Christmas Wishes Revisited

Being reminded about Scott this Christmas got me haunted by a ghost of Christmas past, taking the form of another old Ktismatics post. I’ve always liked the first line:

The last time I watched It’s a Wonderful Life it made me want to jump off a bridge.

I was curious about the timeline: it turns out I wrote this post on Christmas Day 2006, three months after starting the blog and five months before Scott jumped. He and I must have been feeling the same pull around the same time, although I acknowledge that for me the impulse to emulate George Bailey was more explicitly aesthetic. It was right around then that I googled Scott, tracking down some information about him, discovering that he’d gone to Hollywood to become a screenwriter, but failing in my search for his email address. What would have happened if I’d made more of an effort, gotten in touch with Greg or Jim, asked them for Scott’s email, made contact, commiserated with him about the immiseration of fiction writing. Maybe I could have offered him some hope, or at least some company in his misery. Maybe he wouldn’t have jumped. Or maybe the influence would have flowed in the other direction and I’d have followed George Bailey’s lead myself. Most likely it would have made no difference whatsoever. I probably couldn’t have gotten Scott’s email anyhow: Jim told me that Scott had cut off contact with his old friends until he’d made a success of himself.

I quite liked my It’s a Wonderful Life post. Afterward I emailed it to the only other person I knew who wrote fiction — the mother of one of our daughter’s classmates, an American who with her husband and three children had come to France as “church planters,” together with another American family co-founding an evangelical church. The seed didn’t grow in French soil; some sort of melodrama roiled church leadership; our daughter’s pal’s family returned to Texas. Meanwhile the mom, who had been writing Christian YA fiction, got a first novel published. I sent her my Freudian interpretation of her book, based largely on the unheimlich scene in which an old lady’s glass eyeball falls out during church service and the kid protagonist sees it looking up at her from the floor. She expressed mostly amusement at the possibility of such an interpretation. I followed up by sending her my Wonderful Life post. Yeah, life can be hard sometimes, was the gist of her response; and have you been writing? I restrained my impulse: What do you call this post I just sent you, you stupid bitch! Meanwhile she’s gone on to a solid midlist career, turning that first novel into a series, writing Christian self-help parenting books and memoirs about her own traumatic childhood, etc. I remember how relieved she was to leave godless France and to go back to Texas and the nurture of her superchurch.

I don’t know how the post has fared audience-wise over the subsequent twelve years. I know that it didn’t make the top fifteen for 2018. Maybe if I’d titled the post “It’s a Wonderful Life by Capra, 1946” it would have gotten a lot of clickthroughs, especially around this most wonderful time of the year, from people googling that beloved seasonal classic. I could change the post’s future by renaming it, luring future unsuspecting readers hoping to indulge in a bit of nostalgic cinematic Yuletide cheer. For me though my fellow-fictionalist’s disregard for the post served mostly to intensify it, weighing it down as it sank ever deeper into the Abyss. Eventually that post would get incorporated into one of my long fictions as part of an alternative past. In my (ongoing?) suite of fictions we last we see Prop O’Gandhi sitting on the couch with his family waiting for the skyhooks to carry them off to an alternate reality. Now, a few books later, an alternative last scene takes shape — it needs a final edit, but here goes:

###

Prop O’Gandhi slipped the videocassette out of its box and carried it over to the old bulky TV shoved into one corner of the basement. He turned on the set, slid the cassette into the slot, grabbed the remote, and settled into the olive-green velvet stuffed chair positioned directly in front of the screen. He pushed the green button and waited: nothing – just a blank screen, like an all black canvas framed and hung low on the wall. He hit rewind, but the tape was already at the beginning. The player had worked as recently as last week, when Prop had sat in his green chair and watched Last Year at Marienbad for the fourth or fifth time. He’d first seen it in college, where it had been screened in one of the big lecture halls as part of the weekly art cinema series, catering to the sort of student who derives the most exquisite pangs of self-validation while alone and in the dark and disoriented. Though he had taken his customary seat near the front, Prop felt a million miles away from the beautiful characters drifting languid and ghostlike through the deserted rococo corridors, speaking to one another in a language that even with English subtitles remained impenetrably foreign to him.

Not until many years later, after he had become a Portalist, did the film begin to draw him in. The Marienbad spa was a time machine, he realized, transporting the woman and the man back. But was it really last year, or twenty years ago, or some time in the future? And if it was last year, was the man revealing the contours of the past through their precise retrieval, or was he shaping events in conformance to his words, to his desires? That afternoon the radio had played one of those looping compositions by Glass, or maybe it was Reich, repetitive to the point of monotony yet changing in the smallest increments from one iteration to the next, until by the end the tune and the rhythm had become completely different from where it had begun. The eternal return: could it change with each revolution, with each bite of its own tail the Ouroboros assuming a slightly different shape, its triangular scales a bit more acute, the pattern on its back more distinct, through successive iterations turning and turning into something else altogether, a dragon perhaps, or a man, or a vortex? We want to be sorcerers of the future, in the midst of the fatalistic determinism of cause-effect conjuring pure difference tomorrow under the presumption that it’s too late to change the past. But what if yesterday is not locked in, if there are gaps in the cause-effect vectors, if following the labyrinth backward we can traverse a different pathway into a different past?

Prop would like to have written down some of these thoughts on the indeterminacy of the past, but his Portality Notebook was still upstairs. Besides, he conceded, I’ve already written these same ideas at least once before. The same but different. If the Notebooks too passed through the Portal that was already opening around him, around his family, around his house, then he could leaf through the pages later. If the Portal is not just spatial but temporal then perhaps he will have already written something in the Notebooks that had not yet happened, thoughts he had not yet thought.

Here and now, though, Prop was trying to validate a different recollection. He could have sworn that Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” to Rosemary Clooney that night while the two of them were sitting around the blazing fireplace in the chalet. But maybe it had been around the piano during rehearsals, or maybe it had been a different girl and not Rosemary at all. Now, in attempting to conduct this bit of cinematic research, the tape wouldn’t play. He fast-forwarded for a minute or so to see if the whole tape was blank. This time instead of blackness the screen displayed a flickering field of static. Prop watched, not really expecting the visual noise to resolve itself into a fake Vermont ski resort occupied by popular singers and movie actors of a bygone era. He tried seeing the static field as the snowstorm taking shape inside the story, giving new hope to the old Army general who owned the place, watching his investment turn as dry as the weather. Prop wondered if there was a signal hidden in the static, if the static encoded the movie according to a standard intergalactic protocol that could be beamed into the cosmic void as a SETI transmission. He wondered what questions the movie might stimulate among viewers watching it on their alien receivers while sitting on the alien equivalent of his olive-green stuffed chair.

After a few minutes Prop ejected the videocassette. He positioned it back inside its rectangular cardboard sleeve and replaced it in the empty space on the shelf that it had previously occupied. Next to it he noticed another Christmas movie he knew well. He even remembered the first line: “I owe everything to George Bailey.”

The last time Prop O’Gandhi had watched It’s a Wonderful Life it had made him want to jump off a bridge…

###

At this point I plugged in most of the old Ktismatics post, with minor alterations to fit it more snugly into its new narrative context. Afterward other shit happens to O’Gandhi, sinking him into a trajectory other than the one that had played out in the original scene.

Of course It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie that’s predicated on exploring an alternative past. “I wish I’d never been born,” George laments; overhearing George’s Christmas wish, his guardian angel Clarence makes it so. And now we’ve circled back around to the premise of my old post. If you like — if you dare, buahaha! — you can read it here.

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