Monday, May 21, 2007

You're Getting to Be a Hobbit with Me

Discovery comes peeking over your shoulder whenever you empty your pockets on your desk, open a book you've previously read, or look through your car for something you think you may have left there. Discovery can also stand on a ladder or chair, straining for a better look whenever you enter the garage you so laboriously turned into a study (but rarely use now because you've switched to laptop computers and because the cable modem seemed to have developed the habit of turning off whenever you were in the midst of something truly interesting

There are things in your pocket and in books and sometimes in the car that truly amaze you, things that in essence remind you of the protagonist of Richard Powers's latest novel, The Echo Maker. Like this afflicted young man, you have the sense of someone or somebody's going to a great deal of trouble to imitate your handwriting, then use it to scrawl and scratch notes that were meant to remind you of things, or directions to places of whose reality you have no doubt but of whose relevance to you there is considerable doubt.

I am one of the few who know of J. R. R. Tolkein without being a fan of either The Hobbit or, later, The Lord of the Rings cycle. My interest in him has to do with the fact that he professed Anglo-Saxon at my old buddy Brian Fagan's alma mater, Pembroke College, and that while doing so, he found a scrap of paper on which he wrote--and promptly lost under a pile of other papers--the first sentence of what was to become The Hobbit.

I try to keep some sense of order about such scribblings of my own; at times I even try to keep a drawer or pile or even a PendaFlex file for the notes and concepts I suspect may have been produced by complete strangers.

There is no discipline to curiosity nor is there any to discovery; they both descend upon you like out-of-town friends or relatives, unanticipated, possibly even unwanted.

If I put in sufficient time trying to decode or give context to these mysterious and mystifying notes, I am often able to remember their origin, a spark or two of enthusiasm, a flash of energy, the lightning-in-a-bottle of an incandescent idea that has for a moment illuminated the darkness of my cranial cavity.

Late last week, having begun a list of 100 genre novels for use in my class this summer, it came to me--well, first it came to Barnaby Conrad--that I could get a twofer, some titles for my list and five or six novels I'd read in the past for my Book Talk column for The Montecito Journal, where I alternate a newly published work with something done well into the past.

One of the books I found in the library (remember the garage?) was The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler, with seven or eight place marks inserted here and there throughout the text. Thinking these place marks had been set to alert me to some quotable material, I began to read them.

I mostly do not do things in the library (garage) anymore, because of the ongoing odor of mildew that began with a severe rainstorm some years back, and because it simply isn't fun.

The Chandler trumped the mildew and the relative lack of fun. I have no idea why those particular places were marked but I do know that I had read enough of the novel to complete the rereading, rush to my newest laptop, and begin work on a retrospective look at The Little Sister.

Chandler has not been with us since 1959, not in person, but this, one of his least known, holds up and catches me immediately by having a woman from Manhattan, Kansas, hire Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, to find her gone missing brother, last known whereabouts a rooming house on Idaho Street in Bay City.

Bay City is to Santa Monica what Ross Macdonald's and Sue Grafton's Santa Teresa is to Santa Barbara. I was born and raised in Santa Monica, and just as he had with the rest of what we like to think of as the Los Angeles Basin, he "got" Santa Monica as it was back then when southern California was finding its way back from World War II.

There are a number of scraps from the garage, a few from my pocket, and one from my car that could either be from me or a student who writes like me.

These scraps of paper become like land mines; I wake from memory of their content, or a connection materializes when I am in the midst of something quite other.

It is as though these notes are like small pieces of myself, time capsules of me at an earlier age or with an attitude that makes me wonder about myself in ways that I have not.

The archaeologist at work.

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