Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

This and That

I have been remiss in my postings the last few weeks. There have been a few reasons for that, one objective and one personal. When the remnants of Hurricane Dennis came through a few weeks back, a falling limb took out my phone and power lines. A couple of weeks of frustration followed. The power was soon back on, though it cost me a substantial sum to have an electrician repair the damage done to the weatherhead on my house. The phone was another matter. It took the folks at BellSouth six days to get my line back and, when they did, there was intermittent static on the line. Sometimes it got so bad that I could hardly hear the people I was talking to on the phone. I called the BellSouth repair line and they did some automated test from their offices and insisted that the line was fine. Needless to say, I couldn't get a good internet connection. Late last week, though, I finally got a hold of them when there was a loud buzzing on the line. The person I was talking to could hear it as well and admitted there was a problem, which has now been fixed. Ah, the wonders of deregulation.

As for the personal, one of the things that I feared when starting this blog was that I would start worrying too much over the quality of my writing and end up fussing over my entries. Unfortunately, I let myself fall into that trap, which is a mistake. I don't want to let this blog take time and energy from my novel, so I've got to keep reminding myself to just bang out the entries.

I finally finished reading the Nabokov biography that I mentioned in an earlier post. I'm no more impressed than I was then. At the time I complained about all the print that he was devoting to Nabokov's ancestor and family in general. Now I understand why the author was doing it. He was writing a conventional biography and, though Nabokov was an expatriate, he didn't really have a very eventful life. The biography had to be filled out with something, though that's no excuse. One thing it cleared up though. Nabokov did not write Lolita in three months. He worked on it for five years. At that time Nabokov was doing a lot of driving across and around the country to lectures, etc., and according to the biographer he mostly wrote it in the backseat of a 1954 Buick while his wife was driving. Of course that doesn't square with the earlier statement that Nabokov wrote standing up.

In my novel there are three scenes that take place at poker games. Each of these scenes are pivotal. The story turns on them. Anyway, a tertiary character, Maggie, who is the cook for the circus, says that the queen of hearts is her favorite card. That has led me to read Alice In Wonderland to see if it would make sense to create any allusions to the Queen of Hearts character there. I've read glosses that claimed that Alice in Wonderland is really about drugs. It always sounded kind of farfetched to me, but here's the first sentence of the chapter where Alice encounters the caterpillar. "The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of his mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice." Now, if that doesn't suggest an opium smoker, I don't know what does.

I've refrained from commenting on society and politics, mostly because there are so many sites that do it better. One of my favorites is Billmon, which I am now linking to. However, I feel compelled to remark on the London bombings. Such acts are horrid and morally reprehensible, but to express outrage about them without at the same time expressing outrage at the acts of the US military in Iraq is to imply that the lives of Westerners are more important than those of Iraqis. For example, the Marine snipers who positioned themselves on rooftops around the hospitals in Fallujah in order to shoot at anyone who entered or left the hospitals are every bit as despicable as those who set off the bombs in London's subways. In addition, the US government's policy of collective punishment in Iraq is every bit as reprehensible as the jihadist policy of bombing areas frequented by civilians. A plague on both of their houses is what I say.

Saturday, July 09, 2005


Subtexts are important. It could be argued that it's subtexts that separate real literature from entertainments, but I'm not talking about literature here. I'm talking about the media.

Except for the purists among us, we all sit down to watch a little mindless TV from time to time. Perhaps in order to excuse myself for wasting the time, I will sometimes deconstruct the commercials as I watch. For example, there's the current commercial for the HP notebook computers. The theme of the commercial is that it "puts full entertainment at your fingertips". The scene is one of those large, amphitheater-style, college classrooms. The professor, a dull-looking sort, who is lecturing on radioactive decay, is a Hollywood stereotype. He's dressed like Fred McMurray from the old Nutty Professor movies, with glasses, and a sweater buttoned up over a white shirt and tie. There are a coule of close-ups of students looking bored. Then there are the three students with HP laptops. None of them are paying any attention to the lecture, and they're having fun with their computers. One is playing a computer game, another is listening to music, and the third is watching a movie, and the scenes of each are coming alive, right there in the classroom.

The message of the commercial is obvious, as it's meant to be. The audience is college students. I don't know about all colleges, but in many of them students are required to have laptops, and this commercial tells them that, if they buy a HP laptop, they can have fun while sitting through dull lectures. Nothing terribly interesting there, but look at the subtexts. One of them is that science is boring, and that scientists are unattractive nerds. This is a very persistent prejudice that advertisers often play off of. But why? When it comes to the producers of the commercials, they're probably just mining an image that is part of their creative vocabulary, but its sources go beyond that. We live in a very anti-intellectual culture. Not only does the advertising industry exploit this tendency, but they promote it as well. Consumerism depends upon impulsive self-indulgence. Good consumers do not engage in much critical thought, so those who capable of such thought must be presented as uncool.

Another subtext, given the way the commercial is presented, is that it's all right to entertain yourself during a classroom lecture. These kids' parents are paying for a very expensive education, and they are probably going into substantial debt themselves, but they're being encouraged to blow off a lecture to play a computer game or watch a movie. In other words, it's okay to blow off a lecture to indulge your desire for diversion. A broader message here is that it's okay to follow your impulses. That's at the core of most commercials because it's the basis of our economy. Good consumers behave impulsively.

One of the more egregious commercials from my point of view was on last year. It was an ad for a Jeep SUV. The scene was a painting class. The teacher is strolling down an aisle between her students, telling them what she's looking for in their paintings. Then she says something like "I want to see what's in your soul." She gets to the last of the students, who has painted the SUV and the teacher says, "That's what I'm talking about!" Every time I saw it, I wanted to bang my head against the wall. I'm thinking of building myself a rubber room. Maybe I should just turn off the TV instead.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Vladimir Nabokov

I'm reading a 1977 biography of Vladimir Nabokov. It's Nabokov: His Life in Part by Andrew Field. I'm not impressed by the biography. The author's photo on the back flap says it all. A bearded, relatively young man in glasses is staring into the camera. He's holding a pen to his mouth in a thoughtful, but pretentious pose. Give me a break. The photo I could ignore though, if the writing wasn't so precious. Even worse, he is so infatuated with the aristocratic Nabokov family that he spends the first two chapters of seven writing about them in almost devotional terms.

So why read the biography? I might have chosen another one but, given the skimpy holdings of the DeKalb County Library, it was the best I could do. Why read a biography of Nabokov at all? That's a good question. He's not a favorite of mine. His novels tend to be cerebral puzzles and, just to make sure the reader doesn't forget that fact, he creates a deliberate distance between his reader and his characters. That sort of thing isn't really my cup of tea.

It all comes down to something I read in one of those writing books that I mentioned. It said that Nabokov wrote "Lolita" in three months. I find that hard to believe so I wanted to find out if it was true. I haven't reached that part of the biography yet, but it has been made clear that, if Nabokov did say that, he could have been embellishing the facts. It wasn't all that unusual for him to do so when asked about things that he considered personal. When it comes to the autobiographical, he's an unreliable narrator.

So, what is all of this leading up to? Well, Nabokov had one of the more unusual of working habits. He would write while standing at a lectern, and he wrote on index cards. He would use a pencil because he didn't like to strike out lines and he erased liberally. The index cards would be stored in two wooden cases that had been made for them. Nabokov was a bit of a technophobe, as technology went at his time, and he didn't type, so when he finished a book, he would have to get someone to type the manuscript for him.

While standing at a lectern? Geez, that would be tiresome. One hell of a way to skin a cat, I'd say.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Grappling With Demons

June wasn't a good month for my writing. I finished the second draft of my novel in the first week of the month, and was eager as hell to dive into the third draft. I figured I could have it ready in three or four months. To my chagrin, there was much I didn't like about it and I've had to launch into another grueling rewrite.

I wrote a lot of poetry in my younger years and, for better or worse, I'm writing this novel with the same approach that I took to my poetry. Every paragraph of the novel has to be solid. I'd like to take a different approach, to accept "good enough" instead of demanding that everything be "just right" but I can't do it.

One of my guilty pleasures is books on writing. I've read at least a couple of dozen of the things. They are mostly crap, geared to those people who want to write the next blockbuster mystery or romance novel. Still, I read them and I've come up with a helpful technique or two from doing so. One thing they suggest, without exception, is getting on with the damn book. Don't linger over the right word or sentence for too long, they say. Some of them recommend writing X number of words a day and giving yourself a time frame of Y in which to do so. All well and good, and if I aspired to Bernard Cornwell or Elmore Leonard, maybe I could do it but I can't. Something inside of me rebels. I linger and mull and brood, averaging about 100 words an hour. That means more than 1000 hours until I finish this draft. Geez, Louise, I'm not getting any younger, and there are so many books I want to write.

Okay, I want some interaction here. If you could write just one novel, what would you want it to be about? I'd next like to write an anti-war "war" novel, though I don't know if I'm up to it. Maybe the next "Tropic of Cancer". Oh, yeah, I'd love the research for that. "Lolita" perhaps? Though I'm not a pompous Russian ex-aristocrat. So many ideas, so little time.