Reading Myself in Exile (1.5)

What happens when the clichéd “novel left in a drawer” is exhumed and exposed to light? 

I’m finding out and sharing the results as I retype the manuscript of my 1970’s novel Exile in serial form, posting chapters as soon I retype them. The fifth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one.IMG_0030

5

After the beers, they walked a little farther into a statue garden behind the Louvre. At least these statues possessed more life than the military and neo-classical statues they had just been walking past. Most of the statues here were of naked women, or maybe the same woman, in a hundred different poses. It was a relief to see a woman rolling on her side or just sitting peacefully after looking at victory monument after victory monument. There were some large military monuments in this square too, but they were dwarfed by the humanity of the women.

“Oh yeah, I almost forgot.” Robin was playing the role of tourguide again. “You can see the top of the Eiffel Tower from here.”

John wasn’t too interested. He was captivated by the emotions portrayed by the statues and he didn’t have much regard for the Eiffel Tower, other than as an unfinished skyscraper. He looked around anyway and stood in a state of shock.

Robin hadn’t stopped talking. “…and it’s sort of hard to see today because of the heavy clouds. It’s strange that the sky is so cloudy over there. Straight up it’s as clear as a bell.”

John didn’t see any clouds, and the Eiffel Tower was no more than a thin outline, partially obscured by a snake’s back with a distinct diamondback pattern. So it had waited over here. But John still couldn’t understand why no one else could see it. This was no hallucination.

***

It was cold for late September in California as John and some other kids from his troop were driving into the San Fernando Valley from the east. They had been camping in San Jacinto and other places in the mountains above Palm Springs and their appearance betrayed that fact. They had been caught in a rainstorm without their tents and they looked a little seedier than usual. Everything was alright now. They were the cream of the crop, the patrol leaders, and they were riding home in Artie’s father’s Land Rover. He’d always drive them back on dirt roads until he hit the valley and its freeways.

The valley was down below them now. John could pick out the suburban communities of light and the serpentine freeways which shone red and white and joined those communities together. They’d be zipping along the Ventura Freeway soon with the rest of those lights, but now they could play God from their perch in the hills. Mr. Sultan stopped his Land Rover, ground it into four wheel drive and climbed a little knoll from which even the other mountains looked small. With the same mannerisms he’d use every time he did this (which was often), he’d say, “What do the people down in their houses on the hills have that I don’t have? They’re so high and mighty looking over the valley, but they’re just part of my view now.”

John and Artie and the other John, John B., and Dave never really thought too deeply about the people down below them. For them, looking into the valley was akin to looking up at the sky. Now instead of  picking out Orion and the Little Dipper, they were trying to pick out Canoga Park and Tarzana.

“Isn’t that Topanga Plaza over there?” loudly.

“You’re cracked Artie. The Plaza’s on the other side of the valley.”

“No, I could’ve sworn…”

“Kids! Shut up and appreciate the view!”

After a few minutes, they all got tired of the screaming and decided to head for home. The last leg of their trek home was fun. There were lots of jokes being told and rumors about Bob Williams and the strip poker that he and his brother played with fifteen year old girls. John was as lively and excited as the rest of them, and he was the center of attraction now. He had heard directly from Bob’s best friend about the poker games and he was trying to remember all the details without adding too much.

All of a sudden, John stopped talking and his mouth dropped open. They were all tired, but this was ridiculous. It looked like someone had just hypnotized him. Besides, he was in the middle of a great story.

“So what happened after she took her shirt off?” someone whispered urgently.

“There’s a fuckin’ giant snake over there!” pointing.

“Huh?”

“Will you boys watch your language back there?”

John was too excited to hear anyone. He pointed back towards Sepulveda Pass and said even louder, “That’s the hugest fuckin’ snake I ever saw!”

The Land Rover was in a state of total confusion by this time. Artie’s father was threatening to pull off to the side of the road and “smack the living daylights” out of John if he said “fuck” one more time. John B. and Dave were laughing hard at the whole situation and specifically at the way which John pronounced “fuck”. Artie was the only one who seemed interested in what John was saying.

“Where’s the snake?” Artie asked.

“Over there.” He was still pointing to the same point in the pass.

“Yeah, I guess if you look at the freeway over there in the right way it sort of looks like a red and white garter snake…because of the lights.”

“No..No! That’s not what I mean! This snake has a diamondback pattern and it’s lying right where the freeway should be. Don’t you see it’s brown and grey and it’s alive…You can almost see the blood pumping through it!”

He was quiet after that last outburst; it was obvious that no one believed him. He kept on staring though. When the jokes commenced again he didn’t join in. He finally caught a glimpse of the snake’s head and it was staring back. John didn’t make a sound. Why should he? The snake didn’t scare him. It didn’t have the head of a rattlesnake, just the body. The head was the head of those black and yellow snakes they used to catch out in Dave’s wood pile. The head was egg-shaped and kind; it didn’t have the menacing fangs or forehead of a poisonous snake.

John knew that snakes couldn’t smile – not like a child smiles anyway, with his ribbons of white teeth – but this one did. It smiled more like a benevolent grandfather waiting for his grandchildren to open their gifts on Christmas. Its mouth hardly moved, but there was warmth in the snake’s eyes. The snake disappeared as they took the freeway ramp down onto the boulevard. John was confused – more confused than he could ever remember, and he didn’t say a word until they dropped him off in front of his white stucco house.

“Thanks for the ride Mr. Sultan. Bye Artie. Bye John. Bye Dave.”

“Hey John, don’t forget the troop meeting tomorrow.”

“oh yeah, right,” but as he walked across the lawn to his front door, he was hoping that his teachers would pile on the work the next morning so he’d have an excuse to miss the meeting. He couldn’t face his friends so soon. He really made a fool of himself.

He walked into the house expecting the normal questions about his weekend. His parents didn’t disappoint him. They asked for all the details. They thought he was over-anxious to take a shower and get to bed. Usually they ended up begging or bribing him to take off his jeans and boy scout shirt.

He dreamt profusely and awoke confused. Now he wasn’t really sure of what he had seen the night before. It was like that time the month before when he went to the movies with Caroline and she kissed him the way she did. He found himself trying to relive the pleasure and he couldn’t. It was already in his past.

***

Now here he was in Paris, staring at the same snake with a new found friend who, despite all his education, was just as blind as a twelve year old boy scout. He couldn’t tell Robin what he saw where Robin saw only dark clouds. There were already enough people who were convinced of his madness. He had to act like nothing was happening and he had to stop staring.

“I’m going over to the Eiffel Tower.” John was hoping that Robin wouldn’t follow; it was no more than a pipe dream.

“Oh yeah, this is a good time for us to head over there. They turn the fountains on in an hour or two.”

John tried to aim his eyes lower and act interested in the conversation as they started walking. “They have fountains by the tower?”

“Not right next to the tower, but across the Seine at Trocadero.”

“Oh good.” John couldn’t stop his voice from trailing off weakly as his eyes were drawn back to the snake. It was the same one. Its body shone like it was anointed with oil, and it was translucent in the bright sunlight. He could almost see the blood pumping underneath the fragile skeleton.

Robin could see his friend’s preoccupation, but he thought that he was staring at the Eiffel Tower. He was afraid to ask him what he thought of it or why he was staring, because he was sure that John was watching the tower dance, or at least shake a little. Robin would have been convinced of John’s lunacy if he had been told the truth. Snakes just aren’t hundreds of yards long. He’d never even read about one in a fairy tale (just dragons) and if such a thing existed, everyone would write about it.

John managed to look down and try to carry on a coherent conversation when the snake and tower left their field of vision, but the walk seemed endless to him. It had been a few years since he last saw the snake and he had almost convinced himself that it was merely an hallucination which kept on recurring in his dreams. He was glad that it wasn’t.

***

Young John awoke early. He could hear his mother and father talking in the kitchen. It was nothing important. They’d always just talk about work and bills and and every once in a while he’d hear a loud kiss. He knew he had a half hour to get ready for school after his father left. He also knew that as soon as the front door closed he wouldn’t have a moment’s peace from his mother (especially on the first day of the school year), so he put his arms between his legs and drew his knees up to his chest and tried to squeeze the last few minutes of sleep from his pillow.

He was still confused. He had to exchange a world where snakes and unworldly things became the center of his existence for a world where such things were condemned to the realm of fantasy. At least his room faced the west and his drapes were drawn tight so the transition into harsh reality didn’t have to be too sudden. At least the…

SLAM

“John? Time to get up.”

“fuck.”

After the second or third call, he finally managed to call up the courage he needed to walk into their bright yellow and orange kitchen.

“Did you have a good weekend? Your father and I didn’t talk to you much last night.”

They talked for fifteen minutes or so about the rain and what they ate and how they were going to air out his sleeping bag so it wouldn’t mildew, but he couldn’t mention the one thing on his mind. This was exactly like that Sunday morning after he and Caroline did all that kissing with the tongues. He wanted to say so much, but he had to keep quiet. He could joke about it with his friends, but he couldn’t talk about it. There are certain things that one can’t talk about it.

***

They were almost to the tower when John’s feelings began to overwhelm him totally. If he had been examining the snake anymore closely, his eyes would have burnt holes through it. The snake was lying behind the tower. The tower just seemed to be a thin shadow in front of it.

John’s mind tried hard to grasp the reality of what was going on. There were definitely people occupying the same space as the snake but they didn’t seem to notice it. The snake couldn’t be real. But look at the people. They weren’t really there. They were little more than thin outlines just like the tower and the buildings all along that bank of the Seine.

Man’s civilization was the hallucination. Just like in Los Angeles where the desert keeps a constant watch over the city. There is a natural world which lives unencumbered by man.

John seemed to understand better now. This snake was his only real link to another world – another dimension – whatever it was. He had hallucinated before, but this was totally different. Wherever the snake went he erased traces of the manmade world and left the natural world intact. “And he leaves me intact and he lets me see,” John thought to himself. He was glad but he couldn’t explain why. “He’s my link.”

John was still puzzling as the snake turned towards the southeast and faded.

***

John hated to come to school in September. Especially on days like this when the temperature rose above ninety degrees. The school looked a lot like an army barracks with its rows of tan bungalows and its twelve foot high chain link fence. Sometimes John would pretend that he was a soldier returning from a dangerous mission as he marched through the front gate.

This morning he sauntered into his homeroom as an Air Force captain into a debriefing room. He had just flown a dangerous mission far over German lines to knock out a ball bearing plant.

The homeroom teacher read the day’s announcements. “As you all know, today and tomorrow are half days. You’ll go to your morning classes today and your afternoon classes tomorrow. If you…”

He droned on while John quietly accepted the next day’s mission, a milk run over Malibu Canyon to knock out a large snake that’s been harassing some residents. “Cake, sir,” John replied bravely.

After the flag salute and John’s dismissal, he walked down onto the blacktop in front of his classroom. His classroom was even worse than most of the others. It was just a trailer that they set up on the playground to accommodate the overcrowding in the city’s schools.

As he walked out the door, Artie came running across the baseball diamond (the name given to those yellow squares painted on the school’s ubiquitous blacktop).

“What did you see last night?”

“What?” John heard the question perfectly, but he wanted to make it seem like it was the farthest thing from his mind.

“What did you see in the pass last night?”

“Nothing,” John lied as he fidgeted nervously and dug his hand deeper into the lunch money in his pocket.

“You were white as a ghost and screaming about a snake!”

“Pretty good joke, huh?”

***

Robin couldn’t guard his curiosity any longer. “What were you staring at before?”

“The tower.”

“You didn’t see anything strange? You were as white as a ghost.”

“Nothing.”

***

Déjà vu.

Back in 2017

Would Kafka’s Metamorphosis have been more successful if Gregor Samsa hadn’t become a cockroach until chapter five rather than in the first sentence? At least  that D.H. Lawrence quotation about snakes at the beginning of the book now starts to make a little bit more sense (even if the snake itself may not). I’m still fighting a constant urge to rewrite sentences as I type, but I’m successfully resisting the urge to make even small corrections to spelling and punctuation. I’m glad to see that I could spell fairly well without access to spell checkers and the internet when I typed this draft forty years ago.

It will probably be about a week before I have a chance to read and re-type chapter six. I’m looking forward to see what happens next and I hope you are too (we’re about 40 pages into the 220-page manuscript at this point).

 

Chapter 1.6 has now been posted here (9/6/2016)

 

 

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Reading Myself in Exile (1.4)

What happens when the clichéd “novel left in a drawer” is exhumed and exposed to light? 

I’m finding out and sharing the results as I retype the manuscript of my 1970’s novel Exile in serial form, posting chapters as soon I retype them. The fourth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one.

I know what my logic was for establishing chapter breaks in more recent writing projects, but I haven’t been able to figure out what I was thinking in 1975 when writing this. The breaks seem almost random at times, just to give myself, or the reader, a breath. I’m also getting the sense in these first chapters that I’m spending too much time just clearing my throat before the real story begins (if a real story ever begins).

4

John and Robin came to the end of the Champs-Élysées and fought the swarms of small cars and buzzing motorized bicycles across the Place de la Concorde to the Tuileries Garden. Robin cloaked himself in his role as tourguide.

“Up there is the Jeu de Paume, the impressionist museum.” He went on to tell the story of Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ in Jeu de Paume and Ernst’s painting of the same name.

John chuckled at Robin’s naiveté about the whole surreal world surrounding him.

Down below Jeu de Paume, they stopped to sit down for a minute in front of a stage which was being rigged with microphones by two long-haired guys in tie-dyed pants.

“They look like Merry Pranksters,” John said, pointing to the men on stage.

“Who?”

“Did’ya ever read Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?”

“No.”

“Well, the Pranksters were the stars of the Acid Tests. They ran around with Ken Kesey just tripping their balls off. The reason those guys remind me of them is because the Pranksters were really into day-glo paints and microphones and the parallels just hit me…It wasn’t really important.”

“Ken Kesey, the author? He took LSD?”

“How could he write like that if he didn’t?”

“I’d argue the cases of Shakespeare and every other great writer if I thought it would do any good.” Robin had resigned himself to the fact that he couldn’t reconcile alien minds.

“No, all I said was that he writes like someone who’s seen other worlds and can look at this one from the outside.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t know.”

“Yeah, I know you wouldn’t.” John didn’t let his opponents fold so easily. His final statement was just a twist of the knife which made Robin think a little harder about his position. John didn’t accept the idea that each of them could rest on their own prejudices. Neither one of them could learn or grow from a resignation like Robin’s.

He was going to try to revive their discussion, but they were interrupted by music coming from loudspeakers and a couple of tie-dyed leotarded girls joining their partners on stage. The music seemed to go off as soon as it came on. They were just checking the sound system. The women, who were obviously dancers, started doing simple bar exercises.

Robin was ready to suggest that they leave, but he was struck by the beauty of one of the women. She was blessed with long brown hair, round brown eyes and a well proportioned, petite body held in place by a tight yellow leotard.

John was impressed too. His surfing and hiking made him an athlete of sorts, and he was tremendously impressed by the muscle movements in the men and women. He was struck especially by the muscles in the necks of the women and the muscles stretching and strong in the upper legs of the men. As the music started slowly and erratically, their movements came together as a whole. They started moving as one – as a pack of lions would hunt if lions hunted in packs. John began to see animals themselves until the music changed violently. Suddenly. They were people again. Two dancing wildly – happily – in center stage while the other two paced curiously and jealously around the outer limits. He became thoroughly engrossed in watching the changing emotions as the couples traded and switched places. Always changing, but always with two in the center spotlight. And always accompanied by that same muscle control which had the ability to hold him in a state of awe for days.

Suddenly, like the surprise ending in a mystery or a break in a movie reel, the music stopped. One of the dancers at the zenith of a joyous leap came down with an awkward thud. The microphones picked up every footfall as the perplexed dancers tiptoed around the stage. Then a SCREAM as they realized they were being watched by an audience.

They were still dancers, but the lack of music had thrown them from their world and reality of dance into our world and the thousands of staring eyes belonging to the audience. After recovering from the original chaos of the change, John was able to draw all kinds of parallels between his voyages from “reality” and the dancers’ shock at entering ours.

Robin had hardly noticed the changes. He was too engrossed in watching the yellow breasts and ass of his brown-haired love to notice what was going on as a whole. He made a few feeble efforts to discover some sort of theme in the dance, but he didn’t try very seriously. He liked things spelt out for him; historical books and journal articles were more his speed. He was ready to leave a few times during the short dance, and he would have except for the fact that his friend seemed totally engrossed.

“How’d you like it?” John asked after he recovered a little.

“It was good, I guess, but I don’t really enjoy dancing very much.”

“Really? Why not?”

“It just doesn’t seem to have the same worth as other art forms like painting or music. It seems like it’s basically an athletic exercise. Any meaning it might have comes off looking like an afterthought.”

“You can’t say that. Painting and music have highly specialized skills at their base too, but you don’t say that they’re basically displays of manual dexterity. No art form has any worth above and beyond another. Dancing isn’t second best to anything. It just is – in itself, just as music and art are.” John seemed genuinely angry. He really thought Robin had the mental tools to see the worth in this art. He was simply refusing to use them.

Robin was still convinced that he was right. Watching dancers was the same as watching basketball players or something except for the fact that the dancers were prettier. However, he couldn’t dig up any logic from his academic bag of tricks which was sufficient to counter John’s argument. Instead, he made some totally noncommittal statements about the beauty of dance and suggested that they start walking.

They had a choice of walking towards the Louvre or towards the river and the Eiffel Tower. Instead, they just sat for a little while and watched the dancers putting away the microphones and covering their speakers. John was struggling for a little while with the clasp which connected a small plastic water bottle to his belt loop. His thick fingers fumbled along the rusted metal clasp before finally getting the bottle loose and bending some metal in the process.

“Shit,” John exclaimed under his breath as he lifted the bottle to his lips. “Here, you want some?”

“No. It must be warm by now.”

“It is. But my mouth felt like cotton.”

“There’s a water fountain right down the main path near the merry-go-rounds. We can walk over there and get some cold.”

“Okay,” John agreed reluctantly. He still felt like just sitting and letting his feelings ferment for a little while. The dance left him feeling like he was unbearably close to something that he deeply desired. Something nebulous. Something he could not possess. He was depressed in a way because the dance was over, but it was a content depression. The dancers brought back traces of emotions which had escaped him recently. They convinced him that this trip was the right move for him to make.

They walked to the water fountain where they had to line up behind a crowd of kids trying to fill all kinds of empty wine bottles and old plastic distilled water bottles. With a kind of childish delight, John started talking to all the children with remnants of his high school French.

“Comment vous appelez-vous?”

Laughter.

“Ça va Jacques et Jaqueline?”

Laughter, mostly suppressed giggling. A few of them ran away and peered at the strange Americans from behind trees and smiling eyes. Robin hated this feeling. He hated having his friends embarrass him. Anne used to do the same types of things, but she was easier to put up with. He felt like running and hiding from this madman just like those kids.

“Hey, où allez-vous?” John was still laughing and obviously enjoying the whole moment thoroughly. “Où allez-vous?!”

The trees shook with laughter.

There were no children left around the water, so Robin went and filled up the little plastic bottle and took a gulp. He tried his best to act nonchalant and ignore his friend and the laughing forest which surrounded them.

After the game was over and the kids ran to find other excitement, they started walking again. They weren’t consciously walking in any particular direction. They were simply continuing in the same direction that they’d been following all morning. They found themselves walking all the way through the Tuileries Garden and towards the gardens of the Louvre. John was in a very good mood now and he was extremely animated about everything he saw.

“Look at the toy sailboats in the fountain. Those red and green sails are really beautiful in the bright sun. Look at all these statues – I never saw anything as ostentatious as these – Hey Rob, look at these groups of Japanese tourists. You never even see their fuckin’ faces – ‘Hello, Mr. Nikon.’ – ‘Hello, Mr. Pentax.’ – They’re taking so many pictures I bet they could make a movie from the negatives…”

Every sentence was accompanied by overly exaggerated arm movements. Robin was again sure that the whole world was watching and laughing at them. He was walking silently beside his friend while regretting that he had to take that trip to Geneva with him on the next morning.

John spun around and faced a little outdoor café they had just passed. “You want a beer?” he asked Robin.

“No, I really can’t afford it,” Robin lied.

“Forget it. I’m paying.” To the guy behind the counter, “Deux bières Heineken, s’il vous plait.”

John saw the bartender’s face betray a slight glow of relief at this order. In a tourist area like this, all he heard in July and August was English and German. Any person speaking French, even with a heavy American accent, was a relief. Just that morning there had been a well dressed American woman in her mid-fifties who was yelling at him because he wouldn’t accept a fifty dollar traveller’s check to pay for her ham sandwich.

“Well, Iiii never! They told me at my bank that these were good all over the world,” she had squealed.

All he could do was to point to the check and shake his head no while trying to cope with the crowd behind her. Half of them were yelling at her and the other half were angry with him. Paris in August.

John and Robin sat down at a table sandwiched between a German couple on one side and a family of Texans on the other. Robin was sure that his friend was going to make a fool of himself with the Texans just like he did with the cowboy in McDonald’s, but he didn’t. He was pouring all of his energy into downing his beers (he had five while Robin finished one) and just observing. He didn’t let one face simply pass by. He tried to read the emotions in most of them as he kept talking non-stop. He concluded that most of the people passing by were feeling either one of two things.

Some of them were smug like the cowboy. Whether they were American or German or Japanese, they felt themselves to be superior to the French. “Look at us, we’re rich and powerful. Why should we convert our marks and dollars into French francs?” At the same time, they rehearsed how they would brag about their trip when they got back home so they could feel the same superiority over their friends.

“The other half are just confused. They don’t understand the differences they see here or even why they came. They’ll make up memories when they go back home or remember the cities as a string of pictures and postcards.”

“And how do you feel?” Robin decided to show his annoyance again. It was hard to take John’s endless criticisms of others when it seemed obvious that he had emotional problems of his own.

“Uh?” John didn’t understand the question at first.

“I was only wondering. If you can pick out other people’s emotions so well… I was wondering how well you could do with your own.”

“I’d like to think I’m here to have a good time. I keep my eyes and ears open too and maybe I’ll learn something in the process. I don’t know. Maybe I’m overconfident and maybe I am confused. Either one of those things is possible. But y’know, I came here to have a good time and I’m extremely happy.”

“Yep, and I’d be happy too if I had eight or nine beers before one o’clock in the afternoon.” Robin couldn’t see how anyone could be sober and enjoy a day like this. They hadn’t done or seen anything to speak of and the day was dragging for him.

“No, it’s more than that. If I wasn’t happy to begin with all that beer would’ve simply depressed me. No, it’s more than the beer.” He felt as though there was something in the hot Parisian air that was lifting his spirits. There was something – something he hadn’t yet recognized.

Back in 2017

Yes, I know that lions do hunt in packs, but I’m not doing any after-the-fact fact checking of this manuscript as I retype it here. For some things, access to the internet would have helped in 1975, but  the web also would have been enough of a distraction that a bored 19-year-old might not have begun the process of writing this novel at all.

More annoying and embarrassing than the missed facts and grammatical infelicities are the stereotypes. The Japanese tourists defined by their omnipresent cameras, the middle-aged American woman who ‘squealed’ rather than spoke, and the two main characters who still seem more like vehicles for conflicting ideas than actual people. Also, although the word ‘mansplaining’ didn’t exist in 1975,  if it did there are points at which both Robin and John seem to be having a contest to see which one of them would be a better poster boy for the future term. I’m more a little annoyed by both of them at this point in the manuscript.

Now that we know the action is taking place in August 1975, and that John has downed a large quantity of beer in this chapter, this semi-famous video from that summer’s heatwave confirms that some people in northern France prescribe liberal consumption of that beverage as a preferred method for dealing with the canicule. At least I got that detail right about that hot summer in France.

https://player.ina.fr/player/embed/RCC9712053545/1/1b0bd203fbcd702f9bc9b10ac3d0fc21/460/259/1

Chapter Five has now been posted here (9/1/2017).

 

 

Reading about Writing today

This article on Literary Hub is from last December, but PEN America just linked to it on Facebook earlier today, so it’s new to me; “What a Novel Looks Like Before It’s a Novel: Six Novelists on Their Writing Rituals and Early Drafts” by Claire Luchette was of special interest because I’m in the process of typing a forty-year-old manuscript onto a computer for the first time and serializing it on this blog. The technique of writing when handwritten and typed manuscripts were not easily rearranged and cut-and-pasted and easily massaged and otherwise ‘word processed’ (a formulation that still grates on the ears of those of a certain age) was a much different task than writing on digital devices. I’ve written long manuscripts both ways and I know that the tasks feel completely different. The LitHub article is interesting because many of the authors still see the importance of writing early drafts by hand even though they end up with their words on a screen. I sometimes see the difference in musical terms — the pre-computer novels were written on slightly out-of-tune guitars and pianos and some of the newly-processed novels stink of Auto-Tune and drum machines — but I’m not going back to a typewriter and carbon paper.

IMG_6049

A manuscript prepared on a Brother typewriter in 1976.

But the major question about writing (at least for me, having a full-time job) is finding or making the time to do it. The other article I read today spoke to me more directly. “How to Become a Writer? Start Writing” on The New York Times website was excerpted from the longer “Dear Sugars” podcast in which Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond give advice to a young CPA who feels that she should be processing words (sorry, writing books) rather than counting beans. I’m retyping one paragraph from Cheryl Strayed here to use it as inspiration for myself.

 So what you’re hearing from us is go. But know that going in the direction of becoming a writer may look different than you imagine it will. Maybe you need to quit your job as an accountant to pursue your writing. Maybe you don’t. It isn’t all or nothing. You haven’t wasted a minute. You don’t have to feel hopeless about what’s next. You get to decide what it is by doing the work you feel called to do. Now is a great time to begin.

Reading Myself in Exile (1.3)

What happens when the clichéd “novel left in a drawer” is exhumed and exposed to light? 

I’m finding out and sharing the results as I retype the manuscript of my 1970’s novel Exile in serial form, posting chapters as soon I retype them. The third chapter follows, but click here if you need to catch up from the beginning.Max Ernst Grand Palais 1975

3

Breakfast, like many European breakfasts, was a little thin. A small cup of coffee and a couple of croissants at a café is nothing, even if you’re only accustomed to a bowl or two of corn flakes and a couple of cups of American coffee. Robin was used to waiting until noon before eating, but John needed a lot to satisfy his 190 pounds of muscle. He tried asking for eggs in broken French which just left the waiter wondering if he was German or English. The waiter tried speaking a little German, but that didn’t help to convey any messages. John read the well-meaning confusion in the waiter’s eyes and left, empty, but glad about the contact he had made with another person. They had both felt compassion for the other’s confusion.

It took a while longer to get to the train station. Robin only seemed impressed by one thing along the way, a Communist party headquarters covered with red banners and posters.

“That’s great,” Robin stated, pointing toward the flag covered building.

“What? To be a Communist?”

“No, but the French are tolerant enough to allow Communism function as a part of their political system. In the U.S., what do we have but two capitalist parties? The French are more politically open-minded.”

“Do you believe that?”

“What?”

“What you just said. That there’s a big difference between parties. I don’t care whether they’re Republican or Communist…Can’t you see that they’re all the same?”

“Why?” Robin seemed surprised by John’s responses. He simply assumed that anyone who looked and dressed like John had to have leftist leanings, even if he was only a liberal Democrat.

“Because they all accept a basic view of society that I rejected a while ago, that people have to be controlled and that they aren’t capable of living on their own. I mean even your most ‘liberal’ governments are repressive. They put your mind in chains with their schools and TV, and when there’s one tool left to destroy their vision of reality, hallucinating – entering other forms of reality – they outlaw that. Fuck! I’m not even allowed to kill myself as a means of escape.”

Speechlessness overtook Robin. He had never heard these concepts expressed without a veneer of academic verbal fog obscuring the real emotions at their base. He always found these concepts of “other realities” very hard to accept anyway. After all, this world is so tangible. Every physical object can be touched and examined until one reaches the point of collapse and the object still doesn’t disappear or change appreciably. He knew that his mind was full of abstract ideas from his fifteen years of schooling and he could see, theoretically, how these ideas could be attacked. However, the thought never entered his mind that the common sense view of reality – reality – itself was little more than an abstract idea.

By this time, their conversation was cut short naturally as they found themselves in the Gare du Nord. All of a sudden, they were surrounded by people just like themselves. Everywhere they looked there were more people in their early twenties out to discover the world with their backpacks and railpasses. This scene was growing a little comical for Robin. He had been travelling with his friend for two months by train, and now every train station in every country in Europe looked the same, with the same percentage of natives, the same percentage of beautiful girls and women, the same porters, the same percentage of Canadian flags. There’s something that impressed Robin, the way in which the young Canadians distinguished themselves from the Americans by plastering their backpacks and sleeping bags with giant red maple leaves. He was going to mention this to John until he pictured John’s reply.

(“What makes their nationalism any better than anyone else’s?”)

Those might not have been the exact words he would’ve used, but he would definitely question nationalism in general and Robin would be left speechless. “Of course I don’t like any nationalism,” would be the beginning of his response; he would then find himself defending his contradictions.

Here he was, the bright, young intellectual who could answer his professors’ queries without thinking, but his ideas were being trampled by a wild-eyed drop-out who he had only met a couple of hours earlier. It was easy for him to argue with professors, because he had already accepted their world view. They accepted his arguments as valid as long as he didn’t stray beyond this view.

But now – now he had finally met someone who wouldn’t accept the framework of his arguments at all, someone who didn’t even accept “frameworks” as a basic concept, and he was lost – totally.

Whenever an intellectual problem like this confronted Robin, he took the same course. He ran away from it. He had to find some other chore to keep his mind busy, so he suggested to John that they make the train reservation and get that out of the way. He had been in this station on a few occasions during the summer, because this was where the trains headed for Scandinavia and Holland departed from. He knew exactly where to turn left and where to turn right to get to the ticket windows and reservation office.

“I’ll try my French this time to see if we have more luck than we did back in that café,” Robin said as they got in line. By trying to form French sentences in his mind, he quickly forgot the problems which had been bothering him only moments before.

“Monsieur?”

The woman behind the desk startled Robin. He hadn’t been aware of his place in the line.

“Ah…Oui,…je voudrais faire les reservations à  Genève,” Robin attempted to pronounce.

“Do you speak English?”

This was always the question that he heard when he started in with his one year of college French. It annoyed him a little that he was never given a chance to speak French. After all, he would only get better with practice. In English, it only took him a few minutes to convert John’s hundred francs into a ticket and reservation to Geneva.

“What are you going to do today?” Robin asked. He was hoping that they could do something together, because he already knew Paris pretty well (he thought) and he knew that he’d get bored quickly if he just walked the streets by himself.

“What’s interesting? I’ve never been in Paris before.”

Good, this was his opportunity. “The whole area around the Champs-Élysées is good. There’s usually something going on in les Tuileries and we can grab lunch around there. Maybe see the Eiffel Tower? We can’t do too much considering you’re only going to be here for one day.”

Robin had already latched himself onto this new friend fairly securely. It was a mistake he commonly made with anyone who interested him, and John probably would have resisted had their relationship continued any longer.

Right now, John was enjoying the company. He was glad to meet someone on his first day in Europe. It was someone he could communicate with too, even if his mind was a little closed. Besides, he brought back those memories of the mountains. He might as well stay with him during the day and travel with him at least as far as Geneva. He couldn’t see staying with Rob’s friend though if he could catch a night train to Stalden and the Alps.

They had been standing in silence for thirty seconds or so. It wasn’t an awkward silence. They were both engrossed in their thoughts.

“So, what do you think we should do?” Robin finally began.

“Going to see the sights sounds okay to me. Do you have an extra subway ticket?”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” and they were on their way.

After surfacing near the Arc de Triomphe, they decided to just stroll down the Champs-Élysées. John was asking questions about the other cities that Rob had visited. He seemed interested in the Scandinavian cities.

Robin explained at length how much friendlier he found everyone in the Scandinavian cities and how beautiful the countryside was. John listened, but his attention lapsed quickly. Beside the fact that his mind was becoming entangled in the masses of passing faces, he had heard all this talk of friendly Scandinavians before. As for the countryside, he had already hitched and camped in Europe and he hadn’t seen anything that came close to the Alps just for the sheet dizziness caused by their beauty.

Thinking of dizziness, he hadn’t had anything to eat since the croissants of breakfast and his hunger was starting to get to him. Besides, they were passing a McDonald’s now. John didn’t share much of Robin’s respect for French cuisine. He was more than satisfied by a hamburger, fries, and something to drink. Entering a restaurant run by an American company can be a little mind-boggling when you’ve been out of the country for a couple of months. That’s what Robin was thinking when they didn’t even give him a chance to practice his French. They just saw him coming and asked for his order in English. The European McDonalds do have one large advantage over the domestic version. They serve good beer and they serve it cheap. “Sure beats a large Coke or strawberry shake,” John quipped.

Rob only had one beer. John drank about four – enough to get a little buzzed anyway. He started talking to a windburnt balding man with a cowboy hat and a string tie who looked as typical of the American Midwest as they come.

“Howdy,” John began cheerfully. He always seemed to change his personality to fit the person. All of a sudden, he was 200 pounds of young truck driver or construction worker. “How d’ya like Paris?”

The cowboy replied a little hesitantly at first. “The monuments are impressive, but it doesn’t have anything over Washington, D.C.”

“You’re from the East Coast?” John went on. He knew that anyone started to open up (positively or negatively) if you talked about their home.

“No, not even close. I live down in Kansas. Um, wheat farmin’. But I do fairly well and the misses here likes to take a trip every year. The kid’s old enough to take care of the place so that’s why I’m here and that’s why I know Washington, D.C. so well. See America first, y’know.” More from courtesy than curiosity, he asked, “Where you from son?”

“California. I work down in LA.”

“Oh, you don’t go to school?” he asked, a little surprised, as he twiddled a twenty centime piece between his thumb and forefinger and took a sip from his Coke.

“No, I decided that school wasn’t for me so I went to work in a factory after a couple years of college.”

Their conversation continued for what seemed like hours to Robin. After all, what could he find interesting in this old wheat farmer? All they talked about was the weather and the differences between farming in the Midwest and on the West Coast. John’s knowledge of soil differences and farm automation began to amaze Robin until John mentioned that he was brought up on a California sugar beet farm. (He only found out later that that had been a lie engineered to keep the conversation moving.)

After they seemed to have exhausted their common farm knowledge, they began talking about Paris itself.

“What do you think of the Arc de Triomphe?”

“It’s impressive. It’d be nice if we had a monument like that in honor of our wars. I was really impressed by the Eiffel Tower too. Y’know that must’ve been some engineerin’ feat for its day.”

As the cowboy was saying this, he didn’t notice the life flowing into John’s eyes.

“Yeah, but have you ever seen it dance?”

“huh?” Up until now everything they were talking about made sense to him. Everything was familiar to him and new he was confused.

“But don’t you know that when you’re tripping anything can dance. I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower dosey-do with the Arc many a time.”

John’s friend with the cowboy hat actually seemed afraid as he made excuses for his hasty retreat. He murmured something about a bus waiting for him as he grabbed his hat and wife and left.

“Why did you do that?” Robin asked, definitely showing some annoyance.

“Do what?”

“Why did you have to disturb that guy like that and why’d you have to lie to him? You’ve never even seen the Eiffel Tower, let alone seen it dance!”

“Obviously he’s not the only person I disturbed.” John’s constantly calm way of talking was only annoying Robin more. He could only enjoy an argument where both parties began to lose control.

“I’m only disturbed because what you did was senseless.”

“No, that’s where your wrong. It wasn’t senseless. I had to teach both of you a lesson.”

“Both of us?” increduously.

“Yeah, now listen. With him it was obvious. You saw how he was standing at that counter. He was so smug it was ridiculous. He was feeling superior to all his friends and family because none of his friends and family had the money to take the trips that he took. At the same time, he was feeling superior to all these French people and their rough toilet paper, cheap beer, and nasal language. Besides, he was a veteran. He helped liberate these people from Hitler and they don’t even show their gratitude. When someone is that smug about himself, his faith in his view of reality is at its height. I just…”

“I didn’t hear him say any of those things about himself.” Robin was glad. His friend was finally ready to talk at length – finally ready to argue.

“He didn’t have to tell me his life story. I could see his self-assuredness a mile away. The details aren’t that important. I just challenged his world view a little bit. He lost a little self-confidence, but he lost a little stupidity along with it. He was…”

“You said that you were teaching me a lesson too. What was that?”

“Shit, you’re impatient. The thing I wanted to show you is harder because you’re even more sure of your ideas. In a lot of ways you think the same as that pot-bellied cowboy or the people who pass drug laws.”

“Ah, now come…” John had gone too far now. (I’m Robin Jackson. I fight for civil liberties and I don’t care what drugs you take.)

“No. Now you come on. I think I know what you’re thinking and your liberal leanings don’t amount to a pile of shit with me. You share your view of this world with a Kansas wheat farmer and a narc. You may even be able to explain chemically why I can see a building come to life with LSD, but you don’t believe that it can. You don’t believe that there’s a world where buildings dance and people are frozen. But I do. I’ve seen that world, and if I can’t believe my senses what can I believe?”

Robin was speechless. His friend was crazy. Here he was speaking at full voice in a room full of Americans (a room full of staring Americans, he had convinced himself by now. He was too scared to turn around and look). Robin suggested that they leave the restaurant and they both walked out. Robin was still sure that there were at least ten pairs of trailing eyes following them through the door. On the way out they passed a record shop with the new Dylan album in the window. Robin hadn’t seen it before, but John had heard most of it right before his departure. The album and related topics were the focus of their conversation as they continued down the Champs-Élysées.

“Such a great lyricist…”

“Yeah, especially in Blonde on Blonde.”

“Fuck! Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, that song tears me apart every time I hear it.” ….

Superficial things like this – having similar musical tastes – convinced Robin that he and John were alike down deep. He thought that their friendship was cemented even faster when they passed the Grand Palais where a large Max Ernst exhibition was taking place. Rob had been to the exhibition about a month before and he talked at length about how much he liked it. John spent most of the walk nodding in agreement and saying, “Yeah, he’s one of my favorite artists too.”

Robin liked to consider himself an intellectual, but he never looked much deeper than these surface comments. If he had asked himself why they liked the same things, he would have been struck by the differences between them. Robin liked Ernst for a few reasons. He liked his use of color and he thought he was funny. He told everyone how much he liked Ernst’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” where the plants were eating the nude woman. He thought it was the perfect parody of Manet’s painting of the same name where two men and a nude woman were eating lunch on a lawn. He had another reason for liking Max Ernst, even though he only partially admitted it to himself. That was because Anne said she liked him (“Be sure to see that show,” she told him as he departed in June). She accounted for part of his resurgence of enthusiasm for Dylan too. His tastes in music and art always went through subtle changes when he found himself in the shadow of a new girl.

John could see some of these things in his companion and he simply laughed them off. He like Max Ernst for the same reason he liked Dali or any other surrealist. He understood their paintings implicitly for a very simple reason. He saw his own mind as surreal.

Back in 2017

Even though in don’t think the year will be mentioned anywhere in this manuscript, anyone with an internet connection can find out easily that the Max Ernst retrospective at the Grand Palais took place between May and September of 1975.  The poster at the beginning of this post featuring  Ernst’s  “Monument aux oiseaux” is the same as one I carried back from Paris and had on various dorm and bedroom walls for years (my poster is now lost, but it lives forever on the web). And if it’s 1975, the new Dylan album mentioned by John and Robin was therefore, of course, Blood on the Tracks.

Chapter Four has now been retyped and posted here (8/30/2017).

On PBS Newshour tonight: The problem with only liking things we find relatable

The social media culture of “likes” is contributing to our conformity, says novelist and creative writing teacher Charmaine Craig. Instead of trying to empathize with the unfamiliar, we “like” and find refuge only in the things that seem most relatable. Craig offers her humble opinion on why we should move beyond what’s “relatable” or “likeable” and begin to open up to the unfamiliar.

Source: The problem with only liking things we find relatable

Reading Myself in Exile (1.2)

 

What happens when the clichéd “novel left in a drawer” is exhumed and exposed to light? 

I’m finding out and sharing the results in serial form. The second chapter follows, but click here if you need to catch up from the beginning.

2

John had been dreaming too.

His dreams were always pretty much the same, but they had the intensity of acid flashbacks. He didn’t bother to lie around trying to remember their details, because they constituted their own world without interpretation.

He had been sleeping though, and his sudden awakening had angered him.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Sorry…I thought I was alone. There was no one in the top bunk when I came in last night,” Robin answered as he adopted an apologetic stance.

“Yeah, I only arrived in Europe last night around seven. I got in here around nine and you were already asleep,” John yawned.

“This is your first trip?”

“Huh?”

“First trip to Europe?”

“Oh no, I was here once during college. I was into camping then and spent the whole time in the mountains with a friend. Mostly the Alps. This time I’ll probably visit some cities. They’re not exactly my…”

“That’s strange…oh, sorry…go on.”

“No, that’s okay, what were you going to say?” John seemed almost glad to have been interrupted.

“Just that I’ve been in European cities and towns for two months and I’m going to Zermatt tomorrow.”

“In the Alps?” John had had an air of speaking out of politeness, but the mention of Zermatt got him sincerely interested in the direction of the conversation. He looked a lot like a person who had just been snapped out of a deep hypnotic trance.

“Yeah. I figured that I needed a change and the posters of the Matterhorn looked pretty appealing,” Rob piped in, seeing that he had hit a nerve. Usually he didn’t try so hard to make friends with men, but John possessed some sort of magnetism which Robin just couldn’t explain. Whereas Rob had long sandy hair, a scruffy beard and an army field jacket hanging on his bedpost, consciously placing himself in memories of the sixties, John looked essentially timeless. He had been sleeping in a pair of cut-offs and he had a tanned, muscular body covered with light hair. His hair was short and blond and he could fit anyone’s idea of a construction worker or young businessman. He was basically the person he wanted to be — without occupational labels.

He wasn’t the type of guy who would normally impress Robin. Robin liked talking to people like himself — someone he could discuss his studies of history with or, even better, someone he could reminisce with over old antiwar exploits. That was still his only real passion aside from his love for Anne.

But John’s eyes — it must have been that hypnotic quality in the eyes that had drawn Robin to him. Now this sudden mention of the Alps had John interested in Rob too.

“How’re you getting there?”

“To Zermatt?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m taking a train. I have to change twice and part of it’s on a private line, but anything’s better than trying to hitch out of Paris.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve heard these sons of bitches wouldn’t pick up their own grandmother if she stuck her thumb out…would you mind company?”

“What?”

“On your trip tomorrow.”

“No… but I thought you were going to spend this trip in the cities. Why the sudden change in plan?”

“You can say that I’m very open-minded about my travel plans and I just remembered how beautiful the Alps can be.” It was more than that, of course. The area that Rob was going to was a very important spot in John’s past — an almost holy place. Meeting someone on the first day of his trip who was willing to lead him there was analogous to the Jews in Egypt bumping into Moses.

He continued, “I was there about three years ago and since then I’ve thought a lot about their beauty. I really think I’d appreciate them more now.”

“Good, so you want to come along?…I don’t mind. As a matter of fact, I’m sort of used to having company when I travel…This has been my first day alone in two months. I was travelling with a friend but he had reservations on an earlier flight back to the states.”

“What kind of arrangements do I have to make for tomorrow? For the trains and everything?”

“Uh…well I have a ticket and reservation already on the 9:05 to Geneva. Then I was figuring on spending tomorrow night with a girlfriend there and heading to Zermatt in the morning.” He tried to utter the word “girlfriend” casually to impress his friend. His true emotions toward Anne were rarely shown.

“That sounds good to me. Where should we go to make reservations?”

“We could try at the Gare du Nord. It’s only a few Metro stops from here.”

What stops?”

“Metro…That’s the Parisian subway.”

“Why don’t we walk though? That’s the best way to get to know a city.”

“Yeah, but there’s nothing in that direction.” By “nothing,” Robin meant that there were no monuments or historical areas. These were the things which impressed him about Paris. The side streets held nominal interest for him when he first arrived, because they were different and European, but he had been up and down European streets for the last couple of months and new he just couldn’t see the point. (Besides, there’s a Metro stop right on the corner.)

However, John insisted that he was going to walk anyway, and they started. Everything impressed John (though not all favorably). He stared at most of it in silence and once in a while he would laugh or talk about something that caught his eye. Before they walked a full block, he saw a sign on an old public bath which read Douches Scolaires. “Ha, a scholarly douche,” he laughed, “I used to be one of those. I’m glad I realized that I was wasting my time after only two years at U.C.”

“Yeah,” Rob agreed. He’d agree with almost anyone who he didn’t know very well. He made jokes about the worthlessness of his schooling himself, but he never really meant it. He saw college as the beginning of a long career in some academic field. He knew that John wasn’t joking though. He had a ring in his voice which betrayed the fact that he was honest about most everything he said.

Robin had picked up on a note to continue the conversation on. “You went to the University of California?”

“Yeah, for too long.”

Robin was still trying to steer away from an argument on the value of academics so he asked, “Where in California are you from?”

“I’m from the San Fernando Valley…in LA.”

“Really, I’ve heard lots of bad things about Los Angeles, especially the people and the pace of life there.”

“Yeah, I used to complain about it too. All the time. But you know, the area around there is beautiful between the canyons and ocean on one side and the mountains and desert on the other. You can ignore the people and their smog, but you can’t ignore the beauty there. The people made a mistake in even trying to build a city in the desert. It just shouldn’t have been done.”

“The damage has been done now, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah, but that’s the beautiful thing about the desert. It’s almost like it has a mind and remembers the land that belongs to it. The coyotes are coming back to LA and when a lot is vacant for long enough it becomes a microcosm of the desert, replete with tarantulas and scorpions. If the city of Los Angeles ever ran out of water to sustain itself, it would just dry up and a couple of good Santa Ana winds would burn and blow it away.”

“That’s interesting,” Rob added in that tone of mock interest which he used when someone told him something that he couldn’t believe. The destruction of a major modern city seemed absurd to him (ancient parallels like Pompeii and Atlantis never entered his mind).

“No,” John added, seeing Robin’s doubt. “There are forces in nature that have wills, and men just won’t admit their own subordination to these forces. We should realize that we continue to live and breathe on their whim and we should be happy to live and learn as much as we can.”

Robin fell silent as they walked along. He tried to give the impression of being deep in thought about the words he had just heard, but he was simply having doubts about his new friend. He was convinced that he had hooked himself up with a Jesus freak who was starting to give subtle sermons on God’s power over us.

The thought of “God” rarely entered John’s mind; it hadn’t in many years. He walked on silently too. He was confident that he had made his point but he wasn’t sure of anything with Robin. His curiosity was another reason for their attachment. There were very few people he couldn’t read like a book and Robin Jackson was one of them.

As they passed bars and cafés on their walk to the train station, they were steadily stared at by the old and middle-aged men starting their Saturday morning with their little, bitter cups of espresso coffee. Robin feigned annoyance at their stares; he actually enjoyed every minute of it. He was sure that he was shocking them with his long hair and beard – his leftover symbols of radicalism. He didn’t know that almost half the staring pairs of eyes belonged to Socialists or Communists. Some of those eyes had been trained down blue steel rifle barrels by their Partisan owners, and they weren’t impressed by his play radicalism. They were shocked by very few things. Long hair wasn’t one of them.

There was hate in some of these eyes. Hate for these tourists who came in their planeloads every summer. These two in their denim and flannel and light hair stood out easily even without a tourbus or their backpacks. John could read hate where Robin only imagined curiosity and maybe a little shock. Where emotions existed, John felt he could read them. It was a skill that he had picked up in the last few years. Robin, however, was a mystery. No emotions shone through his light skin and clear brown eyes. John wasn’t a mind reader, and Robin’s whole soul seemed to be encased in the cubic centimeters of grey matter which he carried around in his skull.

Back in 2017

I know this is trivial, but I’m getting annoyed by my repeated use of ‘which’ to introduce restrictive clauses in these first two chapters. It would be OK if I were British, but I spent too many years reviewing copyediting and page proofs for a US publisher, so I want to change each one to a ‘that’ as I type it. I haven’t; I’m still following my cardinal rule to retype without editing.  The last sentence of this chapter is one of many sentences that had a ‘which’ I would have changed to a ‘that’ reflexively. And what’s up with that British spelling of ‘grey’ kid?

The book’s not impressing me after two chapters. I wish there was more description here; you would think that the writer had never been anywhere near Paris, rather than writing it there. I could have at least mentioned a street name. Even worse, there is this simplistic differentiation between Robin and John that seems to betray its schematic origins. I moved from California to New Jersey in the summer of 1969 after I finished eighth grade. John, in some ways, is meant to be the person I would have become if I had stayed in Woodland Hills. Robin is much closer to the person I was when I was taking a year off between my sophomore and junior years at Rutgers and typing this manuscript. So far they are both coming off as half a person (at most).

 

Click here for the third chapter, which has just been typed and posted (8/28/17).

Reading Myself in Exile (1.1)

What happens when the clichéd “novel left in a drawer” is exhumed and exposed to light?

I’m hoping that my conclusion at the end of this process will be that everyone should write a novel at 19 or 20, lose it, and then re-read it more than forty years later with the distance of time, but without too much horror about the bad writing of a simultaneously pretentious and clueless and almost totally-inexperienced kid. No matter what I find in revisiting these pages, I’m hoping the distance of time will allow me to dismiss the most cringeworthy bits as juvenilia, but maybe I’ll also find a few surprises here that seem like constant themes in my life — things that I’m not totally embarrassed by.

IMG_6110About a year ago, my son handed me a box of LPs and a few other items of mine that he had rescued from my ex-wife’s house before she moved. Among these archaeological treasures was a 220-page manuscript typed on Eaton’s Corrasable Bond (savior of college students looking to avoid retyping but bane of NYC editors) and bound in a Six Star Office Products RS-118 spring binder; the title page reads “EXILE, Rick Mumma, Draft  Two.”  I haven’t been able to get myself to read much farther than that, so I’m going to make it a project to do so, retyping the book one chapter at a time and sharing it in serial form on this blog along with some background and my reactions.

The rules are that I will not change anything, including misspellings and comma placements, and I will not let myself read ahead. I have some memory of the plot, but I hope to be surprised as I type some of these chapters.

So here goes. The time, although I don’t think it’s specified any place in the following pages,  is the summer of 1975. “Draft Two” was probably typed sometime in 1976 or 1977; there’s no sign of Draft One, or of the carbon copies I made of both, so typing these words onto a computer for the first time may be my only chance to preserve them.Page One of Exile

EXILE

Rick Mumma

Draft Two

 

PART ONE

“For the snakes are more rudimentary, nearer to the great convulsive powers. Nearer to the nameless sun, more knowing in the slanting tracks of the rain, the pattering of the invisible emissaries to the rain-gods. The snakes lie nearer to the source of potency, the dark, lurking, intense sun at the centre of the earth. For to the cultured animist, and the pueblo Indian is such, the earth’s dark centre holds its dark sun, our source of isolated being, round which our world coils its folds like a great snake. The snake is nearer to the dark sun, and cunning of it.”

 -D.H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico

 

1

Robin awoke much like every morning. He lay for a long time in that twilight between waking and sleeping where he could linger in his world of dreams and basically escape the reality of his days for a few minutes. On this day, the warmth of the Parisian sun streaming onto his bed held him there a little longer than usual.

Although he tried, he couldn’t find any residue of detail in his memory of the previous night’s dream. Something in the dream had depressed him and left him with an empty, confused feeling. His upcoming visit to Anne’s was on his mind anyway, so he could easily attribute this depression to his feelings toward her. He often purposely thought himself into a depressed state by turning one question over and over in his mind. “Why doesn’t she love me?” The answer had finally come to him that love is a totally arbitrary selection in which even the participants have no real choice. He often cried when he thought of Anne and her rejection of his love. Tears seemed to be the human response to all of Fate’s arbitrary tricks (death, injury, surprises).

These musings led him to random reflections on the arbitrary nature of his whole life. How did he end up with his parents, his friends, his scholastic ability, his love for Anne and the rest of his desires? “My” was the prefix he attached to all these things but he couldn’t see where his role in their selection had taken place. Then there was the thought, (my death). The thought existed in a bubble beneath the level of his conscious mind. It scared him to face it.

There was nothing mystical in Robin’s character. The discovery of his own mortality and the implied equality which it brought with everything else in the universe didn’t awe him or give him that rapture of silent peace common to esoteric realms. He didn’t think of other deaths at all when he felt confronted by his own. He often felt that these strange twists of fate were especially designed for him.

He assumed (but could not prove, even to himself) that no person can sense a pain greater than their own. Robin sensed this first when he was in the eighth grade and a friend’s mother had died suddenly. His friend broke down and cried, “What are we going to do without her?” and “Why did this happen to us?” Tears upset Robin but he could see that his friend was crying for his own loss, not for his mother’s pain. (Just as Robin had been more concerned with his own awkwardness around tears than with his friend’s pain.)

Robin sensed the same thing in himself in high school. He took part in demonstrations against the war and bombings and deaths which were far removed from his day to day concerns. Genocide, however, didn’t upset him as deeply as some of his early sexual worries. His political commitments stood out, but they weren’t quite as powerful as they sometimes seemed. They weren’t quite as powerful as his present love for Anne.

Whenever Robin tried to put these vague thoughts into words, he would be formulating imaginary conversations with Anne. Their relationship was totally a relationship of words from the beginning. The passionate moments of their friendship, aside from a few drunken ones, were their discussions of love in which Anne would be the gentle schoolteacher telling Robin about the pleasures which love would bring to him one day. She was firm enough to tell him that she was not the source of that love. The words he contributed to their relationship came in the form of love poems about her beauty and his failures. The state of mind that she put him in led him to see the saddest lines as the best. He felt deeply that she could only begin to love him if she started feeling sorry for him. He honestly couldn’t picture love springing from strength and desire.

She put a temporary end to their words with a conversation they had earlier in the year. His depression started to catch up with him as they spent a spring afternoon at the shore, because all Anne did was talk about a guy she had met a couple of months before, Ed. (He inspired that painful sting of a familiar, possessive emotion — jealousy.) Ed was the antithesis of everything Robin felt himself to be. He was athletic, strong and seemed to do everything, like falling in love with Anne, without thinking. Anne told Robin that she loved Ed’s air of innocence. Rob thought that he possessed the same air, but he was wrong. He thought everything out too thoroughly and his actions seemed staged — almost artificial. Anne’s rejection of his cautiousness and timidity and her love of Ed’s impetuousness is what led to Robin’s depression during their day on the beach.

“Let’s talk,” Anne suggested in her all-knowing-something-is-wrong voice as they spent the evening in a deserted, red-neck bar near the ocean. Their conversations would always start at her prompting after Robin made it clear that he wanted to receive someone’s comforts.

“There’s nothing left to talk about. You know that I love you and I know that you don’t love me…That’s all there is to it.”

“How can you say you love me? You’ve never shown it to me,” she replied with her usual annoyance at his professions of love.

In his supreme effort to bring her feelings of pity down around him, he’d answer, “How do you expect me to show my love when I don’t have any experiences to guide me? I don’t know how to act around girls. All I know is rejection.”

The only spectator for this conversation was a black cat who must’ve belonged to the bartender. He just sat on the bar and stared at the cheese which they were eating along with their beers. The bar was completely deserted except for the cat, his owner, a couple huddled in the corner, and a comical crewcut Marine who’d bang his private mug against the bar every time he finished another Bud.

Their conversations always reached the same point. She’d always ask, “How can you say you love me?” and follow it immediately with, “What do you love about me?”

“I don’t know,” Rob would say as his voice cracked. “It’s just a feeling.”

“See, that’s the difference between you and me. I can explain my feelings for people and you can’t. You can make words rhyme, but that doesn’t mean shit to me!” She hated this streak in herself sometimes. Robin was a good friend and his attention did mean something, but the line between annoyance and anger in her mind was thin and easily broken.

He thought of a question then, but even in his partially drunken state he couldn’t just ask it. He was an intellectual, or that was the picture he had of himself, and he had to let things steep in his mind for a little while. It was a couple of days later before he phoned and asked, “Anne?…Anne, you said that you can put your feelings about people into words…What’s the difference between me and the guys you have physical relationships with?”

He tried with all his might to make his question sound spontaneous, but it came out sounding like a question to one of his professors. No question that’s been homogenized by continual mental rehashing can sound spontaneous and Anne sensed it. She didn’t answer him for a while either, because she knew she’d only be helping him indulge in his self pity.

After his silent nagging continued for lengthy minutes, she finally had to answer him, “You’re too timid.”

That did it. That depressed him then and it depressed him again by just thinking about it. That was the state of mind in which he met John Matthews.

Robin was staying at a youth hostel in the north of Paris. At 6 francs a night it was the cheapest place in town. It was already late morning when he looked around to see ten empty beds with their sleeping bags rolled down to their feet. “Oh well, time to get up,” was the thought that crossed his mind as he punched the bunk above him and started stretching.

“Watch it,” came the voice of the bunk.

Back in 2017

First impressions of this first chapter after forty years? This seems very static and Robin Jackson still makes me cringe, and at this point I don’t know how long I’ll make it into the book before giving up this experiment, but I hope that the addition of John Matthews in chapter 2 will give these pages more life. The internet made it possible for me to look up the exchange rate between French francs and American dollars in the summer of 1975, so that 6 franc hostel bed was less than a dollar fifty per night. It was possible to travel in Europe for an amazingly small amount of money, especially if one had a Student Railpass (sleeping on an overnight train cost even less than a dollar fifty). Of course there was no internet  (or ability to easily phone home) in 1975, so I had very little access to research materials when writing the first  version of this in a small notebook; the opening quote was from a paperback of D.H. Lawrence’s travel writings, Mornings in Mexico and Etruscan Places, that I had in my backpack along with a French-language version of Kerouac’s Sur la Route. The opening line of the book was definitely influenced by another novel I had read for a Russian literature (in translation) class, Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, whose protagonist is famous for rarely leaving his bed. It may have worked for Goncharov in 19th-century Russia, but keeping one of your main characters in bed (alone) for the entire first chapter may not be the best way to get and keep readers’ attentions in our media-saturated century.

 

Chapter 1.2 has now been posted here.