Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"... and ALWAYS for something completely different"

It was about 1983 when Mark and I became best friends. I use his real name because enough time separates us, and the name was common enough around here then, that it's as anonymous as calling him any other name.

Fifteen to his fourteen, I was in high school, but he was the cool one. I came over one time, he turned on the party light he'd built and calibrated to respond to his stereo, and he plunged my brain into something incomprehensible.

It was the original radio recordings of Hitchhiker's Guide.

I had no understanding of what was coming out of his speakers, there was no reference point by which I could make sense of the chorus of Cyrius Cybernetics voices buzzing out their little piece of the universe being built out of sound effects and voice acting. It all made no sense to me, and as is still to some degree my wont, that which was unfamiliar made me resistant, because I hated the confusion.

It probably took half an hour at least for me to even get that there was a story being told.

For me, back then, "writing" meant books - I was scarcely aware that the fare on our TV set (we used to call them "TV sets" - now ask me about hifi) involved composing scripts - and books came in few genres. Lots of nonfiction, for which I hadn't yet gotten the hang of caring. 19th century lit of various stripes, owned by us but belonging to nobody in particular. Mom's romantic novels. Dad's joke books; nothing else he might read could possibly have interested me.

So I "got" Bennet Cerf and even Art Buchwald, and novels by Poe and the like. But comedic science fiction? In radio format? I only understood radio drama as something that had gone the way of the dodo shortly after Baby Snooks cut her teeth.

Douglas Adams bent my brain.


Then I got to college and read Richard Brautigan. It is more than my eloquence can even attempt, explaining this lit, but Trout Fishing in America meant a lot to me once. Thirty years on, I'm not sure my geriatric behind could make head nor tail of it anymore.


Then I discovered Donald Harington. The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, only one of the Stay Moronian novels he penned, layered in ways even by then I couldn't intellectually cope with. Historical fiction? Yes. Picaresque? Yes. Folk tales? Yes. Family epic? Yes. Fantasy? Yes. All of, and so much more than, the above.

And it was Harington who put it best: we must write neckties.

Write things that are impractical and colorful. Write neckties.


Recently, I have picked up my late and beloved Aunt L's copy of The Known World.  I was fortunate to meet Edward Jones at a conference years ago, and yet somehow in the vagaries of the TBR pile, this has never quite hit the top at a time when I ended up finishing it. This week is different.

The novel is a quilt; not merely featuring a wide cast, but it is in itself a wide cast of a large net. There is factual history to be found here, and some detail so vivid it feels like documentation, or memory, or The Sight. Scenes are discussed as if by a storyteller - BY a storyteller, of course - but the "there-ness" is complete, the characters breathe and move in life not because of our intimacy with their imagined thoughts, but because they are viewed with respect - both literal and in the perspective sense - to their humanity. Human action, nuance by nuance. And so the omniscient document becomes the novel, and draws us into the curious world of freed men who owned slaves, in American history.

Having not so long ago finished reading Gigi Amateau's Come August, Come Freedom, there is a resonance, though her style is more what my brain would have called "traditional" as I grappled with all of the experimental and unexpected and creative work mentioned.


My own work is "traditional" in the extreme, of course. I don't color outside the lines; it took me too long to learn how to stay *in* them. But the obvious truism to (neck)tie up this post is this: without listening to, reading, learning from those who don't need the lines at all, I would not be able to color at all.

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