Strange Justification: David Carr’s The Night of the Gun

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nog_coverRating: Like the old photographs that were once painful to glance at, but now, with a little closure, serve as a warm blanket in lonely nights.

 

From Oxford English Dictionary:

document
• noun /dokyoomnt/ a piece of written, printed, or electronic matter that provides information or evidence.
• verb /dokyooment/ record in written or other form.
— ORIGIN Latin documentum ‘lesson, proof’, from docere ‘teach’.
documentary
• adjective 1 consisting of documents and other material providing a factual account. 2 using film, photographs, and sound recordings of real events.
• noun (pl. documentaries) a documentary film or television or radio programme.

Not every document is a documentary. Not every documentary is a document. These words, however, are rarely used interchangeably for the physical representation of a body of information (thanks Wikipedia) other than to specify what type of information: Written (book) or visual (film). Before I’m told that I have a bland knack for stating the obvious or get violently murdered by the sharp knife of semantics, I’ll say this: David Carr’s autobiography Night of the Gun blurs the shit out of the line between these seemingly simple words we mostly take for granted.

Like the access to the plethora of information (a word the meaning of which will manifest itself rather significantly after the first paragraph) he provides in his website for his autobiography (which I’ll get to), David Carr is not an elusive journalist whose only watermark on Google Images will be his promotional photograph. No sir, type his name in Google and along with the football player, you’ll get several videos of him interviewing people or getting interviewed, or all around just being present or existing. Save for the back jacket photo if one were to wonder what this individual looked like, it wouldn’t take too long to find out the answer. Carr is just present. To me he looks like a film-noir figure, sans the fedora but most certainly the omnipresent cigarette and the gravelly voice, trying not to decipher why he was set up by the seductive mistress of the insurance agent, but a the story of his own life. What he ultimately presents to his reader is not only that, but a crucial essay on memory: What it is, or whatever it is, how fickle, fragile, wonderful and a terrible thing it actually is.

memory
• noun (pl. memories) 1 the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information. 2 a person or thing remembered. 3 the length of time over which people’s memory extends. 4 a computer’s equipment or capacity for storing data or program instructions for retrieval.
PHRASES in memory of so as to commemorate.
ORIGIN Old French memorie, from Latin memoria.

Carr’s writing is brisk, introspective, humorous (“…hungover is not an expansive enough term to cover the collective gestalt”). Initially, there’s a bit of a nostalgia in his description of his younger days, of the warrior-writer (an idea that is wildly romanticized by any young, world weary-keyboard banger – it’s the starving rock star cliché for the literature oriented), the one who parties during the night, recovers during the day and somehow among all the madness pours coherent sentences onto the page that not only make sense but also establish him as a reliable employee. By default, a bottle of whiskey here, a bump, a line or two of cocaine there, he makes the self-help quote “No writer likes to write, every writer likes having written” pathetic and redundant. Then somewhere along the line, almost literally, he injects crack into his jugular. He sells, uses, deals. He looks through blinds keeping an eye out for cops. He beats women. He starts fights. He loses count of his arrests. He fathers twins. He goes to recovery. He relapses. He goes to recovery. He doesn’t relapse. He takes control of his life. He survives cancer. He gets married. He writes for New York Times. Somewhere along the line, he’s told, “You should write a book about all that”. He does.

In many ways except the chronologically obvious, The Night of the Gun is a very post-James Frey/A Million Little Pieces work, which unsurprisingly is briefly mentioned in the book. Carr substitutes Frey’s alleged manufactured intensity and grit (a book I have not read, an event I have only witnessed via Frey’s public flogging by Oprah and one that I am not willing to take sides on) for honest documentation and often lack of closure: There is no single truth and memory is a collective notion. The title of the book itself comes from an incident between Carr and his best friend where a gun is pulled. When Carr goes to interview his friend for the book years later believing this friend pulled the gun on him, he’s surprised to find out that his friend never owned a gun. Better yet, it was Carr who had the gun. A mutual friend confirms this as Carr once had asked him to disguise the same gun from the police. Carr stands corrected.

Still, I know what I know – Descartes called it “the holy music of the self”– and I believe that I was not a person who owned or used a gun. The Night of the Gun has stuck in my head because it suggested that I was such a menace that my best friend not only had to call the cops on me but wave a piece in my face.” (…) “I didn’t hold it against him – Donald was far from violent, and maybe I had it coming. I doubt that he would have shot me no matter what I did. But now that memory lay between us. Sort of like that gun.david_carr

His altered-state of mind at the time does present a challenge for the argument of memory: As fragile of a notion as it already is, it’s been made more unreliable by the “chemical resumes” of Carr and his buddies. However Carr’s willingness and diligence to document (here goes the word again) every period of his life in retrospective results in him going on a journey to visit friends and ghosts from the past, scratch the surface and dig up old paperwork, collect it all and compare it with the way he remembers it now. It’s fascinating that he mentions Descartes in the quote above – his work, and how it presents itself as the work of one writer but several consciousness’ almost proves to be the antithesis of solipsism once one considers these personal interactions exponentially: We think, therefore we are, therefore everyone is.

He mentions the Ebbinghaus curve, or forgetting curve and even presents the equation (R = e – t/s):

R stands for memory retention, s is the relative strength of memory, and t is time. The power of a memory can be built through repetition, but it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event. And stories are annealed in the telling, edited by turns each time they are recalled until they become little more than chimeras. People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.

Carr’s story of substance abuse may be the catalyst of him living The Life and thus writing The Book – but if one considers the book a thesis on memory, it also provides a curious alternative to different stages of reminiscence. A drug-user’s memory is as potentially fragile as an egg on freefall (oh Bill Hicks where are you to appreciate my lame metaphor!) but even the moments in his recent history that Carr thinks he remembers vividly turn out to be inaccurate. There’s another interaction of Carr about meeting a friend for the first time and being invited to a David Bowie show. He first recounts his version of the story. When he interviews her, she says he was way off in his recollection:

There is, she said, “nothing that you told me about our meeting that I know to be wrong, because I was a firsthand witness to it,” but then added, “From what you’re saying now, your memory is emotionally honest. It’s just factually wildly inaccurate.”

There’s a strange justification one gets from The Night of the Gun – as any good journalist would do, Carr not only does justice to the story that he’s investigating, but to all those sub-stories that encircle it. Using the prefix sub perhaps diminishes the significance of these other tales, but ultimately the only difference between them and Carr’s is that those have not yet been written about. Carr’s book, his research, his document, proudly honors the people who are with him, the ones who passed away along the way and even the people who just passed by. The way he talks about them so tenderly almost turns his investigation into the product of a collective consciousness experienced by and through the people who have coexisted in each other’s memories and who all made an impact no matter how insignificant it may be: We remember, we remember together, therefore we all are.

It’s comforting.

Sinan G. writes all kinds of reviews for Steve’s Word. But he locks those reviews, which are mostly of fourteenth century architecture on the Saharan desert or the sculptures in the pre-Gulag occupation of Siberia, in his closet, where his magic box with music recorded in 546 BC also reside. He then submits a random criticism of a piece of work he likes to Tim and Matt and runs away.

4 Comments

  • 1

    Awesome. This is like the Rolls Royce of book reviews.

    Slam Dunk, Sinan.

    - D. Hertz

  • 2

    I don't know if this is a strange insult or a compliment, Dick.

  • 3

    [...] Strange Justification: David Carr’s The Night of the Gun » [...]

  • 4

    It's a compliment, I assure you.

    Strange how comments always look sarcastic when periods are used instead of exclamation points! (see!)

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