Without understanding, the distance of color is what drew me to the window. Such shimmers like spume off the sea of what was. It was close, to me, though; closer than I cared for its reach to go. Yet, it was deceiving in its approach to me. And that was surely what it was doing. I drew no steps, yet my mind could feel the approach of the other, that thing that is always within and without the self. Imagining all that has ever been stationed between each breath, each heartbeat, the murmur of self rustling against its own boundaries. Emotions roll in me not like tides, but a thing more conscious than that. I cannot well convey it, but I know what I feel. Perhaps my own flesh rebels against time? It has used me, not the other way around. I have been chosen as a marker to decay. Yet, I cannot withstand its approach. Like the shell of an atom I am affected by the other in proportion to its propinquity. It is the bonds that are unseen in the micro which rule the macro with such impunity. Yet, both worlds exist within each other. The smaller within the larger on a physical level, yet the larger within the smaller on a psychological level. A quark spins left, not right, and a year that is dead rages from the grave. Whether it is noticed by all, or the other, makes no difference to the percipient, for notice clangs through the cosmos individually, at all times. That which we choose to notice is usually an aspect of our own past or future manifesting itself ever so briefly before the mist makes its union.
The color I saw was, specifically, my cat Harry- orange, black and white. He was engaged by the day outside my 21st Century suburban Texas home. Or was he? Upon moving toward his color I noticed that he was focused upon a balletic scene just outside. It seemed two dragonflies were locked in what seemed mid-air mortal combat- one shimmering yellow and orange, the other a deep navy blue. Their iridescence had always fascinated me, when young, and reminded me of creatures dreamt of in science fiction novels or superhero comic books. Then, as their free tumble crashed into my window’s wire mesh screen I could see it was copulation, not destruction, which possessed the insects. Their legs would frantically, but only momentarily, lock upon the screen mesh as they did their deed, then they would tumble downward, relock their legs, and continue. Perhaps it was just the color scheme, but I felt the blue dragonfly was the male. They did not mind the gaze of me, nor Harry, for the long minutes they tumbled down our sight. This diseros lasted several minutes, as Harry and I were rapt. In fact, they seemed wholly oblivious to us, as if they realized we were unlooked upon, by them, thereby unimportant. Their struggle was somehow primitive, yet understandable. Harry might swipe at the pair, with his paw, and his gesture might cause them to fly off the screen, less than a foot, then tumble back at us, into the screen, to try to fasten themselves again, as if their very mortality were no price for their desire. Desire has little relation to reality- how many of us have desired a person or a thing that was clearly, in retrospect, not worth the effort? Yet, still we desired, just to desire, regardless of our desired thing’s quality, or qualities. So, too, it seemed with the dragonflies. Aimlessly they seemed to tumble, through space alone, at first. Then, of a sudden, as I looked into the vastness behind them, time was also in remission, and the insects were not outside where I thought they were, but I, alone, was back nearly forty years earlier, to my childhood, in an impoverished section of Queens, New York.
The struggle of a pair of mindlessly driven creatures had wedged me back, myself, tumbling through the memories and aridity of years that were not mine, alone, any longer. I was part of a larger scheme- stars, desires, losses, deaths, and trivial moments that framed all the rest. It was the smaller things that roared back into me, as if a first love. It is said that a first love fills the heart even as it empties the head. So it was for me in the return to my past. I was stripped of all presuppositions and rationalizations of that time, even as I was confident of their return. I was me, them, you, others, all things at all times in all ways. I was here there, and beyond, where any soul could read my meager existence like some newly discovered star, or a fossil whose heft weighed the life of its discoverer. It was as if I had fled past the barriers of the known cosmos and was waiting for someone to notice the schism. Having read Abbott’s Flatland, I was reminded of the scene where A Square encounters a testy Sphere, who resents his existence being denoted a hallucination, so sweeps into A Square’s world, and forever shatters his illusions of reality.
The above excerpt comes from the opening of Dan Schneider’s novel Tumbleweeds, the first out of four books of his New York Quartet. This excerpt was posted in a long essay by Dan detailing his dealings with editors, agents, and publishers, among other folks, highlighting the sheer stolidity, imbecility, and plain stupidity of those purveyors of books- at least, during the time when Dan tried getting his own works published. Here’s the agent’s reaction to Tumbleweeds itself, which Dan relates and rebuts within the essay:
I read the material you sent, well that’s not strictly true. Let’s say I read laboriously and found myself lost, continually. As a stream of consciousness it has it’s merits but those thoughts are too idiosyncratic for my tastes. In the end, we have to represent material we can comprehend (not something I am sure I actually achieved with your husband’s writing) and believe in.
So, I am sorry, but we’ll pass. I’ll destroy the sheets you sent.
Thanks for sending the material, sorry it didn’t work out.
Reading this email, after having read the book in its entirety, is terrifying. After all, if such great writing could not make it past the gatekeepers, was not even comprehended by those people who (I assume) have spent their whole lives dealing with books- one wonders how many gems and masterpieces have fallen to the wayside due to the oversight of all these cliché-mongers.
So, having read Tumbleweeds- I can confirm two things. Firstly, Tumbleweeds is indeed one of the greatest novels to ever exist. In a mere 268 pages it is able to sketch out a whole neighbourhood and suffuse it with life, provide amazing depth of characterization for a whole plethora of personalities, and it alternates seamlessly between high poesy and extremely concrete descriptions.
Secondly, Tumbleweeds is not stream of consciousness. The above excerpted opening is a monologue that delves into abstraction, but it is still rooted to a place and a scene, of a narrator staring at two dragonflies with his cat. Furthermore, these peaks of poesy are exactly that- peaks amidst lengthier recollections that are far more concrete and comprehensible than whatever goes on in the writings of those labelled as stream-of-consciousness writers. In fact, exactly two pages after the explosive opening, we get this:
We lived on Conifer Street- a typical urban street with sickly trees in treeboxes too small to prevent the trees from cracking the cement about their roots, just south of Myrtle Avenue, in Ridgewood. That’s what our nabe was called, although few folks nowadays call nabes nabes anymore. Now they’re called hoods, which sounds ‘ghetto’, tough, black, to some. But, to me, Ridgewood will always be a nabe, and it still hasn’t moved. It’s still in the borough of Queens, part of New York City. Yet, when I think of it, I guess, it has moved. It’s never really been where I wanted it to be. You can tell me, ‘Well, that’s life, kiddo,’ but that doesn’t really say anything to me. Anyway, Ridgewood is located opposite a nabe called Bushwick, just on the other side of the Brooklyn/Queens border- which ran mainly down Wyckoff Avenue. Me and Wub, a fat white kid, lived on the Queens side of Conifer Street, only a block off of Myrtle, while our pal Linc, a black kid, who was a few years older than me and Wub, lived on the same street, but a few blocks south, on the Bushwick side, where many other coloreds lived. Black, Negro, colored, Afro-Americans- these are just names people use. To me, he was Linc, just as the old man who named us the Tumbleweeds was merely Al. That’s just the way it was, to me and the rest of the world. I used to think about why blacks and whites lived separately, but had a hard time figuring it out. Then I thought since Brooklyn’s south of Queens it could be because, like in the South of the country, that was just where most blacks came from. Then, I heard about the Bronx, up north, and that alot of blacks lived up there, so my theory went to hell.
It is this that makes me think the above agent probably didn’t even read beyond the first two pages of the book, and was bullshitting about the fact that he “read it laboriously”.
Although Tumbleweeds combines many styles into one cohesive whole, in terms of its overall structure and atmosphere it is closer to a grittier first-person A Tree Grows In Brooklyn than a stream-of-consciousness novel. It is a ‘slice of life’ coming-of-age novel tracking the lives of three boys as they grow up in, as mentioned above, Queens in New York City.
The quick summary of Tumbleweeds is this: Manny Kohl (the literary alter ego of Dan) lives in Queens and hangs out with a fat white kid named Wub and a black kid named Linc. The trio is nicknamed the Tumbleweeds. The entire novel alternates between first-person internal monologues and recollections of the three different characters as they slowly make their way through life, and eventually break off from one another. One of the techniques that Dan uses is he does not openly telegraph the switch in perspective, say, through a chapter title, but forces the reader to guess who is narrating by the milieu they describe. Each narrator’s perspective is limited/unreliable in its own way (although Manny can ‘see’ the farthest), and yet, combined together, they play off each other and help to build up a full portrait of the period. Their combined narration flows and shuttles through memories like real tumbleweeds; the book even opens with a dictionary definition of tumbleweeds, mimicking the technique used to open William Kennedy’s Ironweed.
Besides the perspectives of the trio, sometimes the novel dives into legends based on the neighborhood, recounted by a character called the Legend Teller. These parts are written in a style reminiscent of another one of Dan’s short story collections- Scenes From A City. Every chapter in the novel is so well-sketched that some of them may function as short stories on their own, and yet together they create an even vaster tapestry. Beyond that, it really is hard to condense the novel into any kind of singular plot- the same way Moby Dick is more than just a story about a bunch of sailors chasing a whale.
Dan has said somewhere before that Tumbleweeds is around 95% based on his own life but with deviations, and he would decrease the amount of autobiography with each subsequent novel in the Quartet. This is apparent if you compare the events that happen in the novel with the first volume of Dan’s memoir- True Life. There are similarities in some events, but Manny is an entirely different person from Dan Schneider and makes completely different choices in life, as well as holds different opinion (made clearest in a moment where he talks about how poetry is a lesser artform than prose). In fact, there is a little cameo where Manny bumps into Dan and his pals as depicted in True Life; they live in the same neighbourhood but in different places. This is one of those little metafictional leaps of logic that adds meaning to the work if you reread it with knowledge of the whole of Dan’s corpus. Tracking the small deviations between Manny and Dan opens questions as to how exactly both characters turned out the way they did even though they seem to share similar beginnings. There’s also the fact that Dan has to sketch out two other perspectives, the psychotic Wub, and the idealistic Linc- while in his memoirs it was mostly from his own perspective.
Speaking of repetition of events- Dan’s entire corpus is a great lesson in how to mine the most from a few key scenarios, images, and symbols. Throughout his works, some motifs frequently come up again and again, like cats and insects, or references like Godzilla- and yet they are given new meaning from each context they are placed in. In Tumbleweeds, there is a majestic description of a war between swarms of ants- and this was reminiscent, to me at least, of a sonnet of his dealing with the same scenario. Once again, meaning and lessons on technique can be mined from comparing the multitude of approaches across Dan’s works.
Dan’s novel no doubt draws inspiration from many sources- but he consistently and deftly avoids clichés and goes far beyond previously used tropes. There is a scene in Tumbleweeds that can be paralleled with a scene in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn- dealing with an elitist doctor who looks down on poor kids. While Brooklyn’s depiction of the doctor was more one-off, focusing on Francie’s reaction to the event, Dan adds more depth to this side-character by showing some of his motivations, and merges the scene with a greater poetic rumination on graveyards and human finitude. The ending of the whole novel is a flowing poetic monologue which recalls Loren Eiseley’s All The Strange Hours- and yet it is totally different in execution, while remaining equally exhilarating and emotional.
If there is a limitation to the novel, though, it only appears in comparison to Dan’s later works, when he begins to make use of his ‘Total Immersion’ techniques in full and has a greater daringness of structure. Although Tumbleweeds excels in almost every aspect, from poetics to characterization to detail, it tends to stick to a similar chapter structure across the whole book with some deviations. Every chapter usually ends with a poetic ‘petering out’, and you can sense the end of the chapter coming by the slow elevation of the narrator’s register. This is not an outright flaw, since all of these chapter ends are beautifully executed, but if the chapters as a whole were compared to later novels, such as the chapter Knowing Dick from A Norwegian in the Family, or those that include lengthy excerpts of public domain materials- the latter is clearly superior in the techniques utilized. Yet, Tumbleweeds does have still have variation – which becomes apparent in two particularly important chapters centring around the other two Tumbleweeds, Linc and Wub. In the chapters (34 & 37) where the events take place, they end in anti-climaxes- subverting the impact of the event as perceived even though their consequences resonate throughout the rest of the book.
At this level of analysis, it is hard to say much else about the book without a full scholarly exegesis. After all, with any great novel, the power of the book ultimately comes from how it sketches an entire reality, slowly but surely, subverting on a constant basis, with every single line and piece of characterization given. It is a literary sin that this book is unpublished by any major publishers, but hopefully, as Dan has released many of his works on Amazon as of late, you’ll be able to get your hands on it soon enough, and judge it for what it is yourself.