Tuesday, December 19, 2017

To feel free of doubt

She gave the boy across the street a haircut. All the tufts of hair fell down around him, like some birds had been shot out of the sky and now were falling and falling. It looked terrible. And later in life, when women were yelling at him that he was a loser, that he wasn't any good, that he didn't do anything for anyone on earth and that he had never come close to making anyone happy, he would close his eyes and remember this haircut.

Because it was when he was having this haircut that he had been able to know for absolute certain what it was like to feel free of doubt.
Twice I've had the pleasure of seeing Heather O'Neill in conversation, and twice, despite copious note-taking and some photos, I've failed to write about it. I don't know why that is.

I got my copy of Daydreams of Angels about two and a half years ago, when Heather O'Neill launched the book to a packed house at local bookstore. (So packed I missed the first 10 minutes or so of the convo because I had to wait for some people to decide to leave before I could squeeze in through the door.) My book is personally, friendlily (is that a legit adverb?) inscribed.

Daydreams of Angels are short stories. Fairy tales for grown-ups. There's a childlike wonder in her characters and the narration, but also a worldliness that often spins that naïveté into tragedy. O'Neill herself is disarming, and while she may draw on her own upbringing for material, she can talk academic circles around any male gaze or literary theory.

[That childlike wonder — that ability children have to imbue their world with magical creatures and comforts and treasures — that's a rare thing for adults to hold on to without any artificial aids (kids don't need Disney the way their parents do). The best poets have it. O'Neill has it.]

I recall her speaking about angels as aristocrats. A little like the angels in Wings of Desire, walking among us, hanging out, only British. "The shadows became as long as pulled taffy."

One theme throughout O'neill's work might be a leveling of class structures, the way only children can break those walls down.

From an excellent article in the Montreal Gazette:
"I'm interested in the layers of storytelling that happen in a family. You know, it's kind of a shame — the golden age of lying is dead thanks to the Internet. Our grandparents were able to basically BS us. They could weave anything they wanted. There was this wonderful sense of a family mythology being created. You'd love it until a certain age and then you'd just be like, "Yeah, right. Shut up,'" she laughed.
There are stories about the war, stories about gypsies and dolls and heroin addicts and clones of Rudolf Nureyev. Stories about Jesus and welfare families and about where babies come from.

There's some Escheresque recursiveness going on. And I get from these stories also a sense of fatalism, that things are as they need to be, they couldn't be otherwise. I can't say I subscribe to that worldview, but I don't dispute that these stories are exactly as they should be.

The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec appears in this collection. I adore this story, and in fact it was my introduction to Heather O'Neill when I first heard it on Wiretap.

2017 CLC Kreisel Lecture with Heather O'Neill: My Education. "On unusual muses and mentors. And how I had to teach myself everything in order to cross the class divide."

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