Gratuitous Poetry

Blind assassin - Atwood_Margaret Atwood cut her writing teeth on poetry and it shows in her novel, The Blind Assassin, perhaps too much. Her phrases are carefully constructed, a virtue in any writer, but Atwood’s choices often stand out as slightly too clever, while not particularly insightful. As the book opens, the narrator’s sister, Laura, has died, and Iris, the sister, writes about her sister’s novel,

“Hard to fathom, in my opinion: as carnality goes it’s old hat, the foul language nothing you can’t hear any day on the street corners, the sex as decorous as fan dancers – whimsical almost, like garter belts.” (p 39)

I enjoyed “whimsical like garter belts” as a phrase, but what does it mean? Are garter belts whimsical? And even if they are, Laura’s sex scenes were “almost” that whimsical, meaning what?  This is one example of hundreds and hundreds throughout this long novel, of phrases that catch your eye but on closer inspection are close to nonsense.

“Such a thin book, so helpless. The uninvited guest at this odd feast, it fluttered at the edges of the stage like an ineffectual moth.” (p. 40)

Arresting image, until you ask yourself what an “ineffectual moth” is. What would an effectual one be?  And if you’re wondering why the narrator is still waxing on her sister’s novel, the answer is that Atwood waxes.  That’s why the book is too long.

In long, excruciating backstory, we follow the lives of the two sisters from when they were wealthy teenagers in a small town in Eastern Canada, to the death of Iris, seven decades later. What happens between are the two world wars and the depression, with the appearance of soldiers, businessmen, love affairs, marriages, babies, households and the stuff of life. As in much “literary” fiction, nothing really happens. It’s just ordinary everydayness piled high and deep. Getting through the novel is, as a colleague commented, an Iditerod of reading.

More than half of the eighty or ninety short chapters open with a weather report, followed by detailed description of the scenery, and continue into long, lush descriptions of walks in the town or country, food and drink, shopping, clothing, babies and children.  Such material may hold particular fascination for some readers, but it was suffocating for me.

Are there redeeming virtues?  Yes. The novel did not win the Booker Prize for nothing. One interesting aspect is the narrative structure. The whole novel is presented as a diary, or letter, addressed to someone, we are not told whom until the very end. The ending is contrived and clichéd, swooping into the final few pages like a Deus ex Machina.

Within this long diary, Iris, the ostensible writer and first-person narrator, tells the story of her difficult lifetime relationship with Laura, her wild sister who died in the first chapter in a car accident that always smelled of suicide.  Interspersed throughout the diary is a novel, called The Blind Assassin, supposedly the novel that Laura wrote. It is a cheesy sci-fi adventure, written in third person narration, and involves swordplay, monsters, space travel and foreign worlds.  It is stereotypical nonsense, badly written, clichéd, and pointless. However, the astute reader notes it would take considerable skill for someone like Atwood to deliberately write that badly on purpose, so it is interesting in that regard – only.

Finally, the embedded novel, The Blind Assassin is not simply inserted into The Blind Assassin, but rather told as a story, or a series of stories by an unnamed man who claims to be a writer,  to an unnamed woman, who we guess is Laura.  The point of view narrator for that part seems to be Laura, who asks the man repeatedly to continue with the story.  But what is Atwood’s point of view on that point of view?  That’s an interesting and tricky question that is not adequately dealt with, making the structure an interesting piece of experimental writing which in the end, breaks the implicit contract with the reader that says third-person narrators are always reliable. Still, I give points for the effort.

Another virtue of the novel is Atwood’s skill at finely detailed description of fixed scenes and especially of photographs. Atwood seems drawn to ekphrasis, a poetic term for written description of a picture or a work of art. The book opens with a vivid description of a photograph and that is a recurring theme. Ekphrastic writing tries to “tell a story” about a photo, film, or painting, a type of writing that is well-suited to Atwood’s narrative voice.

Finally, as mentioned, much of Atwood’s descriptive writing involves highly poetic language. Taking an arbitrarily selected 154-word paragraph …

“Today I had something different for breakfast. Some new kind of cereal flake, brought over by Myra to pep me up: she’s a sucker for the writing on the backs of packages. These flakes, it says in candid lettering the color of lollipops, of fleecy cotton jogging suits, are not made from corrupt, overly commercial corn and wheat, but from little-known grains with hard-to-pronounce names — archaic, mystical. The seeds of them have been rediscovered in pre-Columbian tombs and in Egyptian pyramids; an authenticating detail, though not, when you come to think of it, all that reassuring. Not only will these flakes whisk you out like a pot scrubber, they murmur of renewed vitality, of endless youth, of immortality. The back of the box is festooned with a limber pink intestine; on the front is an eyeless jade mosaic face, which those in charge of publicity have surely not realized is an Aztec burial mask.”

We notice it is pure description, a propos of nothing, as so much of the book is, and one is tempted to skim right on past with annoyance. But if a reader were to take the time to notice, some lovely constructions are buried in that pile of verbiage:

“candid lettering the color of lollipops” is a visual, vivid, creative, and original phrase well-worth savoring.

“Candid lettering, ” color of lollipops:” 2 syllables followed by three, 2x(trochee + dactyl), with alliteration! Not bad at all. The rhythmic nature of the phrasing is no accident and such constructions do not grow on trees. The astute reader must whisper, “Bravo!”

Is such a construction necessary, or even desirable in a book that’s supposed to be a novel, a  “dramatic” tale (though it contains no drama) where story is supposed to be king? That is a separate question.

“fleecy cotton jogging suits” is another fine phrase — I can almost hear the band playing that tune. Say it out loud and you’ll enjoy it. And it invokes both tactile and kinesthetic senses to boot.

“corrupt, overly commercial corn and wheat” — less good, but still nice.

“little-known grains with hard-to-pronounce names”

On this one, she should have said “difficult” instead of “hard-to-pronounce.” Try it out loud both ways. Is my version too obvious?

Some of Atwood’s phrases are visually arresting, even when not especially rhythmic:

“festooned with a limber pink intestine” — “festooned” is a lovely word, but followed by that particular noun phrase, well, it grabs you in the eyeballs (if not the guts).

So overall, I say that this 154-word paragraph does pay its rent, but that does not mean it should have been included in this novel. Rather, it could be construed as self-indulgent wordplay that shows contempt for a reader vainly searching for a story.

Atwood, Margaret. (2000), The Blind Assassin. New York: Doubleday/Anchor (518 pp.).

What is Consciousness?

What is Consciousness?

tsc2017posterIf I had unlimited time and money, I would waste it on the University of Arizona’s annual conference on consciousness, called, optimistically, “The Science of Consciousness.” Of course there is no such science. One can (I can) argue that consciousness, being immaterial, is not even susceptible to scientific methods of inquiry.

Undaunted, in even-numbered years this conference is held in Tucson; odd-numbered abroad. I used to be an active participant from 1994 through the early oughts, reading, attending, showing posters, presenting at paper sessions, and contributing articles to the journal (Journal of Consciousness Studies (www.imprint.co.uk/product/jcs/).  I presented papers in Tucson, Sweden, and Scotland. This year (2017) the conference is in Shanghai.

I have a fondness in my heart for this enterprise.

Several factors nudged me out of the fold. One was the price. Back in the day I could attend a conference for $200. Now it’s $500 to get in the door, too rich for me.

Another factor was that I started to feel like it was Groundhog Day. The same old ideas and arguments were trotted out year after year. Nothing was ever resolved and nothing that looked like progress was ever evident and I lost confidence that it ever would be.

And then I took up writing fiction, which is perhaps just another way to study consciousness, and it is all-absorbing and very, very time-consuming.

Having visited Shanghai some zodiac Rooster cycles ago, I was curious about the latest conference, in June, 2017  Here are some of the promised highlights and my random associations to them.

  • THE SCIENCE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
  • June 5-10, 2017
  • Shanghai New International Expo Centre
  • Shanghai CHINA

http://uahs.arizona.edu/news/tsc-2017-shanghai-conference-announcement-and-program-update

General Conference Registration:  $500. (Travel, food and lodging not included).

Conference Blurb:
Consciousness defines our existence, but its scientific nature remains unknown. How does the brain produce consciousness, and how does consciousness causally affect brain processes? Is consciousness equivalent to computation? What are the best empirical theories, and do we have free will? How and when did consciousness evolve, or has it been present in the universe all along? What are the origins of moral and aesthetic values, and how can mental and cognitive function be optimized? Can consciousness persist after bodily death, e.g. through ‘uploading’ to machines, or via mental processes tied to the structure of reality? These and other relevant questions are approached through many disciplines including brain science, philosophy, physics, cosmology, the arts and contemplative practices.

[The bias of this conference and of most people working in the field, is that the brain does somehow “produce” consciousness. The only remaining question is how?  For a material brain to produce immaterial consciousness  would violate several laws of physics and is scientifically implausible. Never mind.  Refer to the title of the conference.

Notice that in the interests of “fair and balanced” propositions, the introduction also asks how consciousness affects brain processes, allowing only marginal “effects.”  It does not ask how consciousness might “produce” the brain, for that is an inconceivable idea. More inconceivable than the converse?

The prevailing conceptualization seems to be. 1. There are two conceptual entities: a) the brain, and  b) consciousness. 2. Those two entities are clearly correlated in observation. 3. We have no causal story to explain that correlation.

Despite the impasse, there is a strong and palpable bias at these conferences, without reason, evidence, or plausible theory, that the arrow of causality runs from brain to consciousness.

In my (not so) humble opinion, after 35 years of study, the consensus view is a dead-end and even a non-starter.  Once I saw that clearly, I tried for a while to turn the ship around, realized shortly that one cannot swim against a zeitgeist, and dropped out. ]

[John Searle spoke at the first conference in 1994. I don’t think he’s said anything new since then. His answer: “No.” ]

[I was surprised to see that Thomas Bever is now at U of A. It was his book, The Psychology of Language: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics and Generative Grammar by J. A. Fodor, T. G. Bever, M. F. Garrett (1974) New York: McGraw Hill, that got me started in psycholinguistics and philosophy of mind. Too bad there’s no practical way for me to meet him and say “Thanks.”  Oddly, He’s probably sitting not far from me twice a week in the class Chomsky is currently teaching at U of A.]

[Dave Chalmers has been a producer of the TSC from the beginning. I’ve had many interesting conversations with him, online and in person, though he would not know me, since he is many-to-one, while I am among the many.  His 1996 book, The Conscious Mind, was a very welcome antidote to rampant and unexamined physical reductionism in the study of  consciousness. However, I don’t think he has ever settled on a definition of his own. It used to be, I thought, that he believed consciousness was information, in some way that I could not understand – “information” being a classic weasel word with multiple definitions. I don’t know if he’s gone over to the side of the panpsychists.  In any case, I am grateful to him for having invented, or at least promulgated 1. The philosophical zombie and 2. The Zombie Blues.

Galen Strawson, with whom I have also conversed and emailed, is the archetypal panpsychist, although in my (not so) humble opinion he is a closet materialist.]

[It would be interesting to attend this session and hear what the “latest” is on the correlation between consciousness and neurology.  At best, it would be, “still don’t know.” At worst, it will be the same old “just around the corner” misplaced optimism.]

[Likewise, it would be interesting to hear what the “latest” theories of consciousness are, but I would expect same-old, same-old. I’ve talked with Stuart Hameroff several times at conventions and I once took an online class from him. He’s an anesthesiologist and to his credit, admits  that “nobody knows” how anesthesiology works (although I am sure there are strongly-held hypotheses.). ]

[The multiple layers of questions and assumptions embedded in this problematic are indeed plenary.  “Evolution” is a biological term, so posing the question about the “evolution of consciousness” already presupposes that consciousness is a biological phenomenon, something that has not been scientifically established. It’s one of those infuriating topics that skims over so many definitions and assumptions that I am usually left speechless.]

[Still, if I had the thousands of dollars to attend and the time to do it, I would.]

Jack Reacher Outsmarted

Reacher Said NothingAndy Martin’s deconstruction of Lee Child’s twentieth, and hopefully last, Jack Reacher novel, Make Me, is at first glance an exercise in flamboyant grandstanding pretending to be hagiography.   At least 80% of the book is filled with tangents not even remotely germane and peppered with mystifyingly irrelevant anecdotes. It is extremely annoying for that. But on closer reading, I think that’s all obfuscation, part of a near-fantastical feat of mental conjuring worthy of Jack Reacher calculating the trajectory of an incoming bullet.

My hypothesis is that the structure and content of Martin’s book is a response to a heavy hand of censorship from Child’s publishers (also Martin’s own, Random/Vintage). That pressure is alluded to in the text. The publisher apparently had complete editorial control over Martin as he wrote and essentially enforced a content-free policy so he would not say anything even the slightest bit critical, protecting the Reacher brand from any expose, or even the slightest shade. Elephant bucks are involved. Child’s Reacher series is one of the most successful in modern publishing history. Forbes called it “the strongest brand in publishing.” Reacher books have sold more than 70 million copies, making it a billion-dollar brand.

Despite that, Martin manages to present a serious literary criticism of the Child novel, and to present meaningful biographical information about Child himself, all without invoking the Damoclean sword. Reading between the lines, here are some issues and questions  about Child and Reacher that Martin sneakily brought forth right under the noses of his wary censors:

  1. Martin attempts to write in Child’s Jack Reacher style, especially in the first couple of chapters. It’s painfully bad. Martin seems to humiliate himself with some horrible writing and very lame imitation. Yet it does, deftly and indirectly, call attention to Child’s bizarre writing style. Martin provides a scathing criticism without stating a word of criticism.  What is the Child style? In some ways it’s redolent of a Cormack McCarthy minimalism (without the poetry), short, direct, declarative sentences and sentence fragments, the grunts and whistles of a taciturn cave-man.  And the Reacher books are characterized by the catch-phrase, “Reacher said nothing” a phrase Martin glorifies in a brilliant feat of misdirection.

Martin displays these and other elements of the Child style critically, again without commenting directly on them. For example, he shows several instances of cringeworthy purple prose along with some extremely clunky sentence structures and almost uninterpretable quirks of narration, qualities Child’s writing shows in abundance.  It’s an  extremely subtle, even artistic form of criticism, showing, without saying.

Example: “… about the one thing he couldn’t do was write a novel about his own experience. Which was why Reacher still needed him. He’d written the first line on September 1, 2013. It had to be September 1. Every year. Without fail. Now it was over.” (p. 5)

I submit that is parody, even ridicule, of Child’s writing style, and Martin slipped it past the censors.  There are many other similar examples.

  1. On page 41, Martin says to Child, I like the way you use which,” I said. Which made sense anyway. Subordinate clause, but you give it a fresh start.”

It’s another beautifully disguised criticism on many levels, ridiculing Child’s excessive use of fragments and including the deliciously cryptic italicized phrase which renders the passage nonsensical but is supposed to be a thought-balloon (I think). Child, oblivious to irony, eats up the praise while Martin parodizes him.

  1.  On page 56, Martin inserts another dirk into Child’s cloak when he over-praises the title of the novel, Make Me. Masterful!  It is, of course, an uninformative title, having nothing to do with the story. It evokes the mood of a schoolyard bully for no apparent purpose except to reveal something about Child’s own mentality, perhaps, and that is reflected in the novel. Jack Reacher has the social development of a nine-year-old, and after reading Martin’s book, I began to believe that was true of Child as well. So the title is perhaps an inadvertently embarrassing self-disclosure by Child, highlighted and interpreted by Martin. Again Child unwittingly basks in Martin’s praise.
  1. Money, money, money!  Child is all about money (pp 65 ++, 85, 89, elsewhere), and he has done extremely well indeed with the Reacher series. Child portrays himself (per Martin) as being like Reacher – an unmotivated drifter with no agenda. Martin effectively exposes that self-description as either delusion or pure cynicism. Writing is all about the money for Child and that’s what drives him, not any artistic muse, as Child claims with abundant self-flattery. Martin skillfully demonstrates that contradiction without stating anything directly.

“So you’re a poet … and a ruthless bastard at the same time?”

“One does not impact on the other…” (p. 86).

  1. Martin reports Child’s appreciation of the “Flaubertian point of view” (more commonly in the U.S. called “Free Indirect Discourse,” or FID – a type of narration supposedly invented by Flaubert).  Child enthusiastically agrees, for he is a fine literary artist after all. Child does make extensive use of FID in his narration, but so does everybody else these days. It is required in modern writing. However Child corrupts the subtlety of the technique by inserting unbelievable, often incomprehensible, italicized thought-balloons into the text, essentially constituting a different narrator entirely, a first-person narrator that often competes with the close-third narrator exercising FID. Child, of course, is oblivious to this garbling of the technique. Martin is not. (See pp. 131 ++, 133, and 138).
  1. What is the plot of Make Me? You’d be hard pressed to outline it. The story throughline is very nearly lost in the endless meandering that makes up most of the book. Reacher is unmotivated and wants nothing. The “MacGuffin,” his friend’s missing partner, is known by the reader to be dead on page 1. The so-called plot seems to be merely episodic, a long, saggy series of almost unconnected scenes leading nowhere in particular. I admit I couldn’t even keep track of why the main characters were furiously scooting off to Los Angeles or Oklahoma – I had completely lost the thread of what was going on because the story was directionless and nothing mattered. The “grand denouement” of the ending could have been written as Chapter Two, so unrelated was it to the rest of the story.

But Martin skillfully reveals Child’s self-serving “theory of plot” (see pp. 138-139). Child’s incomprehensible “theory” of plot is that it is the job of the author to “kill the plot.” What? On the other hand, maybe he did that, though I’m skeptical that it was on purpose. More likely, Child can’t get a grip on a solid Reacher plot. The books are extremely episodic, not story-driven, and obviously written by the seat of the pants. But nor are they character-driven. Reacher is an unchanging rock. By the last page of the book he has barely mussed his hair.  My conclusion, prompted by Martin, is that Reacher books are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. They are author-driven.

  1. Who is the audience for Reacher books? Martin probes that question ever so gently, aware that he simply cannot insult any of Child’s readers, not even one. The publisher/censors would be all over that with a flame thrower.

So instead, Martin presents a long anecdote about how Child routinely beats speeding tickets. While that conversation is presented in a humorous tone, it is the sneering humor of a bully.  I think the point Martin is making with this extended diversion is that Reacher Creatures (as avid readers call themselves) are thrilled by simplistic and brutal vigilantism because they have an extremely undeveloped sense of social justice and no clue about the principles behind the judicial process (like the Constitution, for example). The readers have the moral and social development of nine-year-olds. Martin skillfully makes his point about Child’s readers without insulting anyone. (See p. 175 and also p. 196).  It’s brilliant.

  1. Ever clever, Martin reports some juicy trash talk from Child in the final few pages, as Child expresses (often indirectly) disparaging attitudes toward James Patterson, John D. MacDonald, the James Bond series, John Grisham, Dorothy Sayers, Thomas Harris, and many others. Of Harris’s Hannibal Lecter character, Child says, “…It could be parody – either that or Harris just fell in love with his own creation.” This is exactly what I’d been thinking about Child and Jack Reacher, and maybe Child wanted to confess as much about himself, but even if he did, Martin would never get something like that past the censors, so he makes the thought a speculation about Harris, by Child, not about Child himself.  Very sly.

Child muses, “Do you think it’s possible some smart cookie at Google is going to come along and read all this and turn it into a piece of software that can write virtual Lee Child novels from now till kingdom come?” (Page  313). Indeed.

Conclusion: Reacher Said Nothing is a difficult book because you have to sift through a lot of dross to find the jewels, but they’re in there. Once you understand that Martin had no choice but to write as a fanboy and not leave the slightest smudge on the Reacher franchise, you can see through the veneer to his subterranean agenda. Though it is a brilliant artistic achievement,  Martin’s frustration is palpable and summed up in a statement camouflaged by a seemingly very  irrelevant tangent on Wittgenstein: “There is a line right at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Proposition 7) which anticipated “Reacher said nothing”: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”… (p 294).

Martin has managed to convey important literary criticism about Child/Reacher, cleverly disguised within an ostensibly brain-dead fluff piece. Martin has outsmarted Child, Random House, and even Jack Reacher.

Martin, Andy (2015). Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and The Making of Make Me. New York: Random/Vintage (345 pp.)

 

Jack Reacher, Serial Killer

Child Make Me“Make me,” a schoolyard taunt, is the title of Lee Child’s 20th and possibly final Jack Reacher novel. The first one, “Killing Floor” came out a decade ago (1997) and the series has been on the top of the sales charts ever since. I wanted to figure out what the magic is. There has to be a secret sauce. But I found “Make Me” so bad as to be unintentionally funny, as if it were a deliberate parody of the tough-guy crime novel. But I don’t think it’s supposed to be a parody. I think it’s straight up.

Protagonist Jack Reacher is an ex-mil Ramboesque drifter who annoys people with his arrogance, they sass him, so he kills them. I lost track of the body count in “Make Me,” but I think it’s over a dozen. In fairness, the victims do something to provoke Reacher, like insult him, look at him the wrong way, or threaten a fair damsel he feels obliged to protect. He’s a hair trigger and he kills without remorse.

Reacher is a fantasy figure, a Superman, though he eats only junk food and drinks only gallons of coffee. But he’s invincible. Bullets can’t find him and he knows everything there is to know about guns, ammunition, knives, and ropes. Not that he needs them. He can easily defeat four armed assailants sneaking up behind him in a dark alley. It’s just a matter of knowing the correct moves, and Child describes the fantastic calculations that Reacher does before or while fighting. Reacher knows everything there is to know about human anatomy and kinesiology so one strategic palm chop or poke of the elbow will cripple a bad guy. What a man!

Reacher is also worldly-wise and inexplicably erudite. He’s been everywhere, seen everything, seems to know many languages, has read the canonical literature and can quote Shakespeare or Bertrand Russell.  It hardly needs mentioning that he is a woman-magnet, though he never ever forms attachments. He’s a free-spirit, owns nothing, has no address, and wants no commitments. He’s also clairvoyant. He often deduces, from “evidence” thinner than a hunch, exactly who the bad guy is, where he is, what he’s up to, and what he’ll do next. And he’s never wrong. These omniscient feats of cognition are presented as reasonable deductions that any smart person might make, if only they had the vast experience and knowledge that Reacher had.

For example, in one scene, Reacher finds out where an unknown subject lives in a strange town, merely because a guy in the library said the subject was frail and unhealthy-looking. Reacher says:

“This is a man who looks terrible because he doesn’t take care of himself. Probably doesn’t eat right, maybe doesn’t sleep right…Pharmacies are not on his radar. Therefore he had no particular reason to buy his phone from this particular pharmacy. So why did he? Because he walks past it twice a day, to and from the library. How else would he even notice? They had one phone in the window, all covered in dust. So I think we can conclude he walks home in this direction. Out the library door, turn left, past the pharmacy and onward.”

So having ascertained the direction to the guy’s house, Reacher begins walking, and based on his vast knowledge of architecture and real-estate values, deduces which neighborhood the subject would choose to live in, and sure enough, walks directly up to the subject’s front door. What a man!

It’s sort of fun, if silly and utterly unbelievable, but that kind of riff gives the Reacher character a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality. He’s almost a comic character but not quite, because he is presented very seriously. He’s no Inspector Clouseau. The presentation is not quite a Chandler parody, but close. Since Reacher doesn’t care about anything, the character never has anything at stake. He’s just a nonchalant killing machine but the reader is supposed to take the nonsense in a serious way.

Reacher is not interested in money, fame, glory, power, women, recognition. He doesn’t drink (bar the odd beer) or smoke or do drugs. He stays in cheap motels and hitchhikes. He has no job, no career aspirations. He’s not working toward anything or going anywhere. He is unmotivated. Except when somebody does something he thinks is rude, unfair, or unjust – then watch out. He knows a bad guy when he sees one. He has instincts for it. He don’t need no stinkin’ judicial system. If somebody’s bad, he kills them. Simple as that. Amazingly, he never gets caught, never leaves any clues or DNA and plentiful witnesses never say anything. Cops have no interest in him and he’s never interrogated or arrested. What happens to the dead bodies he leaves in his wake is unknown.

I read this book hoping to gain insight into why the franchise is one of the top-selling series in the world. What makes it golden?  Should I try to write something like that? But I was mystified. Who reads this nonsense?

The book, the character, and the whole series apparently appeal to people frustrated with the subtleties and slow pace of the judicial system; people who are enraged when perceived criminals avoid immediate and certain punishment, according to their own primitive morality. Those readers would revel in Reacher’s vigilantism, oblivious of the law and of the Constitution. Reacher delivers the swift and brutal punishment of a schoolyard bully, the punishment readers wish they could visit upon the “bad guys” in their own ineffectual lives. It has to be that.

The “Reacher Creatures,” as dedicated readers of the series call themselves, would like to be that Superman who can visit such pain upon bad guys. These readers must be helpless, downtrodden people who fantasize in a childish way about being all-powerful. Maybe it’s an Oedipal thing – they seek revenge on their mean parents? Or mean boss? I can hardly imagine who would enjoy twenty of these Reacher novels let alone one. Whatever motivates Child’s avid readers, and there are millions of them, Reacher scratches the itch.

I struggled to finish the book but amused myself with marginal notations of “DXM” which noted numerous instances of “Deus Ex Machina” plot developments and “Phone” for instances of the author’s inexplicable obsession with telephones in this novel. I also underlined sentences that approached word salad, syntax with no clear meaning, like the famous line, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” It’s a sentence, but you’d be challenged to make any sense of it.

Getting back to the main question though. What makes this series such a phenomenal success? I think it’s important that Reacher is not a “superhero,” just a regular hero. He would eschew anything “super.” He’s just a humble ordinary guy, but tougher than you and me.  Readers seem to accept the magical realism that makes Reacher faster than a speeding bullet and stronger than a locomotive, because he likes to eats ham and eggs in diners. And he doesn’t wear tights. He’s not ostensibly magical, just wonderful. He’s just magical enough to facilitate childish social fantasy for those who would love to say to a bully: “Make me!”

Child, Lee (2015). Make Me. New York: Dell. (491 pp.).

Pitching Vs Writing

nycI think I’m recovered from my New York Pitch Conference, a week in the city trying to learn how to pitch a novel manuscript. I came back with a mission: to re-write my manuscript, incorporating all that I’d learned. Trouble was, I couldn’t face it, couldn’t even open the file. Maybe the manuscript was really no good. Was I capable of turning it inside out? Wouldn’t that ruin it? Did I have the creative spark to completely reconceptualize my hard-earned and carefully assembled story?  Maybe I should forget the whole thing. And worse than that.

irish-pubBut after a week my emotions settled down and I went through my notes from the conference.  Some of the notes were impressions I had jotted after evening events in various “happy hour” settings, shouting over the din at people only two feet away. Every bar in the city was thronged with pre-holiday celebrators and in one Irish pub we were told we had to leave in thirty minutes because the whole bar was reserved for “a function.” The workshop instructor, who apparently knew his way around, marched us all like ducklings to another place on 38th street, smaller, louder, with no place to hang your coat.

It was bar-talk, or bar-shout, unproductive, the instructor telling anecdotes about stupid students he’s had and crazy pitches he’s heard. I had hoped for something else, I don’t know what, but it was useless so I withdrew to a table where another cluster of classmates jabbered on, coats in lap.

king-tutOne was a woman from Ontario with a degree in film studies who had given a great pitch on the first day about King Tut’s girlfriend (historically accurate, apparently).  She was small and cute, with a face that reminded me of a young Nicole Kidman.  She was drinking Prosecco like a fish and she commented on how imaginative my beachball alien was. She said, “I wrote a really imaginative story too, not long ago. It’s about this guy who has a huge asshole, and gradually the asshole acquires a personality and becomes a character, and it talks and everything. So the guy develops a relationship with it and of course he ends up having sex with it.”

I almost snorted beer through my nose, but she nonchalantly sipped her bubbly and glanced around the room distractedly.

“Anatomically difficult to imagine” I remarked.

“It was kind of a surrealist piece,” she said in all seriousness.

My 3P-close narrator in FID mode echoed inside my skull, “What the hell?”

spaghetti-westernAt a loss how to proceed in that conversation, I switched my attention to a tall, thin Mexican-American guy with a grey ponytail. He had pitched a western theme set in the civil war era, that nobody could understand. He said he was giving that up and now wanted to retell the story of the birth of Jesus as a spaghetti western in the style of Tarantino.

“I’m obsessed with Tarantino,” he confided.

We brainstormed, and I knew this was why I love hanging out with writers.

I left after an hour and met my wife for dinner. We went to a “moderate” Italian place I had read about. We were told we could only have the table for 60 minutes but we went for it and each noshed a small bowl of rigatoni and squash, with a dinner salad. A hundred and fifteen dollars! With no alcohol. New York prices! I admit the food was exquisite in every respect but still. An experience worth having once, we told each other.

chatbotThat night, I scrapped my beachball alien and wrote a new pitch involving chatbots circulating on the internet. Of course they go rogue. The instructor liked it. “Do that one,” he said. “Humor doesn’t sell.”

So I had heard.

I pitched rogue chatbots to three successive editors over the next two days. On the last day, results were tallied. The instructor told me I had received a request for a “full” from a New York publisher. That’s a score. Wa-hoo!

warrior-with-antlersKing Tut’s Girlfriend received two requests. Other stories, incomprehensibly to me, also got multiple requests from the editors. These invariably involved stock superheroes and what seemed to me cliché sword and sandals adventures but what do I know? One sword-wielding hero had deer antlers growing out of his skull, so I guess that was something. Nothing for “High Plains Jesus.”

I was elated. A request for a full manuscript is essentially a promise to read it. It’s a guaranteed detour around the slush pile. On the down side, I had to write the manuscript I had pitched. I’d said it was “completed” but everyone appreciates that is a relative term in the writing business. I do have a manuscript that involves rogue chatbots but I’ll have to swap the old main character with what was a secondary, move the substory up to first position, and drop much of the thematic material and dialog.

“It’s hard to imagine the life of a chatbot on the internet,” both the editor and the instructor had advised me. “What does a chase scene look like? No abstraction. People need to see things, especially when technical material is involved.”

Right. No abstraction. A chatbot on the internet. “No problem. I can do that,” I’d said. “Two months max.”

How the game is played, I learned, is that I do NOT send the rewrite to the editor who requested it. Instead I query some very carefully selected agents with the opening message that a New York publisher is already interested in this manuscript and is the agent interested in getting on board or what? What I have is leverage, not a sale.

Okay, I can do that. No problem.

So I’ve dropped everything else for the rewrite. I’ve got six thousand words done. I’m going to need a lot of new material. It’s easier than writing from scratch because I’ve already got characters, locations, and some scenes, but it’s not much, not enough. Two months. No problem.

Show Business for Writers

20161211_173843I spent a week in New York City attending a conference on how to pitch a novel to an agent or editor. Selling fiction is the least appealing part of the writing adventure. I write because I enjoy the thrill of creative work and artistic expression, and because I imagine I can delight others with a tale. Selling a manuscript is not on the list of attractions, but it’s necessary if one hopes to find an audience. It was time, past time, to try and find a serious publisher for my work. Thus the how-to conference.

The pre-conference “homework” was explicit about describing the novel being pitched and it wasn’t easy.  What exactly is my main character’s secondary conflict? How should I describe my antagonist’s endgame? It was a difficult exercise in seeing the manuscript from the other side of the table. I did the homework, prepared my pitch and went to the Big Apple to test it. The result was a revelatory roller-coaster.

20161208_090845The meetings were held in a nondescript office building in Manhattan. Two floors were dedicated to performing arts and were thronged with people auditioning for parts or using the many practice rooms. Up front, near the elevators, a bulletin board on an easel listed the auditions for that morning. The labyrinthine hallways were lined with wooden benches, folding chairs, park benches, and plastic patio chairs pressed against thickly-painted wooden wainscoting. All that seating was filled with people, mostly young, studying scripts and scores, reading, and talking nervously.

20161210_audition-2croppedAs I navigated the corridors, a changing spectrum of music and voices came from behind closed doors – people practicing scales, singing show tunes or operatic arias. Pianos plinked and choirs harmonized. Waves of cacophony drew me deeper.

I found myself blocked by young women in leotards lying on their backs, stretching their legs in the air. I knew it was not the correct zone. Writers don’t wear ballet slippers. An older woman with short gray hair, holding a clipboard, popped out of a doorway and barked, “Zellner?”  Somebody, presumably Zellner, got up from a bench and went in.

20161210_101548I found my way to a corridor lined with what looked like writers. Most were hunched over laptops balanced on their knees. I sat and verified it was the place. Before long the door to the practice/audition room opened and three dozen writers went inside. The room was large, cold, and bare, covered with well-scuffed pale hardwood, walled on one end with floor-to-ceiling mirror, and on two sides with wood-framed windows with dirty glass overlooking 8th Avenue and 37th Streets. A black upright piano guarded the other wall. We sat in folding chairs facing a folding table.

The conference conveners called out names and assigned us to groups presumably based on our homework submissions, and we dispersed to other, similar rooms for our first meeting. In my meeting the leader introduced herself then we went “around the room” with people giving names and  describing their project. That’s what we call a novel-in-progress, a “project,” because no novel is ever “completed.” You just revise it over and over until you give up in exhaustion and that counts as “done.” For the time being.

I was in the “literary fiction” group. People in my group, I learned, were MFAs, college writing instructors, and screenwriters. Their projects focused on family infighting, questions of ethnic identity, kinship relations, and family secrets uncovered. My heart sank. These projects sounded deadly. When it was my turn, I was abashed.

“Well, my story does feature a space-alien, so I guess that makes it sci-fi.”

The room went silent, as if I had just laid a turd on the floor. The instructor stared at me.

“You have an alien?”

“Yup.”

“Oh, dear. Are you supposed to be in this group?”

“This is where I was assigned.”

“No, no no. Let me check.”

aliensThe instructor leapt to her feet and bolted from the room. She returned in a minute told me I was supposed to be in Studio “P” for genre.  Okay. So I gathered my things. As I left, one of the students said,

“I liked that alien. The one who looks like a green beach ball?  That sounds really interesting.” She had read it on the online site where we posted the homework.

I smiled and rushed over to Studio P, thinking, I can’t believe I’ve just been kicked out of literary fiction! What does that mean?

I found the new group in progress, grabbed and unfolded a chair at the end of the semicircle, and the leader suddenly finished his introductory spiel and turned to me and said, “Okay, let’s start on this end. Let’s hear your pitch.”

I don’t have my computer started, don’t even have my notebook out of my brief case. Everyone stares at me.  I start talking.  I do know my material, but I have nothing to read from. I’m winging it.

At the end of my pitch, the leader looks at me and says,

“Humor doesn’t sell. You got anything else?”

He was only half-kidding. He was a wiseguy, though well-meaning, I eventually learned. Flustered, I babbled for a moment, then let it go. Next victim.

Other pitches didn’t go as well as mine.  One, the leader interrupted mid-sentence.

“Did you say a school for wizards?”

“Yes.”

“Get out.”  He pointed to the door.

The student flushed with color but hung his head and didn’t leave.

“And if anybody has vampires or zombies, go with him now,” the instructor added.

“Steam punk?” one student asked.

“Out.”

Brutal is hardly the word for it. The writers in the room were paralyzed so the instructor let up on his tough-guy persona and started to explain why the pitches so far were no good and what it would take for a successful pitch. Nobody actually had to leave.

The interviews then continued with everybody having an equal chance to be abused and ravaged by the workshop leader. He knew the NY publishing market and purported to know what sells and what doesn’t and the exact reasons why each pitch stank.  It was educational.

20161208_111925_001As I staggered out of the audition room for the lunch break, the hallways were still lined with hopefuls waiting to be called, the air still filled with do-me-so-do’s. I had to weave around clusters of tiny girls in pink tights and white tutus herded by anxious mothers. I saw at the front there was an audition for a production of “Annie.”

Thank God I’m not in show business, I thought. Then: Wait! I am in show business! What I’m doing here has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with performance. Oh, God.

20161208_065521 To be continued…

Searching for Chris Hayes

chris-hayesI like Chris Hayes.  I like his news/talk show on MSNBC, “All In.”  I’ve  enjoyed him since he started out in a 5 am TV time slot. He’s the smartest pundit on TV.

Lately though, I’ve been unable to watch his show. Like all the other political talk programs, it has devolved to reading New York Times and Washington Post headlines at you so there’s hardly any reason to watch, despite the ubiquitous “Breaking News” banner (Chris Hayes has a new tie!). Used to be, you could count on enlightening analysis from Chris. No more.

I want Chris (and the others there at Progressive News) to succeed, but from what I’ve read, viewing numbers at MSNBC have gone off a cliff since the election, and it’s easy to see why. Many progressives and liberals have retreated from the vapid, repetitive chatter involving little more than baseless speculation.

Chris and his colleagues, and his guests and producers, have not adapted to the new political world. They’re doing the same snarky reporting as before the apocalypse. Why, look at this glaring inconsistency! Good Lord, here’s a conflict of interest! Those are not the stories, Chris.

The pundit class is practicing denial by clinging to status quo reporting. Chris, et al. cannot or will not accept that the world has changed for them, as it has for all Americans. Politics in America has become entirely theater, a language that speaks to an under-educated, emotionally-driven voting class that feels ignored or disrespected by liberal politics. They don’t watch MSNBC, so they don’t feel the sting of smug criticism that amounts to little more than self-indulgence.

Pretending there are policies and matters of fact and then speculating on what they might imply for the future is idle. There are no policies. There are no facts [= propositions with consensus truth-value in a community].  Everything is opportunism, self-aggrandizement, spin, greed, and identity politics. None of that has anything to do with critical thinking.

So I thought I’d send a message to Chris Hayes, or at least his people. I wanted to say, “Hey Chris, snap out of it!  You’re losing your audience. The world has changed.” Chris seems to think he’s still in a Kabuki performance where all the moves are known. He doesn’t realize he’s now in an impromptu theater where each move depends only on instinct and feedback.

But his bubble is impenetrable. After considerable probing, I found that it is not actually possible to communicate with Chris Hayes, at least not for me, a member of the great unwashed.  I can “join,” “like,” “follow,” “subscribe,”  “retweet,” and “reshare,” but I cannot actually communicate.

Hey Chris! Pick up! I know you’re there.

There are practical issues with two-way communication in what is essentially a one-way medium. Except for voting day, political information flows downhill. Maybe that’s why so many pundits and politicians were caught flatfooted. And that’s why shows like Chris Hayes’s may be surprised when the bottom falls out of the viewership.

What would I want to see Chris and his people doing instead? All over the world, principles of liberal democracy are bending to a resurgence of ethnic and nationalistic tribalism. It’s identity politics in full flourish. What is the present and future of governance, especially in America, in that climate? We need to look at questions at the intersection of  sociology, political science, communications, and performance art. What should government look like?

What holds no interest are the speculations of the pundit class on what appointment X or pronouncement Y might or might not mean in the future. Such predictions have zero credibility and are based on no data. And for god’s sake, quit talking about stereotypical categories: “the blacks, the whites, the women, the Hispanics, the gays.”

I’d like you to question the validity of nationalism, the meaning of ethnic, regional, economic, and vocational identity. I’d like you to revisit fundamental principles: What is government by the people?  Is it working or not? How do you persuade without reason and evidence? Actors do it. Novelists do it. Maybe the era of persuasion is over.

Does capitalism inevitably lead to oligarchy? What’s wrong with a Chinese- or Russian-style, authoritarian quasi-democracy? Is America really “exceptional” or just hubristic?  What kind of politics balances the impulses of greed and communal interest? Who do we have in the pipeline who can speak to the future? Is Bernie all we’ve got?

I realize you can’t go all egghead on a basic cable news show. And you’re a so-called reporter, not an educator. But how about some thoughtful analysis instead of pretending that all we’ve seen is a personnel change?

Personally, as an over-educated, relatively affluent progressive, I’m worried, not about a replay of the Third Reich, but about a replay of the Cultural Revolution.

Wake up over there.

 

Haunted House!

haunting-of-hill-houseThis short haunted house tale is celebrated as a classic of the genre, a top-seller since its publication in 1959, although I don’t normally read haunted house stories so I can’t judge that.  Nevertheless, it accomplishes the goal of presenting a haunted house by ticking all the right boxes, and with the added virtue that the “ghosts” themselves never appear onstage. In keeping with modern realism, ambiguity is built into the narrative, so you’re never sure whether the characters are haunted by real, “out-there” ghosts of the dead, or by their own, in-the-head fears, anxieties, and neuroses.  They don’t know, and either do we, the readers. Either way, the fear is palpable to the characters.

A professor of parapsychology, or some such, finds two young female volunteers to accompany him for a week of observation and study at the remote country mansion. A young man, member of the family that owns the house, also joins them. It’s a large, old, wooden Victorian mansion with many rooms, hallways, and attics, in which several people have died, including a suicide by hanging and the death of a pair of twin girls, if I recall the setup. It hardly matters, except to note that the venue has all the credentials to qualify as a haunted house.

Jackson clearly had studied the history of the Gothic genre because she rings all the bells.  The genre developed in the 1700’s with novels like “Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded. In a Series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Young Damsel, to her Parents,”  (How’s that for a title!), by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740 and a bestseller of its day. In The Haunting of Hill House, the professor repeatedly is found reading a copy of Pamela, and although he doesn’t say anything about it, and the story in Hill House has little to do with that of Pamela, the reference is clearly a wink from Jackson to the reader.

Likewise, Hill House has many of the standard Gothic elements found in The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, published in 1764, a romance set in an old castle. These elements include long, dark, hallways, dimly lit rooms without windows, doors and windows locked, or unlocked, open or closed, subterranean vaults and passageways, and so on.  Jackson has successfully combined these early classic Gothic elements with the psychological elements of later horror stories such as those by Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, and Edgar Allen Poe.

Gothic fiction nearly always contains antiquated spaces, such as ruins, graveyards or haunted mansions; spaces inhabited by ghosts, specters, or monsters (mental or supernatural); buried secrets from the past, characters torn between old belief systems, usually religious, and skeptical newer ideologies, usually science; all with a generous dose of immediate and symbolic terror or horror.

In Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor, the main character, is pathologically neurotic, wracked with guilt over her mother’s death, has a complete lack of self-confidence, difficulty connecting with other people and extremely high gullibility. Contrast her with Professor Montague, man of science, and skeptic looking to document the occurrence of hauntings. He turns out to be a pretty bad scientist, but his wife, who appears late in the game, tries to back him up. That’s the main contrast: curious skepticism versus terrified vulnerability. And in keeping with modernism, the ghosts seem to be in the subconscious rather than in “the other world.”

The foursome hangs out in the old mansion for a week and various “manifestations” do occur – door slamming, wall banging, moaning and laughter in the halls, supernaturally cold spots, and so on.  Or wait, maybe those were only imagined.  One or two characters will be scared to within an inch of their lives but the other characters report they didn’t see or hear anything. So was it real or not?  That is the ambiguity we are left with. It’s an update on the traditional ghost story. These ghosts are like childhood monsters under the bed.

Though the story is well-constructed, I was at no time horrified, not even a little spooked. I found the goings-on ludicrous and found myself annoyed that the characters acted so stupidly even with a card-carrying scientist in their midst. The characters and the events of the story were not realistic enough to be believable, nor well-drawn enough to be symbolic, nor even silly enough to be funny. The whole thing just struck me as ridiculous. But again, I’m not a fan of the genre, which apparently appeals to a different reader than me.

Jackson’s writing had its moments of brilliance, especially in some pithy passages of narrative description, but overall, I was frustrated by her dependence on narrative exposition rather than dramatization. I think that’s why the book is so short. The author just declares things, like “the house was scary.”  As a reader, I’m thinking, “Well, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. What do you mean by scary? Show me!”

Jackson shows us some doors that won’t stay closed, but how scary is that? I have one of those in my house. She relies instead on authorial authoritativeness, just declaring scariness, rather than using dramatic demonstration to invoke the necessary fearful emotions, beliefs and anxieties in the reader. The authoritative narrator is an old technique, used in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it doesn’t cut it in 20th century fiction, in my opinion. She probably used that mode of narration to be consistent with the classics.

This would be a good novel in a course on “The Gothic Novel,” but aside from its theme and genre, I wouldn’t recommend it as a “good read,” except maybe to children and young readers who are yet unstable in their beliefs about what is real and what isn’t. For most modern grown-ups, I can’t imagine that it would be scary, although I confess, I do have friends who have had nightmares after reading it. That is inexplicable to me.

Jackson, Shirley (1959). The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Penguin. (182 pp).

Car Talk

05-xbI traded in my 12-year-old Scion xB for a new car. That boxy look was all the rage back when Hummers and Elements, and other functional-looking cargo vehicles were in vogue. The Scion was a fun car to drive despite its meager 100 horsepower, got good mileage around town (30+), had great visibility for the driver, with a nice high vantage point, and it really did pack a lot of cargo space into a small volume. And it was cheap – cheap to buy ($14K in decade-old dollars) and cheap to run (regular gas, Toyota engine that lasted forever with almost no maintenance).  It was so cheap that I could afford to put 18” alloy wheels with low-profile tires on it, and it looked very fine, indeed, a strutter.

But it had downsides. One was virtually no suspension. At less than 2000 pounds, everything about the vehicle was lightweight, including the suspension, so it wasn’t long before each wrinkle in the road was apparent to the driver. The low-profile tires didn’t help that problem. I replaced the rear shocks but that brought only moderate relief. Noise was also in-your-face. It was a thin-walled, “tinny” car, designed for utility, not comfort.  Another issue was safety. Back in the ‘00s, cars didn’t surround you with airbags like they do today and the Scion had only one driver, one passenger airbag. Being the very lightweight car that it was, I never did feel it would withstand any sort of a crash. Fortunately, I never tested that, but I do know that safety has come a long way in cars since then.

desert_packrat01The decision to sell came after rats got into it and ate the carpets and the wiring. Disgusting.  These are small pack-rats that live in the desert, not big, black river rats that the word “rat” probably conjures to mind for most people. Pack-rats are actually kind of cute, but they’re still rats and not welcome.

I’d had to park the Scion out in the driveway for a few weeks and the little critters found it quickly when I was out of town. They crawl up from underneath and they bring their “treasures” into the engine compartment, treasures like cactus buds and bottle caps. They can eat and nest in cactus buds.  Lord only knows what they do with bottle caps. They also eat the vinyl coating on the engine wiring, and nibble away at the floor mats, which I guess are cotton/poly. That’s good nesting material, apparently. And of course they stink. It was a disaster.

rat-nest-enginejpgI cleaned out the nest and all the treasures distributed under the seats and throughout the cabin, no easy task. I never saw the little homeowners themselves, thank goodness. They’re nocturnal, I believe.  I got the wiring repaired. The shop said rat damage was very common and that I had gotten off lightly.  Fortunately I’d caught them before they’d done serious harm and engine still worked fine.

The carpeting was too expensive to fix so I left it gnawed around the edges, maybe a prestigious “experienced” look?  But I couldn’t get rid of the lingering smell, despite detailing, deodorants, and air fresheners. I reduced it to a manageable level, but the smell of rats is still the smell of rats and I just couldn’t enjoy the car any more. I sprinkled the floors with perfumed oils and took it to a new car lot.

The xB had a Blue Book of $7K, and the dealer offered $5K, which was okay. I knew he had to make money, and the Scion brand is defunct now, and I did not want the hassle of giving test drives to waves of teenagers in a private sale. It would be a great first car for a kid. The dealer sold it within two days, I learned.

Sonic

Sonic

So what did I buy?  A Chevy Sonic, a small hatchback with a snappy look and 45 cubes of space with the rear seats down.  Good mileage and exceptionally good safety ratings, it would be a great city car. I looked at electrics and hybrids but decided they don’t make much sense in the southwest. Distances are large between any two points so you have to consider driving range seriously. Just going to a movie and back is a 25-mile trip for me, and I live “in-town.” I wouldn’t get very far on electric power. Also, all our electricity out here comes from burning coal, so the environmental argument is not compelling. Add to that the large price premium on electrics and hybrids, the unknown cost of replacing the lithium batteries, the less-than-generous tax subsidies these days, and the numbers don’t add up. A small, economical gasoline engine makes most sense.

I bought the Sonic for $18K well-equipped with a “sport” package, alloy wheels, good sound system and lots of whizz-bang electronics. It’s a manual 5-speed because I enjoy feeling the engine as I drive.  It was hard to find. Online, I located only two vehicles in the whole state with manual transmission and the trim level I wanted. Apparently, nobody drives a stick anymore. I learned that some dealers keep just one on the lot so they can advertise the lowest possible price for that model, but they don’t expect to sell it.  Actually, my dealer first said he didn’t have one, but I had studied his inventory online and I knew he did so after some walking up and down the aisles in the acres of new vehicles in the back, we found it. I did drive an automatic but one spin around the block on the 5-speed and I was sold. I drove it home that afternoon.

After a few weeks driving, I’ve learned a lot about how new cars are being optimized for fuel economy. At my first gas fill-up I recorded 24 mpg, only 1 mpg below the sticker rating for city driving, not bad. After my second fill-up, I calculated 35 mpg, in the same town, over the same routes, nothing different. Why the huge jump in fuel economy?  It was because I had learned how to drive the thing.

At first I had pushed each gear way up past 3500 rpm, the way the Scion had liked it. That was a high-revving car.  But the sonic was not built that way. I was wasting fuel.  By watching the calculation of instantaneous mpg in each gear, I could see that this car wanted to run at 2000, and in order to do that, I had to up-shift rather quickly. First gear was a very short run, hardly more than enough to overcome the inertia of rest, and second quickly got me to city speed then I needed to coast. I needed to spend hardly any time at all in the lower gears. My goal was to get to fifth as quickly as possible.

mpg-readoutThat’s the idea, anyway. In practice, it’s not a reasonable way to drive. In fifth gear I might be hitting 44 mpg according to the read-out, but I have no reserve acceleration. In city driving, you need to be ready to make moves. You can’t coast through town. So I run it in fourth, or even third because I see a hill up ahead or a city bus I’ll have to go around, and my mpg is sub-optimal because I’m driving in too low a gear.

The automatics use a computer-controlled transmission which is always in the right gear to optimize mpg, and that means it also shifts up to fifth as quickly as possible. The problem is, when you press the accelerator, it has to either down-shift quickly or else lug fifth.  My dissatisfaction driving the automatic was that it was sluggish. The automatic and its computer usually chose to lug the gear it was in unless you really stepped on it, then it would down-shift. The result was a sluggish, unresponsive ride. I had noticed the same in all the cars I drove, including the Honda Fit and the Mazda 3. It’s an acceptable performance, but there’s no joy in it.

Granted, a cheap mass-market city car is not supposed to be a sport vehicle, despite the name of the trim package, but why would I buy a car that was no fun to drive?  That’s why I went to the manual transmission. But it turns out I’m not as smart as the computer that controls the automatic transmissions and so my mpg was below average. Except unlike that smarty-pants computer, I can learn, which I did.

So now I drive by running each gear quickly to near its inertial max, judged by engine noise and rpms, and keep moving up to the highest gear that lets me coast, but with a reserve acceleration. The secret is to always be anticipating what you’re going to need. I’ve started paying a lot more attention to geography, for example. If I see a high ridge ahead, I can gear down for the climb but when I reach the top, I put it immediately into fourth or even fifth, so I can coast down the other side. Likewise, I watch the traffic ahead, anticipating whether I can continue to roll forward in a relatively passive high gear, or whether I’m going to need a little oomph.  By anticipating my acceleration needs, I can spend most of my trip essentially coasting passively.  The Sonic is very well-balanced and coasts nicely. That’s how I added 11 mpg to my fuel economy, just by being conscious of my gears.

Am I as smart as a car computer? I ‘ve learned to optimize each gear like the computer would, but in addition, I can look ahead and evaluate what’s coming and prepare for it, something no computer can do at present. So my mpg results are actually better than the car’s sticker rating. Take that, automation!

I don’t drive fast or aggressively. I don’t race off the line at a green light or weave through traffic. I don’t even speed (much). A calmer style of driving definitely pays for itself. I do recall with nostalgia the days of youth when cars had big engines and you really did have to work that gearbox to make them go, and the engine feedback was rewarding.  I don’t know why manufacturers don’t include sonic feedback to the cabin on low-end cars like the Sonic. It wouldn’t cost much and I could imagine I was driving a Ferrari. Maybe that’s the reason.

future-car-1It won’t be long, possibly in my lifetime, before the whole idea of an individually piloted motor vehicle will seem absurd. The idea that millions of hairless monkeys are each qualified to safely guide several tons of glass and steel at high speed, separated from each other only by paint on the roadways, is ridiculous. Future generations will look back on this era and say, “Really?”  But for now, the age of cars and petroleum is just beginning to come to a close and while it persists, this monkey wants to enjoy piloting his death-trap along the road.

From Genre to Literary Reading

x-ray-readingThis is a great book to help someone who wants to upgrade their reading fare from genre to literary fiction. It teaches you how to pay attention to meta-textual details such as themes, symbols, voice, diction, and story structure. Attention to such details will surely enhance anyone’s reading enjoyment.

Separate chapters point out such subtleties in novels as varied as The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Madam Bovary, King Lear, Moby Dick, and many others, a total of more than 25 works in fact, as some chapters shoehorn two titles into consideration. In each case the author quotes passages from the work then comments on features an “x-ray” reader might notice.

At the end of each short chapter are a set of writing lessons – summary conclusions you should draw for x-ray reading, and sometimes writing prompts: exercises that will help you see how to use the lessons learned to improve your own writing. These are all helpful.

On the downside, the author’s “analyses” often amount to little more than extremely obvious generalizations and sometimes not even that: he simply paraphrases what the quoted passage just said.

For example, in discussing The Great Gatsby, Clark points out that sometimes objects have deeper meanings. Who knew? The ferryboat across Long Island sound might connote Charon and his ferry across the River Styx, for example. Of Shakespeare’s line, “The Queen, my lord, is dead,” he notes that it could have been, “The Queen is dead, my lord,” or “My lord, the Queen is dead.”  Well, yes.  Lolita, he says, “…feels more like it was written by a child who grew up with eight crayons and had just been given a box of sixty-four.”

I found Clark’s lessons and homilies not-very-informative, but a naïve reader or a beginning writer might find them helpful. Comparing Nabokov’s writing to a child with a plethora of colors is not a bad way to describe that author’s spectacular diction, just in case, for some improbable reason, you didn’t notice it on your own. And for the books I haven’t read, Clark’s excerpts were useful in conveying the tone and style of the work. So overall, I enjoyed this book and finished it in just a few hours of light reading. I’m skeptical however that I have acquired any new skill called “x-ray reading” that will improve my writing.

Clark, Roy Peter (2016). The Art of X-ray Reading: How the secrets of 25 great works of literature will improve your writing.  New York: Little, Brown. 326 pp.