Reader’s block

Elizabeth Gilbert breaks it down.

During these Lenten days, I’ve been blocked. Writer’s block is one thing, a thing that I’m not always sure actually exists, but what David Markson pegged as reader’s block—which is what I’ve got along with the regular kind—is much worse. I’ve had a hard time engaging myself with new books; I’m halfway through seven books but I haven’t finished one in weeks. Watchmen and Coraline are the only movies I’ve seen in theaters this year. To kick my ass into gear, I’ve downloaded the new Phish concerts, out-of-print Pere Ubu albums, Afropop stuff, and even some Swedish heavy metal, but haven’t mustered the energy to listen to any of it. I only saw a local production of The Vagina Monologues because some friends were in it. I’m distracted, jumpy, unable to finish even things that I’m liking.

(This month’s “Quick hits” column was an act of will.)

So, these days I’ve been increasingly drawn to books and comics about art scenes, about those worlds of word-of-mouth, gossip, and clandestine action through which art is created and socialized. I’m not especially interested in writing about writing—right now, I know literary interviews would just depress me—but in writing about communities. I guess I feel alone as I’m hammering through my own children’s novel, and want to remind myself that there’s company.

So, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives has been, so far, a delicious, lusty, adventurous novel that I don’t want to end. (At the rate I’m reading it, it won’t.) He imagines the young, rebellious literary world of 1970s Mexico City so thoroughly—with diaries, an oral history featuring interviewees spanning over years and countries, sample poems, political discourse, and all done with a quick wit and conversational tone that convincingly creates over 40 distinct and vibrant speaking voices—that I forget that he’s imagined this whole world. I don’t care much about the plot, and I don’t think Bolaño does, either. It’s the world that he’s conjured up that propels me forward, and that reminds me that art and politics doesn’t grow from vacuums but from people and interpersonal conflicts and commingling. Bolaño’s prose free-associates, doubles back on itself, and characters revise what other characters have said about people, poetry, and moments. He’s done a nifty trick—The Savage Detectives infuses the inner workings of literary movements and “little magazines” with the same heightened tension and significance as Cold War détentes and wargames.

This emphasis on an art world’s networks providing propulsion, rather than a linear plot engine, is also present in Jiro Taniguchi and Natsuo Sekikawa’s 10-volume manga The Times of Botchan. (This time, it’s not my fault that I haven’t finished; so far, only three volumes have been published in English.) Sôseki Natsume’s Botchan is one of Japan’s most famous novels, set during the Meiji period (late-1800s to early 20th century), when Japan began to modernize and to be influenced by the West. Times is not a comics adaptation of the novel, though portions of it end up in the manga. Rather, Taniguchi (art) and Sekikawa (writing) recreate the Meiji period in which Natsume wrote his masterpiece, showing the writer’s influences, the lives of the writers and students who worked in his sphere, and the changing mores and industries from which this literary community emerged. Where Bolaño allows character to be defined primarily through dialogue and blunt detail, Taniguchi’s art pulls me in because of its almost photographic richness and supple engagement with nature. Each panel contains a world. Each character’s glance and sigh contain multitudes.

As much as Bolaño, Taniguchi, and Sekikawa have helped me lately, I owe the slow dissolving of my funk to Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve got friends who swear by Eat Pray Love, which I’m slow to pick up because of a longstanding aversion to memoir, but I loved, loved, loved her novel Stern Men. So, when La Bella suggested that I take a look at her TED lecture on writing and the nature of “genius,” I didn’t waste time.

It’s been the most purely useful and invigorating piece I’ve heard this year. If you use imaginative faculties at all, for work or play, you’ll find something challenging and fascinating in this 18-minute speech. (See above.) Gilbert makes me laugh out loud, and very little has been able to these days.

What cheers me even more than the Gilbert lecture, however, is seeing another artist charge out of his own block, arms swinging for joy. Dylan Horrocks, the New Zealand cartoonist/theorist behind Hicksville and Atlas, have shaped my theories on art perhaps more than any other contemporary artist. Hicksville in particular was the first long-form comic I ever read that was, in part, explicitly about how comics are created and distributed, taking into account the artform’s history and aesthetics. There are allusions galore to everything from Carl Barks’ Uncle $crooge to Rodolphe Töpffer’s mid-1800s graphic novels.

Horrocks’ comics and essays (including the classic “The Perfect Planet: Comics, Games, and World-Building”) reflect an interest in art as a map of consciousness, in the creation of art primarily as building an environment rather than a story. The unfinished Atlas, so far about a cartoonist who attempts to map the sky, takes the world-building (rather than narrative-building) aesthetic to even further extremes.

For selfish reasons, I’ve been feverishly anticipating each new issue of Atlas. My writings, including three completed but unpublished manuscripts, seem to be more interested in establishing an environment in which my characters can inhabit than in moving them forward in a specific trajectory. Horrocks seems to share and complicate my artistic vision, articulating it more forcefully than I ever could.

But he’s been silent for the last three years. He’s never been quick—Hicksville appears serially in issues of Horrocks’ self-published and intermittently appearing Pickle; a new issue of Atlas came out once a year, if I was lucky. He’s written before of a crushing inability to write or draw. I know the feeling; I even wrote him a letter of encouragement in 2004. Still, I had begun to give up on him.

So, his launch of his new site, Hicksville, has gladdened my heart. Two weeks ago, he bravely announced plans to publish online two serials, the ongoing saga of Atlas, and reprints of his one-shot comics. “The Physics Engine” hits home for me. The struggle to inhabit the real world faithfully, while creating one of one’s own, that has some connection with the aforementioned real world… well, let’s just say I know what’s been driving Horrocks crazy.

And that’s why I’m so glad he’s back, juiced up and ready to imagine. His crude line, combined with his sophisticated sense of narrative and character development, feels close to Bolaño’s prose and Gilbert’s chatty speaking style. He provides a model for my work, and a way out of my various blocks. Since he’s committed to chopping that block down, I’ve no excuse. Here goes.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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