The Room

“Stupid people don’t always know that they’re stupid. They might be aware that something is wrong, they might notice that things don’t usually turn out the way they imagined, but very few of them think it’s because of them. That they’re the root of their own problems, so to speak. And that sort of thing can be very difficult to explain.”
― Jonas Karlsson, The Room

Oblique Strategy: Get your neck massaged

Here’s some origami I did. I’m working on a story and I decided to origami my draft. The design is called, “This is a bunch of crap.”

Three down, ninety-seven to go.

A few days ago, while working on my goals for 2018 I decided to set a goal of reading a hundred books in the year. Thinking about it, I decided the only way to pull this off was to read short books. I made a list of 66 short novels and wrote about it. Thinking more about it, I was excited enough to jump the gun and start the 100 books immediately. The first one I read was Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The second was Zastrozzi, by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I picked The Room by Jonas Karlsson by walking down the fiction aisle in the Library and looking for a thin book. There were two by the same author, the other was called The Invoice. I chose The Room because is was slightly smaller.

The book is a Kafkaesque tale, or at least it starts that way, of a worker bee in an antiseptic office (his boss keeps trying to get him to wear shoe covers to keep from tracking dirt) that discovers a secret room behind a door down the hall, between the lift and the toilets. He discovers that going there relaxes him and enables him to get through the day with a little less stress.

One thing about this room reminded me of one of my favorite tomes, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. In House of Leaves, Will Navidson discovers his house is a few inches larger on the inside than it is on the outside. In The Room, Bjorn measures the hallway with leftover Christmas fairy lights and discovers there is no space for his room. He chalks it up to a trick of architecture.

The book starts out lighthearted but takes a darker turn as Bjorn’s officemates decide they don’t like him hanging out in his own special room. The book, told in the first person, like We Have Always Lived in the Castle, sports an unreliable narrator… an extremely unreliable narrator. The central question is “Is he nuts?” and there isn’t much doubt about the answer.

One question in my mind was who does Bjorn work for anyway? It is called The Authority and seems to be a quasi-government agency. It seems Orwellian as they take reports from investigators and process them in various ways. At any rate, their actual work seems to be easy enough – a lot of paper-pushing.

I enjoyed the book enough to think about reading The Invoice later. The author, Johas Karlsson is a popular Swedish Actor. A real Renaissance man.

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 20 – Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

Untitled (Sprawling Octopus Man), by Thomas Houseago
Nasher Sculpture Center
Dallas, Texas

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of 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 – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 20 – Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

Read it online here:
Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

In any case, he had to learn how to move his body. He couldn’t lie there staring up at the ceiling forever. The posture left him much too vulnerable. He had no chance of surviving an attack—by predatory birds, for example. As a first step, he tried to move his fingers. There were ten of them, long things affixed to his two hands. Each was equipped with a number of joints, which made synchronizing their movements very complicated. To make matters worse, his body felt numb, as though it were immersed in a sticky, heavy liquid, so that it was difficult to send strength to his extremities.

Nevertheless, after repeated attempts and failures, by closing his eyes and focusing his mind he was able to bring his fingers more under control. Little by little, he was learning how to make them work together. As his fingers became operational, the numbness that had enveloped his body withdrew. In its place—like a dark and sinister reef revealed by a retreating tide—came an excruciating pain.

It took Samsa some time to realize that the pain was hunger. This ravenous desire for food was new to him, or at least he had no memory of experiencing anything like it. It was as if he had not had a bite to eat for a week. As if the center of his body were now a cavernous void. His bones creaked; his muscles clenched; his organs twitched.

—-Haruki Murakami, Samsa in Love

I always think about believability in fiction. You don’t have to worry about this in non-fiction… it’s by definition true and believable, even when it is wildly unlikely. But fiction has to be believable.

One important idea is “making a deal with the reader.” This has to be done right away, preferably in the very first sentence. You have to alert the reader, make a deal with the reader, and then keep up your end of the bargain.

The best example is Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Turning into a giant cockroach in the middle of the night for no apparent reason isn’t believable, is it?

But Kafka writes his genius opening line:

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

You see, Kafka has made a deal with the reader. If you continue with the story, you have agreed that people can be changed into a giant cockroach (vermin) for no reason. He offers the deal, you accept it, and he keeps it.

Today, I planned on stopping for lunch, by myself. I looked forward to the quiet and the break. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to carry my Kindle or even a book. No problem, the library was right next door and, looking in at the New Fiction display, I saw a copy of Men Without Women, Stories by Haruki Murakami. Bingo.

While I ate, I looked through the table of contents for a brief selection, something I could read during the short sliver of time I was allotted. I found Samsa in Love, and was able to finish before I had to head back to work.

Samsa in Love is Metamorphosis in reverse. It starts out with Gregor Samsa waking up in his bare room, now transformed back into a human. He remembers little of being Gregor Samsa, but even less of the time he spent as a cockroach (except for a strong fear of birds). The story tells of his first few steps in becoming human again, including falling fast in love with a hunchbacked locksmith sporting an ill-fitting brassiere.

The story makes a deal, and sticks with it.

Interview with Haruki Murakami:

Is each book you write fully formed in your mind before you start to write or is it a journey for you as the writer as it is for us as readers?

I don’t have any idea at all, when I start writing, of what is to come. For instance, for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the first thing I had was the call of the bird, because I heard a bird in my back yard (it was the first time I heard that kind of sound and I never have since then. I felt like it was predicting something. So I wanted to write about it). The next thing was cooking spaghetti – these are things that happen to me! I was cooking spaghetti, and somebody call. So I had just these two things at the start. Two years I kept on writing. It’s fun! I don’t know what’s going to happen next, every day. I get up, go to the desk, switch on the computer, etc. and say to myself: “so what’s going to happen today?” It’s fun!

—-from The Guardian

(click to enlarge)
Adam, by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, plus admirer
Cullen Sculpture Garden
Houston, Texas

What I learned this week, July 9, 2017

The imposing facade of the St. Vincent’s Guest House, facing Magazine Street in New Orleans. I had to move around a bunch of film crews and trucks to get this – they were shooting scenes for Treme. The St. Vincent must be a popular location – they did scenes for Red (the Bruce Willis film) there – now I’ll have to watch the damn thing.

Lower Garden District landmark St. Vincent’s Guest House to be renovated, converted into luxury hotel

This is very sad to me – St. Vincent’s is one of my favorite places – I wrote about it here.

Now I won’t be able to afford to stay there. But at least it will survive (and thrive). Time marches on.

Here’s a closeup of the sculpture on the clock on the carriage house. Pretty cool, huh. You’re not going to see stuff like this hanging off the Hilton.

I hope they keep the gargoyle.


Napflix

Napflix is a video platform where you can find the most silent and sleepy content selection to relax your brain and easily fall asleep.

Taking siesta to the next level.

While viewing Napflix I discovered a game of Pétanque.  It wasn’t very exciting, but I found it interesting. Now, I find there is a Dallas Pétanque Club. Now I feel an urge to visit them someday and see a game.

These rabbit holes are so easy to fall into.


And now that we have Napflix – in Spain there is a bar dedicated to the art of the nap.

Spain’s First ‘Nap Bar’ Just Opened in Madrid


Send a Text to SFMOMA and They’ll Text You Back an Artwork


50 (Big and Little) Things It’s Finally Time to Get Rid of

Your new decluttering motto: #ruthless.


Texas liquor agency rebuked after investigation of Spec’s

The special evil of a regulatory bureaucracy.


The Universe Itself May Be Unnatural


KAFKA’S JOKE BOOK

Why did the chicken cross the road?

It had been crossing so long it could not remember. As it stopped in the middle to look back, a car sped by, spinning it around. Disoriented, the chicken realized it could no longer tell which way it was going. It stands there still.


Oh the irony of driving cars to ride bikes


10 Bike Lanes So Depressingly Crappy They’re Almost Funny

I’ve seen some that could make this list.

This photo, however, is a pretty nice pair of lanes, though they tend to get covered with broken glass.

Bicycle Lanes on the Jefferson Viaduct from Oak Cliff into downtown, Dallas.

The city I live in has done a good job of putting in useful, dedicated lanes.

Bike Lanes on Custer Road

Bike lane on Yale, near my house.

A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day Eighteen – In the Penal Colony

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. 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 eighteen – In the Penal Colony, by Franz Kafka
Read it online here:

In the Penal Colony

Today we have another story that I have read before – I’ve read everything by Kafka I can get my grimy paws on – long ago. It is worth a re-visit, the story is more subtle and complex than it seems at first.

Kafka is considered one of the literary giants – though he barely published anything while he was alive. On his deathbed he made his best friend promise to destroy all his unpublished work. Thank goodness he didn’t. So Kafka’s fame is directly due to the betrayal of the person he trusted most.

I could not be any other way.

In the Penal Colony is about as horrific a tale as you are going to come across. Some backwater third-world tropical colony has a megalomaniacal tinpot ruler (the Old Commandant) that devises a complex and gruesome means of torture and execution. With the aid of his faithful lackey (The Officer) he goes ahead and, with great fanfare, orchestrates a reign of terror across the land.

Now, we don’t get to visit this horror in its heyday – it’s years later and the Old Commandant is long gone. However, aided by The Officer, still faithful to the abominable vision, the plague of pain and fear continues to stumble along of its own accord. None of the characters is even given a name. The central character is offended by the torture and system of rude justice – but he is so numbed it’s hard for him to do anything concrete about it. Even the intended victim doesn’t seem to care much about what is going to happen to him.

The Officer recognized that he was in danger of having his explanation of the apparatus held up for a long time. So he went to the Traveler, took him by the arm, pointed with his hand at the Condemned Man, who stood there stiffly now that the attention was so clearly directed at him—the Soldier was also pulling on his chain—and said, “The matter stands like this. Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth. For I stood at the side of our previous Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know the most about the apparatus. The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads and, in addition, have even higher courts above them. But that is not the case here, or at least it was not that way with the previous Commandant.

On reading the story again, despite the detailed description of the ghastly apparatus, the most horrible impression is of the bureaucratic, inhuman, machinery of abuse careening forward on its own floundering momentum. Only the degeneration of time can stop it, like it stops everything.

It’s all so….

Kafkaesque

Kick-Ass and Gregor Samsa

The other evening I finally found time to watch the 2010 movie Kick-Ass on Netflix streaming.

I’m not going to write a review of it, though I did enjoy the film. It’s the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.


I’d like to talk about a bit of the film, a single scene, and why it’s there.

This all has to do with believability – with generating the proper suspension of belief in the viewer. It’s a real problem for a writer. If he’s writing about vampires, or magic, or little prepubescent girls who massacre criminal goons like the rest of us swat flies; you have to find a way to get the reader/viewer to buy in to your own little personal fantasy.

An example – many, many years ago I took a (useless) fiction writing class in college. I wrote a character sketch modeled on a person that I knew well. The other members of the class rejected (rightfully so) my work because it, “wasn’t believable.” I objected to their rejection, explaining, “But.. but it has to be believable, it’s true!”

I didn’t understand the difference between believability and truth (the class was useless because it didn’t explain this to me, I had to figure it out myself a decade or so later). That’s the big advantage non-fiction has over fiction – non-fiction simply has to be true… it doesn’t have to be believable. Fiction, on the other hand, is always a pack of lies, but it has to be believable lies. That is much more difficult than simply telling the truth.

The key to believability is to make a deal with the reader right up front. If you tell your audience immediately, at the very beginning, then they will willingly suspend their disbelief and go along with you. They will gladly accept all the blood-drinking, invisibility spells, and jet-packs with Gatling guns, even though they know it is impossible in the real world, as long as you have told them this is what you are going to do. Be honest, be upfront, and they will gladly go along for the ride.

The best example of this?… easy, Gregor Samsa. You know, Kafka, The Metamorphosis, one of the greatest opening lines in all of literature.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a night of uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

There it is. The only question is what kind of insect. Some translations use “Cockroach,” but if you read the rest of the story carefully it is obvious that he is not a cockroach, but something like a round dung-beetle, about the size of a large dog….

But I digress…

It is, of course, thankfully impossible to have some bad dreams and wake up squirming in your bed, late for work, and wondering where those extra legs and that jointed carapace has come from. But yet, that doesn’t take away from the emotional impact of poor Gregor and his hopeless predicament. We read on without any question and with nary a concern that the story never explains how this has happened (Was he bitten by a radioactive dung beetle? A Slytherin curse gone horribly wrong?).

The answer is that Kafka has made a deal with us in the first sentence. He has stated the rules (Gregor Samsa, giant vermin, no explanation, hang on) and we accept them or stop reading right there with no harm done.

 It is critical that this is done right away. In the course of the story we learn a lot about Gregor’s life before his transformation. Kafka could have written the story with a handful of pages illustrating Gregor’s gray existence, pre-vermin, and then sprung the change on, say, a third of the way through.

That would suck. We would hate it. We would think that the author made a cheap turn and changed the story from a drab description of hopelessness to a supernatural tale of witchcraft or something. He would have to explain why that had happened or we would throw apples and then toss the tome in the garbage.  But since Kafka knew to strike his bargain while the iron is hot, a classic is born.

Gregor Samsa

Well, what the hell does all this have to do with Kick-Ass?

The movie does the same thing.

When you read reactions to the movie, surprisingly, the biggest complaint isn’t the murderous little girl, the buckets of blood, or the feel-good ending. People complain that the movie made a right turn partway through. They gripe it starts out as a typical light teenage angst comedy, with a nerd struggling to be more than he has been, trying to get the hot girl, doing stupid stuff. After a bit of this it changes completely into… what it changes into.

These people weren’t paying attention.

Like Kafka, the screenwriter(s) told everybody, right at the beginning, exactly what was going to happen. They made a bargain with us (if we saw it) and that’s why the subsequent activities, while shocking, shouldn’t come as a complete surprise – they fit neatly into the bargain that is struck, we were warned.

Remember the first scene? Maybe you don’t. It’s an interesting bit. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. The single character is never mentioned again. I think the action takes place after the rest of the story has run its course and has no relationship with anything else that happens.

The Credit Clouds part – a man wearing a superhero outfit stands at a corner protrusion of a high office building. Far below, bystanders watch as he spreads bright red wings and then fearlessly pitches forward, head first, winged arms outstretched, plummeting toward the sidewalk at increasing speed. The heroic music swells as the crowd of onlookers smiles, cheers, and claps as the hero moves faster and faster.

Then, with a loud thump, he crashed into a Taxi, crushing it, and killing himself instantly. The real hero, in voiceover, explains that this is a person with a mental problem and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

Watch it here.

And there it is. The movie will be an exploration of everyman’s fascination with the Superhero myth, and how, when put to the test, the hero will be found wanting, with horrible and inevitable death the only possible result.

The entire movie in a nutshell. The violence. The sick humor. The theme of innocence lost in the face of a monstrous and dangerous world filled with evil.

Pay attention. You were warned.