Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Art is like Being Haunted: a spoiler-free review of WHAT MAKES YOU DIE by Tom Piccirilli

Delirious artistry comes down to us, as it always does, from Dionysus. Take two of these and write until tomorrow morning, so to speak. Tom Pic, the character who is also a screenwriter is no stranger to the demons that walk the edges of the page. His latest book decides to let the demons step into center stage and walkabout, and merge and blend with all the people and places that populate a page under the best and worst of circumstances. In some respects, one question comes to mind, if this character is as bad news as he seems to be, and as bad news as everyone says he is, are the people who put up with him real or a hallucination?

WHAT MAKES YOU DIE is a hallucination of a novel, with a narrator so unreliable, you never know who is living or who is a ghost, because he never knows who is living or who is a ghost. The whole work is reminiscent of the drug-addled, psychosis of the late 60s. It could just be a dream of a bum, talking to himself, and stumbling from one abandoned building to another, clutching at drugs as if they were the dreams of Hollywood, flickering in the dark on the screen, and not the other way around where the drugs create the dreams.

He has written a screenplay. Or, rather, he has written part of one. It is a very exciting screenplay. There's a dead body on the roof. There's a leg in the bathtub. It might be the leg of the character who is missing a leg. It is an amazing screenplay for someone climbing their way up to the top, or struggling on their way back to the bottom. It is apparently so good, even the deadbeat Hollywood agent can see that something is special, here. Something is different. Money can be made with it. Go forth, then, Tommy, and figure out how to finish.

He has no memory of the script, and was locked up in a psychoward for attempting to carve a komodo dragon ghost out of his stomach. Here is a moment where we can delineate the horror genre from the fantasy one: The narrator does not believe there's really a ghost inside of him, and prefers to stick to the knowledge that he is hallucinating. Do you believe him? Is this the way a hallucinating man interacts with his world? Is this what it takes to create great art? Do you have to carve the art out of your gut like excising a parasitic demon?

Hollywood hands over all proceedings in the text. He stumbles through his own memories, glories and failures, while stumbling between his mother's house and all the places the wasted man shamble when they are procrastinating.

Hallucination, then: Beside this haunted man's agent's office, where he had gone for a meeting, there is a store that sells witchcraft supplies and he meets a white witch who wishes to help. Which is it, then? Which side is the hallucination in the convenient coin toss? Is the agency real, but the Wiccan a lie? Is the Wiccan real, and did it draw him there under the pretext of the agency contract, because deep down, poor ol' Tom needs to be healed? My advice is trust no one, and try to stay focused on what feels real, because feelings don't lie in fiction. If it feels real, then it might as well be real. If it is real to Tom, it's real.

There's so much to get lost in here. The memories of Hollywood seem hyperreal, and we suspect they aren't true early in the book. No one is that lucky. But, we suspect they might be true, because Hollywood and art is a world of nothing but luck. Is the Laurence Welk show really playing in the other room for the sister that never changes the channel? Is it even on TV anymore? Which of the phantasms that pass through these pages is alive, and which is dead? The author is not interested in answering that question, and merely drops clues like the Welk music, that something isn't right.

Okay, so let's move on to other things. There's a missing girl deep in the past, and a father that died young from cancer. Both seem to be things that broke the main character off the normal path, and into the writing path. It's as if their ghosts haunt the man. The absence haunts him. Literally, perhaps, he is haunted. A young boy was hit by a car, dragged to his death across the blacktop. All these accumulated ghosts weigh him down; he writes to them. He's trapped inside the veil of the phantasms, wandering the streets lost in his own head. He knows there's this amazing screenplay inside of him, if only he can cut deep enough, and dig out the damn dead dragon that's curled up in there.

Fiction is only a lie if you refuse to hear the truth. Komodo dragons in the belly, and a maze of confusion, uncertainty, failure, and strong liquor, then. Feel something. Do something.

Read this book.

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