The Anchor Was There – It Was Just Dragging Along The Bottom For A While

Novels and I have been having a rough time of it lately, and so my reading has been at a slow, plodding pace for the past many months. I felt like I was giving up. I found myself struggling through novels whose point only seemed to be metaphor, an allegory, and I would read along thinking of course, of course, this author is not talking about this story but rather some other point outside the story, and this kind of writing is too obvious for me. The heart was not in the fiction; the point was outside the text, outside the characters, and so my eyes kept looking outside at what the author’s finger was really pointing at over and over and over again. I couldn’t love the characters, and actions and events only served as vehicles to further illustrate the thing that the parts of the novel were not – the point. Plugging through a story that does not even focus properly on itself seems empty, and I began to resent the abuse of fiction.

I kept asking myself why the novel? It was beginning to seem that it was really an incredibly inefficient mode of expression when an essay, or a book of essays, would better serve the point. This is what reading a string of unsuccessful novels can do to a person, and it was actually creating quite a struggle within myself. I was beginning to question my basic beliefs about the importance of literature. Why write it? Why read it? Why push good books on the unsuspecting with a nearly religious zeal? I had always loved reading before, I had defended the novel in discussions with heartless philosophers, I had dreamed of the day when I would possibly publish a book worth half as much. What about now? Had I changed so much my that love of literature was only an old feeling hung on to more out of habit that actual belief?

And then I picked up Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. I have since misplaced it after reading only a few chapters in Cosmopolis and must find it again, because I can still taste its must, its bitterness, its weight in my mouth. One paragraph struck me, dancing and drumming across the page; it’s cadence, its poetry rolling my tongue in my mouth as I secretly articulated the words:

Trinkets held in the mortar of desire, the fancy a trowel, the whim the builder. A wall, a tower, stout, secure, incredible, immuring the spirit from a flight of arrows, the mind, experience, shearing the flow of time as a rock shears water. The minutes skirted by, unknown.
– Roth, Henry. Call It Sleep. New York: Avon Books, 1934. p 35.

And in reading that, I began to remember why literature. It made me recall a sense, a feeling, a kind of thinking that my employment, apartment, going out with friends, and general day-to-day existence does not evoke in me so powerfully. I am reawakened, stimulated, given new eyes. As much as good literature sets me adrift in new waters, it is also an anchor that I was sure I had lost. It frees my brain from the black, wet confines of my skull, releases it from the drudgery of its animal needs and habits into a world beyond base necessity and desire.

I mentioned earlier that I was struggling with the sense of the ending of things, the closing down of options, but this morning I realized that what was pulling at me was the knowledge that I could not go back, revisit, where I have been before. I have been without an anchor to hold me to any part of my past, and as a result I have allowed myself to bob along the present, directionless, hopeless. I found myself ill-defined, shapeless, shifting without purpose or design. There was no clear line I could find cutting through my life to explain to me who I was or why I was or how I had come to this place. While I was rolling my hashbrowns around in egg yolk on my plate this morning, I read this bit:

And as I lie here now on my back for the last time, I think of when I lay on my stomach in the underground for the first time with him there beside me in the small bootleg mine which ran beneath the sea and in which he had been working since the previous January. . .
And now, strangely enough, I do not know if that is what I hate and so must leave, or if it is the fact that now there is not even that mine, awful as it was, to go to, and perhaps it is better to have a place to go to that you hate than to have no place at all.
MacLeod, Alistair. The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1976. pp 31 and 32.

In losing track of literature, I have lost track of myself, or at least a part of myself that I can find no whole without. I worried over my lack of a place to return to that would still be mine. My grandparents’ hometown, Cosmopolis, the city of my birth – all these are places trapped in another time, and I cannot go back to them and feel any of what I once did there. I am a stranger everywhere I go. It has always been this way. Moving is entirely unnecessary for me to feel uprooted. I know instinctively that part of my sense of lostness has to do with my lack of connection to place or not being able to identify the place to which I am connected, but I think Roth and MacLeod have aided me immeasurably in my search.

It is literature, it is words, that guide me along and always have. From the afternoon I taught myself how to read while struggling through the words in Are You My Mother? at the age of four or five, the sheer bliss that was conquering James Clavell’s Shogun when I was nine, twirling madly through four readings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude during my twenties, to my present intoxication with Roth and MacLeod, literature has always carried my mind forward to places that I have not known, thoughts, ideas, and sensations that are gifts bestowed upon me by the authors that express them. I have been made much more by reading literature. It is a place for me that I have inhabited since my mother read to me in the womb. It is one of the places I come from, and when I forgot it, it brought me back.

So I am not as lost as I thought I was before last week with Roth and this morning with MacLeod. I had merely forgotten, lost my point of contact with, something I hold dear. My past is dotted with books as cities and towns on a map. As some people connect tinny songs from the radio with places and old loves, I connect the dog-eared, second-hand copies of novels that I carried in a satchel at my hip wherever I went with those I knew. I travel from point to point on my internal map this afternoon, recognizing each place, remembering how it was to be there and who I am now that connects with that place. Carlos Castaneda will always mean Starcat and Nightcrawler and Slimey and Velvet Elvis. That grown-up novel I was reading when I was ten that was about missionaries in China which my mother took away when she heard what was in it will always conjure up memories of our cool basement on hot summer days in the middle of a dusty drought, knowing for the first time that the world of adults was different and as distant from me then as another planet. The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 by Richard Brautigan is inseparable in my mind from the strange floral smell of the coffee in Wayne’s Groceteria and their sticky gravy on cold fries as Frances and I met there to read it aloud to each other chapter by chapter or until our voices needed a rest. I had forgotten these places and these people as I should have remembered them. They are as alive and real as the novels that place them; they are my places. After a handful of years searching, literature has finally called me home again.


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