Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 4

I was all set this week to get away from the negative critiques of fundamental errors I keep finding. I wanted to discuss the prose of Steven Erikson, because Gardens of the Moon is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read. But each week, it seems I find a new candidate for the worst way to start a novel. So here goes. This is so bad that it almost crosses over into brilliant comedy.

“Careful, please,” I said to the worker who was ineptly handling a crate full of dishes as I walked back into the house I was preparing to leave. “I think we’re just about done,” I called into the living room.

As usual with this series, I’ll point out a few things unrelated to the lesson first. There’s too much passive voice. I’ve become much more lax about this type of thing in my own writing, because it sounds wrong to change every single “was” to a more active verb. But in the opening paragraphs, I really want to draw the reader in.

Here it’s quite easy.

“Careful, please,” I said. The worker fumbled a crate full of dishes, and I cringed, waiting for the inevitable crash.

Notice how the awkwardness of phrases like “was ineptly handling” can be replaced by a more suitable active verb: fumbled. Already, this simple change corrects the fundamental lesson I want to get to.

Lesson 4: Don’t do too much in a single sentence!

As with every rule, there are amazing exceptions. Some of the best sentences I’ve read break this rule. But one must be able to follow and understand the rule before it can be broken, or you’ll end up with the tragedy that is the opening sentence to this novel.

Here’s a list of what the author tries to fit into the first sentence. There’s a mover who isn’t doing a good job. He has a box of dishes. The main character walks into his house. He’s preparing to leave the house.

That is far too much. First off, in an attempt to get so much across, the reader will barely comprehend any of it. The sentence seems to be grammatically correct, but it feels like a run-on sentence with how wordy it is. He has to resort to awkward phrases to avoid a run-on. And most important of all, the information is told instead of shown.

What’s so disheartening is how close this author came to getting it right. He sets up a scene perfectly suited to showing all this information without telling the reader anything. Let’s finish up correcting the paragraph, since we’re so close.

“…I was preparing to leave.” This is completely unnecessary. The main character is moving out in the scene. There is absolutely no reason to then tell the reader something that has already been shown.

Whenever you write the word “as,” a red flag should go off that you’re cramming too much into a single sentence. It is sometimes correct, but you must always ask yourself: are the two clauses actually happening at the same time?

In the example above, the word “as” introduces ambiguity. Where is the worker? I imagined him loading a truck outside, and then the main character walks into the house and speaks to someone else. But “as” implies he calls into the house, since otherwise he’d be speaking to someone behind him. Wait. If the person is in the house, how does the main character know he’s “ineptly handling?”

Pretty much all interpretations of the scene don’t make sense. I’ll return to the lesson. This only happened because the author tried to cram it all into one sentence. If everything were described across multiple sentences, a more precise and logical picture would appear in the reader’s mind. So for the correction, I’ll place the people in their locations.

“Careful, please,” I said. The mover fumbled a crate of dishes, and I cringed, waiting for the inevitable crash. The box somehow made it onto the truck safely, so I walked back into the house. A lump formed in my throat, and I found a man wrapping tape around the last box in an empty living room.

Half to myself, I said, “I think we’re just about done.”

This is what I do when I go from first draft to second draft. There would still be a lot of tinkering to get it just how I want it. But notice how all the same information comes across much better in this version. The reader has a chance to digest and visualize it all now. Putting too much in a sentence is a recipe for ambiguity and telling. It’s also far harder for the reader to process.

And that brings us to my favorite exception to the rule. Sometimes you want to intentionally confuse the reader to imitate the experience of a character. The easiest way to do this is to cram too much into a sentence.

I hopped on the carnival ride. As it sped up, an awful feeling developed in the pit of my stomach. We spun and flung and bits of cotton candy whizzed by as my side pressed into the metal edge, pain and nausea filling my body, laughter and noise and that horrible smell of burnt burgers offending my nostrils.

Or whatever. You get the point. Fight scenes are a common place this will happen, too. There are times when breaking the rule makes sense, but I consider this rule to be pretty solid. It’s going to be very rare and obvious when breaking it is a good thing.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 4: Derrida

This series hasn’t been as rough as I’ve expected this far. The first few parts showed some of the classic postmodernists to be clearer and more prescient than many give them credit for. This changes all that. Derrida is rough going. I chose his most famous work, Differance, for today.

I couldn’t remember if I had read this before, and then I read the first paragraph. Oh, boy. It all came flooding back. Not only had I read this, I’d watched a whole lecture or two on it as well. I’m not sure it’s fair to be super critical of lack of clarity when reading a translation, but in this case, I think it’s warranted (more on that later).

The article begins by Derrida making up a new word: differance. It is phonetically related to “defer,” meaning to be displaced in time, and it is phonetically related to “differ,” meaning to not be identical.

So what is differance? Here’s the clearest explanation I’ve come up with after reading the opening paragraphs many, many times. Derrida wants to say that two things can only differ if there is a relationship between them for comparison. Anything that has such a relationship must have something in common. So:

We provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical.

Derrida then starts dancing around what he means. I don’t say this to be demeaning. His whole point is that language can’t describe the thing he is getting at, so he must dance around it to give you some idea about what he wants differance to mean.

To defer makes use of time, but differance is outside time. Differance produces the differences between the differences. It isn’t a word. It isn’t a concept. I’m going to describe differance as a “tool” or even “thought experiment” to get at Derrida’s particular form of deconstruction even though he doesn’t exactly say that.

Now I’m supposed to be doing “critical” readings of these texts, so I’ll admit this type of thing makes me feel a little funny. On the one hand, I’m okay with being a bit loose on definitions if the only point is to perform a thought experiment. On the other hand, I fear there will be a switch at some point where we start attributing a bunch of unknowable things without argument to a term that has such nonsensical properties as “being outside time.” So I want to carefully keep track of that.

Derrida moves on to the relationship between spoken and written language. In French, “differance” and “difference” have the same pronunciation. He spends far too long talking about how difficult it will be to talk about this, since he’ll have to indicate verbally “with an a” each time (this paper was originally a talk given to the Societe Francaise de Philosophie).

He next spends quite a bit of time explaining some very precise etymological concerns about the word differance:

But while bringing us closer to the infinitive and active core of differing, “differance” with an a neutralizes what the infinitive denotes as simply active, in the same way that “parlance” does not signify the simple fact of speaking, of speaking to or being spoken to.

This type of thing is a pretty silly game. He freaking made the word up! There is no etymology or historical context to analyze. It’s a pure fiction about the word. I hear the Derrida defenders here saying that this is precisely the point, because every word is made up and we play an etymological game to understand them. Maybe, but I don’t really see what’s gained by presenting that idea in this way.

Derrida then recaps some of Saussure’s structuralist ideas about language: the signifyer / signified distinction. The word “chair” is a mere symbol that signifies an actual chair. The connection is arbitrary. We could easily make up a word like “cuilhseitornf” and have it symbolize the exact same thing. (All that was the Saussure recap).

Derrida wants to now say that actually it’s not so simple as Saussure thinks. Words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to things (concepts, etc). In fact, meaning comes from being in a linguistic system, and the meaning of a word comes from understanding what the other words are not signifying. He wants to call this negative space “differance.” Again, I’m worried about how much we’re loading into this one made up word.

But overall, if I clarify this point to a degree Derrida would probably hate, I’m somewhat sold on the concept. Think about removing the word “chair” from the English language (i.e. a linguistic system). If you think about something that is different from all the remaining words, you’ll probably get something close to “chair,” because it’s partly defined by the differences between it and all the other words in the system. This seems an okay statement to make, if a little confusing as to its importance to theory.

Derrida introduces the concept of “trace” to make the above point. Basically the trace of a signifyer is the collection of all the sameness and differance left on it by the other words in the linguistic system.

Overall, I don’t get what real contribution this paper makes. To me, it is essentially a reiteration of Wittgenstein’s ideas about words in linguistic systems/games with a single, seemingly unnecessary, mystical layer that comes through the meta-concept of “differance.” Maybe if I were to read some of Derrida’s later work, it will become clearer why he needs this, but at this point I don’t get it.

Derrida is less confusing than I remember. He’s not hard to read because of obscurity or complex sentences or big words. He’s hard to read because he just meanders too much. There are entire pages that can be thrown out with nothing lost, because they are pure reiteration of minor tangential points.

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 3

As I continue to read poorly edited (I’m not referring to typos) KU books, I continue to find fundamental problems to talk about. Here’s one that will probably be obvious to many people when I point it out, but it would never jump out in a self-editing session to them.

Here’s a real example:

Maria glanced in the window of the coffee shop and saw that it was nearly packed to completely full capacity.

This lesson is again on the level of word choice in sentence construction. There’s a lot to pull from this one mistake. The first is in modifying absolutes. There are times when there’s no choice. One must modify a word that has an absolute meaning.

An example of an absolute is “perfect.” It exist as an absolute extreme. I don’t have much of a problem with saying “nearly perfect” (in other words, modifying the absolute), because synonyms like “flawed” have too much baggage to get the right meaning.

The first part of this lesson is to always try to get the right meaning without forming this construction. I believe the Chicago Manual of Style even lists this as a mistake. The reason is that something either is the absolute or it isn’t. Absolutes set up a pure binary, so it doesn’t really make sense to modify it somehow.

The common example is “unique.” The word unique means “one of a kind” or “the sole example.” This is an absolute and should not be modified. For example, “That’s the most unique car I’ve seen.” The word “most” doesn’t do anything, because the word unique already has that information in it. One should write, “That car is unique.”

But that’s not the real fundamental flaw in the example. The fundamental flaw is redundancy and wordiness. Let’s just look at “packed to completely full capacity.” First off, “completely” serves no purpose. “Full” and “completely full” have the exact same meaning, so it is redundant to say it that way (it’s again modifying an absolute in an unnecessary way).

But “full capacity” is kind of redundant as well, because “packed to full capacity” and “packed to capacity” have the exact same meaning. It is also touch jargon-y, almost like corporate double speak. The other option was to use “full.” That flows much better to me.

Now “full” is an absolute, so we come full circle and have to decide what to do with the “nearly” before it. I say scrap it. When looking into a coffee shop, a human isn’t going to see a difference between “nearly full” and “full.” It’s just going to look full. Here’s my fixed version:

Maria glanced in the window of the coffee shop and saw that it was full.

Go back and read the original now. Wow. This version is so much better. The last two lessons I said an editor wouldn’t point it out, because the mistakes were too fundamental. Any editor worth paying for will point out this type of mistake, so I have to assume the self-published writer that wrote this book did not hire one.

Sorry for the short post, but I’m away on vacation this week. I think this lesson is quite important though.

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 2

This is going to be a post on a bizarre pet peeve of mine. This advice isn’t as universal as my dozens of other posts on writing. It’s an idiosyncrasy of my own personal taste. Yet, of all the writers I think of as taking the craft of prose seriously, I can’t find anyone that makes this “mistake.” It’s only found in books by people who pump out quantity over quality, so I think there’s actually something to it.

Here’s a quick refresher on definite versus indefinite articles. An indefinite article is used when talking about a thing in general. In other words, not a specific thing already known to the listener. Example:

A cat cried outside my window all night long.

The indefinite article is “a.” Definite articles are used to refer to a specific thing known to the listener.

There is a cup of water. The cup is brown.

In this case, “the” is the definite article. Here is the lesson for today: Do not use definite articles too early in a novel or story. This will take some unpacking, because, obviously, it’s often appropriate to use a definite article in the first sentence.

I know, this sounds like nitpicky nonsense. Here’s an actual example (kind of, modified like last time so you can’t Google the person and find their book). Here’s the first sentence of the entire novel.

Bob set the glass of water down before going to the bedroom.

Let’s ignore the fact that this also violates Lesson 1 in this series (come on, is setting the glass of water down really where this story begins or at least a vital detail?!). I’ll first say that this is a noble effort. She uses an active verb, and a specific detail is given (though, a glass of water is quite generic).

But why is there a definite article? The reader has not been exposed to the glass yet, so it isn’t known.

Don’t freak out on me that this is absolutely ridiculous. Every time I encounter this, I cringe at how strange it sounds to my ear. I hear your complaint: how can this be avoided? First off, something like “Bob set his glass…” reads much better to me. The possessive article is still somewhat definite, but it indicates Bob is the one familiar with it and not necessarily the reader.

Also, “Bob set a glass…” sounds correct as well. My guess is that many KU authors read other KU authors, and this creates a cycle of subconscious imitation. Using a definite article in a first sentence has become the norm, unfortunately.

There are times when it is fine.

The sun crested the horizon, and a streak of red jutted across the sky.

Here it’s fine, because the reader is already familiar with the sun, the horizon, and the sky. In other words, we know which one she’s referring to. But I’d like to return to a deeper problem and the core of this lesson. If you find yourself using a definite article for an object unfamiliar to the reader, don’t quickly change it to an indefinite or possessive. Ask yourself why that object is there.

In almost 100% of the times I see this, the more fundamental problem is that the object shouldn’t be mentioned at all. If the object is important enough, then really emphasize it by making it the subject of the sentence. In that case, it is okay to use a definite article.

The glass of water sparkled on the counter. Bob wondered if they’d be able to lift the killer’s prints off it as he wandered to the bedroom—the scene of the crime.

Now it makes sense. It’s not just “a” glass of water, but a highly specific one that plays a crucial role in the opening of the novel. This opening draws the reader in. There aren’t just objects and details for no reason. The glass is mentioned to create tension in the scene.

There are also hundreds of exceptions to this rule, so don’t go posting a bunch in the comments or something. I’ve seen books where this rule is broken and it works. It’s like all writing advice: break it when you have good reason to.

Here’s some obvious exceptions. You have to use a definite article if referencing a proper noun (It happened while listening to the Beatles). There are also common phrases and colloquialisms that use definite articles (It was the best of times). But the most common exception is if the scene has been set enough that the object in question could be inferred by the reader. Here’s the opening to A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall.

Pay close attention to “the” versus “a” versus “her” in that paragraph. Egan uses “her yellow eye shadow” because the reader hasn’t been exposed to it. She uses “the mirror” and “the sink” because Sasha is in a bathroom of a hotel. If a reader hasn’t envisioned a mirror or sink, they aren’t familiar with standard bathrooms. But Egan uses “a bag,” because the reader wouldn’t envision a bag on the floor from any of the previous information.

Year of Short Fiction Part 7: Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is one of those collections of stories I’ve heard about for years. It came out in 1999 and won the Pulitzer Prize. I think I dragged my feet on it because of the Oprah endorsement and the fact that I assumed I knew it already (i.e. it’s just another of those MFA story collection clones).

Today, I want to dig in to the first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter.” It kind of blew me away. This is the type of story one should spend a lot of time understanding if one wants to do short fiction well. It packs a serious emotional punch but also has a ton of things to notice on subsequent readings.

WARNING: The entire story will be revealed. If you want to experience it as intended, read it first. The obvious Google search is your friend if you don’t have a copy.

Short stories tend to focus really, really hard on a single moment: think Joyce’s Dubliners. This is because if one is showing instead of telling, there just isn’t room to do anything else. Lahiri builds to this moment in “A Temporary Matter” with a lot of backstory, and to do this she has to “tell.” So it will be interesting to see how she does this in an engaging way.

The structure of the story is also really important. It jumps around in time, and this is done so that certain emotional reveals happen where they need to happen. Here’s the structure labeled in a way that can be referred to (the whole thing is told in past tense limited third person).

Present 1
Past 1
Present 1
Present 2
Past 2
(Present 2)
Past 3
Present 2
Present 3
Sequence of Past events revealed
Final Present moment

Here’s a brief summary. Present 1: Shoba and Shukumar receive a notice that the electric company will shut the power off for an hour each night to fix some power lines (a temporary matter). Past 1: We get a semi-flashback to Shukumar finding out that Shoba went into early labor while he was away at an academic conference. The baby dies, and Shoba resents Shukumar for not being there during the horrific experience.

Present 2: The first blackout night comes up and Shukumar makes dinner. Past 2: There’s a brief description of how they’ve developed nightly routines of avoiding each other. It’s brilliant how none of these flashbacks feel like flashbacks. It’s more like Shukumar is having idle thoughts while cooking. This layers in the backstory more naturally than a true jarring flashback. Past 3: We also get thoughts about Shoba’s mother coming to visit and help after the miscarriage.

Present 2: The real content of the story begins at this first blackout dinner. Under the safety of darkness, they decide to play a game where they each reveal a secret they’ve never told the other before. The secrets start out minor: cheating on a test years ago, getting drunk in the middle of the day once.

Present 3: The game continues each night, and they start to be able to talk to each other again. They start to fall in love again and move through the grief. They even make love. Then final night comes, and the power company finishes early. They have light.

They still play the game, because each has saved their bombshell for the final night. Shoba reveals that she has signed a lease to an apartment, and she’s moving out. Shukumar reveals that he actually made it back from the conference and held the baby after the miscarriage. The ending is left open.

As you can see, the structure is quite complicated, but it must be this way for the most emotional resonance. Let’s look at how these “flashbacks” work by taking a passage from the first one.

Each time he thought of that moment, the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant, it was the cab he remembered most, a station wagon, painted red with blue lettering. It was cavernous compared to their own car. Although Shukumar was six feet tall, with hands too big ever to rest comfortably in the pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back seat. As the cab sped down Beacon street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba might need to buy a station wagon of their own, to cart their children back and forth from music lessons and dentist appointments.

There’s two things that make this fit into the story so well. First, it meanders like thought. So instead of jerking you to another time and place with a sudden hard break, it lets Shukumar’s thoughts wander, as if he’s actually standing in the present still, thinking about it.

The other thing is that it sticks to one important detail and drills into it: the car. At first it’s just the physical description. But then it becomes an emotional description. It’s not a detail for detail’s sake. This detail is important. He thinks about how he and Shoba would need a car like that for their future children. He has no idea that his wife is about to lose the baby.

Lahiri also lets Shukumar’s present thoughts bleed into this passage by indicating “the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant…”

The title is very clever. I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but it draws attention to how many of the disparate threads weave together. The lights going out is a temporary matter. The game is a temporary matter. We come to believe that the title is secretly about the rocky place of the relationship being a temporary matter. They’re moving through it and falling in love again.

But then it smacks us in the end. It’s actually their relationship which is temporary. Obviously, it’s easy to read too much into this, because everything in life is temporary. So the title would draw these themes out of any story.

There’s also a lot of interesting symbolic stuff going on. For example, the darkness each night doesn’t merely give them safety to speak their minds. It also represents that both are in the dark about the interior states of the other. It’s not an accident that Lahiri cuts the darkness short on the fifth night so that when the truth is revealed they are in light.

This is what makes the story so brilliant. One can read it without noticing any of this stuff and have a serious emotional reaction to it but then read it again and notice how all these details reveal who the characters really are and the conflicting themes and the symbols.

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 1

I have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, so I start a lot of self-published books. Many of these are bad (don’t take this the wrong way: 90% of everything is bad). I don’t want to criticize specific people or their writing, but I really want to dig into some of the fundamental problems with some passages I’ve found out in the published world.

I’ve decided that I’m going to take real passages and change the verbs and nouns and names (but in a way to not create a new problem). This is so you can’t go find the passages easily. Most of the time proper grammar and so on is used. It’s even possible they hired an editor. The issue is that when certain fundamental problems exist, the work isn’t ready for an editor.

Here is the opening passage to a novel. Sorry for how long this excerpt is, but context is needed to understand the fundamental problem:

A 23 year old girl named Veronica who had just ended her relationship with her boyfriend found herself alone. After a few years of being with him, she decided to follow her instincts and have a relationship with an older man. Veronica had always been with people her own age but she secretly found them immature.

One day in the afternoon Veronica was bored at her house and decided to go out and visit some friends to chill and have some fun. When she got to their house, they were talking to a coworker named Sam …

We could take a few directions with this. First off, every single one of those sentences is telling the reader what happened instead of showing it. In addition, most of what we’re told is completely irrelevant. An agent or publisher wouldn’t have to read any further to know it was a hard reject.

It might be instructive to see how to change some of this to show more and tell less. Let’s do that for a moment, but there’s actually a more fundamental problem than that.

First, let’s think about what’s actually important in the first sentence. The age we can later infer. The relationship ending is inferred by the last part of the sentence. Already we could make a much stronger opening by changing that to:

Veronica found herself alone.

This conveys the same information in a much less clunky way. Strings of glue words like “who had just” should always throw up red flags. The rest of that opening paragraph is also unimportant. We can show all of it better through action or dialogue.

“One day in the afternoon” and “was bored at her house” can be converted to showing. Never say “one day.” However you proceed, it will be assumed that it is a day (unless it’s night, of course).

The heat of the afternoon sun beat on Veronica’s skin as she lazily flipped through the latest Cosmopolitan.

Now we’ve given the character some action that slips in the time of day and shows her being bored. With specific details like the magazine title, we’re developing characterization. Imagine how you’d feel if instead that had said Popular Mechanics or Harper’s. It’s already infinitely better, but if we try to convert the next part, we’re going to run up against the more fundamental problem I alluded to.

There’s no good way to transition to the upcoming house party scene. We have to spend a full scene with her being bored at her house, or we should probably skip it. Here’s the fundamental lesson: make sure the story starts in the right place.

The original first paragraph is backstory and told motivation. There’s no need for either. The “being bored” is irrelevant. This novel actually begins at this party scene where she’s going to try to start dating this older man.

I tend to think of novels having two good opening strategies. One is the poetic scene setting or character description. I know that’s gone quite a bit out of favor recently, but most of the masters did this. This sets a patient tone for the novel. Here’s the opening to Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon (Malazan, Book 1):

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

The inventive description draws you right in. There’s no need for action because so much of the descriptors paint in an active way: stains, blood, squat, bolt, monstrous, demon, teeth bared, leering, and more. This is all just a description of the setting!

We could easily do this with the example we’re trying to fix. We could dwell on the house for a while before getting to this other idea:

Fragments of sunlight cut through the clouded sky to illuminate a small bungalow on a hill. Veronica glanced out the window at her garden—at how the raindrops refracted the light on the silvery wormwood leaves. The storm had broken. Three days of being cooped up was about all she could take.

This is getting more advanced than I want this “fundamentals” series to be. Here’s the idea.

If Veronica is sad about the breakup, we can symbolically illustrate this with the storm. Now that she’s about to go to this party, the sun coming out foreshadows things getting better. She’s coming out of the post-breakup depression (and we even worked in why she was bored since this was so important to merit mention to the original author!).

So if we absolutely must start the novel bored at the house, we should use inventive description to paint vivid pictures and draw the reader in like this. But honestly I feel quite strongly that this “bored at the house” idea was merely lazy writing and not the true beginning.

The more common advice these days is to start in media res, meaning in the middle of some action. But in the case of the example we’re trying to fix, there’s no need for actual “action.” All this means for us is to start where the actual story starts. All the stuff that came before it was unnecessary. It will be inferred later or was too unimportant to care about.

Veronica circled the party in a slow and deliberate prowl. She watched Sam as he talked to people she didn’t know. He had a streak of silver in his brown hair, a hefty square jaw covered in stubble, and those piercing green eyes. She thought to herself: age is just a number.

Oh. What in the world is going on here? We know the man is older by the physical description, but leaving what exactly their age difference is creates mystery. We don’t know whether to be intrigued or disturbed yet. She’s on the prowl but why? It’s the action of the scene right up front.

And don’t think that a good editor will tell you any of this (they’ll be thinking it, though!). Editors can only fix so much. If there’s a true fundamental problem like this one, it requires a rewrite. Editors edit. A rewrite is part of “writing” and beyond the scope of their job. They might be generous and write things like “telly,” but you’ll have to understand that what they mean is what’s in this post.

Talamir, Chapter 1

My next book, Talamir, is up for pre-order today. Here’s the first chapter in full. It’s available for Kindle through Amazon and will only be $0.99 during pre-order this next week. More details: here.

Enjoy!

A shard pressed into Drystn’s back as he struggled through the cramped tunnel. The cavern at the other end taunted him, and he squirmed to get through to it. If only it wasn’t digging so deeply, he could make one last hard push. The blood rushed to his head from the semi-vertical positioning of his body, and Drystn chastised himself for not turning back at the first sign of trouble.

Now he had no choice. He braced his feet against the side of the tunnel and thrust his body forward, somersaulting into the large, cavernous opening. A sharp pain arced across his back from the scratch, but it didn’t feel serious.

The cavern was full of the shimmering crystal deposits: mianl. These caves were where all of them formed, but he had never thought about what caused them to grow from the rock. Grow? Was that even the right word?

He heard the faint sound of running water in the distance. The enclave should have been dark, but the mianl gave off a delicate glow. Spior. He wouldn’t need to waste his torch yet. Drystn worried that he should have encountered the herb before now; the rare specimen had all but vanished from its cliffside existence. He’d need to find the water outlet for a better chance. He walked to the jagged wall and ran his hand along the mianl deposits. Not having trained as a mianlist, he could only guess at all their uses.

Drystn sensed the change before the attack came. The subtle tremor under his feet warned him of the inevitable. Like all Talamirians, his life of quakes attuned him to the signs. His legs discerned the pre-quake as naturally as his lungs breathed air. He glanced up to check how safe he would be: not very. Large stalactites hung like a torture device from the ceiling. They receded into the darkness, obscuring their true size. If the quake was large, he would die.

The beginning tremors shifted to a heavy shake. Drystn rolled to the ground out of habit; it would be safer than falling. One stalactite broke loose, but he had kept his eye on them in case this happened. The spike plummeted at his face with alarming speed, too fast to get out of the way.

Drystn willed his body sideways and rolled hard. It shattered upon hitting the ground, and a fragment shot into his arm. He howled into the emptiness. The sharp sting pulsed on his shoulder, and a trickle of blood ran along his arm. The quake ended as fast as it began. They were all like this now: short but intense.

Drystn stood, and brushed the debris off his skin. The puncture in his arm felt worse than it looked, and he decided it could wait until he returned to the school. He looked back to make sure the quake hadn’t knocked anything into the tunnel—his only means of return. He didn’t think the damage would add difficulty at other, clearer parts of the cave, so he turned toward the sound of the water. It had to be nearby, which meant the herb couldn’t be far either.

He wandered forward and took care with the fallen rock to not twist an ankle. Within a hundred steps, it came into view. A small waterfall emptied into a pool. Drystn glanced up to see where the water came from but could only see more darkness. The mianl shards weren’t growing this close to the water, so everything had a dark veil pulled over it. At the pool’s edge he bent down to examine the ground. He slid along the edge of the water, hunting. The crouched walk hurt his legs. It had to be here. If it wasn’t here, it no longer existed.

Drystn dragged his hand along the dirt, feeling where he couldn’t see. He scraped up against something fuzzy. Relief flowed through him. It had to be slaitn, the herb for which he looked. He plucked it and pulled it to his face for closer examination.

Drystn had trained as an herbalist for years. His experienced eyes scanned for the identifying patterns: five petals, hairy underside, ribbed stem; check, check, check. He carefully went through all the secondary defining features. The trip had taken too long and was too dangerous for him to make a mistake in identifying the herb. There would only be one final exam, and he wanted to do his best. If he didn’t pass this year, he would have to go through a whole extra year of training.

He placed the herb into the small pouch sewn into his gray herbalist trainee robe. He only needed one more herb to make the tea. It grew in abundance near the school, so all he had to do was survive the journey back.

The return went smoother. It was easier to traverse the tunnel now that he had been through it once. The quake must have knocked rocks loose, widening the diameter. He also didn’t have to keep his eye out for the herb. The other one would be easy to find along the Ahm River at the school. A light appeared at the end of the tunnel, and Drystn was glad to know he hadn’t wasted all his daylight.

The journey down the cliffs still left some danger. Mianlists made the trip all the time to gather their materials from the caves. He had only made this trip a few times in his entire life. The herbs that grew in the caves were few. Before beginning the descent, he looked out at Talamir.

From this height he could make out the entire world. Cliffs and mountains formed a large circle around everything. Three rivers flowed from the mountains to the center of the circle and emptied into Lake Uisc. This partitioned Talamir into three, equally sized regions.

Around and above the lake lay Talamir Center, a large circular building used for government matters. The lake was about two-day’s walk. Drystn had never visited it, because he left his village at ten to go to school at the end of the Ahm River. Children with the Talent had no choice in the matter.

Two-hundred years ago, the founders built the school on the outer edge of Talamir because of its proximity to the resources needed to learn the three pillars of spior: herbalism, mianlism, and soilism. There were a few cavern systems in the cliffs at other locations, but these were the easiest to get to by far.

Drystn longed to live in the heart of Talamir City, but he knew he would most likely return to the village of his parents and become the resident herbalist. It was tradition. Outside the dense city center were rings of scattered settlements. Drystn could make out a clear First Ring, Second Ring, and Third Ring, but the rings became sparser the farther out they went. The outer Ninth Ring contained the school as well as some less savory villages closer to the other two rivers.

He turned back toward the caves, squatted, and reached his foot over the ledge. The first drop wasn’t far, but he had to be careful to stay close to the red rocks. Each narrow ledge posed a chance for disaster. Once he got into a pattern, the activity had a calming effect. Squat, drop, squat, drop. Part of his training involved learning this skill, since the occasional journey to a system of caves would be a necessary part of any herbalist’s job.

At last, Drystn breathed a sigh of relief as his boots touched the solid ground of Talamir. Only then did he think about how terrible it would have been for the quake to have happened on his ascent or descent of the cliffs to the caves.

No one at the school would have paid the quake any attention. The banality of yet another quake had become a standard part of life. Drystn only noticed because of his precarious location. Dusk settled, and he hurried to make it back to school before true darkness arrived.

As he walked, he glimpsed something move out of the corner of his eye. He snapped his head over to get a better look, but it vanished—as if looking caused it to disappear. Phantom spior. Once one developed the ability to see spior, these phantom images were a common occurrence. Drystn shuddered. He hated being watched only to have the watcher disappear when looked at.

He tried to console himself with the fact that these phantom images appeared to everyone, but this somehow only made it creepier. Something didn’t sit right about the stock explanation that tufts of spior collected together for a second before dispersing to a more normal distribution.

The familiar stone castle grew in size as he got closer. The stone was typical Second Age construction. From a distance, it had a majestic look to it. Four pillars rose out of the four corners of the building. These were used for residences. Three for the three schools of students and one for the professors. Classrooms lined the boxy exterior, and a large room in the middle served as the great hall.

Halfway back, Drystn stopped to light the torch he brought. He picked up the pace, and returned to the castle well before dinner. There would be time to finish the exam tonight. Up close, the building lost its grandeur. The weather had worn the stone, and many parts looked as if they were ready to collapse. This was in stark contrast to the mianl buildings of the First Age, which showed no wear.

Drystn walked to the river bank and located the second herb he needed. He placed this in his pouch and began the trek to his teacher’s office. He was so close to graduating and now shuttered at the thought of the unnecessary risk he had taken for the exam. The spell would be very hard and delicate. The other students in his class had chosen the easier method.

Drystn’s legs felt weak as he made his way to his room to gather the necessary supplies. He already had the herbs and the flint for fire. He picked up his personal brewer. The contraption looked like two stone cups stacked on top of each other, separated by a small space. The bottom had a candle with a special wick that burned with strong consistency. The top could then be used to brew a single cup of tea. He had also prepared the distilled water he needed the day before.

Drystn went back into the hall toward the offices. Each final exam would comprise a single brew and a long oral exam to accompany it. When he had left to go to the cavern, three people stood outside Professor Cynwr’s office. Only five people were up for graduating as herbalists this year, so he knew everyone had taken the easy method of using local herbs.

He approached the large door and couldn’t bring himself to knock. He brought his hand up, and it stalled. Drystn watched it shake in disbelief. Eight years of his life had been spent here. Now it was about to come to a close. He didn’t want that just yet. This was his home. All of his friends were here.

A gentle female voice called out, muffled by the door.

“Drystn, you may enter. I haven’t got all night.”

Drystn opened the door, and a pungent odor filled his nostrils. Of course, his fellow students would have needed to brew boldh root. He felt bad for Cynwr sitting in this smell all day.

She often wore her hair up in a tight bun, and it looked strange and sad as it hung loose around her shoulders, like the mist coming off the Ahn waterfall. It must have been years since she had it cut, for it almost touched the ground while she sat. Cynwr usually had a wild and disorganized office that gave Drystn an unsettled feeling. He liked neatness. He half-expected to knock over a stack of papers or books any time he opened her door.

For the exam, the office had been thoroughly cleaned. She left nothing extraneous on the ground or the desk. The cleanliness startled Drystn. There was nothing quite like being surprised to start an exam.

She said, “I see you finally decided to show up.”

Drystn relaxed as Cynwr gave him a kind smile. She had taught him for eight years. She was on his side. He realized he had nothing to worry about.

“Um. Sorry. I journeyed to the caverns to get slaitn for the tea.”

Cynwr’s expression changed to one of being impressed.

“Let’s begin then. First, start by telling me the tea you are to make and why you think it would cure brotl.”

A chair rested in front of the desk for the examinees to use, but Drystn remained at his feet and paced. Pictures formed in his mind of the herbs as he said them, and he became so lost in his thoughts that he temporarily forgot it was an exam. The scenario shifted to any of the hundred times he had come to office hours and talked through his various ideas with her.

Drystn said, “At first, I thought this was easy. I could use four herbs to cure each of the four aspects of brotl. But then I realized that slaitn takes care of two and graecl takes care of the other two. I chose these ingredients, even though it would be more work to obtain and will be more difficult to brew properly.

“This is because of the simple rule of herbology that the more ingredients you use, the less potent each will be. Brotl is a serious illness, so I wanted the tea to be as potent as possible. Using four herbs could compromise the health of the patient.”

Cynwr said, “Very good. You seem to be the only one to have chosen this path. It is certainly the most correct one, and the one I would have done if faced with a real patient with the illness. Of course, I would have sent someone else to get the slaitn, but you don’t have that luxury. Let’s see if you can actually brew it properly.”

Cynwr leaned back in her chair as if settling in for a long process. Drystn lit his brewer and poured the distilled water into the top cup until it reached the first lip. If he filled it too much, it would overflow when he placed the herbs in. He wasn’t sure how much to explain, so he said, “This is distilled water, because the more pure the water the more—”

“—Okay. That is Year One stuff. I know you understand that. You can move on to the specifics of this particular tea.”

He continued to work. He set the two herbs on the empty desk next to the pot of grass. Cynwr had informed the class that this would be provided. Since grass was so abundant, there would be no need to test if students could find and identify it.

Drystn cleared his mind and reached for the spior within the grass. Once he sensed it, he latched on and pulled. Over the years, this had become second-nature, but it had taken him nearly a year to get his first pull to work. He recalled how scared he had been that maybe he didn’t have the Talent. Maybe they had misidentified him. The spior came free and hovered in a ball in front of him.

Spior could not be seen, but he used this visualization to help keep hold of it. Even holding on tightly, small amounts would escape the ball and return to nature. If he let go, it would all dissipate within seconds. He sensed how much he had, and calculated how much each herb needed.

This delicate calculation was the first dangerous part. If he gave the herb too much spior, it would become dangerously potent: too high a dose. The patient could overdose and die. If he didn’t give it enough, the effect wouldn’t come through. He pushed the appropriate amount of spior into each herb, and then let the rest release.

By the end of the brew, the grass would be dead unless enough had escaped his ball and returned to it. No one understood how spior dissipated back to nature. It just did. That was the way things had always been.

Drystn opened his eyes and looked at the two herbs on the table. They gave off a faint glow, so he knew it had worked. Next, he turned his attention to the water in the brewer. It would be getting close at this point. He placed his head over the cup and watched for the first small bubbles to appear on the bottom.

Cynwr asked, “Can you explain what you’re looking for?”

“Well, unlike the boldh root I smell from the previous exam, slaitn is very delicate. It cannot be directly boiled or it will scald and lose its potency. The healing property must be extracted gently. I’m watching for the first sign of bubbles, at which point I’ll blow out the flame and start the immersion.”

“Very good.”

A bubble appeared, and Drystn blew out the flame. He paused a beat to let the temperature drop for extra caution then put the two herbs in the water. Six minutes later, he served the tea to Cynwr.

Drystn confidently exclaimed, “This should cure brotl.”

She nodded with a smile.

“I agree. Let us proceed with the exam. I know this question is a mere formality, but the final is supposed to be comprehensive. Please recite the laws of spior for me.”

“First: Spior can never be created nor destroyed; it can only be moved from place to place, like with like. Second—”

“—Wait. Like with like. Can you explain that a bit more for me?”

“Yes. It means from herb to herb or from mianl to mianl or from soil to soil. Spior pulled from grass can never be moved to mianl for instance.”

“What about to a person?”

Drystn laughed. Cynwr didn’t look amused.

He put on a serious face and continued, “Sorry. That’s of course what people tried to do a long time ago. If a person with the Talent could pull spior from nature and give it to themselves, they would be able to live forever. Like with like and only between the three focal points. Never person to person.”

“Very good. Continue, please.”

“Second: Spior can only be moved by those trained to do so and born with the Talent. Third: The three focal points of spior are herbs, mianl, and soil. Fourth: Spior is in all things, living and non-living. Fifth: A living body’s spior is released upon death and is spread out in equal parts to all living things. Sixth: The natural life span of a living body is proportional to the amount of spior it contains.”

Cynwr’s expression dropped as Drystn recited the laws. She now had an intense sadness about her. Drystn quickly went over what he had said, nervous that he had made a mistake in the most fundamental of questions. He couldn’t fathom where the mistake had been, because he had been able to recite these laws for years.

She said, “You have made no mistake, but I feel I must tell you something. It only seems right. I have no doubt you will graduate top of your class. But this may not be as good as you think. Every three years, the top three students, one from each discipline, are sent to Talamir Center to work on a major project—”

“—What? I’ve never heard of this.”

Drystn’s heart raced. Talamir Center? A major project? This sounded like a great opportunity and way more exciting than becoming a village herbalist.

Cynwr said, “Shh. Let me finish.” She stood up and walked to the window. Her eyes had glazed over, but she stared out into the darkness anyway. “They don’t want anyone to know about it for some reason. It’s been going on for as long as I’ve been here, and I still have no idea what it is. It’s very secret but presumably very important. It also might be dangerous. I’ve never heard from any of these students again. They basically disappear when they leave.”

The course of the conversation dawned on Drystn.

“Are you saying this is the year? It’s been three years since the last one?”

“Yes. I fear it is.” She turned back from the window and leaned in to Drystn. Her hair flowed onto the desk, and she lowered her voice. “I want to give you the choice, since it seems unfair to force this on someone. If you would like to go live with your family, you can intentionally give some wrong answers. You won’t graduate top of the class, and they’ll take someone else.”

“Isn’t that just as bad though? Then the second person won’t have a choice.”

Cynwr contemplated this before answering.

“That is true.”

She gave no indication that she would say more on the topic. Drystn didn’t know what to do. He had longed to live in the city center all his life. He thought this wasn’t possible, but now the opportunity lay out before him. Still, it came at a cost, and he didn’t know what this cost would be without more details.

Drystn asked, “Do you think the people doing this research are okay? Why did you lose contact?”

“I have no idea. I know that once you find out what they are working on, you will never be allowed to tell anyone about it. They also only want the best and don’t give anyone involved a choice.”

A deep curiosity formed in the pit of Drystn’s stomach. The more he thought about it, the more it grew until his whole body tingled with excitement. He had to know what it was. He wanted to be more objective in this important decision, but he couldn’t overcome the sense that this had to do with the First Age.

He would probably find out what had caused the disappearance of the people from the First Age or at least work on finding out what happened to them. Plus, the city had so much in it compared to the outskirts where his parents lived.

He tried to hide the excitement in his voice, but he knew Cynwr would pick up on it.

He said, “I understand the implications of what I’m about to do.”

The exam proceeded, and Drystn continued to answer each question correctly. He couldn’t tell, but he suspected she had tried to come up with some very difficult and obscure questions to trick him into a wrong answer. Did she know something and not want him to go? Or was it to give him a plausible chance at giving a wrong answer? Each question he answered brought a little more sadness to her eyes.

She finished by saying, “Well, as you know, you’ve not only passed, but you are also the top herbalist this year. You’ve made your own fate. I hope you don’t regret it.”

Drystn had never seen her like this. He turned and left the room in silence. His only thought echoed through his head: What have I done?

talamirfinalcover

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 3: Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard is one of those postmodernist philosophers that people can name but probably don’t know much about. He’s most famous for his work Simulacra and Simulation, in which he argues we’ve replaced everything real in our society by symbols (more on this later). If you’re thinking of the movie The Matrix, then you’ve understood. That movie gets misattributed to a lot of different philosophers, but the underlying concept is basically a fictionalization of Baudrillard’s ideas.

I thought we’d tackle his paper “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media” published in New Literary History, Vol 16, No 3. The paper appeared in 1985, and it tackles issues relevant to our current media environment. I thought it’d be interesting to see how it holds up now.

He begins with an observation about the media:

…they are what finally forbids response, what renders impossible any process of exchange (except in the shape of a simulation of a response, which is itself integrated into the process of emission, and that changes nothing in the unilaterality of communication).

In the 80’s, as well as traditional media today, this is certainly true. There’s no way to comment on or engage in a dialogue with the people presenting information on TV or radio or even podcasts or newspapers and blogs with closed comments. Traditionally, media gets to define the conversation, and when there is “response” to what they say, it’s still controlled by them, and they still distribute that response to you.

Baudrillard wants to frame this as a power imbalance. The media have a monopoly on information. When a response is allowed, the exchange of ideas becomes more balanced.

Baudrillard brings up the case of an opinion poll as an example to motivate the next part of the paper. He points out that this distribution of information is merely symbolic of the state of opinion. There is a complicated interaction where the information itself changes opinion, rendering itself obsolete. This type of distribution of information introduces uncertainty on many fronts:

We will never know if an advertisement or opinion poll has had a real influence on individual or collective wills—but we will never know either what would have happened if there had been no opinion poll or advertisement.

Here, I have to say this analysis is a bit dated. This statement was probably accurate in the 80’s, but with Google, and other analytic big data companies, tracking so much of our lives, we can be quite certain if certain advertisements or polls have caused some sort of influence on both individual and collective wills.

This point is mostly not important to the overall thesis of Baudrillard in the article, though. He goes on to make an astute observation that can cause a bit of anxiety if you dwell on it too much. We don’t have a good way to separate reality from the “simulative projection in the media.”

It’s a complicated way to say that we just can’t check a lot of things. If we see on the news that there was a minor earthquake in Japan, we believe it. But we weren’t there. All we get is the simulation of reality as provided by the news. Of course, there are other ways to check that fact by going into public seismic activity records, etc.

But there are other narratives and simulations that are much harder to check, and in any case, we are bombarded by so much information that we don’t have time to check it. We believe the narrative as presented. If we come across a competing narrative, we only become uncertain. It doesn’t actually clarify the situation (here we get back into Lyotard territory).

Baudrillard would later write a book-length analysis of this about the Gulf War (entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place) in which he claims that the American public only received propaganda about the war through the media. The war took place, but the simulated reality the public received did not accurately reflect the events that occurred. Moreover, there were pretty much no sources outside this propaganda to learn about the actual events.

We live in an age of hyperinformation, and the more we track how everything is changing, the worse our understanding gets. This isn’t Baudrillard’s wording, but I can see how this makes sense: we confuse noise for signal when we pay too close attention. We also get trapped in our own little information bubbles when we pay too close attention. “Hyperinformation” (his term) can lead to more uncertainty, not less.

I think we’ve come to a point where hyperinformation is at least somewhat good. Yes, for the reasons listed, it can be paralyzing if you want the truth. But at the same time, it means the truth might be out there to discover. We don’t only get the corporate media narrative now. There are independent reporters and journalists working hard to present viable alternatives. It isn’t hopeless to see through the noise now (as it was back in the 80’s).

Baudrillard says we can get out of the despair of all this by treating it like a “game of irresponsiblity, of ironic challenge, of sovereign lack of will, of secret ruse.” The media manipulates and the masses resist, or better yet, respond.

I’ll just reiterate that what Baudrillard identifies as the central problem here has been partially solved in modern day. The masses have twitter and facebook and comments sections and their own blogs and youtube channels. The masses have a way to speak back now. Unfortunately, this has opened up a whole new set of problems, and I wish Baudrillard were still around. He’d probably have some interesting things to say about it.

Now that I’ve been doing this Critical Postmodern Reading series, I’m coming to believe these postmodernists were maligned unjustly. I’m coming to believe we should keep two terms distinct. The “postmodernist philosopher” analyzes the issues of the postmodern condition. The “postmodern academic” utilizes the confusion brought on by the postmodern condition to push their own narrative.

It’s easy to look at the surface of Baudrillard and claim he’s some crackpot history denier that thinks there’s no such thing as objective reality so we all make our own truth.

But if you read him carefully, he seems to be saying some very important true things. He thinks there is an objective, true reality, and it’s dangerous that we all simulate different versions of it (i.e. we filter the news through an algorithm that tells us the world is how we think it is). The truth gets hijacked by narratives. He sees the monopoly the media has on these narratives as damaging and even simulating a false reality.

His writing doesn’t even slip into incomprehensible, postmodernist jargon to obscure the argument. I thought this article was illuminating despite and comprehensible. The only parts that don’t still feel applicable are where he didn’t predict how technology would go.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 13

Graham Greene is one of my favorite “classical” English language writers (I guess I mean he’s taught in some schools). I first read The Power and the Glory eleven years ago, and I was blown away by it. I haven’t returned to the novel since then, but I wanted to use it to dig into Greene’s prose a bit.

I’m not religious, and I wasn’t back when I read it either. One of the things that struck me most about the novel is its ambiguous stance toward religion. The book takes place in a (future?) time where religion is banned. Literally every single reference to any religion is destroyed by the government.

The main character is a Catholic priest secretly keeping religion alive and standing up to the evil government. It sounds like the setup to a cheesy, made-for-tv, inspirational religious movie. But the priest is a drunkard (known as the “whisky priest”). He’s gluttonous and immoral. Now it sounds like anti-religious fiction about hypocrisy in the Catholic church.

Eventually I realized that thinking in terms of these competing narratives was a mistake. This setup was merely a powerful tool to examine the human condition. Each of us has virtues and vices. Each of us has a moral compass we try to live by, and part of the novel is to show how even the strongest of us can throw these ideals away when put in dire situations.

Greene writes with a simplicity and clarity necessary to drive these points home. The book could have easily slid into excess drama and cliche and angst if done by a less-skilled writer. Instead, we get a beautiful story of human frailty.

Anyway, I thought that preface was necessary to understand an analysis of the prose style. Here’s a segment from the second chapter:

The lieutenant walked home through the shuttered town. All his life had lain here: the Syndicate of Workers and Peasants had once been a school. He had helped to wipe out that unhappy memory. The whole town was changed: the cement playground up the hill near the cemetery where iron swings stood like gallows in the moony darkness was the site of the cathedral. The new children would have new memories: nothing would ever be as it was. There was something of a priest in his intent observant walk- a theologian going back over the errors of the past to destroy them again.

One of the hallmarks of non-professional writing is the misapplication of “show, don’t tell.” Something that is supposed to be a small detail blows up into paragraphs of showing for no reason. The brilliance of Greene here is how he uses single, carefully chosen descriptive words to evoke feelings, mood, scenery, backstory, and more. Lesson: one can show more with less words if those words do work.

One could imagine an exuberant young writer letting that first sentence get out of hand with descriptions of the shutters and houses and the general mood and atmosphere of the town. Instead, Greene’s use of the phrase “shuttered town” does all this work for us. We understand the people are terrified. They’ve shut themselves in. No one is out and about. It’s desolate and bleak.

All of this “showing” happens in our head, because Greene struck upon a great word. If the word “shuttered” were something like “terrified,” we’d only get the mood. If it were something like “locked up,” we’d get a visual, but not the mood.

Next, Greene does multiple things at once. He describes select places in the town in order to get backstory on the lieutenant and paint a picture and explain the current political climate.

When the lieutenant was a child, there was a school. He was part of wiping it out and replacing it with the “Syndicate of Workers and Peasants.” Greene doesn’t take the time to explain what this is, but it’s clear. This is some bureaucratic government thing. The name evokes this without further need to explain.

A cathedral was destroyed, and a playground put in. But if Greene had said it this way, we might think this is a happy place. Instead, he gives us the simile “iron swings stood like gallows.” It evokes the disturbing thought of children having to do with chopping people’s heads off. Careful juxtaposition like this can paint vivid imagery in people’s minds. Greene continues this theme. The playground is “cement.” It’s near the cemetery.

Everything about the description of this place is disturbing, and what’s brilliant is that he reveals so much about the character and the town while doing this. This is a man remembering his own history with these places: how he helped wreck the town.

Then he uses a parallel concept. The new children will have new memories. Greene shifts from the character’s childhood to new children and what they’ll think.

The paragraph closes by drawing a parallel to the priest. He connects two of the characters in the novel and draws out a theme. All people want redemption from their past mistakes. But sometimes things we do to absolve a “mistake” only makes things worse. Those “mistakes” might not even have been mistakes at all, but we only see this in hindsight.

The takeaway from Greene’s prose is that one can show more with a few carefully chosen details than if one were to spend paragraphs describing it all. This stripped back style strikes emotional resonance in the novel (especially the haunting last chapter).

Of course, style must be chosen to suit the needs of the work, so this might not be the best choice for everything. But it’s hard to think of a modern novel that wouldn’t be made better by moving in this direction a little.

Year of Short Fiction Part 6: Cosmicomics

I’ve sort of been dreading this one, but it’s the only thing remaining on my short fiction list that I own. Three years ago I wrote up my interpretation of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino can be strange and highly symbolic, but that book’s meaning jumped out at me with little effort. He had constructed a condensed history of critical theory through the story.

I had a vague familiarity with Cosmicomics, so I knew it would be harder. The stories all feature or are told by a character named Qfwfq. Each story starts with a tidbit of science such as:

Situated in the external zone of the Milky Way, the Sun takes about two hundred million years to make a complete revolution of the galaxy.

The story that follows is usually related to this somehow. The collection as a whole can be read as a symbolic retelling of the history of the universe. Calvino has taken real science and created mythologies that actually fit the data.

But it’s more than that. The stories often have a moral to them or a symbolic quality. They aren’t just fictionalizations of the events of the early universe. They’re almost parables like classic mythology. He’s achieved something odd with these.

The collection came out in 1965, fairly early in Calvino’s career, and well before the highly experimental If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino believed realism to be dead, and these stories mark his foray into a new type of fiction. He held on to pieces of realism but incorporated highly fantastical elements.

That’s enough of an overview, let’s dig into my favorite story to see these elements at work. “All at One Point” is a story about the Big Bang. More specifically, it’s about the time when the universe existed in a single point.

The beginning of the story comically plays with the idea that “we were all there.” On a scientific level, this is obviously true. Every atom in the universe existed in the singular point “before” the Big Bang. This includes every atom in our bodies, so we were physically there.

Calvino cleverly takes this statement to its extreme form and personifies us as actually existing at one point. The narrator, Qfwfq, says, “…having somebody unpleasant like Mr Pber^t Pber^t underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.”

The story spends quite a bit of time in a Flatland-type thought experiment. Through humorous interactions, Calvino teases apart a lot of odd ideas about what it actually would mean to collapse the universe to a single point. For example, one couldn’t count how many people were there, because that would require pulling apart, no matter how slightly.

One family, the Z’zu, got labelled “immigrants.” This, of course, makes no sense, because there is no such thing as outside or inside the point. There is no such thing as before or after the point. Time only started at the Big Bang. So the family couldn’t have come from somewhere else.

The humor in this surface-level reading of the story is already worth it, and I won’t spoil any of the other awkward moments shared by these people from all occupying the same point.

Then the story turns its attention to Mrs Ph(i)Nk_o. She is one of the Z’zu, the family everyone hated. But she’s different. She is pure happiness and joy, and no one can say anything bad about her.

In an act of epic generosity, despite what people say about her family, she says:

Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some tagliatelle for you boys!

That’s what causes the Big Bang. The universe is made and expands and the Sun and planets and everything. It all happened because of a true act of selflessness and love. The phrasing of the final paragraph is very moving. I won’t quote it here, because I think it must be read in context to be appreciated.

The theme, when condensed to a pithy phrase, is something like “love can make universes.” It sounds really cliche and cheesy, and I think this is one of the things that makes these stories so brilliant. In the moment of reading, they feel profound and fresh.

Calvino’s use of vivid space imagery takes you on a grand journey. These cliche themes are the same that one can find in all the great ancient stories. They only feel tired when done in modern stories. By creating his own mythology, Calvino is able to revisit these sorts of themes without embarrassment.

For the Year of Short Fiction, I do want to return to the question of: why short? In other words, does great short fiction have a genuine uniqueness to it, or is it essentially the same as a novel, just shorter?

I think here we can definitively say that this type of writing can only work in short stories. Even expanding one of these to a novella length would be too much. These stories each revolve around a conceit and a theme. The conceit would grow tiresome if done for too long. I cannot imagine a novella of jokes about everyone existing on top of each other. They would lose their impact.

What excites me about Cosmicomics is that this is the first thing I’ve read this year that I feel this way about. I could imagine the novellas I’ve read and even Cthulhu working as full novels. They wouldn’t be as tightly written, but they’d still work. The very nature of Cosmicomics is that they are short stories. I’m glad to have finally found this.

I should stipulate, though, that one can read the entire collection of stories as a novel: an autobiography of Qfwfq’s life and fictionalization of the history of the universe. This is also an interesting and unique aspect, because almost every short story collection I can think of has separate, unrelated stories. This full collection should be read together to get the best experience.