20 July 2010

The Wheels on the Bus (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1 begins with a bus picking up Comrade Snarky who is wearing "an army-surplus flak jacket--dark olive-green--and baggy camouflage pants, the cuffs rolled up to show infantry boots...a black beret pulled tight on her head, she could be anyone." I think those last four words are worth paying note to, since this is not that last time we'll see a character disappear behind a costume. I think it's fairly ambiguous whether this qualifies them as 2-D slasher flick victims or something more complicated, such as the archetypal lost souls I suggested previously.

The Matchmaker, introduced a little later in the chapter, not only comes in with cowboy boots and a straw cowboy hat, spitting brown tobacco juice out the window, but even (just in case you didn't get he's a hayseed) trailing horse shit. Before we move on with the characters, who we'll learn more about (or not) in future chapters, it's worth noting one last detail. Director Denial arrives with her cat, Cora Reynolds, and a tweed blazer, one of the lapels of which is swollen out from her chest. "A shoulder holster," says Comrade Snarky on seeing that.

These people are all being picked up in the dark hours of the morning, before the sun hasn't even come up. After this, they know they will be in their isolated writer's retreat, an experience likened to being on a desert island. They are each allowed one suitcase because "there will be a lot of [them], and the bus taking them to the desert island is only so big." (Here's hoping Palahniuk is aiming to mix up his metaphors, and just for the record, were I taking a bus to a desert island, my suitcase would contain scuba gear.)

As they get on the bus, they think about the people they are leaving behind.
Those people still in bed, they'd be asleep another hour, then washing their faces, under their arms, and between their legs, before going to the same work every day. Living the same life, every day.

These people would cry, but then they would go back to waiting tables, painting houses, programming computers.

It's a sentiment echoed by the organizer of the writer's retreat, Mr. Whittier, an old man with a "spotted shiny dome" of a scalp across which a few gray hairs have been combed. He tells them: "The people you're sneaking away from, they don't want you enlightened. They want to know what to expect."

I wonder if Palahniuk is still read in fifty years, whether he'll be considered largely an author you read when you're still young, preferably in high school or beginning college, like Jack Kerouac. It's possible that Mr. Whittier is not meant to be a mouthpiece for the author, but I doubt that since some variation on that sort of thinking seems to crop up often in the author's novels.

I confess it's a point of view I find myself having less patience with as I grow older. Yes, those people who have been left behind by their loved ones probably would get one with their lives, but I can't say I blame them, since the alternative would be to go chasing after those selfish pricks who abandoned them. Additionally, I wonder how Palahniuk's criticism fits in changing times.

In a time of increasing personal bankruptcies, of great economic risk being transferred from governments and business to families, is the desire for some sense of security--knowing you won't be homeless in retirement or that you'll be able to put your kids through college all that unreasonable--all that unreasonable? Or is Palahniuk prescient about how even the little security people had in 2006 would soon be destroyed by uncontrolled avarice?

Nonetheless, these would-be writers are not without their own economic dreams. They hope to write
...some maserpiece. A short story or poem or screenplay to make sense of [their lives]. A masterpiece that would buy [their] way out of slavery to a husband or parent or corporation. That would earn [their] freedom.

There's an interesting conflation of literary (masterpiece) and monetary (buy, earn) goals in that paragraph. Since this story of would-be writers began as a story of critics, I feel I must turn to Ricardo Piglia's commentary on the intersection of those realms (from his brilliant "Assumed Name"):
...as in every good detective story, what is at play is not the law, but money (or, more appropriately: the law of money). ...critics act like administrators of art and their function is to regulate the circulation and sale of books in the market: to be "criticized" (discovered) is to lose readers, that is, to be unable to earn money through literature. Once more, as with the counterfeiter who prints forged bills, to be discovered is not a moral (in this case: literary) problem but an economic one.

A couple of posts back, I mentioned how (like The Castle of Otranto) Haunted traffics in a little bit of misrepresentation. Haunted began life as a collection of short stories but was reworked into a novel because short story collections don't sell well. Haunted as a novel is a work of forgery motivated not by literary (moral) concerns but by monetary ones, interestingly paralleling the motives of his would-be writers. Interestingly, the would-be writers see money as necessary to buy their way "out of slavery." One wonders if the parallel between author and subject extends so far.

I want to move on from the novel's various crimes and ghosts for now, and let's get to the end of the chapter. Here, after an off-hand comment from Miss Sneezy, we learn that Comrade Snarky feels that Anne Frank had "life pretty good." As she explaines "Anne Frank ... never had to tour with her book..." Yes, this is offensive, but for Palahniuk pushing those kinds of buttons is sort of de rigueur, especially for Haunted. (I warn you now, if that seems bad, you may not want to go on.)

For now, let's look at the strange juxtaposition of Anne Frank's life with that of an author who "has to" tour with his or her book. Snarky seems to suggest that behind forced into hiding is preferable to being forced (or at least contractually obligated) to reveal oneself. As a would-be author, Snarky would appear to believe that she can create a masterpiece to earn her freedom, but she would prefer to remain in hiding than to be seen with her work. There's a suggestion here, perhaps one not unfamiliar to writers, of wanting the work to stand for the person. Instead of going out into the world him or herself, the writer would rather the work could function as their representative.

Ghosts, false identities, entrapment, hiding, the human replaced by its simulacrum--some themes already beginning to crop up--sign posts that we may be entering Gothic territory.

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