The first thing a reader reads upon reading The Incantations of Daniel Johnston is a warning against reading the book in the first place. I won’t tell you why, but I will reiterate the warning and add that you should likewise not read this review and interview.
Now you’ve been warned.
Probably the first thing anyone will notice about The Incantations of Daniel Johnston is the outsider artist drawings that occupy the book’s cover and nearly every interior page. The drawings also call to mind the Madhubani painting native to Nepal and India, with its clusters of intricate designs and geometric shapes entwined around human and animal figures. I’m reminded most of one of Georgia’s own artists, Nellie Mae Rowe. Still, the art is all its own, purely Cavolo. His illustrations look a bit like tattoos, a bit like comic book drawings (if a sixth grader had done them . . . but a sixth grader with an MFA). I will say that the art is good. It is singular and colorful and interesting. There are a lot of eyes and frogs, and there’s a decent amount of what could be conceived as blood. But I’m not really good at talking about art, so instead I’ll talk about storytelling, which I am moderately better at.
This is where Scott McClanahan comes in. McClanahan is a prolific writer. Since 2008 he’s published six books: Stories, Stories II, Stories V!, The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Volume I, Crapalachia, and Hill William. He has at least two other books forthcoming (not including The Incantations): The Sarah Book, and The Collected Interviews. He also dabbles in music, with his sometime touring partner, Chris Oxley (the duo known as the Holler Boys). Such a penchant for storytelling should come as no surprise for one of Appalachia’s own, coming as he does from a region steeped in oral tradition and rent with the ongoing dramas of rampant poverty, a dwindling economic future, and epidemic drug addiction, all of it replete with an ample supply of Jesus.
McClanahan’s stories draw from much of the above, and any reader would be tempted to assume that it’s because Scott McClanahan himself has lived through such drama. After all, the most common recurring character in McClanahan’s work is a guy named Scott McClanahan. But McClanahan is a true storyteller. What I mean by that is that he’s an artful bullshitter. He’s an entertainer. He doesn’t tell the truth; he tells the Truth.
In the case of The Incantations of Daniel Johnston you might assume that you’re reading a realistic rendition of the events of Johnston’s life. Johnston is known as a folk/alternative musician and artist, perhaps most famous for his “Hi How Are You” frog mural in Austin, Texas, the image of which also wound up on a -Tshirt that Kurt Cobain sometimes sported, and which resulted in a significant Johnston fan base. Johnston is also a diagnosed schizophrenic whose manic episodes have resulted in, among a number of strange incidents, a single-engine plane crash when Johnston wrested the aircraft’s keys from the pilot — Johnston’s own father — who miraculously crash-landed the plane, saving himself and his son. Oh, and I should mention that Johnston is also, like McClanahan, from West Virginia.
But as is characteristic of a McClanahan story, the story veers, in part because of the person telling us the story, the person who calls himself Scott McClanahan. I will call that voice, that person, Narrator-McClanahan. This Narrator-McClanahan questions some of Cavolo’s panels, some of which would seem to depict claims about Johnston’s life, such as traveling with a carnival and singing songs and selling corn dogs and getting his ass kicked for taking too long in a Porta-Potty. Narrator-McClanahan also makes use of empty space, calling attention to it — the emptiness inside us all — and at the same time playing with the known conventions of graphic novels. Narrator-McClanahan tells the reader that he/she is a piece of shit. Narrator-McClanahan makes bold, funny, and true statements about the nature of culture, the history of art, success, psychology, etcetera.
What we should do now is talk to Scott McClanahan himself and see what he has to say about The Incantations of Daniel Johnston. I won’t say whether or not this is the Scott McClanahan, or Narrator-McClanahan, or Storyteller-McClanahan, because, really, what difference does it make?
(I told you not to read this.)
ArtsATL: Do you, like me, suffer from depression?
Scott McClanahan: I’m on anti-psychotics so I guess you could say yeah. I don’t think I’ve really suffered much for the past two years, though, and I’m actually probably “happier” than I’ve been in my life (whatever that means). But this is after years of abusing certain substances (primarily alcohol), having about two or three half-assed suicide attempts and just really struggling to not vaporize into thin air.
Of course, there were decades in my life where I barely slept. So I’m not even sure how much of it was actual depression, or just not sleeping for 20 years.
I finally went to a shrink for good about three years ago and that’s helped me. But when you do what we do it seems like it’s even harder. For instance, I remember the guy saying, “Do you hear voices?” My reply was, “Yes, I’m a writer.”
ArtsATL: So you feel some affinity with Daniel Johnston as a real person, not only as an artist? You’re both from West Virginia, and you have had these similar kind of health issues. Did having this connection make writing the book any easier or harder?
McClanahan: I’m not sure there’s an affinity, to be honest. I don’t even know if I’m that much of Daniel Johnston fan. I mean some of those songs are just classic American songbook songs. They’re as good as anything from Rodgers and Hart or Johnny Mercer or Hoagy Carmichael, but I’m not sure if the biography of Johnston made it any easier or more difficult to write the book. It seems like we’ve entered some weird territory where only someone with mental health issues can write about someone with mental health issues or only someone from Appalachia can understand another person from Appalachia, but I find that completely bogus. Stephen Crane never served in the army but he wrote pretty damn well about it. Willa Cather was never a teenage boy in Nebraska but she made some pretty amazing ones.
The West Virginia thing is a weird one. He’s really from the Ohio River Valley of West Virginia and that’s a completely different West Virginia from the place I grew up. Probably if there is some external connection between us it’s the Church of Christ thing. It’s such a peculiar religion where you actually study the book (unlike having it read to you like most Protestants and Catholics). Two hours of intensive bible study Sunday morning, another hour on Sunday night, and then Old Testament study on Wednesday night. That creates a weird world where heaven and hell are as present right now as they will be in some apocalyptic future.
I guess I believe what the book says: light attracts light and I believe in that. You pick off a weird charge from someone and maybe that’s the true connection. It’s arbitrary and unexplainable by anything like sociology or geography or gender or brain chemistry. I mean look at us: I’m a kid from southern West Virginia and you’re a kid from Northern California. Separated by a continent, and we found one another somehow, and I would bet that you understand me about as well as any of my neighbors do, or anybody I run into at the shrink. Probably more, because we both go digging for those pearls in the gunk of our brains. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.
ArtsATL: Yeah, well you and I definitely have more in common than I do with my actual neighbors, and I think that’s because we have a similar constitution and interests and all that. So in terms of writing the book and the impetus to do it and all that, I got the feeling from something you said earlier (about not wanting to fuck up Cavolo’s book) that the art was created before the text. How did that all go down? Or was it kind of happening at the same time, like Cavolo might draw a frame, then you’d write the text, or vice versa? Did you feel like you connected with Cavolo more by virtue of the two of you creating something together, and the subject matter was, well, just the subject matter? Like you said earlier, you may not know or be Daniel Johnston, or even be a fan, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write one heck of a story that features him as a character?
McClanahan: Yeah, Cavolo originally published this book in Spain a couple of years ago and so I just wrote an original text for this new edition [Your faithful correspondent is poor researcher]. I’ve always been sort of taken by what Cavolo was doing. He did a cover for Karolina Waclawiak’s novel a few years back I really loved. I think there’s something that just pops about his work and is so simple, and I mean “simple” as the highest compliment. It’s the “simple” of like the first person who came up with the idea of a table or a sandwich. I mean wouldn’t you have rather invented the actual concept of a table than another dumb historical-literary novel?
So I was in between edits of The Sarah Book for Gian, and Eric at Two Dollar asked me to do a short text for an art book and I said yes. Of course, I was already stuck with what Cavolo had already done and I found that interesting. His original text was a little more basic and narrative driven and I felt like there was something rather sinister behind his images that the original text didn’t touch upon. I guess what I’m trying to say is I broke into a house with a buddy of mine when I was 16 years old and it was a similar sort of feeling — like that rush of doing something you shouldn’t do and trying to figure out how to get inside a place when you have all these constraints in your way. So it kind of felt like a home invasion on my part and that was the connection between us. It’s why most adaptations or remakes are bad. It’s because they’re respectful rather than blasphemous. So really the collaboration was very limited in a traditional sense. I still haven’t met or talked to him.
ArtsATL: Cavolo’s work reminds me of Nellie Mae Rowe. Do you know her?
Anyway, I really like it for that, I guess. It feels unstudied and real. Fresh, I guess. And I’ve always felt that way about your writing, too, even though I know that’s not true. That is, I know that you read a lot, and that you work hard on your writing, and that you’ve been at it for a long time.
How do you make a work feel so simple — to use your own word for describing Cavolo’s work?
McClanahan: Yeah, Georgia is packed full of great-ass artists like that. Right? We ripped off Howard Finster for the Crapalachia cover a few years back.
The simple thing is pretty simple. I’m just trying to be like Montaigne and leave something that will entertain my children or grandchildren one day when I’m dead and rotting. That’s all. And the only sin in life is to bore people, if you ask me. That’s how I separate the people in my life. Those with great stories and those without. That’s pretty much it. I heard somebody say once that the Russian language was an attempt at producing “spoken flesh” and that’s what I’ve been chasing, too, I guess. Be a Russian. Start talking so close to the spine I can shout a homunculus off my tongue.
So that’s what Scott McClanahan has to say about The Incantations of Daniel Johnston.
And what do I have to say about it? Is it good? It is very good. You can read it very quickly, which I suppose is a virtue, although I don’t think speed in storytelling really matters. Does it tell the Truth? Yes, it tells many Truths. Maybe that’s why Narrator-McClanahan tells you not to read the book because Jack Nicholson once told us that we can’t handle the Truth. I don’t know whether or not this review and interview tells any Truth. Is that something a review ought to do? I told you not to read this. Now it’s up to you to try and figure out why.