Thursday, October 6, 2011

Real and Not Real, Voices, and the Layers in Between

In a brief conversation with a poet recently, the subject came up of the poems and stories we write as creative imaginings versus those based on things personally experienced.   "A lot of my poems are made up," he told me.  "Sometimes the ones made up seem real, and the real ones seem made up." Getting fired from an ice-cream factory for bleeding on the fudgsicles, for example, actually happened; a poem about his father dying--which elicited condolences--was entirely fictional.

Speaking of the real and the imagined in our writing, here on my desk sits fellow blogger William Michaelian's recently published novel, A Listening Thing, of which I have copy #84--of the Tenth Anniversary Authorized Print Edition.    "I am Stephen Monroe: a fictional character," says Michaelian  in the Preface. "And yet I'm also Stephen's creator, and the author of his harrowing introspective tale."

The Afterword repeats this affirmation  quoted in the Preface:  "I am  Stephen Monroe" (with the  "I" italicized), and is signed "Stephen Monroe."   (Me, not that Michaelian dude, I felt his italicized "I"  insisting.  As if to imply: Well, he might've created me but he's not me!  I'm Stephen Monroe.)  If you've ever read any of Michaelian's reported dreams you will not find this sort of situation unusual.  He has many faces, and his writings, like his artistic renderings, keep evolving.  This first novel is ample proof.

The book is by and about Stephen Monroe, as he reflects on himself and his life past and present.  Above and beyond the story itself there's a pocketful of insights about those things we sometimes wonder about but can never quite figure out--such as the possibility that  "Everything that is, isn't" and "Everything that isn't, is." 

Truth to tell, I have known people like Stephen Monroe--lonely, unhappy individuals holding tenaciously to a particular remembered time/place/relationship, unable to stop looking at it, mentally re-living it, feeling it important to preserve, describe and explain, wishing it could be reprogrammed for a different outcome in the now.  "It is in speaking, that I am able to figure things out", Stephen  says on page 133.  His marriage has failed; his wife, and the world, have moved on but he remains stuck in a memory warp, unable to let go.   ("Are you coming to bed?" his ex-wife Mary (who'd left three years before) beckons, in a familiar scene still playing out in his mind.)

"If this isn't real, then nothing is,"  says Stephen.  "And if I am real, everything is."  It's true, though, I thought as I read that.  We construct our own 'realities.'  The past is an integral part of Stephen's reality and his identity as well. "It would be healthier," he admits, "to let go" of it.  But he can't.  Stephen, like his mother with whom he visits on a weekend described in the book, feels "obliged to take care of things"--the way his father did, and the imagined loss of the family home, as with his loss of Mary,  to him signified  "there would be no meaningful place left to go."   Home, family, one's traditions and memorabilia and routine, are everything.  You lose that, and you become unanchored, the "I" part of you suddenly severed from the "we" or "us" that's been dissolved or taken away.

I found in this novel unexpectedly significant little nuggets of perception vis-a-vis universal parallels above and beyond the confines of the narrative, echoing what Tim Hinshaw (the author Michaelian's friend who died last year), noted about the book's "insight into the human condition." How many of us attempt to understand, much less reflect on why we "always do" what we always do, or question who we really are.   "You failed, son", Stephen imagines his father saying; "You always put your foot in your mouth", an everybody's grandmother scolds;  "You always say it's your fault", says his ex-wife.  Always, in all ways, that "always" part exudes.  Everyone screws up at one time or another - who can  not-relate to that?  We disappoint and hurt people, without intending to.  Stephen struggles with a sense of failure and the need to make things okay again.  Unlike his parents' house ("a tight little ship that could weather any storm"), his is on shaky ground. And Stephen is sometimes his own worst enemy, it seems, because his own brain "instinctively ridicules" his efforts.  "Think before you speak!" he reminds himself.

I had to laugh at Mary's habit of piling stacks of Readers Digests next to the toilet.  My mother did the exact same thing!  Reading Stephen's hilarious account of his dread of visiting the bathroom because of those hated magazines and his playful accusations that Mary just did that to annoy him made me think of the idiosyncracies we lovingly tolerate in our loved ones--and those habits we can no longer abide, and in ourselves as well.  In Stephen's and Mary's case it resulted in what Stephen calls "an intellectual divorce." 

Mary chose to leave; Stephen chose not to let her go, even though he couldn't prevent it.  The novel also illustrates something we all recognize but which brings little consolation when returning to an empty life:  the fact that both parties still love one another, that it may be nobody's fault, doesn't change anything. Some things can't be worked out, "fixed", or ever solved.  That, too, is part of life.  All we can do, as human beings, is "muddle through, the best we can."  For some this means changing course; for others, staying put, even if staying put means mostly "Stuck"; and comes a time when we might get tired of words like muddle through, which grip like a verbal harness we wish could be replaced by images of flow or glide or soar.  Can one just decide not to be miserable? Stephen asks.  (Is chronic sadness or clinical depression a choice?)  His reflections elicit even more reflections.  

Just as there's more to the problem of depression than one of attitude, so is there more to reluctant but necessary departures to escape what amounts to an emotional vacuum.  I love you but I can't help you. And he loves her but he can't help being who he is.   Stephen confesses to not understanding what "love" is.  Upon which an image of Tina Turner singing "What's love got to do with it?" immediately began ringing in my mind--and here came another unexpected idea--that maybe, if both parties still love one another, maybe it's not really about love but about . . . self preservation.

What makes A Listening Thing something which its author says we should read?  Because, he explains, "we need an honest look at ourselves, and the freedom of a second chance."   Michaelian took an honest look at himself--and wove a story around it.   It's not autobiographical, he states, but "the personal experiences and past events related by Stephen are really my own."  ("Life is fiction and fiction is life." )

Michaelian and Stephen Monroe invite us to listen as they tell his story, cautioning that if you think you know the answers, well, you're to be pitied. You don't.  This is said with love.  (Psycho-nibbler-babblers, take note:  Stephen Monroe is not a psychological "project", as he was, for years, to his ex-wife.  He's simply a man explaining who he is.  He's brutally frank about it, and intends to devote his life to exploring and maintaining that sense of self and to his writing.  "I am Stephen Monroe.  I am Stephen Monroe!")

Longing for a second chance free of failure and depression, he harbors hope, though neither one is going to cancel out the other.  Which made me think of the sheer duality of all that is, hinted at in this passage where Stephen is reminiscing about "Uncle Leo":

Poor Uncle Leo.  Poor everyone.  Not a happy thing exists that is untouched by sorrow. And yet, there isn't a sad thing we know that isn't sweetened by laughter and light.  Triumph and downfall . . . Love and hate.  Confusion and enlightenment.  Jealousy and serenity.

Included at the end of this passage is the word Possibility, italicized.  ("Possibility.  Dear Uncle Leo.  Dear Everyone.")   Stephen admits he has trouble maintaining optimism, but the mere entertainment of the possibility of Possibility trumps pessimism, one would think.  So too, even with Stephen's daily struggle with depression as a down/up, up/down, down/up, up/down affair; its eradication is graspable.

This is turning out to be far more detailed than I'd intended.  Like the fictional Stephen Monroe, it is in writing, that I am able to figure things out (although he actually said "speaking", not writing).  When a reader listens, not just to the story but to the thoughts that arrive while reading the story, connections can be made, parallels discovered, differences noted--in short, there is engagement on a second level corresponding to the fictional character's own introspections.  A very wordy way to simply say that much of what Michaelian wrote (in the voice of Stephen Monroe) soundly resonated.

So, three things I took away from reading this book:  (1) a reminder of what it's like to have been Stuck in a "harrowing" situation, unable to change things no matter how hard one tried;  (2) that things don't go well when you are prevented from, chastised for, or not accepted as . . . being who you truly are (and no amount of compromise or suppression or denial will keep that self from resurfacing); and (3) who you seem to be--even to yourself--as Stephen Monroe pondered,  may have nothing to do with who you really are.  He likens this to "an identity comprised of layers pretty much all the same"--like an onion!--whose skin you have to peel, one fragile piece at a time, to get to the inside.  And depending on how close you get, what's there might make you cry.

Michaelian's novel made me aware that choosing to be who you are can be revolutionary--and life altering, not only for you but for others.  Whoever said life was easy. "Life itself is a work in progress."   Stephen Monroe's story is just one example.   But somewhere in the process of listening to the listening things, whispers of connections to something larger emerged, kind of like hidden voices beyond the written voice, threading through to make themselves heard.  I'm not saying if you read A Listening Thing you will start hearing voices.   But reading is a form of hearing, no?  Words on a page are like songs to the eyes.

Wait, wait, I hear a voice from behind the fig tree:

 "I will go on singing"

William Michaelian - July 24, 2011

I rest my case, ha ha.

By the way, there's an excellent interview at the end of the book worthy of its own special mention, of particular interest to writers -  of William Michaelian in conversation with Paul L. Martin, teacher and writer, whose excellent 'observations on literature, culture and the life of the mind' can be found over at  The Teacher's View.