Friday, January 20, 2017

DYSTOPIA


This may look like a low budget sci-fi movie set, but it's the actual headquarters of the Fascist Party Federation in Rome, 1934.

I originally posted this on Twitter, but if you weren't following along live, I thought it'd be easier to read it all listed out from beginning to end. 

A look at some dystopian literature



1. Recently, I've been drawn to read dystopian fiction. It seemed to start with Kindred by Octavia Butler.

2. Kindred depicts an American character who inadvertently travels back in time from 1976 to 1815 and into a horrific, all-too-real dystopia.

3. Dana finds herself in 1815 on a slave plantation. Being a black woman, it couldn't be more of a nightmare scenario for her.

4. The novel is praised for a realistic depiction of slavery, giving insight to being a person in a world that refuses to treat you as a person

5. Butler explores the dynamics of the impossible relationships slaves had to navigate. Her white husband drawn back in time acts as a foil.

6. It's a disturbing novel. People's children are sold away from them. Rape, murder, torture--ears cut off, whippings--things too horrifying

7. But what disturbed me the most was to read that Butler said, "I was not going to be able to come anywhere near presenting slavery as it was.

8. "...I was going to have to do a somewhat cleaned-up version of slavery, or no one would be willing to read it...

9. "...I think that's what most fiction writers do. They almost have to." Depictions that appalling and it wasn't even close to the reality?!

10. The next dystopian novel I read was The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.

11. Like with Kindred, it was reading about it afterward that proved more disturbing.

12. Incidentally, I had no idea a show was just made loosely based on it before I finished reading and Googled it. My dad had even seen the show.

13. The novel depicts an alternate reality in which the Axis powers won World War II. Eastern USA is controlled by Nazis. Western by Japan.

14. For some reason the Rocky Mountain region is neutral. Most of the book focuses on California and Colorado.

15. Despite the high concept, the events of The Man in the High Castle are surprisingly mundane. However, I was captivated by it 


16. A lot is about Americans trying to adapt to everyday life of Japanese rule--manufacturing and selling fake American antiques.

17. --trying to adopt Japanese customs into their behavior, or just trying to get by

18. But the actual Man in the High Castle is an author. In this alternate history novel,

19. the characters are reading his alternate history novel about an alternate history in which the Allies won World War II.

20. He’s supposedly in a secured area—“High Castle”—in the Rocky Mnts. because the Nazis want to assassinate him for writing the book.

21. So we have our memory of real WWII, what “really” happened in the novel&the meta-novel that also depicts totally different events all mixing

22. It messes with your brain—makes you think about all the alternate realities that are mixing up in there regarding everything else

23. But Dick is actually quite tame in presenting the horrifying elements of this dystopia

24. My heart momentarily stopped in terror when [spoiler] an arrested character was deemed Jewish and to be sent to Germany

25. However, [spoiler] Dick even has the cops change their mind. The Nazis remain an ominous force in the background, apparently unlike the show

26. Reading about the novel afterward, I discovered that Philip K. Dick intended to write a sequel, considering it unfinished.

27. This is where I discovered that the reality, like with Butler’s Kindred, was so much more horrific than the fictional dystopia

28. I don’t know much of Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre to make generalizations, but in this instance, his gentle soul couldn’t handle the Nazis 

29. Dick said, “I had to read what those guys [Nazis] wrote in their private journals in order to write THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE... 

30. “...That's also why I've never written a sequel to it: it's too horrible, too awful...

31. “...I started several times to write a sequel, but I had to go back and read about Nazis again, so I couldn't do it...

32. Somebody would have to come in and help me--someone who had the stomach for it.” Dick's right. These horrific things are so difficult to face.



33. The next dystopian novel I read was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood about a misogynistic, totalitarian, theocracy.

34. One day, the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale tried to use her debit card at the supermarket & was told there was no money in her account.

35. That’s not right as she should have thousands of dollars. She goes to work & her boss rounds up all the women and fires them.

36. He’s nervous. He’s asking the female employees to please just leave. He was given 15 mins. to get them out of there. There’s an unmarked van

37. Theocrats overthrew the United States government. They immediately stripped women of all rights.

38. In the main timeframe of the novel, the narrator is imprisoned in an old school with other handmaids. They’re ruled by oppressive “Aunts.”

39. The only men are armed soldiers who stand watch outside.

40. The Aunts try to brainwash the handmaids to be ignorant, to be submissive, that it’s their fault if victimized

41. And their job is to have babies, which is why they are periodically sent to live with military officers who can impregnate them

42. It hasn’t been that long, but the narrator’s memories of regular 1980s USA are already so distant

43. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of what happens if the anti-women’s rights, misogynist crap politicians & others say is enacted full-scale

44. And when Atwood was writing during Reagan’s presidency, many of these attacks on women’s rights were coming true--atrocious inspirations

45. Like with the other dystopian novels, as bad as the novel’s events, the reality behind Atwood’s writing is scarier

46. In this case because of how real it is. Everything Atwood depicted is based on something real she researched.

47. Puritans & witch-hunts in early America, totalitarianism in Iran & Afghanistan, Nazis, British rule in India, Philippines, Romanian Communism etc. etc.

48. Just the stark reality that this isn’t some far-fetched fantasy world, but these types of things actually happen



49. I also reread Fahrenheit 451 for the first time since high school, hoping for deeper appreciation—firemen who burn books.

50.

54. They liked distractions—fast cars and TV. But I was even surprised that Ray Bradbury didn’t pin blame on this.

55. Side-note, Bradbury’s novel (1953) appears to have predicted headphones with the seashells and buzzing bees in ears

56. The ex-English professor character says there’s no reason why the wall-sized TVs couldn’t depict the sorts of stories in literature

57. The ex-professor says people just don’t care about any kind of deep programming, critical thinking. They want vapid programming.

58. But we’re reading books. We’re thinking critically. We’re trying to prepare for the future.

59.



60. And in the next track, Manson has the line “You'll never grow up to be a big-rock-star” which made me think of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.


61. In Breakfast of Champions, Kilgore Trout is his alter ego failed writer despite writing hundreds of novels and stories

62. And like Philip K. Dick’s alternate realities, that alternate failed version of the creative self exists in every creative person

63. Because creative pursuits are so subjective that even those who were successful have the initial rejections all stacked up in their brains

64. But Breakfast of Champions isn’t quite dystopian. It’s just the sad reality of dehumanized people.


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UPDATE: January 25, 2017:


"Sales of George Orwell's 1984 surge after Kellyanne Conway's 'alternative facts'" - It was obviously the exact sort of phrase Orwellian newspeak was meant to define.

And now Nineteen Eighty Four is at #1 on Amazon. It probably would've been better if people read it before the primaries, but I guess better late than never.


However, I hope Orwell's is not the timeline we're in because: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever."
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Joseph Patrick Pascale - How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You (Accurate Accounts of Office Work: Book 1), a novel

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Great New York City Bookstore Tour - Part 1


A mysterious scroll arrived one St. Patrick's Day.

I unfurled it to see this:

New York City Bookstore Tour

My wife was taking me on The Great New York City Bookstore Tour, having hand-selected the bookstores that she thought would be most to my liking.

First stop:

192 Books - New York City Bookstore Tour
 This one room bookstore was neat and organized but held a deceptively large amount of books. Of particular interest to me were the many works in translation.

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On the day we went, Left Bank Books had a sign that read "Closed for Spring Cleaning." However, I had been there once before, when I attended the Gay Pride Parade in 2010. They have an impressive collection of signed and first edition books.
The Waste Land signed by T.S. Eliot stands out here.

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The Strand's Rare Book Room
A first edition of Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac
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"In response to those recently leaving with books without paying for them, otherwise known as 'stealing' . . . Can you not see that we are your friend?" 

And the rest of Chelsea Market is cool:
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McNally Jackson has an Espresso Book Machine to print out books on demand: 

They also have one of the most inspiring bathrooms you can find:
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This corridor of books stretches into their backyard.

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You can only do so much in a day, so I have to hope that the other bookstores will still be there when I return.

-this took place in 2015

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Forcing the Imagination to Do the Impossible: Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose”

Some reflections on magical realism via Nikolai Gogol


A monument to "The Nose" in St. Petersburg - Image courtesy Alessandro Gallenzi

It would be easy to brush aside the absurd impossibilities of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” as merely a dream or illusion, but the story’s narrator—who sometimes butts his own nose into the story to tell the reader exactly what is going on—will have none of this. As the narrator concludes, “Say what you may, but such events do happen—rarely, but they do.” Kovalyov, our poor noseless protagonist, also questions that these events could actually be happening to him. “It is impossible for a nose to disappear, no way. I must be dreaming or hallucinating.” However, after he pinches himself and screams, “The pain assured him completely that he was acting and living in reality.” So there can be no question about the fact that there are elements of the supernatural occurring in this story. It is made quite clear to readers so that they don’t dismiss utter nonsense as merely a dream. The reader must understand that this is a portrayal of real life.

Having been written in 1836, “The Nose” is perhaps the prototypical magical realist story. That is why Gogol repeatedly tells the reader that these events are real, and this is not a dream. Since readers have not yet encountered magical realism, he needs to tell them how to read it. In other magical realist stories, there are not these repeated assurances that the events are real because it is made clear from the portrayals in the writing that they are to be taken as real, but that is only because authors like Gogol paved the way. As editors David Young and Keith Hollaman write in the anthology Magical Realist Fiction, “Gogol is simply too important to ignore. If Russian fiction, as someone has remarked, came out of Gogol’s overcoat, then magical realism might be said to have come out of his nose.” The editors considered “The Nose” such an important story for magical realism that, to ensure the story started off their anthology in the best way possible, they commissioned a new translation of the story by Olga Markof-Belaeff solely for their book. 


Nikolai Gogol - Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

As an introduction to magical realism, the story seems to start out realistic and progressively become less realistic. A couple discovers a nose in a loaf of bread? Improbable, but not magical. A man’s nose is missing and he can see no sign that it’s been removed? We’re slipping away from reality. A nose is walking around the city like a fancy gentleman? Now that’s completely magical.

Readers of this story hunting to analyze symbols are drawn to themes of castration and penis loss. While I can see some evidence for this in the story, I am disinclined to focus on this. Like the best stories, it welcomes many interpretations, yet defies them all. The loss of a nose seems fundamentally different from the loss of genitalia. All people have noses, it is immediately apparent if the nose is missing, and it is not easy to disguise one’s face. The fact that it is a nose is crucial to the fabric of the story, and noses are a recurring theme in Gogol. As Gary Saul Morson states


“Everything is olfactory in Gogol, who had quite a schnoz himself.” 

When the nose takes on the habit of strolling through the Tauride Palace gardens, one lady “requested a special letter to the supervisor of the Palace gardens that he show this rare phenomenon to her children and, if possible, provide an explanation that would be edifying and instructive to the youths.” This seems to be Gogol anticipating what the critics would be asking about his story (Perhaps demands for a clear and useful meaning of their stories are a plague that magical realist writers always have to deal with. I can’t help but think of one of my favorite lines from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “A Friend of Kafka,” “Jacques, yesterday I read your Kafka’s Castle. Interesting, very interesting, but what is he driving at? It’s too long for a dream. Allegories should be short.”)

However, Gogol has his answer for these critics before the story is over. “Utter nonsense is going on in the world. Sometimes there is no verisimilitude at all,” the narrator informs us. And the opinionated narrator questions the author himself, “No, I don’t understand it at all, I absolutely don’t. But what is even stranger and even more incomprehensible is the fact that writers pick such topics. I must admit this is completely inconceivable … there is absolutely no benefit to the community … there is no benefit.” So much for an edifying explanation! Gogol’s story defies critical analysis and embraces absurdity.

Aside from the fact that it is hilarious, which is difficult to write about without making it not sound funny, my favorite thing about this story is the way Gogol forces the reader’s imagination to imagine things that don’t make sense. He’s masterful at it in this story, and studying his craft helps me think about how I can push the boundaries of readers’ imaginations in my own stories. 


Gogol writes, “An indescribable event had occurred in front of his eyes. A carriage had stopped at the entrance, its doors opened, a gentleman in uniform jumped out holding his head low and ran up the steps. What horror and, at the same time amazement, seized Kovalyov when he realized that it was his very own nose!” Gogol claims that the event cannot be described; nevertheless, he describes it. He goes on to describe it further in terms that are specific about the details, yet entirely omitting any explanation of how this whole situation works: 

“Two minutes later, the nose did in fact come out. He was wearing a gold-embroidered uniform, suede breeches, and a sword. Judging by his plumed hat, he held the rank of state councilor.” 

Aside from the uproarious detail that the nose now outranks our protagonist, leaving him trembling and afraid to address this “gentleman,” we have no choice but to picture this nose in our mind. We have a vivid description of the uniform topped with a hat, and we know he appears to be a gentleman, he somehow held his head down, yet he is also still recognizable as Kovalyov’s nose. Is he a tiny nose floating in these clothes or is he a giant nose with arms and legs? Gogol refuses to consider such details. Lest we think Kovalyov is just crazy, when the policeman eventually recaptures the nose he says, “And the odd thing is, I took him for a gentleman also. But, fortunately, I had my glasses and saw immediately that he was a nose.” What’s more, he states, “‘Knowing that you need him, I brought him with me...Your nose is just as it used to be.’ / Saying this, the constable reached into his pocket and pulled out the nose wrapped in a piece of paper.” His speech implies that some transformation must have taken place, but everything is entirely unclear. We are forced to imagine a nose with a fake passport attempting to leave the country, and somehow looking like a distinguished gentleman yet also just a regular nose upon closer inspection. The whole thing is so utterly absurd, supernatural, and impossible that it can’t possibly be explained, and yet because it is written that this is the way it happens, the reader has no choice but to keep reading and allow their imagination to fill in these impossible chasms in logic.

With this story, Gogol pushed the boundaries of realism into the new realm of magical realism and showed that when writing about the impossible, readers' imaginations will have no choice but to follow behind. I knew that the nose was crucial to this story, but during my research, I learned that noses are crucial to Gogol’s whole oeuvre. Gogol once wrote in a letter, “sometimes I am seized by a frenzied desire to transform myself into one big nose … whose nostrils would be as large as pails so that I can imbibe as much . . . as possible.” Furthermore, “In ‘The Diary of a Madman,’ the insane hero decides that people’s noses have all emigrated to the moon; in ‘Nevsky Avenue’ we read of ‘mustaches to which the better part of a lifetime is devoted.’
 With this whiff of these stories, I must dive deeper into Gogol.

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For my style of magical realism, check out the story I co-authored with Suany CañarteSome Girls Prickle Back,” published in Birkensnake.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Physical Writing Process: Donna Tartt - Multicolored Pencils, Polychrome Paper

Donna Tartt (Image courtesy Airship Daily)

Literary Talismans

Literature as we tend to conceive of it exists in the realm of the mind, represented by little markings that are easily reproduced (the written word) and endlessly spread, whether on paper or electronically. But my goal in this series was always to explore the physical roots, the paper on which the words were originally carved.

I'm also exploring what an English professor of mine once called "literary talismans" - tangible objects left behind by creatives. She mentioned this at her surprise that I was interested to see her signed copy of a book of Allen Ginsberg's poetry. She showed it to me in her office one day - her name and his on a page of arabesquing sunflowers all drawn by Ginsberg's hand.

Being so much rarer, these literary talismans can be difficult to track down. I'd read Jack Kerouac's On the Road when I was younger, but I didn't fully immerse myself into the world of Kerouac until just after the original scroll finished its tour of the United States - much to my disappointment, as I'd still love to see it in person.

The same thing just happened to me with The Goldfinch. At the end of last year the world of arts and letters was abuzz with Donna Tartt's most recent novel, but I only just got around to reading it. The novel goes hand in hand with the ideas I had in starting this series, since it explores themes related to the near immortality of physical things such as paintings or antique furniture. The 775-page tome was inspired by a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, a Dutch master who died young in a gunpowder explosion, leaving behind only a handful of works. His painting, "The Goldfinch" was serendipitously exhibited at the Frick Collection in New York at the exact same time Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch was released. It'd be great to see the painting that's so reverently described in the novel:

"The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever."

And while it's entirely possible I walked uncaringly past the Frick Collection while the painting was there, "The Goldfinch" finished its exhibition in New York at the beginning of the year, and after a brief stay in Italy, has returned to its home at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, so unfortunately, I missed it - for now.

"The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius

Donna Tartt's Writing Process


On the topic of interesting things you might unknowingly walk past in New York, Donna Tartt did most of her research and writing for The Goldfinch at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, in the Allen Room. She prefers to write by hand with plain ballpoint pens in large college-ruled, spiral-bound notebooks. She likes her work to be portable and keeps notebooks to write in all the time. Some inspiration for the novel actually began twenty years ago, based on notes she wrote in Amsterdam (She first saw "The Goldfinch" as a copy at Christie's in Amsterdam).

As she explained to Omnivoracious, she had stacks of different notebooks by the time she was late into the composition of The Goldfinch:

"In the fall when the school supplies are in the store, I'll tend to buy lots of them so I can get just the kind I want: silly patterns and colors are, for me, an important aide memoire, a mental filing system. When I was finishing Goldfinch, I had a series of notebooks that had covers from Beatles albums, and when I was looking for something, it was easier for me to think: 'Oh, I wrote that in the "Hard Day's Night" notebook' or 'I wrote that in the "Sgt. Pepper" notebook' rather than 'I wrote that in the blue notebook.'"

She has a color-coded process for her revisions. She uses red, blue, and then green pencil to make the palimpsest easier to read and keep track of which revisions were written when. She'll also staple index cards onto the notebook pages when needed.

When the notebooks are "too tangled-up to read," as Tartt likes to say, she types them up and prints them out, but even here she uses a color-coded system to stay organized. She mentions having a pink draft, a grey draft, and a blue draft of The Goldfinch to easily know which stack of paper is the newest version. "My French teacher, many years ago, told me this, and it actually works," Tartt says. She takes about a decade per novel, so it seems ideal to keep everything meticulously organized over that span of time.

We often think of escapism as readers getting lost in books, but in these decade-long excursions, Tartt finds escapism as a writer: "I don’t want to write about my own life, I want to write about someone else’s, to live someone else’s life."

---Other Entries in this Series---