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August 2009

Dancing on the edge of forever

Dancing on the edge of forever, by Nathan Childers, Varinoma Press, Oxnard CA, 2009, Hardcover, 231 pp., dust jacket by Paul C├ęzanne.

It has been quite some time since we have seen a novel from the redoubtable Nathan Childers. His duties as the editor of The Journal of Unreadable Literary Criticism were not onerous; however exposure to the Journal’s articles is deadly to the creative writer. Unfortunately the editor must actually read the submitted manuscripts, not for content obviously, but rather to ensure that the journal’s articles are properly turgid.

It is a mystery to his friends why Childers ever took the position. Childers explained that he fancied the challenge. Could he edit the Journal and survive or would his muse be destroyed by continued exposure to toxic scholarship? Judging by this novel, he survived with his creative powers intact. Like all good authors he has used his experience as source material. In similar circumstances a lesser author might write a novel about academic life. Not so Childers. He uses the very nature of the experience as a thematic element in a quite different setting.

In the foreword Childers relates a myth told by the natives living in the Santa Fe area. In this myth the other place is a great plain divided into two regions by an invisible line that runs from horizon to horizon. On one side of the line lies a great desert that is the essence of sterility. All who enter that desert perish if they remain too long. On the other side there is a great jungle that is the essence of chaos. It too is deadly. The gods dwell in the other place, but even they cannot dwell in desert or jungle. Instead they must endlessly dance from one side to the other, dancers on the edge of forever.

The “myth” is a little joke by Childers. The “natives living in the Santa Fe area” are the complexity researchers at the Santa Fe Institute. The “myth” is a reference to the maxim, life exists at the edge of chaos. Childers uses the myth to explore the nature of the creative life. Naturally he does not spell this out; Childers holds his readers to a high standard.

The bulk of the book consists of interviews conducted by an unnamed interviewer, flashbacks starring the people being interviewed, and notes in the interviewer’s notebook. Early in the text we realize that when the interviewees were in college they had been members of a closely knit writing group, that they had all been highly talented students dreaming of becoming great writers. The interviews take place many years later. In the interviews we see what became of their ambitions. Each had the potential for greatness; none achieved it.

Norman is the author of formula ridden best selling thrillers. Andre is in an asylum. Janice is a housewife. Edward is the editor of a small town newspaper. Dwight lives in a commune in Vermont. Eleanor is the mistress of an artist. Roger … well, Roger is a problem..

The interviewer uses the techniques of psychoanalytic sessions to extract intimate information from the people being interviewed. It is a standard trick for improving the salability and readability of books – the lives of the subjects become interesting little soap operas.

We are aware that he is after something; we can tell this by his lines of questioning and by the rather cryptic notes he makes in his notebook. What that might be is a mystery that we are invited to consider.

One thing that comes out is the relationship of each of the subjects to the unfulfilled ambitions of their youth. The responses are quite varied. Thus Norman has convinced himself that his commercial success means that he is a great writer. He protects himself against the thought that he is a hack by strident dismissals of the “artsy fartsy crowd”. Janice has convinced herself that she will yet be a great writer when she gets the free time. Andre cries when asked. Eleanor believes that living the Bohemian life is the essence of being a great writer – the tedious business of writing isn’t necessary. Edward is wistful and keeps a drawer of manuscripts that he works on from time to time. Nothing will come of them. He knows that but it doesn’t matter. Maintaining that connection with what he once was is important to him. And Dwight simply looks blank. “Who cares,” he says, “all of that was long ago.”

The topic is one that I have touched upon myself. In one of my poems I wrote:

In the fields of Hell where the grass grows high
Are the graves of dreams allowed to die.
A neglected grave with a fallen slate
Bears the epitaph that tells their fate,
I could have been, but I am not.
I am the dream that you forgot.
In our busy times we fail to choose
To nourish dreams, which we then lose
And the dreams we lose are left to lie
In the fields of Hell where the grass grows high.

I grant that the poem does not speak to everyone. There are people who have no dreams, no ambitions, and no great goals, people whose lives are dictated by the needs of the moment. Then there are people like Brunner’s Traveller in Black who have, so to speak, a single nature, one great goal or ambition that dominates their life.

For most of us it is otherwise. Youth opens many doors, possibilities and dreams that press in upon us asking to be realized. Not all of these ambitions and dreams can be attained. Choices must be made and possibilities fall by the wayside like withered fruit. Some of these unrealized dreams lie nascent within us, waiting their turn if it should ever come, and some simply … die.

This, then, is one of the things that Childers is doing. He is examining relationships that people have with the unrealized dreams of their youth.

The dreams of youth, after all, are special. Their traces live with us throughout our lives. The dreams of youth are the products of immaturity, ambitions and activities that appeal to the young before they have engaged the complexities of adult life. Most such dreams are safe; they are easily abandoned, leaving behind breeding grounds for nostalgia.

However there are dangerous dreams, all consuming ambitions. The creative arts and the sciences offer such dreams. They say that to be a great author or a great mathematician one must surrender to the demands of a mistress who demands everything and promises nothing. Is it so, or is this mistress merely the product of romanticism? I do not know. Perhaps the answer is in the interview notes.

Of all of the group, only Roger followed his weird. He has been an active author ever since those college days. He writes poetry, essays, short stories, reviews, and novels – in short, everything that an established author might write. Some of it is breath-takingly beautiful; some is incredibly difficult, layer upon layer unfolding to reveal intricate structures of thought; and some has a child like haunting simplicity.

Roger is dedicated to his art; long ago, quite consciously, he gave up everything else to write. He never bothered to graduate. Instead he took a job as a janitor at the university so that he might have an income and have access to the university library. The university’s professors of literature remain quite unaware that their floors are being swept by a literary genius.

Roger gives away what he writes to whomever will accept it. He has a small magazine printed on university copiers that he sends to a handful of readers. Edward gives him space for a column in his newspaper. More often than not the newspaper’s readers cannot make heads or tails of his columns, but they are proud of the newspaper for carrying it. Nowadays his material circulates on the internet, often unattributed. This is not Roger’s doing; his handful of non-literary readers keep posting his writings.

In his notes the interviewer comments, “Roger is a monster.”

Is there a sound if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear? (Oddly enough, no one asks if trees fall in the forest if there is no one there to see.) Michener begins Hawaii with the account of a volcanic island that rose from the sea, becomes the home of heart wrenching beauty, and eroded away back into the sea. Is there beauty if there is no one to see it?

Is a person an author if no one reads what he writes? In one of his articles, Norman wrote about writing, “To be a real writer one must write, one must publish what one writes, and it must sell.” Norman may be a hack but he expresses a simple truth. Being a great author is not simply an individual achievement – an author’s greatness is a social construct. A great author’s works must endure and it is not he who chooses for them to endure. Time, chance, and the world must all place the stamp of approval on his works. So perhaps Roger is not a great writer after all.

In reply one can argue that Roger is being published, albeit by others in acts of folk publishing. If his work is as brilliant as Childers portrays it as being, will it not spread and become part of the general culture? After all, the entire concept of the great author whose works endure is a modern construct. In olden times anonymous folk created folk art that other anonymous bards transformed. The first authors were simply people who reported what others had created.

In turn it must be pointed out that Roger’s little acts of self publication are mere ripples in a vast ocean of words, a flood of words that grows ever more trivial with each new innovation in the internet. Perhaps greatness is no longer possible; perhaps all true literacy is being leached away in twittering.

The others made simpler choices. Norman drifted into being an author as a business rather than being a writer; extruded genre product sells well and demands little of one’s creativity. Janice sacrificed art on the altar of domesticity. Andre may have leaned too hard on his creativity and cracked his soul. Who knows? He can no longer answer. Eleanor found the Bohemian life more satisfying than creation. Edward found the mountain climb too hard; he settled for dwelling in a village at the mountain’s foot. Dwight settled for the satisfactions of smoking good dope.

The book can be read a study of how choices lead people away from their goals. It can also be read as a study of failure, but then one must ask: What is failure? If the members of the group are happy with their choices have they truly failed? Suppose each had had Roger’s tenacity of purpose and that each, despite their best, each had failed – that their very best simply wasn’t good enough. After all there is more to greatness than mere talent, desire, and hard work. Is it failure to be a failure?

Childers warned us that there is more to the book than mere character studies. It seems to say that it isn’t the choices that one makes that takes us away from greatness – it is our persistence in staying with those choices. In each of these lives there is a moment when, quite insensibly, a choice of choices is made, when a person says, in effect, this present good is more important than my ultimate goal. Those who too long on any side of the edge of forever can never return.

Or so Childers suggests. Childers is a genius at making suggestions that become yours and not his when you accept them.

There is one final question the critic must ask: Is this book autobiographical? Is Childers looking at his own life and recounting in veiled form the traps he has escaped? Does he envy Roger? Could he feel that he has not truly lived up to his potential, that Roger is what he could have been and should have been? Or is merely surveying the rubble that lines the road that leads to greatness? There are many possibilities. The answers are in the book. Childers has put them in the book for us to find, and when we find them they will be our answers and not his.

This page was last updated August 1, 2009.
Copyright © 2009 by Richard Harter
The Fields of Hell copyright © 1964,1988 by Richard Harter

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August 2009