Discovery and Ownership: Being Shaped by Literature

Three Bees who buzz around my brain. Beckett, Barthelme, Bukowski

I like to think that literary fiction and physics share at least one common characteristic. That what Richard Feynman said about quantum mechanics; “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t.” That this also applies to literary fiction. Which, at its best, is the study of life and human dynamics and the eternal necessity of narrative in the structure of our consciousness. Or, how narrative turns to describe inter-spatial randomness by giving events meaning. Giving the characters in books specific functions, as greek letters, in the complex equations that are our lives. (The big questions; how does consciousness work for most living things?)

I like to think about a shared similarity of questing towards the mystical complexity of the universe on at least two counts. I like any comparison of what I do in writing stories to the rigorous high minded efforts of physicists. I also like how silly it sounds. Comparisons of equations. The absolutist and breathtaking nobility of spending one’s life in illumination of the non-practical, yet fundamental, building blocks, for all our lives.

“If you think you understand the purpose of literary fiction, you don’t.”

I wish that this phrase was of more common occurrence. I want it paradoxically, or perhaps hypocritically, because I don’t believe it’s actually true. I mean, I don’t believe that the people who understand the mathematics involved in the construction of super-colliders understand quantum mechanics less than the average Joe Schmo. Just like I wouldn’t write this essay about writers without some fundamental desire to engage with what I think I’ve learned about literature. Yet I wish it all the same. Because in that phrase their retains some element of magic, continued effort, that appeals to the space within us that is comic, tragic, ambitious, religious. As the critic Horace Gregory once wrote of Beckett; “At the highest moments of Beckett’s farcical situations, he is most serious, most revealing, and in a certain sense … religious.”

It’s the space where our feelings (the descriptors of our feelings; the internal narrative machine) seem to come into conflict with the limitations of our competence and the only way to escape it is with some belief in magic. A belief that there’s always going to be some things that will be outside our understanding.

Yet we can keep on. We must. The more you know — the less you know — the more you know — the less you know, etc. It’s eternal recurrence. A concept the mortal mind seems to take very seriously.

It wasn’t until I was 28 that I laughed out-loud at a Beckett novel. I don’t think I was capable of laughing at Beckett until then. I didn’t read him much. What I knew best about Beckett was that Donald Barthelme had said; Beckett gave him the permission he needed to write. To become a writer and write the way he truly wanted to. I liked that, the idea of permission. Why? My guess is that it has something to do with the moral trajectory of a word like permission. It’s emotional, childlike. Bringing to mind those moments of childhood where one feels desperately trapped until the permission is granted. Having less to do with the freedom given than the fact that you felt so stuck. You can’t know if the freedom will be of any actual use, but that’s irrelevant. The only thing that is clear is that it has to come from somewhere. I’ve always enjoyed the phrase; ‘Don’t ask for permission, do it then ask for forgiveness’ but in a world where the intellectual struggle seems to be for validation and forgiveness seems like an antiquated tool without competitive advantage; to engage with permission may only be a first, childlike step. But it engages with a sense of patience, a necessity to freedom, that has remained important to me. At least, Barthelme seemed to do for me what Beckett did for Barthelme. Gave me the permission I needed.

As a child I liked books, but as I grew older, I liked movies more. They were more complex. You need actors and lighting and sets, locations … and anyway most books that I liked all they did was take the words on the page and create in my mind a miniature movie. By the time I was in college there had already been so many movies made that whatever diversion, entertainment, and even ‘artistic guidance’ that I might need could come from movies or television. I became vaguely settled into this hypothesis and because I had no other distinct ambitions or the necessity to exculpate myself from a bad home life, I dreamed of one day being a movie director. (By this time the auteur theory was in full swing with directors receiving the bulk amount of creative attention, ingenuity and esteem.) However, it quickly became clear there might be a few things holding me back from that. Being a student director, while mostly a goof-off (and obvious pipe-dream), gave me the distinct impression that I wasn’t very good at ordering people around. I am kind of lazy. Or perhaps a better way to put it is; I’m less deterministic about the outcomes of effort. I became gradually aware that the movies I liked were informed more by their scripts than any one of their visual cues, actor-ial performances or soundtracks. These were important facets, but without a good script a movie (a good movie) wasn’t anything. So I decided to really get back into reading. Enter the writings of one Donald Barthelme.

If one is unfamiliar with his work, it’s very easy to be introduced. His success was in the short story form, it won’t take much effort to give him a chance. Barthelme did publish novels, but they are certainly of less influence than the shorter works. Published in a collection first as 60 Stories, and then later the ancillary collections 40 Stories and Flying To America. 60 Stories, for a period in my youth, might as well have been The Bible. Barthelme introduced me to the magic of prose. More specifically, to what prose could do that movies could never do. To be put in direct contact with another mind. I saw it happen. A sentence, a page, thoughts that I’d had but could never really express. Thoughts which couldn’t be expressed through dialogue. Ideas which couldn’t be explored through visual images, they were part of the metaphoric imagination. A place where characters are more like Greek letters in equations built to describe reality through abstract representation. (Or at least this is the goal. It still remains unclear whether abstract mathematics actually describe reality or if they’re just a tool which get us as close as humanly possible. Apparently, a great metaphor and a beautiful equation light up the same regions of the brain.)

These are stories where Barthelme takes what he learned from Beckett, upending the general propulsion of narrative. Letting his characters get stuck or bumble into any metaphor that pops into his mind (Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel, At the End of the Mechanical Age). In stories like Nothing: A Preliminary Account, Barthelme does away with characters altogether. Only leaving a vague authorial voice, which still to this day instills me with a sense of mysticism, religious feeling.

The discovery of Barthelme (and post-modernism writ large) started me on a path of exploration which I will never really conquer. Post-modernism brought in questions which many contemporary writers have completely strayed from even attempting to answer. Operating under the (possibly correct) assumption that they can’t be answered and the questions were misguided in their attempts at deconstructing an empire of narrative that hasn’t been of any particular disservice. The progress away from some of the more artificial difficulties of modernism. Magnified, in large part, by the success of the Hollywood studio system where the systematic functions of stories opened up ways and means of appreciation to an audience far larger than their had been before. I’d bet that for Barthelme the seduction of movies probably had as much to do with his “post-modern” style as any of the literary writing done at the time (his story The Dolt … though he also notoriously disliked Chekhov).

Barthelme took Beckett’s imagined permission and messed with the structures of his stories. Highlighting the flow of idea to idea. To point out how structure worked and how it didn’t. Beckett was always interested in this. Distinctly aware of how often life didn’t feel anything like a story. At least that’s how I see Beckett, the philosopher goof. Speaking to, and reminding of, at times, the internal shallowness which embodies the majority of our daily lives. This was a particular form of permission which seemed essential to me. Because with all the good movies in the world I couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t write things in their books that were untranslatable to film. Those aspects of access which were without plot. Their structure a meta version of structure itself. Which, in fact, took any interesting idea as a cog in the metaphor equation. Building kookier versions of the human machine. Artifacts of consciousness which can’t be proved on an assembly line. Choosing to ignore, confront or accept the larger structure of the form whenever or wherever they felt like it. On my slow search for a new religion there’s nothing that moves me quite like these touches, these small comic prayers outside of our basic competences.

Barthelme was a great distant teacher. I read the books from his syllabus (there’s a list online which guided me into reading many of the writers I now love). He introduced me to the concept of literature, really. He has a book, The Teachings of Don. B. When you hear his voice and tone and how he thought and talked to people about literature and writing; it’s wonderfully assumptive, haughty. You can see him chasing his truth. He was a figure in my youth who got me excited about discovery.

In this way, permission begins to open up, to include a larger cast. Moving on from the desire for a childlike freedom to the complexity of, say; trying to get a new food-stuff approved by the FDA (making sure one has purged any poisonous attributes of character). One’s natural reactions against the bureaucracy, ambivalence and seriousness, of these permissions. Who could become more necessary than a writer like Charles Bukowski. A writer who, more than most, feels like a purveyor of homemade canned meats. Buy it or don’t, he knows what his spice mixture is (whatever he feels like, as he drinks beer in his kitchen).

There are writers who one appreciates as an instructor and there are others who fall into your imaginative lexicon by being available. Charles Bukowski is obviously of the latter category. Almost (probably) to a fault. This feature gives an extra excitement in discovery. A feeling closely associated with the phrase, “Hell, I could do that.”

Though this does bring a tertiary set of consequences. A generation of young men trying to write autobiographical stories of failure and squalor. Drinking to excess the way some young men started doing heroin to mimic Burroughs. I have a personal theory that there is no single writer of books who has done more damage to the contemporary production of literature by men through the existence of his (Bukowski’s) style.

Yet reading Bukowski gives a vague sense of comfort, especially to those suffering under artistic ambitions. Ambition, that is; some feeling about not wanting to spend one’s short life working for somebody else. Or even pretending to be anyone else. Bukowski never bothers with that. All his stories are about him. They have a seductive kind of masculinity. There’s no pussy-footing. You watch him clomp through his own poems and stories unapologetic.

I began my intellectual deviations in the night, in places where other people were sleeping, so I tiptoe through my life. We are not the same person, but he’s one of the few American writers who I recall being thrilled to discover.

Here, I suppose, is the question I mean to answer. What is discovery’s place in how we interpret writers? The youthful enthusiasm vs adulthood (ie continuing education). For years I’ve been trying to think of a way to categorize the impact a writer like Bukowski can have. The non-academic, rambly, kind of deranged — kind of perpetual adolescent narcissism — thing, that Bukowski brings and which leads him to be that special kind of writer, an honoree, of being the author of books which are the most frequently carried illegally out of bookshops. Or so I understand as why he is often kept near the front, by the counter and clear visibility.

It’s a little bit funny to imagine shoplifting a book, especially considering their free availability. The amount of returns you get for low price. With anyone but Bukowski I almost imagine this thievery as inconceivable, yet with him I kinda get it. Maybe this is colored by the fact that I know already that it happens and that it’s easier to try and flush out an explanation for a true thing with simple answers such as; young people are more likely to shoplift and Bukowski appeals primarily to young people. But there’s something else, some part of his style which calls out to be lifted. Buying Bukowski feels wrong. He didn’t write with a sense of history or his place in it. He’s not bound to bookshelves by some artifice of timeless greatness. Too drunk and gross for high school and most college classrooms. He guessed he’d be examined for some generations to come but I imagine if you asked him why he couldn’t have answered. For being genuine, his style. That isn’t really an answer, or if it is it’s very unsatisfying academically. Like all great writing there’s a kind of magic created by hard work and failure. Somehow finding that unique style. It’s the magic of giving an immediate kind of access.

There’s this thing with buying books which also includes a feeling of buying in. Most book readers buy what they like. Unless afflicted with bibliomania, the person buying a book usually has some understanding that they are going to enjoy that book. Or get some kind of use out of it. I suppose this is true of most things in life that we buy, but I’ve always felt that books, any book, can carry a special potentiality for discovery of which owning it seems nearly sacrilegious. I’m here to speculate that this is probably why I don’t own very much Bukowski.

Now in my thirties, my discovery of writers who I feel something deeply for has slowed down considerably. I still read and appreciate intellectually, the necessity, but that punched in the gut making you wander through your day dreaming about sentences and images and caring about literature as one of the most amazing things in the world; that’s slowed. I’m pretty sure it’s normal, the slowing. In fact, from sources such as David Foster Wallace who claimed to almost stop reading entirely after quitting graduate school or Norman Mailer who once complemented Saul Bellow as one of the few writers he knew who actually still read, I like to try and pat myself on the back for continuing at all. Obviously that’s nonsense. I can’t even conceive how anyone could continue to write without reading, but I guess my point is I wouldn’t fault anyone for quitting. For the loss of that feeling, that discovery, for not wanting to lose that feeling. Trying to hang onto it by maintaining a distance from disappointment. The work of reading. Especially fiction, considering the amount of available entertaining distraction.

A naive encounter with Bukowski would assume he was the kind to quit reading. Though a few essays in Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook suggest otherwise. This is the only Hank book I own. It’s a handsome City Lights printing that I’m glad to have. Of which I’m want to admit, I think it pretty well sums up his life and writing career. Most of the books on my shelves I’ve bought as reference tools. Or now that I look at my bookshelf I’m pretty sure I’ve done this sub-consciously. There are writers I like very much who I don’t own at all. I’ve enjoyed almost every single sentence that Annie Proulx has written, checked off library shelves. I’ve never been compelled to buy one of her books. This is the kind of thing I mean, reference tools. But I know it’s not the full story, since; why avoid buying writers that you like? (I mean, other than the fact that you’re a writer without much money or space to store all these books.) Bear with me as I speculate wildly.

I like flipping through Bukowski in bookstores. I like standing there reading a few poems or a short story. If the store has The People Look Like Flowers at Last I always try and find that one poem which I remember making me break out in a fit of lasting laughter.

I can never find it. Yet it’s the standing there, reading, knowing I’m indulging not forever, a small moment, I almost return to that sensation of discovering him anew. Would this change if I actually bought his books? Saved up, started collecting? Maybe, maybe not, but something pushes me back from ownership. It is true also in Barthelme’s case. After loaning and losing my tattered copy of 60 Stories, I have yet to buy a new one.

Perhaps what I needed these writers for has changed. In the beginning Bukowski was a great comfort, reading a couple poems before heading to work. The job you feel better than, the job which suppresses and beats down every good artistic impulse in one’s soul. He went through it too, man. Hopefully longer than you’ll have to, but he did it, so you can too. He kept living and writing. Writing to stay alive. Now, these days, I often feel like I’m just trying to stay in touch with those metaphors. What it means to instill in someone else that sense of discovery.

The thing I also think is; you can’t own someone else’s perseverance. At its worst it sells tickets (I’m thinking of gurus and Tony Robbins). There is a wonderful function of literature that inspires a distance from the self which means you can’t fall for those kind of traps. You’re too good for that. You’ll figure it out, you have to. Yeah, maybe you’ll get a couple teeth knocked out. Maybe, sometimes, you’ll have to be a prick. Your self not a manicured commercial object. (Or like Beckett’s own character, Murphy, who finally finds pleasure in finding out that his outer self is manifesting the strange features of his inner life. “And in effect Murphy’s night was good … the self whom he loved had the aspect, even to Ticklepenny’s inexpert eye, of a real alienation.”) Upon discovery these can be very calming ideas. Funny, in that way it took me so many years to laugh out-loud at Beckett. The inherent farcical nature of life itself. Sad but not whiny. Enticing hatred rather than a single ounce of pity. Bukowski, Beckett, Barthelme they created singular tones. The way a life can be struck like a tuning fork and hit a pitch that nobody else hits. I mean, can you fucking buy that?

I don’t mean that question rhetorically. Can one’s spirit buy in? What’s the exchange of money in the face of hard headed determination? (Barthelme, Beckett and Bukowski really only finding their career success in later age. Perhaps ironically, or rightly, the least widely read of the three, Barthelme, found stability earliest.)

Although of course that hard-headedness does still function with its tertiary consequences. Turning life more farcical than it need be, because its main character, at one point or another, realizes how silly they are. Their determination to create great art, a serious character flaw. When examined, it cannot be truly embraced or escaped from. It simply is so. And the world turns on its merry axis, silly writers, hoping to be discovered. To instill in somebody else that sense of discovery which had meant so much to them.

After such a tangent you’re probably wondering what the hell my original point was. Wasn’t there something about physics? Something about stealing Bukowski, and bookstores? Ah yes. I remember. I was close to taking some kind of weird position advocating never buying another book. A strange and beautifully paradoxical place to find oneself in as a writer … although I have thought about how often I’ve bought books by authors who no longer need the money. Perhaps there is a position to be taken for primarily purchasing only those texts by up and comers who have lives in the present, but I won’t take that position, cause I have nothing else to say about it. (And that obvious mainstay of facts about writers: Death is always the best career move. It finally allows those who found a piece of themselves in your work a chance to truly bear that torch. Hopefully too, if you’ve done your job well, your shelf life will outlive you.)

As I pointed out it took me a decade into my reading life to understand Beckett. Or to even slightly understand him, and now I greatly appreciate that. There are different ways that writers grant access. Different avenues for discovery.

That pursuit of reality is luckily a life long game. That different individuals take it on with different tacks is a joy, a farce. I try to smile like Richard Feynman did.




Podcast: Western Thought. Writes literary fiction. His audiobook The Town of Books; first chapter.

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Jonah Andrist

Jonah Andrist

Podcast: Western Thought. Writes literary fiction. His audiobook The Town of Books; first chapter.

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