In which the author escapes the order/chaos binary - and graduates
This past week I found one of my late wife's pearl ear rings and thought: I wonder if I still have a hole in my head, I mean, in my ear lobe. I do. I wore the ear ring until bedtime and then removed it, remembering that was how I lost the other one, sleeping with it in years ago.
I pierced my left ear in the fall of 1991, as I began the final school year of my bachelor's degree at the University of Waterloo. I'd just spent the summer in Ottawa, working for Settlement Branch, Immigration Canada, completing my final co-op work term. As I prepared to return to campus, I wasn't happy. What I had expected from my undergraduate experience hadn't happened. At least not yet. I had expected, somehow, to "become a writer," and find a collection of artsy-oriented friends.
Actually, I had a collection of artsy-oriented friends, but the complications around our lives were many times more complicated than I had ever anticipated. And the world was becoming more confusing, not less. And love and sex were not balms for the body and soul; they were just background tensions that made everything else extra disappointing. If I'd had the option, I'd probably have stayed in Ottawa. I was reasonably content there, but my employment ended, and I had just two school terms to go. I wasn't going to opt-out of my degree.
My brother and I hadn't lived together in years, but he and a friend, CI, arranged to rent a four-bedroom apartment at 70 Alexandra Avenue, above a convenience store near the campus. Part of the arrangement is that we would provide free labour to put up new drywall and paint parts of the apartment, which we did. Weeks later, we were awakened suddenly in the night when the store’s alarm went off. Someone had busted through the front door, sending glass everywhere. They couldn’t have been inside long, if at all. We all rushed down, and very quickly the police arrived.
Exactly when I pierced my ear, I don't remember, but I bought a skull and crossbones ear ring from a vendor on Queen Street East, Toronto, and I wore that throughout my final year of school. Yes, it was partly inspired by Keith Richards and his skull ring, but it was also that I knew I was tapping into some dark energy to get my through these months. Sweetness and light wasn't working for me any more, but I still had that, too. I think.
In the summer of 1991, I'd read Thomas Pynchon's Slow Learner (1984), a collection of the author's short fiction, written between 1958 and 1964.
The back cover quotes from the author's introduction:
I now pretend to have reached a level of clarity about the young writer I was back then. I mean I can't very well just 86 this guy from my life. On the other hand, if through some as yet undeveloped technology I were to run into him today, how comfortable would I feel about lending him money, or for that matter even stepping down the street to have a beer and talk over old times?
However Pynchon the Elder felt about Pynchon the Younger, I liked these stories. I particularly liked "Entropy," from which I pulled a quotation to insert into my Creative Writing II novella (1992), more on that below.
Tell a girl: 'I love you.' No trouble with with two-thirds of that, it's a closed circuit. Just you and she. But that nasty four-letter word in the middle, that's the one you have to look out for. Ambiguity. Redundance. Irrelevance, even. Leakage. All this is noise. Noise screws up your signal, makes for disorganization in the circuit.
As an example of communications theory, I'm not sure there's anything better, and I was already all in on McLuhan. The fall 1991 term was also when I took the semiotics course, where we read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980). In any case, what I was getting out of my English degree was that the meaning of "meaning" was open to interpretation. Was maybe all and only interpretation. The thing to sort out was, how to live with that. Pynchon seemed to know.
I remember my mother asking me what courses I was taking—the term I took semiotics—because I said, “Semiotics,” and she asked what that was, and I said, “The study of signs,” and she said something along the lines of what’s the use of that. I guess, keep reading, and maybe there will be an answer.
I'd read Vineland (1990) the previous winter, borrowing a copy from LU. All I'd heard about Pynchon at that point was that he was difficult, but I didn't find Vineland difficult. I found it exhilarating; he engaged the legacy of the 1960s and updated it to the Reagan era 1980s. This was my natural framework. He was speaking my language. And he was funny, too. Next, I tried to plow through V. (1961). I could manage a couple of pages at a time. It exhausted me. I had no idea what was going on, but I thought it was brilliant, just really dense. I couldn't absorb more than a few pages at a time.
In the fall 1991 term, I took Contemporary American Literature, taught by Professor Stan Fogel, AKA Stan, as everyone called him. Fogel was the author of The Postmodern University: Essays on the Deconstruction of the Humanities (1988), a book I own but haven't read. Flipping through it, I think: Yes, that’s Stan; yes, that’s the 80s. From the back cover: "Fogel claims he is the only academic to have 'Entropy' tattooed on his buttock." The back cover also helpfully includes an image of said tattoo.
Stan later wrote a reference letter for me, when I applied to do an MA at the University of Toronto in 1995, and I wrote a 1994 profile of him for ID magazine, describing his time in Cuba, particularly his experience of watching the World Series in the American consulate with U.S. marines (in Cuba? apparently so). He later retired to the island and wrote a long non-fiction account, which was published online: What It’s Like Living Here (2011).
Some words I associate with Stan: dis-ease, anti-humanism, de-centre. Also the Border/Lines journal.
At Waterloo, he was the most radical prof in the English department, no doubt about that. He was also known for his cowboy boots and his piercings. More than once, I heard folks call him "Peter Pan," the boy who would never grew up. In class, he spoke about his brother, who'd managed the then recent Steel Wheels Tour of the Rolling Stones, making the band gazillions of dollars. We had to write a series of short papers and give a class presentation.
My presentation was a complete mess—as I did the usual thing I do: I gathered way too many ideas and tried to explain how they all linked together. I mean, they did, but my explanation was all over the place. Stan gave me a decent mark, saying he admired the ambition, but not the delivery, which was generous. He was also generous when I handed in a paper analyzing a poem that I’d written with a couple of friends over beers in the campus pub. It was the most contemporary of contemporary lit! And the lit wasn’t the thing, anyway, right? Criticism was now the Main Act. I didn’t really believe that, but I knew it was the thing.
Stan’s reading list included: Nabokov's Lolita (1955) and a book I could swear was called The Professor of Desire, but not the Philip Roth title. It was not a literary title, but it was about sexual boundaries on campus. The postmodern university: the outlining of boundaries and how they are defined. Fogel noted the sexual boundaries policy at the University of Waterloo: profs couldn't mark the papers of students they were involved with. As I understand it, the boundaries have tightened considerably since then.
Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) was also on the reading list of Fogel's course, and it's the lecture I remember best. Stan gave an extended lecture at the beginning of the term, outlining "post-modernism," equating it with feminism, and essentially destabilizing the notion of foundational (i.e., concrete, unmovable, knowable) knowledge. Does literature educate? Make better people? Or just reinforce notions of propriety and cultural power? Discuss.
Each of the works we talked about for the rest of the term then repeated these themes. In his lecture on The Crying of Lot 49, a novel about the unfolding of an estate, Stan said meaning exists in the novel in three states: when the characters are paranoid, when they are stoned, and a third thing, which I'm going to guess at: when power is asserted.
Things happen, then other things happen. Who can say there is a connection between the two? How are we to tell if any of it means anything at all? What is meaning, anyway? How are we to interpret the signs (semiotics)?
In the fall 1991 term, as I noted in my earlier piece (McLuhan, 1986), I started a weekly column in the student newspaper, Imprint, called "Media Surfing." How are we to interpret our world? This was kind of the question I circled around. If there was no stable meaning, then there was at least a process of interpretation, and that process was a communal one.
Many of the artsy-oriented friends I mentioned earlier were part of a writing group, gathered around the campus's then Writer-in-Residence, Greg Cook, a poet, playwright, and future biographer of Alden Nowlan. Cook held a weekly workshop, where students could read and comment on each other's poetry. I had been writing poetry since arriving on campus in 1987, but I was starting to shift more and more to prose. In fall 1991, I took Creative Writing I, taught by a dude who wrote thrillers and other genre books, more than one a year, an apparently profitable approach, but not one that had any appeal to me. He told me I was a decent writer, but not one cut out for writing thrillers. I agreed.
In the winter term (1992), I took Creative Writing II, taught by one of the English professors nobody seemed to like, but I got along with her just fine. She would give me the only A+ of my undergraduate degree. She didn't so much teach us anything, nothing I can recall, honestly, but she did challenge us to write. She told us we would be handing in an 80 page manuscript at the end of the term and sharing its progress with our fellow students along the way. There was much angst and complaining about this approach (80 pages!), but I embraced the direction. I got a notebook and decided I would write 10 pages a week by hand, then transcribe it to digital format in the computer lab. Throughout my undergraduate program, I never owned a computer. All essays were written and printed in one of the university's computer labs. I remember one of the other students was writing a long piece told via a talking garbage can.
Where I got my idea, I don't know, but I can say with assurance that I mimicked the tone of Pynchon's Vineland and Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan (1959), which I had recently read. That is, I was self-consciously writing an absurdist, post-modernist story.
There was something of The Name of the Rose there, too. A bit of a mystery. Perhaps the title gives it away: The Perfection of Angels and Confusion on the Planet Earth. The novella later made up the major portion of my second book, Only A Lower Paradise And Other Stories (2000). "Only a lower paradise" is a phrase I borrowed from Northrop Frye, who was writing about William Blake, though at the time I was writing the novella I was certainly not thinking of Frye or Blake. I just knew when I read that phrase later, it was a better title than the one I had come up with years earlier.
"I mean, so what? Order, chaos, order, chaos. We have a real problem here!" exclaims one character in Only a Lower Paradise, the comic, profound, and likely blasphemous title story of Michael Bryson's new collection of heartache, emotional crisis, and the fickle quest for meaning in our post-post-modern world.
Featuring cameo appearances by Lucifer, Jesus Christ, Richard Nixon, and a surly hippie named Ringo, the title story echoes the early work of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Thomas Pynchon. The story also acts as a prelude to the other nine stories in the collection—trickster tales that articulate the fine shadings between tragedy and comedy, darkness and hope, despair and redemption.
Nice marketing copy, eh? Wrote it myself. One of the things they didn't teach me in Creative Writing I or Creative Writing II. One day, you will be asked to write your own marketing copy. This above is from the back cover.
Order, chaos, order, chaos. Well, that's what it's all about. The story begins:
One fateful day, the sun shining hot and bright like any other mid-July day in Southern California, Martha, my guardian angel, was late. It was the second time that week. Things hadn't been the same in Heaven since they'd announced God was dead, had been for a couple of hundred years. One of Lucifer's agents had uncovered a conspiracy at the highest levels of the cosmic order. Gabriel was involved. So was the Holy Ghost. Rumours were rampant about who was involved in the coverup, but Richard Nixon was sure to be named. It was uncertain at that time whether Jesus would be implicated. He'd been away for the past half-century on a fact finding mission to another dimension, the Galatic Press had reported, and hadn't yet returned. I didn't think much of Matha's tardiness at the time, but after everything that happened to us not too soon after than I knew I should've paid more attention to the signs.
Signs? Get it? Semiotics? Ah, I wrote this not knowing at all where it would go. I had to write 10 pages a week, so I wanted to give myself lots of leeway. I sent a copy to my grandfather in England when I was done, and he replied, reminding me that Martha was his mother's name.
For years, I thought what I had landed here were the contours of my literary imagination, the tension between order and chaos and the fission of narrative that comes from trying—and failing—to reconcile the two. There may still be something in that, but it's a broad, loose framework. Miltonian, in a way. This novella was my Paradise Lost—and New World found. Except I've never written like that ever again. I knew that the Pynchon-Vonnegut voice of the novella was borrowed, and I wanted to find my own. In the years that followed, I wrote more and more prose, trying to "make things happen," and all of my characters seemed static, trapped, until I read Raymond Carver's Short Cuts (1993), and I thought: This is what I'm trying to do. His characters were trapped, by alcoholism, mostly, dysfunctional relationships, poverty. I started mimicking Carver then, and my short fiction got better. More on Carver another time.
As I wrapped up my BA, I ended on a high note. My novella wasn't officially a "thesis," but it was the product that culminated my degree. My professor's notes praised me for integrating Nietzsche and Foucault and other writers I had either not read or barely understood. What I knew I had pulled off, though, was capturing the moment—and not giving in to despair. All's well that ends well, and all ended well.
In spring 1992, I finished the last courses of my degree. I landed a job for the summer as an editorial assistant at Alternatives Magazine, run by the university's Environmental Studies Department. That summer was the Rio conference, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the 'Earth Summit,' June 3-14, 1992. Major statements about the need to take action of climate change happened there. In my job, I remember reading reports from the conference, predicting negative consequences if more "sustainable development" wasn't implemented. It is 30 years now, since then, and sustainable development isn't in our vocabulary any more. Now we speak of climate emergency.
Where is the stability of meaning? What meaning can we have if the earth is fried to a crisp? "I mean, so what? Order, chaos, order, chaos. We have a real problem here!" As I moved on from my BA, I still thought some things just were. Or as Lenny Bruce said: "There is only is." Well, there is only one earth, anyway. It was time for me to get out of the academy and out into the world. One of the other quotations I stuck in the novella was from Kerouac's On the Road: "My life hanging around the campus had reached the completion of its cycle and stultified."
It was time to go. But where? To an unexpected place, it turned out: Saskatoon.
I haven’t kept up with Pynchon through the years, though I did see the movie of his novel, Inherent Vice (2014). I left the theatre thinking it was maybe the worst movie I had ever seen, but since then I remember it fondly. So freaking weird! Yet wonderful…
Who’s the slow learner?
ADDENDUM: I should add here that during the 1991-92 school year I started to publish book reviews—a process that has never stopped since then. In Imprint that year, I published:
Sept 27, 1991. Milan Kundera. Immortality. Grove Press.
Jan 10, 1992. David Gilmour. How Boys See Girls. Random House.
Jan 10, 1992. Douglas Coupland. Generation X. St. Martin’s Press.
May 1, 1992. Nino Ricci. Lives of the Saints. Cormorant.
May 29, 1992. Rosemary Sullivan. By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, A Life. Penguin Books.
June 26, 1992. Toni Morrison. Jazz. Knopf.
Some other stories about the ear piercing. Later, about the year 2000, I had a little dolphin ear ring, which was my favourite. Sadly, that was quickly lost. In August 1992, I went to England to visit my grandparents. I meant to take out the ear ring before I arrived, but I forgot. My grandfather noticed. My step-grandmother said, “I have some extra ear rings you might like.” I suspect they thought I was signaling I was gay, but I wasn’t, and they were signaling they were cool with that, which was nice. I didn’t have the skull and crossbones then; I had the littlest of studs.
In 1991-92, a couple of my friends edited the University of Waterloo lit mag. First, they re-named it. It was an annual publication, but I think it hadn’t happened the previous year. Anyway, they called it PHOENIX, and they published a couple of my poems. They were also friends with the Blood & Aphorisms folks, who made a visit to UWaterloo and hung out with the writing circle in town. They brought with them Gary Lutz, and I always assumed he was Canadian until year later I learned he wasn’t.
I ended my degree debt free and also broke, a state I would remain in for another decade or so.
1992 was the year of a Michelle Shocked album that included the lyric: “The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go.” It was the year of go-ing, ending. 1992 was also a summer of music. I saw James Brown, as noted in my earlier piece about joining together with the bands. Waterloo was full of bouncy tunes. I saw the Rhinos multiple times and wrote a profile of them (it’s part of the James Brown story).
The summer ended with a trip to England and Ireland. It was the last time I saw my grandfather. He drove me to the train station in Upminister and kissed me, full of emotion. He knew it would be the last time, I realized later. I was sad, too, and withdrew some near the end of my stay. He noticed and asked why. “I’m sad to be leaving,” I said. We had some letters after that, but he died in September 1994. I had one final phone call with him then. I miss him.
The trip to Ireland I made with my father. He came to London first, probably, and we went to Belfast together. I stayed with a friend of a friend, and my father went about, pursuing his family history mission. I’ll expand on that another time, but I’ll just say here it was a big deal. My father had been in Belfast in 1963, after taking a scooter through the west coast of Ireland. When he arrived in Belfast, he learned that his father had died, and he returned to Canada. Going back to Belfast was unfinished business for him. I didn’t realize how much, at the time, but now I’m nearing the age he was then, memories of that time are full of heavy vibrations.