#52. The Age of Gold

I overslept until 9, realized immediately that I wouldn’t be able to watch a movie, and then spent a good fifteen minutes trying to spray an evasive cockroach with Raid and then scoop its corpse into a dustpan, using a back issue of Rolling Stone as a broom, except it stayed in its death throes for like eleven minutes, drove me nuts, kept doing the flaggabargle! with its legs anytime I touched it with either the magazine or the pan and this, in turn, would scare me without fail and I’d jump away, cursing, until finally its spasms had dwindled to just the curling and unfurling of one bristled leg (looked accusing) and I was able to sweep it up, into the toilet, send it vortexing away.

It was nearly 10:30 by the time I was showered and dressed and out the door on my way to Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I’m reading with a book club, and it was along this drive that I started getting fretful and anxious on account of I’d broken from routine, no morning movie, but then it spiraled into something dark, manic, palpitations and a headache and an honest conviction — I shit you not — that I should die. Not suicidal, but honestly it was a caliber of self-loathing that found me fit for expulsion. Like the kind of profound self-loathing that actually has a sort of lightheaded chemical feel to it, like when I’m coasting in that gap between the seconds beer and third. Then finally I got to the bookstore and picked up Malcolm X but also a little volume by Elie Wiesel called Open Heart where he talks, in the shadow of a fatal heart condition, about whether he’s lived a good life. Then I went upstairs to the Fiction section and picked up the latest William T. Vollmann novel, The Dying Grass, which is 1,200 pages long and probably not something I’d read all the way through, interested as I am, but I sat with it for a while, read a few passages, and lamented how much I wanted to buy it ($38), and the fact that I would probably never read it even if I did buy it, and so I picked up the little Wiesel volume instead and read the first few pages about his dwindling health, the sudden need for heart surgery, and in doing this I wound up touching my left eye, which sometimes fogs up for no reason, and it felt so appallingly delicate that — again, not joking — I almost started crying at the resurgence of this lifelong fear that I’ll someday go blind. I tutor a blind student sometimes and he gets by, his grades are strong, but such a huge portion of his time needs to be spent in the company of others and he’s so dependent on the help and kindness of those other people (because how else could he get from point A to B?) that I often question — and I know this sounds awful — the quality of that life and whether I could endure it. And then I just spiraled down that rabbit hole of thinking about how phenomenally likely it is that my body should somehow fail me.  Such a delicate equilibrium of musclework and chemicals — it’s so painfully bizarre, and seems so unlikely, that any of us should make it to age 60, 70, 80. And what a loss that we shouldn’t! All these big books like The Dying Grass that we’ll never have a chance to read (not to mention the movie). What are the odds of all our body’s functions working in rightful sync or so long? And have you seen how easily a brain is torn apart? The fragility of it all. Cormac McCarthy has a good line in Suttree: “What deity in the realms of dementia, what rabid god decocted from the smoking lobes of hydrophobia could have devised a keepinplace for souls so poor as is this flesh? This mawky, worm-bent tabernacle.” It’s enough to be angry about. At the restaurant I’ve seated a guy who had two prosthetic arms, a stroke victim with half her face fallen like a curtain, a little boy with one eye, innumerable paraplegics, and there was this one dude whose fingers were so curled with arthritis that he held them away from himself as though some unseen and violent bird were perched on each wrist. So delicate. Everyone so delicate. And the clock wheeling forward anyway. Calendar pages snapping back in a high wind.

I put The Dying Grass back on the shelf, along with the Wiesel book, bought Jay Parini’s biography of Gore Vidal, Empire of Self, and the Malcolm X bio, took em to McDonald’s, and with some fries in my stomach started to feel leveled. Once I got to the college and started working on this essay (which, believe it or note, is about The Age of Gold) I was feeling pretty good.

age of gold 2I think I made clear in my response to Andalusian Dog that I see the artistry and strength of movies like this, and if I’m drinking I can probably find myself abducted and moved by some of the imagery, but this time, at feature length rather than Andalusian Dog‘s lean 12-minute runtime, I just can’t get aboard with it. There’s strange interesting shit in the beginning, on some kind of mountain, but then it turns into something like a romance and I just…can’t.

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2 comments

  • Life’s too short to read novels by an author who’s written a sentence whose subject is “headlights” & whose predicate is “masturbated the wheeled blocks of trucks studded with hard lights.” (I make an exception for Vollmann’s unabridged Rising Up and Rising Down: that’s precisely the kind of sentence that a 3,000+ page elaboration of a moral calculus of violence & its justifications needs to take into consideration. And for the unpublished, unfinished writing manual, “Wordcraft,” which may or may not be responsible for such a sentence’s existence.)
    Also, episode of hysterical blindness after reading a few passages from an enormous novel narrated by “William the Blind”? Even if not, now you’re really digging into the “Before You Die” part of the list. Nice.

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    • You’re a good presence here, Frip.

      I really do think DYING GRASS is worth reading, and I really like my abridged version of RISING UP, RISING DOWN (my college library had the full set, but I only read the first volume of that), but yeah I’ve definitely come across some Vollmann stuff that I read with this insecurity about whether it’s really bad or just going over my head (mainly I’m thinking here of BUTTERFLY STORIES and LAST STORIES AND OTHER STORIES).

      A friend of mine whose opinion I respect tells me DYING GRASS really is great, and I’ve actually bought it since then, read the first 200 pgs, and really enjoyed it. Just gotta…find my way back.

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