Mike Barnes: A Room in the Dark

Mike Barnes
photo: Segbingway

As I was reading the opening chapters of Mike Barnes’ The Adjustment League, I was reminded of the private eye novels I’d read in my formative years, real classic hardboiled stuff. Obviously, I knew that wasn’t accidental, but I could also see that wasn’t all there was to it—in addition to the surface familiarity of the genre conventions, there was also this very surreal, almost abstract quality to the first-person narration and the way it depicts the novel’s Toronto setting. The closest thing I can think of to describe it is Godard’s Alphaville, but that’s not really right, because this isn’t a science fiction novel… Anyway, as this guest essay reveals, what I was picking up on was something Mike Barnes had very much in mind as he was writing… and yet, in some ways, it caught him off guard as well.

Why do you write? It’s not a question I’ve given much thought to, in part because the answers seem either obvious or unknowable. Why did the chicken cross the road? The possibilities are endless, and the chicken might just be the last to know.

One reason I’m sure of, though, since it’s grown steadily stronger over time: I write to be surprised. By now, in fact, I lose interest quickly if I sense that what I’m writing isn’t likely to ambush me with things I didn’t know before, or didn’t know I knew. I crave these jolts of breaking news about myself, about writing, about the world.

The Adjustment League was a particularly rich source of such whacks upside the head. Here are a few of the revelations, big and small, it led me to.

First, it switched genres. I’d been trying to write a memoir of caregiving, and had accumulated a thick binder of notes and starts. But I couldn’t find a structure to contain all the threads. And then one day I thought of noir fiction, and how good it was at venting rage, which was one of the recurrent strands in my notes. Almost simultaneously, it seemed, the character of a pissed-off apartment superintendent walked into my head—a battered but capable individual dedicated to righting the local wrongs he could and afflicting the bullies who committed them. At a stroke, I had a form and a main character.

Of course, I thought, it will mean jettisoning most of the caregiving material to make a narrower, more plot-driven story. But the second surprise was how much of my experience as a caregiver could be expressed in noir—maybe more even than if I’d come at it straight on as memoir. There’s more room for the self if you don’t start with the self: it comes close to an artistic law, I think, one that I keep re-learning.

And, as I imagined characters and situations, the anger and redress of inequities that funnel into noir became less personal and more social. Less about illness and disempowerment as I have known them, and more about these things as endemic to human life and human groups. The subject became broader but also deeper. Another happy surprise.

And another: whereas a tone of sad stoicism had pervaded my caregiving notes (only natural with long-term losing battles), my Super as he came to life was more exuberant, even darkly comic. Creating him took energy, all creation does, but it—he—gave back more. Partly this was because he is an active agent rather than a passive sufferer: he gives as good as he gets, and then some. But also, by some humane local magic, all art is non-entropic: it converts chaos into usable energy. Which can’t help but pick you up.

Really, the writing sparked so many discoveries that I’ll mention just two more. My protagonist didn’t come with a name attached, nor did he seem to need one. That was a first for me. He just hunkered down inside what he was, what he did: The Super. Will this be a problem? I wondered. Will it seem awkward, artificial, to avoid a name in scenes? But it wasn’t, not even once. And that made me notice how, in our day-to-day interactions, we use names much less often than people in movies and novels do.

Some people who know me have seen in the Super a kind of warped portrait of myself—but the truth is stranger. I do in fact glimpse a kind of self-portrait in the book, but it’s spread over three characters, two male and one female (I won’t name them but feel free to guess). If I squash the three together mentally, I get something like a hypothetical version of myself. (Simplified, of course: even Hamlet is a cartoon compared to any real person.)

After the book was done and submitted and accepted, a dark time intervened. I’ve lived with recurrent mental illness for decades, since I was seventeen, and for several months I slipped in and out of disabling psychotic states. When my publisher, Dan Wells, emailed that it was time to begin revising The Adjustment League for publication, I assumed that would be impossible. Though I was beginning to climb back, I was still often unable to read, or to speak and write beyond the simplest utterances. Still, I devised procedures to lift myself up to the tasks that editing entails, and grew slowly but steadily into the work. That was more than a surprise: it was a sheer astonishment!

And it led to another. When the books editor of Maclean’s, who liked the novel a lot, interviewed me for a feature profile, he was just as interested in the parallel story of working around mental illness, and he invited me to write about that. I did, gladly, and Maclean’s linked the resulting essay with three others online. A projected caregiving memoir had morphed into a psychological noir thriller that had branched into a public discussion of living with mental illness. All hail tangled paths!

The book came out in late August. It looked great, I thought—what a fantastic cover Biblioasis had designed! I was pumped. Biblioasis organized a four-city reading tour, on the first night of which I fell precipitously back into psychosis. End of tour. Not exactly a complete surprise (see “decades” above), but a complete bummer nonetheless.

Or was it? Since then, I’ve been recovering by reading—a lot—and focusing on my day job of tutoring. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the virtues of living within the givens of your life, and finding a surprising comfort in the acceptance of limits that implies.

All this from the deeply strange, deeply familiar practice of matching thoughts to dark marks on white.

Writing gives you the chance to explore your mind, your world, like a room in the dark. If you stretch your arms out and move deliberately but boldly, trustingly, you’ll learn the extent of walls, the places where they give way to windows and doors—and all the curious things between the walls. You’ll bump into things, of course—some of which will fall, some of which will break. There’s a good chance you’ll stumble and fall yourself. But you can get back up.

You may even, once in a long lucky while, find a way to step outside the room.

There can’t be a greater or more welcome surprise than that.

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13 April 2017 | guest authors |