Friday, December 26, 2008

how to safely tell everyone your deepest secrets

i've just finished paul auster's 'the brooklyn follies.' usually, auster writes in a highly stylized way, with characters who are more ideas than people. it's fun and thought-provoking but the follies - the new york writer's roundabout response to 9-11 - is a straight forward story with real people. in the end, *semi-spoiler alert*, the narrator decides to start a book company publishing the biographies of ordinary dead people. this is in part to give their grieving families something to hear beyond the silence of the grave and in part as a philosophical middle finger to our culture of knowing more about famous strangers than those who share our lives.

that got me thinking about the extraordinary real-life 'sculptures' i saw in pompeii, italy. when mount vesuvious erupted, it buried the town in ash. thousands died. when it was excavated 2,000 years later, they found human-shaped absences in the ground. an archeologist had the clever idea of pouring plaster into the pockets, thus creating astonishing sculptures of people dying on the streets of the ancient roman seaport.

the faces are frozen in 20-century-old terror, bodies huddled in the fetal position or protecting others. some find it a ghoulish spectacle, but i found it immensely touching - and for the same reason as auster's character forms his Bios Unlimited company, and for the same cheeky joy of novel writing.

walking about italy today, it's not hard to see what the rich and powerful of ancient rome looked like - we see busts and statues all over the joint. but if not for the curious disaster of pompeii, we'd have little idea what real, ordinary people looked like. the sculptures of pompeii immortalize anonymous people - people like us. that's what auster's guy wants to do, and that's what i love to do in novels.

think shakespeare in love. i take little pieces of the people in my life - quirks, habits, ways of speaking, and, most fun, secrets - and put it into a novel. change names, change physical appearance and no one will guess who's inspired by whom - not even the person who inspired it.
thus secrets that are otherwise locked away forever are published for anyone in the whole world to read, but no one (except me) knows what they are reading. anonymous immortality.

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