Tuesday, September 27, 2016

My Tattoo: The Annotated Edition

At some point in my life, I said that I would get a tattoo when I published my first book. At the time, I didn't have anything particular in mind, it was just something that seemed like a good way to commemorate, you know, a dream come true. And then, well, I published a book and the whole tattoo thing kinda slipped my mind. In my defense, there was a lot of shit going on around the publication of my book; copy edits, publicity essays, final proofs, setting up the tour, preparing for the tour, bookseller letters, and then the book came out and there was the actual tour, some interviews and other pieces, and you know, still working full time at the bookstore. (There was a fair amount in Ye Olde Personal Life as well.) The whole tattoo thing just kind of slipped my mind.

And then a couple of months ago, a few things came together. In no particular order. I am now totally in the world of what I hope will be my next novel, and the publication of An Exaggerated Murder has become more of event in my life. One of my best friends reminded me that I said I would get a tattoo when I published my first book. One of my other best friends, who happens to be a kickass tattoo artist, opened up her own shop. I read this absolutely beautiful picture book at the store, Tell Me a Tattoo Story. And, probably most importantly, I figured out how to visually cram a ton of what is most important in my prose writing life into a single image. The result, as will come as no surprise to readers of this blog or people who know me in general, is literary as fuck.

So, here is my tattoo story, or as I like to think of it (see above about the whole literary as fuck thing) the annotated edition of my tattoo.

In chronological order of their appearance in culture:

1. Illumination of the Oxford Scholar or Clerk from The Canterbury Tales

Here is how Chaucer introduces this fine fellow.

A CLERK from Oxford was there also,
Who'd studied philosophy, long ago
As lean was his horse as is a rake,
And he too was not fat, that I take,
But he looked emaciated, moreover, abstemiously.
Very worn off was his overcoat; for he
Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
Nor he was worldly to accept secular office.
For he would rather have at his bed's head
Some twenty books, all bound in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher in base,
He had but little gold within his suitcase;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,

Seems pretty spot on to me. Furthermore, my partner focused on medieval studies in college so not only is this an image of my love for books and one of the roots of English language literature, it also honors my first reader. The character of the Clerk or the Scholar also has a little bit of ambiguity which I like as well. You see, to actually be an “Oxford Clerk” or “Oxford Cleric” you have to graduate from Oxford. Until then, you are an Oxford Scholar. You could argue then, that given his love of literature and studying, that this particular Oxfordian had no interest in graduating and hoped to remain a scholar forever. Furthermore, there is some possibility that this is a reference to John Scogin (there's a reason why the name Scogin might look familiar to you) who was very learned and scholarly and also a legendary iconoclast.

2. The Narrative Arcs in Tristram Shandy

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne somehow packed about four hundred years of literary development into this 1759-1767 novel. The prosaic, narrative, visual, and stylistic experimentation in the novel are still, in many ways, ahead of its time, and that it was able to do nearly everything the great postmodern novels do, while also being kindhearted and generous is even more staggering. If you ever wondered what postmodernism would look like if irony had not become a central technique, read this book. One could argue that no other work of English-language literature came close to the challenges posed and ground broken by Tristram Shandy until Joyce and Ulysses.

One of the defining characteristics of Tristram Shandy is its use of visuals. Punctuation dances amongst the prose. When the narrator tries to describe a beautiful woman he presents the reader with a blank page on which she can illustrate her own personal version of perfection. When a beloved character dies the narrator includes a black page of mourning. When one character, Uncle Toby, makes a gesture with his cane, the narrator is so smitten with it that, rather than leaving it to the imagination or relying on the inherent ambiguity of language he includes a line tracing the gesture. These squiggles come from a passage in which the narrator is considering the narrative arc of his story. He understands that the usual narrative arc is, well, an arc, but, in the interest of accuracy, presents these various squiggly lines as the various narrative arcs of the sections of the book thus far. The scene ends up somehow being playfully pedantic (which is no small feat), while exploring the boundaries of storytelling and critique. I mean, how the fuck are we supposed to confirm whether or not these lines are accurate representations of the story? It might be Platonic meta-fiction. (Of course, that scene when Don Quixote meets a fraudulent version of himself is pretty close, too.)

The question marks do three things; first, I believe all great works of literature are more question than answer, something posed that the reader must complete; second, a culture's literature is one long dialog, and third, they turn this collection of references into a cohesive (at least in my mind) image.

3. The Last Line of Ulysses
I believe there is no more beautiful arrangement of words in the English language than, “yes I will Yes.” Joyce has stretched the novel as far as it could go at the time, taking us on a journey through just about every aspect of human life, played with language, played with style, showed the hero taking a shit, constructed new words from the roots of old ideas, and, in general, did more than anyone (except for maybe our old friend Sterne) to expand the possibility of the English-language novel and the last word is “Yes.” Not a passive “yes” not a begrudging “yes,” not a thoughtless “yes,” not even a well-I'm-stuck-with-this-shlub-so-I-might-as-well-say-yes “yes,” (though Molly does touch on that angle) not some socially enforced optimism, not some legally recommended affirmative, nor any of the other ways we use the word; but a thoughtful, intentional, even passionate “Yes.” A why-we-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning “yes.” A making-the-best-of-it-can-still-be-pretty-fucking-good “yes.” A perfection-is-boring “yes.”

As stylistically ambitious and complicated as Ulysses is, it's theme is actually very simple: Literature is one way to say “yes” to life.

So, to commemorate my first novel, on my right arm now is a story about the books and one of the people who have been vital to my life as a person and a writer. Now I just have to get that poetry manuscript accepted so I can get some balance with a tattoo on my left arm.

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