Three Dialogs about Ron Maclean’s Three-Part Short Story Collection,
we might as well light something on fire
I. goats, rabbits, etc.
We’re going to talk about we might as well light something on fire.
Right. You know the writer?
Is he brave?
I was never in combat with him. Why do you ask?
Guy writes a really far out book called we might as well light something on fire, some smartass will say, right, let’s start with this book.
That would be an incendiary insult to one of the most original collections I have ever read. How do you want to proceed?
Section by section, one of the three sections for each meeting, and concentrate on one story.
OK, first section, goats, rabbits, etc. What story?
“lesser escape artists.” It’s got the right animals, but what if somebody says, this is just zany, not real surrealism?
It's neither faux surrealism nor old style surrealism, as in Breton’s manifesto, which demands the total surrender of reason. It has its own amazing brand. But what’s your take?
I’m really into the story. It’s like a Dali painting a Japanese anime artist has gotten hold of. Very weird butcher shop, very weird happenings.
No modern woman uses the old rabbit test to find out if she’s pregnant, especially a blind talking male rabbit.
Axiomatic. What else?
Your turn. What’s with all the strings?
Now is the time, said the blogger to his friend, to speak of many strings—strings on sausages and cheeses, strings of geeses, strings in figures of speeches, don’t string me along, the string is played out, strings in quartets, cats’ cradles, guitars. They string the story together.
A good thing because the plot is definitely hanging by a thread. But the butcher says string theory has been disproven.
These strings are metaphorical, not post-quantum, a fictional device that binds together basic human concerns like procreation and death, our relationship to animals, sexual relationships, control, escape.
OK, the title, “lesser escape artists.” Who’s a major escape artist?
Did Houdini escape death?
No. Bacteria killed him after he escaped all kinds of physical bondage.
No. He put the three blows of fate in the last movement of his sixth symphony, but they didn’t stay there. His heart went thump, thump, thump and stopped.
Who are the lesser escape artists?
The goats and the rabbit.
The goats are goners. You think the rabbit escaped?
That’s for the reader to figure out.
The untested reader is not worth writing for. OK, next time love.
This section is called love. I’m having a hard time finding much of it. Maybe a female thing. You pick the story this time.
OK. Is the narrator searching for love? On a tourist bus in Lapland?
The narrator has a bad love history.
So what’s he looking for?
Everybody on the bus is out in this frozen wilderness with their binoculars looking up at the sky for something extraordinary. But our narrator is a son of Pascal: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” Pensees. All the narrator sees are “. . . stars: indiscriminate, chaotic, unreachable.”
Do the others see some transcendent pattern?
I doubt it. I think they’re just hoping to see some new constellations and the aurora borealis.
What about the “talker?”
A soi-disant metaphysician craving “A sense that we’re part of something beautiful, vast, complete.”
Right. Here’s the choice. Do you want to seek the ground of your being or do you just want creature comforts—food, warm clothes, relationships, sex, pop music, a hobby like knitting or jotting in a notebook?
Which does the narrator want?
Both. But the odds are stacked. He’s a failed lover, there’s not enough food on the bus and he doesn’t like it anyway, he can’t connect with his fellow tourists due to the language barrier, can’t see what the guidebook promised, can’t stay warm.
Grim prospects, right?
So it seems. But he may run up against an old paradox: the way you know something exists is by becoming aware of its absence—love, order, meaning.
Is this the absence of God is God thing?
Something like that. More homely, hole in the donut. You have to have a donut.
So what do you think he’ll he do with the absences?
I don’t know. He could struggle on, knowing their presence is out there somewhere, recommit himself to the search for love and the affirmation of the value of his being. Or he could decline into hopeless Kafkaesque absurdity. Or muddle around in some middle state.
The story asks big questions, doesn’t it?
The question I’d say. And the Devil is in the details—defective mittens, a missing tooth, a smarmy guidebook, the clack clack of knitting needle, the unyielding crunch of tundra and ice.
Terrific story. About love, and Love.
Next time the section what remains.
III. what remains
OK, the last section, hauntings, the story “What Remains.” A woman hero. This is mine. You’re the straight man this time.
Understood. Your idea to light Senator La Follette’s hair on fire?
No. The author’s. His title, we might as well light something on fire. And La Follette was an incendiary. Background. Martha, our hero, a federal prosecutor, fails to win a case against the bankers and corporate types who engineered the 2008 crash. Betrayed by her boss. What to do?
What’s Senator Robert La Follette got to do with it?
A ghost from the past, anti-banker, anti-corporation. Martha’s second father.
Both fathers losers, right?
What’s a loser? Somebody who keeps fighting after the other side wins? Or somebody who caves in to the other side? Old Senator La Follette vs. Martha’s boss.
Does it seem weird to you that Martha’s last name is La Follette but there’s no blood kinship?
No. The fighting instinct can come from a fierce lineal father or from a fierce ghost. Blood or myth.
Myth? La Follette was an historical figure.
History is myth with some facts stuck on it. To win you have to control the myth. In this story the capitalist entrepreneurs control it, so far.
What about the ashes and bones subplot?
They’re remains of the fighting spirit. To fight, La Follette needed the bones of the father he never knew. Martha needs her father’s ashes. Both risk criminal acts to get these crucial remains.
So the story's about being true to your paternity?
Ha. You thought you’d catch me with that, you devious male. The story’s deeper. It’s about finding out who you are. Not a fed prosecutor. That’s just an identity with a role. I mean your Self.
The cognitive scientists haven’t located a Self.
And neither have most people. They have identities, marketable, particularly in politics, but not a Self. The thing about the Self is it can’t be commodified, has to be lived out in its own terms.
A Self. Interesting. But a tough sell.
Put it this way, to use the story’s imagery, can a fire be fanned up out of these ashes? Can these bones live? You know that one?
I’ll look it up.
Do that. Because, if you haven’t noticed, we’re in the Valley of Bones right now.
A hell of a story all right.
And a story of hell. We need Martha.