight fading, I keep on reading.

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