Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Via Andrew Sullivan. Ben Franklin would be proud--or very scared.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The tiny fragment of a life...

...I once had is now gone. I've joined Facebook.

Friday, June 26, 2009

On the failings of others

Once again, Ta-Nehisi Coates is right. This:

Still, I don't understand the certainty with which some of us approach the personal lives of people we have never met. Whatever happened to the failings of others triggering some self-reflection, some assessment of our own works? When I see them foreclosing on the house next door, I don't talk. I check my credit.

Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: Mr. Vladimir

There's much more to learn from Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.

As I've been rereading this brilliant! brilliant! book, I didn't expect to be thinking so much about characterization. I thought I'd be talking more about setting and atmosphere. My recollection of the book, which I first read 20 years ago, involves lots of shuddering and teeth clenching. Of course, as I discovered in writing the previous post on this book, characterization and setting are almost the same thing here.

My other recollection, oddly, is laughing out loud. Was I crazy back then, or deeply insensitive; or is The Secret Agent really funny? For some reason I find myself resisting the latter conclusion. In a 1920 preface to the book, Conrad makes it perfectly clear that he loathes the anarchist characters and the real-life movement they represent. They epitomize laziness and vanity, and express their own pointlessness in acts of pure evil, like the attempted bombing of the Greenwich observatory. And yet I've been laughing again as I reread. Clearly, if you do it right, you can use humor to excoriate. There's no contradiction, or shame, in laughing at evil. By laughing, we shrivel these evil men, even as we can't look away from their crimes.

Now, in creative writing workshops, we learn that an author shouldn't loathe his characters. One has to find some thread of sympathy for them, and thus allow them some complexity, or they'll be cardboard. But these workshops are teaching, for the most part, a different kind of writing that what Conrad's doing. Conrad is working on a larger canvas than we're generally encouraged to take on today. Through satire, he's trying to get at the very nature of good and evil. As you may have guessed, one reason I started Borrowed Fire was to make a case for returning to this level of literary ambition. And that return involves a different view of what constitutes character. Fictional characters do not need to be like real people. However, they must be interesting.

Conrad shows us that sympathy's not necessary to create interest, when you have a gimlet eye and an omniscient point of view. Here's our first look at Mr. Vladimir, a honcho in Verloc's secret gang, who's under cover as a diplomat:

Mr Vladimir, First Secretary, had a drawing-room reputation as an agreeable and entertaining man. He was something of a favourite in society. His wit consisted in discovering droll connections between incongruous ideas; and when talking in that strain he sat well forward of his seat, with his left hand raised, as if exhibiting his funny demonstrations between the thumb and forefinger, while his round and clean-shaven face wore an expression of merry perplexity.

Whenever I find myself stuck in a rut of character description (he had brown hair; she had blonde hair; he had green eyes and a great big smile), I'll try to remember this passage--specifically, Mr. Vladimir's thumb and forefinger. What's important here is the connection of Vladimir's self-image, which has been reinforced by the idiots who surround him in society, to his physical gestures. The omniscient point of view allows Conrad to leave the scene entirely and go out to another time and place (some drawing room somewhere) to sketch that connection for us. At this actual moment in the story, the only other character in the room is Verloc, who would not know these things about Vladimir, nor would he be clever enough to express them. The close-third point of view, common in contemporary fiction, hampers one's ability to describe characters in general; perhaps that's why we're told to make all our characters at least a little sympathetic. Sympathy creates a sense of complexity, which makes up for the limited information afforded by the close third (or first person) point of view. But if your narrator has access to other information, like how a character behaves when the main character isn't around, and how the character has carefully built a reputation among certain people over time, and how his thumb and forefinger function at those moments when he's conscious of that reputation and trying to enhance it further--then you have an interesting character.

No, you don't sympathize with Vladimir at all; Conrad doesn't want us to. He wants us to hate him, but we can only do that when we see his self-delusion compressed into a precise, unique physical gesture. I think this precision has something to do with why I'm laughing all the way through this terrifying book. When a phrase or an image is so surprising and so exact, it's funny.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Goodbye, Farrah

I realize there are more important things going on in the world today, but Farrah's passing means something to those of us of a certain age. This piece in Salon says it all, and says it beautifully.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Cleveland Museum of Art

I'm happy to report that the new wing of the Cleveland Museum of Art is finally opening. I hope to visit it soon.

Apparently the building is actually designed to showcase the art, not overwhelm or hide it. That's all well and fine. Nevertheless, my fondest childhood memories of the museum are about the spaces--ponderous, marble, cool, with that distinct stony scent. Floors to slide on, corners to hide in. Occasionally a great burst of sunlight from overhead, as in the armor court or the atrium. Out front was a big pond with willow trees and a walking path around it, and ducks and fish in it, which we fed with white bread or crackers from the cafeteria.

The last time I wandered around that pond was almost exactly three years ago, calling friends on my cell phone to tell them my father was dying (he was at the hospital a few blocks away). It was hot; thick clouds were parting to let out a little blue sky.

Borrowed Fire: The Secret Agent: What the bell brings out

Let's now borrow some writing techniques from Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. This novel, from 1907, has been adapted for film a few times, most notably by Alfred Hitchcock in Sabotage. I went to a talk about this film recently, so maybe that's why it's on my mind. The story bubbles up from my subconscious now and then anyway, and I dread rereading it. I think it's one of the most disturbing books in the western canon. It's based on a real-life terrorist bombing, and of course it's been referenced quite a bit since September 11. But even discounting its prescience for our own times, the story is soaked with evil. It oozes. Sometimes the evil is so thick it is hard for the reader to move through; it's like walking through a swamp.

How does Conrad do it?

In the opening paragraphs, Conrad uses one particular object to stir up the physical and moral grime of the setting, so we get a good look at how truly gross it all is. That object is a bell:

Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law. It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening. Mr Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business. And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.

The shop was small, and so was the house. It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London. The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes. In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar.

The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines; closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink, and rubber stamps; a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like The Torch, The Gong—rousing titles. And the two gas jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy’s sake or for the sake of the customers.

These customers were either very young men, who hung about the window for a time before slipping in suddenly; or men of a more mature age, but looking generally as if they were not in funds. Some of that last kind had the collars of their overcoats turned right up to their moustaches, and traces of mud on the bottom of their nether garments, which had the appearance of being much worn and not very valuable. And the legs inside them did not, as a general rule, seem of much account either. With their hands plunged deep in the side pockets of their coats, they dodged in sideways, one shoulder first, as if afraid to start the bell going.

The bell, hung on the door by means of a curved ribbon of steel, was difficult to circumvent. It was hopelessly cracked; but of an evening, at the slightest provocation, it clattered behind the customer with impudent virulence.

It clattered; and at that signal, through the dusty glass door behind the painted deal counter, Mr Verloc would issue hastily from the parlour at the back. His eyes were naturally heavy; he had an air of having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed. Another man would have felt such an appearance a distinct disadvantage. In a commercial transaction of the retail order much depends on the seller’s engaging and amiable aspect. But Mr Verloc knew his business, and remained undisturbed by any sort of ├Žsthetic doubt about his appearance. With a firm, steady-eyed impudence, which seemed to hold back the threat of some abominable menace, he would proceed to sell over the counter some object looking obviously and scandalously not worth the money which passed in the transaction: a small cardboard box with apparently nothing inside, for instance, or one of those carefully closed yellow flimsy envelopes, or a soiled volume in paper covers with a promising title. Now and then it happened that one of the faded, yellow dancing girls would get sold to an amateur, as though she had been alive and young.

Sometimes it was Mrs Verloc who would appear at the call of the cracked bell. Winnie Verloc was a young woman with a full bust, in a tight bodice, and with broad hips. Her hair was very tidy. Steady-eyed like her husband, she preserved an air of unfathomable indifference behind the rampart of the counter. Then the customer of comparatively tender years would get suddenly disconcerted at having to deal with a woman, and with rage in his heart would proffer a request for a bottle of marking ink, retail value sixpence (price in Verloc’s shop one-and-sixpence), which, once outside, he would drop stealthily into the gutter.

The bell acts like a stick poking around in a mud puddle. Without it, we'd just see undifferentiated slime--seedy customers, seedy offerings, grime and decay. But when the bell rings, it has to be answered, and that allows Conrad to bring forth Verloc. In fact, the bell is like an incantation. It collects dollops of goo and gunk from the shop and breathes life (or some semblance thereof) into them: voila, Verloc. I love the word "issue" here to describe Verloc's entrance, like a blast of foul air. Then the bell rings again, and out comes Winnie, who forms a counterpoint to Verloc and the general filth. But her tidiness (and gender) stir up other distasteful elements--shame and rage--which then become part of the swirling awfulness.

This bell is a brilliant way to introduce characters. The way they arise from the muck, answering the bell as they must, makes them almost like automata. That, too, adds to the menace. You sense an inevitable horror coming, right from the start.

So a technique we can try is: set the scene, then use a catalyst--some kind of object, the smaller and more specific, the better--to get the scene and the story moving. And maybe the object should function somewhat unexpectedly. You might think of a ringing bell on a shop door as a cheery sound. Not here, boy.

UPDATE: Interesting: The Secret Agent is dedicated to H. G. Wells.

The Bad Book Club

My friend Matthew and I have started the Bad Book Club. First up: Valley of the Dolls! Haven't read it? No problem! This is a bad book club, and we welcome bad members. There's lots of loose, open thread to hold forth on topics you (and we) know nothing about.

Come join us for bad books and good times!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Door in the Wall: Did he see it like that?

One more exercise from "The Door in the Wall," by H. G. Wells.

It's a convention in non-realistic storytelling (fantasy, science fiction, and literary versions thereof) to end the tale with the question: Did this really happen? We've seen this, for instance, in "The Overcoat," and I've previously touched on it in "The Door in the Wall." If I were going to wander down the po-mo garden path, I might blather on about the "narrative frame" and the "frame" that is the door itself--which means this story is about fiction itself, as all stories are. But where does that really get us? Down the rabbit hole, to either death or paradise.


The trick of these endings is to create a knife's edge balance between "yes" and "no" that can never be resolved, but instead spins out more questions. What is reality? What is fiction? What role does fiction play in creating reality? And if fiction plays too great a role, does that equal madness, or a different form of sanity? Wells states the matter starkly:

They found his body very early yesterday morning in a deep excavation near East Kensington Station. It is one of two shafts that have been made in connection with an extension of the railway southward. It is protected from the intrusion of the public by a hoarding upon the high road, in which a small doorway has been cut for the convenience of some of the workmen who live in that direction. The doorway was left unfastened through a misunderstanding between two gangers, and through it he made his way . . . . .

My mind is darkened with questions and riddles.

It would seem he walked all the way from the House that night--he has frequently walked home during the past Session--and so it is I figure his dark form coming along the late and empty streets, wrapped up, intent. And then did the pale electric lights near the station cheat the rough planking into a semblance of white? Did that fatal unfastened door awaken some memory?

Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?

I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. There are times when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me superstitious if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than half convinced that he had in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something--I know not what--that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination. We see our world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit. By our daylight standard he walked out of security into darkness, danger and death. But did he see like that?
Yes, it's a trick ending, but I think it's a lovely one. The narrator cannot get the storyteller, Wallace, out of his head. He knows he will never understand what happened, but he chooses, perhaps for his own consolation, to think that Wallace did reach his paradise.

"Did he see it like that?" is a pressing question for our own time. Even mild depression, shyness, fatigue, and restlessness are now called "syndromes" and instantly medicated, perhaps erasing the reality checks we all need. I'm reminded of Margaret Talbot's recent New Yorker article on neuroenhancing drugs. Students and workers are now using Ritalin, Adderall, and other drugs as cognitive performance enhancers rather than just treatments for illnesses. But, as one psychiatrist puts it: "Maybe it’s wrong-footed trying to fit people into the world, rather than trying to make the world a better place for people." In other words, maybe the problem is not the peg, but the hole we're trying to hammer it into. There's also the fascinating article on Wired.com on schizophrenic brains, which aren't fooled by the optical illusions that the rest of us can't help seeing. Now, I have no desire to be schizophrenic; but it's deeply unsettling to think that "crazy" people see the world as it really is. What's really out there might be impossible to handle. These thoughts also bear on religious faith, of course. What did Wallace see, when to the outside world it appeared he fell to his death?

This is all starting to sound a bit like 3 a.m. in the dorm, bong optional. Well, what of it? Has anyone successfully dealt with these questions? If not, they remain the territory and the imperative of fiction.

So: if you're looking for a story idea, try writing about a character who sees something others don't see. I would suggest having him or her see something very specific and concrete, like the door in the wall. (Not: "I see dead people.") That person should seem otherwise quite rational, but he or she could end up unsettling the world.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The sorrows and...something...of work

Via Heather Havrilesky at Salon, it looks like Alain de Botton's new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, is well worth a read. A quote: "Our exertions generally find no enduring physical correlatives. We are diluted in gigantic intangible collective projects, which leave us wondering what we did last year and, more profoundly, where we have gone and quite what we have amounted to. We confront our lost energies in the pathos of the retirement party."

I write this while waiting for Dreamweaver to "clean up Word HTML" on a 41-page article with 167 footnotes. I've waited at least 30 minutes so far, and that's before the real scouring even begins.

Some graduation advice for young people: do not learn HTML. If you are going to learn how to write any kind of computer code, learn the hard stuff so people will have to defer to your expertise. If you only learn a little of some easy scripting language, you will be drafted into production tasks, no matter what kind of job you hold, or think you hold.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Door in the Wall: Light

We continue with "The Door in the Wall," by H. G. Wells.

Wallace recollects his childhood experience of passing through a green door in a white wall, which he spots on an otherwise ordinary London street:

You know, in the very moment the door swung to behind me, I forgot the road with its fallen chestnut leaves, its cabs and tradesmen's carts, I forgot the sort of gravitational pull back to the discipline and obedience of home, I forgot all hesitations and fear, forgot discretion, forgot all the intimate realities of this life. I became in a moment a very glad and wonder-happy little boy--in another world. It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky. And before me ran this long wide path, invitingly, with weedless beds on either side, rich with untended flowers, and these two great panthers. I put my little hands fearlessly on their soft fur, and caressed their round ears and the sensitive corners under their ears, and played with them, and it was as though they welcomed me home. There was a keen sense of home-coming in my mind, and when presently a tall, fair girl appeared in the pathway and came to meet me, smiling, and said 'Well?' to me, and lifted me, and kissed me, and put me down, and led me by the hand, there was no amazement, but only an impression of delightful rightness, of being reminded of happy things that had in some strange way been overlooked. There were broad steps, I remember, that came into view between spikes of delphinium, and up these we went to a great avenue between very old and shady dark trees. All down this avenue, you know, between the red chapped stems, were marble seats of honour and statuary, and very tame and friendly white doves . . . . .
The description goes on at some length. The boy meets up with another, older female figure who seems to show Wallace the story of his real life--a life which will henceforth be tinged with sharp sadness over his loss of this place.

But let's focus on the quality of the light in the other world: "It was a world with a different quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its sky." Both Nabokov and Olesha, whom I mentioned in the last post on this story, are fascinated by light. They use it to create what the formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky calls "ostranenie," sometimes translated as "defamiliarization." In the garden, the light is at once more penetrating and softer; the edges of things are sharper and yet somehow fuzzy. Colors are brighter and but set off by "wisps." In sort, the light makes this world both more intense and less threatening than the real world. It is, as Wells, Nabokov, and Olesha would all agree, the light of childhood. Cast this light upon anything in the real world, and you will see it anew. At the same time, the fact that this light is remembered, not currently present, makes the image slightly sad.

Much of Wells's description of the garden comes across as sentimental and twee. Such language has to be resisted at all costs when speaking of childhood, or of anything, actually. I would, however, propose a writing exercise in which you experiment with enchanted lighting to make a scene strange. The strangeness comes from the intensely contradictory emotions of childhood memory--joy at finding it, sadness at having lost it forever.

For more on enchantment, see The Re-Enchantment of the World, edited by Josh Landy and Michael Saler.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Terrorist fist bump day

Happy Terrorist Fist Bump Day! Wish it could have been my birthday; missed it by a day.

Monday, June 01, 2009

A lack of faith

The New York Times is particularly striking today in the pieces that bookend section A. On the front page, the news of Dr. George Tiller's murder by an anti-choice fanatic, revved up by the violent rhetoric of Operation Rescue, Bill O'Reilly, et uglia. Then, in the op-ed, we find a "reasoned" plea from Bob Barr for the Supreme Court to intervene in the death penalty case of Troy Davis. Barr informs us that "I am a firm believer in the death penalty, but I am an equally firm believer in the rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution. To execute Troy Davis without having a court hear the evidence of his innocence would be unconscionable and unconstitutional."

It occurs to me that the extreme right in this country is preoccupied with vengeance, of the eye-for-an-eye, life-for-a-life variety. "'Vengeance is mine; I will repay,' saith the Lord"--and yet these folks don't seem to trust the big guy to get the job done. They don't really believe God will dispense satisfactory justice for wrongdoers in the afterlife. Otherwise, why do they take it upon themselves to mete it out in this world? Seems they aren't quite sure about the existence of hell (or heaven), or maybe they don't think God will necessarily make the same choices they would. Maybe God would spare Tiller, a Christian after all, from hellfire; or maybe even reward him for giving his life to ensure women's safety and autonomy. Maybe God, like many on earth, would find Troy Davis innocent, or find the death penalty in any case a usurpation of his power.

Yes, I know, loons like Tiller's murderer think they are doing God's work, that he's personally fashioned them as instruments of divine retribution. But I submit that this extreme thirst for vengeance is, in reality, a failure of faith. Which I gather God doesn't take too kindly to, either.

Meals for Three

Read Natalie Jabbar's beautiful piece in Leland Quarterly. It just won the Undergraduate Prize in the Stanford Creative Writing Program. Congratulations, Natalie!