Tuesday, October 23, 2012

on having your mind unexpectedly blown, or, why I'm no longer afraid of Daniel Clowes, or, some thoughts on the educational aspects of romance

There are times when I feel like the top of my skull has been ripped off and the dim, crumbly interiors of my thoughts are being flayed by revelation. By a change of opinion, or a forcible departure from indifference.

This doesn't happen too often. It's probably fortunate. I imagine that if it did occur with too much frequency, I would have a curdled sense of moral and artistic direction, an inability to say whether I like something or dislike someone, an irritating tendency to say, "ah, well, you know" and not much more.

I love it when it happens though. God! It is the most miraculous sensation. Here I am, not caring about something very much and then, in the next instant (though it's never an instant... it just feels like one, being the shocking event at the end of an invisible avalanche that's been building over weeks or months or years), I care very much. I feel it to the bone. The switch goes from off to on and you can't imagine what the room looked like before, when it was in the dark, because you couldn't actually see it then; and now, even if it goes back into the dark, you will be forever unable to unsee.

It's both addictive and impossible to replicate on demand.

I recently read The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes. I had never read a Clowes book before. Something about the way he draws faces, from certain angles and at certain distances, had repelled me. It was the same breed of feeling that I get from R. Crumb's work, an irrational distrust and fear of the hairy line and bulbous shape that makes absolutely no sense but somehow shoots straight from eyeball to gut. My fear of Clowes wasn't as strong, but it was enough to make me pass over his books, despite their clean lines and immaculate covers, and put them in the category of things I assumed I didn't like. I could talk about Clowes in the shallow white lies that all skilled bookstore girls can wield when asked about books that they personally distrust, but have achieved a certain tipping point of importance (just ask me about Infinite Jest or The Catcher in the Rye or The Corrections or The Night Circus), but I had no intention of reading him and was, faintly, afraid.

But, The Death Ray... Holy smokes. It's a graceful, jaw-loosening display of storytelling pyrotechnics, one chilling and perfectly formed panel after another. I'm pretty much a stranger in the land of comics; before a few months ago I could literally count the number of comics I'd finished on one hand (Sandman, 1602, Mr. Punch, one volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Britten and Brulightly, a very strange and depressing story about a private investigator whose sidekick is a teabag that he keeps in his pocket). But even I can see the brilliance that rolls off The Death Ray's impeccably constructed pages. It's a story that I can't imagine in any other form. There's a wobbly, delicate permeability between interior feeling and exterior spectacle that goads you into misplacing your compassion, then crushes you with unhappy horror. You are inside the story and outside of it within the same page and these flickering shifts in the way you experience the story make you vulnerable to the crazy leaps in time that it makes, so that it can connect one thought to another in the most impressively manipulative (and I say "manipulative" with admiration) way and not be stuck on the road of chronological sense. Painful efficiency.

It's not a pleasant book. For me, it was deeply horrifying. But, it's so well done. I couldn't stop reading it, and now I'm infected with an enthusiasm for comics in general and Daniel Clowes in particular. I keep going to the comic bookstore and picking up things that hit me over the head with newness and freshness and surprise.

(Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes... it's like the author had a fishhook lodged in the current state of my heart back in 1990-something.)

It's like having a raging appetite for a taste that never previously thrilled me.

It's not inexplicable. This often happens to me as a side effect or aftermath of romance. I'm always curious about the enthusiasms of the people I'm close to. Their passions are my guided tours to territories either unappreciated or foreign. It is, for me, one of the most intoxicating aspects of making room for someone among the furnishings of your head. Sometimes the curiosity fades and sometimes it locks in its barbs and takes up permanent residence. I've grown an honest delight in popular science because of this, a passing obsession with biological taxonomy, a thankfully brief addiction to a podcast called "This Week in Virology." I've attempted to appreciate the space opera stripe of science fiction and to understand the fine points of competitive kayaking. I've discovered the delights of banjos and concertinas, of live music shows, jazz, and walking for long distances in cold rain. I've apparently lost my fear of Daniel Clowes.

I used to think this was possibly lame, trying on someone else's enthusiasms. But that forceful, pleasurable change in point of view is so rare and so thrilling that I've given up on that opinion. It's an education. Row after row of dominoes falling inside my head.

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