Nov 24, 2011
For the past few weeks I have been trying to capture the leaves falling from the trees outside my study window on video. This is harder than it sounds; they come off in bursts, because of a gust of wind, and by the time I realize it’s happening it’s already happened. This is like Autumn itself: I always think how much I love it, the way the leaves glow and the air goes crisp, and how much I’m going to take advantage of it this year, really go for walks, really explore and enjoy it. And then one day I am at my desk, trying to capture the last yellow leaves as they come down, and I realize that I’ve missed it! Again! Already the tree nearest me is bare, save a single red leaf on the tip of a single branch, and soon the cherry trees too will be naked.
So I still have no satisfactory video footage of the leaves falling from the trees outside my study window. I do have lots of short video clips of nothing happening. Someday I will find them and wonder why they’re there. I will wonder this for about ten seconds, and then I will delete them because they’re taking up space, and who wants ten short video clips of the view they see every day?
Trying to capture on video something which I cannot capture on video is just one of a number of things I’ve been distracting myself with lately. (By the way, is that the correct phrase – “on video”? It seems curiously analog for a process which involves nothing more than tapping the screen of my iPhone). The problem is that I do actually have something I need to be concentrating on (namely, writing the book which is actually going to be published). I don’t mean that I can’t concentrate (I can concentrate, I sat in the same chair for several hours on Sunday and read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam in its entirety – not a long novel, but certainly an act which requires a certain degree of concentration). I just mean that I can’t see the connections between what I’m concentrating on very well. So on the one hand I have the thing that I’m mostly working on, the thing where all of my attention should be but isn’t, quite. (Is all of anyone’s attention ever on just one thing? At least part of mine is always on worrying about whether or not I’m paying the thing I need to pay attention to enough attention instead of the thing itself.) And then on the other hand I have these other things on the fringes, which are infringing on my ability to think clearly about anything.
One day, convinced that nothing in the world could compel me to do good work, so why bother, I watch an old episode of Silent Witness over lunch. I’m still at my desk, which makes it seem like I haven’t thrown the towel in quite yet, or at least, I haven’t thrown all of the towel in, I’m still clutching on to one corner, like it’s a lifeline. Last week was particularly busy, I tell myself, so I deserve this hour (which turns inevitably into three). But for how long can you honestly say you ‘deserve’ something like that? When has the debt been repaid?
Anyway, watching old episodes of anything is a dangerous game for me. When I’m in the throes of a TV show obsession I am worryingly unable to cope with real life. And as a matter of fact I’ve been spending quite a lot of time watching old episodes of Silent Witness recently. After that first sneaky hour a number of others follow, until they are not sneaky anymore. I am watching an episode at lunch, an episode after lunch, an episode before dinner, an episode during dinner, an episode after dinner. I could pretend that I’m trying to find something relevant in it; that any distraction can actually be warped by willpower into something tangentially but unmistakably useful. I’m studying character development, storytelling through cinematography, whatever. But in the interest of being honest, I’ll tell you the truth, which is that I mostly watch it for the pretty faces.
Last night (or maybe this morning, at about 2 am, just before I fell asleep and had fitful dreams about solving a crime which culminated in two exactly identical bodies lying on the mortuary slabs – not twins, just two versions of the same body) – it occurred to me that I also actually just like the show. There’s no shortage of unrealistic television dramas about people who solve crimes and cut up dead bodies and do vaguely sciencey shit – CSI, the other CSI, the other CSI, and so on – but this one, for whatever reason, is my favorite. It doesn’t make me squeamish, which it should (paper cuts make me squeamish, let alone fake autopsies). It doesn’t frighten me, particularly. It walks a fine line between being too ridiculous to be worth watching and representing very finely some aspects of the human condition – elements of the soap opera combined with elements of an Ian McEwan novel, perhaps.
Between episodes, I spend some time thinking about what it means that there are so many of these kinds of shows out there and so many people watching them. I’m not qualified to speculate on this, of course. I’m sure someone somewhere has done a study on it, or written an article. But in my concentration, I don’t think to look it up. The crime element explains some of the apparently endless appeal (a number of these kinds of series have been running for over a decade) – we’re drawn to mysteries, aren’t we, they’re easy to make compelling even in an hour-long slot. But beyond that is the question of whether it is morbid or wise to surround ourselves with all of these fictional representations of mortality all of the time. These shows may not be subtle, they may not be what astute critics would sneeringly call “good television”, they may stretch the limits of our willingness to suspend disbelief, but at the core is the simple truth of life ending in death. Blah blah blah.
To try to trick myself into thinking about the thing I should be thinking about (that’s a retrospective excuse, of course), I start a side project. Or, at least, even though it isn’t fully formed as an idea in my head yet, I describe the latest thing that’s distracting me from the thing I really need to concentrate on as a “side project” in order to validate it (everyone needs a hobby, right? So why can’t the side project just be my hobby?). I try not to make it seem too concrete, because the point at which it becomes concrete is the point at which I need to acknowledge either that it is A Thing I’m Going To Run With or A Thing I’m Going To Put On The Back Burner or, worst of all but probably most likely, Not Really A Thing At All. I try to use words that are so ambiguous that stringing them together adds no meaning: loosely speaking, I say to myself, it’s about death, depression, anxiety, memory, and purpose(lessness). It’s really very funny to me, but I don’t know why. I haven’t yet been able to pinpoint precisely what it is that makes me laugh about this.
Then, of course, I find this piece about how to write funny by Steve Almond. “As a rule,” writes Almond, “the sadder the material, the funnier the prose.”
That’s it, that’s the thing, the idea that’s distracting me, or at least that’s the idea that happens to be distracting me in the moment I read it. Take Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, which for an unrelated reason has been heavily on my mind lately. No matter how many times I read it (I’ve lost count, I’m afraid to say), it always makes me laugh. That’s a good sign: if its jokes (which seems woefully the wrong word here) relied solely on something theatrical, circumstantial – misunderstandings, Shakespearean situations – surely their funniness would, gradually, start to diminish. One can generally only be delighted by an engineered joke for so long (wordplay is another matter). But the funniest bits of Vile Bodies are the saddest bits – and the book is a tragedy, really.
There’s also Geoff Dyer, who’s at his funniest when describing – well, anything, but particularly those things which on the surface appear quite serious: anxiety, depression, aging, loneliness, ruin(s). Here he is writing about having a nervous breakdown in Detroit. It’s one of the saddest and funniest things I’ve ever read:
It was raining outside. Not a howling storm, just steady drizzle. The kind of rain that yields no sense of when it might ease up, that seems to be keeping itself in reserve so that it can, if necessary, keep going till the end of time. ‘It was raining outside.’ Gore Vidal derides someone for writing a sentence like that, feigning surprise or relief that it was not raining inside. But that day in the Clique I looked down and saw that it was raining inside as well as outside. My egg-smeared plate was becoming wet. Drops of water were falling on to my toast, moistening my eggy hash browns. As I looked it rained harder and I could not see. I was crying, not sobbing, just this steady leak of tears. And then, as I realized I was crying, I felt that I was in danger of sobbing. I got a grip on myself, stopped the leak, staunched it. I ate my wet eggs and looked at the rain outside, hoping that would take my mind off the rain inside. I’m having a breakdown, I said to myself, I’m having a breakdown while having breakfast. I said this to myself to calm myself down, to try to familiarize and render ordinary the extraordinary turn of events that had led to this internal rain. I stifled my sobs and ate my breakfast which did not taste any worse because I was having a nervous breakdown. When I had finished the eggs I wiped my knife with a napkin and spread butter and apricot jelly on the whole-wheat toast. I finished the rest of my coffee. I calmed down. I was no longer leaking tears but I was no less distraught now than when I was having a nervous breakdown, which I was still having even though I had, to a degree, managed to regain control of myself.
Why is it funny? You might ask that; I’ve asked myself that. But you might just as well ask why it’s sad. The tragedy is in the comedy and the comedy is in the tragedy. That’s right, isn’t it? Like Lorrie Moore (who Almond also mentions in his article). What makes A Gate at the Stairs so funny? Certainly not its wretched outcome – or maybe that’s precisely why it’s funny. Funny for not being funny, like everything else. When I was about six years old my best friend broke her arm trying to do a back handspring in our living room. For some awful reason I began to laugh. I ran into my room with our other friend, another witness, and we giggled inconsolably, behind a shut door. I did not find it funny that my friend was scared, in pain. But something about the inevitability of the situation, perhaps, something about the irreversibility of it, elicited an involuntarily hysterical reaction – like the scene in Outnumbered where Sue submits to a fit of laughter at a funeral.
“So why are these books so funny?” Almond asks, after listing his own favorite funny books – The Catcher in the Rye, Money, Birds of America. “To begin with, because their authors reject the very premise that suffering should be treated only as an occasion for sorrow. They view suffering as something more like an inevitable cosmic joke, one that binds us all…Their characters make us laugh because they tell us the truth at a velocity that exceeds our normal standards of insight. And because they continually violate the normal boundaries of decorum, by confessing thoughts and feelings the rest of us spend our lives concealing. We’re both shocked and gratified at their candor, and so we laugh.”
I wish I could connect this to what I started writing about here, but as I’ve said, the bit of my brain that makes connections between things isn’t doing its job. You could blame all the TV or the navel-gazing or the short days or the pleasantly dull routine I’ve settled into or whatever, but I don’t really think it’s symptomatic of anything; it’s just the way things are at the moment.
Anyway that’s more or less what’s been going on in my head/life for the last few weeks.