The Common Good
November 2005

An Epic Experience

by Ed Spivey Jr. | November 2005

Ever notice how the great novels tend to be really long?

An Epic Experience

In preparation for our annual books and music issue, I have attempted to better myself culturally by reading Remembrance of Things Past, considered by many literary critics to be the most brilliant novel of the 20th century written by a guy named Marcel.

Proust’s master work is 3,000 pages long, and I’m pleased to report that, after only six weeks of daily reading, I’m already up to page 32. (Yes, I’ve hit a slow patch, but I expect the author will pick up the pace in the last 2,968 pages.)

It’s taking me a while because The Narrator—a wealthy French boy waiting anxiously for his wealthy mother to kiss him good night—is describing, in exhaustive detail, the objects in his bedroom. This technique is used so that the reader, presumably in preparation for major surgery, can fall into a deep French expressionist coma. Either that, or it was the writer’s way of introducing us into the young man’s world which, given what he’s describing, would take a really long time to vacuum.

Not to second-guess one of the last century’s greatest novelists, but I wonder if the story might move along a bit faster had the boy’s bedroom suddenly lit up with the piercing floodlights of a hovering helicopter, and ninja-garbed figures rappelled down and crashed through the windows. This would have the valuable literary effect of scaring the crap out of the kid and taking his mind off his momma. It would also propel the reader into the next chapter, which hopefully would include political intrigue, betrayal, and a car chase.

READING PROUST is just one of the ways I’ve been trying to improve my cultural life. Recently I agreed to attend a poetry reading, primarily because I was unable to come up with a reason not to. I have traditionally avoided these events since they lack the competitive quality of other culturally uplifting activities—such as professional wrestling—and rarely include the chips and beer that should be required at poetry readings of any real distinction.

By happy coincidence, this particular gathering included what was probably the best buffet I have ever made a complete fool of myself enjoying. We’re talking strawberries the size of tennis balls, Brie to die for, and cinnamon pita points that were so crisp and tasty I had to be restrained from going back for seconds. (Although, to be perfectly honest, I was already on thirdsies.) Unfortunately the plates were the size of coasters, which required an acute sense of balance. Hint: strawberry, then Brie slice, strawberry. Brie slice, etc. Fortunately, I had my shirt pocket for back-up.

To make matters worse, the food was laid out directly behind the podium, which meant that saying “oh yummy” after each new discovery became a major distraction to the poets. Although during one reading, my spontaneous lip-smacking actually provided a touch of the iambic that, to this listener, was sorely needed.

From my vantage point at the buffet table—between bites of crunchy pita—I was able to pay close attention to the readings, and I determined that, despite a wide range of topics, the poets seemed to draw from the same inspirational categories, namely:
• Clouds.
• A deeply moving personal tragedy.
• More clouds.
(I’m told that amateur poets like clouds because they look like cotton candy in the sky.) (The clouds, not the poets.)

Despite people shushing me and tugging my sleeves at the buffet table, I came away from the experience inspired to revisit my own poetic efforts for this magazine. Unfortunately, two of my early works—“Hooray for Water” and “Unicycles Make Me Smile”—had been cruelly rejected by an editor whose master’s degree in poetry provides, in my opinion, the barest of qualifications to judge. I admit that my earlier works may have lacked a certain scope and depth, but my latest effort reveals a more mature poet at work. It is my opus, as fresh as today’s headlines, as timeless as an epic novel, only shorter. I call it “What’s the Deal With Cell Phones?”

What’s the Deal With Cell Phones?
What’s the deal with cell phones? Anyhow?
People talk on them
All the time. And then they make calls
While they’re driving
Under the clouds.
I hate it when they do that.

Hard to improve such verse, unless, while you were reading it, helicopters swooped down from overhead and ninjas burst through your window. That would be cool.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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