To be a writer, and more importantly, to be a good writer, you’ve got to love language. You have to breathe it, it has to be in your marrow and when that isn’t enough, you have to write daily reminders on your mirrors and your belongings and even your person to mix it into your water like flouride or Thera-flu. Language is your tool so you’d better not be allergic to it, and you can’t particularly forge a note from your mother on this one.
My problem, my pesky dilemma (one of them anyway), is that I’d just … well … forgotten. I’d forgotten how to love language-fuck love-I didn’t even want to have a one night stand with it. “That’s it,” I’d proclaim, throwing my pens across the room like venemous darts, “I’m done with this. I’m dropping out of school to become a mime.”
So, like, 2.2 minutes after I’d declared my candidacy for mimeworld I remembered that I had a date with one of language’s newer minions, John D’Agata, care of the Creative Writing Center. He had come to campus to read from his inaugural novel, “Halls of Fame,” and my presence was highly suggested (read: required) by one of my professors. So I went. So I listened. So I felt the embers of a burning hot grade-school crush rekindled begin to spark and crackle from somewhere deep within me. So I remembered what I’d forgotten about language. So I dropped $24.95 on the book. Anyway, you get the idea.
Unpolished as the pronouncement may seem; uncomplicated as my opinion may sound-it really is that simple. John D’Agata’s “Halls of Fame” did more than just engage me as a reader, it inspired me as a writer. From the opening pages of this unusual collection of essays I was hooked, perpetually in awe of all that language and the human experience could be, even in a less-fictive sense than what I’d been used to (D’Agata’s essays are indeed nonfiction, but the subtle, entertaining kind of nonfiction which “doesn’t yap at you,” to borrow some of the author’s own words). Innovative and interesting, “Halls of Fame” made me glow cheerfully with each turn of the page at the constant realization that language was great, that life was fun, and that the insanities of creation can be more inspiring (and true!) than even the most mentally stable role-model.
It was D’Agata’s renderings of micro/macro-cosmic madness and his ability to compile facts into engaging stories all his own which most impressed me. Prefacing his reading this past Monday night (he chose to share with us his piece “Collage History of Art, by Henry Darger”) with the daunting yet self-conscious caveat that he encouraged us to feel free to drift in and out of his prose (we’d still get the point anyway, he said), D’Agata set a tone for interpretation that I would quickly grow to appreciate.
The lists and reiterations of facts within this collection are constructed such that the reader can indeed drift in and out of the sometimes clear, sometimes abtruse prose and still appreciate the beauty of both life and the language that D’Agata has assembled to describe it with-hence being solely responsible for the revival of my feelings for language. A renewal of our vows, we’ll say-as I got deeper and deeper into “Halls of Fame” I became even more smitten with the comfortable familiarity of words which had heretofore been long since forgotten. His wit and wisdom creeps up on you, such as in the aforementioned “Collage History” when D’Agata quips (speaking through the almost un-funny lexicon of madness and marginalia that runs through the life of the late Henry Darger, a mentally challenged collage artist): “One day he heard a voice wondering, what if. She was sitting on a tuffet, eating curds and whey. Then along came a spider-which Henry erased.”
My amusement with the above passage and the book in general runs parallel to my amazement with what D’Agata essentially expresses in “Halls,” that being the vast expanse of individual opinion and the malleability of not only art but facts as art, a concept that has a great deal to do with what I would call a revival in my faith in not only language but art as well. D’Agata’s ‘artists’ that he references range from Henry Darger to himself to Picasso to his mother to the ordinary people of everyday life; surveying them, recording them, eventually immortalizing their work-be it material (the extensive lists of Henry Darger’s insane packrat’s den or his finished works)-or the ‘art’ of language, living and individual interpretation (the lists of the “wonders of the world” according to different people). This is a task so monumental that, despite his pleas for his audience not to take him too seriously, I couldn’t help but fall into intellectual worship of the concepts he was advancing.
D’Agata pointed something very important out for me, something that I (disappointingly enough) haven’t felt too much here at this ‘creative’ institution just yet-that there indeed does exist a synthesis of art and emotion within life, a synthesis that can be interesting even when comprised of mostly dry facts (just add water). A synthesis which he can echo much more beautifully than I: “It is also in the accident on Interstate 89. In the shopping mall, in the family room, in the battlefield, in the stew. In the library, in the ruins, in the championship fight. In the rough draft, the rough cut, the rough-hewn night. In vaudeville, newspapers, attics, trains, the Internet entropy, rap-song sampling. Collage occurred in the wondercabinets preceding all museums. It happened when scrolls of aphorisms unraveled into essay. When Henry walked past garbage and felt a jolt: create! Surely the heart must break before it can begin to feel.”
If you haven’t felt your jolt yet, I wouldn’t worry too much. Just make sure not to sign up for mime school too prematurely.