Friday, September 19, 2008

No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful

I was thinking some years ago of all the central, vital facts of human biology and psychology that were omitted entirely from most 19th century novels as a matter of course. I thought it would be interesting to write a novel in which something else, some other huge, central, tremendously important fact, was left out, or only alluded to with the most elliptical euphemisms. One idea I was toying with was a novel set in a world that humanity shares with another intelligent species which is taboo to mention, even though they live in the same cities, are vital for the functioning of society, etc. They wouldn’t be mentioned in the novel, so you would have to infer their existence from things in the novel that didn’t quite seem to make sense: from how the human society reported had been distorted around them.

I was vaguely thinking of having a go at this for NaNoWriMo this year, and it was in this spirit I watched Gigantic, a documentary about They Might Be Giants.

Pretty early in the documentary John and John leave their homes in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and take off for New York, where the rest of their story takes place. All the people interviewed seemed to me like New York sort of people. They sounded like New York people. They looked like New York people. Of course, I’ve never been there. The place where they were sitting to be interviewed was sitting in armchairs with water behind them, and a bit of New York skyline behind them.

There were occasional bits of footage from the time the documentary was made, showing TMBG on the Conan O’Brien show, and signing books in Lower Manhattan, and some of these had dates on the bottom ‘September 7th, 2001’; ‘Midnight, September 10th, 2001’. After they finished the book-signing in Lower Manhattan on September 10th, they went back to a bit where they were on stage; they did that song ‘Everyone’s your friend, in New York City', then they did that song ‘She’s an Angel’ with the line ‘If you’re following an angel, does that mean you have to throw your body off a building?’ Then they did some performance-arty stuff on stage talking about ‘negative space’ and taking instruments away from a song, and then notes away from the remaining guitar part, until nothing was left but the audience clicking their fingers along to it. Then, the end.

So, Gigantic is ostensibly about TMBG, but looked at another way it is really about September 11th, 2001. It is really a salute to a place, showing it at its brightest and best, as a place where people can realise their dreams, and create beautiful things, and change the world; and it has ended up being shaped around this huge, central, tremendously important event, which is never ever mentioned, but which colours the atmosphere of the whole film.


Dave said...

That sounds utterly fantastic. I believe that Simon - utter TMBG goob that he is - has a copy, so I will try to get around to watching it with this in mind.

Marco said...

I am novel-writing challenged :( no NANOWRIMO for me. I have been making a little progress on Principia Marconomica "blook".

Dr. Clam said...

Here is a big long extract from an essay called 'The Typical New Yorker' by Robert Benchley, 1928, that I got the book to quote from at you, since I've never seen it on the web. I don't feel like teasing out its relevance to this post, but it is a passage that I found myself recalling many times seven years ago:

For most visitors to Manhattan, both foreign and domestic, New York is the Shrine of the Good Time. This is only natural, for outsiders come to New York for the sole purpose of having a good time, and it is for their New York hosts to provide it. The visiting Englishman, or the visiting Californian, is convinced that New York City is made up of millions of gay pixies, flitting about constantly in a sophisticated manner in search of a new thrill. “I don’t see how you stand it,” they often say to the native New Yorker who has been sitting up past his bedtime for a week in an attempt to tire his guest out. “It’s all right for a week or so, but give me the little old home town when it comes to living.’

Typical of the method by which the actualities of New York are taken by writers and translated into material for the New York of their dreams is the fantasy indulged by [Ford Maddox] Ford (in common, it must be admitted, with most of our domestic writers) of attributing the lights in the buildings along lower Manhattan to some province of fairyland.
“By day the soaring cliffs,” writes Mr. Ford, “that rise joyously over behind the Battery are symbols not merely of hope but of attainment; after dark, and more particularly in the dusk, they are sheer fairyland. There is something particularly romantic in a Germanic sort of way about mountains illuminated from within… the million-wise illumination of New York is a lighter, gayer affair … the mind on seeing it connotes not subterranean picks and sweat but lighted more tenuous occupations- the pursuits of delicate, wayward beings.”
Our visitors are confronted with so much gaiety in New York, especially where the lights are brightest, that they fall into the literary error of ascribing any metropolitan utilization of voltage to the pursuit of pleasure. And it is difficult to look at the lighted windows at the end of the island and not idealize them into some sort of manifestation of joy and exuberance. But if the writers who thrill so at the sight and translate it into terms of New York’s light-heartedness could, by some sardonic and unkind force, be projected along any one of those million beams of fairy light, they would find that it came directly from an office peopled by tired Middle Westerners, New Englanders, and Southerners, each watching the clock as lighting-up time comes, not to start out on a round of merry-making but to embark on a long subway ride up town. And this ride will take them on past the haunts that the visitors and their hosts know, past the clubs and the theatres and the squash-courts, to an enormous city about One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Street, where life is, with the exception of a certain congestion in living-quarters, exactly the same as life in Muncie, Indiana, or Quincy, Illinois. For the inhabitants of this city have come direct from Muncie and Quincy and have never become assimilated into the New York of the commentators. It is not even picturesque, as the East Side is picturesque. It is a melting pot where the ingredients refuse to melt. The people are just as much New Yorkers as those of the Forties, and they outnumber the ‘typical’ New Yorkers to so great an extent that an intramural battle between the two elements could not possibly last for more than twenty minutes, even if the pixies had machine guns.