This book reminded me a bit of another book I enjoyed this year - Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont. In that novel, a man enters an altered state in which the number thirteen plays a prominent role. It has a really fun plot and functions as a parable about the role of engagement with others and control in a mentally healthy life. In The First Verse, similarly, a man is led into a maze of coincidences but this time through text rather than numbers. He lives then too in an altered but parallel universe:
As I looked at the fragile pair, Ciara and Patrick, a whole human life seemed to be passing me by Time still turned away on a reliably rotating axes, but I had jumped off, and I stood watching it revolve from a distance, distant and unreal and above all silent, just as when we were children, Ciara, Patrick and I used to see the big wheel at the centre of Funderland amusement park in Ballsbridge. Their timed world drifted across to me like faraway fairground music, indeed, heavy with nostalgia, but, compared to the life I now had, repulsive and banal.It is as though, through playing with these texts, that Niall is able to unravel the narrative thread that is his life. Where once he had a sweater that held its shape and that could be useful to warm him, he now simply has a tangle of yarn. There is also a theme of mental wholeness here, but it is more subtly interwoven with the story than in Thirteen.
The First Verse made an interesting companion piece to Slings and Arrows the Canadian television series about theatre folk that The Ragazzo and I watched for the first time last night. We don't have television, so we only see programs that make it to DVD and come to the NY Public Library. I've been told by several friends how wonderful this program is and how much I will like it because it's about the theater, but my usual reaction to something like this (or Waiting for Guffman) is 'that's not funny; that's my life!' Through the first episode of Slings and Arrows I was constantly cringing with recognition. But the writing is so good and the conceit so clever that I found myself won over. The parallel between the novel and the program is about how we use narrative to give form and credence to our lives. In Slings and Arrows, there's a marvelous flashback scene to communicate backstory, in which three young artists - the actor playing Hamlet, his girlfriend and the actress playing Ophelia, and the director of a production so intense and marvelous that early during the run, the actor playing Hamlet goes completely crazy and never acts again. The scene is late that night, following the first night party. The three go drunkenly carousing through the streets of their small city feeling the spell of electrical power that can be cast by living the fullest moments of one's life through creating huge feeling and thought (one's own feeling and thought) but in the context of crafted text, music and effects specifically designed to drive an audience to catharsis and to do that in public. It is a weird and wonderful thing (let me tell you) sexy and alluring, on the one hand, but ultimately it can be destructive. It can be hard to feel that the rest of life lives up to those moments. The scene in the first episode captures that but exactly. But even though the actors feel seized by that power, and Niall feels seized by the power of the texts he plays with, the whole spell begins with an act of will. It's paradoxical, we cannot demand that the experience come, but we conspire (and can practice so as to do so skillfully) with the ingredients that finally produce it. Some people gain this skill and feel it is the only way to live - nothing else is worthwhile. The French poet Charles Baudelaire was certainly of that opinion:
You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."
But just as we can gain the power to create this atomic explosion of intensity, we can lose it. It is an unstable foundation on which to hang all one's existence - exciting, momentarily satisfying - but unsustainable. The First Verse and Slings and Arrows share this theme and involve the audience in a taste of that intoxication. Slings and Arrows does so with much more irony, I'm looking forward to continuing to watch it. The First Verse is more naive and more intimate - Niall is so young, which on the one hand makes him an unfortunate victim, but on the other gives the reader hope that he can escape and reconnect with the world around him. I won't tell you whether he does, but I found the journey McCrea sent him on both involving and rewarding.