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.

Hard-Boiled Entertainment

Murakami Hard BoiledThis is my second Murakami experience and it was a good one. I read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and found it relentlessly inventive but not much else. Hard-Boiled, however, has plenty of chewy meat beneath the author’s famous razzle-dazzle style.

The style alone is worth the read however. Consider, for example, a weird variant on chess in which “Ape takes High Priest, you realize? Go ahead, I say. I move a Parapet to cover the Apes’ retreat.” (p. 84). Murakami’s creativity has layers of ironic humor. Ape takes high priest, indeed! How about a vast library filled with, not books, but animal skulls. To read them, you put your hands on each side of a skull and concentrate. Ideas and images fill your head. That tops any library J.L. Borges ever described. Even at the sentence level, descriptions rarely turn out as you might have expected. “[I was] alone again, asleep like a tuna.” (p. 126). I did not see that “tuna” coming. The author’s writing style is consistently interesting and entertaining.

Structurally, the story involves two unnamed, first-person narrators, who we suspect are the same person. They tell different stories in alternating chapters, one in past tense and one in present tense, and both stories are good. Each involves the narrator trying to solve a mystery and simultaneously establish a relationship with a girl. In one story, the mystery is how the hero can get out of a strange, walled-in utopian town (called End of The World), from which no one has ever escaped, and to do that before his mind becomes erased, turning him into an unreflective but contented drone (along the lines of The Truman Show, The Prisoner, and even Odysseus on Circe’s island). It’s a contrived and well-worn story but Murakami makes it interesting with unexpected details.

In the second story the narrator is an information technologist in a futuristic Tokyo who discovers that a secret code has been implanted in his brain/mind which makes him an exceptional programmer but in only a day or two the implant will malfunction, killing him. Can he beat the system with the help of a mad professor? In this story, Murakami indulges his fondness for Chandleresque “hard-boiled” description, the other half of the complex title.  After waking up, the narrator looks in the mirror and sees “My puss was puffy like cheap cheesecake.” (p. 128-9).

Chandler famously advised mystery writers that when the pace of a story was sagging, just have a man with a gun appear at the door and move on from there. Dutifully, Murakami writes, “I finished my potato salad, I finished my beer, and just as I was about to burp, the steel door blew wide open and banged flat down. Enter one mountain of a man, wearing a loud aloha shirt…” (p. 131).

Overarching these silly but well-written stories is a set of serious ideas about the nature of consciousness. In one story, the protagonist is separated from his shadow. The shadow is put to work as a laborer and is not pleased, but warns the hero that if he hopes to retain his mental independence he’d better make a map of the walled town. It’s not quite a Jungian shadow, but it’s definitely an allegorical aspect of consciousness. In the parallel story, the hero is inhibited in contacting the mad professor by the lethal inklings lurking along his subterranean path. Inklings of intuition, perhaps? Layer upon layer of suggestions such as these describe a fraught relationship between the logical conscious mind (e.g., of a programmer) and whatever lurks beneath.

The narrator also indulges playfully with popular culture, including songs, movies, cars, and food. The Tokyo hero is an aesthete and his comments and preferences are often sophisticated and will delight the sophisticated reader. Also, for anyone familiar with downtown Tokyo and the subway system, it’s a pleasure to travel around with the narrator, from the underground city of Shinjuku Station to the hip Aoyama district.

While the story lines in this novel are not its main attraction and the characters only sketchy, the humor, layers of subtlety and the sheer force of Murakami’s writing make this novel unlike anything else out there and a unique enjoyment.

Murakami, Haruki (1991). Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. New York: Random/Penguin/Vintage. (400 pp.).

Woolf in the Lighthouse!

Lighthouse-2To the Lighthouse is a novelistic exploration of individual consciousness and of relationships in the interwar period in Britain. Woolf uses a stream of consciousness technique to tell us what characters are thinking and feeling. The narrator promiscuously jumps from one head to another, so much so that a reader can lose track of whose POV is being expressed. It’s easy to see why such head-hopping is verboten for writers today.

Another odd format is run-on paragraphs. Today we start a paragraph whenever a new character is speaking or thinking, and certainly whenever the POV changes. Woolf runs it all together, including direct quotations, which are rare and marked only with apostrophes, not quotation marks. All this makes TTL a more difficult reading experience than it needs to be, but that could be just my edition, which is from the 1980’s.

In any case, Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique is more convincing and compelling than Joyce’s. Joyce rambled on in unending but articulate and precise sentences, which is not how people think, but Woolf’s characters think in small, impressionistic, disjointed nonsequiturs, along with a few coherent discourses. So I could relate to her characters as I never could to Joyce’s.

The sentences are lovely, often long and writhing like a vine up a post but probably that would count as too much description in today’s literature. Few people have the patience or the short term memory to parse half-page sentences. And lovely as they are, more than a few of them would qualify, by today’s standards, as “purple prose,” unnecessarily over the top.

“The spring without a leaf to toss, bare and bright like a virgin fierce in her chastity, scornful in her purity, was laid out on the fields wide-eyed and watchful and entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders.” (p. 123)

Thematically, the depths are deep and for me, that’s the main attraction. In the opening section of three, constituting about half the book, Mrs. Ramsay, a beautiful and wealthy woman in her fifties is at a country house in a Scottish Isle with her eight children, husband, and a half-dozen others, friends and servants. They variously talk and walk, remember and hope and regret, and have a lavish dinner party for which they all “dress,” and they wonder if the weather will clear enough for them to take a boat out to the lighthouse.

During the opening section, Mrs Ramsay holds the POV most of the time and wonders how it is possible that she feels simultaneously so close to everyone and alienated from them, especially her husband. She feels she knows nothing about him and he, nothing about her, even after thirty years of marriage and eight children. And yet she knows exactly what he is thinking; and she assumes he knows what she is thinking, but she is still pained by that feeling of alienation that she can hardly express, even to herself. This is a compelling paradox, one that any thoughtful person has confronted. No matter how close you get to someone, you always feel alone. Even when you’re not alone, you’re alone. Woolf conveys this idea in a gut-punching way that is nothing short of magical.

“How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch and taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air of over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives which were people. “ (p. 51)

Woolf’s favorite word in this novel is “suddenly,” which is odd because nothing much really happens in this story. There isn’t even much dialog. It’s almost entirely the disjointed thoughts and feelings of several characters. ‘Suddenly’ conveys that characters’ minds are not under their control. Mrs Ramsay is thinking about her child, when ‘suddenly’ she understands she is utterly alone, or suddenly she is struck with a brilliant plan, or suddenly she is overcome with fatigue, and so on. It’s as if she were a cork bobbing on the sea of her own feelings and ideas. Maybe that’s how Woolf’s brain worked and maybe that’s how she experienced inner life. She was, after all, a disturbed soul who eventually committed suicide. It’s interesting to see how she paints a picture of interiority so uncontrolled and self-interrupting. Maybe it’s just a literary technique to keep the pace going rather than an autobiographical tic. But several passages describe feelings of depression so vividly that a reader who knows something about Woolf’s biography is devastated with sympathy.

A strong oedipal theme is played out, directly tracking Freud’s then-recently published book on childhood sexuality, and we know Woolf read Freud assiduously.  While it might have been a daring and innovative idea at the time, it hasn’t aged well and now this theme seems to stand out as a strangely foreign insert into in the novel, although her separate, allegorical sex scene is one of the most graphic in all of literature.

“The strain became acute. For in one moment if there was no breeze, and his father would slap the covers of his book together and say: ‘What’s happening now? What are we dawdling about here for, eh?’ as, once  before he had brought his blade down among them on the terrace and she had gone stiff all over and if there had been an axe handy, a knife, or anything with a sharp point he would have seized it and struck his father through the heart.” (p. 172).

Another deep theme is a meditation on the nature of time. How does time seem to be full of feelings and experiences and yet the next day, even the next minute, it’s as if those experiences never happened? In the second section of the book, some years have passed, the war is either on or over, nearly everybody’s dead, and the house is deserted and derelict. The narrator describes the rotting wood, moss-covered floors, peeling wallpaper, and an old cleaning woman who remembers the good old days.  How could those loud, colorful dinner parties full of laughter and conversation have ever happened here, and where are they now?  Woolf considers that paradox numerous times and seems to decide that while memories of events are frozen snapshots, experience as lived is a process through time, and those two are incompatible.

“If the feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, the whole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of oblivion, …Mrs. McNab, Mrs Bast stayed the corruption and the rot; rescued from the pool of Time that was fast closing over them now a basin, now a cupboard; fetched up from oblivion all the Wavery novels and a tea-set one morning… It might well be, said Mrs McNab, wantoning on with her memories; they had friends in eastern countries; gentlemen staying there, ladies in evening dress; she had seen them once through the dining-room door all sitting at dinner. Twenty she dared say in all the jewllery and she asked to stay help wash up, might be till after midnight. “(p. 130)

One of my favorite themes in the novel is Woolf’s description of the writing process, presented by analogy to the process of painting. The secondary main character, a young woman named Lily, who obviously represents Woolf herself, attempts to actualize her imagination in paint, much as Woolf was trying to do with words in writing this novel. The result is a marvelous commentary on the process of writing.

“What was the problem, then? …Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything. Get that and start afresh; get that and start afresh; she said desperately, pitching herself firmly again before her easel. It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on. “ (p. 178).

Finally, perhaps the deepest theme involves the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ We all have asked it, as do Lily and Mrs Ramsay repeatedly. Various answers are tried and found wanting. The central meaning is love, relationships, or maybe it is fulfilling social roles, like marriage, or maybe it is children. Maybe it is academic or literary fame? Maybe it is something men know and women don’t. My guess is that the question is finally answered by Lily the artist at the end of the novel. The meaning of life is process of expression of oneself into the world as best one can.

“There it was – her picture. Yes, with all its green and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? She asked herself taking up her brush again… I have had my vision.” (p 191-2).

These deep themes, embedded in some enchanted writing, is what makes this novel, and all of Woolf’s novels, so compelling that I don’t even care if plot has been abandoned.

Woolf, Virginia (1927/1983). To the Lighthouse.  London: Panther. (192 pp.)

Getting to Know My Characters

Fencing2My new novel is developing slowly. I have 7,000 words since I started writing on August 1. That’s 500 words a day,  a couple of pages, respectable, but I haven’t been feeling momentum.

I think they’re “good” words, in the sense that I’ll be able to keep most of them. Usually I end up scrapping the first two thousand words I write because the story doesn’t get going until after that but it takes me that long to find the path forward. In this project, I have been laying up some early backstory but since there is no earthquake or alien invasion coming up, I’m not feeling compelled to start the story on the cusp of some great catastrophe, which is what one should do. This project is “literary,” and literary is supposed to be boring, dammit.

I hope it’s not really boring. My character is facing conflicts, but they’re of the domestic variety, not end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it. I confess I’m having a hard time “getting into” my main character, partly because he’s only seventeen years old and that age was  another incarnation for me, one I can barely remember, and also because he’s living around 1900, which is a very alien world from our modern one. I assume readers will face the same difficulties, so I’m struggling to bring the character to life.

I think he’ll be more lively when I get him off the farm and into the university. He’s an intellectual kid who is not successful in farm life, but he should find his pace in academia, as so many of us did. Anyway, the main point of this story is to illuminate some ideas about perception and consciousness that interest me, and I can’t do that while he’s milking cows.

Why don’t I just start him out at the university then? Because I want him to come in ill-prepared, an outsider who follows his own pathways, doesn’t drink the kool-aid (as we used to say), and is more interested in finding out what’s true than how to get ahead. That will be the conflict that blows him out of the university, eventually.

Also explaining my sluggishness, I’m halfway through Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and it’s intimidating. She can pick out the subtlest thread of consciousness and make it glow as if it were the filament in an incandescent bulb. I close the book and I think, ‘Why do I even try to write?’

I tell myself that writing is harder today than it was in the 1920’s (notwithstanding the special challenges for women writers). I don’t think any of her novels would be published today, with the possible exception of Orlando. Today’s readers won’t tolerate pages and pages of internal rumination. They demand that “things happen,” big things, objective things in the world, clearly described. From what happens, we are to infer the characters’ interiority. And today’s readers demand consistent, persistent, narrative point of view, not head-hopping like a hungry hummingbird through a field of flowers. That’s what I tell myself, because the alternative is, ‘Why bother? I can never write like this.’

So I’ll get my character to New York starting tomorrow and set him right away to some intellectual fencing and maybe he’ll blossom and flourish. Or get stabbed.

Shakespeare in the Imagination

Will in the WorldCan you infer anything about a writer’s biography from what he or she has written?  As a writer of fiction, I have to say, yes you can make valid inferences at a high level of abstraction, but no, you can’t infer much about specific experience. I write literary fiction, mysteries, and science fiction even though I’ve never shot anyone, met a space alien or lived in the nineteenth century.  Non-writers of fiction may underestimate the power of imagination. Writers of fiction make stuff up and then convince you it could be true. That’s the job.

On the other hand, all fiction is to some extent autobiographical. The characters and the motives that interest me are expressions of my life and times. I am not wracked with doubt over whether Catholicism or Protestantism is the true religion. I don’t worry much about witches casting spells on me or anyone else. I write and think in the language I inherited and I assume a certain physical and social reality that is hard to escape. So I necessarily do express myself in my work.

Greenblatt, one of the foremost Shakespeare scholars in the world, imagines that he can infer a lot of detailed information about Shakespeare’s life, mind and attitudes from his plays and sonnets, and I find that that thesis unconvincing and undemonstrated by the book.

The historical record on the life of William Shakespeare is remarkably sparse and the few fragments of information that survive have been dissected in excruciating detail since the first biographies of the bard began to be written in the 1600’s. Historians have scoured every particle of Shakespeare’s life and times and everyone who lived anywhere near him. There is nothing new to add to the historical record. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing new to say.

Greenblatt’s contribution is to take his vast knowledge of Shakespeare scholarship (15 pages of detailed and annotated bibliographical notes), and his thorough knowledge of the body of Shakespeare’s work (he has written and edited many books on the subject), and combine those into an exercise of the imagination. The book is not a story of how it was, but a fantasy on how it might have been. The reader is invited to imagine Shakespeare’s life and, as the subtitle says, “How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.” (It should have been, “How Shakespeare might have become Shakespeare.”)  I think it is a worthy project that Greenblatt is uniquely qualified to undertake, and read in the right spirit, the book can be fascinating.

Plenty of history and biography in the text is interesting if tangential, especially for the non-specialist. I was interested to learn about the filth and crudity of life in London at that time, the economics and beliefs, the religious tensions, the clothing and food, and how theater was conducted and enjoyed. For example, it used to be that after a performance, the actors would take their hats in hand to the audience, asking for pennies. A huge innovation was to charge a penny at the door. Many theater-goers objected. “Why should I pay when the play could turn out to be no good? It’s unreasonable!”

Greenblatt’s story is roughly chronological, starting with Shakespeare’s early life in a rural village and his shotgun marriage to Ann Hathaway. In the 1580’s young Will, perhaps seventeen, a barely educated country bumpkin, suddenly abandons Ann and the twins, rides to London and very quickly becomes the greatest poet and playwright of all time. The main challenge to Greenblatt is to answer the question, how was that possible? His answer is that Shakespeare had an immensely strong imagination.

For me, that answer commits a logical fallacy called “assuming the consequent”: Shakespeare was, in fact, the greatest playwright of his time, therefore he must have possessed an extraordinary imagination despite his humble background and meagre education.  The problem is, there is no independent information to suggest that Shakespeare had extraordinary talent. We can only conclude that he “must have had.” Greenblatt constructs a fanciful history for Shakespeare in which his father took him to plays from which he learned “how to do it.” Even if true, would that have been sufficient? I am skeptical.

Greenblatt notes that nowhere in all of Shakespeare’s plays do we see a happy marriage. In every case where marriage is depicted it is one of strain, tension, and often bloody murder. That must indicate, Greenblatt speculates, that Shakespeare’s marriage to Ann was miserable.  That’s a thin thread to pull on, in my opinion. More likely is the possibility that Will soon discovered he was gay and bolted. Greenblatt allows later, in discussing the sonnets, that Will might have been gay, but doesn’t draw any far-reaching implications (male homosexuality between an older patron and a boy was widely practiced and tolerated, as it had been since classical times).

Some of Greenblatt’s fanciful speculations are more convincing than others. For example, he makes a fairly good case that the anti-Semitic themes found in The Merchant of Venice reflect attitudes prevalent in Elizabethan society, even while acknowledging that there were virtually no Jews in London at the time, following an earlier expulsion.

The best chapter is perhaps on Hamlet, in which the author speculates that Shakespeare’s “radical” (as he calls it) turn to interiority, as in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be…” was motivated by both Shakespeare’s father’s imminent or recent death and by the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, a decade earlier. To me, it’s a plausible speculation.

This is a purely fanciful book, not a proper biography or history, so you have to come to it with appropriate expectations. As a work of creative non-fiction, I found it mildly interesting. I would have enjoyed mention of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and powerful member of Elizabeth’s court. Some revisionists suggest that de Vere was the author, in whole or in part, of Shakespeare’s work and that Shakespeare was merely the well-compensated front-man. I don’t buy the grand conspiracy and cover-up story that Shakespeare = de Vere, but it seems likely to me that there is more to William Shakespeare’s biography than Greenblatt’s invocation of an “immensely strong imagination.”

Surprisingly, Will in the World won a Pulitzer Prize and was a National Book Award Finalist.  It includes 16 pages of illustrations (black-and-white in the paperback edition).

Greenblatt, Stephen (2004). Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: Simon and Schuster. 430 pp.

Writing Historical Fiction

Horse_and_buggy_1910Setting a novel in a historical period is much more difficult than I had anticipated because of the endless research. I was writing a scene that mentioned a pipe-cleaner when I stopped short: Wait! Did they have pipe cleaners in 1900 in America? Yes.  Would my character be writing a letter with a quill pen? No. Steel-tip nibs in hard rubber holders were commonplace. Fountain pens existed but were expensive and unreliable. What did people wear? Shirts and blouses made at home from mail-order fabric (Sears). Overalls and no underwear in the summer for men. Brassieres for the ladies? No. The brassiere was invented in the late 1800s but rural women in America didn’t see what problem it solved. All clothes were fastened with buttons. The zipper hadn’t been invented. Elastic was rare.

And so on endlessly. I could hardly write a sentence without having to stop and jump into Google. I was discussing this problem with a writer friend and she nodded sympathetically. “Yes, and the trouble is, you start out with a simple question and two hours later you’re an expert on dirigibles.” That cracked me up, and now when I am diverted into Google I call it “going into dirigible mode.”

The research can be interesting, but also frustrating. I discovered my character could not be in his senior year of high school. There was no such thing. Students graduated from eighth grade and the one-room schoolhouse, often with great family ceremony, and hopefully with the “three R’s” acquired (especially spelling, so they’d know that ‘arithmetic’ does not start with an ‘R’). Eighth grade was the end of the line. They’d go on to work and life from there.

High school, which was any instruction beyond eighth grade, existed only in the cities, was located downtown and it was a boarding school, since it was impractical to commute from the farm. No farm could afford to tie up a horse and buggy all day for a commuter. And the school was not free. Room and board was high, fifty cents to a dollar a day, at a time when a farmer was happy to clear $500 in a year. And what family had the luxury of letting an able-bodied young man (and it was men only) stay away at school instead of working the farm? The main point of having children back then was for free farm labor.

So I had to invent a wacky tale to explain how my character found himself in high school. There went half a day.

It was the same for just about everything my character did and said. Did that reading lamp use whale oil? Or did they use candles? No, kerosene was widely used by 1900. Despite its expense, kerosene gave ten times the light of candles. Whale oil was even more expensive. Were there telephones? In town, often. Rare in the country until after WWI. How long does it take to get from farm to town? A matched team of horses pulled a buggy two or three miles an hour over a good road, and those were rare in spring and fall because of mud.

I originally had my family running a dairy because I wanted them to later move to the city and open a retail shop for butter and cheese.  But while in dirigible mode I learned that didn’t make much sense. Every farm had four or five cows for dairy products, along with chickens and hogs. A dairy would have no customers. Shops in town took eggs as legal tender in exchange for goods, along with money, and many would also take cheese and butter. Nobody needed a diary. Scratch the diary.

The most difficult information to extract from the historical record is what things cost and how much people earned. A university professor in 1900 would make between $1000 and $1500 a year, depending on experience. A Kodak camera cost a dollar but the postage to mail the film back to Rochester, N.Y. for developing was fifty cents each way. A visit to the doctor’s office cost fifty cents to a dollar, but he had no medicine other than opium, cocaine, and alcohol. Needless to say, no antibiotics either. Syphilis was a death sentence.

A shave in a barber shop was ten to twenty-five cents and since there were no safety razors, you definitely wanted to go to a barber. A silent movie was thirty-five cents, a high-priced luxury. You could get a train from Grand Forks, North Dakota to Boston for $20 but it was an overnight “sleeper.” A new house might cost $750 but I couldn’t find out what mortgage interest rates were.

Sometimes the amount of work required to pin down a detail like that is far more than I’m willing to exert. Cost of a horse or other livestock? No idea. It was easier to avoid any scene that involved a transaction like that. I wanted my character to attend the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 but I couldn’t find out what the admission fee was.

I’m not a historian and my goal is not to write history. I’m trying to write a novel about particular people with the historical setting as ambience. Even so, it’s a lot more work than I imagined. Nevertheless, the experience will inform my next sci-fi novel, because writing a future should be as careful in every detail as writing the past.

Southern Gothic Thriller

Night of the HunterThis mid-century, noirish psychological thriller has something in common with The Maltese Falcon. Both stories feature a classic “MacGuffin,” an arbitrary object of desire that all parties seek, pursuit of which drives the action of the story. The tale also has a Lolita-like element in that the bad guy cynically marries a widowed woman just to get close to her kids who seem to know where the MacGuffin is.

In this case, the MacGuffin is ten thousand bucks, an astronomical sum in the Depression-era, rural south (possibly West Virginia). The guy who stole it, for reasons unknown, has been executed but the money never was recovered. He apparently didn’t tell his widow what he did with it, but the children may know. The boy, John, is nine and the girl is four. The story is told mostly from John’s point of view although plenty of promiscuous head-hopping mixes it up a bit (and often mixes up the reader as well).

An evil, pseudo-preacher comes to town in search of the money. Actually he was a cellmate of the thief before his execution and that’s how he learned of the cash cache. He’s a reasonably interesting character, a cold-blooded mustache-twirler with a less-than-convincing, reactionary superego reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor (e.g., Wise Blood). He goes to strip shows in order to “inform himself” about the moral depravity of “whoredom.”

The false preacher charms the widow and presses the children to reveal where the money is hidden. The boy, John, smells a rat and tries to protect his little sister. As the preacher’s threats escalate, the children flee into an implausible cross-country chase. Finally there is a white-vs-black-hat showdown with predictable results.

I found the plotting formulaic and the characters two-dimensional, and was never gripped by the story, which did not seem believable except for the old Southern Gothic trick of making the characters so stupid and gullible that anything should be believed, which is why I don’t enjoy southern gothic.

The main problem is the boy, John, who shares his thoughts, intuitions, judgments, and speculations with the reader throughout. More than precocious, this undereducated, rural nine-year-old has the mental capacity of a university professor, whether told in his own words or by the ubiquitous and intrusive 3P-close narrator.  (“John got to his feet, knowing suddenly how lost it all was: what a world had failed him, how deep a night when the last lamp of all went flickering down in the darkness.” p. 134). I just never bought that character.

Major structural problems in the story are two. One, the setup is that the boy knows where the money is, due to a mano-a-mano talk with dad before he got caught. The secret is John’s sacred honor, sworn to his father. The reader is not told where the money is. That makes the boy a noble character and informs the reader that his cat-and-mouse with the preacher is strategic. But then the location of the money is revealed to the reader before the midpoint and all the steam is let out of that engine. That strikes me as a writing error.

The second structural problem is that suddenly, also around the midpoint, we are told that the girl, Pearl, also knows where the money is. That undercuts the status and motivation of the boy, because the girl is too young to understand the significance of the money or the meaning of a secret, or indeed, what’s at stake in the story. She doesn’t even know that her father is dead. John suddenly has little control over the big, dark secret that is supposed to be driving the whole plot. So after that point, there is no point.

This book is enormously popular with readers and was nominated for a National Book Award. That may be because of the successful movie of the same name that came out in 1955, which I haven’t seen. So I recognize that my lukewarm-to-negative take on this book is a minority opinion. I see the novel as a refuge of sentimentalism, which most people enjoy but which I dislike.

Grubb’s writing is sometimes interesting, although the lack of quotation marks and paragraph breaks, and the incessant, undocumented POV head-hopping all make it a more difficult read than it needed to be. Sometimes the prose tips over into purple territory (“And in that new, pale proscenium of light John saw again the dancers, the black horse prancing and the brave little soldier and the clown with his toothpick legs.” p. 196).

But there are also some fine descriptions to be appreciated (“The trip to New Economy with the week’s butter and eggs was the great event toward which each of the seven other days moved.” p. 158).

The last twenty pages of the novel give up all pretense of dramatic story-telling and the heavy-handed narrator simply recites the ending in a tedious torrent of exposition that robs the finale of any force.

Grubb, Davis (1953). The Night of the Hunter. (200 pp).

Why Hillary Has Trust Issues

Hillary Acceptance 2016I watched Hillary Clinton closely as she gave her acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention on Thursday night. I was hoping for something spectacular. I hoped in vain.

It was spectacular enough for a major party to have a woman nominated for president. It’s about time. As I watched her wave and grin ear-to-ear, I imagined how thoroughly beat down she’s going to look in eight years, and how the networks will play clips of this historic acceptance speech and we’ll all marvel, “Look at how young and vigorous she was!”

I was hoping for The New Hillary, the one who shows more of who she is and overcomes the cold, stand-offish feeling many voters get from her.  What I saw was a huge disappointment to me and left me just as alienated from her as ever. Apparently, the crowds and the pundits thought it was a great speech however, and I’m accustomed to being the odd one out. So…

To be clear, she is my candidate, for two reasons. First, I believe the Progressive approach to government is best. Progressives rejected the tooth-and-claw Darwinism of American capitalism in 1912 and asserted that government needs to be a player in everyday life. That approach justifies interventionism, such as food and drug safety laws, financial regulation, and much else. Granted, they do a very bad job of it sometimes, but philosophically, I think it’s the right approach for government (compared to modern Republicans). So I’d vote Democrat as a matter of principle almost regardless of who the candidate was.

Secondly, the alternative to Hillary is difficult to contemplate. The world hasn’t seen a candidate like Trump since the Third Reich. It happened before, and it could happen again, so there’s a very compelling case to vote for Hillary.

But back to the Hillary acceptance speech. What I heard was a great steaming pile of humblebrag, along with well-deserved but unnecessary snarky comments about Trump, along with endless platitudes, clichés, and a long checklist of vague and general talking points and promises. I didn’t learn anything, but I saw and heard some things.

Hillary confessed that when it comes to public service, she is strong on service, not so good at the public part. I think that’s because despite all the shouting, hectoring, and scolding, she’s unsure of herself, as a person.  Her mind is as large as her family, as was well-documented in numerous remarks by her husband, her daughter, and herself, and she knows that is not big enough for the job. So she wears a psychological exoskeleton of rehearsed policies and slogans to cover up the fact that she really does not think quickly or creatively. Nobody must know the awful secret that she’s just an ordinary person.

There was a moment where I thought she was going to do something creative. “People watching at home might say,” she posed, “this all sounds very good, but how are you going to do it?” She paused, and I held my breath.

What I was prepared to hear was, “I’m not. You’re going to help me do it. You’re going to vote, and when you do, you need to vote ‘Democrat’ all the way down the ticket. Senator, Representative, Governor, School Superintendent.  Democrat, Democrat, Democrat. That’s the strategy. That’s how we accomplish all these goals I have listed. I ask you to do that.”

But she didn’t say anything like that. Instead she offered predictable anodyne nonsense like, “I will work hard to bring people together to do the right thing for America.”  Right. That’s usually successful.

I think Hillary’s carefully constructed psychological exoskeleton is what people see and what we instinctively find off-putting and cold in her public persona, and why many feel she is inauthentic. A persona is supposed to be inauthentic, not in the sense of dishonest – there’s no question she believes what she says – but inauthentic in assiduously not revealing the person behind the curtain, because she fears that person is inadequate to the task. She is never, ever going to let us see behind the curtain.

I can’t blame her too much. She is who she is, and she is tireless and sincere. She just does not have the personal courage to reveal herself as a dedicated, but ordinary and not particularly brilliant person.  Too bad for the voters. Too bad for her.

I love Obama’s intellectual brilliance. But I also know from experience, that “smart” and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee. Winning elections is not about smart. Hillary has gotten this far by being who she is and the election is hers to lose at this point. So I’m quite sure that her overriding strategy is to not commit (any more) unforced errors.  Nothing new, nothing creative, no “New Hillary.” Stay the course.

That’s probably right.

Novel Starter

outline2As I hem and haw my way toward my next writing project, I have taken several swipes at an outline. I’m an outliner, yes. Without an outline, I’m writing word salad into a desert. I don’t always follow my outline, but I need a rough map at least.

Over the years I’ve developed a generic outline template designed mainly to keep the pace. Certain key scenes are necessary in any novel I write. In principle, I could write those ten or twelve key scenes first then connect the dots, but I’ve never done that. Doesn’t feel right to me.

I’m especially concerned to avoid the mid-belly sag that often occurs in Act 2, so this outline is specific about how major scenes are distributed.  It tends to be front-loaded, because even though I personally prefer a long, subtle lead-in, most readers don’t. The times we live in demand immediate developments.

Also, the wrap-up, in Act 3 seems truncated by stuffing it into the last 25% of the story, but that’s also what readers like: a ka-bam! ending.

I think the outline will work for genre fiction as well as literary (character-driven). The main difference is whether the story drivers are “in the world” or “in the gut.”

I tend to write short novels, 72K to 75K words because that’s about all the attention span I have. I try to, as Elmore Leonard advised, “leave out the parts that readers skip.”  But you could apply the pacing percentages to 100,000 words just as well.

Is it formulaic? Of course. But it’s just a framework, not the finished house. I’m already thinking of how the story I have in mind will not follow this outline. Still, I will use it to get me started and lead me forward and alert me to dreaded pace sag.

The structure this template shows could be mapped into a visually graphic format, as long as the proportions for each “bubble” were conserved.

Abbreviations Used: PP=Plot Peak; ANT=Antagonist. AP=Ant-Point. MC=Main Character. RI=Romantic Interest. RC=Reaction Character. SQ=Status Quo. Hamartia = hidden weakness or secret shame; MC’s Achilles’ heel. WOM= a main advisor (“Wise old Man” or other). NLT= No later than. PN=Narrator. %= proportion of total projected page or word count to maintain a good pace. Italic highlight = Landmark Scene that cannot be skipped.

0% Act 1. Setup, Intro MC with opening image. Shows MC’s world and character. MC reacts to a small, foreshadowing conflict which is also a hook. Not the trigger, but something is not right. Patch it over while revealing the theme and the character of MC.  Show MC’s dominant trait and hidden need (hamartia); the inner demons. Show but don’t explain.

10% NLT. Trigger event Disrupts (upends) the SQ; Rocks the world. Trigger is exogenous to MC but specific to MC, not generic.  MC’s reaction sets the plot in motion. Define the  Story goal. What does MC WANT, specifically?

15%  MC’s Initial Reaction to trigger is a failure, makes things worse. Confusing. Introduce or hint at ANT by way of explanation of the failure.

20% Rubicon. PP1 Basic conflict is clear. MC is over his or her head, acts irreversibly though it doesn’t seem so at the time (e.g. cheats, breaks law, crosses the river, etc.) A point of no return. Story path is set for MC: Get the MacGuffin, escape the threat, save the farm, do your duty, begin the journey.

25% NLT Act 2. Response phase. MC is victim of slings and arrows (and own hamartia). MC acts repeatedly to fix SQ, often overconfident, and fails. Obstacles and complications are self-generated. Romantic story begins often badly. RI is diffident or offended.

30%  MC is bewildered.Each response sets up the next obstacle. MC is digging his or her own hole, walking into it, but doesn’t realize. AntP1 point. Ant is clearly revealed and personified (not abstract). Romantic story shows signs of hope.

40%  Complications. Stakes go up. Potential for loss is greater than formerly realized. It’s serious. MC suffers failure, pain and loss. Is afraid. MC can’t go back, can’t see forward. Romantic relationship is on the rocks. Escalation continues.  MC tries harder; fails again.

50% Midpoint. Turning point. Some hope is seen. The romance recovers tentatively. New info or resource comes to light and a plan becomes possible. MC goes on the offensive for the first time. Hopes are high. Despite best efforts, big plan fails. Hope is dashed. Precious resources are lost. No Plan B. No other options apparent. Disaster.

55% The Pit. Romantic and other relationships break down, in anger, disappointment, misunderstanding, etc. MC discouraged. Doubts self. Questions goals. RC advises courage, perseverance but MC is wracked with fear and doubt.

60%  AntP2. We need a bigger boat moment. ANT appears in full strength and wins a major skirmish, ups the ante. Seemingly insurmountable obstacle arises. The problem is much larger than previously thought; overwhelming.

65%  Rock Bottom. Ant prevails. Dark night of the soul. MC is ruined,  Alone and near death. MC Despairs. MC gives up and wanders off. Quits the field. Leaves the project, abandons the story goal. Complete Failure is realized, Only ashes left;

70% The turn: PP2, Critical Choice.  MC hears from RC, RI, or  gets advice from WOM; or, MC takes unexpected inspiration from an insignificant and odd thing, something that might have been planted earlier unnoticed; a special device, a memory, a person, a risky passage or technique. MC decides to go with that, despite the inner demons. MC plans a desperate chance a seemingly mad, irrational decision that goes against type. What the hell, do the right thing moment. Possibly against advice of RC, RI.

75%  NLT Act 3.  Confrontation. MC arranges a situation to confront ANT. Sets it up. RI may be at risk. Can withhold information from reader, showing only the setup.

85%  Climax. Big showdown. White vs black hats as MC confronts ANT.  MC prevails (which was not guaranteed) or dies.  MC triumph (or noble death). But the story goal is achieved. RI is won.

95% Character Reversal. MC is a new person (or martyr). MC has overcome ANT, achieved the story goal and has possible epiphany. Understands the hamartia (need not be spelled out). Solid relationship with RI.

<100% Resolution Mirrors the opening image but in a new SQ. Nothing will ever be the same again.

100% ###END###

Developed by Bill Adams from various sources.


Literary Fiction: Not for the Timid

Melancholia1Looking through my NBT (Next Big Thing) list, I find dozens of attractive ideas for a new novel. I notice many of them would fall into the category of “speculative fiction,” which I believe is mostly realism, but with some fantastic “what-if” element that drives the story.

For example, what if a huge planet were on collision course to Earth (as in von Trier’s excellent movie, “Melancholia”)? What if a man and a boy trudged across a post-apocalyptic landscape (McCarthy’s “The Road”)?

I have loads of speculative story ideas, involving invisible men, telekinetic wizards and ordinary people with access to future events. All fun.

I also have a long list of sci-fi ideas, but I decided to give the genre a rest, having just come through a series of four novels. It’s still an attractive genre, the way I do it as “Boring Science Fiction” ( But I don’t want to get into a rut, which can be indistinguishable from a groove.

I would like to try literary fiction, if only I knew what that was. My idea of it is the novel treated as an art form, in which the character arc dominates the external story elements so as to illuminate something interesting about the human condition (Abe’s “Woman in the Dunes” is an example).

If I had no fantasy element, no distracting MacGuffin, I’d have to write a pure character-driven story. Okay, fine. I settled on a historical period and a cast of characters I had interest in. But as I began sketching, I became bored.

What was wrong? Am I so shallow that if a space ship doesn’t land by page ten I’m outta here? Do I need a murder on page one? My instinct is to go immediately to the speculative MacGuffin to drive the story. Am I bored because my character is boring?

I have to say that most of literary fiction I’ve read is uninteresting. I usually read at least five boring-as-dirt novels before I find one that grips me then haunts me for weeks or months. Most lit-fic doesn’t do it, and I’m afraid I would end up writing something that reads like a saltine cracker tastes.

So I went through a list of about a hundred literary novels I’ve read recently and separated the good ones from the bad and asked, What’s the difference?

The bad ones, even when they’re very well-written, tend to veer to one of two extremes. One batch tries to elevate ordinary everydayness to existential proportions and ends up wallowing in sentimentality. Elena Ferrante’s “Days of Abandonment” was like that. Allende’s “Eva Luna.” Larry Brown’s “Joe.” McCarthy’s “The Road” (I know – sacred cow).  I have a long list of these, including a whole, leafy branch of them that turn on utterly uninteresting (to me) kinship relations (Who was the real father? Answer: Who cares?).

The other category of “failed” lit-fic is wrapped in an eye-catching wrapper that disguises the quotidian machinations of the characters. A lot of “ethnic” and “immigrant” fiction is like that. (I know – politically incorrect. Kill me now).

Readers are supposed to be so caught up in the main character’s fish-out-of-water struggles that we don’t notice that there’s nothing going on that transcends ordinary human experience. We can be safely charmed by an “alien” culture without feeling condescending (I’ll name one of those, at risk of receiving death threats: Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”)

I am NOT saying that all writing by authors from nonwhite, non-mainstream cultures or at the margins of the dominant culture are uninteresting – far from it. I found Llosa’s “The Storyteller” gripping, for example, and Alexie’s “Reservation Blues” haunting. I’m making a case that fiction by or about minority culture is not, by itself, sufficient basis for an interesting lit-fic novel. The good ones have genuinely interesting characters that show us a humanity we may not have seen before.

My thesis is that reader empathy in any literary fiction depends on condescending sentimentalism. That’s the game. That’s how they’re written and that’s why they sell. A character must be seriously deficient, flawed, or conflicted to make it in a literary novel. That’s required in order to execute the art form. Plot points confront the character, revealing the hidden flaw (Aristotle’s “hamartia,”) and the drama arises from how the character deals with that.

The problem with “bad” literary fiction, I am proposing, is that the main character’s conflict is often mundane. Childhood trauma, overbearing parents, secret shame, shot a man in Reno, coulda been a contender.

Sometimes excellent writing elevates an ordinary conflict to the sublime, as Ishiguro did with Stevens the Butler in “Remains of the Day,” or Woolf did with Mrs. Dalloway. But too often, the conflict really amounts to the fact that the character is not very self-aware, which leads to disastrous behavior, but it’s still not interesting. This is a flaw I find in much of Faulkner’s writing, but also in characters like Rabbit Angstrom (Updike’s “Rabbit, Run”). Watching stupid people behave badly is just not that interesting to me.

Speculative fiction and sci-fi get around that problem by focusing on the exogenous story. End-of-the-world asteroid? Nobody saw that coming! And nobody really knows how any character would or should react to it, because nothing like that has ever happened. Finesse!

So, back to my trepidation about attempting to write literary fiction. I’m afraid I would write one of those milquetoasty, boring characters whose precious little conflict revolves around sibling rivalry, frustrated ambition, mixed feelings towards parents, and so on. I’m an ordinary person who has rarely faced the abyss, so I’d need to stretch my imagination and dig deep. Am I good enough to do that?