by Walter Chaw About 16 months ago, my mom received an 18-month diagnosis--meaning she has maybe two months to live. We'll see. When I broke it to my parents that I was dropping out of the engineering track at college to pursue a degree in English, there was a lot of silence and then my mom said: "Don't write about us." I don't think I honoured her request for even a second. This is the first time I've written about her directly, but I don't believe it's possible to not write your shit. I mean, if you're doing it right. I think if you read my stuff, for whatever reason, with the right eye and the right experience, it wouldn't be difficult to nail what my issues are. They're florid and manifold: beware when hunting monsters and all that.
Telluride is my annual mile-marker. I place it on my heart like a scar--like the wrinkles I'm starting to notice on my hands that look like roadmaps speaking of places I've been and can never return to: places in the kingdom of my memory, which grows every day even as the things that inspired it disappear. I pick an audiobook every year to listen to on the way up--a six-and-a-half-hour drive from my house. This year, I picked The Sound and the Fury, a book I've read a dozen times and think of as my favourite. Listening to it again hasn't changed that opinion. There's a character in the book, Quentin Compson, who, like Billy Pilgrim, comes unstuck in time. He is the oldest of the Compson children, as I am the firstborn son of this generation of children in my father's family. We were burdened, Quentin and I, with the expectations traditional patrilineal cultures bestow upon such offspring. Quentin is burdened by philosophy and disappointment, and he kills himself. I identify very closely with Quentin Compson. I think he was maybe inspired a little bit by Samuel Coleridge. We named our son "Coleridge."
So there's this quote from the second chapter of The Sound and the Fury, Quentin's chapter chronicling the last day of his life. It speaks of time and shadows in an obvious mirror of the "Macbeth" soliloquy to which the novel owes its name. It goes like this:
I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire...I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
I learned most everything I know about Faulkner from an old professor who had taught him his entire career--sixty years at that point. I lucked into a seminar during the last months he was teaching the course. He was extremely frail. When he died, he took all of that with him--except for what he was able to plant in his students, all of that wisdom and love and joy he contained disappeared. It's astoundingly unfair.
Death has been on my mind. More to the point, impermanence. My wife's boss, a tough guy and a bit of an asshole but brilliant and righteous (we adored him), died suddenly of a terrible wasting cancer. He was the most vital person we knew. Then an acquaintance now more than a friend--a relationship I ruined by being a dick--died in a car accident. And then another: an opiate accident. And then the suicide of one of my best friends in the world. I sent him a message the night he killed himself. I told him I was worried and offered him our guest room. It didn't matter. It. Didn't. Matter. Gone. All of the moments--the things they saw, the things they felt and heard. Love and anger and innocence and experience. Gone.
Leaving the theatre tonight, late, with my dear friends, I looked into the sky and saw more stars than I can ever remember seeing before. Telluride isn't lit up, not like a "real" city--and at night it's pitch black. If you're lucky enough to ride the gondola at night up the side of the mountain, you should do that. It's a little like you're floating on a soap bubble through the abyss. But if you should glance up you see something very much like our ancestors used to see. And it's beautiful and terrifying; they don't care, those stars, about the tiny, guttering flames that are our lives. I write because I don't want to go quietly when I go. I want to leave a record behind of my florid and manifold imperfections that were to me enough. Of how my heart leaped when the woman who was to become my wife opened the door on our first (blind) date and said, "Walter?" Of how I cried when I heard my babies cry for the first time. Of how art, when you write about it with all of your brokenness and hope, is really just the catalyst for you to discover the story of your life.
Ted Chiang has a new collection of stories. The first is called "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate". This is how it ends:
Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.
I'm here, Telluride. Let's watch some movies.