From My Blog

Great Advice from a Great Writer

I got a late start. I don’t know why, exactly. I always wanted to be a writer, yet I didn’t really write much, besides pointless academic papers. Then I wrote a couple of bad novels and several bad stories and some pretty mediocre poetry. That’s what writers write, right? Meanwhile, I was teaching college students composition, and in the texts we used, there were lots of great essays. Of course there were classics from Montaigne to Orwell, but also new writers who focused on the essay rather than fiction. I finally realized what I really wanted to write was the essay.

But as much as I try to focus on my work, it’s easy to get disillusioned. I’m too old to be a writer now. Look at all the time I wasted. It’s too late. Vague excuses. It’s nice to read some very blunt words that remind us to quit whining and keep writing:

Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.

So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

This was Cheryl Strayed’s excellent advice to Elissa Bassist, who was struggling with writing as a young woman.

I need to keep this in mind. I can’t write like a young man and I don’t need to write like an old man, I just need to write like a motherfucker.

Geoff Dyer… and Frietag Bags

I wanted to write about this really cool bag. This time it’s actually the last bag I’ll ever need. But there’s some background involving, as usual, what I’ve been reading, in my usual desultory fashion.

It’s no secret that I think Geoff Dyer is one of the best writers out there. I admire his clean style and his phenomenal range of interests. And for what should be obvious reasons, I really like that his essays and books are invariably about something other than what they are about. Or, better, say, something, many things, in addition to what they are about. This line he wrote about John Berger could easily be applied to him as well:

It is not just that he has written on photographers, artists, thinkers and peasants, or zoos, museums and cities he has travelled to; these diverse concerns are often combined in the course of a single essay.1

And it is generally these threads that contain some detail that ends up changing my life. Take “Is Jazz Dead?” for example. This essay appears in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which happens to be the first Dyer essay collection I read (I had read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi … a great novel). In this essay exploring some of the new forms “jazz” is taking, Dyer discusses the brilliant—what does one call them … post-jazz or ambient jazz?—trio out of Australia, the Necks, especially their album Drive By.

Drive By glides through an ambient dream-time of “found” sounds: a children’s playground, crickets, a beehive. Where the previous albums are reliable, slightly embellished records of sustained improvisations in “real time,” this one was built out of segments that were then overdubbed and restructured in the edit, like a sound track for a road movie waiting to be made. I don’t know if it’s jazz, but it’s a great record and I love it; you’d be mad not to.

I ordered it immediately. I seem to remember Dyer suggesting somewhere that Drive By was the best of the albums by the Necks. I ordered them all, some directly from Australia. Ultimately, I decided Drive By was my favorite.

But it was my experience after reading Zona, Dyer’s brilliant and idiosyncratic treatment of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, that is relevant here. He recounts in a lengthy aside (all parenthetical) his experience of losing a much loved bag, an experience that gives him greater insight into the character of the professor, who wants to return to where he lost his knapsack to retrieve it.

It so happens that, right now, I identify absolutely with Professor’s desire to be reunited with his rucksack. Six years ago my wife came back from a trip to Berlin with one of those Freitag bags made out of recycled truck tarps and seat belts. Unlike some Freitag bags it was rather plain—plain grey in fact—and initially I was a little disappointed. Over time, though, I came to see that she had made the wisest possible choice and I came to love that bag absolutely. And then, ten days ago in Adelaide, in the course of a long, multifaceted, multi-drinks evening, I lost it, either in a restaurant, at a party, in a taxi or at the gardens of the Arts Festival. No one handed in my bag. It was gone—and is not identically replaceable.

One of those Freitag bags … I checked out the Freitag website and, yes, I loved those bags. I went back and forth for some weeks, as the bags are pretty expensive, but ultimately, I had to have one. It’s vegan. (I had stopped buying leather bags, but even fabric ones seem to have decorative trim or reinforcing straps made from some kind of hide. And while we’re on the subject, what’s up with those pointless little leather rectangles they sew on the back of jeans? Maybe they recall some former functioning thing, like a giant off-center belt loop. And now it’s just a skeuomorph. I don’t like it.) But I do like my Freitag bag. It’s sturdy and beautiful and one of a kind. I love it. I hope I never lose it.

I resent the fact that Geoff Dyer makes me spend so much money when I have so little. Not only must I buy all of his books, but I have to order records and pricey bags. And go places, too. Have you read Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It? It’s a book of travel essays. It’s worth it for the name alone. Shove it in your Freitag bag and by a ticket … to anyplace, really.

1 From the introduction to Selected Essays of John Berger.

“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” August 1965

Fantasy & Science Fiction April 1966
PKD V2 (35-52)

Douglas Quail is a minor government clerk who dreams of going to Mars. But even if he could afford it, only Interplan agents go there. He decides to have Rekal Incorporated implant a detailed memory of such a trip. Something goes wrong during the process. Under the drug used, he remembers actually going to Mars as an Interplan agent. Rekal sends him away without implanting any memories. Two Interplan agents appear at his apartment and he remembers almost everything. He was sent to Mars to kill a man. The agents can read his thoughts and decide they will have to kill him, but he escapes. He suggests that his memory be altered again, but Interplan points out the paradox: if he is made “normal,” he will crave the excitement of a trip to Mars and return to Rekal, where he will remember the truth yet again. He suggests they find some wish he has and implant a memory of it being fulfilled and they agree. A psychiatrist identifies the deeply buried wish. He imagined that as a child he witnessed the landing of an alien craft and learned that they planned to invade. He shows them “kindness and mercy” and they agree not to invade as long as he shall live. Interplan takes him to Rekal to have this memory implanted. But trouble arises again in a passage that parallels that recounting of the first procedure. He already has the memory of saving the world because it actually happened, exactly as he wished. In a nice twist, Interplan must not kill him now, or the risk of alien invasion would return.

Related, on Lit Reactor: Book Vs. Film: Total Recall / We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

“Prominent Author” May 1953

If May 1954
PKD V2 (21-34)

Henry Ellis works for Terran Development. His wife Mary is proud that they have a prototype Jiffi-scuttler, which gets him to work instantaneously. A 160 mile commute is collapsed handily into the fourth dimension. Henry starts to see little people through a thin spot in the wall of the tunnel. They start to give him sheets with questions. He has them translated and answered by the Federal Library of Information and retranslated then given to the mysterious little robed figures, which Henry takes as some sort of aliens using a non-Terran language. Soon he sees they are erecting a temple to him, making sacrifices, etc. But it all ends when his boss finds out. The little people are not aliens but ancient Jews. The answers Henry gave them have been compiled in a book called Holy Bible. Henry is fired, but he seems happy in his new career as a writer, even though his wife and her friend think he has gone mad. He is working on his second book. Holy Bible was “just a little thing [he] threw together.”

“Beyond the Door” August 1952

Fantastic Universe January 1954
PKD V2 (15-20)

Larry finally gives his wife the cuckoo clock she has always wanted, then announces that he got it wholesale and would not have been able to afford it otherwise. Doris loves the clock and the cuckoo, who pops out to see her more than is strictly necessary from a time-telling point of view. The cuckoo does not like Larry. Doris tries to show the clock to her “friend” Bob, but Larry arrives home unexpectedly. Realizing there are two “cuckoos” in the house, he throws Doris and Bob out, but keeps the clock. Finally, angry that the cuckoo consistently refuses to show itself, Larry comes at it with a hammer. The cuckoo launches itself out into Larry’s eyeball. His body is found and his death ruled accidental by the doctor, but Bob suspects otherwise.

Photo courtesy of our dear friend Sarah.

“The Cookie Lady” August 1952

Fantasy Fiction June 1953
PKD V2 (7-13)

Fat Bubber Surle can’t resist cookies. He goes to old Mrs. Drew’s house for the cookies that she bakes. She enjoys his company and his youth, but he is only in it for the cookies. When he returns home, his parents notice how tired he has become. Mrs. Drew, on the other hand, briefly grew younger while Bubber read to her. But it didn’t last. She has been moving her chair closer and closer to where he sits. His parents tell him not to go and see Mrs. Drew any longer because of the effects these visits have on him. He can go back one more time to tell her. When he does so, she is alarmed. This time she sits very close and touches him as he reads. His youth flows into her, and this time it stays. She is young and beautiful again. Bubber starts to head home, but is weak and cold and the strong wind is too powerful. When his anxious parents open the door to a faint tapping, they find only what seems some scattered gray rags and weeds on the porch.

Moon Head, or How Not to Write Comic Books

A few years back, I decided to create a series of heroes and villains and write some sort of cheesy comic book featuring them. The heroes would be flawed of course. And the villains would have quirky powers of destruction. All of the characters, in fact, would have bizarre powers that seemed rather dubious when put into action. I found this relic from that (wisely) abandoned project.

Ah Moonhead. What a hero. On the left are his “powers,” including striped bellbottoms, the ability to dance well, and a monocle. Given his asymmetrical face, conventional eyewear was clearly not an option. I guess the razor-sharp hand constitutes an effective weapon.

Somehow I reversed the debit side and credit side on my hero ledger, even though I was briefly an accounting major at what at the time was the number one university in the country for that major. Luckily I changed my major and dropped intermediate accounting.

Incorrect recording aside, the column listing my hero’s weaknesses is more interesting. Most of his head is missing, since his archenemy Canonpants rendered him a waning crescent. Always the fashionista, Moonhead has put style ahead of comfort as well as common sense by wearing a massive, sharp belt buckle capable of eviscerating or castrating our hero should he ever attempt to sit down. As if that’s not bad enough, his own weapon is a liability. He must leave his highball and cigarette behind whenever he needs to relieve himself. Of course he could let his smoke dangle from his lips and hold his highball after unzipping.

I guess the lesson is, even your best traits can be your own undoing. Shakespearian motif or tired cliché? Either way, it’s a good thing Moonhead never saw the light of day. But what ever happened to Canonpants anyway?

“Nanny” August 1952

Startling Stories Spring 1955
PKD V1 (383-397)

The Field children are watched over by a robot nanny. But Mrs. Field is worried about what the nanny does at night … she goes outside. It turns out the robot nannies are designed by different firms to fight one another. The Field’s green nanny is badly damaged by a neighbor’s more advanced blue one. Mr. Field takes her in for repairs and learns the truth from the service man, who urges him to upgrade to a new larger model. Mr. Field angrily resists, insisting on getting his repaired. The next day at the park, she is destroyed by a large orange nanny. Mr. Field shops for a new one, choosing a huge black one. He counsels his children to go where they wish without fear now. The next day, the orange nanny is killed by the Field’s powerful new black nanny. The orange nanny’s owner Mr. Casworthy is not amused. He will get the biggest nanny there is, even if one of the robotics companies has to design a new more advanced model. These firms are happy to do so, practically necessitating that owners replace them frequently with ever more advanced (and expensive) models. The story nicely parodies the foolishness of both the arms race and planned obsolescence. With Mrs. Casworthy’s question “Can we really afford it?” sounding a poignant note near the end.

Photo credit: edvvc (Flickr: 1952 Abarth 1500 Biposto BAT 1) Creative Commons 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Prize Ship” August 1952

Thrilling Wonder Stories Winter 1954
PKD V1 (365-382)

The representatives of Ganymede, a mere moon, have been trying to get equal status with the representatives of the planets. The other planets, especially Terra and Mars, are at war with Ganymede, which controls the space cradles they need to launch transport ships to their colonies in deep space. The situation looks grim, and the senators from the various planets are about to vote and, it would seem, to capitulate to the Ganymedeans. Then Mars captures an odd Ganymedean ship, and the Terrans decide to try it out before they can analyze how it works. A crew of four attempts to take it to Mars. But they end up somewhere different. Everyone is tiny, and soon part of the crew suspects that they are in the world of Lilliput created by Jonathan Swift. To test the theory, they take the ship in the opposite “direction” and they end up in Brobdingnag. They think Swift saw these worlds through his madness and put them in stories. They return to Terra where a Ganymede representative has come to claim his ship. It turns out it’s a time ship, not a space ship. The changing relative size of the Terrans over time is just a function of the expansion of the universe. And Gulliver’s Travels* can go on being just a children’s tale. Or a social satire.

Photo credit: Jehan Georges Vibert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Colony” August 1952

Galaxy June 1953
PKD V1 (347-363)

Military men and scientists on the Blue Planet are testing for harmful life forms. The place is beautiful, edenic, seemingly too good to be true. So far Major Hall has not identified any dangerous samples. Then his microscope tries to strangle him. Similar events follow with towels and rugs attacking people and a pair of gloves guiding the hands inside to take a blaster pistol and kill the unfortunate officer who chose those gloves from two identical pairs. Apparently there is a life form that can expertly mimic any inorganic thing. They cannot find an effective way to destroy it. They decide to flee the planet, naked and possessionless so as to keep from accidentally bringing the life form back to Terra. A ship lands, earlier than expected and everyone files into it naked. A bit later, the real ship arrives, but no one is left to meet it.

Image by VAwebteam at the English language Wikipedia (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

“The King of the Elves” August 1952

Beyond Fantasy Fiction September 1953
PKD V1 (329-345)

Shadrach Jones operates a small filling station in Derryville, Colorado. It is not on the main highway and sees little traffic. Derryville is a dying town with no industry and little hope, seemingly peopled only by the old. One night during a storm, Jones sees some little people out by the locked pumps. They are elves and one is their king. Wet and tired, they are on the run from trolls; Jones invites them to his home. During the night, the elf king dies, but he has selected Jones as his successor. Jones tells his old friend Phineas Judd that he is King of the Elves. Soon the whole town knows and thinks he must be crazy. Meanwhile the trolls have learned of the Elf King’s death and are massing for battle. Jones must meet the elves at the old oak tree after the moon sets. It is on Judd’s property, and he invites Jones into his home, seeming concerned about his health and sanity. Jones enjoys his coffee and rest, feeling very close to his old friend Phineas Judd, and he begins to think that all of this elf business is nonsense. He seems prepared to take Judd’s advice—a bath and brandy followed by bed. Forget about the elves. Just then, Jones realizes that Judd looks an awful lot like a troll. So he grabs a barrel stave and attacks him. Judd’s army of trolls scampers from the basement and attacks Jones. He is about to succumb when he hears the elves trumpet sound. Most of the trolls leave the house to engage with the elves and Jones defeats the last two. The elves triumph in battle. Jones is pleased but wants to return to his simple life and little gas station, even though the home and the station are crumbling and he makes very little money. The elves reluctantly release him, since the battle is over and he has slain the Great Troll. He looks at the ruin of what is left of his life in Derryville and returns to the elves. He will be their king after all.

How Orwell Got It Wrong

I’ve been reading the monumental four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell. It is outstanding. The average educated reader (if such a thing exists anymore) probably remembers Orwell for 1984 and Animal Farm and perhaps she vaguely remembers reading a couple of essays in college, “Politics and the English Language” and “A Hanging,” say.

This is a shame. While 1984 is one of the most important works of the twentieth century, Orwell’s essays are his greatest contribution to English literature … and not just the famous ones. There is something to be gleaned from every page of this fine collection. Even random letters offer real insight into Orwell’s worldview.

Take #26 in Volume Four: Letter to the Reverend Herbert Rogers, in which Orwell explains a review he had recently written of a book called The Democrat at the Supper Table. The book seems to be a series of contrived conversations wherein the narrator, a conservative Catholic, rails against the modern world and its various evil “-isms” (“Communism, feminism, atheism, pacifism”).

Orwell lambastes G.K. Chesterton’s feudal worldview and presents the author of this work, Colm Brogan, as merely a slight update on Chesterton and his antiquated notions. Orwell paints the author as hopelessly outdated for his rejection of planning and government regulation. I found one line especially moving, in that it’s prediction proved so wrong. In this 1946 letter he says: “I don’t myself feel at all certain that this civilisation will survive, but if it does survive I think it is quite obvious that it will not revert again towards economic chaos and individualism.” By “economic chaos” it is clear that Orwell means laissez faire capitalism. Orwell could not conceive of a deregulated world of capitalism run amok, where narcissistic individuals put their own petty pleasures above any working sense of ethical behavior.

It’s not a slight against Orwell. Orwell died in 1950. And while John Maynard Keynes died the year this letter was written, the school of economic thought that bears his name dominated economic thinking and planning for decades. Keynesian theory supported robust government intervention in guiding western economies. By the 80s his views started to fall out of favor as conservatives pushed for limited regulation and minimal state intervention. Then the global economy almost collapsed several years ago.

Keynesianism started to look pretty good once again. I’d like to think what Orwell said almost 70 years ago might prove true once again. But I’m doubtful.

Image by Moses King (scan of postcard) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Out in the Garden” July 1952

Fantasy Fiction August 1953
PKD V1 (321-328)

Robert Nye and his wife Peggy have a visit from Robert’s friend Tom Lindquist. He sees Peggy in her garden with her pet duck Sir Francis Drake, where and with whom she spends most of her time. Lindquist is impressed with the garden and the duck and is reminded of a poem. He quotes Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” the line where Zeus ravishes Leda while he is in the form of a swan. Peggy is outraged. She immediately announces her pregnancy. While she is in the hospital giving birth to her son Stephen, Robert gets rid of Sir Francis Drake, vaguely suspicious that the duck might be the father of the child. Peggy returns and is silent for a while, but gets over the loss of Sir Francis Drake. Stephen grows downy and strong and loves the garden. Robert remains suspicious but talks to his son one day while Peggy is gone and Stephen is drawing. Stephen shocks him by asking about Sir Francis Drake, but is vague about where he heard about him. He may have appeared in a dream as a large white object flying toward him. Robert is shocked and dismayed, but Stephen invites him to a private party. His hope that Stephen is actually his own son is restored and he looks forward to sharing a secret with him. He washes his hands and heads to “the party,” which has already started. He sits down to a large bowl of tasty worms and spiders—the favorite fare of Sir Francis Drake. Robert heads back to the house, defeated.

“The Great C” September 1953

Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy September 1953
PKD V1 (309-320)

The setting is a post-apocalyptic future where people have reverted to tribal primitivism and the cities lay in ruins. Each year a young man is chosen by the tribe to go to the Great C and ask three questions. Apparently these young men never return. Young Tim Meredith is chosen, outfitted, and given the three questions. He says goodbye to the tribe and makes his way to the ruins where the Great C is situated, dodging rats, giant insects, and radiation pools along the way. We learn that civilization was destroyed by the Great Smash (nuclear destruction). When he arrives at the Great C (which turns out to stand for Computer) at a former Federal Computation Facility, he asks the three questions, which to a primitive would seem impossible to answer: where does rain come from; what keeps the sun moving through the sky; how did the world begin. Of course the computer provides encyclopedia answers to these simple questions. Then in a twist on or updating of a typical primitive-human-sacrifice-to-the-gods narrative, Meredith is asked to step forward and leap into a vat of fluid within the Great C. It is hydrochloric acid. His remains (bones and helmet) join those of previous questioners while the rest of him somehow provides power to the computer. Like humans, it adapted itself after the Great Smash. Back at the tribal encampment, they realize Meredith, like the others, will not return. If only they can find a question that will stump the Great C. Grimly, they begin planning for next year.

Waiting Room

The narrow waiting room contains 30 chairs upholstered in navy fabric with a disturbing sheen. The color scheme of the place is predominately beige and royal blue. One wall contains a Lucite rack of outdated magazines. Further down is a generic “Keurig” type coffee maker, and I’m pleased to see that there are six varieties of coffee. Half a dozen men, all clad in flannel, wait to see the workmen’s compensation doctor. Injuries aside, they’re a pretty happy looking lot—they’re not at work after all. Those callused hands are taking a rest, wrapped around a cup of premium joe or tapping fingers idly on the armrest.

The television is the focal point. There is a program featuring the “21 Sexiest Beach Bars.” They are counting down, traveling around the world, spending a few minutes at each idyllic locale. The formula is the same at each: treacly sweet, but potent cocktails and beautiful bodies. The eyes of my fellow proles gleam rapaciously. The camera keeps tracking retreating female backsides while the voiceover touts the specific features of each destination. The workers look longingly at those tan buttocks and follow each subtle movement as those round brown orbs move independently … you can see their eyes track back and forth spasmodically, desperate not to miss any fleshy detail. And then the drinks. Mouths water over big fruity cocktails and schooners of ice-cold beer.

Ah, to be lounging on a beach, taking it all in, cold drink in convalescing hand. A well-deserved rest it would be. The camera continues its weird cropping, featuring a sequence of torso shots. A new form of locomotion propels a new creature composed of breasts bellies, thighs, and buttocks, each part firm and smooth, perfect as if turned out by the same precision machine.

The countdown reaches number one and it’s a club in South Beach. Florida! Finally something within reach. But these men won’t be going to Miami. When that vacation finally rolls around, if they can afford it, they’ll go to the panhandle, some place like Destin. There will be no sultry Brazilians or Italians or Spaniards, no Chileñas bonitas or New York girls, down for a weekend of partying. Under the waiving confederate flag will be haggard white wives, voices raspy from generic cigarettes. The men’s huge bellies will be neon white. There will be a cooler of light beer. A worker who blissfully has no work to do for a few days will scratch his lobster red belly and fart. He’ll scan the beach, looking for a beautiful, exotic woman. He’ll remember that television show he once saw in a waiting room on a cold damp December day in Saint Louis, with a bloody rag tied around his hand. His brow will furrow as he tries to square this experience with that recollection. He’ll take another swig of beer.

It’s hot and it’s humid and he’s painfully sun-burnt and there’s sand in his trunks and these kids won’t stop screaming and running and kicking sand in his beer. What the hell? Might as well go back to the motel and see what’s on the tube.