Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Aimless Reading: The C's, Part 11 (Angela Carter)

Carter, Angela
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

I am pretty certain that I acquired this book from my old friend J. For "acquired" read "stole" or possibly "borrowed and never returned."

J. was a college friend at Fordham. We always tacked on the epithet "The Bard" to his name because he was at that time what we all imagined a poet to be. He wrote beautiful songs around the clock and sang them on a beat up old acoustic guitar at the coffeehouse on campus. He edited the "alternative" campus literary magazine. He won the English Department poetry award seemingly every year. And, of course, he seemed to have come out of the womb doing all of this, which made everyone jealous of all that natural talent seemingly oozing from his every pore.

After college, we formed a writer's group that met once a week at J.'s apartment on Jones St. in the West Village. This was my first experience in literary social formation, and although I am grateful for the experience of having had my work held up to close scrutiny, I left the group, and was left by the group, with a bad taste in my mouth. Most of this had to do with the fact that a pecking order quickly formed with regards to whose opinion was more valued, whose work was considered superior or inferior, etc. (Admittedly, my bitterness stems from the fact that I was at the bottom of both hierarchies).

I was also amazed and crippled by the fact that several members of the group, all of whom were fresh out of college, began to feel that they owned certain stylistic tics or literary strategies and that no one else in the group could use them. Often, people said things like, "Mike, that's a J. line or an S. Line. You need to change that." For at least a year after I left the group I found myself questioning every line I wrote, asking myself if I had stolen the idea from someone else. 

(Thankfully, I discovered Jackson Mac Low, who freed me)

Eventually, I brought another friend, P., into the group. P. was even more sensitive than I, and about three times as volatile. After about three or four meetings, he unloaded all of his misgivings on me with such force that I went to the next meeting and effectively ended the writer's group. I think we all continued writing in some form or another afterward, but the writing took surprisingly different forms: one almost silent member of the group became a pretty successful playwright, another a press officer for an NGO, another an editor for a conservative think tank journal, another a grant writer at a university, another a high school English teacher writing and occasionally publishing on the side.

If I did take away something positive from that group it was that I learned not to be in love with anything that I write, and that when I am in love with something it is probably garbage. It was the beginning of looking at my own work objectively.

One of J.'s other firsts was that he discovered the one professor at Fordham in 1990 who taught postmodern fiction and theory and he actually took the course. He was also the first man I had ever met (and possibly the last, come to think of it) to publicly declare himself a "Marxist-feminist." I remember he had a Siamese cat named Cleo he found at Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park (hence, the name).

I am almost positive this book belonged to him, but one can never be sure of such things. I love the opening:

I remember everything.
I remember everything perfectly.

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