Monday, April 03, 2006

Lateral Life - If a Book Falls in the Forest Does Anyone Hear It?

I'm in the midst of watching again the documentary Stone Reader about Mark Moskowitz's quest to find author Dow Mossman who wrote the 1972 novel The Stones of Summer.

After reading a review in 1972 that declared The Stones of Summer the "novel of a generation", Moskowitz bought a copy, read some of it, and put it away unimpressed. Years later, however, he rediscovered the novel and came away thinking it was one of the best books he'd ever read. He then set out to read everything else Dow Mossman had written -- and found that Mossman hadn't published another book. In fact, it was as though Mossman had dropped off the face of the earth. So, Moskowitz set out to find him, which he documented in his film Stone Reader.

Watching this film again, it's got me thinking about what I get from books. I'm in a period right now in which I feel ravenous to read. I've never been a particularly fast reader, plodding through books, taking weeks to get through the slimmest novels. Then I have periods during which nothing satisfies. My personal library is invisibly pocked with countless half- or quarter-read novels. It's frustrating when I get into one of those inconsolable spins. At present, I'm at the other end of the pendulum swing, enjoying everything I pick up. Last Monday I read Ken Bruen's crime novel The Dramatist. On Wednesday I began Louise Welsh's Tamburlaine Must Die. On Friday I picked up Michel Faber's massive The Crimson Petal and the White, of which I had only read 240 pages a couple of years ago. I read as much over the weekend, and am now a little more than halfway through the near 900-page novel.

The simplest way to sum up what I get from book is the lateral lives they open to me. Bill Vitanyi's Kyuboria, Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes, Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels are all set in familiar territory: office life, bar rooms, urban Ireland. Yet they offer me insights my own seared and sucker-punched senses didn't pick up when I was in similar circumstances. Then there's the work of Tim O'Brien and his Vietnam stories opening a portal onto experience that has never been a part of my life. The final section of his book The Things They Carried is about the truest, most wrenching writing I've ever read, when he speaks about a little girl named Linda whom he knew in elementary school.

It's not so much that books and stories are opening doors on aspects of life I know nothing about, it's more like they educate me about what my own experience has meant to me.
I remember so vividly one day when I was six years of age standing in the school yard of Sacred Heart elementary school in Windsor, Ontario -- seven houses away from my own home -- watching a fight between two boys a couple of years old than me. One horrible aspect of watching this fight from a dozen yards away was seeing that no one around the scuffling kids paid them any notice.

At one point, one kid flipped the other onto the ground, where the subdued kid sat, stunned, dust rising around him. It seemed the fight was over with, and all of the anxiety that chaos and entropy and fear of physical violence caused me could tuck itself back away in my mind and await the next outward eruption of turmoil to latch onto. However, the fight was not finished. As the boy on the ground sat in stunned ignorance, the boy who had flipped him walked over to the edge of of the school building, which was only a couple of yards away. There he picked up a piece of jagged concrete that had been knocked loose from the school's foundation. The hunk of concrete was big enough to require its carrier to use two hands to lift it. And the kid who seemed to have won the fight turned from the school wall, lugging that large piece of concrete, approached his adversary from behind, and dropped it onto his head. Witnessing this, my nervous system went incadescent.

Until that moment, in the neverending loop of my own fears of schoolyard violence, I had always figured being kicked in the face to be the worst thing that could happen to someone in a fight. That piece of concrete fell square onto the head of the kid sitting on the ground, hyperextending his neck so that his chin struck his chest under the blow. As the hunk of concrete fell to the ground, the injured kid sprang to his feet and ran in a circle. It was clear he was moving with no more purpose or thought than a foul ball ricocheting off of a baseball bat. The injured kid then ran to the school and banged on a classroom window. It was recess or lunch time so there was probably no one in the classroom. Didn't matter. At that moment, the teacher who was on yard duty came by. All she saw was a kid slamming his fast against a classroom window. Rather than helping him -- she had no idea what had just transpired -- she, in fact, gave him shit. My stomach felt like a well into which any rock thrown would take an eternity to hit water.

That was my first experience with true life horror.
And it was that first taste of the outside world that was reintroduced to me by Ken Kesey's observations about "The Combine" in his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or what faced Jim in Huckleberry Finn or Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird.

If books and stories are portals onto lateral lives we have lived yet not lived, or have lived and need examined by other minds for us, what of novels like Dow Mossman's The Stones of Summer, which are "lost"? Or, those used-bookstore-gems like Tom McHale's body of work, particularly his first novel Principato? Can we only find ourselves in bestsellers? Of course not. For me, the lateral life has never been more lush and open than stumbling across a work wholly unknown to me until the moment I discover it on a used bookstore shelf. Like Christopher Nolan's Dam-Burst of Dreams, or Scott Smith's A Simple Plan, or Thomas Tyron's The Other, or Terry Griggs' Quickening, or Richard Grayson's Highly Irregular Stories, or Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth, or Larry Brown's Big Bad Love, and so many others.

Beyond lamenting my own obscurity, there is a writer I know and whose work I have read living in Iowa whose books and plays should be in every bookstore and on stages across North America. His name is Gary Britson. I interviewed him last year for an article titled Authora Non Grata: Interview with the best writer you've never read. I have read two of Britson's novels, half a dozen of his short stories, and a couple of his plays. He is an excellent writer whose wry sense of humor continually takes me by surprise the more of his stuff I read. But for some reason book publishers and theatrical producers deign to ignore his work. Our loss.

I have a copy of Dow Mossman's The Stones of Summer. I tried reading it the day I bought it two years ago, and didn't get far. The writing is exceptional, but dense and with little sense of story developing. I set it aside to read other books, but will get back to it. The documentary made about Mossman's rediscovery is a worthy testament to all "lost" novels that moved someone somewhere. It's wonderful hearing the filmmaker Mark Moskowitz speaking to people about the books that meant so much to him, and to hear of authors and titles I'd never read. All those lateral lives out there. All those clues strewn about bookstores, in attics and basements, in boxes gathering dust.

As a writer, it's heartening to imagine that something I might create may one day mean as much to some reader somewhere as Mossman's novel means to Moskowitz. At present my most frequent strangers speaking my name are bill collectors. Manuscripts are piled in my office and in my basement like mute, outsized doorstops. Beyond my desk, I'm unemployed Matthew St. Amand, deficient Matthew St. Amand, always-looking-for-a-job Matthew St. Amand. But as a reader and a writer, I flourish in my lateral lives where my victories suffer under paradoxes similar to Flann O'Brien's mystic elevator in his novel The Third Policeman that descends into heaven/hell -- I can take nothing back to my own life except myself.


Ascendantlive said...

You're not in total obscurity, I've been reading 'As My Sparks Fly Upward' and been thouroghly enjoying it. Loved 'And the Rocks and Stones Shall Sing'...something about the mystery, the passion in the unexplained and bizarre thought that we've all had an urge to act on...I guess the plexiglass was a invisible wall between Adam and...?
well I start on Homunculus soon...summoning the artwork into existence is the hardest part, the rest I think is childsplay in comparison.
best of luck

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Hey man, I appreciate it! When I first saw the Jesus in the plexiglas box (for real) the story was instantly born. Glad you're enjoying the book!