A is for Angst

I’m going to do an alphabet. Just every so often, when I have nothing more urgent to talk about. Sorry about no posts last week – I had an essay due Thursday, so Wednesday I couldn’t spare the time, and then Saturday I was just a little tiny bit hung over. A lesson once again that I should be writing blog posts in advance.

Anyway. A is for Angst.

Sometimes writing is therapy; you pour out your soul onto paper and feel cleansed. Sometimes writing is torment, your every thought attuned to the mind of a person who does not exist, your nerves vibrating along some imagined frequency as you indulge yourself in their torment.

The first novel I wrote (it is terrible, don’t ask) I decided at the end to kill an avuncular character, and cried my eyes out as I typed up his funeral. Now, I don’t know why. It wasn’t even that sad… the character had a larger place in my head than he did in the book. He was a background force of reassurance, but more than that, I was so exhausted and caught-up in the… I don’t know, the labour of writing, that it hit me hard. Like it wasn’t fair for him to die… and I’m the one that killed him. A strange thing. He will never see the light of day. Probably that’s crueller, although it would be crueller still to inflict that book upon the world.

The angst is really what I like about noir and pulp crime private eyes. They all self-medicate with alcohol against the tides of terror and depression – their abusive fathers, their critical mothers, their dead partners, that woman they can’t shake. The uneasy knowledge that they will die one day, soon, and at least if the drink kills them they’ll have their own hand in it somehow. And all of it hidden behind a mask of dry cynicism and a dogged determination to make the world, somehow, a little bit better. Sam Vimes dragged himself out of the drink and the rumination but he still has that drive, that need to light a match in the darkness and defend it against the wind until it burns itself out. At least there was a brief moment of light, however small, however weak. But others are still trapped in their gutters, scrabbling at the leaves and the rubbish because some part of them still whispers that maybe there’s a diamond down there somewhere.

I’ve been watching Jack Taylor over again, a show so beautifully cliché that you can predict he’s going to have a protégé who (spoilers) gets shot, before the kid even turns up. He sleeps with the femme fatales, he moons over a policewoman half his age, he frequently drinks himself unconscious. There’s even the hard boiled inner monologue. It’s a perfect thorn against which we, like Philomel, may press our breasts.

It’s harder to write thorns yourself. I get bogged down with wondering whether the ineffables I’m feeling actually make it to the page, or if they disappear from the words as soon as I meet the page. Or it will go the other way and I’ll fear my work has too much angst – is indulgent – that people will roll their eyes instead of crying. I suppose, by and large, it depends on the person.

I never fail to cry at the end of Phantom of the Opera. Erik’s speech to the Persian at the end, when he’s crying so much he has to take off his mask and still – “Don’t look, Daroga!” – can’t bear to have anyone see him. It’s agony. I always finish the chapter absolutely bawling. Another sort of fiction entirely; I’m replaying Mass Effect 3 at the moment and this game is a stab in the heart. Watching cities burn on a planet you never got the chance to visit. Seeing people who have always treated you like shit so shell-shocked by the essential eradication of their people that all you can feel for them is love and pity. There’s a part of that game so emotional that the first time I played through it, I had to pause the game afterwards and go into another room. I cried for about half an hour. If you’ve played it, you know which part that is; if you haven’t, I won’t spoil it for you. ME3 also wears you down; the devastation is relentless, the odds are terrifying, and there’s no time to stop and breathe. But, except for one, it tends to be the small things that make you cry, the little reminders of everything that has been lost. There’s one character you find dead, sacrificed carrying a cache of ammo so you can make it through a tunnel filled with enemies. Eventually you realise you know this man. In the last game, you helped him and his girlfriend get through a rough patch. One conversation with her – you never even talked to him personally, just saw him at a distance. Yet here he is, half a galaxy away and dead for your sake. The smallest character you can imagine, and his death is still a punch to the gut.

But I’d wager the writers would have grinned to themselves when they wrote that death into the narrative. “This will make them suffer, hey?”

….Sometimes I wonder whether tears are necessary, or if you can get by with emotional sadism.

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