Friday, February 25, 2011

The Amazing Lynda Barry

I went to hear Lynda Barry at Herron School of Art last night, part of IUPUI's Reiberg Visiting Writers Series. She was absolute and total genius talking about image. It’s where all art comes from, she said—what gives it power. She asked us to remember our first crush—then for everyone to say the name aloud. She big-grinned, put her open hands beside her face as we did it. “This is what everybody looks like when they remember their first crush,” she said.

“Now remember your fourth,” she said, and laughed.

No image, no physical response.

She talked about kids and their sacred objects—blankets, stuffed animals—in one case, the battered leg of a doll, which was all that was left of it. Kids know these things aren’t alive. But if you ask them if they’re dead, they look at you like you’re crazy. They’re something else: a physical metaphor of comfort and security. The image is the object, which is why, if lost, the object cannot be replaced.

And invisible friends, alive as very specific images in children's minds. A friend’s Mr. Sprinkle could only be talked to through a blowing fan, she said. (I thought of my daughter Jenny’s Christine, Doodle-Duck, and the Turtle, who came every morning to play—until, one day, they refused to "cooperate" and she flushed them all down the toilet. Kate’s Linda, who lived in the closet. They played checkers together.)

Images are satisfying even when they don’t make sense to the “top of the brain,” Barry said—and sang a few bars of the old Sixties song, “Groovin’,” by the Young Rascals. “Life would be ecstasy, you and me and Leslie.” A song she loved until she found out the lyric was actually, “Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly.” Without the image of Leslie—whatever h/she looked like and what being with him/her might mean—the song became stupid and boring.

(Until last night, I thought the lyric was “…you and me and the sea.” Yep. Without the sea, the song just doesn’t have the mojo.

I love this stuff. I love how the brain works. We’re so much weirder than any of us imagine; there’s so little we can ever really know about…anything, least of all ourselves.

Like, how weird is this! Barry described a guy who had his hand amputated and experienced the phantom limb thing—but, in his case, the lost hand was clenched in a tight fist. It hurt and it was driving him nuts. Nobody could do anything for him, until a brain researcher tried this experiment. He made an open box with holes on either side and a mirror that reflected the real hand. He told the phantom hand guy to put his forearm with the real hand in one hole and his forearm without the hand in the other hole. “Make a tight fist in your real hand,” he brain guy said. He did. “Now slowly release it, looking in the mirror.” Yikes! The phantom hand unclenched simultaneously—and stayed unclenched.

Who knows what the brain did to make that happen, but it for sure had something do with image.

I believe that writing can be taught, that grown-up things like discipline and devotion to craft are absolutely crucial to good writing. But what I love is that magical, completely unpredictable part of writing--and all art--that Lynda Barry talked about last night. The child-place you have to go to get the images to write about, the playfulness and what-iffing, the state not-being-in-the-real-world required to keep those images alive and powerful until you can get them to the page.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Revenge of the Original Novel

I love Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s new novel, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, and it’s been a kick to watch it take off these past weeks, with great reviews from the very literary New York Times Book Review (every serious writer’s dream) to People Magazine (every serious writer’s secret dream.)

This starred review from Publishers Weekly sums up the book nicely:

“Glowing with dark humor, Stuckey-French's fabulously quirky second novel (after Mermaids on the Moon) spotlights a wild would-be killer: Marylou Ahearn, a 77-year-old retired teacher in Memphis, Tenn. She's obsessed with killing Dr. Wilson Spriggs, who gave pregnant Marylou a radioactive cocktail in 1953 during a secret government study. Helen, the daughter Marylou gave birth to, died in 1963 from cancer. Accompanied by her Welsh corgi, Buster, and as "Nancy Archer" (the heroine of the 1958 movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), Marylou moves in 2006 to Tallahassee, Fla., where Wilson lives with his daughter, menopausal Caroline; her husband, Vic Witherspoon, who's contemplating an affair, and their children: 18-year-old Elvis-obsessed beauty Ava; 16-year-old science geek Otis, who's secretly building a nuclear breeder reactor; and overachieving, attention-deprived 13-year-old Suzi. As "Radioactive Lady," Nance creates mucho mischief for Wilson, but her revenge plans mutate after discovering the old doc has Alzheimer's, and dang it, she really likes his kinfolk.”

The book is, indeed, “glowing with dark humor.” Also, in the words of other reviews…

“…generous”

“…fabulously wacky”

“…poignant”

“…funny”

“…sad”

I am in total agreement with them all.

But what I love most about the novel is that it is utterly original, by which I mean nobody who’s living on the planet, ever lived on the planet, or ever will live on the planet could have written this book except Elizabeth Stuckey-French.

Which got me wondering, “What is originality, anyway?”

Everyone who’s ever studied literature knows about Hemingway’s iceberg: "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."

They are also probably familiar with Grace Paley’s advice to fiction writers: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”

Apply Grace Paley’s advice to Hemingway’s iceberg theory and you get something like:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” But it’s the process of writing the story, wrestling with what he doesn’t know about what he knows, that provides the opportunity for the writer to earn the knowledge needed to write the story. And what the writer doesn’t know, starting out, needs to matter to him—desperately, and in the most personal way. Which means that the part of Hemingway’s iceberg beneath the surface is also made of bits and pieces of the writer himself.

So, yeah, idea behind The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady is delightfully original. But its true originality lies in the honesty and courage with which Stuckey-French wrestled down the big, unanswerable questions beneath the surface of this deceptively goofy story.

What is a happy family?

Can we ever really know…anyone?

What can and cannot be forgiven?

And speaking about what people don’t know about what they know, it would be nice to think that The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady might make publishers consider what they don’t know about what they (think they) know about what the market wants.

All too often, they’re are scared to death of original work. It doesn’t fit anywhere. It can’t be hailed as the next Twilight or Harry Potter. They have no idea what to do with it.

So, bravo to Doubleday for believing in this wonderful, original novel.

And, of course, to Elizabeth Stuckey-French for writing it.