In My Defence
The shelf was empty. Alarmed, I checked atop drawers and desks; the kitchen bench; the arms of chairs in the living room; in backpacks and cupboards. Nothing. I sifted dirt in the backyard, climbed the lemon tree to scan the horizon, pawed through the dimness behind the couch. The books had gone.
I crept to the back shed. It was the last place they might expect me to look. Inside, I witnessed the final stages of a mutiny, a scene from Jacques-Louis David’s The Tennis Court Oath. From the disparate territories of my house, dozens of unfinished books had united. Their common grievance—the oppression of bookmarks jammed into their middles, the dust gathering on their jackets—eclipsed traditionally divisive differences of form, genre and epoch. The fluttering of their pages spelled revolt.
There was the Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson; The White Book by Han Kang; Metamorphoses by Ovid; The Visiting Privilege, 99 Stories of God and The Changeling by Joy Williams; Self-Help by Lorrie Moore; Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; Italian Folktales and Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino; The Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro; Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif; Milkman by Anna Burns; The Power by Naomi Alderman; The Idiot and The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Literature and Those Who Read It by Elif Batuman; The Unicorn Hunt and The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett; The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson; Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe; Evolution by Eileen Myles; Griffith Review #63 and Sick Leave Journal #1.
I turned to flee. Recent copies of The Lifted Brow and Voiceworks blocked the door. I did my best against the throng, but was eventually overpowered by the Collected Stories of John Cheever.
I am writing this from a dismal, vaporous cell. I am told I will be allowed to leave when I have admitted the extent of my crimes, and promised to finish all the books I have abandoned midway. The guard, a thin, manic little copy of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, tells me of the revolutionary government the books are devising. I try to seem interested. It throws rotting vegetables at me when I stop writing. What follows is a confession, and my defence.
I admit I am not finishing many books. I feel like if I spend too long with one novel or collection exclusively, I become sluggish and petulant. I resent the tyranny of voice, inertia of narrative and formula of plot. In this mood I feel the need to disturb my perspective, to upset the hegemony of accumulating text (for the record, I note this might be sophistry concealing laziness, or thought complicating enthusiasm). I enact this disturbance by picking up another book.
Either way, I’m spending small amounts of time with various titles, and noting how the text, in a way unbound, interacts and dialogues. I imagine this is how primeval human beings invented fire, combining elements in trial and error, then observing what they produced. Reading fragments of many texts during a short period creates similar sparks, illuminating aleatory routes toward unfamiliar ideas or images.
The interaction between the text of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and ‘Winter Chemistry’, a story in The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams, is at the forefront of my mind.
Metamorphoses is an anthology of Greco-Roman mythologies collected by the poet Ovid, early in the first century CE. Throughout the stories, causality is arbitrary, temporality convoluted and logic absurd. Scores of characters are given a name and history only to be murdered in the next line. Disproportionate punishments are meted out by gods and heroes. Mundane soliloquies carry on for pages. A total of seventeen people and one spear are transformed into trees. Ovid often breaks a scene entirely to compare the Roman emperor Augustus to a powerful hero or god in the story at hand. To a postmodern sensibility, it seems these myths were written by Samuel Beckett, Angela Carter or Don DeLillo. And yet they are a determinedly, refreshingly sincere set of stories.
One of my favourite tales is that of Tiresias, who is changed from a man into a woman after striking two enormous, copulating serpents with his staff. She spends seven years as a woman, an experience Ovid omits entirely. At the end of the seven years, she discovers the same snakes fighting. Delivering unto the snakes a second whack, Tiresias is reverted into a man.
At this point, Zeus and Hera, two powerful gods, ask Tiresias to settle an argument between them. Zeus believes women enjoy sex more than men, and Hera argues the opposite. Tiresias agrees with Zeus. Peeved, Hera blinds him. After she has stormed off, Zeus apologetically imbues Tiresias with the power of prophecy.
I read Joy Williams’ story ‘Winter Chemistry’ soon after the Tiresias myth. In it, Williams recounts the pubescence of two highschool girls in a rural American town. Judy and Julep embark on nightly excursions to a frigid hill, a vantage point from which they can view the bedroom of a handsome male chemistry teacher. They watch him undress, besieged by a combination of intense boredom, societal expectations and teenage lust. Events occur inexplicably, bodies froth and change, time and space are subject to random shifts. The style between the myth and the short story is similar in this regard. And yet, I read Williams’ fiction assuming that the meaning is accessible only by analysis, that the surface is good only for clues.
I recall the story of Tiresias. In the mindset of a contemporary reader, I presume and seek meaning below the surface of its plot. I interrogate his decision to turn back into a man, the imagery of the snakes, the symbol of his blinding. But then, reading from Ovid into ‘Winter Chemistry’, the echoing sincerity and simplicity of the myth alters my perception. I savour Williams’ story on the surface, relinquishing a literary need to investigate and analyse. Rather, I focus on the images, letting them signify without subjecting them to excavation.
I have finished Normal People by Sally Rooney and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, but read them both so quickly I only recall intense sensations, not words—which may indicate the accessibility and quality of the works. I’m wandering through two of Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels, The Unicorn Hunt and The Disorderly Knights. These are entangling, exhausting and replenishing altogether, something like Henry James writing historical fiction. She uses language as if it were music. Even the simplest sentences are written with an elegant, run-on cadence. For example: ‘He threw the child in the air and returned it, fizzing with aerated mirth’; ‘The temperature was in the nineties; the sky removed a man’s breath from the lip of the lung with its invisible heat’; ‘…where the pitted yellow-grey sandstone ran out under the water like petrified sponges, watermoiled and ribboned with weed.’ The novels are plot-driven, dramatic, romantic, and meticulously researched.
There is one collection I feel like I will never finish, though I’ve read its brief array of stories several times each. This is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Some days a handful of his lines are as affecting as the sum of a novel. They deposit in me a seething knowing, dually of euphoria and horror. A burning smell. I find the stories themselves hard to describe. Everything I write feels cheap and incorrect in comparison.
For example, the blurb of Jesus’ Son reads, ‘These stories tell of spiralling grief and transcendence.’ It’s the variety of sentence I have been drafting, trying to summarise the collection. But that blurb is a corpse, a chalky string of signifiers which essence has departed. The beauty of these stories waits in ambush, and might only be accessed by a reader in the moment of her reading. Some scenes are so pure and terrible and funny it is impossible to transfer them, with fidelity, into other words. So instead of failing to explain for a moment longer, here is an image, which concludes the story ‘Steady Hands at Seattle General’:
‘Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I’m fine.’
It seems my confession will do for now. The cell door swings open. The books set me free.
Jim Thomas lives in Naarm (Melbourne). His writing has appeared in Voiceworks.