May 20, 2012
From the Crooked Timber, by Okla Elliott (Press 53, 2011)
I don’t know what it is that draws a random reader to any given author, why one turns his or her attention to a particular work of literature. In good old Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, touted as the wisest man on earth, says, “Of making many books there is no end.” That kinda scares me. The competition for readers sounds a little stiff.
I’ll tell you what drew me to the work of Okla. It was his staunch philosophical bent, his unapologetic devotion to the life of thought, his intellectual swagger coupled with compassion and lack of pretension. He’s this comparative lit/trauma studies/linguist/philosophy guy who’s been all over the world and holds positions with words like “distinguished” in the title. He’s the Distinguished Multi-Degreed Purveyor of Examined Living and Author of the Story Collection called From the Crooked Timber. Which is a reference to Kant. Immanuel. I’ve never heard him quote a thing from the Bible, but if he did, he could do it in German, French, Spanish, Polish, and maybe Korean, Russian, and Arabic.
So what drew me to From the Crooked Timber was, quite frankly, the author sounded like a smart guy. More specifically, the author embraced learning about the world, and stepping outside of myopia to take a good look around.
Let me confess something. I hang out with philosophers, but I’m not one of them. I don’t quite know how it happened, but many of my friends—including my best friend—is a philosopher. Heady, smart people—all around me. That said, I really have no desire to read Kant or Heidegger. Don’t hate me, Okla. In truth, I like fiction, story, character. I like, however, fiction with ideas. I’m not talking about a stilted, sulky, dry fiction; I’m talking about a relevant, gripping, dynamic fiction—a fiction alive with wresting about what it means to be human. Smart fiction with bite.
Listen to the entirety of the first paragraph to “Lonely Tylenol,” a very short story in From The Crooked Timber. You should probably read it aloud:
Red had wasted himself on the pipe all night and was rummaging the fibers of the carpet for little imagined chunks of crack, his fingers fidgeting with hope and need, while a man in the kitchen was telling his brother about a woman so perfect it made his balls clench up just thinking of her. He told his brother that if he could lasso a winged heart like hers, he’d walk a straight path the rest of his life and become the man he was intended to be. He maintained that he was a philosopher first and a poet second, that without the lift of idea, beautiful words were as stupid as daisies growing on unmade graves. His brother grunted agreement, slumped heavily against the sink, eyes wandering in and out, lower lip dripping saliva and beer. He’d heard all this before, knew its majesty and circumstance by heart.
That, my friends, is a paragraph. Characters made of flesh and blood who feel the weight of their souls. And that’s what this story collection is all about.
The stories are varied. There are lost body parts, lost children; there are trailer parks and houses on the lake. “The Names of Distant Galaxies” is the final piece, and it reminded me of an essay I’ve always loved by Roger Rosenblatt called “I am Writing Blindly” (which appeared in TIME on November 6, 2000). The essay asks why writers bother writing. If life is meaningless, why do we try to make meaning? Or is writing some kind of testament to meaning, a metaphysical impulse towards truth/Truth? Must we write? Is it part of the human condition? Could we possibly stop?
Andrew, the protagonist of the novella, is busy writing his own story about his father’s second marriage to Flora, a woman with dystonia—a neurological condition that involves involuntary movement. He’s on the cusp of his own wedding, and—encouraged by his future wife—he writes, records, digests a smattering of childhood events all connected though disparate too. Andrew writes, and he isn’t sure. Is he writing blindly?
Are we all?
Is this the tension at the heart of this collection?
Maybe it’s the dog. Perhaps the fate of Socrates in “The Names of Distant Galaxies” is the book’s central theme. Socrates said, “The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living.” I could deliver a spoiler alert, and tell you what happens when the dog encounters a bull. Perhaps this dance, this bullfight, between the Examined Life and Brute Force is at the heart of this story, and the others too. But no spoilers allowed!
Will Okla Elliott be counted, someday, among the likes of Dostoyevsky, Camus, Kundera, and David Foster Wallace—some of the great authors of philosophical novels? Is such a label stifling, a misnomer altogether?
I couldn’t tell you. But with his first book, Elliot is already commingling the ordinary with the profound: “Also, on the drive to the hospital, I got carsick, which happened to me often at that age, and when Shawn pulled over to let me out for air, I vomited—and since that day, whenever I vomit, no matter the cause, I always think of that time I vomited. It has become some warped Platonic ideal of vomiting.” How great is that? Do you have a Platonic ideal of vomiting? I think I was pregnant when I got mine.
I do expect great things. Okla Elliott is scholar and intellectual enough for me to admit that we might not always agree on philosophy. On grammar, we do. Actually, I bow before him when it comes to grammar. But my expectations for his intellectual stamina and aesthetic dazzling are tremendous. I look forward to reading more from this fine writer.
Jennifer Spiegel has an MA in Politics from New York University, and an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Arizona State. She teaches college classes. The Freak Chronicles, a short story collection, is published by Dzanc Books. Love Slave, a novel, is forthcoming from Unbridled Books in September 2012. Please visit her website here.