Thursday, March 26, 2009
The sellout novelist and his pal The Mad Hatter
I used to do this when I was working in magazines and had a mental block.
"I can't give you a column today, because I'm stuck. So here is Chapter Fourteen of my novel, THE HAT PEOPLE."
...Well, I was told the book had life. Even if it was about a sold-out novelist and his friend the mad hatter...Below is an exerpt from Chapter Fourteen, The Hat People.
So here is some boilerplate for you. Readers will please refrain from yawning. :)
The furor over John's book had died now. Three thousand copies had been printed, reviewed, finished with. To John, at his leisurely job it didn't seem to matter. Maybe through the writing of the book, he had really wanted this. Even if it bored him occasionally. He would visit a bookshop every so often, not too disappointed to see his book reduced from $2.15 to $1.15. John and Laura threw a party. John got some Danish cheeses, good German meats, wine. He decided to live like those who had arrived. He invited three authors, most of his University friends and a couple of people from the magazine. Five people showed up. Later that night, John bottle of beer in his hand and anger in his guts, stared at the wall while Laura prepared to go to sleep. "Honey, they're all busy that's all. Most of them have jobs, and some of them have to come a long way. Don't take it so hard. "At least Tom Speight could have come", John rasped. Pricks. Bastards. We go to all their parties. Honey, they're writers and newspapermen. The most unreliable, immoral people on earth. You just have to realize that writers aren't joiners. John got to dislike his glamorous job and where he worked. Every morning, he would sit behind his desk, a little lonesome, his door closed and get on the telephone to follow up the small news clippings he had to make into expanded stories. Most of his work was done in this way, by telephone, and by improving on the work of others. Magazines and newspapers were notoriously cannibalistic and he had long ago accepted this.
Day job. Magazine writer. His stories began to appear. He would feel proud of some of them, every so often producing the piece in the course of a party. People took a tolerant air. Kind.
Almost everybody had forgotten the Madonna and the Teuton. Bookshops had stopped carrying the book. Here and there in some literary column, someone took a mild swipe at the book for being an example of making all the mistakes a first novelist makes.
To most people, John now became a guy making a living. A consumer, father, provider.
John continued to work each day to write of inventors of single skis with which to slide down, toboggan like, down hills. And there were interviews with peanut vendors with their whistling machines on Yonge Street. And there was a fellow out in Alberta who had succeeded in growing a pineapple in his greenhouse, the only one in Lethbridge.
A friend who came one night for dinner, given a few beers first, suggested John should peddle his kind of writing to the National Geographic, where John "could sell the same kind of crap" he wrote for Canuck. John resisted the impulse to throw the man out. He drank long and hard through the night.
He had tried for the past year to get another novel off the ground. But at night, he would come home wrung out. Though his work load and assignments with Canuck were soft, John discovered again that writing is much like sex. If one masturbates at the office all day there isn't much left at the end of the day for much else.
Laura's mother Margaret, meanwhile, proud of her son-in-law and his impressive job, would be all compliments. "You're really doing well John. $200 a week. A nice family. You've got responsibilities now, you have a wife and a lovely child. And you're handling them so well. John took to drinking. In the morning he would have to go into his cubicle of an office, view of Bay Street or no.
"You're turning alcoholic baby, Laura said carefully one day after she woke up in the middle of the night to see a line-up of beer bottles on the kitchen table, John in front of these grinning idiotically. What's bothering you? Is it the job? Is it me? Have I done something?"
"No honey. Of course it isn't you. Much better the magazine. It's the idealistic stuff I wrote at college than this inoffensive lower middle class paff I have to write now. It's bad for my style; it's doing something to my mind. It's driving me crazy. Stories of muskrat trappers, boy scouts and baton twirlers..."
"Come on. You're over-reacting as usual. It can't be that bad."
He was suddenly angry. For no apparent reason. These adopted countrymen of mine. They never fail to make me wonder. They're trying so hard to find a culture, as if with their shopping style of mentality all they had to do was go out and buy it. As far as the magazine was concerned, no one in their country every heard of serious ideas, of the faceless man of the masses, of something electronic having fielded itself on the soul of man. "They can't seem to see behind the snowshoes and the muskrat traps, the Skidoos, fashions," he said aloud.
Laura's tone rose. "Oh, precious you. It offends your sensibilities so much to write about the plain folks."
"You don't have to do it. How can you know what I'm going through? You who have always had your own car, and the horse that you board, and your allowance in high school and University."
"Oh just shut up." She complied for a few seconds and finally stood up, lit a cigarette and said "Stop John. Just stop."
John dragged on his own cigarette.
"Look," she said "why don't you just explain to me why you can't hold this job down?"
He told her that coming in every morning to stare at the grey wall of his office, dipping into is assignment sheets which would instruct him to call some guy in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland about some wild horses that were being unlawfully ridden by teenagers... well, it was just too much. "And I'm sort of in a box with Terry Franklin. I like and respect him. He's such a human being. He praises everything I do, even if it's loose and needs a rewrite. But a benevolent boss is one thing and making a public whorehouse out of your mind, a whorehouse where no one somehow gets fucked, well... I'm vegetating, Laura. I've gotten to Canuck too early. It's a place for old burnouts who have had twenty years of newspapers and are now prepared to do nothing more than hold down a well paying, low pressure job."
"Honey," she said, you don't know how lucky you are. You haven't been put down enough yet. That's your problem. Nobody has it his way. You say that you write about boring subjects and that this is why people are avoiding you. People aren't avoiding you over the things you write. It's, well," she said it, "You've become a pompous ass."
"Thanks a lot," he said. "I'm trying to help you. You think you've sold out? Everybody has to compromise, even the ones who are doing better than you. Look at Joan Forman, your old school friend. She turns out worthwhile plays almost routinely, but she keeps her CBC job for money. She grinds out these dull consumer reports every day. It pays for her but she can't find it much fun either.”
"Now baby, it's not them, it's you. Something's happened to you. You're lot your capacity for enjoyment. You've lot the facility to relax, to take things in stride. I don't know, maybe you've just got it too good too soon. It's made you vain and restless. A minute passed. John bit a nail.
Laura squeezed his arm. "I love you", she said softly. And then "Look, why don't you go out and have a few drinks with your pal Werther? Much as I can't stand the phoney bastard, he's your best friend. Maybe he'll set you straight. If he's capable of setting anybody straight."
Werther was not an ordinary man. In fact, one of his life's ambitions was to be put in a cage and exhibited. "Paid as a subsidized freak, I wouldn’t have to get into the petty personality clashes and hang-ups that come from working and dealing with people. Then I could go about the serious business of writing after my eight hour shift in the cage every day. Jobless for four years, he lived with his mother while at night writing treatises on the feasibility of her destruction. Werther was a massive, somewhat hulky six footer, blond, handsome in a degenerated way straight nose, slightly bloodshot blue eyes with dark pouches underneath and a sensuous Greek mouth. Twenty six years of age, he was something of a spooky legend in his college class. A devout reader of the Marquis de Sade, especially the sexual philosophy, he was reputed to have installed a swing in his chess broad-slinky sweater girlfriend's apartment, and was reputed to be experimenting with whips and leather pyjamas. Many a time in school, he'd tell John that his, John's sense of lovemaking was all wrong. "You should turn your women around when you screw them John. It's tighter than anything you can imagine." In his own gloomy way Wether was likeable. He seemed somehow the repository for people's evil, everybody's shadow side. He talked and perhaps did things that the timid could only dream of. He brought peoples dark side out into the open for analysis. He was also kidded quite a bit. One day when he walked into the cafeteria hung over and strung out, his girlfriend Frieda trailing tiredly after him. His class mates sat around a table. One of them said "Hey Wether!"
"What," from an impatient, spaced out Werther.
"I hear you're you're going to take up politics."
Wether's hand shot up towards the antagonist, as if to brush off a fly. What are you talking about?"
"I'm told that you're the party whip". The table burst into laughter.
Werther glared at them, fire and brimstone. "Churls. Buffons. Simpletons."
“Come on Werther, sit down, have a coffee. We all love ya," somebody called out. Werther was the class's gloomy genius. Stepped in Oscar Wilde and H.L. Mencken, he would publish brilliant vitriolic essays in the university newspaper on the happiness of church wrecking, necrophilia and masturbation for astronauts. He's never get these tracts past an editor were he not so blessed with a black humour that the articles left the reader alternately shuddering in horror or belly laughing. His relationships with people, though bumpy, were usually honest. And Werther was the kind of man who told you what was on his mind.
And so tonight Werther sat across a pub table with John, listening to what the other had to say. About working for Canadian Era the magazine, about selling out, about the anticlimax of authorship.
Werther was violating a cigarette, European fashion, hand turned outward cigarette between thumb and forefinger. Werther never merely smoked, he would hold the cigarette caressingly up to his lips, inhaling deeply and rhapsodically before holding it out much like Artie Johnson, the "very interesting" man on the TV program Laugh In. "Hm." He said. You are trapped between choices. You can either settle for the role of an ordinary man or quit your boring routine and take a chance on finding out whether you're an artist. That sounds trite I know. I don't think you sold out. Right now, I'm offering my soul to work as a newspaperman. I want to sell out but no one will buy." He chuckled. "At least you have the choice he said. Think of the poor pricks who are really trapped, sentenced to a life of hard labour for the crime of a historical circumstances or because of stupidity. Busy, working flogging, not having time to life their heads up and hear the angels sing. You've survived a lot of people John, be grateful for that."
Then he went on, as his mind clicked over to talking enthusiastically of whips and razors. Why is wisdom more often the possession of the street corner exhibitionist and the little funny guy in the attic who has a propensity to make it with chickens? Where have the universities failed?
One night John woke up in a cold seat over a dream. Vicious, menacing phantoms, all wearing hats. Completely ruthless, overbearingly intelligent. They set the styles. They manipulated consciousness and tinkered with the spirit of the age. They taught people bullshit like self-realization, meaningful relationships, safety valve literary sentiments. The Hat People controlled all conventions, vogues and fashions. Because of the Hat People, individuals became ambitious, jumped through hoops to become, they thought, fulfilled. But in fact they were the chattels of the Hat People. In the dream, which almost always began with a kind of floating down the River Styx, past hieroglyphs, down a pipe tunnel, a scene would open to reveal John travelling to Mexico to write a book unwittingly under the direction of the Hat People. He was doing his work for them. On the way back from Mexico they had intercepted him, and finding the work unsatisfactory, threw him into a dream of the future, putting him into a "training camp" with the "kiddies", the other failed candidates, youngsters as misguided, naïve and innocent as John himself. Here, in the training camp, John and the "kiddies", chained, watch endless film footage of walls falling down in flames.
John had awakened trying to escape from the kiddie compound, trying to flee from the influence of the demonic Hat People.
For the next few days, John now with six months of Canuck behind him, found he had great difficulty in doing his job. His work swam before him as if in a dream, trains of stories entering and leaving his mind. Stories of school kids caught in a jurisdictional dispute, the bussing; zoo crocodiles caught with their mouths open for that is how crocodiles sleep, prankish kids throwing pennies into the gap-toothed wishing wells; a guy in Vancouver who'd converted his bathtub into an aquarium. Is this really Canada I'm experiencing and writing about? It seemed the mass medium of the English language had grafted him onto a race of Timber Toms. Where was the modern urban Canadian? The economy was about to tumble; the greatest intellectual upheaval in history was taking place. The Aristotelian railway had jumped tracks as the quantum technicians tooled up. Men were under influences no longer perceived by the senses.
And Canuck was worried about bear hunting in the Arctic, better homes and gardens and now snowmobiles that may be able to hover over homes and gardens. Better mousetrap stories, all of them.
It seemed to John that a curious combination of death acceptance, resignation to meaningless work and money worship had made automations out of most Canadians, had made them, as Mordecai Richler once put it the world's elected squares. Even the Commies Trots and idealists had grown fat and rich, their children now pathetically attending shrinking meetings and demonstrations. Nobody wants to hear your second hand radical shit. The universal tool is money man, grab it by the handle. To allay your guilt there's always Hertz renta-Trotskyist in a little bookshop on Queen Street West. The changes would come from the right, but would you entrust your political future to ranks swelling with Gordon Sinclairs and his lower middleclass entourage of depression-hardened tough nut landladies, Orange to the core? And yet, and yet. What about the underlying decency? The genius for allowing the bright to rise upward, later to suffer pangs of dislocation but nevertheless contributing something to the society. Impoverishing the ethnic sub society, yes, but allowed to rise, not stifled. To be a carbon copy Wasp is a brutal social contact, but then one couldn't blame the wasps for all of the levels of the world. But, so much must have had to be abandoned. Spontaneity, elan, a Slavic condition matched only by the French-Canadians themselves put down. It's just so tiresome to see that Pierre Berton, Charles Templeton, Betty Kennedy, Warren Davis, Adrianne Clarkston the list is endless could have been stamped out of the same mold. The fashionable liberalism, the CBC diction, the ability on the spot to make lucid and controversial statements. These were the super Canucks, what we were all trying to become. Bright, articulate, handsome, upper middleclass, teeth capped, antiseptic. Seeing the world through Rosedale coloured glasses. And yet, Canada was one of the few countries in the world which did not put a premium on being a bona fide, certified native. It was, in fact, easier to make it as a fashionable European than a fourth generation Anglo Saxon who suffered a childhood in Toronto's inner city, there picking up a life style of immediacy, living entirely in the present, bound up in a robbers' social contact which left him no room for an ultimate deviancy. No one, save possibly J.D. Salinger likes an introspective goof, down below, or up above. Poets shoot pool at the Junction. Love, hate, Love, hate. O Canada.
Back to Title Page The Hat People
* (I was looking for a new book cover illustration, and Liz Monroe just sent me this delightful picture of Jonny Depp in the new Alice in Wonderland).