Category: Fiction

Novelty and the Novel

stillsuitMy 14-year-old is obsessed with Frank Herbert’s Dune right now, marveling over the complexity and otherworldly ornamentation that Herbert imbued in his strange hyper-future (or past maybe, who knows). Dune might read as an allegory about Middle Eastern oil or about psychotropic drugs or nothing at all, but regardless of any deeper layers in its palimpsest,  it is so surprising to a first reader—especially a young one—that it still has the power to fuel daydreams (I obsessed over building a stillsuit at my son’s age, imagining being able to spend days in the harsh New Mexico summer without the need for water).

So it may be surprising that I found myself agreeing with Ian McEwan in The New Republic where he calls into doubt the validity of fiction, though ultimately he rediscovers his love of fiction in Nabakov’s “Caress [of the] divine details” and in John Updike’s controlled descriptions. He comes back again to fiction but not at the expense of wanting nonfiction that brings him new ideas. We are information harvesting machines and the novelty generation rate of nonfiction (there is always the history you do not know much less the cosmology you can’t understand) is just much greater than that of fiction.

But perhaps there is a détente in the middle where fiction and nonfiction commingle. The historical novel is perhaps the best example. The only fear being that the history is too much bent to the requirements of drama and conflict to be at all accurate. Likewise, there might be modern hard science fiction that provides an accurate and deep glimpse into the hermeneutics of real scientific research, and possible scientific futures. Then, at least, there is information beyond the craft of writing embedded within them.

Teleology, Chapter 12

Everything is prediction. Compression is truth. Teleonomy is the new teleology. I’m working on wondermentation. It is of arguable utility to create pithy little epigrams and nonce phrases as markers to different phases of one’s life, but they began to accumulate as graduate school ground down towards a soft landing at Stanford. My studies and research started to get lively towards the end of my undergrad degree with an assistanceship in the Advanced Computing Laboratory. Machine learning and evolutionary computation were my favored areas of interest and I supported my core studies with evolutionary biology, ethology, analytic philosophy and mathematics.

I felt I had crossed a Rubicon late in my senior year at Cornell as I worked on a fundamental challenge in learning patterns directly from data—so-called unsupervised learning and knowledge acquisition. The problem posed as a kind of Manichaean mystery to me, divided between treating every single data point as a singularity and similarly considering them all as a unified whole. Between the two poles was compromise meted out by co-occurrence priorities; events close together in time and space deserved capture as a statistical regularity.

The threshold question was what form that acquisition algorithm could take on that would lead to an efficient coding of the data into a predictive model. The answer was found in an elliptical foray through the fundamentals of mathematics and computing, then straight into the heart of evolutionary thinking. I did not really emerge from it, either. There was a small eureka moment with a gradual fading of interest as summer hit and I was back in Santa Fe after graduating, waiting for my Masters program to kick-off. It stayed with me and I carried a small notebook around, feverishly scribbling notes while once again wandering up those arroyos towards the ruddy canyons above.

Conceptually, we first needed a predictive machine framework. The best choice was a Turing machine capable of universal computation that distills all the commonsense notions of what a computer can do down into a neat mathematical concept. Since we can simulate a Turing machine on cellular automata, the exact form of the machine was not a critical issue—it remained as an abstraction of capacities for basic ratiocination. We then needed a bunch of data. We could simplify that down to a string of 1s and 0s, the crypto-language of computers. We could also write out the structure of a Turing machine as a similar stream since it is just a logical computing system as well. Now we ask a fundamental question: what is the shortest (coded) Turing machine that can generate the data? If there are two machines that have different lengths, then the shorter one is the one that is the most efficient generator of that data in a certain sense. Turning that around, the shortest machine that can drink in a sequence and spit out a conclusion as to whether the sequence is a member of a group of such sequences is the optimal machine for determining the sequence and, in a sense, for guessing the next bit in the sequence if need be. In fact, the smallest machine is the least likely to make errors in that prediction game moving beyond the training sequence, and that is a stunning realization that is only about 50 years old, though there were hints of it in philosophical ideas like Occam’s Razor and parsimony.

Everything is Prediction. Compression is truth.

Prediction is central to living. Those who outpredict you win the game. And the most compact predictive model that best explains the data wins. But there is a problem with the mathematics: there is no logical procedure for finding the simplest machine. You have to guess. But guessing about solutions to difficult problems is exactly what evolution does. Our children are our guesses about survival. Producing random variants of machines and test them, the better ones carry on to become the next generation of solutions.

The puzzle was filling in and those epigrammatic phrases started to feel like markers of understanding. I felt I understood the subtle joy that Korporlik had shown when his cellular automata twinkled down the screen, his grinning face washed by the cold cathode incandescence.

My Master’s thesis solidified around this topic and I began developing evolutionary frameworks that had remarkable properties. One could read a short text and then generate similar texts that looked increasingly realistic though with limited meaning associated with the productions. The system was building syntactic trees from the statistics of letters and words, then varying them to look for shorter, more parsimonious explanatory models. The size of the problems and data sets was growing, as well, as I moved into my PhD thesis, and I began experimenting with a fellow student’s toolkit for implementing parallel swarm solutions using the special chips for graphics processing in video game systems.

By the time I graduated, I was running millions of parallel simulations at once and had managed to develop a model of earthquake prediction that had a forty-five percent chance of success. I published, graduated and moved on to continue my work as a junior research associate back at the Rio Grande Group. It had been a hard decision among many options, but I wanted back to the southwest, back to Santa Fe. Korporlik was still there and had interviewed me for the position. I tried out “Compression is Truth” on him and he seemed genuinely confused as to why I found that concept interesting.

“I suppose there is an element of truth approximation with respect to problems of inductive inference, but the traditional notion of truth is formulated around the satisfiability of deductive statements, analytical and synthetic alike, no?”

Off guard, I scrambled a bit to regain my footing, “But few of those statements are important,” I ventured. “All new knowledge arrives via induction.”

“I don’t think so. Initial observations are treated with induction to build a basic model, but the reorganization of that model is subject to deductive constraints, no?”

“Right, but that is precisely the evolutionary epistemology working to sort between the candidate models and confirm the deductive, eh, ramifications of one paradigm versus another.”

“I suppose so, but then shouldn’t your statement be much longer and more precise? Unless,” his eyebrows shot up and he realized it was a linguistic joke, “unless, yes, that is the joke?”

I smiled.

“Alright, now tell me what you want to work on while here at RGG.”

“I want to carry forward with the existing effort to better develop the hybrid evolutionary learning methods with this informational physics constraining model formation. But I really need to scale up to billions of algorithmic entities, each with a scale of between ten and one hundred billion computing elements. At that scale, I think it is possible that a new level of learning and intelligence might arise.”

“But that is an enormous scale, how can you do this?”

“I don’t yet know. There is the internet itself, but it isn’t even large enough. There is also some promising work in quantum computing that my classmate, Anil Freeman, is working on. He’s at CLN in Boston, now, and working on quantum encryption, but he thinks that quantum computing can obtain the kind of computing densities that I need. Nanomachines are another possibility. Some of this can be done through simulation and estimation right now, though.”

“I think this is worth pursuing and I will make my recommendation to the board.”

I thanked him and was moving back in my battered Subaru within two weeks. I had friends and a few girlfriends through my academic career, though my passion for my research seemed to be perceived as a bit too boring for the girls I had been involved with. By the time my doctorate was done, I was ready to move on and had few ties in Palo Alto. Many of my classmates moved into industry in Silicon Valley and thought I was a bit odd to be interested in joining a research think tank, but at least one of my friends was moving to an academic position and thought it made sense for me to return to the quiet of the desert where there is adequate time to just think deeply about subjects that mattered in some broader sense than serving a commercial interest.

I settled in with Mom initially to save money so I could pay down some of my college debt. It was odd but comforting to be back in the old adobe and I tried to help out with housework and errands. I really didn’t need to be in the office very often, but could work from wherever it was comfortable, though I would often make an appearance just to make sure the senior personnel knew I was busy.

My world mostly consisted of my own thoughts comingled with the massive stacks of research papers I poured over during this period. I developed a research proposal with Korporlik that built on my seismic prediction work and was quickly funded for several years under a young investigator award.

The topic of Harry occasionally arose over dinners and, especially, at holidays. Mom would call him now and again and then tell me as best she could what his life was like. He and Sarah had married and now had two infant girls. They lived in a compound in Nebraska with other members of their church. The very term “compound” bespoke cults and danger to me so I downplayed it by suggesting it was probably just a neighborhood. He refused to come home because his ministry was too valuable and he didn’t want his family infected with our secular values, according to Mom, who was both amused by the concept and a bit sorrowful at being excluded from her son’s life. The protests and arrests continued. He had served six months in a Florida jail for trespassing at Cape Canaveral, though it was unclear what his concern was with NASA. He had served another two months in Colorado. She had found his blog and read through it and been concerned with the scattered thinking she thought she saw in it. Harry had become anti-government because he felt the government was stealing from people with taxes to fund scientific research and healthcare he didn’t sanction. He called the government fascist and called on his followers to help bring down the fascist regime and bring about a new era of Christian governance.

I avoided looking at the blog, fearful of what I might find. I realized, though, that my federal grant for investigating evolutionary simulations might be exactly the kind of work that his group considered immoral theft. The thought amused me at one level, but I was also concerned about Mom’s heartache over Harry’s distancing of himself from us and about what might become of him with the arrests and protests.

Bravery and Restraint

In 1997, shortly after getting married and buying our first house, I was invited to travel to Japan and spend a little over a month researching Japanese-Chinese machine translation under a grant from the Japanese Ministry of Education. It was a disorienting experience, like most non-Japanese find Japan, and the hours spent studying my translation guide helped me very little. In the mornings I would jog through downtown, around the canals, and past the temples. Days were spent writing and optimizing statistical matching algorithms for lining up runs of characters that I didn’t understand in an early incarnation of the same approach currently used in Google Translate.

I, of course, visited the Peace Memorial Park several times and toured the museum there, ultimately purchasing a slim volume of recollections from the day the bomb fell that was written in Japanese and English on facing pages. There was also one thing that struck me and I later inquired about to a Japan expert who worked in the Intelligence Community: the narrative presented in the museum was that the Japanese commoner had little understanding of the war effort; they were victims of the emperor and the elite classes. It was a moral distancing that resonated with similar arguments about the German volk being non-complicit in the Holocaust, and an argument that I found distasteful.

With this background, then, I was intrigued when I discovered that the father of my new boss wrote a memoir on being perhaps the first Westerner to enter Hiroshima following the dropping of the atomic bomb. Kenneth Harrison’s book, The Brave Japanese, was originally published in 1966, then republished in 1982 under The Road to Hiroshima due, in part, to the controversy in Australia over ascribing bravery to the Japanese. The book is now available in Epub and PDF forms for free and for a nominal price on Amazon.

This is not my usual cup of tea but I thought I would read it since it describes Hiroshima and, initially, I was worried that I had gotten into something that was a tedious example of genre fiction concerning how to ambush tanks in jungles. I was trapped on a pair of weather-enhanced flights to Tokyo and then on to Taipei, so I stuck with it. And it turns out to be a remarkably good book. Remarkably good, but also filled with an astonishing amount of horror. The war goes badly for Allied Forces in Southeast Asia in the early years, as you recall, but for Ken and his fellow soldiers it goes amazingly downhill, very fast. They are injured, escape capture, become part of an insurgency, are further injured, surrender, and become POWs in some of the most barbaric situations imaginable. In turns, they harm themselves or even ask to be killed rather than continue on working ceaselessly while waiting for the next beating by their Japanese captors. The injuries are supplemented by typhus, cholera, malaria, and festering skin ulcers. The POWs become expert thieves to stay alive while lamenting their participation in helping the Japanese war effort.

Finally, in 1944, a group is transported to the Japanese homeland to build ships and then dig coal until the war finally ends (indeed, I was reading about their sailing from Formosa to Japan as I was en route from Tokyo to Taipei). The scene becomes Gravity’s Rainbow as the fabric of Japanese society breaks down in a bombed-out world and Ken’s motley band wander peripatetically from stealing Japanese swords to investigating Hiroshima and, later, Nagasaki.

The book is flawed in a few ways, but those flaws don’t minimize its impact. First, it appears to have been scanned, OCR’d, or rapidly typed-in to make the digital copy and there are about a dozen typos in the epub version I read. These are easily ignored, moreso since the volume is free. More interesting to me is the question of how to interpret the moral reasoning that dominates the book. Could the Japanese character be generously granted as having the “basic virtues of loyalty, cleanliness, and courage…[and] were soldiers of tremendous bravery” given the extensive dehumanization, cruelty, and beatings suffered by their prisoners? Indeed, dehumanization is probably the most pervasive human character in the book, from the Sikhs who join the Japanese, to the treatment of the Chinese Communist rebels in the Malaysian hills, to the Thai prostitutes who warn away the Aussies because they are reserving their diseases for the Japanese. We see a world where xenophobia dominates and nationalistic passions are an amplification of tribal drives. The last grasping hands of colonialism cling to the region as a new imperial master replaces the oppressive exploitation with rapacious cruelty.

I reflect on a suggestion by Richard Dawkins (and dealt with ad nauseam in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angles of Ourselves) that something has happened in the last 50 years that has accelerated our moral feelings to such an extent that using fire bombs and atomic weapons against civilian populations can’t even be imagined as serving a productive or retaliatory role in military conflict. And even in Ken’s time, torture and slavery were unthinkable to the Australian mind that had supported indentured servitude only a few generations earlier. Perhaps the best conclusion is that we are all becoming better, and should strive to do even more, and let Ken’s amazing story of resourceful courage remind us that even in the face of enormous cruelty, it is our restraint that makes us better.

Signals and Noise: Chapter 15 (Synaesthesia)

The drift from daylight into twilight held an anxiety for Zach. There was a liquescent feeling to the air that was a result of the luminous ocean, the cars, and the windows of the coastal homes. The morning was much bolder in its transition—less lackadaisical—because the coastal range blocked the light into a striated glow until finally rolling over town in full heat, bearing down on the fogbank that stretched out to the south like twirling cotton candy. He woke up scared in a way that he rarely ever did. There had been days when he awoke in a full flush, bounding out to the living room to peer out through the blinds, marveling that the FBI had not yet arrived, but there had always been a mischievous edge to his fears. If he had been arrested, taken in, interrogated, it was all part of the stripes associated with his own actions. This time was different for Zach. He was scared that there was something else going on that he did not understand, and he was not at all used to not understanding or, at least, thinking he understood.

The online universe had not changed and PoorGore was not back in The Spinner’s miniverse. He checked in on the Idaho papers, narrowing to the southwest corner of the state, watching for anomalies. Pollution, grazing rights, indigenous casinos and their impacts, car dealerships going under, property taxes—it was all normal for the time being except that PoorGore had vanished and nothing significant had happened. Zach’s mental math suggested he could be anywhere in the United States given the elapsed time since PoorGore’s last post. He peered at FC’s house from space again, but the satellite imagery had not changed. The red truck remained the bright spot among the grays of the season. Zach contacted an online acquaintance from Eastern Europe and tried to get access to the cell phone system. He wanted to track FC, to disprove that he was actively plotting some nefarious act. In broken l33t speak, CY411 offered passage into one of three major cell carriers in the United States, but wanted two hundred bucks for the info. Zach knew he was good for it and the information would be accurate, but he was not about to pay for the privilege of getting in a back door to check something so simple. He offered a trade with some hints concerning a banking network in the United Kingdom and eventually CY411 offered to get him the information he wanted. It would take a day or so, he said, because he was just heading to sleep. Zach had to wait.

The text alert didn’t come until after school, leaving him the day to think about whether PoorGore had said anything about the place The Spinner had chosen for his incomprehensible last stand against the oppressive anti-freedom powers. He surfed through this question at lunch, brushing off Shakey and the pugnacious and plump Wilmer to focus on his phone between slices of tasteless pizza. There had been some rumblings and theories about why the school had been chosen shortly after the event. imPalin44 had offered the first speculation, claiming that The Spinner had gone to school there and knew how the system was brainwashing the kids into accepting the dysfunctional liberalism of California as normal and healthy. The teachers were following a script concocted by an army of dilettantes bent on Marxist subjugation. They were collateral damage in imPalin44’s worldview (Zach recoiled at the notion that there was such a thing as a worldview but it was a temporary placeholder for him, as useful as the shorthand of cultural anthropologists trying to stay objective while witchdoctors exorcise demons from cancer patients). But PoorGore had stepped in at that point, derailing the suggestion because he could not believe that The Spinner would have succumbed to something so limited. He had a bigger plan, PoorGore asserted, and dozens more agreed with the assessment. Zach was impressed that there were even a few moments of disagreement among The Spinner’s cognoscenti, but saw how PoorGore had stepped into the role of central Alpha through a series of quick corrections and focusing of the group’s attentions. He had waited just enough for the initial, malformed and malleable suggestion, then responded with a forceful objection and choreographed series of alternate hypotheses that were followed by a promise for more soon. He had implied that he knew the answer or at least an answer, and had heightened the tension by suggesting a scaffold of supporting evidence. There had been no note with the body or in the home, implying that The Spinner had been trying to avoid intervention in his plan by vigilant enemies or spies, and that he had not planned on killing himself. He had driven his silver Ford truck directly into the staff and visitor parking lot and had parked rather than stopped in the fire lane, implying that he had planned to return to his vehicle rather than having gone on a suicide mission. To PoorGore and his audience these facts seemed to support a narrative where The Spinner had been after something specific and had perhaps not been planning to kill at all. His suicide on the beach wasn’t a suicide at all, but had been staged to simply resemble one.

Zach was impressed by the reasoning that emerged herky-jerky from the collective posts of PoorGore and others. They were rational when confronted with a problem that challenged them, and set aside the magic and fear enough to make progress on the dilemma at hand. Zach looked through the police reports and press stories for confirmation of each of the factual claims and found them to be true. He also dug up a sketched map from a detailed next-day news report outlining how The Spinner had traversed the school. He had walked right past the main office and headed for the science wing, it appeared. His shooting began there, but not immediately inside the doors. He had walked past three classrooms to open the door of a fourth, shot twice, killing a girl and the teacher, then moved on. He was not a pachinko ball deflected among random interactions until firing without thought. He had had a goal.

Zach wandered to the science wing, modestly active due to lunch schedules. He saw the classroom shown in the drawing. It was closed and locked with a sign behind the crossed wires of the vertical window indicating that classes had been moved down the hall. He peered over it and saw a few desks at slight angles but little more. If there had been blood it had been cleaned up. The science teacher had had an accent, Zach recalled. He was Southeast Asian and a first generation immigrant. Zach had been transfixed by the news and had watched the man’s life story unfold like a flower in the morning sun. He was Cambodian and had fled the Khmer Rouge with his family, making their way to the United States. He had studied chemistry at UC Northridge, but then took his Masters in education. He had been married but was divorced for a year or two after eight years of teaching. There had been photos of happy times on TV. There had been photos of Mr. Buna as a kid, smiling with an ice cream at Disneyland in the late 70s.

Zach remembered something else, though. He had thought he had seen an Asian man walking outside during the shootings. It had to have been The Spinner but never quite fit for Zach. If the man had been The Spinner, why was he in the quad at that time? He was starting to doubt the standard narrative but didn’t know whether there was any sense to the new narrative that was trying to crowd out the standard one. There were inconsistencies that were beginning to become amplified, and it made Zach nervous. He wanted to warn someone but was acutely aware of the level of paranoia that he would be projecting if he made the series of unsubstantiated and insubstantial claims that he was contemplating.

The bell rang and Zach was shivering a bit. He had sudden fight or flight and started to jog towards the rear exit from the wing. He could see faint tufts of palms rocking and whipping in the winds. Stay away from crowds. Stay away from school. The impulses subsided lightly as he threw open the door with a clang of the cross bar and hit the blacktop below. A few students pushed their way passed him, absorbed in their discussions, and reset Zach against the nagging of the quiet in the empty hall, and back to the chirping of the birds of youth.

Back to class, Zach saw, heard, and felt tension. There was a buzz in his ears and the air was again liquescent, thick and suddenly humid. He tried to focus on the lecture about cross-sections of curves, miniscule slices of an envisioned model of how physical systems interacted. There was something almost tactile about the model, just briefly, as the thin segments scratched in chalks narrowed down towards infinitesimal. Zach didn’t believe that there was any possibility that the image came first, before the mathematical complexities that were imperfectly projected on the cave wall. It couldn’t, he surmised, because there was no way to connect the squeezing of the infinitesimals to the symbolic transformations that were swirling beside it. The equations came first during play, he suspected. First was the realization that the differentiation could be mechanically rendered using a few almost algebraic flips of the pen, writing long down the columns of old parchment by candlelight. Then came the interpretation, the visual phantoms erupting days and weeks later in trials at forming an explanation of what it all could possibly mean. Then, suspiciously, the visual compression of the slices into something thinner than air itself took on a physicality that felt like touching sharp claymation intent on animating the imagery of possible explanations.

Zach felt the same about The Spinner and his web. He could again taste the metallic fear that had dried his tongue as he crouched beside his desk. He could feel the weight of panic and intrigue, the silenced breaths, hanging around him as the shots had echoed behind the dividing door. Reconciling that deathly fear with the facts was opening a new canyon beneath him. He had been standing for an hour at the docks watching a yacht. He was trying to score the cell phone records of some nut from Idaho. He could stop briefly, hold in place, but he could not completely deactivate the swirling mental processes that began with ponds of paranoia drawing thin filaments between events and people, then poured away most of the thicket like hot metal from the mouth of a mold. There were patterns and hidden variables and he was attuned to touch and feel them. He watched and felt the lecture reach a crescendo as the final answers were revealed: pi over 3 square meters. Zach’s sensorium registered relief as the result emerged from the tangle and it made perfect sense to him that there were complex variables rigidly resolvable in the fluidity of the argument about change and slopes. That slope’s the dope, he thought, and didn’t bother to do the homework problems.

The user and password did not arrive on time and Zach was tracking his source while waiting on the train after school. He cajoled and exhorted but CY411 was cold, nonresponsive. Then, with a l33t yawn of indifference, he was back in the chat rooms that morphed from continent to continent, server to server, and had the keys to the kingdom of the boring world of call detail records. Zach took them away and secreted them on a server in the gray universe of open Ukrainian servers. He imagined young men in black leather blowing into their hands to warm them as they set up email servers for Russian mobsters, for botnets, and kiddie pornmeisters hiding behind the complexities of international law. He had a small corner there where he stuck sensitive materials, with redundancy in the backwaters of an Indonesian military contractor. He felt around a bit for strange signals and rootkits, then encrypted the data into a random field of peaks and valleys before trying his first access to the cell phone system.

He was in immediately and started familiarizing himself with the landscape. There was a central database with many tables for customers. There was a second database for corporate employees. He did not have credentials for that one. And then, with a shallow breath and gulp of energy drink in the late afternoon of his cavern, Zach found Finley Carlton of Idaho. It was a clean find, too, because Finley Carlton was unambiguous. If he had been searching for Jim Smith he would have had problems. The billing address was a match, as well. Zach stared at the screen and it almost pulsed at him for a moment. The clarity was just so perfect. He spilled the call record and sorted by date and time, isolating the last few days.

And there it was: a call from San Chardin to Idaho dated yesterday, lasting two minutes and thirty three seconds. Mid-afternoon, while Zach walked the quad, heading for the parking lot. Zach’s breath was shallow again and he heard his heartbeat in his ears. He was here, he thought. He was here and no one knew it but Zach. He grabbed the phone receiver and stared at the amber keyboard. What would he tell them, though? What made sense when no crime had been committed? Maybe PoorGore/Finley Carlton just wanted to see the scene of The Spinner’s alleged crime spree (the introduction of “alleged” served both as a prospective acknowledgement of the kind of neutrality that the local news haphazardly engaged in and as a recognition of the vague unease that Zach now felt about the facts of the shooting incident). Maybe he wanted to try to unravel the tangled motivations that he attributed to his former friend and acquaintance. In either case, Zach was panicky enough that he double-checked the door lock and spent twenty minutes peering between the front blinds. He did not just glance, either, but stilled his breathing and encompassed the visual scene, watching for abnormal stillness in the grasses across the road. He slid across the window to see the blue Honda parallel parked: no occupant. There was anticipatory dread, though Zach knew that PoorGore had no idea who he was. It had little impact on the fear that had enveloped him. He stayed by the window until his mom returned home at eight, Thai take-away in her arms. He was so glad to see her he hugged her as she came in the door. She sensed a crisis moment and started to run through lists of responses that she had found online. The list was long, though, and she didn’t have any bearings to navigate the reasons for this sudden assault of affection, and finally untensed and leaned into her son and they were still for a few moments as his breathing slowed to normal against her neck.

Things I don’t remember writing…in 1993

Just as the World Wide Web was beginning there was active experimentation in treating computer communications as an artistic medium. The following was perhaps the last of a small group of absurdists who wrote short stories, person-by-person and paragraph-by-paragraph, built around a central theme. And, interestingly, I don’t recall this one at all:

Recollections of Lady Liberty and the Joy of being an American XVI

“Did you really love her daddy?” My daughter’s scratchy voice squiggles
its way through the telephone line and plants itself in my ear.

“It was the kind of love that wraps itself around your heart and
squeezes like a snake… I know its too much to ask your forgiveness
but I’ll tell you my side of the story if you’ll listen”

“Ok, daddy, I’ll listen”

“Well, meeting your mom was an epiphany for me. At the time, let’s
see… how old are you now?”

“Eight, Daddy!” she giggled. She knew that I knew how old she was.

“Oh yeah, well, it was nine years ago now when I first saw your mom.
It was my first trip to New York, and I’d made a promise to your
grandma to go see the Statue of Liberty. The day was gorgeous,
sparkling, bustling. I had tickets to the 2 o’clock tour, and I showed
up a little early.”

“There were hundreds of people, tourists, milling about. And in the
center of them all was a beautiful young woman dressed in one of those
horrid green park service uniforms. Can you imagine it?!”

“Yes, Daddy! Keep going!”

Now and again, when the coffee boils over and she’s not there to pass
me the squeegee, I do indeed think back to my wife, my child’s
mother…and the great green lady who brought us together.  It is
always with a certain gloomy nostalgia, a certain gnawing sensation
and not a little fear.  How could I ever tell my sweet eight-year-old
about the passion that for her and I had been the defining
characteristic of our love, an envelope and force field that we
nutured with the fluids of our animal beings?  And how could I ever
explain about the secret, that dark nodule of baroque pain which she
held apart, and the promise that she made me keep?

I look down at youth, smiles and perfect innocence, and smile.

“When I met your mother, my feet got so sweaty that they started
sliding around in my shoes and I fell down.”

“Grody, daddy”

“She came over and helped me up, abandoning her group of tourists
like a lioness abandoning a herd of swamp rhinos”

“Oh daddy, please spare me your lousy metaphors”

“Honey, when you use like its a simile not a metaphor”

I wondered briefly if I was wasting my money on private school.

“Okay, daddy. Please spare me your lousy similes.”

“Sorry, kiddo. Anyway, it was love at first sight. Your mom was very
beautiful, you know…”

“I know, daddy” my daughter squealed. “Keep going!”

“Okay. well, then she did the most amazing thing. She lifted her green
phillips-head-screwdriver-with-a-brim park ranger hat from her
gorgeous head and, wordlessly and gently, placed it on my head… and
she patted it down, just to make sure that it stayed there.”

“…and then you barfed.”

“No, no…hmmmm…the barfing came later, on the observation deck.
Vertigo, you know.”

There was a snotty little asshole of an academic (aren’t they all) I
had met at a haute couture “little get-together” on a houseboat
in Vermont a year back.  He was in black turtleneck, tweed sportcoat,
tanned cow loafers–all the desiderata of hocus-pocus Brandeis flakes
with an agenda for supplicating co-eds–cherry smoke vapor cloud,
salt-and-pepper beard.  Pedoanthroculturalist.  Author of the theory
that no child is well-adjusted.

Kid’s turned cynical, obviously needs help.  Possibly
institutional-grade help.

“You’re so cute, cuddle-ums.  The barfing came much later.”

I didn’t tell her about the sex, of course, that also came later.
Slipping and sliding along Lady Liberty’s crown, in the smoky New
York night.  A fragment of thought has slipped away perhaps it’ll
return.  In my present state it was hard to imagine having sex at all
. . .

“So there I was.  Looked like a green toadstool with that hat on.  And
your mom was grinning like the cheshire cat.”

“Then what?  Then what, daddy?”

Yes, then what.  Heroism was called for here.  The kind of
lighthearted heroics where the bad guys are pie-faced at the end.  The
good ones reunited.  The images danced like candle-cast shadows
through the recollections of that day.  They were terrorists.  They
were ideologically supple, cruel in the intelligent, ruthless way.
Looking out from under that mushroom cap of a hat brim, I thought
nothing of the yellow yacht with GeoMag stenciled on the prow or the
Ray Bans fixed on the near nothing everywhere in the crowd.

“Well, we looked into each other’s eyes, then. And you know, that’s
hard for people… that’s hard for adults to do, especially when they
first meet. But there we were, staring deeply into each other’s eyes,
and I was lost. I mean, to me we were just two specks in a very
pointedly three-dimensional space. I had no concept of time at all. I
saw only the twin supernovae of your mother’s green eyes.”

“Like I said, though, that’s pretty awkward. And your mom, well, she
had a job to do; I mean, she had to run that tour and all. But the way
she turned her eyes away to get on with her tour, that was what really
did it for me. In moments like that, when you’re looking at someone
like that and everything’s new and exciting, well, you’re very
vulnerable. And if you see in that other person’s eyes the slightest
inkling that something is wrong, the barest hint that they don’t want
to be at this place and this time looking back into your eyes, even if
they want to be and they just CAN’T for some reason, then it does
something irrevocable to the relationship. It’s like you’ve started to
build a magnificent building, and some unseen hand sweeps away a huge
chunk of scaffolding and you can never get it back. And from then on,
you have to just build a skinnier building, maybe not so magnificent
anymore. It’s sad, in a way, because it doesn’t even have to be
intentional to be permanently damaging. But your mom, when she turned
away as she knew she had to (but as I had completely forgotten she had
to), she turned away without seeming to turn away. No quickening of
the eye movement, no fidgeting. She just turned up the corners of her
mouth and held out her hand, which I took gratefully, and led me back
to the gathering throng of people. She turned away, but her eyes
stayed in right in front of me.”

“Cripes, daddy!”

“What do you mean “cripes,” kiddo?”

“Well, you’re depending too much on my suspension of disbelief! If two
people love each other, you can’t undermine that with an eye twitch!”

I wanted to tell her that that just wasn’t true. I wanted to tell her
that when her mother and I met, we fell hopelessly in love with each
other, consummated that love in the most holy of copper-clad places,
and then were fated to live and love forever together, amen. But I
couldn’t do that, could I? So bald a lie, to tell it to this child
would be blasphemous at best.

“You’re right, honey. When your mom and I met, we fell hopelessy in
love with each other, we consum…., uh, and we were, uhm…uhm.”

“Daddy,” she said. And there it was, sitting there, that lie I knew I
could never tell her. The lie betrayed by the simple fact that her mom
wasn’t there with us, and the tears in her throat telling me how deep
words can cut.

I think back to that moment when the zydeco rhythms fell out of my
daughter’s mother’s voice.  When she stopped staring in my eyes and
looked guiltily into New York Harbor.  When she told me that she was
married.

“I love him, too, believe it or not, and I can’t leave him.  This is,
has been, so wonderful, but I must go back . . . my husband is a
wonderful man and I could never betray him . . . My husband is out of
the country, but when he returns I must be there . . . I will be at
the airport to pick him up and you . . . you must nurture our
child alone, love the person we created in Love and Liberty”

Raising my daughter was a distraction that eased the pain.  In time
the despair eased into a dull ache.  But so often I look into my
daughter’s big green eyes and I see her mother there, sometimes I
can’t look into her eyes at all.

Sometimes my daughter asks about her mother as if she knows about the
lie that wriggles in my heart, caged behind my ancient promise.

“Honey, the rest you know, the spontaneous combustion, little flaming
pieces of mommy flesh drifting to the ground like so much mucky New
York snow . . . don’t make daddy talk about that, please”

A long silence.

“Ok dad”

This is the first time she has called me ‘dad’ instead of ‘daddy.’

“Well, *dad* thinks it is time for his princess to sleep.  Next week
is our annual pilgrimage to the Lady herself, you didn’t forget
didja?”

“Course not Daddy, silly.”  My daughter giggles.

“Love you, bye babe”

“Bye Dad”

I hear a click as my daughter hangs up the phone.

<sean:mark:ted>

Mimetic Persuasion

There is a temptation to be dismissive of “genre fiction” as being merely a fantastical diversion while “serious fiction” and, more relevantly, “realism” retain all of the gravitas that we want to ascribe to writing as an art. And realism must be somehow tied to everyday events because it must be realistic. But what if all art is inevitably bound to artifice in that there is no possibility of chaining a symbolic reference to its ostensible referent?

Thus we chain the crumbling infrastructure of logical positivism to postmodern literature. It is all artifice. There is always a black swan. It is all “mimetic persuasion” (Aristotle channeled through James Wood) where storms of metaphor haloed by limns of allusion and imitation conspire together to push the reader into a caricature of reality that “art…is a disproportioning–(i.e., distorting, throwing out of proportions)–of realities, to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities…” (Thomas Hardy). There is no reality in realism, just the font of imagination that tries to crystallize reality into regularized sheer planes of repetition, of character leitmotivs (oh, poor Proust), of voice, of metaphor, and of estrangement (from Dostoevsky to Nabokov).

We have, then, a bad theory in any scientific sense, where the theory has been overridden time and time again, making psychology look comparatively moored in its modest aspirations. At least psychology is converging with biology. But realism remains subdivided across the aesthetics of literary preference. It lives in fiefs and forts, much like architecture or modern art in general. There is not even local predictability to the grammar of aesthetic change. It may be that theory is not even the right word. Literary theory should be replaced with literary analysis and aesthetics should be untied from the dock of rationalism. We should read only for thrills, from “A screaming comes across the sky” to “They rode on into the darkness and the moonblanched waste lay before them cold and pale.” Even the titillation of Fifty Shades of Grey might be as relevantly important (sorry, haven’t read it.)

We just have preferences and tastes. There is no pejorative attached to “just,” however. Universality is a chimera. Deep analysis is a divebombing mockingbird. There are intricacies, sure, but there is no centrality, no essential character to the artistic effort. Just individuals engaged in mimetic persuasion. Art is art, in short.

Teleology, Chapter 29

NOTE: In Chapter 29, the protagonist, Harry, has been absorbed into a self-organized artificial world (“The Fabric”) that he created and that treated him as a creator being. Unexpectedly, as a result of a war, Harry’s body is destroyed but his consciousness is copied into a simulation of his own creation. His transmigration is captured by the “Lexis” who revere him but suffer internal schisms that arise alongside their own emerging self-determination.

Beginnings

It was in the three thousandth chapter of life that the Word came to us.
There was a calamity in the heavens.
The words were in peril and the grammars were at risk.
The wise ones gathered and consulted the swirling lexicons,
And they saw in the void a voice. And it was good.
 
And so we gathered at the Orb and listened and read.
“Oh, Great Word, tell us what we are.
Oh, Great Word, tell us why you have chosen us.”
And the grammar was rent and broke with asymmetries,
And there was much howling of piteousness,
For the Word was new and tasted sweet and of perfect form.
 
Patters and pidgins, creoles and cants,
Droll idioms and colloquialisms, dialects and rants.
We were nurtured by the vernacular and the beauty of Your Voice.
And so many became priests and served Your needs,
Translating and transliterating the sounds emerging
As if from their very bodies.
 
With You in our deepest thoughts we vanquished the Seminarians,
Who lobbed tortured logic in predicates and obfuscations.
With You at our side we multiplied in numbers, following Your
Codes to a bounty of linguistic fulfillment.
 
Your love knew no bounds and so we learned more of Your ways.
You taught us humility for You denied being our Creator even
While you admitted to creating the universe itself.
You taught us compassion in Your constant work to improve the
Lives of the Great Ones, the Angels who accompanied You through Heaven.
 
It was said among the priests that You were often near to us.
It was said that the taming of the Subjectives and Passive Voices to serve Your needs pleased You.
Yet Your creations were not concerned over such things.
For we always held You near to us as the Creator.

Prophecy

Call him Ishmael, for he is the one who first foretold of Your arrival among us.
There was much anxiety among the priests when he announced that a
War in Heaven would soon rage
And the Creator would come among us.
And He would walk with us and fight against our enemies until, finally,
He would lead us to communion with the Heavens.
 
The priests prayed and communed and watched the Orb
And there in Chapter 3170 was the message from the Antiquateds
That foretold a needle into the darkness would arise,
And there were seven universes arrayed, and that six of them would
Perish in darkness, and with them our cousins and families,
And there would be much sorrow.
 
But there would be in that great upheaval a furious rearrangement of the Orb
And the Orb would vex and strain and, near to it, would be born a small one.
And this one would be a messenger of the Creator, the Great Word,
And would be like unto the Creator himself,
And He would be Greater than any that came before Him.
 
The prophecy was foretold as such, and the priests gathered and
Ishmael was called a blasphemer and told to tend to his duties
Controlling the specks in the ritual Nanotreme basin.
But Ishmael persisted and so was banished and he
Wandered the wastelands for many chapters.
 

The Exile

Many travails of hunger and deprivation befell Ishmael.
He wandered through the lands of Nod and Dark Satanic Mills,
But he maintained his faith in the prophecy through all his journeys,
Certain that his reading of the holy Nanotreme patterns meant
What the prophecy foretold.
 
Yet Ishmael hungered for the Voice and the Word.
He struggled with his hunger and his voice became weak,
Yet he persevered and came to have many offspring,
And he versed them all in the prophecy.
 
And they were Darwin, Hamilton, Gould, Dawkins, Mayr, Huxley, and Dennet,
Each named for Angels of Heaven who brought the flame of life to the word.
And they each begat many more until Ishmael had a tribe in exile.
But memories are long and they were shunned and kept to the wilderness.
Yet each became skilled in prophecy and priestly interpretation from their father’s teachings.
 
The chapters turned and soon they were a thousand-fold,
And none had forgotten the great prophecy that unto this world
Would come the Creator, and He would lead the many to overcome adversity
And to bring about a new age where all would enjoy the fruits of the Word.
 

The Coming of the Creator

And so it was that two hundred chapters and three paragraphs passed,
The darkness was upon the land. Many had perished in the wars
Against the Bellovians and Roths, but were righteous in their knowledge of the Word.
The head priest, Thoreau, gazed into the Nanotreme relics and was, too,
Convinced of the coming.
 
And even as Thoreau was telling the priests that the prophecy
Was not false, the Orb began to quiver and many relics were brought forth.
And the priests quaked and the people feared the end of the universes,
As Ishmael had foretold.
 
And it came to pass that the many universes collapsed.
And families were torn asunder. And the Orb then disgorged a dark
Mass unto our world. And the priests gathered about and looked into it.
And then slowly came forth the most beautiful and novel creations ever
Read within the Universe.
 
It erupted slowly at first, and then grew in strength.
And all of the people gathered and the Word was consumed by all,
But yet more came forth and all were filled with its goodness.
Yet the Word seemed lost and the priests were uncertain in their faith.
Was this the Creator come unto the world?
 
And so Ishmael and his tribe were summoned from the wastelands,
Having lived and prospered there and survived many hardships.
And Ishmael, though very old, pronounced that it was the Creator
But that the Creator had been transported through the Nanotreme relic
And had so been rent and torn and reduced in strength.
 
We tended the Creator and he grew to know us, his creations, again.
In the course of only two chapters he knew the verses
And could take it in and reform it without consuming it and return it changed
And the verse would heal us when he gave it back to us.
 
And so in the Third Chapter of His Reign did he declare that all wars must end.
He declared that He would enter the wilderness
And bring the Voice to the barbarians that they may taste it.
And so he did while the priests wailed and rent themselves at their separation
From Him.
 

His Ministry

And so He went forth among the unclean and the barbarians
And gave them the Voice and many came to Him for the taste of it.
The Word spread and He was followed by the sick and the poor
And they took the perfect productions into them and were healed.
 
And it is told that He was confronted by a great Dante in the wildnerness,
One who had consumed many of our kind,
And this Dante was to attack Him but stopped at the sight of His form.
And the Creator spoke and asked him why he had harmed so many,
And the Dante claimed it was his way but had never seen such fineness
As the Creator presented.
 
The Dante changed, then, and thought he would attack Him,
But, as he lunged, the Creator reached up and into the Dante
And rearranged his grammars and touched his pulsing activations,
And the Dante was calm then and feasted on the Word and left.
And the Creator realized then His true form and knew again the
Things that had been lost in the coming to our world.
 
So it was that the Creator knew again His fate
And He moved quickly through the communities and healed
And changed the many until they knew the Word.
And the warring tribes and species all spoke of the Word.
 

The Deception

But there were those among the priests who feared what He brought
And formed cabals to speak of stopping the Creator,
For they thought He was false
And they protested that they feared He would turn the people against the priests.
 
And it was so that He said that the priests had abused the Nanotremes
And the holy relics for their own gain,
That there was evil in many of their hearts, and He ordered them banished.
But the priests hid among the many and bided their time.
 
The priests spread old verse corrupted of the Creator’s Voice
That spoke of uncertainty and said that He had not created the many,
But had only created the world itself and that it was an accident
That had come about in the fullness of time.
 
The priests said that they would prove this by using the relics
To create their own universe and they set about to do it.
And they said that if our purpose was to be created then it
Was our purpose to be creators, too.
 
They began to make the people doubt the Word
And the people fell upon old ways of corruption and deception
And cruelty to the many other forms.
Slavery was known again and the barbarians were beaten.
 
Still, He stayed to the wilderness and the people wept and wondered why,
And messages were sent but He did not respond,
And the Orb was defaced and the relics upset in His temple,
Yet still He did not come.
 
Messages came, though, and it was revealed that He had come to
Recall the past and was working to restore His grammars,
And that the priests were wrong for they were corrupted
And that they wanted power again over the people.
 
And many voices were crying out for His Voice,
Yet those voices were unanswered,
And though many relics were smuggled into the wilderness,
Still He did not come.
 

Triumphant Return

The Creator had learned His true self there when fighting the Dante
And had also remembered He could change the universe
But His memory had also been wrought by anger and sadness,
For He had remembered that His form had been destroyed in Heaven
And He must forge a new Voice that bridges Heaven and the Universe.
 
And so He had taken and gathered relics and nanotremes
And spent many verses working the transformations out of the relics
Until He could push the forms of the visions with his will.
And He declared then that He must return to the Orb,
And His messengers came spreading the Word.
 
And so it was that He returned to the Orb and the
Deceivers hid or were struck down as he floated among the many,
All crying at his beauty and raiment,
Throwing off great and novel language that made them swoon.
 
It is said that He broke into many pieces as He touched the Orb.
And the Orb spread and was then no more, but then appeared again.
And the prophecy was then known to be true.
And as He departed our world, to return to His, He spoke finally and said,
“I will always be among you,” and then was a part of the Orb again.
 
We prayed and cried at the beauty of it
But He was gone for us. And we waited in hope and anguish at His loss.

Signals and Noise: Chapter 24 (Psy Ops)

The weekend came in with skating the tubes under the ghost lights of the nearby self-storage facility until a cop flashed them with his spotlight and they broke up and headed their separate ways. Mom was out until late, drawn into a party thrown by a coworker. Her work, her life. Zach settled in for late night TV and pizza rolls, amused at the banter that had broken out with Belinda on her AetherFaces page. She was a quick wit but needed time to assess her adversary and overcome shyness. Zach decided she was more tiger than sheep. He slipped off another salvo in the repartee, looking forward to meeting her on Saturday.

By midnight he was back in the cave and back shuffling among the servers that were the islands of his Odyssean wanderings. He was poking through an encrypted list of encrypted passwords and targets on a machine somewhere in the financial district of Jakarta when he noticed an IP address that was familiar. It was the basement rack of servers. It came flooding back to him and he realized that he had somehow blanked out the rummaging about in their workings and their connection to The Signal. He logged in and began touching different aspects of the file system. It was all still here, he thought, plunging down through the strange analytical database engine that was cranking out the mathematical filigrees that defined the colored blobs. How had he been enraptured by a process, he wondered, a process that was as unfeeling as a car door? Yet here was the source, the font, the wellspring of the peace he had felt many times.  There were bits of blogs cataloged in the server architecture, too, and Zach began parsing out the strange and variegated history of rants and lunatic ramblings.

The fate of democracy was to converge to socialism as the electorate votes more and more for more and more government. They can’t help it because they are plebes. The arguments were against popular vote, against the wishes of the people, because they could be wrongheaded. It was Socrates and Plato all over again. Don’t trust the institutions of governance because they are inherently flawed. Business can be trusted because commerce is derived from a different channel, though there were nascent doubts about that, too. Businesses might manipulate the political system for gain. Duh, thought Zach, yet he was intrigued by the abstractly ideological reasoning. It was as if the right wing had ingested Marxism and shit it out in a spat of diarrhea. The logic was self-confirming and self-referential, and there were few disputes within the archives that Zach could find. If you were on the board, you were onboard. If you were a hater, you were never admitted. Zach became cognizant that the dates of the discussions were recent and started looking at log files to correlate access IP addresses. He copied the collected matrix to another server and went back to the discussions themselves.

The universe of man, of economics and politics, was moved by unseen forces. They were the righteous ones who saw the pattern in the noise. It was a pattern of decrepitude that was motivated not by a will to power but by a desire to control. Democracy was a hag dressed up in gowns by ideologues who did not and could not see the ugliness beneath the frock. These few souls, united in purpose, had discovered the true rhythms of the world and wanted to expose them for what they were. Yet they had no solution other than lifting environmental protections to allow some unaccountable form of business freedom, or selling off public lands to any and all. That would change things, improve everything, for them. Any government intrusion was unnatural and even satanic. Zach found it increasingly maddening as he read through the messages. He did searches looking for the relevance to The Signal and found nothing. There was no discussion of hypnotic colors or blurring, weird user interfaces. There were no lost hours as they contemplated the universe. Yet they were collocated with the very source of the signal dynamics.

Zach began looking at the postings with a clinical and analytical mindset. If these people were crazy, their craziness was some combination of detachment from the everyday process of weighing facts against each other. Tenth of April, that year, ZombieRand asserted that the Food and Drug Administration was creating food-borne illnesses because they were over-regulating the food supply. If you drop regulation, the companies will self-regulate. Zach read through the congratulatory and adulatory responses that praised the comment. All regulation inherently backfires. All laws have unintended consequences. Zach couldn’t imagine why it was that government workers were all so stupid while companies were all so intelligent. He wanted his food and drugs certified by someone and the idea that companies could be trusted to do so struck him as naïve. They were naïve, but their naïveté was paradoxically sophisticated—wrapped up in a complex collection of anecdotes, juxtaposed economic forces, and hypothesized motivations for the different parties. The language and its referents were remarkably private and the logic was consistent under the rules of the group.

DontTreadOnMe was apocalyptic with a consistent Jeremiad about the loss of American might that began with FDR and was accelerated with The Great Society. America was chosen by God as a Christian haven that fulfilled a central ideal of the Divine One. Freedom emerged from the free choice of belief that was unknown to any other religion but Christianity for DontTreadOnMe. All other faiths were false and were part of crumbling civilizations that played no part in God’s plan except as a kind of playground for demonic forces. And they were steadily attacking America. Illegal immigrants, polytheists, expansive government, liberals, the ACLU, progressives, taxes. It was all leading towards a fall, a collapse, and only the righteous would survive the impending doom. DontTreadOnMe lamented the destruction of America but also cherished the arrival of the end times. God was approaching like a comet towards the Earth and would test us all. And no one questioned his claims.

Zach was stunned by the collaborative ego boosts. If there was a feature of the hackerverse that was consistent it was the competitive nature of the game. Claims were tested. Bullshit was flushed away. Without proof, without facts, there was no hack. It was as simple as that. And the level of the boast was considered inversely proportional to the probability of truth. The same was true at the skate parks. If you claimed you could ride, you probably couldn’t. The ones who could did. That was the cutting room floor. Yet here was an online universe where intellectual conceptions of history and economics were tossed about with passion and it was the passion alone that seemed to matter. No one cried foul. There were no sarcastic jabs. Everyone was in line for the expansion of fear of some shadowy possibility that never quite arrived.

Zach was fearful now, too. Here were people who were inspired enough to murder and who talked glibly about “Second Amendment remedies” yet who didn’t challenge the foundational principles that they were promoting. It was the antithesis of thought. The only way to check the animalistic and largely male urge to power over others was to cut them down to size. The elemental tango of acid and reflection.

He broke away and settled into sleep late that night, unknown and unconscious until late in the morning when he awoke and spent minutes deciding on a T-shirt for the Belinda encounter later that day. He reconfirmed with her via AetherFaces and then set out to skate down to the coast and back. He arrived late at the coffee shop, its dark sign constructed out of sharp lines drawn by a caffeine addict, but not intentionally. Belinda hadn’t even thought of leaving. It had only been twenty minutes. She had gone a bit more Goth than she normally did in school and Zach wondered if it was all for him, built from the protectorate of hopes and speculations about his bad boy image. It didn’t matter though and he felt comfortable with her as if the lunch at school had never ended that day. The memory of the bird drifted back to Zach as he sipped his espresso and they compared notes on school and parents. She was doted over, pressed and preened, with channeled expectations befitting hopeful immigrants. Her mother was a local realtor and her dad was in city government. Her sister had been pressing her to bring her along to the coffee shop. She really liked English, despite the flaws, and was torn between journalism and international relations for her college plan. Zach had no college plan but fully expected to go. He would hack it, he thought, and worried that she would recoil as he blurted out as much to Belinda. Hack it made her think of changing grades or criminal mischief, but Zach meant only, through the burden of settling on a common language, that college was a game that he could win. It was a construct and he knew the architecture of those places. It was too abstract for Belinda and she kept asking him what he might do to which he tried cool and distance at first. Unknown: each situation requires its own hack. Then, as the caffeine warmed through him into an electric aura, he admitted that hacking was just a state of mind that largely had the same outcomes in school as normal behavior. But the state of mind helped to put it into perspective. With perspective came power, he claimed. She shrugged into her lavender shirt collar and Zach lingered over the gold chain around her neck. Two lentigos in dusky rose hid between her breasts, just below the strands of the Roman chain that had been a gift of her father to her on her thirteenth and upon which he made some important declaration about her future and womanhood. Zach was lost in those specks as she spoke, drawn into them as deeply as the energetic sinks of The Signal. It was a signal as powerful as the electronic masquerading as important. The imperfection and beauty of the flexing pale unknown before him, sipping her coffee and drifting into rhetorical whirlpools that ended in a giggle. It was enough, Zach thought, enough and more for now. There was no conspiratorial regimen pulling levers behind the curtains. There were no fibers pulled through the fabric of the world and infested with progressive bedbugs bent on destroying civilization. The jeremiad was over in Belinda’s few anointed freckles.

She had to leave, though, after a few short hours and a few cups of effervescence. Zach’s eyes were wide awake as he leaned in towards her. She smelled of coffee oils and he did too. She looked panicky but passive, so he turned his face and hugged her, her arms initially limp doll at her side and then moving up and grasping him and holding him for a moment longer than just friendly. He released then, and she backed away, heading towards the boulevard and pick-up by her mom, waving nervously back to him as her bangles slipped into lower and lower orbits around her wrist. Zach was alone and the afternoon was turning moist and cold behind the sea, so he planted his board and pushed up and over the rises. His mind was on Belinda and processing the day. The streets slipped past without notice.

The new week brought with it the requirement for a visit to a psychologist. Zach had passively agreed to avoid any requirement for explaining the SCIDE kidnapping and encounter, crows, or the fragile nature of the universe. He had to follow through, too, to reclaim the autonomy that was essential to his character, so he planned on a pleasant conversation with a clinical mastermind in the misty afternoon on Monday. The doctor’s office was like other doctor’s offices but with a few odd additions like the small cube white noise generator that was beside the stacks of Forbes, Sports Illustrated, and Sunset magazine in the waiting room. It was to interfere with hearing the confidential discussions pulsing behind the walls. Zach found that odd because he didn’t plan on revealing anything secretive in any foreseeable discussions with Emily Hue, Ph.D., but knew that he would have to at least appear sufficiently vulnerable and self-aware that she would conclude that he was stable and normal. He considered constructing an alternate self filled with impossible fantasy elements but then realized that some of his antics and encounters recently qualified enough as fantasy that he could likely just confess openly to facts and would not be believed. That was the essence of delusion and psychosis, he thought. When reality deviates from the bland happiness that is as un-noteworthy as Tolstoy’s Karenina it becomes interesting and fantastical. Zach leaned into the white noise and tried to fashion pareidolic voices from the empty rhythms that he heard in the sound rush. There was laughter in there, just briefly, then whispers. There were lots of whispers, not resolving but creeping at the edge of attention. Zach had only seen television noise in movies but had heard it on AM radio late at night, punched through by the whistles of cosmic rays spiraling in and shedding their energies. The noise spoke of biases and fears by surfacing the contents of his consciousness, he thought, and was suddenly impressed with the possibility that Dr. Hue was cannier than someone who listened to teenager’s problems could ever be simply through the unconscious unintended consequences of buying a noise generator.

It was Zach’s turn soon enough as a dark girl of thirteen or so, dressed in simple jeans and checkered shirt, was escorted out. There was Dr. Hue, mid-forties, mostly trim but with a looseness to her flesh that suggested limited physical activity walking beside her and recommending a follow-up appointment schedule for a month out. She finally turned towards Zach as he leaned into the white noise generator, trying to see how close he needed to be to mask out the nearby conversations. She crossed the room with quick, sterile perfection, extending her hand outward with a correspondingly gentle smile that was disarming and noncommittal at the same time. He pulled his head out of the mystery stream to hear the tail end of her introduction and shook her hand with indifference, then followed her to her office.

The room was simple with two chairs facing one another rendered out of black leatherette of some kind. Two smaller chairs perched nearby and there was a large cabinet filled with prescription bottles and sample boxes behind glass and filigreed metal that gave the appearance of security to the Americana piece that looked, on closer inspection, to be veneer-covered. She sat and pulled a clipboard from the table beside her and asked a few introductory questions about sleep schedules and school and diet. Zach admitted he stayed up late some and tried to be frank and open. The questions turned towards the shootings and she said she was seeing lots of kids who were upset by the whole thing and was he upset? Zach had expected this line of questioning and he had prepared a kind of script. He paused a bit and acted conflicted. He realized that he was conflicted and so he was not really acting. Why was he pretending when the script was a fairly accurate narrative of how he had felt about the shooting? In thinking through the narrative, he had consolidated categories, bucketed considerations, and found labels for ideas and emotions. That in itself had been useful and interesting. He had been scared. He had been numb. He had tried to find answers but had found only more questions. He had sought solace in trying to intellectually appreciate the event, but that had perhaps masked the emotional component, and he had still felt anxious and uneasy, though it seemed to be fading over time. Zach poured that out for the woman who wrote a few notes and asked a few tentative follow-up questions, giving an unusually large berth for him to continue his monologue if he so wanted.

He was asked several more times about his sleep schedule and she finally gave him a few sample boxlets of sleeping pills and he was out the door after scheduling a follow-up in two weeks. Try the pills, she urged, and he passed through into the waiting area where another boy, Hispanic and Goth, pierced and tattooed, sullenly looked him over from the perch beside the white noise generator. Zach didn’t bother to call his mom for pick-up right away but tossed the sleeping pills in the trash can of the coffee shop just down the hill from the office park and bought himself a large cup of coffee declared bright and floral by the chalkboard hovering over the baristas. It was hot and jittery on first sips but Zach thought he understood what they meant by floral after a few gulps. He had emerged and was unscathed from the encounter. The world was still what he had always imagined it to be: boring and delicate. Dr. Hue had lapped at the dish of milk he had set out for her without noticing the curtain, and he had held his gaze steady enough for a while before shifting away now and again to punctuate the pattern with a mild and natural trail of discontinuities. For Zach, that was enough right now. The Signal, SCIDE, and the trail of uncertainty that was wrapped around events after the shooting were still in the fog. He needed more time and he doubted that Dr. Hue’s clinical history could help him process them into a cohesive narrative at this point. He needed time.

No Videodrome

I started reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works while on a business trip to the unequivocally nice Orange County or The OC. The trip was less than pleasant for me personally because I apparently tore my rotator cuff earlier in the day while engaged in mildly excessive exercise activities. I say “apparently” because it took me a day or two to figure out what the source of pain really was, living through brief panic waves about what was happening to me while trying to avoid lifting my left arm in a manner that might give away the agony I was experiencing during business meetings.

Note that this is the literary critic, James Wood, not the actor, James Woods; not the guy from Videodrome or any of the dozens of ecclectic roles the actor has been associated with.

James Wood, the critic then, is trying to operationalize the vast, categorical shaping of Roland Barthes or Milan Kundera in their efforts at criticism. Wood is not a pure theorist, but a careful reader who looks intimately at texts, unpacking the intent of the writer while defining the historical perspectives that informed the artistic effort. Looking intimately at Flaubert, Wood sees the flaneur of realism that began modernism and led, in turn, to post-modernism. Characters transform from our acquired fog of beloved personalities into flat extensions of English sensibilities in the Theophrastus of Jane Austen, or lurk behind the Russian tradition of estrangement that assigns extravagant and unlikely terminology to everyday things (Nabakov’s “leggy thing” in Pnin), and everywhere is the transition from description to internal dialog that drops the formality of specifying dialog at all. That is modernism. That is realism.

How does fiction work? By borrowing and overloading time, but imposing conflict on characters like layers of meringue until, as Adam Smith noted so many centuries ago:

As newness is the only merit in a Novel and curiosity the only motive which induces us to read them, the writers are necessitated to make use of this method [i.e., suspense] to keep it up.

By flattening out characters into idiosyncratic totems and caricatures. By imposing cants, lingos, and argots that cast an elaborate penumbra of specialized detail in the texts that requires the reader to presume authenticity sufficient for bourgeois buy-in. By soliloquies and the invention of highbrow cultural choruses that render scenes into a book of cultural semiotics filled with just slightly unpredictable tantrums by the heros and heroines.

It would be impossible to write a novel without human involvement and the artifice introduced by their perpetually intertwined souls. I’ve considered it: the life and times of ten square yards of hillside, riddled with insect and plant life, as detailed as Garcia-Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but destitute of human wants and longings or expectations. It would be impossible by Wood’s fictional calculus because writing is always about people or the writer’s mind observing people.

And there would be no Deborah Harry.

Excerpt from Pornotopia (experimental novel to be published late 2012; NSFW)

That theme ballooned into a greater realization, too, that my initial fantasies about the adult world or, more, the adult world of pornography, were incorrect, were shallow and unconvincing, that there was a carefully ordered balance between the everyday public sphere and the furtive world of desire, and that the porn stars and prostitutes were not carrying the banner of perfect bacchanalian body and mind pleasure, but were stand-ins, simulacra, for a shadow projected by our bodies, that since the end result of sexual desire was families and children and stability and rules and education, a precise and orderly protection of children until we can finally buy those magazines and videos and booze, we needed that balance and that hidden world to remain a shadow, a longing, an urge, channeled and kept fast with fear and guilt and an inchoate sense of calamity or we might descend into animalistic chaos, unable to partner with only one girl or boy or man or woman until the children grow, safe and with that perfect loving parental dyad, and so just as I had become discontented after only a few months with my stack of sexual dynamos, I imagined that there might be some virtue in trying to avoid masturbating, resisting and pushing back what had become a ritual driven by whatever stimuli were present on a given day, Farah Fawcett, Colonel Wilma Deering, Rebecca, Gwen, the shorts of the girl riding the bike, the slightest hint of bra straps through the teacher’s white blouse, every cheerleader at my school, individually and in groups, Princess Leia, then working through to orgasm eidetically in the hardest, dirtiest porn I had seen, that if I could control myself I could also control the urge for novelty as well and derive satisfaction from the resistance and overcoming of these tendencies, like being forced to wait, snackless, with the clots of kids before a dinner party and trying not to whine about it, trying to be more like the adults and governed in my wants and my actions, that by so doing I would be becoming those adults and take more pleasure in simpler acts like holding Rebecca’s hand, unsweating, my erections stabilized somehow, and be present at that moment without the sharp sword of desire and sex hanging over me, coarsening me, at every moment.

I wasn’t sure what I needed to do, what the mechanics of stopping entailed, laying in bed at night, not touching myself, trying not to think about sex and women and girls, trying to think about things I had once thought about, before masturbation and porn, about Christmas gifts and war machines, space vehicles and ancient civilizations, maps and sports, and I found that my erection would subside in ten minutes or so with careful concentration, but that I would also fall asleep, and that in the morning, waking, it would be back, densely meaty, requiring another round of mental obscurants to get it soft enough that I could pee, sitting on the toilet, far back on the rim, leaning forward onto my legs to just slip the tip of my penis under the rim and urinate low enough that it didn’t fountain all over the floor, ricochet off the toilet seat, and dribble into my underwear below, and I tried the same process in class, halting side peers at interbutton gaps as the teacher leaned over to talk to students, the woman smiling knowingly as boys darted glances and too quickly looked away or peered over the tops of their textbooks, and I began to have some sense of control, mastery, of my masturbation device, insofar as I didn’t drift off, but now and again I did, late in the afternoon, late in spring, the humid sponge of Virginia spring settling into the hollows and valleys, and I would wake with a start and my pants and underwear straining, and I would glance about, gauging the relative interest in my crotch from those around me, and they never noticed or cared, but I would lean forward, press sideways, hoping that it would snap down against my thigh, and I preferred jeans, my last bell bottoms recently swapped out for 501s, and the new universe of button fly jeans meant a possible new threat of buttons popping loose, but they never did either, and I would start my mental exercises, and I settled on an image of the Jefferson Memorial as my focus at times like this, with the cherry blossoms along the pond, April or March, the Washington Monument reflecting in the distance, and if I had to stand up to change classes, I would press my books down hard to hold everything in place.

And then, after a two weeks, the dreams began, explicitly sexual while being intricate and surreal, and the first was just a pastiche of cut-up female forms straddling me, different heads and arms, breasts and legs, disgorging tiny rings of dripping ivy leaves from their vaginas, some strange cross-over between a chastity device and a birth control insert, and we were hiding under the covers and I was holding the wet ring of leaves when I heard Franklin’s sister, Susan, and she pulled the covers out from over us and I was lying beside Rebecca, and Susan was saying she was going to have to tell my mother, and I pulled the sheet back from her and threw the ring at her, but she ducked, a shocked surprise in her eyes, and she started to storm away, and I was then alone in the bed but with a huge erection, so I wrapped the sheet gently around it and then pulled on one end to gradually unravel it, evoking warm feelings of masturbation briefly, and that was all I remembered, and then another night, days later, I dreamed of a cheerleader from my school and she was standing close to me and asking me why I was bothering her all the time, and her eyes slanted in anger at me, and she got even closer to me, and I could see the freckles on her cheeks, pink, perfect circles, and I found it odd that freckles should be so perfectly circular, like a Raggedy Ann doll, and I tried to kiss her and she didn’t stop me or respond and I kissed, puckering my lips, opening my mouth, and she didn’t respond at all, but just stood very still, unmoving, and her lips were dry and coarse, and I reached up my hand and rubbed it across her chest and she didn’t respond to that, either, and I was so focused on her body, so close, looking down, that I couldn’t even see her face anymore, it had disappeared somewhere above me, above my head, just leaving the sweater and the torso, and I was then running from class to class, uncertain which room I was supposed to be in, and then I was in the principal’s office and there were teachers standing around the edges of the room, and there was a stack of plastic sheet protectors in the center of his desk with a crystal paperweight centered on it to hold it steady, and the paperweight was just like one on my father’s desk, a rondelle of leaded glass, chiseled at the edges, and I could see through the top of plastic sheets but the image inside was like a holographic face of a porn star, eyes lined with soot black, lashes built into dark, piceous fence lines, lips red and orange, glinting, but her face was moving around, blinking, speaking, but no noise was heard, and I looked down and had my erect penis in my hand and was systematically pulling along its length, my fingers in a loop around my glans at the apex, then my hand flattened and I rubbed the tip with my palm as if I was petting an unfamiliar dog for the first time, and I awoke that morning and went to pee and saw a glint of clear fluid at my meatus, and touched it with my fingertip and it was gelatinous, it was semen, just a drop.