The novel “Alma Lolloon” opens with two epigraphs, both of which serve the ordinary purpose of the epigraph but are also part of the fiction being created. In each, the original is given, followed by an “interpretive translation” by the narrator of “Alma Lolloon,” who is Alma Lolloon:
Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in marriage…
But yet I praye to al this compaignye,
If that I speke after my fantasye,
As taketh not agrief of that I seye,
For myn entente nys but for to pleye.
from Chaucer’s The Prologe
of the Wyves Tale of Bathe
What atrocity this insult of experience
As if somehow right for me and all
Wode talk woe of the marriage camp.
But complain not in present company,
For all tales told in pitiful woe
Tell not a whole story
If want is not to please.
from interpretive translation of Chaucer,
by Alma Lolloon, 1966
Die Erste Elegie
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem stärkeren Dasein.
from Duineser Elegien by Rainer Maria Rilke
The First Elegy
Who, if I cracked my little mouth, would listen to me in the din of rules of angels? And quickly so near his heart home of pounding hammers, sparkling nails, and gargantuan waves, I would fade in the muscle of his gaze, or in the back seat of his dark ride.
from Duino Elegies, interpretive translation of Rilke,
by Alma Lolloon, 1996.
I’m still working on editing and proofing and design.
I’m still proofing and editing my new novel, Alma Lolloon. I hope to have it out by December. Meantime, I’m posting installments Saturdays here on the blog. Here is the third installment.
(Alma has told her knitting group she is writing a book. The book is to be about her five husbands, and the knitters agree to hear Alma reading from her book in installments at their Saturday knitting sits.)
3rd Installment of Alma Lolloon:
I simply would like to have someone to talk to, someone who actually listens to me. Is that too much to ask? So even though I don’t know you, and you might not be listening anyway, I’m talking to you, and I’m going to share everything. That’s not a trigger warning. Simply a goal. You might safely skip parts, your attention wandering. I’ve already skipped a few beginnings. But I want you to get your money’s worth. Even if you’re reading on-line for free or something, or you picked up this abused paperback copy you’re holding in the neighborhood library box. Go on, take it, read it on the bus. It takes time to read, and most of us value time. The thing is to sit down and relax. Breathe. Smell the paper and the ink, or whatever it is they print words on and with these days. Pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, a glass of wine, or pop a can of beer, or pour a juice or a clean clear glass of fresh water. Feel my hands kneading your shoulders. You carry tension there. I know. Let it go. Drop the shoulders. I know you have your own story. Let that go, too, for now.
We must have ritual. Ritual is what stops the crazy traffic on the bridge so the tall lovely ship can slip quietly by. Make some space in your day for reading as a kind of ritual. Nothing serious, of course, on the contrary, just a few quiet moments to yourself, for some peace and silence, to get away from your scares for a few moments, those voices in your head that won’t shut the hell up, or to find yourself, or to forget yourself, or to remember something you maybe should have never forgotten and is such a joy to find again. I’m well aware you could be reading something else, something more dramatic, sexy, literary, trashy, or some delightful ichor with goor and geer from some silly battle zone somewhere, or some soapy sap television shows are often stuck together with, if that’s what you like. Sure, and you’ll find soap here. I’ve eaten plenty of soap in my lifetime. My mouth is clean. Or non-fiction, some people prefer because it’s supposedly true. Nothing like getting one’s facts straight. We all need ritual, but we should not consider ritual what is merely compulsive.
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A few gratuitous pics for this post, because some readers have come to expect pics with words, and, believe it or not, appreciate a good selfie when they see one:
“April is the cruelest month,” Eliot told
Pound all about it, Easter tide out,
but why brood on our days
unless we are made
of dry wood and worry,
each ring a memory of rain?
Does any month feel pity?
You called her a primrose,
your spiral spring shell.
The land tired of playing possum
opened in lavish blossom.
Meantime, you go from a funeral
to a game of chess?
No wonder you’re so depressed.
Hurry up! Indeed, it is time,
and there is no more time
for revisions of decisions and such.
Spit it out, that tooth that broke
on the hardtack bread.
Yes, the river, its currency
seems to bother you,
crossing the rough bar
in your tipsy canoe,
sipping sweet wine from a shoe.
Why do you drift so? Maybe
it’s time to seize the falling
yellow forsythia, catch and bundle
the candied pink camellia calling
a day a day alack-a-day day.
No, I won’t say we’re wasting time,
working up a dry thirst over an old city,
lamenting the past. We might have called
Big Dada and asked for a blessing,
a holy water sprinkling, and asked,
“Dada, how’s Nana?”
“Dada! Dada! Dada!”
Maybe we’ll see you in May.
Hopefully you’ll be feeling better,
and we can all spend a day
going a Maying,
if Corinna comes to town, everyone
looking forward to ordinary time,
the grassy bed spread with garlic greens.
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.
Update, Dec 20, 2015: A review of “Big Cactus” in the Fall 2015 issue of Blackbird.
Abducted by alien cats from outer space and whisked away to a faraway planet then shot back to Earth from a circus cannon cocked with physicist rubber string theory, a cat cannonball, Scamble tries to interest Cramble in a tabloid worthy extraterrestrial tale!
Scamble: “And you have nothing to say?!”
Cramble: “Does this have something to do with my recent cloture motion?”
Scamble: “No! The cat planet is called Mkgnao!9. It’s all bushes and trees, birds and fish, and dunes of kitty litter. It’s a cat’s paradise. Everyone there is a hep cat!”
Cramble: “If all are hep, none is hep.”
Scamble: “Nonetheless, no matter what radio station you play, Mantovani! The planet is lush with the sounds of birds and strings and bugs flirting about hither and thither and streams of white wine full of fish on the lark. I’m thinking of moving to Mkgnao!9. Do you want to go with me?”
Cramble: “Sounds too good to be true. What’s the catch? I’ll bet there’s a downside.”
Scamble: “Their oceans are filling with used kitty litter.”
Cramble: “Making it difficult to know how to pack. In any case, how will you get back to Mkgnao!9 if the hep space cats don’t come pick you up again?”
Scamble: “Silence, Exile, and Cunning.”
Cramble: “Here you go with that James Joyce cheap cheat imitation literary allusion stuff again. Anyway, I don’t get the connection.”
Scamble: “Joyce is the patron saint of cats up on Mkgnao!9.”
Cramble: “Lucky Jim.”
Scamble: “I’m going to write a memoir about my Mkgnao!9 experience!”
Cramble: “Sounds wild. I’ve heard the memoir form is popular these days. I was thinking of writing one, but I can’t seem to get past chapter one, “Begot to Nap.” But why don’t you create something new? Wasn’t that the gist of Joyce’s gig, to repair in the garage of his brain the broken bicycle of his island, rally the folks to a new way of riding, or words to that effect?”
Scamble: “I just did!”
Cramble: “Did what?”
Scamble: “Create something new!”
Cramble: “It’s a good thing the id is kept out of sight.”
Scamble: “Do cats have an id?”
Cramble: “Everything’s got an id, if only you can find it.”
Tubby is into therapy. On any given day, he might drop by his aroma therapist and get a concoction of essential oils rubdown while inhaling infusions of lavender and such to improve, for example, his virility. Or Tubby will go in for a bit of acupuncture. One of his problems is with a knee. Or Tubby will pay a visit to his behavioral therapist. Or he’ll meet his friend Amy for another installment of pretend paramour therapy. Amy is into psychotherapy, so she sees only one therapist, but goes every day.
Tubby’s behavioral therapist has suggested he keep a journal, writing therapy, and he does, and the result is David Lodge’s therapy, a novel titled “Therapy.” Reading is another kind of therapy.
Tubby discovers Kierkegaard, and is struck, somewhat fancifully, by what he sees to be the resemblance of Soren’s issues to his own. Judging from his symptoms, Tubby appears to suffer from depression.
This is the sort of thing that catches his eye in Kierkegaard, from “Either/Or”:
“What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music.”
What does Tubby relate to here? He’s not a poet. He’s a television sitcom writer, a very successful one. He has a lovely wife, Sally, and two grown children successfully out on their own. He lives in a nice country house with nearby club, and also has a flat in the city, and owns a custom car his daughter has nicknamed “The Richmobile.”
Tubby is free to come and go as he pleases – etcetera. But he has no rest.
It’s not even that he’s not happy. He’s able to enjoy the fine things his money can buy, but enjoyment seems something different from happiness. He contributes to charities. He’s a nice guy. He sticks up to the cops for a street urchin camped out on the stoop of his urban flat.
Tubby appears to be depressed, though depression’s close friend, anxiety, does not come along for the ride. Tubby finds in Kierkegaard someone who understands his problem, a soulmate. Again from “Either/Or”:
“In addition to my numerous other acquaintances I have still one more intimate friend — my melancholy. In the midst of pleasure, in the midst of work, he beckons to me, calls me aside, even though I remain present bodily. My melancholy is the most faithful sweetheart I have had — no wonder that I return the love!”
Tubby loves Sally, but he’s no longer able to listen to her, and when she tells him she’s leaving, he doesn’t hear that either.
The themes of “Therapy” are Kierkegaardian: angst and dread, though both wear a smile in the novel; the seducer, hapless but caring; repetition, particularly the attempt to recover first experiences and to reclaim; commitment, the idea of the aesthetic interest, competitive interest (which may include ethics), and religious interest illustrating three layers of involvement, an analysis that might be applied to just about any pursuit; the absurd (and what better way to illustrate the absurd in contemporary life than the sitcom?), and the pilgrimage.
Lodge has adapted Kierkegaard to the situation comedy, blending references to Soren and his writings into Tubby’s story in unobtrusive ways, but both implicitly and explicitly. “Therapy,” Lodge’s novel, is a situation comedy. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get or don’t appreciate Kierkegaard; the casual reader may still find Lodge’s book an engaging and entertaining reading experience, in spite of its existential crossings. There is within it a playful sense of form and voice. Plus you learn about the making of sitcoms, from an insider’s view.
But about that engagement analysis. The book ends, wildly enough, with a pilgrimage, and Tubby uses a Kierkegaardian commitment analysis to explain the various types of pilgrims he encounters. He glosses “the three stages in personal development according to Kierkegaard – the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious,” applying them to the pilgrims making their way toward Santiago via the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James).
The first pilgrim, “the aesthetic type,” is on the road for enjoyment, to appreciate the views, the air, the exercise. The second pilgrim, the “ethical type,” is concerned with propriety, the rules of the way, procedures, and may be critical of those pilgrims who don’t see the way his way. The third pilgrim, “the true pilgrim,” like Kierkegaard’s true Christian, embraces the absurdity of the non-rational – indeed, that is what calls her to it; passion supersedes commandment. There is no reason to do this, and that becomes the reason for doing it.
“The aesthetic pilgrim didn’t pretend to be a true pilgrim. The ethical pilgrim was always worrying whether he was a true pilgrim. The true pilgrim just did it” (“Therapy” 304-305).
Taking philosophical propositions and turning them into templates is probably a philistine idea, but one that might possibly result in effective therapeutical analysis. To use the three stages as a template, substitute any aim, belief, or disposition you’d like for the word pilgrim in the quote above: hipster, poet, professor, or politician, for example. Or try your own selfie identifying word in place of pilgrim.
 I’ve never been to an acupuncturist, enculturated as I am to believe health care is synonymous with medicine; but this week, walking in town, we happened to pass a sidewalk sign advertising group acupuncture. How does that work, I asked Susan – they skewer you like on a kebab?
 “Therapy,” by David Lodge. Penguin Books, 1996. I had picked up Lodge’s “The Art of Fiction” for a project I was working on. I liked his appeal to the casual reader, and looking at his other books, decided to try “Therapy.” Ethical type Kierkgegaardians may find it merely quaint, but true Kierkgegaardians might enjoy the humor. As for me, I’m not a Kierkegaardian at all, but thanks to “Therapy,” I do know now how to pronounce his name. Maybe that makes me an aesthetic Kierkgegaardian?