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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
I’m a Fan #4
Is that true? Are we all—all of us writers—fans? Fan-like, do we not passionately—sometimes even obsessively—engage with our subjects? Do we not write in order to gain access and understanding? To be able to become part of the greater whole? But what about the freighted and fraught side of fandom? When our desire for access and intimacy creates a debit or comes at some other cost?
I put the question, as it were, to a variety of authors whom I admire and consider myself a fan. I asked them to describe their best or most interesting or most transformative experiences as fans. As the answers came back, I discovered another distinct and weirdly interesting pleasure: that of being a fan listening to fans talking about being fans.
Jim Krusoe (Parsifal): Before I ever experienced the obsessive delights of Raymond Roussel, the microfictions of Robert Walser, the skull-lifting novels of Flann O’Brien, or the doll-worlds of Guy Davenport, there was Kenward Elmslie. Because it was his book, Orchid Stories, that first allowed me to imagine my own possibilities as a narrative writer. True, I’d read Djuna Barnes and Beckett, so I should have gotten the message, but somehow hadn’t, maybe because back in 1974, I was still writing poetry (I did that for a long time), and was mostly focused on an extended argument with myself over irony and earnestness.
But Elmslie’s stories ignored all such questions, and the paragraph that follows, from a story called “Streetcar” marks the exact spot where, on a day nearly forty years ago, I actually felt an internal switch flip on:
Whole days passed when I rarely left my room. Friday night, I could barely sleep so involved was I in my Saturday excursion to see Dog Roots. I rehearsed getting in the streetcar in my mind’s eye—the steps, reaching in my coat pocket for the three pennies, saying hi to the uniformed traffic watcher. In point of fact, a new traffic watcher was sitting in the green booth beside the curtained conductor. A bunch of loud women got on, wearing minks and orchids. A bony girl in her teens with steel-rimmed spectacles and braces on her teeth accompanied them. In one hand, she held a pink noisemaker, and on the lapel of her white velvet break-away coat, a blue-and-gray orchid was pinned. I stared at it so relentlessly, she tossed it to me, with studied nonchalance. Her party got off at the next stop, opposite the Health Museum.
What was it about this single passage that changed my world, even though I didn’t know it at the time? Could it have been the vision of a movie called Dog Roots? The mysterious encounter with the teen? All those orchids? The looming presence of the Health Museum? To this day, I have no idea, but I remember at that moment I felt giddy, maybe to see a story that was unfettered both from “natural” details and “artfulness”. What was that particular story about? What were any of the stories in that collection about? Even looking at them now, I can’t say, although if pressed, I guess I would answer that their true subject was play.
And maybe that isn’t surprising, because Kenward, who I came to know later, turned out not to be a storywriter at all, but primarily a poet, librettist, and graphic-novel precursor, collaborating with, among others, Joe Brainard and Donna Dennis. And what made The Orchid Stories so freeing, I think, was that unlike Beckett or Barnes, what was missing from Elmslie’s fiction was a sense of intentionality, or supposed purpose. It just happened and was interesting in and of itself, without needing to dominate a reader. Of course, that modesty of presence may also explain why his book isn’t more widely read, but for me, opening those pages was like the morning when, still a kid, I arrived from the pinched and greasy Midwest to see the Pacific Ocean for the very first time, shimmering and boundless, then waded in and, without any place at all to go to, swam.
Dana Johnson (Elsewhere, California): If I did not love music as much as I do, I would not be a writer. Music, and the musicality of language, propelled me into the world of writing, from the time my parents gave me my own little plastic record player somewhere around five years old. I played the “Three Little Fishes” until I wore that record out, just so I could hear “Boop boop dittum datum wattum choo.” And then right around the same age, I suppose, traveling down south, I realized that my family in California said, “up there” when my family in Tennessee said what sounded like, to me, “up air.” Up air. Up air. It’s great to hear it and repeat it even now. When I first read Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” it knocked me out, because I totally understood Anders’ love of the phrase “they is.” And when I finally got to the end of Ulysses, which is not my favorite novel, not by a long sight, I still savored the language in it, savored the ending, that rhythmic “yes I said yes I will Yes.” I read Ulysses in grad school with a 240-page annotation. It was the first book I read that required another book to help you get through it, but by the time I got to the end, I was like, Okay, James Joyce. I hate you for making me carry around two books, but I love you because at the end of the day, with or without annotations, you agree that it all comes down to the music of the words.
Aspen Matis (“A Hiker’s Guide to Healing” and Knapsacked: A Life Redirected North): I hated school. I was instead going to be an actress and also a great, famous writer. Yet I’d read only six books in completion by the time I was 20 and first heard a story by Aimee Bender. I had probably written more words than I’d read. In my first college fiction-writing workshop, though, we had Story Hour, during which my professor read to us, and there was nothing to do but listen.
The story was “Dearth,” Aimee Bender’s tale of a woman – Our Woman, she’s named – who could never manage to abort her pot of gestating potato babies. She all at once was a mother. She took her baby potatoes to a movie; they could not eat the popcorn and so “clutched handfuls of it in their fat fingers until it dribbled in soft white shapes to the floor.” As my professor read, I scrawled, “Magic is necessary.” Metaphor is magic. They were potatoes because of course they were. You get what you get. My pulse beat in the pad of my thumb. And of course I had a story about dearth, too.
Listening in that class, I learned that metaphors don’t need to stay just words. If Our Girl is growing lonely, a hand-shaped-hole can form where she feels it in her gut and grow, threaten her health. I wrote, “Not possible, but true.” I wrote, “I bet she drinks too much.” I wrote, “I want to write.”
* * *
I signed up for a class in L.A., a hands-on type of thing about breaking into Hollywood, and moved into The Oakwood – better known in town as Hollywood Elementary. Eight days after faded child-star Corey Haim overdosed, I moved into his room. He’d died, maybe in my bed. The man who’d lived in my room died thinking he was Corey Haim, teen idol. Big star. Really he was a 38-years-old, and an addict. That lie he wished were true killed him. My class took fieldtrips to directors’ lot-offices and agents’ phallic granite lobbies, producers’ over air-conditioned mansions perched on hills; at a Venice Beach bookstore I bought a book, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a book of stories by Aimee Bender.
I read it. I said nothing to my classmate-suitemates and called a cab and rode in silence to the University of Southern California campus, where Aimee Bender was – I’d learned online – an MFA professor. I found Aimee Bender’s office and peeked in on her office hours and I announced to her that in the fall I’d be at Columbia, studying writing. This was a lie. I was a sophomore. Yet I said it.
And she didn’t seem to doubt me. And it was a hope I felt like an arm around my waist and therefore, I thought, not really a lie. Or: it was the first lie I told in LA that was true.
I wrote a pill and swallowed it. Woke in New York.