Monday, August 30, 2010
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Monday, August 23, 2010
I once wrote a newspaper profile about a guy who claimed to have personally imported about 80 percent of the species of tropical bamboo available in the United States. He was a hard fellow to reach, and once I finally got him to agree to an interview, I had to find his bamboo grove hidden in the subtropical scrub in South Florida. When I pulled up, the place looked deserted, but I figured I was in the right place because I was surrounded by towering stands of bamboo.
I honked a few times, and finally the man himself emerged from his octagonal house on stilts (no kidding). He reeked of weed and wore unlaced construction boots and a filthy white T-shirt. He talked about how his competitors had stolen all his best techniques for bamboo propagation, how he traveled through China and Asia, collecting rare tropical bamboo. He showed me where he had built his own USDA quarantine facility for newly introduced bamboo.
As we talked, he drove me around his property—and I was blown away. I fancy myself a little bit of a snob when it comes to tropical plants, but I'd never seen anything like this place. He had plants that weren't even named yet, in some cases, plants that were literally the only specimen of their kind in the Western Hemisphere. Giant green timber bamboos with stalks as thick as my leg. Glossy black bamboo with green pin striping. Blue bamboos. SIlvery green bamboos. Buddha bellies. Gold. Yellow.
One moment stood out. He had stopped his golf cart in front of a clump of rare black bamboos and was regarding the plants thoughtfully.
"I probably know as much about tropical bamboo as anyone in the United States," he said without a trace of arrogance. I got the feeling this wasn't something he bragged about. Rather, it was a piece of knowledge that he carried like a sack full of rocks. He was wistful and isolated all at once, because really, how could I have possibly understood?
Such is the nature of monomania, and I'm powerfully attracted to it.
There are two kind of monomania in books. Books about monomanical people, and books by monomaniacal people.
The first category is pretty much owned by Malcolm Gladwell nowadays, but Mary Roach makes some impressive forays into the land of the monomaniac, and Jon Krakauer has been circling that particular orb in pretty much every book. In his day, Herman Melville wrote perhaps the word's best novel about a monomaniac—in the process, penning my favorite book.
But I think the best books about monomania are the ones actually authored by the crazed lunatic who has devoted his or her life to an obscure mania. These books are like candy and I crave them. I have a book on artisan breadmaking that is so infused with the love of fresh, hand-made artisan loaves that flour virtually puffs from its pages. I have another on fern allies that could only have been written by a person who must be single and unfit for polite society. And I once spent months searching out a particular book on Szechuan cuisine because the book itself is a taste sensation to read, even if the dishes are beyond the reach of any Western cook.
It's no secret why I find myself so attracted to books about monomania—I envy people who have fully given themselves to their passions. I think it must be freeing to give yourself over completely to one corner of this wide world. It must be like a form of security.
One last story: when I was in seventh grade, I entered my butterfly collection in my school's science fair. Typical of seventh grade, I wasn't the only butterfly collection in the fair. But I'm not bragging to say there was no collection like mine. I had butterflies from thirty states. I had case upon case of carefully mounted and labeled butterflies. I'd pretty much lived with my net in hand every summer since fourth grade. I had devoured countless books and field guides on butterfly taxonomy and habitats. This was no throw-it-together on the weekend project—this was the organizing and stabilizing influence of my life at a time when things seemed unstable and disorganized.
Of course I won. Within a year, I'd hung up my net for good and moved onto other enthusiasms—each of which is reflected in my book collection to this day. In a very real sense, if you know my books, you know me.
Friday, August 20, 2010
As far as opening gambits for novels go, here's a good one: a man with no memory and the inability to feel pain shows up in a small Texas town and goes to work for a two-bit carnival that barely puts twenty paying butts in the seat every night. The man, who has no idea how he showed up in Texas bloody and wearing a suit, starts an act where he shoots nails through his hands every night to the delighted, squeamish satisfaction of the growing crowds. He doesn't know his name, so they call him Numb.
Meet Numb: A Novel (written by Sean Ferrell, Harper Perennial, 2010).
As Numb quickly rises up in the circus to the main act, the other circus freaks have mixed opinions. One, a strongman known as The It, thinks that Numb is just spectacle. He's not a performer. He's a human pincushion who shoots himself full of nails.
It doesn't take long before Numb attracts a more sinister kind of opportunity to exploit his unique condition. A wealthy Texas oilman offers a large sum of money to see him wrestle a lion. Numb agrees, but he's not exactly sure why he's doing this.
Throughout his early adventures, Numb remains surprisingly rooted in the real world and feels very human ... despite the almost garish and painful subject matter. In the first half of the book, Numb loses so much blood, it’s like a horror flick. This poor guy at one point is nailed down, hands and feet, to a stinking bar while strangers pay $100 each for the privilege of driving another nail through his flesh.
Of course Numb is a metaphor—or at least it works like one. In Numb the man, people find a perfectly exploitable human being. Since he cannot feel, and since he is so very different, he is the ideal canvas on which others can paint their ambitions, cruelties and sick fascinations. It's true that the metaphor is carried a bit far; after relocating to New York City, Numb is recruiting by an agent who makes him famous. Yet aside from his freakish nature, it's hard to understand exactly what qualities or talents propel Numb to fame. A great deal of thematic energy is spent on the idea of Numb as an artist, but the exact nature of his art is harder to understand.
But still, I really liked this book—rather, I should say this book really stuck with me. Numb is so perfectly passive, so immune to the world, that when he does awaken, it’s especially sweet and heartfelt. The writing is clean and has moments of pure ambition and insight. And the central conceit—a man who is victimized by his own indifference and unique nature, then slowly awakens to the realization that he is the central actor in his life—is instantly recognizable.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars