Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Against the grain: networking Yogi Berra, Vaclav Havel, a liking for trouble.

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Murphy’s Laws have no statute of limitations. If there is no Murphy’s Law to fit the situation that crashes over you, it’s an easy matter to write a new Murphy’s Law. This I do regularly. I have more than enough inspiration from Yogi Berra to enliven the creation of new Murphy’s Laws too. Yogi Berra-isms are the modern iteration of what used to be called Irish Bulls.

Irish Bulls are contradictory, logically incoherent or non-sequitur statements:

"If I could drop dead right now, I'd be the happiest man alive." (Samuel Goldwyn)

Irish Bulls that were first made infamous by an Irish MP of the 1700s, Sir Boyle Roche. His defining statement for this immortal honour: ‘Why we should put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?’ As a wag has put it, Irish Bulls are always pregnant.

My latest Murphy’s Law then…? It came of searching for a length of Cat 5 cable will surely connect you to a meditation on something wholly unconnected with computer networking. Long story short: I needed to move furniture, and rearrange computers here at home, and thus rejig a router and cabling. It’s a nerd side of things that I enjoy. Maybe it’s to make up for having no proper training in technical matters. Now that’d be a book-length blog: The Perils Of Being An Autodidact.

An unstructured search in drawers turned up the item I needed, a five foot or so length of cable. QED, back to work.

Aha: not so fast.

The cable was lying on an unsorted ruck of papers and dongles and pens and God knows what-all else in the drawer of an heirloom writing bureau. It would have made a good still life maybe, this mess set against the ornate carvings in the oak. So, as I have tried to resolve to do this year (again!) I should do jobs that need doing without postponement, I tore into this pile and began sorting.The usual ensued. I now have a Murphy’s Law of The Unforeseen Connections, a stoutly tautological Law if ever there was one.

Promotional items from past books were shoved together haphazardly, all from years ago and doubtless put there on some mistaken idea that ‘they might be worth keeping/looking back on.’ Well now. It sounds awfully like a vague interest in posterity, doesn’t it. And so we’re back to the hilarious futility that midwifed the Irish bull again: what has posterity ever done for me?

This innocent search for a piece of network cable has connected me to another unforeseen network, that of hopes, ambitions, motivation, memories – the whole shebang, really. When I started in on writing, one of my publishers had a clipping service. This quaint relic of paper years/millennia has vanished in the flood of 0s and 1s, but those copies I kept. They yellow away gracelessly in a plastic pouch. Later reviews, ads, written pieces I culled from newspapers myself, or photocopied them. As soon as was practical, I found what I needed online, and made copies. So, is now a good time to state that I despise contentment? That I mock the idea of trophies and badges and honours? That I like and probably seek trouble?

But as with our family photos and our tapes and CDs, this migration into digital storage has left a residue of nostalgia that won’t go away. I’m all too well aware of the grip of the past, the imagined past that we continue to make each day, and try to guard against it. But I hold as close as I can also to Vaclav Havel here: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ By ‘power’ he meant oppressive governments beyond the state socialist government of his homeland then. By the same token, the ‘memory’ he refers to is not just a personal item that would be ravaged, say, by Alzheimers, but the wholesale hijacking of the past in service to ideology. And it’s not a sign of a permanent grudge, or endlessly marshalling past wrongs as a way to extort from others now and into the future.

If talk of ‘power’ and ‘struggle’ sounds a bit grandiose here, let me try to justify it. The ‘power’ to me is the received version of things. That can be from the clouds of memes and tropes – now there is a title for a PhD thesis - that find their way into conversation and print, and fill the air generally. It’s not just the sloppy language, or the technocratic rationalizations encoded in absurd words, or even that Devil’s Dictionary of weasel words and sanctified euphemisms. Nor is it just plain old flat vocabularies from dulled minds.

No, what I mean I think is that the sheer power of the social world around me is often so oppressive in its matter-of-factness. It is as though everything is self-explanatory, self-evident, and …. ‘normal.’ Umpteen words (maybe even more, now that I think about it) for this that come from my reading and from studies, but none are satisfactory. Maybe Richard Ford comes close when he has Frank Bascombe voice up his deep unease at the way things get closed-off. Bascome is the everyman, eternally struggling to recall, to remember, to reform and to free up the actual world as it was when he first stepped into that river, so to speak. For him, the world is a problem. There is a mystery to the way things happen, even if matters are explained by science. It’s not a crappy Discovery Channel ‘mystery’ – polite cover for banal superstitions and suggestible gawpers – it’s the continuous wondering on how so much of another life is not happening, or evident yet.

To complicate – or simplify – matters a bit more before returning to the topic of what’s against the grain here, I must mention another layer. It has taken me a long, long time to learn to pass as normal, or rather normal enough to get by. It’s an introvert matter for sure. I’ve given up expecting to have a perfect disguise and pass 100% for normal though. You can’t really fool people socially, and trying too hard only makes them more uneasy. Is there anything as rough on the mind as an introvert going a bit manic trying to be normal? The introvert’s job is to push away the temptation to easy misanthropy and to mockery of other’s foolish happiness. We all want to be connected, to be networked.

So: back to the material that turned up in that drawer. I was keeping those items as a record, maybe even for the posterity that I mock. A common-enough failing, I’d have to say, this keeping two sets of books. We’re all deft and dexterous enough with our illusions when we need to be. The power of those objects though was that they were proof that I had won something, that I had made some headway. Someone wanted these stories enough that they thought they were worthwhile, and paid for them. The absurd came to be true – an idea, a notion, a fiction, an imagining turned out to have real consequences. I could buy a loaf of bread (two! three even!) with what came of those imaginings. I had broken through the clouds / veil / fortress.

Those items are already gone. Gone, as in shredded or in the blue bin. It didn’t cost me a thought. In fact it was quite exciting. It may take a while yet to figure out in words why it was necessary, but it begins with an instinct to start fresh and to remake, to reorder and to destroy in the process. With all this reflexive going-against-the-grain and defying-the-herd carry-on, I feel some sinister Nietschean stuff rumbling in the background though. And why am I thinking of that bitterly cynical expression that came from the war in Vietnam(?), about having to destroy a village to save it?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page