Death Becomes You, Dear Novel

The novel is dead, so eulogizes Will Self, the serious, difficult novel, which I suspect is the so-called literary novel that’s been hanging around on book corners ever since modernism and has caused a few scuffles with readers and critics alike.

I’ve read some of Self’s work. I like that he perambulates long distances. I even enjoy that he pulls words like “benison,” “Gesamtkunstwerk, “Panglossian,” and “melioristic” out of his rattlebag. But, then, when it comes to fiction, I favour Maximalism over minimalism — it’s the cherry picker in me.

But, sod you Self and your aging anxieties that you will cease to be as a writer for being the reason you’ve chosen to write about the death of the novel.

Although I must admit it’s sobering news for a writer like myself who is still brewing in the vats of the emerging writing life. It also brings on a tidal wave of creative anxiety to be told the book is dead even before I’ve even had a chance to get a book published. It’s akin to telling a child don’t bother living because you’re only going to die.

Ok, let’s say the novel is really dead, nails are in the coffin, mourners are dressed in black, and the Gutenberg press weeps tears of ink.

That’s fine by me. Bring on the wake! Let’s open the bubbly and get rip-roaring drunk on the death of the novel because all it means is that the Graustarkian literary standard by which all books are written is now demolished. There is no “great” book left to be written, no “great” writer about to swoop down in a blaze of tweed and pipe smoke to carry off the novices in his golden claws. Anyone now has a chance to write a book — and that includes me. A great new brave world of opportunity knocks. Open Sesame!

Unless, of course, it’s all premised on sell, sell, sell and there will be only a handful of novels that can shift the tectonic plates of the mind to new visions, eclipse and super nova the life of the emotions, and locate the soul in the overwhelming somatic rush of flesh. If the death of the novel is simply leading to a land of mediocrity, then I want to go down the mine with Self and his canaries and face the subterranean gases. I’m not interested enough to live with the endless flow of entertainment toxins that will pass through my body pretending to be art. Thanks, but no thanks. My kidneys are working well enough to know piss when it streams before me.

But if the novel is dead and a panoramic vista of new horizons opens up with the Millennium Falcon on the nearest hill, I’m up for the ride. Let’s park that old literary junker out back and get into something more relevant, more post-postmodern, something that isn’t flashy but is made from the recycled goods of the past. Everything under the sun has been done before, and done better, so let’s space hop to new frontiers on the magic of the past and the literary genius of the moment will become less obvious and more fulfilling.

Why should the death of the novel be such a bad thing? Ovid, a writer, proclaimed the beauty of metamorphosis, the power of mutability over the fragility of things, the freedom of the finite self to the many selves. And what is fiction but a series of little deaths of the selves. A writer dies with each book he or she writes and is reborn again with a new one.

So if the novel is dead, I for one am not going to let it go gentle into that good night. I’m going to rage and fight and get as many words down as possible. I’m going to write as if the devil himself is at my heels and wants my soul for eternity.

The time is ripe to rise like the phoenix from the ashes of dead novels.

Le livre est morte, vive le livre!


Let’s Celebrate!

Before I begin the celebrations, though, I would like to take off my writer’s hat and offer a big bow to the wonderful writer Cat Valente, who recently wrote a blog about the importance of ritual in our lives. It was her generous, open heart that made mine flutter.

Why is it that a part of our humanity wishes to deny others the chance to love?

We do it by refusing to let gay couples marry. We do it when we become sanctimonious and moralizing and snigger at holidays like  St. Valentine’s Day or Christmas or even St. Patrick’s Day — although you will generally never hear these same people criticizing Flag Day or the Fourth of July. I guess patriotism is above ridicule and well below any honest ritual.

That’s why this whole mass of inertia against gay marriage will not win in the end. (And isn’t that what damn Christianity is based on, Love and Forgiveness?)

Do we really think in our arrogance that we can deny people the chance to love?

Thing is, why do any of us have to agree to do what others do? Is it just so we can get along? But here lies the irony: we actually don’t get along with each other (look at wars, look at violent crimes, look at the blatant bigotry and racism that surrounds us in this bleak and awful and also wonderful world).

Okay, let’s consider Valentine’s Day. My wife and I celebrate this holiday with slices of neapolitan cake (ah, that marzipan and cake is like love’s “ever-fixed mark”). If someone else wants to get a Hallmark card, okay, do it, that’s their way of honouring the day. I don’t want to do that (it’s not me), but why should I stomp on their way?

Plus, that kind of ego-driven desire to squash another person, to make them feel like their choices in life are worthless and petty and risible, simply misses the whole point of ritual and celebration. The most important thing is that we celebrate the sacred that allows us to transcend the monotony of the every day. It’s our way to stay human and not become machines. And we also connect with the past and the future this way, and can for a brief time sense everything that has come before, making it special, making the past not dead, but alive, making it a living presence that was once full of people so much like us who lived and suffered, too.

If we deny rituals and holidays, we just cut off the past, which is a bad thing. We won’t even recognize the others who came before us also had great ideas, imagination, and invented and loved and married and celebrated and died.

Contrary to common belief: We are not the only century with the greatest inventions, the greatest stories to tell, the greatest achievements, the greatest visions, the greatest lifestyles, the greatest ad infinitum.

If the past tells us anything, it is to continually remind us to stay humble. Death is coming for me, I always hear the past whisper. I am not a monument. I am a life. And lives pass — which is our burden and our lightness of being. We inherit death from others. Why, then, do we think we can deny anyone anything? We cannot deny. Death teaches us this. Life, too, if we look at it with our doors of perception cleansed, as the great Poet Blake wisely tells us to do.

That is why it is so important for us to celebrate, to revel in the fleeting, mutable world that rushes on even though we try to keep it with us. Even at our most intimate moments (sex, sharing a meal together, and reading a book, being three), we are reminded that tempus fugit; and the world comes in like a giant with a bone to pick.

Do away with our celebratory nature and we might as well do away with our hearts. Pickle them in jars and hide them away all winter long and bring them out only in summer, when times are good, when there is harvest and bounty, and show them off to the world. But how will we know that summer is upon is if we refuse to celebrate?

Refusing to mark off time is like refusing to signpost a road. If we did that, then all roads would lead nowhere and all would be the same. It would be like saying we should all just exist as DNA, since this is what carries all our genetic make-up and makes us who we are. Great. But where would we be without a heart and a mind? And what room does that leave for the soul?

So go and buy the person you love a box of chocolates if it makes you feel alive, if it makes you feel like love is a living not dead emotion within you. Like the great poet Rilke has written: “To love is also good, for love is hard. Love between one person and another: that is perhaps the hardest thing it is laid on us to do, the utmost, the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation.” I would add to celebrate is also hard, but it is needed if we hope to have any chance at leading tragic and comedic lives.

And if we want to romance the naysayers back into love with St. Valentine’s Day, let’s reinvigorate it. Let’s make it into a contemporary Lupercalia festival of fertility and purification with milk and blood and wool.

What full-blooded modern man or woman wouldn’t like to strip naked and spank each other with strips of goat flesh?

Domesticated & Wild

Our eldest cat, Calamity, died. She was 16. Everyone is sad around the house. My wife and I got her from a shelter when we first moved to Maine ten years ago. We’re all going to deeply miss her.

I didn’t always like cats, though. The kind of pets I have always wanted are a fox or a crow or a hawk. But my wife keeps telling me these are familiars, not pets. She’s right.

But I’ve come to love cats, their independent nature, their aloofness, their sleeping habits, their intelligence, their sensualism.

And their wildness.

Yes, they are domesticated animals, but just look a cat in the eyes and you can sense their wild nature staring you down. Dogs on the other paw are completely domesticated. You’d have a hard time witnessing their wild nature, unless, of course, they bit you.

But cats! Even the way they stretch is wild and unpredictable. You feed them and house them and, yet, they still hunt and kill and at the first opportunity will make a run for it when the front door’s opened.

I know that’s why I like having them around. I like to know there’s some wildness in my life. I don’t live a crazy, stormy, turbulent and boisterous life. I live a quiet one: I work at my job, spend time with my wife and two girls, clean the house, shop for food — I do all the never-ending chores of a domesticated existence. (Like Flaubert wrote: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you can be violent and original in your work.”) And I enjoy it — there is a pleasure in just simple things.

But having cats makes me remember that I have a wild nature, too. I’m not just a domesticated, civilized human being. I am also a wild creative person. That’s where my wildness lies, in the imagination, when I sit down to write at night, typing away, immersed in my fiction, my cats racing around the house, playing and caterwauling, hunting and prowling, stretching and jumping from one height to the next.

That’s when I feel like I’ve chosen the perfect familiar.