February 20, 2008

Anything But Generic

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This semester, Cornell’s MFA Creative Writing program is lucky to have not one but three prestigious visiting writers: Paul Lisicky, Mark Doty and Denis Johnson. All three writers read selections from their work to a packed auditorium in Rockefeller Hall on Friday night, kicking off the department’s spring reading series. Not only have these authors explored several genres over the course of their careers, they have also helped blur the entrenched divisions between poetry and prose, fiction and memoir, journalism and art.
Paul Lisicky has published the novel Lawnboy and the memoir Famous Builder, though to classify his work so tidily would only satisfy publishers. His fiction appears heavily indebted to his life experiences growing up as a boy in the strange — nearly exotic — landscape of South Jersey, while his memoir acknowledges that forming an identity is itself a creative act, perhaps being one’s originary fiction. The selection he read from Famous Builder chronicled a class prank on a hapless substitute wherein the students deliberately kept exchanging their names. He also read new short prose pieces, which he said he lets editors decide how to label: are they flash fictions, lyric essays, prose poems or micro-memoirs?
One of these pieces — whatever one chooses to call them — depicted a mother who can no longer recognize her own son, and who says of her husband, “A man has moved into our apartment, and I think I really like him.” If this is nonfiction, it questions the grounds that separate truth from fantasy, interrogating the reality of selfhood and the precarious stability of all memory. The story — or memoir? — is framed by a character who ironically remarks, “Let’s spare each other the facts.”
Mark Doty read from his most recent memoir, Dog Years, as well as from his forthcoming book of new and selected poems, Fire to Fire — one of only two copies hot off the press. Whether in prose or poetry, Doty’s writing often caresses the reader with sumptuous descriptions that delight through excess: a flock of birds, for example, can become “an animate alphabet” in “the sharp clear globe of January” while a peacock’s tail transforms into “illumina . . . [an] archaic poem.”
Yet, Doty’s best moments are often when he pulls back from these undulant and poetic evocations to make a pithy remark that has the direct force of prose. After conjuring a second-rate dog kennel, which seemed like “a canine version of a town in a John Waters movie,” he quips that his heightened concern for his dog made him “suddenly feel very gay and very middle-class.”
Doty’s portrayal of himself as a poet becomes gently self-parodic through his encounter with the kennel-keeper who “is as laconic as only an old Vermonter can be.” While Doty cajoles her to explain, expand and extrapolate on the mental well-being of his beloved pooch, she will only repeat that his dog is doing “just fine.” Life exists somewhere between the bare facts and the mythologies we can make of it; as the authorial voice remarks near the end of this vignette, “But perhaps I dramatize — as I’ve been known to do.” The reader senses that life without a bit of “drama” is barely life at all, even if at the end we must acknowledge that all the sound and signifying has only been a shaggy dog story.
Denis Johnson, winner of this year’s National Book Award for his eighth novel Tree of Smoke, has also published books of poems, plays, short stories, journalism and essays. In Johnson’s work, the mundane, prosaic details of outcasts and drifters transform into harrowing apocalyptic visions. Johnson, with his laid-back Texas drawl, read a recent short story about a narrator in a drug recovery center who relates how “the last four years have really kicked [his] ass” through a series of letters to everyone from his third-grade crush to his AA sponsor and even to Rolling Stone magazine and Satan. The narrator is more than a little unreliable, writing that he has been “arrested eight times, shot twice, etc. etc. I think I got run-over, but I don’t remember.” In fact, the narrator remarks at one point, “Wow, I think I just took a nap.”
Johnson’s drug-addled, out-of-control narrator spins a morality tale of wandering in the desert of temptations known as Las Vegas. The narrator claims he “never [went] there, just woke up there” one day on a sticky couch. Talking to another patient, he says, “I might be Jesus Christ,” to which the patient responds, “You can’t be the savior, I am.” By the end of the story, the so-called certifiable “facts” of Doctor So-and-So seem more like vicious side-effects of a warped institutional mentality that has induced the narrator’s insanity. Though the story’s loony-bin epistolary form felt appropriated from Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, the off-kilter humor of a staggering drunk that suddenly transcends into a metaphysical revelation about good and evil is trademark Johnson. The universe he creates is never dull because the edge of reason lurks everywhere.
In the spirit of full journalistic disclosure, I should note that I’ve the privilege of taking a class co-taught by all three of these authors. Yet, what does such a fact do except point out the bias that colors all facts? These three authors demonstrate that good writing — whether designated fiction or truth — must be colorful.