And there are the few who have no choice. If they did not write fiction, they would come apart altogether. Without fiction they would have no reason to remain alive. Without fiction they would have no ability to remain alive.
William McGonagall came to fiction in his fifties when he lost his job as a weaver due to mill closures. Slowly starving in his back room in the town of Dundee, he realized that he had spent his entire life serving a false master. It was time to take the sacrificial knife and lie down before the altar of poetry, his new arbitrary God.
Yes, okay, technically McGonagall is a poet. And if we are not really against poetry here at the Fiction Circus, we are at least unwilling to talk with it at family get-togethers beyond a few smiles over the potato dip. But the fact that McGonagall is a poet is completely incidental. Viewed as a poet, McGonagall is unmentionable and unreadable, except for a laugh. He not only isn't good at making his poems scan, but he doesn't even seem to be aware that scansion exists.
McGonagall is a bad poet, but he is a wonderful fiction writer. His fiction is that he was a genius. His narrative was his life. His medium was rhyming verse, written about railway disasters, poverty, and people he hated. At least two of those three things are true for anyone who writes seriously, no matter what they tell themselves.
Why was this particular man famous? First of all, there is the poetry. A typical example, on the subject of Shakespeare, the only man McGonagall acknowledged as his superior:
In his beautiful play, "As You Like It," one passage is very fine,
Just for instance in the forest of Arden, the language is sublime,
Where Orlando speaks of his Rosilind, most lovely and divine,
And no other poet I am sure has written anything more fine.
Or on the subject of New York, about which all books are ultimately written:
Then there's the elevated railroads about five storeys high,
Which the inhabitants can hear night and day passing by;
Of, such a mass of people there daily do throng--
No less than five 100,000 daily pass along;
And all along the city you can get for five cents--
And, believe me, among the passengers there's few discontent.
Or on the subject of alcoholism:
... Trust in God, and worship Him,
And denounce the publicans, because they cause sin;
Therefore cease from strong drink, and you will likely do well,
Then there's not so much danger of going to hell!
There are a million of these! Each of them was printed as a broadsheet and sold by McGonagall himself on the street corners under the collected title "Poetic Gems." Typical subject matter included poems about demon rum, revenge poems, poems about famous battles in with Scots people murdered English people, and the famous "Tay Bridge" trilogy:
Part I: The Tay Bridge is the greatest architectural marvel of our day!
Part II: The Tay Bridge collapsed, killing ninety. Let's use buttresses on our bridges in the future.
Part III: The new Tay Bridge is the greatest architectural marvel of our day!
As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill'd all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.
Like the Divine Comedy, McGonagall moves seamlessly from inferno to paradise. Like all fiction writers, McGonagall assumes that his private obsessive concerns are excellent reading matter for the public. Like modern fiction writers, McGonagall sees no reason to mediate or question this assumption whatsoever.
McGonagall was also big in the "slam poetry" scene of his day. At that time it was called "poet-baiting", and it was more openly admitted that no one in the audience actually liked what they were hearing. The worst poets were requested for these "poet-baiting" events, since the worse the poetry, the more fun you could have throwing plates of food and glasses and rocks at the hapless, sonorous vessels of beauty on stage. Then they would take your money and use it to buy food of their own!
Can you imagine if the writers of today performed a show in which literary work was read aloud so that disinterested people could chuckle and laugh at writerly antics and braggadocio? What fun! What would that be like, I wonder?
Like Dave Eggers, McGonagall too dabbled in autobiography. Most of his books are about himself and his various journeys, focusing on the most dramatic events in his life. These include:
- The time McGonagall arranged for a poetry reading in the back room of a blacksmith's shop for some quick cash. On the way home, McGonagall passed three men on the road. Terrified that the men would rob him, McGonagall beat them all with cudgels, pre-emptively. Then he ran to the sheriff's office to file a complaint. The sheriff promised to look into the matter. McGonagall cursed him and ran home, where he ate bread and butter and went to sleep.
- The death of Tennyson, which inspired McGonagall to walk sixty miles through the rain to apply in person to Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle for the now-vacant position of Poet Laureate. When the caretakers told him that Victoria wasn't at home, McGonagall turned around and walked back.
- McGonagall's famous trip to New York, most of which was spent looking for money. He tried to sell his broadsheet poems, but New Yorkers wouldn't have any of it; the Queen's coat of arms was printed at the top of every page. A friend suggested that he cut off the coat of arms. McGonagall said no--his coat of arms would follow him wherever he went. Then he asked for money.
You are McGonagall, whether you know it or not. You are hungry, and you are involved in the business of writing for the wrong reasons some of the time and for the right reasons some of the time. The question is whether or not you'll own up to this, whether you'll make it work as well as did McGonagall.
This is a man who starred in the only performance of Macbeth in which Macbeth refuses to die. Why should he, thinks McGonagall? The actor playing Macduff was a jerk, a publican! Fuck him! Let him stab me over and over while I laugh and dance and caper about the stage, Macbeth, jute weaver, putative Poet Laureate over the never-waning British Empire. Let the audience cackle and throw peas at me. Let Macduff finally end the performance by smashing my hands so I can no longer hold my sword, then sweeping my legs from under me so I crash like a tin solider to the floor, back spasming and peas and rat droppings rolling around my eyes, laughing, laughing.
I am McGonagall! I am fiction itself, and I will never die.
Posted by future on Thu, 17 Jul 2008 17:15:20 -0400 -- permanent link