My Life as a Novel


John Bredin

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 126 in 2011.

Manifesto on the Activist as Hero, and Other Ways to Not Be Bored


1. Activist as Hero: A Planet-Saving New Literary Genre

Why my life as a novel? Mostly, to escape the crushing boredom that threatens to smother us all. A boredom that, let’s be honest, has a political causation. Keep the masses bored—submerged and distracted by the kitsch of fluffy entertainment, fake news, meaningless dummy work (Insurance companies, Wal-Mart, factories that make Disney toys, etc.) and wars—then the richest 1% get to not only keep their pirated loot, but to fatten their bank accounts. The revolution has been cancelled due to boredom.

“My life as a novel” implies life lived as art. A creative life forged in the dance between pen and journal, fingers and keyboard. I want to write my way to a more fluid, flexible, ardent life brimming with agency. Moving freely through the world (as a writer/agent) I bubble with creativity, in control of my stories. I surrender to stories. Better still, I transform with stories, ancient and classic—like The Odyssey which I re-read last year: my life as a novel = an historic voyage, me entering into history! Or brand new journey, like Eric Begosian’s 2009 novel Perforated Heart (which I’m reading now) a series of juxtaposed journal entries written by a jaded, middle-aged writer and his selfish, fame-obsessed younger self from the 1970s. A book where New York City—then as now the world’s great magic incubator of dreams—itself emerges as a major character.

Union Square Barnes & Noble, spring 2009. Begosian reads from Perforated Heart. Me in the audience. Q & A time. First question, some guy shouts out: Who do you like for mayor, Bloomberg or Reverend Billy? Begosian responds: Who’s Reverend Billy? He doesn’t know who Reverend Billy is!? What a revelation! I thought all cool, hip New Yorkers—especially art world insiders like Begosian—were politically astute enough to know about Reverend Billy: He of the Church of Life After Shopping, with his hilarious “guerilla theatre” critique of consumerism. The crazy, spiritual, rollickin, indispensable Rev, with his Starbucks “interventions”—complete with cash register “exorcisms”—the critically acclaimed 2007 Morgan Spurlock documentary film about him, What Would Jesus Buy under his belt; and now his historic 2009 Green Party candidacy for mayor of NYC.

As expected, though, the mainstream, corporate-sponsored media is ignoring him. Maybe Begosian—author of Talk Radio—needs to listen to WBAI more: the #1 media outlet in New York for political truth. Even though, sadly, on a good day, BAI gets about 1,500 listeners tops.

Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most politically astute 20th Century writers, is now a saint in the Church of Life After Shopping. When he was alive he sat in the front row for Reverend Billy “services” at St. Marks Church in-the-Bowery. But, I suppose, many members of the “high art” cultural elite—in New York and elsewhere—either don’t have time to engage in the kind of creative activism that would make them aware of Reverend Billy; or, they haven’t been politically educated enough to realize why someone like Reverend Billy matters; or, they simply have no use for the kind of cutting-edge, radical progressive politics needed—at this moment of impending historical crisis—to save the world.

Idea: as the planet careens toward ecological destruction, the yawning gap between the rich and poor worsens, and democracy gasps for its last breath, the new hero (of novels, films, and real life) ought to be the activist. But Journalism and MFA majors, our holy priests of the written word, are discouraged from glorifying the activist. After all, the corporate-sponsored colleges they attend—funded by elites—seek to kill dissent.

Enter My Life as a Novel! The idea that activists themselves value their work enough to name it in story—whether fiction or memoir or complex combinations of the two—thus rendering their activism heroic. Think of it as a badly-needed public curriculum to critique the false heroism of the conquerors and oppressors; a project I’m sure Howard Zinn would’ve approved of. Such activist bio narratives ought to be attempted, however inchoate, and launched, however clunky or lacking in polish. It’s zero hour and we don’t have the luxury of perfectionism. So let’s flow with our stories in an outside-the-box, conceptual art-ish way. Templates to guide and inspire us might include the spontaneous exuberance of a Robert Rauschenberg collage, the make-it-up-as-we-go-along spirit of an Alan Kaprov 1960s “Happening,” or the radically improvised, public space dances of Theatre of the Oppressed….and Reverend Billy.

Such narrative interventions might even resemble a dynamic, free-flowing, creative, unscripted……conversation. In all its Chomskyean linguistic magic of endless variety and possibility.

Creating new stories, sometimes at the “point of utterance” (to quote language theorist James Britton) endows meaningful plot to a randomly scattered life. Jean Paul Sartre’s first major statement on the philosophy of Existentialism came, interestingly enough, not by way of treatise but the autobiographical novel Nausea, published in 1937. A key line in this book is when the main character, Roquentin, famously proclaims: Everything changes when you tell about life. The wisdom of this extraordinarily simple, yet revolutionary idea infuses My Life as a Novel. We might keep Roquenten’s glowing, life-changing, 7-word sentence in mind when we enter into potentially transformative conversations with people, write in our journals…or, when we craft our lives as novels. By engaging in the generative arts of narrative production and story genesis, we are in fact changing everything.

And everything, naturally, includes the world. No John Mayer, we’re not waiting on the world to change, we’re changing it! But thanks for the beautiful song to inspire us! Twice I danced with my sweet Colombian girlfriend Yolanda to this magic tune, both in public spaces. First, in the now defunct Hollywood Video in Hoboken. Unexpected miracle on the store soundtrack. The amazing economy of music, all that life and wisdom and hope squeezed into 3 minutes. And free like manna. Quick twirl in the movie classics section. The second time, on the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth avenue, dancing to a car radio stuck in traffic. Enchanted choreographies of our early romance, remembered forever.

If you, as a person, are growing—in the dynamic, psychological sense of personal growth that Carl Rogers had in mind—then your story is already in a wondrous, vital state of flux. Perhaps your life is already a novel, dear reader, only your conscious mind hasn’t yet grasped this miracle. Writing, the simple act of naming significant themes and events and characters from your back story, current situation, or future landscape of dreams, can begin to concretize (on paper, a beginning) the reality of your personal novel: both to yourself and others.

Political growth, too, can be novelistic. The tremulous, radiant, touching, identity-building excitement of finding your voice in a public space. Enemies to outfox. Plot your strategy like a military general. Or chess player. You’re engaged in a sport now, not baseball or football, but a game whose outcome really matters to society. So have fun with it. Become a talking head yourself. Reagan. Clinton. Obama. You! I dialogue about politics frequently in my classrooms, as an adjunct English professor at CUNY: the City University of New York. What a joy it is to intellectually awaken students numbed and deadened by a horrendous, factory-model public school system: designed on purpose to disable their agency and squelch their pubic voices. I help nurture and percolate their creative minds and souls and articulation back to life. For this I’m paid very little money. A crime. If I put the same time and energy into making money for rich people (hedge fund consultant) I’d be a gazillionaire. And you wonder why I’m bitter.

Novel as dialogue, me talking to you (the reader) right now. We can change America, for real, unlike the contrived, Madison Avenue-slick and hackneyed political cliché version spoon fed us since Obama hit the scene: Yes We Can. But we really, really can change America…..if….if……if…..we start a new third party. Or build up the Greens. The Democrats and Republicans are controlled by the same corporate gangsters. But I thought you knew this already? Then why no action to make things better? Action implies a character moving, doing, saying and interacting: in the flow of a plot. Yes, but Hamlet’s indecision was also a kind of dramatic action, no? The novel of psychological depth. The literature of nuance and contradiction. All those gorgeous, sweeping, beautifully convoluted interior passages in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Today’s political ambivalence is also deep fodder for our lives as novels.

What holds us back from transforming our lives into the activist hero of our own novel? Surely we don’t want to be relentless bores about changing America, alienating our friends. We don’t want to be poor, broke, annoying whiners either. Solution: knowing when to be quiet is part of the novel. And yet, even Ronald Reagan—who we can learn from even if we disagree with his politics—used to talk up his point of view so often, his first wife (Jane Wyman) left him because she couldn’t take it any more. Enough Ron, with the blah, blah, blah. As a GE spokesperson Reagan was supposed to limit his pep talks at company plants to refrigerators and washing machines. Somehow though, the gipper always managed to sneak in politics. He made his life a novel. He entered history, and as a result his ideas—which help the rich and hurt the poor—have triumphed. The Left, while critiquing Regan’s ideology, has a lot to learn from both his methods and sheer persistence.

But Reagan was also an artist, an actor. A novelistic kinda guy. All jokes aside about Bedtime for Bonzo, the man lived his life immersed in an art form. This instilled him with creative agency, something the Left badly lacks today. But, if enough of us in the progressive community choose to render our lives as novels: here is a magic formula for us to rediscover our creative political agency!

The planet, and future generations, may one day thank us.