In his third essay in Anatomy of Criticism, “Theory of Myths,” Northrop Frye places irony and satire in the “Mythos of Winter”:
As structure, the central principle of ironic myth is best approached as a parody of romance: the application of romantic mythical forms to a more realistic content which fits them in unexpected ways. No one in a romance, Don Quixote protests, ever asks who pays for the hero’s accommodation. (223)
But if someone does ask, tell them, “Aunt Lucy.”
The aging Lucy, accused of being at risk of not being able to take care of herself and forced into “the county home,” sweet-talks (in a manner of speaking) her teenage nephew, Benny, into a road trip in his pickup truck, a 1965 GMC. Lucy wants to satisfy her Holy Grail vision of seeing the Big Cactus at sunset, a quest suggested by something she’s seen in a magazine, Arizona Highways.
Benny is at risk of becoming a responsible adult and has dreams of someday becoming a NASCAR mechanic, but for now he’s stuck telling a story about his trip driving his Aunt Lucy and his dog, Polar, from North Carolina across the southern states to Arizona and back, a distance of some 4,000 miles of mixed terrain and worry in an old pickup, stopping in towns along the way, sleeping nights in motels and eating in restaurants, encountering a host of characters and trials of travel episodes. Benny falls for a waitress but must get back on the road, but Sue Faye is just a prelude to his own unrequited quest which develops on the run with Aunt Lucy, Polar, and the rich Tennessee, another road rescue.
In his This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley explains why aspiring authors might want to avoid a first person narrative their first time out. If you’ve ever tried ocean wave surfing, you probably know it’s best not to try to stand up on your first wave. Ride the foam to shore in the prone position, getting the feel of the surfboard on the water. But
I’ve tried to do a story in my mind about what happened to me (231),
Benny says, and besides, Sylvia Wilkinson knows what she’s doing when it comes to writing a novel. Big Cactus is her seventh, and she’s a master of the first person narrative.
Big Cactus features characters revealed through dialog and action. “What’s a body for?” Judith Butler asks in Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life. Big Cactus features comparisons and contrasts between wealth and poverty, the old and the young, their aspirations and problems, their ideas of love and the needs of the body, how they present themselves in public and to one another in private, how they communicate – “for better, for worse.”
Big Cactus is a kind of picaresque, quixotic novel, where two main characters play off one another as separate halves of a single protagonist. They get in one another’s way as opposites but share a symbiotic relationship in a shared endeavor as outsiders against some social antagonist. Think of Huck and Jim, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, of Estragon and Vladimir.
Sylvia’s new book is a marvel of vernacular. The wit and humor is layered with carefully constructed confusion between what the reader sees and what the characters see, between what one character thinks is happening and what their foil character thinks. In the end, it’s Benny’s story, another marvel – of opposites between first person narrator and author. But Benny is a close observer, and as he says of himself,
I say a bunch of things out loud I ought to just think. (125)
That might be a good definition of a novelist. Gifts are a theme throughout the book. Benny has the gift of storytelling, a gift presented by Sylvia to the reader.
No, that’s not Benny and that’s not a 1965 GMC. That’s me and my 1949 Ford pickup truck that my Dad bought me for $200 from a nearby motor pool. In the photo, if you look close, you can see the white tip of my surfboard hanging over the tailgate. I’ve just returned from a rescue trip up to Zuma Beach, towing my friend’s old, tiny BMW back home. My memory isn’t perfect here, but I think it was a BMW 700 convertible. It broke down in Zuma and we drove up to tow it back, pulling it with a rope from Zuma down to the South Bay along the Pacific Coast Highway, a distance of about 30 miles, but towing with the rope was probably illegal, required someone to stay in the disabled BMW to brake it at stops, and a smooth clutch operator in the truck with its three-speed on the column. Certainly not a novel in that story, probably not even a short story, unless Benny had been along for the ride.
Give me my good old American truck any day of the year (89),
Benny says. Now there’s some irony ole Northrop Frye might have enjoyed.
Big Cactus, a novel by Silvia Wilkinson. 2014. Owl Canyon Press: Boulder, Colorado.
Update, Dec 20, 2015: A review of “Big Cactus” in the Fall 2015 issue of Blackbird.
Just to toss into the cassoulet of a discussion on ‘voice’ and voices. Am distracted by History of the Rain ( Niall Williams)- a brilliant monologue through the eyes of a bedridden girl surrounded by books, all not only absorbed but annotated. Set under a skylight on which the Irish rain pours and flows, like ‘living dry under the sea’. Trouble is it is so seductive with its liberal capitalisations of family injunctions like ‘Impossible Standard’ and a ‘Superabundance of Style’ ( a literary criticism) of her writing so she oughta ‘Pull Back’. that I want to immediately adopt its fresh irreverence and yes, its irony. Irony keeping death at bay, or fear that anything but commentary said in sardonic capitals would lead to too much mawkish sympathy. But what this girl’s voice gives is Ireland, its harsh sentiments and its relentless rain. When the voice is so individual ( as it is in Sylvia Wilkinson’s) you can listen forever. By comparison received English is dry, at best drole. An enviable familiarity with the extreme simplicity of words delivered without governance!
Thx, Philippa! Had not heard of Niall. Will check out History of Rain. I took a look “inside” the book at Amazon: “Maybe all poets are doomed to disappointment…My history in college: I came, collapsed, came home again.” Your “received English” is good, and “words delivered without governance!” But with flavor. Thx for the referral.
I’m reminded of Mircea Eliade’s ‘The Myth of Eternal Return.’
Thanks for the review of ‘Big Cactus’ by Sylvia Wilkinson. Promises to be a goad road quest.
Links to fascinating films here. Watched Nanook of the North and learned, among other things, how to build an iglo, with a window.
Yes, the igloo making is fantastic, staged or not, and the ice window, what a surprise, but chewing his boots in the morning to warm them up? Don’t know about that. But when did the sacred become profane? The Fall? When they started paying laborers working on building the Pyramids with a daily beer? (Supervisors got paid two beers). The first office job? Maybe irony is a kind of remarriage of the sacred with the profane, why it’s so prevalent in 20th Century literature, the winter of literature, which might have begun with Arnold’s “Sea of Faith” coming ungirdled.
Re: chewing boots. They must have had strong teeth. Wonder if Chaplin’s idea of cooking a shoe in Goldrush was inspired by this scene.
Looked up Arnold’s poem. And there was Yeat’s response:
Though the great song return no more
There’s keen delight in what we have:
The rattle of pebbles on the shore
Under the receding wave.
Yes, call and response, recurso, the curling waves.
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With your pieces giving punctuation the figurative treatment, I read Norman O Brown, and that “O” in his name opened into the vortex of my own referencing and sucked me in! I’ve seen Nanook of the North. First time I watched it was on videotape rental in high school. It’s not a pure piece of anthropology but the spirit of the film is touching in its intimacy. Flaherty is said to have set up and arranged some shots, altered scenes, for effect. Regardless, I do love the old Silents, and this film is still a treasure. You mentioning this also brought to mind The Residents’ takeoff on it entitled “Eskimo”. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of The Residents, but they’re known for keeping their identities anonymous and dressing up in tuxedos with big eyeball heads with top hats on. They did one album called “The Commercial Album” in which there are 40 songs of exactly one minute each, a reflection of the generic nature of the pop music format. It’s a really remarkable album, each song quite inventive within the constraint. The Residents’ take on Nanook of the North is eerily hypnotic and deliberately baffling, playing with commercial codes and tropes as they do, and actually brings up some interesting questions of authenticity and myth-making in the contemporary world. Nearing the end of their video version, at the climax, the Golden Arches of McDonald’s appears in the distance, rising up like the cross on Calvary, a Big Mac like a UFO floats across in the mid-ground, followed McDonald’s french fries, tableaux figures and taxidermy animals float by as if they’ve been freed of the glass casings of the natural history museum, floating over the surface of the moon, then a polar bear holding a bottle of Coca Cola pops up.
Maybe Eskimo by the Residents is more relevant to the discussion of satire and ironic myth-making, Northrop Frye’s “Mythos of Winter.” But of course the satire and irony isn’t possible, gains no traction and lacks bite, without the presence of and reference to the original. The best satire also does a kind of homage, doesn’t it?
In Nanook of the North, the scene at the beginning when Nanook hears a phonograph play music as if for the first time, and he takes the record off the player, and bites it, with a positively infectious smile on his face, I thought, not unrelated to this, of some movie I saw in my college days I forgot the title of, where primitive tribespeople fall to the ground in worship when they spot an airplane flying for the first time, and a Campbell soup can lid is sewn into a ritual headdress as a precious metal, something they’ve never seen before.
Here’s the part of Eskimo by The Residents I mention, “Part 6” on Youtube. Go to 6 minutes in to see the satiric-mystical appearance of the Golden Arches.
Had not heard of The Residents. Interesting. Coke, the most recognized brand on Earth. I suppose if Man ever does make it to the Moon or Mars the Golden Arches will be waiting and open for business. In “Big Cactus” the “traction” comes from the truck, and the reference to an original is probably two-fold, the Southern mythos of storytelling and but what do you tell? What you’ve heard and what’s happened to you. There are wheels within wheels, stories within stories, in “Big Cactus.” It’s relevant because it’s real, but it’s ironic because the quest, the Holy Grail, has been so displaced, the vision coming from the popular magazine (a commercial enterprise), sort of like your Campbell soup can in a headdress. But I’m pretty sure Sylvia would probably object or reject all of this and simply want readers to enjoy the language of the characters and their predicament and how they see things. It’s an oral book, to be read aloud. Listen to Sylvia read in the link in the post. And maybe dialects are dying out in favor of one televised unilateral voice. The reference to Mosley is important to the first person narrative. It’s interesting that he cautions writers against it, because, he argues, that voice needs to be very original and captivating and interesting, or you might as well use third person. But I think I get where you are going in your comment. I’m reminded of something the poet Robert Creeley once said, something like, “Ritual removed from its place of origin is devoid of meaning.” In the video of her reading, Sylvia seems to identify with Flannery, Carson, Eudora, but while reading “Big Cactus” I also had thought of Faulkner’s “The Reivers,” another kind of picaresque road trip, the road trip the modern quest, the ultimate maybe Kerouac’s “On the Road,” where the quest is just that, to be on the go, destination unknown.
I listened to Sylvia Wilkinson on Youtube, talking and reading, at the link you provided. Pardon my segue. Hope it wasn’t too irrelevant. This post of yours is after all hinged on Sylvia Wilkinson’s book and her understanding of story-telling, rooted in the oral tradition in which she grew up in the South. She does mention in the excerpt she reads, or her character mentions, to my delight, McDonald’s fries, Coca Cola and polar bears as little details in the dialogue. Before Wilkinson begins reading her excerpt, I love this that she says on finding one’s own voice: “You can do as a little child. You can see through the eyes of a sparrow, or a ladybug, or their parents. You can go from person to person to person, and view the world from each of those viewpoints, and that will make you grow as a writer.” She goes on to mention, not being mean about it but plain and truthful, that in college most students write stories about person’s their own age, and they’re extremely boring. This following made me smile broadly when she said it, chuckling: “I’ve managed to grow old without growing up. Maybe some of you can identify with that.” That’s definitely true of me too. I think it’s the capacity for joy which comes after engaging in creative activity. That’s probably the payoff for artists for their labors, an allowance of water from the Fountain of Youth.
I bet you Sylvia Wilkinson loves the movie Paris, Texas. Great movie. Harry Dean Stanton was also in Repo Man. Cars, the road trip. I don’t know if this is related, or appropriate, but a few weeks ago I watched David Cronenberg’s “Crash”, based on the J.G. Ballard novel. Extremely interesting, and perverse. A postmodern nightmare of a movie. I had an argument with a friend about that movie. He was telling me how it expressed the raw primal sexual need of human beings. I retorted it’s quite the opposite, though the raw primal sexual need is there; but it’s psychologically bound up with technology, a total immersion and identification with the car which results in complete self-objectivization. The human body becomes the machine. Elements of pornography are in that movie. The eroticization of car crash wounds. The fetishization of parts. Some scenes make one cringe and snicker uncomfortably at the same time. Really black comedy due to the incredible post-modern absurdity. The stylized, mannered setups, re-creations of famous crashes, which provide the ultimate thrill, a rush like a drug infusion. Death itself is the dominatrix. The car crash is the ultimate orgasm. Freudianism runs wild in the movie. I’m still haunted by it.
P.S. My Chicago White Sox got their butts kicked 10 to 1 by the Royals in their home opener. My Dad says before every season, “Hope Springs Eternal, my boy. I do believe we have a good team this season.” There was a funny cartoon in a Chicago newspaper not long ago, of a Chicago sports-fan clutching a bundle of helium balloons by the strings, the names of Chicago teams printed on the balloons, and he’s running with an oblivious expression on his face, happy and hopeful, toward a forest of Big Cacti.
Thx, John. Have not seen Paris, Texas or Crash, but yes there are some McFries in Big Cactus, pop culture references, tho they also eat in some small town cafe type places. And yes, her comment regarding how a writer must see through other points of view, that’s clear but hard to do effectively. James Wood the critic calls it “free indirect style” when it’s done in the 3rd person, things seen from the character’s point of view – that’s from his book “How Fiction Works.” Sorry to hear about the White Sox. I’ve not checked all the box scores yet. As a now Mariner fan, I’m conflicted by the news there: they took out the Angels in their opener, the Angels being my second favorite team of all time, the first being the Dodgers. You come out the tunnel at Dodger Stadium and there it is, a Big Cactus moment. But of course there is irony buried there too, as Ry Cooder tries to explain in Chavez Ravine. More wheels within wheels.
Maybe you already know this, being so rich in all your subtle allusions and mastery of nudging conversation along into delightful areas, or maybe this will be a pleasant surprise to you, but Ry Cooder did the soundtrack for Paris, Texas.
Did not know that! Now I must see it. I’ve heard of Paris, Texas, just never saw it. Yeah, well, all those allusions could add up to one big illusion of a psuedo-critic. But why not avoid the specialists behind paywalls for the generalist that’s at least open and accessible, maybe. Anyway, as Fuller said, “Specialization leads to extinction.” Though it appears to be the general practitioner who these days is headed to extinction, but maybe that’s ok, too, as he’s replaced with the nurse and physician’s assistants:
“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
Great and timely introduction of these lines by T.S. Eliot, for me at this particular time in my life. Seriously, Joe, it’s how I regard myself. I’m competent, but not that great. Noble? That term can’t be applied to me without making me shy away. I’m intelligent enough, can follow, have my curiosity, but often I don’t understand. When I find myself dumbfounded, I hope my honesty doesn’t fail me. Yet even in this I have a skeptical regard of my own self. I know what good in me isn’t to be taken for granted. I’m capable of much that is bad. I can be narrow and “a bit obtuse”, get myself in trouble, do stupid things, get stung and want out of sheer pride to put myself forward as someone better than I am. You mention specialist and generalist. I don’t consciously consider myself either. Often I’m just plain lost and in the dark. I’ve grown accustomed to the dark. Often in my own reading of this or that author, or experiencing this or that artist’s work, I’m not sure what drives me. I’m not looking to become erudite. I’d perhaps become a specialist if I was able. I don’t have the sort of mind which catches hold and develops into minutiae that way. I exist in these in-between spaces, a place where different things come together, often in unusual and strange combinations. I do see patterns in things, am able to draw associations and bring out aspects of larger patterns, but I regard this, again, not as some special talent. It’s almost by default, something which occurs by itself in my suspended lostness in the in-between. It’s not really an inspired state. T.S. Eliot’s lines couldn’t be more apt!
Not unrelated, I also like what Course of Mirrors posted, Yeat’s lines: “Though the great song return no more…” I do believe we live in ruins. The Waste Land indeed. The rattle of pebbles is our meagre delight now. The sucking stones sequence in Beckett’s Molloy takes it a step further. I figure this insight we’re sharing makes its way into Sylvia Wilkinson’s writing as well, in its guises. Tumbleweed, old-fashioned coke machine in the small town cafe, nostalgia. In Paris, Texas in the vastness of the landscape, the dry air, the movie begins with a lone man wandering with amnesia. He’s neither a specialist nor a generalist. He’s a broken man, plain and simple, and the movie is his journey to recover his memory and a bit of his spirit which amounts to no more than a rattle of pebbles, a search for the broken pieces, which brought together he knows, even then, will never make him whole and new again. All he asks for is some forgiveness, a little redemption. Ry Cooter’s slide-guitar playing captures the spirit of it perfectly. Lone notes rise up, sustained in trembling, the pulse of life found in the Blues.
“a place where different things come together, often in unusual and strange combinations.” Yes, the juxtaposition of apparently disparate parts that when combined somehow bring out something new and surprising. I see that in your artwork on your blog. And I think that’s what creative critics do, blend and show similarities previously unseen. For all the specialist knows, he knows but one thing (bit of hyperbole there of course), and can only talk about it to another specialist.
Check this out: “his last essays reveal a man disillusioned with his academic career, which had ‘consisted largely of reminding moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers.’ It was, he owned, ‘less than clear that this was the most useful way in which to spend one’s life, as a kind of flying mission to a small group isolated from humanity in the intellectual Himalaya.’” – See more at: http://thepointmag.com/2010/criticism/examined-life#sthash.BzvzBMl4.dpuf
I think of a conversation of a specialist with a generalist as being like a conversation of a statue with a cloud. The golden mean is in between. But I get your point, Joe. I’m definitely more on the generalist side of things. My head is for sure in it: the cloud. I wonder regarding specialists, at what point some of them realize it’s making them myopic and backtrack back out to the general. Anyway, the specialists have brought us important discoveries. They do all the inglorious hard work. Humanity at large doesn’t recognize them; mostly only their peers do. Then the generalist walks in, carefree and devil may care, a traveler not staying for long, in many cases a tourist in the worst sense, and pulls a piece of fruit off the tree which the specialist grew and nurtured from a seed to its full grown state, and takes a bite, and gives us his pronouncements. A good generalist should show gratitude, drawing attention to sources and giving credit where credit is due. There are certain authorities in certain areas of study and research which compel the respect of one’s humanity, not only of one’s intellect. Much of the reason I’ve not become a specialist may be due to plain laziness. But in combination with that there’s also something in my spirit which prevents me from going that route. Fear of the monotony. Fear of turning into a statue. It’s probably a deeply personal issue, as well as being due to a lack of talent for any particular thing. – Peer pressure and competition within certain environments help along what the specialist does. Things which are specialist are perhaps mostly collective endeavors, which prevents the feeling of monotony from getting too close, entering in, and turning one into a statue. I’m a solitary, and solitaries wrestle with big questions, and in most cases turn crank and eccentric with time. I’m a scatterbrain often. If I’m becoming a specialist at all, it’s in obsessive weird art, things which exist on the margins, or a specialist of variants of the absurd. I think maybe in ways we become specialists in certain things despite ourselves. Is there such a thing as a specialist of great generalists? Wouldn’t that be ironic.
Buckminster Fuller: “One of humanity’s prime drives is to understand and be understood. All other living
creatures are designed for highly specialized tasks. Man seems unique as the comprehensive
comprehender and coordinator of local universe affairs. If the total scheme of nature required
man to be a specialist she would have made him so by having him born with one eye and a
microscope attached to it.
What nature needed man to be was adaptive in many if not any direction; wherefore she
gave man a mind as well as a coordinating switchboard brain. Mind apprehends and
comprehends the general principles governing flight and deep sea diving, and man puts on his
wings or his lungs, then takes them off when not using them. The specialist bird is greatly
impeded by its wings when trying to walk. The fish cannot come out of the sea and walk upon
land, for birds and fish are specialists.”
Click to access OperatingManual_BF.pdf
Good quote from Fuller, Joe. In thinking of specialists, I also wonder about individuals who commit themselves to some specialist endeavor, making a career out of it, and they don’t have a natural propensity and love for it. I think that’s the key. Society is so arranged that individuals must choose certain paths to make a living. Many individuals get involved in doing things they shouldn’t be doing, and they end up making life miserable for everyone. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with being a specialist. Specialist in itself is not bad, and has a clear relation and friendship with generalist. Ultimately, if the heart is involved, something good must come of it. But society creates certain contexts or environments which squeeze life and soul and heart out of individuals, and a cold and myopic thinking results. The factory. Intellectual factories. I object to that too. Ideologists produced out of “Think Tanks.” I’d love to hear Philippa remark on this.
Not everyone is a Buckminster Fuller or a Philippa Rees. Plato’s Republic comes to mind and his idea of the “Philosopher King.” (Machiavelli provides the realist corrective.) A majority of individuals cannot attain that level, and if they tried, they’d hurt themselves and hurt others. Specialists are necessary, and I’d argue, many individuals, if their heart is involved and they are taking to their work like fish to water or bird to sky, are quite happy and content doing it.
Giacomo Leopardi from his Pensieri: “People are ridiculous only when they try to seem or to be that which they are not. The poor, the ignorant, the rustic, the sick, and the old are never ridiculous so long as they are content to appear as such and to stay within the limits imposed by these conditions; it is absurd, however, when the old wish to seem young, the sick healthy, the poor rich, or when an ignorant man tries to appear educated, or the rustic cosmopolitan. Even physical deformities, no matter how serious, draw nothing more than momentary laughter so long as one does not try to hide them; that is, so long as he does not try to pretend he does not have them, which is like saying he’s different than he really is. Any keen observer can see that it’s not our disadvantages or shortcomings that are ridiculous, but rather the studious way we try to hide them and our desire to act as if they did not exist.
“Those who try to seem more likable by affecting a moral nature not their own are making a terrible mistake. The incredible effort required to sustain this illusion is bound to become obvious, the contradiction between the true and the false more transparent, and as a result one becomes more unlikable and unpleasant than if he were to act honestly and consistently like himself. Everyone, even the most unfortunate, possesses a few pleasant natural traits; when displayed at the right time, these are surely more attractive, because more true, than any finer false quality.
“Generally speaking, the desire to be that which we are not ruins everything. This is precisely why so many insufferable people would be extremely likable if only they were content to be themselves – not just individuals, but also social groups, indeed whole populations. I know of several sophisticated, prosperous provincial cities that would be rather nice places to live if not for their sickening emulation of big cities – I mean their desire to act as much as possible like big cities rather than provincial ones.”
The wisdom of Joe. Love that snow metaphor. I grew up on the East Coast and have fond memories as a boy playing in the snow. Sledding, snowball fights, building igloos and snow forts, making snow angels. Then I grew older, and my parents made me shovel the driveway, and it took some of the joy out of it. I’m a four seasons kind of man, with a strong inclination toward autumn, when things change. I think if there is a center, it’s a vortex, a passageway, something through which there can be flow and change. I feel I have a center. Often clogging and backup happens there, due to my own obsessive clinging, and my mind in reflex scatters, giving me the illusion there’s no center. To find the true center, for a sense of it to return and increase, one must let go.
Hey, John. Thanks for reading and comment. A great book on the body, its parts and metaphor is Norman O. Brown’s “Love’s Body.” If you have a library card that will get you in to Project MUSE, you might be able to access it online here. If not, try the old standby for used copies here. Or check you local libraries. As for snow, have you ever seen Nanook of the North? Nanook knew where his center was located.
Sounds interesting Joe. Also for other reasons unknown- a long three way discussion about irony, its virtues and its vices, but elsewhere and off piste. Things coalesce, the centre cannot hold…
One problem is there might not even be a center, Philippa. Frye argues though that quests come in cycles, and cycles create circles, which usually have centers, but the notion of a center is probably a romantic one. Or maybe I’ve just misplaced my middle. Race tracks have centers. I’m not sure what you mean by the vices of irony, but as with any kind of sarcasm, the depth of snow is easily misread. Why I prefer warmer climates. Time after time, recurrence, helps us recognize patterns, something we got good at staring at stars. Anyway, thanks for reading and comment.