Love & lack in the Larson universe

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 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’?)

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. The emotional drama Patrick Hamilton packs into this potentially quite slight-seeming plot is colossal.

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.

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.

My existing copy.

Is there a point in trauma beyond which there is no hope? Despite a character’s flights of self-delusion? Is, in fact, distrust poor George’s biggest problem…? Distrust in life; distrust in his capacity to cope with what it may throw at him? And the hopeless, clearly safely-futile crush actually quite an ingenious solution – to kill his time, mop up his wasted spools of energy? 

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 one 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…

Behind the camera

noirThese questions and answers are excerpts from an interview that first appeared on the Poetry Spotlight site, in 2016.

Hi Charlotte. Congratulations on your debut collection Noir. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you feel it expands upon the themes of your pamphlet The Long Woman?

Thank you. A handful of poems from The Long Woman also make their appearance in Noir – so the seeds were there. I think what happened between the one and the other – apart from a lot of new writing – was finding the shape – an ‘envelope’.

In 2014, thanks to a small Arts Council award, I spent a fruitful time working on the collection with John O’Donoghue. By then I had written a lot of the poems, and pulled them into a draft collection. These shared an atmosphere – which remains – of rising black water, and a ‘sunken dream’ quality. This was also the point I first alighted on the title Noir, which then stuck, and really helped.

It was important to me to find an envelope – and the concept of ‘Noir’ provided that. It felt right because the book does explore sadness and darkness – the underbelly, the less acknowledged; conditions under which exploitation can and does occur. But I’m not trying to burden anyone. Maybe, more, shine a light.

This then was the manuscript with which I arrived at Nell Nelson’s door at HappenStance. Working with Nell has been an education. She’s a brilliant editor, and constantly illuminating – as well as irreverently funny.

Reading the book, there is a sense you are well-versed in film noir and many of the poems have a cinematic feel. Can you tell us a bit more about your interest in the genre and are there any specific examples that have influenced you?

figI do love film, always have, and remember ‘studying’ film noir – among other genres; ‘genre’ was a word I learnt there! – at an after-school club at secondary. (I also remember climbing those stairs, excited and afraid, to watch a film called Psycho.)

So, yes, films have always been there. And in workshops I kept hearing the same two adjectives applied to my work: filmic, and dark.

My collection does nod to a few iconic movies, if obliquely – among them, Blue Velvet and the third film in the Red Riding trilogy. None from earlier – but maybe the spirit of noir remains essentially unaltered from its roots in the 1940s:

‘A wide range of films reflected the resultant tensions and insecurities of the time period, and counter-balanced the optimism of Hollywood’s musicals and comedies. Fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair and paranoia are readily evident…’

It’s this essential subversiveness I think I’m drawn to: its willingness to cross the line and speak its truth, however unpopular – like Spencer Tracy turning up in Bad Day at Black Rock, or Sidney Poitier In the Heat of the Night.

These are my kind of heroes.

The collection is interspersed with a sequence of seven poems entitled ‘Dream’, which have an uncanny and nightmarish quality to them. What was the impetus behind these poems and are they wholly imagined or partly inspired by dreams you’ve had yourself in the past?

It was Nell who designated these poems ‘Dreams’. I’m glad she did. But of course the train of the book dips in and out of dream, in and out of conscious and ‘unconscious’ material. Dreams go about their business here, and I think noirish film also operates in a subterranean world where things are starker but simpler.

Of course, this can go for poetry too. If we could describe these things in other ways, we would.

Some of the dreams in the book were based on real dreams, some not. The first tries to capture a recurring dream I’m sure I’m not the only one to have!

Anxiety is a big theme of the book. I try to find, for myself, a language or way to distil that struggle. Perhaps my favourite novel is Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square. Here, stress and isolation have a very particular impact:

‘It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the sound-track had failed. The figures on the screen continued to move, to behave more or less logically; but they were figures in a new, silent, indescribably eerie world.’

In the last section of Noir, things lighten. Nell felt strongly – and I agreed – that the book needed to ‘go’ somewhere else to close. The final ‘Dream’ – number VII, which does chronicle a real dream – I hope suggests movement. Different people read this poem different ways though – as for all work. I like that too.

A couple of the poems – ‘Private Eye’ and ‘The Letter’ – are more experimental with their typography and layout. The first incorporates dictionary definitions and IPA symbols while the latter mimics the layout of a formal letter. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis of these poems and how quickly it took you to arrive at their finished forms?

IMG_20200628_114205104Oddly, this question makes me think of origami… Or at least of this:

‘A bit like origami,’ writes Michael Maltby, ‘it may take an extremely complex series of folds, creases, and tucks before any worthwhile poetic shape can be achieved. In the meantime, quite a lot of paper is likely to end up in the basket.’ Quite.

I tried various forms in both these cases – but the poems only found their impetus, for me, in these versions.

‘Private Eye’ started out pretty much the shape you see. The sense of explosion on the page was pivotal and freeing – and I stuck with it in the end because it also, for me, felt in keeping with the ‘world’ of the poem. (I was thinking at the time of a summer spent on Orkney – in part reimagining a neighbourhood of physically far-flung houses as an emotionally ‘exploded’ street… )

The dictionary definitions are the glue in this poem. Without them there’s nothing but scattered remnants. And they also bring some small comfort – at least to the poem’s protagonist.

‘The Letter’ happened the other way round. I wrote it first in a more conventional form – in stanzas. The poem felt flabby – and yet I found myself weirdly unwilling to hack it back as I normally might. I let it be and then, later, stumbled on its letter shape. Suddenly, the script fitted.

I also liked including the solid object, or ‘prop’, of the letter here, on the page. The letter. The literal container, for me, ‘holds’ the emotion of the poem – which I think is then allowed to be rawer and arguably less stymied than elsewhere in the book.

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

It’s the title poem of the book – and I think rather different from the rest. I guess the ‘auditorium’ here could be interpreted as both cinema and self. Maybe I’m questioning what I’m up to in the book.

‘Noir’ is also the opening poem of the final section – ‘Eleventh Hour’ – and follows immediately on from one possible ‘ending’. For me, then, there is a dramatic pause at that point: the biggest in the book.

‘Noir’ is the poem that then follows.


I only ever catch a moon-thin glimpse
of the projectionist’s face as I wander down
my lonely aisle, glance back, before

he whips his curtain shut. In this deserted
auditorium, I park my own blunt
calf of body – let it sink, groaning,

into a rising trough of darkness. This is our
windowless home. Behind my head, nothing
but deep thick folds of milky black,

while my eyes, live though furtive creatures,
dart across the nuance of the piece
worn thin like hallway carpet. Inside this

bobbing car is where I touch the hidden seam –
as the last reel rolls, heroes rise before
the kiss – where my life and the darkness meet.