Bradbury’s Dream

There’s a Ray Bradbury story—I can’t recall the title, but with the Internet that’s just a lame excuse—where explorers on Venus are being driven insane by the constant tapping of rain on their helmets.  They try to concentrate on discovery, but the distraction becomes too much for them.  Living in Pennsylvania has been a bit like that.  I grew up in the state and I knew it rained a lot.  Here in the eastern end we’ve hardly since the sun since March.  And when you’ve got a leak in your roof that only compounds the problem.  If I were weathering the Psalms, mine would be a lament, I’m afraid.  You see, the ground’s squishy around here.  Mud all over the place.  Rivers have been running so high that they’re thinking about changing their courses.  And still it rains.

There’s a lesson to be taken away from all this.  The fact that we use water for our own ends sometimes masks the fact that it’s extremely powerful.  Not tame.  The persistence of water to reach the lowest point contributes to erosion of mountains and valleys.  Its ease of transport which defines fluidity means that slowly, over time, all obstacles can be erased.  It’s a lesson in which we could stand to be schooled from time to time.  Rain is an artist, even if it’s making its way through the poorly done roofing job previous occupants put into place.  Would we want to live in a world without valleys and pleasant streams?  And even raging rivers?

There’s no denying that some of us are impacted by too much cloudiness.  When denied the sun it becomes easy to understand why so many ancient people worshipped it.  Around here the temperatures have plummeted with this current nor-easter and the heat kicked back on.  Still, it’s good to be reminded that mother nature’s in control.  Our high officials have decided global warming’s just alright with them, and we’re warned that things will grow much more erratic than this.  As I hear the rain tapping on my roof all day long, for days at a time, I think of Bradbury’s Venus.  Okay, so the story’s appropriately called “The Long Rain” (I looked it up).  Meanwhile tectonic forces beneath our feet are creating new mountains to add to the scene.  Nature is indeed an artist, whether or not our species is here to appreciate it.  If it is, it might help to bring an umbrella this time around.

Writing Life

Writers are a conservative lot, in many respects.  Consider the epigraph.  I’ve written about this before—in modern-day publishing epigraphs require permission to reuse and serve little purpose beyond two negotiable factors: to prove the writer is well-read, and that someone else just summed up your chapter in a single sentence.  Most modern books have stopped using epigraphs, but scholars read old books produced before aggressive copyright laws.  There is a trick you can use, however, that brings an epigraph into the realm of the fair use doctrine.  It involves moving it into the body of your chapter.  Make it a quote.  Comment upon it.  For all their research skills, many academics do not take advantage of easily found advice on academic publishing.  Just ask an editor.

We all, I’m sure, have tunnel-vision.  Life is so incredibly busy and demanding that choices have to be made.  For most academics publishing is part of the rubric for tenure.  Perishing is the only other option.  Been there.  Done that.  Those of us who make a more modest living on the other side of the book sometimes write for different reasons.  We may need to supplement our income (as if academic publishing really ever helps with that!), and thus we must pay attention to the finer details of the business.  Write what people want to read.  Think like a reader.  And, yes, get rid of the epigraphs.  We know you’re smart; you’ve written a book.  Another reason for writing beyond the tenure-dome is the compulsion.  The need to do it.

While the struggling artist is a tired trope, it’s also true.  Many of the writers most admired today had lifetimes of struggle and obstacles which often stopped them too soon in life’s tracks.  I often think of the Brontë sisters.  In a family apparently cursed with premature death, living in a time when women writers were rare, three sisters set themselves the task of becoming novelists.  Not one of them lived to forty.  Anne, who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, made it to twenty-nine.  Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, died at thirty.  Charlotte, who gave the world Jane Eyre, survived to thirty-nine.  They defined, in many ways, the English novel.  And while they lived to see some measure of success in their brief lives, they wrote against the obstacles of life and the specter of early death.  Writing is a passion.  A craft.  And even academic authors provide a favor to the world if they do it well.

Brontë sisters by brother Branwell

Myth and Magic

Magic and religion are difficult to tell apart.  Scholars have known this for some time, but don’t often say anything about it for fear of offending.  A few days ago Religion News Service ran a story headlined “How the ‘Harry Potter’ books are replacing the Bible as millennials’ foundational text.”  While many reacted with shock, to me the fact that a foundational text can be identified at all is a relief.  You see, reading is good for you.  Really, really good for you.  One of the most hopeful things I observed as a parent was the increased quality and volume of young adult literature available.  Of course it’s produced to make a profit, but the fact is it showed that reading is alive and thriving.  If the young make a habit of it, well, let’s hope that habit’s hard to kick.

My own reading doesn’t always keep pace with my desire to do more of it.  I go for a couple of weeks sometimes without finishing a book.  I begin to feel depleted.  There’s something spiritual about reading, and fiction can reach parts of your soul that are on guard when non-fiction’s your subject.  And that’s like magic.  It took a couple years for me to catch on to the Harry Potter craze.  Eventually my wife and I broke down and bought book one and read it together.  As millions of readers can attest, that first book was a fishhook.  We all really hope the world does contain some magic.  Many people find that solace met with religion.  Either way, fiction can enhance the experience.  We read the original series, hanging tensely until the final volume came out.

Many of those who believe in a magical religion protested the sale of magical fiction.  We were still in Wisconsin at the time, but we saw the protestors outside a local bookstore the release day for one of the later volumes.  Like Death-Eaters the protestors opposed Harry Potter.  The root of the problem seems to have been unique truth claims.  Whenever a religion declares itself the sole harbinger of “the” truth, every other way of looking at things becomes evil.  Even if it expressly declares itself to be fantasy fiction for young adults.  Years have passed, and Harry Potter, like other forms of pop culture, has grown to the status of a religion.  Even Nones want to believe in something.  Magic and religion are, after all, very difficult to tell apart.

Six Impossible Things

Solipsism, as a philosophy, has its attractions.  The idea behind it is that since all we can truly know is our self, the self is the only being that really exists.  This outlook is expressed in tragicomic form in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.  Written in Vonnegut’s characteristic style, there’s confusion and continuity, and almost a mockery of the gullibility of readers.  Kilgore Trout, a penurious science fiction writer, wrote a novel where one character was human amid a planet of robots programmed to act like people.  Dwayne Hoover comes to believe this is true and acts on it, with several other characters ending up in the hospital.  The story ends with the narrator realizing, I think, that he’s the only real human being because he made up this entire novel.

As someone who generally works alone, and whose lifestyle includes early rising and early sleeping, solipsism suggests itself from time to time.  Writers tend to spend quite a bit of time in their own heads, either reading or expressing their own thoughts via their craft.  Anyone who’s been a victim of a solipsist (and we all have) knows that such a viewpoint is wrong, but it does address one of consciousness’ deepest fears—how do we know what others know or experience?  We keep secrets.  We hide our weaknesses and insecurities.  We show others, most of the time, only what we want them to see.  Addressing the individualism of the late sixties and early seventies, Vonnegut takes to task a society that still promotes prejudice and wages war.

Vonnegut experienced war and it’s clear that it haunted him for the remainder of his life.  He tried, and often succeeded, in finding some hilarity in life, but it always seems to stop short with a slap of cruelty.  I’ve been reading quite a few of Vonnegut’s novels over the past few years.  He’s a writer that mixes profundity with frivolousness in such an easy way that it’s beguiling.  Breakfast of Champions is, despite being an easy read, a difficult book.  Quickly finished with its goofy doodles and swift pace, it leaves you feeling as if you’ve been poisoned with an idea, somehow.  Or maybe it’s just me.  For this year’s reading challenge I’ve selected two more of Vonnegut’s novels, but I haven’t decided which ones yet.  I think about asking others, but then I remember that if he’s right in this one, there’s really nobody else to ask.

No Refuge

A convention in histories of the horror genre is to trace it to Gothic fiction.  Gothic fiction itself is traced to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole.  Having grown up reading Gothic stories along with religious texts, perhaps surprisingly I never came upon Walpole’s oeuvre.  Some weeks back I happened on a used bookstore, which, by convention, had its cheapest fare on sidewalk carts.  I was surprised to see a negligibly priced copy of The Castle of Otranto, which I took in to the counter.  The clerk looked puzzled a moment, then asked if it was from the carts.  “Oh,” he sniffed, “that explains it.  We don’t carry Dover editions; they’re too cheap.”  Perhaps that remark haunted me a bit, but I finally got around to reading the slim book and it left a kind of unanticipated horror in my mind.

Okay, so this was written in the eighteenth century, and set further back, in Medieval times.  A spooky castle, knights and knaves, and fainting damsels all populate its pages.  Religion, particularly in debased form, became a standard characteristic of the Gothic.  Here a monk, an erstwhile lord, holds a secret that leads to the downfall of a house of pretenders who have claimed ownership of the castle.  All pretty straightforward.  Even the ghosts and talking skeletons fail to raise fear.  One aspect, however, does hold horror.  The three princesses in the story are completely at the whim of the men.  They acknowledge as much and claim it against piety to declare any different.

It would be unfair to assert that such sexism was intentional—like most human behaviors it evolved over eons—but in this era to read it is to shudder.  We have moved beyond the horror fiction that men own women and that they have any right to determine their fate.  Especially in these days, it’s embarrassing to be reminded that such was ever the case.  Despite the word from on high we cannot hide from history.  The domination of men has been a testament to how poorly civilization has been run.  Some of its benefits can’t be denied, but on a whole we see a succession of aggression and wars, suffering and poverty, generally brought on my societies that have taken their cues from patriarchical ideals.  My reading of The Castle of Otranto brought this back with a force not unlike that of the giant ghost haunting its walls.  Is it too much to hope that some two-and-a-half centuries might show some evidence of progress?

Winter Travels

Every now and again you read a book that drops you into a world of wonder.  That’s how I’d describe Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.  What’s it about?  It’s difficult to say.  It’s a novel about reading, and more specifically, interrupted reading.  You might call it Post-Modern, but in a good way.  I came across the book in a manner that, like the story itself, emerged from different narrative structures.  First of all a colleague sent around a quote from the book that grabbed my attention.  I decided that if I ever found a copy in a bookstore I’d buy it, based on that quote alone.  A second stream was the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  One of this year’s categories was a book in translation, which this is.  And yet a third factor was that I found the book on the shelf of a used book vendor in Ithaca.  And so I read.

Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—and having nothing to do with the fact that it was the most recent novel I’d read—If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a nested story, a story within a story.  Breaking the “fourth wall” Calvino addresses his readers in the second person and makes them characters in the plot.  The reader buys a defectively printed book and when he tries to return it to the seller, a fantastical world opens up.  I’m not sure that there’s a particular genre here—literary fiction constitutes a genre of its own—but there are a few speculative elements that keep the story pulling you along without really giving any conclusions (that the po-mo aspect to which I referred).

Apart from being merely fun, the story is thought-provoking.  What goes on when we read?  Do we not get absorbed into the mind of the writer?  And not only of the author but also of others who’ve read the book with whom we might discuss it?  Writing is an endlessly addictive activity.  One of my observations about careers without sabbaticals is that those who wish to practice the art must carve time out from days interrupted by work to be writers.  For me that means awaking early, for this blog is only one of many writing projects I have going.  To write well, however, means reading much.  And if you’re casting about for a story that’s hard to classify and difficult to put down, I would gladly recommend If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

Double the Magic

Since The Prestige came out over a decade ago I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers below.  This post also comes with another caveat: if you watch this film you’ll be left scratching your head and finding yourself strongly tempted to punch the replay button immediately.  Like most Christopher Nolan films, the movie is complex and intelligent.  It also plays on an age-old horror theme of the doppelgänger.  There be spoilers here!  

Following the rivalry of two stage magicians seeking the ultimate illusion, there’s a great deal of sleight of hand in the way this movie manipulates its viewers.  You are in the audience of a magic show and you’ve volunteered to go up on stage.  I watched this film on the recommendation of a friend without even checking the genre.  That can be a disorienting experience in itself.  One of the first questions we bring to movies as well as to texts is “what kind is it?”  I had the assurance that it was “the good kind” and that was about all.  That assessment was right.  While the credits rolled—it was already late at night, for me—I was strongly tempted to start it all over.  Sometimes people ask me why I watch horror films (and no, this is not horror) and I think the answer is related to what I find here.  Like most people I want the advice of others on what to do should things go wrong.  And in The Prestige they do go wrong.  Spoilers follow.

The crux of the film involves actual doppelgängers that result from Nikola Tesla’s experiments.  Tesla was a mysterious person in real life, and without knowing the genre you can watch this film and find it believable.  There’s a kind of faith involved in movie-going, after all.  One of the early exploiters of the doppelgänger was Edgar Allan Poe.  In “William Wilson” he narrates a tale of a double that might indeed be the real William Wilson.  The Prestige plays the same card.  Most of us live knowing that daily our senses can be fooled.  We actually enjoy it once in a while.  Stage magicians stake their livelihoods on it.  Nolan is a master of bringing complex twists to the silver screen.  In Holy Horror I briefly discuss his Memento.  I have a suspicion that I might’ve had more to say about it had I watched this film earlier, with a copy of Poe in hand.