November 18, 2010

Grateful Dead Archive Receives Dead-Related Sixties Novel Typescript

(A note to readers: this blog posting repeats the first couple of paragraphs from our web page, but has a more extended discussion below. Thanks for reading!)

The Dead Archive receives donations every week, of every imaginable type: rare handbills and posters documenting the nooks and crannies of the Grateful Dead’s history, evocative and thoughtful letters detailing the Deadhead experience, as well as art, T-shirts, interviews, and more. From an archival perspective, the sheer dazzling variety and richness of these gifts is both a confirmation and a celebration of the mission of the Archive to document the Grateful Dead experience, and the community it still defines to this day.

The Archive’s commitment to curating these often unusual artifacts complements a broader, more conventional archival mandate: to collect and document the wider cultural arcs that infused and were in turn influenced by the Dead. That means ensuring that traditional archival voices and materials have a place as well, such as rare books and even author’s manuscripts.

One recent gift is Santa Cruz area novelist Trent Eglin’s “The Incredible Dog Act,” a 313-page typescript of an unpublished novel set in the tumult of the sixties in Southern California and the Bay Area. Although not focused on the Dead, they play a supporting role throughout, from dances at the Fillmore to lyric quotes that demonstrate the author’s deep understanding of the band, their oeuvre, and most importantly, the depth and complexity of their interconnections with the counterculture and the 1960s. Even the famed Skull and Roses poster serves as a critical background motif for one memorable scene.

Eglin’s dialogue is crisp and realistic, and his characters feel authentic, but what most impresses is the way he weaves the intellectual and political currents of the times into a tapestry that lets him play with a broad palette, illuminating themes from Heidegger and Nietzsche with lyric quotes from the Dead and the Airplane. Nor is this forced: Eglin handles his material gracefully, treating the erudition animating his characters with seriousness as well as playfulness, never veering into heavy-handedness, the achilles’ heel of stories with this much at stake. The seriousness is never far from the surface, however. When one character remonstrates with another, it begins lightly but dives deeply, quickly:

“You know,” she said, “when you middleclass white guys get all radicalized, it’s hard to tell which way you’re going to break … you’re just as likely to get hung up on astrology or Zen as you are to take up revolutionary politics … Aside from Marx, most western philosophy is just a weird attempt to convince you white folks that reality’s all in your heads. So when you guys ‘see the light’”—she traced the quotation marks in the air—“too many of you just radicalize the shit in your heads. You just rearrange your mental furniture and let Meher Baba or Gurdjieff move in, and nothing out there really changes.”

That theme is one of several that plays out through the novel, and Dead scholars will be quick to pick up on how many of these prefigure and parallel issues in Dead studies as well:

“When you so-called radical white cats want to test how it feels to have a problematic body, a body that makes you essentially visible for the first time, you let your hair grow and get your ears pierced. You go around in Indian drag, all tie-dye and beads. But the difference is that when the shit does hit the fan, you can still duck in for a quick crew cut and go work for Dow.”

For Dead scholars, Eglin’s novel represents a fascinating example of how the Dead can successfully infuse a story whose focus lies elsewhere; they are a part of the world that Eglin evokes, and his skill in interweaving elements of their art with so many other touchstones—his soundtrack to the sixties includes 87 songs, by both major names and minor, but all evoking the spirit of the times—is an important reminder that the Dead were only one of many voices that defined that era. Eglin’s deft handling of those broader interconnections neatly sidesteps the difficulties that other writers have encountered when addressing the Dead in a fictional context: too often, the phenomenon overwhelms the plot or characters, a complaint critics have often made of other novels that attempt to capture the Sixties in fiction. And while a shelf of novels attest to the appeal of the challenge, no critical consensus has identified the short list of successful titles.

Famed mythographer Joseph Campbell famously remarked that the Grateful Dead were the antidote to the atom bomb. One of Eglin’s memorable asides offers a tantalizing recasting of that notion:

“Once science had decided—-ages ago-—that the atom was the basic building block of the universe, it was just a matter of time before the professors provided the generals with the first atomic bomb. Presumably, had science back then sided with Thales instead of Democritus and concluded that the world wasn’t atoms but water, it would have been prudent to build an ark instead of a bomb-shelter.”

Perhaps the Dead phenomenon was that ark, preserving the ideals and issues of the sixties for succeeding generations to discover and experience and finally debate. Gifts of materials like Eglin’s fine typescript to the Archive allow it to serve as a way of grounding those debates, anchoring them in reality; for what is an archive if not an ark, preserving the means of perpetuating and understanding a precious, politicized, and still misunderstood past.

Postscript: we understand that Eglin is preparing his typescript for publication and we wish him the best of luck.

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