Decadent Lens For An Age of Excess

Here’s something odd that I keep stumbling over: the narrative landscape of today is paved over with realism and naturalism.

What the Hell-Fire-Club happened to decadent literature and its exotic palaces of artifice, perverseness, art-for-art’s sake, sensuality, degeneration, maximalism, and the love of the sublime and surreal?

The fiction landscape now is littered with hovels (novels) filled with their solid and real narratives, their dependable little puppets that hold up their mirrors so that we can look more closely at ourselves and see the truth, whatever that is.

Which strikes me as even more perverse and strange than fin de siecle fiction.

Right now we are living in a time when wars are televised, commodity has become a bacchanalian god, the Web has raped us of any imagination, and the media manipulates us like perverse slaves. So why this pious offering of the real and the solid?

What ever happened to the decadents who dropped their trousers to the world to show off their creative wit, daring, and artifice to the face of the real artificer itself: the material world?

Vanities and insanities surround us — from religious zealots to the banalities of politics to the hedonism of the Web to the drug of celebrity to the ecstasy of violence. We are already living in a hyper-reality, sucking, injecting, spewing, vomiting, engulfing, and gorging on excess.

The orgiastic road goes ever on and on, down from the door of waste, excess, and sensation….

Our bodies are infected with high living (think obsession with celebrity and wealth and God bless everyone last one of us who is a born-again star), the capitalist dream (think recession, the detox symptoms of a society addicted to debt) the greed (think the Gulf disaster and the corporate scandals, and, well, just about anything that hits the media fan).

I want to find a book (or write one myself) that burns with the heat of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the sensual macabre of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, the grand debauchery of a grotesque spirit in Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror, the effervescence and bizarre heaviness of JK Huysmans’ Against Nature, the surreal and manic energy of KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, the effete and diabolical splendor of Moorcock’s Elric tales, the unsettling and comic romp of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces,  the excessive pomp and pageantry and sexy brio of any Angela Carter, the nefarious mischief and glut for the fantastical of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, the Baroque mastery and succulent purple prose of Mervyn Peake, and all the other grand narratives that transform, unsettle, transfix, shock, and make us crack out of clay molds and explore the juicy bits.

Stopped Reading

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I just couldn’t keep hitting my imaginative head against this wall of realism. The book began to get claustrophobic, like Franzen’s legs were strapped around my neck, his hard male voice rammed down my throat. I couldn’t get past the nausea of the suburban life that Gary Lambert and his wife and kids are living, it drove me to sulk before the weird section of my books. And I know it’s supposed to be satire with all the trappings of postmodern verbal capers, an avant-garde robustness for plot with all the high-stakes, roll-of-the-dice character development and a comic-tragic masterpiece to boot, but what the fuck, it was stinking up my habitat. And if it’s good advice to not shit where you eat, then the same should apply to novelists.

Listening To

Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Now here was a decadent singer. Jesus. Talk about your Romantic who lives too fast and died to young. Every time I hear “Lilac Wine” or  “Corpus Christi Carol” I want to weep, and when I hear “So Real” and “Last Goodbye” I want to drink some Green Fairy.

Tim Buckley’s The Dream Belongs to Me. Well, once you listen to the son, you have to listen to the father, right? This is a fantastic album that shows Buckley to be a musician well ahead of his times. It’s like a heady mix of broken wine bottles and silk bedclothes; you are tugged, tugged, tugged to believe and then disbelieve.

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Passing My Youth With No Brakes

As a boy I hated having to apply my brakes on my bike as I raced down a steep hill.

And I always dreamed that I’d fly under the descending railway gates (and, yes, they were gates) coming down before and after the railway tracks because I had the summer wind in my lightweight coat and a crush on a local girl in my heart. But the red lights would flash and the old gates would descend. So I would have to use my brakes.

I was always tempted to give two fingers to the man in the signal box — and even to this day I’m clueless about his enigmatic profession. He sat above the lines in a glass-encased building and he was always drinking out of a Thermos. But there were numerous gadgets around him that he sometimes pulled, a far-away look in his eyes as the signals snapped up or down, depending on his whim or whether his wife would be making steak and kidney for supper or would he have to leg it to the chippy.

After coming to a stop, I’d have to wait beside the cars, being frowned on by grown-ups, tormented by kids who never had to cycle anywhere, or barked at by dogs on springs that slathered the cars’ windows with stuff that looked like spit-bug glop.

And by the time I got to the park to meet my girl, she had gone. The only evidence that she had been there, her name carved into the bench, mine rudely scratched out.

The Grand Eloquence of Fraud

There’s a rumble in the jungle — you know, the place where all the wild animals live, those who descended from apes and who actually like the idea of having simians as our relations rather than zealots who think their righteous world view is how the rest of us should live — that Paul LePage could be the next Maine governor.

Can it be possible?

So long and thanks for all the salt-water taffy, shall be my reply if he does.

Holy Schopenhauer and his ideas of the crap force. If LePage wins, it will be an invite-only invitation to the state of Maine; gays will be herded together and made to live in communes guarded by the Maine Militia; anybody will be able to carry a gun and shoot anyone who anybody thinks is a threat to anybody’s traditional family of persecuted Christians who are in the minority; free-thinking libertarians will be made to wear big “Ls” and paraded down streets on the Fourth of July as entertainment; pagans and atheists and agnostics (or anyone who isn’t afraid to steal the creative fire from a god and use it for themselves) will be made to stay indoors on Sundays until they repent or go mad and then be declared saints. And unless you can prove that your ancestor killed Indians, the British, the French, raccoons, and all other members of the evil axis, you will be kicked out to live in purgatory in some more socialist state like England.

Heaven help us. The horseman of the political apocalypse is riding our way.

I’m sore and tired from this same old saddle of politics that’s strapped to my back.

The Lost City of Z

What a deadly obsession this book is. I read it like a cataphile exploring the Catacombs of Paris.

David Grann is a fab writer who’s uncovered a lot of great stuff about the English explorer Percy Fawcett — but then Fawcett was such an intriguing and fascinating man, so mostly it’s Fawcett’s adventures and darring-do and divine sense of purpose to find a lost and ancient civilization in the Amazon that sets the book alight.

In fact, Grann’s actual trip to the Amazon pales to Fawcett’s sensational disappearance and his own crazy expeditions, and I wondered why Grann bothered — he could have told it all from his armchair. But then Grann does put you there in the Amazon with all the hostility and fear and wonder.

Basically it’s a swashbuckling adventure tale and I was glued to it like a plastic plane in a dogfight. Loved every minute of it and it kept me up late, reading and taking notes.

And I hear that Brad Pitt is to star in a new movie about Fawcett.

“Some other places were not so good but maybe we were not so good when we were in them.” Ernest Hemingway

“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Joseph Campbell

The Hammer of Thor

It has happened. I took my afternoon walk along a path I habitually take beside the sea, and my next story came to a skidding halt in my brain. Turned up like a Double Decker, so red it hurt my brain a bit. And I know the story — even down to the role Mirabelle plums are going to play in it.

I love it when the story fills you like an empty glass. Problem is, though, I have no idea who’s going to tell it, how it’s going to be told, which character should be the central one. But the story is there, big and fat like a cow in my head just waiting to have its udders milked.

But it needs shaping, needs to sit in my head for a while yet until the pieces all fall into some shape so that the plot can show itself. It’s a jumbled mess right now, like a hamper full of dirty laundry. Still, it’s there, a stranger I live with, shy and obtuse, favouring the shadows, muttering in the corners, knocking over the furniture, raising a fit, breaking things. But it’s my stranger and in time we’ll sit down and get to know each other. That’s the hard bit, though. Getting all the pieces together into a well-told story that someone besides me would like to read.

I’ve just got to realize that the whole idea of writing is an exercise of the imagination.

“People always think that writing is based on characters that you’ve observed or autobiographical things, because it’s hard for them to really empathize with an act of imagination. But the author is sitting in an empty room and making up the story completely.” Woody Allen

“We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Henry James

The Jar Marked Faunus

“He entered such a lane not knowing where it might bring him, hoping he had found the way to fairyland, to the woods beyond the world, to that vague territory that haunts all the dreams of a boy.” Arthur Machen, The Hill of Dreams

Arthur Machen ((1863-1947) is a fantastic Welsh writer who wrote mystical, supernatural, Gothic, fin de siecle horror tales. Some of his more famous works are: The Great God Pan, The Hill of Dreams, The Three Imposters, and The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War. He was born in Caerleon-on-Usk, in the county of Gwent, South Wales, and later lived in London in self-imposed solitude living in poverty in remote suburbs of then the largest industrial city in the world. He eschewed his chosen profession of journalism, preferring to read widely and explore the city on foot. For him, London became as numinous as his home of Gwent, that influenced much of his work and gave it the strong touch of pagan strangeness.

In the Beginning Was A Storyteller

I keep hearing it said in the grocery aisle, while I wait for my waiter to bring the main course, and on deserted streets in Maine (now that summer is over and the tourists have fled) that the 19th-century novel had more moral complexity and social subtext than contemporary novels and allowed 19th-century readers to make sense of the world they lived in. Now it’s the triumvirate of TV, radio, and the Web that reigns supreme, it seems, when we need to shape our moral landscape and define ourselves as social animals in the 21st century.

My response to that is: “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more.”

OK, besides the faulty programming system that religion imposed on me as a young boy and the best laid schemes of my parents, school, and the BBC, the social and moral fabric of my being owes much, if not all, to books (music, too — of which I may well write about later).

I read, therefore I am, is my logos — said at the beginning and at the end of the universe.

The countless authors whose work has educated, amused, entertained, challenged, enlightened, broadened, corrected, and enlarged the shallow “I” that I live through are the ones I credit with my life beyond an unimaginative one: the one of facts and figures, the “cold clockwork of the stars and nations” (Ted Hughes), the one of time disciplines, the one of seeping realism that wants to set its cement between my atoms.

Which is not to say I go to books to seek out some better way to live or some better way to think or some better way to act or some better emotional life, what I’m saying is that what I read matters, it sinks in, it coats, it feeds, it breathes. It all goes in, and between my brain and my balls, some magic happens.

And as it happens, invention is always more interesting than reality, anyway.

Nietzsche said: “What is good is easy; everything divine runs on light feet.”

Writer Russell Hoban responded: “Yeah, right. It’s easy for dead guys to talk bollocks.”