Going Back to Cali

Inherent ViceAn unseemly hour of departure tomorrow means I have time for few words. My destination is California. My plan is to re-read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon while I’m there. Most of his books are complicated enough to be more rewarding the second time through, so I plan to have the novel freshly processed before the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation. This is not necessary; it’s for pure joy. Inherent Vice is the first Pynchon novel to be adapted for film, and this is the most I’ve looked forward to a P. T. Anderson movie. Check out the trailer. Read the book. Enjoy.

 

 

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

waking upSam Harris is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading science and secular values. Many of its members speak openly against the dangers and evils of religion, so I find it significant that in 2014 Harris released Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

It’s significant because it’s a risk. It doesn’t play to a large audience. According to the jacket, Waking Up is for the “20 percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.”

Most of Harris’ fans are hardline atheists and anti-theists who probably wouldn’t deign to admit that there is such a thing as “spirituality.” Even Harris’ brilliant contemporaries like Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens haven’t entertained “spirituality” with much respect, and I suspect that a large number of people simply never will. So this book is not for them, and Harris has risked alienating himself from some of his own team.

There are also a number of other public meditation advocates who portray reason and rational thinking as an enemy to spiritual progress. Shunning reason has left many of these gurus open to absurd beliefs about consciousness and the cosmos. I assume advising against critical thinking is one of the reasons some of them remain so popular.

When I first became interested in meditation, yoga, and various techniques for the manipulation of consciousness, I went to the beginning. I read several ancient Indian yoga books, doing my best to account for cultural differences. I took claims about conquering death and walking on water with an arched eyebrow, and tried let the exercises and proofs of experience speak for themselves.

As I worked my way through history, things clarified slightly, becoming more contemporary and palatable, but even now the amount of pure garbage written about consciousness is staggering and time-consuming. I wish I had found Waking Up years ago when I first began.

Harris’ writing is clear, his claims based on evidence and experience, and he adds no metaphysical nonsense to the completely practical, physical, real-world exercise of meditation. He also expresses many of the philosophical issues about consciousness in a tidy fashion, peppering in humour and sharp skepticism along the way.

Much of the opening explains what he means when he says “spiritual.” Transcendent experiences are valid, he says, and they have long been misinterpreted through the lens of religion. Granted, some people may never have these experiences, and many will confuse transcendence with moments of aesthetic contemplation or ecstatic bliss (both of which may be extremely valuable), but for Harris, transcendence is the subjective experience of consciousness in a state prior to thought, when the illusion of the self is annihilated.

Of course, we’re all thinking all the time, so getting to that state can prove quite difficult. With years of meditation training, a firm grounding in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, Harris gives straightforward advice, tips about the snags and traps one can find on the path of meditation, and ample evidence that meditation is for most people an entirely beneficial practice.

Harris has successfully written a brief but engaging overview of meditation from scientific, philosophical, and personal perspectives. At 237 pages, Waking Up provides ample explanations and citations in the endnotes from a wide variety of sources. Waking Up will hopefully serve as an olive branch to people searching for peace without the usual religious baggage.

Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks

ReflectionsRecently I said it’s a great time to be a David Lynch fan, and since the announcement of its return, I’ve only become more optimistic. It’s a long road to 2016 and many fans have begun re-watching the original series. But if you’re looking for more, I recommend Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks by Brad Dukes.

Dukes conducted and compiled interviews with about 90 people, ranging from television executives and agents to actors and crew that worked on the short-lived series. Co-creator Mark Frost gives significant contributions as do Angelo Badalamenti and several of the series’ directors. David Lynch, notoriously silent about his own work, is not to be found in Reflections. This is not surprising, but his absence is felt.

Fans of the show will be quickly swept up into the germinal stages of the project. It’s exhilarating to read about the hundreds of tiny pieces that had to fall into place for Twin Peaks to air on ABC. From the scripting stages, enthusiasm for the project was fiercely contagious, and just about everyone involved seems to have understood they were part of something monumental.

This book may give newcomers a sense of the cultural impact the show had in its time, and a better understanding of how that impact has spread out across television to this day. But I recommend some familiarity with the show and its players; putting faces to the names on the page brings out the colour and significance of many of these interviews.

Unfortunately, the demise of Twin Peaks wasn’t pretty, and Reflections gives a thorough account of the attendant frustrations and disappointment. As optimistic as everyone was in season one, political pressures, creative troubles and declining ratings left many of the players cynical about Twin Peaks. The hopefulness felt in the book’s opening chapters slowly gives way to the harsh realities of network television, and we as readers are along for the ride.

Reflections offers great breadth of opinion about the television series, but aside from a few disparaging remarks, it almost completely ignores the prequel movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. While this movie is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea, Fire Walk With Me is in my opinion the keystone of the series, and provides a crucial (and horrifying and beautiful) endnote to the creative efforts behind Twin Peaks. Although Frost was not involved in the movie, nor Lynch in the book, there are more than enough voices to cover the topic, and Reflections suffers for the omission.

Otherwise, Dukes has done a beautiful job of curating the material. He allows the interviewees to tell their story, giving his readers a backstage pass to one of the most important television events of the 20th century. Reflections is also a beautifully produced book, with gorgeous cover art and exclusive (B&W) photos on nice paper. It makes a perfect addition to the bookshelf of any Twin Peaks fan.

Fleeting Memes

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a breakthrough text in biology. The book illustrates evolution from the point-of-view of a “gene,” essentially a self-interested replicator. To illustrate the concept of cultural evolution, Dawkins coined the term “meme,” meaning a small piece of coherent, transmittable culture, “replicated” through the minds of human beings.

The term “meme” has exploded into popular consciousness in the last decade thanks to global culture. Now memes are emailed and re-tweeted, referenced by late night talk show hosts and news anchors, and generally replicated in a huge number of minds at astounding rates (“Gangnam Style” already had over one billion views by the time I saw it).

The internet is the perfect petri dish for these replicators because the breadth and speed with which memes are broadcast exceeds anything in history. One of the consequences of this is that a “meme” is now seen, like much on the internet, as ephemeral.

As Dawkins pointed out in a later version of The Selfish Gene, the word “meme” has itself proved to be a good meme because of its survival and replication into popular consciousness. The gene/meme metaphor is apt too, since like genes, memes replicate and adapt, and the memes that find a “best fit” for their environment continue to replicate successfully.

(Take the “Grumpy Cat” meme as an example. This is a photo or video of a cat with a face that looks grumpy. Thirty years ago, a photo like this might be shown to relatives, and a good laugh would be had, and there it would end. But now the whole world gets to see it and adapt it for any situation where a grumpy cat face might get a laugh. The meme is so popular that unbelievably, the cat has a movie deal.)

I recently wrote a short science fiction story in which the personalities of the recently deceased were uploaded into a machine, and I used the term “meme-ify,” a take on mummify, as in a form of preservation. I was surprised to receive the story note that “meme” now connotes something less than permanent, almost discardable, the exact opposite of what I intended.

Whatever your views on Jesus, I submit one of his most impressive accomplishments was to “meme-ify” himself in his final moments. He gave up his physical life and transformed himself into a meme. We can now transmit the mystery of Christ to another mind by simply showing them a crucifix, and this meme has persisted for two thousand years.

It’s this sort of permanent “meme-ification” that I was going for, but it seems like the internet has mutated the intended meaning of the word to suit itself. I suppose it’s just natural selection at work; multitudes of fleeting memes are a best-fit for the internet. For the sake of my story, I’d like to use Dawkins’ intended meaning, but I think the new meaning might have reached a critical popularity.

Homo sapiens can’t give birth to Australopithecus. I suppose I’ll have to forgo the elegance of “meme” and come up with another way to say it. Is the old meaning extinct? What does “meme” mean to you?

Year of David Foster Wallace

I recently finished Infinite Jest and can easily place it in my top five favorite novels (the strange dream I had didn’t foretell the story, by the way). In the world of Infinite Jest, years are no longer numbered (i.e. 2014), but instead take the name of the top corporate bidders in a system known as subsidized time (i.e. Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc.). So far, my 2014 has felt like the Year of David Foster Wallace.

It was February when I first picked up Oblivion, and since then I’ve read 1761 of his pages and I’m still jonesing for more. By my calculations I have 2815 pages left to finish off his whole catalog. This is fairly normal for me, as I frequently obsess over one artist for an extended period of time. Even now as I try to broaden my reading to help my writing, the genius of David Foster Wallace is just too compelling to stay away.

It’s safe to say that every year from 1994 to 2000 could have been called my Years of David Lynch (my longest, deepest obsession to date). Since then I’ve had several Years of Stanley Kubrick, two Years of Andrei Tarkovsky, one Year of Philip K. Dick, a Year of Barry Gifford, a Year of Tom Robbins, a Year of Lars von Trier, at least one Year of Thomas Pynchon, and it would only be fair to call 2011 the Year of George R. R. Martin.

What happens is that I read or watch or listen to one artist’s work for the first time, and I get such a surge of pleasure I usually acquire the rest of his/her oeuvre all at once like an addict, working through it with only a few odds and ends thrown in for contrast. Fortunately, it’s rare to find an artist that turns all my cranks the way Wallace does, so I rarely have to binge this way. But when I do find a new addiction my interest in other entertainments seems to drop off.

And this tendency is exactly what’s explored in Infinite Jest. Our culture’s addiction to different forms of entertainment is exploded into view; from oral narcotics to professional sports to lethally indulgent movies, Infinite Jest explores the cravings we have to abandon ourselves to something greater, something potentially more meaningful than our own thoughts and self-reflection, something that offers us self-transcendence.

And I did get lost in it. I was fairly heartbroken when it was over. I had come to love these characters; when they were bummed out, I was bummed out for them; when they were in trouble, I was worried; and when I turned the last page, I wanted somehow to slip inside the world of Infinite Jest to see if they’ll be okay.

The book’s title, like A Clockwork Orange, is taken from a work of fiction within the work of fiction. The Infinite Jest within Infinite Jest is an experimental film so compelling, once people have caught a glimpse, they’ll give anything to keep watching it. They’re locked in; they forget to eat or go to the bathroom, and when it’s all over, they’re willing to do unspeakable acts for another viewing.

David Foster Wallace has managed, with Infinite Jest, to create a work of fiction just this side of dangerously compelling. His prose has all the audacity and skill of Pynchon’s, and his ability to create flawed, idiosyncratic, sympathetic characters is second to none. And since Wallace is so culturally aware, and his writings so replete with artistic references, I imagine it won’t be long, once I’ve finished the rest of his work, to find a new addiction.

Sometimes the easiest way out one addiction is to ease into another, less absorbing one. Feel free to recommend any artists I should check out.

Paper or Plastic?

Most people still prefer paper books to eReaders. Sometimes I ask people why and they shrug and motion with their hands as though there’s something tactile about it, but they don’t put it into words. For some people, ‘hand-feel’ is important.

I’m used to paper books, but I don’t think there is any mysterious X-factor about them that doesn’t translate to eBooks. Print books are just more sensuous. If you like the experience of reading itself (in addition to the content you’re reading), printed books win because every one is different. The cover, the font, the weight, it’s empirically more interesting. If you just care about the content, go eReader.

My Kobo looks the same no matter what content I’m reading. It’s small, sterile looking, doesn’t have the smell of pages, and will never give me the satisfaction of seeing a tiny gap where a bookmark holds my progress. Plus, a Kobo looks dumb on a bookshelf.

I prefer paper to plastic when the book is one I’ll want to reference again. It’s a hassle to find a passage in an eBook. With print books I can usually remember approximately what page I read something on, and where on the page. But on an eBook every page is in the same place, the display screen, and often the page count is misleading, so I waste time scanning for passages.

Where eBooks are a clear favorite though, is for travelling. Taking a slim, effective Kobo on a trip beats taking a suitcase full of books that’ll have to get checked because I’m still reading Infinite Jest. The other clear advantage is a built-in dictionary. It’s truly great to be able to find a definition without pulling out my phone.

Both are great, and I use the one the best one for the job.

It’s Time for Infinite Jest

infinite_jestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is a book I put on a mental list years ago and then forgot about. Talk of his being the ‘heir-apparent’ to Pynchon piqued my interest, and Inifinte Jest has always been on the low horizons of my radar, referenced frequently by a lot of writers for dealing with themes in and around my wheelhouse. So I bought it. Then I forgot about it again.

In the last few months I’d occasionally pick it up off my shelf just to make sure it was the same weight as when I bought it, but it was always just too massive and seemed too absorbing to work into my reading schedule. So when I saw Wallace’s short story collection Oblivion in a used bookstore, I went for it.

OblivionOblivion floored me. Every story sparkled from every angle. Each short story seemed to be a microcosm of a much larger idea or issue that interested me. The prose is wickedly good, and I totally get the Pynchon comparison; his sentences are so effective, unique, and well crafted it’s scary. From the first story, I could tell this guy was a master.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again equally impressed me. It’s non-fiction, but it had no less imagination and originality than Oblivion. Never mind that one of the articles is about his experience on the set of David Lynch’s Lost Highway—my favorite film from my favorite director—but every story is a stand-alone gem that’s both beautiful and hilarious. It’s so rare to laugh out loud reading a book, but I did several times with this collection.

A_Supposedly_Fun_ThingWhat really struck me with A Supposedly Fun Thing was that Wallace has all the tools and wit to be some sort of above-it-all, post-hip, ultra-modern armchair philosopher, but he isn’t. He is incredibly hip and incredibly modern, but never comes off as too cool, and he seems eager to get his hands dirty with the complex emotional truths that make life simultaneously so funny and heartbreaking.

I was sick last week (on Tuesday, which is why I missed last week’s post completely), and I spent a couple days sleeping deliriously. For some reason I decided to pick up Infinite Jest and read the outstanding foreword by the talented Dave Eggers. I nearly started in on the first chapter, but held off and went to bed.

That night I had a dream unlike any I’ve ever had. The dream didn’t contain any images; it was just prose! It was like I was reading the book, absorbing it word by word without any physical or visual content whatsoever. And whenever I tried to remember back to something I just read I was unable to make any sense of it.

It was as though this book I was reading wasn’t linear, but 3D, like an inflated balloon (if you think that sounds weird, try living it). When I reached back with my mind I could never trace the correct line of longitude across the surface and I always ended up in some completely unfamiliar space in the story. It really did feel like one big joke on me, one that I might never get out of intact. Infinite jest indeed.

I woke up at 3 AM and looked over at my cat, who promptly coughed up a hairball and ran away. I cleaned it up with the distinct sense that I had actually started reading Infinite Jest the evening before, and had to convince myself that I had only read the foreword and had dreamt it all. Then I went back to sleep and fell right back into the same dream, in a different part of the book. I was so confused when I woke up it hurt.

It’s like I unconsciously mythologized Infinite Jest into this impossible morass of genius-level complexity and I had gotten trapped inside it. So now that I’m not sick, with no more delirium than normal, I feel it’s time to demolish that myth by reading the actual words on the actual page. I suspect I’ll have more to say about this when I finish it three decades from now.

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Hard Work of Simplicity

The Ocean at the End of the LaneOcean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane by Neil Gaiman is simply beautiful. Picking up this slender volume, it feels vaguely familiar; it’s about the size of the books I read as a child. Apt, because it reads like a fairy tail, and it breathed with life in my imagination. If The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the first Gaiman novel I read, I would have read the rest of his work immediately. So now I’m playing catch-up.

It’s a lean volume with lean prose and the main character feels tenderly, achingly real. I was disarmed by the book’s simplicity. My critical brain was quiet for a while. I felt immersed in the world without the need to analyze it. I think Hemingway would approve.

A man returns to his hometown for a funeral but wanders from the grieving mass, drawn on by vague memories. When he reaches the small pond on the Hempstock farm he knew as a boy, he vividly remembers his awful seventh birthday party, and the truly nightmarish events that followed.

When a boarder in his parent’s house commits suicide with the exhaust from the family car, our 7-year-old narrator barely comprehends the severity of what he sees. But something malevolent is creeping into the neighbourhood, and it has its sights on our little hero. And of course, the magical world of danger closing in on a young child is something that parents cannot see.

Our hero—unnamed and referred to in the first person as “I”, lending an effective personal slant to the story—has help only from the Hempstock women living on the farm down the road. 11-year-old Lettie, her mother and antediluvian grandmother, are odd, and just magical enough to seem like something out of the myths our hero reads compulsively.

When he realizes with Lettie’s help that the new boarder/nanny Ursula Monkton is in fact a horrific flapping monster of rotted cloth, he tries to point this out to his parents with predictable results. Ursula wins over his family with ease; only our narrator and the Hempstocks realize that a world of chaos has opened up beneath everyday life, and only they can set things right.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from a jaunty fantasy story. It is told delicately, remembered through the lens of a 7-year-old with such authentic emotion, such alienation from the adult world that it helps us to remember, like the pond in the story, a time when our inner suspicions had a deeper reality, and that we truly did sometimes have the weight of that world on our shoulders.

It’s a beautifully realized book. It’s brevity and tone, childlike reverence for the weird and total irreverence for the quotidian life of adulthood make The Ocean at the End of the Lane a riveting dream of a novel that should satisfy adults and kids alike, though hopefully those kids aren’t too young.

The one thing I didn’t like about the novel came in the acknowledgements. Here he thanks two dozen people for reading, re-reading, giving notes, complaining, and so forth. I was annoyed because the simplicity of the book, and its beautiful execution and realization by Gaiman are so good they feel like they’re cut from whole cloth.

That a world famous author at the top of his game should need such extensive notes and rewriting bothered me. With such obvious talent and vision, why should he have to work so hard? I want this guy basically to just exhale the book onto the page, as in Octavio Paz’s poem “Writing”:

“I draw these letters

As the day draws its images

And blows over them

                    And does not return”

Of course, Gaiman is at the top of his game precisely because he’s willing to put in the work required to create a masterpiece.

“But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.” – Leonard Cohen, Song Writers On Song Writing by Paul Zollo, (written about nicely at Brainpickings.org)

The Art of Character

Many fine books offer to help writers hone their craft by teaching fundamentals like character development, narrative structure, grammar, and the importance of rewriting. Story by Robert McKee is a great example of a broad, intelligent, and intelligible approach to storytelling that covers many of the bases.

While many books like Syd Field’s Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat offer good guidelines for plotting your story and making sure the beats are in the right place, they often fail to acknowledge that, as McKee points out, “character is plot, and vice versa. That discovery, fully assimilated, proves itself true again and again as you watch stories with a more critical eye.

A series of unwilled “happenings” does not make for a dramatic or interesting story; characters make stories compelling, and it is these characters’ conscious and unconscious decisions and reactions that drive any worthwhile plot forward. Underdeveloped characters often lead to predictable or unrealistic plots.

The Art Of CharacterRecently I received The Art of Character by David Corbett as a gift. As a writer who has at least a toehold on scene structure, this gift couldn’t have been better timed, as I have come to realize that character is the core aspect of storytelling. This 380-page book will uncover and clarify what, if anything, make our characters unique, and it offers a thorough set of tools to flesh out our creations and give them a life of their own.

Corbett cuts straight to the point, elucidating the fundamentals of character and how to use personal experience to summon more honest and interesting players for our stories. Part conscious deliberation and part intuitive discovery, Corbett offers simple and specific techniques that let us dig for the emotional truths that we often overlook in everyday life, and how to conjure characters that feel like real people.

Full of excellent contemporary examples and a plethora of exercises, The Art of Character is concisely written and beautifully honest. From the very opening, Corbett has the reader thinking not of detailed character histories or laundry lists of characteristics, but of scenes in which our creations can live and breathe and experiment.

The exercises guide us step by step to discover more about our characters. By applying new questions to our imagined scenes, we can gradually shine a light on what drives our characters, why they act the way they act, and how the story should unfold naturally from the conflict between their wants, their dispositions, and their circumstances.

David Corbett’s book is for anyone interested in moving beyond the fundamentals of narrative structure, sentence structure, world building, etc., etc. It illuminates the most essential element of great storytelling: unique and memorable characters who can captivate an audience for at least the length of the story.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it talks the reader into an observant, introspective mode, and the exercises develop our characters while clarifying our own motivations and observations. Do the work, and there is a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself. The Art of Character is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tool that shows that with stories, as with writers themselves, it always comes back to character.

For The Love Of The Craft

They say part of writing well is reading well. I try to broaden my scope and cover the classics, but are always important authors who slip through the cracks. My writing focus has been speculative fiction, yet until recently I’ve committed the sin of failing to read the short horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was a major influence of many successful writers, including modern giants Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why Lovecraft’s influence has persisted. His prose is like a great fireside ghost story and the strange demons and apparitions are so beautifully developed I can’t help but drink in the weirdness. And while many of the stories fit together—dealing with madness, ancient cults and black magic—each is unique and memorable on its own.

A new writer aping Lovecraft’s style would probably not get published. His prose is fairly ornate, and most of the stories chronicle similar journeys of skeptical men to horrified believers. The characters don’t get much of a chance to live and breathe, and sometimes seem only to pilot the reader through dark places and bizarre situations. What little dialogue there is can seem ridiculous, and the descriptions and exposition border on ‘overdone’, but the flow of his thoughts is prodigal, well considered, and right up my alley.

One of his strongest assets is his ability to describe settings we can feel, and that we remember as though we’ve been there. The house in “The Color Out Of Space” and the strange events that occur within are so crisp in my mind it’s as though I spent an entire novel there, or a weekend. Few writers lend so much personality to a building, and like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the places in Lovecraft’s work are at least as central as the characters.

Most of the stories I’ve read so far are quite similar in tone, but rather than feeling redundant, I get the sense that I’m reading an author who has found and truly mastered his voice. And with the strength of that voice, his legacy is likely to last for a long time still. As a writer still honing his own voice, I was glad to see the trickle-down influence of his work in some of my own short stories.

He’s a must-read for anyone who wants to write speculative fiction, and I welcome recommendations of other less popular but seminal authors I might have missed.