Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Writing existence

I was six or seven years old when I had the epiphany that most gloss over and some never experience at all. I exist, I realized. Not only is there a thing that exists, but that thing is me, and that's unbelievably awesome. And this early realization drove my curious mind into some philosophical netherland, raising questions that I still haven't really learned how to elucidate, let alone answer, twenty years later. What is the self? Why do I myself have this consciousness as opposed to the millions of other potential selves? How does this apparent consciousness relate to this physical body I seem to have control over? How does this awareness belong to me? How is this consciousness, so finite that it never would have existed but for a one in a million shot, and will undoubtedly cease to exist within the next century, real? (Of course, these are issues that excessive italics and rhetorical questions will forever fail to grasp.)

My parents told me to let them know if I ever found the answers for the unknowable questions I was asking. But I never abandoned them, and as I developed from an angsty teen into a university student who understood their patent absurdity, my frustration with the questions changed - it wasn't the lack of answers that bothered me, but the total disinterest most of the human race seemed to have in the questions. How can so many worker ants fail to pause and reflect on the miracle that their perception belongs to no one but themselves and thus is totally unique?

I took creative writing rather than philosophy at school (though I did take a few introductory Philo classes that drove me as far away from that academic field as possible) and in the course of my studies I did focus more on structure and clarity than meaning. But all the while I was critiquing other people's plot dynamics or character inconsistencies, in my own writing I could never get away from some level of two-bit philosophizing. All I wanted to do was write existence. So I tried really hard to do that. And I failed pretty hard at first. Early on, responses ranged from "cool phrases but what the fuck is going on?" to "this is a big mess of words but why should I care?" As my university career progressed, the world-building improved marginally. Instead of throwing up their hands with a "huh?", my classmates would scratch their eyebrows and say something like, "But did he go into the apartment or didn't he?" when the apartment in question was intended as a red herring anyway. Yet still I often received critiques which boiled down to, "I don't understand why this story has any significance because it doesn't address any important issues." Important issues? I wanted to scream. I'm writing about the meaning of life, you fuckwit!

But now as I look over my unpublished catalogue, wondering whether to throw it out or send it out, the one question I keep coming back to is the same: how do I frame the question? How do I make people understand what I'm writing about so that it seems as important to them as it seems to me?

I've recently been turned onto a new Showtime show called Shameless (an American remake of a British original). It's about six enterprising offspring of an inner-city alcoholic, raised mostly by an older sister and partly by no one, who engage in constant debauchery to make rent. At first its patent ridiculousness turned me off, but as I've been drawn into it I've come to see its philosophical underpinnings. Its slapstick drama is not ridiculous because the show is masquerading as a comedy; it's absurdism, utterly unrealistic and yet entirely plausible. In the episode I most recently watched, the alcoholic Frank Gallagher (played totally over-the-top by William H Macy), berates his ten-year-old son for asking for a room at his stepmother's:
Every day you wake up breathing you should be calling me in a thank you note of gratitude that the half of you that came from me wasn't splooged on your mother's neck but instead was guided by yours truly to get up inside of her to start the life of you. So walk and talk with gratitude son.
Straight from the asshole's mouth like a truth bullet. No one empathizes with Frank on the show, but in his own self-absorbed way he's dead right. Your life belongs to no one but yourself, and you should be grateful that it happened at all. At the end of the day, it's little truths like this, camouflaged as they may be by the bullshit of human experience that surrounds them, that fascinate me. And maybe in a way that's why the show's vices draw me in and reflect the same debaucherous fiction I try to write. Destitution fascinates me because all human struggle boils down to the same damn thing. Childlike wonder.

Sometimes when I look over my writing, I'll realize how foolish it all seems. How mundane, how everyday, how naive. I know that what I'm trying to do is write an adult world filtered through that same wonderment that Frank is trying to instil in his homeless child. But how can I force a reader to wilfully subject himself to that idea and find pleasure in it? How can I communicate the incommunicable? I suppose I could write an epigraph that explicitly directs the reader to read everything in the ironic voice of an existentialist and recognize going in that all plot is subjective nonsense, but that seems like cheating. My goal, in either blowing up old stories or writing new ones, has to be to find a way to draw a reader into the fiction without losing grasp of the absurdity. Not to tell people how to read it, but to make the reading of it the whole point.

The next frontier, of course, is the internet. The internet is a world unto itself of subjectivity and chaos and the limits of human understanding.
But I admit I'm not quite ready for that. I'm still, somewhere deep down, wishing for a resolution. Rituals, predictable outcomes, safe spots - the places the worker ants go to escape the existential questions. Because too much chaos just makes my head spin.

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