Excerpt From a Constantly Growing Piece of Fiction

This is the most recent in a long line of excerpts I’ve posted on HD. The working title has heretofore been “Didact”, but I’m now just calling it Jesus, this is getting long.

The piece itself is approaching twelve thousand words. And this disturbs me, because I had no intention of writing anything longer than 7500 words. It’s nowhere near halfway done. Uh oh.

– – – – –

The night they first kissed, after their second date, at a small Ethiopian restaurant in Evanston some number of blocks south of Northwestern, Victor had been nervous. He stumbled over his words and was only able to speak fluently if he affected a sad lilting accent which made him sound something like a depressed Canadian novelist giving a reading to some monstrously intelligent horde.

Conversation drifted away from standard second date fodder reasonably quickly. And, as Ruth later remembered, she was pleasantly taken aback by Victor’s candor and offbeat conversational style. How he twisted and challenged her.

“Not to say your aversion to online social networking is unfounded, but I find your explanation to be a little bullshitty.”

“Bullshitty?” Ruth cocked an eyebrow. “Is that a technical term?”

“In whose hermeneutics?”

“Excuse me?”

“Mode of analysis?” Victor blushed slightly at having to explain the joke. If it was a joke. Ruth thought at this moment that she was way out of her league. Though from her vantage point, the lamp immediately above their table made Victor look vaguely like a character out of an old western. Ergo, appealing. This insofar as his stubble caught the light and his face’s nascent hard-won furrows contrasted with the better-lit portions of his brow and cheekbones, which, after two glasses of wine he’d obtained with false identification and the exceedingly, exotically spiced admixture of beef and beans and amaranth, all in conjunction with his jittery behavior, had developed that certain perspirant shimmer so rarely seen amongst the  showered masses. He glowed dangerously. Like from a scene involving poker.

Thus concluded the awkward pause.

Ruth said, “I”m curious now. Go ahead, Victor. Tear my argument apart. It’s yours for the taking.” Ruth blushed slightly too, after realizing that what she’d said was a little obscene.

Their waiter walked by, toward the bussing station. He tittered to a beautiful waitress about now regretting letting Victor’s fake pass. She smiled and looked at Ruth, who caught her staring. And the waitress, in some round-vowelled tongue Ruth could not recognize, must have suggested that no harm should come of it. For either party.

“Alright,” Victor led in, “I can see your point about Facebook and its ilk being depersonalizing. I guess. Yeah, I suppose its modular multiple-choice approach to interests and activities and relationship statuses forces conformity, and that ‘liking’ has supplanted and cheapened other more significant –– Uh! Wait up. Now, I know I’m not being the good far-removed postmodern relativist here when I say this, but ‘liking’ has totally replaced… I don’t know. Appreciating?”

“Not that you’re making any moralistic value judgments here,” Ruth chimed in.

“Not that there exists such a thing as morals or values or someshit like that.” Victor plowed on.

But in the meantime, the waitstaff of two continued their discussion, which Ruth could tell involved her and Victor, in that same round way as before. They must’ve said what’s crossed her own mind several times, when she did volunteer work back in high school in countries whose populations were unshod and some shade of dark brown. No conversation is stranger or more rarified from the tangibly real than the one between white undergraduates.

“My being a bad postmodernist notwithstanding,” Victor initiated, as though he were gathering up his strength for some massive outlay of mental energy, “the fact of the matter is that social networking sites are not depersonalizing. The anxiety you feel about Facebook stems from the fact that it’s so insidiously personal.”

Curiosity now piqued, and realization just beginning to dawn, Ruth leaned in.

The waitress must have said, “See?” Or so Ruth would’ve liked to think.

Freefall, or Note From the Police Station

Falling. {Courtesy of Deathrainbows}

Last night, I was at the police station. Long story.

And I saw you, shaky, cracked out. Ringed shiny red brown, waking contusions, bruises of eyes wide opened. You called, the one they give you.

And, twenty minutes later, your father came in gruff and angry and telling the officers to get the hell off of her. Get away from her. She’s my daughter. What have you done, sweetie?

It’s okay. It’s okay. You’re with me, now. And other flimflam at which you rolled your eyes.

Give ’em lip, kid. I’m rooting for you.

Why I Like Writing Fiction (Reason #1)

“I don’t know, Ruth. You seem like such a happy person; I mean, I’ve never seen you less than glowing with anybody. But I have a question for you: your prettiness, all the attention, do you ever find it oppressive? Like, because men just like the idea of themselves being ‘with’ someone as pretty as you, but not really caring about you?”

I am damned with two coincident conditions: I am inquisitive, and I am analytical. This comorbidity could easily result in me asking wildly inappropriate questions. These questions are inappropriate not because they are vulgar, or in poor taste, or even, well, inappropriate; but because they are so rarely asked, especially in casual conversation, they are interpreted as strange, their asker as something of an outlier, or a Nietzschean. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Zarathustra.)

I believe the unspeakable nature of these questions is repressive and tragic, and it leads to that malaise hysteria–or, if the questions are particularly disturbing, they lead the asker to be admitted to mental health facilities. But because fiction is, technically, a separate and ontologically porous realm where almost anything goes, characters are able to ask those questions. If an author lets her/his characters ask these difficult questions, his/her book or story is lauded by critics–in the language particular to book critics–as “poignant” or “heartbreaking” or as “a daring exhortation compelling the reader to explore the inner world of [fill in the blank]. [Writer’s Name] shoves readers toward the door to the silent conscious, opens it, and dares them to step into the black.” Or whatever.

But, the thing about these questions is that they open up entire universes of personhood. Asking these questions takes what is otherwise a laundry list of traits and descriptions, set pieces, the meta-structures of introductions –> introduction of tension –> complicating factors –> climax –> denouement –> closing, and renders them real and relatable.

They are the barbs in the hook of plot; they emotionally attach the reader. Based on characters’ answers, they grow into something real; readers either empathize with a character’s assertions and grow fond of them, or they disagree and come to hate the character. It’s that connection which prevents the reader from leaving the story; once hooked, they come along for the ride.

Shelf Space {Flash Fiction}

This story is missing something, just one paragraph. Something to put after “I showed you.” While I’m waiting for that paragraph to hit me, I’ll just let the piece camp out here.

– – –

Do you remember when we first met?

When you were lost in a city strange to you, where I helped you get your bearings, set a course by dead reckoning, that first week, when we flouted all norms, flouted the three day rule, is this now lost to you?

Remember exploring each other’s self: the time you whispered to me, when we were coming in from the rain, your hair all wet and mussed from running from the airport shuttle which delivered you to that little bistro down the block–where I had waited an hour for you that one time when you said Logan was grounded–that no word, in all its varied meanings, was more evocative than “crush”.

Remember how I smooshed you against the wall of my study, the both of us smelling of wet and tasting of our shared dinner of mussels and angel hair and wine, the acrid coffee that followed, after that summer of “seeing” each other. How I fumbled double entendre when I asked if you’d like to move in, remember? And you asked, “For the kill?” And I laughed, disoriented, and asked “How do you mean?”

And you stopped. I stepped back, and we ended up talking until three, both our backs to the wall, wrists resting on our knees, like I hadn’t done since college, about the curiosity of that question, “How do you mean?”

That moving guy, the Chicano, however improbably named Paul, remember how on the side of the glass boxes, instead of writing Fragile, he chose Delicate? This, after my comment about your delicacy, for which you chided me, because if you wanted to carry boxes you could. That he remembered “delicate”, two hours after that, the twittering between two nesting birds, it still boggles me.

Remember how, before we flattened the boxes, you placed each one’s contents in little mounds, in no particular order, on and before the couch. Sitting, spent, it was so quiet, and after such a long day of hauling your life across a city, being alone was good. Your decision, to let the mounds sit ’til morning, it was a winner.

I remember the emergency trip the next morning to the impossibly distant Ikea to buy a tall shelf named Billy, because we noticed, after merging our libraries, the crowded cloth-bound covers, ribs and spines, crushed together scandalously, suggestively—of what I still don’t know.

I remember that afternoon, you on your toes, sidling your favorite alongside mine on the top shelf, and how I ached at the sight of your calves: their firmness, no match for the book shelf’s fiberboard, its wood veneer and plastic gloss. I showed you.

Can you remember that magical year, or is it now dead to you, now that you’ve moved out, went upstate, chasing that trader (traitor?) who you met on a business trip, who promised you unimaginable riches, a life of charm and glowing magnetism, which yours truly, admittedly, could not.

I want you to know I kept a piece of you, one from a collection of fragile things.

“How do you mean?” I asked again, when you told me you were leaving, when I walked into our place, and found you half-packed, your hair again messy, your flush so lovely, chin trembling, lost again.

This as you packed the last of your books into the Delicate box.

That Kind of Writing to Which I Aspire

For a class, I am tasked with writing a 20-25 page paper about an intellectual. My choice is one of my all-time favorite authors, one whose prose has influenced my own cognitive processing more than I’d ever like to admit.

For a class, I am tasked with writing a 20-25 page paper about an intellectual. My choice is one of my all-time favorite authors, one whose prose has influenced my own cognitive processing more than I’d ever like to admit. If I could be a tenth the writer David Foster Wallace was, I could die happily. The tragic irony of that phrase.

An excerpt from a story in the book Oblivion:

The truth is you already know what it’s like. You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.

But it does have a knob, the door can open. But not in the way you think…The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul. And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t? It’s called free will, Sherlock. But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or to laugh, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali–it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.

So cry all you want, I won’t tell anybody.

 

Didact: An Excerpt

An excerpt from a larger work currently in progress.

An excerpt from a larger work currently in progress.

It is difficult to tell exactly why she fell in love with him. Most likely, it was his stories of his summers in New York, his associations with dangerous people, long nights of drugged-out blissful haze, and her mental image of a young man in moccasins and flannel undulating to the sad sad song of another young man in moccasins and flannel, this one standing behind a microphone and positively going to town on a vintage acoustic in acute need of new varnish. All lies of course, told to impress her. But how they just danced out of his mouth: they, like the scruffy bohemians populating his stories danced out unashamed, absurdly intricately adorned–each bit with a long backstory–into the black of his bedroom on the winged feet of Hermes, charidotes–bringer of charm.

It was difficult for him to fully realize the young man he wanted her to. Both in his stories and in real life. His characters were vibrant and real and painfully human, all lost and in need of what ancient Greeks called hodios, the patron of travelers and wayfarers.

It was not difficult, however, to keep spinning these stories for her. Nor was it too hard for him to take on some of the character traits of his creations. That’s why he dated a Midwesterner, who knew nothing of New York, of the shabby-chic bobos he claimed to know, of the run-down exposed-brick studio apartments in the Village that cost more per month than she ever hoped to make in a summer as a lifeguard at the community pool. Truth is, she reveled in his stories as much as he fetishized her apparently totally earnest recollections of banal small-town life in the bit just north of Chicago’s hinterland in Wisconsin, which by his best estimates ended just short of Madison.

We are the stories we tell ourselves and to others. She imagined him to be mysterious and literary and fiercely protective of his ideals, and he imagined her as the squeaky-clean inviolate brunette that sets all the town’s males’ hearts aflutter. Each was the other’s perfect. Stories, you know. Gussied up a bit. Just for show. That killed him, just a smidge, realizing that she never will know him. Who needs honesty when better is the enemy of the merely good?

From Generosity, On Human Capability and Love

Here is a quote from Richard Powers’s novel, Generosity. After several months of off-and-on reading, I finished it today.

Saint Augustine, the old Berber, once wrote, Factus est Deus homo ut homo fieret Deus: God became man so that man might become God. He also said, even more popularly, Dilige et quod vis fac: Love, and do as you wish. But that was before our abilities so far outstripped our love. – pp. 252. Generosity, Richard Powers, FSG.

Lessons – 1

[257] The illusion of facts will suffice. [272] Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize. [255] Facts now seem important.

A note to be affixed to the bulletin board. A finding from today's reading.

[255] Facts now seem important.

[150] If Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin hadn’t been based closely on verbatim transcripts of Palin’s performances, it wouldn’t have been remotely funny, and it wouldn’t have affected the election; its comedy derived precisely from its scrupulous reframing of the real.

[256] Facts have gravitas.

[381] In order to make it easier to handle, Darwin would cut a large book in half; he’d also tear out any chapters he didn’t find of interest.

[257] The illusion of facts will suffice.

[272] Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.

[496] This is the wager, isn’t it? It’s by remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own existence and the vagaries of your own nature that you stand the greatest chance of conveying something universal.

[497] Self-study of any seriousness aspires to myth. Thus do we endlessly inscribe and magnify ourselves.

[498] A man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory.

[499] What is true in your private heart is true for all men.

[500] All our stories are the same.

[501] Every man has within himself the entire human condition.

[502] Deep down, you know you’re him.

_____________________________

Some recognition goes to David Shield’s book, Reality Hunger, for providing these chewy didactic bits. This in spite of [259]. If “Genius borrows nobly”, I hope to have a little of it, genius–his or otherwise–rub off on me.

5 Einstein Quotes To Which I Owe My Current Sanity & Perspective

Albert Einstein, for reasons too numerous to go into here, is a personal hero of mine. “Avuncular” is a good word to describe him; he is the deadly-smart uncle with crazy hair we all want… that is, until one learns about his personal life. But, nonetheless, his public persona is one I respect immensely. His words, in their simplicity, their sagacity interpolated or genuine, are powerful. Here, I will post the quote, and under it I’ll give a one or two sentence explanation of my interpretation of it.

– – –

“In order to form an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, above all, be a sheep.”

Einstein was never what one might call a “conformist”. Especially in the context of academia, his iconoclasm provided inspiration for my own dissidence since early high school. This quote, if I had to guess, might have been in reference to 4.0 GPA’s… but that’s just my best estimate.

– – –

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

Although I believe Einstein (and F. Scott Fitzgerald) cribbed this line from Mark Twain, I nonetheless say this quote–some agglomeration of Einstein, Twain, and Amory Blaine’s versions–to myself when the going gets tough at school. I have it written on an index card I keep thumb-tacked next to my door knob. I see it every day.

– – –

“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”

I’m in the middle of breaking away from the majority of these prejudices… of which there are many.

– – –

“…one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought.”

This, of all Einstein’s quotes I will mention here, is the one that affects me most right now. I am torn between business and writing fiction and nonfiction, between international relations, systems theory and neurology, psychology, and cognitive science. Although I believe I am suited for the world of “innovation” (God, what an awfully hackneyed word) in the world of entrepreneurship, I know, at some deep, visceral level that the only way I would ever be truly happy would be to recluse myself from the harshness, the brutality, and (more often than not) the soul-crushing banality of day-to-day life to craft and curate worlds of my own: perfect recreations of the “real world”, where crushing denouement, its resultant ache plays synecdoche for realization.

– – –

“If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut.”

I needn’t say more.

In Defense of Fiction: On Nuance

It is in that moment where muscles twitch slightly and a pang of synaptic excitement and that initial ineffable fraction of a fraction of a second before one articulates the “huh, I never noticed that before” that one experiences nuance.

I roll with a crowd that is somewhat slavishly devoted to reading. This is a good thing. With the exception of one of my friends, a man with whom I share my first name, the written matter they consume often takes the form of blog posts, magazine articles, and a preponderance of politics-, economics-, or entrepreneurially-focussed books. All of the above are categorized broadly as nonfiction.

A close friend of mine was reading some of my old blog posts and came upon a very brief treatise on the subject of “nuance” nested within a recent post, On the Hating of Haters.

He shot me an email asking me how one might gain a further appreciation of nuance, a question to which I responded with the following:

Short answer: read more fiction. Non-fiction writing is based on the premise of simplicity. The goal of a non-fiction book is to convey its thesis and supporting examples succinctly and efficiently. Nuance is often confused with extraneous detail, as being pertinent but largely insignificant to the larger argument; it is perceived to be a distraction from the larger “point” of the book/article.

Fiction, on the other hand, usually lacks a hard thesis and thus doesn’t need to convey information efficiently. A fiction writer may have a didactic message to convey, but the modus operandi of fiction for the past 200+ years is to “show, not tell.” Fiction writers show readers what they want to convey: adjectives are not the enemies.

As for some greater utility to fiction, I can only cite my personal growth in emotional intelligence and writing abilities. Both of which I’ve utilized in too many venues to mention here.

While it might be true that a certain critical mass of factual material must be mastered to be a functional adult. The real marker of intellect is not an increased volume of grey matter, the computational, repository bundles of nerve cells in the brain, but the volume of white matter, the neuronal connections that allow the brain to connect disparate ideas and concepts, to render juxtaposition and combination of ideas/things/messages in “contrapuntal” (to use a musical term) harmony.

That so many “young people” eschew the creative, integrative mental processes of reading fiction bothers me. They believe vehemently that consuming a media diet constituent of nonfiction, whether it is news or biography or pop-psych-sociology characteristic of Malcom Gladwell et al, makes them, in some material way, more intelligent. I counter this assertion by positing the following: functional intelligence has very little to do with the amount of factual information one crams into one’s brain; rather, intelligence can be measured by one’s competence with dealing with complexity, and the felicity with which one can deploy knowledge from disparate fields to address a given question or issue. From this integrative cerebral interconnectivity, not the mere aggregation and distillation of facts, “insight” is conjured.

Intelligence is gestalt, it is greater than the sum of its constituent parts; our knowledge is more than the words written and read, spoken and heard, created and consumed, respectively, throughout the course of our lives. The margin of error in our accounting here is the resultant cognitive gains of interconnectedness. Moreover, one cannot hard-wire methodologies for interconnectedness, only the potential for it. Why is it so hard to develop artificial intelligence? Resulting output is the product of false connections, the aforementioned insights are ersatz when uniqueness is attempted algorithmically.

The reading of nonfiction is an exercise in consumption, while reading, consuming, fiction is an exercise of creation. In the act of creation, which will be described below, the brain comes to play.

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A brief interpolation: have you ever noticed that on the bookshelves of the accomplished, one is likely to find a well-thumbed volume of Tolstoy or Austen or Huxley or Fitzgerald’s? These as opposed to Malcom Gladwell or any other member of the quasi-intellectual class who pass off cant and cleverness as meaning during their TED talks? Why is it that one might find, browsing the web histories of these same individuals, a link to one of the New Yorker’s blogs or to Slate, as opposed to a link to LifeHacker?

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Writing fiction is difficult. The writer is tasked with creating a world with a degree of comforting verisimilitude so that their readers might suspend disbelief for a moment and forget that what’s going on in the plot is, ultimately, fallacious. This is the objective world of the novel or short story. It is confined in its scope to the meanings of chains of well-chosen words. It is flat, its descriptions arid; it is a world nonetheless.

There is a world nested within that created by the author. When one reads fiction, one not only consumes its storyline; one is forced to imagine the characters, to form mental pictures of them, to perhaps ascribe quirks and ticks that the author failed to mention. Everything one pictures in this created world is highly personal. A beach umbrella mentioned in a story might evoke the one used on a seaside vacation as a child; in the mind’s eye, the brown bob of an old girlfriend’s hair might transpose itself onto the head of a particularly endearing female character. The world created by a reader is personal; the density of analysis one could do within the confines of a book can be virtually infinite. A book read well by a dozen people will offer a dozen interpretations; all are valid. All are subjective, and those who make claims to knowledge of an objective Truth divined from the text should be met with unflinching consternation. Their capital-T Truth is just as divined, as conjured, as pulled from the ether of their immemorial unconsciousness as the next person’s truth. Each person’s interpretation of a book is different, and one can interpret one’s interpretation as a reflection of themselves. The value of fiction as a tool for personal growth lies not in how the words on a particular page are articulated, or by the wild proclamations made by those in literary analysis courses, but by what occurs “between the lines” and over the infinitesimal space between synapses.

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A didactic question: If nuance–intricacy–in fiction didn’t really matter, would we never again, after viewing a film adaptation of a book, claim, “You know, man, I liked the movie, but the book… the book, like, had so much in it that the movie, you know, like, kinda leftout. I dunno, but the book was just so, I dunno, man, what’s the word…” phantasmagorical in its breadth, depth, and detail? Yeah, man: phantasmagorical. Try typing that out in a text message.

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Nicholas Carr, in his book-length rejoinder to his Atlantic article, [sic] “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, discusses the nature of the plasticity of the brain: that, with repetition, mental and physical activities, done repetitively, literally change the wiring of the brain. New neuron channels are formed, making behaviors that were once difficult easier over time. Recollect, for a moment, the monumental task before young children learning to dress themselves: the relative conceptual ease of snaps and elastic bands versus the enormous difficulty of buttoning a shirt. Tying shoes presents a problem that initially appears gordian in its intricacy. We learn. We don’t walk around naked. Not yet anyways.

The point being this: we live in a world driven by efficiency, we consume media that panders to the lowest common denominator of comprehension, and in a world so loaded with new information, new happenings, the new New New Thing (referring to the Michael Lewis book), Americans are using an ever-shrinking vocabulary to articulate what’s going on. (I don’t really want to say “we live in a world where…” anymore; it makes me sound cantankerous.) If one were to pull back from the goings on in the world, one would realize that ours is one of monodimensional blanket statements; things are articulated as black and white, righteous and “evil”, good and bad, immutable truth and rancorous bullshit. If it isn’t expressed plainly, elegantly, and matter-of-factly, it is taken as suspect. There are no freedom fighters, only terrorists; no moderate conservatives, only Randian, Bible-belting, free-market, ignorant, moose hunting, racist, xenophobic, quasi-populist Sarah Palin devotees. The monodimensional sells itself on its simplicity, and to mitigate the stultifying nature of the monodimensional, in lieu of another dimension, carefully-chosen language articulates itself in the spicy argot of over-dramatic extremism.

Ultimately, the point of Carr’s book, that the Internet affected our brains neuronally, that our neural pathways programmed for deep contemplation, concentration, creativity, and imagination have decayed in favor of those that allow us to consume and process huge quantities of information quickly (i.e. superficially), is “learned behavior.” People who think simplistically implicitly allow themselves to do so.

Authors’ worlds are recognizable and engaging not because of the nouns they choose, but the adjectives and verbs implemented. These paint a mental picture, the resolution of which is wholly dependent on the specificity of the chosen words. An author mentions tiny details that spark, if only for a brief second, within the reader a “huh, I never noticed that before” moment. It is in that moment where muscles twitch slightly and a pang of synaptic excitement and that initial ineffable fraction of a fraction of a second before one articulates the “huh” that one experiences nuance. It is for these brief moments of cerebral vivacity, where I identify and solve simultaneously the trick the author is playing, catching ex post facto he or she rendering connections from disparity, that I read fiction. Many of my friends see the world as one that offers incredible opportunity, a view which I share; but unlike some of them, through years of reading too many works of fiction to ever count, I believe I’ve gained the ability to live fully in the moment, to notice what is ignored, to engage the world actively, to find the needle of interest in the great musty haystacks of the mundane, and, ultimately, be able to articulate to you, the reader, what I wish to articulate with a degree of exactitude I defy another 20-year-old kid with a blog to surpass. An appreciation for variegation, of tiny variations, of minuscule vacillations, comes with one for vocabulary—said appreciation is my avocation. It is learned and adopted and eventually taken for granted. We are creatures of habit, after all.