In his little book Catching the Big Fish David Lynch writes about the origins of his long-running comic strip in the LA Reader called “The Angriest Dog in the World”:
“I drew a little dog. And it looked angry. And I started looking at it and thinking about it, and I wondered why it was angry. And then I did a four-block strip with the dog never moving — three panels were set in the day and one was at night. So there’s a passage of time, but the dog never moves. And it struck me that it’s the environment that’s causing this anger — it’s what’s going on in the environment. He hears things coming from the house. Or something happens on the other side of the fence, or some kind of weather condition. It finally boiled down more to what he hears from inside the house. And that seemed like an interesting concept. That it would just be balloons of dialogue from within the house with the dog outside. And what was said in the balloons might conjure a laugh.”
I read elsewhere that the idea first came to Lynch during a time in his life when he was feeling chronically angry, but he didn’t actually start producing the cartoon until many years later. By then TM had presumably cured him of his rage, and he wrote the strip not from personal experience but from trying to picture this little piece of the world from the dog’s point of view. The dog is staked to a corner of the yard bordered by the house and a tall fence. He’s straining at the end of his rope, aimed like an arrow as far away from that corner as he can reach. “Grrr,” says the dog in every panel. From inside the house, through the window, someone might say: “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Grrr. Or: “Bill, who is this San Andreas? I can’t believe it’s all his fault.” Grrr. One episode per week for nine years.
I like the episodic structure. I once wrote a comic strip called “Time Out!” (a sample episode can be found on this blog somewhere), in which a young kid has been sent to his or her room for having violated some unstated parental rule. What does the kid think about in there? That’s the premise for each episode. No drawings: just talk/thought bubbles. My second novel, Prop O’Gandhi, also consists largely of short episodes. Originally I modeled this novel on the old-style superhero and fantasy comic books that I read avidly as a kid, where the graphic main story often alternated with a separate text-only story. The first draft of my novel alternated episodes of the “Time Out!” comic strip with textual episodes about an adult character (O’Gandhi) who seems to have trapped himself in permanent time out inside his own house. The overall structure was Mobius-like: in the last episode of “Time Out!” the kid vanishes and the parent takes his/her place, implicitly pointing back to the beginning of the O’Gandhi text episodes. In subsequent drafts of the novel the comic strip sloughed away, having served as a catalyst for a more traditional text-only structure. As the text extended itself beyond the original premise its episodes got longer, its story arc more coherent — until the end, when the whole structure fragments, exploding out of the house once and for all. And while I like the continuity of the middle section of the book, I also like very much the concluding return to hyper-episodicity.
Yesterday I wrote that I wanted to write an iconist. I think this idea too lends itself to the episodic. The iconist creates or discovers or assembles icons, be they objects or the distances between objects, images or gestures or sounds. Each written episode would be centered around an icon and the hidden meaning toward which it supposedly points, seen from the iconist’s viewpoint and possibly also narrated by the iconist. Larger structures of character, story, reality would emerge piecemeal from these episodes.
As Lynch once was, I too am at times the world’s angriest dog:
“The dog who is so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl… Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis.”
There are some who write their own anger in raw, jagged, snarling prose that, instead of achieving release, strains and stiffens at the strictures of language until it chokes itself. Like Lynch, I’d rather channel the character’s anger from a cooler distance. Though I can draw on my own emotional experiences, I don’t want to represent them. I also don’t want to feel what my characters feel, using that emotional charge to propel the writing. I’d rather create an affect, then let that affect expand it until it becomes a reality in and of itself, immersing characters and settings and stories inside of itself. As Lynch said about his dog, “it’s the environment that’s causing this anger.”
But whatever the off-screen characters said to provoke the dog wasn’t itself angry, nor did it even seem anger-inducing. Day and night the dog goes on growling, straining rigidly against his restraint, regardless of the aphorism or silly joke or ambiguous remark that happens to appear in the talk bubbles floating out of the house. It seems that the dog is intrinsically angry, entirely unaffected by his environment. Strangeness is what Lynch is after, strangeness emanating from the anomalous juxtaposition of images and words, of feelings and thoughts that seemingly have nothing to do with each other. I too am after this sort of disjunctive strangeness that relies on layering and distance.
So, will my iconist be the angriest iconist in the world? Probably not. But if all goes well, the anomalous contrasts between affects, words, and icons will generate a strange, mood-infused reality in which the whole book is immersed and from which its distinctive qualities reveal themselves.