Sunday, July 29, 2012

Storage Wars

Have you ever seen that show Storage Wars? It airs on A&E and is described on their website as an “original real-life series…which follows four professional buyers and their teams as they scour repossessed storage units in search of hidden treasure.”

The episodes begin at a storage facility in southern California. The entire operation is run by an auctioneer and some sort of overseer. Many people show up to bid on the units, but everyone is allowed just a quick glance inside before each auction begins.

Prior to seeing the show, I suppose I hadn’t considered what happens to items in storage units that go unclaimed. Units are repossessed when owners disappear, but they’re also repossessed when someone can’t pay their storage bill for a period of time. Or, I suppose, when the owner dies and no one comes to claim the stuff. An aside: I get preoccupied with this aspect of the show, the wondering about what happened to these people? Sometimes, the unit seems to hold someone's every possession and yet…where did they go? A&E should have another show tracing these disappearances, in my opinion.

After the auction, the “professional buyers” (two own resale/consignment shops) enter the units they purchase and start to dig. Sometimes they find interesting, potentially valuable items and sometimes they don’t. At the end of the day, profits and losses are tallied.

The appeal of the show stems from two aspects: the personalities of the buyers and the chance that we could watch them find a million dollars, basically. This last thing far outweighs the personality part, which is mostly editorially enhanced, I think. But once in a while there’s a true surprise and that’s exciting, the thought that each of us could have, among our belongings, something immensely valuable.

I bring this up because like most things, it reminds me of the creative process. Our brain is a storage unit full of thoughts and memories and we are the professional buyers, pulling up the big metal door to excavate for possible riches. At times, there’s something obvious. If one of the buyers of Storage Wars is lucky enough to buy a unit that contains a safe, and if, when they crack open the safe and find a load of gold coins…well, you can be pretty certain it'll be worth some money. But if they find a strange, engraved box which plays music when you open it and seems to have some German writing on the bottom…you won’t know until the end of the show whether this might make the buyer’s day/week/year.

I think all writers begin with the big ticket items. Traumatic events from childhood, people, places and ideas that stimulated and educated us as we grew up, conflicts with parents, our first romantic relationships, our first travels, even styles of writing we found exciting. These, all important, all worthy of appraisal. Later, when you have to dig a little deeper—the time your family was on vacation and a girl was missing, a stunted flirtation you sometimes think about, the reason you quit that job/relationship/belief system. (By the way, none of these are personal; I made them up). Oh, and you can also completely make things up.

Luckily, our lives are continually forming new storage units; items continue to pile up and you never know for sure which ones will bring what you’re looking for. One difference, I suppose: there are no other “buyers’ for your unit. You have to fight with yourself.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What a Good Book Does

Jess Walter’s new novel, Beautiful Ruins, begins on the banks of a sleepy Italian town once named for its proliferation of prostitutes, while a young man recently returned home moves sand around, trying to make a beach to attract American tourists to his family’s hotel.

This man, Pasquale, has illusions of grandeur, which endears and endangers him equally, and each character in Walter’s book seems to have their own vision of reality which may or may not align with actual life. As though each of us constructs realities which become admirable and yet, impossible. Beautiful ruins. But in this novel, the title works on many levels.

The story moves back and forth in time, from Hollywood of the 1960s and the isolated Italian village where news of movie stars seeps in, to current day, when modern notions of celebrity and success can dilute even the purest of artistic sensibilities.

Walter’s style is vivid and Technicolor, each scene painted with practiced hands. There are moments of wisdom, moments of great feeling. A good book makes you stop and close your eyes, savoring description. A good book will cause you to marvel at its construction, at each diligently crafted piece and the way they fit together. A good book will make you say “I wish I wrote that” many, many times. And a good book will keep you awake after you finish, thinking about the many threads of its tapestry, synapses in your brain firing and refiring. A good book makes you feel like you may not write anything for a while. I loved Beautiful Ruins. You can buy it here. And tonight, I’m going to hear Jess Walters talk about it here. A few tickets still available, I believe.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Flannery O'Connor

Mary Flannery O’Connor lived from 1925 to 1964, a short life with its share of hardship and tragedy. When she was fifteen, her father died from systemic lupus erythematosus, the same disease which would be the cause of her death at 39 years of age. O’Connor was a fervent Catholic who struggled with religion and belief, and her fiction is largely defined by tragedy, loss and human struggle, and her spiritual contemplations.

I spent many years in Catholic school so I can relate to how a religious upbringing adds color, magic and drama to a childhood. In O’Connor’s fiction, God is a tangible force and biblical stories blend with stories of family until they hold the same weight. It was a blessing and a curse, the way that O’Connor believed, and this curse affected her characters, whether they were believers or not.

The Violent Bear it Away is the story of Tarwater, a would-be prophet kidnapped by his great uncle as a baby. Raised on a steady diet of prophesy, Tarwater finally breaks free and pursues his cousin, Rayber, a schoolteacher who had escaped the uncle to live a godless life. The conflict between religion and secularism (the paths chosen by the uncle and Rayber) are at the heart of the novel, meeting in the character of Tarwater, who now has to choose his future.

This all makes it sound like a dry read, which it is certainly not. O’Connor’s characters are crude and vivid and often, darkly humorous. She seems to bypass the veins of existence and get to the very arteries of human existence—the fear, the compassion, the primal urges. Even when the characters are displaying their worst selves, we can relate to their feelings. The story clips along, suspenseful and eerie. At times, it reads like a mystery or thriller. And throughout the novel, the atmosphere of the South seeps in…the dense, fragrant air, the buzzing of insects. Irony and tragedy and the struggles that define life. If you haven’t read either of O’Connor’s novels--this one, or Wise Blood, or any of her masterful short stories, I highly recommend. More on her life here, and an introductory study of her life and work here, written by the professor who introduced me to O’Connor’s writing.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka