Attempt At Realism

A man walks down the street and bumps into another man. Someone he vaguely knows.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“Are you still, er, writing?”

“Yes.”

“How’s it going?”

“So-so.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Oh, it’s not that bad. Though my dog just died.”

“Yes, those things happen. Especially around here.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Well, have to go. I’ve got a call girl waiting.”

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Big Mouth Goes on Strike

I was given an annoying moniker as a kid: bionic jaws.

It came about because I talked a lot. I was a shy kid and my way to overcome it was to jabber on and on about anything: my brother’s interest in bloody pig organs; the number of times I’d buffed my oxblood Doc’s so that they shone; the number of dog turds I’d counted on our street that didn’t come close to the number of dogs, etc, etc.

Looking back, this seems an odd thing to do, considering the fact I was shy. But I talked a lot so that people wouldn’t notice me, they’d listen to my words, which, in a strange way, hid me. Although sometimes the other children listened, sometimes they walked off. Adults simply stared or asked me what the hell I was talking about. In fact, it was an adult who stuck the bionic jaws moniker to me. (I’ve hated the bastard ever since.)

I still tend to be loquacious, but now it’s about literary things, and I’ve found a small milieu who appreciates what I have to say. There are still a horde of others, though, who look at me as if I’m a banana short of a bunch, and I know they are probably thinking, “Bionic jaws.” Or they feign interest by looking at some unreachable spot in the distance. None of this bothers me anymore. I’ve become immune, as we all must to the inescapable annoyances of life.

I still get riled up, though. My wife says I think too much. But I’d be an empty shell if I didn’t. She’s got a point, though.

I only wish I had found writing when I was younger. For me this is a way to calm me down. I can organize what I want to say more clearly and sometimes elaborately, but it makes more sense than the maelstrom in my head. And I can also detach myself from the emotions and make them stronger and less overwhelming when I write. Of course, when I discovered that writing could help me calm down, what I wrote was a toxic dump of emotions and words. I tried so hard to get everything down. Everything! At the time I was writing poetry and I filled notebooks so that Marlow would have cried “The Horror! The Horror!”

I’ve got better over time. The more I read, the more I write, the more I can reign in that effusive, orgiastic pouring out of words that convulse and writhe and spit about me.

But like I said, I still get riled up. Especially when it comes to interviewers who ask a writer to give advice to other writes. It’s not a useless question, but it seems to be asked of everyone, and even more so from first-time authors. Which is annoying because it makes me wonder what almighty knowledge they have suddenly become endowed with after publishing their first book that sets them so much more apart from novice writers on their way to publishing. I’m just not buying that these writers are suddenly imparted with the gift of a golden nugget that can save, help, or motivate other writers. Of course, some give good advice, but just as many give out a bunch of bullshit, plain and simple.

Here are a few that get under my skin.

Persevere. This is good advice if you’re stuck in a snowstorm, there’s no gas in the car, and you’re a long way from home.

Or write what you know. If you like living in a very small room.

Or this one, which makes me laugh: study the market. What, like a banker would the stock exchange, to see what’s falling, rising, or being stolen?

My advice: Make shrimp wear coats.

Oh, and write lots and lots and lots. It pays good dividends.

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.” Virginia Woolf

Fighting For My Right To Parley

Is it possible to be stupid and eloquent at the same time in mixed company?

Sometimes I feel like I’m becoming stupid and lazy and better at being productive.

I’m not a very good father at times. I tend to avoid. And I can’t delegate. I always want to side. And then I feel like the bad child. And need comfort.

I’m a good listener. But only after I’ve said what I want to say.

Other people drive me mad. I hope I drive them mad, too.

I’m not good at bullshitting. I like truth. But only if it’s what I want to hear. If it’s not, I will tell you.

Sometimes I write people I don’t like into my fiction and then kill them off. It saves a lot of lawyer fees.

Why do others think they can direct your life? Is it because they have no lives of their own?

I will not compromise. Except if I really can.

If you boss me about, I will put on imaginary boxing gloves. And, trust me, you don’t want to see yourself ringside.

If I laugh at your joke, it’s because it’s funny or I’m hiding my ignorance. It’s never about how amusing you are.

Writers should not work in the same office. It causes melodrama.

Dogs are overrated. Cats are overrated. They piss and shit a lot. And then we have to clean it up. How can we claim to be the superior species?

Creationists are like banana peels: they are always slipping on the same lie over and over again.

What’s wrong with being delusional? Christ was. And look how many people believe in him.

I don’t like money. But it seems to like me.

I never read bad books. Unless I write them.

Some people will say they like you and then hide you on their Facebook page.

Smoking Poppy

Not many writers can claim they’ve fed on honey dew and “drunk the milk of paradise.” Of course, the Romantic poet Coleridge can, but he was an opium addict.

As far as I know, the brilliant English writer Graham Joyce isn’t an addict. But he’s definitely fed on creative honey dew and produced quantities of the milk of paradise in his novel Smoking Poppy.

It could be that the exotic setting of Thailand helps to conjure his hallucinogenic narrative in Smoking Poppy; a land full of poppy fields and spirits and shamans and magic making moons. Thailand oozes from the novel with its young prostitutes on sultry, light-soaked streets; the smoky, congealed, oily fry-up of street vendors; the belching, spluttering tuk tuks; and the sugary eyes of its inhabitants. And then, of course, there is the opium: as gentle as a breeze through poppy fields and as deadly as obsession.

Obsession is at the big meaty heart of this novel. Obsession feeds it. The obsession of the father, Dan Innes, the main protagonist, to save his daughter from a Thai prison after she’s been arrested for smuggling drugs. The obsession of the daughter, Charlie, for her drug-induced journey of escape from family, college, modern life’s boredom. The obsession of the Evangelical son, Phil, for redemption. And even the obsession of Dan’s pub mate, Mick, a boisterous, wise-ass who joins the quiz group at the local Clipper pub, drinking his Old Muckster’s Jubilee ale, trying to escape his loneliness by befriending Dan.

Smoking Poppy is told in the first person, through the working class argot of Dan, the father. Dan’s domestic life is on the rocks; he’s moved out from his wife and estranged from his son and daughter. But he’s a man who has been addicted to trying to be a good father, husband. The choice of fixing the narrative camera solely on Dan is a perfect one. As the story unfolds and Dan, Phil, and Mick set out on their quest into the heart of darkest Thailand to save the daughter, Joyce has skillfully not only directed the fast-paced plot but also swung the camera, so to speak, deeper into Dan’s psyche, exposing all the foibles and the idiosyncrasies as well as demons that are plaguing this man — who for all his working-class simplicity is a man on the brink of psychological complexity.

When Dan and cohorts discover that Charlie is not being held at the Thai prison — her passport has been stolen by the girl who is mistaken as being Dan’s daughter — and that she is in even deeper peril, the whole focus of the narrative shifts. The book no longer becomes simply a search for the missing daughter, it becomes a journey into the inner psychological landscape of the father: what it means to be a man, a father, a human being facing not so much the fear of losing a loved one, but the more intense fear that that loved one, Charlie in this case, no longer loves Dan, the father.

In fact the novel is not so much a story about the pain and heartache of drug addiction as it is the pain and heartache of family addiction. Family can be both the beautiful poppy of love as well as the opium of despair: “You have to let [your children] pluck from your heart with bruising fingers, great, sparkling, golden, resinous chunks of love, and never ask under what moon they smoke it or where they spill it.”

Dan has loved both his children from the very first day he smelt that intoxicating perfume from their baby heads: “…The extraordinary scent of its head, The chemical fix. A gift from the garden of paradise. You want it all the time, and you only get it when you cradle that baby in your arms.” It’s Dan’s first hit of love, and it’s what carries him along both as a man and as a father. But as Charlie grows and goes off to Oxford and gets “all the distractions of modern life right at her fingertips,” Dan begins to feel himself being nudged aside: the feeling of being half a man, half a dad, feeling “an absence of core in my life.” And then when he finally encounters Charlie in the deepest jungles of Thailand trapped in an opium nightmare of her own making, his very own demons, which he’s kept at bay with the benign English distractions of beer and quizzes and the blue-collar job of electrician, all rise to the surface like a big fat silver Thai moon of madness.

This descent into a greater addiction is superbly handled by Joyce in the first-person. On one level there is this perilous story of a father and his friends risking their lives in Thailand with drug lords and the thick, dense jungle, and on another level there is this primeval narrative about the life and soul of a common, everyday man who has to face what he doesn’t want to in order to carry on: “I thought I’d been giving all my life. Fatherhood was like being the incised poppy. I took the incision every day like a man, and at first I was the dark loving juice to which [the children] returned. And then I was so afraid that they might not return.”

Life is in the ordinary, every day, so it is said, but Joyce has taken that to a new level by saying it’s in the every day, ordinary father who will undertake not only a perilous journey to save his daughter but also one to save himself. And there’s no religious dogma padding along for the ride. In fact, Dan is averse to any smell of religion overtones to the point of being physically abusive to his Evangelical son, Phil. The tenets that inflame Phil are of no interest or even motivation to Dan: “Religion is like dope, which is like the whiskey, which is like the stupid television. Same fuck of a different colour.” It’s family, love, the spiritual dimensions of the every day atom of what makes a family become the nucleus that feeds the spiritual, the human.

There is a supernatural element to Smoking Poppy, too. Although it isn’t overt in tone, it lingers around the edges of the brutal, exotic Thailand, the way smoke does from an opium pipe. Some of the most striking images in the novel, some of the most stunning sentences, revolve around the fantastical spirit world that Joyce has created around the real industry of the growing of poppies and the making of opium. “The villagers were engaged in two different types of activity, each involving a special tool. Most were collecting resin from the poppy heads with a curious crescent-shaped tool….The others, mostly women, were incising fresh pods with a three-bladed picking tool.” Joyce also makes the drug into an almost sentient character: “I was struck by the number of poppy heads weeping. Not just seeping opium, but suffering with it. I saw very clearly how we all of us are incised by the experiences of life. We are pricked, we weep, we yield.” In the same way Joyce makes the addiction of parenthood into a drug that every father and mother must get a hit of: “Let it in. Give it out.” Too many hits, however, and you might well end up metaphorically lost as a parent as much as you might end up lost and forgotten about in a Thai jungle as Charlie almost does.

If there is one minor fix for this novel, however, it would be with the character of the wife, Sheila. She is given a lot less psychological ground in Smoking Poppy. There is never any sense of her urgency to get Charlie back or even to go on the journey with Dan. She seems to stand at the edge, maybe fully cognizant in her all-knowing motherly role, that all will work out: she birthed the child, raised the child, now it’s the father’s turn. But this is too archetypal in its suggestion of maternal instinct and love, a tiny pinprick in the body of the plot. But then this novel is, in the words of soulmaster James Brown, a man’s world: a peeling back of the layers of fatherhood, one painful and exuberant chapter at a time.

To riff on the colloquial “smoking gun”: Graham Joyce is guilty as charged in writing a page-turner in Smoking Poppy about the addictions of paternal love, a lack of love, and family. He’s also satisfied the literary need of every writer to write something new to what has been written about so many times before but to do it with a better understanding of human nature and with the experience of the ironies of life to draw upon.

Which just goes to show that Graham Joyce is as obsessed as his fictional characters.

Stand & Deliver

I didn’t watch the Oscars. In my opinion, Billy Crystal is peeling wallpaper from the 50s and needs to be painted over. They need to get someone like Sacha Baron Cohen; he would lively the damn thing up.

And the winners are about as predictable as spirits at a table-tipping séance.

And the movie stars strut and prance about like Norse gods who pretend that Gotterdammerung is a series cancelled by Hollywood.

But my real reason for not watching is that I’m starved for a sense of the mythic when it comes to movies; starved for a performance that I can talk about with rapture for years to come. And so many movies now are more about narratives than images, which is good. But when did a visual art form decide it could steal all the thunder from books? If I want great stories, I’ll go to a book.

What I want from films are surrealist visions, offerings of Dali, Bosch, Klimt, Picasso, Bruegel, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Harry Clarke, Max Ernst, Alfred Kubin-like images; a stunningly visual montage of frames that makes you gasp in awe and wonderment. And I’m not talking just blockbuster, but images that make us see the world differently, like the way that old French filmmaker Georges Méliès did with his movies.

OK, so there’s that movie with George Clooney, The Descendants, about a father and his relationship with two teenage daughter. I have 2 daughters, although they are not teens, but I know this story, even though it’s not mine. What I don’t know, though, would be a story about a father living with the ghosts of two dead daughters, say, or a father with 2 android daughters, and it could be this surreal, decadent, dreamlike movie.

Why do movies not create a visual bang? They have the technology. Imagine a movie that was like a dream? Who’s making those?