Thursday, May 1, 2008

"The toneless world of highway tragedy..."

This afternoon, I watched my literature students try to find meaning in John Hawkes’ Travesty. If you know the novel, you may now smile slyly and wonder if I have taken leave of my senses. Why would I assign – in an introductory level class – an obscure text by an author who wrote, “Plot, character, and theme are the three enemies of the novel.”?

Because, as one young man put it today, “This is some of the craziest s*hit I’ve ever read.”

From the back cover:

Travesty is John Hawkes’ most extreme vision of eroticism and comic terror. In the south of France, an elegant sportscar is speeding through the night, bearing a man, his daughter, and his best friend toward a fatal crash. As he drives, the “privileged man” justifies, in sustained monologue, his firm persuasion that willed destruction is the ultimate act of the poetic imagination. “What I have in mind is an ‘accident’ so perfectly contrived that it will be unique, spectacular and instantaneous, a physical counterpart to that vision in which it was in fact conceived.”

There’s more to the story, of course. The best friend, a poet, is sleeping with the man’s daughter and the man’s wife. The man’s plan is to crash the car into an old stone barn and kill them all. He is not crazy. He is not jealous, at least not about the sex (they are French, after all). He will, in the cataclysm of “design and debris” (not to mention grisly death), create a true work of art.

I’ve worked with this novel since 1992. I chose it for its theoretical and thematic links to other texts in the course, for what it teaches about narrative. I know it well, and have always been able to treat it as pure text, as the exemplary, “surface,” self-referential postmodern object that it is.

Until today. Until this.

I heard about the accident this morning as I was leaving Small Child’s classroom. I know the man. I knew a previous wife. I do not know his current family. The details are horrific from a variety of viewpoints.

Two hours into the day, my email chimed. The professor in the office next to mine was in a head on collision on her way to campus. Colleagues haunted their computers until we received word that she was badly battered but free of serious injury.

In addition to these collisions, our town of 35,000 or so has witnessed two other highway fatalities – neither of which could be blamed on alcohol, drugs, or weather conditions – in the last three weeks.

All on sunny days. All without a care in the world. All gone instantaneously.


These wrecks plus this book could just about make me into a Jungian.

I know these tragedies are not unique. Nor do I believe they happen for any reason or hold any meaning.

But the same postmodern leveling of meaning we talk about in literature may just apply here as well. Is genocide more horrific than the grief of a man who wakes from surgery to find that his daughter is dead because he did not see the semi stopped in front of him?

I’m not thinking clearly tonight. But I do ask two things. Send positive thought out to a world in pain. Drive with care and mindfulness.

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