In this edition of the Big Idea, author Chandler Klang Smith confronts reality, the imaginary, perception, and, of course, Bob Dylan, whilst discussing her novel Goldenland Past Dark. Good morning! Hope you’ve had your coffee.
CHANDLER KLANG SMITH:
When one sees reality through the mind’s eye, what is created? And what is erased, distorted, lost?
The last song on the Bob Dylan album Highway 61 Revisited is “Desolation Row.” Like most of the other tracks, it’s populated with surreal and carnivalesque figures: a tightrope walker, a fortuneteller, the hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, mermaids. After what seems like a final verse (in which the players board the doomed Titanic), the music goes into a lengthy harmonica solo – presumably, the end of the song, the end of the album. But it isn’t. Like the false bottom of a drawer, it’s just there to conceal the most important content. When Dylan’s lyrics return, the imagery is entirely different from what’s preceded it:
“Yes, I received your letter yesterday / About the time the doorknob broke / When you asked me how I was doing / Was that some kind of joke? / All these people that you mention / Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame / I had to rearrange their faces / And give them all another name…”
Like a dream, the song has taken characters and situations from the speaker’s life and translated them into symbols, disguised them in metaphor. Sometimes reality only becomes bearable when glimpsed in the funhouse mirror of the imagination.
If I had one guiding idea when I wrote Goldenland Past Dark, it was this. My novel is about a young circus performer, Webern Bell, damaged physically and psychologically by a childhood that left him motherless, hunchbacked, and stunted. In the present day, he deals with everything emotional in his life (memories, love, grief, anger, rejection), through bizarre clown routines that come to him in dreams. When even that becomes too painful, he finds comfort with an imaginary friend, Wags, who also serves as his double, scapegoat, and replacement.
As someone who prefers the alternate worlds of fiction to any reality I’ve experienced, I can certainly relate to the impulse to make sense of life through fantasy. Yet I see something sinister in it too, and this was the tension I wanted to explore. The urge to retreat, to escape, can be a creative one, but taken to an extreme, it can be a form of delusion, self-erasure – psychic suicide. It also can let the dreamer off too easy. In the kingdom of one’s own mind, other people aren’t real, so there’s no need to consider anyone else’s point of view.
Which brings us back to the Bob Dylan song. For me, that final verse is so powerful not just because he reveals the logic underlying the creation of the song that precedes it, but because, for the first time, he acknowledges the presence of the listener he’s addressing. And more than that, he’s communicating with this person – not just transmitting a message into the void, but continuing a conversation, responding to the letter he received. As much as he wants to be left alone (“Don’t send me no more letters, no…”), the hope of being understood by another has motivated and inspired him all along.
The point of making art isn’t just to create a space where you can go to sort out the nonsense of life; it’s to open up this space to others, too. By the end of Goldenland Past Dark, my protagonist makes himself vulnerable in this way, and consequently, grows up as a person and as a performer.