She's not a sellout, is all: Martine Leavitt and Calvin

Friday, December 18, 2015

It was Tim Wynne-Jones who suggested. At Bank Street. While we were waiting for our panel on narrative risk.

Martine Leavitt is one of our smartest writers, period.

Martine Leavitt is a writer of great integrity.

Martine Leavitt spends her time making books (and teaching the artistry of making books, in the Vermont College of Fine Arts program, alongside Tim), as opposed to self-promoting.

Read Martine.

(Tim said. Rita Williams-Garcia nodded.)

And so I did. Picked up her newest, Calvin. Sat down. Utter immersion ensued.

Calvin, a seventeen-year-old smart kid who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was born the day the very final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip was published. As a baby, he had a stuffed tiger at his side. As a young man with a best friend named Susie, he has a lot of questions. He has hope, too—delusional hope?—that Bill Watterson, the comics' creator, will create one final cartoon strip that will set Calvin free of his persistent unrealities.

Are they unrealities?

All of which (but naturally, right?) sets Calvin off across the frozen tundra of Lake Erie in pursuit of Mr. Watterson. But oh, Lake Erie is very cold and very wide. And Susie may or may not be accompanying Calvin on this trek.

It feels like just a touch of sin to reduce this elegant novel to a summary. Because yes, this is a moving and original premise. But it's what happens inside Calvin's mind that matters most. The kid asks huge questions. He ponders without restraint. He thinks about God, vastness, the otherness of others, the beauty of beauty, the difference between reality and truth, the nature of friendship. He thinks about these things profoundly—but he, and the Susie with whom he hopes he's actually traveling, always sound like kids.

Here, for example, is Calvin pondering the great silence of the lake.

When you've lived all your life with the sound of Life in General, you don't even hear it anymore. You don't hear the noise of cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, refrigerators, air conditioners, furnaces, and you don't feel radio and television waves shooting through you, and you don't hear telephones, animals, birds, floors creaking, doors opening, the voices of six billion people all talking and laughing and crying, and over a billion cows mooing and nineteen billion chickens clucking and a million species of bugs buzzing and you don't realize that it all adds up to this low hum of Life in General.

Life in General doesn't live in the middle of the lake.

There's a touch of autobiography in almost everything we read. Or we, as readers, can pretend (to ourselves) that we've pierced the veil. So that when I came upon this next passage, I thought about Tim talking about Martine—a writer far more invested in making than self-glorifying. Susie and Calvin, stranded out in the bitter cold, are wondering why Mr. Watterson has remained elusive. About why he stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes, about why he's not talking to the press (or to these two kids).

He's just not a sellout, is all. He thinks selling out is buying into someone else's values. Or maybe he knows there's power in creating something and then stepping out of the way. All that silence, that refusal to show up for adulation—it forces you to look harder at the creation itself, like he's saying, this is what I have to say. You laugh, you cry, you think, you change—and that's the point.
It's the end of the year. I've not read half the books I should have read. I'm trying now to make amends in between corporate deadlines. But this Martine—I'd like to do some promoting for her. She's a writer we all should read. We could learn a lot from the humanity and originality of her prose. We could learn how to be artists, too.

And as for you, Mr. Tim: I'm going to try to slip a zeugma into some annual report writing today.


Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

I've admired Martine's work for a long time and got to hear her speak at a conference this past May. She was simply brilliant, heartfelt, and so kind. She really touched my heart.

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