Brothers Karamazov

“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Reading Dostoevsky in New Orleans

We finished our reading group (The Wild Detective’s DRBC [Difficult Reading Book Club]) attack on Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov. Seven hundred thirty six-odd, dense pages. This is definitely the way to devour an elephant like that: broken up into manageable chunks and each followed by a weekly Zoom meeting to discuss and clarify the confusion.

I actually sort-of read the book in college. It was assigned on, say, Thursday and I had to write a paper on the next Wednesday. That’s not enough time. Not surprisingly, I have no real memory other than a feeling of panic and dread. And the memory of relying too much on a little yellow pamphlet.

The Brothers Karamazov is often mentioned in short lists of the greatest novels of all time. That’s a bold statement, but one I can support.

First, it is a novel of ideas. Philosophical questions are presented and then played out across the stage of the plot. The plot is complex yet melodramatic. There are many things, a whole tangled skein of threads, going on at once. Reading it like this, especially in the excellent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, is how much humor there is in the book. The characters are deep and complex, and the novel uses a lot of literary devices that are considered “modern” (unreliable narrators, stories within stories within stories, subtle shifting points of view, ambiguous ending, unknown first person plural narrator) which helps keep the dense text fresh.

It is the story of faith against rationality. There is no doubt on which side Dostoevsky sympathies lie – but he does not give his intellectual adversaries short thrift. He has the courage to give the other argument strong, even unassailable defenses and weapons. There is no straw man here. It makes for robust conflict and gives the reader incredible insight and the opportunities for hours of thought.

Faith and Doubt, Free Will (Dostoevsky acknowledges the existence of free will and understands that it is the key to salvation, but paints it not as a blessing, but as a curse – as a terrible burden that will flatten and destroy all but the strongest of men), and the need for moral simplicity and clarity are the battlefields that the novel is fought over… and the victor is very much in doubt.

Plus, I learned a new word… nadryv, And wrote about it here.

Short Story Of the Day (Flash Fiction), ‘Speriment by Bill Chance

“None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have Faith.”
― Paulo Coelho, Brida

20 Elements
Joel Shapiro
Northpark Center
Dallas, Texas


I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#38). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


Who and What are easy.. How and Why aren’t. Faith and Science. I have very little of one and none of the other. At six, though… Faith and Science can be conjured up from thin air.

I walked past the hall bathroom and something caught my eye. It was, not surprisingly, Little Sammy, hanging his tummy on the edge of the counter stretched out so he could reach the sink. He was filling a cup with water. The liquid was brown and foamy, it looked like it had Coke in it, and something else, something dark. I figured out the “something else” when I noticed the chocolate syrup spattered on the counter and smeared on his face.

“Sammy, what are you up to?” I asked, cleaning up some with a rag.

He calmly plopped a soft well-worm sliver of soap into the mixture which he still held in his hand. The soap floated, it must be Ivory.

“It’s my ‘speriment.”

“Sammy, What kind of experiment?”

“I have a book, it has the recipe. If I get the mixture just right, it’ll work. It’s a formula.”

This was technically a lie, but six year old boys live in a world where reality and fantasy are strangely mixed. As a parent this is the kind of statement you are better off letting pass.

I guess he came up with the idea of a “’speriment” after we dragged him to his big brother’s science fair – a horrific series of gaudy pasteboard displays of random information that had nothing at all to do with science. The middle school kids must have opened a musty encyclopedia in the back of the library at random and written up what fell out. Our oldest son Wally had a crude display on “Delirium Tremens” – which, after Uncle Percy’s performance last Thanksgiving… well Wally must have had some curiosity.

Usually Sammy’s public behavior is like a bomb going off. But at the Science Fair he strolled up and down the lines of kids with their crude, inane posters enraptured. He could not take his eyes off of the exhibitions of “The Fungus Among Us,” “Your Mighty Pancreas” or “That Will Leave a Stain.

Now, with Sammy, I didn’t ask what the “mixture” was supposed to do. He stirred it a little and then walked into the kitchen and began piling up chairs to reach the freezer above the refrigerator.

“Help me make room, Daddy,” he asked, “It has to be freezed all night.”

“Sammy, there’s more room in the big freezer in the garage.”

He pondered this for awhile and then relented, deciding that the garage deep freeze was indeed in the proper temperature range for his formula.

I thought to myself that sometime soon I was going to have to deal with a frozen chunk of diluted pop and chocolate, with some Ivory soap and God only knows what else added for a little extra kick. I think my wife would have made him throw it away right at the start – if she had been home. I let him mix it up, though, and he froze the whole concoction. I figured he’d forget about it and I’d throw it out the next day.

I went to sleep wishing I knew what the secret formula was supposed to do.

What happened to the muck in the freezer? I don’t know. The next morning the kids found that puppy on the front stoop. The kids had wanted a dog more than anything. My wife and I put them off – expense, hassle, the new carpets, that sort of thing. But a puppy on the stoop. You can’t say no to that, can you. So the ‘speriment was forgotten, by me at least, in a flurry of trips to the pet store, rearrangements of furniture, new sounds, new smells, and the excitement of a new member of the family. After a week I remembered, looked in the freezer, but it was gone. I don’t know why it was gone… maybe my wife found it – but she never said anything – and she would have said something.

It was the next morning after the ‘speriment, though, that we found the puppy… wasn’t it? A coincidence… I’m sure. Maybe. I wonder, sometimes, though, what a six year old knows that the rest of us have forgotten.

Jellyfish In the Sun

“But how can I put a name to what it is that I want? How am I to know that I really don’t want what I want, or that I really don’t want what I don’t want? These are intangibles that the moment you name them their meaning evaporates like jellyfish in the sun.”
Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker: un film de Andreï Tarkovski

Broken Concrete and Rebar, Dallas, Texas


I took a day of PTO today (I am still working, I am essential) to try and heal my knee which I hurt in a fall outside my shower on Sunday. Someone reminded me of RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (Would like to try RICED – with the addition of Drugs… but no luck there) and that sounded good for me. I made a spot where I could stretch out with a flexible ice pack on my knee. To kill the time I watched a movie on my laptop which I had seen over three decades ago – Stalker by Andre Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky is, as I’m sure you know, an unmitigated genius – a master of idiosyncratic film making.  I’m glad I saw the film again – I noticed a lot that I missed the first time.

One aspect is the Russian technique of adding very deep philosophical soliloquies spouted by characters in the story – the plot becomes a scaffold to present these musings on faith, desire, and humanity. It is like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy where dramatic action illustrates deeper issues.

Here’s an example – the long monologue by the character known only as Writer after he narrowly escaped death in the room of dunes (you’ll have to click through and watch it on YouTube).

Look at this closely… who is he talking to?

And, like all of Tarkovsky’s films… what images! I hadn’t noticed (or remembered) the Wizard of Oz trick of having the day to day life in black and white (or at least de-saturated sepia tones)   and only have the full luscious color spring out in the Zone itself (when you see the film note carefully what other subject is shown in color). The burning rocks on the shore. The room of dunes. The dust devils on the dried up undulating swamp (apparently this scene and others involved carcinogenic chemical wastelands that may have eventually led to the death of the director and others involved in the film). The catalog of items in the long shot through the shallow water. The stalactite festooned tunnel of horror, the meat grinder. The way he films faces….

It is a feast for the eyes as well as the brain.

Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 16 – Good People

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day sixteen – Good People, by David Foster Wallace

Read it online here:

Good People

Good People is the first published excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published incomplete novel The Pale King. Wallace hanged himself in 2008, at age 46. His father said that he had been suffering from depression for years and his medication had ceased to work. In the last few moments of his life, Wallace arranged his notes and computer files so his wife could find them.

His friend and editor Michael Pietsch took that material and molded it into its final published form. Despite being incomplete, the novel runs to over 500 pages.

I enjoyed this fragment (which, like a lot of David Foster Wallace’s novel chapters, stand fine on its own) because it contains a respect and fondness toward characters of faith – flawed as they are. The text is rough and rambling, reflecting the confusion in Lane’s mind.

The details – the uprooted tree, the man in the suit, the fishermen across the water – are carefully chosen and add layers of complexity to the simple story.

I wonder how much this piece is an homage to the Hemingway story Hills Like White Elephants? They are both stories about a couple making a choice where the word Abortion is never uttered.

A point not expressly made in the story, but one that comes to my mind is the one-way nature of time. Our past feels like a three dimensional cloud – full of inevitability, coincidences, and luck (good or bad). But the future feels like a set of steel rails where your only hope is to stay on the tracks, come hell or high water.

But neither did he ever open up and tell her straight out he did not love her. This might be his lie by omission. This might be the frozen resistance—were he to look right at her and tell her he didn’t, she would keep the appointment and go. He knew this. Something in him, though, some terrible weakness or lack of values, could not tell her. It felt like a muscle he did not have. He didn’t know why; he just could not do it, or even pray to do it. She believed he was good, serious in his values.