The We of Me

I first came across Carson McCullers while living in Japan. These were pre-Internet days, more or less–certainly pre-ereader–and I was living in eastern Hokkaido, far from any English-language bookstores. I ran across The Heart is a Lonely Hunteron the library shelves of a different KPU–not Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where I now work, but Kushiro Public University, where my partner Wayne was teaching on an exchange program at the time. I checked it out, and rapidly worked my way through the library’s other McCullers titles (The Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye, the short stories) which were there courtesy of one of the English professors, who had a particular passion for her work. It’s impossible for me now to entirely separate the experience of living through an icy Kushiro winter from the reading of McCullers’ hot, scorching Southern narratives, or the liveliness of her prose from the experience of living in another language, one I began to learn and speak painfully slowly, and never entirely to read during my ten months there, during which I alternately relished and was disoriented by the absence of comprehensible written language in my surroundings. It was an unforgettable year, filled with wonder and friendships. It was also the year I began, very tentatively, to write fiction. 

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” The first sentence of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, can in a sense be read as a summation of her entire oeuvre: setting comes first (always the South, its small towns), then her chosen protagonists, outsiders of one kind or another, often very different from each other, even in this case; and finally, a celebration of love & loyalty between unlikely partners, or those who might be seen as such. But not only this–there’s a certainty about the voice here, its invocation of the storyteller’s power to conjure a world we as readers are invited to accept, without fuss. Yes, it’s a “hook”–setting up a mystery, raising some dramatic questions. But it’s also a provocation: don’t assume, it says. Don’t assume you know where this might be going. Don’t assume you can possibly know the depth and mystery of the love between these two people, whose understanding of each other is entirely their own. Now look again: the town and the mutes are held together, and set apart from each other, by a single comma. It’s a precarious sentence, easily unbalanced. Take away any one of these elements (town, mutes, togetherness) and the whole thing might just fall apart: such is the fragility of human connection, the “we of me” so yearned for by 12-year-old Frankie, the protagonist of The Member of the Wedding.

 McCullers’ first novel, published when she was only 23, was an “instant” success, but her personal and writing lives were anything but easy. A lesbian, whose love affairs with other women, such as Anne-Marie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, have been routinely trivialized by biographers, she suffered from poor mental and physical health throughout her life, and was alternately married to and divorced from a man whose alcoholism and violence threatened them both. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view her life or works as “tragic.” She lived for a while in the famous creative hotbed of February House, alongside Paul and Jane Bowles, Gypsy Rose Lee and Richard Wright, and pursued her artistic, romantic and spiritual goals with an ongoing intensity despite the limitations imposed on her by an early stroke. She died at only 50. Short and intense, the three novellas, or short novels, which followed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding) went on to perfect the form, and make it her own.

Nevertheless, it’s some of her short stories that most stay with me. Wunderkind, which draws on her early experience as a piano-playing prodigy, and Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland, published in The New Yorker in 1941. In the latter (spoiler alert), a harried music professor is discovered to be a harmless congenital liar, only for her accuser to discover that the rational world he so trusts in may not be so law-abiding after all. Whimsical yet profoundly affecting, by its ending the story achieves an almost prodigal degree of lift-off; it’s also one of the best defences of fiction I’ve ever read.

Not Remotely Depressing At All

Leslie Marmon Silko: drawing by CS from unattributed photograph

Writing (and reading) fiction about difficult, aka “unpleasant” things can be, well, difficult. Generally , it seems, readers look to fiction for reassurance, escape, uplift and validation, and perhaps rightly so, given how hard it is just to stay alive. 

I, too, read for these reasons. However, I also take great comfort and inspiration from work which is challenging, even frightening, repulsive, or, that most commonly-used adjective: depressing. Why is this? Perhaps because it gives me hope when someone has the courage to tell it like it is; also, because reading such work provides a welcome break from the nullifying social obligation to be cheerful all the time. I feel so much less alone afterwards. Smiley face.

In the mid to late 90s, I was not having a good time. One of my coping mechanisms became reading “difficult’ books; arguably, it still is. One of the books I read at that time was Laguna Pueblo poet and novelist Leslie Marmon Silko’s monumental epic, Almanac of the Dead. Published in 1991 and clocking in at 763 densely-packed pages, Almanac of the Dead takes as its focus the unremitting evil that is White European colonial culture and the damage it has wrought in the Americas. Or rather, more significantly, the long-predicted and much-awaited future collapse of said culture, and return to indigenous sovereignty and values as symbolized by the emergence of a giant, stone snake at the mouth of a uranium tailings mine in the Laguna Pueblo. Geographically the novel centres on Tucson, Arizona, but ranges as far as the Caribbean, Mexico and the US East Coast in its depiction of vast criminal and insurgent networks.

With over 70 significant protagonists, the novel manages to convey a complex, multi-dimensional communal reality, while also focusing in on unforgettable events and individuals, including Sterling, an older Laguna Pueblo man who functions as a sympathetic touchstone at the heart of all the intersecting narratives. Innocent and trusting, Sterling has nevertheless become infatuated by toxic elements of White culture and begins the novel in exile from his community after guiding a Hollywood film crew onto its sacred lands. By the end of the novel Sterling has returned to the Pueblo with a new perspective: “Sterling saw them over and over in dreams; ghost armies of Lakota warriors, ghost armies of the Americans leading armies of living warriors, armies of indigenous people to retake the land.”

Upon its publication, Almanac of the Dead received both praise and criticism. Some critics expressed outright disgust and revulsion toward not just the form and content, but the underlying message of the book. One of the key elements of the novel is its focus on spirituality, psychic powers and what might be termed witchcraft, i.e. the harnessing of spiritual or paranormal energies to enact social (as well as individual) change. This particular element of Silko’s panoramic realism also unsettled many, not least because it unseats White Romantic notions of a human-centric, benign Nature, not to mention Christian god: “The snake did not care if people were believers or not; the work of the spirits and prophecies went on regardless.”

 More recently, the novel has been criticised for its depiction of queer characters. It’s true that two of the more prominent characters, Beaufrey and Serlo, are upper-class gay men who participate in drug trafficking and sexual exploitation. Like many of Silko’s characters, it could be argued, their marginalization has rendered them vulnerable to the delusions of the dominant culture. Ultimately, however, I believe the novel’s restless structure teaches the reader not to identify with or draw conclusions about individual characters but rather to engage with the larger psychic, cultural and moral forces that are, in a sense, its true protagonists. 

Silko herself acknowledges the novel’s power. “If you make it all the way through Almanac, it makes you strong. It’s like one of those stronger remedies. You do have to tell some people, hey, if it starts to bother you, put it down. Rest.”

When I read Almanac, it was the summer and I was on my (first and only) road trip down the West Coast. The conditions under which I first read books are often forever intertwined with my feelings about them. Almanac accompanied me through long, sleepless nights in KOA campgrounds. My progress through it was interrupted by grocery runs to Californian health food stores where undernourished white hippies, clearly stoned, complained about the lack of probiotics. And while in its midst, I fondled the giant varnished balls on a roadside statue of Paul Bunyan’s ox, survived a night surrounded by black bears in a redwoods wildflower meadow, and viewed the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time. Throughout, I was hungry for truth, and to know that the presence of a clear-eyed yet passionate witness could somehow facilitate change, even for those who might never live to see it.

Today I’m still grateful for the courage and vision that led Leslie Marmon Silko to embark on the perilous journey of writing this novel. It’s a challenging read, and evokes visceral reactions in many–how could it not?–yet it’s a world I return to again and again for mental renewal and, believe it or not, comfort. In June 2020, its multi-faceted depiction of our current condition appears more accurate and necessary than ever. 

Of Potatoes and Alligators

In Jane Bowles’ story “Plain Pleasures,” published the year I was born, 1966, we meet Alva Perry, “a dignified and reserved woman of Scotch and Spanish descent in her early forties,” who is “still handsome, although her cheeks were too thin.” Alva is widowed and lives alone in a tenement, in the basement of which lives John Drake, “an equally reserved person.” One day Alva runs into John, not coincidentally it seems, and the two of them end up sharing a deliciously dreary “potato bake” in the back yard, the quintessential “plain pleasure” of the title. 

Jane Bowles (drawing by CS, sourced from photograph at

John Drake’s faltering attempts at conversation are swept away by Alva Perry, whose long monologue touches on her sister, Dorothy Alvarez, an extrovert, whose invitation to “go and raise the dickens with her” Alva refuses, stating “It’s always better to stay alongside of your life,” by which she presumably means, engage in plain pleasures with men such as John Drake. John Drake’s own monologue (there is no real conversation) touches on his decision to turn down an opportunity to run an alligator farm in Florida, a decision which has left him “woeful.”

Eventually Alva goes out to eat with John Drake, who offers her “Nothing dishonorable … on the contrary, something extremely honorable if you will accept.” Alva Perry does not. Instead, rather inebriated, she winks at the lecherous restaurant proprietor and goes upstairs to one of his bedrooms, where she falls into bed, ecstatic to be alone. 

At this point, as the rain teems down outside an open window, we become privy to the inner complexity of Alva Perry. “I have kept the pathway open all my life,” she mutters to herself, thinking fondly of her own bedroom, “.. so that I could get back.” Weeping, she imagines herself back there,”an expression of malevolent triumph” transforming her face as she finally falls asleep. 

What is the triumph, and from whose perspective is it malevolent? Bowles is engaging here in a kind of observational Cubism–we are viewing Alva both from outside and in, simultaneously. Alva wants intimacy, but not at the price of her own integrity–pleasure, nullified by plain-ness–and can only rest when both poles are held in relationship. The impossible situation of a woman whose desire for intactness conflicts with her urge to connect is subtly contrasted with the (perhaps) less torturous or loaded solitude of poor John Drake.

When Alva wakes, sobered, the next morning, she remembers her uncle passing out at a business convention, and comforts herself by considering this similarity. She’s relatively normal, after all. Isn’t she? This morning the restaurant is clean and empty, and her date long since gone, allowing her to indulge in some paradoxical sentiment: “John Drake, … my sweet John Drake.”

So far so quaint. But let’s back up a page: there is a faint suggestion, just as Alva heads upstairs, that the restaurant proprietor might be planning to take advantage of her while she is passed out, a suggestion never resolved. Bowles would never be so crude. Her stories trade less in events than perceptions; few of her characters, least of all Alma, are even conventionally likeable. Far from plain, despite its straightforward language, “Plain Pleasures” reveals a parallel world in which people try to talk yet no one understands, and in which apparently tragic events remain oddly comic. It’s a disturbing, absurdist little masterpiece.

One Serious Lady

I am not sure who you are, or how you found me. I am not sure where I am writing from, or when, this being a disembodied place, and the form neither an intimate letter nor a public performance. Perhaps it’s rather like broadcasting , speaking into the single ear of an imaginary listener while speaking through that listener to an unseen world. What I do know is that I’m here to write about reading, and writing, and the space literature makes for humans to hear, know and see a little of each other. 

The title of this blog comes from Jane Bowles’ novel Two Serious Ladies, a “serious work of art” which is also droll, ludicrous, and tragic. Jane Bowles, in case you don’t know, was a misfit of her times who experienced struggles with language, both speech and writing, whilst also living a life of privilege and proximity to literary power centres. Her work could have ended up completely unknown were it not for her connections. White, wealthy and well educated, she was also Jewish, queer and disabled; she married fellow writer and composer Paul Bowles to whom she had a lifelong attachment. Seeking space to live more openly (Paul was also queer) they moved to North Africa, where Jane formed a deep erotic connection to a woman merchant with whom she shared almost no common language.

A genius at capturing the non-communicative power of speech and dialogue, she wrote plays and stories that existed on the edge of realism and surrealism–when she could. Mostly she was blocked. She drank and smoked to excess, and ultimately suffered a stroke which made speech difficult. Her position in the world was riven with contradiction and perhaps her triumph was to refuse to resolve any of it. Fortunately, her work was championed by important voices, and has undergone some revival, now that readers are perhaps better positioned to read it.

Her biography is certainly relevant, but it’s not the person as much as the work which I’m interested in here. Her stories gain their power from angular, aggressive juxtaposition: the placing of conflicting, jarring statements or details beside each other, such that a sentence begins one way and ends in another to the extent that it almost cancels itself out. Narratives are set up and proceed like realism, but the conventional cause and effect chain either isn’t there, or else deliberately undermines our expectations. In this way, Bowles launches an offensive against cliché, not just of character or plot but thought and emotion. Instead, Bowles makes no attempt to bend narrative into a shape which evokes moral epiphany or aesthetic satisfaction, such that the reader emerges from her fictional worlds with a sense of having witnessed something utterly true and complete.

My intent here, in this same spirit, is to respond seriously to books that have affected me, some of which may be well-known or well-regarded, all of which have touched, provoked and/or inhabited me for a while, in particular those which work against cliché. I’m particularly interested in amplifying works which have received less attention than they deserve. I also expect to veer off into other creative directions, including covering issues of interest related to my recent novel, The Causes, and other projects. Please tell me what you think, or if you have a title to suggest.