Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Crystallized Meth

“At the end of the day, no one could say he wasn’t religious anymore,” Clifford Meth writes of one character in his short story collection One Small Voice. “He practiced avoidance religiously.” If Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor made a baby and allowed Quentin Tarantino to raise it, you’d have Clifford Meth. In getting to know Meth’s characters, I thought of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s description of Herman Melville’s religiousness: “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.” Meth crystallizes the plight of modern faith through god-haunted characters looking for love (and sanity) in all the wrong places. “You feel as if you’re not reading at all, but merely evesdropping,” Roy Thomas writes in the introduction, hinting at the unerring ear Meth has for natural dialogue that gets to the heart of the matter while still making you laugh, all accompanied by equally concise and direct illustrations by some of the leading graphic artists in the comics industry today. The harrowing and hilarious recounting of one character’s vasectomy comes to life in Gene Colan’s illustration (above) of the two men driving together. Like his pharmaceutical namesake, Meth’s effects can be overwhelming and troublingly addictive.

Meth follows Sartre’s belief that “Hell is other people,” but adds “so is Heaven.” “Hank’s wife smiled,” Meth writes in one of his more romantic (for him) moments. “She was his opposite pole, stupid with life, holy and healthy and pristine. She never used bad language. She was an angel. Hank wondered about that—how love could possibly have a urinary track.” This Vonnegut-esque view of life, taking the bitter and the sweet appears in the repetition of the phrase “What do you want from life?” in one story titled “A Foolish Consistency,” which tolls bell-like the same way “So it goes…” tolled in Slaughterhouse-Five. David DeVries version of a pieta (above) accompanies “A Thimble of Salvation,” a story in which deliverance comes in the form of a prostitute, as likely a source as any in Meth’s universe. Organized religion takes a beating in Meth’s stories, but the characters’ disorganized faiths hold few answers, too. “Herb’s eyes had that opaque, faraway look you’d have expected of Jesus, or at least of Joan of Arc,” Meth writes. Faith is an opaque thing for Meth, who prefers instead the clear transparency of everyday life, with all its small cruelties and kindnesses.

Meth marries religious hang-ups with sexual ones, specifically the special brands of repression dealt out by the Catholic and Jewish faiths. The consequences of sex for Meth’s characters usually outweigh its pleasures. In “Reprise,” two married people, former lovers, conduct an “affair” over e-mail, virtually experiencing what they resist physically and emotionally (accompanied beautifully by Mark Badger’s striking image above). A Victoria’s Secret addict finds even his fantasies are unfulfilling in “Inside Yasmeen.” “I want you so bad,” he says in his dream. “Badly,” she corrects him. Meth traces the whole trajectory of love, from the first glances across a bar to the restraining orders to the divorce proceedings, always with an eye on some kind of salvation, however small. Seen from a distance, Meth’s world seems bleak and cold, but read closely reveals itself as a series of oases from the spiritual and emotional dryness all around us.

Meth’s film noir-esque, combative spirit energizes his writing. “Turn the other cheek: The battle cry of the slapped,” he writes. The meek may inherit the earth, but Meth inherits the legacy of writers such as Vonnegut in his clear-eyed take on life, love, and god, if there is one. Meth’s writing seems perfectly suited to the short format used in One Small Voice. Longer exposure would be overwhelming. Meth in small doses acts like homeopathic medicine, poisoning you just enough to make you better and stronger. By combining Meth’s powerful voice and the creative visuals of his accompanists, One Small Voice says the things that we only admit to ourselves, but know that everyone else is thinking, too.

[Many thanks to IDW Publishing for providing me with a review copy of Clifford Meth’s One Small Voice and for the images from the book.]

1 comment:

Becky Willis Motew said...

What excellent commentary. You have made me want to read this.