Monday, June 22, 2009

Brand New Skin

Feelin' great--my book gets ever closer to entering the world! Here's the cover, the skin of the baby... featuring string/pencil/wax drawings by Wendy Drolma, with my design. The interior includes another dozen of Wendy's drawings scattered among the thirteen stories.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Writing and the Mask

Here is an essay that I revised a bit from my introduction to an anthology a few years ago. It gives a taste of my thoughts about the art of writing fiction....

Writing and the Mask

I am wearing a mask. Right now, as I write this. It is not a physical thing covering my face; rather, it is in the "I" that begins this paragraph. Again, now: I write "I" followed by a verb, and you the reader perceive me, a writer, telling you his own "truth." But no matter what I write, "I" is a lie. And no matter what I write, "I" is also the truth.

This conundrum is explored in an anthology, The Other Face: Experiencing the Mask, that I co-edited along with professional maskmaker Wendy Drolma (Klein). The book explores the meaning of the mask through poetry, art, "fiction" and "non-fiction" (I put those words in quotes because, in the end, their definitions are entirely elusive). What you are reading here is a revised version of the book's introduction.

If I were writing here in a mode called "fiction," you would gladly accept the mask and maybe even think, "how creative." In the anthology, when Robert Louis Stevenson wears the face of his invention Dr. Jekyll and says, "I was born in the year 18-- to a large fortune...," we enter into a kind of theater and suspend our disbelief. Our pleasure is in believing the obvious lie. When Barry Yourgrau starts the final story, "I come into the kitchen...," we're not so sure that this is an invented persona speaking, but we go along happily as his darkish whimsy unfolds. Mark Sherman's "I" may make us squirm a bit because, while his story has the trappings of fiction, the narrator, we think, just might be Mr. Sherman himself, pretending otherwise. The mask grows thinner.

But there are "non-fiction" works in the volume as well. For instance, this introduction. Since it is not fiction, it must be true, right? The mask of "I" is not acknowledged; it is a sly disguise that looks similar enough to my real face (is there such a thing?) that you don't suspect I wear a mask at all. In the anthology, Michael Perkins, Sparrow, and Gabriel Q all write an "I" that also makes no suggestion of a mask. Does that mean their works are "true"?

Samuel Avital, Sophie Rogers-Gessert, Vincent Lloyd, and George Ulrich don't need an "I" at all; in their essays, they wear the masks of authority, of objectivity, of educated reason. But simply to set pen to paper, one must adopt the persona of "writer." Carl Jung said, "The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual."

I write fiction. I believe in the power of imagination, and I have often "hired" someone not myself -- a persona -- to narrate my stories. When Oscar Wilde said, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth," he was right: behind that mask, my conscious agendas, my censors, my carefully constructed "self," all disappear, and without "me" in control, I tell the truth. The real truth. It slips in through the unguarded back door. It can't be otherwise, because I am I.

Except, of course, for the Buddhist truth that "I" is just an illusion anyway. As Alan Watts said, "I" is just the Universe "eyeing." Each of us is both the center and not the center: double in nature. Dr. Jekyll can't face himself as he writes about Hyde: "He, I say -- I cannot say, I." He denies his own double nature even as he admits it. In a similar self-deconstruction, H.G. Wells' Invisible Man turns his unhappy being into apparent nothingness and then, hiding in a costumier's shop, must put on a mask and false whiskers to make himself again perceptible in the world. The masked man always dons another mask, and so it goes.

Pablo Picasso said: "Art is a lie that tells the truth." The anthology The Other Face, our little work of art, is full of masks, but it is also full of truth. I hope readers approach it with an open heart, and receive wisdom. And as for whether these warm wishes come from "me" or from some persona in my employ, I feel as Jorge Luis Borges does, when he closes the story "Borges and I"...
"I do not know which of us has written this page."


The Other Face: Experiencing the Mask, published by Bliss Plot Press, is available from Wendy Drolma Masks.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Story Excerpt

Here are the first three pages of a 25-page story from The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility. It originally appeared in the literary journal Silent Voices, whose editors nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.

A Confession of Love and Emptiness

Living half a century is no great accomplishment; I’ve done it and more. Living through tomorrow may be something much bigger. Tomorrow a group of people, every one of them younger than I, will take a great saw and rip through my sternum, and insert steel claws, and crank my rib cage open, and spread me like a lobster.

I don’t believe in priests, so I’ll make my confession directly to God, who hides in the pure white expanse of this blank page.

If I live, I will live a new way. I am ready to say this not merely because of the grim surprise with which I realize daily that I am precisely what I thought I’d never be, a middle-aged man, a man growing old whose body is failing, who may die soon. And not merely because deathbed repentance is attractive and convenient, even to someone like me who has always rejected such pathetic whimpers of fear, but because today I received a message of redemption. In the face of a little girl, I saw forgiveness.

The story is easy to remember, but not to tell. It’s about love and emptiness.

The year I turned forty, I begged… or, rather, demanded, rudely, that a Voice speak to me, that He stop hiding in spiteful silence behind that grand impenetrable drapery of blackness above my head.

I was standing at the side of a hospital bed where my wife lay dying of ovarian cancer. The steel rail was cold in my fists. The machinery hummed, whooshed, beeped. Now and then her brow folded up like a fist, but her eyes stayed closed. She was shriveled, unrecognizable. All I could think of was the hypnotic glitter of the Milky Way and how desperately, bitterly, I wanted to understand Eternal Space. I behaved like a thoughtless imbecile. I shouted up at Him, at God, at the ceiling.

An angry nurse blew in like a gale gusting through white curtains, hissing, threatening to have me removed, forcibly if necessary. Later, in one final rush of pain, my wife died. I never received my revelation.

For over fifteen years since, I’ve slept on my side of the bed, with an empty space beside me. I believe that’s what was meant to be. My reward. God is just.

The trouble is, people disappear all the time. They just vanish—poof, gone. This is not startling news; everybody knows it. And if you want the return of the disappeared, then that’s in the Miracle department. I used to believe it was utterly impossible, back in the years before I met Rico, that sweet, crazy old crooner. But these days, I’m thinking that maybe the gone can come back. In their own way, unobtrusively, they return. If you’re watching.

In my life, there were Billy Brock, and my mother, and of course Alice, who left those gaping vacancies. But it started with my uncle, my mother’s younger brother, who lived with us, who rode me on his back like a horse so that my clearest memory of him is the thick shiny tangle of the back of his head, wet ropes the color of coffee beans, and the sweet scent, like a fruity wine, of Wildroot hair tonic.

Then, before I was eight, he was gone. He came home alone one day, home too early from his job with my father, wearing a fat white bandage around his right hand. His face is dim in my memory, but I know his skin was pale, a white forehead spiked by a dark lock hanging down. He was thin, young, couldn’t have been more than twenty‑five, I realize now. That day, he came in tense, pacing, silent. He scared me. I escaped to the back yard and while I sat under our willow, reading, their voices, his and hers, my mother’s, shouted in distant echoes from inside the solid bricks of our house, and I tried not to listen, and I remember not a word. As I tried to focus on the page, a page full of diagrams of rockets, I heard the front door slam. That was my Uncle Davy leaving. I never saw him again.

Somehow I knew even then that that was the beginning of the end of our family.

My name is Jonson Burgess. Not the old standard John, but Jonson, after Ben. My mother, in love with her own sense of irony, wanted to make a statement about negative capability, perhaps her own, perhaps my father’s, perhaps mine, and so I was named for Britain’s most admired playwright of the seventeenth century, who towered and gloated over, who praised and patronized, his failing friend Shakespeare, but who today is lost in the Master’s shadow, all but forgotten, merely a minor player. And in his dim beginnings, before all his avid self‑promotion, Ben Jonson was a bricklayer, like my father. Maybe she knew my father would rise above sweaty labor to his own higher plane of banality, too. She would chuckle low in her throat; she thought such contrivances were funny, like a jazzman tossing a riff from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into his solo, a sort of inside joke, her personal comic subversion in a humorless, dark universe.

When I was six, my uncle’s secret name for me was “Muscles,” since he said, with a name like Jonson, some might think that my father’s name was Jon, but no, it was Sam, and Samson would hardly do now, would it? But I could be like Samson someday, he said, with a wild wicked girlfriend, and biceps, and hair, and a fatal flaw. I didn’t know what he meant by all that, but I did know about Samson, since my father read me Bible stories every other night at bedtime. My father and mother had an arrangement, a sort of alternating current that powered all my perceptions then. Then and, I suppose, now. On my mother’s nights, she read to me stories of her choice, and I suffered through them, often yawning or dreaming but sometimes enthralled, adrift, sunken in a syrup of words, in her soft deep voice, Dostoevsky and Kafka, and now and then Dickens, for a bright note.

Odd how just now I felt a sudden longing, a deep twinge like the flex of a muscle, somewhere near my heart, a longing for her to be here at the side of my bed, reading to me, reading anything, I don’t care, caressing soft syllables with that voice like whiskey on velvet, filling with its deep folds this sterile hard room where, now, without her, every sound, even a rustle, a whisper, clangs and echoes like a bloody bullet dropped in a surgeon’s pan.

And the rustles, the whispers I hear, are my heart wheezing to force my blood through an ever narrowing space, a gate where some freak twist of DNA raised a lump that year by year has gathered coats of calcium, layered like geologic sediments recording the history of my heart, my life. A congenital aortic stenosis, thank you Mother, thank you Father, thank you God.

Now I know, so I can say, my sin is this: I have lived a life obsessed by emptiness. On a quest for absolute vacancy.