This is Not Happening to You

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.

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cover painting by Mari Otsu

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.

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Tim Tomlinson

James Baldwin and the Art of Empathy

We live in an age of short attention spans and sound bytes, which would seem to suggest shallow imaginations but it might signify something very different: an increased ability to absorb more information in less time. One example of this optimistic interpretation is the fact that we are living in a golden age of poetry. Nothing quite distills the human experience to its essence as well as poetry.

James Baldwin didn’t write a lot of poetry – only one book of his poems was published in his lifetime – but his prose captures the complexity of existence with the same density  as poetry. He once said that “every poet is an optimist. But on the way to that optimism ‘you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all.’ ”

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Portrait of James Baldwin by Bee Johnson

In his novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin suggests that if we are absorbing information more rapidly than our ancestors, we might come to regret it:

It doesn’t do to look too hard into this mystery, which is as far from being simple as it is from being safe. We don’t know enough about ourselves. I think it’s better to know that you don’t know, that way you can grow with the mystery as the mystery grows in you. But, these days, of course, everybody knows everything, that’s why so many people are lost.

There have always been some people who processed information at a higher capacity than others. James Baldwin was one. Here is the information he imagined being absorbed by a young woman on the subway:

I looked around the subway car. It was a little like the drawings I had seen of slave ships. Of course, they hadn’t had newspapers on the slave ships, hadn’t needed them yet; but, as concerned space (and also, perhaps, as concerned intention) the principle was exactly the same. A heavy man, smelling of hot sauce and toothpaste, breathed heavily into my face. It wasn’t his fault that he had to breathe, or that my face was there. His body pressed up against me, too, very hard, but this did not mean that he was thinking of rape, or thinking of me at all. He was probably wondering only – and this, dimly – how he was going to get through another day on the job. And he certainly did not see me.

There are two main characters in If Beale Street Could Talk. One is Fonny, an artist of a different type than Baldwin. This description of the sculptor’s process shows how all of art, like all of love, is one thing:

Fonny is working on the wood. It is a soft, brown wood, it stands on his worktable. He has decided to do a bust of me. The wall is covered with sketches. I am not here.

His tools are on the table. He walks around the wood, terrified. He does not want to touch it. He knows that he must. But does not want to defile the wood. He stares and stares, almost weeping. He wishes that the wood would speak to him; he is waiting for the wood to speak. Until it speaks, he cannot move. I am imprisoned somewhere in the silence of that wood, and so is he.

He picks up the chisel, he puts it down. He lights a cigarette, sits down on his work stool, stares, picks up the chisel again.

He puts it down, goes into the kitchen to pour himself a beer, comes back with the beer, sits down on the stool again, stares at the wood. The wood stares back at him.

“You cunt,” says Fonny.

Hi picks up the chisel again, and approaches the waiting wood. He touches it very lightly with his hand, he caresses it. He listens. He puts the chisel, teasingly, against it. The chisel begins to move. Fonny begins.

The other main character is the narrator, Tish. It might be a bit of a stretch from writer to sculptor, but nothing like a man trying to imagine how it feels to be a pregnant woman. Baldwin’s portrayal might be as close as a man’s ever gotten to accuracy in this scene with Tish and her sister:

 I realize, for the first time, that the bar is loud. And I look around me. It’s actually a terrible place and I realize that the people here can only suppose that Ernestine and I are tired whores, or a Lesbian couple, or both. Well. We are certainly in it now, and it may get worse. It will, certainly – and now something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider’s web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart – get worse. But that light tap, that kick, that signal, announces to me that what can get worse can get better. Yes. It will get worse. But the baby, turning for the first time in its incredible veil of water, announces its presence and claims me; tells me, in that instant, that what can get worse can get better; and that what can get better can get worse. In the meantime – forever – it is entirely up to me. The baby cannot get here without me. And, while I may have known this, in one way, a little while ago, now the baby knows it, and tells me that while it will certainly be worse, once it leaves the water, what gets worse can also get better. It will be in the water for a while yet: but it is preparing itself for a transformation. And so must I.

James Baldwin must have spent a lot of his time writing this novel in contemplation of pregnancy and of the differences between women and men.

Only a man can see in the face of a woman the girl she was. It is a secret which can be revealed only to a particular man, and, then only at his insistence. But men have no secrets, except from women, and never grow up in the way that women do. It is very much harder, and it takes much longer, for a man to grow up, and he could never do it at all without women. This is a mystery which can terrify and immobilize a woman, and it is always the key to her deepest distress. She must watch and guide, but he must lead, and he will always appear to be giving far more of his attention to his comrades than he is giving to her. But that noisy, outward openness of men with each other enables them to deal with the silence and secrecy of women, that silence and secrecy which contains the truth of a man, and releases it.

James Baldwin’s greatest talent is insight. As skilled as he was at his craft, his words were slaves to his thoughts and they revealed him: thoughtful and kind. In this scene, published the year he turned 50, his young couple, in the throes of first love, share a mean with their friend Daniel:

        Fonny: chews on the rib, and watches me: and, in complete silence, without moving a muscle, we are laughing with each other. We are laughing for many reasons. We are joined together somewhere where no one can reach us, touch us, joined. We are happy, even, that we have food enough for Daniel, who eats peacefully, not knowing that we are laughing, but sensing that something wonderful has happened to us, which means that wonderful things happen, and that maybe something wonderful will happen to him. It’s wonderful, anyway, to be able to help a person to have that feeling.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LmrqtD1E7c

Seventy Seven Words

There are no comfortable positions in the bed they used to share. 
He flips at regular intervals, both the hamburger and the spatula. 
With the morning slouching toward him, he stares dimly at the spot on the wall where he knows the calendar hangs. 
There is not enough light in the sky yet to see more than shadows. 
When the shadows evaporate, when the sun rises, it will be two years to the day since she died.

The Call of the Wild

 
Jack London is a writer best known for his stories of sled dogs during the Klondike Gold Rush. He writes with a unique and forcerful voice; so what if it’s a dog’s?
One of the great sins in the theology of modern literary criticism, right up there with sentimentality, is anthropomorphism. I kind of like it. To me, it is no worse to ascribe thoughts and feelings to fictional pets than fictional humans. I often find the behavior of other species more predictable and understandable than that of homo sapiens. Some things – hunger and desperation among them – are universal in the animal kingdom. This passage, showing the dog Buck’s behavioral change under a new, harsh environment, might sound like anthropomorphism run amok to some ears but it rings true to mine.
The first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper.

 
The worst literary sins I see in The Call of the Wild are the horrendous accents:

‘Ah, my frien’s’ he said softly, ‘mebbe it mek you mad dog, dose many bites. Mebbe all mad dog, sacredam! Wot you t’ink, eh, Perrault?’

But there’s not a lot of dialogue and London makes up for the awkward accents with both his ideas and his presentation of them. 

One of the concepts humans use to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom is instinct. We imagine behavior of “lower” life forms is dictated by a process without connection to the intellect. It’s bullshit of course. If instinct exists it is as hardwired into humans as it is in other species. We call it by loftier words like epigenetics or “the collective subconscious” but it exists.

Here is Buck coming to terms with the revelations of his collective subconscious:
And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and dark.

In the end, the currents that run in the bloodstreams of dog and man are not so different. The call Thoreau heard echoes in these furry ears:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

James Joyce and the wild heart of life

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.

James Joyce and Young Love

James Joyce is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. His novels and short stories, as well as his life, continue to fascinate more than 70 years after his death. Like all good Irishmen the tales of his life are clouded by legend. 

The groundbreaking psychologist Carl Jung, who was treating Joyce’s daughter Lucia for schizophrenia, said that father and daughter were both heading to the bottom of a river, except that James was diving and Lucia was sinking.

His wife Nora told this story:
“I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing.”
My favorite story about Joyce concerns his legendary struggles in producing his astounding art. From Stephen King’s highly recommended book On Writing:
According to the story, a friend came to visit him one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.
        “James, what’s wrong? The friend asked. “Is it the work?”
        Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
        “How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.
        Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”
        “Seven? But James…that’s good, at least for you!”
        “Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is…but I don’t know what orderthey go in!”


Joyce’s first novel was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and contains glorious prose like this, from one of the young man’s memories:
Eileen had long thin cool white hands too because she was a girl. They were like ivory; only soft. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory but protestants could not understand it and made fun of it. One day he had stood beside her looking into the hotel grounds. A waiter was running up a trail of bunting on the flagstaff and a fox terrier was scampering to and fro on the sunny lawn. She had put her hand into his pocket where his hand was and he had felt how cool and thin and soft her hand was. She had said that pockets were funny things to have: and then all of a sudden she had broken away and had run laughing down the sloping curve of the path. Her fair hair had streamed out behind her like gold in the sun. Tower of Ivory. House of Gold. By thinking of things you could understand them.

One of the feats a great writer can perform is the shock of recognition, when a character reveals traits that readers thought was unique to them. This description of youthful anticipation about first love should be recognizable to anyone who cares to remember that tender time of life:
Sometimes a fever gathered within him and led him to rove alone in the evening along the quiet avenue. The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart. The noise of children at play annoyed him and their silly voices made him feel, even more keenly than he had felt at Clongowes [his school], that he was different from others. He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured.
        He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment.

Giovanni’s Room – Sex

 

Sex is a difficult thing to write about. Too graphic and it reads like porn, too tame and the writer seems inexperienced or, worse, fearful. The Literary Review gives out an annual prize called the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for lines like this one from 2017 “winner” Christoper Bollen:

The skin along her arms and shoulders are different shades of tan like water stains in a bathtub. Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.

James Baldwin would never be in the running for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. His sex scenes are as clear-eyed as the rest of his writing. Giovanni’s Room is the rare book that includes both gay and straight sex scenes. Not only that, but they’re told from the perspective of the same character, the narrator.
Giovanni’s Room is not a book about sex or sexuality but like his contemporaries Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, Baldwin’s protagonist is up to his eyeballs in it. Here are some excerpts of David with Giovanni:
He locked the door behind us, and then for a moment, in the gloom, we simply stared at each other – with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard. I was trembling. I thought, if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.
I was in a terrible confusion. Sometimes I thought, but this is your life. Stop fighting it. Stop fighting. Or I thought, but I am happy. And he loves me. I am safe. Sometimes, when he was not near me, I thought, I will never let him touch me again. Then, when he touched me, I thought, it doesn’t matter, it is only the body, it will soon be over. When it was over, I lay in the dark and listened to his breathing and dreamed of the touch hands, of Giovanni’s hands, or anybody’s hands, hands which would have the power to crush me and make me whole again.
What kind of life can we have in this room? – this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together anyway? All this love you talk about – isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me.

There is an inherent conflict in writing about sex. Sex is the most private of acts, and writing is the art of keeping nothing private. In writing about sex with men, Baldwin deals with an obvious social taboo. In his scenes with women David uncovers a different set of controversial consequences, in scenes with a one-night stand named Sue:
She came back with two great brandy snifters. She came close to me on the sofa and we touched glasses. We drank a little, she watching me all the while, and then I touched her breasts. Her lips parted and she put her glass down with extraordinary clumsiness and lay against me. It was a gesture of great despair and I knew that she was giving herself, not to me, but to that lover who would never come.
There were a great many things she wanted to say, but she forced herself to say nothing. I could scarcely bear to watch the struggle occurring in her face, it made me so ashamed. “Maybe you’ll be lonely again,” she said, finally. “I guess I won’t mind if you come looking for me.” She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated, but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety – as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.

 And in scenes with his girlfriend Hella that get into the thicket where sex intertwines with love and family:

I kept kissing her and holding her, trying to find my way in her again, as though she were a familiar, darkened room in which I fumbled to find the light. And, with my kisses, I was trying also to delay the moment which would commit me to her, or fail to commit me to her.
“For a woman,” she said, “I think a man is always a stranger. And there’s something awful about being at the mercy of a stranger.”
“But men are at the mercy of women, too. Have you never thought of that?”
“Ah!” she said, “men may be at the mercy of women – I think men like that idea, it strokes the misogynist in them.
“You know, I’m not really the emancipated girl I try to be at all. I guess I just want a man to come home to me every night. I want to be able to sleep with a man without being afraid he’s going to knock me up. Hell, I want to be knocked up. I want to start having babies. In a way, it’s really all I’m good for.” There was silence again. “Is that what you want?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve always wanted that.”
I turned to face her, very quickly, or as though strong hands on my shoulders had turned me ar
ound. The room was darkening. She lay on the bed watching me, her mouth slightly open and her eyes like lights. I was terribly aware of her body, and of mine. I walked over to her and put my head on her breast. I wanted to lie there, hidden and still. But then, deep within, I felt her moving, rushing to open the gates of her strong, walled city and let the king of glory come in.

The relationship between sex and love can be a complex one, or it can be as simple as it is natural. Love can be eternal, it can evaporate in the fire of lust, or it can slowly and irrevocably wither.  It’s probably best not to dwell too much on the last option, but Baldwin does: 
Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love. It is a remarkable process. It is far more terrible than anything I have ever read about it, more terrible than anything I will ever be able to say.