24 May 2007

A Novel Interlude

Just finished reading Douglas Coupland's Generation X. It was his first novel - rife with pop-cultural references to the 80s - and perhaps I read his work in reverse order. Anyhow, one section reads as follows. (The setup: a large and Brady-esque family has a dwindling Christmas homecoming attendance and various suburban dysfunctions. The main character, the 20-something Andy Palmer, has been mysteriously buying every variety of candle he could find, quietly at work trying to restore some semblance, of, well...) If you want to read more, I suggest Microserfs, Life After God, Hey Nostradamus!, or jPod, in which his Gap/McDonalds/Helvetica-everywhere sensibilities all in full force.

Have you ever tried to light thousands of candles? It takes longer than you think. Using a simple white dinner candle as a punk, with a dish underneath to collect the drippings, I light my babies' wicks -- my grids of votives, platoons of yahrzeits and occasional rogue sand candles. I light them all, and I can feel the room heating up. A window has to be opened to allow oxygen and cold winds into the room. I finish.

Soon the three resident Palmer family members assemble at the top of the stairs. "All set, Andy. We're coming down," calls my Dad, assisted by the percussion of Tyler's feet clomping down the stairs and his background vocals of "new skis, new skis, new skis, new skis . . ."

Mom mentions that she smells wax, but her voice trails off quickly. I can see that they have rounded the corner and can see and feel the buttery yellow pressure of flames dancing outward from the living room door. They round the corner.

"Oh, my --" says Mom, as the three of them enter the room, speechless, turning in slow circles, seeing the normally dreary living room covered with a molten living cake-icing of white fire, all surfaces devoured in flame -- a dazzling fleeting empire of ideal light. All of us are instantaneously disembodied from the vulgarities of gravity; we enter a realm in which all bodies can perform acrobatics like an astronaut in orbit, cheered on by febrile, licking shadows.

"It's like Paris . . ." says Dad, referring, I'm sure to Notre Dame cathedral as he inhales the air -- hot and slightly singed, the way air must smell, say, after a UFO leaves a circular scorchburn in a wheat field.

I'm looking at the results of my production, too. In my head I'm reinventing this old space in its burst of chrome yellow. The effect is more than even I'd considered; this light is painlessly and without rancor burning acetylene holes in my forehead and plucking me out from my body. This light is also making the eyes of my family burn, if only momentarily, with the possibilities of existence in our time.

"Oh, Andy," says my mother, sitting down. "Do you know what this is like? It's like the dream everyone gets sometimes -- the one where you're in your house and you suddenly discover a new room that you never knew was there. But once you've seen the room you say to yourself, 'Oh, how obvious -- of course that room is there. It always has been.'"

Tyler and Dad sit down, with the pleasing clumsiness of jackpot lottery winners. "It's a video, Andy," says Tyler, "a total video."

But there is a problem.

Later on life reverts to normal. The candles slowly snuff themelves out and normal morning life resumes. Mom goes to fetch a pot of coffee; Dad deactivates the actinium heart of the smoke detectors to preclude a sonic disaster; Tyler loots his stocking and demolishes his gifts. ("New skis! I can die now!")

But I get this feeling --

It is a feeling that our emotions, while wonderful, are transpiring in a vacuum, and I think it boils down to the fact that we're middle class.

You see, when you're middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happiness is sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied.

And any small moments of intense, flaring beauty such as this morning's will be utterly forgotten, dissolved in time like a super-8 film left out in the rain, without sound, and quickly replaced by thousands of silently growing trees.

1 comment:

jofishicus said...

i like that book. microserfs is my all time favorite copeland (he does what's basically a repeat of the same scene, but with lego instead of candles, remember?), but genX is next. after then it all went downhill a bit -- although i haven't read the last one or two.