“Fiction” by Carl Shuker
So there was a US novelist, permanently relocated to the UK some years back for an MFA, now mid-list, mid-career and “between books”, thirty-mid-something, author of two well-received novels and a less-well-received book of short stories, product of a labor of ten years on and off, and thus at the quintessential time and place to stall, creatively, who was that kind of writer who worked from emotion thence into intellect and, if he was successful, back once again into emotion, “evoked.“
And he came to the Lebanon looking to be bitten by the dragonfly.
Emotion > intellect > emotion. From the dream to the text to the dream. In practice this meant the not-so-youngish writer knew his subject when it hurt his heart, when it obsessed him and seemed too painful and the hardest thing at which to look. Then the writer knew he would have the dark, acidic energy it took to compose, edit, destroy, recompose, re-edit, polish and eventually finish, after years, a novel something like the kind of novels he loved and aspired to create, the books that made him want to become a writer in the first place. This method, which he fell into rather than chose, in the messy process of finding one’s way as a writer in his twenties, meant that by his early thirties the writer had published first one deliberately thinly veiled book of first-person late-adolescent horror, which counted, for its relative success, on the frisson of a patchwork of à clef-ish links with his own life and on making his own weaknesses—inexperience and naiveté—part of the material, and had published second one semi-immense “follow-up” or “sophomore effort”, as critics who hadn’t read the first book always wrote, a terrific shambling thing that during the long three years of its composition veered in his imagination from being a bloated, confused, constant evasion of a real book, a shadow of the kind of book it aspired to be, to being sometimes briefly the most amazing thing he’d ever read, like, ever; structured, strong, urgent, inevitable; the writer being thrilled and dazzled it’d come out of himself, then brutally depressed and miserable at its derivativeness and the puniness of his talent and by extension his soul, his self. And so how he’d done it (coming back to the MO thing), how he’d surmounted the hugeness and endlessness of the task and this bipolar crippling self-doubt and corresponding occasional massively inflated sense of self-importance was with the choice of a subject so tough, so big and hard, so new, that he had a kind of duty to it; a duty that transcended his own comfort and his own ego. A duty to the world. A subject that humbled and steeled. The second book was published to polite notices but bigger papers and a year or so of peace for the writer, and then the award of a one-year fellowship slash residency at a red-brick university like the one he’d graduated from (in crea writ, natch; the MFA) wherein the writer was immediately expected to write again. Having drawn on his childhood and his adolescence, having spent most of his twenties writing or thinking about writing while not publishing anything, the writer was immediately wary of being seen, by imagined peers, by his remembered brutal adolescent reading self with its impossible but definitive demands, of having sold out or trying to be commercially big, not cool or hard or true or essential, so he carved out a book of singular and odd semifuturistic short stories and a novella that linked them all, in a hazy darkness of second-novel-hangover and fellowship-paid-for Scotch, a clutch of one-night-stands compared to the love affairs of the first books, and worked really hard while never really, really loving these new small strange things, never adoring them like he did the books he’d had to summon forth forces for that were old and presymbolic and frightening. He had an office and stuff, and people knew he was a writer. This hadn’t happened before.
And then he got a job teaching creative writing.
And suddenly, in front of his students, all their expression lying before them (—he could see it in their eyes: nothing but potential—) there was nothing left. The crash was come; cafard; of Shiva Naipaul Paul Theroux said it best: he’d drunk and seen the spider at the bottom of the glass. And he got classically depressed. He began to find himself thinking in stock. He’d experiment with actually trying to think in stock. Phrases from Nietzsche copied down “in his youth” “returned to haunt him.” His actual thoughts, every phrase “that occurred to him” seemed someone else’s. He reread his books and “heard only echoes”; he hunted for them. Whenever he might “disappear into” his own imagined scene he pulled out and “trained a critical eye” on his lines, his pen-written, typed, edited, copy edited, proofed and published lines. Attributed every phrase. No, he would say: if that is me, I am not good. And he would try to write. In the past this writer had had the subject to guide him, the dream, the thing. The advice from stoical old John Gardner went: focus not on words but on the thing. In the past he’d write the bad phrase, the obvious phrase, and then he’d break and remake the phrase, make it directly relate to the thing, that thing in the mind. But now there was no thing, and there were only words. “Barely a nurtured dream,” as Delillo had it. Now there was no thing. This too was familiar, he’d read of the feeling, but it had teeth and it had legs. It hurt, and it went on. The energy required to dream a thing anymore seemed so huge and it all seemed so pointless if it did not come naturally, unbidden or even unwelcomed; the act itself unmanly, even passé. He’d take a nightmare if he could no longer dream—but he couldn’t even get that. He contrived mental disorders to justify his hatred of his own work. Poring over the DSM looking for correspondences. He met a great many writers who it seemed to him wrote out of disability, ineptitude in the world of some vital kind; he sought out their flaws. The writers were the world’s weak and wounded now. He saw this in himself and hated it; hated weakness. He drank a lot. He conceived of a novel “owing something to” Lowry’s Volcano, but with a drunk author, a whisky writer out of those old wooden halls where Faulkner and Hemingway walked when they were gods to him (where did the wainscoting begin? Describe the patina of the wood. What was Faulker wearing? Who watched him from the door ajar? Those old wooden halls: imagined, he said to himself later, weakly). He alternated plans for texture and incident in his drunk writer novel with the memory of himself at twenty telling a friend that if he were ever to write a novel about a writer writing a novel (he hadn’t written anything then) to just fucking frankly shoot him in the back of the head right then and get it over with, and now here he found himself ten years later slumped and planning one, the description of the desk and the hangover. He left it, went out and followed whims looking for obsessions. He attended sessions of krag marga and capoeira to get the aggression out. He went to counseling for his relationship. He collected jokes. He tried to be kind to his girlfriend; he listened to his sarcasm. He couldn’t finish anything but drinks. The long sine qua non of single malt, a churning bitter winter, a sickly Sauvignon blanc spring for amendable headaches, a period of pallid pastis, a short and suicidally expensive seizure in Champagne. A pale mojito and caipirinha summer made deceitful promises. The money began to run out.
Then, one day, he read a chapter called, simply, “Geography: Land Forms and Structure”, in W.E. Fisher’s 1948 The Middle East, a first edition he found in a chance browse at the Librairie du Maghreb in Burton Street in Bloomsbury. Lured in by the book store’s sulky squat owner standing in his doorway beneath its flaking fascia and the motto: “Here you can find the unfindable.” A pricey edition with a particularly beautiful smell and grain of paper and shapely font, it had some unfortunate combination of words that hit him like a sweet migraine as he slumped over it in the British Library, an actual sense-memory of language and association (like that of an artist) that blew open dead synapses in a dead or dying part of the medulla: the Lebanon, it read, in some technical sentence but in specific rhythmic association with Syria, and Damascus, where some kind of collocation that was alien and beautiful elevated to a chant, Jounieh, Jtaoui, and Bsharre; Ehden, and Zghorta; and in each he saw things like they were when he read at ten, an unrecovered CoE Christian then: there was manna and there were honeycakes and sand and sadness and a woman with eyes like blood and skin like cream, half in shadow and half out, and the TV news of the 80s showing puffs of smoke in a tobacco-colored city by the bluest sea and the fear, a fear that reached to and through the USA to his prepubescent heart, of kidnap in Beirut.
This was the kind of throb, the touchstone, the kind of truth he wrote toward, that he writes away from in his incompetence, that guides him and steels him to work for competence, that he writes toward again, and that he is to limitlessly, beautifully or miserably, fail.
He began to plan the book at once.
He read the endless library without tiring. Goldziher and Kerr, Snouck Hurgronje, Becker, von Grunebaum, Wellhausen, Gabrieli, Said. Maasri, Toufic, Levi Della Vida, Salibi, Traboulsi, Phares, Kassir, Rosenthal and Goitein. Arberry, Hourani, Watt and Coulson, Gellner, Evans-Pritchard, Brunschwig, Le Tourneau, Laoust, Rodinson, Miquel, Mackey and Berque. He found a passage anthropomorphizing the Lebanon in Fisk, in a section on those the Lebanon altered, because he liked to read Fisk when tired and his urgency made him feel young, and urgent:
It was like being bitten by a beautiful dragonfly whose wings were of such splendour that the victim did not even feel the nip in the flesh. Later, the skin would itch and the stranger would scratch at the irritation, trying to remember where he had acquired so strange a mark. Much later, the flesh would swell up and give pain and, very often, it would prove fatal.
The dragonfly of Lebanon to take you through the dream into your own Lebanese nightmare, your own awful swollen truest self’s potential. He dropped his girl, boxed his stuff and booked his flights. He was as excited as he’d been by the first book; thrilled and young again, eyes like his students’; but muscled now and armed by time and experience. He prepped, he worked out, he studied. He and the world came alive.
On his return to England a year later thin and tan he bought some old trad razorblades and drew a long hot bath.