Chuck Palahniuk, maverick author of the cult novel Fight Club (1996), developed his minimalist style in a Portland fiction-writing workshop during the early ’90s. That Palahniuk’s novels get more press for their pop-pulp shock value than for their philosophy has much to do with his high-octane treatment of cultural taboos. He had a good teacher. Yet Tom Spanbauer’s novels don’t sell as well as his star pupil’s do.
In The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon (1991), Spanbauer tackles such ticklish issues as racial discrimination, incest, paedophilia, animal cruelty, transvestism, bisexuality, religious hypocrisy and lunar astrology. Raised during the gold rush in a pink hotel-cum-brothel in Idaho and schooled by Ida the ho, its manager/madam, Shed, the part-native protagonist, becomes a philosophising child prostitute after his rape by a mad cowboy, the mysterious Billy Blizzard, who, like Shed, has a dual identity, as revealed in the plot’s final twist.
Set in the Old West around the turn of the last century, the story charts teenage Shed’s quest for his roots, for identity; contrasting degraded, gold-grubbing, white culture against his Native American heritage. Seen by whites as Indian, the shape-shifting narrator falls in love with a cowboy more than twice his age who introduces him to such sexual practices as semen retention: the Old West meets the New Age. Did I mention that this is one of the most original fictions I’ve ever read? It’s a hymn to the harsh beauty of Idaho (where Spanbauer was raised, incidentally), through which the environment emerges as the narrative’s most rounded character, playing fatal tricks on the human characters. Yet even wild nature can’t rival the tragedy wrought by Mormons on the warpath.
Palahniuk’s teacher had good teachers too. At Columbia in the ’80s Spanbauer studied under Gordon Lish, best known as the editor who shaped Raymond Carver’s minimalism. But Spanbauer had an even more essential mentor. Of his blood brother, Clyde Hall, a Native American tribal elder, he says:
‘Clyde helped me to see the world was alive and full of mystery. He pretty much took me out of my Christian European culture head and helped me see that I wasn’t separated from nature. That by stepping into my body, I stepped into nature. … I could never have written The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon without Clyde…’
Dellwood Barker, the narrator’s cowboy flame, totes an obscure text called Secrets of the Moon, which covers phases, eclipses, and the moon through each sign of the zodiac. As far as plot points go, the book is used to safeguard a photo that leads Shed, when he sees it, to a false conclusion. But the point that interests me concerns taboos. At least as much as anything else in The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon (a title which flags Dellwood’s role as central), astrology is heresy – a body of knowledge dismissed (because threatening?) by unobservant intellectuals ever since the rise of a philosophical star named Descartes who, through some malfunction of feeling, confused animals with machines. Spanbauer, despite his earthy narration, isn’t averse to cerebral play, giving Dellwood a dog named Metaphor. And yet he writes of animals with heartbreaking empathy when Shed encounters one of the white man’s slaughterhouses for the first time: ‘… even with my mother getting murdered and me getting my ass pounded from Billy Blizzard, I had never been so close to the smell, to the scream, so close to the deranged that was how the devil was.’ In the century since this scene was set, abattoirs have gotten bigger and more diabolical. Yet in our meat-addicted culture they cop less criticism than does astrology with its obscure animal symbols. (No-one has ever informed me that they ‘don’t believe in’ meat-eating – although vegans I know can cite ethical, health and economic reasons.)
While it won an award, the book also copped flak for graphic depictions of sex and violence. It seems we in the West like our bloodshed confined to computer games, movies, cartoons and the news. Unless critics felt uncomfortable with a male who’s not in control; who’s vulnerable? Says Spanbauer of his own edgy, inventive, deeply personal style:
‘Dangerous writing means putting a piece of yourself in a work, going to the “sore spot,” and discussing taboo topics, particularly sex and violence. It means writing for yourself, a concept that in the literary world was thought to make you go broke. It means exposing yourself to the tiger, not physically, but mentally.’
It sounds to me like a fiction equivalent of gonzo journalism, which means exposing yourself to the tiger physically. Give or take a few stylistic quirks, dangerous writing describes the species of fiction I’ve been generating by instinct (in between venting via the somewhat more moderate forum known as a blog). Has Dangerous Writing caught on Down Under, does it have an Australian following? If you know of any locally published examples, please leave a comment. Because it seems to me (though no doubt I’m too close to get an overview) that Oz publishers, knowing the tastes of squeamish Oz readers, feel more secure investing in Safe Writing.
‘Safe Writing’ is an approach to writing championed by, for instance, institutions like Varuna (the yellow writers’ house in the Blue Mountains) as well as a range of degree courses offered by unis. Like its opposite, safe writing may treat taboo topics, but with sex and violence censored, strained through the sieve of political correctness, and you can’t put in any piece of yourself that might alienate the bourgeois reader. So you write for yourself in the first draft, then rewrite for the narrow Oz market. Suitable themes include history; favoured settings are regional; and the reigning style – allowing for decorative padding – is unobtrusive understatement. As dangerous writing stirs and subverts, safe writing diverts and comforts.
Four bisexual characters form an offbeat family at the core of Spanbauer’s questing Western – three whores including Shed, and the mystic drifter, Dellwood. Promiscuous, hard-drinking opium smokers, they defy newcomers who try to control them – murderous Mormons who, in the tale’s context, represent mainstream society’s intolerance.
Twenty years after its publication, Spanbauer’s novel still offers a sociocultural critique for today. From p. 19: “Damn tybos [white men],” my mother said, “can’t stand anything that isn’t like everything else.” How’s that for an indictment of, say, globalisation? Or, as Dellwood Barker confides (p. 314) just before he dies: “Truth was, I got myself in trouble. Trouble: started thinking that the world was only me thinking it up.” That has to be one of the dangers posed by digital culture.