What constitutes truth and then how to express it are two of the most interesting, elusive—and too frequently ignored—problems that confront us. We prefer to think that truth is self-evident. Life is easier that way.
It goes beyond the structural blind spot we have in our eye where the optic nerves come together to carry messages to the brain where they’re assembled into “reality.” It’s more a matter of the fiction we live in, or the recognition that our lives are essentially fiction, that the cast of characters who fill our days—including ourselves (yes, in the plural)—are nothing more than a morphing vision, an interpretation, a shifting creation, bits of data assembled and reassembled.
I’m thinking of this especially because of Richard Hell’s review of Jim Carroll’s posthumous novel The Petting Zoo in The New York Times. (It’s so lovely when a rock star is also intelligent and articulate, and that’s not my fiction).
“There’s a parallel time and world inhabited by those who understand that all information is legend, that experience is show business,” Hell writes of Carroll. “He lived in his head. Doesn’t everyone? The difference is that he knew it.”
I’ll always have a tender spot in my heart for Carroll because when the angst of my teen years started forming, somehow his haunting song “People Who Died” made its way from the dark streets of New York City to Iowa radio stations and helped introduce me to a world that held quite different truths (indeed, images of New York City in the ’70s still menace me). “Teddy sniffing glue he was 12 years old / Fell from the roof on east two-nine.”
As a friend of mine said when she saw the album cover of Catholic Boy that showed Carroll, who looked like a gaunt, emaciated version of David Bowie, standing in a challenging pose with his very square parents, “That’s too f#*cking rock star.” His eyes held a threat to anyone who made even a gesture to a conventional life.
And then there’s Carroll’s Basketball Diaries, which has become a sort of companion piece to Kerouac’s On the Road for young aspiring writers (mainly men, it seems) who want to dash madly into the late night hours of the night to discover the nether worlds of all of the supposed glories of truths unseen.
Hell reminds us that the diaries contained a disclaimer, which was later removed by the publisher, that they were “as much fiction as biography. They were as much made up as they were lived out. It all happened. None of it happened. It was me. Now it’s you. ‘Nothing is true; everything is permitted.’”
It’s a stunning intro, a con man’s taunt—and after reading David Shield’s Reality Hunger, a manifesto that essentially spends 150 pages riffing on fiction vs. memoir vs. appropriation—it’s a prescient take on our contemporary notion of “truth” in the way of a Rimbaud-like prodigy that Carroll was often characterized as.
“He lived among the poets of history, of life, not the accountants or the police officers. He was a con man, but all artists know that, significantly, they are bedazzlers, masters of illusion. Beautiful poetry isn’t life, but it’s pretty to think so.”
So then what is life, truth? How to describe it accurately? Scientists have their approach, but I trust the descriptions of artists more simply because I don’t believe in accuracy in such matters. Perhaps it’s better to be content with something that feels like purity. “Carroll wanted to be pure, and poetry is the definition of purity,” Hell writes.
The New Yorker also just published an interesting review of The Petting Zoo, which seems to be just an atrocious novel. But the reviews of Carroll’s life are worth reading.
Carroll, like most beautiful creatures, was punished in the end. His search for purity became an exercise in consequence, sequestered in poverty, confined to a small apartment, the blaze in his eyes smothered out by a failing liver. But at least he sensed the possibility of a more beautiful life and tried to imagine it, tried to put words to such a truth.
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