"I should have been a pair of ragged claws /
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."
My Life as a Literary Hermit Crab
by George Guidall
It’s morning. I just grabbed a seat on the 10:50 morning commute to Grand Central Station on the way to work. I don’t really see the people sitting next to me. My arm knows to extend itself, ticket clutched a little too tightly in my hand. The conductor is there, a sour look on his face as he waits to punch my ticket. He pulls the ticket from my fingers, the clicks of his punch like gunshots in my head. I don’t see him, though. Lurking ominously in the shifting shadows of my mind I see Raskolnikov. Yes, it’s Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The people around me are yammering inanities, but I hear his ceaseless, frenzied mutterings of self-doubt, the pulse-beat of his internal anguish. For the next few weeks I’ll be spending hours each day in his head. My skin crawls, molts, crab-like, at the prospect. I obsess. I obsess on his obsession, his need to go beyond accepted modes of human behavior. I may be on the train, but I might just as well be sitting on the edge of his rumpled bed, frozen in my ultimate guilt, alienated from the rest of society. Should I or shouldn’t I? Will we or won’t we…
Here’s one more. Suddenly, in the midst of a recording session I’m overcome with a voracious hunger and non-stop gastro-intestinal grumbling. Growling stomach noises force me to break for lunch. I find myself devouring a roast beef on rye with a strange and almost vicious frenzy, the pickle slice crunching between my teeth with a juicy sour snap. I’m in Grendel’s head this time, having wreaked horrendous havoc at Heorot, eating, crunching, munching all those brave and brawny warriors. I return to the darkened tomb-like recording booth and Grendel retreats into his cave to die after Beowolf delivers just desserts.
That’s the way it is, dear reader. Are you listening? Stick with me as I scuttle across the floors of not so “silent seas,” homage to Eliot notwithstanding, defenseless prey to the shifting currents of literature (and what passes for literature). My external self no longer fitting, I seek solace, succor, temporary shelter in the safe haven of someone else’s imagined truth. I’m the literary hermit crab, vulnerable, stressed, undergoing internal changes to accommodate whatever alternate reality I inhabit on any given day.
THE EMPATHY FACTOR
This willingness to give one’s self over and enter a shell of imagined truth triggers the transformation of a written work into a spoken experience. It’s visceral, this spoken experience, so much more than the mere conveying of information. Exposition is character, folks. If it’s not, then it’s simply reading out loud.
Thankfully, every narration isn’t as intense as Dostoevsky. More than 900 books have afforded me delicious (oops) delightful opportunities to inhabit worlds I never thought I’d have a chance to visit.
When I was a kid we used to play cowboys and Indians using a leafy tunnel-length grapevine arbor in my backyard, as the hideout. It could have been a stand of what I’ve since learned are cottonwoods. The gravel driveway, our badlands, stretched all the way to the gutter-arroyos at the curb. Running too fast from the posse got us many a scraped knee and, if we were lucky, a beautifully scarred cheekbone. Now I get to play this game in the recording studio. Ghosts of the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers gallop around me in the studio along with “Gabby” Hayes, Walter Brennan, Jay Silverheels, all those forgotten but memorable character men who colored the Hollywood westerns with their unique presences. If you’re aimin’ to dog my trail, tenderfoot, listen to Dead Man’s Canyon, Ambush Valley, The Texicans, Deadwood Gulch and a whole dang passel of books by varmints like William Johnstone, Matt Braun and Ralph Cotton. Some carry the western “brand,” but jump the corral because the writers’ skill makes the stories current, utterly believable and entertaining as well. Catch the Navaho mysteries of Tony Hillerman, the beautifully crafted, character-driven tales of Craig Allen Johnson, and an exceptionally moving The Time It Never Rained, by Elmer Kelton.
Then there are authors whose voices come perilously close to the running narrative I live with on a daily basis. That’s when my ‘empathic response’ to the material takes over (stay with me now), and I’m totally in that imagined truth because it’s MY imagined truth. Listener and narrator are cemented in a relationship because we’re both experiencing the same slice of human existence the author had originally carved out in his mind. I thank the gods for Wally Lamb (I Know This Much is True, The Hour I first Believed), and Philip Roth (Patrimony, Everyman, the Zuckerman novels, The Prague Orgy). Proust is no slouch (Swann’s Way). Cervantes (Don Quixote) totally captivated me with its rich character, its sharp-edged wit. I could go on naming other authors whose books I’ve recorded, whose works, though unsung, are lasting evidence that a writer’s craft, intelligence and keen insight into the mystery and obliquity of human existence can make us know ourselves a little better, or at least lead us to try.
“Empathic response? Relationship?” you ask, perhaps raising a skeptical eyebrow or two. It’s true, though. When an old empathic response such as mine meets an open listening heart such as yours, you can bet just as sure as you live, something’s gotta give, something’s gotta…well, you know the rest. Heart and mind hold the palette of colors. The voice is the brush that completes the painting on its way to hang in the gallery of your mind’s eye. I said it…and I’m glad.
Alas, it’s not always safe dwelling in another’s imagined world. The life of a bookish brachyuran (look it up, it’s what narrators do), hermit or otherwise, can be unsettling, to say the least. Let me take you back to September 11th of 2001. Acid Test, the book in which I was then seeking shelter and succor was a newly published thriller involving evil people planning evil things for the U.S. of A. We laughed, the engineer and I, at the preposterousness of the story line: jet planes flying over our land threatening our safety. A moment or two after the fictional pilot in the story crashed his jet on or near the White House, the studio door opened, the recording stopped, and a colleague announced the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center buildings. I braved the tsunami of pandemonium in Manhattan. I managed to drive out of the city, but couldn’t erase Acid Test from my mind. The implausible became too real. The imagined truth became the actual truth. I couldn’t believe the fiction and didn’t want to believe the reality.
CONNECTING TO STORY
That relationship I spoke of between listener and narrator is the beauty part. People actually take the time to write and thank me. It’s not only the thanking that moves me; they remind me of the obligation I have to continue my role as their particular story-teller. The connection between narrator and listener is the key. That’s what has allowed audiobooks to become the phenomenon that they are today. It satisfies an essential human need to be told a story.
We need to have a story going in our heads all the time. When someone isn’t telling us a story we tell ourselves a story. We construct entire Walter Mitty monologues with anyone we choose, and that internal monologue is itself a sign that we’re alive and conscious. It continues, perhaps, until a better story intrudes or, more often, until we pick one we’d rather hear, told by Frank Muller, perhaps, or Barbara Rosenblat, or Tom Stechshulte, Davina Porter, Barbara Caruso or whoever might wear the mantle of “favorite narrator.”
The story entertains us, soothes us, keeps us company, instructs us or simply holds that mirror up to nature to show us a thing or two about life. Does anybody care who dies or is robbed or mugged or whose property is burned or what is stolen in Pickax, up in Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere? No. Not in Lillian Jackson Braun’s charming Cat Who… mysteries. What matters is what Koko and Yum-Yum are up to. It’s Qwilleran’s moustache that gets the focus or Koko’s “Yowl!”
The letters pour in, though, with pictures of cats for my pleasure.
Cat-embroidered pillows are at my door. Cat-cards wait for me in my mailbox. "We love to hear Mr. Guidall’s narrations of Lillian Jackson Braun’s cat stories on our trips to Florida. It’s the only thing that keeps our cat quiet for the trip. She loves listening to Mr. Guidall’s voice...
Some letters, however, reveal a different side of human nature. For example, a Hillerman novel had the word: p-l-a-c-e-r in it, as in placer mining. I was born in Plainfield, New Jersey. We didn’t have any kind of mining . So, I read it as “placer” to sound like “racer.” Well! A letter, irate and incensed, arrived stating that up to that point the writer had enjoyed all of Mr. Guidall’s readings. He was astonished, however, to hear Mr. G pronounce p-l-a-c-e-r to rhyme with “chaser.” How could he have made such an inexcusable error? Everyone knows of “placer” (sounds like “gasser”) mining. There’s even a Placer (still sounds like ‘gasser’) County! AND…not only did Guidall pronounce the word incorrectly, but the other characters in the book all made the same mistake!”
Then there are letters which remind me what it’s all about. From Sarasota, Florida comes a note from someone legally blind for many years. He speaks of a world opened to him since discovering audiobooks and concludes with "Blindness has robbed me of so much, Mr. Guidall, but there is always a silver lining and if I could SEE to read I probably would have never had the opportunity of reading by listening to you and your way of making a story and its characters come to life. Thank you for what you have meant to me, and I’m sure for many others."
Jack from Napa, California, had a way with words: I listen to about four books a week… . Don’t die.” OK, Jack. I’ll speak to my agent.
From Texas, after listening to Don Quixote: “I have tried to read this classic tale more than once without success- Mr Guidall made it come alive for me at last and now it will always be mine…”
Yes, they swell my head. They would swell any narrator’s head. But, I’m not the only one who receives letters, nor am I placing myself above the many narrators who love their work as much as I do and excel in their efforts. I’m simply speaking to you from that shell of temporary comfort, that imaginary truth every performer needs to find in order to be true to an artistic commitment.
Despite the tide of books with, shall we say, questionable value, the job remains to convey that imagined truth straight to the heart and mind of the listener. Make no mistake. The life of a literary hermit crab scuttling from the sheltering covers of Cervantes to Roth, from Lamb to Proust, from King to Kelton and to so many others gives me absolute joy. So whether it’s hoisting my ragged claws or voicing a ragged clause, I may be just scuttling around, but I’m loving it.
One letter sums it all up beautifully with a very personal blend of feelings between narrator and listener. It comes from Richmond, Virginia. Speaking of the audiobook experience the writer ends his note with:
“Overtime I developed an appreciation for the mastery by which the art is conveyed to the patron. An art itself, the medium and the message combine to equal more than their sum. My life is just simply better for the experience and my gratitude is boundless.”
And so is mine.
OK, then. It’s the 5:10 express out of Grand Central this time. Commuters lean back, innocently (or not) on the way home to Westchester. Their Blackberries, laptops, apped i-phones keep them abreast of the day’s follies, their workdays spent upholding the corporate infrastructure of our fair land. The difference is that for most of my workday I desperately cursed my creator for having made me. Hideous apparition, monster that I am, stitched and sewn together with body parts stolen at night from the dank depths of graves, carrying the stench of decay, the detritus of the dead. I buzz with the convulsive consequences of unspeakable chemical substances. I’m so undyingly lonely, so alone, hated even by he who with cunning stealth assembled me. I’m in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and it’s nothing like the movie.
My wife sits in the car at the station. I can see her. The sun’s rays bounce off the windshield. Jacket and pants from the cleaners rest on the back seat. I check for tell-tale signs of the tailor’s work on my seams. I see no stitches. Smell no chemicals. The day is dankless, balmy, in fact. My wife, my soul-mate, sees me, smiles.
And I’m back.