Nov 9, 2011

Jung and Novels: Pilgrim

Pilgrim is a man who cannot die. He hangs himself and a few hours later his heart begins to beat. He comes back to life.

He is a preposterous character in a literary work.

And yet he is a complicated and believable character in Timothy Findley's novel, Pilgrim. The curse is a brilliant foil for our modern obsession with everlasting youth. Here is a man who has lived for centuries and all he wants to do is die.

Pilgrim is one of three great novels that uses either C. G. Jung as a character or Jung's method (i.e. analytical psychology) as a narrative device. (The other two I'll post about later). I do not include the legions of writers and works influenced by Jung, writers like Herman Hesse and Frank Herbert.

While I was writing Powder Dreams, I began to see the difficulties of using analytical psychology in a narrative. It is easy for a writer to frame therapy as two people, an analyst and analysand (or doctor and patient), sitting across from each other and talking. I've not seen this approach done well, not even on television.

There are many moments in an analysis when the talk begins to collide with life all around and the two begin to interplay in a way that brings a kind of euphoric dream state. This is the trick. How do you portray the analysis in such a way that life is not only embraced and lived but in such a way that therapy is a sort of turbo charger or booster rocket?

In the case of Pilgrim, Timothy Findley pulls this off not once, but at least twice, because Pilgrim's analyst is C. G. Jung.

Now it takes some literary cojones to actually use Jung as a character in your novel and Findley does not flinch at the challenge. But he uses Jung not so much as a narrative device, but as a character with the full stature of Pilgrim. Their sessions are two heavy weights going at each other and a significant part of the story is what is happening to Jung during this period in his life. It is after his split with Freud, when Jung finally dropped through the floor and entered a place not many people go, a place not many people want to go.

And Pilgrim himself is formidable, knowing some of history's great secrets as a man who has lived for centuries would. Secrets like what the Mona Lisa smile is and a thoroughly disturbing view of the Bonfire of the Vanities, not the Tom Wolfe novel, but the ritual. Findley uses a very large canvas and goes deep into detail.

Oct 18, 2011

On Publicity

I wrote a guest post, entitled Brad Pitt at the Grocery Store, for Man of la Book with some of my thoughts on publicity. It can be found here.

Oct 9, 2011's Mike Doyle on Powder Dreams

"You're going to be sucked into a no kidding, no bull, running description of a typical ski bum existence so quick you won't want to put the story down."

Full review can be found here.

Oct 6, 2011

Cary Grant dropped acid. More than 60 times.

In his autobiographical essay Archie Leach, Cary Grant - The Man From Dream City - describes coming face-to-face with buried secrets:

"The shock of each revelation brings with it an anguish of sadness for what was not known before in the wasted years of ignorance and, at the same time, an ecstasy of joy at being freed from the shackles of such ignorance."

Grant beautifully describes, for paragraph after paragraph, his descent into the subconscious. His vehicle was LSD. He made the trip more than sixty times, each with a psychiatrist as a guide. Here's his description of the mechanics of the process.

"There is a lessening of conscious control, similar to the mental process which takes place when we dream. For example, when you’re asleep and your mind is no longer concerned with matters and activities of the day, your subconscious often brings itself to your attention by dreaming. With conscious controls relaxed, those thoughts buried deep inside begin to come to the surface in the form of dreams. These dreams, since they appear to us in symbolic guise, are fantasies and, if you will accept the reasoning, could be classified as hallucinations. Such fantasies, or hallucinations, are inside every one of us, waiting to be released, aired and understood. Dreams are really the emotions that we find ourselves reluctant to examine, think about, or meditate upon, while conscious."

It is a tidy way to sum up what goes on in dream analysis, which is part of the narrative structure of my novel, Powder Dreams.

Steve Jobs went through something similar. Here is an excerpt from his obituary in the New York Times:

"He told a reporter that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics — even people who knew him well, including his wife — could never understand."

Greg Stump, Skiing and Powder Dreams

Any novel that includes skiing in the 1980s or 1990s must include Greg Stump. Here's an excerpt from Powder Dreams:

"Greg Stump and his cadre of ski stars had by now carved an indelible place in the ski season... With The Blizzard of Aahhh’s skiing had changed. Stump’s films went from the well worn images of people skiing bumps or big powder to lunatics jumping off cliffs... Nearly everyone I knew watched his movies and found in them something distilled and crystallized, some statement about why they loved the mountains and skiing and why they loved, especially, the people. Stump was foremost a story teller and the very essence of a good story is the people."

Stump is the inspiraton for generations of ski filmmakers. If you'd like to see some of his movies - perfect slices of ski history - follow this link. In January (2012) he will be releasing Legend of Aahhh's, which he describes in an ESPN interview:

"The real storyline of the movie is, it's the history of ski films. From the 1930s in Nazi Germany through what the kids are doing today, and pretty much everything in between. And the way that those films helped perpetuate and promote big-mountain skiing, and really this whole extreme-sports movement."

Can't wait to see it.

Feb 25, 2011

Tony Rice

Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story is a most curious approach to auto-/biography. It interleaves Mr. Rice's own recap of his life with an equal measure of quotations about him from family, friends and fans.

One of my favorite quotes is up front. "Tony Rice doesn't seem to have fans; they're more like disciples." Which describes me perfectly.

There's also introductory summaries of periods of his life and a reporter's level view of traveling with Mr. Rice on the road. The result is a four dimensional portrait, a very long ways from the overly polished arms length biography. The rawness is refreshing.

For the serious artist, there are simple lessons about the work required to achieve this level of mastery. There's an anecdote about Mr. Rice eating breakfast. He would sit down with his guitar and a plate of eggs and bacon, take a bite of egg, play the guitar, then take another bite of egg. Breakfast takes an hour to eat. Friends always remember him answering the door with a guitar around his neck. Mr. Rice himself talks about the path to being a great musician (and believe me, he is a great musician) is by first being a great listener. This is a bluegrass guitarist who lapped up Miles Davis and John Coltrane and integrated them into his own music. The literary analogy is writers must first be great readers.

The Golden Years (1979 - 1988) were when Mr. Rice recorded his most accessible (and for me most enjoyable) music, using the twin threats of his guitar and his voice. The two compilations that best illustrate this period are: Tony Rice Plays and Sings Bluegrass and Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The Gordon Lightfoot material really shows what is unique about Tony Rice. He transforms Gordon Lightfoot's saccharine material into music that is deep and striking and so beautiful that it stands with the best in its ability to speak directly to the soul. I don't know if Mr. Rice ever covered Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" but I can find no evidence that he did. I think there's a reason. Mr. Rice's good taste. (It takes Johnny Cash's last breaths to put the correct edge on that tune).

Mr. Rice eventually lost his voice and said that he never liked to sing anyway. There is always a slight disconnect between him and his audience. He hates being worshipped but loves being respected. It is what stands between him and excessive popularity and was foreshadowed by his skipping out on all promotional events. I'm a bit torn about this. On the one hand you have to respect him for having no truck with the kind of star worship (the shadow side of projection) that makes famous people famous. On the other hand his talent deserves a wider audience.

There is also some poignant material about the aging artist who has long since reached his peak and now must face a failing body and a wandering sensibility. Novelists have been known to do their best work in this period (e.g. Thomas Mann), but the examples are few and far between.

If I have complaints about the book, they are trivial. The typography is schizophrenic. While Mr. Rice has spoken openly about his boozy reefer habits, there is a torrent of rumors about his cocaine use, which he dismisses.

But it is really satisfying to read so much about a musician who has brought great music into my daily life.