Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty's Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence. Her first novel is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books.
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I suppose you could call me an Oregon Writer. I live a good five minutes from the U of O campus, although I never studied at U of O. There is a bronze statue of Ken Kesey reading to children in downtown Eugene, where I live, where this particular chapter of The Chronology of Water takes place.
The chapter revolves around author Lidia Yuknavitch participating in a graduate writing workshop in which 13 people — twelve “last ditch disciples and me” — worked on a collective novel with the writer superstar Ken Kesey (pg. 113).
I chose to write on this chapter because I was going to write about being a writer here, and Ken Kesey, and yadda yadda yadda, but what I want to write about now is followers at the heels of greatness, and what we learn, how we as damaged specimens of the human race flock to these larger-than-life personalities to come to understand something, only to find ourselves nursing an aching and overflowing heart, namely this great person’s often aching and overflowing alcoholic heart. This seems a common story, the acolyte helping the drunken prophet home so he can barf into his bed. That, and I also wanted to write about miracles and “reverse miracles,” a phrase Ms. Yuknavitch coins in this chapter to describe a young man collapsing after his first toke of the joint christened the collaborative effort of the group. A beautiful little phrase that will remain with me.
This moment is where the chapter takes off from its tentative beginning in the apartment of her friend, Meredith, for now we have become initiated into the less than merry pranksters ourselves. It quickly transforms into a litany of excess: “Some of us were high on pot and some of us dropped acid and some of us ate mushrooms” (pg. 119). There is something wonderfully mundane about all of this, especially when she repeats it later, a sort of cheeky acknowledgment of how boring psychedelia can really be sometimes, but there is also some of that very real rubbernecker joy of those of us who have grown up on the myth of the sixties, reliving it, and somehow reliving it through another sister rubbernecker who makes it all the more appetizing.
The excess described in this chapter is the excess of an ending, of a person coming to a close and inviting thirteen strangers to the funeral. These could be any thirteen people, but they have been chosen. Lidia is literally dragged to the meeting by her friend Meredith, who is in it, which makes it all the more of a mystical commingling, that she should not even be attending the U of O, not even be in the writer’s program when she takes this class. That she is the thirteenth member. She has set herself out to be the odd one out, the unlucky thirteen, but also something new, a potentially exciting and dynamic force. Which I am sure is very much how it was at the time. The bond she suggests between herself and Kesey as parents suffering from the death of their children, newborn or otherwise, as drunks suffering from the horror of themselves, as a faint hope, that perhaps she can save this man from himself and in so doing nurture in him another masterpiece, that this great man who is drifting away is very tenderly handing his legacy off to her as a second father, makes for a touching chapter, although she makes a point of treating offhandedly the most tender moment in it:
“”I’ve seen a lot of writers come and go. You’ve got the stuff. It’s in your hands. What are you going to do next?
“I opened my eyes and looked at my hands. They looked extremely dumb.
“’Next?’ I said.
“’You know, in your life. What’s next?’” (122)
There is plenty of tender description, of Kesey, his smell, even his constant Vodka consumption is dealt with lovingly, but it’s that he gives her this option, when she thought she had no options, that he takes all that he means to her, all that his name and his books mean to her, and uses them to help give her a way out from digging her own grave, that she does not have to be the zombie she perceives herself to be, but can be something more, something sublime as he is: “You’ve got the stuff. It’s in your hands.” This is a miraculous statement, or a statement that can produce miracles at least.
What I always find most fascinating is the cult, how this person who is just a person becomes a name with a person attached, and how this person becomes a hypnotic force and how this person becomes a kind of magician who can alter and shape our lives. We have all had persons who have somehow shaped our trajectory. We have walked into walls for years on end, and then someone to whom we’ve given a power says to us that there are no walls, and then we are free to walk through them. Or you might not have, but this is what I see Mr. Kesey doing for Lidia, and it is a gift he gives her. He has given her the gift of self-respect. His broken-down life and his love have opened up the possibility for this discussion between them, and rather than exploit it as many a worse human being might have, he uses this connection to help her, to give her the words she needs, to profess his faith in her.
As for the other members of the class, they are treated as a kind of lamenting fog that follows the great man from room to room, and it’s the small statements she says about them that make them all the more intriguing, that one became the group’s “Judas” and another a cop. This is part of the tragedy of greatness as well, that we lose ourselves in it, that a person could become so large, that everyone around him or her ceases to exist. Of course, there was a part of me that got off on the anecdotal star-fucking quality of it all as well, e.g. “Kesey was the best liar I ever met in my life.” That is a wonderful little phrase that encompasses so many potential myths surrounding the man. Makes me think of Oscar Wilde and his statement that fiction was a “beautiful untruth,” that our favorite prophets are always charlatans. It is lovely to talk this way about the truly great, and lovely to read others speaking in this way.
I have always been enamored of writers who seemed charlatans but aware that they were nothing more than charlatans even while midposture on the pages of posterity. Hunter S. Thompson and Graham Greene are the first to come to mind for some reason, perhaps because they were both journalists and seemed to have learned a little bit of hamming-it-up-ery from their earlier profession. But both of these are also notorious drunks, like our Mr. Kesey from this chapter, and so many of our favorite modernist and proto-post-modernist favorites. I remember being a young boy and saying to myself that I wasn’t going to end up that way, “because it’s been done and done to death,” like a bad haircut that was once fashionable. But now, some years later, I’ve become a little more forgiving of all those lost and pathetic figures who wrote those remarkable books that I once read with such impassioned reverence.
Writing is an interesting craft because it would seem that if a person is to learn to write remarkable prose he must learn to live, but that in learning to write remarkable prose so many of our favorite writers become incapable of living. There’s an amazing book by the notorious editor Malcolm Cowley (who discovered both Faulker and Kerouac) called Exile’s Return, in which he describes his generation going off to WWI and many remarkable descriptions of the authors he met, especially, Joyce, Proust, and Hemingway. Joyce comes off as just a man who needs a letter sent but has become overwhelmed by this simple task. And then later, “In Joyce the will had developed immoderately; in Proust it seemed almost to be atrophied. Not only his passions but his merest whims were stronger than his desire to control them, and he dispassionately watched himself doing silly things — it was almost as if the living Marcel Proust were an unpleasant but fascinating visitor in the house of his mind.”
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Who are our idols? Why do we follow them? What can they offer us? Who has changed your life? How did they do it?