Friday, August 26, 2016

The path falls away behind you

This is the Gospel according to Popeye: an image I've been almost obsessed with lately. And it took some work to find it. It wasn't apparent which of the several hundred Popeye cartoons it was in, so I started googling things like "Popeye on rope bridge" and "Popeye on rope bridge falling down". 

So what is it about this teensy little cartoonlet that won't leave my head?

It always comes back to my work. I'm not saying my personal life is perfect. It never has been, and I am here to tell you, right here, right now, that my mental health hasn't always been great either. It has been variable. But that's not what gives me the existential blues over, and over, and over again.

For years I had this yearning - it was insanely intense, and it went on for years and years - to write and publish a novel. I kind of felt like that would solve everything that was wrong in my life.

I even remember sitting in a doctor's office while I was being treated for depression. I told her that if I ever published a novel, I knew would never be depressed again.

"What? . . . Why?"

"I'm depressed because I'm a loser, and if I publish a novel I won't be a loser any more."

Well, all that didn't work out so well! I DID finally get a novel in print, after one whole abortive attempt. I got better reviews for that one than I could have hoped for, and for the second one too. But I wasn't selling any copies. My sales records were worse than abysmal.

Convinced I could beat the odds, I flung myself at the barriers once again and wrote/sent out/published a third novel. Last year, I sold exactly three copies of my dream novel, The Glass Character. What is all this leading to?

I don't think I was cut out for success.

I was cut out for the work, I know it, or I wouldn't still be doing it. In fact, I still want my work out there so badly that I decided to dredge up a novel that REALLY never went anywhere, that stayed in a Word file for twelve years, and try to serialize it here, run it in chunks. 

I guess you'd have to be half out of your mind to keep going back to a poisoned well like this. But I have this novel, untouched. It's called Bus People, and it started off simply as a novel about people who ride the bus (which I took every day of my life) and evolved into a sort of fable of life on the notorious Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.  I wrote it in 2004, in a wild upgust of creativity that could have killed me. When I showed it to my then-agent and asked for her feedback, this was the sum total of it:

"I don't know if it's publishable or not." Full stop. 

I needed to get out of "the business" probably right after my first novel tanked, but I didn't. I remember the call from my first publisher after Better Than Life came out, which went something like this:

"Margaret! It's a miracle! We have never had reviews like this, not in the whole history of our press."

"Oh! That's great! I guess I - "

"Now the bad news. You had the worst sales of any author we've ever published."


Probably what bothers me more than anything is the fact that my outstanding reviews were seen as a "miracle", a supernatural act, not the result of an insane number of years of hard work and effort.

All this is a long explanation for the strange posts I'm going to be running for the next couple of weeks. Or at least, I hope only a couple of weeks. The posts will be chunks of Bus People in chronological order, so that, unless I get no readers and decide to can the whole thing, by the end of it the whole novel will be up here.

I know you're not supposed to do it this way, but since when did I know the "proper" way to do anything? If it's not going to succeed in worldly terms anyway, which with my track record I know it won't, I might as well go ahead and do it any way I want. Setting up something separate for it is like opening the trap door before I even start.

Which is why I'm making Popeye gifs tonight. They're all from the same cartoon, called Popeye the Sailor. It's a Betty Boop cartoon, actually, in which BB "introduces" Popeye. The cartoon then becomes incredibly violent. What I notice most especially is the continual bobbing up and down of the characters, as if things had to be in motion at all times.

And when you reflect on it, which is not always the best idea, the path DOES fall away behind you, because with each day you live, another day is crossed off the total days allotted to you, whatever that might be. 

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside PART ONE

This is a serialized version of my novel Bus People, a story of the people who live on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The main character, Dr. Zoltan Levy, is loosely based on author and lecturer Dr. Gabor Mate. It's a fantasy and not a sociological treatise: meaning, I don’t try to deal with “issues” so much as people who feel like they’ve been swept to the edge of the sidewalk and are socially invisible/terminally powerless. I’m running it in parts, in chronological order so it’s all there, breaking it up with a few pictures because personally, I hate big blocks of text.

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside 

Part One

"No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night."  Elie Wiesel

PROLOGUE:  The man with no face

     The man with the Elephant Man veil over his head is a regular on the Number 42, getting on every day at  9:47 a.m.

     Same time, same place.  Broadway and Granville, heading north over the bridge towards the Downtown Eastside.

     Everyone is curious as to what he looks like under the veil.  It’s more of a burqa, actually, veil implying something translucent, something gossamer, whereas this is more of a blanket over his head, without any eye holes in it, because you see, this man doesn’t have any eyes.

     Eyes?  Hell, he has no face.

     Once he had a face, but he blew it off one day in a fit of rage.  Rage at life, that it could be so mean, so ungenerous to a man as talented as he.

     An artist. 

     Maybe even a genius.

      Living in a garret.  It was more of a studio, in fact, a big open airy loft with beautiful natural lighting, where he both lived and worked, painted and ate and slept and had sex, wept and raged when the work was not going well and the rent was overdue and his girlfriend complained that he never took her anywhere, which was true, danced heavily in his steel-toed work boots when a painting sold somewhere, even in a tacky restaurant for peanuts, because it was nevertheless proof that yes, he, Szabó, could make a living at this, that against the odds, and in spite of everything his father had said to him, he could be an Artist.

     His father used to curse at him in Hungarian, tell him he was good for nothing, that he should have a trade, or at least a job, a proper job digging a ditch, it didn’t have to be anything grand, his grandfather dug potatoes all his life, and look at him, wise man, fourteen children, he lived a great life, but to be an artist, surely that was a dream for fools, it was impractical, he would never make a mark, he would never sell a painting, he was living in a world of illusion, and sooner or later it would all catch up with him, reality would close in, and he would realize that his father had been right, that he should have gotten an education, that he should have learned a trade, that he should have prepared himself for life, instead of letting life just happen to him. 

     One flicked match, and the dream was over.  The studio went up like a torch, and with it approximately 297 paintings, his entire life’s work.  His oeuvre, gone in an instant, irretrievable.  Szabó did not believe in insurance, and at any rate, how can you insure genius?  How to replace the irreplaceable, the inspiration of the moment, mysterious and unfathomable as life itself?  So – ploomphth -  there went all his canvasses up in flames, all those carefully-wrought works stuck with eggshell and coffee grounds and sputum and semen and even his own blood, torched up to the ceiling in a cloud of greasy smoke:  “like the smoke from the crematoria at Auschwitz,” Szabó was to tell the therapist later on, back when he could still talk, when he still had a jawbone and teeth and a tongue.

     In the Old Testament, Moses keeps such close company with Yahweh that his face shines unnaturally, giving off an eerie light in a way that he fears will frighten his fellow believers.  So he veils himself, covers the radiance to tone it down.  Szabó’s veil has a more practical purpose.  It is meant to hide the evidence of despair.

     It is meant to hide the evidence of a failed attempt to die.  Propping a shotgun against your chin is a bad way to do it, Szabó; you could miss your brain, blow your face completely off instead, and, in an ultimate act of wicked self-punishment for the sin of trying to throw away the irreplaceable gift of your life, survive.

     For Szabó did not see, in that moment, in that immutable instant that would change his life forever, that he was the gift.  Szabó believed, mistakenly, that the gift was in those paintings, that the hoarded treasures rolled up and stacked up in his storage room were in fact his worth and his life.

     Such fragile belief.  Such a thread to hang a life from.  Snap, goes the thread.  It all comes down, because Szabó couldn’t see.

     It was not a good scene at the hospital.  All the nurses and attendants, from the paramedics on down, even as they shoved tubes down his throat to keep him breathing, even as they started the IV, all wished fervently that he would just expire, and quickly too.  Any other result did not bear thinking about. The nurses whispered and murmured to each other, half-ashamed of themselves for the things they were thinking, the things they were saying.

    All the while his heart kept beating, steadily, steadily.  Szabó was not ready to die.  As it turned out, he had missed his brain completely.  Though the front of his head was one big ooze, practically a crater, with only vestigial jaw left, and a bit of facial bone structure, he was literally left without eyes, nose, chin, teeth, lips, and tongue. 

     He still had his mind, he still awareness, he knew what was going on around him.       That was the horror of it; the horror.

     His hearing was completely unaffected.  In fact it seemed to have become more acute, perhaps to compensate for the loss of his eyes.  So he could hear all the remarks of the hospital staff as they worked on him that night: Have you seen this one?  No. Come on, take a look at it.. Oh God.  Sweet Jesus.  This is a sad one.  Don’t worry, he won’t make it ‘til morning.  Well, let’s hope not.  Nobody can live like this.

     There was surgery.  The doctors did the best they could, which was not much, tying off blood vessels, packing the huge wound with gauze.  They discussed possibilities, queasily:  skin grafts?  A face transplant?  But such a thing wasn’t possible. Would it ever be? Wasn’t that just the realm of science fiction?  No one in the ER had ever seen anything this extreme, not even the plastic surgeon who had put faces back together into a semblance of normalcy after hideous burn disfigurement and automotive catastrophe. Still his heart kept on beating, and beating.

     He won’t make it ‘til morning.

     Are you sure?  Look, there’s still a good strong pulse.

     My God.  What’s he going to do?

     The surgeon, ashamed of himself, prayed that he would die.  He got loaded that night, just sat there boozing in the murky dawn half-light, then stuck a needle in his arm, full of Demerol.  It wasn’t the first time he’d done that, but it wouldn’t be the last time, either. 

     In the morning, Szabó became conscious for a while, before slipping into a dark and muddy coma, swimming deep in some subterranean cave of his psyche for several days. He saw his father’s face in the coma, heard his cranky, complaining voice haranguing him for being such a failure, he saw his mother Magolna as she looked in her youth, beautiful, full-lipped and laughing, and he saw other things, things he never wanted to think about again, seared indelibly into his mind so that they replayed automatically in this deep state, as if they had been pre-recorded on an endless loop. 

     A new nurse came on shift, and began to feel sick.  She was overcome with nausea at the sight of him.  Another almost fainted and had to be relieved.  This was an experienced nurse, one who could tie off arterial gushers and sling around bloody afterbirths like they were so many McDonald’s hamburgers, but even she couldn’t stand the sight of him.

     This was as shocking as the case of the two-headed baby born in Argentina, an extreme form of conjoined twins sharing one body, the sight of which made strong men woozy.  Something that should not be.

     Szabó lived.  Strangely, after the shotgun blast that annihilated his face forever, he lost the urge to die - which is not to say that he gained the urge to live, but it was enough,  just enough to get him through.  Perhaps it would have made sense for him to swallow cyanide or throw himself in front of a train.  Instead, he joined the kingdom of night, slipped into the realm of the dusk-dwellers, which is where he had always belonged anyway.  Now he was an official card-carrying member, a member of a strange organization with no organization, full of heroin addicts and hookers and crazy people living in a twilight world.  Intractible suffering was not a place visited, but a permanent home.  His passport was his face, or the lack of one.  His white cane thwacking the sidewalk warned everyone in his path to get out of the way, here comes Szabó, or what’s left of Szabó, the man without a face, the blind painter who no longer paints because he can’t see the canvas.  Can’t talk because he doesn’t have a mouth.  Can eat, through a feeding tube; can make sounds, as his larynx is completely intact; can even sing.  The spectre of Szabó singing, waving his white cane back and forth in front of him on a fine spring morning is enough to send everyone scurrying for cover.  Can’t see; can’t talk; can sing, and seems to know every operatic aria written for the past 200 years.

     Szabó mounts the steps of the Number 42 on a wet Wednesday morning in the springtime, at 9:47 a.m. precisely.  The bus is on time, for once.  The driver sees him get on, and thinks:  oh, that guy.  He’s a regular, all the drivers know about him, they talk about him sometimes, tell stories, but you don’t know what to believe.  Bert Moffatt the bus driver feels sorry for Szabó, wonders what deformity lurks under the blanketlike covering over his head, some cauliflower growth or third eye. Would probably be sick if he saw the mass of scar tissue that used to be a face, the nose hole, the hole for the feeding tube, the hint of an eyebrow left, but no eyes.  Szabo keeps it covered, he veils himself, knowing the world is not ready for a man with no face.  He sits down on the orange plastic-covered sideways seat reserved for the elderly and the handicapped, beside a youngish-looking woman with straw-coloured hair pulled back in a ponytail and a faded green backpack stuffed full of old junk.