Hawking Up Hairballs

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Three Novels and a Movie

I have decided to re-read three novels that had a big impact on me when I first read them. The novels are: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn; Mendel's Dwarf by Simon Mawer; and, Under The Skin by Michel Faber.

Geek Love is the story of a circus family in which the parents deliberately expose themselves to radiation, toxic chemicals, etc., in order to create a family of freaks for their traveling circus. The novel is the story of this family. I won't go into anymore detail in case any of you decide to read it. It's a tale of real horror.

Mendel's Dwarf is the story of a dwarf who is a remote descendent of Gregor Mendel, the founder of the science of genetics. He is a well-respected geneticist himself, and the novel is basically two things, a wrenching love story and an exploration of issues like genetic engineering and eugenics. Mawer creates a unique protagonist in this book, but he also explores some difficult issues without getting bogged down in lots of exposition.

Under The Skin is certainly an odd book, but a haunting one as well. It is set in Scotland, where this woman cruises the highways and picks up hunky hitchhikers. At least you initially take her for a woman. It turns out though that she is some alien creature, who has been subjected to horrible surgery to make her look human so that she can seek out and pick up these men, who are to be fattened up and slaughtered for food. As is obvious, the book leads one to think about how we treat the animals that we use for meat, but that's not what made it stick with me. Faber does such a great job of communicating the aching loneliness and alienation of his protagonist. Since she's had this surgery, she no longer looks like her kind and is shunned by them, but she is obviously not human, so cannot find relationships there.

After re-reading each of these books, I will post my thoughts here, in the hope that they will inspire others to pick up the books and give them the readings that they deserve.

The other night, I watched the 2003 movie Zatoichi. It's a Japanese film about a blind samurai. Given my ignorance of things cinematic, I thought it must have been a send-up of the samurai films, in much the same way that Sergio Leone's westerns were send-ups of Hollywood westerns. After all, one can only laugh at the notion of a blind samurai fighting and killing several assailants at a time. It had to be intended as a joke. Not so, grasshopper! As it turns out there were about 20 Zatoichi movies made, beginning in the 1960's, and this movie was a kind of homage to them. There is considerable wit in it though, and I found myself laughing a good deal.

The weirdest thing though was the dance number at the end. It wasn't really connected to the rest of the film, so it was a kind of add-on or coda. It started with about a dozen dancers, three guys up front and women in back, all dressed in medieval costume, dancing to the pounding of these big drums. The odd thing was that they were doing a tap dance routine. It looked like something out of an old Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire movie, only in medieval Japanese drag. Stranger still, they weren't wearing tap shoes, but these wooden-soled sandals that must have been a bitch to dance in. As the scene went on, members of the cast came out and joined in, all in costume. Why the director put this dance number in, I don't know. It was so damned campy, but I got a laugh out of it.

Monday, August 29, 2005

On Writing

In many ways, writing is like hitting a baseball. Sometimes you're on a hot streak, the ball looks as big as a basketball, and you're tearing the hide off of it. Other times, you hit a cold spell, the ball looks like a BB, and you're swinging like the proverbial rusty gate. As in baseball too, the only solution to these slumps is to sit down and work your way through them.

Hot streaks are what we all want though, and I can always tell when I'm on one. I am normally an excellent speller. However, over the years, I have noticed that when I am on a roll with my writing that I tend to misspell words. Not just any words though. Instead I will write a sound-alike word for the one I really want. For example, "there" when I meant "their". I suppose that one could say that this means the right brain is kicking in, though the whole right brain/left brain thing is overstated if recent research is to be believed. I tend to think that it's more the case that writing is primarily something verbal for me. When I'm going well, I fall into the rhythms of the spoken word and, from the point of view of the spoken word, "their" and "there" are exactly the same.

There are indubitably cold spells in writing, but I find that they don't last long and aren't hard to break through. For me, the really nasty ones turn out to be psychological problems, not writing problems. In the back of my mind, I may be thinking that no matter how hard I work on my novel, I won't get it published, or I may just find the enormity of the task as overwhelming. Sometimes those ways of thinking can be damned difficult to overcome and there's no question that they affect the writing.

Of course, one solution is to take the stance that you're mainly writing for yourself, but that's just bullshit rationalization. Those who are writing for themselves don't show it to others. The fact of the matter is that we who take writing seriously are obsessed with communicating with others. We have a vision that we're trying to get across. I've always felt that the difference between writing for oneself and writing for an audience is like the difference between masturbating and making love.

Anais Nin said that there's no such thing as writer's block and, in the sense that she means it, I agree with her. It was her contention that when a writer was blocked, he wasn't listening to his unconscious. There's no doubt about that in my mind, but that knowledge doesn't solve the practical problem. If you're in the middle of writing a novel, it's got a logic and a flow of its own. You have to follow that logic and its flow. Most times, if you go off on some wild tangent, you end up getting lost. I know, because I've done it.

All that said, there's nothing I'd rather be doing than writing. It sure as hell beats software engineering, which I spent too many years doing.

I was going to write a comment about the public debate over whether intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in science classes but, in yesterday's NY Times, Daniel Dennett wrote a piece that addressed the issue a lot better than I could. I recommend it. You have to register to read the Times online, but it's free.

Monday, August 22, 2005

I Couldn't Let This Pass

Sometimes our President, with his royalist proclivities, says things that just make my jaw drop. The latest example occurred last week. When Georgie was asked how he could take five weeks of vacation while US troops were suffering and dying in Iraq, he responded, "I think it's important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life...I've got a life to live."

The first thought that occurred to me when I read this was that he didn't get it, that this scion of privilege just didn't understand what ordinary people went through, and I do believe that this is true. However, after thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that Bush is just a child of his age, and that we have gotten the president that we deserve.

We live in profoundly narcissistic times, and I'm not talking about simple selfishness when I refer to narcissism. A selfish person generally knows that he's behaving without taking the interests of others into consideration. He just plain doesn't care, or perhaps feels guilty about his behavior. The narcissist is so wrapped up in himself, that he doesn't really understand the impact of his actions on others. Georgie has made a lot of remarks, like the one above, that indicate to me that this describes him.

There are many reasons why narcissism came to characteristize of our age, and I won't go into them here. My favorite book on the subject is The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations. It was written by Christopher Lasch in 1979, but it still rings true today.

A friend emailed me to say that it hasn't been possible to leave comments on my blog without first registering. My apologies for that. It is apparently the default setting, and I have changed it.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

This and That

Well, it's been a while since I've posted. It's not what I would have wanted, but it was a matter of visiting family and more frustrating problems with my phone line. I kept getting static that made a good Internet connection impossible. Fortunately I was able to snag the BellSouth repairman that they sent out and convince him that the problem was in the antiquated junction box leading into my house. He replaced it and I can now get online without worrying about disconnects and slowdowns.

In the meantime, I've solved a couple of the problems I've had with naming the characters in my novel. The antagonistic character who was named Joey will be Joey Canebrake. He's a "good ol' boy" who is a bit of a snake in the grass, and I feel that "Joey Canebrake" connotes that sort of character without being too heavy-handed. I've also got names that I'm reasonably satisfied with for the three cats in the circus' big-cat act. I'm using Sycorax as the name of the lead cat. Circe and Selene will be the names for the other two. Sycorax is the name of Caliban's mother in Shakespeare's The Tempest. I like the name because I can use "Syco" as her nickname, thus playing off of the word "psycho".

I'm about halfway through an intriguing novel by W.G. Sebald called Austerlitz. I kept reading about Sebald in the New York Review of Books and decided that it was time that I made a point of reading him. He's German, and since my German is rudimentary, to say the least, I'm reading him in translation. The book is the story of a man named Jacques Austerlitz and it is told from the point of view of another man who encounters Austerlitz from time to time. The book is told in the manner of a series of long monologues. There are no paragraphs, except at what I take to be the ends of chapters, and the narrator veers off in various directions to talk about seemingly unrelated topics, in architecture, the study of moths, etc. In addition, there are uncaptioned photographs in the text, indicating what the narrator sees or holds in his mind. It sounds strange, but it works. Sebald was apparently an admirer of Breton, and this is one of the few novels that I've encountered that uses the Surrealists' techniques, and manages to make them work.

As regards non-fiction, I'm currently reading Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy. It's a collection of essays by different historians about the classes that have historically ruled the USA. It's not one of those conspiracy theory books either. It's published by Harvard University Press, which pretty much puts it in the academic mainstream.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, I couldn't make it through The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions by David Ray Griffin. He raises some interesting facts that leads one to think that there is more to the story than we know, but a lot of what he claims just isn't plausible. For instance, he maintains that there was no way the two airliners could have collapsed the twin towers, and that the way they fell was characteristic of a controlled demolition. He even quotes a couple of experts on the subject who back up that contention. Griffin suggests that there were people in the government who were complicit in the terrorist acts of 9/11. That I find hard to believe, at least in the stronger senses of complicit. Word would get out. It just isn't possible to cover such things up. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if the Busheviks were complicit in the weaker senses of the term. I think it quite likely that they had credible intelligence reports that indicated that such attacks were coming, but that they ignored them. Given that the Busheviks are never inclined to admit they're wrong, they would go the great lengths just to cover up something like that.

I'm a man, so I guess it's obligatory that I make some comment on sports. I'm a Braves fan and, living in Atlanta, get all of their games on TV, and I must say that I'm enjoying the hell out of watchng Jeff Francoeur. It's like something out fo a movie like The Natural.

One final word, does anyone out there know of any good review sites where I might get suggestions for reading? I've found a few, but none that have impressed me enough to go back to them.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Hello, Mr. Orwell

More and more, it's beginning to look like George Orwell wasn't so much wrong about the future. It's just that his time table was off a little bit. Not only do we have the increasing use of doublespeak, and abominations like the Patriot Act, but even more sinister things like the implanted RFID chip. I'm including a link at the bottom of this post. It points to an article about Tommy Thompson, former HEW secretary. He's having an RFID chip inserted under his skin. An RFID chip is a radio frequency chip which contains information about you. Thompson is promoting it as a big benefit for people with health problems. Yeah, right. I've also read articles which suggest implanting these things at birth. Those articles usually take the angle that would appeal to parents, pointing out that, if all children had these chips, the police would be able to track those who were lost or kidnapped. As if kidnappers wouldn't just cut the frigging chip out of a child's skin.

Call me a cynic, but I'm telling you the that notion of RFID chips for people with medical problems is just the foot in the door. Call it step one. Step two would be to implant them in children for the reasons I stated above. Next would come the idea of replacing driver's licenses and Social Security cards with these chips. I suspect that there would be some public resistance to that, but just let a terrorist hit someplace like New York City while the debate was going on. The government would come out saying that everyone had to have the chips so they could be used to hunt down terrorists, and the sheep would all line up to have these little electronic minders inserted.

Of course, if James Howard Kunstler is right in his book The Long Emergency, we won't have to worry about any such thing because we are in the era of peak oil and everything's downhill from here. I don't know about that, and I can't really recommend the book, as such, because it is so poorly organized and, in places, poorly researched. However, he does bring home one point, namely, that as oil becomes more and more scarce, which isn't hundreds of years or even several decades away, our way of life is going to have to change in a very profound manner. All aspects of life in America depends on oil, and in a big way. There's our driving habits and suburban lifestyles, but it goes way beyond that. Our forms of agriculture are incredibly oil-intensive, from the machines used in farming, the fertilizers and such that are all made from oil, to the trucks that are used to ship agricultural products to market. Virtually all of our medical drugs are synthesized from oil products. All plastic is made from oil. You get the picture.

Kunstler looks at the situation in a way that hadn't occurred to me before. Every since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have been living off of stored sunlight in the form or coal, oil, and natural gas. In the space of a few hundred years, we have consumed millions of years worth of that stored sunlight. When it is gone, that's it. There is no more and there are no viable substitutes for it. I don't want to go into the reasons why. If anyone is interested in the details, I suggest Kunstler's book, even with its flaws. My conclusion after reading the book is that we should all be taking energy consumption much more seriously than we do, and I'm not just thinking in terms of personal consumption, but in terms of changing public policy, and changing it now. Not much chance of that though, not with the corrupt Administration now in power. And so we go, slouching into the darkening future.


Monday, August 01, 2005

Sometimes They're Just Stereotypes, But Then...

Some say that God is in the details. Others say it's the Devil. Whatever the case, finding the telling details that reveal a character as unique and believable can be a real bitch. Some suggest observing people and perhaps even making notes on your observations. That can work, but I have found that all too often people appear to be stereotypes. But then again. Well, let me relate a recent incident that illustrates my what I'm saying.

I stopped in at a nearby Mexican restaurant to get some takeout. While I was waiting for my food, this guy came in. He was what you might call your typical redneck, a short guy in his fifties with a beer belly. He placed an order and sat down to wait for his takeout. This guy was apparently acquainted with young Hispanic behind the cash register and they started chatting. The redneck, who was smoking, told the guy behind the register that he was glad that the restaurant still had a smoking section. He went on to complain that there were a lot of restaurants that didn't permit smoking at all. He finally said, "I'd like to start me a restaurant for smokers. If you ain't smoking, you can't get in." See what I mean? If my food had arrived then, I would have left the restaurant thinking that people all too often just act from type. Of course, that's how stereotypes arise. People identify with certain groups and segments of society, leading them to adopt the habits and attitudes associated with those groups and segments.

However, things got interesting when the man's wife arrived. She too was in her fifties, but she wasn't anything like what I would have expected. She had on a man's short sleeve shirt, Bermuda shorts, sneakers, and white gym socks that she had pulled all the way up. Her gray hair was relatively short and brushed back on the sides. She carried herself in a very masculine manner. For example, she sat with her legs open, and when she wanted to get her husband's attention to say something to him, she slapped him on the arm with the back of her hand.

I was immediately intrigued, but why? It was the fact that the wife went against expectations, which raised a number of questions in my mind. The woman had to be a lesbian. For Christ's sake, it seemed that she was actually going for the butch lesbian look. Hence, I first wondered if she was really gay. If she was, did her husband know it? She was so butch that I couldn't see how he could miss it. Of course, the human ability to deny that which one doesn't want to see is awfully powerful, but there must have been people who intimated the obvious to the man. How would he have responded? Perhaps their marriage was one of convenience, or perhaps the wife was in denial. Perhaps she was a lesbian but refused to accept the fact. I could go on, but you get the picture.

By going against expectations like that, the writer can pull the reader in and reveal something about the characters involved. What makes it hard is that, when you are creating characters, the ones that spring to mind tend to be stereotypical. One way in which you can create a unique character is to go against type. A hard man can show tenderness, a weak one courage, etc., but you can't be mechanical about it. Those aspects of a character that go against type have to flow from the character's makeup and experiences, otherwise the character will seem cut-and-paste. That's what makes it difficult. As far as I'm concerned it's definitely the Devil who's in the details. While I'm sitting there doing the hard work, he's pricking me with the proverbial pitchfork, while God's lounging in his heaven somewhere, sipping a good port as a comely angel gives him a manicure.