The Creature from Cleveland Depths

“Who’s kidding?”
“You are. Computers simply aren’t alive.”
“What’s alive? A word. I think computers are conscious, at least while they’re operating. They’ve got that inner glow of awareness. They sort of … well … meditate.”
“Gussy, computers haven’t got any circuits for meditating. They’re not programmed for mystical lucubrations. They’ve just got circuits for solving the problems they’re on.”
“Okay, you admit they’ve got problem-solving circuits—like a man has. I say if they’ve got the equipment for being conscious, they’re conscious. What has wings, flies.”
—–Fritz Leiber, The Creature from Cleveland Depths

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

For me, one of the pleasures of being my age is recalling literature, especially short stories, that I read long ago, when I was only a sprout. For the life of me, I can’t remember my bank PIN or my work password on Monday mornings, but short stories I read, only once, more than a half-century ago are epoxy-stuck in my rapidly petrifying cabeza neurons. The plots are there, sometimes a little hazy or changed, as are the characters – but the authors and titles have long dissolved into the mist. That makes it a challenge to find the darn things when the fancy strikes me to revisit the fiction of my youth.

The internet, of course, is a vast and mind-boggling resource for idiotic flights of nostalgia. It is a never-ending maze of rabbit holes and time sinks – even if you can sometimes find what you are looking for.

But you already know all that.

I have written before about a story I read once about giant killer snails. In the years since I wrote that blog entry, a number of folks have emailed me that they had read the same story back in the day, and had been searching for it. I wrote a sequel and am thinking about a sequel to my sequel.

But there was one story that I remembered clearly (though, again, not the author or the title) from long, long ago. It kept coming back to my mind because it had been so prescient. The story, written long, long, before its time, concerned the invention of the Personal Digital Assistant and the smart phone… and, I guess, SIRI. There was this inventor that was having trouble remembering his appointments. So he developed a device, attached to his shoulder that contained a magnetic wire on reels (I remembered the magnetic wire in particular) and as the wire unwound, it would give the wearer a reminder at the appropriate time through a voice in an earpiece.

Things spun out of control rather quickly, however. The company that designed these devices made them more and more sophisticated, adding bigger and better features, and then connecting them together in a sort of internet. But as they became more refined and ingrained into everybody’s daily life the machines became self-aware and began to take over the world. The human race were reduced to slaves to their own machines.

Obviously, this story, as I remembered it, has more than a little applicability to our lives today. I thought about the tale the other evening as I tried to maneuver my bicycle through the park next to my house (I have to go through the park to reach the trails that lead to the West – to my work and to the DART train lines). It was a Saturday evening and all the parking lots associated with the park and the associated elementary school were full – cars were filing up along our street and the other neighborhood feeder roads.

The trails themselves were packed with throngs of people wandering in seemingly random routes. They were all oblivious to the world around them, walking zombie-like, staring into their phones. I had to dismount and walk my bike through the park. It was simply too dangerous to ride as the human automatons would cross the path at unpredictable intervals and stride into my path without warning. I don’t understand how they managed to avoid hitting each other.

They were, of course all playing Pokemon Go. There must be some valuable virtual critters in the park next to my house, because at peak times there might be a thousand folks there (though it is already dying down, of course). I don’t want to sound critical – I love that these people are getting out and using the park. But I do wish they would look where they are going… at least a little.

And the sight of all these people lost in their virtual world couldn’t help but remind me of this ancient story… where the same thing happened, more or less, and then went horribly wrong.

So back to the internet, where I ran search after search (PDA, computer, shoulder, wire recorder, short story, science fiction, on and on) to no avail. I could not find any reference to the story.

Then, when I wasn’t thinking about it, a word popped into my head. The word was, “Tickler.” That was what they called the machines, the reminder units with the wire recorder, “ticklers.” It is amazing that that word was still hiding back there in the cobwebs of my head, and that it finaly came back out.

Adding “tickler” to my searches brought immediate success. The story was written by Fritz Leiber in 1962, and was called “The Creature from Cleveland Depths.” Not only did I find out the author and title, but I found that they had let the copyright expire, and the story (actually more of a novela) was available, free of charge, on Gutenberg.org.

So I downloaded the Mobi version and read it again on my Kindle. I had remembered the main plot points pretty well. I had forgotten the semi-humorous style and some of the sociological aspects (probably over my head) but the rest was spot-on.

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

I looked at the publication history and found the original version in the December, 1962 Galaxy Magazine (with cool illustrations from Wally Wood). I was only five in 1962 – which is a bit young – so I must have read it years later. It was in a 1966 Fritz Leiber collection called “The Night of the Wolf” and that cover looks familiar to me… that must be where I read it.

So, I’m sure you are asking… How did the hero inventor defeat the evil “tickler” that had taken over society and the world? You really want to know? You should, it’s a crackerjack ending.

I’m afraid I’m not going to tell. You’ll have to download the ebook, or read it here, or, listen to it here.

It is a bit dated, but extremely up to date too. Read it, you’ll like it. It’s amazing that the story, which foreshadows so much of today’s technology was written in 1962. This is what computers looked like in 1962.

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

One Groove’s Difference

“What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”
—-Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

I have always had an odd and powerful relationship with the novels of Thomas Pynchon. I have spent a good portion of my life with his work in my hands. It started with Gravity’s Rainbow – which took me twenty five years to read… and I consider it to be my favorite novel. Even though I first tried to read it in college I was not able to get through the massive tome until the advent of the internet. I had to follow along with a chapter by chapter summary and a hypertext compendium of characters and information to keep from getting lost.

Then, over the years, there was the almost equally massive V – then the short and bitter Crying of Lot 49. Time marched on to the West-Coast based Vineland and by the time Mason & Dixon arrived I was writing online and chronicled the devouring of this text as I went along.

From my old blog – The Daily Epiphany

Daily Epiphany -Friday, March 19, 1999

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs

May 2, 1997. A little less than two years ago. That’s the exact day that
Mason & Dixon arrived from Amazon (an online journal is useful for finding useless factoids like that).

Over those two years I have, sometimes dutifully, more often sporadically, with plenty of vacations and sabbaticals, slogged through the pages. I was well known to be seen carrying that book around, it’s cover handmade by me from the red white and blue Tyvek wrapper it arrived in. “Aren’t you finished yet?” asked on many occasions.

That didn’t bother me. After all, it took me twenty five years to read Gravity’s Rainbow. In some ways, Mason & Dixon, though shorter and less complex, was even more difficult. The weird faux colonial Olde English and bizarre capitalization and punctuation added an Extra Dimension of Difficulty to the usual Pynchonian Puzzlements.

So slowly I kept at it. Week by week the irregular, oval coffee-stain on the pager-edges moved, slice by imperceptible slice, from my right hand to my left.

Tonight, I finished it.

I bent the cover back and slid the crude Tyvek cover off and dropped it into the trash. It was replaced with the original two-layer cover, preserved from the travails of two years of pawing, stored safely in a dresser drawer.

In order to make room in my bookcase for the Pynchon, I had to pull something out. So, now, it’s Infinite Jest. It’s only 1,079 pages long. Print looks a little small. I even have a bookmark for it. I bought the book used and it contains a loose snapshot of some scrubby looking guy posing by a motorcycle. I have, of course, absolutely no idea who this is. That’ll do.

The thickness and size seemed familiar so, on a whim, I pulled that Tyvek bookcover out of the basket, turned the cover around.

It fit exactly.

A few years later, I tackled Against the Day, then fell off the Pynchon wagon (for no real reason except maybe the intrusion of real life) until now.

Now, I decided to read Inherent Vice – Pynchon’s noirish dark psychedelic detective crime novel.

“Dealing with the Hippie is generally straightforward. His childlike nature will usually respond positively to drugs, sex, and/or rock and roll, although in which order these are to be deployed must depend on conditions specific to the moment.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

“It had been dark at the beach for hours, he hadn’t been smoking much and it wasn’t headlights – but before she turned away, he could swear he saw light falling on her face, the orange light just after sunset that catches a face turned to the west, watching the ocean for someone to come in on the last wave of the day, in to shore and safety.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

I had the trade sale paperback on the shelf for a long time, but I had to read it right now because, next month, they are coming out with a movie made from the story.

Oh, and not just any movie, a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

Imagine that, Paul Thomas Anderson filming a Pynchon novel. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

Modern technology has advanced now to the point I could sit in my reading chair with the book in one hand and a tablet in the other, with web pages queued up to alphabetical and page-by-page summaries to help me with the complex plot and kaleidoscope of characters.

This is arguably his most accessible novel, if for no other reason it has a familiar setting and is woven upon a loom of an established detective genre. It is the only thing I’ve read by Pynchon that I would say is remotely filmable – though just barely.

It still has the Pynchonian style of paranoia, subtle complexity, and, especially, a huge cast of odd characters with odder names. I enjoyed the book immensely. It is, without a doubt, the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Now I am psyched for the film. Only a few days before the premiere. This will be the second beloved book (after Cloud Atlas) committed to celluloid (actually its digital equivalent) by a stylish director in the last two years. I loved Cloud Atlas (both the book and the film) though it predictably bombed at the box office.

I suspect a similar fate for Inherent Vice – I can’t imagine the ordinary teenage-minded moviegoer enjoying the complex interplay of humor and horror that the Pynchonian Universe produces splashed across the silver screen. But I will be there, staring up as if it were meant for me alone.

“You need to find true love, Doc.”
Actually, he thought, I’ll settle for finding my way through this. His fingers, with a mind of their own, began to creep toward the plastic hedge. Maybe if he searched through it long enough, late enough into the night, he’d find something that might help — some tiny forgotten scrap of his life he didn’t even know was missing, something that would make all the difference now.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Looking at the IMDB page – it sure looks weird, seeing all those big time (and not so much) stars arranged against those wonderfully outlandish Thomas Pynchon character names.

Reese Witherspoon … Penny
Jena Malone … Hope Harlingen
Joaquin Phoenix … Doc Sportello
Josh Brolin … Bigfoot Bjornsen
Sasha Pieterse … Japonica Fenway
Owen Wilson … Coy Harlingen
Benicio Del Toro … Sauncho Smilax
Michael K. Williams … Tariq Khalil
Eric Roberts … Mickey Wolfmann
Maya Rudolph … Petunia Leeway
Martin Short … Dr. Blatnoyd
Sam Jaeger … Agent Flatweed
Katherine Waterston … Shasta Fay Hepworth
Martin Donovan … Crocker Fenway
Timothy Simons … Agent Borderline
Yvette Yates … Luz
Serena Scott Thomas … Sloane Wolfmann
Keith Jardine … Puck Beaverton
Elaine Tan … Xandra
Madison Leisle … Goldfang
Steven Wiig … Portola Barkeep
Jeannie Berlin … Aunt Reet
Christopher Allen Nelson … Glenn Charlock
Hong Chau … Jade
Jefferson Mays … Dr. Threeply
Peter McRobbie … Adrian Prussia
Samantha Lemole … Gold Fang Mom
Toyia Brown … Harmony
Diana Elizabeth Torres … Lourdes
Sophia Markov … Amethyst Harlingen
Andrew Simpson … Riggs Warbling
Victoria Markov … Amethyst Harlingen
Martin Dew … Dr. Tubeside
Michael Cotter … Rhus Farthington
Taylor Bonin … Ensenada Slim
Laura Kranz … Chryskylodon Patient

“Later they went outside, where a light rain was blowing in, mixed with salt spray feathering off the surf. Shasta wandered slowly down to the beach and through the wet sand, her nape in a curve she had learned, from times when back-turning came into it, the charm of. Doc followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did. The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not.”
—-Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Periodic Tales

From the Telegraph Review of Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements by Hugh Aldersey-Williams:

Chemists have long had to put up with the condescension of physicists. In one especially egregious case, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer – scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb – informed his colleague George Kistiakowsky that he was no longer classed as a “first-rate chemist”, but as a “second-rate physicist”. This, Oppenheimer assured him, was a promotion. The project’s chemists thought this insulting; the physicists thought it hilarious.

Those pesky physicists….

I remember a physics professor extolling the ultimate virtues of his science (I’m not sure if he was aware that I – a lowly chemist – was sitting in front of him… he probably was) saying that physics is the most noble of sciences because it is the most pure – the basis of all other science. I simply nodded though I thought that, using his logic, mathematics would rise high above his craft. Now, the way I looked at it, without chemistry physics is only a bunch of squiggly lines on paper.

At any rate from both these disciplines, along with the various flavors of engineering and production, computer science, marketing and what-not…. comes e-ink, and from e-ink comes e-readers.

And from e-readers come Amazon’s periodic sales, which I peruse carefully. And from one of those periodic sales, came the book Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc – delivered through the ether for only a couple bucks right into my hot little hands.

That’s the book’s name in the US – in Europe it’s called Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements – a better title in my opinion.

To you, I’m sure the book would seem to be the most boring pile of useless words imaginable – but I thought it fun and interesting. The author has had the lifelong hobby of collecting examples of the elements. He obviously also had the hobby of collecting engaging tidbits and stories about same. One day he had the bright idea of combining the two and coming up with a book. From the way the story is laid out – he used his publisher’s advance to travel to some of the more obscure locations where some of these elements were discovered or can still be found.

So, to extract a sample of phosphorus the author started out – as the early chemists did – by collecting a large amount of pee and letting it evaporate.

Each element’s discovery is spelled out as an adventure tale – many coming on the obscure transition from Alchemy to Modern Chemistry. Many great discoveries came from very odd places. For example, Ytterby – an obscure village in Sweden that gave birth to a slew of new rare earth elements – yttrium, erbium, terbium, and ytterbium.

I’m always getting yttrium and ytterbium mixed up.

I read the book through – though I wanted to slow down and take notes. You never know what interesting conversational anecdotes you may need to impress beautiful women in bars.

  • Dried blood is slightly attracted to magnets because of its iron content.
  • At one time radium was added to many products, especially those that supposedly had a therapeutic effect: Radium Butter, Radium Chocolate, Radium Beer, Radium Condoms, Radium Suppositories, Radium was put in Chicken Feed in hopes of producing Self-Incubating if not Self-Cooking Eggs.
  • The French Scientist Vauquelin isolated chromium by crushing emeralds and rubies. He proved the same element colored both.
  • Jezebel, from the Bible, used compounds of antimony as dark eye makeup.
  • Extremium and Ultimium were proposed as the name of a new element – Plutonium was used instead.
  • In Jean Cocteu’s 1949 film Orphee, Orpheus enters the underworld by passing through a mirror. This shot is achieved by having the actor push his hands into a pool of mercury that is disguised as glass.

 

from Orphee - the hands (protected by latex gloves) push through the mirror of mercury.

from Orphee – the hands (protected by latex gloves) push through the mirror of mercury.

Every page is chock-a-block with interesting tidbits like these.

The only letdown of the book was at the end, when the author tried vainly to sum up and leave the reader with an emotional connection with the periodic table. He should have simply run out of elements.

Now, again, I’m a chemist, not a physicist. But I do know physics. I was able to pass three semesters of physical chemistry… which I consider one of the greatest achievements of my life. With that knowledge, I realized that the author also left out one of the most interesting, if technically challenging aspects of his subject. He treats the very periodicity of the periodic table as a great mystery, one that was figured out by long scientific research but never completely explained.

He doesn’t talk about the electron shell model or atomic orbitals. That’s a shame. When you understand this concept, even without the daunting math involved, suddenly it all makes sense. A handful of simple laws are what define the outer-shell electron configuration of every element and that is what makes our world possible. It’s really amazing – if you do the work to understand it.

There are a surprising number of books on the periodic table and I have read a few in the past (Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sachs is a favorite) – but Periodic Tales is among the most entertaining and readable.

Finally, as a chemist, a book on the elements ignores the most fascinating aspect of chemistry. It will be, almost by definition, limited to describing Inorganic Chemistry. Carbon is given short-shrift in the book. He talks about it mostly in terms of charcoal and the carbon oxygen cycle.

But it is Organic Chemistry that most people find so fascinating. I still remember the thrill I felt when I was first learning how to manipulate matter, not by the elements it contained, but by arranging the shape of a compound made of a single element (with a few other contaminants maybe thrown in for variety) – how the pattern made by its versatile bonds could give rise to an unlimited cornucopia of new compounds, with wild and outlandish properties….

But that’s a whole ‘nother book.

Iguanas on my Roof

A sketch of the Casino at Montelimar, Nicaragua - once Somoza's beach house.

A sketch of the Casino at Montelimar, Nicaragua – once Somoza’s beach house.

I stumbled across a wonderfully interesting book this weekend; Iguanas on my Roof Funny, Sad, and Scary OVERSEAS ADVENTURES of a Foreign Service Family in Third-World Countries during the Vietnam War and Watergate Era. I found it on its Facebook Page and then bought a copy from Amazon for my Kindle.

Say what you want about e-books… but to learn about a publication from the web while riding on a commuter train, have it in my hand seconds later, and instantly start reading it – that’s something amazing.

The book is a slim, simple, heartfelt family memoir written by Nancy Stone, the mother of five. I went to high school with two of her kids in Managua, Nicaragua. One son was my age, a grade below me and in a lot of my classes, and a daughter was my little brother’s age. We all ran around a lot together my senior year (I graduated and left for Kansas University in 1974).

I immediately recognized the title – we had iguanas on our roof. I remember when we first moved to Nicaragua trying to sleep with some tremendous racket overhead. I crept outside and leaned a ladder up to the wall, climbing up to find out what it was. There were a half-dozen huge iguanas and an equal number of cats all chasing each other around on the corrugated galvanized roofing. I couldn’t tell who was chasing who – but it was a mess. After I learned what it was up there – it was easy to ignore the cacophony and sleep.

Although I knew the kids well, I don’t recall ever even meeting their parents and I certainly never knew their story. We were military and they were embassy – that didn’t matter to the young’uns, but there was a difference. Their father, Al Stone, was a railroad brakeman in the late fifties when he was inspired by the harrowing plight of hordes of desperate Mexican immigrants fleeing a drought to try and do something. He spent years in education and effort until he was able to go to work for the Department of State and the USAID program.

So the big family was off on a tour of the disasters of the third world. From living in the Philippines while Al was in Vietnam, to Lagos, to Washington DC, to Managua after the 1972 earthquake (where they crossed paths with your humble narrator), the book describes the shocking, the strange, the scary, and the silly of a long, often difficult trip.

I’ve always said that living in the third world is months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

Most of what was in the book was familiar to me, even the sections from the Philippines and Nigeria. There are certain stock scenes common to life in any poverty-cursed tropical place. Every incident brought back memories of similar episodes and adventures from my own youth.

The crest from the American Nicaraguan School

The crest from the American Nicaraguan School

What was most interesting was seeing these recognizable installments from a different point of view. The book is told by an adult – a person where everything is new and strange. Nancy Stone was from California – thrust by fate, love, and dedication into a bizarre world of giant insects, bad infrastructure, iffy transport, dangerous and incomprehensible societies, and odd food. It was all so… foreign. Cultural and work protocols, manners, and etiquette were consummate challenges. But it all comes to an end. The final chapter is titled, “We Went Back Home.”

Where is home? I don’t understand the concept. People talk to me about being “homesick” – I have no idea what they are talking about.

You see, It felt differently to go through a journey like that as a kid. When you are young… it is simply how things are. You don’t know any better.

A few paragraphs of the story were written by the kids I knew – familiar voices I understand.

For me, for example, the place and time where I had the most trouble adapting was when I went to college in the states. My nickname for a couple years was “Banana Boat” – as in, “Bill, you’re an American like the rest of us, but you act like you just fell off a banana boat.” I was so happy to find four students from Barcelona that I could relate to – though I was bothered by their lispy Spanish and the incredible amounts of wine they drank.

I realize that the youngsters were able to assimilate into the local culture in a way the adults couldn’t even imagine. To this day, I’m ashamed of my terrible Spanish – but I learned that if I simply kept my mouth shut I could move around at will without anyone knowing I was an American. As a matter of fact – nobody would notice me at all. I could become invisible. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do in a place like that.

That even affects the memories I try to hang onto in my incipient dotage. For example, there are a lot of anecdotes like those in the book that I am willing to let go as they fade into the misty cobwebs of my crumbling brain. What I hang onto desperately are some of the ethereal emotions of youth, the colors of the country, and the smells of the culture.

For example (full disclosure – I’ve been writing notes about this recently for a short story I’m working on) there is the smell of the third world. It’s a smell of pork grease and wood fires – of sour sweat and homemade soap, of heat and desperation. A few years ago I walked out onto the deck of a ship as it cruised into Montego Bay at dawn. A fisherman in a tiny wooden skiff was off the port bow and I watched him untangle his nets. As the salmon glow of the sun, still hidden behind the mountains, filled the sky we moved into a thin cobalt mist of the morning cooking fires wafting offshore and there was that third world smell. I had forgotten… but it all came back in a rush.

That is what I am desperate to hold on to.

So, I any of y’all are curious enough to read about what it was like, over there, back then, go to Amazon, load up your ereader or wait for the bound paper, whatever. It’s worth your money and your time, trust me. Thanks for doing the work, Mrs. Stone, for collecting the memories, writing them down, and sending them out into the world.

It’s late, so late. I think I’ll pour a little Flor de Caña (I was so happy when that became available in Dallas), get my writing in, and call it a day.

The land of lakes, volcanoes, and sun. A painting I bought on my last trip to Nicaragua.

The land of lakes, volcanoes, and sun. A painting I bought on my last trip to Nicaragua.

Dallas Noir

Dallas-Noir

About a year and a half ago, I read a book called New Orleans Noir – which I enjoyed a lot. It was a collection of DARK short stories all set in a city I love very much… and a city, despite all its frivolity and fun, that has plenty of opportunities for that side of the human spirit.

The book was part of a series of noir short stories tied to individual cities. After reading it, I had a thought, “I wish they would do one of these on Dallas – but they never will.” I was wrong.

I missed it when the book was published or I would have gone to some of the events. I didn’t find out about the book until it made the rounds on social media. When the publication of Dallas Noir popped up in my facebook feed I was really excited. And in this day of ebooks and instant gratification, fifteen seconds later I was looking at the table of contents.

What was even cooler is that I have personally met two of the authors – I read their stories first.

David Haynes is an Associate Professor and Director of Creative Writing at SMU. About a decade ago I took a couple of classes in fiction writing from him through the Writer’s Garrett. I’ve always been amazed at how much more I learned from these than from my college writing classes (which set my writing back over a quarter-century – it’s my college writing classes that are responsible for me being a chemist).

His story, “Big Things Happening Here,” Oak Lawn, was more than excellent. Unique, subtle, very “literary” – it tells the story of two men that witness someone being abducted in a tony suburb and are drawn into a vast conspiracy… or maybe not. A thought provoking tale of the possibility of a secret undercurrent of modern life – an illustration of the adage, “Simply because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you.”

Next I read a story by Catherine Cuellar, “Dog Sitter,” Love Field. I have met her a number of times at events in the Arts District and bike rides. Her contribution was on the more civilized edge of the noir genre – a story of a domestic worker that kills a passerby by accident. It’s a finely characterized tale which captures the delicate and difficult life led by those right under our noses, yet right outside of the mainstream of society.

After those two I cranked through the collection in order. I was familiar with many of the writers – I’ve been reading Ben Fountain and Harry Hunsiker for a while. There was a wide variety in all the stories – which made it as enjoyable as a box of chocolates – but the locations were all familiar. They did a good enough job of inserting locations and people that any Dallasite will recognize to give me the creeps as I ride/drive/move around town and see things that remind me of the stories.

The last story was by Jonathan Woods, “Swingers Anonymous,” M Streets. I enjoyed his collection, Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem – driving down to the Pearl Cup on Henderson to hear him read one night. I’ve always admired his writing – because he doesn’t fuck around. He writes like a truck wreck… the story comes at you two hundred proof and on fire. True to form, his story in Dallas Noir has a classic “grab your attention” opening line:

We all went over to Pauline’s to admire her breasts.

How can you not finish a story that starts like that?

Dallas Jail complex with the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge in the background. (click to enlarge)

Dallas Jail complex with the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge in the background.
(click to enlarge)

Life After High School

I read a lot of short stories. A lot.

All my life I have read voraciously and read short stories particularly. After the advent of the ebook and the portable reader I have been able to kick it up a notch. My Kindle goes with me everywhere and I’m able to read in the small nooks of time that I can scare up. The short story is particularly good to gobble up in these little snips and sips. I usually read one at lunch and another before I go to sleep. That’s two short stories a day… and over a few years… over a handful of decades… they add up.

Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

Forty years ago, I had an English professor ask me about my reading habits. I told him I had gone to high school in another country and life there consisted of days of boredom sandwiched between moments of stark terror. I had picked up the habit of reading whenever I could.

“But it is mostly junk,” I said, “Cheap Science Fiction and stuff like that.”

“Your sense of story is very strong.” the professor said, “Talking to students over the years, I think that the important thing is to read and it doesn’t really matter what you read, as long as you read a lot.”

Not too long ago, on this very blog, I did my Month of Short Stories entries – where I wrote about a short story each day. I enjoyed doing that and promised to write more about particular works that caught my fancy.

The other day I finished a large collection of Joyce Carol Oates short stories called High Lonesome. It brings together her own favorites over forty years – from 1966 to 2006. Oates is a very prolific writer and it was good to peruse this sampling.

Alice Munro recently won the Noble Prize for her short stories and I like to compare the two writers. Munro is the unassailable master of the form – but on the whole, I prefer reading Oates. Munro’s writing concerns the life she has led and the people she has known and the wisdom she has acquired. Wonderful stuff and I am so happy she deservedly won the prize. However, Oates goes one step beyond – she kicks it up a notch. Oates writes about the void… the beyond… the horror that lies right on the other side of the tender membrane that divides our world from the realm of madness.

That is something I am interested in.

There are a lot of great and interesting stories in the collection, including the classic “Where are you going, Where Have You Been?” and the amazing “Heat” – which I wrote about before. Today, I want to talk about one of the later stories in the collection, “Life After High School.”

Spoilers will be written, so please, surprise everyone and read the story first. I found a PDF of it here.

“Life After High School” seems to be a popular story for school essay assignments – there is a lot written about it on this interweb thing. I looked at more than a few – and everybody seems to completely miss the point of the story.

You see… it’s really three stories in one. The first two are tricks played on the reader – then she hits you with the hammer, the third.

The first three quarters of the story is the tragic tale of unrequited love where Zachary Graff, the intelligent but socially awkward teenager falls in love with Sunny Burhman, the attractive and popular girl that everyone likes. He eventually, Senior Year, works up the nerve to propose to her and she, of course, says no. He is so heartbroken he kills himself by running his car in a closed garage. This devastates Miss Burhman, and she is “Sunny” no more.

So far, so good. An oft-told tale, one that every reader, especially a young person, will recognize and understand.

But Oates throws a twist. The story isn’t “High School” – it’s “Life After…” and, decades later a middle-aged Sunny Burhman contacts another student, Tobias Shanks, from those days. They meet for lunch and Sunny discovers that the two boys were gay lovers and that Zachary went to see him after she had rejected Zachary and, moreover, Zachary had left him a suicide note.

So now the story has morphed into one of a sensitive young man destroyed by society’s disapproval and Zachary’s proposal to Sunny was his last, futile attempt to “fit in.”

And that is where most people that read it leave the story. It is where I was ready to leave it… but not everything fit.

For example, the description that Oates provides of Zachary was a little odd. She said that most people were afraid of him. That doesn’t fit with the usual view of an odd, awkward, gay loser.

Also, Sunny says to him, “Zachary, it’s a free world.” But his response is, “Oh no it isn’t, Sunny. For some of us, it isn’t” A foreboding answer for a young person. There are plenty of other incongruities – I’ll leave some for you to find – enough to make my point clear on a second reading.

But finally, there was a detailed list of items that were found in his car at his death, it was said to be oddly littered. There was a Bible, some pizza crusts, textbooks, size eleven gym shoes, a ten foot piece of clothesline in the glove compartment, and the engagement ring in the car. (italics mine)

What was that all about? Why tell us all this? Chekhov’s gun says there has to be a reason… a good one.

So I was a little suspicious of the story. And then, I came to the last line… and the whole story changed. You see you think the story is one thing, then you think it’s another – and with the simple, final sentence it all changes, radically, for the last time.

After they have talked and read the suicide note, Sunny, almost as an afterthought, says:

“What do you think Zachary planned to do with the clothesline?”

And there it is.

Zachary wasn’t simply an awkward, misunderstood teenager… he was a killer. He didn’t propose to Sunny because he loved her (though he certainly did) – he was trying to get her into his car so he could kill her. When he failed, he went to see Tobias Shanks, his other love, and tried the same thing with him. Only then, with his homicidal needs frustrated, did he then off himself.

And the girl knew it. Sunny didn’t change her life after high school because of guilt over her rejection of Zachary. She was devastated because of the realization of how close she came to evil, how near she was to being an innocent murder victim, how thin that membrane that protects us really is.

Now… that is a story.

The funny thing is, reading what other folks thought about the tale, nobody else seemed to get it.

Here’s an analysis that is confused by the clothesline and the final line – the most important part of the story.

The clothesline is a symbol whose meaning is up for interpretation because the story does not give it a definite role. It could have been used to force Tobias or Sunny into coming with Zachary or Zachary could have planned to use it to kill himself

Here’s one that only notices the coldness of the final question (in my opinion, her detachment is her armor against the horror that lies beyond)…

Barbara Burhman’s final question in the story, “Life After High School” by Joyce Carol Oates was an appropiate closure because it is a reflection and direct unfolding of one of Barbara’s defining core characteristics and how she really truly feels about Zachary: cold-hearted indifference.

and finally, this one, simply says,

In the extract it was mentioned that Zachary had a clothesline in the glove compartment when the police found him dead in his car. It shows us that if the carbon monoxide did not work to kill him, he would have used the clothesline. It is an appropriate closure to the story because it shows Barbara and Tobias that there was nothing that they could do to save him. Zachary was determined to kill himself. I guess it shows some relief that he would have committed suicide sooner or later, if they might have saved him from the car.

Yeah, right. That’s a pretty slim reason to put that sentence in there for a writer of Oates’ skill. It’s like Chekhov included a gun so that the protagonist could have something to clean.

Am I off base here? Am I reading something into that last question that isn’t there? Is this really a tale of teenage angst, society’s rejection, and doomed love? Am I nuts to read into it a brilliant subtext of homicide and madness?

I don’t think so.

What do you think? – That’s assuming you do.

The War of the End of the World

I finished the first of the really big books I have on my list The War of the End of the World. I read it on the Kindle, but the hardback edition has 576 pages – so it isn’t the longest book in the world, but it’s long enough.

There was a ten-day setback in there when I misplaced my Kindle. I couldn’t find it for over a week and it was driving me crazy. The thing goes with me where ever I go, so I can get a little reading done in the small drips and dregs of time that are sometimes allotted to me – and that’s risky. I’ve come close to losing it twice – leaving it on a train once and on the roof of my car another time (where it fell off along a Frisco road) – but each time a good Samaritan found it, looked me up and contacted me.

This time I was pretty sure I had not left it someplace… but you never know. It turned out it was in the garage where I set it down in a dark, little-used corner when I went back there to get something.

Finding it made me happy and let me finish the book.

Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

Misplacing your portable electronic reading device is a first-world problem. The conflict at the heart of The War of the End of the World is not.

The novel is based on true events at the end of the nineteenth century in a dried up, impoverished, and forgotten stretch of worthless desert in the Brazilian state of Bahia. There, after a horrible drought that kills a good part of the population appeared a wandering preacher, Antônio Conselheiro (“the Counselor”), who went from village to village, collecting a rag-tag group of followers, repairing churches and spreading the word of God.

He eventually gained thousands of converts, and they settled on an old farmstead named Canudos – transforming it into something of a religious commune. At its peak, more that thirty thousand people called Canudos home – making it the second-largest city in Bahia. This attracted the attention of the newly-minted Republic of Brazil which did not agree with the teachings of The Counselor. The central government began sending military expeditions and then…. Well, let’s just say, things do not turn out well.

For anybody.

The book, by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, is a vast kaleidoscope of characters – all pulled into the firestorm of disaster that is the War of Canudos.

It was more than a little confusing at first (about half the male characters seem to have the name João or Antônio) and I put together a little crib sheet listing everybody and their relationship to the story. After a few hundred pages that wasn’t necessary – the list stops growing as fast and the denizens of the pages become burned into the reader’s mind sufficiently.

The theme of the book is the danger and the tragic results of fanaticism. Every character sees the world in an inflexible view – and pays for that in spades. The Counselor is a man of great power and wisdom and is able to attract a huge following – converting the most evil of bandits and incorrigible criminals into paragons of religious virtue and conviction. Yet, he can’t understand the implications of what he has done and the horror that will inevitably befall the faithful.

The central government does not see a religious settlement – they see foreign spies and secret plots – because that is all they are able to see. The wealthy landowners only see land and cattle thieves and can’t comprehend anything else.

It is a sad story with results that are beyond appalling.

That’s the first question that a reader must answer, “Why was Canudos destroyed?” But the answer, when you think about it, is, “How could it not?”

And that’s the mark of a mature work of fiction – the ying-yang pull of hope and the inevitable doom. You only wish that some of these people that you have spent so much time with… even some of the evil ones… are able to find some sort of justice, some closure, some comforting balm in the midst of their endless suffering and hopeless struggle.

And some do.

But it is only temporary.