The Artist Type

Above his head hung an aura that revealed his powers like an angel’s halo, the mere sight of which would inspire awe in people for this superior being. Which is why it shocked everyone that Nagasawa chose me, a person with no distinctive qualities, to be his special friend. -Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

In the bar I told Dean, “Hell, man, I know very well you didn’t come to me only to want to become a writer, and after what do I really know about it except you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.” And he said, “Yes, of course, I know exactly what you mean and in fact all those problems have occured to me” […] Wanting dearly to learn how to write like Carlo, the first thing you know, Dean was attacking him with a great amorous soul such as only a con-man can have. –Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Such as only a con-man can have…this is the story of a man named Z (who wasn’t a Greek political activist). Z moved here about two years ago with a friend of his, and his friend would take him along to the graduate student parties, and he would make more friends and get people to buy him drinks, and some of my friends, who weren’t careful, would lose thirty or forty dollars a night at the bars like that. They didn’t regret it, though; they would talk about losing their money to his cocktails with a sort of wistful lack of understanding.

Z does what almost nobody is willing to do with a straight face: he tells you he’s an artist. He is not an artist; this must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. The closest thing he has to a being is a vague resemblance to certain movie stars, including a soulful goatee, and a very thin face. Just as he talks about being an artist, he jump-starts conversations by comparing himself to William Fichtner, and giving you a chance to name someone you resemble, too — it is possible he learned this from the featured personal ads at The Onion. His background is that he was an Army brat (cf. Morrison).

He has absolutely no idea that he is a con-man. Literally speaking, he is a graphic designer, and he’s good at his job — his professional pieces are totally decent. He does not talk about that very much. The pivotal moment with him came about a year ago, when he started talking about taking the lives of his friends, and putting them into odd, totemic cartoon strips somewhere between American Splendor and Maus. I’ve seen blueprints for this thing, and it looks pretty good. On storyboard, what I know to be boring and sometimes unsympathetic anecdotes are transformed into a goofy, existential heroism.

So, having had this idea for a gigantic art project, he invites everybody he knows to a “show” of his work. This will take place at his house, instead of at a gallery, because galleries are a waste of time, as we know. His jumpy enthusiasm starts to kindle, and he manages to convince a fair number of people to attend, including neighbors he’s never met previously. However, when I attend his party, there is one person there, total; neither Z nor his art is in sight.

Z was sitting around the block, crying, and smoking cigarettes. He had done absolutely nothing for his show; other invitees had already left. We didn’t want to embarrass him any further by sticking around.

Z (weeping): There’s just nothing.

I saw him a week later, a motionless body next to his roommates. He had a blanket pulled over his head, and he was asleep, except when one of them offered him a drag on their cigarette by tapping him on the shoulder. He would wake up, take a drag on the cigarette, and then go back to sleep under the blanket.

However, none of this is fatal to him — precisely because it’s undoubtedly happened before. I saw him last weekend, and he was entirely wrapped up in the effort to persuade a woman he’d just met to follow him home. In order to do this, he was telling stories about taking drugs in Amsterdam, which is certainly among the more deadly clichés known to man.

Z (excitedly): So we’re talking about something like half a gram of sativa, which is way beyond the usual dose. Like, the usual dose is a twelfth of that. Maybe a twentieth. I had to just roll up and smoke the whole thing. But the sativa really fucks with your head. You know, like one second I wasn’t feeling anything, and the next second there were eight of every face, eight of every car. It’s beyond belief when a busy street turns into that. There was my friend, beckoning me to follow her. I remember looking at her hand with this sense of despair creeping all over me. I was committed to staying where I was and learning to live in Amsterdam by myself, almost like a savage, but somehow I kept going towards her hand until I was able to grasp it. I could see myself moving in slow motion, everything around me about to collide into me, but infinitely slowly, even gently.

Now, the original for Z, who is a real person, is of course Dean Moriarty, who isn’t exactly. In real life, he was Neal Cassady, and we see pretty clearly in On the Road what he did for Kerouac — he was the guy who was able to live out the fantasies that Kerouac put into his fiction. It’s so exhausting to actually live this way, as the center of attention, ravenously consuming lovers, confidantes, places, and drugs, that no creation is possible. Dean hooks up with Sal Paradise in order to learn how to write, but never learns or writes anything.

This figure isn’t exclusively male — I’m thinking of Doreen in The Bell Jar. It’s interesting to see the dynamic play out among the Irvine MFAs. I can think of three who have taken a reckless, bohemian lifestyle and turned it into fantastic art — one woman and two men. The others are perfectly able to drink like fish, but it does nothing for their art, which is based on pop fantasy, or on medical scares, or on scientific data. In other words, the small and emotional events of their daytime lives, plus the things that make them intellectually curious, are the material they end up able to craft, with the rest being just recreation. (And I can think of three casualties of Bukowski syndrome.)

That’s not to say that temperance is the true path. Rather, it’s to assert that most modern artists seem to find inspiration through a complicated process of envy and self-dissension; through the controlled, curious self looking at self-destructive excess with a mixture of fear and desire, whether that is a divide between day and night, or a divide between self and friend. Perhaps most of the good modern art — the novels like Norwegian Wood or A Sport and a Pastime, with their debts to The Great Gatsby and A Separate Peace — is a form of praise for those people who have kept the clichés from running out of gas, by putting their genius into their life. They unfold like Japanese sponges in the transparent consciousness of the “ordinary” young man or woman of compassion, who becomes the unassuming narrator in their story—

I’m just an ordinary guy—ordinary family, ordinary education, ordinary face, ordinary grades, ordinary thoughts in my head.
-Toru from Norwegian Wood

One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion. It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess. And in turn, they give some back. But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are. They do not last forever. They fade. They vanish. They are surpassed, forgotten—one hears of them no more.
James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime