Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Looking for a Voice
Last Sunday at our house was full of minor disasters. We woke up to find the basement full of water (again). Bill decided he'd move the huge pile of snow at the back that had built up around the walkway and that appeared to be melting straight into the house. Trying to be helpful, I suggested a wheelbarrow might be more effective than carrying every shovel-ful to the back of the garden. Since ours died last autumn after twenty years of faithful service, I began my day heading out to Canadian Tire, which promised me on the phone they had wheelbarrows. My driving was complicated by the fact that on Saturday night bored teenagers (one makes assumptions) walked down College Avenue knocking driver's side view mirrors off vehicles. [Cost: $500. The little buggers probably did around $3,000 damage that night.] But on to Canadian Tire where they couldn't find the wheelbarrows because the store is being renovated and much of the gardening equipment is still in the basement. Half an hour later I had a wheelbarrow that would have to be put together. Home to find that Bill had moved most of the snow. I got out my snow shovel and dug in. Elated at our morning's work, we went out for brunch and a quick stop to Home Depot. Back home, we found the basement inundated, in spite of our morning's work. Back out to Peavey Mart, who has useful things like submersible pumps and the young men who can teach you how to use them. Home again: the pump didn't seem to work until I experimented with it in the kitchen sink, remembered the physics of liquids, and coaxed a column of water up the hose and then down again. You know how to syphon gas: you need to get the bloody liquid running, and then it just follows itself.
None of this is major, of course. My house has been taking in water over the spring for the last twenty years, though never quite so enthusiastically. Yes, I've had work done on the foundation, but it only improved the spring run-off for about four years. This is not the tsunami that hit Japan; there's no nuclear energy plant breathing radiation into the atmosphere. It's spring after heavy snow.
All the same, it's wearing. So last night, tired down to the toes of my hand-knit socks, the waters having given up for the day, I stood at my bookshelf looking for the right voice.
It wouldn't be the voice of Ian McEwan, whose Solar I can barely continue reading. I have never understood cynicism as a way of being in the world, nor do I quite understand the appeal of satire. So the world's well and truly ****ed and people can be monstrously self-centred. Tell me something I don't know. This is background, merely, to much more interesting observations about life, the universe, and everything. McEwan clearly hates his character, the bald, fat, Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard, who has no control over his appetites for food or sex. Why else would McEwan spend nine pages in detail when said physicist needs to pee in the middle of a snowmobile trek toward the arctic circle, after which he believes that his frozen penis has fallen off and is rattling around coldly in the legs of his snowmobile suit. (It's his chapstick.)
Nor would it be the voice of Laura Wilson whose excellent mystery, An Empty Death was to be my end-of-term treat to spell me off when Schiller and Francis Hutchison (an eighteenth-century British philosopher who did aesthetics before we called it aesthetics) are threatening to put me to sleep. Wilson would have provided a reality check: I'm not living through London during the Blitz. At the same time, every other chapter is told from the point of view of the killer, and his was not quite the voice I was looking for either.
What do we mean when we stand at our bookshelves mumbling under our breaths that we're looking for the right book, the right voice? We know there are many fine books there: after all, we've bought them. They attracted our attention at one point or another, though any avid reader is probably embarrassed at the number of books she or he has bought that have moved from bag to not quite the right spot on the shelves where they languished, since they have never been quite the right book. The review (or the cover or title) attracted our attention, but the book has never found quite the right way of entering our lives.
"A voice" means so many things. I can tell you how to create a voice by attending to word choice and sentence structure, but that's not what exactly I'm talking about. A voice, in part, is a world view: a way of seeing the world, and the diction and syntax simply serve that view. This is why, though Solar has been well-reviewed, I can't go back to reading it. McEwan's "I'm better than my character, and I know it" voice grates. That's what we all say about our friends and family in our worst, least sympathetic and humane moments, and it's of no use to me right now. I'm looking for a modicum of good humour, something that might be encapsulated in William James's notion that "a sense of humour is common sense, dancing." Because unless I see some everyday good humour in the hours I've spent sucking water up in my wet basement, I'm going to do something you don't want to know about.
And because this weekend has been so full of seemingly futile work when I'd much rather have been thinking about life, the universe, and everything, I wanted a reflective voice, a voice that, at its very core, would tell me that reflection is one of the good, human things about the world. The ability to reflect is part of what makes us human. I also wanted a voice that reminded me of the wonder that went along with throwing very heavy wet snow: the sound of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings chittering nearby, the song of a robin. How is it that I forget, every year, that spring means a different kind of music, a music of water and song. (Actually I didn't completely forget. When Bill and I went to see the excellent production of Shakespeare's Will, which begins with a thunderstorm, I leaned over toward Bill and said "That's what I want: weather that makes sounds rather than muffling them.) A voice is also music: we feel that the writer's craft shapes the sentences, chooses words as much for their sound as for their rich particularity, so that the rhythm and camber of the sentences echo and reinforce their sense.
Turning to that shelf where I keep the orphaned books that haven't yet found their homes in my imagination, I found Patrick Friesen's Interim: Essays & Meditations. Because the later essays were written more recently, I began at the end and found this:
"For me, language was a way of finding out about myself as a human spirit and body in a material world. It was a way of finding out about that physical world, about the possibility of spirit within the physical. Somewhere Joseph Brodsky said something about poetry being revelatory, not mimetic. Poetry does not imitate, it reveals. It opens up, lifts the leaf. It doesn't pronounce. It moves always, occasionally pausing on an image or a sound, an almost frozen moment, then moves on. As the world does, as thinking does" (134).
The voice I needed. The reflection, the magic, the music, the sense of life's full wonder.
The photographs above are by Veronica Geminder. The first is of remnants of posters on a telephone pole in the Cathedral area. The second is titled "NO Graffiti". Her work can be found here.
at 10:53 PM