When I was thirteen-years old, my father took me to see the diabolical noir film, Angel Heart. Looking back, it might have been a bit awkward for my old man as he was forced to watch (with his son) Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet engage in an over-the-top sex scene complete with blood dripping from the ceiling. But my dad didn’t need to apologize for exposing me to the beautiful filth that was Angel Heart. Because, looking back, it turns out that I was at the perfect age for a film like that to make an impression on me. I loved the seediness of the film, the twin noir settings of 1950s New Orleans and New York City, and the twist that the thirteen-year old me could have never seen coming. But there was something else in the film that must have impacted me—the relentless search for identity. There’s a scene near the end of the film where Mickey Rourke’s character, Harold Angel, stares into a mirror and repeats the line “I know who I am” over and over and over again. Each time he says the line there seems to be a new understanding of who he really is, a new understanding of his own depravity. It’s an incredibly powerful moment, I think, and within each of my novels is some variation of that scene, some variation of Harold Angel: a protagonist forced to face the reckoning of his/her own repressed past.
So, yes, the theme of lost identity (as well as religiosity and madness) has become a familiar marker in my writing. Hell, maybe that’s not stating it strongly enough. The reality is that these themes have gone beyond familiarity and into an obsessive repetition. While my characters are fairly disparate (from the lobotomist in The Incurables to the disfigured soldier in Corrosion, from the slaughterhouse worker in The Disassembled Man to the obsessive artist in The Blade This Time) all of them seem to spend their lives digging through the trauma of their pasts, attempting to ascertain the extent of their damnation. Could it be that after all of these years of writing, I’ve really been trying to write the same novel over and over again, trying to convince myself that “I know who I am”? The optimist in me would like to think that eventually I’ll get it right and will be able to move on (my friends know that I’ve always wanted to write a book about the power of knitting), but unfortunately, it is more likely that I’m doomed to a Sisyphean existence (and a poorly paying one at that).
But maybe I’m not alone. Maybe every artist is doing the same thing over and over again, waiting until he/she gets it right. Hell, just about all of Kafka’s work is nightmarish, dealing with the absurdities of bureaucracy. Hitchcock loved him some Freud. Dickens made use of a few orphans, and Murakami made use of a few cats. While artists do attempt to redefine themselves (remember, Springsteen created the albums Born to Run AND Nebraska), they still leave their thematic signatures, consciously or unconsciously. I like what Flannery O’Connor wrote in the introduction to Wise Blood when she calls herself “an author congenitally free of theory but one with certain preoccupations.” Not to get too philosophical here, but I don’t think this obsessive repetition is limited to artists. I think all of us are on a loop, trying over and over again to make things right, to fix things from the past, and change the fate of our futures.
A decade or so ago, Margaret Drabble announced the end of her career as a novelist because she feared repeating herself. She said, “What I don’t like is the idea that I’m repeating myself without knowing it, which is what old people do endlessly.” While I admire Drabble’s commitment to fresh themes and ideas, I’m not ready to quit writing yet, and not ready to move on from my chosen obsessions. I’m sure I’ll get the next novel right.
Jon Bassoff was born in 1974 in New York City and currently lives with his family in a ghost town somewhere in Colorado. His mountain gothic novel, Corrosion, has been translated in French and German and was nominated for the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, France’s biggest crime fiction award. Three of his novels, Corrosion, The Incurables, and The Disassembled Man have been adapted for the big screen. For his day job, Bassoff teaches high school English where he is known by students and faculty alike as the deranged writer guy. He is a connoisseur of tequila, hot sauces, psychobilly music, and flea-bag motels.