Margaret Laurence

Trash as Literary Treasure

What is literature going to do with the no garbage movement? In his My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgard leaves indelible images of the dump where he and his childhood friends found stacks of dirty - in all senses of the word -  magazines that they snuck away and hid in the woods. Margaret Laurence's The Diviners, features a refuse collector as one of the principal characters, the unforgettable Christie.

"By their garbage shall ye know them," Christie yells like a preacher, a clowny preacher. "I swear, by the ridge of tears and by the valour of my ancestors, I say unto you, Morag Gunn, lass, that by their bloody goddamn fucking garbage shall ye christly well know them. The ones who eat only out of tins. The ones who have to wrap the rye bottles in old newspapers to try to hide the fact that there are so goddamn many of them. The ones who have fourteen thousand pills bottles the week, now. The ones who will be chucking out the family albums the moment the grandmother goes to her ancestors."

Having just returned from our local dump, I can tell you there's little to spark a writer's imagination. The impassive guy in the trailer who is responsible for the before and after weighing of vehicles and giving directions? He is the face - the main character - of the garbage dump. If he came out from behind the window where he operates the electronic scales, he might prove to have as much potential as Christie.  Actually it isn't called a garbage dump anymore, but the landfill site, as if land needed filling. Who has ever heard of hollow land, unless is honeycombed with tunnels or mined, which creates a similar effect. A long drive uphill through forest led to this bald place at the top. No smoke evoking The Inferno, but the smell of something burnt coming from somewhere. Open sand-clay ground dug out in places for "bins" that are actually big craters below grade, easy to throw into. One for scrap iron, one for building materials, others I was discouraged from investigating, because people are not supposed to wander around. A separate turn off leads to discarded-appliances-ville, where naked white fridges blandly shoulder over stoves and washing machines as if in some apocalyptic Best Buy franchise.

With a small load of scrap metal, the remains of a rusted out barb-b-que, I got nowhere near anything like what Christie saw. There has to be a place for ordinary garbage from the one-can-per-household our garbage trucks are allowed to pick up, but it was nowhere in sight. Perhaps beyond a slope where there was a sign, NO ENTRANCE. At bin number four, a kid of about eighteen -- tall, hard-hatted, high-voiced-- helped unload my trunk. "Nope, no bears," he said, "not since the electric fence was put up.  We can't keep out anything with wings, though." We looked to the sky where a handful of large crows swept towards what sounded like an eagle. Eagles are not as profuse in summer as in winter when there can be.... did he say thousands?  His words got lost in the grind of a truck motor, or in my distraction. There'd been a small job to do yes, to justify the trip; but I'd had expectations for this dump. Fantasy exceeded reality again. My camera remained on the passenger seat.

A civilization is defined by what it throws away, reminds a review of Don De Lillo's Underworld . But how it's thrown away says quite a bit, too. The recycling movement has transformed town dumps. What is thrown away is dissembled, washed, flattened, and divided into pieces that may be barely recognizable for what they were once part of. A challenge to piece together a novel from this disparateness, but maybe free verse, as in this by A.R. Ammons. (From Garbage)
"much can become of the clear-through plastic
lid: it finds security in the legit

museums of our desecrations--the mounds, the
heights of discard . . ."


Childhood Ends

Would you want to personally meet someone  - some artist, writer, musician - you really admire? In the old days I was a bit of a groupie, though circumstances prevented me from going all out, such as becoming part of the tribe that followed the Grateful Dead around the country, the Deadheads. Anyway, it was literary heros I worshipped. On my first trip to the British Isles I visited Joyce's martello tower in Dun Laoghaire near Dublin and imagined the artist as a young Joyce. I took my notebook to the Burns museum in Edinburgh to copy out bits from the Scots bard's diary. On this continent, I stood at the graves of Henry David Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts and Félix Leclerc on Île d'Orléans outside Quebec City. It was easier when the object of my admiration wasn't there, even though I have wondered what I got out of it; wondered if, for example, I expected the spirits to fly up and imbue me with a drop of their genius. I even wrote letters the odd time or two, such as to the writer Margaret Laurence and revered the answers I received. John Irving. Could it be him at the old zoo in Vancouver? He liked bears. He titled his first book Setting Free the Bears. Should I just go up and say welcome to Vancouver or something? Of course I didn't.

Friends mentioned seeing movie stars on the street, but I never recognized their ordinary off-screen selves. I did see Joni Mitchell at a café near the ferry terminal, sitting alone, smoking. She might have liked company, but what would I say to her? I so respected genius I didn't know if I could stop myself from gushing if an opportunity came to confront it. I was sufficiently stunned by Margaret Laurences's four-page reply to the beginning writer I was at the time that I did not even write back. Not even a thanks. So, John Lennon? If we should have met somehow? What would I have said to him? I could never be cool enough.

Now that I have finished the third volume, Boyhood Island, of his My Struggle opus, I am pretty sure I wouldn't want to meet Karl Ove Knausgaard either, certainly not as a kid. He reveals himself to have been both vain and oversensitive, crying all the time he wasn't reading or playing football, or, as the book tails off and childhood ends, thinking more and more about girls. Well, he had good reason to cry, his father was a bully.  It's awful to be in the presence of someone whose moods are so unpredictable. Still, should I have met the tall skinny boy with protruding teeth and a protruding arse, who blubbered (as he puts it himself) whenever he was disappointed, I would have probably reacted like his childhood friends did, which might have produced more tears. The mothery side of me thought, aw, when I read those parts. I also thought: man, you are not prettying this picture, are you?

I remember when my students would complain that they had nothing to write about, that their lives were not interesting. If only they had had the gift to see that it's the way one looks at a life that is unique. K.O. is still entrancing me with his way, despite the unpleasant image he presents of himself whimpering, his vanity, his self-described long eyelashes and penchant for talking about clothes. I liked the comparison with David Bowie, though. As for the book as a whole, I continue to be gob-smacked by the detail he remembers or invents, by the forward movement of his prose. Boyhood Island lacks some of the back/forth in time that lent perspective to the earlier volumes. He seems to have made the choice to stick to the boyhood he experienced. It is the same but different and it held me just as the first two volumes did. Maybe it's because of the sense of anticipation he is able to create when he introduces a scene and the narrative arc begins to rise. Where will he go with this, I wonder. The answer is, often nowhere, then a new climb begins.

As for hero-worship, I have realized, even if it took awhile, that when I really admire, even love a piece of art or music, a book, it's the creation I'm infatuated with, not the creator. Any creator who thinks otherwise is heading for an inevitable fall.

"The shadows that descended over the ground outside were so long and distorted that they no longer bore any resemblance to the forms that created them. As though they had sprung forth in their own right, as though there existed a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses populated by dark-people, somehow stranded here in the light, where they seemed so misshapen and helpless, as far from their own element as a reef with seaweed and crabs is from the receding water..."
Boyhood Island, K.O.K.