Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 2016

Loving the alienator

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Donald Trump

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

—Mark 8:36

Whether or not you’re a believer, you eventually end up with your own idea of who Jesus might have been. I like to think of him as the ultimate pragmatist. If you accept his central premise—that the kingdom of heaven, whatever it is, is something that is happening right now—then his ethical system, as impossible as it might seem for most of us to follow, becomes easier to understand. It’s about eliminating distractions, focusing on what really counts, and removing sources of temptation before they have a chance to divert us from the true goal. Poverty, as Michael Grant puts it in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, is a practical solution to a concrete problem: “Excessive wealth might be a positive disadvantage, since its too lavish enjoyment could distract its possessors from the overriding vital matter at hand.” And as Grant observes elsewhere:

Certainly, “blessed are the meek”…but that is because “they shall inherit the earth.” Since nothing less than this is at stake, a contentious spirit is wholly out of place, for it will only distract attention and energy from the preeminent task. It is not even worth hating your enemies…In the urgent circumstances, Jesus believed, it was a sheer waste of time. Love them instead, just as much as you love everyone else; pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek. For why not avoid hostilities and embroilments which, beside the infinitely larger issue, are ultimately irrelevant and distracting?

“Love your enemies,” in other words, is nothing but sensible advice. Which doesn’t it make it any easier to do it for real, rather than merely paying it lip service, when it strikes us as inconvenient.

Take the case of Donald Trump. It’s fair to say that I feel less love toward Trump than I do toward any other American public figure of my lifetime. At my best, I just want to go back to the days when I could safely ignore him; at my worst, I want him to suffer some kind of humiliating, career-ending comeuppance, although I’m well aware that real life rarely affords such satisfactions. (If anything, it’s more likely to give us the opposite.) I’m also uncomfortably conscious that this is exactly the kind of reaction that he wants to evoke from me. It’s a victory. No matter what happens in this election, Trump has added perceptibly to the world’s stockpile of hate, resentment, and alienation. Hating him and what he stands for is easy; what isn’t so easy is trying to respond in ways that don’t merely feed into the cycle of hatred. The answer—and I wish it were different—is right there in front of us. We’re told to love our enemies. Jesus, the pragmatic philosopher, knew that there wasn’t time for anything else. But when I think about doing the same with Trump, I feel a bit like Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, when she realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

The italics, as always, are mine. It isn’t too much to ask. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this, and quite another to grant that we’re obliged to do it for someone like Donald Trump.

The Simpsons episode "Brush with Greatness"

So here’s my best shot. Trump grew up wanting nothing more than to please his own demanding father. Early in his career, he was just one real estate developer among many. He ended up concluding that the only values worth pursuing were the acquisition of money and power, abstracted from any possible benefit except as a way of keeping score. What’s worse, he received plenty of validation that his assumptions were correct. He’s never had any reason to grow or change. Instead, as we all do, he’s become more like himself as he’s aged, while categorizing the human beings around him as sources of income, enemies, or potential enablers. Behind his bluster, he’s deeply insecure, as we all are. He refuses to take responsibility for his actions, he can’t admit a mistake, and he blames everyone but himself when things go wrong. (When he says that the first debate was “rigged” because someone tampered with his mike and the moderator was against him, I’m reminded of what David Mamet says in On Directing Film: “Two reasons are equal to no reasons—it’s like saying: ‘I was late because the bus drivers are on strike and my aunt fell downstairs.’”) He seems unhappy. It’s hard to imagine him taking pleasure in reading a book, preparing a meal, or really anything aside from trolling the electorate and putting his name on buildings and planes. He appears to have no affection for anyone or anything, except perhaps his own children. And he’s the creation of forces that even he can’t control. He’s succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, but only by becoming the full-time monster that was only there in flashes before. Trump uses the system, but it also uses him. He has transformed himself into exactly what he hopes people want him to be, and he’s condemned to do it forever. And when the end comes—”As it must to all men,” the newsreel narrator reminds us in Citizen Kane—he’ll have to ask himself whether it was worth it.

I know that this comes perilously close to what the onlookers say after seeing Marge Simpson’s nude portrait of Mr. Burns: “He’s bad, but he’ll die. So I like it.” But it’s the best I can do. I can’t love Trump, but I can sort of forgive him, and pity him, for becoming what he was told to be, and for abandoning what makes us human and valuable—empathy, compassion, humility—in favor of an identity assembled from who we are at our worst. In a way, I’m even grateful to him, for much the same reason that George Saunders expressed in The New Yorker: “Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail. But I imagine it that way now.” If Trump didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. He’s a better cautionary tale than any I could have imagined, because he won the trappings of success at a spiritual cost that isn’t tragic so much as deeply sad. He’s like Charles Foster Kane, without any of the qualities that make Kane so misleadingly attractive. When I think of the abyss of his ego, which draws like a battery on the love of his supporters and flails helplessly in every other situation, it feels like the logical extension of a career spent in the pursuit of wealth and celebrity divorced from any other consideration beyond himself. Like all mortals, Trump had exactly one chance to live a meaningful life, with greater resources than most of us ever get, and this is what he did with it. The closest I can come to loving him is the acknowledgment that I might have done the same, if I had been born with his circumstances and incentives. He’s not so different from me, as I fear I might have been in his shoes. And if I love Trump, in some weird way, it’s because I’m thankful I’m not him.

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2016 at 9:28 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

A little string in the green wave

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Virginia Woolf

“Happiness is to have a little string onto which things will attach themselves,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on April 20, 1925. She continues:

For example, going to my dressmaker in Judd Street, or rather thinking of a dress I could get her to make, and imagining it made—that is the string, which as if it dipped loosely into a wave of treasure brings up pearls sticking to it. Poor Murphy [her secretary] is in the glumps, owing to Leonard’s fiery harshness—each of which epithets he would most certainly deny. She has no string dipping into the green wave: things don’t connect for her, and add up into those entrancing bundles which are happiness. And my days are likely to be strung with them.

If Woolf thought that her moments in the upcoming days were likely to connect into “the entrancing bundles” that make happiness, it’s in part because she was entering an eventful period in her career: The Common Reader was published shortly after she wrote those words, followed a month later by Mrs. Dalloway. And most writers can relate to the kind of anticipation that she describes in the same entry: “What will happen is some intensities of pleasure, some profound plunges of good. Bad reviews, being ignored, and then some delicious clap of compliment.”

What Woolf is really describing here, I think, is the way in which a writer’s awareness of a work in progress can heighten and bring out the meaning of the everyday. This kind of matrix, which allows mundane events to arrange themselves into a larger pattern, isn’t unique to writers, of course, and we all feel the same sort of cognitive charge whenever we’re engaged in a project of personal importance. For a writer, though, the sense of a hidden structure that gives a shape to the disconnected routines of daily life can be particularly intense, especially at peak points in the creative process. You see connections that weren’t there before, and isolated details seem to fit into the story that you’re telling, while also telling you stories about themselves. Woolf’s wry attentiveness turns something as ordinary as going to the dressmaker into a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—which I suspect is one reason why many of us go shopping for things we don’t need. It provides the tiny dose of structure that we crave, and if we can purchase it cheaply enough, it turns into a reliable source of consolation that has nothing to do with the object of desire itself. The act of buying alone can’t give more than a momentary satisfaction, but when we treat it as part of a longer string, it can be as valid a building block toward happiness as any other. In the passage above, Woolf goes on to write: “But really what I should like would be to have £3 to buy a pair of rubber-soled boots, and go for country walks.” She’s making fun of herself a little, but she’s also getting at something very real.

The Common Reader

In Woolf’s diary, the “little string” is a fishing line that plunges into the green wave of the sea, and she often returned to similar images to describe a writer’s relationship with the world. In a letter to Vita Sackville-West, she described composing an essay as preparing “a net of words” that will come down on the idea in an hour or so of work. And in A Room of One’s Own, she wrote:

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

This passage feels like the flip side of the diary entry with which I began. Instead of pearls on a string, health and money and houses are “grossly material things” made by human beings who suffer as they spin their webs. The attachment to life is still there, but it grows tragic when seen in a different light. And while you could say that Woolf saw these attachments one way or another depending on her mood, both points of view are basically correct. A writer’s connection to the world is a source of both happiness and frustration—and especially, as Woolf noted, for women. 

All we can do, then, is play out that length of string and watch it get tangled up, for better or for worse. After you’ve been writing for a few years, you feel as if you’ve experienced every possible interaction between life and work: you can use one to escape from the other, or pursue both with a clear head, or feel them vibrate together as one. When I’m deeply absorbed in a writing project, I’ll sometimes look up and feel surprised by facts that I’ve temporarily forgotten—that I’m a husband and father, that I have a body, that I need to attend to the many small obligations that are the lot of a suburban American. (If I were a certain kind of realistic novelist, I’d spin these things directly into fiction, but as it stands, they sometimes feel like they have nothing to do with me, when they’re really all I am.) On rough days, I feel lucky that I have plenty of work to keep me busy; on good days, I feel much the same way. When I look back, I’m often surprised to realize that I was working diligently on one project or another at some of the lowest points of my life, and how easy it can be to compartmentalize it. But as Woolf implies, that’s an illusion, too. Whether we like it or not, work seeps into life, and vice versa, and they both take on a larger meaning that they wouldn’t have in isolation. It’s probably best when we aren’t conscious of this, and we go about our business as artists and rational actors without worrying about what each half has to do with the other. We make the string; we can’t control what sticks to it. Woolf knew this, too. But she also understood that we have no choice but to live in the green wave.

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2016 at 8:51 am

Quote of the Day

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Jamie Zawinski

I think one of the most important things, for me anyway, when building something from the ground up…is, as quickly as possible, getting the program to a state that you, the programmer, can use it. Even a little bit. Because that tells you where to go next in a really visceral way.

Jamie Zawinski, to Peter Seibel in Coders at Work

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

Astounding Stories #18: “Noise Level”

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Noise Level

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

On March 31, 1952, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his friend Robert A. Heinlein. It began: “I’ve got an idea that may appeal to you as a starting point for a yarn. If so—I’d love it. If not—lemme know, and I’ll try it on someone else.” Campbell went on to describe the plot in great detail, from its initial premise to its concluding twist, which was unusual in itself: he often pitched ideas to writers, but he was generally happiest when the author came back to him with something he wasn’t expecting. In this case, however, he clearly wanted a story written to order. Here’s how it started:

The top scientists of the country are called into closed, secret session. One of the top men of the National Research Council gets up and explains. Joseph Quincy Doakes, a twenty-eight-year-old physicist, came to the Council and claimed he had an antigravity device. His technical knowledge was definitely of the highest order, but he was an insufferable egotist. He refused to tell anything about it until they’d seen it work. He gave a demonstration, a personal flying device. It worked.

The scientists are shown filmed footage of the test at an airfield, with the inventor flying miraculously toward the sky—until something goes wrong. There’s a malfunction, the inventor crashes from five hundred feet, and he’s killed at once, with the antigravity device itself reduced to a smoking ruin.

As soon as the presentation is over, the scientists are informed that their assignment is to reproduce Doakes’s discovery, whatever the hell it was. Unfortunately, Doakes was so paranoid about his ideas being stolen that he left no record of his work: no notes, no diagrams, no trace of the underlying theory. All that remains is a nearly indecipherable audio recording of a brief explanation that he gave on the airfield that day, only a few words of which are audible. The scientists are each given a copy of the tape, along with unlimited resources and funding, and ordered to get cracking: “We need that device.” Eventually, after much feverish work, they manage to reconstruct a working antigravity machine using these meager clues, in defiance of all known laws of physics. And here’s the kicker, as Campbell told it to Heinlein:

The whole thing [is] one hundred percent fake. The purpose being this: a situation has been established wherein the top physicists of the nation have had firmly, solely planted on them these two propositions: an antigravity device can be made [and] we have to make it…With twenty brilliant minds, stored with vast quantities of data related to the problem, running wide open and under pressure to glean the necessary facts—with a whispering, noise-loaded voice in their ears, the voice of a dead man who did it—the half-heard, and nine-tenths guessed concepts he speaks—the tremendous straining concentration to find that hidden answer—

And you know, Bob, that same basic mechanism should work for a lot of other things!

In other words, it was a hoax designed to make the scientists to devote their best efforts to solving a problem that they otherwise would have dismissed out of hand. (As Norton Juster puts it so movingly in The Phantom Tollbooth: “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”)

Noise Level

Heinlein ultimately passed on the idea, and Campbell eventually gave it to Raymond F. Jones, who wrote it up as a novelette that was published under the title “Noise Level” in the December 1952 issue of Astounding. It’s a wonderful story in its own right, and Jones adds a lot of nice touches that aren’t there in Campbell’s original pitch. For example, the scientists are taken to what they’re told was the home of the device’s late inventor, whose name in the finished version is Dunning. The house has a beautiful tinkerer’s lab, a machine shop, and a strange pair of libraries: one filled with physics and engineering titles, the other with books about astrology, the occult, and Eastern mysticism. As one of the scientists says disbelievingly: “It isn’t possible…that Dunning owned and understood both of these libraries.” Later, when asked why they included “the stuff on Babylonian mysticism, astrology, and the rest of that crud,” an organizer of the hoax explains:

The whole project was set up to be as noisy as possible…We didn’t know how to produce antigravity, so we gave you a picture of a man who did, and made it as noisy as possible to loosen up your own noise filters on the subject. I offered you a dose of omniscient noise on the subject of antigravity, and the one inescapable conclusion that it had been done.

By “omniscient noise,” he’s referring to the idea, discussed earlier on, that pure noise—a completely random sequences of pulses—contains all possible messages and information, and that our ability to understand it depends on the mental filters that we’ve set up. Give a team of geniuses a source of raw noise and loosen up their filters, the story argues, and they can figure out just about anything, as long as they’re convinced that it’s possible.

And while “Noise Level” doesn’t bear Campbell’s name, it’s still one of the most personal statements he ever allowed into print. (It’s especially revealing that he originally approached Heinlein with the premise. Heinlein had written up a few of Campbell’s ideas before, in stories like “Sixth Column,” “Solution Unsatisfactory,” and “Universe,” but he hadn’t done so for over a decade. The fact that Campbell tried pitching the idea to his single best writer, even though it was highly unlikely that Heinlein would take it, tells us how important it was to him.) One of the first problems that occurs to anyone who studies Campbell is how the same man who was almost singlehandedly responsible for the rise of hard science fiction could also endorse such concepts as dianetics, psionics, the Hieronymus Machine, and the Dean Drive. You could say that Campbell genuinely believed that these phenomena existed; that he wanted to be responsible for popularizing a major discovery that would rival atomic power and space travel; that he saw them as a way to maintain science fiction’s status as a frontier literature; or that he wanted to challenge scientific orthodoxy by feeding it some of the most outrageous concepts imaginable. To some extent, all of these interpretations are accurate. But I’d like to think that Campbell revealed his true motivations in “Noise Level,” and that he spent his last two decades at the magazine deliberately trying to make his ongoing experiment with his readers as noisy as possible. Like the two libraries in Dunning’s house, Astounding ran hard science fiction side by side with pieces on psychic powers and dowsing, and many readers couldn’t understand how Campbell could believe in both. Maybe he did—but he also wanted to give his readers the chaotic raw material that they needed to expand their way of thinking. Whether or not he succeeded is another question entirely. But he thought it would take them to the stars.

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2016 at 9:33 am

Quote of the Day

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Kip Thorne

Simplicity is the touchstone in finding new physical laws…If it’s elegant, then it’s a rough rule of thumb [that] you’re on the right track.

Kip Thorne, on Closer to Truth

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Last week, I finally saw The Revenant. I know that I’m pretty late to the party here, but I don’t have a chance to watch a lot of movies for grownups in the theater these days, and it wasn’t a film that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town. At this point, a full review probably isn’t of much interest to anyone, so I’ll confine myself to observing that it’s an exquisitely crafted movie that I found very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat for me—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd it all was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog actively seeks out these moments, even if he maintains a straight face.) And it took me about five minutes to realize that the movie and I were fundamentally out of sync. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with a sudden arrow through a character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a kind of complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are probably more fluent speakers alive than you might think. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I hadn’t felt before and haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are rough and a little uncertain, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out when it was close to its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that was either an homage or outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what feels like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself says in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stuck in the brain because we couldn’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are both so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

As a result, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like a demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were so nice that he said them twice. It’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2016 at 8:58 am

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