Monday, January 28, 2013

Cowboys and aliens and spies

Spent the weekend on the couch reading Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, a fluidly-written, extensively-researched masterpiece of synthesis and even-handedness. But there is just so much weirdness and wrongness to process that half-way through, I realized I was developing an odd immunity. Sailing to Italy to find treasures buried in former lifetimes? Uh huh. Universe four quadrillion years old? Uh huh. Writing so revelatory it will cause the uninitiated to jump out windows or die of pneumonia? Sure, why not.

The Church of Scientology infiltrated government offices around the world? Uh huh. Harassed the IRS into granting it tax-exempt status? OK. Woman with legal complaint against the Church found with slit wrists, two suicide notes, three bullets in chest and one in head, and it’s still not declared a homicide? Hmm. Next?

Defections and disappearances and secret bases? Cowboys and aliens and spies? Yeah. Uh huh. All of it.

Humankind cannot bear very much reality, T.S. Eliot wrote. And some humankind, it would seem, can’t bear any at all.

This book is not for sale in Canada or the U.K. Apparently we have libel laws that would only make it easier for the notoriously litigious Church of Scientology to win a lawsuit against the publisher. But I am full of admiration for Lawrence Wright for having the courage and the skillfulness (in the ordinary and the Buddhist sense) to take this on. I hope he gets another Pulitzer. (And makes a gazillion dollars, in case he has to fight lawyers on billion-year retainers.)

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Yesterday I finished reading a Frankennovel.  An award-winning Frankennovel, no less.

A Frankennovel is stitched together out of good and bad parts and brought to lurching life by an artificial external energy source (usually a jolt called Publication). The good parts are shapely and in working order, the flawed parts uneven or mismatched or bolted together.

But flaws are not the problem; readers will overlook or forgive or forget the flaws of living novels.

Frankennovels feel to me like exercises in novels. Like the author wanted to Write a Novel, and so assembled the parts, and pieced them together with skill. But the story started off dead, and remains dead at heart. 

Then I thought about the award, and wondered if it’s the reader’s job to bring the beating heart. Maybe the failing was mine. While contemplating the question, I came across this line in Peter Schjeldahl's review of an exhibition of abstract art at MOMA:

“The proof of any art’s lasting value is a comprehensive emotional necessity: it’s something that a person needed to do and which wakens and satisfies corresponding needs in us.”*

Not every novelist can write in the fever dream that Garcia Marquez says produced One Hundred Years of Solitude.  But that compulsion is necessary for lesser novels as well. What Schjeldahl calls a ”comprehensive emotional necessity” never arises from the desire for publication or from the idea of Writing a Novel (or Being a Writer). It’s a love affair with the story. That is the beating heart. 

* Schjeldahl, Peter. "Shapes of Things." The New Yorker: 7 Jan. 2013: 68

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Old New Year's Eves and Days

Notes from Old Journals. (With Status Updates.)

December 31, 1985: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Home for the holidays from university. My dad has given his sister a fat, smiling “Buddha of Happiness” statue and I rub the round belly for luck. (Later, in Bhutan, I will see hundreds of depictions of dozens of Buddhas, but never this one; I will learn this is not the Buddha at all, and the Buddhist way to happiness has nothing to do with luck, but with karma.)

January 1, 1991: Sudbury, Ontario
Home for the holidays after two years of teaching in Bhutan. I am miserable, disoriented, homesick for the mountains. “Time is moving so slowly, at times I feel stuck in one hour forever. If I were home for good, how long would this take? To pass, I mean.” (See Answer, January 1999.)

January 1, 1994: Gomtu, Bhutan 
Visiting my in-laws with my husband, Tshewang, and our son, Pema. “Pema wakes in the morning and escapes the mosquito net. There are the usual necessities – diapers, juice.” (I do not write about the other necessity: a feeling of belonging in this country that I love, that I have married into. I do not know it is necessary. I don’t even know it is missing.)

December 31, 1995: Thimphu, Bhutan 
We have just moved from a tiny, cramped, two-bedroom Bhutanese-style cottage into a spacious three-bedroom Western-style bungalow. I love the house and feel at home. Tshewang does not love the house, he does not feel at home. Our marriage is unravelling and I don't know how to knit it back up. Instead I write. My friend Susan has been pestering me to submit something to some CBC contest I've never heard of, so I begin an essay (that will win a $10,000 award and become a book).

December 31, 1997: Thimphu, Bhutan
Champagne and Auld Lang Syne with friends. Tshewang and I have split up. I have decided to leave Bhutan. I wake up on January 1 and write, “I don’t want to go.” Why am I leaving? Whenever anyone asks, I always have a good five or six reasons on hand, but none of them really answers the question.

January 1, 1999: Lanark, Ontario
With Pema and my best friend, Susan. I have been in Canada for six months. I have left Bhutan, I have left Tshewang, my life story does not make sense to me. I think I am going to feel this grief forever. Susan assures me I will not. I am afraid that I have burned through all my allotted luck and happiness. Susan assures me I have not. But how long will this take to pass? (Answer: a long, long time.)

December 31, 1999: Toronto, Ontario
With Pema and Tshewang, down by Lake Ontario, star-struck equally by fireworks and by the thousands and thousands of people gathered peacefully to watch the skies and celebrate the biggest New Year’s Eve in a thousand years. No planes fall out of the sky; the grid stays up. The only sign of disorder we see is a couple of teenagers throwing a newspaper into the street. A police officer tells them to pick it up. They do. Our eyes go back to the chandeliers in the sky. Tshewang says, “I feel proud to be a human being.”

December 31, 2002: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Visiting family. I make a list of accomplishments for the year: went to teacher’s college, got a Canada Council grant for a novel about a broken-up family, got shortlisted for a CBC Canadian Literary Award (what?? I don’t even remember what story I sent in), filed three years of late income tax returns. I have been in therapy for two years. I am lucky. I am starting to feel happy.

January 1, 2004: Toronto
Listen to Billie Holliday, eat leftover shrimp risotto, wish for a full-time teaching job. (Note: Wish comes true later that year. Luck? Karma? The fruits of therapy? All of the above? It is a job that gives me great happiness.) 

December 31, 2008: Toronto
I finish my first novel about a broken-up family, two hours before midnight. I mean, "finish." (It's never finished. Even after it is published, to my great delight, in 2011.)

January 1, 2012: Toronto
I go to the gym and am tricked by the sight of the sun into walking home with wet hair. While my scalp thaws, I leaf through old journals and think about luck and karma and happiness. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "a great majority of the European words for 'happy' at first meant 'lucky.' An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meant 'wise'." In Buddhism, there are several words for happiness, but that is a topic for another day. According to the Bhutanese, whatever you do on the first day of the new year sets the pattern for the rest of the year, so I have to work on my second novel.