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.

The Truth of Fiction

The thing about reading is that it’s a lifestyle.  I record books both here and on Goodreads, but I read a lot more than books.  Although I don’t have much time for magazines or even newspapers, I read a lot on the web.  And billboards.  And sidewalks.  I’m quite content doing it.  One thing I’ve noticed in all this reading is that fiction writers tend to be more often cited as experts and intellectuals than do non-fiction writers.  Oh the non-fic practitioners get their footnotes, and other specialists mention them, but fiction writers get analyzed, probed, and explored.  Literary types wonder what they meant by some obscure doggerel they wrote.  When’s the last time a non-fiction writer drew that kind of attention?  It makes me wonder about all the time I’ve been spending on non-fiction lately.

I suffer from graphomania.  There’s no cure.  The other day I went looking for an old, pre-electric typewriter to get my fix in case the power goes out.  I have notebooks, zibaldones, commonplace books.  I carry one in my pocket.  I have one on my bedside stand.  And the thing I’ve noticed is that the ideas that come to me unbidden are often fictional.  You see, I have a hidden life as a fiction writer.  That persona is very poor since he’s never made any money from his writing.  He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize some years ago, but he never won.  That fiction writer has been suffering cabin fever because I’ve been finding publishers for my non-fiction work.  I wonder, however, if maybe I shouldn’t be spending my time on fiction.  It’ll never get me to the point I can make a living on it, but it might get quoted after I’m gone.

Writing, after all, is a stab at immortality.  Those of us who do it are legacy builders.  Even as the web has moved us more and more toward visual, iconic forms of entertainment, it has still left a few dusty corners for the written word.  When I pass the sometimes impressive graffiti on the way into New York I think I know what the vandals are feeling.  We’re kindred spirits.  We don’t want to be forgotten.  Whether with spray can, fingers on a keyboard, or fountain pen (or maybe even an old-fashioned typewriter) we are trying to say, “I was here.”  I used to print out all my blog posts in case the web failed.  It grew to thousands of pages.  I had to stop.  I was beginning to act like a fictional character.

Care and Keeping of Books

I take good care of books.  It’s my personal goal that after I’ve read a book you won’t be able to tell.  I used to mark books up, but it occurred to me that I want the books to outlast me and if someone else is to get the full benefit of them I shouldn’t be doing such scribbling.  Of course, when a book has to commute with you there’s bound to be some scuffing from being put into a briefcase along with other necessities.  On the days I don’t commute, I try to replicate bus time for reading.  I curl up in a chair with my book and a cup of coffee to warm my fingers, and read.  The other day as I did this, a drop of coffee made its way from my mug onto the open page.  I was aghast.

Reading a marred book page is eternally distracting.  My eye is immediately drawn to the imperfection and I sometimes can’t even make sense of the sentence in which the blemish occurs.  Not because I can’t read it, but because I can’t get beyond the hurt.  Coffee rings are chic, I know, on the cover of a book or a notebook page.  It’s one of the truest clichés of the literary crowd.  Coffee and a good book.  Not coffee in a good book!  I tried to get back into the flow of the narrative.  My eye kept wandering back to the spot I’d unintentionally marred—I’d violated my own principles.  Unintentionally of course—this isn’t Starbucks where the heat is set at a reasonable level and you don’t have to scrunch up to keep warm.  But still.  But still.

After many minutes of feeling like I’d shot a friend, I managed to move on.  I kept turning back to my coffee page to see if the damage was as distracting as I thought it was.  After work that night when I picked my book up again—commuting is a twice a day activity—I turned back to the damaged page and frowned.  Books are, to some of us, friends.  I want to treat them right.  I line them up in order on their shelves, knowing just where to find them when I need them again.  One careless drop of coffee had taken its eternal toll on an innocent tome.  I realize this world lacks perfection; I’m not naive.  Still, this book, which wasn’t cheap, now bears a scar that I dealt it.  Will I ever comprehend what that one page says?  I hope my silent friend will forgive.

Playing Piano

It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.

What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.

The Big Shill

Once in a while I have to shill. As an erstwhile academic I’m aware of the cachet my employer bears for colleagues and the elite among the general public. Still, I find articles on the Oxford Dictionaries blog irresistible. I don’t work for the Dictionaries division, but I sometimes wish I did. A recent post by guest blogger Rebecca Teich discusses pulp fiction neologisms that have made their way into mainstream vocabulary. It’s not so much the individual words that interest me as much as does the phenomenon itself. Pulp fiction is antithetical to the sophisticated literature of the cultured class. Yes, there is status snobbery involved in such an assessment—we know those who find anything “common” to be vulgar and indicative of a lack of good breeding. The fact, however, that pulp fiction words make it to the mainstream belies the singular direction of cultural influence.

Many of us who grow up in working class families aspire to better things. We see (or used to see) on television and in movies how other people live. They have things and experiences that we covet. We work hard for many years to try to get there, often being kicked back down the stairs along the way. And yet we find some of our cheap, common vocabulary creeping into the consciousness of those who can afford better. There’s even a phrase for it. Guilty pleasures are those enjoyable books or other media that are really “beneath us,” but which we secretly enjoy. I post once in a while about Dark Shadows novels which are, quite literally, among the pulp fiction I grew up reading. They reached cultural cachet with a decidedly disappointing Tim Burton movie based on that universe, but regardless, they reached mainstream respectability.

Respectability. I suspect that’s what it’s all about. We want to be shown that our dirty collars and rolled-up sleeves mean something in this world of billionaire playboy presidents and congress that aspires only to greater wealth for itself. My first job, which I started when I was 14, involved physical labor. Brooms, paint rollers, and sledge hammers. I spent my evenings watching television and some of my weekends writing fiction. Pulp through and threw. Part of me finds its bliss in knowing that other rough-hewn writers have stamped their hallmark on the literary world by pounding out gritty stories of authentic human experience. Yes, I may be a corporate shill in this respect, but then, the shill is a respected member of the pulp fiction community.

Autumnal Ashes

I once told someone that a book I was reading was a “good autumn book.” The friend looked at me quizzically and asked what I meant. Seasons have a feel to them, even as books do. When the days grow shorter and the chill seeps in through the storm windows, I start looking for a book that matches the mood of a year that’s dying beautifully. So it was I came upon An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet. While I like Amazon just fine, the magic of the brick-and-mortar bookstore is finding that book face out that you’d otherwise never have seen. I read a lot of fiction—more than I post about on this blog—and a great deal of it come from the unexpected find in the local indy.

The story’s difficult to classify. Set in a future that sounds quite a lot like post-Civil War days, two sisters, Marthe and Hallie, try to keep a living at Roadstead Farm. The last of the soldiers have made their way back from the war where the Wicked God was killed. We never see the Wicked God clearly. He’s from a parallel world and is championed by his prophet. The death of the Wicked God was largely thought to be the end of the war. The passage between worlds, however, isn’t as secure as they armies thought. Religion doesn’t play a strong role here, but it was the cause of the war that has devastated the nation.

Fictional worlds require believers. Stories need not be religious to include religion. Without it, many tales lack verisimilitude. People are religious creatures by nature. Belief drives us, whether secular or sacred. This novel about a family trying to pull together in the aftermath of an evil god’s death. There’s a purgatory here from which those who believe can be rescued. And Hallie, who believes, ends up saving her own entire world. Religious? Not really, but it is all about belief. We need books that encourage faith in dark times. Indeed, An Inheritance of Ashes is about a dark period of uncertainty. What used to be true is open to question in these days when one belief system is determined to wipe out all others for good. Not so much live and let live as it is give and not give back. Ashes, whether literal as in Bobet’s world, or figurative as in our own, are appropriate reflections as the year begins to die.

Novelty Religion

Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.

Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.