Joy Marchand lives in Salem, Massachusetts. Recently, she’s shifted from short stories to longer works, and is writing a chain of urban legends for an apocalyptic, interstitial novel-within-a-novel set in the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas. Look for stories in Polyphony 5 and Interfictions, Talebones, Apex Digest, and Interzone. Visit joymarchand.blogspot.com.
Her story The Shape of Her Sorrow appears in the Spring 2008 issue of Shimmer.
Here’s what Joy has to say about the story:
David Lynch, to the frustration of interviewers, scholars, and fans, refuses to comment on the themes of his films. He won’t even comment on someone else’s interpretation, insisting that it’s not right for a director to interpose himself between the film and its audience. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to frustrate people, and neither do I, but like the student humbly striving to assimilate the koans of the master, I’ve chosen to discuss the works of others instead of discussing the themes in “The Shape of Her Sorrow.” When I have a guest in my house, and they ask about my work, my first impulse is to take them on a tour of the shelves. I show them my very modest art collection, my books, my music, and my films, and hope they get where I’m coming from by osmosis.
I’m not an artist. I can push a pencil across a page and draw a recognizable human figure, but I’ve never created anything of original vision, and my appreciation for art is, by and large, uneducated. I’m fondest of the 3-dimensional arts: sculpture, ready-mades, and found-object collage. There’s something delightful in the absurd associations of the surrealists and the Dadaists: Marcel Duchamp’s snow shovel hung as an objet d’art, Gerard de Nerval walking a lobster on a leash.
I recently saw an exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s work at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. The visit was something to do before having my dog professionally photographed (I won a bid in a charity auction). The photographer and I meant to see Cornell’s boxes, have lunch at Passage to India, and get Geoffrey (sir dog) ready for his glamour shot. But ten minutes into the show, I was flushed. I had cotton-mouth, butterflies in my stomach–all the signs of love at first sight, or chemical intoxication, I suppose. Cornell was an obsessive collector of corks, compasses, clock springs, newspaper clippings, films, French music and magazines, sequins and scraps of tulle cadged from famous prima ballerinas. I felt an instant connection because I’m an obsessive collector of snippets of writing gleaned from books, magazines, newspapers, and websites, which I transcribe by hand or print and paste into composition books. Joseph Cornell created collages and shadowboxes out of his collectibles, and I make stories out of mine. Later that day, the dog got his glamour shot, the photographer went home, and the following weekend, I went to the PEM again, and thence to the Salem Public Library, where I checked out all the books they had on Joseph Cornell. One day, I’ll put everything I feel about Cornell’s work into a novel.
I’m not a novelist (yet). I can keep my wits about me long enough to write a short story, but the moment I get past 7500 words, I flail around like a toddler thrown into the deep end, yelping for my goddamned swimmies. However little endurance I may have for writing in the long form, its always a novel I want to curl up with when I find a spare moment. Now that I’m a commuter (Salem to Boston) I read novels standing on line, sitting on the train, and crushed against the windows of buses. I don’t appreciate surrealism in fiction so much, preferring the realists, even in speculative fiction. Things get too disconnected from reality, and I get lost in the details.
The novels (and novelists) I like best are the ones that leave me with questions. What would I have done? is my favorite. Several years ago, when I read Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, I was terrified. What if the northern hemisphere nuked itself, but you lived on the southern hemisphere, and all you could do was wait for the radiation to come and kill you? I was in high school during the Cold War, and grew up watching movies like Red Dawn, The Day After, and Mad Max. Although On The Beach was published in 1957 and was meant to scare the snot out of my father’s generation, I was raised to fear the possibility of nuclear war and the idea of watching death come for me in waves of radioactive dust was terrifying to me. After reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, however, I yearned for the comparatively gentle future of On The Beach, with all its noble Australians sipping pink gins and taking care of their gardens and livestock until the bitter end, at which point they very elegantly and nobly took their suicide pills so they would die with dignity. There are no pink gins, or gentlemen’s clubs, or cups of tea in McCarthy’s vision of nuclear holocaust. There’s rickets, and botulism, and cannibalism, and the only dignified thing anyone does is starve to death on the side of the road. But strangely, after re-reading On The Beach shortly after finishing The Road, I realized that the first book, with its honorable citizens slipping gently into that good night, was actually more disturbing to me than the second, because the characters went so calmly to their deaths. I’m pretty sure I’d fight for life to the bitter end. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t put on my nightgown, tuck into bed, and swallow my suicide pill with a 20-year-old Amontillado. I’m pretty sure I’d go on the road, scavenge for food, migrate south, and protect my child until my last breath.
I’m pretty sure–until I get to the point in the theoretical situation where I’d have to strike the mercy blow. Then I ask myself, If you knew you were going to die, could you kill your own child to prevent her suffering? Or would you shrink from the responsibility, in the hope that she could squeeze a few more drops of life from the hostile world all by herself? Hard to say. I’ll be finishing the first draft of my own apocalyptic novel any day now (hey you, gimme my goddamned swimmies!) and hopefully, I’ll come up with an answer to that last question, and maybe add something to the conversation taking place in my head with Cormac McCarthy, Nevil Shute, Oscar Wilde, Upton Sinclair, Wally Lamb, Bret Easton Ellis, Poppy Z. Brite, Kurt Vonnegut, Mervyn Peake, Samuel Delany, Margaret Atwood, and all the Johns–Updike, Irving, Crowley, Fowles, (Jonathan) Carroll.
Music & Film
Finally, I’m not a filmmaker or a musician. I’ve never even made a jerky, Super 8 student film with a Blue Oyster Cult soundtrack (though clearly I’ve fantasized)–and being able to finger-pink “Dust in the Wind” while singing mostly on key does not a musician make. But the appreciation of film and music is a gem in my jewel box. Work prevents me from seeing a film every day, and I don’t drive enough to really enjoy my CD collection. Still, I hook up to the idiot box at least three times a week for a movie fix, and I can’t imagine driving without a soundtrack: Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan, Johnny Cash, Death Cab For Cutie, The Decemberists, Ben Folds Five, Moby, They Might Be Giants, Radiohead, The Violent Femmes, The Sneaker Pimps, Marilyn Manson, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Portishead, and (thanks to James Maxey–http://jamesmaxey.blogspot.com) The Mountain Goats. The lyrics. Murder ballads. Lust, and anger, and fear; that’s what it’s all about. That’s where the magic is. If you can’t think of a story after listening to Johnny Cash or John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats growling and crying about love, death, and divorce, then heaven help you.
I started this thing off with David Lynch, and since he’s the Grand Master of my personal pantheon, I’ll finish things up with Lost Highway. A discussion of Lynch handily covers both music and film, as Lynch’s soundtrack is an intrinsic element of his films the way cadmium yellow is an intrinsic element of Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Lynch is a genius when it comes to evoking emotion through pure sound–think Eraserhead, with the thin, sickly puling of that beastly baby– and not merely in the John Williams way, where you know how hard you’re supposed to cry by the number of violins swelling at any given time. Lynch is also a master at choosing just the right music, with just the right lyric for just the right amount of heaven or hell. In Lost Highway, we’ve got Lou Reed, and David Bowie at his howling, plaintive best. We have Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins, the hostile German consonants of Rammstein, and an alternately dreamy and driving, black sugar-candy score from Angelo Badalamenti. When I compose dark absurdities, it’s often to the screaming saxophone solos of Lost Highway and a strung out madman crooning “…a candy-colored clown they call the Sandman…”
I can’t say this has any bearing on “The Shape of Her Sorrow.” Strangely enough, the Joseph Cornell exhibition, with all of its paper cutouts–the most relevant-seeming part of this essay–happened years after I’d written the final draft of Hester’s tale, so I can’t even say I drew on that. I had scissors on the brain already, and so Joseph Cornell’s work touched me. Had I found Cornell before I’d thought of the scissors, he would have told me about the scissors, and clock springs and sequins too. Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis have shown me superlative rage and the beauty of psychological decay. McCarthy and Shute have taught me self-examination. David Lynch–transformed for my pleasure into a cherry-pie-eating muse–sits at the park bench beside my pool of creativity and tells me to listen to the music. And between sips of black coffee, he advises me to let the work stand on its own. Talk about where the passion comes from, but when asked about the work itself, stay the heck out of the way.