I’ve always read a lot of Faulkner – our (Catholic) high school library was, for some reason, crammed with it – and I’ve always deeply admired his writing, the lack of economy he displays, the musicality of it, the way he can and will write paragraphs and paragraphs on what would be, chronologically, a second or two of action, and of course (of course) his signature run-on sentences. And also the way he can write two pages consisting of maybe six sentences and then turn to you and hurl some tiny weapon like If happy I can be I will; if suffer I must I can and you stagger back from the unexpected brevity and pain. And it was Faulkner I was thinking of while I was sick almost all of May, the way he writes about a severe illness – malaria, say, or yellow fever – how you are pressed through it as if through a sieve and afterwards it’s your responsibility to put everything back together. I’ve been sicker than this past month, but I can’t easily recall when. I haven’t recently been so sick that every time I checked my temperature the little LCD screen climbed past 100, 101, 102, 103, and finally settled on ‘ERR.’ Yeah, I think I finally had the full Faulknerian experience – hallucinating, silent, soaking the sheets, too weak to cough, left afterwards not precisely like a piece of clothing pressed through a mangle, dried and flat but essentially the same, but more like a fall leaf, which if either senescence or the illness had left sentient would realize that it has survived the worst but not for long, that it won’t make it much longer. Having my brains cooked by four weeks of pneumonia left me extraordinarily aware of a) how badly my body was coping, and b) mortality. In general, mortality.
I joked with a friend, “How long was I sick? Long enough to read ‘The Mists of Avalon’!” This is only a half-joke; I did read it, I borrowed it from the library and I had 21 days to do so, which resulted in many, many days where I couldn’t move just lying in bed, plowing through it. I didn’t know it was 912 pages when I took it out! And the problem with ebooks is that it didn’t tell me, either. (Kindle does; OverDrive doesn’t. I would read for half an hour and see the percentage indicator had moved from, say, 32.6% to 33.1% and be like “WTF?”)
Anyway, I sort of enjoyed ‘Mists’? The writing was very much not my style, and I didn’t like what appeared to be a lot of wasted space repeating the same relationships that I had already seen – you know, do we need another monologue to prove that X doesn’t like Y? WE’VE ALREADY SEEN IT. THEY DON’T LIKE EACH OTHER. SHUSH UP AND DO SOMETHING. LEAVE YOUR ROOM AT LEAST. Hypocritical coming from someone staked out on the covers for days, I know. And vast amounts of the dialogue squicked me out, as well as vast amounts of people’s motivations. I mean, perhaps it works literarily (???) but in my experience, no one meets somebody for five minutes and then spends 500 pages pining over them, no matter how attractive either of them is. In my experience, if I meet somebody for five minutes, I will still be struggling to find a reason not to loathe them and then avoid them for the rest of my life.
And now hang on. Hang on. Is this societally inculcated? In a society where you get married at 14 and decry yourself as old and used-up after a couple of kids at 19 (while your fuckwad of a husband is looking at 14 year-olds again, yup) the kind that indoctrinates you to fall instantly and desperately in love with any semi-attractive single male? Does this happen in the book – I refuse to say ‘work in the book,’ because it doesn’t – because you’ve been taught that your highest, if not only, purpose is to keep a man, and not merely any man, but the first man who might be a candidate? I can confidently say, based on the rest of the book: Maybe.
I keep thinking of ‘Mists’ now, funnily enough, when I submit my stories to journals and magazines. Maybe the pneumonia scrambled my brains, but I’ve essentially stopped seeing rejections as rejections now. My friend MHK and I joke about stories and novels – he’s a novelist, he just went through the editorial process for his latest really mad romp (Clara & Miles, on my ‘Now Reading’ page) and he was like “At first, it’s like ‘Here’s your firstborn, shall we give him a terrible haircut?’ and you agree, and then it’s like ‘Actually, we need to lop a limb off’ and finally, near the end of this bullshit, they’re like ‘WE’RE GOING TO RIP OUT SOME ORGANS, WHICH ONES DOESN’T HE NEED.’ There’s blood everywhere. I mean, red ink. Metaphorically. But everywhere.'” A loose paraphrase. We laughed about it, because of course having any part of your novel rejected is going to feel like someone’s killing your kid (isn’t it? god, i can’t wait till that’s me) (not), but a short story is a different beast, a short story isn’t your child at all, it’s like… I didn’t even start writing short stories till late 2014, because MHK urged me to submit something to the anthology I eventually got into, that ‘She Walks In Shadows’ one. I didn’t think I was capable of it. I’d written eleven novels by that point and had no idea how to make a point in anything less than 90,000 words. A short story to me was like a domestic spider – not unwanted exactly, not repulsive, but surely, surely, happier outside in the big wild world than in my bathroom. So I’ve never really gotten super-attached to any of them, whether I thought they were good or not; and I think that might be the difference.
Prior to ‘Mists,’ when I sent out a story, it was like “See how marrigeable my daughter is? Surely, you cannot find one reason to turn her down.” And then I’d get the rejection and I’d have no problem going to yell at the daughter: Fix your dress! No one likes it! Cut your hair! It’s hideous! No one will ever want you and that’s your reason to exist! To be want-able! But now I send the kid over and she comes back in tears going “They don’t want to marry me!” and I’m like, “Well, guess what, kid. They had a specific list of things for their court. No, we don’t know it. They’ve told us several items on it, but we don’t know all of it; we can’t, that’s not how this matchmaking works. You, you’re perfectly good the way you are. Yes, maybe next time I’ll get the ketchup on your chin, and maybe I’ll braid your hair – or maybe I won’t, because that’s precisely what that court wants. But really, you’re good. You’re OK. You were made because words are beautiful and great, not because they need to be in a magazine. And if you never get in anywhere, you will still be made of things that are beautiful and great.”