Love & lack in the Larson universe

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Me, in my new ‘Mixed Idioms’ t-shirt.

How can I write about Gary Larson cartoons when he doesn’t want them shared anywhere on the web? As he explains here, in an online letter:

These cartoons are my “children,” of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me. And, seeing them at someone’s web site is like getting the call at 2:00 a.m. that goes, “Uh, Dad, you’re not going to like this much, but guess where I am.”

Meanwhile, I struggle to imagine the series of posts I’m planning without any reference to the fact these cartoons are, for me, touchstones. So I’ve settled on a short piece geared to anyone, like me, already familiar with the Farside cartoons to which it refers. Of whom I know there are plenty. And there’s only one place to start…

Bluebird of Happiness

Remember Ned? Sitting on his bed, facing his windowsill, on which has just landed ‘the Chicken of Depression’ – dear Ned, in all his dishevelled splendour. Unshaven, unslept, slumped alongside his broken mirror, under a naked lightbulb…:

The Bluebird of Happiness long absent from his
life, Ned is visited by the Chicken of Depression.

Ned has quite a lot in common with Wendall Zurkowitz, ‘Slave to the waffle light’ – although Wendall may seem more ‘on top of things’, in a surface way – not least, that we approach both from behind. There’s something so vulnerable about people’s backs – the fact they’re observed without observing.

We see them as they are when they’re alone. Especially, as with these two, in their own home-environments. They’re not presenting brave faces to the world – as no doubt they often must. This is them at home. Slumped. Attending honestly to what they care about. And lack.

signpost
Signpost on my ‘loop’.

Brilliant writer

I love these characters – and ‘characters’ they are. The joke is excellent; the humour’s funny. Punchlines deliver. And Larson is the master of the perfectly-worded caption. One step out of place here, he might lose us completely; he never does. For Larson is a brilliant writer. His cartoons are like poems, or sublimely-turned short stories. And the fact he writes so carefully and accurately matters almost as much to me as the drawings. At least, the two aren’t readily separable.

Plus, somehow, he speaks so clearly to ‘our’ vulnerability – through his characters and their every-day settings. And his vulnerable characters are ‘so exquisitely vulnerable’, as a friend of mine put it. But he’s never cruel or unkind. He never ridicules.

Those who people his cartoons are lovable. That’s the overriding sense: of compassion. For them. In their absurdity. By extension, for us all who are absurd and vulnerable. Even when we’re out there, trying. (Remember the ‘Larson boy’, as my brother and I always called him, pushing on the pull door at the ‘Midvale School for the Gifted’? Course you do.)

It’s not surprising, really, that Wendall Zurkowitz looks so stressed and anxious. Waiting on his waffle light. (As we all must.) It takes some effort to cope with life, all things considered. And when you acknowledge we’re this vulnerable. It takes courage.  

p.s. Ned-in-my-head

I wrote a poem once for the ‘Ned’ in my head. Gave him a cat; hoped it might help:

A milky drop forms on the teat of one tap,
then falls all those miles and silent miles
to the deep echoing ravine below, where
Ned’s useless legs half float like moon-legs
in the gentle water’s white soft soundlessness,
its surface striped with bleak light
filtering through Ned’s closed blind.

Later, propped against pillows, staring out
at the rain, the rain, the kind that weaves
this way then that, like an energetic grey
skin of wind, Ned gulps at his coffee,
spills some down his chin; snorts, sobs,
snuffles, coughs, and slaps a tissue to his face
and lips. Poor Ned weeps for three whole minutes.

Then, dragging his laptop back out of the drift,
clicks on his inbox, even though its flaccid
desktop icon shows it’s empty. Turns his head
as the bedroom door creeps slowly open.
The big orange cat enters. Disappearing beneath
the hump and edge of bed, it springs like Cato
out of nowhere into Ned’s open arms.

Why can’t George Harvey Bone fall for someone kind?

9780349141565_Hangover SquareI’ve been worrying about George Harvey Bone more than half my life now. What is it about him? He, the lead character of Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square, recalled by an old schoolfriend as a ‘tall, shambling, ungainly, shy, haunting, readily affectionate figure’; ‘a noticeably uncruel boy in that cruel and resounding atmosphere’.

Of course he’s lonely. At one point we’re even told ‘He seemed to carry his loneliness about him on his person, like someone branded.’ He is, largely, alone. On earth. We learn this in the opening pages – where he’s, briefly, spending Christmas with his aunt in Hunstanton. But, as Olivia Laing puts it so well in The Lonely City, aloneness is not the same as loneliness:

Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others.

Above all, it seems, what George Harvey Bone experiences is this lack – and this he transmutes into an unbearable crush: unbearable for us, at times, to witness. Unbearable, in the end, for him to endure.

Why had he taken a taxi! Why did he get into ‘states’ like this? He had suddenly got into a state of panic because he had thought Netta might not be in her flat, and he couldn’t wait to find out, couldn’t stand a train with a change. But what did it matter if Netta wasn’t in her flat? There was tomorrow, there was the day after….

Hangover Square
The first copy I ever read: I love this cover.

‘a train with a change’

How I appreciate that ‘train with a change’. What anxious person wouldn’t? It’s pure anxious energy. And, if anything, George Harvey Bone’s ‘bouts’ of hope are almost more painful than the times of grinding hurt and disappointment. (Remember that classic line from the 1986 film Clockwise? ‘It’s not the despair… I can stand the despair. It’s the hope!’)

The hope that things may work out for him, in ‘love’; or, more, that he may outrun its clutches. The hope he may discover he is a good person after all – and thus, entitled to be happy.

He walked alone along the Downs, this sad, ungainly man with beer-shot eyes who loved a girl in Earl’s Court – carrying an old bag of borrowed clubs and thinking of nothing but his game of golf. His face shone, his eyes gleamed, and he felt, deep in his being that he was not a bad man, as he had thought he was a few hours ago, but a good one…  

Our hearts go out to him. Though little can this help. From the moment we meet Netta Longdon we’re in no doubt of George’s chances. Nor even, really, is he. Except at the very start – when he fantasises she could just be his ‘fireside girl’. The fact is George is in the grip of a fierce compulsion – self-loathing caving in time and again to panic…

‘he had been happy’

So what is Patrick Hamilton’s purpose in committing his fundamentally decent, lovable but isolated George – ‘the uncruel young man into which this uncruel boy had grown’ – to such a cycle of destruction? Is the ‘story’ that George Harvey Bone is so alone, lost so much too young, that his loneliness now defines him? The symbol of ‘Maidenhead’ – yearned-for idyll; ‘he had been happy there with his sister Ellen’ – hanging over all this.

HaSq
My existing copy.

Every time I read the novel, I want to repair these things. See George find the peace he needs. The kindness. Far away from his fascistic circle.

We see many times within the book that that’s the missing element: kindness. For instance, when he’s run into his old friend Johnnie, and together they reminisce about George’s only great friend, Bob Barton:

‘I know I miss him,’ said George, in that naive, frank tone of his, ‘terribly.’

‘Oh, so do I,’ said Johnnie, but it occurred to him that he probably did not miss Bob in the same way as George, or to anything like the same extent…

‘playing the piano’

Or in his dealings with the white cat who lives in the hotel with him. There’s a repeated image of the cat’s sharpening its claws as like ‘playing the piano’. This is so original and endearing and resonant, and it comes straight from George’s own imagination:

…This purring, this surrender of its being to a rhythmic and externally audible throbbing, in its turn seemed to induce in the cat a sort of frenzy, a frenzy manifesting itself mainly in its front paws, which, in an agony of restless pleasure, stretched and relaxed, the right paw stretching while the left relaxed, and the other way about, in eager alternation. George called this ‘playing the piano’.

For me, these interludes with the cat sit in vital contrast to all that’s cruel inside this perfect book – of which there’s plenty. Including of course real violence.

Let’s just leave George here, then, for now. Where he belongs? Safe. Resting. And at least enjoying an image of resonance…

He lifted up the bedclothes so that the cat could come in. The cat, hesitating, came half in, and began to paddle and purr.

‘Come on, pussy,’ he said. ‘Stop playing the piano and go to sleep.’

But the cat went on paddling and purring and he still had to keep the bedclothes held open for it.

Finally the cat dived down under, and turned round laboriously, and went on purring, but stopped paddling.

‘Come on. Let’s go to sleep, pussy,’ he said.

The cat purred, and he began to breathe heavily…

Noir

noir

‘… it is rare to contemplate a first collection that is so assuredly and comprehensively a success.’ (Kevin Bailey, HQ Poetry Magazine, nos. 47&48)

My full collection, Noir, is now available from HappenStance Press. See more, and order a copy, over in the HappenStance shop.

DA Prince wrote in her review for Antiphon: ‘It’s not about solving puzzles, or getting the right answer but about how vulnerable, shaky, unlikely, unhappy, immediate and menacing are the lives of ordinary people on the everyday street; people like us… Noir suits our times.’

Lisa Kelly in Magma 67 said: ‘Several scenarios co-exist. And if the mind is more ‘process’ and less ‘noun’, then its dynamic potential does indeed allow for multiple workings and re-workings…’

David Clarke, in Under the Radar issue nineteen, described the book as: ‘a very original approach to the politics of gender, relationships and family that has an implicitly political intent.’

And Peter Kenny wrote: ‘Noir provokes all kinds of questions… In the angst, the curious interplay of observed and observing, and the sense of near-palpable danger, there is a dark magnificence to these poems.’

See a Poetry Spotlight interview where I talk about the collection here.

And further online reviews: