Book for Dinner
It’s appalling, how much I forget of what I read. My only comfort is a misremembered Graham Greene quote, that all good novelists have bad memories. (I am eager to share the sensibilities of the “good novelist.”) According to Greene, exact recall is the stuff of journalism.
Here stands journalism’s fearsome reality ... the steel corners of a sculpture by Donald Judd. At least it might have been imagined so in the pre-post-modern days.
The fictionist tends to messy absent-mindedness. She misplaces real-time events, loses them willy-nilly so they fall into unsupervised heaps where they compost — Greene’s word — like kitchen scraps and fall leaves. By the following year (or whenever the writer needs them) reality has changed into something unrecognizable, useful and true but differently structured from what happened back then ... a Hilma af Klint abstraction.
Compost transforms, yes, but its heat is decay … not the chemical metaphor I want to describe my bookish forgetfulness.
What about food as fuel? Engagement with text can be a mental meal. To begin with, the act of reading stimulates tremendous pleasure. A special example (which includes a direct link for food = book) is my friend Carol’s chocolate chess pie baked in honor of the novel our little read-aloud group is enjoying, the story’s fictional pie being a necessary plot point.
Carol’s real-world pie commanded nerve endings in my tongue to stand up and shout hallelujah! Even as that chorus sang, saliva and teeth began the brutal process of breaking down a tasty treat into its anonymous component parts. The acid bath, the enzyme treatments, the mushing and churning ... tremendous effort just to reverse engineer Carol's work, breaking her pie down to its fundamentals so they can disseminate throughout my corporeal being where they join in complex chemical relationships that are real and urgent, yet invisible to me. It’s as if the food vanishes … except for that content which is not discussed in polite company, that content flushed down into the subterranean septic system behind my home.
Reading, for me, is a process much like digestion. I am a slow, indulgent reader. I lick and chew slowly, slowly, over and over, like a cow with four stomachs, re-tasting the same paragraph multiple times. And as quickly as with the chocolate chess pie, the component chapters break apart, the ordered lines of text upend, the words fracture. Not acid, but electrons zap what I read into atomized fragments. The “waste” consolidates and dissipates during dreams. I’m happy there is no biologically sponsored disgust for mental “waste”, no social taboo to chase me away from dreams … although the contents can be as disturbing as those in my septic tank. I share a dog's fondness for returning to waste when it involves dreams.
The consequence of this mental dining is that I can pick up a partly read book and realize, with horror and despair, that I don’t remember one morsel of the meal so enjoyed the previous day. This is the great failing of my otherwise efficient brain. I excuse it as a Data Retrieval Deficit, a physical, as opposed to a moral, fault. If I did not allow myself this diagnosis, I would collapse from self-loathing. Instead, there are compensatory strategies: Post-it notes, online databases for cataloging books (two sites, in case one fails), underlining, highlighting, cross-referencing, bookmarking, electronic note cards, physical note cards, journal entries, mini-book reviews.
Andrew Hook is a friendly fellow in the UK who writes and publishes slipstream fiction. He and I corresponded a bit after he (kindly) rejected some stories I submitted. That’s how I discovered his own book and, tit-for-tat in the writing world, bought and read it. The plot is staggeringly complex but not in a ponderous, scripted way. In fact, its complexity feels astonishingly like the flow of real time where nothing is scripted and everything is open-ended and you are responsible for choosing what data to keep and what to screen out. If I was going to make it through this tangled knot of a story, I needed to isolate some threads and follow them.
The web began on one piece of notebook paper, the lower left quadrant, and expanded to four, as you see taped together here. Our hard-boiled, old-school PI Mordent travels up, down, and around, arriving often, of course (it’s a detective story), in the upper right quadrant at the morgue, before he asks, in the lower right quadrant, the eternal literary question: “Who is SHE?” sometimes phrased, “WHO is She?” and other times, “Who IS She?”
Do I remember who She turns out to be? Do I remember what Mordent finds at the center of the labyrinth? No. I read this in 2015. I remember fun and sinister stuff about gangsters, mistaken identities, elixirs of immortality, and corpses appearing younger than (or perhaps older than) the dead people of whom they are remains. I remember well an agreeable, complex meal of multiple courses, how it nourished my hunger for intrigue and satiated my appetite for meaning to emerge from chaos. I am a fiction writer. I digested it.