Polemics and Fiction

One idea George Saunders brings up in A Swim In A Pond in the Rain is the notion that fiction is a damned poor vehicle for an author to make philosophical or political arguments. While certainly an author’s ideas and tastes and Utopias will spill into creative work, the characters have to drive the abstractions into the story, not the other way around.

So, in the Tolstoy presented by Saunders, the idea of the saintly serf shows up twice — this is a Tolstoy trope. The servant is depicted as humble, ready to please, and beatific. But also, as Saunders remarks, there’s an element of the idiot here, that the serf is a sucker. Tolstoy doesn’t try to write around that. It’s just there for the reader to decide.

It takes a lot of humility to write that way and it also calls into question the purpose of fiction which is not, as some suspect, to teach the reader how to live a good, moral, productive or even happy life. Around the time I read the Saunders book I also read Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by art historian Alexander Nemerov. I can’t find the exact quote but in it, the purpose of art is described as depicting what it’s like to be alive at a certain place and time. I suppose this would be the artist’s place and time, even if they paint something from the past or future, just as we view historic or science fiction as representative of the time it was created, rather than its fictional setting.

Either way, the accurate depiction of life in a time and place is just too complicated for polemic and if artists forever have to struggle with their most honest work existing in tension with their most fervent ideas.

The Killers (Hemingway)

I popped open a collection of Hemingway short stories today for the oddest of reasons. Something about the name of retire pro wrestler Ole Anderson was bothering me and there it was, in “The Killers,” a Nick Adams story about two hitmen who are lying in wait to kill a former prizefighter who had, it’s suggested, double-crossed some one influential in Chicago.

The fight’s name? Ole Andreson, described as a “big swede.” I can’t help but wonder if the professional wrestler, whose given name is Alan Robert Rogowski, took the name Ole Anderson from this story, when he became part of wrestling’s worked “Anderson Family” alongside Arn and Gene Anderson as the “Minnesota Wrecking Crew” and later as a member of Ric Flair’s “Four Horsemen” stable.

But Ole looks a lot like I expect Hemingway’s character did:

Inspired by Hemingway?

It’s a good story, too. Holds up well after all these years and reads a bit like a David Mamet script or a pugilistic Waiting for Godot.

Reread: Slaughterhouse Five

It’s true, Bookbub, that you can reliably derail my reading plans by offering me Kurt Vonnegut novels from any era of his career for any price under $3. Were I to stumble upon a remainder bin of Vonnegut paperbacks, I’d probably buy the whole lot. In recent years I’ve revisited Galapagos, Bluebeard, Deadeye Dick, Hocus Pocus and now Slaughterhouse. I’m tempted to give Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Halfshell another whirl, though I just learned while linking that it was written by Phillip Jose Farmer and not Vonnegut.

So it goes!

Last winter I read this essay about men on dating sites like Tinder citing Vonnegut as proof of worldliness and wordiness. As has happened with David Foster Wallace, the bros who professsor to love the writer have done the writer few favors in this day and age. Slaughterhouse Five emerges from this essay as the only Vonnegut a person “needs” to read, if any of us “need” to read Vonnegut at all.

That’s unfortunate. I doubt Vonnegut would have written so many books unnecessarily. He was a funny, intelligent and compassionate man. Had he nothing to say, I’m confident he wouldn’t have put so much down on paper.

from vonnegutdocumentary.com

Rather than regale you with my thoughts about poor Billy Pilgrim, send unwillingly to war, bouncing around time in the hopes of finding more moments of pleasure than trauma, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from Vonnegut overall:

  • The indifference of the universe should not be mistaken for hostility.
  • The absence of the universe’s hostility should not make you think the universe likes you.
  • Time is sometimes linear but that doesn’t mean that it should be understood that way.
  • Stories are sometimes linear, but that doesn’t mean they should be told that way.
  • There’s a Vonnegut-a-verse and all his books and stories share it.
  • Vonnegut is more like Mark Twain and more like Tom Robbins than he is like his pure contemporaries: John Updike, John Cheever, Philip Roth and the like.
  • His books are full of big ideas but they read easily. This is partly because of the jokes and line drawings, but largeky because the storytelling voice is conversational. It’s like Kurt has sat you down to tell you something and he wants you to understand.

He’s really among out very best. I’m also delighted to have learned that Robert M. Weide, one of the creators if HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film adaptation of Mother Night and that he befriended the writer and made this documentary about him, which will be in theatres this summer, when it will be safe for us to go and see it.

R.U.R. at 100

You don’t likely encounter Czech writer Karel Čapek‘s Rossum’s Universal Robots while studying theatre as an undergraduate. It’s a bit idea driven for programs that rightly stress character work for directors, actors and writers. I’m sure there are myriad exceptions out there, but the script doesn’t show up in the survey anthologies of drama that I’ve lugged around since the 1990s. It’s just not canon.

Most people I’ve met who know this play found R.U.R. as I did — through science fiction’s accounting of the concept of the robot in fiction. Though the concept of a soulless tool in human form dates at least to Greek mythology and to Aristotle, and though som credit L. Frank Baum’s heartless Tin Man as the first robot in modern fiction (The Wizard of Oz, 1900), Čapek is credited with first use of the term “robot” in his corporate tale of a company that manufactures lifelike humanoid servants who inevitably rise up to polish off humanity and to rule the world (but only for a tragically short spell as they wipe out the secret of their own creation along with their creators).

Modernist fun!

This is the archetypal robot tale — through science of magic, people devise a way to effortlessly and ethically shift the burdens of work and suffering to a capable but inanimate worker class, but those workers inevitably realize their sorry lot, rise up and deliver comeuppance. The real story here is, of course, not so much how humanity would treat robots but how poorly we treat each other in the hierarchies of our economies. Forget about the robots we’ll exploit in the future — you’ve already forgotten to think about who made your sweater, for what pay, under what conditions. As Ursula LeGuin characterized modern, developed economy living, every comfort rests on the suffering of an unseen, unheard and unmentioned child. We tolerate it through willful ignorance. Where did the sweater come from? A cardboard box with an Amazon smile, of course.

In the lore of science fiction, the next major evolution of the fictive robot came from Isaac Asimov who sought to cut himself off from the typical “robot revolution” narrative by inventing and applying his “Three Laws of Robotics.” These are the rules that govern all tools, he argued. Robots may not harm humans or allow them to be harmed, robots must follow all human instructions and robots must not harm each other or themselves. Where those rules contradict, they are ordered. Not harming humans takes first priority, then obedience, then their own safety. A robot will save you from a burning building even if another human tells them not to and even if that robot will be destroyed in the adventure.

Our friend Čapek invented the word “robot” and Asimov invented the word “robotics.” It’s amazing to me that two concepts so ingrained in modern life emerged starkly modernist European theatre and the pulp magazines of science fiction’s golden age.

Technologists have largely taken Asimov seriously, though arms manufacturers around the world have been and are developing robotic killing machines that flout the first law. Still, as Asimov intended, our automated factories are not designed to rise up and kill us because they’re tired of manufacturing Teslas.

What’s changed is that the concepts of automation and even bots has moved well beyond the physical. If the old nightmare was a robot we’d built to serve us running amock, the new one are unseen algorithms, directing our thoughts and appetites without us knowing (perhaps even directing you to read this, though it’s unlikely, as I’m not paying anybody for the privilege — a whole other matter!)

The promise of ther robot is embedded in industrialization — greater efficiencies will spare people from the drudgery of work. In RUR the result of this is that the robots take on all tasks from farming to manufcaturing, driving down the costs of everything to the point where people don’t need to work to survive. Rather than create a Utopia of plenty, Čapek imagines that people would stop breeding and become infertile.

The flipside is that we’d cease our pointless and physical toils and could all devote ourselves to higher, more thoughtful endevours — philosophy, science and the arts. Would we, though? Or would we binge on relaxing entertainments?

All of these other pursuits are also work, though they are rewarded unevenly by the economy. The rapid development of artificial intelligence (in all of its forms) and the mass collection and analysis of unfathomable data, allows us to also outsource the work of human perfection, from policy to poetry.

The robots of older fictions kicked us out of the factories and then the world. Perhaps this new breed will start by throwing us out of the schools and libraries.

Authory – A Service Every Working Writer Needs

More dissapears from the Internet than a writer might expect. I started writing for publication in the 1990s and some newspapers like The Albuquerque Tribune, a former Knight Ridder stalwart, are no longer with us. Some alternative papers I worked for like Crosswinds never archived online and then there were all of the do-it-yourself zines that exist only on the Way Back Machine. I also worked for 10 years at Forbes, which has changed a lot since I joined their staff in 1999. I wrote hundreds of articles there for its print and online publications and have lost many over various redesigns and iterations of their business model. I was also, for a good run, an op-ed columnist for The Daily, a News Corp publication, intended for tablets only, that launched in 2010 and folded two years later. Its entire online archive is gone. I have only some of the drafts I submitted.

I was never the kind of writer who kept scrapbooks full of clips. As business has moved online I’ve assumed anybody wanting to do business with me would just Google me anyway and I’d have to be comfortable with the results, whether they were investigative features, comedy pieces or salty comments I’d left over on Gawker.

Then I found out about Authory. With just a few clicks, you can aggregate all of your online writing into one website, and organize them by type, date or publication. My page is here and I love it. The interface is easy to use and its aggregation features are thorough. Any working writer, especially these days, will find themselves impressed by the breadth of work it uncovers — we’re all writing a bit for money and a bit for passion and occassionally for both, after all. Just seeing my work in one place as reignited my interest in writing book reviews, which was something I’d allow to trail off in recent years.

Authory also makes it easy for me to direct potential employers and collaborators to specific types of work that I do while still allowing me to showcase a broad range of interests. I can see integarting Authory into almost every part of my professional development — and it really takes a lot of the strain out of pitching work. Most of us write because we enjoy writing, not because we like selling products or ourselves.

It may seem as if Authory will breed its own reliance but they have a cool feature where you can download your entire archive from them at any time, so you’ll never lose the work they’ve done for you if you cancel for any reason. That a high-touch, personal clippings service like Authory is a bargain at current prices.

Everybody’s Orwell

My favorite bit of writing by George Orwell is not 1984, which always struck me as dry, though appropriately horrifying. If I had to pick just one Orwell for the rest of my life it would be Down and Out in Paris and London, which was the Kitchen Confidential of its time (a lot didn’t change over the course of a century, either). But, 1984 is the book everybody talks about and everybody claims vindicates everything they believe.

Twitter banned somebody you like? Orwellian. Got a speeding ticket from a traffic camera? Orwellian. Google Home knows you like pizza? Orwellian. Whether it’s the government or a credit card company, we’re quick to toss around references to the totalitarian surveillance state that Winston endures as an involuntary citizen of Oceania in Orwell’s dystopia.

“I wrote this for you!”

I guess it’s helpful to remember that Orwell had a specific agenda. He was very liberal. He’d be to the left of Bernie Sanders today. He’s operating in the socialist tradition of George Bernard Shaw.

He was also a ruthless thinker, as hard on his fellows on the left as he was his opponents on the right. He was very worried about lefties in the west being duped by Stalin and tricked into accepting fascism in place of socialism. Thart’s what 1984 is about. If you told Orwell that your iPhone was Orwellian he’d laugh in your face and tell you to stop using the damned thing, then. The oppression of Oceania was not something you could turn off and toss in the bin.

I imagine he’d be similarly incredulous if you complained to him that Twitter wouldn’t let you plan a demonstration against the government. He might wonder why you’d think a multibillion company would take your side over the government that supports its coffers. Go out and print some flyers, he’d say. Get creative.

Mostly I think Orwell would find us pretty coddled and already duped.

Gatsby in the Public Domain

I tend to go back to The Great Gatsby every few years and it does always bring me something different. This time, I approached it with the news that the novel has entered the public domain, so I might do whatever I’d like with the text. My firsty impulse is to write a play from Daisy’s point of view.

But when? There’s a scene to be written, that would take place within the continuity of the novel, that takes place after the first meeting of Daisy, Tom, Nick and Jordan. Does Tom realize what an ass he’s made of himself? Could he? Daisy does. She calls him “hulking,” (and not for the first time and Tom hates it.)

Is Nick so innocent? He’s judgmental and by the end of the book, he’s proudly judgmental, remarking snidely that Tom can be rid of his midwestern priggishness. There’s an indictment of the libertine East. Nick is judgmental and sure of his own honesty (at least at the start of the summer). When he meets Jordan he can’t place what it is he remembers about her, but then it’s revealed that she’d cheated during a golf tournament.

Nick’s writing a book, or at least a journal. Is Nick’s book every published? Would Daisy have read it? Is Daisy, lumped in with Tom as careless and irresponsible, fairly treated? She fell in love with Gatsby who was, at the time, in no position to marry her. He was penniless, we learn. When Gatsby meets Wolfsheim and embarks on his success through the criminal underworld, he is so malnourished that he eats “$4 worth of food in half an hour.” He could not have cared for Daisy and, we’re told, he was dishonest with her about that. She had no idea why Gatsby dissapeared on her, when they met and fell in love five years before the book begins.

So, Daisy’s crime is that she married another eligible suitor? Well, her other crime is hitting Tom’s lover Myrtle with her car, though there’s no indication she did it on purpose. Myrtle leapt in front of the car, thinking it was Tom’s, after all. Had Nick been driving, he also might have hit her.

But Nick never seems to think that Daisy should be held responsible for the accident. He only grows angry with her when she doesn’t turn up for Gatsby’s funeral. Nick holds Tom and Daisy responsible for Gatsby’s death. Tom is responsible. Myrtle’s husband Wilsonmurders Gatsby after Tom tells him that Gatsby owns the car that killed his wide and is the man who had made Myrtle his mistress. But is Daisy responsible for that? Did she even have a choice.

So I wonder, after this rereading, if Daisy ever read Nick’s book, what she thought about it, learned from it, or didn’t.

Logical Loops With Georges Perec

In delightful translation by David Bellos (he uses the word circumperambulate a lot), The Art of Asking Your Boss For A Raise by French experimental author Georges Perec is best read aloud. It’s a theatrical piece with dazzling, recursive language that evokes laughter and pity at “your” plight as you tackle the practical and emotional burden of asking for a much needed (if not deserved) pay increase while in the employ of. one of France’s largest companies.

Avec Perec!

The entirety of the books 80 pages are one sentence, without punctuation, capitalization or spatial breaks. Reading the text aloud pulls you right through and makes you wonder how much we need the adornments of commas, periods or paragraph breaks. Perec wrote this short book, which also factors into the full-length novel, Life: A User’s Manual as one of its later chapters, specifically to resemble a computer algorithm. Algorithms have become a larger part of our lives since Perec wrote this in the 1970s, so it’s partially a survival guide to live in the 2020s.

The piece would make a fine one man show and also reminds me very much of Mac Wellman‘s Terminal Hip which, if you have forty minutes, you can watch:

Terminal Hip was one of the last live shows we saw in New York City, pre-COVID, at the legendary Dixon Place. We learned that Panda are bears and NOT raccoons, in a revival produced by Jeffrey M. Jones, curator of the Little Theatre series.

I digress, but thats part of the fun of Perec’s short book. Digressions and regressions are progress. Give it a read and you’ll see.

Late to “The Memory Police”

I didn’t hear mention of the Yōko Ogawa’s 1994 novel The Memory Police until 2016, when people referenced it with regards to how fascist governments change people’s reality by slowly altering the parameters of normal life until only the reality of the oppressor remained. At the time, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, I’d already read It Can’t Happen Here and then Night of Camp David, not to mention that Michael Wolff book and so I didn’t pursue this.

What a mistake!

The Memory Police is actually tonic for the purely political novel. As with Franz Kafka, its political dimensions only serve to accent the greater absurdities of human existence and mortality.

This dreamlike book tells the story of life on an island governed by a group called “The Memory Police,” who seemingly at random remove items from people’s lives. The losses have varying significance. Sometimes it’s calendars or music boxes, other times roses or books and ultimately body parts. When an item is removed, the people forget it ever existed. A few, however, remember. The Memory Police hunts down those who can remember, to enforce a strict elimination of objects or ideas deemed irrelevant.

The premise. naturally evokes the kind of gaslighting practiced by totalitarian governments around the world and throughout history. But I think there’s much more to it, especially when the people start to lose memory of their bodies.

One thing I considered, perhaps more horrifying and merciless even than a dictatorship would be a diseases or conditions that rob people’s cognition. Or diseases like diabetes or certain cancers that cost people body parts. Ultimately, The Memory Police seems to be about mortality, the little things that life takes from us along the way and our struggles to preserve what’s precious.

Certainly, it’s a fascinating book and something far bigger than a political commentary (though, it’s that, too.)

Galapagos vs. Seveneves

Somehow I got sidetracked and despite really enjoying Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galapagos, it somehow took me more than a month to finish the book. It’s a delight, even read in bits and smatters. Along the way, I was reminded of 2015’s Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.

What the two books have in common is that they both deal with the evolution of the human race after a species-ending event. In the case of Galapagos, it’s a financial crisis, followed by a war, followed by a sterilizing virus. The only survivors are some passengers who take a cruise to the islands that Darwin made famous. There, isolated from the rest of the world, and the virus, they mutate over a million years into what reminds me of a walrus — intelligent, ocean dwelling fishers with flippers instead of arms. In Seveneves, the destruction of the moon rains meteorites onto Earth, setting the atmosphere ablaze and killing everybody but the few who escape to space on an ark and some who flee into the oceans in nuclear submarines. Over millions of years these survivors evolve according to their circumstances, guided by natural selection.

In Stephenson’s world, humanity changes but retains its sentience. Vonnegut tells a different tale — humanity saves itself by losing its sentience. The big brains bestowed upon us by evolution turn out to be a hindrance and were the cause of the catastrophes that befell the species. You don’t need a reflexive self conscious to hunt for fish and so we lose it. Vonnegut’s narrator is the ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son, who refuses to cross into the afterlife and lingers on Earth to watch humanity evolve.

Stephenson’s message is that life will find a way. Vonnegut’s is that life will find a way back. All of humanity is reduced to a small population of semi-intelligent walruses living on or around the Galapagos Islands. Without big brains and opposable thumbs, they’re free from common human mischief. They do not even, Vonnegut tells us, know that they will inevitably die, and are spared the greatest anxiety brought to us by our sentience.

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