Monday, September 03, 2007

Malcolm Lowry—Death by Misadventure

Since The Voyage That Never Ends, a collection of Malcolm Lowry’s writing just came out, I have to pause to pay a tribute to one of the best writers ever, and certainly the best alcoholic writer ever (Lowry’s drinking makes Fitzgerald or Hemingway seem like weekend party boys at best).

Here’s Lowry on alcoholism and writing: “With a bad hangover your thoughts are often incredibly brilliant but you can't put them down because you cannot believe yourself capable in such a state of doing a single constructive thing, least of all what your higher self wants to do. ... When you start putting your thoughts down again, that means you are getting over your hangover. But by this time the thoughts are no good.”

That’s a far cry from Fitzgerald’s insistence that he never wrote while drinking (he protested a bit too much to be believable, however).

Lowry’s quote is essentially a riff on Rimbaud’s belief that poets become seers by undergoing a complete derangement of the senses. I’ve placed a bit of belief in Lowry’s theory, or at least I did when I was younger. A hangover can be a wonderful place to write from because it can combine the elation—or the acute embarrassment—of the previous night with the abject pain and/or nervous excitement of the present. Two contradictory states exist simultaneously, which can be the perfect place to write a tragedy or comedy. A hangover jars you out of the mundane, and if conditions are perfect, you can indulge in your woozy, jabbing thoughts and make great art, full of nuance and complexity and counterpoint.

If conditions are right...I wouldn’t aspire to such a state now for anything. I prefer to write with a clear head and a good night’s sleep. Perhaps Lowry should have realized as much when he hit middle-age, but he stubbornly clung to alcohol in the most stubborn, self-destructive ways possible (read his biography for the sordid details of one of his treatments, locked into solitary confinement in a room with an endless supply of liquor and nothing else--most people beggeed to get out after a week or two, but Lowry lasted until the doctor's forced him out). Lowry’s method of writing probably limited him to one great book, but then few have more than one great book in them.

It’s so poetically perfect that Lowry’s death was ruled a “death by misadventure” by the coroner since he was unable to determine whether the lethal combination of alcohol and sleeping pills had been taken intentionally. I think Lowry would have appreciated the phrase. It has a grandiosity about it, a romanticism that he lived by and dispelled at the same time.

Consider this quote from one of his stories:

“I had been looking forward to something anxiously and I called this China, yet when I reached China I was still looking forward to it from exactly the same position. [...] Haven't you felt this too, that you know yourself so well that the ground you tread on is your ground: it is never China or Siberia or England or anywhere else ... It is always you.”

Lowry was so skillful in many ways, but since the subject is Lowry’s alcoholism, I’ll note his playful, alcoholic brilliance, as when he calls delirium tremens, “delowryum tremens.”


I should have trusted my instincts. When I first read the excerpt from Gilead in The New Yorker, I was bored out of my skull. Still, Marilynne Robinson was one of my favorites contemporary authors—I’ve probably bought more copies of Housekeeping for friends than any other book.

And then there were all of the rave reviews for Gilead. And then, of course, the Pulitzer. It’s pretty damn hard to argue with a Pulitzer, right?

So I bought the book. I was as bored after a few pages as I’d been when reading the excerpt in The New Yorker. I kept trudging on, however—how could this novel not deliver something astonishing?—and even up to the last few pages, I kept expecting something great, a final twist or turn of phrase or bit of wisdom that would make the whole drudgerous reading exercise redeeming. But no.

This is the sort of novel that makes one question literary prizes. Did Robinson essentially get this Pulitzer for Housekeeping (which is fine if that’s the case)? It reminds me of when Paul Newman received an Oscar for his performance in The Color of Money, a crappy film, especially when compared to his work in its predecessor, The Hustler, not to mention his other great films. The lesson: Never trust a book that’s received an award (especially if a great book preceded it).

I also question the reviewers and Robinson’s editors. James Wood said in his New York Times review, “Gilead is a beautiful work -- demanding, grave and lucid -- and is, if anything, more out of time than Robinson's book of essays, suffused as it is with a Protestant bareness.”

“Protestant bareness” is a nice way of saying the prose was flat, only faintly expressive at best. I didn’t glean any grave or demanding religious truths from the work. Worse, especially in literary terms, the novel’s characters were without dimension for the most part, in particular the narrator’s son, who the novel is supposedly written for (as one long, meandering letter). He’s a nice boy who likes to play—that’s about all of the characterization there is. I know plenty of five-year-old boys who beg for sharper, more nuanced portraits than Robinson gives this stereotypical little tyke.

The narrator’s wife is equally lacking in dimension—a shame since as a younger, less educated wife, she begs for so much more drama. And this is what the book is fundamentally lacking, drama.

I’m all for a quiet, meditative narrative, a religious novel, but despite some tender, evocative moments, Robinson doesn’t truly deliver this note. It reads as what it is in fiction: an old man’s letter, meant to be read by no one other than his son.