I finished listening through S-Town yesterday, and want very badly to discuss it with someone. But since my husband couldn’t get past the tragic death in the second episode, which had him crying while pushing a shopping cart around Whole Foods, I have to wait until Thursday, when I will ask my graduate students about it, the most reliable consumers of contemporary culture in my life right now.
Its lyrical penultimate passage is a long excerpt from a monologue by its main character and reason for being, John B. McLemore. Most of what we will have heard from McLemore up to this point will be equally lyrical monologues on why the world is shit and going to hell: he is obsessed with climate change, above all, but also social injustice. But finally we hear him on pleasure, as Brian Reed, the producer and narrator of the series, reads McLemore’s words:
I’ve spent time in idle palaver, with violets, lyer leaf sage, heliopsis, and monkshood, and marveled at the mystery of monotropa uniflora. I have audited the discourse of the hickories, oaks, and pines, even when no wind was present. I have peregrinated the woods in winter under the watchful guard of vigilant dogs, and spent hours entranced by the exquisiteness and delicacy of tiny mosses and molds, entire forests, within a few square inches. I have also ran thrashing and flailing from yellow jackets.
Before I could commence this discourse, I spent a few hours out under the night sky, reacquainting myself with the constellations like old friends. Sometimes I just spent hours playing my records. Sometimes I took my record players and CD players apart just to peek inside and admire the engineering of their incongruous entrails. Sometimes I watched Laverne&Shirley or old movies or StarTrek. Sometimes I sat in the dark and listened to the creaking of the old house.
It’s a paean to observing, and a gorgeous ending to a story about a consummate observer who was practically unseen.
Early this year, the CBC asked a number of writers for their 2017 writing resolutions. Mine, in reaction to the relentless torrent of information plaguing me post-election, was to work on being still and being slow, to learn how to focus on a single plane of depth in a single frame of time, how not to be overwhelmed with perception but merely (one of Wm. Faulkner’s favorite words) whelmed.
As a writer, I admit that I am eternally interested in the utility of my observations, and lately have come to wonder about surfeit: I have boxes upon boxes of journals but what for? But if yesterday ended with S-Town, it began with the story of another observer, Rebecca Mead’s recent profile of Margaret Atwood in last week’s New Yorker, which spotlights not only her ability to see beyond the present but her consuming curiosity about the present: “I don’t think she judges anything in advance as being beneath her, or beyond her, or outside her realm of interest,” says a filmmaker friend who recently accompanied Atwood and her husband on a bird-watching expedition to the rain forests of Panama. “We stayed in tents. And the first night I was going back to my tent and my headlamp caught these blue shining glints on the jungle floor, and every single one of these glints was a pair of spider’s eyes staring at me. When I told Margaret, she was very disappointed—she really wanted to see the spiders.”
And so, I thought, should we all.