Eating My Own White Guts

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Masset, Haida Gwaii, Harbor to Inlet, Vixy’s Home

Extraneous to the novel itself, but not irrelevant to its fate, is the seven-figure advance that is said to have resulted from a ten-bidder auction before last year’s London Book Fair. That makes Homegoing what publishers call a “big book,” the object of promotion and marketing campaigns designed to present it as the glorious flowering of a precocious talent. It isn’t. For all the enthusiasm that regularly attends literary debuts, more often than not it isn’t the first book that realizes the extent and the depth of a writer’s talent; it’s the third or fourth.

Laura Miller, “Descendants: A Sprawling Tale of a Family Split between Africa and America,” The New Yorker, May 30, 2016, 77.

This from the closing portion of The New Yorker’s review of the book which I wouldn’t have any interest in reading regardless of its visibility simply because I’ve no interest in the type of story it is. I won’t mention the author, why bother? – the book will have flown or flopped by the time anyone reads this, if ever, and if it does neither, landing somewhere in the vast middle ground that resides between the published-and-out-of-print and the published-to-increasing-renown only time will tell. I didn’t realize publishers anywhere where still delivering million-dollar advances to anyone. From everyone’s perspective besides the handful of persons who are expecting (or praying) to make a mint off the thing, including the author herself more than likely, it would seem a curse for a young artist in any field to get it all right out of the gate. What’s left but the burden of living up to the hype? It speaks once again to the irony of having one’s dreams come true or falling into a life that other’s dream of even if you haven’t. The genie-in-the-bottle myth whereby (as I’ve learned the hard way myself and have lamented here, of course) your dream comes true and you get everything else with it that you didn’t expect.

I am failing as an Oprah author, and the team and I are finishing up some final strolling footage, well into our third hour in Webster Woods, when I complete the failure. Five words come bursting from my chest like a hideous juvenile alien. I say: “This is so fundamentally bogus!”

From the bookstore [signing] I head straight for the airport. I’m due to take the evening’s last flight to Chicago, where, in the morning, Alice and I will tape ninety minutes of interview for Oprah. Earlier today, while I was doing my best to look contemplative for the camera, Winfrey publicly announced her selection of my book and praised it in terms that would have made me blush if I’d been lucky enough to hear them. One of my friends will report that Winfrey said the author had poured so much into the book that “he must not have a thought left in his head.” This will prove to be an oddly apt description. Beginning the next night, in Chicago, I’ll encounter two kinds of readers in signing lines and in interviews. One kind will say to me, “I like your book and I think it’s wonderful that Oprah picked it”; the other kind will say, “I like your book and I’m so sorry that Oprah picked it.” And because I’m a person who instantly acquires a Texas accent in Texas, I’ll respond in kind to each kind of reader.

Jonathan Franzen, How to Be Alone, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 269-70, 271-72.

And here, with these two accounts of preternatural and otherwise precocious writerly success, one author a black female whose budding talent has apparently been preempted by an absurd oversell and the other a white male who struggled to swallow, unsuccessfully, the pill of the world’s embrace that he couldn’t recognize for what it was (the reception to his boon in a form happily irrelevant to his vision of it) we encounter the peril of the return threshold. It describes the transformation that must occur by way of the crossing; how, that is to say, to remain who you were (the part that excelled at and attained its character by pushing against the trials of the adventure) while being who you are now, the person who has arrived.

We want our victories to arrive – we want to arrive – in a prescribed condition of splendor and rejuvenating welcome that doesn’t also require the discarding of any the good things that got us there. When one feels disappointed or deflated with one’s success isn’t this what’s happening? I’m just speculating. It’s never happened to me. My little victories never brought with them, as far as I can recall, a sense of disappointment. Any disappointment seemed to have come much later, down the road when I’d tried to unsuccessfully inhabit the world that I’d entered, or thought I’d entered. That’s the thing: just as Jim Carrey told us we can fail at what we don’t want we can also win at what we don’t want or win at what we think, by way of constructing one’s own personal mythological state of schism, we want. And it seems, for some of us like me, to be the living with the getting that eventually reveals the ruse, the lie, the self-deception. That is to say, none of it can be maintained.

And it’s so often one’s body that reacts in what seem at the time weird ways. Robert Fripp suggests that, “when in doubt, reference tradition; if still in doubt, reference experience; if still in doubt reference the body.” Well, Jonathan Franzen mentions being afflicted by an unholy rash during his Oprah experience. We ignore such symptoms, forging ahead regardless until we end up flat on our back. Diseased. Otherwise ill. It all happened to me on a tiny scale in comparison but nonetheless I learned the lesson.

So these days I rationalize things by telling myself I’d betrayed my heart and convinced myself I wanted something I really didn’t and therefore got something that wasn’t me. And that I’m not going to ever do that again. My VAPM is known to me. I’m deliberately practicing it. Except there’s always that chance, isn’t there, that I’ve got it wrong again. So be it. The other thing that struck me about the Homegoing review are the glaring and I would assume embarrassing technical criticisms, the little mistakes authors – so-called professionals – aren’t supposed to be making:

It’s never a good sign when a novelist feels obligated to begin a bit of dialogue with “As you know by now, Quey….” The short story [Miller argues that the novel is a series of short-stories strung together] is always in danger of reducing people to types, and Gyasi succumbs to this more than once. [And here I’ve spilled the author’s name!]. She also has a bad habit of forcing an interpretation that any intelligent reader is perfectly capable of picking up on her own: “Marjorie reached for the stone at her neck. Her ancestor’s gift.” Gyasi’s prose, too, is largely undistinguished

Laura Miller, “Descendants…,” 76, 77.

These are glitches and oversights that perhaps an editor, in the old days when publishers had them, may have helped the author clean up. As far as the undistinguished prose, I don’t know, I haven’t read it. I venture to say that distinguished prose literally speaks for itself. But in any case, here the so-called emerging author gets otherwise treated like a queen. And not a hack like the rest of us who slave under the burden of our un-brilliance. It goes to show how correct John Gardner was in advising us to do our absolute best to be our best just in case we do someday manage to get into print; because once that happens, there you are: exposed.

Contrast all this miserable vocational success with being truly miserable and not only not being in possession of one’s true vocation but being mired in an otherwise tortuous day-to-day hell of non-living-wage servitude. Cronin’s Father Francis as a twelve-year-old boy endures the waking nightmare of being a so-called rivet boy in a Scotland shipyard and like many fictional representations of life it strikes true to the intolerable, facinorous, base conditions of tenuously maintained survival some of us have experienced by way of a job.

At five next morning, while all was still dark, the shipyard hooter sounded, long and dolorous, over the cowering dreariness of Darrow. Half-senseless with sleep, Francis tumbled out of bed and into his dungarees, stumbled downstairs. The frigid morning, pale yet murky, met him like a blow as he joined the march of silent shivering figures, hurrying with bent head and huddled shoulders toward the shipyard gates.

Over the weigh bridge, past the checker’s window, inside the gates… Gaunt specters of ships rose dimly in their stocks around him. Beside the half-formed skeleton of a new ironclad, Joe Moir’s squad was mustering: Joe and the assistant plater, the holders-on, the two other rivet boys, and himself.

He lit the charcoal fire, blew the bellows beneath the forge. Silently, unwillingly, as in a dream, the squad set itself to work. Moir lifted his sledge, the hammers rang, swelled and strengthened, throughout the shipyard.

Holding the rivets, white-hot from the brazier, Francis shinned up the ladder and thrust them quickly through the bolt holes in the frame, where they were hammered flat and tight, annealing the great sheets of metal that formed the ship’s hull. The work was fierce: blistering by the brazier, freezing on the ladders. The men were paid by piece work. They wanted rivets fast, faster than the boys could give them. And the rivets must be heated to the proper incandescence. If they were not malleable the men threw them back at the boys. Up and down the ladder, to and from the fires, scorched, smoky, with inflamed eyes, panting, perspiring, Francis fed the platers all day long.

In the afternoon the work went faster: the men seemed careless, straining every nerve, unsparing of their bodies. The closing hour passed in a swimming daze with eardrums tense for the final hooter.

At last, at last it sounded. What blessed relief! Francis stood still, moistening his cracked lips, deafened by the cessation of all sound. On the way home, grimed and sweaty, through his tiredness, he thought: Tomorrow…tomorrow.

A.J. Cronin, The Keys of the Kingdom, (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2006 [1941]), 10-11.

***

In regard to the title of this post, some of you who write may recognize John Gardner’s book (who also composed the fantastic Grendel) from whence it came.

A novelist is not likely to develop authority by success after success. In his apprenticeship years he succeeds, like Jack o’ the Green, by eating his own white guts. He cannot help being a little irascible: some of his school friends are now rich, perhaps bemused by the fact that one of their smartest classmates is still struggling, getting nowhere, so far as anyone can see.

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983), 69.

Otherwise, I don’t know what else to say, today except that somehow this phrase came to mind and I dug through my old journal entries to find it and found something else and, well, so it goes. The muse does her thing and I’m just here to play it out as best I can. Perhaps it helps somebody, that would be nice.

***

Meanwhile, personally, I never enjoy a writer’s old blog or post or diary entry unless I’m reading old stuff intentionally, as part of a collected works or what have you. Even if it’s a reworked version like this. I rather prefer the brand new entry. Dunno, it’s just that way. I therefore feel compelled to offer up something new as a value add and it’s a just a scene from TC2 that I spent all day working on. A little scene. Perhaps a scene that gets further editing or goddamn edited out in the end. But I doubt it. Anyway….

“Amen,” said her parents, together.

Vixy watched them open their eyes and unclasp their hands, her father reaching for the ladle, her mother pensive, possessed of the lingering piousness that seemed so much a part of her. They struck Vixy as innocent and naïve and wise all at once and she sensed somehow for the first time the span of years that had comprised their lives together. And each of their lives apart from each other, as well; as individuals, struggling along with nothing certain. She suddenly felt hard and grown up, her parents seemingly older, more vulnerable, more precious than she ever could have imagined. It struck her, in fact, that one day they would die and…. She tried forcing the idea from her mind but it only made her newfound sense of time and place, and time’s passing, more intense.

“Wouldn’t you know,” said Eleanor. She used her spoon to dab at her chili. “I saw Daniel Cramer at Church this week.”

Her mother’s patronizing manner with these things always made Vixy cringe. Even when, like now, the cringing came as a relief from her own newfound sentimentality. But even Mr. Z.’s presence, which had them all on their best behavior, couldn’t inspire her to look up from her meal.

“He’s that young man who graduated from the University at the same time you did, isn’t he?”

Vixy sprinkled more shredded cheese on her chili, shook the tiny bottle of hot sauce vigorously and tipped a few drops into her bowl. She stirred, the spoon clattering against her bowl as if it were the only sound in the room. “I don’t know, mom. I mean, I don’t remember any Daniel Cramer.”

“Well, he said he remembered you. The Cramer’s are the ones who moved to Vancouver and Daniel’s father, he was the coach of the high school soccer team. Wasn’t he, Victor? Anyway, Daniel seemed very nice and, if nothing else, dear -”

“I know, mom. You’re going to tell me that church is a good place to meet people.” She spread more butter on her cornbread. “Because you met dad there.” She fidgeted in her chair, sensing Mr. Z.’s eyes upon all of them but when she looked he was merely clutching his soup bowl with one hand and spooning at the dregs of his chili with the other.

“It’s true, Vixy,” said Victor.

“But, dad -”

“I’m not a church goer, Mr. Z. Anybody will tell you that. And Vixy isn’t either. We get our religion out of doors, I guess you could say.” He glanced at his daughter and tore at his hunk of bread. “It was, I don’t know, a zillion years ago. And I just happened to be in the church for a couple of weeks working on the pews – some basic carpentry they needed done. And as I was young and penniless and the church was paying and feeding me lunch, well, there I was for two weeks with this job to do and there they were. The pretty girls in the choir, that is. Practicing a few days a week. And Ellie here, besides having a nice singing voice as far as I was concerned, she used to clean up around the place, I guess, didn’t you Ellie, and she was there when the other choir girls weren’t. In fact most days it was just us and that old, rugged cross together in that little church. Isn’t that what it’s called in that hymn you girls sang? Old Rugged Cross?” He shrugged and chomped into his bread. “So we got to know each other from a distance, as it happens, and she didn’t think I was too uncouth or anything, I suppose, in those days at least and the rest is history.”

“Uncouth,” said Eleanor, shaking her head at him. “Victor.” She sat staring into the distance for a moment, one hand in her lap and the other holding her spoon. “I’d forgotten all about it.”

“Nobody sings that anymore over there? Old Rugged Cross? At church?” Victor went about his meal, reaching for more chili and tearing at the bread again as if having completed his duty to them all. “Well, they ought to. But then nobody keeps up on the ancient Haida songs, either, I suppose. The good old songs. It all gets forgotten. Until somebody like Vixy at a university goes digging after it. Let me see.” He chomped away for a moment, frowning as if trying to remember. Then he broke into song, his careful, quiet, tuneless baritone somehow evocative of his theme:

On a hill far away, stood an old, rugged Cross

The emblem of suff’ring and shame

And I love that old Cross where the dearest and best

For a world of lost sinners was slain

Victor cleared his throat, beaming mildly, and sipped at his ale.

Eleanor blushed and got up from the table with her plate. She ambled into the kitchen.

“What do you think, Ellie? Are you ready for me to sing in your choir?” He winked at Mr. Z.

“Victor, I’ve nothing to say about you joining the choir. But that’s a beautiful hymn. You never told me you liked it.”

“Hmm, well, I don’t know about liking it or whatever. I just remember you and me and the church and that music somehow. Weird, huh? You don’t remember singing it?”

“I do, dear.”

“My point was only that it shows how you never know in this world. I mean, how things will work themselves out. Right Vixy?”

Vixy hunched her shoulders, placed her hands in her lap and nodded politely. “Yes, dad.” It was as if she suddenly had nothing to hide about herself or her nutty family, least of all from Mr. Z.

“You know? Vixy?” said her mother. “Speaking of church. I saw Daniel Cramer. That young man who graduated from the University at the same time you did. He was at church on Sunday.”

Vixy sprinkled more cheese on her chili, twisted the cap off the tiny bottle of hot sauce, shook it vigorously, frowning at it, and tipped a few drops fall into her bowl. “I know, mom, church is a good place to meet people. Except you know I never had any interest in Daniel Cramer.” She spread butter on her cornbread.

“You never used to dislike going to church. Not until you went away to University.”

Vixy resisted the urge to roll her eyes and instead sat with a spoonful of chili in her mouth and glared at her father.

“Eleanor,” he said. He only referred to her as Eleanor when he was being demonstrative.

Vixy swallowed her food. “It’s okay, dad. I know mom is only trying to be helpful. Trying to marry me off or something. Right, mom?”

Her mother pursed her lips. “There’s blueberry pie. Mr. Z., will you have e a piece? Of course you will.” Eleanor began slicing it. “Anyone for ice cream with it? Mr. Z., I’m sure you’ll enjoy our ice cream. It’s local milk. Lionel?”

“I’ll get it.” Her father got up to rummage through the kitchen storage cabinets “I’m going to have some, too, Ellie. With my pie.” He patted his belly.

“None for me, dad, said Vixy.

“Oh come on, girl,” said her father.

“No, dad. I don’t want to have to run it off tomorrow.”

Her mother doled out the plates. This one’s for our guest, Lionel. “Vixy, how was it in the woods today?”

“Well, I found something. I think. A face.” She got up and hurried into her bedroom/office at the back of the house and they listened to her rummaging through her things. Her voice boomed from down the hall, “Actually, it was Duff who found it.”

Duff looked up at the sound of his name, blinked in Vixy’s direction, blinked at all of them, lowered his head and promptly went back to sleep.

Carnegie Olson, Time Crime: Book 2, (Ann Arbor: Humble Hogs Press, 2020), 7-10.

“The Old Rugged Cross”, composed by George Bennard in 1912, is a famous Methodist hymn and country gospel song first made popular by Ernest Tubbs in the early 1950’s. And don’t fret, dear readers, for I’m much further along in editing TC2 than the above, it just so happens that I came upon that section and got lost in spontaneous editing. Hey, it all counts.