3 March 2005
Last week was a magical-not only because of the magical elements in the novel Prince by Ib Michael but also because it happened that I was able to attend the dress rehearsal of Seattle Opera's production of Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catan and a live performance of Delaware a collaborative piece by Matt Fontaine, Tim Sanders, and the band Awesome.
Prince is suffused with both the mundane magic of a childhood vacation by the sea and the supernatural magic of restless spirits coming to grips with death.
Florencia en el Amazonas is a modern opera set on the Amazon River during the same period as “Prince,” in the decade before World War I. As the cast board a steamship to travel the River to see the great Florencia's first concert in her homeland since she left to make their fortune, they are immersed (in once case quite literally) in the mystery of the river. They all experience the transformation of their hopes, loves, lives, or illusions as the river carries them on.
Delaware is a performance piece that exists more in the land of dream and desire than on any earthly plain. Musical numbers are interspersed with short dialogues, each building on the other in with a fugue-like effect. Decisions are postponed, made, experienced. Bliss is sought, denied, lost, found. Waffles are made to the music of kitchen implements, shared, and eaten. There is much talk of the ocean-- fish guts and all-- eventually leading the audience, laughing, home to the end of the performance.
That was last week.
This week was extremely mundane, beginning as it did, an insomnia attack that made a mess of my Monday. I was looking forward to spending time reading and usually devour fiction books. 101 Reykjavik defeated me. It was so deeply disaffected that I had a difficult time reading-it was more of a struggle to read than some of the more technical journal articles I have read this quarter. Even though the writing and word choice was clever, there was no center to hold, no place in the novel for me as the reader to make a place for myself.
I was unable to force myself to finish this book. There are some images that I do not want burned on the inside of my eyeballs for all time.
These starkly different experiences with works of art encouraged me to think about how I engage with art-especially literature and why I might not be the right audience for this book (and other works like it).
When I read a work of fiction, it is to immerse myself in a different world. I have known for years that I am an escapist reader and as such I am not much of a fan of most of the post-modern work I have read-given its heavy emphasis on gritty modern life. If I want that level of angst I can gossip with friends, read the newspaper, or read my yellowing teen-angst poetry collection.
I have never been a fan of dark humor-it too easily slips into either horror or is too firmly dependant on people making stupid decision after stupid decision.
I empathize too strongly with the characters to be able to enjoy such bleak humor. I want to help them, to get them into AA, encourage them to get a job or go to school, send them to a local therapist, or at least have the option of cutting off all contact if their self-destructive behavior continues. None of which are an option when reading a book. The closest I could come was in closing the book and deciding to read no further.
The book may be meant as a black comedy or a commentary on the dreadful ennui of modern life in a welfare state but I do not have the right sense of humor, attraction to watching train wrecks, or strength of stomach to stick it out.
By one definition, my strong reaction to this book proves that it is Art, as it engaged me at a visceral level. However, it is not art I would recommend. Even though I have friends with a more cynical take on the human comedy, what kind of back handed compliment would it be to say: “This book really nauseated me, but I think you might like it.”
I come at art with a very specific idea-does it make the world a better place? I believe in prescriptive art-art that shows us how we could be better people. This doesn't mean that everything must have a happy ending or be seen through rose-tinted glasses, but it mustn't create more darkness than it dispels.
Humans make dark places for each other everyday though their actions. Genocide, war, starvation, disease, corporate malfeasance, and personal corruption twist the lives of millions of people every day. Creating art that sows seeds of depression and revulsion does not lift those burdens.
Such dark art does, however, speak to the diversity of human thought and experience. Other readers found this book sharp, witty, and laugh-out-loud funny. I would not deny them that pleasure. I just cannot comprehend it.
Art whispers to us though our life experiences and either hits a nerve, strikes a chord, or bounces up and down on the funny bone until we give in laughing at the absurdities of the universe.
101 Reykjavik struck a nerve and hit it so hard and often that I was soon numb with the pain. Prince and Florencia struck a chord as I emphasized with the characters and was swept in to their magical landscapes. Delaware made me laugh out loud while at the same engaging me in the search for beauty and purpose in this life.
Art that I welcome into my life must contain seeds of redemption or beauty within its structure. Art is my antidote to the vicissitudes of life.
101 Reykjavik is unwelcome art. It stormed around the house leaving beer cans and other refuse, refused to share the bathroom, and expected me to clean up after it. I have enough entropy in my life without its help. So I kicked it out, changed the locks, and, quite literally, went on a cleaning spree.
Art impacts life.
Not always in the way its creator intends.
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