Friday, October 1, 2010

Dennis Potter, Joseph Westermeyer

October, 2010: Errol noticed Blackeyes on a bookshelf on Lord Howe Island - Dennis Potter has written a novel? Dennis Potter who made the crazy television series The SInging Detective? Errol read it in a night, then roundly recommended it. Deirdre found a secondhand copy, read it, then lent it to me. Dennis Potter’s virtuosity is structure. When I use the word ‘virtuosity’, it does indeed come with a tinge of disapproval. As in The Singing Detective, Potter’s story in Blackeyes goes simultaneously forwards and backwards, runs alongside itself, sees itself reflected between two mirrors. To draw a diagram of Potter’s story would be an effort, and helpful, too. To give you an idea, and to prove that I’m not just being wordy, here’s how the story starts: a former model, Jessica, is trying to write a novel, or rather, to rewrite the bestseller that has turned her decrepit old uncle into a celebrity. His novel is called Sugar Bush. The story is hers, or his version of hers, told to him over a succession of lunches (paid for by her). His novel is now inscribed in her memory - she knows it by heart. She had hoped his novel would give her a voice; instead it has portrayed her as a mute and thoughtless object, named Blackeyes; it has made her into a man’s toy all over again.

Dennis Potter has a lot of fun playing with Jessica’s novel (she is an inept writer), Uncle Maurice’s novel (he is a purple-proser), and Jessica’s actual experiences of the events depicted in Sugar Bush, these experiences described (possibly) by the only nice man that entered her life during her modelling days, a man she has completely forgotten. Phew! - it’s complicated.

Potter’s trickery (his virtuosity) is the honey to help the tablet to go down. The tablet, thankfully, is really interesting - Potter is not a story-teller with expertise but without ideas: with his handful of characters, Potter seems to be examining his own responses to a beautiful, sexy, young girl. This is a great use of fiction - the author can lay down all his or her complex, contradictory, disturbing feelings about something, not in a reasoned essay where every assertion would be cancelled out by its opposite - boring! fence-sitting! - but by embodying each feeling in a different character, who then argue it out amongst themselves. Fiction is more about exploration than about coming to a conclusion. And even the filthy old uncle, and the drooling executives, are explored, and subsequently granted some sympathy. Here’s a casting session, where Blackeyes is desperate to get the job:

Blackeyes unscrewed the silvered cap from the bottle and shook out some of the amber lotion onto the tips of her fingers. The Sleepy Lagoon music was playing again, and it became like an ache at the back of her eyes. She would henceforth always remember this syrup of a waltz with a slow, viscous drip of melancholy.

The stuff felt tacky on her fingers.

She began to rub and then smooth or caress it into the top of her arm. The small circles slowly widened as she moved her fingers with what seemed to be an increasingly erotic deliberation towards her shoulder and her neck. Her head tilted back a little as she worked the slightly gooey dribbles of liquid into her skin, which meant that she could no longer see the shadowed faces of the men seated on the far sides of the room.

These faces were showing signs of sexual yearning, and, in some cases, torment. Fog at the window, fall in the air, a stuffy room, and a succession of bikini-clad young women had somehow deadened the emotions and yet quickened the senses: or, at least, the one sense they usually thought about the most. None of the previous girls had drawn from them quite so powerful a longing.

Most people feel enslaved - in varying degrees - by the sex they are attracted to. Blackeyes examines sexual power and sexual exploitation, and no one really seems to have the upper-hand.

Errol was a bit disappointed by the ending - he thought Potter had grown tired of the whole thing and quickly wrapped it up. The ending is far more ‘plotty’ than it needed to be: flashbacks yield up a pivotal event, Blackeyes is given a happy ending with that nice man she forgot, and Jessica and Uncle Maurice are also well and truly wrapped up. Lots of novels that have been notable for their delicacy or intricacy, suddenly degenerate at the end, as though the last gobbets of paint are squeezed impatiently out of the tube and slapped onto the page, quantity (of plot and action) intended as a substitute for subtlety, and to compensate for failure of inspiration. Endings are what counts, alas - but even so, Blackeyes is a bold look at what arouses us, and why.

Just a little note: the strangest, or most strangely moving romance I’ve ever come across in a book is the one between Uncle Maurice and his teddy bear. All closet toy-huggers will feel dreadfully exposed by the depiction of this relationship. Is Potter outing himself as a toy-hugger? It is a piece of characterisation as brave as Thomas Mann’s make-up wearing old man inDeath In Venice.

October 2010: Poppies, Pipes, And People (Opium and its Use in Laos) by Joseph Westermeyer. Stella borrowed this book for me from the COFA library because she knew there was an opium addict in my novel, and that I’d had trouble finding books about opium. First I turned to the chapters that I thought would be of use to me - such as the parts where Westermeyer describes techniques for smoking opium, and its physical effects. But then the book turned out to be so clearly written, with a great balance between subjectivity and objectivity, that I turned to the beginning and read it cover-to-cover. It’s a book written by someone who has a lot to say about a subject, and who has put in the thought and effort to structure it, so that it will be accessible to any reader. Because I have a few books waiting in the ‘Book Of The Moment’ pile, I’m just going to note down the passages I dog-eared before I give it back to the library, via Stella.

A sense of adventure-seeking may also be a part of such curiosity. Undertaking an adventure often relieves boredom and can lead to increased well-being. Soldiers surviving battle and women surviving childbirth commonly experience increased self-confidence and self-esteem. Similar feelings may accompany the experience of having exposed oneself to the risk of addiction, not having succumbed to it, and thus having shown strength of character and self-control. (p. 63)

...males in all ethnic groups were at greater risk to opium addiction than were women...One explanation has been that depression or neurosis in women may be an equivalent of substance abuse in men. Careful family studies by several researchers strongly support this theory (p. 120)

Dumont’s tavern dwellers bore other resemblances to the den habitués in Laos. They were alienated from their families, worked only irregularly, and spent several hours each day at the tavern. A certain stability of intoxicant usage was maintained by regular adherents to the group. For these regular members, the tavern group became their main, or only, reference group. Each of these characteristics applied to the den-using addicts in Laos. (p.145)

I have followed the lives of these eight people...since their smoking opium in one or another Loatian den. None has ever become and opium addict...Had any of them done so, I would have been greatly remorseful. Was the risk, while small in my opinion, worth our small adventure? That is difficult to answer directly. We were all explorers of a kind, or we would not have been in Laos - and in an opium den at that. I might beg the question by saying were were all several years younger then and more bent on riskful adventure than cautious conservatism. Such ventures together also cemented the bonds between us. but there is a risk to curiosity about opium...especially if it remains readily available to the experimenter and if the experimenter has an ongoing problem, such as chronic pain, loneliness or fear. (p. 166)

The French Drug Dealer. Jacques’s father had been a colonel with the French Army in Indochina during the 1940s and 1950s. After Jacques had dropped out of the lycée, impregnated the daughter of a prominent family, and proven unable to hold down any of several jobs, his father suggested that he might seek his fortune in Indochia. Besides giving his son a one-way airline ticket, his father promised to send s small monthly stipend from his service pension. (It seems likely that his father sent him with the expectation that Indochina would make a gentleman or a corpse of his wayward son.)

Jacques soon met two other countrymen like himself, both selling heroin to world travellers and using it themselves. Within a month of arriving in Vientiane, he was addicted. During the subsequent two years, he fared better than he had in France...As I repeatedly encountered Jacques and his two friends around Vientiane, the steadfastness of their three-sided partnership became evident. All three comprised an armed, mobile heroin business. They carried concealed small handguns and volumes of heroin and could make change in several currencies on the spot. yet they were known to be fair to their clientele and generous in their charitable contributions to the police. perhaps in his own way, Jacques was on his way to growing up. Pity I was not able to see over time whether the colonel ever got back a gentleman or a corpse. (pp.171-2)

In Search Of A Stern Parent. Hans was one of the more skillfully obnoxious people it had been my fortune to meet. The youngest son of a wealthy German industrialist, he was a past master at the art of alienation and social masochism. Within five or ten minutes, he could antagonise the most phlegmatic government functionary at the Narcotic Detoxification Centre. It seemed to be the only skill he had acquired in his twenty years, at least besides linguistic proficiency in several European languages. He had no difficulty conversing with the Lao staff in fluent French. With me he spoke a flawless, clipped, London version of English, without a hint of Germanic overtones (except perhaps in his haughty mien). His appearance was as initially intriguing as his surface sophistication. Delicate, with finely chiselled features, he wore an expensive embroidered black silk tunic over a pair of rough canvas pants cut high above his Asian thongs.

Hans had developed his brief social exchanges to a high art. They began with his smoothly attracting someone, anyone, into conversation. There followed in short order some outrageous demand: a wish to be served breakfast at a restaurant in the afternoon, a request for a watch on credit in a jewellery store, approval from the medical staff at the Centre that he receive morning doses of methadone to stave off his withdrawal so he could have glorious heroin trips in the evening. When refused, Hans would launch into a cool, scathing string of insults and diatribes against the individual whom he had so recently engaged - and who in many cases then became (ambivalently) his persecutor, tossing him out of a shop, clinic, or restaurant on his ear.

In several brief snatches, Hans allowed me some glimpses into his past life. He had been raised by a series of French au pair girls and English matrons, none of whom could apparently tolerate him (or possibly his parents) for more than several months. When old enough to attend school, he matriculated transiently through a series of Swiss and English private schools. At eighteen, when he came into a small annual inheritance, he promptly dropped out of school and began his world travels. Two years later found him in Laos on heroin, again replicating the isolated and alienating lifestyle that he had learned many years earlier. (pp.184-5)

These two descriptions of people whom he had come across are so well-observed; not only did they remind me eerily of my own Theodor, but they also caused me to wonder (acutely) what happened to Jacques and Hans. And I almost wish I haven't been working for seven years on a novel about drug addiction, and male partnerships, loyalty, disloyalty etc., because reading about these characters make me want to write a novel set in the 1970s about drug addiction, male partnerships etc. Or maybe my interest in the subject isn't yet exhausted. Well-tilled soil, it's true - but where do the women fit in? This is a question I direct not just at stories, but at life, more importantly. Where does a non-drug- or risk-taking woman fit into this world? Why the hell would such a woman be drawn to that world, drawn to the men in those worlds?

There's a lot of very interesting information about addiction in Westermeyer's book. If you're an addict - of anything - wanting to give it up, I'd recommend reading it. Or if you wonder whether you'd be considered an addict, or wonder how serious your addiction is, from page 288-90, there is a really clear table that I might even photocopy. I applied it to my addicted friends, and found it strangely helpful.