Sunday, November 20, 2016

Reading is bad for your social life, kids.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a cab heading to the airport early on a weekday morning, when I heard something on the radio that I think you folks will enjoy. The driver was listening to an FM top 40 station, and their wacky morning crew was on, being, well, wacky (as distinct from, you know, funny). Apparently they have a regular segment where someone calls in to tell them about a date that went wrong, and they then call the other party to get their side; today, the caller was a guy, Dan, who said he'd been on a couple of dates with a woman, Anna, he'd met through work. He'd thought they were getting along well, but then, after an evening when they went back to his place and fooled around a little, she'd abruptly stopped responding to his calls and texts.

As they dialed this poor woman's number, I was, quite frankly, dreading the next ten minutes of the ride. What could this exchange be except deeply awkward at best, crude and mean at worst? Initially, it seemed like my fears were coming true: they got her on the line, explained who they were and why they were calling, and, after establishing that the guy was on the line, she said, "Well, I guess we're doing this live on the radio, then."

This was not a promising opening. But then everything changed:

ANNA: "Do you remember, Dan, when you left the room to go to the bathroom? And you had a book on your bedside table? Do you remember what it was?"

DAN: "No?"

ANNA: "It was called House of Holes."

DAN (and ME, simultaneously): "Oh, no. No, no, no."

For those of you who don't know--and I'm assuming 98% of the radio audience that day fell into that category--House of Holes is a work of pornography. Sort of. See . . . it's by Nicholson Baker, a strange, wonderful, brilliant, sui generis writer who cares as much about words and sentences as anyone I've ever read and who seems determined to make each book he writes completely different from everything that he's written before.

What led him to write a novel about a futuristic, gleefully perverse pleasure resort where, to be crude about it, everyone and everything is DTF? Who knows? But while it's porny AF (might as well stick with the internet abbreviations what brung me), it's also goofy and funny and wide-eyed. It's not a great novel; I'm not even sure it's a successful one. But it's also nothing like the midcentury men's whack books that people like Donald Westlake were hired to write--whereas those tend to be soul-draining, Baker's book is, even if ultimately a bit of a mess, vivifying. I've written about it before--and even had a kindred experience to Dan's, of worrying about someone who didn't understand the book seeing it.

None of which, of course, can be explained on a Top 40 station to a woman and two DJs who are wholly unfamiliar with Baker. After Anna explained, in reasonably family-friendly language, what she'd discovered in flipping through the book, the DJs were cackling and Dan was left sputtering, with evident regret and sadness, "Didn't you notice that I have all kinds of books?"

It didn't work. You could tell he knew it wouldn't as he was saying it. Rarely have I felt such unexpected, powerful sympathy for a total stranger. Careful what you read, kids--or, at least what you leave on your bedside table when you might be sharing your bed.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Robert Aickman

With apologies for being remiss throughout October--hosting crowds of 20ish people every night as the Cubs romp to the championship does tend to throw off one's planning in other realms--I'll open November with a quick post on Robert Aickman, a subject more properly suited to the month just past. Aickman was one of the greatest writers of strange stories, turning out nearly fifty, all so good that for a while earlier this year, when most of his work was out of print in the States, I was scheming to find a way to publish a complete collection. His stories can be hard to describe--or, more properly, hard to describe in a way that gets across the discomfiting, uncanny, almost physical strangeness they convey.

A quick attempt at a generic outline: A man, often a low-end salesman or businessman, takes a wrong turn or encounters some travel difficulty in an area unknown to him, a vague semi-suburban landscape that's a bit down-at-heel, forgotten or bypassed. He makes reasonable decisions about how to handle this, like taking a room; there are hints even as he's securing lodging that something is off, but they're no more than hints, flashes of odd behavior by the proprietor, for example. Later, almost without us realizing it, things get supremely weird, and there is a sense that the man may have become trapped, subject to forces beyond his control. There are hints of sex, and even some Freudian imagery, but they're balanced or neutered by attention to other aspects of physicality, like eating or tiredness or bodily discomfort. Sometimes these events are recalled from a later time, or they happen only to have an unexpected sequel years later.

That description, I realize, is simultaneously vague and very specific, but that's almost the point: Aickman traffics in specific details about places and people and events that are fundamentally vague. A strong personality wouldn't ever quite fit in Aickman's stories, nor would a lavishly described locale. These are stories about what happens elsewhere, in the spots we pass through, to the people we don't think about, in the hours of the night we sleep through. There's a palpable air of menace, and of age--of an ancient quality to the land and its accretions that somehow has failed to bring them dignity or value, but instead has rendered them unfit for today, strange, dangerous. At the same time, this is almost all implied rather than stated: these aren't stories of atmosphere, quite, but they're also not really stories of action. They're stories, more, of  deterioration, of the quiet breakdown of logic, assumptions, even cause and effect. The protagonist thinks he's in one, fairly clear situation, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, he finds himself in another, wholly new and inexplicable situation. And you, the reader, have trouble even pinpointing when or why it all began to go wrong. I came across a telling line in Aickman's memoir The Attempted Rescue today:
I learned reading . . . very literally at my mother's knee. I remember having particular difficulty with the word "because." Much could obviously be made of this significant block, but I abstain.
If this intrigues you at all, I recommend you get the collection Cold Hand in Mind, which includes the masterpieces "The Swords," "The Hospice," and "The Same Dog," and also Sub Rosa, for "Into the Wood" and "The Inner Room," the latter of which is my favorite Aickman story. I also highly recommend the recent episode of Backlisted, an excellent books podcast, that focuses on Aickman--the two hosts and guest offer a similar take to mine above, but with a lot more analysis and back-and-forth, and some real insights into Aickman's work.

That podcast was what led me to Aickman's memoir. The hosts discuss it at length, and they read out a long section about Aickman's father that is truly, beautifully, unsettlingly strange. Even though I'd heard it read just over a week ago, I was still astonished when I read it last night:
My father, as I knew him, was impossible to live with, to be married to, to be dependent upon.

This is a vast subject, the framework and colouring of my universe. As I approach it so nearly, I warm and chill at the same time.

In the first place, there was his unpunctuality.

At the beginning of my life, he would rise from bed at ten or eleven, and even then, like me today, with much emotional agony. He would protest, non the less, every night, that he would be down for breakfast, and be indignant if this were doubted, but my mother soon learned that the only hope lay in bringing him breakfast in bed. Risen, he would potter for several hours with the problems and difficulties of his toilet, and then, in the early afternoon, he would struggle away to his office. Daily he would say that he would be back for Dinner, not by seven, he had to admit, but, absolutely, positively, by eight, or perhaps nine. Nightly, he would return at ten or ten-thirty, to find Dinner spoiled and my Mother in sulks. Quite often he would even miss the last train (which reached Stanmore at 12:10 a.m.), and appear in the small hours, having walked the four miles from Wealdstone (later the three miles from Edgeware, when the Underground was extended thereto), while my Mother's anxiety and resentment rose in the silent house, each time as if he had never done it before. As I grew older, even these times began to slip. On most days, he would not depart for work until the evening, and the last train back became his regular one. He always came back in the end, even if he had to walk all the way from London, which he did not infrequently.
Of such is the soil made in which weird tales grow, no? Trust me: try some Aickman.