Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Good Son

There's a note in my notebook from around three years ago that says, "Woman, peace worker, Jungian, kidnapped by terrorists, SEAL son tries to rescue her." I have a lot of notes like that, some of them get turned into novels and others don't. Most of them just pop into my head but this particular one came out of my life. At the time, my wife, who was an organizer in the Catholic Peace Movement at the beginning of the Iraq War and studied dreamwork with the Jungian-influenced Process Work Institute based in Zurich, and her son was in the Navy and about to embark on SEAL training, because he wanted to become a bomb disposal guy and the training is largely the same as it is for the SEALs. I thought it was an interesting situation, quite apart from the tension and terror in our house, the warrior son and the peacenik mother. After some years, with the young man safely back home from Iraq, I decided to turn the idea into a novel.

My fiction has two major themes. One is how culture influences our view of reality, especially in people who are the product of two very different cultures, deracinated people, if you will, and the other is the underlying nature of human consciousness, especially as that relates to what may be called the unseen world. Given the current world situation, I also wanted to place the characters in a context where they could explore our present conflict with parts of the Islamic world.

So I decided to make the mother eclectically religious, a Jungian, a Catholic, married to a Muslim and an occasional and heterodox practitioner of that faith. The son would be the product of an upper-class Pakistani, raised in Lahore, and an American mother with a speckled past. And then I worked out a series of events that brought the boy into the jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan, because I wanted him to be not only an elite American soldier, but someone having deep contacts with mujaheddin, someone who understood Islamic jihadism from the inside.

The problem with this basic story, man seeks captive mother, is that it wants to slide into the old melodramatic mold, where the hero is terribly good, and brave and noble, and the victim is innocent, and the villains are very evil indeed. Melodrama always arises from the unexamined assumptions of a culture; it's purpose is to affirm those assumptions rather than prompt any deep examination of the culture's values, far less to penetrate them, to the layers where the deeper feelings are engendered.

But one of the uses of fiction is to take the received wisdom of a writer's society and hold it up to a hard light, and so we have the imperfect hero, even the anti-hero, and the villain who inspires sympathy. What I've tried to do in The Good Son is a version of that effort. The society in which I am located is loosely known as the West It is a liberal (in the original sense of the word), democracy, with a free-enterprise economy, the rule of law, equal rights, freedom of speech and religion, and is characterized (at least in its leadership) by a scientific world-view and, especially, an almost religious devotion to material progress. It further believes that these qualities have made it both powerful and rich. As members of this society we naturally assume that it is inherently right, and that all rational human beings will aspire to live in such societies, and that the only reason they do not is either a defect in the minds or education of people who live otherwise or the malign influence of wicked rulers. This assumption is called cultural imperialism, and it is very deep, even subconscious in most of us. How, we ask, can anyone not want to be rich in things? How can anyone not want freedom? And further, since all people are the same (another unexamined assumption) it is insulting to these all-the-same folks to believe they might want something different.

It is, however, an obvious fact that some people do want something different, and are willing to fight and die for it. Across the Islamic world, the umma, or community of believers, we observe a deep current of rejection aimed at the basic cultural assumptions of the West. The primary value here is not political freedom or material progress but submission to the will of God, as expressed in the Qur'an, in the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, and in the codification of these writings in sharia law. Those who cherish such values look not ahead to material progress, but back in time, to an era when, they believe, the umma had attained a perfect relationship with God and His laws, the time of the Prophet and the "rightly-guided" caliphs, when Islam was the most advanced and powerful culture on earth. Education or exposure to Western ways does not seem to have much of an effect on this way of seeing the world; quite the opposite in many cases. It is one of the horrible ironies of the 9/11 events that the leader of the attack was a man with an advanced degree in (what else?) urban planning.

Criticizing or condemning the political or psychological aspects of this view is beside the point. It is a real difference in consciousness, and since the relationship of consciousness to culture is, in my view, at the core of any novel, I wanted to see what happened if I took this strange and alien consciousness seriously, on its own terms. In the book, this central theme is played out in two theaters: a struggle within the mind of the young soldier, and between the mother and the terrorist leader who holds her life in his hands. In the latter of these, I try to show what happens if we were to take the deep religious impulses of Islamic jihadism seriously, instead of treating them like a kind of nostalgic psychosis.

Good novels are supposed to make us look at ourselves and our culture through fresh eyes, and almost nothing does this as well as getting into the head of a character who shares not one of the assumptions on which we have constructed our own lives. (Of course, the actual way that novels do this is by packing all that sort of thing in what the author hopes is a ripping good yarn, and I have tried to do that as well. ) In order to write this book I had to read a lot of material about Islam and its culture, and novels set in that culture, and the works of writers who thought that nothing I believed was true, and that death and murder were better than accepting a world that I was at entirely at home in. I gained at least partial entry to world that is, as one book I read has it, "lost in the sacred." The experience shook me; I hope The Good Son does the same for its readers.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Book of Air and Shadows

The Book of Air and Shadows was born during a conference with an intellectual property lawyer on a particular afternoon in November of 2003. When I say born, I mean nearly the whole plot popped into my head and I actually spun it out as a narrative, really as an extended hypothetical in reference to the reason I was sitting in the lawyer's office in the first place. The issue at hand, which I won't get into, was essentially about the value of an oral anecdote with respect to a work of fiction based on same. For example, a guy in a bar tells you a story, and then you write a work of fiction about it, and the guy in the bar comes back at you after the book's been published and says, in effect, that's my story, all you did was put it into words, so I want to get credit as a collaborator, you can't claim to have written the book ("our" book) all by yourself.

So the intellectual property lawyer asks me about the various circumstances involved, and I tell him, and he says that the anecdote guy has a point and might be able to sue me. I might win such a suit, he said, but it would cost a bundle to defend it.

I could not believe this. I said, wait, suppose I'm in your office and I tell you a story, any story, let's say . . .it's about an English professor who finds a manuscript of an unknown Shakespeare play . . . .

And off I went, and as I spoke, there boiled up, in a manner that will be familiar to many writers, characters and twists, and subplots and the underlying theme of the novel, which was what happens when ideas in a writer's mind get converted into intellectual property that people can fight about.

So why Shakespeare? Because he's the essence of mystery. Because in the modern history of the world there's no literary figure of remotely comparable magnitude for whom we have less biographical information: the greatest single figure writing in our language, and he's smoke. Because he flourished in a world without copyright laws. Because I had just read a biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, and started to imagine what Shakespeare might have made of her, a Shakespearian tragic heroine if ever there was one, and then I started to imagine a situation where he might've written such a play, and then I asked why he would've bothered since such a work could never be performed, given the religious politics of the time. So there had to be a reason he wrote this lost play, and hid it away, maybe there was a plot to get him into trouble, and a set of letters, yes, coded, letters, that both explained the plot and provided clues to where the precious manuscript was hidden. And the people who found these letters would be a strange pair, a man and a woman, and the hero would be . . . I thought, looking at the guy I was talking to, an intellectual property lawyer!

When the intellectual property lawyer told me his bad news, therefore, I was not as annoyed as I might have been, because I had the plot of my next novel as a gift fully formed. Honestly, it was like reading a thought balloon hanging over my own head. I love it when that happens—all I had to do was type it out. Not really, but there was an important lesson here, too, which is that there's no point in crying over intellectual property lost. Just make up some more.

Moving between twenty-first-century America and seventeenth-century England, The Book of Air and shadow is a modern thriller that brilliantly re-creates William Shakespeare's life at the turn of the seventeenth century and combines an ingenious and intricately layered plot with a devastating portrait of a contemporary man on the brink of self-discovery . . . or self-destruction.

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