Red Ants Underneath

As I’ve been working on my new book, I’ve been focusing on the differences (in structure, content, form) between it and my novel Jacob Wrestling, trying to get my head around the different approaches I need to take to make sense of this different sort of story. But as the book evolves chapter by chapter, I’ve realized the inherent similarities between this project and previous one. In many ways, the tones I’m striking as a writer are like the same notes being played on different instruments–the timbre may have changed, but the essential tone–the feeling–seems to remain the same. I’ve been thinking about my artistic influences.

To some degree, a writer will always be playing upon her obsessions. Whether we choose to do so, we all have our patterns of interest that cycle on themselves again and again. But now that I have enough of a body of work in front of me that I can observe with at least some emotional distance, I’m noticing the patterns of influence in the work as well. Of course I’d love to say my characterization is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s work, or that the tension I create has something of Shirley Jackson about it. I’ve tried to make both of these writers–and plenty more–conscious influences in my work. (Tried, mind you. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded.) But the influence that I see emerging from the work–in a largely subconscious way–is that of David Lynch’s films.

In 2002, I attended a wedding in Santa Barbara just a few days before I was to fly to England, where I’d be living and studying for a time. I was staying with my friend Amasa, and when I hobbled back to his house from said wedding (my foot was bruised and bloody, as another wedding guest stepped on it with spike heels in a rugby-style attempt to catch the bride’s bouquet), he invited me to watch Mulholland Drive with him. I’d never seen a David Lynch film before, though I’d heard his name used in a general context of creepiness. I didn’t expect to like the film much, but I was tired, and zoning out with a movie sounded like a nice enough way to spend the evening. But about five minutes into the film, I was hooked. I was at once scared beyond hope of being able to sleep that night, and intensely moved by the obsessive beauty of the film’s elliptical patterns. I lay awake that night, trying to pinpoint what about the movie made it so damn fascinating. In the morning, I watched it again. Over the next few years, I’d watch it repeatedly, and embark on a steady program of devouring David Lynch’s entire filmography.

There’s something about the way his characters speak, especially in Lost Highway (which, I would argue, is the most frightening film of all time), that was compelling to me years before the thought of writing dialogue even occurred to me (seriously: how many poets ever think they’ll need to learn to write dialogue?!). There’s a spareness about it that hums with subtext–the characters barely speak to one another, but the currents he creates between the characters make the most careless remark feel as weighty as a monologue. Paranoia, want, and dread practically strangle the characters in their silences.

My characters may not be–and may never be–anywhere close to delivering the kind dialogue Lynch creates, but as I look at my work, I see myself trying. I see my characters trying. It’s my hope that, at some point in my literary career, I can create a moment (even if it’s just one) that’s as shaking as this scene from Blue Velvet, in which there’s just a single line.

And to mark David Lynch’s 65th birthday this week, I leave you with a quote from his Lynch on Lynch (written with Chris Rodley):

“my childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there’s this pitch oozing out – some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath.”

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