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Friday, November 25, 2011

WRITERS AS LIARS: EXPERIENCE + IMAGINATION

I  saw a video on openbooktoronto.com recently, a poet reading about the terror of drowning while a couple of musicians quietly played an accompaniment of jazz. The reading was appropriately grim.
As an 11 year-old kid I very nearly drowned in the Aegean and it wasn’t like that for me. The terror was not in the drowning - it was the rescue. I remember being surprised at how quickly I gave in. After a brief, panicked struggle a kind of immutable logic took over and I realized there was no sense fighting the sea. I was being caressed and all the clich├ęs were true - the warmth, the boundless love and euphoria.
It was after being saved the nightmares came and they went on for years and still return sometimes, and they're always about being ripped back to the stark screaming sun, the hysteria of women's voices, men yelling, strong hands and arms hanging me by the ankles - which was the accepted manner back then of dealing with near drowning victims, to hang them by the ankles and let the water run out of their lungs. None of that fey pumping of the legs and knees while the victim's on their back.

The problem is no amount of metaphor, adjective or other artistic wordiness has ever done experience justice. Others who've been there tell me of a similar reaction - the sobbing and trauma are about the rescue, not the drowning. You can try to describe that without going through it and you might produce some very good work but in the end, it's just too big for words, for art, for anything. We're are talking about the sea after all.

That makes me question the whole idea of writers strictly using their imagination to write a piece of fiction about a particular subject while having no personal experience whatsoever. A book I read recently that brings this issue to mind is Toni Bentley's paean to sodomy, The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir. The book purports to be drawn from deeply personal experiences. It’s funny in parts, awkward and pretentious in others, but it can be pretty smart, sexy and titillating yet ultimately it feels imagined. The fellow who teaches her about this "holy fuck", whom she christens "A-Man", is so perfect he has zero personality and zero real impact, which is fairly ironic.

Toni imagines this incredible lover who can go on for hours and hours, a pure sensualist, constantly attending to her most sublime whim. He makes the authors of the Kama Sutra seem like rank amateurs. He profoundly grasps every wince and twist of her sexual awakening, often before she does. Without demeaning Toni, he teaches her the exquisite art of fellatio. He's gorgeous but not vain, he's sensitive but not weak, he experiments but he's not flaky, he's worldly but not snobbish, he's brilliant but not stuffy or academic, he’s manly but not macho. In other words, he doesn't exist and that fact pained Toni Bentley enough she went ahead and created him.

Throughout the book, she revels in the surrender, in her submission to his power, to always be beneath him every time they perform “the act”, which she carefully enumerates. But Toni, darlin', you can sit on top - that works too and in fact, puts you in better control of the actual movement and it's even politically neutral. However, under all this Cosmo mag style naughtiness is something sadly reactionary. Toni Bentley's need to become submissive to a male, to “reclaim what was lost to the bitter gains of modern feminism.”
But how to do that without coming off like some brainless neo-con housewife? I know, sez Toni. I'll make him into a man so perfect, so in tune with a woman's needs he's practically a woman himself, except for his "lusciously sculpted manhood!"


A novel by GG Award winner David Gilmour called A Perfect Night to go to China has a similar issue. This time the narrator, a young father, slips out for a quick beer and his son is abducted. When I read it, something seemed deeply made-up about the premise: Father loves son, father puts son to bed. Father dashes to corner pub to see all-girl band and have one quick beer, just one. Father returns, father checks on son, son is gone.

Okay, so the protagonist gets home and sees his son has disappeared. What happens next is very strange. Rather than describe this crucial scene - how the father reacts to realizing his son has vanished, Gilmour writes this: “I’m not going to go into all the details of what happened next. I simply can’t go through it again and I’m sure you don’t want to hear it, either.”
Gilmour actually hadn’t described it earlier since the above quote comes just a few pages into the novel. He leaves it to the reader to imagine the scene. But I would like to hear all about it. I do want to know what goes through a father’s mind and heart and body. Yes, I want to know all the precise details, beyond the obvious.

It made me wonder if Gilmour realized there is no way he could know the deeper truth of what he would have to describe. His avoidance made me think of an entire novel where all pivotal plot points are ratcheted up with breathless tension, only to be quickly deflated with lines like: "Well, you know how it is, you get it."
The editor of Gilmour's novel told me the consensus was it didn't sell very well because women are the vast majority of book buyers and women don't want to read about an unresolved child abduction, that they find it too depressing. That seems pretty condascending. Perhaps readers just didn’t believe Gilmour's take on the subject. Maybe some things cannot be fully imagined, regardless of how much research you do.


Another book in this vein - but which was a best-seller - is Room by Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue. It's written from the perspective of a five-year-boy being held captive in a small room along with his mother. Sound familiar?
Donoghue wrote it after hearing about the bizarre Josef Fritzl case in Austria. This monster kept his daughter as a sex slave/prisoner in a concealed basement apartment. She was 42 when the story broke in 2008. Among the seven children she bore by him, one was a five year-old boy called Felix, the “inspiration” for Donoghue’s novel.

Room has won several awards but there's something hideous about the whole thing. The level of exploitation seems brutal. Can any of that story be truly imagined? Who has the right to tell it? Yes, Donoghue's book is very well crafted, very sympathetic and very poetic but that's beside the point. She could write it like Shakespeare but that doesn't change the fact she used the horribly traumatic experiences of this boy, his mother and his siblings to write an award-winning novel.

The problem is that Donoghue does not tell the truth. She can't. She imagines the truth and she might be right but then again, she might be completely wrong. For me, writing about a subject I have no clue about or not knowing anyone who does - it seems impossible but that just might be my own limitations. That can work with factual events and subjects but what about the emotional truth? Perhaps that's where listening to the stories of others comes in - and accepting them as such - not as your own experience but reporting the memories and impressions of others.


When dealing with a tragic event - like a child abduction or the Fritzl case, how would it be possible to have a specific frame of emotional reference. Donoghue and Gilmour would have both had to imagine that part of their stories, or acquired a version of it through the media. Is something like Room a media-driven narrative posing as the truth? Perhaps that's why it's so popular. The language is familiar, an acceptably benign dialect which can distance the rationale reader from the truly irrational and truly evil.



So are Toni Bentley, David Gilmour and Emma Donoghue liars? Is any writer who totally imagines a narrative a liar? No, they're not setting out to mislead anyone but they are making it up. Maybe you don't need to experience an actual event to write about it but then what are you writing about? Do authors have the right to guess, to create whatever they wish, even if it’s entirely imagined? Of course they do - and that is the point where it’s up to the reader to decide whether the author has indeed told some kind of truth.

Insane Women We Have Known + Loved - Part 1

I run into a guy I used to hang out with, Mitch Farrango. Hadn’t seen him in decades - literally. Something about drying out over night in the Barrie bucket, late summer during the late ‘90’s, back when Sauble Beach was a big hang-out.

“What you been up to, Mitch?”
“Been making time with this woman I used to know and met again not long ago. I think you probably knew her. Percy.”
“Percy?”
“Persephone.”
“Jesus…”
“Exactly.”
“She Greek?”
“No, you kidding? I ran into her in Kensington a few months ago. She was working in some coffee place near the corner of Baldwin, where they used to kill the chickens right there in front of you. Remember that? Thwack, off comes the head! Like they do in the Philippines with dogs. The Pork Chops who ran those places were always hosing down the pavement to get rid of the blood - this was before they banned all that shit after the granolas and Stroller-Nazis took over. Like they don’t eat chickens?”
“Yeah, my neighborhood’s full of Stroller-Nazis now. Them and their perfect little Aryan super children, they march in paying big cash for these goddamn shacks, throw up their fucking cafes and condos and galleries and health food bullshit and bistros and yoga and dog grooming places, and the lilywhite cocksuckers act like they’ve been there for twenty generations then look at ya like you’re some piece of shit. I love idling down their streets in first gear, high rpm - and the bike's so fucking loud, so much resonation, their goddamn car alarms go off! One, two, three in a row! What a fucking laugh. Some fat lawyer type with his hag and his mutt and his stupid kid, he yells at me, says-”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. Aren’t you gettin' kinda old for that?”
“No. Fuck them, the bastards. I want a revolution.”
“For fucksakes… Anyway, lemme tell ya about Percy. She’s a real fashion plate, right? I don’t mean this week’s bullshit - more classic. It makes sense. She works in movies doing wardrobe an all that, gets real expensive stuff for next to nothing. And she’s got a great face and these wicked green eyes.”
“Still going for green-eyed women, huh?”
“What, you like ‘em too.”
“Get on with it.”
“Also, Percy’s got great tits. Maybe a bit too big for her body. She’s always complaining about backaches. I picked up her bra once and man, I just admired it.”
“They can’t be that big.”
“Why not?”
“Well, what is she, some circus freak?”
“No, I’m just try to explain how big her tits are.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“I think her backaches have more to do with the incredible high heels she wears. She’s about 5 foot four but wears probably five or six inch heels. I mean like Jesus fucking Christ on a high-heeled crutch! You wouldn’t believe fucking her in those heels - it’s a real trip. I mean she digs it like hell, right - and what guy’s gonna say - ‘No, I’d rather not’? Horniest goddamn thing I’ve ever been involved in. But the high heels, they’ve given her bunions, which are pretty ugly but bunion surgery’s no big deal these days. Half a winter on your ass and both feet are done.”
“Yeah, there’s something to be said for a woman leaving her shoes on - well, if they’re great shoes. Actually, I think I like biker boots instead.”
“You would.”
“Y’know, those engineer type boots with the squared off toe and heavy duty leather ankle straps with the ring. And knee high. Talk about a fuck magnet.”
“I dunno. Too macho. I like those long pointy stilettos, like you’d slit your throat on them and die happy.”
“Yeah… I guess… but I’d rather have her with bare feet. I mean, c’mon, a woman with really hot feet?”
“It’s true. You can’t beat it. And you know what gets me?”
“What?”
“There’s some incredible unfucked feet out there.”
“Whaddaya mean?”
“You think all these bullet-headed guys with tribal tattoos and giant Ford pickups, you think they ever even considered fucking their woman’s feet?”
“They must have.”
“Not a fucking chance. Ask any chick out in the suburbs, in Mississauga, wherever. They’ll tell you. Sure, the bullethead dude, he likes her nice soft feet all manicured ‘n’ shit but has he ever actually fucked her feet? Wouldn’t cross their pea-sized brains, the goddamn retards!”
“What are ya getting all fire up about? So they don’t fuck their women’s feet. Leaves more for you.”
“What?! You think I’m gonna go around seducing Suzy Subdivision so I can waste half my fucking life teaching her the mind-blowing thrill of foot fucking?! FOR-get it!”
"Actually, the whole manicured soft as butter feet thing, I dunno, man. I'm gettin to like a woman with feet that have been around, a bit rough around the edges but still with great arches, like feet that could do something if they had to - walk through some bad terrain barefoot, that kind of thing."
"Sounds like you want hooves instead of feet."
"No, you don't get it. I mean feet that have character, experience, not some dainty mincy feet that need to be helped up craggy stone steps or whatever."
"Yeah... I guess..."
“Anyway, so what about this Percy characte?”
“Right. First of all, she’s not a ‘character.’ She’s high style. Every time she goes out the door, her entire outfit and accessories are completely thought out, even to go to the store. She wouldn’t be caught dead in some Juicy crap or fashion hoodie. Like I said, she’s high style. Any woman worth a damn has to be.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“You wanna go out with Little Miss Nice To Everybody Always With The Bland Smile and Limp Hair, that’s your hang-up. I like my women good looking, high strung and kinda bitchy, like you know they’ll rip a new asshole for any jackoff who gives you a hard time.”
“Sounds like a lotta trouble.”
“So? What are you - retired? Anyway, Percy lives just off College Street - on the stretch that got trendified about fifteen years ago or whatever, full of those clip joint cafes, bistros, gallery-bars, all that. Percy likes to eat at these places - see and be seen. I don’t mind. Women are into that. And because she gets all these clothes due to her movie jobs, she’s been getting me dressed up pretty good too.”
“I can see that.”
“Yeah. Check out this Union Nationale suit. Easy three grand. It’s supposed to be some fag’s ironic nod to those sharp-dressing Duplessis thugs from the ‘50’s, right? Those guys mighta been Nazi shitheads but they knew style.”
“Like Hugo Boss.”
“Hugo Boss?”
“Yeah, that wop designer way back. He designed the Gestapo uniforms or something - or maybe it was Italian fascist uniforms, something like that.”
“That shit was corny. This is class. I’m the same exact size as the actor who wore this thing - like only three times. He played a hip vampire dude in one of those shitty Canadian TV shows that got canceled after five minutes. Percy finagled it for like two hundred bucks.”
“Uh huh.”
“Yeah, she likes for us to get all dolled up and go out and eat. We never - or hardly ever eat at home.”
“Isn’t that expensive?”
“Christ, you’ve turned into a real flathead, haven’t ya? What - every lousy dime you make you gotta spend on some dirty used motorcycle part and that’s it? Besides, I’m making good money now and I like to spoil my girls. Anyway, Percy pays sometimes too.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, last Friday - oh, I gotta tell you - she’s got this weird blood-sugar thing. I don’t know what its called but it can make her nuts. Anyhow, last Friday night it was hot as hell and humid and there were tons of people out on College Street, lineups everywhere - I mean everywhere - Virgilio’s, the Freemason’s Club, the Pentagram, Jura’s, The Cap - even Bar Mode - all packed.”
“I’ve never heard of any of these places.”
“You wouldn’t have. So Percy starts to bitch and whine as we’re driving up and down College in this little rental car she’s got from the movie she’s working on. She’s in the passenger seat, gawking at the crowds like a wild animal. She starts to slap at the window, shrieking about how she’s so hungry and can’t take it, her body chemistry, it makes her nuts.”
“Yeah, you already mentioned that.”
“I’m just quietly at the wheel, y’know, trying not to say much, calm her down, the way you do with a really aggressive dog. ‘It’s okay, baby, it’s okay.’ But Percy turns it all on me, fangs out like she’ll claw my face off, crying her eyes out, make-up all a mess. Jesus.”
“Okay, so what did ya do?”
“Well, at the red light at Euclid she jumps out and starts running down the street yelling ‘I’M HUNGRY! I’M HUNGRY!’ I tried to follow next to her with the door open, begging her to get back in the car. All I need is some fuckin cop sticking his oar in - god knows what she’d tell them. So Percy comes whipping round to the driver’s side and rips the door open, screams she wants to drive, calling me a fucking asshole. At this point I’ve had it.”
“No shit.”
“I jump out of the car and flag down a passing cab and get in, tell the guy to go. Percy’s at the cab in a flash, pulling at the door like a maniac. The driver’s saying, ‘I think she knows you.’ And I tell him, ‘Fuck, no, never seen her in my life! She’s some lunatic. Just go, for fucksakes!’”
“So what happened to her?”
“No idea. Haven’t seen her since.”
“Wonder if she got anything to eat…”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Insane Women We Have Known + Loved - Part 2

I've been busy with a number of things lately, like getting ready for an extensive trip to the far east. But I thought I'd add one more installment of the series that some people couldn't stand and wanted censored or couldn't get enough of. Insane Women We Have Known + Loved - Part 2 is back to being entirely dialogue, unlike Part 3, which was more about the prose. Anyway, this blog is really about riffing, trying different things on to see how they run, that sort of deal.
So here is it is...


“Hey, Mitch, what’s going on?”
“Weird fuckin thing. You remember that friend of mine, Carey?”
“Hold on, lemme get a beer… So yeah, your friend Carey.”
“Pretty weird situation. Not like movie weird but weird weird.”
“Okay, so?”
“You know who I’m talking about right - Carey, that friend of mine who used to live in Pollock Town.”
“Yeah, the killer black-haired babe. What is she - about 47 or there abouts?”
“Closer to fifty now but looks better now than she ever did. That nice dark olive skin, really exotic.”
“I always thought she was from like New Brunswick or Nova Scotia, one of those outback hicksville white people places.”
“She is. From Bathurst, N.B.”
“So why’s she so dark?”
“Who the fuck knows. Her sister Molly’s blonde and blue eyed like a full-on Aryan milkmaid but Carey – she’s smoky. Some genetic thing. Maybe some Jew or Arab snuck ashore from an old three-master passing through those waters and got it on with a few of the local chicks. Had to be something like that.”
“Yeah, I got a couple cousins back in the old country - one of them is white blonde and has the bluest fucking eyes - like turquoise – freaky, and the other one could pass for some babe out of a Mogul’s harem.”
“Anyway, Carey calls me up a few nights ago, right. I hadn’t seen her in maybe five, six months but you know we’ve been friends forever, get it on once in a while, that kinda deal. It’s always been very copasetic between us, no pressure or bullshit.”
“Yeah, I always knew you two had a solid thing.”
“Really solid. You can’t crowd a woman like Carey. She’ll get into it with who she wants when she wants where she wants, that’s her thing. You know she got married a couple years ago, right?”
“No. She got married? Why the hell would a woman like her get fuckin married?”
“Who the hell knows. The guy kept telling her how he got off like crazy on her making it with all these different guys and chicks, that he dug the shit out of it. And she’s a straight up woman so she accepted his whole trip at face value.”
“Smart chick. Dumb move. You see a lot of that these days, every woman’s gotta have her idiot in the backroom some place.”
“Tell me about it. Me and everybody else told her the guy’s a flake. Of course soon as she marries him, his big hardon for her bangin whoever she wants goes soft as yogurt. Suddenly he loves just the idea of her doing all kinds of people.”
“Okay, so she calls you.”
“Yeah. I was - I don’t know what the fuck I was doing - nothing important so she phones and says what are you up to, feel like dropping by? No shit, Sherlock. Not like these young chicks who figure they’re so gorgeous they can just lie there and gift themselves.”
“Yeah, I know. I hate that shit, wondering to yourself, ‘Am I really gonna do a couple hundred push ups on top of this broad for no good reason?’”
“But a woman like Carey, well, you just go running when she calls.”
“Fuck, Mitch, you’re a lucky bastard.”
“Yeah. I am. Okay, so I go over there and at this point Carey and her husband, Phil - that fuckin creep, they been married like two years or so and she’s had it up to the eyeballs with his bullshit. See, after he got his tenure and so on, he starts to get uppity with her. As if to pat her on the head then give her some spiel about her being a 'media dupe.' Of course she wasn’t too much of a media dupe to support the guy while he was getting his Ultra Egghead Status but once he got into the big coin and big letterhead, well, then Carey’s wee brain power didn’t count for shit, right?”
“This Phil puke could use a real fuckin-“
“Not the beatings. Or running him over with a car or bike or whatever. Please? Just lemme tell the fuckin story.”
“Okay okay. Go on already.”
“So she invites me over cuz Phil is away at some How-Many-Angels-Can-Daisy-Chain-On-The-Head-Of-A-Pin type Conference. So I get all dolled up and run over there. Things were totally relaxed and cool, of course, the way they always are with her and she’s good cuz she’ll say to me, ‘I’m grumpy and sick of giving orders at work. You tell us what to do.’ And believe me, I’ve got plenty of ideas when it comes to what I want to do with her.”
“Hey, who wouldn’t?”
“Like, for instance, Carey sometimes keeps her socks on, right. It’s a funny thing with her. Not that she doesn’t have great feet, it’s just kind of a joke between us that developed ages ago when I’d made some comment about how sexy her bright orange ankle socks were and it became one of those private gags. But a few nights ago when I went over, her socks were purple - but she let me pull them off so I knew things were damn serious.”
“I know about that kind of thing. It changes the whole vibe.”
“Oh fuck yeah. So I’ve got her bent over the end of her big leather sofa, She’s drinking a glass of wine and smoking a rollie. She likes to gab while we screw. She’s telling me about some super hot young dude she met on a plane going somewhere and fucked him in the can at a million feet or whatever and the way she tells this kind of thing, man, it gets ya shattering hard, like it was you in that plane with her.”
“Man, you know the primest fuckin women. I don’t know how you do it, Mitch. You’re an ugly old fuckin junkie without a pot to piss in-“
“Hey, man, that’s not even true. I got where-with-all. Nobody suffers. Besides, I quit that shit a couple years ago.”
“Don’t try that on me. I know you, remember?”
“Anyway, lemme finish my story. So we’re going easy and relaxed, I’m watching her back twist this way and that, her long wavy black hair roll across her shoulders - pretty much a perfect goddamn scenario. We’re slowly building up to something really strong when her stupid horn-rimmed husband, Phil, he comes waltzin in.”
“Really?! Hahahaha!”
“Of course Carey knew the doofus was on his way home when me and her started to get it on and she timed it perfectly. You gotta hand it to her, the chick’s got wicked timing.”
“So did he freak? Did ya have to punch him out?”
“No, I didn’t have to punch him out. Actually, he stood there all aghast doing a victim trip, I mean like the heavy duty injured party. Carey reaches round and grabs my ass with one hand and says, ‘You stay right where you are.’ So I kinda just shrug at Phil like saying, ‘Hey, you heard the woman.’”
“Okay, so what did he do?”
Y’know, I think Phil’s problem is he’s never been able to get over his own good looks and has always seen himself like he was in a movie, no matter what’s going on - the angles, the lighting, his facial expressions, which profile. Plus he’s a couple inches shorter than Carey so that’s always been hard on him.
He didn’t swear at her and storm out. He didn’t curse me and say he’d cut my throat or anything. He didn’t punch the wall or any of that shit. What Phil did was lay his knuckles on his hips and - get this - look at the ceiling. His eyes start watering. He shook his head like this was the heaviest kind of betrayal, more than even sexual or anything to do with their marriage - as if he felt sorry for Carey, that she was such a dumb, uneducated animal. I mean, really - the fucking guy just couldn’t stop talking down to her, even right there and then.”
“Incredible... what an asshole.”
“But Carey played it cool. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that woman raise her voice - except when she’s getting off really big, or laughing at somebody. This time she just looked at her husband and said: ‘Phil, if you’re not going to come over here and stick your cock in my mouth, then go away.’”
“Ho-lee fuck… No shit... Wow... She is fucking awesome, Mitch. I mean like fucking AWESOME!”
“Too much, eh? I mean, you gotta love her.”
“Shit yeah!”
“So that completely threw him. He got choked up, begins to blubber then bursts into a full blown weep while stumbling into the next room - some kind of office - and falls into a chair. From where we were, I could see the bottom half of his legs as he sat in there and bawled, wailing and sucking up huge lungfuls, as if he’s some Sicilian hag trying to throw herself into her husband’s grave. So Carey looks round at me like what the fuck? ‘Hey, Phil!’ she yells over her shoulder. ‘If you’re going to do that, go outside or go upstairs. You’re being a real drag.’
He kicked the office door shut but we could still hear him moaning and sobbing in there. But, y'know, I think Carey was really hurt by all that. Here she was finally offering him the most valuable fucking thing - the thing he’d hinted and begged for all during the time they were married and when she offers it to him, right there on a silver fuckin platter - he shits all over it.”
“Amazing… What a fuckin loser.”
“I know. Unbelievable. That was only like three weeks ago and Carey’s already got the divorce lawyers gutting the stooge. She told me she hasn’t seen or spoken with him since that night and has no clue who or what he really was.”
“Maybe he’s one of those people who’s just nothing at all.”