Introducing The Trap

Greetings! I’m happy to announce today that I’ll be publishing a novel for young people next spring titled The Trap, whose cover will look like this:

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It’s exciting and terrifying to see a big project like this nearing completion. The Trap has occupied my artistic attentions and best efforts for well over a year, and I’m looking ahead with hopeful trepidation to what publication will bring.

This cover arose from a series of conversations between myself, my agent, editor, and publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I’m very happy with the way it turned out. The starry, midnight blue sky and clutter of silhouettes not only imparts a perfect sense of the feel of the story, but functions also as a “truth in advertising” moment if I’ve ever seen one: Buyer beware, Steven is a writer with lots and lots of ideas! I should have asked them to hide a kitchen sink in there somewhere. (Confidential to my editor: Is it too late to add that?)

For anyone interested in the story that these bicycles, books, bear traps, snowflakes, violins, maple trees and keys have to tell, I’m also happy to reveal (here first!) the book’s jacket copy.

It’s the summer of 1963, and something strange is afoot in the quiet town of Farro, Iowa. The school district’s most notorious bully has gone missing without a trace, and furthermore, seventh grader Henry Nilsson and his friends have just found an odd book stashed in the woods by Longbelly Gulch—a moldy instruction guide written to teach the art of “subtle travel,” a kind of out-of-body experience. The foursome will soon discover that out-of-body life isn’t so subtle after all—there are some very real, very dangerous things happening out there in the woods.

The science fiction inventiveness of Madeleine L’Engle meets the social commentary of Gary Schmidt in this thrilling tale of missing persons, first crushes, embarrassing pajamas, and thought-provoking dilemmas.

(Including myself next to L’Engle and Schmidt wasn’t my idea, but I’m flattered that the folks at HMH thought it was an apt comparison.)

Although The Trap won’t be available until next year, it’s not too early to add it on Goodreads or to keep connected via Twitter or Facebook. I’m sure I’ll have something more to say about all of this before too long.

Thanks for reading!

On “Not Trying”

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  • The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt by John Bellairs
  • Dial-a-Ghost by Eva Ibbotsen
  • High Lonesone by Louis L’Amour
  • The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

It isn’t fair to charge a writer with “not trying.” I mean, how can you know? But I do sometimes have that thought—that an author was lazy, could have put in more effort, maybe was under contract, or just writing out of habit without a good idea.

There are as many kinds of not trying as there are people, but these four books got me mulling over a problem that I think about frequently—a productive cross-purposes in writing where, on the one hand, the writer is creatively investigating a problem, and on the other hand, that writer is simultaneously communicating the solution to that problem. You’re studying it as you shout your conclusions from the mountaintop. When this works well, it’s like gangbusters. It’s what I try for in my own writing (I’ll let you opine about that). There’s an undeniable energy that can’t be produced any other way, as the spontaneous zing of new understanding muddles with a modicum of reflective wisdom, emulsifying into … well, in this regard good literature is like good mayonnaise.

Failure waits to either side, though. You could end up with foolish zing lacking wisdom, or dull zingless wisdom. (If you’ve ever tried to make your own mayonnaise, you know what I’m talking about. What a disappointment!)

Dial-a-Ghost and The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt

Dial-a-Ghost and Mummy, Will, etc. were bereft of zing. Dial was an intricately plotted clockwork, but clearly “clockwork book” is something Ibbotsen refined many years ago, and now punches them out like buttons. Dial contained a spaghetti of plotty threads, and every damn one is wrapped up and tied off with an Extremely Snug Double Bow by the end. Reading Dial is like visiting an immaculate house where I’m afraid to sit down. As artist Andy Goldsworthy once said, “Total control can be the death of a work.”

Mummy was similar. Bellairs is famous for writing novels that vibe thick with doom, and this book amply vibed thus, but once again I sensed a writer who’d perfected the trope books ago and was now phoning it in (wow, I should have used “phoning it in” while describing Dial-a-Ghost. Or is that too much?).

High Lonesome

Lonesome is a capital-W Western novel, and as such adheres to a well-heeled formula. L’Amour wrote tons of these, so there’s no reason why this one should have anything of interest in it at all. I expected neither wisdom nor zing, and it was, indeed, mostly terrible, a flame broiled outlaw romance in which our hero will kill as many anonymous Apaches as it takes to rescue the girl—the only girl who could ever reform him! Double-exclamation-point!! Ugh, I know. Therefore, you should not read High Lonesome.

And yet, despite the fact that L’Amour wrote 671,438 of these cactus-and-spurs romps, I never once had the sense that High Lonesome didn’t matter to him, or that he was bored. And there are very nice details, too, jumping out where I least expected. For instance, when a cowpuncher is going to cock his rifle, but doesn’t want anyone to hear him do it:

He eased back the hammer, grinding his heel into the sand to stifle the sound.

That’s amazing. I read it several times over when I came across it. What a detail!

Surprisingly also for a book so otherwise perfectly embedded in the chauvenisms of its era, there were moments of unexpected philosophical insight:

Why did the young think that dreams were only for them? The old dream also, with less hope, less anticipation, yet they dream.

I wonder what part of his brain L’Amour stored these beautiful descriptions and insights in, and at the gulf between them and the rote mindlessness of the rest.

The Princess and Curdie

If you haven’t heard of George MacDonald, well, he’s kind of a big deal—a forerunner of more modern fairytale authors like C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote a book called The Great Divorce in which the protagonist gets a Dante-esque guided tour of heaven from not Virgil but George MacDonald. And although I’m sad to report that MacDonald’s philosophical stance in Princess and Curdie can be fairly summed up as “It is virtuous to be thrifty,” and although he furthermore indulges in that particularly irritating Christianic chestnut of a wise king irked by his foolish and ignorant subjects AS AN ALLEGORY TO HOW PEOPLE IRK OUR INFINITELY WISE LORD GOD, he’s also quixotic enough to let weird things creep around the edges. Due to our limited space here at stevenarntson.com (i.e. effort), I’ll share only two.

First, a quote. Our hero Curdy has been tied up with rope and left in a prison tower. He gets out of the rope, and then uses it to escape from the window. The narrator opines:

Curdie’s hindrances were always his furtherance.

Love that. I want that to be true for me too, and for you. May your hindrances be your furtherance, dear readers!

Second, the end of the book is incredible. In the final few paragraphs it’s explained in summary that Curdie and his princess rule their new kingdom with wisdom and grace. They die childless, however, and the people elect a new king who turns out greedy. His Majesty New-king mines under the city, extracting mineral wealth until the city collapses into the mine (modern analogues, anyone?). Then, flashforward:

All around spreads a wilderness of wild deer, and the very name of the city has ceased from the lips of men.

A wise thing to remember, indeed. Yes, good books are often a lucky emulsion with a passing resemblance to fresh mayonnaise, but, ultimately, Ozymandias.

Thank you for reading Literary Counterparts.

Literary Counterparts: The Most Shocking Revelation. Also, Fahrenheit 451 is Terrible.

This time on Literary Counterparts, steel yourself for The Most Shocking 2014 Literary Revelation in Steven’s Life. 2014 is only about halfway done, but I’ve confidently bestowed this award because no book can possibly outdo what I just went through.

Discussed:

  1. Our Nig by Harriett E. Wilson (forward by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)
  2. The Education of Little Tree by “Forrest” Carter
  3. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

*

Our Nig was discovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as a single manuscript. No other copies, I believe, are known. It was written in the pre-Civil-War north by an African American woman, and is a fictionalized account of her real life struggles with Northern racism, indentured servitude, and torture. The story is affecting to read, especially given the situation in which it was penned—Wilson, a single mother, ailing and infirm, wrote it in desperation, hoping it might earn enough to help her care for her son. (It did not. Gates reports finding the death certificate of the child six months after the book was published.)

Gates here has produced what he hopes to be an authoritative reproduction of the original, suitable for study by other academics. It’s worth anyone reading it, though, and his introduction is excellent, providing valuable context.

*

Have you heard of The Education of Little Tree and the controversy that surrounds it? It’s mindbending, and wins the award for Most Shocking 2014 Literary Revelation in Steven’s Life. Maybe you already know all of this, but I came into it innocently. Little Tree is Forrest Carter’s memoir about growing up during the Great Depression with his Cherokee grandparents. It was full of likeable characters and unusual details, but some of it was making me wonder. I told my wife at one point, “I just finished this scene where a guy gets bitten by a rattlesnake and they draw out the poison with a flayed pigeon, and I’m not sure it would really work like that? I should look this up.”

I looked it up … and received The Most Shocking Literary Revelation in Steven’s Life of 2014. The Education of Little Tree is a sham, invented from whole cloth, containing even made-up “Cherokee” words and rituals. But not only that! The author, Forrest Carter, was real-life Asa Earl Carter, KKK member and professional racist who wrote George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech. It still makes my head spin. I read all I could find on the subject, overwhelmed that this nice book about a boy and his grandparents was written by the same man who wrote “Segregation Forever.” Sidenote: one of the first people to expose Forrest Carter’s real identity was none other than Henry Louis Gates, Jr—the rapidly-emerging hero of this essay.

*

After that shock, I didn’t finish Little Tree. It was too disturbing. Of course there are legitimate mysteries here—why it was written, what “Forrest” Carter was hoping to accomplish, etc. Part of my mind is still chewing on it. But I decided to move on to some lighter fare.

Are you a fan of so-called “Golden Age” science fiction? I devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books and many others when I was younger, but as an adult I find the charms of that era’s sci-fi fading. When I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End a few years back it left me cold, as did Asimov’s Foundation.

Nonetheless, when Fahrenheit 451 crossed my desk shortly after I received The Most Shocking Literary Revelation In Steven’s Life of 2014, I thought it would be a relaxing read. After all, it’s held in high esteem, and is trotted out once per year during censorship week. It is the yule log of censorship.

And now, having just finished it, I can say with total confidence that we need to find a better book for this purpose. Fahrenheit 451 is terrible. Let me refresh your memory of one of its central tenets: the question of who is to blame for the book-burning that goes on in its science fictional scenario.

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? … Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors … Baptists, second-generation Chinese, Italians … all the minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. [Censorship] didn’t come from the government down. … minority pressure carried the trick.

Equating cat lovers with second-generation Chinese-Americans is what we in the business call a “stretch.” But beyond that, placing the blame for censorship on the shoulders of people groups who are already enduring racism and outsized portions of poverty … well, I was nonplussed, but I pressed on. This is after all a small percentage of the total book. However, it’s difficult to ignore when Bradbury keeps bringing it up:

Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.

The writing is very energetic, I’ll give it that. Every sentence in Fahrenheit 451 hits you like an effing baseball bat. But once the stars clear, you can’t help but notice that Bradbury just compared Little Black Sambo to a report on the connection between smoking and cancer.

When I finally turned the last page of this acidic stew of hardboiled hysteria, paranoid delusion, and masturbatory self-righteousness, I saw there was an afterword by the author. Maybe Mr. Bradbury would explain something about his problematic choices. Maybe in later years his opinions matured, and he wished to express some regrets …?

For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant … to interfere with aesthetics. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If the Chicano intellectuals …

You get the idea. True freedom of speech requires the silence of your audience.

That bit about Irish people renting typewriters rankled especially. They rent them, I presume, because they are too poor to buy. It’s insulting on the one hand, but also a missed opportunity. Bradbury doesn’t take half a second to appreciate his own privilege, even while dismissing someone who’s poor as yet another potential “censor” of his own work.

It got me to thinking about the other two books I read this month. Our Nig was created against incredible odds by a woman of color who had the deck perfectly stacked against her. Obviously she had talent, and it’s an indictment of our culture that she wasn’t helped to develop it. The U.S. has always had a flair for marginalization, often abetted by our weird philosophy of individualism that blames people for suffering from mass hatred. Our Nig sank instantly into oblivion.

Compare with Little Tree, written by a white male white-supremacist politician masquerading as a Cherokee. It was printed widely, went on to win the Abby Award, and was later made into a TV show.

I know I’m being kind of unfair. Literature is complicated, and lots of things figure in the success or failure of a book. But I’m standing by my unfairness here, because gender, race, and class are important determiners, even if not the sole ones, and such things should be talked about more than they are (although Mr. Bradbury has long since gotten his fill).

To conclude his firestorm of afterword invective, Bradbury employs a sporting metaphor: “All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases.”

It’s a reasonable symbol of Bradbury’s opinion of culture—that it seems appropriate to him to play a team sport like baseball by himself. Finally, he’s got it the way he wants it.

Lonely out there, Ray?

The Wrap-Up List available in Paperback

A little over a year ago I published a book for young adults titled The Wrap-Up-List. It received some good notices, including a starred review from Kirkus and inclusion on Voice of Youth Advocates’ “Best of the Best” list for 2013.

In the interest of painting a complete picture, however, I should include that Wrap-Up did not enjoy universal approbation. My average on Goodreads thus far hovers around 3.3 stars out of 5. One Goodreads reviewer wrote “No, no, no, no, no. Just stop Steven Arntson. You have gone too far.” And while it’s always disappointing to find you’ve failed to reach someone, I kind of enjoyed that review.

Today The Wrap-Up List becomes available as a trade paperback version at your favorite brick and mortar or online bookseller. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you do! If you haven’t recommended it to a friend yet, I hope you do that, too. While the book has been reviewing well overall, it hasn’t been selling very well so far, a trend I hope to fully reverse with this blog entry?!

If you read The Wrap-Up List and didn’t like it, I’m sorry it was a bust for you. I’ll try harder next time, and hope you’ll give me another chance. I don’t think I’ve gone too far yet, but I intend to.

What’s Happening Right Now

There’s a lot of “downtime” between books for an author. My last novel, The Wrap-Up List, came out last January. My next book won’t be published until spring of 2015, and while Wrap-Up will come out in paperback this May (stay tuned), there’s not much else going on in my literary life. Publication is an important timestamp, but there’s a lot of days to fill in between. As I have neither children nor regular employment, part of my life strategy involves structuring my days (hopefully to include some small amount of periodic income). I’m a pretty disciplined person by nature, so while this lifestyle isn’t exactly relaxing all of the time, it does more or less function to keep my mind occupied. And that is what this post is about.

Last week, the manuscript for my next book was accepted by my publisher, Houghton Mifflin. It’s tentatively titled “The Trap” and I have almost nothing else to say about it at the moment. When I have more to share, this will be the place to look.

So I’m working on other things. I’m already drafting another novel, spending time in the mornings trying to figure out what I’m going to have happen in … a murder mystery. More on this in 2016.

Other stuff: I got a new concertina. My wife Anne bought it for me for Christmas. If you’re unfamiliar with the concertina, let me introduce you: there are three main “families” of concertina, known as “Anglo,” “English,” and “duet.” Each is completely different from the others. Learning “English” will not help you if you want to switch over to “duet.” It’s not like going from a B-flat clarinet to a C clarinet. It’s more like going from a trumpet to an omelet.

When I began with the concertina I bought an “Anglo” because it was the only type in my price range. I enjoyed it for quite a few years (click this site’s “music” tab if you wish), but there were certain limitations to it, especially regarding harmony. I won’t bore you with the details (unless … you are curious? I have several fascinating homemade diagrams here…). Suffice to say that these limitations grew more frustrating over time, and Anne finally ordered me a “duet” style concertina.

The maker, a man named Wim Wakker, lives in Spokane Washington, and we drove out there to pick it up and meet him, which was great. I’m now deeply engaged with this instrument for an hour every morning. I’m really starting from scratch. It’s like learning to speak all over again, with the added difficulty that you think you know how to speak … but everything you know is wrong. I love it so far. It is an incredibly versatile instrument, and can do almost all of the things the other couldn’t (let me know if you would like me to get these diagrams out …). I hope before the year is done I’ll feel confident enough to play in public.

I’ve also been doing some design work for my friend Samantha Boshnack, a local jazz musician. Her new album, which was designed by my wife, features some of my stamps. And just this evening I’ve been working on some more imagery for an upcoming concert, a suite about the journalist Nellie Bly.

Have you noticed that this essay has no pictures? I could have provided you a picture of my new concertina, or of the stamps I’ve been making. But I won’t. Because I am a writer, and writers write text.

Text!

Literary Counterparts: King Matt The First and The Seventh Heaven

Welcome to Literary Counterparts, a book review series in which I compare two books from a library or a thriftstore. This time:

  • King Matt The First by Janusz Korczak
  • The Seventh Heaven by Naguib Mahfouz

Janusz Korczak was a Jewish educator in Poland before the Second World War. He had a school in Warsaw where the children largely ruled themselves, with their own senate, elected officials, and court system. Reading about this in Bruno Bettelheim’s introduction, it sounded a little wide-eyed to me. Now, having read the whole book, I wonder if that school might have been something pretty special, because King Matt didn’t seem naive regarding education. Ten-year-old King Matt has good moments and bad, makes good decisions and poor ones. Ultimately, he’s destroyed by the machinations of the world around him. There was much in the book that kept me thinking after I closed the cover.

That said, there were difficulties for me here that put me in mind of a graduate seminar I took once from Marilynne Robinson where she said, somewhat gnomically, “We’ve given Jefferson away.” She was referring to the inability of the American mind to simultaneously hold two contrary views (remember what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about that? I’ll let you look it up). In short, we once idolized Thomas Jefferson, but then we found out he did bad things. Instead of dialectically synthesizing these two opinions and proceeding to the next step of Hegel’s ladder, we got stuck. We adopted the second view wholesale, and threw out the first.

I felt similarly about King Matt when I encountered the plotline in which Matt goes to “Africa” and meets the “savages.” It’s a big part of the book, and is tough going. Imagine the most insensitive, imperialistic, Eurocentric thing Kipling ever said, and then add an order or two of magnitude to it, and you’ll have a sense of this part of the book. Sheer momentum propelled me through, and I’m glad it did, because it’s not all this or that (just like Jefferson).

And it’s useful to read such stuff anyway. There are no permanent philosophical victories in the world, after all, so perpetual reminders are perpetually important. Case in point about racial hatred and misunderstanding: Korczak was a teacher in Poland during World War II. His school was moved by the Nazis into the Warsaw ghetto, and Korczak went there with his students, and continued giving instruction as things got worse. He was a well-respected writer, and his friends told him to get out. He could flee. Someone even worked out an escape route for him, and got him emigration papers. But he wouldn’t go, because he didn’t want to abandon his students. In the end, he got on the train with them to Auschwitz.

My other book here is short stories by the Nobel-prizewinning Egyptian author Naguid Mahfous. The stories were all supernatural in nature, and the book was an easy read, whose tales wended atypically through their brief scenarios.

In “The Rose Garden,” a man complains that the local graveyard should be moved, because it occupies a plot of land better used for a public park and rose garden. People get upset about this, and someone kills the man.

The killer is later walking through the graveyard, and a specter rises up before him, a skeleton, who says, “Woe unto those that forget their dead, and who neglect the most precious of all of their possessions–their graves!”

In the end, the graves are moved anyway, and the rose garden is planted. It is in the rose garden that people tell this story, so the story becomes therefore a kind of stand-in for the graves, as, perhaps, it should be. As long as we’re willing to hear, and learn, we’re not being neglectful.

Literary Counterparts: Christie and Queen

Welcome to Literary Counterparts, a book review series in which I compare two books from a library or a thriftstore. This time:

  • Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  • Drury Lane’s Last Case by Ellery Queen

This month’s picks benefited from a pleasant coincidence: both books were published in 1933.

The watchword of Orient Express was “contemplation.” The murder, as the title suggests, is committed on a train. First, the clues. Every person on the train must be interviewed! And each interview will constitute one chapter.

  1. The Evidence of the Secretary
  2. The evidence of the Valet
  3. The Evidence of the American Lady
  4. The Evidence of the Swedish Lady
  5. The Evidence of the Russian Princess

There are twelve people on this train, mon ami, and Hercule Poirot interviews each. He particularly concerns himself with the place of origin of his suspects, reasoning that different countries produce different kinds of people, predisposed toward different styles of crime. For instance, the Italian passenger’s likelihood of committing the murder is discussed as follows:

He has been a long time in America,” said M. Bouc, “and he is an Italian, and Italians use the knife! And they are great liars! I do not like Italians.”

Ca se voit,” said Poirot with a smile. “Well, it may be that you are right, but I will point out to you, my friend, that there is absolutely no evidence against the man.”

“And what about psychology? Do not Italians stab?”

“Assuredly,” said Poirot. “Especially in the heat of a quarrel. But this—this is a different kind of crime. I have the little idea, my friend, that this is a crime very carefully planned and staged. It is a far-sighted, long-headed crime. It is not—how shall I express it?—a Latin crime.”

This is a representative instance of a kind of stereotyping that Orient really goes in for. And it disturbed me, especially considering that the book came out squarely in the inter-war period, to see such poor chauvinisms intermixed so thoughtlessly with other forensics.

But let us return to “Contemplation.” Orient Express is divided into three parts. Part I is “The Facts,” Part II is “The Evidence,” and the final part, Part III, has one of the greatest names of any Part III I’ve ever encountered:

Part III: Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks

Poirot produces a summary of all the evidence, and all of the questions that needed answering. He draws a sketch of the train carriage, with each passenger labelled in their correct position. I’m glad I didn’t stop and try to put everything together, mon ami, because when Poirot finally announces his conclusion it turns out he was considering some pieces of evidence to which we readers did not have access.

It was nonetheless a satisfying read, and so intricately plotted as to leave me wondering about Christie’s writing process. Fortunately, because Agatha Christie is the bestselling novelist of all time (she’s in the Guiness Book of World Records, apparently) plenty has been said about her method.

She started with the murder, and plotted that. Then she collected the characters surrounding it. Then she plotted the investigation, including clues and red herrings. It’s said that her notebooks are quite disorganized, mixed in with shopping lists, her daughter’s penmanship exercises, etc. The result: a successful blend of amusing characters, murder, mystery, and of course the pulse-speeding CONTEMPLATION when Poirot sits back and thinks!

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While Poirot is busy contemplating, Queen’s characters in Last Case are persistently struck by a very different sort of quiescence. You’ve seen the technique of using three dashes to indicate to a reader that there’s a change of scene, like the three I used above to signal the introduction of this new topic.

In Last Case this technique has another use, which is to create a narrative beat when something truly amazing happens. It seems like all of the characters in such cases briefly enter a fugue state during which they’re so overcome with the amazing excitement of whatever just transpired that they can’t continue the scene. Then they get over it and the book moves on as if nothing happened. Here’s one of the best of examples:

“The matter, my dear Choate,” said the old gentleman calmly, “is that one of the volumes which originally lay in this case has been stolen!”

-                    -                    -

“Stolen!” they cried simultaneously; and Dr. Choate took a step forward…

This shows the essential ingredient of Last Case: beguilement. The book bludgeons the reader into insensibility with a ceaseless attack of amazing developments—gunshots, car chases, coincidences, and anagrams.

Also, metaphors:

His emotions were raw and spontaneous, like the leaping juice of a squeezed lemon.

The buses were vast gleaming machines decorated whimsically in a motif of pink and blue, like acromegalic infants primped out by a sentimental mother.

These excesses distract from the fact that the book is rife with implausibility, even at the metafictional level: there never was such a person as Ellery Queen. Ellery was the pseudonym of two cousins, Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky. Furthermore, this novel was originally published under the pseudonym Barnaby Ross, and was later repseudonymed to the more well known Ellery Queen (constituting my first opportunity in life to use the term “repseudonymed.”)

The deft sleight of hand of Last Case seems like a good counterpart to Poirot’s flawed contemplations. I’d like to see a book that pits the two against one another. It would be called The Fallacious Investigator and the Untrustworthy Magician. And it would be written under a repseudonym.

Literary Counterparts: Dick and Leadbetter

Welcome to Literary Counterparts, a book review series in which I compare two books from a library or a thriftstore. This time:

  • Ubik by Philip K. Dick
  • The Astral Plane by C.W. Leadbetter

I’ve read Ubik before, some years ago, when I read several books by Dick in quick succession. I appreciated his desperate vigor to get at something at the limit of his ability to imagine. In this, he reminded me of Dostoyevsky, and ever since, I’ve associated the two men with one another.

An integral though ineffable part of their storytelling style convinces me instantly that they’re fully engaged in the existential riddle. Ubik was Dick’s most horrifying book, to me. I hesitate to reveal the central premise, though I’m usually cavalier about spoilers. I’ll just say that it hinges on what happens when you instantly freeze someone who has died, and they enter a state called “half life” where you can still communicate with them over the phone. The bodies of these half-lifers are stacked in a mortuary, and because of their closeness to one another, they begin to communicate with one another, memories exchanging randomly as they fade from half-life into full death.

In an interview, Dick was once asked what he thought “reality” was. He said,

Reality is whatever doesn’t disappear when you stop believing in it.

That’s a bit flip, but it’s an ingredient in some of his scenarios—characters suddenly observing impossible events and trying to explain them.

This endeavor toward critical thinking in the face of the overwhelming strangeness of reality sets Dick apart from the author of The Astral Plane, C.W. Leadbetter. Leadbetter, one of the “first wave” members of the school of thought known as Theosophy, has an interesting take on things supernatural. He’s essentially involved in an historical survey of supernatural ideas in which he credulously accepts just about everything. He speaks of Atlantis as if there’s as much evidence for its existence as there is for the existence of Chicago. The book is full of ideas about the astral plain, and about out-of-body experiences from different cultures, and he throws it all together in one homogenous stew.

Sometimes, it’s hateful. For instance, Leadbetter touches on the notion that Europeans are highly evolved members of the “fifth race” of mankind, whereas some other (browner) people are leftovers from the primitive “fourth race.”

There was one idea, though, that I thought beautiful. Leadbetter mentions the notion that all of us exist immortally on a much higher, nonphysical plain. Our higher forms are colorless spheres up there, and these spheres lower fernlike fronds of themselves down into the physical plain, which become our bodies. Once our lives are over, the fronds are retracted back up into the sphere, enriching it with the experiences we had. I felt part of myself believing this idea as soon as I read it, despite the fact that the context in which I learned it was such a foolish one largely devoted to discussing the ups and downs of Atlantean civilization as well as the existence of vampires and werewolves. It make me think that if I’d been interviewing Philip K. Dick, my followup question after “What is reality” would have been, “And how important is reality?”

Both of the books I read for this essay were “checked out” digitally from the Seattle Public Library. When I finished reading them, I deleted them from my mobile device, which sent notification to the library that they had permission to allow someone to download a copy of the file from their servers. I like to imagine this in a physical sense: I checked out a copy of Ubik and read it, and then took that copy outside and burned it in the fire-pit in the front yard. The smoke went up and was sighted by a librarian on the roof of the downtown library. That librarian said into a speaking tube, “One copy of Ubik has been disintegrated!” And deep belowground, another librarian fired up the printing press and printed a new copy, which then was placed on the library shelves. That is what the digital world is like.

Literary Counterparts: Little Fuzzy and the Agoraphobia Workbook

Welcome to Literary Counterparts, a book review series in which I compare two books from a library or a thriftstore. This time:

  • Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper
  • The Agoraphobia Workbook by C. Alec Pollard and Elke Zuercher-White

This month’s topic: “Perfectly Effective Devices”

Science Fiction is full of technologies inserted into a story to allow some necessary end. Maybe the most common is faster-than-light travel, which allows characters to reach some of the universe’s more interesting alien races. Or, if you need your character to blast into a strongly fortified encampment, give them a blaster sufficient for the required blast. Perfectly Effective Devices (PEDs) are a dime a dozen, and really I have no qualms with them overall.

This month, though, I read a book whose PED ended up accomplishing too much, almost abrogating the need for the entire story. The book was H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy which I read once years ago, when I was in middle school. The book investigates the question of how we should decide if an alien race is “sentient” or not.

There’s a court case on Zarathustra. If the little fuzzies are sentient, it means they’re people, and companies can’t come in and destroy their planet with mining operations, etc.

But what stuck out to me more on this reading was a device known as the “veridicator.” It’s a globe that hangs over your head. If you’re lying, it’s red. If you’re telling the truth, it’s blue. The existence of this machine is the primary force driving the plot of the book toward its inevitable conclusion. Without the veridicator, the court case would have gotten bogged down in all kinds of sidelines, lies, obfuscations, etc. But everybody gets the glowing ball, and must tell the exact truth as they understand it.

There’s not much to Little Fuzzy beyond the sentience question and the veridicator. Of course, a device such as the veridicator could never exist, because the difference between “truth” and “lie” is not generally quite so clearcut due to conflicts, or changing situations, or misunderstandings, or ethical issues, or whatever. And in this case it’s a PED that takes care of too many problems. There’s basically nothing left of the plot of Little Fuzzy once the veridicator glows red for all of the bad guys.

In PEDs there’s a shying away from the grit of life. Faster-than-light travel yeilds some good romps, but flies in the face of just how vast and empty space is (and getting moreso all the time as the universe’s dark matter propels things apart). Certain very interesting and legitimate conundrums cannot exist when you have fast spaceships and barrelfulls of aliens, and so those interesting and legitimate stories wither away into the shadow of the fictional devices that overshadow them.

The rote discussions in Little Fuzzy, prodded by the infallible findings of the verificator, short-circuit much of what would actually have taken place between such a variety of personalities, interests, and conflicts. The book has a hollowness to it.

Still … how great would it be to have some of these perfectly effective devices. This concept was on my mind this month as I slowly worked through the other book that it was my course to peruse: The Agoraphobia Workbook by Pollard and Zuercher-White.

Last month, I went to see a therapist for the first time in my life, because I’ve been suffering from panic attacks surrounding a longstanding malady I’ve suffered since I was fifteen: migraine headaches.

If you know me, you know about these headaches. When I say they’re “terrible” it’s an understatement. But I don’t get them often, so the main impact on my life for the past thirty years is that I worry about them. This anxiety, like a slowly rising tide, was covering increasing amounts of the shoreline of my life.

So I went to a therapist, and he diagnosed me with agoraphobia. I blanched, because that didn’t seem right. However, as The Agoraphobia Workbook explains, agoraphobia isn’t like you see in the movies, with some watery-eyed slugabed peering through sun-yellowed blinds and cursing himself for his failure to step out the door. It is, rather, a more subtle sort of thing:

Agoraphobia is a maladaptive fear of and desire to avoid situations in which the individual believes a symptom attack may occur and result in incapacitation, humiliation, or some other catastrophe.

Okay, well, yes—I’ve got that. The book advocates an extensive treatment schedule that involves slowly facing your fears by degrees, and keeping a diary of how you deal with the situations that upset you. For myself, these usually involve me feeling (internally) sensations that remind me of a migraine. This is exacerbated when I’m away from the house, and in a situation from which it is difficult to extricate myself, or that might lead to me inconveniencing others.

It’s been rough going, I’ll tell you. When a panic attack hits, any resistance you put against it is like trying to defeat a tidal wave with a sugar spoon. And yet, you must do it. You must hold up that little spoon and say, “I defy you, tidal—(blurp.)” Hopefully some of the preparation you’ve done will help you.

But it has me thinking further about perfectly effective devices. My problem is bad enough that I would be sorely tempted, if I could, to recreate reality in suchway as to allow for the elimination of migraines. That would, of course, reduce the world by some degree–a degree I can’t really anticipate because no one knows what causes migraines. But still, something would surely be lost in addition to the trauma of these headaches. Where I given this choice, I’d probably jump at it, honestly.

H. Beam Piper committed suicide at the age of fifty. He cleaned his house, placed a drop cloth over his furniture, and shot himself in the head. His suicide note read, “I don’t like to leave messes when I go away, but if I could have cleaned up any of this mess, I wouldn’t be going away.”

The nature of the mess referred to isn’t known. But clearly there was no perfectly effective device for dealing with it. Often, there isn’t, and all we’ve got is our ability to cope and a willingness to try to endure a little longer. Dreaming of a world in which you can cure your headaches by destroying a scary monster who’s causing them might be okay for the purpose of fiction, but for day to day life, it’s the slow slog through The Agoraphobia Workbook, whether it helps or not.

As a final note, there was one really great sentence in The Agoraphobia Workbook, which was this:

If you are unsure if this book is for you, please read further.

I’m going to make that the opening sentence of every book I write from now on.

Literary Counterparts: Highsmith and Xingjian

Welcome to Literary Counterparts, a book review series in which I compare two books from a library or a thriftstore. This time:

  • Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith
  • Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

I’ve been doing creative writing for a little over thirty years, beginning when I was about eight. In that time, I’ve run across many “how to write” books, but have never read one all the way through. For whatever reason, I have to make every single painful mistake myself rather than taking advice. If I don’t personally feel that sting and see the welt, I’ve learned nothing. (This is fortunately not true in other areas of my life.)

So, Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction this month became the first “how to write” book I’ve read completely through. It’s an odd one—very thin and printed on thick paper with wide margins filled with a mixture of desultory observations about writing and style accompanied by examples drawn from Highsmith’s own novels. It was stranger still to process Highsmith’s advice while reading Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, which was one of the least suspenseful pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered.

Soul Mountain details the journeys of three characters. One character is “I,” (traveling alone) and the other is “you,” who travels with “she.” All three wander through remote Chinese villages, sometimes searching for a place called “You Mountain.”

Highsmith claims it takes her (or took her, as she is dead) about three years to produce a book from conception to completion—longer than most “hack” (she calls them) writers. Xingjian also took quite awhile to write Soul Mountain, which is packed with image but lacks any clear connecting thread. I have a high tolerance for this kind of wandering narrative, but it began to seem like a failing after awhile—like Xingjian was being self-indulgent. I couldn’t help but think of Highsmith’s advice about plot:

A plot, after all, should never be a rigid thing in the writer’s mind when he starts to work. I carry this thought one step further and believe that a plot should not even be completed. A flexible plot line lets the characters move and make decisions like living people, gives them a chance to debate with themselves, make choices, take them back…

In Soul Mountain this does occur, but amid a problematic lack of the suspense and interest that Highsmith assumes will be there. At least, I think she assumes this, since she also takes pains to mention some things she thinks should be absent:

Art essentially has nothing to do with morality, convention or moralizing.

I thought about this sentiment for awhile after I read it, and finally decided I disagreed. To deny the moral dimension of writing is to deny (to me anyway) a great deal of what writing is. And it was a moral objection that stopped me reading about halfway through Soul Mountain.

Every reader has certain dealbreakers. One of mine is if an author seems to dislike women. This needn’t be explicitly stated, but sometimes is in the very warp and woof of a narrative. Soul Mountain for instance, is full of casual violence against women—rape, beating, murder, sometimes with a greed of detail that made me feel uncomfortable. Additionally, the only female character in the book, “She,” is an annoying, complaining, bossy and generally unlikeable person. I kept wondering if this approach would change, but it didn’t, and I finally gave up.

It’s funny, I remember in college being upset by certain moral issues in the books I had to read in classes. I was shocked by Joyce’s Ulysses and wrote a sort of conservative-minded screed about it. Even now, I feel suspicious of myself when something offends me. But I’ve always been a guy who can be hurt by certain things, and this book was poking me in the wrong spot.

There were smaller issues, too. The various stories of Soul Mountain were not gelling in any way beyond a hazy surreal profusion of ancient jungle. And although the narrative voice was well-wrought and the descriptions were often beautiful, and there were some memorable lines, it evaporated into an unsatisfying doldrum of middle pages. Regarding such troubles, Highsmith has the following:

… there are big snags which might be described as writing oneself into a corner. The big ones occur in the last half of books and may cause agonized pauses of days or weeks. One feels trapped, hands tied, brain tied, characters paralyzed, the story dying … The cure for this may be to go back to the original idea, back to your thoughts in the time before you began to write the book. Remind yourself of what impelled you to start.

I’d like to end with a few more quotes from Highsmith, partly for the sake of my own memory—there were some things in Writing Suspense Fiction that struck me as being true from my own experience, which I would do well to remember.

After opening my post on many mornings, I indulge in a few minutes of anguish and muted screams, then devote the next hour or more, if necessary, to tackling the mess. When I have satisfied myself, I stand up from my desk and try to pretend that I am not me, that I have no problems, that the past hour or more has not really happened, because I have to think myself into a state of innocence and the absence of worries of any kind in order to work.

and, lastly,

…I shelved the book, mentally at least, and did not know what to do except write another book. The setbacks, amounting sometimes to thousands of dollars’ worth of time wasted, writers must learn to take like Spartans. A brief curse, perhaps, then tighten the belt a notch and on to something new—of course with enthusiasm, courage and optimism, because without these three elements, you cannot produce anything good.