Everyone who reads a lot of fiction sooner or later begins to gravitate toward a particular genre, sub-genre, author, style, national region, etc. and begins to read everything she can get her hands on that fits one or more of those specific categories. Over the years I have narrowed down my preferences for, nay, my admiration of a specific range of work. I can’t say why this is so, except that after I read a work of fiction that rings with the qualities that make me laugh and cry over the truth that’s being expressed, and then read outside that range that other stuff seems so bland and ordinary. Like drinking espresso shots then starting on decaf…
The fiction culture that is tops for me is the Irish: Beckett, James Joyce, and Flann O’Brien. For me these three capture the expanse, depth, and complexity of the business of being human in writing–their craft, their insight, and the sheer enjoyment of poring over the poetry of their words, sentence by sentence. The next best for me are the Brits in general, 1980s-2000s, say, Roddy Doyle, Bruce Robinson, Irvine Welsh. These guys certainly aren’t anywhere in the same league as Beckett et al, but they nail the underlying pathos of existence to the wall with amazing dexterity and angst and gorgeous upper-cuts of black humor.
The reason I wrote all of that was to say this: When a novice writer (one who hasn’t hit her stride yet, hasn’t found her voice, as they say) falls in love with a certain style of writing, but that style is completely foreign to her own experience and lifestyle, it creates a type of cognitive dissonance when she plays around with imitating that style and she finds herself frozen inside a huge block.
If you’ve seen the film “Trainspotting,” you know what scene I’m talking about. It’s not like in Welsh’s novel, though. And not everyone will appreciate my taste in literature, even if its author can claim Rabelais, Chaucer and Shakespeare as his bawdy forebears, with all their rich language and gut-deep truth. But it’s the humor and voice that I’m looking at in the following example (takes a bit of patience to get into the Scottish dialect flow–usually you’d never get away with writing like this, but for some reason it works for Welsh). Here’s Rent Boy in the bog (john) after he’s inserted those little wax “bombs” that promise to help him kick junk:
Ah whip oaf my keks* and sit oan the cold wet porcelain shunky. Ah empty ma guts, feeling as if everything; bowel, stomach, intestines, speleen, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and fucking brains are aw falling through ma arsehole intae the bowl. As ah shit, flies batter oaf my face, sending shivers through ma body. Ah grab at one, and tae ma surprise and elation, feel it buzzing in ma hand. Ah squeeze tightly enough tae immobilise it. Ah open my mitt tae see a huge, filthy bluebottle, a big, furry currant ay a bastard.
Ah smear it against the wall opposite, tracing out an ‘H’ then an ‘I’ then a ‘B’ wi ma index finger, using its guts, tissue and blood as ink. An start oan the ‘S’ but ma supply grows thin. Nae problem. Ah borrow fae the ‘H’, which has a thick surplus, and complete the ‘S’. Ah sit as far back as ah can, withoot sliding intae the shit-pit below ays, and admire ma handiwork. The vile bluebottle, which caused me a great deal of distress, has been transformed intae a work of art which gives me much pleasure tae look at.
The problem with being an American writer, I’ve found, is that unless you come from the South, say, or maybe New England, there is only the crap-insipid strip mall culture and miles of bland suburbia with nothing but cars and concrete, where no one knows anyone, and friendships and one’s whole life are like fast food. Am I just whinging or did I strike a nerve?
I think I’m going to be sick.