I’ve read most of the great alcoholic/addict fiction out there (The Lost Weekend, A Fan’s Notes, Jesus’ Son, Carver’s Stories), and believe them to be very accurate and handled well by writers who have lived in such hells, but none of these books seem to come as close to getting inside the mind of an alcoholic as Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano”, which I’ve just re-read recently. A few lines:
“All mystery, all hope, all disappointment, yes, all disaster, is here, beyond those swinging doors.”
“how, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?”
“The Lighthouse, the lighthouse that invites the storm, and lights it!”
“But d.t.’s are only the beginning, the music round the portal of the Qliphoth, the overture, conducted by the God of Flies…Why do people see rats? These are the sort of questions that ought to concern the world…”
“What is man but a little soul holding up a corpse? The soul!”
There’re plenty more, and the novel does not depend on the rants of an alcoholic mind, rather the connection between the mind (everything imagined, remembered, fantasized) and the physical body and world, not to mention the spiritual nature of place.
My story “Sing for Me” is out in the fall issues of The Greensboro Review. Thanks for reading.
Part 1 of my interview with George Saunders is now up on Bomb Magazine’s website. Thanks for reading.
An interesting assignment I had in one of my writing classes in college was to try and encapsulate the life of a character in one page. It seemed the character had to die in order to do this and so I wrote from a dying man’s perspective, yet I struggled to get anywhere near the end of the man’s life, so the man was not a man, but a kid around the age of twenty who was stabbed by some masked assailant in a dangerous section of Syracuse, where I was living at the time. It was terrible. I wanted to say more, but I had no idea what it was like to be old and to look back. Walking the street, thinking back over what seemed most important to this twenty-something, resonated with me–the cold wind brought back something, the darkness, a siren, a faint smell of beer from a broken bottle on the sidewalk. But this individual did not know they were going to die, and so, there seems now, even though the writing was no good, something pure about it.
Yet, I’ve read a few novels and short stories of late that are told from the perspective of someone dying. These are strong writers. Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Franzen, Paul Harding. Great novels, transcendent novels; strong, believable, realistic voices. But are the dying characters in these novels thinking what we think they’re thinking? I’m not so sure.
And so, I’m not so sure one can give them a voice. I’d like to believe it’s possible as anything in fiction is possible. But, we’re talking about realism. And death or dying seems to make its way into most books of realism, though most are with a character having to deal with the dying, and that one can always relate to. I’ve been around a few people who knew they were going to die, but they could not express what was going on inside their heads. I don’t mean to say that this is the case for all, but I think it’s something the living, healthy person cannot truly understand, and so does writing from the dying one’s perspective give the writer an opportunity to explore that what if? a writer has to ask in their story. What if I were dying? What would I be thinking about? Who would I want to see? What ideas of the afterlife would I have? What would I do? It seems the text would not be so well-written, so compact, so ordered, written in linear fashion with paragraphs and page breaks and quotation marks. Would it even make sense? I doubt it.
Maybe like the living, healthy individual, though, it would be those thousands upon thousands of individual thoughts so disconnected and unreliable that to read them on a page would be like a mirror of one’s own brain activity, frightening because the structure is destroyed, yet as real as walking down the street, recalling, remembering, recording. And so, it’s possible that the fiction writer’s job is to separate this mass of thought so that a reader can connect to not only the dying but the living, not only to recognize themselves but to learn how others live, and that becomes the pleasure of realism, that it is not real, it is fiction, it is a condensed mind, it is managing chaos so as to make the world somewhat understandable.