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The Trick is to Notice the World
Below is a story recounting my first contact with Ms. Janice Galloway in the spring of 2000. She made a huge impact on me, both in person, as a reader of her own material, as a workshop leader, and on the page. In my description of her work, I fell into the easy phrase 'urban and gritty' -- ouch! I recall when writing it that it felt like a huge cliche, but I blasted on in my excitement.
Subsequently, I read an interview with Janice in which she describes her displeasure at the use of the phrase 'urban, gritty' to describe her work. It simply drops the work in a neat slot from which it then must struggle to release itself. Boy, did I get the creeps. I wrote her immediately, and we discussed the foulness of cliche. I told her I would immediately move to correct my own usage.
Well it has taken me this long to get to it. But here I am. Instead of correcting the cliche in the text, I decided to add this in order to call attention to it. Janice's work is far beyond 'urban and gritty'. It sends the mind in a search for the right words, as her fiction is so precise and true to itself and the experiences it encompasses. 'Phenomenological', comes to mind, in the sense of rigorously bringing to attention the fine grain and textures of a psyche embodied in the everydayness of life, working, as we all do, at the business of answering the question: What am I to do with me?
ovelist and short fiction writer Janice Galloway is from Glasgow, by way of Aryshire, Scotland. Ring any bells? How many of you have ever spoken face to face with a Scot? Really know anything about Scotland? See, I caught you. You started thinking right away of castles, moors, men in beards and kilts, thick brogues, Mel Gibson. All the cliches (all residents of Texas spend all day on horseback, tending them dogies, and eating beans by a campfire at night, don't they?) that seem so familiar, but what do you or I really know about Scotland?
The answer, I realized, is 'Not much'. And apparently, the Scots themselves are going through a period of self discovery, having realized that much of their national identity is in the past. I recently spent time with Janice Galloway, learning from her, listening to her, and doing a wee bit of hanging out with her. I was quickly forced to realize that I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT Scotland. You know, that country that goes across the north half of the British Island?
The one the Emporor Hadrian built a wall against? That's the one. Hanging out with Ms. Galloway, I realized that within a few sentences, everything I knew about Scotland would be exhausted. It struck me that for most readers of English, whether they know it or not, Scotland is really and truly obscure. Yet, many scholars feel that the most important, cutting edge fiction in English is coming from Scotland. Janice is right there on that edge, along with James Kelman (The Busconductor Hines, How Late it Was, How Late, The Burn; now teaching at the University of Texas), and Duncan McLean.
My wife and I went to hear Janice read and discuss her fiction at a Wordspace event (see link on this page) in March, 2000. I hadn't read anything of hers, and went because I was curious, and because I am president of the board of directors of Wordspace. I'd no idea what to expect and was therefore walloped by the sheer power and eloquent force of what I encountered. Dressed in simple, elegant black, she took command of the podium and the audience in a way I have never heard a professional writer do before.
So often, listening to writers read their own work is to be hit with a curare dart. Janice, how can I say this? Janice rocked. It was a performance, not a 'reading,' and anyone with even half an interest in literature and writing should regret not having been there. I thought while she read, "Godamn! I almost didn't come!" She was that good. She read from her breakthrough novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, her collection of short fiction, Blood, and her travel writing, Foreign Parts. I decided immediately that would attend the fiction writing workshop that Janice led the following Saturday.
She began the reading by saying that she would not talk a lot before reading, that she would just get down to work, and then spoke for fifteen minutes about Scotland, Scottish writing, the English, who the Scots are, and touched on writers such as Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) in her ad hoc history of Scottish literature. She said that up until recently, Scots had for the main part written about "....the heather, the heather, the heather."
She indicated that she and her contemporaries are interested in making a clean break from that. As I listened, I thought about the genre known as 'Texas fiction,' you fill in the blank, the blank filled with all the cliches of boots and saddles, manly men and big haired women, cattle and oil, conquest and retribution. This is not the way most Texans lead their lives, and yet this fiction hangs on as being about the 'real' Texas. We have our own storied past to reckon with.
The reading from The Trick..... began, set in the wholly manufactured world of the late 20th century city. The prose is stripped and lean and direct. Sentence fragments abound. Insertions from magazine articles, cook books, horoscopes. Lists, asides, ramblings, and musings, and self deprecations. She is working with a trowel and a palette knife, applying globs and smears and spreads of language quickly, intuitively, so as to give the reader what is essential in her story. And in this book, what is essential is the torrent of experience as lived by the heroine in her descent into depression, anorexia, self loathing, and then back out again.
There was a can of vegetable soup in the cupboard: individual size. I found the opener and dug it into the top, lifting it higher with each turn of the handle. Some of the stuff inside smeared on my knuckle. It felt slimy, unpleasant. Inside the cna the surface was kind of flattenen jelly, dark red with bits of green and yellow poking through. Watery stuff like plasma started seeping up the sides of the viscous block. It didn't look life food at all.... (pg. 38, The Trick is To Keep Keep Breathing)
Her heroine is young and poor and obsessed with stuff and how she looks, and defines herself in the things she buys. Her favorite album is The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars. She buys women's magazines. Lots of women's magazines, which she seems to read with an eye to the latest ways in which she is failing to keep up with the world's ideas of femininity. You immediately learn that Janice is accutely tuned to gender politics.
Hers is a fiction of people living in the constant flow of 'information.' There are no references to the beauty of the natural world. No sunsets or sunrises, clouds, flying birds, colored skies, stars, or winds. No salvation in nature. Only the human world, the grit of urban Scotland.
Janice Galloway and James Kelman and the rest are saying that we live in an entirely manufactured world, full of information, administration, layers of culture, immediacy, manufacture, advertising and human lives and relationships woven in that matrix. THE matrix.
The writing of contemporary Scotland is about the entirely here and now. The 'primal stuff' of stories and experiences that most of us would rather ignore. Jung said that the 'primal stuff' is everywhere, and everywhere ignored, that most of us see it as something to be scraped off our shoes. Janice sees it as the gold of fiction. Which was Jung's point as well, that that which we would ignore is what has most value. Three thousand years ago, Lao Tze pointed out that Tao flows unnoticed, underfoot, following the lowest points in the land, like water. Follow its course, and you will find yourself.
Janice's heroine finds herself by following the low points of life. She enters the psychiatric hospital and realizes she's fallen into Hell. The story line of Trick... follows the ancient outline of Psyche and Eros as told by Apuleius in The Tales of the Golden Ass. Psyche sees Eros, the beautiful winged boy, the offspring of mother earth and the night sky, hatched from a silver egg.
She is smitten and immediately vows that she will be his wife. In this she succeeds, but he makes her promise that she will never see him in the light. She must accept his visits in the dark, on his initiative. Of course, she agrees, but, naturally, cannot live up to her agreement. Curiosity drives her to visit him in his chamber while he sleeps. As she stands by his bed, hot oil (or melting candle wax) drips onto his wing, awakening him. He flies into a rage, and delivers the worst possible punishment: he flies home to Olympus, to Mother.
Psyche is horrified, doesn't know what to do. She appeals to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and is given a set of labors which eventually lead her into the Underworld, an encounter with Hades, and eventual recovery of her own powers. How deeply this myth is embedded in our lives, our culture.
Janice's hero loses her lover, who is married, while on a trip to Spain. Her soul is ripped open, and demons fly in through the aperture. She descends, falls apart, pulls herself together again. The story ends with a development that is more satisfying for the way it sticks to experience, not the requirements dramatic fiction.
When Janice was here in Dallas, many of us wanted her to see this and that and the other thing. The places, sights, and constructions that we each thought would be most emblematic of our city, that would make the biggest and most favorable impression. During a trip to Ft.Worth for a reading, I found myself blathering on about Oak Cliff (I am an Oak Cliff native) and the Texas Theater, and Tenth Street, where Oswald shot Tippet....until I saw the green eyes glazed over, and realized she wasn't really listening.
I became quiet then, and we drove on in silence, the Mustang thrumming over I-30, a roadway she described as being 'wide as a Russian shipping lane'. I heard her say something to the effect that she was not really attuned to the Landmarks and Important Sites, the city's emblems. What she was interested in was the way WE were, the way we were with each other, and with her. The way we talked, acted, behaved. Again, there was that attention to the overlooked, the ordinary and the common, the details of experience. The Mustang rolled on.
In Ft.Worth, Janice was scheduled to speak to a group of creative writing students at TCU, and then speak at an open forum, and attend a reception in her honor, all sponsored by the English Department. She did the 'Janice Galloway thing' for them, too. I am not sure the young MTV'ers quite grasped what was taking place there in front of them. Pity.
There was a luncheon, too graciously hosted by Linda Hughes of the TCU English Department. After that, we visited the Japanese Gardens on the invitation of Kate Wyatt, another member of Wordspace. We drove back in the late afternoon of a blue and yellow spring day, tired. My consciousness had been altered. My ideas about fiction were changing.
In the space of four days, I had gone from being completely ignorant of Scottish literature to being an out and out enthusiast. A year earlier, I had read Kelman's How Late... and almost immediately noticed the Joycean qualities of the immediacy of experience. Joyce believed all humanity could be found contained in one common human soul. Janice shows us loss and redemption in the story of one depressed, young schoolteacher. She gives us her world and in the reading we look closer at our own.
I want to say something about the fiction writing seminar that Janice led. She was gracious, patient, insightful. She did not fail to point out the writing that did not work, and praised that which did. There was much about the universal issue of showing and not telling. Of that which rang true and that which didn't. The piece I brought I had truly begun to lose confidence in, but won it back after Janice helped me see what was right about it. For that, I thank you, Ms. Janice Galloway.
Visit Janice Galloway, A Working Archive, her website
To communicate further, please e-mail me at james.dolan
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