Dangerous Beauty (or Beautiful Danger)
The writing workshop I’m taking at NYU is going really well. For the first time, I’ve shown a section of the novel I’m working on to somebody other than myself. And that’s been constructive, because myself tends to nit-pick relentlessly and is, overall, a huge asshole. So I’ve appreciated getting some perspectives that are more objective and less … dickish. It’s given me a good feel for what’s working in the thing and what isn’t, and it’s really helped me zero in on the important plot bits. My prof is great, too. I have to say, he’s very good at being positive while pointing out things that are problematic in your story or with your prose. I’ve been involved in several workshops over the years and I know that this is a real skill that not every professor has.
Anyway, recently the prof asked us to bring to class a writing sample (somebody else’s work) that we find “beautiful” or “dangerous.” My first thought was: beautiful OR dangerous? Isn’t that redundant? I thought better than to correct him. It’s been a while since college, but I seem to recall that correcting the prof never goes over well.
I like the idea that something dangerous can be beautiful and it usually turns out this way in artwork that speaks to me. In writing, for instance, I like authors such as Martin Amis, Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway. To me, these are all writers whose prose has a degree of danger to it, but at the same time is beautiful to read. In film, one of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction, which I think is one of the great examples of danger and beauty for the risks it takes both stylistically and with plot. My favorite painters are the abstract expressionists from the 50s: Rothko, Motherwell, Pollock, artists who, as I think art critic Clement Greenbergused to say, “did battle” with the canvas. The movement was about the artist as hero, somebody who took risks, delving into the sub-conscious, the imagination, the mythic. Somebody who searched for “truths” through their art and in doing so, became a sort of “existential matador.” (Again, I think this was Greenberg’s phrase, but I can’t find the quote). In music, I’m a huge fan of 50s and 60s jazz, which to me is about these same ideas of “artist as hero.” The whole idea of improvisation and play in art gets to the root of a beauty that is mixed with a sort of inherent danger as the artist engages in an exploration of the unknown and a sort of “competition” with the other musicians.
Interestingly, I should point out, that the beauty/danger rule doesn’t necessarily apply to things that aren’t art. For instance, I was lucky enough to receive a tick bite over the weekend. As it turns out, tick bites are dangerous, but there’s really not much beauty in them. All I’ve discovered so far is annoyance, along with a general anxiety about bacteria and Lyme’s disease. I don’t recommend them. Now, a photo of my tick bite, taken at a certain angle and with the right lighting … that might be beautiful and dangerous. I’m just not sure if I’m talented enough as a photographer to pull that off.
Anyway, back to the assignment … after I figured out what my prof meant (translation: bring something to class that is fucking brilliant), I knew exactly what it would be, and it should come as no surprise to anybody reading this blog: the first couple of paragraphs of chapter one of London Fields.
I thought it would be fun to post the passage here, though I do feel a little weird about it. First of all, even though I named this site after one of the main characters from the same book from which the passage is taken, this isn’t a “fan site” by any means and I don’t want it to be. So maybe posting a long passage from the book would be awkward or a conflict of interest. This could be the case, or I could just be over-thinking it. I decided it was probably the latter. Secondly, it’s a long passage, and I don’t want to piss off any attorneys out there that might be concerned about copyrights. But you can also read the full passage (and more) here if you want so it’s not like this is the only place you can find it online. And I’m not making any financial gain from it, so it’s hard to get mad at me over it, right? I finally decided to just just post it and stop thinking about it. Here you go:
Keith Talent was a bad guy. Keith Talent was a very bad guy. You might even say that he was the worst guy. But not the worst, not the very worst ever. There were worse guys. Where? There in the hot light of CostCheck for example, with car keys, beige singlet, and a six-pack of Peculiar Brews, the scuffle at the door, the foul threat and the elbow in the black neck of the wailing lady, then the car with its rust and its waiting blonde, and off to do the next thing, whatever, whatever necessary. The mouths on these worst guys — the eyes on them. Within those eyes a tiny unsmiling universe. No. Keith wasn’t that bad. He had saving graces. He didn’t hate people for ready-made reasons. He was at least multiracial in outlook — thoughtless, helplessly so. Intimate encounters with strange-hued women had sweetened him somewhat. His saving graces all had names. What with the Fetnabs and Fatimas he had known, the Nketchis and Iqbalas, the Michikos and Buguslawas, the Ramsarwatees and Rajashwaris — Keith was, in this sense, a man of the world. These were the chinks in his coal-black armour: God bless them all.
Although he liked nearly everything else about himself, Keith hated his redeeming features. In his view they constituted his only major shortcoming—his one tragic flaw. When the moment arrived, in the office by the loading bay at the plant off the M4 near Bristol, with his great face crammed into the prickling nylon, and the proud woman shaking her trembling head at him, and Chick Purchase and Dean pleat both screaming Do it. Do it (he still remembered their meshed mouths writhing), Keith had definitely failed to realize his full potential. He had proved incapable of clubbing the Asian woman to her knees, and of going on clubbing until the man in the uniform opened the safe. Why had he failed? Why, Keith, why? In truth he had felt far from well: half the night up some lane in a car full of the feet-heat of burping criminals; no breakfast, no bowel movement; and now to top it all off, everywhere he looked he saw green grass, fresh trees, rolling hills. Chick Purchase, furthermore, had already crippled the second guard, and Dean Pleat soon vaulted back over the counter and self-righteously laid into the woman with his rifle butt. So Keith’s qualms had changed nothing—except his career prospects in armed robbery.(It’s tough at the top, and it’s tough at the bottom, too; Keith’s name was muck thereafter.) If he could have done it, he would have done it, joyfully. He just didn’t have … he just didn’t have the talent.
I love this passage. It’s dark, and funny, and it feels dangerous—and therefore beautiful. Stuff like this is the reason I want to write. Parts of it read like a poem to me. Of course, this is something that’s totally subjective, one of those things I think you either feel and love or you don’t. When I read this, I catch glimpses of God. When you read it, you might just see words on a page. I accept that. It’s why some of you may scroll through this post, bored as shit, while some of you may read it all the way through (still bored, mind you, but perversely interested in exercises of self-torture). It’s my taste, and you don’t have to agree with me on its quality or correctness. (It’s just that if you happen to disagree, you’re clearly wrong. And that’s okay—it’s okay to be wrong.)
So what about you, then? If you made it this far, is there something you find beautiful and dangerous. Or something that is beautiful to you because it’s dangerous?