Radicalized — A Book Review

Posted June 16, 2020 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Book Review, Culture, Internet, Politics, Science Fiction, Writing

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Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow, Tor Books, 2019
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“The future’s a weirder place than we thought it would be when we were little kids.” — Cory Doctorow

Although that quote is not from Doctorow’s novellas — longer than short stories but not nearly novel length — in his recent book Radicalized, it captures a lot about them.

41tOeBojICL._SY346_Doctorow is a blogger and science fiction author much concerned about personal freedom in the midst of media and technological juggernauts.  His fiction tends to be of the very near future variety, taking on the coercive forces of government and corporations.

It falls into a genre I call “subversive fiction” for suggesting that freedom is more than a privilege bestowed by others.  Perhaps Doctorow’s most famous book may be Little Brother, nominated for a science-fiction Hugo award in 2009, which includes information on counteracting surveillance by authorities.

Unauthorized Bread

In the first story, “Unauthorized Bread,”  Salima, a recent immigrant, finally gets fed up with being forced to toast only authorized bread in her toaster. She hacks the toaster so that other bread can provide her morning toast.  Of course, such hacking is against copyright and other laws and carries severe penalties, even though the toaster corporation has gone bankrupt.

(If you think this is an exaggerated premise, then you should read about the John Deere corporation’s efforts to keep farmers from repairing their own machines.  John Deere claims farmers have no right to access the copyrighted software that controls every facet of today’s equipment, even to repair their own machines. Only an “authorized dealership” can do that.)

The story also explores the pressure of housing developers gaining concessions beyond usual zoning requirements by making some lower rent units available, and then screwing those in the low-rent units as diligently as possible.  If the renters complain or circumvent the humiliating measures, they will be evicted.

In the end, against all odds, the renters free their kitchen appliances and circumvent the landlords’ technological controls with a few tricks of their own.

Model Minority

The American Eagle is from another planet, in this second story.  He fights for truth, justice and the American way.  Unfortunately, and quite topically, he feels he must intervene in a racist police beating of a black man.

American Eagle fights against this injustice and is done in by the system, despite being a superhero.

As famous as he is, he offers to testify on behalf of the beating victim.  His efforts to see the right thing done end up making the situation worse.  Conspiracy theories mount about how foreign American Eagle is, and his supposed ties to the Chinese or Russians or other unAmerican entities.

A corporate billionaire vigilante named “Bruce” confronts American Eagle. Eventually our superhero, after other adventures, realizes America is only willing to tolerate certain things.

Radicalized

In “Radicalized,” the third story, the country is aflame and in chaos after people are fed up seeing their loved ones die unnecessarily in the medical system.  They begin to riot, build bombs and conduct mass executions in medical insurance offices.

The hero of the story is Joe, a white 36-year-old who works in a well-paid but pointless corporate job.  He has seen many of his colleagues leave:

“…to work for experimental divisions with self-driving forklift companies, or diving into cloud-based self-serve platforms for ecommerce dropshippers, or all that other stuff that helped people get their Squatty Pottys and strobing LED USB chargers delivered to their doors with five nines of reliability.”

Even with his top-of-line medical insurance through his company, when Joe’s wife develops cancer, the insurance company refuses to cover her treatment.

A frustrated Joe, seeking some way forward, starts cruising the dark web, and gets slowly involved with the violent element at large in the country taking revenge on the pharmaceutical, insurance and medical establishment.

Joe is arrested.  He is asked to give up the names of those he communicated with.  He refuses just as his wife’s cancer goes into remission.  She visits him in jail and lets him know that a comprehensive medical care act has been passed.  She tells Joe, “Who says violence doesn’t solve anything?”

The Masque of the Red Death

Along with its reference to the Edgar Allan Poe story, this is an ironic tale of survivalists and the apocalypse.

The main character, Martin, intends to ride out the coming apocalypse in his Arizona stronghold he calls The Fort, along with 30 well-chosen and privileged others.

And when The Event arrives, Martin congratulates himself for having thought of every contingency.  He welcomes disaster’s arrival which will prove his astuteness.

After some time, a gun store raid goes badly wrong when the gang there tears Martin’s people to pieces.  A plague of some kind kills more.  Martin gets very sick and can’t recover. In the end, Martin gets real tired of the apocalypse.

What to think?

Overall, I enjoy and admire the subversive quality of Doctorow’s stories.

My favorite of the four is the first, “Unauthorized Bread.”  To me it’s the most human and amusingly accurate of the stories about the kinds of things many people have to deal with right now.

It took me a little while to get what was going on in the story about the American Eagle.  I left comics and superheroes behind in my pre-teen years (although I enjoyed them a lot then), and the current obsession with superheroes in the movies leaves me cold.  So probably for a younger, more with-it reader, this might have more resonance.  Its point seems accurate, but the story itself is so-so.

The third story about health care and violence is thought provoking.  I’m not at ease with violence as a strategy about anything, except in unavoidable self-defence.  But unfortunately it does seem to get attention and perhaps action, although I would argue the more likely outcome is just more violence.  But there are situations when it may seem the only course to take.

The last story about the survivalist mentality and its likely consequences rings true.

I’ll leave this with a quote by Doctorow from an interview in the LA Times:

“I think that fiction is a superb way to put flesh on the dry, abstract bones of technical and policy debate — a fly-through of an architect’s rendering of the emotional lived-experience of the consequences of our policy choices.”

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The Quest to Write with Meaning

Posted May 22, 2020 by fencer
Categories: Art, Awareness, Culture, fiction, Novel, psychology, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

In my long quest to write with meaning, always approaching but never quite reaching, I’ve written one science-fiction novel, and now I’m almost ready to start the draft of a second one.

I’m trying to flog the completed sci-fi novel, without success so far, to agents and publishers.  But I can’t wait around, as I am not all that junior, except maybe in ability.  I’ve started the second and again I’m puzzling about theme.

I should say that this second novel situated 20 years or so in the future is well along in terms of character and plot development.  Still I feel the lack of a central cohesion.

(For a sampling of my previous self-imposed torture about what theme means, check out Thinking About Theme in Writing A Novel. I concluded then that the theme had to emerge from the struggle with the writing and it had most to do with freedom.)

Oh, the craft books I consume!  Many of my books on the craft of writing extol the benefit of knowing the theme of the story you are about to embark on.  Although it doesn’t seem to be much of a selling point in a query letter.

Maundering about theme

Theme is what the story is about, what the reader can take home.  It encapsulates the meaning of the story, its reason for being, really.  I feel silly to be so foggy about what should be clear.  The theme could be a statement about love or corruption or goodness or deceit or honesty.  On that kind of abstract level.

But it is not that clear cut to me, what the meaning of the story I’m starting to write will be in the end.  Oh, I can say in a tentative way now that it is about guilt, or freedom, or redemption, but those words are pro forma at this stage, without resonance.  Except, partially, the idea of “freedom” which to me is kind of an ur-theme which other thematic notions resolve to.

At the suggestion of one craft book (The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson), I’ve resorted to diagramming my first stabs at thematic ideas, arranged in small ellipses overlapping at the edges of a large empty ellipse.

This visually-oriented strategy appealed to me: reserve the big ellipse for a statement that feels like something.

In those smaller ellipses I’ve placed words like “anger”, “shame”, “repentance”, “redemption”, “transcendence”, “struggle”.  The big empty ellipse just sits there, aloof.

This brings me to a phone conversation I had with my wife recently, stuck as she is in Shanghai in these Covid times, looking after her dying father in his nineties.

Getting older

We are both older, and sometimes we discuss the end of life, and probable feebleness of some sort eventually.  My wife, as a doctor and given her situation with her father, is occasionally given to stories of what can happen to people which might strike some as morbid.  Although she is actually a woman of considerable positivity.

She told me of one older colleague of her father, a doctor too, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness.  This colleague, she said, decided to spare himself and his relatives the pain of his suffering.  He ended it all by one day walking into the ocean.

I didn’t want the conversation to rest there, so I said, “I’d rather walk out of the ocean.”  There was a moment of silence on the phone line, and then we both laughed.

Off-hand remark though this was, it continues to reverberate for me.  It’s become a strangely deep metaphor on a lot of levels.

I have this image of a man emerging from the ocean buffeted, then released, by the clear salty water, finding his feet as he lurches forward onto the beach.  He is unencumbered, sopping wet, and headed towards he knows not what, but he is free.

Conversely, he emerges from the miasma of our culture and our times, out of the detritus of life mistakes and character flaws, onto a shore of the possible.  Sea gulls dip overhead.

This reminds me how this will to write is unavoidably a spiritual impulse, a religious one, even, in its original meaning re-ligare, to tie together again, to re-connect.

Several of the better books on the craft of writing allude to this.

Alderson in her book writes, “The Universal Story is the story of life.  The energy of the Universal Story flows through three phases: Comfort and Separation. Resistance and Struggle. Transformation and Return.”

John Truby in The Anatomy of Story says simply at the end of that book: “Let me end with one final reveal: you are the never-ending story.”

I sit back and then write my phrase in the waiting empty ellipse.

Walk out of the ocean.

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Note:  Here is the best short description of theme I just found in an older book from 20 years ago by Philip Gerard, Writing A Book That Makes A Difference:

“What the book is thinking about.”

Later Gerard describes it this way: “It’s the unconscious of the story.”  I like that.

Nostalgia For Westerns

Posted May 8, 2020 by fencer
Categories: Art, Culture, Movie review, Politics, psychology, Remembering, sixties, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Here in the midst of our Covid time, I am on my own, since my wife is stuck in China (fortunately in good health).  This is not necessarily bad, as I am a solitary sort, and thus there are few people coming upon me to randomly scatter virus.

In the evenings, after I work on development of a second novel, I like to watch DVDs from a collection accumulated mostly by happenstance.  I’m watching most of them for at least the second time, and it’s remarkable how much I’ve forgotten about each one!

Lately I’ve focused on westerns for some reason, and they make me think about my own history and that of the genre.  The four movies I’m going to pay attention to here are: Appaloosa (2008), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Little Big Man (1970), and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006).

Back in the ’60s

Along with my mother and two younger brothers who loved to play cowboys and Indians, we lived in 1960’s rural north-central British Columbia in a log cabin. We had almost unlimited space to imaginatively populate the trees, creek and hillocks with what we saw on TV and the occasional movie.

After my father died, our little household was more or less adopted by a huge-hearted neighbour family.  The older I get the more unusual I realize their caring was.

maxresdefaultAlmost every Sunday, and often other days during the week, my mother would drive the four of us up the narrow dirt driveway to the neighbour’s house on a rise above the highway.  We were always there to watch Bonanza with the Cartwrights just after we all finished Sunday dinner.

Westerns on TV

Westerns were the most popular genre on TV.  Other shows we boys watched with great enjoyment whenever we could (at our cabin we had no electricity and no TV) included Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Virginian, Daniel Boone, and especially, for me, Maverick.

Maverick starred James Garner. To see the wiseacre gambler, mildly larcenous with a hidden good heart make his way amidst the dust and guns of the West, often playing off Jack Kelly as his brother, greatly appealed to me.  It was in some ways the same kind of role that Garner would perfect as the reluctant hero in the much later detective drama The Rockford Files.

It reflects changes in American culture that Gunsmoke was the longest running prime-time TV series of all time until it recently lost out to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, an urban police drama about disturbing sex crimes.  (Which is very good in my estimation: the acting and the writing are top notch.  But still… my mother would never have let us watch it if it had been around. For that matter, it would have been impossible for that show to even be on TV then.)

At the end I would like to touch again on this contrast.

So here I am with my four movies of interest.  They are all from a later era than the TV glory days, but hearken back in varying degrees.  All of them, it turns out, are about male friendship, even Little Big Man, that older movie of the four.

Appaloosa

indexThis is the most traditional western of the four to me in tone, character, and wonderful cinematography. But the set-up is not so usual: it is that of two itinerant lawmen who travel the west hiring themselves out to pacify lawless towns.

The two men played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen have been doing this for 12 years and know each other well.  Appaloosa is the town they come to, and due to a rogue rancher tyrannizing the place, the two are hired by the frightened town fathers.  They promptly and rather dictatorially take over and put things right.

Of course, a woman comes between the two men, interestingly portrayed by Renee Zellwegger, and although the friends eventually resolve that, there are the standard confrontations with the bad guys and final justice done.

Ed Harris also directed the film, and it is amazing to me how he fulfills that role and acts with such focus at the same time.  (This is similar to the equally impressive Tommy Lee Jones taking on both jobs in The Three Burials….)

3:10 to Yuma

yumaThis is more modern in tone, directed by James Mangold, with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the lead roles.  Appropriately enough, it is a remake of a decent western from more than 50 years ago.

Crowe, who plays a masterful and murderous outlaw leader, is captured. A poor dirt farmer played by Bale, takes on the duty, after everybody else is too scared, to shepherd Crowe to a trailhead and thus off to prison and a death sentence.  Bale needs the reward money.

Crowe is an outlaw with a nihilist philosophy, but he is smart enough to have a philosophy in contrast to the men he leads.  He has become, almost despite himself, a student of human nature.

It is hard for Bale’s character to explain to either himself or his family how he has ended up in such a dangerous enterprise.

The two men slowly discover with some shock that they can make themselves understood to each other.

Peter Fonda is in the mix as a Pinkerton bounty hunter, and along with nasty henchmen from Crowe’s gang, they up the violence quotient.

But in the end, the heart of the story becomes the unlikely respect that forms between the two leads.

Little Big Man

little bigI first saw this in a movie theatre in 1970, and a couple more times over the years since.  Dustin Hoffman is in the title role as the 121-year-old lone white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand.  The movie begins with the aged Hoffman, in amazing make-up, in an old folks home telling the story of his life to an interviewer.

The movie, directed by Arthur Penn (also known for Bonnie and Clyde), shifts from sincere to satirical and back again.  Hoffman relates and the movie shows the lengths he went to for survival as settler, adopted Cheyenne brave, gunfighter, medicine show spieler, cavalry scout, hermit and drunkard.

In its serious aspect, the movie is a meditation on the continuous betrayal of native Indians by an expansionist and merciless white culture.  The massacres shown of Indian villages brings this home.

But where the movie shines for me is the warm portrayal of the Cheyenne chief, Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George.  He is the father figure, and the friend, where Hoffman’s character finds his spiritual home.

Towards the end of the movie, General George Armstrong Custer, played by Richard Mulligan, arrives with his golden locks and his megalomania.  I’m sorry to hit this note, but he resembles no one so much as Donald Trump.  (The calamitous stupidity demonstrated in this very short video, is entirely emblematic and parallel to Custer’s portrayal here.)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

51RKF1m8EnLThis has become one of my favorite movies, of any genre.  It is authentically a western, although it is set in modern times, in Texas and Mexico.  Hey, it’s got horses, guns, desert, and a laconic hero!  And it has a profound sense of hard bitten decency in the midst of the wasteland of modern life that hearkens to the best of what westerns have to offer.

As noted above, Tommy Lee Jones stars in and directs this tragic tale, which also ends with redemption of a sort.

The beginning of the movie is non-sequential in places and confusing until you realize the scenes are spiralling toward the tragedy at its core.

Melquiades Estrada, played by Julio Cedillo, is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who rides into Texas on his horse one day and asks for work from a small rancher outside a small town near the border.  Pete Perkins, played by Tommy Lee Jones, takes him on, and they become fast friends.  Estrada tells Jones’ character of his wonderful family and the little village he comes from in Mexico, and makes Jones promise to return his body there if he should die.

Estrada is shot and killed by mistake by an angry and lost young Border Patrolman, played with impressive intensity by Barry Pepper.  Pepper buries him to hide his mistake, but the body is found.  The town’s sheriff has the body relocated to the local cemetery. The sheriff has no sympathy for illegal immigrants and ignores anything that implicates the Border Patrol.

Jones’ character is pushed over the edge by this, and kidnaps Pepper at gunpoint.  This turn of events caught me by surprise.  Jones throws over everything to keep his promise to his friend.  He makes Pepper dig up the moldering body, and the two men and a cadaver take off towards the border and Mexico on horseback.

I have to mention the Texas small town.  It’s like places, I’m sure, all over North America, but the arid southwest highlights the arid emotional life portrayed here.  Everyone seems lost, desperate, alienated, without any centre to their lives, so they indulge in drinking or adultery or pornography or mindless violence.  Both the sheriff and Jones commit adultery with the aging wife of the local cafe owner. Pepper’s too pretty wife gives up on him and leaves.

Meanwhile, on the way to the destination in Mexico, Pepper tries to escape from Jones, but is brought painfully to heel.  Adventures ensue.  They fill the corpse with antifreeze so it doesn’t rot too badly.  They find a lonesome blind old man in the middle of the desert, played by the wonderful Levon Helm (of The Band fame).

Finally, they arrive at where Jones was told he should go by his friend, and finds that most of it was a lie, perhaps to make it seem like the man had a fuller life than he did.  There is no tiny village of the name Jones was given.  The wonderful family doesn’t exist.

Pepper has been a hard ass all the way along, unrepentant yet slowly breaking down from the rigors of the journey.  Jones has been tough on him.  They find a ruined house which Jones decides must be the site of the third burial.  He orders Pepper to apologize to the corpse for what he did, and when Pepper resists fires his gun at him several times, but deliberately misses.  Pepper finally breaks down completely and apologizes fervently for the wrongs he’s committed.  Jones looks on approvingly, and leaves him there, riding off on his horse, leaving Pepper with a few words that capture the moment, and their humanity, roughly: “You’re free to go, son.”  Pepper calls out after him, asking if Jones will be okay.

I’ve spent some words on this because for me the movie captures an existential truth of the human condition: we are alone, but the meaning we create is with each other.

Tommy Lee Jones’ later movie The Homesman, a kind of mid-western about women’s madness and early settlers in Nebraska, also has this feeling of apprehending difficult truth about the human situation.

Reflection

Viewing from Canada the decline of American society in recent years, I’ve formed an opinion about some of what has happened.  Watching movies like these and remembering the many westerns once on TV has reinforced it.

The shift away from westerns reflected the cultural centre of gravity moving from ranches, farms and small towns to the ever expanding large cities with all their opportunities and excesses.  Despite all the modern conveniences though, alienation from the land and from each other is rampant.  When a community of people depend on the land and its fruits, and each other, you cannot, for instance, be caught up in perpetual hateful political discourse.  You have to be neighbours.

The entertainment sought and offered also is part of the cultural environment, of course.

Given that westerns could be silly with their stereotypes of black hats and white hats, bad Injuns and good ones, of solving problems by violence, yet their essence often was that of a kind of morality play.  They modelled men, usually, striving and succeeding through honesty, decency and courage.

Men need that kind of modelling, especially.  Women tend to be more rooted in the everyday necessity of such values.  Men become distracted from them too easily.

I apologize for my sweeping generalizations, yet….

To me the demise of the western in popular culture was the beginning of the end of the American dream.

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Four Guys Living On the Telkwa High Road

Posted March 7, 2020 by fencer
Categories: Cascadia, Culture, Remembering, Seventies, Writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

When I returned to the Bulkley Valley after completing journalism school, it was an act of failure.

I’d sent resumés to so many newspapers across Canada, most of the dailies, from my student room near the University of Western Ontario, in London.  (It’s a great old-style university by the way, which doesn’t get that much recognition.)

But nary a peep in response.  In the early seventies there was a downturn in the economy just as I finished school. I often gave that as my mumbled excuse.

Hudson Bay Mt at SmithersBack I came to the Bulkley Valley in northern British Columbia, with its far-off mountains running up close to loom over the small town of Smithers.  The just-off-Main-Street Hudson Bay Mountain towered, its glacier and ski-runs gleaming in the sun.

My home, the home of my heart, a log cabin where three boys and their widowed mother all grew up, lay 20 miles or so farther west from the Town of Smithers, out past Telkwa and Quick to what we called Deep Creek in those days.

After my disappointment at the lack of clamoring for my services, I returned to the home place.  But all the available work seemed to be in Smithers, so I took a room there.

I found employment as a Child Care Worker at the Ministry of Human Resources or whatever its name was then, for the provincial government.  Child Care Workers were a definite step down from Social Workers’ positions, but that was the best I could do with just a psychology degree (prior to the journalism diploma, don’t you know).

Not quite sure what to do with me, the ministry put me in charge of the town’s teenage drop-in centre.  This was basically a two-room shack at the edge of a park a few blocks from the centre of town.

Provider of life wisdom

I’m not a very outgoing person, and am easily annoyed.  Not quite the best character type to ride herd while distributing life wisdom to boisterous, if not out-of-control, young bucks.

There were a few girls drifting about, but most who frequented the drop-in were guys.  They were mainly there for the ratty pool table and the rock music emanating from a worn but nicely loud phonograph system.  One of those combo phonograph and AM-FM radio furniture units. The high-decibel band Nazareth was a big favorite.

At 23 years old, I was only seven, eight years older than these kids.  And, like, I’m really mature.  And I was supposed to do what with these juvenile delinquents?

I want to write more about them someday, but I’m trying to get to the Telkwa High Road!

Telkwa High Road 1Let me give you a brief layout.  Highway 16 runs its ribbon of asphalt two-lanes roughly east and west.  West to Prince Rupert.  East to Prince George. In our most frequented part of that road, we’d drive through the rolling terrain of trees and farms and fields, from Quick up over to Telkwa, where the Telkwa and Bulkley Rivers combine, than through that brief dip in the road to Smithers.  If you kept going for quite a few hours, you’d run into Terrace and eventually the sun setting over the port of Prince Rupert.

Heading towards Smithers, turn right in downtown Telkwa to get on what we called the Maclure Lake Road.  Maclure or Tyee Lake lies close above Telkwa.

And that’s the start of the Telkwa High Road, so-called because it parallels Highway 16 at an upland altitude, from Telkwa across various Babine Lake Roads and keeping on well past Smithers to the native village of Moricetown, famous for the precariousness of the old-time fishermen spearing salmon from the cliffs of its narrow river canyon.

At one turn along the way, you can head off to Driftwood Canyon and its 50-million year old fossils of redwood and gingko, ichneumon wasps and prehistoric trout and salmon.

Since the High Road ran in the uplands, often the views at sunset or from certain over-the-valley vistas opened onto a magnificence of sky and mountains and weather.

A farm on the High Road

In that year of my discontent as the manager of the drop-in center, I joined three other fellows roughly in my age group as we rented a farm on the Telkwa High Road above Smithers.

We only rented the farmhouse.  The outbuildings and barn were there, but not for our use.

The four of us knew each other from the ministry social circles in town, or from parties, or through my mother who was deep in the social whirl.  Two, Eric and Rod, were social workers.  Rick was a slightly younger guy with long black hair who mostly went to parties, played guitar and tried to charm the ladies.  He was an ingratiating and probably smart young man, doing what he wanted to do, and the other three of us weren’t that picky, we kind of liked him, and we needed somebody to share the rent.

One of the social workers I think had the relationship with the farmer which enabled the rental, and we found ourselves living in this ramshackle farmhouse on a knoll overlooking wide sloping fields of hay.

All four of us seemed to be between girlfriends or in dysfunctional relationships.

I had a broken down car of some kind. I commuted from the farmhouse to the drop-in centre every weekday, a 10-15 minute drive.

Memories

I remember two things the most from our time there.  One was the great parties we managed to have.  I’m not really a party guy, but the four of us worked together to put on these shindigs.  The music was loud and rocking, and that was my department.

R.Watts; Telkwa High Road, Bulkley Valley, Prince George Region, BcAt one of these parties, I remember in late afternoon walking towards the barn with a group of people, smoking a variety of substances.  I remember discussion of cocaine, which at that time in the early seventies was often considered innocuous, its addictive qualities thought to be exaggerations by the anti-marijuana crowd.  There was no cocaine at this party, that I knew about anyway.  But I find its mention interesting because although we lived far, far away from the centers of anything, in a rural place called a High Road, we were still connected to the impact of distant North American culture.

The other prominent memory I have, which still makes me grin at our youth and interests, were the tense team chess sessions the four of us had, while smoking whatever strong weed young Rick came across.

Ripped out of our minds, somehow we could really focus on these games.  In teams of two we debated and bickered with each other about the next move, while giving the other team the gears about the quality of their previous one.  Occasionally we would separate and whisper so our devious plans could not be overheard and then return to the table, confident.

We very formally recorded each move under our names and the date.  I wish I had just one of those old game scores.  That would be fun to play over….

Of course, sometimes we didn’t complete the games, distracted by animated discussions or just wanting to chill with the rock music we all liked.

A dream fragment

Oh, there’s one other memory, almost like a dream fragment.  It was a golden summer afternoon, late in our sojourn at the farmhouse, just before I found a job as a reporter/photographer with the town’s weekly newspaper.  I read a book while propped up on the mowed lawn. I listened through speakers brought outdoors to the Beatles’ Abbey Road album.

Eric, the cooler one of the pair of social workers, came and sat outside not far away, and listened too.

My favorite part of the album is the second half of the second half, from “Golden Slumbers” onward.  I put down my book.

Once there was a way to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home

Boy, you’re going to carry that weight, carry that weight a long time

And in the middle of the celebrations, I break down

On to the drumming and guitar solos of “The End” which always electrify me and then the song glides quietly onto

The love you take
is equal to the love you make

My companion rose up and against a leg dusted the wide-brimmed hat he always wore.  “That will last.”

We shared a moment, with that music, and then I agreed.

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Working On A New Novel — Obsessed with Character

Posted February 13, 2020 by fencer
Categories: Book Review, fiction, mystery, Novel, psychology, Science Fiction, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

“Characterization is a complex and elusive art and cannot be reduced to exact rules or to a comprehensive statement. The more we talk about it, the more we feel has been left out….”
Leon Surmelian, Techniques of Fiction Writing

“Human beings are the religion of the angels….”
— from the movie Cell

Both these quotes speak to the difficulty of discovering and creating characters who come alive for us, both as writer and reader, in a piece of fiction.  The one from a famous text on writing and the other an evocative and ultimately mysterious quote from an otherwise unmemorable film.  They both allude to the imaginative challenge.

I managed to finish writing a science fiction novel last year, and I’ve been submitting it to literary agents and to publishers, so far unsuccessfully.  Although I think it’s good, and I have high hopes for it, you never know.  Maybe it will go nowhere.  It’s tough at the best of times to get published, and with all the technological turmoil….

But in the meantime, I’ve started working on a second novel.  As part of that I’ve been obsessing about how better to develop the characters that will inhabit it.

The now completed science fiction novel was set many hundreds of years in the future on a failing Earth struggling to recover its potential.  This new one is intended to be more of the present day thriller variety, although situated perhaps five years in the future to give myself as much latitude as possible in creating dark situations.

Before I write about the useful advice and books I’ve come across, I want to describe my working theory about imaginative psychology, simplistic as it is.  Maybe it will help provide context for my preoccupation about developing characters.

The discovery model

I have become convinced of the discovery model of fiction writing.  We are creating, making stuff up, this is true, but the best material for that creation is what we discover in the surprising backwaters of ourselves as we write, or what comes illumined to us at the edge of sleep.  For others these riches may come wholly dressed and dancing, but for me they are fragmentary and usually wrapped in fog.  Yet there is something there.

The rest of my pet theory is that there is a deep layer of our being where reside all the archetypes and our collective unconscious in the Jungian sense.  The archetypes are forces, not things.  There too the spiralling currents and tidal streams of our personal shadow slowly move about.  I have no idea, for the most part, about whatever the heck is going on in there.  But I’m sure it’s all homeostatic!

The next layer up, I postulate, is at the subliminal, subconscious level, at the edge of conscious realization.  The level where a whisper comes through out of nowhere about a character’s motivation, or the shape of the plot, or where appears a fleeting image of oranges on a truck.  I’ve found that you have to pay attention to these transitory strays, get them down in a notebook or on the page right now.  It’s a matter of respect for that entire submerged ocean that feeds the subconscious level, that supports you.  If you want more to come, you must not have it avoid you for your negligence.  These morsels won’t always make sense or be useful, but much more often than not they provide sustenance.

And then there’s the mundane, everyday level where I struggle to make sense with words, just as I am doing now.

Helpful books on characterization

I want to mention several books that have provided insight in my quest about characterization.  I may have a “felt sense” or intuition about a character which provides the irritating sand for the pearl I hope for, but often that intuition stays static for quite a while.  I want to learn how to nudge it along.

The first couple of books are off the beaten path of the mainstream industry of providing craft help for would-be writers.  They are Verbalize — Bring Stories to Life and Life to Stories by Damon Suede and Unmasking Arkhelogy by Jennifer Van Bergen.  Interestingly, both authors come out of an acting background.  That gives a different take on characterization which I found valuable.

Verbalize? What’s that about? Of course we’re verbalizing our stories.  But that’s not what Suede is referring to.  He’s using “verbalize” as shorthand for the process of finding (discovering?) the most precise verb to describe the character we’re working on.  I found this very insightful.

Characteristics aren’t character

Characteristics are not character, he points out, despite all the standard list of things you’re supposed to know about your main characters before writing.  (This kind of list I’ve always found sterile and mostly meaningless.)

“Words don’t create characters, emotions do,” says Suede. “… The first step for a writer is to nail down the foundation that aligns and supports all the emotion that makes books worth reading.”

The way to do that, he says, is to understand that the character who makes choices drives the scene and steers the story.  And where do these choices come from, you may ask?

A character is not a face, but a force.  The character’s choices arise from that force, and that can be symbolized as the most fitting and exact verb for that character.  This gives you a lot to play around and experiment with.  Get out the best thesaurus and dictionary you know.  Once you find a ballpark verb, check all the synonyms and even antonyms to zero in on that intuitive character shape you may already sense.

The richness of the English language is your ally.  Your character is all the shades of meanings of the chosen verb.  They embody the activity of your character, with the exceptions and focus you choose.   The energy of this “verbalization” can be elaborated into all the actions which the character takes and which bounce off the other characters.  This is Suede’s counsel.  There is a lot more to the book, and I found it fruitful.

Arkhelogy?

Van Bergen’s book, Unmasking Arkhelogy, is a slightly updated 2011 book originally published as Archetypes for Writers: Using the Power of Your Subconscious. She’s arrived at a terminology for the process of bringing out one’s own character archetypes.  “Arkhelogy” is an example, and it means doing this work investigating archetypes useful for your characters.  She feels it necessary to have her own jargon in order to be clear about what she’s describing.  The reader may only find it puzzling.  The book is also rather chaotically organized.

But despite that, I found her ideas intriguing.

“This approach has little to do with how to ‘create’ characters or plot stories.  Rather, it is more about how to find your character and story archetypes, or even how to have them find you. Underlying this approach is the premise that each person carries within them a given set of character and story archetypes.”

You can see how this fits in with my own biases.  So what is her method?

Elsewhere budding writers are advised to use archetypes such as The Lover, The Hero, The Magician, The Sage, The Ruler, etc., to provide a basis for characters.  Such archetypes are said to be “notably recurrent across the human experience.”  Unfortunately, for me, these give no real clue about developing a specific, interesting character.  They’ve become another form of fixed and simplified stereotypes.

Van Bergen wants to develop a capability of finding character archetypes from our own experience, imagination and subconscious.  In essence we want to discover the secret lives of the characters.

A series of skills

In order to develop the skills needed to do this, she prescribes a set of exercises.  These include among others:

— Establishing character facts for the character.  These are purely factual statements.  They include no judgements or personal opinions about who this character may be.  Try to avoid any adjectives which give our slant on who this person is.  For example: “He comes to the office exactly on time.  He wears a navy suit that is a little too snug.”

— Discerning the character’s “universal drive.”  This is the most basic type of drive such as survival, or the need to love or be loved.  Most other drives collapse into these, Van Bergen says.  She might also include the drive to protect and nurture, the drive for sex, the drive to realize “the Core Self” and very few others.  Interestingly, she doesn’t see freedom as a basic urge, which is a universal drive to me.

— Elucidating discrepancies. A discrepancy is an incongruity or inconsistency in a person’s behavior that reveals something significant about the person.  Example: “He calls her his girlfriend but he makes no effort to visit or spend time with her.”

Van Bergen points out that a goal for us as writers must be to find the things that bother us most.  And understand where they come from.  That’s where the juice is.

There is much more but this gives you the flavour of her approach.  I found it thought provoking, although it remains to be seen how able I am to use it.

The Art of Characterization

Another very good book about characterization is the deservedly popular The Art of Characterization by David Corbett.  I’m giving it short shrift here, but it is mightily worth it if you are interested in this subject.  He writes:

“Just as you must untether your characters from predictability by granting them the freedom to contradict themselves, to grow, to change, so you must grant yourself a similar freedom to play the trickster, shift at will, embrace the unexpected, be free.”

But the best single piece of advice for characterization I’ve found to date is this nugget panned from David Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, which I will paraphrase:

Determine the conscious goal of a main character and then constantly ask “Why?” until the true answer reveals itself.  This should pull out backstory, history, internal beliefs, future hopes and dreams and fears, and more….

That advice is written on a yellow sticky attached to the side of my computer monitor.

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