A Reader's Guide to 'A Cage of Bones'
In the summer of 1985 I was living in Milan, Italy, keeping a journal of my experiences in the European fashion industry. At one point, I wrote: I feel like I’m living in a novel. It turned out I was, and the novel was mine.
I’d actually gone to Europe to escape a failed love affair and not because I had dreams of being a glamorous, successful model. Modeling is hard work, despite what people think, and very few models get beyond the fashion equivalent of bit parts and one-line extras in films.
At the time I had no real love of fashion, though I liked clothes. Mostly I felt skinny and awkward, and half the time I looked anorexic. I considered fashion a shallow pursuit for shallow people, like the dark character Joshua Behrens. Now I see it for what it is: fun, colourful entertainment. Being an excitement junky, however, I relished the opportunity to travel.
I began writing of A Cage of Bones the following year, in the fall. The ideas had stayed with me since my return, and at some point they coalesced into a more formal design. I took a year to write a first draft, and then another two years to cut it down more or less to its current shape and size.
For three years the book made the usual rounds of Canadian publishers, who showed no interest. Later I sent it with no real expectations to a small publishing house in England. I received a quick response from David Fernbach of the Gay Men’s Press indicating his interest.
By then it was the mid-90s and I had to update my experiences from a decade earlier. The Italian part of the book wasn’t difficult, being a timeless description of young love and sensual beauty. The visual beauty of the Italian countryside—Florence, Portofino, San Fruttuoso, and Elba—was still pretty much as I’d described it.
In Milan I lived in an albergo exactly like the one in the book (same name, even.) The models were pretty much the same, with a few name changes: my roomie Jerry Conklin became Jimmy Caitlin. But Mike was Mike, Joe was Joe and Jörn was Jörn. Much of what I wrote was exactly what happened. So, I thought, why change it?
I found Italy had more than a few social similarities to Canada, including a whirlwind of changing minority governments and the dubious distinction of being the country whose workers went on strike most often (I think Canada was second at the time.) It was lush, it was fun, and people were friendly.
Updating England proved more of a challenge. A return trip in 1991 showed me that times had changed, though the pulse of the punk revolution still beat on underground.
While in London I lived in a flat in Ladbroke Grove in the Notting Hill district near the famous Portobello Market. My flat was the equivalent of a squat, with one big exception: I’d been invited to stay there by its owners, two young women, Sarah and Francesca, who had just purchased it and were in the process of renovating.
To them, I was as much good company and occasional labour as insurance against real squatters moving in. They’d stripped the wallpaper, gutted walls and sanded floors. It looked and felt like a construction site, but for one finished and nicely appointed room at the top of the flat, which was my bedroom. I loved living there.
And I loved the neighborhood even more. Down the street was a Moroccan café where the owner’s young son, Applesauce, would rattle my coffee onto the table each morning. One street away was a real-life squat—a long, low-rise with a missing outer wall so that you could see the inhabitants going about their business day and night.
In the morning you might find shattered glass where cars and vans had been broken into overnight. One day an old woman stopped to inspect a broken car window. She looked at me and shook a bony finger: “They’re naughty,” she said. “Naughty, who did that!”
At the time I lived there, London wasn’t quite as violent as it had been during the punk era, and by all accounts is again, but it was still a big city with big city crime.
Later I met friends of Sarah and Francesca who lived in a more rudimentary underground squat, though it wasn’t as well populated as Sanctuary, the squat I described in the book. Ironically, the place that most resembled Sanctuary was under a garage in Toronto’s west end across from the Gladstone Hotel. It was called The Purple Institution and for a time was every bit as alternative as Sanctuary.
By the mid-90s, the music was different and the fashions less extreme (fewer safety pins through noses, fewer Mohawks and more faux-hawks.) I tried to reflect this in writing about Wheel of Fire, Joshua’s politically charged rock band. Musically, the band was modeled after a popular English group called Then Jericho, with echoes of REM and The Housemartins. I was particularly taken with the latter’s electrically charged pop tunes juxtaposed with the smart, angry lyrics of songs like Sheep and Flag Day.
Politically, Wheel of Fire are most akin to Chumbawamba, the Anarcho-punk band from Leeds, with their strict ethics on everything from performing through recording to living arrangements. While it’s hard for some North Americans to comprehend the mindset of groups like this, extremist political views were common in London at the time, though I wasn’t aware of Chumbawamba when I wrote the book.
I’d never really taken to the ultra-raw sound of the Clash, though that is probably what Wheel of Fire would most have sounded like. The Clash came out of Ladbroke Grove, close to where I lived, two of the soon-to-be Clash members having met Joe Strummer in Portobello Market.
The club mentioned in part three of the book was a former-punk club in Brixton called The Fridge, the equivalent of New York’s CBGB. It was pretty much as I described it and I did see someone dive from a high tower. The santa-suited band I saw was called Joe Boxers—for years afterwards I thought they had something to do with the underwear.
Ironically, my strongest musical influences were classical at the time. I would have been more inclined to listen to a ‘mournful Sibelius tone poem’ or a recording of Glenn Gould than any kind of punk music, except out of musical curiosity. My tastes have moderated since then and I’m currently a happy fan of world music of many kinds.
At the time I was writing the book, I was under the spell of Marcel Proust, and it showed in the first draft: dreamy, long-winded sentences flowed across every page. (The original version was 1000 pages long!) I was amazed to discover an entire page in Remembrance of Things Past that was one long, unbroken sentence.
As well, Sylvia Plath’s punchy adjectives kept me in thrall. She’s still my favourite poet along with Shakespeare. You’ll find her influence most heavily in the passages about the Riviera, Whitstable and Canterbury. I tried consciously to balance the two styles as one and make that my own.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, and EM Forster were also big influences on me at the time—and still are—my exposure to them pre-dating the above writers.
A friend once described A Cage of Bones as being an explication of the twelfth Arcanum in Tarot. She was bang-on. I carried the theme of self-sacrifice in my head at all times while writing the book, though the outward milieu is the superficial world of fashion.
The book’s religious symbolism is fairly pervasive, though some of it might not be so apparent. For instance, the name Joshua is taken from the Joshua of the Christian Bible, who conquered Jericho with music (and a few thousand troops.) According to the Bible, Joshua found five Amorite kings hiding in a cave and killed them. The literalists would tell you this means he killed five enemy kings. Arcanists, however, will tell you it means he conquered the five senses on his path to self-realization. I side with the latter. The Bible is intended as a spiritual doctrine, after all, and not a lesson in military history.
While I was vehemently anti-religion at the time, I have always been spiritual. I have since changed. I still have no interest in dogma of any kind, though I no longer oppose things. I prefer instead to side with what I believe in. Mother Theresa said she wouldn’t go to an anti-war protest, but she would attend a pro-peace rally. This is not semantics. She was saying we must use our energy for a positive rather than a negative expression. By fighting, we contribute energy to whatever we’re fighting against. Energy is the one constant and the underlying reality of the universe. Thoughts can kill, just as they can heal. Choose well.
It was also Mother Theresa who said that war is the flower of politics, which the idiot-saint Andreo Oliviero echoes in his advice to Warden.
Warden’s name may be taken for its obvious connotations of ‘watchman’, ‘guard’ or ‘shepherd’, just as the last names Fields and Behrens are intentional contrasts in what may be considered life affirming and life denying principles. It’s no coincidence that the book is thirty-three chapters long and that Warden’s ‘sacrifice’ takes place in the final chapter.
Other Cultural Influences
I tend to idolize my cultural heroes, and for that reason I like to insert clues about them in my work. For instance, Jimmy Caitlin is from Marion Indiana, the hometown of James Dean, who was one of my strongest formative influences. You can also find references to figures like the pianist Glenn Gould, occultist Dion Fortune, the Beatles, the pop group REM and a Canadian writer whose most famous work, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, was suppressed by her father because it described a torrid real-life love affair with a married man.
If this is all too much for you, just enjoy the story. It’s what I intended it for, after all!
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