Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The primordial monkeys

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Robert, Charles, and Maxon Crumb

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture did your cooler siblings introduce you to?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about siblings recently. My wife and I have just the one daughter, but when I watch her interacting with other children at the library, at the store, or at the pediatrician’s office, I can’t help but get a glimpse of what it would be like for her to be someone’s sister. Our niece has a little sister of her own coming soon, and we’re reaching the age when the initial surge of babies among our friends is reaching its second cycle. In short, there are a lot of little kids in our lives now, and it’s fascinating to watch them interact. For the first twelve months or so, babies don’t seem all that interested in one another: they’re still preoccupied with their own little worlds, and if you set two babies side by side, they’re just as likely to look past each other on their way to the next chewable object. Somewhere around the first year, though, they latch on intensely to other kids, whether real or representative—my daughter is obsessed with the baby on the Gerber jar—and rudimentary social interactions start to take place. They’ll hold hands, trade toys, assert or yield their personal space. And as soon as they’re able to find words to express themselves, that interaction, especially between older and younger siblings, takes the form of telling stories.

I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I suspect that many writers were the oldest siblings in a house with one or more children. A younger brother or sister is a ready audience for whatever the older sibling wants to say—especially if adults seem frustratingly uninterested—and in the years when playtime shades naturally into narrative and the stories we find in books, kids have a lot to tell anyone who seems willing to listen. When I think back to my own childhood, one of the first things I recall are the stories I told my brother, who is four years younger than I am. As far as I can remember, these stories started out as detailed retellings of whatever Roald Dahl book I was reading at the time, and these blow-by-blow narratives could take weeks on end to finish, often in the bathtub. (The life of a kid who can absorb and regurgitate huge amounts of story without even being conscious of it gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in an oral culture.) These later expanded into lengthy serial adventures starring my brother as himself, with me playing most of the other parts using whatever stuffed toys were lying around the house. I can’t speak for him, but I’ve never forgotten any of it, and I’ve recently started to revisit some of those stories with my daughter and her Ernie doll.

Ernie on Green Day's Dookie

When I think of the works of art that manage to capture the intimate huddle that exists between siblings, the first that comes to mind, weirdly enough, is Crumb. Robert Crumb’s family, at least as depicted in Terry Zwigoff’s astonishing documentary, isn’t one that most of us would have wanted to be a part of, and two out of the three brothers emerged from that experience with irreparable damage. Yet when Max Crumb refers to Charles, Robert, and himself as “three primordial monkeys working it out in the trees,” I know exactly what he means. The fantasy life created by Charles Crumb—which centered on a game of Treasure Island that evidently played out over many years—is only an extreme version of the intricate, intense stories that come into existence between any siblings around the same age. Robert, for one, never seems to have entirely emerged from that shadow, which consumed his brothers to an even greater extent, and much of his work feels like an attempt to come to terms with those twisted early adventures. (That said, there’s obviously a lot more going on in Robert’s inner life, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Zwigoff deliberately emphasized this particular thread in his interpretation of the material, if only because Charles Crumb himself is such an unforgettable figure.)

Ultimately, of course, my brother and I grew up, and in many ways, he’s a cooler and more interesting person than I am, at least in his ability to shape his life according to his own values. And although he’s exposed me to a lot of culture in his own right, particularly music, if I’ve been shaped by him in any fundamental way, it was in the years when we were active collaborators, conspirators, and dreamers. If I’ve said before that my ideal reader is myself at age twelve, my ideal self as a writer comes from those early stories in the bathtub. There was no distinction between the telling and the listening; we did it because we couldn’t imagine any other way of living, with one foot in reality and the other in an equally vivid imaginary world. Maintaining that connection into adulthood lies at the heart of what writers do, and achieving the proper balance isn’t easy. But I don’t think it’s an accident that so many writers, from Lev Grossman to Stephen King, trace their full understanding of themselves and their craft from their engagement with their children. When I look at my daughter, there are times when she seems eerily like my brother, and when we’re playing together, I often feel that I’ve managed to recreate those moments. And I’m grateful for it. Because it was only when my brother and I began to share in those stories that I discovered who I really was.

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

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