It is said that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. didn’t edit his novels. Instead, he thought about each sentence in his head and did his revisions there before committing it to paper. It seems like he took the same approach to his letter writing.
This excerpt of a letter from Vonnegut to his friend and mentor Knox Burger is another example of the author’s tendency toward thinking that remains depressingly relevant. It is dated May 29, 1952:
…bureaucracy is nothing more than modern business practice applied to government. I think big business is a terrible thing for the spirit of the country, as our spirit is the best thing about us. Making us a nation of ass kissers. Only way, or virtually the only way, to get ahead these days. Deadly. Change the title of manager of sales to the Duke of Schenectady, and you start wondering if maybe the Revolutionary War was subversive.
I was introduced to Tim Tomlinson’s writing through his poetry, which I recommend highly to those who love poetry, and even more highly to those who don’t. You might find your distaste for poems is relieved after reading a few of his. Tim’s poems often feel like fiction, so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up This Is Not Happening To You. I did not.
These are not easy stories to read. They are raw, pungent, and brutal, but tinged with the humor and beauty that lurk in the most unlikely places. Ranging from 2 to 30 pages long, they don’t feel like stories so much as 19 glimpses through the slats of a fence viewed from a moving train – startling and better comprehended after some digestion.
Like an expert marksman, the author draws a bead on each protagonist and does not blink until after each story’s final word. The characters are drawn with such attention to detail that the reader will almost certainly recognize some of them from their own lives. Their circumstances can be so real that they transcend truth, as in this excerpt from The Motive for Metaphor:
“Six weeks later he moved to Los Angeles where the red-haired woman belonged to a repertory company that welcomed Maris. The New York edge, they told him, is what they’d been missing. Maris told them he was from Montana, which was half true, but he didn’t remember which half. You reach an age, he told them, when the lies become the truth and the truth, it never mattered anyway, at least not as much as you thought it did.”
These stories cover a wide range of narrow insights, from painfully intimate first-person confessions to third-person observations of murder and rape that are told with almost clinical detachment. Two of the stories included in this collection, including the title piece, are written in the second-person. This rarely used perspective offers a unique relationship to the reader/protagonist. These two paragraphs from the title story are a perfect illustration of the book’s charms and dangers: the first one reveals the dark underbelly that hides the even darker underbellies of addiction:
“Approaching the corner of Dauphine and Touro, you discern the sickening deposits of last night’s bacchanal percolating throatwards. Clutching the sticky trunk of a banana tree, you hurl. Violently, agonizingly, remedially. Even as you discharge, you think. You are thinking, you are a thought machine. It’s a juxtaposition this time that commands your ideation, the juxtaposition “pink-green vomit and brown-black Louisiana loam.” You are not certain if “loam” is the correct term, horticulturally speaking. You are not certain if horticulture is the correct term. You are certain that you don’t give a fuck because although your gastro-intestinal distress has been somewhat alleviated by the reverse peristalsis, your head now hurts worse. A bit of a pain in the Gulliver….And there in the pink-green, brown-black gloop of yester-eve you spy the barely dissolved, barely discolored Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets, the very thing that enabled this excursion. Two conflicting impulses obtain: disgust at the puke and the objects of relief that lie therein.”
This second excerpt captures the impossible dream of every struggling artist, and of some successful ones:
“Some persons, you reflect, many even – that vast horde of unstout souls, might, at this time, experience the first stirrings of remorse, depression, self-recrimination. Not you. This is not happening to you, it is happening to the Undiscovered Genius, the character you’ve created to play you in the tragi-comic farce you know as “your life.” The talents of this Undiscovered Genius have yet to manifest in any recognizable form that might ultimately be remunerated by an institution, a governing body, a critical faculty, a network or publishing house, or rewarded by an adoring public. Its nebulosity, you understand, is part of its genius: the suspense! What form will it finally take, you imagine the public you have yet to seduce wondering? As far as forms are concerned, you have already conceded painting; painting is a form for which you demonstrated little if any aptitude. This was evidenced early on and most acutely by the F you took, and deserved, in ninth-grade Studio Art, the year you gave painting the brush. Singing, dancing, the violin…these, too, have been purged from your schema. You are practicing the process of discovery through elimination, one step at a time.”
I have reached the conclusion, after many years of pondering, that there is no such thing as “good art” or “bad art.” A work of art either speaks to you or it doesn’t. The 19 stories in This Is Not Happening To You resonate with me to a depth that is almost uncomfortable. Their unavoidable intensity should ring true to anyone with some experience of life. This is writing that will not just grab but hold the attention of any reader interested in contemporary literature. If you’re not careful, you might even find some pieces of these stories popping up in your memory, as if they had been happening to you.
There are things we don’t know and things we will never know. But as long as we live, we keep trying to figure them out. Great writers are one of the sources we turn to for answers or, failing that, insight. Here is James Joyce giving his insight into the fall, and the temptation preceding the fall.
The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard; and he felt the silent lapse of his soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling, but not yet fallen, still unfallen, but about to fall.
The fall may or may not be inevitable. None are immune to temptation. Some overcome it, or believe they do, and some find the solution in the prescription of Joyce’s fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde:
The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.
The fall of James Joyce was softened by the muse that came to him in gentle words.
He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself:
–A day of dappled seaborne clouds.
The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many-coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?
Behind the veil of those words was the full experience of life: love and lust and something between and beyond those feelings, something living and dying in the sights and sounds of a girl on the edge of the water at the wild heart of life.
He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and willful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the sea-harvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gayclad lightclad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air.
A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, was bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish; and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.
She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither; and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.
–Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.
Anger has its uses. It can be a spur to confronting injustice or a vent for righteous frustration. Anger is like lust: it’s an honest emotion. There’s no time to overthink the impulse. The best you can do is control it and try to deny how insanely good it feels to let it off the leash. But for the most part anger sucks. In my experience it is a spur to self-indulgence and a vent for self-loathing. I felt a lot of anger reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. What kind of monster doesn’t feel anger at lines like these:
I was thirteen and crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.
My anger isn’t focused on Baldwin’s experiences from the 1930s. It feeds on the knowledge of what hasn’t changed, on how black parents still need to warn their children about the dangers of police officers, and on how my contribution to confronting this injustice consists of voting for people who will try to do something and in scribbling these pathetic words. Reading Baldwin’s more considered words help steer me from anger toward something more useful and long-lasting.
I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know – we see it around us every day – the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff – and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.
I sometimes wonder why every black man who sees me doesn’t walk up and punch me in the face. I wonder why a woman I pass on the sidewalk offers me a sweet smile instead of running in fear from a potential sexual predator. That absence of punching and running gives me one of the only know cures for anger: hope. It also offers a chance to learn and to realize that my knowledge is different from others. Mine keeps me from believing that my position in society was achieved by my own merits. Maybe theirs keeps them from believing I am their enemy.
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyway, mothers – know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred.
A large and fascinating section of The Fire Next Time concerns a dinner party that Baldwin attends at the invitation of Elijah Muhammad, founder of The Nation of Islam. Muhammad witnessed three lynchings before turning 20. That’s the kind of thing that can make you believe white people are devils.
Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginning – and neither can this be overstated – a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not realize what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him – for that is what it is – is utterly gratuitous, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils.
I told Elijah that I did not care if white and black peo
ple married, and that I had many white friends. I would have no choice, if it came to it, but to perish with them, for (I said to myself, but not to Elijah), “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?”
I knew two or three people, white, whom I would trust with my life, and I knew a few others, white, who were struggling as hard as they knew how, and with great effort and sweat and risk, to make the world more human. But how could I say this? One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief. All my evidence would be thrown out of court as irrelevant to the main body of the case, for I could cite only exceptions.
I don’t know if other white Americans share my experience that something changed with the election of Barack Obama. In ordinary interactions with strangers who are black – passing on the sidewalk, holding a door, asking directions – I felt a more relaxed communication, more like what I would experience with strangers who are white. I can only hope that the tragedy of Trump’s election hasn’t caused too much harm to our common humanity until we can again find a president who represents the better angels of our nature.
Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and we know we cannot live within.
In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.
Like all of Baldwin’s writing The Fire Next Time transcends the beauty and genius of his words, to share his unique insight into our common hopes, fears, and mortal lives.
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earnone’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.
Even though I do it myself sometimes (like now), I have a problem with people who can write fiction when they write non-fiction, because fiction is art and non-fiction is…something else. Non-fiction can tell you the truth, which is important, but fiction does something much better: it points to the places where the truth is hiding and lets you tell it to yourself.
The best writers write about the thing we call human nature (because we don’t have better words for it), and few write about it as well as James Baldwin. Take this observation from his novel Giovanni’s Room:
Behind the counter sat one of those absolutely inimitable and indomitable ladies, produced only in the city of Paris, but produced there in great numbers, who would be as outrageous and unsettling in any other city as a mermaid on a mountaintop. All over Paris they sit behind their counters like a mother bird in a nest and brood over the cash register as though it were an egg. Nothing occurring under the circle of heaven where they sit escapes their eye, if they have ever been surprised buy anything, it was only a dream – a dream they long ago ceased having. They are neither ill- nor good-natured, though they have their days and styles, and they know, in the way, apparently, that other people know when they have to go to the bathroom, everything about everyone who enters their domain. Though some are white-haired and some not, some fat, some thin, some grandmothers and some lately virgins, they all have exactly the same, shrewd, vacant, all-registering eye; it is difficult to believe that they ever cried for milk or looked at the sun; it seems they must have come into the world hungry for banknotes, and squinting helplessly, unable to focus their eyes until they came to rest on a cash register.
The pulsing undercurrent of the novel is the heartbeat of Paris. Baldwin writes eloquently about the City of Lights and its inhabitants:
The city, Paris, which I loved so much, was absolutely silent. There seemed to be almost no one on the streets, although it was still very early in the evening. Nevertheless, beneath me – along the river bank, beneath the bridges, in the shadow of the walls, I could almost hear the collective, shivering sigh – were lovers and ruins, sleeping, embracing, coupling, drinking, staring out at the descending night. Behind the walls of the houses I passed, the French nation was clearing away the dishes, putting little Jean Pierre and Marie to bed, scowling over the eternal problems of the sou, the shop, the church, the unsteady State. Those walls, those shuttered windows held them in and protected them against the darkness and the long moan of this long night. Ten years hence, little Jean Pierre or Marie might find themselves out here beside the river and wonder, like me, how they had fallen out of the web of safety. What a long way, I thought, I’ve come – to be destroyed!
The line between writer and character can get a little blurry in first-person fiction and knowledge of the author kept tripping me up and I would sometimes see David as a black man in my mind’s eye. To remedy this confusion Baldwin wisely describes David in the first paragraph this way:
My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faces away from Europe into a darker past.
Because the characters in Giovanni’s Room are white and the setting is Paris, the book does not dwell on American racial inequality the way much of Baldwin’s non-fiction does. It does dwell significantly on another of his well-known themes: sexuality.