Tuesday, July 31, 2012


When I was a kid my father got me summer jobs as a mechanical man. Not that kind. A ‘mechanical’ was a term of art in the printing business. Basically, if you wanted to produce a four-color display of any kind—a magazine ad, a movie poster—you had to construct upon a large piece of illustration board a physical model of the page, which was then photographed and made into a plate or plates for a printing press. Suppose a magazine ad for let’s say shampoo. All the decisions about the ad would be made upstairs, by Mad Men-type account executives, art directors and copywriters. The mechanical man would get a layout—a double-sized sketch of where the taglines, logos, body copy and photographs were supposed to go, and the mechanical man would reproduce the layout as camera-ready boards.

The first step was ordering type. The art director would have ‘specked’ the type, that is, determined the typeface font and size that would fit in the spaces indicated, but the mechanical guy (me) had to actually order the type from the typography house. If you ordered it in the morning, it might come after lunch. It appeared as sheets of glossy paper with printing on it, set in the same way that Ben Franklin had set his almanac, with metal type, and then run off on a hand-operated proof press. If there were no typos, I would cut the blocks of copy out of the sheets and glue them into the proper positions with rubber cement, being careful to make the lines of type precisely square, and for this I had a transparent ruler that ran on a track along one side of my drawing table. Or I could use a plastic triangle. The display type might come from a different company, or might even be a photoreproduction of hand-lettering. This too was pasted into place, and then came the art work, drawing or photograph, and the company logo, if any. If the AD wanted a hairline between, say, the ad and the logo at the bottom of the page, I had to draw the line in with a ruling pen, a medieval device that left blobs upon the pristine board, which had to be scraped off with a razor blade or covered with China white. Later in my mechanical career they invented thin rubber tape you could stretch and use to make hairlines. but the old mechanical guys I worked with never used the stuff, and never blotted with their ruling pens either.

After the mechanical was complete it would go to production, where it would be placed on an easel in front of a camera the size of a refrigerator and a enormous negative would be made, and this would go in turn to the color separation guy, who would make four different negatives from it and these would be used to burn an image onto a metal lithographic plate. Each plate would be inked a separate color and the page would run through the press multiple times, and there was your four color ad.
If the ad was for something like carpeting or flooring, they would supply tiny squares of the actual stuff, and you would have to paste them neatly into place. A mere photo of an avocado carpet was apparently not vivid enough to entice the buyer, so they had to use actual swatches. It is difficult to cut a perfect one inch square from a carpet swatch, but one summer I had to do it dozens of times and at last got pretty good at it. I never became a really good mechanical man—that took years, and the field didn’t have years left.

Are you bored yet? I am. And I was even when I was doing it: tedious work, although with reasonable pay. Some guys spent their whole working lives doing it, from the invention of four-color photo-offset lithography in the early century to the coming of computers, which destroyed a whole range of jobs in the printing trades. It took most of a day to do a single mechanical, and I imagine everything I did is now done in fifteen minutes on a computer, with PhotoShop and other tools. Progress, of course, and there have been any number of similar advances, and the trouble is that my head is full of obsoleted stuff as is the head of anyone else my age, and so will all the stuff in your modern head be obsoleted, and sooner than you imagine.

Which brings me to my point.

The great American anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once pointed out that cultures sort into two distinct types, which she called prefigurative and postfigurative. People in prefigurative cultures, assume that tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday was. People will do the same sorts of tasks with the same sorts of tools. In such cultures—and humans lived in them for 99.9 per cent of our history—the information contained in the heads of old people is of prime survival value. The old have relevant experience. They know a lot about how to catch game animals and how to avoid the dangerous ones. They know how to plant crops, and make useful things, and who the enemies of the group are and how to defeat them, because they have done all these things in the past, and the youth are completely dependent on this information for their own survival. So old people are honored and protected and carefully attended when they speak. They have the wisdom.

In postfigurative cultures, on the other hand, tomorrow will be nothing at all like yesterday. That’s the central given of such cultures. The tools of survival are new and ever changing and therefore the young are called upon to lead. The old are seen as stumbling blocks, hidebound, ignorant, not worth listening to. In prefigurative cultures the introductory phrase, “when I was your age” is fascinating to the young, because it could be the difference between survival and death. In postfigurative cultures it has become boredom itself. We, of course, live in such a culture. It’s not the structure of the population or some quirk of demographics that does this, it’s the culutre itself, and the trend—the postness of it all—is accelerating. The people we honor and cherish and reward are the ones on top of the last new thing, who inhabit the future more than others.

The transition from pre-f to post-f has been happening for a long time but most of us who lived through the changes that took place in the sixties of the past century understand when this transition became truly apparent to the meanest observer, comparable (to use an appropriately obsolete metaphor) to the moment when a piece of photographic paper in a tray of developer solution reveals its latent image. Obviously, lots of causes involved, but the main thing that struck me about the upheaval was just that transition. You would have had to have grown up before that time to understand how absolutely authority of a particular kind dominated the world then, and how connected that authority was to the past. If you got out of a first-rank college in the early sixties, you had much more in common--in respect to what you learned, the style of the teaching, the social expectations, the relations of the sexes, your career goals—with people who graduated in the 50s, the 40s, the 30s, the 20s than you did with people who passed through a few years later.

What a remarkable thing that was to experience, and the odd thing about it was that it never went back to normal. The current existence of the youth culture has economic and demographic roots, but clearly its not a simple function of the Baby Boom. If you watch movies made before 1960 or so, you will see that relations between youth and age are not as they are now. Everyone looked and dressed more or less the same after a certain age, and the costumes of youth marked an inferior status. There is, of course, an accent on youth in the old films, because youth is romance and young flesh is lovely, but there doesn’t seem to be the contempt for the old shown, which is one of the characteristics of the modern post-f culture we live in.

We also observe this contempt also in the old themselves, and perhaps this is its ultimate source. The old feel themselves obsolete too, and in many of them, especially those prominent in society, it provokes a hectic desire to appear young and potent and “creative” in the manner of the young. We can’t even say old any more: the very word has been killed by euphemasia. We expect the old to detach themselves from the real culture, to dwell in enclaves and “retire” to a world of amusements, if rich, and isolation and misery if not. As a result, the particular qualities the old bring to a culture are self-devalued; so why should the young listen?

Are there any such qualities in a post-f culture, or is everything like my example of an an obsolete technology? In other words, are there any aspects of a post-f culture that remain pre-f? Is there anything that is like the best hunting grounds or the useful herbs? There certainly used to be, and our ordinary name for it is wisdom. Do people believe in wisdom nowadays, or if they do, believe that the old have it?   To an extent. There are cultural artifacts—we can find movies where the old guys outsmart the whippersnappers—but this seems like pandering to a niche audience. The focus of society is heavily on the new, the original (in this era, at least), the future, when everything will be better.

Where the old are generally considered fools and obsolete, especially when they so consider themselves, the culture will be unbalanced. We can all feel this when we look at ourselves and compare ourselves to cultures where this has not yet occurred. The surviving traditional cultures have their problems, some of them grave, but their family relationships are stronger, their roots are deeper, they are, paradoxically, more flexible and self-reliant under stress. I suppose the solution to our unbalance is to recognize that, just as youth is prized for its creativity, its novelty, its energy, which the old have only to a diminishing degree, so the old possesses mental attitudes vital to any society, which youth has not got.

This is a hard sell, I know. If an explorer wandered into the National Geographic Society with a tale of having been to an alien culture strangely similar to our own, but with different goals, mores, entertainments and achievements, the world would be astounded. This explorer would be invited to write books and address august assemblies. If he then said that this fascinating culture had been completely destroyed and was no longer available to visit, imagine the consternation! What a loss, we all would say. But this is what the past is. All the aged have lived in a world now dead, are explorers returned from a world beyond reach. And few wish to hear their stories about ‘when I was your age.’

Is this forever? Probably not, first because a culture that makes so little use of wisdom and regards the aged as a problem will not survive. It will focus so entirely on the youthful demands for sensation, novelty, the satisfaction of ferocious appetites, the lust for competition, that it will become more and more like high school infinitely extended: cliques, nastiness, materialism, all based on profound ignorance. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the post-f culture will go on indefinitely. The last few centuries were the most innovative in history, but this innovation is slowing down, because science is slowing down. Some believe that we are on the verge of a colossal scientific-technological breakthrough that will make us all as gods, at least in physical terms. I am not holding my breath.
Because I don’t think we will see in physics the sort of advances that led to the computer telecom revolution nor in biology an advance equivalent to the genomic revolution. Physics is limited in its probing of the universe by impossible energy requirements and by the lack of money and interest. Biology is tangled in a level of complexity shown by living organisms far greater than we had supposed only thirty years ago. The popular science outlets will continue to cry progress and guarantee that we will eventually live forever, but we won’t, and we won’t have natural language interactions with machines, or antigravity, or recording your brain in a computer, or interstellar travel. We are starting to see the limits, and that bodes ill for a culture based on the belief that innovation will save us.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Typo of the Week

From the ABC News website:

Fire officials said 21 people at an event hosted by motivational speaker Tony Robbins suffered burns while walking across hot coals, and three of the injured were treated at hospitals.

The injuries took place during the first day Thursday of a four-day event at the San Jose Convention Center hosted by Robbins called "Unleash the Power Within." Most of those hurt had second and third degree burns, said San Jose Fire Department Capt. Reggie Williams.

Walking across hot coals heated to between 1,200 to 2,000 degrees provides attendees an opportunity to "understand that there is absolutely nothing you can overcome," according to the motivational speaker's website.

Sorry, I had to stick that in while it was fresh.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

My Government Career

I went into government service because of the parsley. As I noted in a previous post, I had taken my PhD, in biology not to a prestigious post-doc appointment, but to the restaurant kitchen. After many merry adventures, I found myself in the kitchen of a four-star hotel in Miami, working as a stage, which is what they call the grunts who actually carry out in physical foodstuffs the brilliant creations of the celebrity chefs. I was chopping parsley, a mindless task that I rather liked. After you chop the parsley, you put it in cheesecloth and rinse it, and then dry it out with paper toweling so that it is nice and fluffy and sprinkles well. I was just about to do this rinse when the chef walks by my station. This chef was a short, fat drunken megalomaniac—that is, he was similar to many of the chefs I had worked for—and he looked at my parsley and was not pleased. He felt my parsley and declared that it was not chopped finely enough. He screamed at me. He grew red in the face and vented upon me the unhappiness of his existence. What could I say? The parsley was not fine enough to exhibit quantum effects, but it was pretty fucking fine.

I was starting to feel bad and wondering how long a jolt I would have to do in Raiford if I stuck my eight-inch Sabatier through this asshole’s gut, when it hit me: I have a Ph.D. I don’t have to be yelled at by people like this. I could get yelled at by a superior class of asshole! So in this dawning light I left my station and made a phone call to the wife of a friend of mine who worked for the Metro Dade County government and told her I needed a job. Those were the days when you could get a job by calling a friend with a job.

I owned a suit and a pair of shoes that had miraculously survived existence in the duffle bag in which I had carried my worldlies for a decade, and I bought a cheap white shirt and a hideous polyester tie in the K-Mart. I went for an interview, during which my fingernails were examined for dirt. My tie elicited no comment. I was given a contract to prepare a report on the county jail and given a stack of bumf two feet high to read. To someone who has spent half-a-dozen years thinking seriously about marine ecosystems and the survival strategies of their denizens, a jail is not much of a challenge. I was given two months to perform the contract; I finished in two weeks, and was hired on the spot as a policy analyst.

It is the task of policy analysts to make government more efficient and effective by questioning its processes and procedures, typically using observation, interviews and numerical techniques. They evaluate programs and devise new ones for emerging problems. When the kid dies while in the care of the government, when drunks make downtown unbearable for the bourgeois, when the fire department can’t seem to get to the fires on time, the policy analysts get called in. Or not; for no one likes someone with a direct line to the county manager poking into their operations, and so the use and the usefulness of policy analysis depends entirely on whether the chief executive has the balls to stand up to his subordinates and their political cronies.

I had a good time as a PA. I had an actual middle-class salary for the first time in my life, with benefits. I bought a couple of suits, and better ties. I had some successes; I moved to a higher-level job, with a substantial staff, and that was fun too, and then someone from the White House called and asked me to come to Washington and work on a special project. Like a fool, I went, because if you’re in government, then the White House is like pitching for the Yankees is for a minor league hurler.

I didn’t actually work in the White House, of course. The Executive Office of the President is about five thousand or so people, and I was one of them, but I had the gold chicken on my business card, pretty classy, and when I really, really had to get someone to call back I could say I was the White House. But, being a diffident fellow, I usually identified myself as being from the EOP. Practically no one knows what the Executive Office of the President is. I once in the lost era before e-mail called the CEO of one of our great corporations and named that office as my employer and the secretary asked, “President of what?” I said, “Of the United States of America, one nation under God, you’ve seen our ads?” Silence, click, and there was the guy.

Being a tiny pimple on the world’s biggest whale was an interesting experience, glorification and ignominy curiously mixed. You work like a slave, ridiculous hours, at projects of uncertain significance. You row your tiny boat like a madman, pushing against the hull of the immense supertanker, hoping to turn it a fraction of an inch in the direction that you know represents the ultimate salvation of the Republic, and you see the other people in their rowboats shoving in different directions, and there are still others who want to sink the tanker entirely, believing that the failure of government will usher in the earthly paradise.

In fact, I did little governing. As soon as my masters discovered I could write, that’s what I did, policy papers and then speeches. Ultimately I became a speech writer at the cabinet level, which is hot shit in old DC, because what comes out of the boss’s mouth is really significant to his satraps, clients, and foes alike. It is like a dog spraying a tree—all the other dogs must come and sniff. Every phrase is parsed, to see what direction the supertanker is going to turn, and, gosh, if you’re actually writing those phrases then it’s easy to become the most popular girl at the prom. A good speech writer must therefore cultivate obscurity like a rock star cultivates fame; I found this not at all difficult.

It’s nearly fifteen years now since I collected my last sip off the public tit, and I can’t say that I miss it. Writing political speeches was fun, but I prefer my fiction straight up, which is why I do what I do now. On the other hand, it drives me nuts when I hear government described derogatorily as “them” and “that mess in Washington.” In my experience, government is perfectly reflective of the nation at large. There are plenty of dull slugs in it, but there are also people who changed our world for the better (I actually met the guy who pushed through the earliest funding for the silly and government-wasteful idea that computers should be able to send messages to each other.) Anyway, two cheers for the bureaucracy. Like democracy it’s the worst system, except for all the others. When I was a gov slug I had a framed quotation on my wall, from Machiavelli: In the service of princes, great guile, tact and imagination are needed to achieve even modest ends; and still one may fail in ugly ways. Amen to that.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Other times, other customs

I’m finding that writing a historical novel is quite different from writing a thriller. As noted in an earlier post here, you research a thriller to provide supporting atmosphere for an essentially preposterous plot. In historical fiction, the research is actually research: that is, it is a process of trying to find out the truth, and then you build your plot and characters on the truth so revealed. Or at least that’s what I’m trying to do.

Henry James’s opinion was that historical novels were all humbug. Authors could only legitimately write novels about the world they knew. Far be it from me to contradict the Master, but War and Peace is a historical novel and it is not humbug. Nor is the Scarlet Letter nor Moby-Dick, nor Les Miserables In fact, if fiction in general is about illuminating the human condition, (a by no means universal opinion nowadays) historical novels use one of the main sources of such light, the confrontation with the Other. Because the past is all Other. We dismiss here the historical novel that is mere quaintness and costumery--moderns dressed up in tights and talking funny--and refer only to those rarer works that make an honest attempt to recreate the lives and minds of people long dead and the physical and intellectual milieu that made them so.

This, I'm finding, is harder than what I've done previously, because while the contemporary world lies open to the novelist's observation (including the world inside the novelist's own skull), the past is dead. Yes, you can study history, read old primary sources, consult memoirs and the fiction of the period, but it's still dead, and only imagination and empathy can restore it to life on the page.

Empathy is the problem, because you need it to make characters live. You write characters from the inside out, and so you have to, in a sense, submerge yourself in values and beliefs not your own. This is particularly hard when it comes to the great bugbears of one’s own society. These are well-known not to be universal. We all recognize that slavery was okay some centuries ago and is not okay now. Still, slavery is so dead (despite the current existence of hundreds of thousands of actual slaves) that somehow creating a sympathetic character who accepts slavery is not that hard. Example: Gone with the Wind. But when you’re dealing with bugbears that are still, as it were, in play, the stuff we know is present and which we mightily despise, the case is different.

Pedophilia, for example. I’ve just finished reading Jacopo Casanova’s Histoire de ma Vie, a twelve-volume memoir of this man’s remarkable life. I spent the time on it first, because I wanted to use him as a character and because it presents one of the best accounts of what the life of an eighteenth century gentleman was like, at all levels of society, from the courts of princes, to the theater, to the demimonde of swindlers, thieves and whores. It’s a classical education all by itself.

Of course, Casanova is famous for One Thing, and that thing takes up a good deal of the twelve volumes, but as I read it I experienced just a little queasiness, because Casanova had no compunction about seducing girls as young as twelve. In one remarkable scene he procures the sexual services of an impoverished but gorgeous thirteen-year-old girl for Louis XV of France. Louis apparently had a whole harem of pubescent girls for his pleasure: he tipped C. generously, and bestowed enough gold on the girl’s sister to set her up for life. C. thought he’d done a wonderful thing; the sister thought so; and so did the girl, as witnessed by her later life, which seemed by all accounts, including her own, to be happy. She was Louise Murphy, the subject of the famous, delicious nude by Boucher.

Today, of course, selling a girl that age to a rich old man would not only be illegal, but most modern people would find it viscerally repugnant. The girl would announce that her life had been ruined, and sue. How come is that? Well, progress, of course, but it’s also true that Louis XV and Casanova would be appalled by many of the things we take for granted. An American city would seem like hell to Casanova: the noise, the stink, the lack of courtesy and interpretable manners, the fact that nearly all the women dress like prostitutes and nearly all the men dress like coal heavers; the speed; the ceaseless battering of images; the collapse of faith; the tasteless, stale food. Unless you believe in general progress—that everything about our present is better than every analogous thing in the past—then an honest account of the mentality of any past era is going to deliver some shocks, and stimulate some questioning of received ideas.

Why, in fact do we hate pedophiles so much? We don’t make killers register their adresses. We don’t out forgers or muggers on the web. And why do the children suffer such apparent damage to their psyches as a result of sexual contact when young? I suppose its because we define it as rape, which is a monstrous crime, and was even in Casanova’s time. (Casanova boasts that he never forced a woman in his life, although he knew plenty who did, and with impunity too.) We’ve decided that when any adult has sex with anyone under 18 (or some other age) it is rape, because people under that age do not have the mental ability to form consent. They have the mental ability to do nearly everything else, but not that.

I see I am approaching a defense of pedophilia, which I certainly don’t intend, but here you observe before your eyes one result of doing the sort of historical research I’ve been doing. It subtly changes your head. Spend your time among 18th century people, especially charming, witty, lovely ones, and you start looking at the world through their eyes. Sex with twelve-year-olds? Mmm, look at that one! It’s a little creepy, actually. And don’t get me started on racism, castrati, and the divine right of kings!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Writing Good

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Therefore “imaginative literature” is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both). It only escapes from this alternative if in some way it passes over to the side of reality through the power of art—and only genius can do that.

                                                                                      --Simone Weil, Gravity & Grace

As someone who writes boring and immoral fiction much the time, I can only agree with Simone. And yeah, it’s hard to make the good interesting. The interesting, in fact, is almost by definition transgressive. We write about crime, war, sexual betrayal, Cain against Abel. The hero of all our popular fiction invariably has bad guys ranged against him and they are often more fascinating than the good guy. (One has only to compare the fictional cannibal, the urbane, sophisticated, brilliant Hannibal Lechter with his real-life counterpart, Jeffrey Dahmer, dull, pathetic, and empty.) The mildest domestic comedies are about the deadly sins: pride, greed, envy and so on.

And when I talk of the good, I don’t mean the classic Good Guy of melodrama, which is a cinch to write. The hero of melodrama always behaves according to his code; he never suffers; he is a stranger to compassion; he seeks redemption through violence; his interiority is as thin as the oil on his gun. To add interest to this essentially boring figure, we hang vices around his neck like fetishes. He’s divorced, of course. He drinks. He exhibits despair because—wait for it!—there is evil in the world. For this reason fictional melodrama, representing the vast majority of thrillers and detective novels, accomplishes the feat of, contra Weil, being immoral and boring.

This is because being good is a tragic fate, and tragedy has no place in melodrama. The common wisdom has it that no good deed goes unpunished, and the common wisdom is right. The prophets are without honor in their own country, and they very often get the axe. In melodrama, the faux good guys always win, the girl gets rescued from the railroad tracks where the villain tied her: clinch, music up, fade to black. In life, the girl usually gets killed as, often, so does the good person attempting the rescue. This is a downer. Life is enough of a downer, most of us believe, which is why we read escapist melodrama and watch it on our screens, and which is why our culture sinks us beneath a load of immorality and boredom. We are astounded and dismayed when, for example, our politics refects this culture.

Art, even popular art (maybe especially popular art) ought to give us some relief from that, which is why depicting the glory of goodness in art is so important. Maybe genius is necessary. Certainly genius produced Cordelia in Lear, Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov, Jean Valjean, in Les Miserables, the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, and John Ames in Gliead, to name a few that come instantly to mind. But maybe genius isn’t necessary, quite. Maybe a growing impatience with crap will suffice.

So what is interesting about the good in the real world? I mean a character who is not consumed by sex and violence, who is not posssessed by a desire for fame, fortune, beauty, and the other objects of material desire, who resists not evil with violence. There are such people and their lives are often dramatic, full of action, delight, and varied incident. Car chases and explosions happen to good people too. Also, good people tend to occupy a different moral universe than most of us. They are not pious frauds as a rule. They are not cowards, as a rule. They face evil directly, because they observe the evil in themselves and respond with humility. This is how they stay good, and avoid the besetting sin of the good, which is spiritual pride. They are not withdrawn from humanity but are involved with the suffering of the world and respond with compassion. When they do bad things they suffer, but they rarely suffer guilt, because part of being good is living in the present moment. They may be religious or irreligious, but they always practice discernment, because good action in the world almost always has evil side effects. This moral calculus is far more interesting and tension-making than romantic illusion, if you can get it right on the page.

Writing a good character is hard, because there are no formulas for it. Good is wild and draws you down unsuspected paths. You have to be particularly inventive in your language, because much of the ordinary language we now use to depict good has become stale and devolved into mere sanctimony. Peter Handke expresses a version of this problem in his script for the film, Wings of Desire: “But no one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure and that it is almost untellable?”

I don’t think that goodness is quite as untellable, as witness the examples above. I like the idea of trying to pass “goodness over to the side of reality through the power of art.” I’m not sure that I can succeed in this, but I intend to try, not because I think it will sell more books (it patently won’t) but because I think it’s a (duh!) good thing, and because it makes me ill to purvey nothing but sex, violence, and evil as amusement. Being one with Caligula is a bitch.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Less Miserable

I’m having quasi-Proustian moments as I re-read Les Miserables. This book was the first serious novel I ever read. Prior to that, my reading had consisted almost entirely of books about baseball teams, animal stories, and science-fiction of the pulpier sort. I suppose I was ten or so when I first picked it up.

I did not come from a reading family. My mother read best-sellers, often in the Reader’s Digest condensed version. In the days before paperbacks, if you wanted to read a bestseller and didn’t want to buy the book you rented it from a little cart they had in most drugstores, for a nickel a day. I knew no one who read good books, or listened to good music. In my house the pinnacle of achievement in music was Rodgers & Hammerstein, of theater, Arthur Miller, of poetry, Robert W. Service, of literature, James Michener. My dad read the paper. Well, a common story.

I got my reading from the public library or from expeditions to the used bookstores that used to flourish on lower Fourth Avenue in Manhattan. I would take the subway up from Brooklyn on a Saturday morning, spend the whole day there in the book-stinking dust, happy as a pig in shit. I would come home with a shopping bag full of nickel and dime trash and spend the rest of the weekend absorbed in it, dodging imprecations from my parents to go outside and play. I would eventually go out, but often just to the library.

One day I was walking through the adult fiction section of the Farragut branch library, something I rarely did, since I took nearly all the books I borrowed from the sci-fi ghetto, each of which had the little spaceship pasted on the bottom of the spine. This cover stood out on the row, since it was pure white, a shining bar covered in that cellophane-like plastic that only libraries seemed to use. I read the title: Les Miserables, and under that, “Hugo.” A stranger to French, I wondered what defect in type-setting had shifted the final s of Less to the end of Miserable, but the meaning was perfectly clear, and indeed I very much wanted to be less miserable than I was. Also, I thought it cool that they had used the guy’s first name on the cover.

I took the book down. The designer had chosen to place a full-color reproduction of Delacroix’s painting, Liberty Leading the People, upon the white of the slip cover. I didn’t know Delacroix from ham and eggs at the time, nor had I ever seen the painting before this, but the image gripped me with an awful power. It shows, you’ll recall, a lovely, passionate-looking young woman grasping a bayoneted musket in one hand and a tricolor flag in the other. On her right is a fellow in a top hat, similarly armed, and on her left a kid who looked about my age at the time, toting a pair of pistols. The woman’s breasts are bare. I naturally assumed that the picture was an illustration of some action in the book. The fat volume in my hand, therefore, must in its pages somehow involve a situation where a kid got to handle guns in company with a girl who didn’t mind one bit if he glommed her knockers. Sold. I was worried a little that the librarian wouldn’t let me take it out, as being too adult for a kid, but no. (Note that it wasn’t Les Miserables at all, a book I have never actually read. It was an English translation of it. )

Well, of course, I could comprehend maybe half of what was going on. I knew there was such a thing as the French Revolution, and I assumed this must be a book about it, but the author keeps mentioning the French Revolution as something that happened fifty-odd years ago, and there’s a king on the throne. I understood, though, that I was in the presence of people utterly different from any I had known in my life or even in books. The weirdest alien in sci-fi was a kid from the block compared to Jean Valjean. And they were, in a way I hadn’t encountered before, real people. There was a lot of stuff about what was going on inside their heads, a lot more than what the average 50s sci-fi novel told you about the interior life, and that impressed me, because a lot of stuff was going on in my head too. I picked up here the idea that you could think about your own thoughts. You could apply principles to your thoughts, ideas from outside you, and observe how your behavior jibed with those ideas. Also, I hadn’t understood that fiction could make you have feelings that were neither suspense nor amusement. That was frightening, a little, like you feel when you take a small boat out of a harbor into the open sea, even if you’ve done it lots of times before, you still feel it: you’re not in control, the sea has grasped you.

Now, looking back, I see that this initial plunge into real fiction cast my literary tastes much in the form they retain, like dropping a blob of molten plastic into water. For me to enjoy a novel it has to have some of Les Miserables in it. It must have narrative action, the characters have to be agents of the plot, the plot has to stand within some moral framework, and the thing has to present ideas—moral, political, aesthetic, it doesn’t matter, but something from the higher realms of thought. An old-fashioned view, of course, but there it is. This is still what I like to read and also how I try to write. I appreciate modernism, I get what it’s trying to do, but I can’t love it.

Much later, in college, when I read Moby-Dick, I flashed on the similarities between the two whale-like, so to speak, novels. Valjean, mighty of limb and of desperate vigor, plays the Whale; Javert, implacable hunter, the instantiation of the “evil of goodness,” pursues him in Captain Ahab’s role, while in place of the sea, the characters sail through France, and the storms of French history. In college, I was informed that Moby-Dick had been rescued for modernism, standing as one of the ur-texts that you had to understand in order to get American literature. Les Miserables was considered, in contrast, old-fashioned rodomontade, an example of a dead form. So I was taught; but I failed to convert. Sadly, I can’t do literature, I retain the interest in narrative and character, in breasts and guns, I am indeed less miserable than I was then, and the book had something subtle to do with that as well.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Stuff in Thrillers

All fiction is a lie, of course, but thrillers tell an especially big porker, which is that life is thrilling. Life is not thrilling. Thrills are unusual events, usually of short duration, and people who want more thrills than that have to spend large sums of money on helicopter skiing or sky dives. Those who are required to enjoy thrills for long periods of time—for example, a rifle company in battle—often end up with PTSD. The thriller genre exists in both media and written form so that people with comfortably non-thrilling lives can dive into thrills in a controlled way, vicariously.
This is one of the mysterious glories of fiction, that we can do this, experience real somatic chills, and weep real tears in response to the actions of beings who do not exist. The problem with thrillers is that the reality they depict is preposterous. You see this most clearly at the movies at one of those fist-fight, car-chase, and explosion-rich items they make for teen-age boys to watch. On occasion, you’ll hear laughter, even from the teen-age boys, because the movie has crossed some perceptual edge into the ludicrous. In written thrillers this jumping-the-shark point is not so obvious, but it’s there, and ever in the mind of the writer, or at least mine.
Where the individual reader places this shark-jumping point will vary, and I admit not being able to read many very popular thrillers because I find them outside my zone. But even if all thrillers are preposterous by nature, many are a pleasure to read, and one key difference between the failures (at least to me) and the successes is what I call The Stuff. Churchill once said that in war the truth is so important that it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies. In thrillers, similarly, the lie must be protected by a bodyguard of truth. For example, if you can create a Southern small-town law office, or Vienna in 1955, or an aircraft design shop, or a banking operation in 2008, or the bureaucracy of the KGB with enough convincing detail, then you can get away with the necessary idiocies with respect to the plot and the characters. Bathed in a narcotic bath of accurate facts and factoids, the reader will give a pass to, say, an agent of superhuman skill and unnatural luck, performing a mission that would never take place in the real world.
So unless one is actually a spy, private detective, femme fatale, or Roman centurion (and few writers are) you will have to get the Stuff through research. Needless to say, research is a lot easier than it once was. I probably have nearly five thousand books in my house, of which a large proportion are devoted to subjects that have appeared as Stuff in my work, and I used to have to spend considerable time in university and public libraries. Now almost everything comes from the internet, because when you’re writing fiction, plausible factoids, the backbone of internet content, are really all you need.
You may wonder, why research at all? It’s fiction, why not make it all up? The reason is that almost all readers have some expertise or experience, and will be irritated beyond reason by boners that they detect, and when they detect them, the bodyguard of truth will be penetrated and they will throw the book at the wall and write a nasty note. For the record, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham took place outside Quebec, and not Montreal as I stated in The Book of Air and Shadows, and Braddock PA is a nice suburb of Pittsburgh, not a decaying rust-belt town near Lake Erie. It’s impossible to overstate how distressing such lapses are. I recently read a novel by a writer I respect, who has the talent to shield the native preposterousness of the thriller behind a densely imagined historical background. Yet this novel’s plot was entirely based on a murder frame-up that involved a silenced revolver. Since there can be no such thing as a silenced revolver, I read the rest of the book in a mood of cynical doubt. If he could be wrong about something that simple to research, what good were all the atmospherics? Who could believe them after the revolver?
On the other hand, maybe I’m just being obsessive. One of the great things about research is that it helps avoid the horror of sitting in front of a blank screen and having to think up what to put. I’m afraid this is what’s happening with The Charles Bridge, the novel I’m writing now. I’m becoming an expert on the period 1786-1848 in central Europe, where and when it takes place, learning probably more than I need to know about the era. I actually hired a research assistant, something I’ve never done before. I’m also having to learn about horses and fencing, subjects on which I was utterly ignorant before starting. Ignorance, it should be said, is no bar to writing a successful genre book: Patrick O’Brian knew nothing about sailing and Mario Puzo knew nothing about the Mob and Tom Clancy knows nothing about advanced weapons, at least according to people who really know about such things. It’s all concocted, it’s all just The Stuff.
Whether strictly necessary or not research does serve to pass the time merrily and, as I say, put off the horror of the blank page. But besides the internet and descriptive non-fiction, a primary source of research is fiction itself. If you want to find out what Pakistan, say, is really like, read lots of novels by Pakistanis. If you want to know what warfare in the 18th century was like, read the class of fiction known as memoirs. Just now, in furtherance of the current project, I’m reading War and Peace and Les Miserables.
This reading, let us be clear, does not suggest the scope of my ambition. You can’t write novels like that nowadays, talent aside: no one would buy them and no one would read them. Like the Shakespearean verse play and the cave painting, they are artifacts of lost worlds. Still, the project of bringing the past to life remains interesting to me. As often said, the past is another country and they do things differently there, and observing people who are sympathetic yet hold ideas utterly alien to our own about what we consider the unshakeable verities of existence tends to rattle us a little, and question those verities. Maybe they’re temporary dodges and not verities at all? Maybe we just concocted them to shield us from some unpleasant underlying reality? This confrontation is similar to the confrontation with the Other that is one of the chief services of fiction. It’s true that it’s not often found in genre fiction, which is mainly about the affirmation of the verities: yes, the boy will get the girl, yes the criminal will be brought to justice, yes the code of the West remains valid.
But it’s possible to embed real novels inside genre husks, to confront instead of assuage, to provide stimulants rather than soporifics, which is why I try to write the way I do. It’s not a real good way to sell a whole bunch of books, however.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

My Social Media Problem

Every week I get an email from Facebook informing me that there has been zero action on my page. This is no accident. Since part of this renewed blogging I’m doing here is an effort to improve my what they call web presence, I’ve been thinking about why I’ve been so reluctant to engage with Facebook. It can’t just be fogeyism, for my wife, who is if anything more conservative than I am, is a Facebook power user. Nor am I a stranger to computers or even social networking. Now that I’m thinking about it, it’s a very deep tale, and in the supposition that readers want to know absolutely everything they can about authors, I will tell it.

First, computers. I am almost exactly as old as electronic computation: I was learning to crawl at about the same time as ENIAC was, but computers did not enter my awareness to any great extent (except as characters in science fiction stories) until I became a graduate student in biology in the mid-1960s. This was old biology, not modern biology, and it was for people who were not good in math. Most of the calculations you had to do were easily handled with paper and pencil or with electro-mechanical calculators. Physicists used computers, but these were housed in special building where you went as supplicants with boxes of punched cards and gave them over to the keepers, who fed them into a machine that occupied a whole air-conditioned floor, and had maybe a tenth the power of an iPhone. A day later you got a sheaf of green and white striped paper, known as elephant toilet paper, at which time you found you had made a tiny error and the output was meaningless. So back to the cards. I was glad not to be a physicist.

In my last year of grad school my department purchased an electronic four-function calculator that did square roots. Unless you are over sixty you have not extracted square roots by hand, but it is a bear, and you have to do it a lot if you are doing analysis of variance. This machine, which was about the size of a hard-bound novel, had its own locked room, where it was bolted to a table, and you had to sign up to use it. One peculiarity of my graduate school career was that in the middle of it the Army Reserve unit I was in was called up for service in the Vietnam War, a footnote to the Pueblo incident (you could look it up) and when I got out I was you might say disaffected. I suppose it was a form of PTSD, although we didn’t have that then. I got the degree, however, but skipped the graduation ceremony and also bailed out of science, finding work as a cook in a Miami restaurant. I was known as Dr. Cook.

Hold that thought. A number of interesting adventures later I found myself employed as an urban bureaucrat in the human services biz. I was responsible for planning and evaluation, the inhumane part of human services, and it was clear to me that without computer readable and analyzable records, the task was hopeless. So I looked into it and found a consulting outfit that was throwing a week-end seminar for clueless people like me and I went. They had a room there with a couple of dumb terminals in it—CRT screens w/keyboards hooked up to a mainframe via modems where you had to put a telephone handset into a large device fitted with rubber suction cups, dial the mainframe—toot, whistle, sigh—and marvelously you were connected to a real computer that you could play with. They demonstrated their social services software, but what we were really interested in was playing Adventure and Pong. I never got my agency computerized because shortly after that I went to Washington and a job at the White House. They didn’t have computers there either.

Now flash back to the restaurant. One evening a new waitress arrived. We became friendly as one does in small restaurants and it turned out she was Bonnie Jean Romney, the wife of Hugh Romney, aka Wavy Gravy, of Hog Farm fame. These were people who traveled around in modified buses and lived a life that was as deep as you could get into Hippie. I arranged for their bus to be parked on the estate of a wanna-be hippie millionaire where I was living and working as a sort of guestish servant, and which I later fictionalized in Night of the Jaguar. When the bus departed for the west coast, I was on it, again as a guestish servant, cooking nourishing meals for ten people out of dumpster dives and road kill.

The point of this is that the Hog Farm was connected in one direction with Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster crowd and in the other direction to Stuart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog crowd, and I got sort of connected to the latter bunch, I wrote some things for them and when the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link went live in 1986 I joined it. This is The Well, aka The Colonial Williamsburg of the Internet, and for the past twenty-odd years it has been essentially my only social medium. It is essentially a text-based bulletin board operation, consisting of hosted conferences on a very, very large number of subjects by a relatively small group of non-anonymous people. About 2800 people belong to it and of course it is no longer financially viable, any more than Williamsburg would be without foundation support.

The neat thing about a bulletin board is that all the interaction is ordered by topics and subject conferences: that is, it stands in relation to the real Internet as an orrery does to the solar system. Nowadays, if your guppies are sick, you google ‘guppies’ and pick from a dozen websites devoted to the dear tiny fish and you can get any information you need. But on the Well there are only a couple of guppy people and over time you get to know them and their guppies and they get to know you and yours and you become guppy friends with them. If while you’re raising your guppies you happen to have a nervous breakdown or an automotive breakdown you can go to those topics and talk about stress and head gaskets, same deal. The guppy people don’t need to know about it. In other words it’s scaled and ordered like a small town—hardware store, grocery store, insane asylum, pediatrician, massage parlor, etc.—and over the years you get to know the people in it, especially those in the conferences where you spend most of your time.

In contrast, my first impression of Facebook was of a kind of urban cacophony, like you get walking through a crowded train station. Yes, there’s the convention of friending, and you can filter out posts you don’t like, and you can set up private spaces to discuss anything you like, but still . . . when I look at a Facebook-page wall, what I see is dozens of separate conversations going on between people I know and those I don’t, about stuff I’m interested in and stuff I could care less about, plus the videos and the pictures and its all too multi-tasking multi-media for my brain to accommodate. What I flash on when I see modern social media, and I just realized this the other day, is the destruction of real life communities by the forces of progress. A bunch of artists, let’s say, gather in a decrepit neighborhood because rents are cheap. Pretty soon there are coffeehouses, bars and shops and street life and festivals and the place springs into life, drawing on the creativity and good spirits of the inhabitants, and a community forms. Then the real estate people get wise and the rich, or at least their kids, decide that this is a happening place and they want to live there too, and the rents go up and the chain stores arrive, and the artists are priced out and go someplace else and the result is a kind of Disney version—“arty” without artists and without real community. I’ve been through this twice, in SoHo in New York in the 60s and in Coconut Grove in Miami in the 70s and now again in virtual space, because the Well is being sold and may not survive, because it seems that “well.com” is too valuable a piece of web real estate to leave at the disposal of a few thousand people who just want to hang out and have a community. Well, boo-hoo, and let them go to Facebook like everyone else, and what can I say, it’s perfectly true. But I still resent it and I believe this is a big part of the reason for my self-imposed ignorance of FB and its culture.

But ever forward. I have a private Facebook page and a Facebook fan page that my publisher set up a long time ago and which, as I said, has zero traffic. My plan now is to fix this website so that it is not so much a publisher’s website but a shrine to wonderful Moi, and then learn how to use Facebook and Twitter, all before my next book comes out, probably next spring. I am a good soldier. I floss. I can do this.

Monday, July 2, 2012

What I Write About

I’ve decided to pump up this blog by posting more frequently. I suppose I’ve always felt that what a writer had to say should be entirely contained in the work, but this, I’m advised, is not the way the publishing world works nowadays. It’s especially important to me because my publisher was replaced recently by a gentleman who does not particularly care for my work. I had thought that he was not going to publish The Family Dead at all, and so posted here, but that’s not the case. He will publish it, grudgingly, probably early next year, but in the meantime my agent is scrambling to find a non-grudging publisher. So that’s semi-good news.

In any case, I thought I would start this effort by writing about what my books are about. If anyone reads this they would then know whether they’d be interested in looking at one of my books. This would save time and money for those who don’t care about this stuff or would be offended by it, and maybe attract more people who do.

Essentially, I write thrillers with ideas in them. This is a good way to turn off all the readers who want thrillers void of ideas and people who like dealing with ideas but think thrillers are lame. This is not a good business model, therefore, but I can’t help myself I get too bored otherwise.

A thriller is a species of genre novel, and a genre novel is distinguished from a literary novel by having certain conventions of plot. In the mystery genre, for example, there’s a crime, almost always a murder, and the sleuth has to piece together a set of clues to bring the murderer to justice. A romance novel is boy meeets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. The formula is constant, like the recipe for chocolate cake: only the icing and the filling vary.

Despite this, there’s no reason that a genre piece can’t be as wonderful a literary achievement as any supposed non-genre work. Between 1590 and 1640, for example, one of the dominant genres on the English stage was the revenge tragedy. These are formulaic pieces in which the revenger announces his complaint against the target, vows to bring him down, and spends the play isolating the target by killing his near and dear, sowing discord, hatching plots, and so forth, until finally the revenger and the target cross swords and are typically both killed—stage littered with corpses, curtain. There are dozens of these exant, of varying quality. One of them is Hamlet. So in my infinitely lesser case, it still seems interesting to expand the formula by seeding it with impurities like thought and fully-formed characters, in hopes that a pearl may grow.

The core of any thriller is the Bad Thing. The protagonist is charged with stopping the Bad Thing from happening, or if it’s happened already, relieving the Badness or stopping the Bad from occurring again. The terrorists are going to set off a bomb. The great man is to be assassinated. A spy has stolen the plans for the super-weapon. A secret is being hidden by malign forces who will stop at nothing to conceal it. A child has been kidnapped. Usually there’s a Clock in a thriller: the hero has to stop the Bad Thing before a time certain, which increases the thrill. What distinguishes the thriller from the mystery is that the thriller can cut back and forth, cinematically, between what the hero is doing and what the bad guys are doing, which gives the author the opportunity to explore the nature of evil, always a popular trope.

Thrillers can be divided between Sap thrillers and Pro thrillers. In a Sap thriller, a fairly ordinary person is jerked from his or her banal existence by involvement in the Bad Thing. Both Riddle of the Sands and The Thirty-Nine Steps, which novels essentially invented the thriller format in the early 20th century, are Sap thrillers. The problem with Sap thrillers, however, is that you can’t use the same Sap more than once. The solution here is either to write the same book over again with different Saps (Sap vs. Nazis, Sap vs. terrorists, Sap vs. Mafia) or else write Pro thrillers.

Pro thrillers are almost inevitably series books. Their heroes are men or women who are professionally involved with stopping Bad Things. They’re government agents, private dicks, alienated teens with special talents, retired assassins, just the sort of person one would want in order to stop Bad Things. The main point in this sort of writing is to make each succeeding book virtually identical in language, style, and pacing to the one before, so as to build a customer base for a familiar commodity. Thus in one book the Pro may hunt down an Arab terrorist, in the next he gets Mexican cartelistas, but with very much the same episodes of danger, violence, capture, escape and destruction of the bad guys. It’s very like snacks. The greatness of potato chips is that they’re all the same, more or less, but each one slightly different, to keep the mouth interested. In contrast, my potato chips are not all the same. You could reach into the bag and pull out an oyster. Disturbing!

So one of the things I like to write about is the underlying nature of reality, what philosophers call ontology. Is the world really all particles and the forces among them or is there something else, (as over 99 percent of the human race has believed for over 99 per cent of its existence)? What defines the realistic novel is that is tacitly accepts the conventional ontology. If the supernatural is treated in such a novel, it is as a private belief, and operates in the characters and the plot in that way, and only in that way. Now, clearly, there is a vast fantasy literature that supposes the real existence of an unseen world, but that’s not what I mean, and I don’t mean magical realism either. Yes, there’s a real universe out there (probably) but what we make of it is culturaly conditioned. It’s well known, to take just one part of the sensorium, that our visual world is constructed in our optical cortex on the fly, from relatively small increments of information coming through our eyeballs. And we see only what our culture has taught us to see, and pay no attention to the rest: that’s invisible. That doesn’t really exist. When your daddy tells you there are no monsters in your bedroom, even though you can see them perfectly well, after a while you stop seeing them. Subsequently they live in your head, where they’re not so easy to get rid of.

Undermining personal ontology is a fearful thing and I like to try to do it in my fiction. The art of it is turning things weird just a little bit, so that the remains of reality become suspect, uncertain, menacing. Lord Dunsany, the early horror and fantasy writer, was once asked what was the very scariest thing he could imagine and he said there were two: one was walking into an English garden on a bright June day and hearing the roses sing. The other was being shaken awake in the middle of the night and it’s a clown. So I try to get that going.

That leads into the next thing I like to write about, which is culture and the origin of the stuff we hold in our heads, our model of what the world is like, especially our models of good and evil. We think, without really thinking, that romance is good and democracy is good and freedom is good, but that a system of class-bound aristocracy is bad, and corporal punishment is bad, and that incest and pedophilia are really bad. We think fascism and Stalinisn are the worst systems of government ever devised. We want human rights and to be thin and smart. I agree with these positions, of course, as all right thinking people do. Yet all of these beliefs are culturally induced and there were in the past (just as one example) cultures that not only approved the sexual use of children, but institutionalized it as a normal aspect of maturation.

The point here is that one of the uses of fiction is to reveal the Other. The most familiar sort of revelation is sexual: in fiction men get to know what women are like inside their heads and bodies, and women get to learn the same things about men. We can recall (if we’ve forgotten) what it’s like to be a child. And we get to share the essential humanity of people who agree with us on not one of the bedrock assumptions upon which we have built our lives. A special case of this is the depiction of people who are in some way between cultures, either because they are living among a people not their own or because they are the product of two different cultures—“half-breeds,” as we used to unkindly call them. I believe showing people like this is illuminating for the reader, because it’s not a good thing to leave unexamined the essential motors of our existence. We’re strengthened as people when we’re forced to examone these, which is what education is supposed to be about, and fiction can do it as well. Besides, it’s fascinating, at least to me, and I have a number of such characters in my books.

An extension of this interest is historical fiction. I’ve place historical fictions in several of my novels and the book I’m working on now is an historical novel. Most historical characters in average genre fiction are modern characters in fancy dress. For example, there are who-done-its set in ancient Rome, or Ming China, or medieval England. But in fact the whole idea of finding out who-done-it by following clues, accumulating evidence, and finding the culprit is a modern notion, which is why the detective novel is a 19th century invention that blossomed fully only in the 20th. In the old days, to “solve” a crime they grabbed up someone surplus to requirements, or who had made powerful enemies, and simply tortured a confession out of him. The same with modern attitudes toward animals, democracy, feminism, war, equality of opportunity, sex, children and sex with children. The art in historical fiction is thetefore to make the reader live for a time in an utterly unfamiliar head, the theory being that de-familiarization is a good thing, and necessary for helping us live in complex cultural spaces, such as much of world has now become. It’s not popular, though.

Besides that, I’m interested in twins and the acquistion of foreign languages, in weapons and ciphers, in religions and in how to make love stay, and I write about all of these in various novels, sometimes all at once.