Fiction in a World of Fear

by Andrea Scrima

Tragedies like the mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, and most recently (since this panel first aired last month) in Odessa bring everything to a stop. As we read the details and look at the pictures, we all pause, look around, and take stock of our priorities and what we hold dear. Writers are no different, except for the work we do. We’re often in the middle of describing a particular part of the world—when another part is suddenly falling apart.

Jon Roemer and David Winner polled a handful of active writers and asked how public tragedies impact their current and future work—projects that may or may not portray mass shootings. We aimed to gauge how writers deal with such landmark events in practical ways and how, if at all, their writing engages with violence in America.

QUESTION 1

In The New Yorker last year, Masha Gessen described the difficulty of defending the values and institutions currently under attack, because it requires “preserving meanings” and is “the opposite of imagination.” She aspired to “find a way to describe a world in which… imagination is not only operant but prized and nurtured.” On Facebook the Monday after the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, a different writer, Grant Faulkner, simply posted two words—“another killing”—over and over, hundreds of times. Gessen described traditionally crafted work, while the Facebook post is visceral and immediate. Where do you think your next work will land?

ANSWERS:

Jon Roemer: The Facebook post reflects what I was feeling the Monday after the shootings. But the fiction I’m writing now probably won’t be read for a year or more. So I think hard about its relevance, especially if we keep rushing toward more violence. Part of the job is to be forward-thinking. Just wish I could write and publish faster.

Zachary Lazar: I’m writing the most traditional novel of my life right now (though that isn’t saying much).  I simultaneously have no faith in the power of novels and total commitment to the novel as a thing, an art form, something I like. Mass shootings seem to me to be one symptom among many of our culture’s failure to address meaninglessness, to create meaning, and even though I don’t believe there is such a thing as meaning, the active pursuit of it is essential to sanity. I just don’t give a shit about social media. I guess it did good work during the Arab Spring but I think the role it plays in the U.S. right now is more or less comparable to the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s.  It makes TV look nourishing. Read more »

“Trapped Inside the Gaze of Strangers”: A Conversation with Aimee Parkison and Carol Guess

Andrea Scrima: Girl Zoo, which has just been published by the FC2 imprint of the University of Alabama Press, is a collection of stories that takes contemporary feminist theory on an odyssey through the collective capitalist subconscious. Scenes of female incarceration are nightmarish, hallucinatory: each story exists within its own universe and operates according to its own set of natural laws. But while there’s a fairy-tale quality to the telling, none of these stories departs very far from the everyday experience of institutionalized sexism: the all-too-familiar is magnified just enough to reveal its inherently devastating proportions.

Aimee, Carol, I wonder if we could begin by talking about the collaborative process. How did the idea come about to write a book together?

Aimee Parkison: As an artist, I’m always trying new things. I have a wide range and want to expand and explore. My creative process is vital to the way I experience the world. I like the excitement of a new project, a new idea. I write all sorts of stories, from flash fictions to long narratives, from experimental to traditional, from realism to surrealism. Some of my fictions are character-based and others more conceptual. I often focus on the lives of women and am known for revisionist approaches to narrative and poetic language. My writing is often categorized as experimental or innovative. I’ve published five books of fiction, story collections, and a short novel. I’ve been published widely in literary journals. Among my previous books are Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman (FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize) and a short novel, The Petals of Your Eyes (Starcherone/Dzanc). I admire Carol’s writing and had interviewed her for a couple of articles I was writing for AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle magazine. A year or so after the interview, she emailed me, inviting me to do a collaboration.

Carol Guess: My approach to writing came through music and dance. Years ago, I studied ballet and moved to New York to try to make a career in that world. Obviously that didn’t happen, but my early experience with failure made me determined to be good at something else! I’d always written for pleasure, so I began taking my writing more seriously, initially focusing on poetry. I did my MFA in poetry; I’ve never actually taken a class in fiction writing. I put my first novel together as an experiment. I wanted to teach myself how to write a novel, and so I did. Since then I’ve published twenty books, each one an experiment and a challenge. I’ll ask myself, “What would happen if …” and then set out to answer my own question. Read more »

A Faint Distrust of Words

INTERVIEW BETWEEN ANDREA SCRIMA (A LESSER DAY)

AND CHRISTOPHER HEIL (Literaturverlag Droschl)

Novels set in New York and Berlin of the 1980s and 1990s, in other words, just as subculture was at its apogee and the first major gentrification waves in various neighborhoods of the two cities were underway—particularly when they also try to tell the coming-of-age story of a young art student maturing into an artist—these novels run the risk of digressing into art scene cameos and excursions on drug excess. In her novel A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, second edition 2018), Andrea Scrima purposely avoids effects of this kind. Instead, she concentrates on quietly capturing moments that illuminate her narrator’s ties to the locations she’s lived in and the lives she’s lived there.

When she looks back over more than fifteen years from the vantage of the early 2000s and revisits an era of personal and political upheaval, it’s not an ordering in the sense of a chronological sequence of life events that the narrator is after. Her story pries open chronology and resists narration, much in the way that memories refuse to follow a linear sequence, but suddenly spring to mind. Only gradually, like the small stones of a mosaic, do they join to form a whole.

In 1984, a crucial change takes place in the life of the 24-year-old art student: a scholarship enables her to move from New York to West Berlin. Language, identity, and place of residence change. But it’s not her only move from New York to Berlin; in the following years, she shuttles back and forth between Germany and the US multiple times. The individual sections begin with street names in Kreuzberg, Williamsburg, and the East Village: Eisenbahnstrasse, Bedford Avenue, Ninth Street, Fidicinstrasse, and Kent Avenue. The novel takes on an oscillating motion as the narrator circles around the coordinates of her personal biography. In an effort of contemplative remembrance, she seeks out the places and objects of her life, and in describing them, concentrating on them, she finds herself. The extraordinary perception and precision with which these moments of vulnerability, melancholy, loss, and transformation are described are nothing less than haunting and sensuous, enigmatic and intense. Read more »

Banglaphone Fiction III

by Claire Chambers

Something rather different comes out of fiction by three Bengali women writers based in Britain, as compared to the male authors I examined in Banglaphone Fiction I and II. In this third and final part of the essay, I first examine Monica Ali who, in her novel Brick Lane, mostly evokes life in Britain, with only occasional and usually proleptic descriptions of Bangladesh. By contrast, Sunetra Gupta's Memories of Rain is at once intercontinental, urban, and stateless – often all within a single sentence. The final author Tahmima Anam deploys an alternative strategy again, choosing, in A Golden Age and The Good Muslim, to abjure representations of Britain altogether, in favour of a concentrated focus on the Bangladeshi nation.

Let us begin by looking at a resonant passage from the early part of Brick Lane, Monica Ali's 2003 novel that like Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize:

‘This is another disease that afflicts us,' said the doctor. ‘I call it Going Home Migrants at AirportSyndrome. Do you know what that means?' He addressed himself to Nazneen. …
‘[W]hen they have saved enough they will get on an aeroplane and go?'
‘They don't ever really leave home. Their bodies are here but their hearts are back there. And anyway, look how they live: just recreating the villages here. … But they will never save enough to go back. … Every year they think, just one more year. But whatever they save, it's never enough.'
‘We would not need very much,' said Nazneen. Both men looked at her. She spoke to her plate.

No text exemplifies more clearly the contrast between the England-returned and the myth of return Monica Ali - currently approachingmigrants that I discuss elsewhere than Brick Lane. The above quotation illustrates what the medical man Dr Azad calls ‘Going Home Syndrome', a disease that he claims afflicts Bangladeshi migrants. This links with a strand in the novel about the migrant's sense of being out of place, which can lead to mental illness such as Nazneen's collapse due to ‘nervous exhaustion'. (See Esra Santesso's Disorientation for a good reading of this.)

Probably the most important means by which migrants either try to assimilate in the host country or turn away from it towards the homeland is through education. At first, Nazneen's husband Chanu imagines himself to be immune to Going Home Syndrome, and tries instead to make a life for himself in Britain. When he arrives in England, all Chanu has is the usual few pounds in his pocket, along with the significant additional item of his degree certificate. In England he undertakes classes in everything from nineteenth-century economics to cycling proficiency, and acquires further certificates. These he frames and displays on the wall of his and Nazneen's poky Tower Hamlets home, as a talisman of his hopes of promotion at work and the consequent acquisition of a comfortable life in London. Yet his dreams remain unrealized, whether because of institutional racism at his work or his own incompetence is never made clear. Chanu's aspirations then take a bitter turn towards his becoming an England-returned success story. He clings increasingly to the fantasy of returning to Dhaka in financial and social triumph. However, as sociologist Muhammad Anwar argues, this notion of return migration often proves to be a myth, especially because wives and children help men to put down roots in the new country. Nazneen and especially her young daughters Shahana and Bibi fear their father's longed-for homecoming. The rationale for going back to Dhaka is tenuously based on a saviour complex – to rescue Nazneen's sister, the vulnerable ingenue Hasina whose unwittingly alarming letters to Nazneen about sexual grooming and exploitation pepper the narrative – but the three women now have roots in Britain. They decide to stay on. Trailing clouds of defeat more than glory, the patriarch Chanu goes home on his own.

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Do Good Books Improve Us?

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_465 Jan. 20 11.14Does reading good literature make us better people? The idea that exposure to good art is morally beneficial goes back at least to Plato. Although he was famously suspicious of the effects that tragic and epic poetry might have on the youth, Plato takes it for granted that art of the right kind can be edifying and that therein lies its primary value. Most educators from Plato's time to the present have made similar assumptions, even though they may disagree over what sort of effects are desirable and therefore which sort of books should be read. In the past a lot of powerful art has glorified tradition, upheld religion, celebrated national identity, and helped foster social cohesion. This is the sort of art that often appeals to conservatives. Today, by contrast, much more emphasis is placed on art's critical function, its capacity to make us more informed, aware, self-aware, thoughtful and questioning, particularly in relation to aspects of contemporary culture that the artist finds troubling.

Obviously, no one expects every important work of fiction to precipitate some great moral awakening or social reform after the fashion of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Nor do we expect to see patrons of a New York literary festival dispensing cash to street people as they wait for their cabs after a reading. The moral and social benefits of art identified by critics are usually more subtle. Typical academic commentary on fiction, for instance, will see its importance as lying in the way it enlarges our moral imagination, helps us to grasp another's point of view, sensitizes us to another's feelings or sufferings, warns us against certain kinds of illusion, exposes insidious forms of cruelty, shows us how to avoid self-deception, impresses on us some profound truth, strengthens our sense of self, and so on. This approach receives theoretical support in works such as Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, and John Carey's What Good are the Arts?

A huge amount of literary criticism is of this sort, and it can certainly be interesting, insightful, and entertaining to read. But I also believe that it might be useful, for once, to meet it with a robust, even vulgar skepticism. I would not deny that literary works are sometimes capable of having desirable effects of the kind just mentioned on individuals and society. But I believe that in most cases, such benefits are either negligible, or short-lived or non-existent. They certainly provide a rather flimsy reason for valuing the works. Compared to the much more obvious good of the enjoyment we derive from reading fiction and poetry, their value as instruments of edification is like the light of stars against the light of a full moon.

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Tips for (Fiction and/or Comic) Writers

by Tauriq Moosa

Putting one word, one letter, after the other in order to make a coherent sentence is something most of us can do: you are currently doing it now, except you are forced to ride the tracks of comprehension as laid down by words I choose. There are some of us, stupidly, who are aiming to make this into our profession, in whatever medium most suits our tastes, personality, and continual interest. Having recently begun a thesis, I needed a way to not view writing as a, sometimes, tortuous process, dealing with multiple medical and philosophical and political documents. I decided to dabble in writing comics or, rather, graphic novels.

It’s quite a strange move for me, considering I’ve only started reading comics recently. But that’s not what matters.

What I’d like to do is convey some tips to those looking into writing fiction, in general, and comic fiction, in particular. Because I don’t think people interested in writing creatively are necessarily interested in graphic-novel writing, I will separate the general and specific tips I’ve picked up.

However, here is a disclaimer: I am not a published or recognised writer. I am a complete amateur. Indeed, I have a number of synopses and plot outlines, but no firmly attached artists or publishers to any of them. Finding artists, when you cannot draw, cannot pay, or are an unknown is one of the most difficult aspects of comic writing. This is my current problem, but then I’m in two minds about this as I will explain later. What I am presenting to you is the end results of hundreds of articles I’ve read and discussions I’ve had with more successful people. So I'm not going to keep writing “…but that's just my view at the moment” or “…but do realise this is one person's perspective…”. You've got you're disclaimer. Move on.

TIPS FOR WRITING (FICTION)

1. Read.

This is the second most insulting instruction you can give to someone interested in writing (I’ll tell you the most insulting one at the end). However, it is not unheard of for writers to be lazy or non-readers. I’m thinking of the great Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who wrote beautifully and powerfully, but was not himself an avid reader.

By read, I mean read everything. Published authors and editors constantly state that being unaware of the medium is common problem. You could at the very least simply retell an existing story. Or you could be unaware that your “highly original” idea has not only been duplicated, but told by a writer infinitely more talented (this happened to me and an Ian McEwan story).

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And Another ‘Thing’ : Sci-Fi Truths and Nature’s Errors

by Daniel Rourke

In my last 3quarksdaily article I considered the ability of science-fiction – and the impossible objects it contains – to highlight the gap between us and ‘The Thing Itself’ (the fundamental reality underlying all phenomena). In this follow-up I ask whether the way these fictional ‘Things’ determine their continued existence – by copying, cloning or imitation – can teach us about our conception of nature.

Seth Brundle: What’s there to take? The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don’t have to worry about contagion anymore… I know what the disease wants.

Ronnie: What does the disease want?

Seth Brundle: It wants to… turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

Ronnie: Turned into what?

Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I’m becoming something that never existed before. I’m becoming… Brundlefly. Don’t you think that’s worth a Nobel Prize or two?

The Fly, 1986

In David Cronenberg’s movie The Fly (1986) we watch through slotted fingers as the body of Seth Brundle is horrifically transformed. Piece by piece Seth becomes Brundlefly: a genetic monster, fused together in a teleportation experiment gone awry. In one tele-pod steps Seth, accompanied by an unwelcome house-fly; from the other pod emerges a single Thing born of their two genetic identities. The computer algorithm designed to deconstruct and reconstruct biology as pure matter cannot distinguish between one entity and another. The parable, as Cronenberg draws it, is simple: if all the world is code then ‘all the world’ is all there is.

Vincent Price in 'The Fly', 1958Science fiction is full of liminal beings. Creatures caught in the phase between animal and human, between alien and Earthly, between the material and the spirit. Flowing directly from the patterns of myth Brundlefly is a modern day Minotaur: a manifestation of our deep yearning to coalesce with natural forces we can’t understand. The searing passions of the bull, its towering stature, are fused in the figure of the Minotaur with those of man. The resultant creature is too fearsome for this world, too Earthly to exist in the other, and so is forced to wander through a labyrinth hovering impossibly between the two. Perhaps Brundlefly’s labyrinth is the computer algorithm winding its path through his genetic code. As a liminal being, Brundlefly is capable of understanding both worlds from a sacred position, between realities. His goal is reached, but at a cost too great for an Earthly being to understand. Seth the scientist sacrifices himself and there is no Ariadne’s thread to lead him back.

In her book on monsters, aliens and Others Elaine L. Graham reminds us of the thresholds these ‘Things’ linger on:

“[H]uman imagination, by giving birth to fantastic, monstrous and alien figures, has… always eschewed the fiction of fixed species. Hybrids and monsters are the vehicles through which it is possible to understand the fabricated character of all things, by virtue of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle.”

Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human

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‘The Thing Itself’ : A Sci-Fi Archaeology

by Daniel Rourke

Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist stumbles into a sprawling abandoned museum. Sweeping the dust off ancient relics he ponders his machine’s ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that The Time Traveller has an astounding revelation. The museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his own future: The Time Traveller is surrounded by relics whose potential to speak slipped away with the civilisation that created them.

Having bypassed the normal laws of causality The Time Traveller is doomed to inhabit strands of history plucked from time’s grander web. Unable to grasp a people’s history – the conditions that determine them – one will always misunderstand them.

Archaeology derives from the Greek word arche, which literally means the moment of arising. Aristotle foregrounded the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a Thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in Itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of that Thing. In a sense, archaeology is as much about the present instant, as it is about the fragmentary past. We work on what remains through the artefacts that make it into our museums, our senses and even our language. But to re-energise those artefacts, to bring them back to life, the tools we have access to do much of the speaking.

The Things ThemselvesLike the unseen civilisations of H.G.Wells’ museum, these Things in Themselves lurk beyond the veil of our perceptions. It is the world in and of Itself; the Thing as it exists distinct from perceptions, from emotions, sensations, from all phenomenon, that sets the conditions of the world available to those senses. Perceiving the world, sweeping dust away from the objects around us, is a constant act of archaeology.

Kant called this veiled reality the noumenon, a label he interchanged with The-Thing-Itself (Ding an Sich). That which truly underlies what one may only infer through the senses. For Kant, and many philosophers that followed, The Thing Itself is impossible to grasp directly. The senses we use to search the world also wrap that world in a cloudy haze of perceptions, misconceptions and untrustworthy phenomena.

In another science fiction classic, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem considered the problem of The Thing Itself as one of communication. His Master’s Voice (HMV), written at the height of The Cold War, tells the story of a team of scientists and their attempts to decipher an ancient, alien message transmitted on the neutrino static streaming from a distant star. The protagonist of this tale, one Peter Hogarth, recounts the failed attempts at translation with a knowing, deeply considered cynicism. To Peter, and to Stanislaw Lem himself, true contact with an alien intelligence is an absolute impossibility:

“In the course of my work… I began to suspect that the ‘letter from the stars’ was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological association test, a particularly complex Rorschach test. For as a subject, believing he sees in the coloured blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills in the vagueness of the thing shown with what is ‘on his mind’, so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.”

Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice

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A Diatribe from the Remains of Dr. Fred McCabe

by Daniel Rourke

About a month ago in handling the remains of one Dr. Fred McCabe I found rich notes of contemplation on the subject of information theory. It appears that Fred could have written an entire book on the intricacies of hidden data, encoded messages and deceptive methods of transmission. Instead his notes exist in the form of a cryptic assemblage of definitions and examples, arranged into what Dr. McCabe himself labelled a series of ‘moments’.

I offer these moments alongside some of the ten thousand images Dr. McCabe amassed in a separate, but intimately linked, archive. The preface to this abridged compendium is little capable of preparing one for the disarray of material, but by introducing this text with Fred’s own words it is my hope that a sense of the larger project will take root in the reader’s fertile imagination.

The Moment of the Message: A Diatribe

by Dr. Fred McCabe

More than ten thousand books on mathematics and a thousand books on philosophy exist for every one upon information. This is surprising. It must mean something.

I want to give you a message. But first. I have to decide how to deliver the message.

This is that moment.

I can write it down, or perhaps memorise it – reciting it in my head like a mantra, a prayer chanted in the Palace gardens. And later, speaking in your ear, I will repeat it to you. That is, if you want to hear it.

I could send it to you, by post, or telegram. After writing it down I will transmit it to you. Broadcasting on your frequency in the hope that you will be tuned in at the right moment. Speaking your language. Encoded and encrypted, only you will understand it.

I have a message for you and I want you to receive it. But first. I have to decide what the message is.

This is that moment:

This is the moment of the message

From the earliest days of information theory it has been appreciated that information per se is not a good measure of message value. The value of a message appears to reside not in its information (its absolutely unpredictable parts) but rather in what might be called its redundancy—parts predictable only with difficulty, things the receiver could in principle have figured out without being told, but only at considerable cost in money, time, or computation. In other words, the value of a message is the amount of work plausibly done by its originator, which its receiver is saved from having to repeat.

This is the moment my water arrived at room temperature

The term enthalpy comes from the Classical Greek prefix en-, meaning “to put into”, and the verb thalpein, meaning “to heat”.

For a simple system, with a constant number of particles, the difference in enthalpy is the maximum amount of thermal energy derivable from a thermodynamic process in which the pressure is held constant.

This is the moment the wafer became the body of Christ

The Roman Catholic Church got itself into a bit of a mess. Positing God as the victim of the sacrifice introduced a threshold of undecidability between the human and the divine. The simultaneous presence of two natures, which also occurs in transubstantiation, when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, threatens to collapse the divine into the human; the sacred into the profane. The question of whether Christ really is man and God, of whether the wafer really is bread and body, falters between metaphysics and human politics. The Pope, for all his failings, has to decide the undecidable.

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