Motivation for Muck

I’ve been thinking lately about something that Karen enjoys pointing out to me about writing. She’s very passionate about quoting (loosely) Jeffery Overstreet in saying that there are two reasons to jump into the muck in the story that you’re writing. One is to roll around in it and get dirty. The other is to clean it up. You have to decide which is your reason as you’re writing your story.

I was forced to re-visit this idea in a discussion after I wasted two hours of my life suffering through the cinematic chaos-fighting-chaos tragedy that was this year’s movie, The Green Hornet, in which a classic radio superhero is reduced to stereotypical American idiocy who gets his kicks from driving around and blowing everything up for narcissistic purposes (even in the end, whatever good he does is to better himself). While I could talk about the obvious snapshot of our culture that can be seen in this conglomeration of images that someone mistakenly called a film, I won’t give it the time it doesn’t deserve, because the commentary is unintentional.

In short, there was nothing redemptive about the movie. The entire two hours was one long jump into the muck in which everyone rolled around and got dirty. Destruction for destruction’s sake, disregard for good or evil in search of only the self,  indiscriminate violence, 3rd grade humor. The darkness is glorified in this film, not portrayed for a reason.

I mention this movie not to review it, but to point out the opposite of what I hope to accomplish when I write…to sort of define by counter-example. Karen frequently points out that my writing is dark, and that she has a difficult time reading my fiction for partly that reason. She has difficulty finding a redemptive element, which is bothersome to me because that’s exactly what I want to make central in the writing. The darkness is there to show how amazing the light is when it takes over. We jump into the muck in order to show how much better it is to be clean than dirty, so to speak. That’s my goal in my fiction.

I also firmly believe Madeleine L’Engle when she said that the characters will tell the writer where they need to go, and that the writer’s job is to record the adventure. The protagonist in my current work-in-progress (the one for which I’m pushing so hard to make a self-imposed deadline of finishing Part I by mid-week) has experienced horrific trauma in her childhood. When I began imagining the story, and when this character appeared in my mind’s eye, it wasn’t like I had much choice to exercise in the matter. She is who she is at the time the novel takes place because of what happened to her in the past. Assuming that I can accurately record her journey, then there will be redemption of her situation as she explores relationships with others and her own sense of identity. Sometimes, though, its so difficult to write her flashbacks…because of the nature of the trauma…that I’m left struggling with exactly the problem I talked about above: I have to be so careful to not just get dirty when I jump into the muck, and so intentional to clean it out.

Because simply adding to the chaos, contributing to the noise, does no one any good, not even if all you’re aiming for is entertainment. As is so often the case, this choice is reflected in “real” life, as well. I’m in a professional situation currently that is really frustrating. In my mind, its too messy. My instinct is to withdraw from it, to pass it off as someone else’s problem, to compartmentalize my brain around it. I think, though, that if I were to choose to do that, that I would be rolling in the muck and just getting dirty. I’m not redeeming anything if that’s the choice I make. I’m not making anything better.

And, with a daughter preparing to join us any day now, I don’t want to leave any more of the world mired in muck than I absolutely have to. The more I try to take a hand in redeeming, the better a world she will inherit.

Photo Attribution: Sean MacEntee

The Walls Start Shakin’, Earth Was Quakin’

Something I’ve learned about Virginia since I moved here a few years ago is that everyone over-reacts to everything involving weather. I’ve joked a lot about  how a bit of winter weather causes life to grind to a halt here. Thursday, as a thunderstorm that was a bit heavier than usual rolled through the area as a likely result of the most recent hurricane, people were jumping and moving about quite nervously. Several emergency vehicles flew through a nearby intersection. Anything other than sunshine brings about its share of chaos here.

The reason I’m able to distance myself from these reactions is that I’ve lived through a lot of severe thunderstorms in my life, and I grew up seeing winter weather the likes of which Virginia may never have experienced. Nothing that happens here concerns me, nothing causes me to be overly worried or concerned. My experience tells me it will be okay.

Tuesday of this week, while returning some comments on some recent posts here, I noticed a sound above me, as though someone were running around upstairs in the building that I was in. I thought it odd, but didn’t give it a lot more consideration. Except that it didn’t go away. It became louder. A colleague looked up from her phone call across the room to ask me what I thought the sound was. At that point, the room began to shake.

I’ve  always done better at keeping very calm in real crisis situations than I do with minor things. For example, if someone gets injured and needs help, I’m very calm and composed, but if I drop my sunglasses, I start to hyperventilate. Tuesday was a calm and composed sort of crisis. I remember sitting still, looking around, and thinking, “was that an earthquake? Do we even get earthquakes in Virginia?”

When the building that I had been in was evacuated, I received a text from Karen, who was currently about 30 minutes away from where I was, asking, “Did you feel that?” That was the first that I became convinced that I had experienced an earthquake.

Now, West coast friends will tell me I’m a wimp, and that I need to deal. I suppose that, in the same way that winter weather doesn’t concern me because of my experience, earthquakes are too regular for them. When I was in grad school, an old girlfriend was doing an internship in Florida for the summer. I remember seeing that a hurricane was moving through her area, and calling her to see if she was okay. She laughed at me, and that anything under a Category 3 didn’t cause anyone to worry there. I thought of this when I read a tweet on Tuesday to the effect of, “Anything under a 6.0 doesn’t even get us out of bed” from someone on the West coast.

Prior to Tuesday, though, I had never experienced an earthquake. While I am glad to say I’ve had the experience in a way, and while I’m very aware that this was very minor as earthquakes go, the feeling of powerlessness I experienced for about 30 seconds that afternoon was something that I didn’t enjoy at all. I don’t exactly have a bucket list of natural disasters to experience, and I’m glad that this was the relatively minor event that it was.

Still, when a friend posted to the lyrics to the AC/DC song that I used to title this post on his Facebook feed, I couldn’t help  but smile. I lived through my first earthquake this week. If its all the same, I’d just as soon avoid a second.

Photo Attribution: dbking 

A Philosophy of Road-Rage

I have a confession to make.

Not that I’m trying to place you, my reader, in the role of priest in a virtual confessional, mind you. I just think that its important to point out that I’m dealing with the issue about which I’m about to express concern.

It went down like this: I had to run an unexpected errand to pick up some carpentry supplies on Monday night. I was driving my wife’s car. I was irritated because I had had one of those days. Virginia is not the place to drive if you’re having a bad day, because everyone who is native to Virginia seems to experience difficulty with this concept of driving. This was proven by the gentleman in front of me who, while on a major artery of traffic, felt it appropriate to come to what was nearly a complete stop at a green light in order to let the car in the right turn lane make the turn, because apparently it hadn’t occurred to him to get into that same lane in order to make the turn. As I abruptly found myself in a position to test the reliability of my wife’s brakes, I pounded in vain to locate the horn in the dim light of dusk. When that failed, and the gentleman in the car gave me an accusing look, I did it. I lost control.

I gave him finger.

In retrospect, I have no idea what that guy’s night had been like, or even if he was, in fact, a Virginia driver. Perhaps he was following the vehicle in the turn lane, unfamiliar with the city and trying to not get separated. Who knows what might have caused him to drive that way? Yet, I found myself without mercy in that moment. It took only minutes after for me to be able to find that mercy, to want to retract the rude hand gesture. No matter how bad of a day I had had, he could easily have had worse.

The concern that I’m expressing here is that of a loss of civility.

Friday night, I was out with some friends for dinner and drinks, and ended up having a great conversation with a new acquaintance about film and theatre and literature and society. Specifically, the girl we had just met was pining over the fact that she hadn’t grown up in the thirties, because things were so much different then, and different for the better. I agreed. We talked about how everyone dressed with class, about how women were sexual without being (her word) “trashy,” about how the music was better, about how we were just more civil as a society.

Now, in my personal opinion, I don’t think the U.S. has ever done too terribly well at this whole civility thing. I guess we chose to let that go in favor of functionality when we rebelled against the crown. In any case, and whatever the cause of this downward cultural spiral (which could be the topic of a good dissertation, but certainly can’t fit within a blog post), we’re not as civil now as we were then. We’re more prone to violence, to a sense of entitlement to retribution. We’re more inclined to scream at each other and refuse to consider any perspective other than our own (as witnessed in recent political deadlocks). We’re less tolerant, and more judgmental. We’ve shed stains of certain forms of racism, only to begin to fall into others. We hunger for warfare.

What we don’t do well is talk softly. Or listen. Or empathize. Or, for that matter, consider anyone before ourselves. We ignore the communities around us in order to defend our individualism, and to “stay out of it” if we think something is wrong that we don’t want to make our problem. That’s how people end up lying deceased in their homes for days before the neighbors bother to investigate. That’s why our politicians have forgotten that they were elected to practice the art of compromise. That’s why we call each other hurtful and bigoted names instead of seeking first to understand. That’s why we watch reality television programs to judge others who end up taking their own lives.

That’s why we give the finger to the car in front of us who made a simple driving mistake, one that we’ve likely all made at some point or another.

I need to remember that my actions have repercussions, not only for myself, but for others. There are concentric circles moving out from us, and they cause the ripples of our actions to move others through this pond of life in which we co-exist. If I focused on smiling and picking up someone else’s bill, for example, instead of visually expressing my displeasure at the driver in front of me, those ripples can cause good, instead of ill. And, if I am to take my faith seriously, then I should be motivated to do exactly that.

The term “civility” has a Latin etymology. I’ve never taken Latin, but I understand it to mean (loosely) “what is proper to a citizen.” I wish that those of us who live in the U.S. would re-discover the concept of behaving “properly.” We seem to be under the misconception that this would involve living prudishly, or forsaking freedoms. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think it simply means considering others before ourselves, or at least at the same level that we consider ourselves.

We’re all human beings. We all have bad days and good opinions. We should all begin there in our interactions, use that as a staring point. I’m hoping I can model that for my daughter when she joins us soon.

I hope.

Photo Attribution: whereisat

A Review of “A Visit from the Goon Squad”

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was hesitant to write a review of the novel that won the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year, partly because I don’t have the space for the analysis that I’d love to see this book receive here (not that I would be capable of that even if I did), but mostly because I’m just not sure I have the chops for it. My interest in A Visit from the Goon Squad was piqued by the title, and solidified by its winning the Pulitzer. Now that I’ve finished it, though, there is simply too much to say about this novel, which is nothing short of phenomenal and left me nothing short of breathless with the completely satiated feeling that comes when you recognize that you’ve just read something better than the last two years’ worth of books all put together. So, while others will and have doubtlessly reviewed this better than I will, this one, at the end of the day, is just too good to keep.

“Time’s a goon,” or at least that’s what more than one character says through the course of this book, and this, apparently, is the important thing that Egan is attempting to say in her novel. To narrow this down as the only theme would be a mistake, however, but it appears to at least be the characters’ most obvious and existential struggle. We begin with Sasha, a kleptomaniac who works for a record producer named Bennie in New York City. Sasha remains the closest thing to a single protagonist that we’ll get in the novel, as the novel is actually a collection of short stories through which Egan deftly and creatively switches protagonists as easily as she does time periods. The incidental character in the chapter you’re reading will become the protagonist in the next chapter, and some mental gymnastics are occasionally required to keep up with who has said what to whom and when several chapters previously. The stories jump backward and forward in time, gently revealing how each of the characters impact each other throughout their lives in a manner that calls to mind Salinger’s Nine Stories, and with wildly improbable events occurring (like someone being mauled by a lion during an African safari, or the futuristic addiction to handsets that appears in the end of the novel) that actually don’t feel quite so improbable at the time. What remains constant, though, is that time and age are profoundly impacting the characters’ lives, and they all struggle to survive and thrive in one way or another, some to more success than others. Some even manage to do so redemptively. Sasha and Bennie remain the constants, and, while not appearing in every story, are the obvious connections between the characters. This is especially true of Sasha, who leaves her mark on both the other characters and the reader as a girl you just can’t help but love, despite her shortcomings, as she searches for herself and somehow manages to bring out something good in those around her.

Early in the book, I started to realize that things were beginning to sound familiar, and found myself thinking that I had read this before. I then remembered that I had, as short fiction in The New Yorker a little over a year ago. I remembered the story  because, standing alone, it made no sense to me other than being a well-crafted portrait of teenage angst. That, however, is part of the beauty of Egan’s craft. Each chapter can stand alone as a self-contained story. The genius, though, is how each one interweaves with all of the others in ways that you never quite expect but that you can’t help but love. Again, this is what leaves me reminiscent of Salinger, and may be part of why I loved this book so much.

Perhaps a deeper theme that lies not so subtly beneath the surface of Egan’s writing is that of a culture of public relations, which becomes very apparent about halfway through the novel when we are introduced to one of our characters who does public relations for a living. Manufacturing an image is something that all of these characters do to simply survive, growing their personal brands now and struggling to resurrect them when they die, as if doing so is to resurrect themselves. This exploration of image management ends in its logical conclusion in a futuristic New York City as Egan abruptly launches her final chapter into the realm of speculative fiction while losing none of her unique, literary zest.

And did I mention the music? The music that rings through this novel is a self-contained tour of rock history that will just bring smiles to your face as you recall these amazing songs. One reviewer wrote that he regretted that the book didn’t come with a soundtrack. I have to echo that sentiment, but also point out how the rhythms of music, right down to the pauses (which will play a major role as Egan explores the mind of an Autistic child…yes, she does that too) seem to move the plot along with the rise and fall in tempo that’s the mark of any good album. There’s music to Egan’s prose.  The plot centers around the music industry and its peripheral components, following characters that become involved with music as children and follow it through their lives as the goon that is time fights them, some to more success than others. One of the most poignant moments for me was the character who, becoming a custodian in his later life but still playing his guitar and writing music, recognizes that there is no difference between the record producer in the shiny office building and the school custodian, that both are people, and both are equal.

There really isn’t much that Egan doesn’t tackle here. To list the themes and ideas with which she experiments would leave the reader shaking her head at first blush, thinking that it is too much, that no author can explore that many things in one novel, at least not well. Never once, though, did I feel that while reading. Somehow, Egan does it all well, in exactly the right amounts, as though mixing just the right sound for her album. And, even though each chapter left me pausing to digest what I had just read, the book also moves easily, because you’ll find that you really can’t put it down once you’ve started until you’ve reached its end, back where it started, glimpsing the characters with whom we started as they are in the future, somehow still managing to survive and re-invent themselves in the face of that goon. In fact, they’ve even managed to make a difference, to change the world around them for the better despite their previous mistakes. That redemption is what left this one in the realm of the amazing for me.

A Visit from the Good Squad is one of those works that dispels the myth that real literature isn’t written any more. No matter your taste, you need to read this book, because you will be better for having done so.

View all my reviews

You can purchase A Visit from the Goon Squad here.

Needless Acceleration

Something happened on Sunday afternoon that was just…traumatic. I was forced to go somewhere that I hate. That I loathe. A place that sucks the life force right from my poor, defenseless body. An evil of homogeneous, thoughtless consumerism that overwhelms the All Spark I have fought so valiantly to defend.

I had to go to the local shopping mall.

It went down like this: Karen is a devoted follower of the social tradition of sending cards for birthdays and anniversaries. August is a big month for all of the above in our family, and thus the monthly card-shopping expedition (I think we would make up a noticeable portion of Hallmark’s yearly profit if you put us on a graph) was overdue. The only Hallmark store open, as the twisted fates who mock me would have it, was in the local shopping mall. And it was there Karen directed that we would go.

Into the valley of death rode…well, the two of us, at least.

Okay, so perhaps that’s a trifle melodramatic, but I really am left with bad taste in my mouth after a few minutes in a shopping mall. I suppose I do my best to refrain from paying attention to consumer trends in most areas, so I’m always a bit surprised when I see how shamelessly advertising and marketing trends take advantage of the unsuspecting, preying on natural human tendencies in order to bait you into buying their product, convincing you that you need it when, a vast majority of the time, you don’t. Any shopping mall or department store is proof that what is legal is frequently unethical.

But, I digress.

When I was young, my mother used to lament that Valentine’s day candy was available in January. That Easter candy was on the shelves soon thereafter. I agreed, and I understood her point…that we hadn’t had time to enjoy the holiday that had just passed…but it wasn’t exactly a pet peeve that I shared with her. Lately, I’ve shared a bit of concern over rushing into the Holidays, but even that was a bit of an isolated event.

Sunday afternoon, however, I walked by the windows of a store that was displaying Halloween decorations. I couldn’t help but ponder that we’re still in August, the time of year that most of us are on vacation, enjoying beaches and pools, or settling back into the routine of the upcoming school semester. We’re far, far away from October, ladies and gents…almost as far, far away as that other galaxy was.

Now, at first blush, there isn’t anything really problematic about this, only annoying. So, if it isn’t a pet peeve for you, you go on with life, desensitized by years of observing it become earlier and earlier (I wonder if we’ll see Halloween merchandise for sale after Independence Day, next year?). This is one of those times, though, when I think there is a negative impact from this. We’re a fast-paced culture. We’re getting faster everyday. In order to maximize sales, and move efficiently from one period of sales profit to the next, corporations market early. The problem is that this pushes us to think about what is coming, and robs us of the necessary reflection on where we are. We can’t pause to think, to appreciate, to fully inhabit this moment.

There’s room for a chicken-or-the-egg debate, here: is our culture rushing from one thing to another because of corporate marketing and cheap mind-tricks (marketing Jedi from that other galaxy, perhaps?), or are we marketing this way because our culture is rushing?

I think we’re left shallow if we’re only focused on what is coming. The problem is that there’s precious little about the future that we can influence at all, and time spent attempting to perfect our uncertain future is time that we aren’t slowing down to be with loved ones, to enjoy a good book, to appreciate what we have instead of thinking about what we hope we will have at some point. I’m especially troubled by the fact that we teach history extremely poorly in America, as well. If we deny ourselves of our past as well as our present, we’ll be hollow shapes rushing forward into things we don’t even yet understand far too quickly…things that we’ll be unable to understand because we won’t have paused long enough to gain a referent. Without the necessary knowledge and experience to prepare us, we’re bound to make a complete mess of what we rush into.

I don’t want to think about Halloween, yet. I don’t even want to think about Autumn. I’m still enjoying the Summer, and I’m content with that. Without today, then tomorrow loses its meaning. There’s a lot to be said for the journey as well as the destination.

Photo Attribution: Sougent Harrop