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.


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!

-                    -                    -

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 betweet “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 is s PED that takes care of too many problems. There is 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 propells thing apart). Certain very interesting and legitimate conundrums cannot exist when you have fast spaceships and barrelfulls of aliens, and so those stories wither.

The rote discussions in Little Fuzzy, prodded by the ineluctable 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 a lot. This anxiety, like a slowly rising tide, was covering increasing amounts of the shorline I used to call 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 closed shades 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 advocated 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 you, any resistance you might 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 in advance will help you.

But 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, honesely.

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 left in such cases 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 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 Highsnmith’s advice aboutu plot:

A plot, after all, should never be a rigid thing in the writers’ 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 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 stopped.

It’s funny, I remember in college being upset by certain moral issues in the books I had to read in classes. I was very 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 just 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 so 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.

Literary Counterparts: Snow Crash and Snow Crystals

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

  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • Field Guide to Snow Crystals by Edward R. LaChapelle

The most interesting difference between these two books has to do with “development versus novelty.”

The thriller genre trades heavily on novelty. Thinking, for instance, about the issue of setting in a James Bond novel—Bond is a jet setter, and he goes all over the place. There can be a scene in a desert for ten minutes, and then a scene on the ski slopes, and then a scene in an underwater palace … and part of what keeps things interesting is that you never know where he’ll end up next.

Snow Crash is a good example of this. There are some wonderfully outlandish scenes here, from a virtual reality city, to a giant “raft” made up of an aircraft carrier surrounded by tens of thousands of refugee boats, to a field of hops, to a country run by the mafia, to … it’s endless.

Whereas, a field guide exercises the opposite virtue as an intense, unwavering meditation on a single subject. In this case, the subject of “snow crystals” which are, in layman’s terms, snowflakes. What are the different kinds of snow crystals, how are they formed, and how are they destroyed: these are the questions this slim volume exists to address, and they’re addressed with perfect accuracy and completeness.

Yet, despite the polar opposite of the sci-fi thriller with the field guide, I found many similarities to contemplate.

At first, I was having trouble handling some of the violence in Snow Crash. I’m a squeamish guy who doesn’t read much hyper-violent literature. Usually, in the books I read, it’s a big deal if someone is killed. But in Snow Crash there’s a huge component of hyperreal slaughter. A guy is harpooned, for instance, through the belly, and when the harpoon comes out the other side, it’s glistening with a mixture of blood and shit. Stuff like that.

However, I came to terms with it when I started thinking of all of these people as snowflakes getting damaged by their environment. Because Field Guide To Snow Crystals has a high body count, too, in its way. It describes how snow crystals, once formed, encounter many damaging effects from their environment. They collide with each other, the wind rakes them, they hit trees or other objects, they accumulate rime from supercooled water, etc.

The average hexagonal snowflake, in its journey from cloud to drift, encounters many of the same violent troubles as an average pentagonal human journeying through a sci-fi thriller.

One final thing I’ll mention—both of these books clearly required significant research to create. This might be more immediately apparent in the case of Field Guide to Snow Crystals, which cites all of its sources. But Snow Crash too is quite technical. I think Stephenson must have consulted many reference books and reference people to wind together its plot of ancient Sumerian linguistics, virtual reality, seamanship, and the Aleutian Islands during World War II.

Literary Counterparts: Zimmer-Bradley and Hugo

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

  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

I would place both of these books in the category of “Middle Ages Romance” although Mists treats a much earlier, and 100% more British, Middle Ages than Hunchback. Still, they both exist to worry over the same basic premise, commonly known as “The Problem With Christians.”

I flew through Hunchback, which was exceedingly readable and very interesting. My first act on finishing it was to take a great gulp of air, for this was a long book–and not just in terms of page count. It was long in terms of descriptions, characters, tragic and cosmic ironies, digressions, and plotty coincidences. These qualities were so intensely steeped in melodrama that at times I felt verging on tears of karo syrup over the plight of switched-at-birth babies, lovestricken priests, grieved-to-madness mothers and (perhaps it goes without saying) one-eyed bell ringers.

But that melodramatic scaffolding held up much of substance. Hugo weaves in an immensely various set of ruminations on everything from the rule of kings to the sacred architecture of the middle ages. My favorite of it all is a freestanding essay whose thesis is “Printing will destroy architecture.”

I love encountering a well-developed idea that I’ve never run across before, and a middling scholar such as myself has frequent such experiences. As I waded through poor Quasimodo’s ill-fated attempts to rescue his beloved Esmerelda I kept thinking back on the idea of “Printing will destroy architecture.” Of course, since Quasimodo himself is a symbol for Notre Dame cathedral (in his symbolic function he is rivaled only by Pearl in The Scarlet Letter), this thesis is never far away.

A word should also be said, in fairness to the whole effect of the book, about Hugo’s sense of humor. The book was very funny at times, which lent momentum to some of the more self-serious stretches. Especially enjoyable was the character of Peirre Gringoire, an aspiring playwright and philosopher who never quite gets all of his dogs barking. He’s scarcely avoiding disaster in a half-charmed way, but also devoted to the theatrical recounting of his unenviable lot.

In the opening scene of the book, Gringoire’s one-act play is not appreciated by the audience, and he afterward dawdles by the river’s edge and laments,

Ah! how cheerfully I would drown myself, if the water were not so cold!

It’s his awareness of this more firm level of reality that saves him. He sees the romance of a heartbroken suicide for the sake of art, but recoils from the fact that drowning is ultimately very unpleasant.

But what if he hadn’t had this good sense? What if he’d simply jumped in and drowned himself, full of self-seriousness? Well, then he would have been a character in The Mists of Avalon.

If Hunchback was like a bit of brisk air through which I sped birdlike, Avalon was a pit of tar through which I sank deadlike. I made it halfway, traversing a little over four hundred of its over eight hundred pages. The one thing I kept thinking about as I sank was Hunchback’s sense of humor. For there is nothing humorous about The Mists of Avalon. It is the most serious thing ever.

When I was in middle school everyone was reading The Mists of Avalon. I knew it was a retelling of the Arthurian myth from the perspective of the women of Arthur’s court, and this is interesting at times. For instance, there’s a scene in which both women and men are together in the court, discussing war strategy. Then it’s time to fight. The men rush off on their horses waving their swords, and I (from my long training as a reader) expected the narrative to follow them onto the field of battle for some exciting dismemberment of Saxons. But the eye of the book stays in the castle with the women, who start weaving to pass the time.

What ultimately sank my effort to finish Avalon was not just its grim lack of humor, but also its poorly arrayed anti-Christian attitudes. Let me be clear: I have nothing against anti-Christian attitudes. It is only the poorly arrayed ones that rankle. For the sake of not boring you, dear reader, I will forebear in reproducing any particular passage of the book in defending my opinion here, and will instead produce a short bit of dialogue representative of the book’s general level of discourse.

CHRISTIAN (C): Get thee behind me, evil druid devil-worshipper! I shall not fight beside thee against the Saxon hordes!
WISE DRUID (WD): But all religions are one, my friend. Let us go into battle together.
C: Never, Satan’s child! Thy demon-words shall not ensnareth me! And also, thee caused my wife’s miscarriage, and killed my mother, et cetera!
WD: But I didn’t do any of that. I don’t even live around here. I’ve never seen you before.
C: Thy lies prove thy guilt, evil witch-thing! Hex upon thee! Blood of the Savior! ‘Swounds! Christ slay thee! (makes hex sign)

This conversation recurs inexhaustibly, and not only does it fail to approximate anything resembling intelligent discourse, but I worry that some middleschooler somewhere will think it’s a representative sampling of religious philosophy. If someone were really to dismiss Christianity on these grounds, well, I’d expect them to convert eventually, because they’d run into better arguments and be so astounded that next thing they knew, they’d be knee deep in a baptismal font.

Case in point: When Zimmer Bradley wrote this book in the early ’80s she described herself as a neo-pagan. She was into the druid thing. Have you heard of The Society for Creative Anachronism? The people who build battle axes out of PVC pipe? Bradley is the one who came up with the name “Society for Creative Anachronism.” It is, admittedly, a good name.

Later in her life, however, she returned to being an Episcopalian and said she’d “gotten over” her interest in neo paganism. It really is no surprise. The attitudes expressed in Avalon are plainly insufficient. Sorry if I sound smug saying this, as I sit here with all of the documents laid out before me and Bradley safely in the grave, but maybe I do feel a little smug. Paper tigers are a peeve of mine.

Caase in point number two: There appear to be no sexually transmitted diseases in Britain in the Middle Ages. How great is that?! Those druids are making free love all over the place, because they are above the primitive Christian sex-negative attitudes that surround them. And there is no reprecussion to that whatsoever. No herpes sores on old Lancelot, no way.

I think if Avalon had taken a minute to laugh at itself, it would have been more convincing. Maybe I could have finished it, because a laugh or two would have suggested to me that Bradley had walked around in her ideas for long enough to doubt them. Instead of jumping heedlessly into that raging river, she could have said something pithy about how cold it looked, and moved on.

Literary Counterparts: Fitzhugh and Konigsburg

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

  • Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

The copy I found of Harriet The Spy was once owned by Seattle Public Schools, back in the ’80s when I myself was just exiting kidhood. It has the old school library checkout card still in its sleeve on the inner cover! The front of the card was filled, so I added my name to the back of it.

I have written a motto I would like to focus on in this episode:

When from the haze of purpose precipitates the mandate of the thing created, submit.

I never took a writing class from Frank Conroy, but he was the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop while I was there, and I heard him lecture several times. One day, on the subject of plotting, he said, “The first line of a story is easy. The second line is harder, and by the time you get to the end, it’s almost impossible.” His point being that a story organizes itself into fewer and fewer plausible options as it goes along, so the role of the writer changes. Early, it directs. Later, it serves.

I thought about this while reading Harriet and Files. Both books start with great potential, but eventually fall away from what I consider their truest direction.

Harriet was the more profound example. At the start, I was amazed. The concept of this book is one of the best I’ve ever come across: A kid who sneaks into other people’s houses and observes them as a way to learn about the world. I love characters in children’s literature who are truly transgressive. Harriet breaks into the houses of rich and poor, and watches, and writes in her notebook about what she sees, and I thought I was perhaps about to read one of the greatest children’s books ever.

But then, quite suddenly, the plot diverges from this when Harriet’s friends find her secret notebook and read some unflattering things she wrote about them. The rest of the novel details a grudge match between Harriet and her friends, and all of those amazing early observations fade into subplots. Fortunately for the book, Louise Fitzhugh is a very good writer, and she does manage to pull it off through sheer energy and cleverness. But I never shook the feeling that the true story had been lost. Mixed-Up Files ended similarly, but more head-scratchingly.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Files‘ basic plot: Brother and sister sneak into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and live there. The motivations of the protagonists are never fully clarified, but are sketched broadly—feeling misunderstood at home, they search for adventure abroad. Eventually, they stumble upon a mystery about a statue of an angel, and set about solving it. This all was going swimmingly, though I wasn’t sure exactly where. However, “where” ended up being so oddly unsatisfying that, as I suggested above, I was left scratching my head.

The story’s moral, in short, is that you’ll feel better about yourself as a person if you have a secret that no one else knows. Because then you’ll … feel special, I guess. (I am scratching my head right now.)

I won’t say it isn’t true, because I guess I agree, but I think deep down what I really want is to feel like I’m a useful person in the world. When I feel useful, I feel good. I have a purpose. Having a secret seems like a subset of this, but a foolish one because your usefulness ends as soon as you tell the secret. I’d much rather have had young Clare come away with something more substantial than “I’ve got a secret,” especially for a girl precocious enough to live night and day in a museum.

Literary Counterparts: Dickens and Wilde

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

  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I had (as you probably have) seen the 1984 television version of A Christmas Carol more than once, beginning when I was a tiny stevie of eleven, and ending when I was a grown Steven and television went digital. What I learned by reading the book this month is that it’s the same as on TV. As I read, I kept flipping mentally over to George C. Scott. All the famous bits were there, from Scrooge attributing Marley’s ghost to a figment of indigestion to Tiny Tim’s Famous Words.

One difference, however, was the physical appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Past. I recall the movie persona as an ivy-bedecked sylph, somewhat a folk-revival David Bowie. The Dickens version is of another order, one perhaps beyond the scope of the CBS effects budget:

…the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away.

I recently read an article about Dickens in The New Yorker that summed up the core philosophy of his opus as People Should Be Nicer To One Another. That’s clearly on display in Christmas Carol. Never has being nice to people a bad man wouldn’t like to be nice to seemed easier, and Scrooge’s speedy reform begins after only one or two purely rhetorical examples of his needing it. Next thing you know, the big turkey is delivered to the Cratchetts and Tiny Tim turns a drumstick into a new crutch (or something like that).

The story, perhaps because I’ve heard it repeated so often, lacks any gleam of surprise or genius it might have had. The tracks are too deeply worn into my brain. Like, when reading about the birth of Jesus, you don’t think, “Wow, how crazy! Born from a virgin, really?”

Only with great effort can I see this story as something some guy conceived and wrote, and thus appreciate the perfect artistic clarity of its message, and the effortless unity of plot and theme. Christmas Carol really is a first rate idea. That’s probably why the book and the movie are so remarkably equivalent—it’s the central premise that’s its greatest achievement, more than anything accomplished stylistically. You could do anything with it—a play, a musical…

Scrooge is a humbug
Till the ghosts remind him of
The Christmas spirit.

After the certainty provided by Dickens, I felt a bit thrown by The Picture of Dorian Gray. Like Carol, Gray has a memorable and easily summarized premise that initially seems to imply a similar moralistic theme. The premise is that Dorian Gray’s portrait of himself ages, but Dorian Grey himself does not.

Whereas Carol develops a seamless relationship between its image and its theme, Dorian Gray is beleaguered from the start with confusions, the first of which is its elision of issues regarding 1) Growing Old 2) Growing Ugly and 3) Growing Evil. The three qualities are tossed together and I never was able to straighten them out. Honestly, by the time I got to the end I thought Wilde would have done better to abandon the whole “magical portrait” idea and just write a regular novel. That would have made more sense, but been less memorable, too. It’s the Portrait, like the Christmas Ghosts, that everyone remembers. Unlike the ghosts, though, the portrait is an ambiguous symbol.

Dorian Gray was censored on publication because people found it possibly gay. Last year, the “uncensored” version was finally published. I read some of the restored passages and found them pretty forgettable. And yet the book is shocking, and much of its message shocked me, especially the degree to which Wilde seems to truly empathize with the most awful traits of his characters. This is no morality play, on that level, but at the same time it is—there are hard lessons to be learned, and the characters suffer immensely as they grope for them.

Wilde was every bit the moralist that Dickens was, but with a stronger inclination toward understanding evil rather than delivering it a firm kick in the teeth from the porch steps. There are several occasions in which characters champion horrific points of view and Wilde lets them go on for so long, and lets them wax so eloquent, that you start to think they might have a point. And you draw back from that—or I did, anyway, a little freaked out at how much sense someone just made. Whereas Dickens props up careful paper tigers with labels affixed, Wilde starves his tigers, releases them into a field of anesthetized mule deer, and then writes euphorically about the feast.

One thing that must be said about Dorian Gray is how clever it is. There is no more famously clever writer than Wilde, and Dorian Gray includes a character who is also very clever, a repository for Wilde’s arch witticisms. But I sensed that Wilde wished the other characters were as clever as the clever character, because one clever character could not possibly say all of the clever things waiting to be said. The solution is to have the less clever characters frequently quote clever things formerly said by the clever character. Sometimes there were many clever things said on a single page. Such as:

  1. Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies.
  2. My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.
  3. The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.
  4. Nowadays a broken heart will run to many editions.

In my own final analysis, my allegiance as a confused artist is with Dorian Gray but my allegiance as a man always struggling to become better is with A Christmas Carol.