Thursday, June 13, 2013


Dear Readers,

Michael Gruber's official blog has moved over to his new website. His Blogger blog is scheduled to be taken down at some point in the future.

Thank you for your continued support!

Yours,

Site Administrator





Thursday, May 23, 2013

140

On the advice of counsel I have taken up Twitter as part of my effort to expand my name recognition, or some such, in preparation for the publication of the next novel, THE RETURN, due out in late August. The counsel is the PR firm (February Partners) I've hired to help with the book marketing my publisher declines to do.  I have to say that before I became a published author it had never occurred to me that books were marketed like toothpaste or autos.  I guess I thought that publishers shipped books to bookstores and the bookstore people put them on the shelf and that was it.  I realized that some books got reviewed and others were neglected but I thought this decision was made over drinks at the sort of New York luncheons and parties to which I was not invited.

Was I wrong!  Book marketing is a big deal and an art. I am told I must put out content via blog (I'm doing it!) Twitter & Facebook so as to build a  public wider than the people who already buy my books. No one can say I am not a good soldier and I have been tweeting like mad, nearly a thousand pithy apothegms so far.  But I have to say tweeting is strange, or strange to me, although I know there are many people to whom its environment is as familiar as my driveway is to me. They are practitioners of a new art, that of forming communities around tiny squibs of language or references to other media.  I expect some infant Mozart is already at work on forging something quite new in the world out of this material. It will not be me, however.  I don't much like to talk about my work while it's in progress or read reviews or give encouragement to people trying to enter a profession I know to be a miserable way to make a living, with a premature death rate that compares unfavorably to coal mining.

Twitter has many mansions and I am mainly in the one devoted to writing, or writers talking about writing.  Although some quite famous writers tweet (Margaret Atwood being legendary here) the vast majority are not famous, and, of course, almost all of these never will be.  On first being exposed to this zone I confess to unattractive feelings of irritation verging on anger, rather like a person happy in a woodland cabin who finds that they're putting in a golf course community next door. Why so many writers? What do all these people want?  And why do they want to talk ceaselessly to one another? Narcissism gone mad?  What? 


After a while I calmed down and overcame the urge to flood the twitterverse with acerbic, discouraging comments.  Some of the people pushing their books on Twitter are, when you take the trouble to look at the work on amazon, frankly illiterate in the sense that they don't really know the meaning of the words they use and cannot reliably write coherent sentences in English. This is sort of funny and might be the subject of cruel humor, but I have discovered none of it on Twitter so far.  There might indeed be a # devoted to scarifying commentary on lame digital-only fiction, but the atmosphere I've observed so far is universally supportive. 

And this too is new--and odd. Writers have had on occasion mentors and protégés, but envy and rivalry were more typical of writers in the past. If one is a writer, why would one wish to encourage a rival?  It doesn't make sense, but there it is.  I don't think it has anything to do with producing real or better writers--only stringent editing and criticism do that--but it can't ever be a bad thing to be nice.  And perhaps in time this community will develop into a kind of sandlot baseball--playground basketball sort of thing, a place where lots of people can safely try out the game, and which occasionally produces a genius.

Speaking of sports, perhaps a more important phenomenon is at work. Professional sports leagues depend for their survival on fan interest in them, and that largely depends on a huge base of people playing the sport at an amateur level.  Can anyone imagine golf being a televised sport watched by millions if millions did not play golf?  And don't sports decline when they lose their amateur base? Horse racing, especially harness racing, was far more popular when people rode and drive horses and the same with boxing.  Pro soccer has come to America largely as a result of millions playing it in schools and amateur leagues. So maybe what we are seeing in writing's bush leagues is similar. I suspect that the majority of the writers I observe on Twitter (judging only from the work) are people who have read a thousand mysteries, or vampire novels, or thrillers and have said to themselves, "Why, I could do as well!"  Maybe, maybe not, but they sure must read a lot of books; a person (me) who earns a living selling books cannot but approve!

So what may be happening here is the birth of a novel and parallel system of generating writing talent, quite different from the former one in which writers submitted directly to agents and publishers, something much more like golf, with a huge fan base of duffers and a scattering of stars. I hope this is true because I sort of like the idea of talent emerging from an anonymous mass without elite filtering, even though I'm personally a beneficiary of the former system.

The down side of this, however, is the requirement for each participant of the new order to generate an on-line persona attractive to potential readers.  Yet good writers may not have attractive personalities, in which case the attractive persona is a lie, and in any case persona-building may blur the necessary focus on the quality of the work. We shall see. Meanwhile, there is Cyril Connoly's dire warning from six decades ago, which seems even more remarkably prescient in the age of Twitter:
"It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair."  And his Twitter feeds?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Writing and Terrorism

I was just meditating on one of my favorite quotations, Jacob Burckhardt's "Terrorism is essentially the rage of the literati in its last stages." (Burckhardt was an art historian of singular talent; he essentially invented our concept of the Rennaissance in Italy.)  This seems so valid to me.  For while people will fight for resources or to prevent aggression, we understand these guys are not blowing things up and sacrificing their lives because they're hungry and oppressed, but because somewhere someone wrote something down, and they read it and it changed their lives, it made them into terrorists.   There may be illiterate terrorists, but in every instance they are directed by someone who is well up on the justification for their violent acts, invariably embodied in a document of some sort, or in writings synthesized by some charismatic individual.  

The intellectual histories of our great monsters--HitlerMaoStalin etc--have been elaborately studied, and we can often tease out the birth of the rationale for mass murder.  This seems also to hold as well for the pettier mass killing of the current terror boom (so to speak).  Why do the literati rage?  Because they have looked at the world and found it wanting.  They devise some improvement, which they then argue for passionately, which eventuates in a book. Perhaps the authorities kill them or torture them, lending the validity of blood to the argument.  The book survives, however, is read by other literati, who carry on the fight. And they are opposed by people who think terror is wrong, and killing innocent people can have no excuse (us), which belief they too learned from books, in some cases the very same books. Isn't this a puzzle? Writers really are the legislators of mankind, in which case we have a lot to answer for.

This was borne powerfully home to me when I was a speechwriter in Washington.  To understand what this means you need to know that some political speeches are not merely hot air.  They are a way for the boss to set policy and give marching orders to the troops, to share the vison which, if pressed strongly enough, will inspire the various cliques and warring factions that comprise any instrumentality of power, public or private into pulling together in some particular direction.

The person I was serving happened to be one of the few non-Reaganite senior officials in Reagan's administration.This was a tremendously impressive famous guy, charismatic, brilliant, deeply experienced, full of ideas, and he was in addition a terrific extemporaneous speaker. So why did he need a speechwriter?  This is why.  We would be in his office talking about a coming speech, tossing out ideas, converging on how to focus on the core of the policy he wanted to advance, and I could see that he knew what he wanted to do, it was just there in the room, but inchoate ; and then I would say something like, "Why don't you just say....?"  And almost all the time he would go, "Yeah, that's right," and then we'd fuss over the exact wording a little, and that would be it: national policy. Of the USA.  Billions of dollars, millions of people affected.  And that is going on in every single government agency and every single large corporation, some guy is talking to a writer and the writer is actually saying what the policy is going to be.  Yeah, I always found it a little weird too.

At any big agency, the speechwriter occupies an odd position. He's resented because, needless to say, everyone knows about how policy gets made, and everyone is suspicious that the speechwriter is putting his own ideas, Svengali-like, into the process.  On the other hand, the speechwriter is everyone's best pal. Everyone wants to do a favor for the speechwriter because this will involve an opportunity to pitch their own programs to someone who spends a lot of one-on-one time with the supremo.  Your effective speechwriter should therefore be someone with not a lot of ego, who is not overly fond of schmoozing.

Getting back to terror, we see that the terrorist have a narrative, reinforced in books, pamphlets, and speeches, all products of writers.  Videos are significant, but they too must be fitted into a narrative, and that requires an argument written by someone and articulated. This and not that was the case, innocent civilians were murdered, it's a good thing to kill girls who want to go to school, and so on. Against this narrative is ours: we are innocent victims of senseless violence justly resisting it by waging war on terror.  And they hate our freedoms. Is this the right narrative?  It hasn't worked all that well, it seems to me.  We need a new narrative or the present mess will go on indefinitely, yet our own literati seem curiously unable to legislate one into existence.  Perhaps a little more rage?

Alas, Babylon

Writing a historical novel requires thinking seriously about history, of course, and it occurred to me recently that I am old enough to be historical myself.  In the Smithsonian Institution museum in Washington, for example, there are dioramas of student protests, a mid-20th-century schoolroom, and the kitchen of an immigrant's apartment in New York, ca. 1910.   It is passing strange looking at these because I have direct memories of the protests, and the schoolrooms I sat in, with wooden chair-desks bolted to the floor in rows, and the blackboard up front, with the American flag and the roller maps, and the Gilbert Stuart George Washington, were exactly like the one behind the glass.  My grandmother's place was essentially unchanged from the time she got married around 1910 and I spent a good deal of time in a room like the one shown when I was a little kid.

This sense of being an historical relic hit me strongly during a recent visit to New York, a city where I was born and raised and for which I still have a sentimental attachment.   It's a commonplace now that for most American urban dwellers, the cities they remember are gone, their populations changed, their industries vanished, but even in this regard, New York is a remarkable example.  When I was a kid, New York was one of the largest manufacturing cities in the country and the greatest port.  I started traveling around the city by subway from my home in Brooklyn (a borough void of hip at the time) and exploring Manhattan, which we referred to always as "the city."  Manhattan was then divided into districts characterized by various forms of trade and manufacture, and these districts were huge.  Electronics, books, printing, plumbing, kitchen supplies, spices, feathers, leathers, clothing, buttons and zippers for clothing, and many others all had particular streets and rows of streets devoted to them and to associated things.  The diamond district survives from this era and a shadow of the garment district, but everything else has been buried by the one industry that now dominates the city, which is the real estate industry, and the stacks of condos and offices it has generated over the past four or five decades.

And, of course, media and finance, which are fine, but of less interest, I suppose to the average child.  And the port is gone, as are the many communities that serviced it.   The meatpacking district is a clubland now, not an improvement, although the smell is somewhat less offensive  There is no longer a street over on the west side where the odor of tons of cinnamon or coffee would hit you when you emerged from the subway.  You can't get a decent bagel either.

Well, grump, grump;  everyone of a certain age can tell stories like this and experience similar nostalgia.  Times change, but I think that a city that seems increasingly devoted to providing hidey-holes for foreign billionaires or uncertain morality to stash their loot in the form of penthouses, and which handles almost nothing but digits, can compare with the lost city as a place to educate a child in the arts of civilization on the street.  Jane Jacobs, who did as much as anyone to preserve this lost city, wrote a book about how the arts of civilization could be lost, presaging a new dark age.  I don't know if she was right about us, but I do think that there's something about stuff and the making of useful objects that is not replaceable by anything in the virtual world.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Uniforms, A Modest Proposal

The recent disaster in Dhaka got me thinking about clothes and fashion and the true costs of these, and that got me thinking about uniforms.  Uniforms for civil occupations went out of fashion in the last century because of their association with militarism and fascism, but prior to that, in Europe, lots of people wore uniforms.  It's the case that most Americans hate uniforms and find them oppressive, but maybe we should rethink.  I always thought uniforms were one of the neat things about the army. You got up and one thing you did not have to think about was what to wear.  Also, and just as important, who you were, where you'd been, and what you'd accomplished were displayed right out front on what you wore.  Imagine wearing your résumé every day!  Here's a young fellow walking through the Microsoft campus.  He's got a tailored black uniform on, maybe by Hugo Boss, who did the designs for the SS back in the day.  He's got the red fourragier from Harvard, and the blue color tabs that show he has a Ph.D in computer science from Cal Tech.  On his shoulders are the oak leaves of a senior project manager.  On his left breast are ribbons denoting the projects he's worked on, above which rides a badge that shows his salary level, with leaves, stars and diamonds recording his annual bonuses.   On his cuffs are bars that shows how long he's worked at the firm.  Now imagine a woman in the same rig.  She would not get much sexual harassment, it seems to me.

Also, think of how much less bullshitting there would be. Everyone would instantly know who everyone else was.  So much time saved in bars!  This would produce a reduction in status anxiety, one of the great plagues of American life, the other being rich assholes pretending to be regular people just to be cool.  Imagine the uniform of a billionaire financier!  Here's a guy who's wearing a $10,000 bespoke suit and there are only fourteen people in the world who can tell, even if he leaves the real buttons on his suit cuff unbuttoned to show it's custom.  Let them flaunt it!  Maybe it would make them less greedy.


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Kirkus review (starred) of THE RETURN


As a rule, I don't read reviews.  The bad ones make me feel worse than the good ones make me feel good, and only reading the good ones feels like a cheat.  That said, this beauty was obviously penned by my late mother, risen from the grave and achieving metempsychosis into the skull of whoever at Kirkus is responsible for the following, so I have to make an exception.  Thanks, Mom!



“Gruber (The Good Son, 2010, etc.) has a gift for seamlessly combining the visceral with the cerebral, without any degradation of quality on either side of the coin. He will have readers ruminating on ideas of identity, history, mortality, family, fate, and the complex and destructive relationship between Mexico and its neighbor El Norte, all while simultaneously thrilling their pants off, which is a rare and wonderful thing. Like Gruber’s other books, this novel puts the work of other thriller writers to shame and raises the quality bar for the genre to a precipitously high level. Thrilling and compulsively readable.”

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Poetry fears



I am so far from a poet that poets frighten me, a little.  What real poets do strikes me as wonderful but risky, which I imagine to be descending to the forge of language, the fertile void, and wreaking language new. I think that to do that you have to expose yourself to something that is not quite of time and space, and there is also the feeling that It is choosing you, It is causing the poetry, not you.  This is why poems can change us.  We recall that poet means maker; this is not a figure of speech with respect to the human mind.

I'm interested in the nature of the It.  We know that poetic talent is a tricky fluid.  It often strikes someone for a brief period and then departs, the number of poets who flamed out young is not small.  And there are all those poets of whom we remember but one poem, or even just a single line.  Very odd, yes?  If it were just a freak of the brain, you would expect it to go on, unless you think poetic genius is a transient biological phenomenon.  That seems a stretch, a particularly egregious example of what Sir John Eccles called "promissory materialism:" we have no idea of how this might work but our faith is strong that we will some day find a simple material explanation.  

Well, maybe.  Meanwhile there is Rimbaud. This provincial lad started writing poems as a teenager and by the time he was 21 he had revolutionized French poetry, indeed had an effect on poetry in general that is hard to overestimate.  At 22, however, he abandoned poetry, joined the Dutch colonial forces, deserted, and spent the last 15 years of his life as a vagabond trader in Africa.  He hated to talk about his time as a poet, never wrote anything else, and in all respects lived a mediocre, if adventurous life.  

This is so difficult to explain.  What was it that flowed through this undistinguished bad boy for half a dozen years and then departed?  The Greeks, of course, thought that poetry, and all creative acts, came via a daemon, and actual being that spoke through the poet.  We are not allowed to believe in such stuff now, but occasionally when I write, I'm aware that, in Pink Floyd's immortal words, there's someone in my head, but it's not me.  A little scary, and I imagine it must be worse for poets.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Ideas

Finished Chapter 13.   Significant plot creep--or so it seems.   This is when the plot that you should have covered by, say, chapter ten, is still not covered, even though you are now on chapter thirteen, or whatever, but since I am not following an outline I can't worry about this. Still don't know if it's chapter 13 of 20 or of 40.  I have an aesthetic that says that concision is important: Conrad, Hemingway, Forster; latterly Coetzee, Ondaatje.  And I have another that says that plenitude is important--Dickens, Proust, Joyce; latterly Pynchon, DFW.  Pressed, I would say I favor the former, but I always feel pulled toward the latter.  It may be that writing a series of fifteen novels with the same cast of characters does something to one's sense of scale.  Economy goes out the window because you have three, four thousand pages to work with.   Technically, I suppose a thriller series is its own art form, really the degraded little brother of the roman fleuve of Balzac, or even Proust.  It's interesting that some series build up a memory, in that the characters are changed by what happens to them in previous volumes. They recall incidents from them for the reader, and develop in response.  Other series  have protagonists who perform in each book as if the other books did not exist.  My series was the first kind, because while it is boring to write a series, it is not as boring as writing the same book over and over again, which I find hard to imagine.  What makes the big bucks though.

Nevertheless, thinking about going back to Paz country for the next one, but maybe not.  Ideas keep coming, probably more than I will ever be able to write.   This is a dump from one notebook...

Looking Good
Story about PR agent (heroine) retained by Mexican drug lord. He wants to improve his image.
Subplot?  Heroine works for gay shrink who's testifying for kid who caused gay kid's suicide. Unpopular position. Bad PR.  Chance to l
ook at gay/straight-female relationships. She screws up, has to leave town, and the offer from the drug lord is an out.
Her relation to narco lord; attraction, danger.  She gets sucked into the drug world, helping to plan crimes so as to maximize positive public relations; stages formal trials, with rights and lawyers, videos it.  Embarrass government.  Start charitable foundations.
DEA or some malign factor tries to kill her; other drug kingpins want her out too.  Her narco protects her: romance He says she can never leave.
How she gets out is the denouement.
integrate with characters from THE RETURN?

Over the Line

N Korean detective.
Former American POW hires  Korean to kill guards who tortured him in 1950.   Detective working in atmosphere of corruption and extreme oppression.

Funny Kid
Boy, single mom, autistic brother, who drives him crazy, sucks all the energy out of family.  Has girlfriend, hides family situation from her But she finds his house, makes friends with brother, He's enraged, becomes cold, goes thru identity crisis. His obligation to family versus his desire for normal life. How to make into Thriller plot. McGuffin?  Brother knows something, has savant ability, can decipher secret, the usual killers dispatched from malign Entity etc. GF forms relationship with brother. Mystical aspects. Something about autism here, the mystery.   Possible connection with Paz cast or GS characters.

Reality Kills
Philosophy PhD drifts between security jobs different cities. Ontological thrillers. Powers of analysis Sherlockian, naturally, but also understands limits of perception, challenges to moral philosophy in CJ world. Sex life--Is celibate for long periods, interspersed with erotic relationships. Is detached, literally philosophical about everything.  Good series character.

Vacations in Redland
Novel about broken US in near future   Secession war won by right wing south. It forms a Rightist banana republic, corrupt, poor, cheap, exotic, makes its money off tourism.   Rump US like W. Europe,  bureaucratic, safe, rich, dull. Visitor from US to CSA ; her POV.

The Hard Charger
Woman, hard charger marries gentle, sensitive man, gets bored, divorces him.  Ex-husband   meets another hard charger woman, they marry, have child.  The first wife goes crazy, kidnaps kid.   Story--new wife is cop, 1st wife/ 2nd wife, kid-- triplex pov. How they track her down, computer stuff, 1st wife gets her bf to kill husband, foiled by cop.
Use characters from previous books?  Another Paz?

Mr Nosferatu and the Angel
Paz story but with Paz in bg  ;  feature Paz's kid Amelia &  Jane Doe's kid, Luz: who rejects Jane Doe, wants to find real parentage, runs away to Miami @ 17.   Paz still cooking, mother old, restaurant thriving. Paz slightly bored.   Amelia (12) becomes friends with man who claims to be the angel Ithuriel.  Luz in search for her parents enters low life of Miami, falls under sway of a man calling himself, Mr Nosferatu, known to be vampire. Figurative or real?   Murders, bodies drained of blood.  Cops come to Paz etc etc.  Angel vs vampire, Luz as prize.  Amelia engaged, Paz to rescue, etc. Vagueness in there about how "real" all this is, pushing ontological issues  Are we talking plain vanilla serial killer and madman or are we dealing with the Unseen world?  World as arena of moral warfare, theater of love.

Swing shift
Pos. Opening?:  I like the swing shift.   The four to midnight workday is just right for a young person of a certain kidney.  You get off the job at midnight,  the squares are just wrapping it up when you hit the street, and the night belongs to the Night People.   Cops, nurses, EMTs & firefighters; air traffic guys;computer jockeys, bartenders,waitresses & waiters, strippers, gamblers, criminals and whores.  These are the people you spend your spare time with when you are a night person.
  The stories.  Set of linked short pieces or novel?.  Thriller?  Raymond Carter pastiche.

The Only Good Indians

Inspired by piece on Karl May in NYr.
Novel about German May fanatics & Indians ?   Ca. 1910.  Couple of German guys seeking authentic Indian experience in Old West.  So besotted by May that they can't see what's going on around them   Don Quixote?  

Mennonite idea applied to Indians?  Why are there no traditional Indians who are analogs of Amish, or Hasidim, rejecting white culture and living like ancestors.  A subplot.

Perfect Day


I was at the dentist's the other day and I had nitrous, because I always have nitrous, even for a dental exam.  All professional should offer nitrous, IMO, even tax accountants and lawyers. Maybe especially tax accountants and lawyers; it would be a better world. The staff at my dentists has a liberal hand with the gas.  I sit in the chair and as soon as I am bibbed I say, "Red line," and the nice lady says, "Red line."  I socket my ear phones, settled the fruity-smelling mask, and we are off.  When I walked out of there I thought I should wait awhile before driving home, because I did not have clearance from air traffic control, so I had to kill some time while I drifted home from the land o'dreams.


  As it happened, it was one of the Four Perfect Days that Seattle gets each year, as recompense for the 361 days that are not so perfect: sun shining, every mountain out, washed air, the water sparkling, of course, but also everything is sort of sparkling, buildings, sidewalks, people's faces.  Could it be the N2O?  No, it was just the Perfect Day.  Every mobile inhabitant was out on the street wearing as little clothing as possible, so much vitamin D was being made that it was beading up on cool surfaces. You could hear a hum from the melanocytes as you strolled the street.

So I thought I would get some lunch out, and also that as long as I was going to do that I would go to the Elliot Bay Book Company which is a serious bookstore we have in Seattle although it is not near Elliot Bay anymore but on Capitol Hill.  Similarly, there is no Capitol on the hill.
Now it is a sad fact that since I became a pro writer I have not frequented good bookstores, except when reading, and I always felt compressed and irritated in them. Since the iPhone iPad came on line I always had something to read on the road without every having to go into a bookstore.  What it was--irritation with so many books I didn't write and worrying about how MY books were displayed, pretty embarrassing to think about that now.  The point being that I had not been in a bookstore in my right mind in a couple of years at least, and as soon as I went in the door I immediately recalled how great an experience a good bookstore was, to which the browsing we do on computers is as phone sex compared to sex. I bought $140 of books in about seven minutes.  Then I had lunch, a very bad lunch as it happens, since I don't get to Capitol Hill much and don't know the decent places any more, but even the bad lunch was okay because it was a Perfect Day.

Monday, March 25, 2013

13

Bad me yet again, another couple of weeks between blogs.  Why can't I wriggle more deeply into the culture of narcissism? From whence this instinct for quietude, withdrawal, obscurity?  How much do I now get the Pynchons and Salingers of the world!  Enough of that.

I have finished chapter 12 and scholars of the literary arts will intuit that I am probably hard at work on chapter 13, or  would be we're I not writing this here that I am now writing.  I suppose it is not really triskedekaphobia  but chapter 13s have always given me trouble.  If any chapter in a book is going to be the chapter from hell, the odds are that it's going to be this one.  It will drag out for weeks and not get written, and be wrong in any number of ways. If I had to pick a reason for this it would be because I am a Big Chapter guy and so my chapters usually run about 20 pages or 5000 words and my novels last from maybe 20 through 25 chapters.  Therefore chapter 13 is on the downslope. All the major characters have been introduced, the plot is thickened, the subplots are in place, and all that remains is to weave them all together in a terrifically artful way, paying off all the set-ups placed in earlier chapters, increasing the tension, resolving all the dilemmas, refining any uplifting messages, and getting the hell out of the goddam thing so you can get paid.

This one may be a little different, since I have, as I've said before, no idea of where it's going.  The core of the book, I suppose, is the exploration of a change in consciousness within one family, a grandfather telling a story to his grandson.  This is part of a long time interest of mine: how the stuff in our heads gets there, how the ideas that we identify with our very selves--our sense of the good, the delightful, the disgusting, the precious, and so on--are formed by other people and made a part of what we imagine the world to actually be.  The story the grandfather tells the grandson in 1848 is a story of a lost world, when people had quite different stuff in their heads, and there are parallels in the two stories, for example, an assassination plot appears in both, but in the earlier 1786 version it is a comic opera farce (involving Mozart himself) while in the 1848 version it's in deadly earnest.  I'm playing here with the often observed phenomenon that grandparents sometimes have more to say to their grandchildren than parents do; and sometimes not, and why the difference?   The 1848 man is fascinated by his grandfather's tales of aristocratic élan and deplores the bourgeois money-grubbing of his banker step-father.

The question here is can I write an actual novel that's not a thriller, that will move and engage and say something interesting about our own times.  Historical novels are a way of shining light from an imagined past onto present society, which is what interests me, but it's a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.  That thriller plot is a wonderful crutch.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Homeland


I see that I haven't written here recently.  This is not my fault, since nothing much ever happens to me.   I am always amazed at the number of people who wish to be writers, since one supposes that most people are in pursuit of novelty and pleasure.  The writing life has little of either, alas. Each day is more or less the same, especially in Seattle, the long skein of indistinguishable cloudy days with about the same temperature for months on end, and each day is more or less a failure, since one never gets enough writing done, and the writing that does get done is never up to expectations.  This is my experience, but your mileage may vary.   There may be writers who do have fascinating lives.  Writers' memoirs attest to this (Graham Greene! Bruce Chatwin!  Jack Kerouac!) but I don't seem to be that kind of writer.  I envy chatty blogs full of event, but I can't do one like that. 

I often think that I should live in a place with a lively writers' community, like Brooklyn.  Unfortunately I was born in Brooklyn and devoted my early years to getting as far away from it as I could, and it still seems nuts to me to learn that Brooklyn is the pulsing heart of literary America.  There are actually a lot of writers living in the Pacific Northwest, but all of them seem to have come here so as not to ever have to meet another writer.  

I did finish chapter 11 of the historical novel I am writing, Charles Bridge.  I may be half done or one third or one quarter done.  I am writing without an outline so it is a little like that primitive computer game called Adventure, where the player explores, via ASCII text commands, a cave that seems without limit.  Or like that parable about the bird that once a century pecks a speck from the world's greatest mountain. I tell myself that I will finish at the end of this year, but I don't know.  I am doing about a chapter a month, which for the former me would be writer's block.  I tell myself that historical novels are just harder--you can't describe a guy taking a walk without reams of research--but maybe it is just brain plaque. 
I watched the first disk of season one of Homeland, because I am interested in popular views of Muslim terrorists, having written a novel on the subject, and because I heard it was "great television."  I am suspicious when I hear a show is great television--I suspect that the phrase is oxymoronic.  I actually watched a couple of episodes each of The Sopranos and The Wire, also great television, but I did not get hooked as so many millions clearly were.  The basic form of TV is the soap opera, and any great television soon succumbs to the influence of this esthetic DNA.  The addition of violence to the essential soap plotting is not, to me, a saving grace, and I feel badly when good actors spend their skills on a vehicle that cannot rise above sentimentality. 

The other thing about Homeland is that its motor is fear of terrorism, which is essentially specious.  I mean it would be hard to do a show about a crack team of lovely actors who protected us against other unlikely events.  (Meteorite Squad!  Coming this fall.) The idea of a mastermind terrorist that the protagonist must defeat is, of course, a familiar trope, extended from the equally silly master criminal found in nearly every thriller. In reality, almost all criminals are stupid and terrorists are largely incompetent assholes.  Terrorists only succeed against societies guarded by even more abysmal incompetents, as was the case with 9/11.   But clearly fear of terrorism is alive in America today, and it is interesting to compare this hysteria with the anti-communist hysteria of fifty-sixty years ago.  Well, history repeats itself, in the familiar Marxian formulation, the first time is tragedy, the second time as farce.

At one time, we should recall, the Soviet Union was pointing well over ten thousand nuclear-tipped missiles at us.  We all grew up, those of us of a certain age, with the quite realistic understanding that the world could end at any time,   This was real, but also unthinkable, so average people didn't give it much thought. We should give it some thought, now that we face a threat that is extremely thinkable, but barely real.  Certainly there are fanatics who would like to harm the United States and we should keep a prudent eye on them, but there are probably no terrorist masterminds at work, simply because having anything like a master-type mind virtually insures that you will realize that terrorism is futile.  Therefore the only people who actually do terror are futile sorts of people, as witness the sad sacks the FBI is always dragging into court.  

After I watched Homeland I thought of a peculiar piece of public sculpture at Magnuson Park here in Seattle.  It goes by the sappy name of FinArt, and it is supposed to represent the dorsal fins of a pod of whales.  It consists of a dozen or so gigantic black steel diving planes off of decommissioned nuclear ballistic missile submarines.  The planes are set vertically in clusters on a lawn.   It's important that they are actual war relics, that these things once guided a fleet of colossally expensive boats whose sole purpose was to participate, at need, in the destruction of human civilization.  

They certainly don't summon up anything as peaceful as a whale pod to me, but rather the claws or teeth of a immense demon that rose up from Hell and just barely broke into the world of life.  It wanted to eat us all, but somehow we were able to stop it.  It always makes me a bit giddy when I walk among the black teeth thinking about what went on during the Cold War, how all those people served in those ships for such a long time, led by ordinary fallible people, and how at the same time Russians were in the same sort of vessels, and that these guys were from a deeply corrupt and damaged society, and yet not one of these tens of thousands of people ever made an error bad enough to launch Armageddon.  

I guess this is why I can't get worried about Islamic terrorists or North Korea or Iran.  We really have faced down the worst conceivable terror, defeated the most dreadful demon imaginable.  As John Le Carré said when the Cold War ended, "We have achieved the impossible and are now baffled by the merely difficult."   So, first tragedy, then farce.  It would be sad indeed if we had to roll through another repeat of tragedy again, by failing to fix the clearly fixable problems we now face.   These do not, unfortunately, fit into the typical dramatic usages of great television.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

New Yorker


The other day, while reading the latest issue of The New Yorker, it struck me that i have been reading the NYer for over fifty years.  Fifty years!  It is a cliche to say that the NYer is not as good as it once was, and I suppose they were saying that from about the third issue. But fifty years does give one a little perspective; and it is so.

At one time, the people who ran the NYer were frankly insane.  Aside from the castles of Ludwig, the Mad King of Bavaria, the NYer of Ross and Shawn was the greatest edifice ever erected by nutters. It was an magazine of insane excellence. It made a good deal of money for its proprietor, but that was not its purpose.  Its purpose was to be its crazy self, by a long chalk the best magazine in existence, maybe of all time.  As such, it literally changed the world.   For just a few of many many examples, it published John Hersey's Hiroshima, which gave Americans their first look at what nuclear weapons do to the people they are used on; Rachel Carson's  Silent Spring, that launched the environmental movement; and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which helped change the nature of journalism itself.  Beside which it published the best fiction that any magazine has ever published and essentially invented the modern captioned cartoon.

Now it's become a higher People, a celebrity magazine, with a rind, like Camembert, of the good old stuff--a short story, a couple of poems, cartoons, and a piece of reportage that means something.  But the core of the magazine is puff, asking us to admire the latest world-beater.  I often find myself skipping half the book, not being much interested in those kinds of people.  There are a couple of reasons for this shriveling.  First, it's because the conglomerate that owns it thinks the most important thing in the world is maximizing return on investment rather than producing a magazine of insane excellence.   This is a reasonable business decision, because (the second thing) the world is no longer interested in a magazine of insane excellence.  Magazine articles can't change the world like they used to anymore.  The audience for that kind of journalism is dying, just as the audience for, say, verse dramas or Latin epics died, and this is why no one writes them anymore.  The old NYer flourished in an era when opinion was formed almost entirely by print media, an era that is nearly extinct.

Well, things change.  I don't miss Latin epics and the current generation probably doesn't think it needs a magazine like the old NYer.  We are told that people are getting smarter, and perhaps they are.  Certainly there are more educated people around, and navigating the world is more complex than it was when I first started reading the magazine. In which case I do wonder why it seems to me that everything is dumber than it once was.  This could be an artifact of aging.  I seem to recall my college professors sighing at the barbarity of their students.  

Perhaps, in a way I don't quite grasp, the Internet and social media have taken over the steering role once occupied by print media.  Maybe, instead of a writer researching a subject exhaustively, and being challenged about the article's accuracy by people insanely devoted to excellence in reportage, and publishing such pieces for educated people to mull over, and as a result generating political action, we can do it all automatically by liking something on Facebook or writing Wiki articles.  I certainly hope so.  Still, it's always sad to see the death of a world.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Objects of Worship

A couple of posts ago I proposed that everyone worships something. 

That is, every human has some focus of ultimate value for which everything else can be sacrificed, and which constitutes the core of being. Adherents of revealed religions maintain that the only legitimate object of worship is God--why the Bible names this as the first commandment. But there are any number of things that one can worship if this does not suit.

People worship success, they worship fame, or country, or family, or the beloved, and so on. If you can't think of something like this, then you worship yourself. If you maintain that you don't worship anything, that the very idea of worship is repellent, then you also worship yourself. This includes, There is no escape. You only get one pick. This also seems to be a constant of the human condition. As we observe, people sacrifice self to family, family to self, nation to family, nation to beloved or family or success, success to family, family to success, and so on. In fact, this process is the subject matter of nearly all fiction. 

What drives a fictional narrative? Conflict, and this choice of worship is the primary conflict. Most Western people worship themselves nowadays, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is just the kind of culture we have. Other cultures differ, which is why we often have trouble understanding them. For example, we are currently in conflict with cultures in which God and family are more common objects of worship than the self. For some decades before that we were in conflict with a culture that worshipped History.  This culture thought it right to sacrifice anything at all to the glorious future of communism, but it lost out to our culture, the culture of liberty and freedom. 

Liberty and freedom are different ways of describing a culture where one can worship anything one likes. In practice, however, it's mostly the self that gets worshipped. Cultures where things other than the self are worshipped tend to be more heroic than our own. By definition, a hero is someone who worships something other than the self. We honor our heroes, but at the same time we think that people too willing to sacrifice themselves are crazy. A culture devoted to self worship tends to be peaceful, prosperous, commercial, and rich in quasi-religious objects that the self can attach itself to. Sports teams and celebrities, for example, fill this need. The self is a paltry object in the end and we have a need for power and glory in what we worship: the Yankees or the Crimson Tide will do fine. But these are only quasi-religious because no fan is actually ever called upon to die for the Crimson Tide, and sacrifice consists of only some afternoons and paraphernalia. Self worshipping cultures tend to destroy themselves by excesses of selfishness, of freedom, to use the conventional term, and we seem well on our way to that. But self worship is relatively safe, and we desire safety above all things in self-worshipping cultures. 

What is more valuable than the individual and individual freedom? In former years worshipping objects other than the self (WOOTTS) was more popular, but that got the world into a lot of trouble, because it is possible to worship an evil thing. Wars are caused almost exclusively by WOOTTS--religion, nation, the past, the future, but cultures in which WOOTTS is general seem to produce more vivid lives than we do. Saints and heroes abound, as do demons, and because we can't bear the demons (Hitler! Stalin!) we have resigned ourselves to a duller world lit only by sports, success and celebrity. It would be interesting to imagine a different sort of world, one that allowed actual religion without quite so many demons.

The Galley



I am old enough to recall actual galleys, which were long narrow strips of paper printed with  narrow columns of type so that they sort of resembled the slave-rowed ships of yore.  The stack was held together at the top by a huge metal clip, and one had plenty of space on the margins to put in corrections.  Despite the improvements in electronic transmission of texts, it seems that writers have to have at least two separate exposures to hard copy, neither of which is a galley.  There seems to be something about hard copy that concentrates the mind and enables you to find flaws that you missed in dozens of readings on the glowing screen.

I just sent back the final galleys for THE RETURN, the new thriller due out in August.   It was an odd experience because it seemed like a book written by someone else.   Not a bad book, in my opinion, whoever wrote it.   It's about Mexico, a nation from which, despite its many tragedies, our nation could learn a lot.  It's probably a good thing for us that in future so many of us will be Mexican-Americans.  Anyway, the book is about two old Vietnam war buddies who go on a trip to Mexico.   One of them is a book editor who receives a bad diagnosis and wants to revisit the place where he met his Mexican wife, lately deceased.  The other friend is an ex-special forces type presently employed as a gun-runner and general bad character.  They get involved with the cartels and thereon hangs the tale.   It's a pure thriller--explosions, car chases, bullets flying, a kidnapping, all that good stuff, in the midst of which I do my usual sneaking in of deeper meaning.

The editing of this book has been a trip, by the way.  My original editor got fired in the midst of my contract, and as regular readers here will recall, I blew a year on a non-thriller that did not make the cut.  I therefore blasted THE RETURN out in record time, but still it was an orphan at the publishers.  The editor who picked it up, who I had never met, and who never tried to make personal contact with me, clearly did not like the book.  Even though the engine of the plot was based on something that happened in Vietnam forty years ago, he excised all the flashbacks that told this story, a huge job and fruitless, since I had to go through the manuscript and undo eighty per cent of his changes.  Then I got the copy edit back.   The copy editor seemed extremely concerned with the timeline and about what year the book took place in, and spent hours and hours putting in extensive marginal comments on this subject.  I tried not to be rude, but only partially succeeded.

The galleys were remarkably clean,  however.   I caught the usual repetitions and echoes, corrected some small infelicities and typos and sent it back feeling better about the thing than I had previously.  The cover design is a sort of gang graffiti affair, which I didn't like at first, but now think is kind of crazy and striking and may make it fly off the shelves, especially for the guns n violence crowd.   One can only hope.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Spiritual



I'm spiritual but not religious.  

How often we hear this, but what does it mean? I suppose that at root the speaker is acknowledgeing a belief that the plenum--everything that is, reality itself--is not entirely the world described by science.  Or it may be mere fashion not to identify as an absolute materialist.  But to at least assume sincerity here, people who claim to be spiritual but not religious must believe that a world of spirit exists, however defined, and further, that it's a good thing to participate in that world.  Perhaps they believe that it’s a source of energy, amoral, like electricity, into which they can tap, for personal advantage.   Fair enough, but why not go the whole way and join a religion?  Usually the answer is because they reject the dogma, or the rules of behavior, or even the political stances assumed by various organized religions.  Why cannot one have the advantages of contact with the world of spirit without all this extraneous, not to say embarrassing, stuff?  

To ask this, however, is to assume that the people who have thought deeply about this subject through all the ages have been mistaken.  Something about the spiritual life seems to call for rules, procedures, rituals and dogmas.  This is because the spiritual life implies a goal: this goal is variously described as transcendence, enlightenment, or heaven, but let’s not descend into religious controversy and agree that these are all more or less the same thing.  Indeed, when we examine those people judged to have got there while still in the flesh, we observe that saints across all religions seem to be quite similar—Sufis, bodhisattvas, Christian contemplatives, shamans, and so on.   They seem at once not of this world, but very much engaged with it.  Yet saints are also not generic.  They tend to be strong characters, very much themselves.  Many of them are also hilarious.  So if spiritual life has a goal it must be that.   Not everyone can be rich or powerful, but, in principle, anyone can become a saint.

Now, virtually all organized religion (and some that are not quite so organized, Buddhism, for example) agree that actually doing this is difficult and that it's good to have help, hence gurus, hence holy scriptures, hence organized religion.    Beyond that, there is the sense that trying it without help is dangerous.    The reason for this is a bit of a stretch for most modern people, but religious tradition holds, almost universally, that the spiritual world, like the material one, is inhabited by intelligences, and that these have moral valences.  This tradition informs us that if you spend time in the spiritual realms, eventually you will have Company, and that theres is no guarantee that such entities will have your best interests in mind.  The opposite is often the case.

This idea tends to run counter to the ordinary belief that since the world of pure materialism is felt to be unsatisfactory for various reasons, an opening to the spirit must be “good.”   But, as C. S. Lewis often observed, the Devil is a spirit. If you wander long enough in the spiritual realms you will encounter malign enitities.   These entities typically present either with your own voice or, if you have religious tendencies, with the voice of God.  Religions vary, of course, but all of them are to a large extent exorcistic in intent. All regard spiritual pride (which is the major consequence of what we may as well call demonic influence) as the strongest impairment to the spiritual life; saints across all religions are universally depicted as humble.     This is why religons have rules and rituals and why they insist of some form of communal association, which may act as a kind of antibody to such influences.  Despite this, all religions are subject to demonic invasion, and it is is clear from their history that for long periods they have been largely controlled by evil.   Still, religions do survive and not merely by inertia.  Religions can certainly perish—these days Zeus and Mithra are not widely revered—and it is reasonable to assume that the ones that have survived possess a self-corrective faculty.  It is easy to do evil in the name of religion, but it is hard to do only evil for substantial periods.   The good pushes back. That's what religion is for: a mighty fortress is our God, as they used to say.  Otherwise we could all be individually spiritual and it would work just fine.

There is, of course, a position that holds that religion is bad per se, but this position typically also holds that religion has no content at all, that the spiritual world is an illusion, and that reality consists entirely of the particles and their forces.  We assume that the spiritual but not religious would reject this stance, by definition.   So all in all it might be better to be a devout materialist than spiritual but not religious.  You just have to be really careful not to worship stuff at all.  But this is impossible in practice.  Everyone has an object of worship, the non-negotiable, inarguable highest value for which everything else can be sacrificed.   For most people this is the Self, the most convenient object of worship.  It's always present and it can talk back, unlike God.  Others choose Truth, or Reason, or The People, or Progress, or the Family, or the Beloved.   And since such worshippers reject the very idea that demonic forces exist, the demonic forces have no trouble taking over such objects of worship.  The result of this process is known as the World.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Recovering



I seem to be recovered from the recent crud, with only some residual brain damage, or maybe this is just the next phase of the disease.  It is far harder for me to write than it was a few months ago.  The ideas appear in my mind, the characters and the dialog, but I can’t seem to get them out on the screen with anything close to my former velocity.  In fact, I seem to going at about half speed. I’ve been working on the present book since May, 2012, and I have only somewhat over 200 pages done.  I tell myself that a historical novel is vastly harder to write than a contemporary thriller and so there are many stoppages when one has to discover some odd fact before one can proceed.  Or it is mere debility?  (But I shy from believing that, as I am uniquely immune from the effects of aging.)   Meanwhile, I know the world is avidly awaiting a vast, baggy historical novel about central Europe, so I am hurrying as fast as I can.

I also see that I am doing this blog all wrong compared to other blogs I come across.  It’s supposed to be daily stuff, short bits, but I don’t seem to be able to do that.  It bores me terribly.   Fiction writers’ lives, I think, are just not that interesting; the work might be interesting—every writer hopes so—but the life is dull, every day more or less the same, assessed in terms of words spilled out on the page, and how do you know whether they’re any good?     Yet so many people seem to want to be writers.   It’s a mystery to me.  So this seems to be a miscellany of random thoughts, the kind of stuff that goes into a notebook and gets dragged into a novel if appropriate, but here tarted up into small essays.

Georg Christof Lichtenberg (1742-1799) a writer I admire (and here I am one with Goethe, Voltaire, Kant, Nietsche and Wittgenstein) used to analogize a writer’s notes to the way that merchants arranged their accounts.  First they wrote down everything bought and sold in their “Waste-Books” in no particular order.  Then they ordered and arranged their daily accounts into a “Journal,” and at intervals entered the amounts at double-entry in their “Ledgers.”   In analogy, the Waste-Book is the daily note-taking that most writers do.  I use a paper notebook and also sometimes Apple’s Note feature on the iPhone and iPad, in which I can at least read what I’ve written—a great advance.  The Ledger, I suppose, is the finished publication, and this blog is the Journal.   Lichtenberg never managed to write a book;  his reputation rests on the contents of his Waste-books, a remarkable collection of observations and aphorisms.  

Like:
            Her petticoat had very wide red and blue stripes and looked as if it were made of theater curtain.   I’d have paid a lot for a front-row center seat, but the curtain was never raised.
           
            Nothing pleases Apollo better than the slaughtering of a frivolous irresponsible reviewer on his altar.

            To make astute people believe that one is what one is not is actually harder than to actually become what one wants to appear.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Prague & Me

So the question is why I'm writing a historical novel set in Prague.  A long story.  Here's the core dump, me and Prague

 --First contact I'm about eight or nine, I come across a book, can't recall what book, but it has in it the story of the Golem of Prague.  Fascinated!  A 16th century rabbi made a giant out of clay and put an inscription in its mouth and it came to life.  It could do all kinds of convenient labor, could protect the Jews of Prague, then went out of control so the rabbi, Judah Lowe, the Maharal, had to remove the holy inscription and reduce it to clay again.  Oh, yes, it couldn't speak because only God has the power to convey speech.  The Maharal leaves it in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Prague.  I associated this with Boris Karloff's Frankenstein in the movie, a figure that filled me at eight not with horror but with sadness, the lonely monster who just wanted to talk to the little girl and got into such trouble, peasants with pitchforks and torches.  Some identification there, obviously.  I recall that I heard the name of the city as rhyming with "vague."

--The word defenestration, a big word just right for a ten year old junior pedant, the Defenestration of Prague, I saw the phrase somewhere, looked it up, added it to my Aspergers storehouse along with the names of the visible stars and the species names of early hominids.  This was all encyclopedia work, of course, the opposite of googling, because after you read the thing you looked up you read the next article in alphabetical order and learn something you never would have come across.  Like the Pragmatic Sanction (the next entry after Prague in my World Book Encyclopedia.)  Now we're into the history of Austria, of the Austrian Empire, a place that no longer existed, a fairy-tale kingdom like the yet to be devised Middle Earth  but real, a congeries of nations, tribes, ruled by an ancient man with funny whiskers, an empire that had caused the First World War and the destruction of a civilization.  I read, I accumulated facts, I began an intense and inexplicable interest in this lost empire, about which one rarely heard, most of it now behind the Iron Curtain, another of my secret stores of useless information.

--Now I'm a freshman in college and a guy sets me up with a blind date.  (A date:  you call the girl on the phone and propose an outing to some actuality, a movie, a show, a musical venue.  You travel to the girl's house, take her to said event, then home again.)  This was a long time ago.  I invited this unknown person to a party.   At college parties one then wore coats and ties and if girls, cocktail dresses, but this was not that kind of party.  At this party we would wear army surplus and jeans and
t-shirts and drink beer and unbelievably horrid wine from straw-covered bottles and listen to jazz records, and perhaps sometime during the evening fourteen people would crowd into the bathroom and share a single joint.  So when the girl asked me how she should dress I said, "You know, sort of bohemian," which was the only word I had to describe an event outside the mores of the standard culture of the late Eisenhower era.  On the night of, therefore, I show up at this girl's place, which turns out to be a tenement in the Bronx, and am shown in by her aged granny, who gives me the fish eye because I am wearing a black turtleneck and jeans and an Army field jacket and a black watch-cap, and in a few minutes out comes the girl and she is wearing the Bohemian national costume--embroidered blouse and dirndl waistcoat, voluminous skirt over numerous petticoats, white stockings, and the lacy head-dress, with colored ribbons.  Oddly enough, this was not the most embarrassing incident of that year, or even of that evening, but I did extract from the debacle the understanding that capital B Bohemia was a real place rather than a sort of fairy-tale kingdom, as well as a fresh understanding of the outer limits of shame.

--Kafka, speaking of the outer limits of shame and making art from a sense of helplessness and degradation.  Kafka came from Prague.  The Castle is an actual castle, Hradcany, that looms over the city. Gregor Samsa turned into a giant cockroach in a particular house.  Read Kafka as a teenager and something happens to your brain.  The Golem comes alive again and takes up residence.  No matter how much Enlightenment I absorbed later (and it was a lot) the idea of magic never quite departed.  Humanism and Enlightenment came to Prague as it did everywhere in Europe, but it got uniquely warped there.  They had an Emperor, Rudolf II, who was a magician and an employer of magicians, alchemists, astrologers.  Dr. Dee worked for him, as did Tycho Brahe.   The Europeans knew something was strange about Prague. In the 19th century they encumbered it with legends, Magic Prague.  When surrealism came to Prague in the early 20th century, it put its feet up, sighed, and said, "Home at last."

--Czech animation and puppets--I spent a lot of time in art house and museum screening rooms watching this stuff in the 50s and 60s. Surreal.  It's not the faintly silly Freudian stuff made popular by Dali, but the product of a nation for whom plain reality had been awful for a very long time, and it's about resistance, a message from a people who had their religion destroyed, and their leaders murdered, and their institutions suppressed, and their language forbidden for centuries, and yet here they still are, blowing cryptic raspberries at their oppressors.  And Prague is the stone symbol of this, one of the few cities in Central  Europe that's perfectly intact architecturally, never razed, never fought over, never bombed: gothic, renaissance, baroque, art nouveau all jumbled together like jewels strewn out on a table.

--The mystery and attraction was enhanced during my youth by the isolation of Prague behind the Iron Curtain.  When the crack-up came (and it was no surprise that the Czech revolution was lead by writers and artists) I went for a visit.  I won't say I was disappointed, but it's the case that nothing physical can compete with a prior psychological reality, as anyone who has experienced Romance can attest.  Prague in the summer of 1990 was a gorgeous, slightly dilapidated Central European city full of people who seemed run down and a little dazed at what they had accomplished.  There were unemployed secret policemen trying to hustle bribes from the tourists and the town was full of bargain-hunting Germans.  As with anywhere else on earth its true essence was secret and since it was Prague these secrets were deeper than in most other places, and if I had another lifetime to burn it would have been interesting to explore them all.   But a week was all I had.

I forgot where the idea for this book came from, although I knew instantly that it would be set in Prague.  There's the idea of a failed revolution.   We all lived through a failed and rather fatuous revolution in the sixties (incidentally, as Tony Judt pointed out, essentially ignoring an actual revolution taking place in the Soviet sphere) so that was part of it, and also the sense that something missed happening in 1848 that then turned to the worst poison in the whole history of the the West.  And the sense of the lost world of aristocracy, which Americans pine for and hate at the same time, seeing in the aristocratic style a relief from the corrosive status anxiety of their lives, and so I wanted to write a sort of defense of that cast of mind, and I wanted to write about a revolutionary era and the maddening choices such eras present to their denizens, perhaps in memory of the dead sixties as well.  I had, from who knows where, an image of the Charles Bridge in Prague by moonlight, and a boy, a little baron, about to commit suicide because of Romance, this when the idea of Romance was still bright and new, and how he was saved by a distinctly un-romantic courtesan, and what happened to him  after this signal event, and on the other side of the story what had brought him to the bridge in the first place.

I really hope I can complete this novel, which seems to be stalled at around 200 pages, just because I'd like to read it myself.

Update:   it seems to be rolling again.   I am too hard on myself.  A fiction in which one has to research every single detail described is going to take longer to write than a contemporary work in which you have all those details more or less in your head.  I am on chapter 11, of something like 25 planned.







Tuesday, January 8, 2013

New Year


My resolution each year is to write every day but Sunday and for the past God knows how many years I have kept it pretty much but not this year because I picked up the flu sometime after Christmas and I have not felt much like existing, never mind writing.  So this is the first writing of the year.  I went to the doctor the other day to see if I were in any danger because you hear all these stories, guy thinks he has flu but really has rare syndrome that fills lungs with taffy-like substance, but it turns out it was just the usual crud.

But it also turns out to be enough to sap every bit of energy, and the book just sits there, the pixies have not come in during the night and written it for me, although I leave bowls of milk out. I guess I have not added anything to it in a month or so, very unusual for me, so perhaps I am changing or it's that I am tired, 24 novels in 26 years is a lot of writing, and a month or so off is not going to earn me the name of poseur.  (And isn't it strange that the first thing a stranger will say after you announce you are a novelist is, have you been published?  Maybe surgeons get this too, and cops.  Ever do an operation?  Ever arrest someone?  It's a funny business, the novel, even the commercial novel.)

Unless this is the start of the slow slide into desuetude and silence.  We will have to see about that.  People write to me and say things like I've read all your novels three times already when are you going to publish another one? The answer is August of this year, a novel called THE RETURN.  It's a pure thriller about a couple of Vietnam war buddies who go on a road trip to Mexico and get involved  in a drug gang war there, or at least that's the outer layer, but as with a lot of the stuff I write the fairly conventional plot is just the vehicle for other stuff.  And also I was contracted to write a thriller and it is a thriller, with gunfights, car chases, romances and explosions, not to mention the other stuff, which you get for free when you buy the thriller..

The book that's on the machine now is not a thriller, but a historical novel about events that happened in Prague over 150 years ago.  It has an odd origin story that will have to wait for the next post.    

But now I can say I wrote something in 2013.   (And by the way, how can it be 2013?  It is unfair for to anyone who grew up read science-fiction in the late 50s and 60s for 2013 to be like this. ). This is enough, I guess.  I am sick and irritable and I actually yelled at the dog today who was doing nothing but lying down across a doorway while I was carrying dirty dishes, which he always does because once upon a glorious day I tripped over him while doing so, thus spilling slop on the floor, which he got to lick up.  He is ever hopeful of it happening again, as I am of writing this novel.  Happy New Year.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Question


Tom Robbins has a scene in one of his novels in which a character speculates on what the most important question is.   Camus says that the most important question is should you kill yourself or not and according to Einstein the most important question is, does time have a stop?  But the character then says, "... but I say that the most important question is, what can make love stay?  If you answer me that, I'll tell you if time has a stop and whether you should kill yourself or not."

Or something to that effect, and I am too lazy to find the quote, and in any case I don't think those are the most important questions (and I doubt Robbins does, for that matter)  The most important question seems to me to be: is this the only world?  In other words, is the world described by science in terms of the interactions of forces and particles, what we call the material world, a complete description of reality,  or is there a wider plenum of which what we are pleased to call objective reality or 'the universe' is but a portion, rather on the analogy of the visible spectrum of light.  Until late in the 19th century, for example, all we knew of the electromagnetic spectrum was visible light.  We used electricity, but the relation of electromagnetism to visible light, that the two were part of a greater whole, was then unknown.  Such EM phenomena as X-radiation, the various types of radioactivity, radio waves, and microwaves were entirely unknown.  These forms of energy, although undeniably real, and vital to our existence, were outside our ability to observe and control. The experience of science for a long time has been that there are real phenomena that we cannot sense without special instrumentation.

Despite this history, however, it remains the unquestioned assumption of people who hold the scientific world view that the universe described by science at any particular time is complete, and that nothing lies beyond it that is not ultimately discoverable by scientific instrumentation of the sort we now use.  There may be other universes, some modern theories hold, but we don't project that they would have different laws or constituents.  This view, historically known as positivism, firmly rejects the idea that there is anything else that can be called real in the sense that science has revealed the real.  Thus, the entire experience of the vast majority of humans who have ever lived and who, in fact live today, attesting to a much wider version of reality, including the universe of spirit, of the dead, of dreams, of angels and demons and so on, is rejected as fantasy, as superstition, as, (to use the current term) woo-woo.

Unfortunately for this view, woo-woo seems to be striking back, not from outside but from within the corpus of science itself.  It is a long time now since actual scientists have taken seriously the mechanistic and deterministic world-view that scientific popularizers seem still to think constitutes science.  It is now nearly a century since JBS Haldane wrote "...the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it's queerer than we can suppose," and since then the queerness has been piling up.  The usual suspects:

--the the two aspects of the universe in which we have the most experimental confidence--quantum mechanics and relativity--don't seem to belong in the same universe together.  That is, when the equations that describe each are fitted together they produce nonsense

--that efforts to produce a Grand Unified Theory that includes both theories have produced a swarm of theories that cannot be experimentally tested 

--that all of physics seems to deal with only fifteen per cent of the mass-energy in the universe, the rest being dark matter/energy, at present almost entirely opaque to our instruments

--that the genome turns out not to be a simplifying code that explains how organisms develop, analogous to the software in a computer, but a kind of organ that organisms use to create themselves using something called top-down control, that no one pretends to understand

--that while there is a great deal of electrical activity in the brain, this activity does not seem to be connected in an obvious way with the more interesting functions of the brain, like consciousness and memory, nor are there any generally accepted theories of how consciousness or memory works

--the origin and distribution of species cannot be entirely explained by neo-Darwinism, as it has taken place far too rapidly given what we know of the rate of tiny mutations required by the theory of natural selection; nor do we have a good theory of how the 'big jump' evolution required by the fossil record could work

These and other scientific crises are discussed at length in John Horgan's excellent book, The End of Science, and those interested in this would be well-advised to consult it.  In brief, however, Horgan's point is that we know enough about the universe to know that there will be no more big breakthroughs.  There will be technology advances, perhaps, but these will be trivial compared to those that have gone before.  We will not fly to the stars or live indefinite youthful lives.

Of course, betting against the march of science has never been a good bet.  A previous incarnation of Horgan, writing in 1895, might have come to the same conclusion: physics was at an end, merely a matter of adding decimal places; in biology, while evolution was widely accepted, the mechanism of inheritance was unknown and life still seemed a mystery;  in chemistry, while the laws governing chemical composition were known, no one knew how they worked, and many scientists regarded atoms as a calculating metaphor without real existence; in astronomy, the universe was fixed, had always existed as it appeared, time was a constant; in geology, the continents were of more or less fixed shape and the earth was between 20 and 40 million years old.  My point was that no one can tell when breakthroughs will come and from where--that's why they call them breakthroughs.  In that year, Roentgen discovered X-radiation and the rest is etc.

So perhaps Horgan is wrong and future science breaks open nature in a colossal and entirely unexpected way, yielding unprecedented power over it--this version established once and for all as the only world there is--and all the fantasies of hard sic-fi come true, including star travel, practical immortality, matter transmission, body customization, the works.  We all march toward the atheist heaven of the Singularity, end of story.

But if he's right and if this wonderful childlike faith in scientific progress is not to be, what then?  Well, the dominant society of the planet would lose its prime ontological anchorage.  It would be a collapse similar to the collapse of the Christian world-view before the forces unleashed by the rise of Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment.  If science cannot explain the world perfectly, what can?  There will still be technological advances and some science will still actively fill in some important gaps, but in general we can look to a more stable culture, approaching a steady-state economy, perhaps something like ancient China; providing the moral blow does not unhinge us so that we use our technology against ourselves and destroy civilization entirely in any of the ways now open to us.

What would be most interesting, I think, coming round again to the point of all this, is to answer the Question, which is to imagine that the schism created over the past four centuries by science in the relationship of humans to the world we inhabit can somehow be healed, that the objective view can surrender its absolute dominance over the subjective view.  What if, for example, we consider that mind or consciousness is not just a convenient exudate of a brain attaining a certain complexity, but rather a basic component of a more broadly conceived universe, with a status equal to that of mass-energy or time.  This was Jung's view, of course, and he tried, within the limits of his era, to establish a research project that took the psyche seriously as an object of study.  With indifferent success, it should be added, although what success means here would have to be redefined.   The same goes for all the other efforts to heal the break.   It's in the nature of our current world-view that we can't quite conceive of what such a different world-view would be like or feel like, any more than a medieval philosopher or a pre-contact shaman could grasp our familiar scientific world-view.  But I can just imagine a culture in which the primary way we interact with nature is  a little like science, a little like art, a little like magic and a little like athletics: woo-woo indeed.









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