Essays

Joyce Carol Oates: This Love Has Come Upon Me Slowly

Joyce Carol Oates, harpercollins.com

This love has come upon me slowly, quite unsought for and quite unexpected. I see now that it has stealthily wormed into way into my heart, this love of the intricate way you work upon words. The craftsmanship is so honest, so dedicated, so pure, that it was perhaps inevitable that I should succumb, but I did not see it coming, and this is unusual, for one who cannot contemplate life without reading words to find a pattern.

There have been other loves; flashier ones perhaps such as Ayn Rand who lit up my university years with her capitalist philosophy of excellence, more quirky oddball ones such as John Irving who never ever bored me with his equally horrifying and sentimental tales. And there are ones like David Mitchell who, chameleon-like, changes the colour of his coat and transgresses between worlds.

But your books are something like a prayer to me. They require me to persevere and work hard so that I may gain, so that I may perceive the unwitting unconsciousness that underlies life, and pity the characters and honor them as metaphorical representatives of the humanity we share. There is nothing big or over-the-top about your work, but you are the grand mistress of sheer resplendent trueness; not a word wasted, not a single emotion over-dramatised. The truest moments collect in the form of unshed tears and shrieking silences. You show what it is to be alive in someone else’s skin.

When did I recognise my absolute allegiance to your craftsmanship? It was a blinding moment of immaculate admiration that came as a gasp from nowhere; for a moment I shared with you the deep eviscerating joy and simultaneous pain of being human; I found myself engulfed by an emotion so deep I could not speak or breathe or give it a name.

Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart

It was in a lesser-known book of yours with the peculiar title of Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart (How odd, my writer’s mind thought, and why the present tense?), and the cover is no better with its slender black silhouette leaning for support against what looks like a corn-stalk. I see her as a frail dreaming shadow. Did you, JCO, oversee that cover design I asked myself? If so, why a corn-stalk?

But still my hand went out to the tattered novel on the second-hand book sale table. Where books are concerned, it has always been as if my hand has jurisdiction over my mind, always a step ahead knowing what it needs and wants. Of course when I reached home I asked myself the inevitable question I’d asked myself before: Why on earth did you buy another Joyce Carol Oates?

The sentence that transformed me into a believer is on page 403 of my dog-eared copy of Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart, two pages from the end. You must know which one I mean? You wrote it thus: “On the reverse of the print Jinx had written in that large looping lazy-seeming hand, Honey – think I’ll ‘pass?’” 

It will seem like nothing to anybody else, just an innocuous silly   sentence, but that could only be because they have haven’t lived through Iris’s story, page by gut-wrenching page, or because they are not human. But I had read your book and lived it and never knew how much I loved it – felt it as Iris did – until that shocking sentence, with its declaration of unsuspected love, hit me in the solar plexus.So you have crept up on me over the years, and book by book I have read your words and now I have reached the position of faith, which means that I am forever indebted and transformed, and will perhaps have to re-read every book of yours I have already read. But fortunately you are as prolific as you are true to your art; so there is no real danger that I shall ever run out of the pleasure of reading the stories you tell.

~~~ Joyce Carol Oates, 1938 – ,  Bibliography: http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/engl/LitCheck/oates.htm

What Happens Next? Wrestling with Fiction

John Irving

 A few weeks ago I read John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It’s odd I took so long to get to it considering that I am a huge John Irving fan, but it was an early book and I found the title unappealing; still perhaps there’s some truth to the adage that the teacher appears when the student is ready. An overseas publisher at the Franschhoek Literary Festival mentioned the delight of completing a trans-Atlantic flight with the manuscript of The World According to Garp as reading material. In spite of the story’s unusual nature she pushed for it to be published and the rest is history. The World According to Garp became John Irving’s breakout novel.

Irving’s Garp writes a novel in which the central character knifes her rapist to death in a graphic first chapter. Garp’s publisher considers the book to be x-rated soap-opera, nevertheless the visceral language and controversial subject matter have potential market appeal so he does what he’s done before with books he’s not certain about: he asks the woman who cleans his office to read it, not expecting her to read past the first few pages. We learn that his reputation as a publisher of surprising books destined to be popular is in fact based on the opinions of this unlikely reader who doesn’t even like books. When he realizes that she has actually read the whole book he asks her why. This is the exchange between them:

“Same reason I read anythin’ for,” Jillsy said. “To find out what happens.”
“So you read it to find out?” John Wolf said.
“There surely ain’t no other reason to read a book, is there?” Jilly Sloper said.

When she asks him for a copy he interrogates her as to why she would want to read it again, and she finally responds as follows:

“It feels so true,” she crooned, making the word true cry like a loon over a lake at night…. A book’s true when you can say, ‘Yeah! That’s how damn people behave all the time.’ Then you know it’s true,” Jillsy said.

The mind-blowing realization that hit me as I read these passages was that Irving has always clearly understood the formula for success. Writers in training tend to over-complicate the business of writing a novel and attracting readers to their work; in reality what compels a reader is what compels all of us; we all want to know what happens next to characters we care about. And as for our own writing careers; we are after all the chief protagonist of our own life story. All novelists are waiting for their breakout novel, unless it’s been and gone, in which case they’re working on another one and waiting to find out what happens next. Top of the New York Times Bestseller List?

In my specific case I’m in the throes of tackling a second novel so I’m taking Irving’s directives to heart. Writing a second novel turns out to be a very different process to the first novel which took shape on the University of Cape Town Creative Writing Masters Program. Back then gentle suggestions and positive encouragement ensured that I reversed out of cul-de-sacs before hitting a brick wall, halted suicidal dashes down one-way highway lanes and limited how long I went round in circles before recognizing the correct exit to the desired destination. An excitable imagination was channeled. With this second book I must find a way to ratchet the writing up to the next level while remaining true to a central plot and contending with the reality of a book marketplace teeming with original well-written books that have not broken even, never mind broken out. It’s not enough for a novel to be well received. For authors that are not yet established relatively low sales are a blow to any notion of financial survival and have the potential to plunge a writing career into a downward spiral.

As Irving points out any fiction writer worth his or her salt must work towards creating a reality that feels true and that begs the question of what ultimately happens to our characters. If we are serious about honing our craft and making a living as full-time writers then we must be serious about captivating readers. The world is full of readers; we just have to find ways of making them fall under our spell.

Original version appeared in www.livewriting.com; ‘South African writers on writing’

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Was Ayn Rand Wrong? An Essay on Capitalism

 

Ayn Rand in 1957 (Wikipedia)

Was Ayn Rand, provocative author of Atlas Shrugged [1]and The Fountainhead wrong about Capitalism? And by implication, the women of my generation who fed our capitalist aspirations on her discourse, as if it were mother’s milk that would protect and nourish us, have we trodden the false path ever since? What an unbearably intriguing question.

I imagine educated, middle-aged women all over the world cleaning out their book shelves, loading them with the new versions of capitalist literature; throwing out their old Ayn Rands. That’s what triggered the heretic thought that Ayn Rand might have been wrong all these years: a chatty newspaper piece by a bookish woman confessing to cleaning out her book shelves, throwing out the Ayn Rand novels (amongst others); she would just buy new editions if she wanted to. She got me thinking. Of course it’s not likely (that she’d go and buy them again). Why should she? We privileged women have absorbed the message; us university girls, the cows of silken gaze who have grazed in the corridors of literacy and enlightenment.

The new versions of literature for female capitalists are the self-help guides written by personal finance gurus of the likes of Suze Orman (Don’t spend more than you earn!). But it doesn’t seem quite as enjoyable a way of absorbing the message as reading about the heroic efforts ofRand’s bigger-than-life main protagonists, so some of us are holding onto our Ayn Rand novels and lending them out to our up-and-coming capitalist progeny. And if one of these young people (in my case a nephew) should be sufficiently impressed to buy their own full set of Rand novels, as if the whole caboodle were an encoded manual on how to become a good capitalist, straight off the Internet, we’re left smugly pleased that the young person in question leans heavily towards the promise of legitimate wealth and power in a world where warlords, drug lords, gang leaders and criminals are often the kingpins. As if the threat of a confining humiliating incarceration is not enough to dissuade our gentle protected youth from that so-called ‘easy’ path. Naturally, we Randians are totally opposed to white collar crime;Rand’s heroes would not have stooped to such dishonourable behaviour.

It’s taken me all of my life thus far to get to Germaine Greer and I’m a reasonably well-read individual, although I’ve missed out about twenty-something reading years, all due to a prolonged period of my life where I indulged in the headlong pursuit of wealth and power. Now here I am, three years along from a desired retrenchment, having spilled my guts into countless beautiful notebooks and even written a fiction novel, never having been bored (except once or twice maybe), with a desire to take up philosophy. I have an urge to ask questions and seek answers about the important stuff. And all due to Greer directing my thoughts into novel paths. Why have I avoided her? But then what sensible woman wouldn’t be put off by a title like The Female Eunach? So at a mature age, with sufficient experience and suffering under my belt, I pick up Daddy, We Hardly Knew You by Germaine Greer at the library sale. I’m quickly absorbed by her true story.  It’s probably because my own father has passed on to green pastures and was hardly known.

Which is harder, to know nothing and suspect lies and come to the conclusion that one’s own father is nothing but a straw-filled scarecrow, or to know everything: exactly where he was born, to which grandparents, who the siblings were, what he did in his free time, the date he embarked on a ship for South Africa; and yet know nothing, understand nothing, comprehend nothing, of the silence that has accompanied one’s father all one’s life. I have hundreds of photographs of him from birth to death (yes, even as he lay on the flowered sheets of his death bed), and yet I know nothing about him. He never told me stories of his life, of who he loved and hated or just bore with patience, of why he loved or hated or bore with patience, of his trials and tribulations and confusions, of his victories and triumphs and achievements. Nothing. Was my father an empty man? Was the past too much to face? Was it enough, just to cope with the present? Just to love us and be a good provider? Just to produce the paper that kept the paper mill and our small village alive? Could it be that my father was as naïve as he was good?

But I digress, one man’s struggle to be a good capitalist is not necessarily the same as  a profoundly intellectual world view on the matter. It’s Greer’s account ofIndiathat fascinates. There’s something measured and scholarly and dignified and human and touching about her account. I would love to know Mrs Vaishampayan and her sisters. Mr Vaishampayan is a hero of manhood. How unexpected, this vista ofIndia, spiritual well-being that includes floating melody and gentle laughter founded on a bedrock of wealth and status. So even the rich can aspire to and achieve spiritual happiness. This is a revelation. Elsewhere in the book she talks about the life of small towns and how the sense of community is dying out with the advent of television. I know that I regret the television’s arrival in our house. But perhaps even Germaine Greer can be naïve. Did these happy villages with their happy village life really exist? Perhaps one or two here and there, exceptions to the rule of poverty and degradation. But weren’t the rest happier after capitalism arrived, on average, all things considered? That is the question a capitalist would ask.

The young girls I see are flabby and fat. The newspapers call them curvaceous as if this is something desirable. I cut out an article on ‘curvaceous’ mannequins who take their hot and sexy cues from the voluptuous curves of Beyoncé and J Lo.  ‘Mr Knoth…said that people seemed bewitched by the Sex line mannequins…Men, women and children wanted to touch them, he said.’ There’s no surprise in any of this. Everyone would agree that a mannequin should reflect the times we live in, and since ‘attitude’ seems to have become the antithesis of ‘substance’ why shouldn’t mannequins have ‘attitude’ as shown by bigger, sexy derrieres? But there’s another take on this. There’s a general expansion of body shapes due to the fact that we’ve got all that leisure time we’ve worked so hard for, and now we use that leisure time to sit in front of our televisions and live vicariously. We have become sedentary slothful people. Our heroes and heroines, and super-heroes and super-heroines, are those supermen and superwomen who live our lives for us. We spend precious time, our leisure time sitting down and watching them and admiring them. Take the phenomenon of Lance Armstrong. Now there’s a man who can’t have much time to sit in front of the television. He’s too busy cycling, writing books, attending celebrity functions and fielding questions about performance boosting drugs.

In Ayn Rand’s carefully constructed world the will of man is paramount. I intend man in the generic sense, outside of gender connotations, any heroines in her books were at the very least shadows of the heroic epic figure of the Howard Roark prototype. Everything is driving ambition and power, the full focus of the mind is on the achievement of self. Where there is will there is also ego. There is no tomorrow, only one life. Man’s creative potential as a producer is exalted. A good capitalist is one who renounces religion and spirituality since they are anti-reason. On the same grounds altruism, collectivism and mysticism cannot co-exist with capitalism. Selfishness is a virtue. Reading Germaine Greer has opened a window; I realise how insinuating Ayn Rand’s evangelical message was; I welcomed it, absorbed it and made it my own. My little wavering attempts at a new-found spirituality are hampered by my life, my constrained capitalist life with its straight lines and sharp corners, its demand for proof, its obsession with reason.  I’m brought to mind of an appreciation to a mapmaker in Time magazine – a man who revolutionized mapmaking by focussing on aesthetics first and then only introducing mathematics. Perhaps this is the answer to our quandary. Perhaps capitalism has been too much of one thing and not enough of another.

Ayn Rand’s achievement was to transform capitalism into an art form through her eloquence. Time has moved on. The pendulum swings to the other side. There’s a new class of Haves and Have Nots. Those striving for a state of spiritual wisdom, and those not striving. The trick is to work out for yourself if capitalism and spirituality are two congruent worlds or overlapping realities. We are inundated by books written by so-called professionals – from psychics to self-help gurus – who make a healthy profit out of leading us away from worldly thoughts, in a mass turnaround, like lemmings from the cliff edge,  to the realms of obscure higher thoughts. The fervour of these armchair philosophers is superseding Ayn Rand’s capitalist zeal, swaying us in new directions, no doubt taking us to new heights of folly.

I am bothered by a philosophical question Greer asks: ‘Can a man step in the same river twice? At first I don’t understand why the answer is ‘NO’. Of course I can step in the same river again and again. There are times when ignorance is frustrating and debilitating. Then it comes to me as I write this piece; the river is flowing, ever-changing, so that the exact moment can never be repeated. So I concentrate on the river and reach further high thoughts. Where I step into the river, the river is changed for a moment, as it flows around. I go a step further; within me my thoughts are flowing, ever-changing, so that I am also changed by my act. I go all the way; outside circumstances are also flowing, ever-changing, like the seasons and the weather, the time of day. How could I have not understood? It is immensely profound. Heady stuff, this philosophy.

 1.  According to a survey by the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club, Atlas Shrugged ranked second after the Bible as the that most influenced people’s lives. (http://www.libertystory.net)

Essay written for “Illuminating The Spirit”; Department of Arts & Culture

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