Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scary Movies, Thai Ghosts, and Your Favorites

Our blogospheric pal Jen Ster has posted (glancingly) on the topic of movies that still scare the bejeezus out of her, and, it being Halloween, I thought I ought to do the same.

But first I thought I should say a few words on the real topic of her post, which was how the whole world of scary ghosts and demons fits into the Buddhist tradition. Jen concludes, quite rightly, that at the theological level, while Christians may get their chastity belts in a knot about the eternal conflict with the unseen forces of darkness, Buddhist doctrine denies the reality of such forces and their desires.

True enough. But in on-the-ground practice, neither of these faiths looks much like their theories. I mean, tune in to an evangelical Christian radio station in the US, and you'd never know Jesus had ever said anything about love or kindness or tolerance or mercy.

Similarly with Buddhism on the street (Yo, Bodhisattva! Howzit, homie?). I've spent a fair amount of time in Asia, and a good deal of the Buddhism there is infused with animism, pantheism, and just plain superstition.

And, wooooo-baby!, although they are Buddhists, do they ever love ghosts in Southeast Asia. Though they have a way of looking at it that seems quite off-kilter to a Western sensibility. For example, I worked with a young Thai woman--sharp as broken glass and honed to a nanometer edge by Bangkok's top university--who was named 'Puntip.' But her birth name was 'Puntib.'

Why the spelling change? Her sister had died when Puntib was still young, and so she changed the spelling of her her sister's ghost couldn't find her.

I'm not sure why she feared her sister's ghost. I mean, I'm sure Puntip wouldn't have done anything to antagonize her relatives, or anybody else. She had a formidable intellect, but her only characteristic that anyone might think was out of the way was her ongoing habit of trying to bend the fingers of her hand backwards as though she hoped her nails would touch the back of her wrist. Why? Because having fingers that bend way backwards is very sexy for women in Thailand; traditional Thai dancers can flex their fingers way back (without tugging on them). I gather it's attention-getting, sort of like our female dancers who can put their feet behind their heads. Though I have to admit retroflexive fingers is a bit more subtle.

But the finger-bending thing isn't nearly as odd to my mind as the idea you can evade your sister's ghost by changing the spelling of your name. What's up with that? I mean, how do ghosts find you? The phone book? Social Security records? People in Thailand had better hope ghosts haven't figured out how to search on Google, because when the ghosts search on "Puntib" a bold blue underline is going to pop up at the top of the screen asking Do you mean "Puntip"? and then the game is up.

I have two sisters: both of them are younger than me, and apparently healthy. But if I were worried they planned to haunt me...But, wait. Why should they, anyway? Is it a chick thing? Maybe sisters are more prone to haunt one another, because of borrowing one another's sweaters and stretching them out, or not getting out of the shower soon enough when the other one like totally has someplace important to go.

I'm not saying sisters don't have issues with their brothers. I'm just saying they know any subtlety would be wasted on us. Their spirits might come back and give us a swift kick, or even dump a plate of lasagna in our laps in a restaurant when we're trying to sweet-talk a first date. Who wouldn't? But as far as 'haunting' us, on an ongoing basis, sisters know they really ought to reserve their good stuff for each other. The subtle stuff would be wasted on me, plus I never borrowed any of their clothes. Well, not without asking first.

In any case, if I were trying to hide from the ghosts of Amber or Kristie, I'd try the false nose, mustache, and glasses thing first. I don't see that changing my name to Davud would fool either of them. But, then, I'm not Thai, so some of the tricky nuances of the animist/Buddhist stuff go right over my head. Our ghost stories probably seem weird to them, too.

And down in Indonesia, where they are Muslim, their ghosts--ghost is 'hantu' in Bahasa, one of their interesting borrowings--are equally weird. Though they seem to worry more about 'pontianaks,' which are sort of witches who steal children. (It's easier for them to steal children if the children sleep from daylight into darkness, which I totally undertand. If you fall asleep in the afternoon and wake up in the dark, it just feels wrong. Keep your kids awake through twilight.)

What was my point? I'm sure I had one here somwhere...Oh. Yeah. Christians got ghosts, Muslims got ghosts, Buddhists got ghosts. Jews have annoying in-laws..and golems, too. But what really scares you is not only cultural/religious, but also deeply personal. Jen's creepfest is apparently Amityville Horror (though I think she's the one who pointed me to the awesome Thai film Shutter. Must be a Buddhist thing.)

My personal fave--the one that makes me horripilate while watching, and sleep uneasily that night? That would be Nicholas Roeg's inscrutable Don't Look Now. Disturbing, ambiguous, and ultimately unresolved.

Roeg was one of the few loose wheels on the Great Hollywood Freight Train, and his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Don't Look Now is one of those films that couldn't have been made a few years prior or a few years later to its release date of 1973. The sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie is legendary, and reputed to be real rather than acted; it's easy to believe the legend, because the scene is so damn striking, and so, so un-Hollywood.

When Pamela and I were in Venice, we stayed in the (then) only hotel out on the glass island of Murano, out past the Cimiteria, the Isle of the Dead, where I visited Stravinsky's grave. We're night people. though, so every evening ended with us blundering our slighly inebriated way though the dark, echoing, dead-ending maze of Venice to get to the northern docks where we could catch a late vaporetto for Murano. A few times we kept bumping into dead alleys and uncrossable canals, and I felt myself cursing Roeg...

I'm pretty immune to gore and standard horror. Don't Look Now scares me, because it seems to mean something, and I'm not sure what. Dreamlike, horrible, and horribly unresolved. It probably isn't the best horror film ever made. It's just the one that scares me the most.

And, by the way: Is Daphne du Maurier one of the great unsung writers in the English language, or what?

Oops. There I've rattled on again. It's Halloween! What movie scares the hell out of you?

The Global Electoral College

Even though the entire world population is affected by the choice of President in the United States, they don't get to vote. (In fact, in the last couple of elections, the Republicans have done a good job of making sure that many US citizens don't get to vote, either.)

The Economist has taken a step towards remedying this, by establishing The Global Electoral College, where anyone can drop through and vote. (If the page zooms in, click on the World Map widget to see the whole globe.) Votes regisetered here aren't binding, but they sure are interesting.

I don't think anyone would describe The Economist or its readership as left-of-center. But those who've bothered to cast votes worldwide are supporting Obama, with 85% of the popular vote and 97% of the 'world electoral vote.'

Of the roughly 180 independent nations in the world today, McCain is carrying exactly 6: Algeria, Congo, Iraq (!), Myanmar, Namibia, and Sudan. It's interesting that four of these six are in Africa, and that three of the six are predominantly Muslim. Do you suppose the Obama strategists are worried that McCain is making inroads into the global black, Arab, and Muslim votes?

Of course, McCain has been contending for some time that "our enemies" want to see Obama elected. If true, this global poll suggests that almost everyone in the world qualifies as one of "our enemies." It also seems at odds with the fact that Al-Qaeda's endorsement seems to have gone to McCain. (This seems only fair given the noise McCain's camp made when Hamas apparently endorsed Obama back in April.)

Oh, and The Economist* formally endorsed Obama today. About what you'd expect from a Commie publication like that. Hell, even their logo has always been red...

Oops. I forgot. The Republicans are the Reds now, aren't they?


*Who cares about Presidential endorsements from a British paper? As it turns out, half of The Economist's worldwide circulation is now in the US; it has more readers than the Chicago Tribune, and seems likely to overtake the Los Angeles Times in the foreseeable future. (In both cases, that excludes the Sunday edition; who can compete with the weekend comic strips?) The Economist's subscriber base in the UK is now only 20% of its world total.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Success: Talent 99%, Persistence 99%, Craft 99%, Other 99%

What's that make, 396%?

Emma Darwin touches on the topic of persistence (and the fact that it isn't enough) in a recent post. (Her post is a bit more profound than the old issue of talent versus persistence, however: its real focus is the need to confront the void.)

But that set me to pondering on the matter of who succeeds in this odd racket of ours.

The public at large seems divided into two major camps: those who think it's all about talent, and those who think that any fool can write a good novel. (Most of those in the latter group tell you that they plan on writing one themselves once they get a little spare time.)

Writers, teachers, editors, and agents are quick to point out that persistence usually trumps talent; everyone in the business has seen too many talented people who never lived up to their gifts, and everyone has also seen people of seemingly modest talents become important writers. Ralph Keyes quotes editor Edward Chase: "If they really stick at it, eventually--like salmon swimming upstream--they are going to make it."

I've lived in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, so I've had plenty of time to observe salmon runs. I have some unfortunate news: many salmon, maybe the majority of salmon, never make it to the spawning grounds. They get gobbled by seals at the mouths of rivers, get tangled in garbage-strewn creeks, get smacked out of the water by hungry bears, or simply tire and die before they complete their journeys. I can hardly think of a less-encouraging simile. (Not to mention that when they finally get to their destination and spawn, they promptly roll over, die, and float rotting downstream.)

Talent is necessary, but luckily talent is common. Often deeply buried, perhaps, but common.

Persistence is less common than talent, but persistence is also widespread. The main problem with persistence is that it is often directed to the wrong end. There are writers who persist, year after year, in trying to get the same bad novels published. There are writers who persist in bad writing habits no matter how often they are given feedback that tells them to fix their approach.

Persistence that allows a writer to improve is useful. Persistence in something wrongheaded isn't an asset at all.

One of the outgrowths of persistence can be a command of craft. It's hard to tell, looking at a well-written manuscript, whether one is seeing the result of 'native talent,' or whether the book is the product of persistent work that has made the writer a master of the craft. (What's more, readers don't really give a damn how the book was produced; they only care about the product itself.)

But even if a writer has the right combination of talent and persistence and craft, this doesn't guarantee success in the marketplace. There's also another amorphous, indescribable element, which we'll call 'other factors.' Other factors are what is variously labeled 'timing,' 'fate,' 'destiny,' or 'randomness.'

Melville's Billy Budd lay unpublished for decades, Lampedusa's The Leopard was pronounced unpublishable by publishers, Toole's Confederacy of Dunces wasn't published until a dozen years after his suicide. The fact that these books were eventually published long after the deaths of their authors could be used by true believers as evidence that all good books eventually find their audience, but I'm more confident in the existence of the Easter Bunny. To me, when we have widely acclaimed books that nearly never saw the light of day, it suggests there are probably at least as many great books that are now lost, and a huge substratum of merely good books we'll never know about.

Although plenty of people claim in retrospect that Harry Potter, or something like that series, was inevitable, I'm not convinced. I don't think it was at all obvious in the mid-90s that children around the globe were hungering for thick books about magic school. It wasn't clear to me or anyone else I spoke to at the time that children were hungering for books at all. And Rowling was rejected by a bunch of agents, and then a slew of publishers turned down the book, and when they bought it they did so for a rather small advance. The initial print run was 500 copies. If the book had been first published in America, or had been published two years earlier or two years later, or if JK Rowling had selected the wrong agent...

Some degree of talent is necessary for success, but I can point to certain writers who demonstrate that the minimum amount can carry you far. Craft is needed, too, but here once again we can find plenty of examples of successful writers whose craft is on the primitive side even after an editor has put their hand in.

But persistence is needed by the truckload. Banging out even the world's most inept novel is a time commitment most people can't face up to (hence the legions of people who plan to write a book 'some day'). In binary terms, many writers put the Persistence/Talent ratio for success at 80/20 or even 90/10.

Where does that leave other factors, though? Persistence/Talent/Other at 70/20/10? Or at 40/10/50? Maybe 10/1/89? (Looks like a birthdate, doesn't it?)

And what the heck do we mean by 'success,' anyway?

[Notice the clever use of the editorial 'we' there, implicating all of you in my question. Of course, on a blog, where readers can toss in their comments, using 'we' makes good sense.]

Friday, October 24, 2008

My Secret Vice

Neil, the male half of the Veggiebox twins, has launched a meme over on their blog. Unlike many, though, this is a single, simple question: What's your Secret Vice? (Neil admits to soap operas--in particular one I've never heard of.)

Well, that's easy. Dumb movie parodies, in the vein of Airplane. I think many of these are better than people think, because buried beneath the silly jokes and gags, they often show a real understanding of the craft involved in different film genres. Plus, I like dumb jokes and gags.

Airplane is not by any means my favorite, though. I suppose I'd have to go with Top Secret, Val Kilmer's first (and finest) film. (Kilmer is an amazing singer and dancer--talents he doesn't often display, but showcases in this film. Though, come to think of it, he did a pretty good Jimmy Morrison in The Doors.) Top Secret is a gorgeous mess--half Elvis-y rock movie, and half intrigue behind the Iron Curtain...exccpt that the Eastern Europeans all seem to be WWII Nazis, and the partisans trying to overthrow them all seem to be members of the French Resistance. Oh, and the movie Blue Lagoon somehow gets wound into the plot, too. My favorite interchange:

Dr Flammond: I am a prisoner here, just like you. A year ago, I was close to perfecting the first magnetic desalinisation process--a process so revolutionary, it was capable of removing the salt from over ten million gallons of sea water a day. Do you realise what that could mean to the starving nations of the earth?

Kilmer: Whoa....they'd have enough salt to last forever.

But there's some runners-up. My nephew Zack, who had the best cinematic taste of anyone I've ever known in the 12-14 age group, insisted I watch Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the 'Hood, a fine parody of the conventions of the gangsta movie, and Zack and his sister Dar dragged me along to the more recent Not Another Teen Movie, which had some hilarious moments (and had Jamie Pressley in it, and she's always funny). The first Scary Movie had some good things about it, too.

I know. Silly, puerile, unsubtle. But funny. And even if three-quarters of the stuff in any given movie misfires, they move along so fast there's something coming along to amuse me soon enough.

Sad, but true.

Oh, and what the hell: here's a clip of an impossibly young Kilmer singing Tutti Frutti in Top Secret.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Civilian Reader

Someone named Stefan Fergus--I don't know him, but he clearly has excellent taste--has given Shock and Awe a kind review over on Civilian Reader.

The glories of the internet--you can get new reviews when you hit paperback! Thank you, Mr Fergus.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Save the Cat!

I read books on writing in much the way that other people idly flip on the television--it's a way to pass a few moments. Most of them are mediocre, Every so often one is quite good, but in general it's just a way for my conscious mind to muse about writing while my subconscious gets a little work done.

I don't, however, read many books on screenwriting. There are two reasons for this: 1) I'm not a screenwriter, and 2) most screenwriting books aren't even good enough to be classed as mediocre.

But there's one slim book on the topic that I keep encountering, Blake Snyder's slim little volume called Save the Cat! The book has enough buzz around it that I decided it was time to see if the buzz came from bees around honey or from flies around something a little less pleasant.

I found Save the Cat! to be one of the more stimulating reads I've had in a while--perhaps because Snyder's whole approach to constructing a story is the opposite of mine. (Mine is called "groping around in the dark," and I doubt that a book extolling my method would ever become very popular.)

You know those things called loglines--the one-line summaries and hooks that are supposed to convey the essence of a story idea? Snyder starts his projects with the logline. Yes, starts there, and shortly after polishes his elevator pitch (that short summary you can blurt out and hopefully catch people's attention). And he road-tests these by approaching strangers in places like the line at Starbucks and asking if he can take just a minute and run something by them--his theory being that if he can get a complete stranger interested in his pitch, then he's onto a story people will want to hear.

Fine, I said, that's how Hollywood works, and you have to be catchy if you want to sell a script.

But Snyder isn't polishing his pitch so he can buttonhole producers and sell them idea (though I'm sure that comes in useful alter on). Snyder is trying to pin down exactly what his story is about before he takes even the smallest step toward actually writing it. Once he has established this, he establishes a title that echoes the story, and then sets about deciding what kind of protagonist is best for that sort of story, what themes need to run through it and be reinforced...

And then he moves on to decide what category or genre he's writing in, becasue each has different kinds of rules. But Snyder has his own categories, which don't include "romantic comedy" or "police procedural." His categories are:

1) Monster in the House
2) Golden Fleece
3) Out of the Bottle
4) Dude with a Problem
5) Rites of Passage
6) Buddy Love
7) Whydunit
8) The Fool Triumphant
9) Institutionalized
10) Superhero

The list is deliberately provocative, and Snyder open his discussion by claiming that the category and therefore the story dynamics of Die Hard, Schindler's List, and Titanic are essentially the same. (Whether these categories are valid and useful, I'm not sure; but they certainly are an interesting change from the usual groupings.)

After running through category basics, Snyder then moves on to the usual screenwriting stuff--three-act structure, beats, color-coded index cards. It's not clear to me that any of this is really useful to a novelist; even a skimpy novel is usually far more complex and involves many more beats than a screenplay does. But Save the Cat! runs through these elements so adroitly and entertainly that you've finshed them long before you begin to sigh at the inapplicability of most of it.

Stephen King asserts that writing a novel is a process of uncovering a prexisting story, and uses the simile of a paleontonogist excavating a fossil--you don't know what you've got until you've freed it from the stone. Blake Snyder inhabits the other extreme of the spectrum, where concept comes first and the story is crafted around it.

I don't think I could write a story in that fashion. But it was fun thinking (and, yes, fantasizing)about an entire different way of working. Even if it's one I could never adopt.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Financial Crises and Novels

I'm not much of a financial maven. I have a suspicious nature, and tend to prefer assets I can touch. We have a lot of money in CDs, but they are the kind of CDs that have music recorded on them. Over the years I have known, and listened to, too many people who lived through the Great Depression. I don't trust boom times.

I suppose this has cost me a good deal of money. The modest sum I have in my retirement account was in a mutual fund until 1997, when the Dow first topped 8,000. I moved my holdings into money-market funds because I thought stocks were overvalued relative to any rational measure, such as the P-E Ratio. And they were, in my opinion, and still are, but that didn't prevent them from soaring to unprecedented levels, as this instructive P-E graph from a New York Times article on Bubblenomics shows:

I'm still waiting for the Dow to hit 8,000 again (it almost got there). Then I might buy back in. (At which point the idiot herd would no doubt keep the market down for the next ten years in spite of any actual signals from the economy.)

I'm sitting in a house we bought in August of 2001. We thought long and hard before buying it; it's a lovely place, and perfectly suited to us, but we were sure we were buying at the top of the market. [Time out for prolonged laughter.] We decided we could deal with the 25% drop we anticipated, sucked in our bellies, stuck out our chests, and put down our money.

Of course, over the next few years the house more than doubled in market value, and even now, after the real estate bubble has supposedly popped, it is still valued at 50% above what we paid for it. Do I expect it to go down further? You betcha. Houses have been valued at prices that make no sense relative to people's incomes, and now that people are losing their jobs, and a gazillion houses are in foreclosure, I don't see how things can't slump further.

In other words, I think we are still in bubble-land, in both stocks and real estate, and the fact they are desperately being pumped up to get back to "normal" makes me fear this is going to drag on for a while.

And how does this relate to novels? I'm not sure. But after 9/11, if you recall, we had that disturbing "non-fiction" moment, where it appeared no one wanted to read fiction ever again.

Over on his blog, David Thayer makes the argument that bad times for the economy means good times for crime fiction, and he may be right. After all, insider-trading scandals and misstatement of profits haven't made for a very exciting crime-fiction environment--

OUR DETECTIVE: ...but then you, Olsen, passed those losses on to the two offshore subsidiaries to prevent them showing in the current account. But that dame in accounting got wise to you, didn't she? The minute she saw you'd switched from straight-line depreciation to sum-of-the- years-digits, she started checking, and then she realized there were all those other assets that had been expensed rather than depreciated, and--

OLSEN: She was like a madwoman! I tried to reason with her, tried to pay her off. But even backdating her stock options wasn't enough--she just wanted more, and more--!

OUR DETECTIVE: And so you decided you had to get rid of her, right, Olsen? Get rid of her permanently...

OLSEN: Yes! Yes, it's all true! I--I called in some shady venture-capital people I'd heard about, and we spun off her whole division in an overpriced IPO. Not just her. Her whole division...

OUR DETECTIVE: Even though your corporate mission statement clearly stated your primary goal was to preserve and promote shareholder value...?

OLSEN: Oh my god...what have I done?

Even though mergers and acquisitions people call their published statement a "tombstone," it really isn't the stuff of gritty crime fiction. I'm hopeful that Mr Thayer is correct, and this economic downturn will get us back in the gutter where we belong.

If we're in for a slump, what other genres might enjoy a renaissance? Judging from the Great Depression, when Astaire-and-Rogers movies ruled the world, there's also plenty of room for pure escapism. If you could manage to be the PG Wodehouse of the 21st century, you'd be in good shape. And pulpy science-fiction may be in for a big upswing, but the emphasis would have to be on pulpy. It may not be a good time for science fiction that is realistic or relevant. In fantasy, it's hard to say; the genre was near unto nonexistent back in the 1930s. At first glance, it might seem that fantasy would be the perfect escapist vehicle, but as Tolkein pointed out, even when fantasy is not allegorical, it is often very applicable, and good fantasy might not be as escapist as the public would like.

Me, I'm switching over to Time-Travel Romances. And with the rise of audiobooks, I don't see why we can't have musical-comedy novels...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Her Majesty's Government Feel and I Does Too

The variations in the American and British takes on the English language are always a source of fascination to me. Which shows how little of real import goes on between the vertices of my pointy little skull. My hat, it has three corners, three corners has my hat. And had it not three corners, it would not fit my head...

On some matters I can't make up my mind. For example, an American will say different from, while in the UK you will typically hear different to. If you think about this one for a while, neither sounds quite right. Why not different with? Different in? Different at? All in all, it's best left alone; I just accept that we will continue to use the phrase in a fashion different through one another. Different along each other. Different upon one another. Differently.

The somewhat-archaic American use of "gotten" is rather handy, as it allows a neat distinction between acquisition (I've gotten a headache) or coming to (I've gotten as far as Las Vegas, and I'll call you when I get to Reno) and mere possession (I've got a headache) or state (I finally got here). I've gotten to like the word...though gotten is one of those words you shouldn't stare at too long, or it starts to look very peculiar and foreign. Gotten gotten gotten. Maybe the British are right to avoid it. Gotten. Too Wagnerian-looking, sort of begging for an umlaut.

On the topic of whether a unitary body composed of individuals should be treated as plural, however, I have to vote for American practice. Shell Oil, for example, is not the collection of individuals who work there. It is a corporation, a body formed by law to act as an individual . It may be a legal fiction, but it's a singular legal fiction, and no matter how often I read The Economist, the phrase Shell Oil believe strikes my ear much like What do Bob thinks?

I'm willing to make an exception for Her Majesty's Government because of the royal we. But I never want to hear the phrase The White House think. (But, then, the White House don't think, do him?)

But there's one British locution where I'd like some advice. Here in the US, a university of any sort is something you go to. And while you are there, you are at it, or even in it (and might be kicked out of it). But in novels by, say, Evelyn Waugh, people are constantly going up to Oxford or coming down from Cambridge. Even if they start or end somewhere well north of those schools, or at higher elevation, while they are there they seem to be up, and when they are back they seem to be down.

Does this connote loftiness? Are you up at all universities? Or only those two? Are you up if you attend equally venerable institutions abroad, such as the Sorbonne, or Heidelberg? Are you also up if you teach there--a sort of permanent professorial high--or are you up only if you are being educated there?

Are you also up at other sorts of schools? Is there a distance or age factor involved? Can you also be up at a Montessori pre-school class?

Do seven-year-olds sigh wisely, and say, "It was all quite different when I first went up to creche..."?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Me and JMG

Like many pubescent boys of a certain temperament, I was fascinated with the existentialists, and I did the whole moody teen thing of reading Sartre and Camus and slouching against walls staring off into space, wishing the neighborhood liquor store carried Gauloises so I could shoplift a pack.

Within a couple of years, I learned more about Sartre, and he failed my sniff tests rather badly. Not only was he a fervent Communist—which to me is at least as silly as being, say, a fervent Southern Baptist—but he had taken mescaline and handled it rather poorly.

Now I don’t think that strong psychedelics are for everybody; but I do believe they are something, as Jack Aubrey would put it, amazingly philosophical, and I consequently expect any philosopher to be able to do something intelligent with their experience of these substances. Jean-Paul’s response was to say that he was “fighting with a devil-fish,” and for a few years thereafter he was plagued by the fear he was being pursued by a lobster. (A lobster. I am not making this up.) Clearly a lightweight.

Camus stands the test of time for me. His position that the only really important philosophical question is that of suicide goes to the heart of the matter; if you decide to stay alive, you have taken a stance with respect to the universe, and the fact you have elected to keep on breathing tells us a lot more than all the academic hairsplitting that goes on in philosophy texts.

My interest in the existentialists, though, led me to read others who were considered to be in the same literary camp, and the one who made the deepest impression on me, all those years ago, was JMG Le Clezio. (When I did my interview with Macmillan and was asked about the writers who’d most influenced me, Le Clezio was one of the nine I mentioned.)

I haven’t been avidly following his career, mind you. But his collection of short stories, Fever, stunned me. One story especially, The Day Beaumont Became Acquainted with His Pain. It’s a modest little tale about a fellow who gets a toothache. (In fact, until I checked, I would have sworn the title of the whole collection was The Toothache.) The story is absorbing, even though it really doesn’t go anywhere. There is no hook, no plot, no epiphany waiting at the end; just a mounting obsession with this niggling, annoying, ultimately consuming pain.

Now, I could say I was amazed at how such a little issue can both illuminate character and then segue into the point that in extremis we are all much alike; or argue the story shows how much the mind is governed by the body. But the real influence of Le Clezio one me was that I closed the book and said, “My God, you can write a story about a toothache? That would mean you can write a story about anything!”

Until Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, I’d read mostly for plot (what else was there?). The stories in Fever that made me realize the craft of writing was about detail, and that the right details could give anything the flavor of reality; that focus and magnification were some of the most important of a writer’s tools.

Not profound thoughts for grownups, perhaps; but a writer who can nudge a 14-year-old into such a realization has got some serious mojo.

So I was gratified to see he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, even if his influence on moody teens was not cited as one of his outstanding qualities.

Oddly, some American critics seem to view this particular award as a sort of swipe against America. “We” haven’t won for 12 years (as if literature is some sort of football game with a home team), and now they give it to some French guy with two girly first names…

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Back in the Land of the Living

Or, more accurately, somewhere just short of it. These are the times, tales warn us, when you need to be most cautious. One glance back and your beloved may disappear, or you yourself might turn into a pillar of salt.

Foolish boy that I am, I'm going to risk one quick peek over my shoulder nonetheless. One long rant and then I'll move on. Promise.

As most of you know, writing has brought me unimaginable wealth, and when I'm not riding to hounds or loaning JK Rowling money, I spend much of the day coiled atop my riches like a dragon guarding his hoard. Yet for some reason--a sense of civic duty, I suppose--I still spend much of my time working as a consultant.

I believe the word "consultant" derives from the Latin for "one who has no idea what he'll be working on next, if anything at all." (Or something like that. My Latin is limited and a bit rusty--'rust' being from the Old English for "reddish." It would be useful to know more, as we are quite close to Latin America.)

I recently found myself working on a computer model of massive complexity. I undertook the task for not much money, because I was promised I would have eager, skilled people working for me, and cooperation in procuring all the obscure data needed.

The first thing that went wrong was stall after stall in delivery of the data. Then I was informed by my supposed staff that the venerable software we used was not up to the scale of the task, so at a late date I set about writing a complex computer program--one I originally helped design, but which I had last set eyes on in 1988. It only took about nine months to write it originally, but why shouldn't it be a matter of just moments when you already know what you're doing? (Did I have the original code on hand to translate to a different platform? I did not. My coworker from long ago decided it was his personal property twenty years ago, and abbsconded with it.)

Writing a complex piece of code under time pressure is a terrible thing--unless you're Microsoft, and don't really give a damn if it works correctly. With something like this project, it is literally gut-wrenching: you have thousands of carefully vetted lines of code, you run it, holding your breath, and then your stomach plummets. There's another mistake in there. Somewhere. This is a 12-to-14 hours a day process that lasts weeks, and by the end of it you're exhausted...yet not sleeping well.

To move along, I disocvered that in the interim my colleagues had not done their jobs. They hadn't used such data as had arrived to get the models working, and although they had assured me we would meet our twice-extended deadline, they had done precious little work--and most of the work they had done was wrong. In the manner of the Little Red Hen, but with much less pleasure and without her smug attitude, I took over the entirety of the problem and spent the last few weeks hammering it out.

And I'm a wreck. I've been sitting so many hours a day my feet have swollen and look rather creepy. I haven't slept through an entire night in a couple of months; I wake up in a panic, convinced that I've either thought of a problem or that I need another approach to a problem, and downstairs I stumble to the computer. Our house is a mess, and yesterday I shaved for the first time in weeks. The once-fashionable but now-outdated term 'nervous breakdown' made sense to me for the first time. I'm a quivering mass of synaptic misfires.

It's been a bit like cleaning the Augean stables, but without the strength to reroute rivers; it takes far longer than a day, and when you're done you don't smell nice at all.

I usually do well under pressure. I was one for all-nighters in college, and I've worked on any number of urgent, can-you-believe-it, Mission-Impossible projects. But never one that has bashed me about this severely.

Because of this, blog posts have been rare recently. Worst of all, though, I haven't written a line on my Work-Not-In-Progress for a couple of months. At first I thought of it with longing; then with resignation and despair. But in the last couple of weeks it got to the point where I couldn't even remember it. It isn't as though my mind has been wiped clean, though; instead it's as if so much utter crap has been pumped into it that everything of value has been squeezed out.

Tell me: have any of you had your skull squished with such force that your book came out of your ears along with the pulverized brain tissue?

If so, how do you pump it back in?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Until I Get Back On Track...

The last month or two have constitutued possibly the most harrowing work experience of my life. Hence the lack of blog.

But I know people stop dropping through if you leave the same post up forever, so I'm taking a few moments to say hi, and point you to the best idea for a website I've seen in a while.

You've all undoubtedly heard of the Great Wall Street Bailout. Some bright guy noticed that many normal Americans have loads of crappy assets that seem to have lost their value. The website, titled Buy MY Shitpile, Henry!, (but doing business at --apparently they don't really care if the Sectretary of Treasury buys it in person) explains itself thus:

What Happens on Main Street Affects Wall Street

With our economy in crisis, the US Government is scrambling to rescue our banks by purchasing their "distressed assets", i.e., assets that no one else wants to buy from them. We figured that instead of protesting this plan, we'd give regular Americans the same opportunity to sell their bad assets to the government. We need your help and you need the Government's help!

Use the form below to submit bad assets you'd like the government to take off your hands. And remember, when estimating the value of your 1997 limited edition Hanson single CD "MMMbop", it's not what you can sell these items for that matters, it's what you think they are worth. The fact that you think they are worth more than anyone will buy them for is what makes them bad assets.