Notes on “Big Cactus,” a Novel by Sylvia Wilkinson

In his third essay in Anatomy of Criticism, “Theory of Myths,” Northrop Frye places irony and satire in the “Mythos of Winter”:

As structure, the central principle of ironic myth is best approached as a parody of romance: the application of romantic mythical forms to a more realistic content which fits them in unexpected ways. No one in a romance, Don Quixote protests, ever asks who pays for the hero’s accommodation. (223)

But if someone does ask, tell them, “Aunt Lucy.”

The aging Lucy, accused of being at risk of not being able to take care of herself and forced into “the county home,” sweet-talks (in a manner of speaking) her teenage nephew, Benny, into a road trip in his pickup truck, a 1965 GMC. Lucy wants to satisfy her Holy Grail vision of seeing the Big Cactus at sunset, a quest suggested by something she’s seen in a magazine, Arizona Highways.

Benny is at risk of becoming a responsible adult and has dreams of someday becoming a NASCAR mechanic, but for now he’s stuck telling a story about his trip driving his Aunt Lucy and his dog, Polar, from North Carolina across the southern states to Arizona and back, a distance of some 4,000 miles of mixed terrain and worry in an old pickup, stopping in towns along the way, sleeping nights in motels and eating in restaurants, encountering a host of characters and trials of travel episodes. Benny falls for a waitress but must get back on the road, but Sue Faye is just a prelude to his own unrequited quest which develops on the run with Aunt Lucy, Polar, and the rich Tennessee, another road rescue.

In his This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley explains why aspiring authors might want to avoid a first person narrative their first time out. If you’ve ever tried ocean wave surfing, you probably know it’s best not to try to stand up on your first wave. Ride the foam to shore in the prone position, getting the feel of the surfboard on the water. But

I’ve tried to do a story in my mind about what happened to me (231),

Benny says, and besides, Sylvia Wilkinson knows what she’s doing when it comes to writing a novel. Big Cactus is her seventh, and she’s a master of the first person narrative.

Big Cactus features characters revealed through dialog and action. “What’s a body for?” Judith Butler asks in Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life. Big Cactus features comparisons and contrasts between wealth and poverty, the old and the young, their aspirations and problems, their ideas of love and the needs of the body, how they present themselves in public and to one another in private, how they communicate – “for better, for worse.”

Big Cactus is a kind of picaresque, quixotic novel, where two main characters play off one another as separate halves of a single protagonist. They get in one another’s way as opposites but share a symbiotic relationship in a shared endeavor as outsiders against some social antagonist. Think of Huck and Jim, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, of Estragon and Vladimir.

Sylvia’s new book is a marvel of vernacular. The wit and humor is layered with carefully constructed confusion between what the reader sees and what the characters see, between what one character thinks is happening and what their foil character thinks. In the end, it’s Benny’s story, another marvel – of opposites between first person narrator and author. But Benny is a close observer, and as he says of himself,

I say a bunch of things out loud I ought to just think. (125)

That might be a good definition of a novelist. Gifts are a theme throughout the book. Benny has the gift of storytelling, a gift presented by Sylvia to the reader.

Joe and the Peace Truck April 1970_4151572268_mNo, that’s not Benny and that’s not a 1965 GMC. That’s me and my 1949 Ford pickup truck that my Dad bought me for $200 from a nearby motor pool. In the photo, if you look close, you can see the white tip of my surfboard hanging over the tailgate. I’ve just returned from a rescue trip up to Zuma Beach, towing my friend’s old, tiny BMW back home. My memory isn’t perfect here, but I think it was a BMW 700 convertible. It broke down in Zuma and we drove up to tow it back, pulling it with a rope from Zuma down to the South Bay along the Pacific Coast Highway, a distance of about 30 miles, but towing with the rope was probably illegal, required someone to stay in the disabled BMW to brake it at stops, and a smooth clutch operator in the truck with its three-speed on the column. Certainly not a novel in that story, probably not even a short story, unless Benny had been along for the ride.

Give me my good old American truck any day of the year (89),

Benny says. Now there’s some irony ole Northrop Frye might have enjoyed.

Big Cactus, a novel by Silvia Wilkinson. 2014. Owl Canyon Press: Boulder, Colorado.

Update, Dec 20, 2015: A review of “Big Cactus” in the Fall 2015 issue of Blackbird.

How Literary Critics Think

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why (2000), James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008), Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980), which he proposed to subtitle “How to be a Good Reader,” are all books about how critics think. Oxford University Press has announced John Sutherland’s “How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts,” due out in March, 2011. We’ve put our order in, never tiring of the How books; in fact, we’re thinking of writing our own: How Literary Critics Think. Of course, slim chance, for as Laura Miller discusses in a Salon interview with Louis Bayard (“Who Killed the Literary Critic,” May 22, 2008), “at a certain point there’s nothing left to dismantle.” Bayard observes “So the only critics left to evaluate most contemporary fiction are journalists, ranging in seriousness from someone like Wood to your average newspaper freelancer who mostly delivers plot summary. There are no critical movements evident today.” Blogging certainly doesn’t count; in any case, Laura says, “I’m not really a reader of blogs.” Sure, and professional literary critics probably don’t watch television, either. Yet Barnard notes that he’s “learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.”

Ah, but what about the How school of literary criticism? The how of something is the scientific part. Nabokov puts it this way: “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter…To the storyteller we turn for entertainment…to the teacher…for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts….” And to the enchanter we go “…to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.” This last part Nabokov calls “the intuition of science.” Can literature be taught as a science? Certainly it can, and it may be the only way to teach it. Northrop Frye, in his instructive and influential essay “The Archetypes of Literature,” said, “Art, like nature, is the subject of a systematic study, and has to be distinguished from the study itself, which is criticism. It is therefore impossible to ‘learn literature’: one learns about it in a certain way, but what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature. Similarly, the difficulty often felt in ‘teaching literature’ arises from the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism is all that can be directly taught.”

Yes, but that bit about nature: Nabokov says, “Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives…The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.” So the professional critic clues us in on which writers are the most deceitful?

The reader speaks, ignoring the sign “Silence in the Library,” and the amateur spirit in literary criticism is born. Why kill this amateur spirit? Because ( more agreement between Miller and Bayard) “talent is inequitably distributed in all art forms… great critics are even rarer than great novelists or poets, and I wonder if that’s because criticism itself is held in such low esteem…McDonald mentions that one of academia’s last havens for evaluative criticism has been the creative-writing class, and he suggests that universities should offer more in the way of ‘creative criticism’ classes, teaching the craft of interpreting other people’s works. All the same, I’m skeptical this would reverse the current state of affairs. People will only value literary criticism to the extent they value literature.”

Any true experience of reading literature is an experience that calls for a reflective response, and this response can be made without a conscious understanding of how figurative language and connotative meanings (and the often resulting ambiguity) inform how literature works. We might even argue that the less conscious one is of how these things work, the more primal the reading experience. Yet one can see the merging of the effects of literature on cultural, societal, and individual development (of course these effects might also be considered only a reflection of changes already occurring in culture, society, and the individual, changes that become, in turn, the subject of literature – note the latest effort to change Twain’s Huck Finn). In any case, literature as cultural value is key to the interest of adult readers, which is why if we want to read Langston Hughes in a book (since we can’t very well still read him in a newspaper), we will end up wanting to know something about the Harlem Renaissance.

Reading literature can be a perplexing experience. We want to understand the meaning of a story, poem, or play, and when we don’t “get it,” we feel disappointed. But the idea that a work of literature “means” something is part of the problem. Flannery O’Connor once put this problem this way: “…something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students [readers], the story becomes simply a problem to be solved….” Rene Char put the problem this way: “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” Yet, we can learn to ask the right questions of literature, questions that don’t scare the bird off, and we can through the discussion of these questions discover how literature works. That’s what the general interest reader wants after the reflective response, the discovery of how literature works, for that discovery enables more enjoyable reading and helps us better understand the influence of literature on culture, society, and the individual.