First Blood by David Morrell
When you crack open the 1972 edition of David Morrell’s First Blood, this hand-cut inscription awaits: We envy you the experience of reading this book for the first time. – The Editors.
I can think of no better frontispiece for the collection of essays, articles, and nonfiction features storming The Puritan’s Town Crier this November. We’re going to gaze into the abyss of popular literature, loosely defined as books written for pleasure. We’re going to flip over the glossy rock of commercial literary products and peer at the mound of fascination that writhes beneath the surface of marketable respectability. We’re gonna take the scalpel of literary analysis, scrape away the patina of the mass-market, and really sink our teeth into the weird that we find. Because it’s there, just like Rambo stalking the outskirts of Hope, and the only way to discover it is to put ourselves out there, in an uncomfortable wilderness of tropes and plot devices and the kinds of books that pull you in and won’t let you stop reading, no matter the fact that it’s two in the morning and you’ve got a big meeting tomorrow.
Just one more chapter.
And we’re going to get there by making ourselves look a bit silly, because it’s impossible to get anywhere while parading posture-perfect in a tight black turtleneck. We’re going to have to get our hands dirty, which means, in this context, approaching these honestly non-literary works on their own merits, on their own turf, even if that means playing the idiot every once and a while.
Also, there’s going to be a lot of guilty consciences when we try to talk serious about the frivolity in our lives, and fun stories are frivolous if they’re worth anything. Our road will be paved with shameful confessions.
Here are two:
1. I have a problem when it comes to fictional violence.
I love it. I’ve seen Die Hard and First Blood too many times to count. I want to eat every panel in Akira. My own personal heaven would involve running through the woods with Daniel Day-Lewis, forever. When ingesting these stories, I am one of two affects: grinning so hard my face hurts or whooping and hollering like an inebriated soccer mom.
A lone wolf against the odds stirs my soup like nothing else. Even the works of high literature that have meant the most to me are fuelled by violence: Moby Dick, Blood Meridian, Wolf Hall, Edgar Huntly. In my heart, a single shaft of frozen testosterone lances the works of fiction that move me, stringing them together like a necklace of withered ears, and that is an almost-always uncomfortable realization, because it’s fucked up. Enjoying violence is weird. It seems directly predicated on privilege and the lack of real violence in my life. I dig explosions, meaty punches, and geysers of gore because I don’t have to worry about those things.
We’re going to gaze into the abyss of popular literature, loosely defined as books written for pleasure.
Seriously, this is my office, where I work from home. Pretty much all I have to worry about is whether or not I watered the sensitive plant today. Of course I like vicarious thrills. I cannot deny the impact this genre has on me. It is visceral. My blood seethes and my bowels churn (in a good way) whenever I catch one of these flicks in the local cinema or burn through one of these books in an afternoon. That influence oozes into my own work, which is riddled with violence like it is a spice and not a horrendous fact of life for far too many people. I can’t help but aestheticize the things I write about, and I worry that inevitably anesthetizes them, too.
2. I’d never read Anne of Green Gables.
This summer, while driving a carload of people from Sudbury to Toronto, we passed a historical plaque on the side of Highway 12 that said, “Lucy Maud Montgomery.” I was like, “Who’s that I wonder?” and the entire car erupted in schadenfreude at me.
I seriously had no idea who she was, in part because I am an ignorant sod who couldn’t remember names if my life depended on it, and in part because I grew up a middle-class white dude in the ’90s and was riven with latent sexism that I combat on a daily basis.
If you had taken aside 12-year-old me and handed me Anne of Green Gables I would have scoffed at it. Same goes for pretty much anything without magic, swords, robots, or Bruce Willis.
Now aware of this egregious warp in my development, I was pleased as punch to find Montgomery’s PEI masterpiece wedged in a bookshelf of an Airbnb my partner and I were visiting in New York. Each night, footsore from stomping around Brooklyn and Manhattan, I fell asleep to Jenn’s dulcet tones as she read the book aloud to me.
It was amazing. It was the best storytelling experience I’ve ever had. I love Anne of Green Gables with the same ridiculous, feverish enthusiasm that Anne shows for life itself. My body reacted exactly the way it does to action movies and reading Rambo.
Our road will be paved with shameful confessions.
Here’s confession 2.a.: I’ve never identified with a fictional character before Anne Shirley. From her first scene, perched on a stack of shingles at the train station, her entire body locked in the pose of waiting, doing it with her entire being, to her over-the-top utterances that gush with raw vigour about the galvanizing, fructifying beauty of the world, I was like, “Yes. I know what that’s like. That is me. I am her.” I’ve never had that experience before. I’ve never been a character, not even in my own head, not even when I’m asleep. Reading is a largely abstract affair for me, but I couldn’t help connecting to Anne like I’ve never connected to any fictional creation before.
See, I recognize that I’m not a cool person. I am a volcanic mix of enthusiasm, fancy, and well-intentioned idiocy.
But my imagination wants to be Rambo.
Between these two modalities, I gnash my teeth, forever uncertain about who I really am and what I ought to be. The sensible reality is likely somewhere in between, but this month isn’t about sensible realities. It’s about whatever will get you to keep on reading.
With that in mind, the posts for the first week or so are all about coming to terms with the fact that the mechanisms of popular literature are maybe okay. There’s something valuable in the experience of overcoming taxonomic phobias, whether it is in regard to your own work or the literature you consume. Even if it is a little uncomfortable to apply a serious lens to the kinds of things we read in the dark, or at the cottage, away from the judging eye of the cosmopolitan cultural elite, it turns out that there’s something special going on when authors connect to their readers through the tactics and tools of popular literature.
This week, Stephen Thomas grapples with this challenge head-on in a collection of aphorisms that unpack the artistic entailments of submitting oneself to the power of tropes.
Next week, Nora Decter admits to the insecurities that plague literary-leaning folk in an essay about the liberating potential of genre fiction, and Kate Gies reveals the blasphemous truth that a movie adaptation might be better than the original book.
Please stay tuned.
Cian Cruise lives in Toronto. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Playboy, Hazlitt, Maisonneuve, Broken Pencil, THIS Magazine, and Little Brother, among others. More can be found on his website ciancruise.com.