Writer in Residence

Class, History, Fiction, and Form Part 4: I Scream of Benigni

By Geoffrey Morrison

I feel a mounting sense of anxiety that I still haven’t said everything I said I would. I have called my shot and then proceeded to chuck basketballs, tennis balls, darts, arrows, and various other airworthy sporting goods in every direction but.

I said this next post would involve Lewis Grassic Gibbon, but that I also wanted to discuss books that make a radical departure from the “character” as a device. But wasn’t I also supposed to say something about time? Wasn’t I supposed to say something about the boundary between speaking and writing, a boundary which I am constantly collapsing by accident, including at this moment? Wasn’t I supposed to keep my eyes on the voluble, international parade of literary forms that preceded the novel and will probably outlive it? Am I even really talking about form half the time? I don’t know. And I wanted to wrap up this mini-series about form and class and all the rest by post number 4 and turn to something less taxing on the brain. Some dessert posts. No one can live on theory alone. Certainly not me. I kind of hate theory to be honest. I wanted to do some nice little diaristic observations about the things I see on my lunch break (it’s spring in Vancouver and the leaves are very beautiful). And yet I am not sure if by the end of this post I will have kept every promise that was implicit in the posts that came before. 

But I want my dessert! I am Roberto Benigni in the jail and I scream for ice cream. Can I say everything else that I was supposed to say in this post and make it to the ice cream by next time? Not sure. But now there’s drama where there wasn’t before. And I would venture to say that this drama of digression and deferment, of putting things aside for later because something else has erupted to the fore and must be attended to, is my form, my only form. It’s the form of my novel, Falling Hour, and it is also the form of my life, and in explaining what I mean by this I may just be able to rope in every other stampeding theme I had yet to wrangle. 

An old ice cream sign, Knoxville, Tennessee. An anthropomorphic ice cream cone smiles cheerily. He cone bears the word, FREEZO. Text beneath him on the sign reads, A TASTE THRILL.

FREEZO. A TASTE THRILL. A photo by John Margolies available for use and reuse via the United States Library of Congress.

My problem is that I am on worker time. This sense of things always being deferred, not traveling in a straight line – well, that’s a function of how I live. And statistically speaking probably how you live, too. I’ve mostly been writing these pieces over the two-hour break between the second class I teach and the third, and a little on weekends, and a little at night. I mostly wrote Falling Hour in the evenings after my work days were done at my old administrative assistant job, before I became a teacher. This method means constant interruptions and stops and starts. It doesn’t help that I have the Inattentive Type of ADHD.

I had Hugh Dalgarno, the protagonist of Falling Hour, say a thing or two about what living this way does to your sense of time: 

"I could have been like Giambattista Vico, a tutor for shitty aristocrats, coveting the times in between lessons – the cycles of forgetting and remembering that all writers and thinkers who must make their living at some other task know so well – as moments to think up a theory of cyclical time itself."

Vico (1668-1744) was an Italian philosopher who genuinely did make his living as a tutor. His theory of history posits a series of wheel-like corsi e ricorsi, cycles and counter-cycles. Each historical epoch boots up, rises, and falls, only for a new one to take its place later. Much like the mind of the worker-writer sitting down to a stolen moment or two of contemplation before running off to do something else. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that James Joyce, who worked as a language teacher just like I do, was galvanized by Vico’s ideas (but also so busy that he only ever read about them in an encyclopedia).

The larger patterns of my life have been the same as my days. Growing up there was always a lot of stopping and starting, waiting and hoping for things I was never quite sure would happen. We bought things on layaway or waited for them to appear in second-hand stores or be handed down to us. Aside from a trip to Scotland to see my grandparents when I was 3, we never travelled outside of a 100 km radius. I wanted to go to university, and my parents wanted that too, but my parents had not gone to university and could not pay for it. There was so much about the process we did not know. An advisor at my high school gave me misleading advice, so I did not take all the courses I needed to qualify. I somehow managed to cram in my last one via correspondence. But I also needed student loans, and I was constantly terrified I would not be given them. Then I got them, and became terrified of what would happen once I was no longer in school and had to pay for them. Because you can do a fully-funded MA in the humanities in Canada, especially if you win additional funding from the SSHRC, I determined to go to graduate school immediately after my BA to defer paying my loans. This meant I was also terrified of getting bad grades, while simultaneously dealing with a disorder (said ADHD) I did not know I had, which impelled me to try to get good grades for work I invariably finished at the last possible moment (I also did not know it was possible to ask for an extension). This meant that my late teens and early twenties were often not exactly “fun.” 

So, from very early on, I was driven not just by stops and starts and waiting but also by the suspense of being deeply unsure if I would pull it off. When I wrote in my second post that the bourgeois novel does not really know what to do with the psyche of someone who does not expect to get their way, it was this kind of feeling I had in mind. For me it is natural not to write in a smooth “arc” of events of mounting narrative tension but rather in a rough fabric of interconnected hopes, deferrals, wishes, memories, realities, dreams, past, present, and future, where the tension comes from wondering whether, when you finally tug at the threads, it will all fall apart or hold together. It’s a representational choice but also something deeper, more embodied – a form as bones are a form, tree roots, the veins of leaves. 

Well, gosh, look at the time (or, really, look at the space). I think I might have finally said what I wanted to about time in fiction, or at least part of what I wanted to say, but I’ve done so at the expense of saying anything about speaking and writing, old forms becoming new again, the device of the character, or Lewis Grassic Gibbon. I have bad news about the ice cream. In a deferral that will be very familiar to those whose origins are not dissimilar to mine, I must remind you that we have food at home.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Geoffrey D. Morrison is the author of the poetry chapbook Blood-Brain Barrier (Frog Hollow Press, 2019) and co-author, with Matthew Tomkinson, of the experimental short fiction collection Archaic Torso of Gumby (Gordon Hill Press, 2020). He was a finalist in both the poetry and fiction categories of the 2020 Malahat Review Open Season Awards and a nominee for the 2020 Journey Prize. He lives on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territory (Vancouver). Falling Hour is his first novel.