Writing the day before the election, it’s not easy to ignore it, yet there’s no great joy in chewing cud. I’ll compromise in saying something about fear.
Right now we’re doing the final edit and layout of a new novel MASKS for January publication. It follows the northward journey of a family of farce players in the early Medieval, mainly from the POV of their six-year-old son. He’s learning to be a player, he’s learning to harness the donkey, and he’s learning fear.
It’s only in reading it over for about the thirtieth time that it’s become clear to me how fundamental a theme fear is in the story. In life, fear hasn’t been entirely foreign to me, but mostly it’s that low-grade chronic worry inherited from my mother, that nagging what-if that eventually works itself out. Certainly the imagination runs rampant, and I can recall some truly parlous quagmires, but you just do what you can, and you don’t do what you can’t.
On a personal level, it’s always helped to be averse to confrontation, to maintain a low-level vigilance, and to squeeze my childhood eyes tighter when hearing creaks in the night. No question but that I have a protective shell. When I was very young, I learned how to “jump” myself out of scary dreams before the monster caught up. The result was very boring dreams, but once I got to sleep I wasn’t afraid of the night.
And I suppose, in my waking life, I retain that sense that it’s all just a play that I write, though none of the actors have learned their lines and you don’t know what to expect, except that your best-laid plans . . .
Just intending this as personal description, not as a how-to. I’ve had a very black view of humankind since the age of 15. In another book, I wrote, “Anything this side of baby rape is a miracle.” Nothing surprises me, except the fact that we haven’t wiped ourselves out. Yet for me, that ground-level gloom intensifies both my love of what’s good—there’s a great lot I do feel is miraculous—and my will to keep chipping away at the glacier.
But coming back to fear. There’s a primal terror that horror shows rarely touch, with their exploding heads and sudden shocks and monsters closing in. It’s that moment when the familiar soul becomes the Other. Not the moment when the chortling Jack Nicholson appears with an ax, but the first moment his wife sees what he’s typed—that the man she knew is no longer there.
That’s what chills me now. As much as I thought I knew—through reading, through an early childhood on the other side of the tracks, through travel, interviewing all sorts, talking to audiences in 38 states, I’ve never before seen what Ionesco put on stage: a collective, wide-spread transformation into rampant rhinos.
And it makes me more understanding of the child in MASKS. His immediate terrors—whether of imminent death or of forgetting his line in the play—are what we all go through unless we’re deaf and blind. His deeper fear is contained in a casket of masks they carry on the journey. They’re useless in the troupe’s repertoire of farces, they carry an inherited curse, and they take up space on the donkey cart. Why does the troupe persist in carrying them, even as they begin to come to life? And why do we?
But I’ve opted out of nightmares. Instead, I wake up thinking.