JC: John Dermot Woods’ The Complete Collection of People, Places and Things turned out to be one of the highlights of last year’s reading for me, serendipitously finding its way to my doorstep. The surreal little collection is a feast of animated language, whimsical tales and poignancy, and JDW’s many drawings throughout add to the fun. Here’s his contribution – prose and sketch – for our WWFIL series.
WHEN I FELL IN LOVE
John Dermot Woods
The first time I read At Swim Two Birds, it took me two months to finish it, reading it every day. I was enamored with the idea of the book from the first scene of Dermot Trellis, the doomed author, whose characters rebelled against him and hated him, but I kept getting lost. I was living in Dublin at the time (a few blocks from where Flann O’Brien had lived) and studying with one of the foremost authorities on O’Brien at the time, which should have helped things along. But either because of the anxiety of serendipity or the lure of Guinness, I didn’t so much read the book as look at it. Where things really got going for me was at a neurological ward in Prague. I waited for hours while my friend Rob was being diagnosed by non-English speaking doctors for the strange rash that had just turned him into Two Face. Puss-ridden sores and a rosy crust had totally painted the left side of his face over the previous 48 hours, but the right side was untouched. He was told he needed brain surgery and would have to be sent back to Ireland for that. (Turns out he didn’t, but we didn’t speak Czech. They were just telling us they did brain surgery and that they couldn’t help him.) I read At Swim Two Birds while I spent the next two days, perfectly healthy and in Prague for the first time, sitting in a darkened room in an affordable but clean pension, missing out on my European teenage backpacking adventure, so I could apply a thick cream to Rob’s crusty eye every few hours until we could get him on plane. And the trick was, that I had to get the cream onto his eyeball itself, which was hidden by two lids sealed with crust. His eyes could not tolerate light of any kind, so I had to sit by a crack in the shutters to read the book. It sucked to miss a few days of vacation, but the absurdity of that scene seems only right for Flann O’Brien. It’s the closest I’ve come to living a scene from the book. (Rob’s eyes still twitches and reddens when he’s tired, a permanent remnant of the airborne illness he caught during his ill-fated Spring Break.)
Living in New York City isn’t always so great, especially when you’re twenty-two, work in public relations (under the mistaken impression that it funds you better than writing short stories or going to art school), socially awkward, broken up about the loss of some girl or girls, and your dad just died no so long ago, without warning. Through my years, I’ve skillfully avoided entertaining any serious plans of suicide or chemical addictions. Instead, I usually choose making stuff as my chosen therapy. My first girlfriend dumped me and I learned to paint. Next time the world turns black, I think writing short stories will be a fun and positive way to spend my time. Happens again. Hey, why don’t I draw comics? That seems easy. (I choose more difficult, less appreciated, and more hermetic practices each time.) More than really drawing comics (which I learned was painfully difficult and lonely), I began reading comics. And this is when I first read Chris Ware’s depressive masterpiece Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth. While it proved to me that artistic possibilities of the medium and set me on the ill-chosen and molasses-covered creative track that I’m still running along to this day, the utter hopelessness of the book (the vividly expressed generations of hopelessness) did little to assure me that life did in facthave a meaning just beyond my grasp or whatever construct of tomorrow I thought I needed. Moreover, the book itself, the object, such a singular thing of beauty, told to me to give up on all that. It’s all right to give up. Narratives are empty promises, and nothing can be enough, because it has to be-you don’t have any choice. So I quit my job shilling for lame duck dot-coms and moved to Baltimore.
In Baltimore, I met 60 Stories. It was given to me by my friend, a fresh student of Donald’s younger brothers in Mississippi, who repeatedly swore to me, in his booze-tinged Anglo-Indian lilt, “This book is haaaahtbreaking. And that is the only goal of fiction. To break the reader’s haaaht.” He was right about 60 STORIES, at least. It did just that. I thought I was done with sentimental emotional abstractions and pinning my hopes on some metaphysical order. Guess I was wrong. So, how do I explain the change of heart? Flann O’Brien never tried to sort his absurdity, Chris Ware never defines a purpose for his compulsively precise and overwhelmingly complex models, Barthelme tried to trip the story every time it turned its back on him, so I’ll follow them and leave it at that.