Brokeworld

In 2016 HBO aired a radical revisioning of Michael Crichton’s clunky trash science fiction thriller, Westworld. The old movie issued a direct threat and moral: technology combined with profit motives is bad. Nothing new here, just a variation on the muck-racking novels of late 19th century America or a schlockier version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The series that launched in 2016 delved into deeper issues: consciousness formation, the nature of humanity, and, yes, the moral bankruptcy of late capitalist culture.  There was more if you wanted to find it, all wrapped up in a glossy, sexy, and violent package. Quintessential HBO.

The drive for climactic set-pieces led to a gruesome and fairly well-earned massacre at the end of the first season. However, gruesome massacres are not easy to build on. The second season stumbled through the aftermath of all that death—even if many of the dead were robots. The rest of the dead were the rich—or servants of the rich—and, as such, were easy prey. The third season addressed the “real world” (such as it was portrayed in the show) consequences of those deaths and added human characters whose lives were made robotic by, yes, you guessed it, the rich.

I teach creative writing. When I started teaching, I forbade my students from killing characters in their stories. Yes, the presence of death galvanizes fiction, bestowing instant importance on what might otherwise be a mundane series of events. When I think of some of my favorite short pieces, death abounds. Think of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bannafish.” At least the threat of death—real complete annihilation—hovers around the characters. However, when it does, it has weight. Great—and most good—writers acknowledge mortality as a meaningful limit.

The first season of Westworld used cavalier attitudes about murder and violence to make a point—all the while delighting viewers with plenty of simulated death (the show walked on a sneaky edge) The point was that the cavalier attitude about death and violence revealed a moral failing in the characters. Even when the violence was simulated. That edge has become more and more blunted with each new season, finally becoming little more than a heavy and dumbly wielded club.

Halfway through the third season, the main antagonist, Serac, reveals that he and his brother built the monstrous AI, Rehoboam, after witnessing the nuclear bombing of Paris. The bombing is not explained. It exists only to justify Serac’s desire to prevent either another such event or series of such events. Boom! goes Paris. And Boom! Westworld tottered off into the realm of irretrievably bad writing.

I teach my students that anything can happen in their fiction. I try not to put false limits on their work (no fantasy, no science fiction, no romance). I only ask that whatever they do, they must avoid cliché, which is hard for young writers because everything seems so new to them. And this is hard for older writers too, because everything seems to have been done. How many ways can two people arrive at “I love you”?  Or “I hate you” for that matter? And everything in between. Make it your own, and find the surprise.

Also, I advise that they treat their fiction as if it is true, that they should consider themselves magicians of a sort, wielding magic words to create reality.  They must be responsible for the world they create, not just for the beetles that scurry across the floors of the houses they build with words, but for the vision of the world they invent. If someone falls in love in one of their stories, then they are nothing less than Eros, conferring love on the world. If someone dies in one of their stories, then they wear the grim reaper’s long black robes. No, not all writing is made with such high purpose. Plenty of successful prose falls back on sheer entertainment. Love and death are little more than emotional levers that the writer pushes and pulls to keep the reader reading. So does plenty of literary fiction—thank goodness.

Sometimes writers break the compact with the reader. They pull the levers without any concern for what they have made. A friend once asked whether I could just do what I wanted in my work. I can, of course, I can, but I must grapple with the repercussions of what I write. Does what I want to happen fit the world which I have created? Not just, “Does it make sense?” but does that sense bear up to moral, emotional, and intellectual scrutiny? Not only must there be a feeling of necessity in the work, but that necessity must be guided by an inner logic that binds all the images, all the ideas, all the characters, and all the vision. That is no easy objective.

One way to guarantee that a work will miss that mark is to play fast and loose with life, to use death as a plot enhancement. By its own logic—by the claims it made in its first season—Westworld has fallen off the horse. Yes, the show remains pretty (sexy and gruesome) picture, but the writing no longer cares to do anything but sling gore and blow up cities. Nothing matters. Time to move on.

 

London, Flying, Writing

It has been a year and a few months since I was in London. I’m thinking about London while I sit and study Monet’s “Houses of Parliament, Sunset” at the National Gallery of Art. The memory of looking across the Thames at that building, with Big Ben swathed in the latticework of repair, has faded only a little. The memories of walking the streets of the original square mile and beyond remain startlingly vivid. I used them to paint scenes when the characters in my novel walked through London. The memories of the places and the memories of the feelings.

When I was there, I had just begun what would become my first completed novel. I had changed my life, but was only taking the first steps out of the extended shadow under which I had lived my life for much too long. I had been grounded—too grounded.

This morning I woke from a dream of flight. I had to deliver a package, and the way to the place I had to deliver it to was blocked. The streets were closed—barricades blocked alleys and police redirected traffic. I picked up the box—a box of books, perhaps? In a previous job, I often carried boxes of books and was required, on occasion, to pick up from warehouses and deliver them. I carried the box through city streets, all the while receiving instructions about exactly where I was and exactly where I should go. Except, I knew where I was, and knew where I had to go. The instructions were extraneous, the kind of litany of “You are… You should…” that have too long tethered me. And so I did the only thing left to me. I flew. I flew in between the buildings in the city, sometimes following the spaces above the streets, sometimes flying over the buildings—skyscrapers. I flew past a circus parade, as performers prepared to enter their theater. I flew and wondered where I should ply my flying trade—the circus came to mind, naturally, but so did the military (I was a secret weapon). I scooped up a bully who was tormenting a younger child and instructed, “Superheroes live, and we are watching,” before setting him back on the ground, edified.

img_2173When I was last in London, I was taking steps into a world where I knew I could live, where I had longed to live. Just like in the dream, writing—flight—was not foreign to me, but something I had traded in for a more certain, more directed existence. While “You are…You should” can feel like shackles, flying—writing—is formless and uncertain. Anywhere is possible. Everywhere is almost a mandate. Just like in the dream, I had written before—had flown—and had lived closer to the limits of my existence. But I had to leave my self-imposed limits. I had to accept that I might fall—and fail—but just as I accepted that in my dream—soaring up the side of a steel and glass edifice, wondering, “What if I forget? What if I fall?—I thought, even as the thrill of fear invigorated me, “You are flying now. Even if you fall, you will remember as you fall, and fly again. Keep flying.”

img_2761Two women look at the Monet—taking seat in the National Gallery beside me. They think it is beautiful, but claim, “It doesn’t look like that.” Of course, the Houses of Parliament look like that, as does the river Thames, as does the sunset. “We didn’t see it,” they claim, “We were tourists, doing touristy things, like thinking about where to have dinner.” I did not think about dinner when I was in London. As much as I love dinner, even food became a secondary thought while I was in London. Even the pubs and ales became little more than way-stations along the bigger task—the journey, the seeing, the walking, and the flying. And the writing.

At some point, you leave behind what holds you back, and you push off the ground and make your first tentative moves into the air. At first, it feels more like swimming than flying. Wait. That will change. Once you have flown, you do not lose the gift of flight. You may set it aside, for whatever reason (You are…You should), but when you—finally—return to it, the inspiration, the ecstasy, and the certainty will return as well. You will accept the fear and even turned it to your use—flying and writing into places that scare you, outpacing your fear and using it as a goad—higher, faster, stranger, more beautiful, and then more.

I want to say that you do not have to wait until you are 58 years old to rediscover flight. But even at 58, then 59, you can recapture that rapturous joy of flight—and writing. While, in the dream, I was younger than I am now, and yet I could remember all of my current life. Maybe that was what I carried in my box: life. My life.

When I made my way to the circus—because, of course, the circus calls for a flier—an older man (I recognized him as the father of a former girlfriend, although I never met him in real life) warned me against the life I desired, not merely the circus, but flight in general. He did not say, “You are, you should,” but as his daughter had inveighed, he advised, “You are not… You should not.” He was an old musician, and soured by his work in the circus band. Another older man joined us and said, “Let him fly.” But he was dotty, had tufts of white hair on his fingers, and was probably drunk. Looking at these two, I thought, perhaps, that the circus is not for me. There are other places to fly—not into the dark above the audience’s —but into the light. I thought that while I dreamt.

I think about all this while I dream. And when I walk. And when I see. And when I write. And when I wake up.

I write this to you now because you may be 59. Or 29. However, you stopped flying—or writing. You stopped something. Or maybe you never started. I wrote in 9th and 10th grades. Again as a senior in college. Then I started working on a novel when I was 21. Again when I was 24. Again when I was 26. In grad school, I wrote 20 stories, a short book of prose poems, and two starts at novels. Then nothing that endured for years. A few poems, some prose (sermons and stories and articles), the start and start and start and start of a novel. Whatever I was doing felt like silence. You may be facing a silence of your own. I write to you.

Barricades may block the road ahead of you. You may need to get out of your dream car and carry that box (what is in your box?) through the city on foot. You know the way. Plus—and this is your secret—you know how to fly.

There is another world. It doesn’t feel like there is. I remember that feeling, and the horrible weight of “should and should not,” “are and are not.” Part of the way back to this world is the repeated practice of returning to it—fingers to keyboard, pen to paper. Revel in the count of words, in the hours in the air. Try to think of the inches, then yards, then miles you have traveled, and enjoy the journey.

Plenty of people will remind you of what you lack, will cast blank aspersions on the life you have lived, will denigrate what you have done to get where you are, and will sow doubt in the field where you play. They are not your friends, and you can do without them. Do not try to solve the problems they foist on you, or—worse—take them on as your own. The work, even when you fly, is hard enough without taking on unnecessary freight. There is weight enough in this work.

And there is lightness ahead. And light. You can soar as you wish. I wait, standing on the ground, or suspended in the air among clouds and antennae, and wait to cheer you. Fly! Wake up and fly again.

Little miracles

I am looking at a painting made by a French artist of a British building that hangs in an American museum. This seems at once perfectly natural—what else would I be doing? What else would a French artist paint (or an Italian, British, Russian, Afghan, or American)? And where else would a painting be? Of course, this seems only natural because it is what we have become accustomed to, since the time when Ennigaldi-Nanna opened the first museum.

If it is “only natural,” it is also a miracle. That Claude Monet painted? A miracle. That the Houses of Parliament were built along the Thames? A miracle. That the painting somehow came to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC? A miracle. And that I am here, somehow, seeing this and writing about it? A miracle as well.

We take the commonplace for common, and lose the ability to be a little amazed at what is all around us, and the wild series of coincidences that brings the present moment into bloom. On the flip side, we excuse the awful as “could be worse,” instead of insisting on the more miraculous possibilities that could be. I stand amazed at what is, and demand more. Why not? Why fall back into what is easy, what masquerades as wit, what only keeps us from feeling that we have more to do?

I am looking at a painting made by a French artist of a British building that hangs in an American museum. The gauntlet has been thrown down. This is only the beginning.

The Unmet Reader—writing novels

Since the 1987, I have started at least five novels. Some I carried with me for a few months—the story of a wedding, unfolding like the petals of a rose. Others lingered over decades—the story of a woman who stole paintings. None of them lasted beyond seventy or eighty pages, or in the case of the long project, fifteen or twenty starts at initial chapters. I had notebooks full of scenes, outlines, character sketches, dialogue, and thematic connections. All the while I wrote other things. Shorter pieces, poems, prose poems, essays, sermons, children’s stories. Or I wrote nothing at all and suffered in silence. I believe that I was unbearable in those times.

What cracks the shell, and let’s the story run out?

I do not know.

I do know that I burned the first one. It had stuck with me for a couple of years, and was the piece I was working on when I went to the MA program at Binghamton. I put the pages on the little hibachi I owned, and watched it burn. I kept the ashes in a brown paper bag on the desk in my office at grad school for as long as I was there. Some of my friends found it morbid. I found it freeing. Move on.

Over the years it has been less easy to move on. I became more anxious. Would this happen? Had I somehow failed? I had other successes as a writer along the way. Why not switch course? Why not give up and go in another direction? There are many ways to write.

Even as a high school English teacher, novels called to me in ways that poems and shorter pieces did not—as exhilarating as a poem or short story can be. There is something satisfying about the duration of a novel. There was also, like it or not, the commercial aspect of novels—they are designed to draw everyday readers. I loved that about them. 300-500 page pop songs.

Perhaps I was too enchanted by the high art novels that I read in my graduate classes, and in the critical approaches we used to pull them and the ideas that surrounded them apart. I forgot about the old thrill of reading for pleasure—which is why novels exist. Art is fine, better than fine. Criticism is a world unto itself. But writing for an audience, for a world of unmet readers, that is everything.

And so, this time, I am following Seymour Glass’s advice to his brother Bruno, and I am writing the book I want to read. I am my own unmet reader. And will hope, against hope, to find many others.

A little advice

I hate giving advice, or being in a position to even begin to seem like an authority. This is due, in large part, to the fact that every vestige of what little wisdom I may have is either so narrowly circumscribed by my experience as to be entirely personal and inapplicable to anyone else, or it is bound into volumes or displayed on walls or growing in plain sight, that it all could just as easily be read or seen or visited by anyone, and therefore I am just repeating what already exists. I mean, really, I can’t tell you anything about the Grand Canyon, or Jackson Pollock’s Number One, or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves that you couldn’t get on your own. And all the business about sailing, or my divorce, or the way my heart was broken or buoyed by human contact, well, that’s all extravagant navel gazing. Or, if it’s any good, it’s good because it praises the world I have experienced.

A friend of mine once told me (and granted, we were in the middle of a disagreement that threatened to end our friendship, so like all things spoken in heat, I try (and fail) to take it in that light) that I needed people to agree with me. The truth is that 90% of the time when I make what seems like a definitive statement about anything, my shock-proof shit detector blares a secret (oh, I hope it’s secret) claxon. It’s going off right now. Whenever I write, I write through the deafening din. I already know that what I say, or what I write is so riddled with exceptions that each word would take a page, or a tome of footnotes and commentary.

I reread David Foster Wallace’s 2005 “This Is Water” commencement address from Kenyon, and what I notice most is his reluctance to declare.  It’s not this platitude, or this story, or that cliché, which is what all advice feels like it about to disintegrate into—just another fragment of bullshit masquerading as wisdom.  Welcome to the world of Polonious, sending Laertes off with the skin and no pith. Go ahead and utter, “To thy own self be true” without knowing the source and the final awful result. Say good bye to Denmark. Say good bye to the best and brightest.  Here comes history.

I once told my friend, Brian Clements, that the only point of criticism—and what, after all is criticism than a kind of advice, either to the artist (do this, don’t do that), or to the audience (see this, avoid seeing that)—was to praise, that everything else was ego masquerading as wit. Did I really say that? Maybe.  I still believe this. (Quick, check the reams of footnotes). The only art that I ever feel called on to lambaste, is art that fails to find some piece of life and hold it up for glory. And I will go to stunning lengths to find that one moment in any work of art that meets Rilke’s charge: “Praise this world.”  And when I say “art,” I’ll admit it, I mean the intentional product of a life lived with purpose to produce something that praises the world.  And that could be a poem, a sculpture, a taco, a roadbed, a length of  rope. A free throw. A beautifully struck return in tennis. An incisively spoken line in a play. A carefully chosen word to comfort a child, or anyone.  Anything done with intention to praise this world and raise it up.

And if anything, these little slices of my mind, are not so much advice, as reminders, and I think we need reminding, to pay attention to all that is praiseworthy and to hold it high. “Pay attention” is what DFW told the graduates at Kenyon in 2005, and I wish that someone had reminded him every day about the impossible and sometimes ineffable worthiness of praise. Pay attention to that too, big fella. And I know when I write these, I am, in fact, reminding myself as well as you, because it is not easy.  It’s just worth it.