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.



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.

Elements of Fiction: A Quadrangle

quadranngle-yardI just finished re-reading Art &Lies by Jeanette Winterson and was again elevated by her lyrical language, though unlike my first awe-struck read, about four years ago, this time I noted more over-writing and self-indulgent wordplay – not that I could ever do any better with the language than she.

I realized this time however that the book is only marginally a “novel.” It has a very loose story, actually four of them, as the main characters move through time, interacting only tangentially and unknowingly. There is an overall theme, stated by the title, but no real throughline, no real plot. It’s a set of prose poems, or a set of literary essays on sexuality, gender relations, art, religion, and society. Still, I thought it was a successful book, whatever it’s called.

So what are the essential elements of a successful book-length work of fiction?  I came up with a quadrangle of essential elements and sketched them in my notebook as a square, but a four-point list conveys the same:

  1. Plot. Good fiction has a clear story structure with beginning, middle and end.
  2. Character. Good fiction has unique, interesting, relatable characters.
  3. Language. The best stories use language interestingly or at best, thrillingly.
  4. Theme. A memorable story has a point, a moral, a self-transcendent theme.

Among these, plot is easily sacrificed, maybe not entirely, but in large part, as it was in Winterson’s Art & Lies. Often, in literary fiction, the plot is very sketchy, almost pure contrivance, just enough to make the story stand upright. Other examples include The Sun Also Rises and The Sheltering Sky.

Conversely, very strong and obvious story structure, a plot dwarfing the other three elements, is easy to come by, the definition of bad genre fiction. There is a range of quality of course, as with everything. A book like Dracula is plot-driven yet still, there are interesting characters.

Character is difficult to dispense with, though bad genre fiction manages to minimize character for the sake of plot.  Many extremely popular thrillers take this tack and millions of readers don’t seem to mind if the characters are hollow puppets, merely cartoon cutouts. Indeed, many of the most popular movie characters these days are literally cartoons and somehow they command large audiences.

At the other extreme, a very “character-driven” story is one in which the main character’s development or “arc” as we like to say,  is the dominating feature, even at the expense of plot. The character is so compelling that we don’t really care much how the nominal story line goes. Much so-called literary fiction is defined in that way. Examples that come to mind are Rabbit Run, Under the Volcano, Mrs. Dalloway, The Road, Dubliners, Reservation Blues, Remains of the Day.   Most of those stories have a nominal plot but the focus is on how the characters live, suffer, and triumph. We don’t really care much about who captures the brass ring.

fiction-quadThe most successful fictional stories combine strong characters with strong plot. The classic example is Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. In such cases, plot is character, as they say. The events of the story are driven by the character’s intentionality, and in turn, the character’s reactions are provoked by story events in equal measure. Other examples include The Third Man, Olive Kitteridge, Winter’s Bone, Sanctuary.

The third corner of the square is language. When language is dominant at the expense of the other three elements, the story is written with such lyrical, unique, uplifting or engaging language and imagery that we barely take notice of the plot and we connect to the characters only enough to keep the language flowing. Art & Lies is one of these. Lolita is another (although some people find that thematic material compelling – I didn’t). Other examples of language and image -driven fiction include As I Lay Dying, The Sellout, The Lover, Skinny Legs and All, Coming Through Slaughter, Gould’s Book of Fish, Hard-Boiled Wonderland.

Language-only-driven fiction is the most difficult to justify, in my view. Why not just read poetry if elevated diction is what you’re interested in?  The very best novel will have good writing, of course, but it is possible to overinflate the language corner of the quadrangle while diminishing the other three angles.

Theme is routinely dispensed with in genre writing, or else the thematic elements are extremely broad and obvious, fairy tales with “a moral” rather than with an implicit proposition that makes a comment on the nature of human life. The best novels make strong, though usually implicit, thematic statements. Examples include Beloved, Barbarians, Ceremony, Woman in the Dunes, Geek Love, Slaughterhouse Five.

Sometimes the theme is heavy-handed but still largely effective, such as in Orlando, Disgrace, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Animal Farm, No Exit. Sometimes it is exceptionally subtle, such as in One Hundred Brothers, Let the Great World Spin, The Third Policeman, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Housekeeping. Unfortunately, thematic material is the most difficult for most readers to discern and assess and that keeps them away from most literary fiction, which tends to be thematically laden.

If a story does not have much of a theme, or if the theme is slap-in-the-face obvious, usually it’s genre writing.  Genre novels are all about plot, and any thematic message usually takes simple-minded form, such as “good triumphs over evil.” Novels that have no theme at all end up seeming pointless, as genre writing often does. A recent popular example would be The Martian.

I don’t know if I’ve ever read a novel that rang all four bells loudly. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s impossible to write. The very best ones, and the kind I would like to write, hit three out of four, but even two out of four can be successful, and rarely, just one out of four. Art & Lies is successful thought it has almost nothing going for it except language. Lolita has brilliant language and a very weak story line. The thematic line is so heavy-handed, it’s best to ignore.

However, I think some combinations work better than others.  Strong plot and character (no language and theme) works. Plot and theme only (weak character and language) is less satisfying. Examples include Middlesex, Blindness, The Collector.

I used to start with plot when I began a new project. I am still plot-biased, but now I focus much more strongly on character, and lately, also on theme. I’ve given up on ever being able to write lyrically. I think I was poisoned by a lifetime of writing academic nonfiction and even after many courses and books in how to write poetry, I don’t believe I’ll ever have the patience to write poetically, even though I admire it when I read.

We can do what we can do and no more.

Strictly For Lovers of the Naive and Sentimental

a-delicate-truthI was a fan of le Carré for decades. I read every one of his novels, from “Call for the Dead” to “A Small Town in Germany” and on forward.  He was my favorite author and I’d often buy the full-price hardback when a new novel came out, rather than wait for the paperback.

Then about ten years ago I started reading literary fiction: Woolf, Faulkner, Coetzee, Ondaatje, Rushdie, Murakama, Flanagan, and more.  It was a new world. But I eventually became uneasy with the growing postmodern bent, “novels” with story but no plot, language but no characters, themes but no action and without discernible link back to Aristotle’s Poetics. Can’t anybody just tell a straightforward story anymore, I wondered?

In frustration, I picked up Le Carré’s latest, “A Delicate Truth.”  There was an author who knew how to tell a story with panache, I thought. I recalled fondly my enjoyment of such masterpieces as “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “Tinker Tailor…,” and favorites such as “A Perfect Spy” and “The Night Manager.”

I was appalled at how bad it was.  Granted, “A Delicate Truth” was vintage le Carré in style. The snappy Etonian English dialogs were there, the effusive insincere bonhomie the English are so good at, the moral ambiguities, the charming linguistic British-isms. But the writing was so clunky, I wondered how I could have ever enjoyed this author’s work.  Characters were poorly motivated and behaved in not-believable ways for inexplicable reasons. Editing was heavy-handed, with arbitrary  time cuts, flashbacks and reminiscences designed for no reason other than to create artificial suspense by crudely withholding information from the reader – a substitute for genuine literary tension.

Thematically, the novel was same-old, same-old, which you must allow in a le Carré novel. Big, bureaucratic government: bad, individual idealist: good.  Resolution: moral ambiguity. Formulaic, yes, but I was ready to allow that in a genre novel.

A black ops anti-terror operation goes south (as they always do in such novels), with collateral damage of two innocent civilians, followed by a coverup (though the operation was covert, so coverup was built into it). The archetypal young, smart, idealistic whistleblower sniffs, then untangles the sorry tale, ascertains where the blame lies, and threatens to “go public” with the whole story, for reasons that are never made clear. Shadowy high government officials issue veiled threats against him and he gets beat up, but in the end… well in the end, nothing happens, which is okay as long as the journey has been a good ride.

However, it was impossible to get worked up about what was at stake. When military drones these days routinely wipe out households, wedding processions and whole road convoys, dozens if not hundreds of civilians are killed, and millions of innocents are displaced, it’s difficult to feel the villainy in this novel’s plot. If the book had come out in the 1980’s maybe it would seem different. Today, you’d have to be extremely naïve to think that covert anti-terror ops are not routine and that they don’t involve collateral damage.

So what is the point of this novel? It has no thought-provoking themes, characters are without believable motivation, the plot is predictable, the language mundane, editing heavy-handed, with low dramatic tension and a weak ending.  I think the only reasonable conclusion is that I have been ruined by reading literary fiction and I will never be able to go back to genre, not even to a sentimental favorite like Le Carre. Reader beware.

Le Carré, John (2014). A Delicate Truth. New York: Penguin books. 310 pp.

Grinding Out Words

grinder-2I am grinding out sentences on my ninth novel as if it were school homework. I’ve been working on Chapter Six since the middle of September, six weeks, and I estimate I have another two weeks to go on it. My previous novels were drafted at warp speed, often a thousand words a day, for weeks on end. Those days are gone.

I dread “going to work” in the morning, just as I did when I was a mid-level manager in a large corporation. I drink the coffee, grit my teeth, lower my head, and do the job, one molecule at a time. Any distraction is welcome. Why has the joy gone out of this project?

One excuse is interruption to the flow. I’ve been virtually commuting between Tucson and Los Angeles all summer to deal with family matters. I can’t write “on the road.” Some people can – ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there.  Not me. I carry my laptop but I don’t open it. I can hardly think at all during these dizzying and stressful trips.  And during the inter-trip calm, like this one, I struggle to rediscover the groove, if there ever was one.

Another reason for the feeling of slog might be the nature of this project, which is my first novel set in a historical period, around 1900 in America.  That means plenty of interruptions for research as I go repeatedly into “dirigible mode,” a research diversion where one thing leads to another and you come out in an unexpected place.  It was named by a friend: “You go online to look up a simple reference and two hours later you’re an expert on dirigibles.” I enjoy dirigible mode but it doesn’t add sentences to the novel. It’s unproductive.

And the truth is, another factor may be mild depression.  I have not been able to get an agent interested in either of my previous two novels.  Whine, whine.  I understand the probabilities. By chance, you have to hit the right person at the moment when he or she happens to be buying what you’re selling, and is in a receptive mood.  After the obvious parameters have been applied, making that match is a a numbers game. My query letters are good, my projects are complete, my writing is competent, my concepts are original, my pitches are focused.

But apparently, what I have to offer is not obviously marketable right now and there’s not much I can do about that. That’s the depressing part.  Every rejection is a poison dart, of course, but worse is the absence of rejection, silence. There’s nothing more defeating than giving your best shot and being ignored.  Alas, it is a common complaint of the unpublished writer, and one simply soldiers on, but that doesn’t make it fun.  On the plus side, I did recently  win a national story contest, had a nonfiction paper accepted for a conference, and I did manage to sell another story to an online magazine. One takes small victories where they lie.

Excuses aside, what is the real problem with the current novel? This is not a case of writer’s block, a disease I have never suffered. I bubble with ideas. I have a structurally sound, multiple-page outline of the whole project with crunch-points and turning tables well annotated. I also have thirteen thousand words I am happy with.  So the fact of the matter is, I am getting it done and the output is good. The trouble is, I am not having fun. Maybe that’s okay. As writer Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

I think the basic problem is that I am moving into new territory which requires me to change my expectations and attitudes and that is not easy and not fun. For anyone, ever. I am stretching and it hurts. This is my first entirely character-driven project. The other novels have featured strong characters and voices, but they were fundamentally driven by the plot line. This one isn’t. It’s supposed to be an examination of the human condition through the medium of the characters, no more, no less.

It took me several years to kick the habit of writing plots that were little more than pure kinetic action with characters surfing atop  the waves. Those were fun but I wanted to more, so I migrated deeper into character motivation and emotion and cut way back on the gunfights and car chases. The results were good, though tended toward didactic talking heads, which was less than good but still not bad.

In this project, I have  turned my back on physical bias and thrown all pretense of “message” over the side. This is all about my people, the characters. It took me over half a million words to get that other stuff out of my system. With this project, I’m trying to go straight, clean and sober.

And maybe that’s why I’m not having as much fun. I’m suffering withdrawal.

pipe-organIt’s really difficult to design each scene’s purpose and subtle movements without the cheap thrill of a wide-screen, technicolor, kinetic vision of what’s supposed to be.  I’m working an old-time pipe organ in a cavernous church, pulling and pushing stops, adjusting registers, listening to the sound, but confined to the console in front of me.  Everything must be manufactured anew as I call for each new pitch and timbre.  And I’m molting as I do it.

I think I’ll have to throw in the odd action scene at some point. Not a big cartoony one. There certainly will be no drugs, guns, or counterfeit money, alas. But I could have a car crash or a heart attack. Some sex at least.  As for the theme, I hope that seeps from the pores. I do have a logline. I always write that as part of the outline. Whether or not it will show through is something to be determined after the final curtain.

So I will continue the slog, trying to finish Chapter Six before my next trip on Tuesday. All I’m trying to accomplish is to get MC hooked up with his romantic interest. It’s not that big a deal. But there are so many constraints on how he can do it. He’s embedded in a context, in a life, in a community. It can’t be just a pickup at a bar. It has to be organic. I know what I need to do, but not exactly how to accomplish it.

naked-bird-2I am sorely tempted to take a break from this project and start another I have in mind involving a televangelist committing financial fraud. But that would be falling off the wagon, wouldn’t it? I will try to stay the course until all my feathers have fallen out.


Being Your Resume

orphan-masters-son-with-pulitzer-burstThe Orphan Master’s Son is a grim book with a high gross-out factor, so if you don’t tolerate torture and gore well, it wouldn’t be for you. But if you enjoy the creativity of trying to depict sheer horror, it’s great.

The story is set in North Korea and describes, with considerable exaggeration, the lives of deprived citizens, brainwashed and near-starvation, and also life among the secret police in their dungeons, and also life at the top of the political elite with their wealth and privilege.

Though well-researched, the novel is fiction, a work of literary art, a fable, a self-expression, a satire, a morality tale, a fairy story.  It is not a travelogue and not a political essay.  It seems necessary to say that, since nearly all reviews treat it as a travel essay and judge it by its degree of adherence to realism.

Questioning the nature of realism is the point of the novel. What is real and what is social fiction?  State-created fiction especially affects the lives of its citizens even in America, with its “American Dream.” Any child can grow up to be president, right? If you work hard and honestly, you will enjoy success.  All men are created equal, democracy allows people to express their political will, the free-market insures fair play, religion has no role in government, nobody is above the law, the guiding principle of America is freedom, America only goes to war as a last resort and in self-defense, the news and entertainment media are independent and free…

Why would mythmaking be any different in North Korea, where you have the additional advantage of loudspeakers in every public place and every apartment constantly spewing  government propaganda, where all information media are state-controlled, where borders are closed and the economy is centrally managed? North Korea is the perfect setting to ask the question, of any culture, what is real and what is mass delusion? And the corollary: without that delusion, who would I be?

The first third of the book is narrated in third-person-close, close to the main character Jun Do, an orphan (he discovers later) helping his “father” run an orphanage in a small, desperate village. Eventually, to save face in an embarrassing international incident, he is acclaimed a hero and sent to English school and summoned to Pyongyang for glorification. He knows he’s no hero, but wait, maybe he is. If everyone says you’re a hero, why would you not be?

The “legend” defines the person. That fact is made in a grotesquely and darkly comic way in this novel, but isn’t it also the truth around the world? If you’re a rich CEO and everyone defers to you, you are smart, virtuous, exceptional, and chosen. The proof is that you’re a rich CEO. Myth is reality. Johnson uses the crude instrument of North Korean propaganda to make that point with a broad brush.

The second two-thirds of the tale is told by three narrators taking turns, which conveys the confusing fragmentation of multiple social roles, and of North Korean society. The main, third-person narrator is now close to Commander Ga, right hand man to the Dear Leader, but in a series of flashbacks we understand he is an imposter. Actually he is Jun Do, who was sent to a death camp, where he stole the identity of the real Commander Ga and escaped. But even though he looks nothing like Commander Ga, his story is that he is Commander Ga, and who is to say otherwise? The story is the man.

A second narrator, first-person, is an interrogator and torturer with the secret police. He seems to have the real Commander Ga in captivity.  The story is the man, but they don’t have the prisoner’s story and that’s the trouble. What use is a person without his story?  They need to torture the story out of him.

The third narrator is the state propaganda voice on the loudspeakers, which operates like a Greek chorus in the ancient plays, commenting on the story-in-progress, elucidating its meanings and values. The loudspeakers’ story creates distance on the ongoing story of the “fake” Commander Ga and his actress wife as they plot their defection. It is a creepy and weirdly disorienting voice that reminds me of the mood in Don DeLillo’s White Noise.

Unfortunately, the story devolves into a confusing sentimentality that belies the tensions so carefully established. Only Kim Jong Il and the voice of the loudspeakers stay in character. All the others rip off their masks and say to the reader, “Ha-ha, fooled you!”

So the novel does not remain true to itself as satire, or as a political indictment, or as a traditional morality tale, and despite some superficially dramatic scenes, the ending falls flat. But taken as a whole, the journey is an extremely well-crafted, artistic exploration of multiple questions about life as an individual in a state-controlled society (as we all are). Well-worthy of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

Johnson, Adam (2012). The Orphan Master’s Son. New York: Random House 443 pp.

Alien World in Yuma

doveI recently pulled into my usual hotel in Yuma, AZ and the place was jammed. I had trouble finding a parking spot. Good thing I had a reservation because the hotel was completely full. It was unusual. Yuma, Arizona?

The bar and the lobby and the elevators were full of large men wearing camouflage outfits. Nearly all had short-cropped hair or shaved heads. Most had carefully tended but desperate-looking facial hair. Military?  I saw guns but no insignia.  And there were dogs, lots of dogs.

I was concerned about the dogs. I thought the hotel was pet-free. The clerk told me ‘pet-free’ means they do allow pets but they charge an extra $200 per room for a cleaning fee if you bring a pet. So more like pet-hair-and-dander-free, not exactly pet-free. Assuming they do a thorough cleaning. Close enough for Yuma, AZ.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Annual dove hunt. It’s huge. Every hotel in town is full for two weeks.”

“Doves? You mean those pigeons that are all over the place?”

“They’re doves.”

“And people shoot them?”

“They’re an agricultural pest. It’s conservation. And a sport.”

“So these guys are conservationists?”

“Hunters. It’s fun for the whole family. We do it every year. The hotel sets up a cleaning station in the back for processing the catch.”

“The catch,” I thought. I hardly knew what to say. I checked in and picked up a copy of a special multi-page insert to the Yuma Sun about “Dove Hunt 2016!” and headed across the lobby crowded with doves-in-yumamen in heavy boots, green or brown camouflage, big knives sheathed on their belts, backpacks rather than suitcases, some with leashed dogs – and these were largish dogs, not lap dogs. I didn’t see any women or children.

I waited for an elevator with no dogs in it and made it safely to my room. What an unexpected turn of events! I always stop in sleepy Yuma on my way back to Tucson from northwest Los Angeles, breaking the 11-hour drive into comfortable 6- and 5-hour stretches. Nothing ever happens in Yuma. There’s nothing there but farms and sand dunes, but it has a lot of decent hotels because it’s right on the  border, near the Mexican city of Algodones, where you can get first-class medical treatment, prescription drugs, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and much else at a fraction of U.S. prices. Besides medical tourism, who knew pigeons were a huge draw in Yuma? Excuse, me, doves.

20160902_081702Before I left in the morning, out of curiosity I went around back of the hotel to the “cleaning station.” It was only eight in the morning but a group of four men were apparently the last of the morning hunters. They go out before dawn, I learned. They were milling around a pair of folding tables covered in feathers, blood, knives, and plastic bags. They hosed off sections of the table as they worked. Dogs sat and lay nearby huge pickup trucks with elevated beds.  Shotguns rested vertically near the tables and near the trucks. There were many more guns than men, but the men were friendly and eager to answer my questions as they worked.

“You missed most of the excitement,” one fellow told me. He looked to be mid-40’s, with fluffy mutton-chop sideburns and a strange, raspy but high-pitched, childish voice, incongruous with his large frame. “The hunting’s just about over for the day.”

I looked at several zip-lock bags of bloody meat. “I’m surprised you can get any meat off a bird that small,” I said.

“Just the breasts. Only two small pieces per bird. But it’s good eatin’.” He held up a bag filled with dozens of bite-sized pieces of meat. “I bagged my limit this morning.”

“What is the limit?”

“Fifteen a day, but only ten can be white-wings.”

“So the hunt is regulated.”

“Oh yeah. You need a license and a bird stamp. Not that anybody really checks. But it’s a sport, you know.”

As he talked, he picked up the body of a bird in one bare hand and twisted its head off with the other in on quick flick of the wrist and tossed the head into a large plastic garbage can. I resisted an impulse to lean over and look into the can to see an image that I would not be able to un-see.

The man twisted off the bird’s legs just as deftly, tossed them, then put the little corpse down on a cutting board. With a wicked-looking black knife with a black blade, he made a neat incision in the front of the body then put the knife down and inserted his thumbs into the slot and split the bird open.

“This here’s the good part,” he said as he scooped out one then the other of the breast muscles from the bird and put the two pieces, less than an ounce each I would guess, into a baggie. He tossed the remaining limp corpse into the garbage can.

“So you eat that?” I said, trying to sound casual and hide my incredulity.

“Oh yeah.  You stuff each piece inside a fresh jalapeno and grill the whole thing. Very tasty.”

Another man spoke up, a tall thin fellow also cleaning his catch. “I soak mine in milk for a few hours to get the smell out, then sautee them in oil with little potatoes.”

I looked at his catch bag which was larger, the one-gallon size, full of intact bird bodies minus heads, tails, and feet, but not cut open. Oddly, each had one wing still attached. Unlike the first hunter, he wore blue rubber gloves, which made me wonder what kind of diseases you could catch from wild birds.

“Why do yours still have feathers?”  I pointed.

“The judges have to see what kind of dove it is before you prepare it.”

“The judges?”

“For the cook-off. At the convention center this afternoon. You can win a scope or even two thousand dollars. Free samples. You should go. Stand back.”

I stood back and he hosed blood and a few feathers from his prep area of the table.

“Well, thank you for the demonstration, gentlemen,” I said as I backed away, keeping an eye on the dogs, who seemed docile.

dove-hunters1As I drove through the barren desert east of Yuma I thought about the dove hunt. I had accidentally stepped into a completely alien world, as if I had been abducted to an extraterrestrial space ship. It wasn’t merely that I have never hunted, especially not pigeons. There are a lot of things I’ve never done. And my uncomfortable feeling wasn’t about cruelty to animals, which I abhor, because I accept hunting as a legitimate sport in the context of conservation. I wouldn’t support head-hunting just for trophies, but hunters are a legitimate part of the ecology in controlling populations of deer, wolves, and other animals in the west. Part of nature.

No, what bothered me was the mentality of the men I had met. Like, why would you do it? Of all the things you can do with your recreational time, why would ripping the heads off of small birds with your bare hands be a priority choice?  How much fun could that be? And what was up with the camouflage outfits? Can the birds really not see you in camouflage?  And the oversized trucks, and the guns, and the dogs, and the big knives – none of which I own or care to, ever.

And the idea of eating doves. I guess that’s the cover story for any hunter. You must eat what you shoot. Legitimizes the activity. Hunger trumps animal rights. Though these guys were not suffering from hunger, by any measure.

If you’re doing conservation work, just culling populations for agricultural or ecological reasons, you don’t need to eat your quarry, or pretend that you must. Lots of people catch mice without eating them. But that’s apparently not how hunters think. There’s a survivalists streak in what they were doing. They were proud of their “catch” and proud they would eat meat that they had caught themselves. Only wimps buy their meat in a grocery store. These were real men. They had big trucks with knobby tires.

It was kind of a cave-man thing. They knew how to live off the land. Good skills to have for the apocalypse? You’re not worried about the world coming to an end because you can always live off of dove breasts.  But wouldn’t you also need to know something about metallurgy and dental care? Chemistry and electricity generation? What about petroleum refining? How’s all that going to work after the apocalypse? I don’t believe the survivalist strategy is well-thought-out.

dove-pile1As the hypnotic miles slipped past, I decided it’s really not about survivalism at bottom. It’s about individualism. The myth, especially strong in the west, especially among the under-educated is that we are monads, each person a self-contained, self-sufficient individual and we all must make our own way in life. That was the fantasy these men were living.

Of course it’s completely wrong. The opposite is true. No person can survive long outside a community. We are social animals. Life depends on having internalized the rules and mores of a reference community. If that community  were to fall away for some reason, you would quickly lose even the abilities to think and speak. It’s been called the “Robinson Crusoe effect.”

Why do members of a certain class of individuals cling to the myth of individualism (even while they do so in tight communities, e.g., of hunters)? As I approached the outskirts of Tucson, I decided it was because social empathy is not innate. It’s a learned set of skills and attitudes, and if empathy isn’t taught, or isn’t taught well, or isn’t learned well, it’s not likely that a person will spontaneously develop community feeling, feelings of mutual dependency and compassion. They will live feeling alienated, an outsider.

These men cling to the illusion of individualism because they were short-changed in the empathy department and have always lived with an awareness of being on the fringes of society. Not exactly social rejects, but never quite comfortable with the mainstream. So they glorify their tough self-sufficiency to make lemonade out of lemons.

I wonder if lemon juice would be good on dove meat?

Stegner’s Curmudgeon

spectator-birdIn Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, Joe Allston, ex-New York literary agent, has retired to a quiet suburban life in Palo Alto in the 1970’s. One day he gets an innocuous postcard from an acquaintance Denmark he and his wife met on a European trip twenty years earlier. That postcard prompts him to retrieve his travel journal from the attic and in the rest of the novel, he reads it, most of it aloud to his wife, Ruth. They reminisce about the trip and the people they met, and about their long-standing marriage. The End.

The story line is boring as dirt and doubly unbelievable. The travel diary is written in detailed, writerly, third-person prose, not the least bit convincing. Diary-writing has its own special syntax and content, which Joe’s does not. So the diary is just a framing device to tell a long, elaborate backstory, foregrounded by a smaller, lighter story about Joe and Ruth in the present tense. Clever, but who wants to see a stage set’s scaffolding?

The second unbelievable aspect is the diary’s story, which involves the couple bumping into a Danish aristocrat manqué, renting a room from her, then visiting her old castle in the country, where they learn all sorts of dark secrets about her and her family, culminating in the revelation that Joe might actually be related to her!  What are the probabilities? It’s not only an uninteresting story, it’s not the least believable.

The best part of the book is the expertly crafted writing. Every scene is written to perfection, with a purpose and a beginning, middle, and end. Every paragraph likewise. Every sentence. Anyone with experience writing cannot help but admire the craftsmanship, and that’s what it amounts to – not lyricism, not deep insight, not innovation, not provocation. The book is simply very well-written, lack of a plausible or compelling story notwithstanding. The characters are likewise cutouts and puppets. Joe is a mouthpiece for the author’s rants about life, old age, society and marriage and Ruth is his foil.

Nearly every chapter opens with extensive description of the weather and the scenery, and most close with the same. The weather!  I thought at times that if I had to read one more paragraph about pewter clouds I was going to spit. It’s no wonder that young writers today are told never to do that. It’s damn boring. I’ve read good weather descriptions, such as in the last pages of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, but Stegner’s weather is bland and unimaginative, like his scenery – literally the foliage and the quality of the dirt on the ground. That kind of writing-for-the-sake-of-writing would not pass the gatekeepers today. I’ve read good description of scenery that subtley serves as objective correlative, as in the opening scene of  Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge.  Stegner had no excuse and it was a slog to get through a lot of purple prose.

A couple of thematic ideas maintain some interest through the novel. The main one involves kinship, genealogy, eugenics, and Nazis. The heart of the aristocratic revelations in Denmark is that the family is riddled with incest, has been for decades, and still is. The patriarch was interested in breeding humans like cattle for “desirable” traits and conducted his own experiments within the family, the methods and outcomes of which are not detailed.  We are simply supposed to be shocked at the idea of incest.  It’s a cheap shot at sensationalism, not a principled inquiry. Maybe that was shocking in 1970. I wasn’t shocked.

One of the secondary, off-screen characters was supposed to have been a Nazi sympathizer, so you have the whiff of Nazi racial theories, but again, not as a developed idea and not linked to the incest theme, just a cheesy titillation. And finally, Stegner raises the weird idea that people love each other because of the relatedness of their genes. What’s wrong with incest, the narrator asks, if the people really do love each other, as long as they don’t reproduce too much. Is the best love really self-love?  It’s an interesting idea, but like the others, not developed and not tied into the main story development, just thrown out there for sensationalism.

Another theme is about ageism. Joe, who is 69, rants about being excluded from society because he is old, and raves on about how the old values were better, and belittles the lifestyles of reckless, amoral youth, all the while wondering if somehow life has passed him by, because he never “did” anything. It’s not exactly an original theme, but there are a few moments of poignant sentimentality.

A final theme is about marriage – what makes a good one, how one should behave in a marriage and how one often does not, and its redeeming virtues.  As a long-time married guy myself, I could recognize Joe’s thoughts and anxieties, but did not find them interesting.

Joe was just not an interesting character. For all his erudite allusions and educated sarcasm, he was a narrow –minded, burned-out curmudgeon who apparently had lived his life entirely externally, valuing physical and social achievements, a mere “spectator bird” in the garden of life. Despite his introspective voice, he apparently never developed any genuine interiority, any authentic sense of self. He has no interests, passions, or guiding vision. So if you live an empty life, focused on the outside, you end up hollow in the end. How could it be otherwise?

Joe was presented as an empty shell who seemed to realize at the end that he was an empty shell. That’s a theme worthy of a novel, but in this one, it is just a sub-theme, suggested but not deeply explored.  Updike did it better in his Rabbit series.

A few years ago I tried to read Angle of Repose, supposedly Stegner’s masterpiece and couldn’t get past fifty pages, it was so boring. I tried Spectator Bird because it was short and supposedly good, having won the National Book Award in 1977.  I found a few mild attractions, but this is definitely the end of my Stegner exploration.

Stegner, Wallace (1976). The Spectator Bird. New York: Quality Paperback/Doubleday/Bantam/Random. 200 pp.

LA Trickle-Down Gossip

los_angeles_city_viewI’m exhausted after selling my mother-in-law’s two-bedroom house in Los Angeles. She’s downsizing to an assisted-living place and I’ve become aware again of muscles I only vaguely remember from my youth, after packaging nearly everything and cleaning the place. It’s amazing how much stuff can be stored in a garage.

devito-1However, as a benefit, it being L.A., one always bumps against the entertainment industry bubbles of life from which we mortals are ordinarily excluded. You just can’t avoid it. For example, among the recent trips I’ve made to the city over the last few years, I accidentally met Danny DeVito and Mickey Rooney.

Rooney was in a restaurant in a fancy hotel (I was staying on a coupon), and this was just before he died and he had blimped into a sphere, unrecognizable except for his voice, which sounded exactly as it did in 1940. I said hello, big fan, and all that nonsense, and he was angry and mean. “Oh yeah? What’s the last movie you saw me in?” he challenged. “Young Tom Edison?” I ventured (not being a Judy Garland fan). “Bah!” he said dismissively. Of course he had a right to be angry and mean. He had lost his fortune many times over, most lately to swindlers who took advantage of him. Still, he was Mickey Rooney and I wasn’t.

I encountered Danny DeVito at a different hotel, where he was doing a movie shoot. I don’t know what movie it was but he was dressed up as some kind of yachtsman, with the blue blazer and sea-captain’s hat with scrambled eggs on the visor. He approached a white limo that pulled up to the front of the hotel, and was supposed to greet a tall, slender woman in a shiny red dress who emerged.  I don’t know how it was supposed to go because the director kept yelling “Cut!” and everybody went back to the start and the two actors never did talk. I don’t know what was wrong with the scene. Looked good to me.

Meanwhile, I was trying to get into my hotel, but my wife and I were nudged away by a crew member who directed us to a side door because “it’s a wide shot and you don’t want to be in it.”  Well, who says we didn’t want to be in it? Besides, I was the paying customer at the hotel, not him. Side door, indeed! (Maybe we were the reason the director yelled cut?)

But Hollywood trumps civilian life in Los Angeles, so it was the side door for us. (And I should note, it rained that night and it turns out this fancy hotel had rats in its walls scratching furiously until dawn.  Nothing in L.A. is what it looks like).

affleckOn my last trip, I was supervising/helping the moving guys get my mother-in-law’s stuff to a storage locker. During a break, one of the grayed moving guys, in his fifties, I’d guess – ex-con, deeply creased face, fully tattooed, heavily sweating, revealed that he’d moved Ben Affleck once and reported that he was a good actor, but – and here he lowered his voice in confidentiality – his tattoos were lame and had too much color.  Wow, who knew that was a criterion for social judgment? Still, it was titillating to be within so few degrees of separation of the immortals.

Another mover however, topped that story, saying he had moved author Sidney Sheldon’s widow several times – practically had an ongoing contract with her for moving. They had five houses around the area extending up to Palm Springs, all of the spreads huge, and every time she downsized he had to move stuff into storage for her. She had rented twelve of the largest lockers in this very storage place into which I was moving my mother-in-law’s stuff. Imagine that! Sidney Sheldon’s widow’s stuff! It could be behind any one of these corrugated doors, I marveled.

“I must have moved fifty million dollars’ worth of art,” the gray-bearded mover told me (Hopefully it was moved to some other location than the tawdry steel locker complex we were currently working in). “She had impressionists, Picassos, you name it,” he said. Nice to know. And nice to know that if you’re among the glitterati in Los Angeles, even your moving guys will tell stories. Despite his grunting however, I don’t think graybeard will recall anything noteworthy about my mother-in-law’s enormous 1960’s-era, glass-fronted china cabinet.

These are the coins of conversational trade in Los Angeles, and that’s my pocketful.

Escapist Nonfiction


Though I’ve sworn off writing nonfiction, having left that life behind, sometimes the siren song is irresistible, so when I saw a call for papers on the topic of phenomenology and religion, I was tempted. I knocked out a 300-word abstract and sent it in.

The good news is that the abstract and the paper it implies were accepted. The bad news is that now I have to write the paper, which I’ll read at a conference in Berkeley in December, and which will appear as a chapter in a printed book later.

Why did I do it?  I’ve been keen on the subject of phenomenology for years. I used to think it was a rigorous method of introspection that could be used for exploration of the mind. As a cognitive psychologist, that has always been my overriding motivation – what is the mind and how can we study it?

edmund_husserl_1I read philosophical work by Edmund Husserl, the inventor of phenomenology, all translated into English from German, most of it impenetrable. The more I studied, the more I realized phenomenology was a useful method but fundamentally flawed by unexamined assumptions, including essentialism, elementalism, epistemological dualism, scientism, and commitment to sense-data. These limitations prevent it from being a fully successful methodology for examining the mind. It was, and still is, useful in analysis of relatively well-defined problems.

Religion, that’s another thing I’ve been interested in for many years – not so much formal religion defined by churches, but spiritual experience, ranging from Maslow’s “peak-experiences” to William James’s pragmatic psychology of religious experience. I call myself a non-theist rather than an atheist because I don’t know what atheists are trying to deny. But I do believe human beings have a richer experience than standard psychological categories admit, and much of that can be called spiritual or religious experience.

So along comes a conference on phenomenology and religious experience.  Who could pass that up?  Well, probably most people could. But not me. I succumbed.

patriarchThe conference leaders and attendees are intimidating academics and philosophical clergy, most from the Bay Area but some from Bulgaria, of all places, affiliates of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and a conference co-sponsor in Sofia.  These people seriously know what they’re talking about, whereas I just have some ideas I developed myself. So I’ll probably get ripped apart at the conference, but I don’t mind. It’s an experience.

My paper will point out one flaw in traditional Husserlian phenomenology, its unexamined commitment to epistemological dualism, the intrinsic separation of knower from known. In phenomenology, you keep the object of contemplation at arm’s length, so to speak, and examine it, much as you would study an object perceptually.

Religious experience however, to the extent it can be defined, often involves a sense of non-dualism, the feeling that you are “one with the cosmos,” or not separate from the object of contemplation. So if religious experience is epistemologically nondual, but phenomenology entails dualism, well, they’re incompatible.

But wait!  All is not lost. I will offer a fix for this mismatch. I will propose extending the traditional phenomenological method with meditative techniques designed to achieve a nondual state of consciousness.  What could be better than that?

The main problem is, I’m not sure I can do that in a way understandable for attendees to a conference committed to both phenomenology and religion. But that’s the creative challenge.  I’m also waaay out of touch with current academic literature, so citations and references are going to be hard to come by.  But hey, they accepted the paper, so that means they accepted the paper.

Tough as this writing assignment is, it’s still easier than writing fiction, and maybe that’s why I’m doing it.  It’s a kind of escapism for me. I’m so bad.