Friday, 6 April 2018

Tiny Tim

            On Wednesday afternoon I practiced my song “Insisting on Angels” and I swear that the more I play that song the worse I get at it and the more my fingers fumble over the chords.
            I worked on my journal for a while and then in the evening, just before leaving for my last 20th Century US Literature class, popped out to the liquor store to get a can of Creemore so I could have it with my dinner when I got home.
            The wind was hard against me as I climbed Brock Avenue and it also caught hold of one of those tall, green garbage bins that had been wheeled out to the curb to be emptied and sent it sailing out into the middle of the street. I got off my bike and pushed the bin to the other side of the street and then knocked it over so it wouldn’t go anywhere but even off its wheels the wind kept on blowing it downhill.
            I continued north, but only for a few meters before I suddenly remembered that I’d forgotten my lecture notebook, so I turned around and rode home. On the way I noticed that my back tire was not cushioning me from the bumps very well. Sure enough, when I got to my door and squeezed the rubber it was way too soft. When I had taken the bike down from the hook though, I gave it a pinch and it seemed hard, so it being soft now made me worry that I’d punctured it on my way north. I got my notebook and then I took my pump and puffed the tire up until it was firm again. I was really hoping there was no little hole that was going to make it so I’d have to walk home later that night.
            I had left my place a half an hour early because I’d needed to renew some books at the OISE Library. Going back home for the scribbler and the air only cost me fifteen minutes though.
            After the library I went south on Devonshire and went to University College by way of the back route that goes under the clock tower. I got to class earlier than usual.
            Our last lecture would cover Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore.
            Raymond Carver is the heir to Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in having put the short story back on the map. Carver himself said though that Hemingway was far less of an influence than Lawrence Durell.
            At 19 he married a pregnant 16 year old and six months later his daughter was born and the next year he had a son. For most of his life he drank hard and smoked like a fiend but it got worse fifteen years into his marriage and he became abusive. By the time he’d quit drinking the marriage was emotionally over and shortly after that he started living with the poet Tess Gallagher, who was also an important editor who contributed to Carver’s success. He divorced his first wife five years later and six years after that, just after turning fifty he married Tess. Six weeks later however, he died.
            He published five short story collections and eight books of poems. His writing went against the trend towards self-reflexivity. His stories were realistic, with alienated, inarticulate, angry, often addicted and failed white male characters. He eschewed the American dream for clarity and brilliance. The simplicity of his writing was deceptive because every word was perfect. In a short story and in poetry, every word counts. He was suspicious of language but used it masterfully.
            Lots of alcohol is consumed in the story Cathedral. The narrator is dismissive and uses the passive voice. He is jealous, possessive, territorial and does not enjoy life very much.
            The way the narrator tells the story it sounds like he is making a tape for a blind man. He remembers it all but seems indifferent at the same time. His wife and the blind man are named but he remains anonymous and excludes himself from the story. It’s a story about things that are not said.
            Beginning the story with “This blind man” is automatically othering and dehumanizing.
            The story starts with the deeper past to make the later past seem like the present.
            The narrator’s wife has shared everything with the blind man and he is jealous of and repulsed by the intimacy of his wife having allowed Robert to touch her face. Robert represents a part of his wife’s life that the narrator has not experienced.
            She picked up a potato and he saw it hit the floor. The narrator leaves out the fact that she threw the potato at him.
            The narrator is racist and a bigot. He speculates that life must have been hell for Robert’s ex-wife since he could never give her visual compliments. There are lots of ways to compliment someone beyond what is seen. The blind see what the sighted are blind to.
            The narrative is all “I said, he said” and very journalistic.
            The three of them do not talk during dinner. They just drug themselves with food but felt no guilt about it.
            The fact that the narrator and his wife never go to bed at the same time means that they never have sex.
            The narrator imagines extreme things because his life is dead. If you cannot describe something do you really understand it?
            Is the nature of art to make the familiar unfamiliar? To say, “It’s really something” is to declare that it is beyond language.
            Robert talks like a truck driver: “Let’s do her!”
            Cathedrals were built higher and higher to let more light in.
            We took a break and then looked at Lorrie Moore’s “”People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peedonk”.
            “Peedonk” stands for paediatric oncology.
            Canonical babbling happens when small children begin to put words together into phrases, even though they make no sense to the listener.
            It’s a self-reflexive story, suspicious of language, about the ethics of representation.
            After seemingly bonding with the other parents of kids with cancer, the narrator says, “I never want to see these people again.”
            The beginning begins with the words, “No beginning”.
            The mother’s métier is that of a writer.
            The spot of blood in the baby’s diaper is “a tiny mouse heart packed in snow”. Red on white is always startling. The narrator is trying to deal with the horrible shock of the blood by making it poetic.
            The mother, the baby and the husband have no names and are called “mother”, “baby”, and “husband”. The baby has cancer but the story is about the mother.
            Having a child with cancer is not a bonding experience for the parents. If the baby dies it is usually the end of the marriage.
            The medical people could not do their job efficiently without distancing themselves emotionally and so every patient has to be another number. Their perspective is disorienting.
            Scott informed us that Lorrie Moore is Jewish but I didn’t see the relevance of that information in the context of the story. Perhaps because Scott is also Jewish he picks up something from that connection that I missed.
            To refer to the story as notes that have been taken downplays the ethics of representation.
            “The Tiny Tim Lounge”. Scott asked me to explain to the younger students who Tiny Tim was. I said that he played ukulele and sang with a high voice, songs like “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” and got married to Miss Vickie on the Tonight Show.
            The story is like a roller coaster. It’s not the speed that gets you but the sudden changes. In the story it’s the humour that effects the change. I pointed out that Lorrie Moore never tries to be funny while writing a story but rather always tries to be as sad as possible. Scott said she contradicted that in another interview when she said that humour is the only generosity that can convey awkwardness. I don’t see a contradiction here. I think that she probably writes for the sadness but later deliberately harvests the resulting humour.
            Although this story is autobiographical, it is still fiction because she reimagined everything.
            Scott told us more about the exam. He showed us the six essay questions:

1.      Examine the representation of female sexuality.
2.      How does violence operate in the works we’ve studied?
3.      The subject of poetry is often poetry itself.
4.      What is the function of ellipsis in certain texts?
5.      How does humour operate in the works we’ve studied and what is the effect?
6.      What is the role of the self or self-creation in US literature?

Four of these six will appear on our exam and we are to choose one of them
to write an essay that either compares two or more texts or uses them to support a thesis.
            Avoid plot summaries.
            We don’t need to quote directly but we cannot misquote.         
            We got our essays back but I was very disappointed to only have scored 73%, which is only a B. That’s also what I got on my midterm. I know I got full marks for participation. If I get 73% of 74% on the final that will move me up to a B+ on the course but I’ve got to aim higher.
            I shook Scott’s hand and told him that I enjoyed the course and his lectures and that they helped me appreciate aspects of a lot of the texts that didn’t grab me the first time I read them. I think I held his hand for a little too long but maybe it was my imagination based on homophobia. He told me that he didn’t get the texts the first time he’d read them either. He complimented me on my attendance and I left. 

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