Scary Books

Herewith, a list of books that have scared certain authors who read them.  It strikes me that many of the books that have scared us the most were ones we read as children.  Not so with me.  The books that have scared me the most are ones I encountered as a middle-aged adult:  Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi (favored by author Danzy Senna, and gets a big, big thumbs-up from me; it is frightening, but it is also an utterly heartbreaking and beautiful book); and Dan Simmons’s Carrion Comfort, a novel about the warfare between vampires of the mind (so scary that I had to stop reading it about a third of the way through for a long time before I could go back).

 

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Semi-Good Punctuation

Adam O’Fallon Price writes a short essay on one of my favorite pieces of punctuation:  the semicolon.

Just because it’s one of my favorites doesn’t mean I use it well.  If you were to go back and peruse the hundreds of posts I’ve written on Books Here And There, you’d find that I’ve used it correctly most of the time, but you’d also find I’ve used it incorrectly, too.  Part of me doesn’t care about that–and this is coming from a fellow who cares very much what his sentences look like and sound like.  I “don’t care” because, of all the marks of English punctuation, the semicolon takes the longest to master, even after you’ve internalized the Strunk and White dictum about the semicolon linking together two distinct but related thoughts, as I did in junior high.

Price is correct.  There’s an elegance to the semicolon, as well as a usefulness; a graceful intimacy in allowing the combination of a period and a comma, one on top of the other, to suggest what we would already know even if written language had never been invented, that our thoughts are almost always loosely connected; that, in the mind, the full stop is the exception, rather than the rule.  Herein lies the comedy of the opening lines of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  We never actually hear Sir Walter Eliot talking to himself in the passage, but we don’t have to.  Austen knows what women–and men–have always known:  we never really shut up talking to ourselves in our heads, and that truth is funnier when it’s revealed to us in an indirect, even sideways fashion.  The semicolon was invented to give a least a modest breather to that ceaseless flow, but it can barely keep up, sometimes.  It’s stuck there, a little pebble in the middle of the dashing Colorado River of our words, trying to guide the water of thought in a useful direction, but not always having good luck at the task.  It’s no wonder the pebble has become worn down over time, discolored by the endless rush of so many millions of words.

Nonetheless, I love the semicolon for its ability to slow down our thoughts and shape our sentences, giving them a pacing and a rhythm appropriate to the expression of both ceaseless thought and to complex thought as well.  Of all the writers of English prose, perhaps Edward Gibbon came closest to being the master of the semicolon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  It is sometimes work to get there, but a reader will often come upon a long passage in Gibbon, a sentence or two, but extending for dozens of words, and realize at the end of reading it that the whole thing was controlled and balanced by the fulcrum of a semicolon placed back near the center of the thought.  When a reader finds such a passage in Gibbon–and there are many–it takes your breath away.

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Everything We Do In Life

As I mentioned recently, it is hard to write clearly.  Believe me, if writers could do so, they would.  It’s especially hard when the topic is difficult, or when the words have to be translated from one language into another.

Writer Francine Prose examines what makes writing difficult by looking at how she and others have translated Albert Camus’ The Stranger.  What her essay demonstrates is something I’ve said several times on this blog, a statement that bears repeating as often as we can allow ourselves to hear it:

Everything we do in life, from writing a book to cooking a meal to loving someone, is an approximation of what we mean, and can only be that.  This does not mean we should not strive for perfection or that we cannot achieve it in a way that we can recognize.  It means that no work, no human endeavor, will reach the standard of flawless excellence we set for it.  The realization that perfection cannot, in large measure, be achieved should not discourage us.  On the contrary, it should (and most often does) relax us.  A writer’s best work is often achieved when she’s not trying, when her unconscious is looking the other way, and when she’s simply following the lead offered by the happy state of concentration she’s in.

After any of us emerge from such a state, then our internal editor can switch on and we can revise and prune, shaping our prose into what we really intend to say.  Will the result be perfect?  In small ways, probably.  Will there be passages we could have written better?  Will there be ideas that just weren’t expressed the way we wanted?  Undoubtedly.  But that’s all right.  The approximation will suffice.  We have each other–readers, thinkers, lovers–to fill in the gaps.  Nothing of enduring value ever gets lost in translation.  That’s why we keep making the gestures.  That’s why we keep writing.

Have a happy Fourth of July.

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Harlan Ellison

The wonderfully cantankerous, always thoughtful and surprisingly compassionate sci-fi writing legend Harlan Ellison has died at the age of eighty-four.

Let me tell you my favorite story about Ellison.  Many already know it, and many will tell it tonight as they drink to him and sing through their tears.  Ellison’s greatest fame was achieved early.  He was a kind of boy wonder, writing scripts like “Demon With A Glass Hand” for a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits, and “The City on the Edge of Forever” for a 1967, late first season episode of Star Trek.  Both are, arguably, the finest two episodes of television science fiction ever written, and they fired my imagination as no two other pieces of science fiction have ever done.  You could watch them now, today, in 2018, and they would still be better than any other television show you could see tonight.  Who in the world cares that the Kyben wore shower caps on their heads as Trent, played by Robert Culp, chased those invaders from the future all over that deserted LA office building on The Outer Limits?  The episode was a triumph of imagination over budget limitations, and the tale stretched us as far into the future as we could go.  Ellison fought for (and won) his battle to have actress Arlene Martel play cleaning lady Consuelo Biros as a Chicana in the episode.  She falls in love with Trent, saves his life, and helps him defeat the Kyben, but at a price.  Ellison was not quite so lucky with Star Trek.

The shouting matches that Ellison and Gene Roddenberry had during the writing of “The City on the Edge of Forever” were legendary but, for the longest time, nobody outside the immediate Star Trek circle knew what the fuss was about.  Stephen E. Whitfield’s The Making of Star Trek wouldn’t tell us, because Roddenberry was holding Whitfield’s book a financial hostage for half the profits.  In the script as televised, Capt. Kirk falls in love with Edith Keeler but, as required, he prevents Dr. McCoy from saving Keeler from dying in a traffic accident, as she is meant to, so that Kirk, Mr. Spock, and McCoy can be returned to their own time.  It’s an extremely well played moment, but it is not what Ellison originally wrote.  In his mind, Kirk was so deeply in love that when the moment came, he couldn’t do it; he could not stop McCoy.  Spock had to prevent McCoy from saving her–a testament to the awful hold that love can have on each of us.

Roddenberry was furious, and I cannot say that I blame him.  Despite Leonard Nimoy’s superb work in the series, and his popularity, Roddenberry always believed in Kirk as the soul of the show, and he wanted nothing to detract from Kirk’s weekly impact.  There is merit to this view.  Part of Nimoy’s excellence is attributable to the fine way William Shatner and he interacted with each other despite their egos.  The two of them had great chemistry together.

Ellison later achieved vindication of sorts.  His original version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” was awarded a Best Science Fiction Screenplay at a major sci-fi convention, and those who have read it do indeed swear that it is an even more compelling tale than what the series showed.

What set Ellison apart from his peers was an uncanny ability to blend action–believable futuristic action–with a deep sense of humanity’s perennial problems and the solution to all of those problems: love.  He was not sentimental, and yet, he was among the most sentimental, life affirming writers ever to grace the pages of a book.  Lord, I shall miss him, but he will be alive in my memory for as long as I am alive.

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Steinbeck Under Stained Glass

Because I am a slave to the Internet’s algorithms, I spent some time Saturday afternoon hopping here and there on YouTube, where I ran across part of a long interview Adam West gave some years ago to the Archive of American Television in which he discussed working with many of the actors who played the villains on the Batman TV series.  During the interview, he mentioned Burgess Meredith’s long and notable career, including playing the role of George in Of Mice and Men in a Hollywood movie from 1939 and on Broadway.  I thought to myself, “Of course, he did,” and kicked myself because I had missed a chance to see the movie on TCM some months back.  If the channel runs it again someday–as surely they will–I won’t need a second invitation.

My first experience with Steinbeck’s great short novel came during during my high school years, at church on a Wednesday night.  Normally, I sat in the center section, two or three rows from the front.  Not so this night.  I sat near the back, on the right, crouching as I read, because I couldn’t put the book down.  I also remember crying at the end.

Some years later, the subject of Steinbeck came up among my colleagues.  I mentioned a fact we all knew, that the book had been banned from libraries several times, but I confessed that I couldn’t figure out why.

Julie Amberg spoke up from the corner.  “Because George shoots Lennie.  It’s a mercy killing.”

I was like, “Oh.”  It had never occurred to me–then or now–that there could have been anything evil or immoral in what George had done. He did it to save Lennie from an even worse fate:  a beating, a lynching, and finally, a death at the hands of savage men, for reasons the big man could have never understood.

Steinbeck contrived Of Mice and Men very carefully.  It is essential that Lennie be the simpleton, the innocent.  The story wouldn’t have worked any other way.  Readers would not have believed in a didactic tale in which Lennie is put on trial for murder, as Bigger Thomas is in Native Son (1940); nor would they have believed in the moral dilemma George solves had Lennie been one whit smarter, more aware, more conscious of right and wrong.

Yet, there’s a subtext to the novel through which all of the fully conscious, fully aware characters must work.  The problem of powerlessness with which Steinbeck is so deeply concerned applies not only to Lennie but to George, too, and to his fellow workers.  They work each day toward achieving their own dreams, laboring, it seems, without hope and without choice, but part of the shock of the end of the novel is in George’s realization that he does have a choice, terrible and bitter as it is.

It is doubtful to me that I could ever hear a sermon about right and wrong as morally complex as the one Steinbeck set down, nor am I ever likely to hear a minister offer a solution to a life-and-death situation that is as courageous and compassionate as the one Steinbeck offers us.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the book of Matthew tells us, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Such people understand that poverty has little to do with a lack of material possessions, or the lack of a moral sense.  They understand that genuine poverty has most often to do with a lack of choices, yet they also know they must make do every day with the choices they have.  In straightened circumstances, the choices we make are always terrible, always costly, but the difference between one choice and another often comes down to who we think we are at the core of our personalities, and the value we place on human dignity–our own, or other people’s.

 

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This Is New York

I borrow my title from E.B. White’s famous essay.  Here is a worthy successor to that piece, by turns angry and elegiac, that will tell you everything you need to know about that once-superb city, whose decline is being mirrored in the slow decay of other metropolises across the country.  The author is Kevin Baker, writing in this month’s Harper’s.

Baker connects New York’s decline to a much deeper and much more troubling phenomenon:  the utter disappearance of the socially-conscious billionaire.  Recently, actor James Woods on Twitter likened Democrats in California to locusts–creatures who would denude the landscape of everything useful and vital to a community before moving on to other territories like Oregon, Washington, and even Texas.  It’s a biased view, but one with some truth in it, and it works the other way, too.  Baker excoriates the influx of native-born and foreign-born billionaires who have moved in to every open space in New York and have begun construction of immense luxury high rises in which no one will live.  Those high rises have destroyed livable neighborhoods, displaced thousands of apartment dwellers, and will return nothing of social or economic value to the city no matter how long they stand.

The same practice of building empty high rises is spreading to cities in China and to Dubai.  Billionaires and millionaires have always done whatever they wanted with their money, but previous generations were always restrained by law and local ordinances, and those wealthy people also had at least some awareness of the consequences of their building on a city’s development.  Less so today.  The number of wealthy people who have sensitivity about the future development of the nation’s cities is in serious decline, and it will take two generations for more thoughtful ideas and values to take hold in the wealthy of the future.  In the meantime, cities like Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans, and New York will continue to fall into decay despite federal help and the efforts of private citizens who love where they live because there are not enough people, liberal or conservative, who will put the public good of the future above the private dreams of the present.

[June 27, 2018:  Like many people, I am aware of a renaissance of sorts in Detroit over the last decade or so. The latest step in that rebirth occurred last week when the Ford Motor Company agreed to buy the city’s old, rundown train station and turn it into a “mobility lab” for the development of autonomous vehicles and more modern transit systems.  There’s a long way to go in a city beset by so many problems, but this is an encouraging piece of news.]

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The Jack-Of-All-Trades

Douglas E. Cowan reminds us just how varied the work of Stephen King has been.  Critics have never been able to make a dollar off King’s work because the master never wrote an obscure line in his life.  The same was true of Britain’s Somerset Maugham, who was similarly prolific, but produced only one solid novel (Of Human Bondage), yet spun out dozens upon dozens of novellas (like Cakes and Ale) and short stories, most of them wildly profitable.

Here’s the paradox, though:  it is fiendishly difficult to be clear.  If King never wrote an obscure line, it was because he never let us see the obscure lines he edited out of his prose.  Sometimes, ambiguity is a wonderful thing.  It allows us to show that the truth–always slippery and at times fluid–really does flow in two directions at once.  We’re made that way, and so is the universe.

Yet, professional and academic critics have made the mistake of prizing ambiguity above all, almost as much as they prize social commentary.  While I am firmly in the camp of those who think readers should do some work as they read, I also believe, with King and Maugham, that most fiction–even literary fiction–need not be an “epic summation of our times.”  Most fiction is as King and Maugham believe it to be: merely an entertainment, an artistic creation that helps us while away the time and give us pleasure.  And our aim as writers should be, in the end, to be clear.

For some critics, especially those with a political bent, that reality simply isn’t good enough.  The novel has to be about our times, or about our present perceptions of the past.  It has to change us, just as surely as characters change in a story.  One response to this position, however, is to say that if the writer is being clear, as crystaline as Maugham often was or King is, he or she will inevitably say some things worth saying, and reveal to us truths about how people really think and behave.

Another response is to say that King, at least, may have done exactly what the critics have wanted him to do, just not in the way they wanted him to do it.  He’s been there through all the social changes the critics want to see marked, but instead of addressing those changes directly, King has mapped out the subterranean American psyche as it responds and adapts to those changes, from childhood (It) through high school (Carrie, Christine) into adulthood (The Shawshank RedemptionThe Green Mile) and old age (Thinner).  He’s felt and and recorded every jolt we all have endured over the last forty years, like a human seismograph, with accuracy and sensitivity.  Unlike his contemporaries, however, he’s never left any doubt in his readers’ minds about what they see and feel in his fiction:  the tremors we all feel in daily human life; the fault lines that exist in all of us; the fear we all have that those faults will one day crack; and the courage it takes all of us to walk the path anyway, even when we know the ground beneath our feet, and inside us, is so dreadfully  uneven and treacherous.

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