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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, December 31, 2005

out with the old

I'm running out of 2005--although not as much as others around the globe, since anywhere east of about Germany is already in the new year. Vancouver is one of the world's "latest" populated places. So be it: I'm usually the last to accomplish anything.

We'll spend it quietly, as ever. Robin is going out to dinner and on to a house-party; I hear the shower running upstairs as she prepares. But Kimmie and I have not gone out for New Year's in some time. I believe the last time was when we joined her brother's family down at Pasparos Taverna for a Greek dinner, probably before going on to her niece's place to actually usher in the new year. A few years before that we went to Pierre's, a nearby French restaurant (now gone, alas) and had an excellent dinner before being served champagne and party hats for midnight.

Years ago I had a clear memory of exactly how I'd spent every new year's eve from about, well, 1972 on. That ended sometime in the late 1980s, when Kimmie and I were living together and our new years became quiet and indistinguishable. I have spent two new year's eves away from home: in 1978-9 I was with Tim in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, fighting to stay awake till midnight in our 1970 Volkswagen Westfalia, possibly even having some Spanish sparkling wine to celebrate. The ships in the harbor all blasted their horns at the stroke of midnight, just as they do here in Vancouver. In 1981-2 I was in Tel Aviv, Israel, and by chance was invited to a private party by a girl who ran a snack bar where I'd had lunch. I was delighted, since my fellow hostel-dwellers were stuck at the hostel with each other. I brought in 1982 dancing and swigging scotch in an apartment somewhere off the beach. The hostess paid me the compliment of appearing at midnight to give me a kiss to bring in the new year. Wow!

I have long been interested in the symbolism of the new year, and indeed, in my earlier (unpublished) novel, Truth of the Python, the story opens on New Year's Eve, 1990, which was also a full moon (I made it into a lunar eclipse as well). Mircea Eliade discusses the symbolism of the ancient new year, as exemplified in the great festival in Babylon, in The Myth of the Eternal Return. The end of the year was the destruction of profane time and the elimination of the accumulated sins of society for the past year. The initiation of the new year was a rebirth of society, when all its citizens and institutions would start afresh, stamped out anew from their pristine cosmic models. In ancient Rome it was the Saturnalia, festival of the winter solstice, in which public gambling was permitted and masters served their slaves--an inversion of society to show that it had become scrambled, chaotic, and ready for rebirth. This myth still underlies our modern new year's parties (decadent, chaotic) and our custom of new year's resolutions: leaving one's sins behind and starting afresh as a new person.

Tonight Kimmie is making seafood chowder as a treat, and we'll watch the next installment of Paul's Rom-Com Festival: Bridget Jones's Diary with Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth.

But first: I'll build a fire, drink some tea, and do some reading. Now that's what I call fun.

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

thinking during domestic hibernation

I enjoy the period between Christmas and New Year. In a novel I wrote back in the late 80s and early 90s, called Truth of the Python (about a hypnotherapist who accidentally regresses a client to a past life as the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras), I used the phrase "domestic hibernation" to describe this week of the year--and it is still apt. For me there is a feeling of true vacation, of hiatus between the old year just past and the new one not yet begun. I feel a lightening of shoulds in my life and a sense of permission to do what I please.

This year, that has meant delving into the question of identity and what it means. My philosophical self has emerged with full force. I have been spending the early mornings keying notes from the books Acquiring Genomes, Identity: Youth and Crisis, and In the Name of Identity. Yesterday I created a new Word document in a folder labeled Thinking, where I file notes of my thoughts on various topics; the new document is entitled Identity.

Why am I so thirstily in quest of identity? I have long realized that the issue is a central one in my novel. As I was structuring my story I came to recognize how much it was making its presence felt, and as I have drafted the prose it has pressed forward more and more as an issue. Finally a kind of ignition temperature has been reached: the question has caught fire and become urgent to me. I recognized that I don't know very much about identity. What is it, exactly? Where does it come from?

When I typed the phrase "caught fire" and "become urgent", I see the connection with a dream I had last night. I have already written the dream down. Here it is:

I'm with Dad, heading up through the Edgemont area toward a fire alarm, seemingly at Handsworth High School. I may have been talking about the necessity of having drills, at least weekly, in order to have orderly responses to fire alarms. People need to practice in order to be proficient in an emergency. Now the alarm is going--but is it a drill, or the real thing?

Somehow the talk of fire drills and volunteer firemen makes me think of Carisbrooke Park and also Deep Cove: as though these are places where there are local firehalls, and where therefore people need to practice. I'm thinking that three hours a week would be enough, maybe on Saturday mornings.

Traffic is jammed in the reaction to the emergency. As though from on high, I can see the main street (Lonsdale? Edgemont?) become jammed with cars, and on-ramps get backed up. I see cars accumulate in a herringbone pattern on one ramp, the last few are taxis who try to surge ahead and there is a rear-end collision by the last one. "It figures," I think, disgusted.

We get out of our bus, figuring we can make better time on foot. It looks like 1st Street between St. Georges and Lonsdale, but is maybe supposed to be higher up, like at Balmoral in upper Lonsdale. I run, jumping up over obstacles like boulders and concrete debris on the old, broken road. Dad keeps pace with me, and Kimmie is also with us, trying to keep up. I can't wait--this is a civic emergency, and I have a role to play.

Dad and I are in cheerful, friendly spirits. We're talking about meteorites hitting the earth. Meteorites rain down all the time, but small ones get burnt up in the atmosphere. We're joking about being hit by one. I say something like, "Even one the size of a rice-grain would feel like you’re being shot by a BB gun." Dad flinches comically at the thought of this, and I picture being hit by a small meteorite--what would it feel like? Would I survive?

I make my way through the traffic snarl-up in Edgemont Village (or a place like it), perhaps leaving Dad behind too because of the emergency. I might be a journalist, working on a feature that relates to the emergency, and so may get special attention or access. I get to the high school, which is full of normal-looking kids (no sense of emergency here), and run up the stairs, knowing that the emergency room, bell room, is on the second floor.

I'm on a landing of the stairs, wondering which way to go. I ask a student, a teenage girl, where to find it. She may direct me, or she may try to get me to go to another room, where another event is happening that she supports. I am impressed with her calm, mature, intelligent demeanor.

I might finally make it to the room where the alarm is controlled; but I forget what happens...

The issue of identity has deep roots. Here are some thoughts from Amin Maalouf, author of In the Name of Identity (slightly compressed):

My identity is what prevents me from being identical to anybody else.

Each individual's identity is made up of a number of elements. These factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality--sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that. A person may feel a more or less strong attachment to a province, a village, a neighborhood, a clan, a professional team, a union, a company, a parish, a community of people with the same passions.

None is entirely insignificant. All are components of personality--we might almost call them "genes of the soul."

While each of these elements may be found separately in many individuals, the same combination of them is never encountered in different people, and it's this that makes each human being unique and irreplaceable.

From this point of view, one's identity is the intersection of all the sets to which one belongs, in my case male, white, North Vancouverite, (sometime) Buddhist, and so on. This intersection is unique for each person.

As I thought about this yesterday, I arrived at the idea that these sets do not all have the same value in identity-formation. Maalouf says as much in passing, before turning to a few that are of special importance for his main topic. But in my thinking I figured that the important sets will be of those qualities that are inseparable from oneself (such as one's sex or place of birth), and those that are deliberately chosen (such as a faith one has converted to, or a country one has emigrated to).

But sets are conceptual constructs that do not exactly coincide with reality. I'm a Canadian--but what after all is a Canadian? The conceptual category seems clear, but on the ground it is not. I was born in Canada and am a Canadian citizen, so my Canadianness seems solid. But what about Quebeckers and aboriginals and landed immigrants? What about children born to Canadian parents abroad, and who are therefore citizens of that other country? Or at sea? What about children of one Canadian parent? What about someone granted Canadian citizenship by mistake or through fraud? What about someone born in a place where Canadian sovereignty is challenged by other countries? In at least some of these cases the boundary conditions of "Canadianness" are being tested; such individuals may feel a diluted or conflicted or incomplete sense of being Canadian.

My point: while the category "Canadian" seems clear, its application is not. Concepts do not and cannot match reality exactly. Therefore an identity that is forged purely of concepts is inherently mismatched with reality.

This got me thinking about another angle on identity: ego as understood in Buddhism. I spent time in my office yesterday going through my notes and books from three years ago, while I was studying at Gampo Abbey and Nitartha Institute. I couldn't find what I was looking for (a stack of vocabulary index-cards with definitions on them), and felt a vague sense of loss and chagrin. But I certainly remembered that the whole project of Buddhism, at least for the beginning practitioner, is discovering the emptiness of ego: that the thing we call I has no absolute existence. Does this mean identity is a non-issue?

There is, as always, much more to say. Another time...

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Monday, December 26, 2005

inconclusive questing

The day is wet and mild. Naked black trees were silhouetted against the bright strip of light over the south horizon as Kimmie and I walked in the Wall Street neighborhood of Vancouver this afternoon. On Triumph Street people had set up lavish displays of Christmas decorations in an effort to win a lighting contest: life-sized nativity scenes, flocks of log-and-stick reindeer, whole plantations of stylized white Christmas trees on lawns covered with white foam to simulate a snowed-in look.

"I have to come back here at night!" Kimmie said, ever a decoration enthusiast.

We made our way in a criss-cross pattern through the streets, mainly looking at the old houses, of which there are many fine specimens in the neighborhood. Sidewalks were poured there in 1930 and 1931, so the oldest houses are a few years older than that Craftsman bungalows and the tall clapboard houses called "builder's boxes" from the World War One era. A few bare oak-trees were alive with the liquid twittering song of starlings. Overhead gulls squealed hoarsely, floating low over the lanes.

It's been a good Christmas. Over the years we have been able to pare down the event so that it is not a manic rush of shopping and visiting, just a couple of small family gatherings and gifts exchanged only within our household. Kimmie gave me jeans and navy-blue moccasins and a blue-gray fleece (among other things); I gave her a gray skirt with black floral needlework and a black coat with a fake-fur collar. Robin gave me a bottle of Glenmorangie single-malt scotch--much appreciated (and not yet tasted--but soon, soon).

Feeling that I'm on to an important thread, I have been digging into the question of identity and selfhood, reading the material I've got and buying a few more books that I think might help me. It feels partly like a sidetrack, since it has nothing directly to do with the ancient world, and yet I also feel the question is central to my story, so it counts as thematic research. I'm not sure what I expect to find; all my deepest research, my philosophical questing in life, has been inconclusive. I dig and I search, I read and I think and I write; but there is no feeling of "click" for me--the sense that I've arrived somewhere.

Nonetheless, that is where my passion is taking me. I feel like one riding a dogsled. The dogs are out of control, pulling the sled where they want to go. The idea of steering or control is out of the question; I have to hang on or be left behind.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

singlehanded construction

Heavyish rain pours down on this dark but warm day. Kimmie and I both felt recovered enough from our colds to take a walk out in it, and even lug our liquor purchases (3 large bottles of wine, 1 bottle vodka, 1 bottle vermouth, 6 bottles beer) home on our backs. Whew. We've changed out of our wet jeans and into lounging attire: sweatpants etc.

Kimmie has spent much of the day baking: mainly something to do with chocolate, and lots of it. The Kitchen Aid that we bought a couple of years ago has been whirring continually.

As for me, I nosed ahead with notes for chapter 20. My inquiries took me back to the character Hillel, now called Hillel the Great, and the different Jewish theologies of that period. Locating the beliefs of my characters is long, slow work. Hillel is now a legendary figure, often leaned on as one of the immediate precursors of rabbinic Judaism, which did not really exist as such until after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. He is now most famous for his so-called negative formulation of the Golden Rule: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go, study."

The last directive--"go, study"--was a key instruction of Hillel's; he believed that an ignorant man could not be truly devout. By the time of his death he was hailed as a second Ezra, the scribe famous for seeking new glue to hold the shattered nation of Israel together after the first destruction of its temple and its deportation to Babylonia: universal adherence to the Mosaic Law. Scribe was a job-title of the Hellenistic world generally: scribes were the bureaucrats in Eastern monarchies responsible for record-keeping, including the keeping and interpretation of laws. In the Jewish context, the scribe was a kind of sacred lawyer: a man learned in the Law and its interpretation. With the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC, the priests had lost their raison d'être and those proficient in the Law rose in prominence. When the temple was rebuilt in 517 BC the priests would recover their function in maintaining its cult, but the scribes would continue to grow in importance as expertise in the Law would become a full-time occupation in its own right. The priests and the scribes would form the main pools from which would arise the parties known respectively as the Sadducees and Pharisees.

Hillel was a Pharisee. But the name Pharisee also covered a wide range of attitudes and beliefs, all held (more or less) together by a common acceptance of what's known as the Oral Law, the spiritual equivalent of what we would call the common law: the law of precedent, as established by judgments already made on contentious issues. There was a vast tradition of such judgments, often competing or even contradictory judgments. Everything depended on the authority of those making the judgments. Hillel introduced a systematic methodology for reasoning from scripture in order to rationalize the procedure for arriving at new judgments, and increase the likelihood of consensus. His interpretive system was derived from the techniques of literary analysis already in use in the wider Hellenistic world.

I perused the material I've keyed on Hillel--he has his own document in the Characters folder. Hm, the last entry I made here was in March 2005.

When Kimmie and I walked home from the liquor store down on Esplanade (all uphill), we trudged up the lane between 4th and 5th streets. Off that lane, facing Lonsdale, is a three-story apartment building, coated in pink stucco. It has been under construction for at least the last eight years, and is still unoccupied. While I was still working at ICBC I would walk past it every day, and observe the slow progress. There was never more than a couple of guys working on it at any one time, and often only one guy. Our theory was that the lot owner had decided, for some reason, to build the whole thing single-handedly. Indeed, that's what it looks like. What must it be like for him? I think I know. You finally finish installing the balcony doors on the third floor, then look down at the piles of gravel and dirt you had dumped on the lot 17 months ago: "Ah yes--time to start the landscaping..."

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

solstitial shopping

Kimmie still struggles under her cold (is right now resting on our leather sofa in front of the fire upstairs). We were both up early, before 6:00. I came down to work on my project but found I had enough motivation only to do some note-keying (Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, Identity) before heading out Christmas shopping with ace shopper Robin. Couldn't quite make myself open up the chapter and try to lure in some more creative ideas.

The shopping went well. It was tiring for me, mainly because of the geographic distance covered (had to drive out to Surrey in the warm, pounding rain to pick up my main present for Kimmie). It was nice having her with me: calm, knowledgeable, fun. Not just the solo middle-aged man floating like a lost soul through the Boschesque galleries of the suburban mall...

Now I will rejoin Kimmie at the fireside. Might as well enjoy that expensive firewood--who knows when they might outlaw wood fireplaces? Everything changes.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

writing, teeth, and shopping

Kimmie, still in the throes of the cold (cough phase had moved in), was off work again today. Tomorrow her vacation days start for Christmas, so there we are: a strange week.

With errands to do later, I jumped on my project first thing. I thought about the situation in my current chapter, and came up with a few more ideas. It's almost like waiting for the arrival of keepable ideas, and accumulating these in a little pile until I have enough. Today was good because I started feeling some flares of excitement for my chapter: possibility. Could this be dramatic? Fun? Have something interesting and diverting to say?

Each chapter is a big stretch from the outlines: the short outline, which gives about six sentences' worth of material; and the detailed outline, which, in this case, gives even fewer--four (the reason being that I didn't really have anything more to say about the action when I created the detailed outline). Those few sentences I have to expand to about 6,000 words of dramatic action. The results have to happen unexpectedly, through conflict. It's a tall order. The only thing the outline more or less assures me of is that if I can make those events happen, then this chapter will fit in with the rest of my story and indeed make the rest of my story possible.

The material this morning had me doing some cultural research, which quickly started sparking ideas. Reading about Jewish marriage contracts and bride-price negotiations got me thinking of things, happily.

Then: off to the dentist in Vancouver for teeth-cleaning, and then some attempted Christmas shopping, mostly a bust due to the appalling parking problems. Under the gun in the warm rain, I decided to bail on finding a spot downtown and went to Park Royal in West Van, where I was almost rammed by a woman cutting in front of me to get what she thought was about to be an empty parking stall. Depressed at what has become of humanity, I left that mall and did a couple of final errands in North Van, close to home. I bought two things.

According to our Western Canada Wilderness Committee calendar, the winter solstice is tomorrow at 10:45 a.m. local time (I just checked that against my American Ephemeris for the 21st Century 2001 to 2050, using a rough calculation--it checks out). The sun will kiss the Tropic of Capricorn and make its way north for the next six months.

Now the days are dark. And so are my thoughts, rather.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

philosophy and fiction

Still in the late stage of my cold, but my head is relatively clear. Kimmie, on the other hand, is in full-blown acute nasopharyngitis, and home from work today. She putters upstairs, wrapping Christmas presents.

Yesterday, after my post about my interest in learning more about evil and buying a book online about it (that order got canceled; had to order another copy from a different seller in Carlsbad, California), I picked up the novel Shantaram at teatime and read chapter 23. I was surprised to discover that the chapter was centered on a long discussion of evil between the protagonist Lin and the Bombay crime-boss Khader. I had a strong feeling of meaningful coincidence--of things being brought together for me at exactly this time, because I need them now.

As I make my way through Shantaram I am developing ever more respect for its author, Gregory David Roberts. I continue to enjoy the book and even, recently, felt a slight temptation to keep reading after I had finished a chapter--something I probably haven't felt (for a novel) for 20 years! (I didn't give in; I would have been reading only for information--to find out what happens--and it would no longer be an aesthetic experience. Occasionally I will indulge this urge with nonfiction, since I am usually reading that only for information, but even then I find that my enjoyment of a book quickly tails off. Usually I prefer simply to switch books in order to keep the reading experience fresh-feeling.)

As I read chapter 23 I recognized that Roberts takes his philosophy seriously: that one of his self-descriptors in the novel's second paragraph ("a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime") was not a mere throwaway but an earnest statement of a major interest of his. In this chapter Khader, the fatherly, intellectual, Muslim mafia boss, who bestows teachings and blessings on his many clients and underlings in the manner of an Asian holy man, expounds his own philosophy of evil as relating to the modern science of complexity and the scientific concept of the tendency toward complexity: good is that which works with the universe toward greater complexity; evil is that which works against it. It was an interesting, serious take on evil, and Roberts spent a good number of pages on it as Lin tried to understand what he was being told. At the same time it was part of the character dynamic unfolding between Lin, the fugitive convict who has severed his past life from himself, and Khader, an adoptive father-figure. How can a crime-boss be dispensing spiritual teachings? I don't know--but he can, and he does.

It is just one of countless paradoxes of the Indian world that Roberts portrays. And Lin is his own kind of paradox: a dried-out drug addict, violent criminal, and street-fighter who is also ingenuous, romantic, and poetic. If he were written in the third person he might be impossible to accept: for he is almost impossibly heroic in many ways (defying oppressors, saving people's lives, doing acts of great selflessness and generosity). But as a first-person character Lin conveys a believable sense of no-big-dealness to his actions. Aware of his dark side, he feels no special pride in his light.

So: at 497 pages in I am enjoying Shantaram just as much as I did on page 1--a rare occurrence. Doubly so, considering that the novel, for its size, is structurally rather simple and slight. There are a couple of simple story-questions on the go--the things we want to find out--but they proceed slowly, slowly. Roberts, like India, is in no rush, and has countless wonders to unfold to the visitor en route. It's as though the real story is about Lin's salvation, but Lin himself has no awareness of this, so the narration is all about the phantasmagoria of his existence--the heavens and hells visited by the soul on its way to its destiny.

The day slips away. Think I'll do some more reading right now.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

the responsibility gene

After a day of laborious coughing, my cold is dying off. Kimmie is now fighting its onset with ginseng capsules. Mainly though she's puttering happily in the kitchen, devoting the day to Xmas baking.

And me, I spent the morning down here in the office keying notes. I had not a great deal of inspiration with any one topic, so I floated from book to book--Beyond the Essene Hypothesis; Identity: Youth and Crisis; Peoples, Nations and Cultures; A History of Warfare. I found myself venturing out to Amazon.com to see what I could find on the subject of evil, a key topic for the Essenes and Jewish theology of that period in general. What do I really know about evil, anyway? A search based on the word evil brought up two books on the subject. By far the more promising was Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister (4.5-star average rating). I went to Abebooks.com and bought a used copy there from a bookseller in Gilroy, California. I love having books traveling toward me in the mail!

Again, I spent more time doing book-related work today than I usually would on a Sunday, and again I put it down to having a cold. Being sick removes responsibility. I tried to describe this to Kimmie.

"By being sick I don't feel I'm responsible for doing anything, so I just do what I want. Usually, I stop doing what I want because there are things I should be doing, then I wind up not doing those things anyway."

Kimmie nodded emphatically. She knew exactly what I was talking about.

As I took a short constitutional walk in the afternoon sun (blazing low in a clear blue sky; sidewalks covered thickly with frost in the shadows), I thought about how this is probably how vacations work. People need to "get away" not so much for a change of scenery or climate, but to escape responsibilities. When you're at home, you feel guilty about not doing the vacuuming or fixing that broken tile. You can't enjoy time off because of your shoulds. So you take a stressful, expensive vacation to some other place where you can't do your vacuuming or fix that tile. If you can give yourself permission not to be responsible for those things, you could vacation at home, cheaply and with real relaxation.

How to switch of that responsibility gene (it doesn't even really function in my case anyway); then I could get productive, probably. Hmm...

Reminds me of a joke that Kimmie and I came up with, and which she used on her bosses at work, reportedly to hilarious effect. When they asked how she felt about something, she said, "I was born without the caring gene, and I've had my happiness gland removed."

I just want to suppress the responsibility gene. Maybe my cold is helping me out.

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Friday, December 16, 2005

from notes to authority

More rest last night, thanks, I think, to a Sleep Aid. That took me up until 3:30 anyway.

So, yes, still have a full cold. Last night it developed quickly into the runny-nose and occasional-cough stage. I'm still groggy and have low energy. But you know, today I again did an OK day's work (by my standards). Once more it was a matter of going in with no expectations: whatever I might get done is gravy, so it doesn't really matter what I do. Lethargically, but then sometimes also less lethargically, I wandered from file to file, reading background material that I'd keyed months or even years before (I've been working with Word files on this project since 2003). The distilled notes from research books I would read, slowly, and then copy portions of those to drop into my notes document for chapter 20.

I will start by wondering about the motivation for a character, and then realize that to know that I need more knowledge of my world. Back to the research material.

"Hmm," I thought, sipping at my grapefruit juice, "this stuff is pretty interesting."

My notes document is now 24 pages long--most of it research extracts. Here is a list of the works that I have extracted from to drop into the document, as possibly relevant:

  • Caesar Against Rome
  • Chabad.org (website)
  • From the Maccabees to the Mishnah
  • Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian
  • Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews
  • Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans
  • A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ
  • A History of the Jews in Babylonia
  • The Jews Under Roman Rule

Here is where I think back to when I first read Frank Herbert's Dune as a teenager. I really enjoyed the sense of his knowledge about his fictional galaxy, and venturing into (for sci-fi at that time) not-so-common spiritual and religious territory. I liked the idea of a Space Guild and the Bene Gesserit and some company called CHOAM that bigwigs had shares in. There was a sense of historical depth and conflicting interests. This is what I seek for my own work.

The issue is authority: that which an author has. In the end, nothing is more interesting than being talked to, in well-formed prose, by someone who knows what they're talking about. The literary critic Wayne Booth in his The Rhetoric of Fiction talks about the techniques of persuasion (rhetoric) used by novelists to help their readers suspend disbelief and accept as actual what is going on in the story. For me, a well-observed setting and well-observed characters are probably the crucial element.

As an example, the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts that I'm still reading (a chapter a day; I'm on page 418): for the past couple of chapters his protagonist, Lin, has been incarcerated in the Indian prison system. Aside from causing me to form the intention that that never, ever happens to me, his treatment of it displays all the marks of authority. I have reason to believe that Roberts has indeed been inside the Indian prison system, but if he hasn't, he writes about it with an insider's authority. Real-feeling settings and characters make sense while also being utterly unexpected. This is the opposite of cliche, which gives us only what we expect (Irish cops; goodhearted but downtrodden immigrants; frosty condescending rich people). If asked my image of an Indian prison, I might have pictured a crowded, dirty place with a bunch of tough but morose inmates. Roberts paints a picture that does include much more crowding and filth than I would have dared to suppose, as well as tough, morose inmates, but much more as well: the way viciousness and compassion coexist, along with entrepreneurialism and the most ruthless Darwinism. The prisoners sort themselves into five groups, a rigidly stratified society of hundreds of men living in just a few square meters.

In short: his knowledge of his exotic world alone makes for gripping reading. This is the kind of authority I aspire to. It's not actually possible in a work of historical fiction; it can only be simulated. But I believe the reader accepts this limitation as part of the price of admission. I do, anyway.

My future readers: I'm trying to make it good, I really am.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005


I've entered the nasal-drip phase of a full-on headcold. The symptoms (raw, gluey throat; "bowling-ball head" syndrome) grew over me in the night. I mainly lay awake thinking about things.

So I took it easy on this clear, bright day with the sun riding not far above the building-tops of Vancouver across the harbor. "Took it easy" means that I did my usual things, but with no sense of push or demand for output. Perhaps not coincidentally, my output was not bad. No actual prose-writing, since I'm still in the planning stages of chapter 20, but walking through research material, pasting the odd research paragraph into my notes document, and making new notes of my own under today's dateline.

I do everything slowly (except, perhaps, eat--according to some). For example, for a bookish type I don't read very fast. I think when I was a kid I tested on the high side of average, but was not in the top 10% or 20%, as I was academically. I can't stand to rush. I find skimming material and speed-reading stressful and unpleasant--something I would do for work-related documents where the writing was dreadful anyway. To me, speed-reading says "work", not "pleasure".

Likewise with writing: I can write quite well, quickly. But in general I prefer not to, for that too feels like work, not pleasure. When The Odyssey went into production Warren and I had to put out a lot of material quickly, under ever-harsher deadlines (and with plenty of adventitious problems unrelated to the actual writing). This was a definite stressor: high-stakes writing ($430,000 per episode, churning through the mill every two weeks) to inflexible deadlines. Warren and I were both pushed far from our natural working methods, forcing ourselves to churn out "creative" material on demand. It was fun only at certain times: when we finished a draft, and were pretty happy with it (we wouldn't turn it in otherwise); and then toward the end of season 1, when our troublesome "boss" had been fired off the show and we realized that we were going to make it. Furthermore, the last couple of episodes were directed by Rex Bromfield, who was relaxed and really "got" the show (other directors did as well!). The last couple-three episodes felt more like coasting, and there was the relaxation on everyone's part that a really good season was in the bag--not a given by any means when you're starting out.

When the last episode was finished and we'd written all the voiceover stuff for the sound-edit, I spent a week at KDOL (initialism for a Tibetan name) on Salt Spring Island near Vancouver, a Buddhist retreat center in a deep rural setting (no electricity). I meditated most of every day and joined the few residents at mealtimes. I cooled my hot mind.

So: slow as she goes. Every once in a while I think back to a Mad magazine piece (probably in the late 1960s) that offered a paean to pets in the form of new lyrics to familiar songs. One of these was a song to a pet turtle, "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Pace" (to the tune, naturally, of "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face"). Since I didn't know the original, I had to get Mom to sing it for me. Now I only remember the title. But the sentiment sticks with me. I would like to grow accustomed to my own pace. I still haven't, but maybe this headcold is here to help me out.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

inner promptings

Robin has a cold. Now I feel I'm getting it, so since last night I've been dosing myself with echinacea tincture.

I got down to my morning notes again: A History of Warfare and The Long Summer by Brian Fagan, subtitled How Climate Changed Civilization, a book I bought in February. Even though this latter was not on my immediate list of books I am keying notes from, I realized I just felt like going into it for more notes. When I recognize that I'm having one of these kinds of urges, a hunch, I try to go with it as much as possible.

In my life I feel I have not often been a "hunch" sort of person. Rather, I have worked things out mentally, organized things, and created procedures and schedules for myself. This can be productive, but also, if one overrides inner promptings, sterile and self-defeating. Indeed, one can thereby miss one's own life.

This teaching was one of the messages in Mary Stewart's novel The Crystal Cave, which I recently recommended. The young Merlin becomes trained in how to watch for signs of his vocation, his destiny, in the symbolism of events around him. When I last read the book at the end of 2001 I opened my eyes to the signs around myself, since I was restless and dissatisfied with my work-life at the Insurance Corporation. There were a few, but I'll mention one.

While I was walking through a corridor I met a woman I used to work with.

"Paul," she said, "I hear you're leaving us."

"I am?" I said.

"You're not?" she said.

"Not that I know of," I said. "Unless you've heard something I haven't."

She slapped her head.

"Oh! I'm sorry--I thought someone told me you were leaving."

"Well, you never know," I said.

We went our separate ways.

I immediately understood this event as a message from the gods. The woman had heard something I hadn't--although not from anyone at the company--and was communicating it to me.

Within a month I had left the company, to take myself east to Gampo Abbey and the life of a Buddhist monk.

So: this morning, The Long Summer. I did enjoy reading the book, and felt there was much in it of possible use to me, about ancient weather and village life. I'm not sure what might be in it right now that will help me as I structure chapter 20, but I'm trusting that it's delivering something I need, when I need it.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

a reminder

I'm still on the mailing lists of Buddhist centers and organizations. One of the publications I get is the annual newsletter of the Nalanda Translation Committee, a group formed by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to produce authoritative translations of Tibetan Buddhist texts for use by Western students. Last night while lying in bed I finished perusing this year's newsletter, a 22" x 17" sheet of bond paper folded in half to give four pages.

One of the articles is entitled "The Four Reminders", the label given to a list of four thoughts that, if brought clearly to mind, should focus the meditation practitioner on his or her desire to get on with the practice and put effort into it. Briefly, the Four Reminders are:

1. The Preciousness of a human birth

2. Impermanence and death

3. The Inescapability of karma

4. The Suffering of samsara (that is, the unenlightened state)

I spent a fair amount of time contemplating these as part of my own meditation practice over the years. They are indeed powerful once you understand them and take the effort to contemplate their significance for your own life. While reading the article I was struck by the paragraph on the second Reminder, impermanence and death. The writer of the article relates a couple of brief anecdotes about this Reminder. The first is about the Gyalwang Karmapa, head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism (analogous to the Dalai Lama, who is the head of the Gelug school), who visited the U.S. in the 1970s. The second is about the Japanese Zen master Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:

When His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa was attending a luncheon at the United States Congress, a congressman asked him, "If Your Holiness could summarize the teachings of the Buddha in one sentence, what would that be?" Without hesitation, the Karmapa replied, "Everything changes." Similarly, when a student asked Suzuki Roshi to put the entire message of Buddhism in a nutshell, he simply answered, "Everything changes."

A familiar chill passed over my scalp and the back of my neck--what I suppose might be called the chill of dharma. These two senior, authoritative teachers chose the same two words to summarize the vast ocean of Buddhist teachings. Everything changes. Lying there in my bed, I felt the two words float quietly into me like cinders settling on the tinder of my consciousness.

The two teachers, asked for something profound, gave their questioners a simple familiar statement, a kind of truism that we all have heard before. For me, anyway, this unexpected response yanked my mind back to consider what they meant. I had no doubt that the teachers were making a simple, literal statement--and the consequences of that statement are far-reaching indeed.

Everything changes. Whatever we think of as permanent, isn't. Anything that can be said to begin also ends. My house, my friendships, my marriage, my life--all will be gone in due course. Every last thing in my experience without exception has an end-point. New things will arise; they too will end. This thought, if you sit with it, creates haunting feelings, anxiety. It is the death-knell of security.

In my mind I saw dry yellow leaves blowing along an empty street in a cold gusting wind. They made a sweeping, clattering noise on the pavement. Life coming and going like the slap of a saloon door in a ghost town.

As I laid down the newsletter I felt great appreciation, affection, and gratitude for the teachings I have received in my life. I felt humility and awe in the presence of truth--the truth which is not for us or against us; it alerts us to the present moment, so we don't miss its brief life.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

dancing in the dark

An unusual evening post for me: I find myself down in my office, and Kimmie and Robin are out for the evening at Seymour's Pub with their niece/cousin Lisa. I've had my leftover beef stew and wine; and now I'm into my second juice-glass of scotch.

I have Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" running through my head. It was the song playing on the radio when I switched it on this morning upon rising from my mattress in the predawn dark (I turned up the heat, shut the window, and turned on the heat in the ensuite bathroom--chores Kimmie usually sees to, scurrying to do them then plunging back into the warmth of the covers to regain lost body-heat). Like many songs, it took me back to a specific place and time: in this case, spring 1984 and my first solo living quarters in a the basement suite of a Greek family living on the West Side just off of King Edward Avenue. I would come home from my evening shifts as a clerk at ICBC, it would be midnight or so, pour myself a juice-glass of whisky much like the one I'm drinking right now, switch on my only entertainment device, a transistor radio, and read a book or write a letter. I listened to CKLG, then still a Top 40 AM station, while reading, for example, CIA Diary by Philip Agee--a research book for my writing, just as I do now.

One of the most-played songs when I first moved in to that dark little suite (the narrow living-room had no windows of its own; only a window in the entrance door a few steps below ground level) was "Dancing in the Dark". According to the Songfacts website, this was the last song Springsteen wrote for his Born in the USA album, and the song itself describes his frustration at trying to write a song that would please people--be a hit. Perhaps ironically, the song itself was a hit--the first of seven on the album--and won Springsteen his first Grammy.

I didn't know all that then. I knew that Springsteen was one of the hottest things in music, a huge star. I also knew that his path to stardom had been not straightforward, since I was around back in 1976 or so when Rolling Stone had proclaimed him to be the "future of rock and roll", after which he disappeared for eight years. In 1984, as I sat in my dim basement livingroom, drinking and reading, I enjoyed the song; and its strange mixture of upbeat tempo and haunting musical and lyrical ideas seemed to express the flavor of that time: a solitary, anxious time for me--but a time of promise as well.

Now, this morning, the song was there again. I felt again the solitude and promise of that time, moving through the dark of my bedroom, again wondering whether I myself will be able to create something that will please people.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

what do we fall in love with?

Like an invalid recovering from his illness, I am getting back to the writing habits that I'm familiar with. Like keying notes in the morning. This morning from Beyond the Essene Hypothesis and Peoples, Nations and Cultures. My self-made encyclopedia of knowledge relevant to my work grows larger.

Gaining knowledge as I go means that I continuously outgrow the knowledge I had at earlier stages of writing my draft. My knowledge of my fictional world is much greater now than it was when I started writing chapter 1 in 2002. I know much more about not only the functioning of the ancient world at the date of my story, but about the characters I am populating it with. For this reason alone a second draft of any extended work is essential--and there are many more reasons than that.

I research to learn the details of how my fictional world works, but even more than that I research to learn about what the ideas were that drove the people of that time and place. How did they think, and why?

Does this seem academic? Dry?

My mother has in the past summed up her attitude toward a focus on ideas in storytelling thus: "You can't fall in love with an idea!" Meaning that it is character the drives fiction, and character that involves the reader in a story. It sounds right. I didn't want to be the champion of dry, academic fiction-writing; I don't like that myself.

And yet I wasn't satisfied to leave it at that. I do love ideas. Is it the same type of love I have for a character, or a person? Do I love one more than the other? Differently?

My thinking now is that there is no real difference between loving a character and loving an idea. A character is not a person, after all; a character is an idea evoked by words on paper. The thing you "fall in love with" is a construct in your mind, evoked by symbols on a page. There's no human being in sight. Robert McKee also emphasizes that a character is not a person, and cannot be. He expressed it thus: "a character is an idea wrapped in an emotion." A character is a simplification of a person, a certain collection of qualities relating to an idea.

This does not make our experience of characters weak. After all, what are we doing when we fall in love with a real live person, anyway? What is it we're actually falling in love with? If you fall in love with someone at first sight, you fall in love with something that you know nothing of as yet--or very little. I submit that in a real sense you have fallen in love with an idea--an idea of the possibility of a pleasurable or even ecstatic intimate relationship. You have fallen in love with a figure in your own soul. As you get to know that person better, you fall out of love--or certainly the relationship changes from what it was.

A story is about something. A character in a story is also therefore about something, an idea wrapped in traits and behaviors. A character stands for something: Dirty Harry stands for justice, Ebenezer Scrooge stands for the hardening caused by wounds in the past. I suspect that when we discover who we are--our identity--we too come to stand for something. We can become the main character in the story of our life.

Again: story is software for living.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

the concrete mirage

As I write these words sun is streaming low through my venetian blinds, and the air rings with the reverberations of the two chimney-cleaners' brushing-out of our chimney: a low metallic sawing sound. One of the guys is tall and hulking, in a green mackinaw and a watch cap; his partner is shorter, darker, and more wiry--he's the guy in the roof.

Another relatively breezy day of writing: I'd typed five pages almost before I realized it. My ideal is to write in a relaxed frame of mind, the way I might write my journal or a dream. The view: Just say it. Will my new character ideas pay off? Can I keep creating interesting characters? Is this whole thing going to be as hard going to read as it is to write?

It's later: 4:13 p.m. I've just come back from an errand to the library and (of course) liquor store. The kitchen floorboards squeak as Robin moves about, preparing a meatloaf for tonight's dinner; Kimmie's sister-in-law Ev is coming to join us.

Have I dealt with my identity issues? Not hardly. Does anyone, ever? In Buddhist practice the aim of the (first leg) of the journey is realizing the nonexistence of ego: that the seeming thing we designate by I has no actual, ultimate existence. This thing that we try to cherish and coddle, to feed pleasure and shield from pain, isn't there. And yet people who are mentally disturbed, poorly adapted, who suffer from what is called abnormal psychology--in short, those whose egos are fragile or unformed--are not suitable candidates for strict Buddhist meditation. What we in the West would call a strong, healthy ego is a prerequisite for discovering its actual nonexistence.

The question of identity, then, is part mirage, and part concrete. Here is a quote from William James, used by Erik Erikson in his book Identity: Youth and Crisis:

A man's character is discernible in the mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: "This is the real me!" [Such experience always includes] an element of active tension, of holding my own, and trusting outward things to perform their part so as to make it a full harmony, but without any guarantee that they will. Make it a guarantee...and the attitude immediately becomes to my consciousness stagnant and stingless. Take away the guarantee, and I feel a sort of deep enthusiastic bliss, of bitter willingness to do and suffer anything.

I have had such experiences, I would say--but they have been in disparate activities, not any one connected effort. The threads of true identity, for me, still have to be gathered and woven together.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

story as training for life

"How's the iceberg?" said my chiropractor Terry Dickson as he ran his thumb, hard, up the muscle beside my spine. "No--not iceberg. What was it?"

"Glacier," I said into the leather cleft of the face-pad on his treatment table. He was asking about my writing, referring to an image I gave of myself in an earlier visit.

"Oh yeah--glacier."

"Okay," I said. "Even I have a hard time telling whether I've stopped or not."

Terry laughed.

"Maybe iceberg's better," I said. "Glaciers are disappearing."

"Not this glacier I hope!"

The weather has warmed since Sunday, melting all the snow. Maybe it has also caused this glacier to lurch back into motion, since I have returned to writing these past two days. At the end of last week I solved most of the remaining structural problems with chapter 19, and now I'm typing easily, breezing it. It's all in knowing what you're writing about.

I wanted to say a bit more about what I said in yesterday's post, that stories teach us about life and how to live it. By this I don't mean that stories should self-consciously give "life lessons" to readers; that is a ghastly approach to storytelling. Rather, I mean that stories intrinsically, by virtue of what they are, teach us about life.

Every story is about something, at the level of meaning. It is the meaning level of the story that attracts both the writer and the reader to it. Usually unconsciously, a writer wants to address some particular aspect of life through a story, some theme. Murder mysteries, for example, are almost always about justice. This is usually the value at stake in a story about murder (the term is from Robert McKee and his key work Story); will the protagonist catch the killer, or not--and how? The meaning of the work will be contained in whether the protagonist catches the killer, by what means, and at what cost. The killer will represent a different, competing value, like greed, or revenge. The story then is (among other things) a mythical contest between these values.

The issue of justice affects us all. Every single one of us relates with justice in our lives, in different ways, different arenas, at different levels of intensity. It is relevant to my life and to yours. A story in which justice is at stake therefore has meaning to us; it matters. We can learn from it. The same is true for the thematic conflicts Kate mentioned in her comment: the abuse of power, integrity vs. practicality, and so on. These affect us all; every adult has experienced them directly in his or her own life. These things don't distance me from Robert the Bruce; they identify me with him. We are one. Every life contains all the emotions. This means that every well-told story has the power to touch us, the power to show us life.

Nonetheless, some issues are more important to each of us than others. Therefore certain types of stories appeal to me more than others. I mentioned Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave yesterday as my pick for a good historical novel. I've read this three or four times all the way through, first in the mid-1970s. The last time I read it was late 2001. I was at a decision-point, even crisis-point (yes--another one!) in my life. I was working for the Insurance Corporation, feeling restless, dissatisfied, and wanting to move on with my life. I wasn't sure how. Stewart's story of the young Merlin, struggling to know of his parentage and to discover his destiny, struck a deep chord in me: it spoke to me. He followed his inner promptings, and learned to recognize signs in his world, symbols of the gods speaking to him. This led him on to his true vocation and destiny--what he had been born to do. It was not easy, and it was dangerous. But it was his own truth.

It would not be too much to say that The Crystal Cave played a role in my decision to leave the company and journey to Gampo Abbey on Cape Breton to become a monk and study the Buddhist teachings. I did those things, and am very glad I did. Mary Stewart, wherever you are: you showed me how to live, a little bit. I appreciate it.

I of course don't mean to say that stories are meant to present protagonists that we are supposed to emulate directly in our lives. I don't want to be Dirty Harry in any way. But the issue of justice vs. injustice, in particular how institutions set up to promote and enforce justice can actually create its opposite, is still of keen interest, and I want to see how these values play out dramatically.

In short: it is a "high hurdle", as Kate observed--but the hurdle is not due to my fussy tastes; it is built in to storytelling itself. This is the hurdle the writer agrees to jump in taking on the artistic task of storytelling. Let's not kid ourselves about how difficult it is to do well. And all the more praise for those who succeed: I thank you all.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

more on anhedonia

I wanted to talk more about my fiction anhedonia, since the reader Kate made some attempted diagnoses in the comments to yesterday's post.

I enjoy reading. Enjoyment is still my primary datum: I know whether I'm enjoying something or not. The effort to explain why I'm enjoying it or not enjoying it is secondary, an attempt to identify factors or qualities.

My critique of storytelling is one of these. I place emphasis on it because I believe that story is, in general:

a) the most important single aspect of a novel, and

b) the least well executed aspect

It doesn't mean that other aspects aren't important; they are. In my recent praise for the novel Shantaram I mentioned how I felt that story, in my sense, is not its strong point--but many other points are so strong that I am really enjoying the book. Nor do I really restrict my definition of story to the thumbnail description I gave about one character having one problem. My own work has four protagonists, and there are lots of ways of telling a good story.

The quality I'm looking for is what I call story traction: the feeling of being pulled through the story. A sense of gentle, interested zeal has me turning the page. Not a sense of duty, not a feeling of, "well, I've started this book so I'm damn well going to finish it." When I feel that, I bail.

Where does story traction come from? At bottom, I believe, it comes from the sense that the book has something important to say, it means something of relevance to me, and this meaning is encoded in a dramatic structure. I feel that what's happening here, in the fictional world being portrayed, matters. A good work of fiction teaches me something about life and how to live it. It's about values, their relative importance, and how to realize them. Life is finite and short. Moment by moment it slips away, and that awareness is never far away; it is the source of urgency in our lives. How we spend that ultimate wealth is important. A good story is counsel in our approach to that universal problem.

Kate puts the question of whether I have in effect poisoned the well of reading by becoming a writer, by subconsciously analyzing things. But I don't analyze things subconsciously--I do it consciously! For me, it is not only something that does not detract from enjoyment, but also part of the discipline of being a writer at all, part of my program of continually trying to improve. When my friend Rob asked me whether I couldn't "suspend disbelief" and just enjoy something without criticizing, analyzing it, I said no.

"It's like you sitting down to a dinner," I said (he's a Paris-trained chef). "No matter how much you want to enjoy the dinner, you'll know how well it's cooked. You'll know whether they achieved what they set out to do, which things got flubbed."

He thought it was an apt analogy. You can't just unknow what you know.

My example of a good work of historical fiction is Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave. That's what I offer up as a sample of what I like. Maybe more of why in a future post.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

elusive gratification

Winter truly drawn in, with wet snow falling all day (lightly), and me out a couple of times to shovel it off the sidewalk along the front of our building, also shoveling the walkways of my neighbors down to the corner. Tossed anti-ice crystals on the walks.

I was happy to receive a comment from a reader named Kate to my recent post about shopping for historical fiction, offering suggestions in response to a request I left in the comments there. She recommends The Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough. It does seem like a natural. I borrowed one of them from the library about a year (or two) ago when I saw it on the paperback rack--it must have been Caesar: A Novel, because it opened with Caesar in Britain. I made it about 100 pages in as I recall, then bailed. Why?

These books get glowing reviews and have high ratings by readers on Amazon.com. What's my problem? This is a symptom of my fiction anhedonia. My basic problem with what I was reading was my feeling that although stuff was happening, there was no story. I felt that McCullough was executing history, and had clearly done a ton of research, but at 100 pages in I wasn't engaged with a character who had a well-formed problem. To me there was a sense of history being taken for granted, rather than turning it into character problems whose outcome is always in doubt. Since I can't (or won't) force myself to read something I'm not enjoying, I took it back and gave up on the series. Maybe I should go back and give it another try--I probably should.

Kate also mentions the famous Robert Graves books I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Now these are indeed brilliant. Graves of course is a different order of writer, and his command of the period is as close to complete, I'm sure, as any modern could come. He is one of the best English stylists ever, but his real achievement is in conveying a sense of the strangeness of the time relative to our own: he shows how the characters of the time think differently than we do, have different assumptions built into their being. Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon, mentions that strangeness is one of the defining qualities of great literature--often obscured by the fact that great works have become canonical, and so, in a sense, are taken for granted. But when they first appear, they are strange and unprecedented in some way. Graves's books about Claudius have, I think, some of this kind of strangeness, even if they do not become canonical or great in Bloom's sense.

Kate seconds a vote by Gabriele Campbell that Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter is a good standalone historical read, so I think I will try that by all means. I'm game to try her other pick too, The Heaven Tree (trilogy, I see) by Edith Pargeter. Many thanks, Kate--I appreciate it, and feel free to throw more picks my way.

Now: teatime, read-time. I'm currently working on four books during reading-time: Shantaram, Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, Uriel's Machine, and Identity: Youth and Crisis. I'm enjoying them all very much. A reading hedonist, pure and simple. And I wish to gratify readers as I have been gratified.

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Friday, December 02, 2005

Shantaram: midcourse reader's report

Outside, a thin layer of snow, growing ever so gradually thicker as tiny flakes flutter thinly down.

Last night I finished Part One (of five) of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, the Australian convict-turned-Bombay-slum-dweller-turned-novelist. I'm on page 169 of 936 of the St. Martin's Griffin trade paperback, and I'm happy to report that I'm enjoying the read.

It's not because of the storytelling, because I think that Roberts is not a particularly experienced or trained storyteller. In 169 pages we have had only a handful of events that could be called plot-points. In many ways the real story seems to have begun only on page 142, when the narrator-protagonist, the escaped New Zealand convict Lin (who has been given the name Shantaram, "man of peace", by newly made Indian friends) gets mugged, leaving him both penniless and unable to approach the authorities for help, due to his criminal status. With this, the character acquired what could be called a true story problem, with the arising in this reader's mind of the question, Uh-oh, how's he going to deal with this?

What keeps me reading is that other aspects of the book are so strong and so unusual. For one thing, there's the knowledge that the story is mainly autobiographical, so there is the sense of realism and unexpectedness in the world he portrays. Roberts writes with apparent authority about India--a place I know little about, and have mainly stereotypical ideas about. I find my stereotypical ideas about India being bulldozed again and again as I read: a truly pleasurable experience, since we don't read things just to find what we expect. We want authentic novelty, and Roberts serves this up nonstop. Roving from downtown Bombay to an Indian village to a city slum, Roberts gives a vivid, closely observed, firsthand account of his impressions. They register as authentic, and lend his book that quality I so admire that I call richness: the sense that the details available to the writer are vastly more numerous than what he is able to show, and so the ones presented suggest the many others not expressed.

Next: his characters and characterization. These are very good: the characterizations are vivid and unexpected. He is able to portray Indian characters as genuine and yet very non-Western people, a continual thrill to read. I am reminded more than anything of reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry back in 2001--another large novel about India, by a native Indian. Roberts's work compares favorably so far.

One of the most appealing aspects of the book is its tone. Roberts is writing about a tough, streetwise, fugitive criminal who finds himself among the Indian underworld. What I expect is tough, gritty writing with a menacing, violent edge. What I get is a tough world seen through sensitive, poetic, and even romantic eyes. Lin (and Roberts I suppose) is intensely romantic, romanticizing people and places (as for instance his description of the Swiss-American woman Karla that I extracted in an earlier post). Again and again he seems to have the experience of what James Joyce called "aesthetic arrest"--the sense of being stopped in one's tracks by an experience of beauty, and moved to a higher plane of seeing such that one is able to create genuine art. Roberts's descriptive art is not at Joyce's level, of course, but he gives it all he's got again and again. He goes for it. I like it: his tone is not "sophisticated", but it's perceptive and intelligent and passionate. He's a sincere man who's had strong experiences and is reporting them to us.

The character Lin himself is an asset. He is, like all good protagonists, a contradictory character. He embodies the qualities of criminal toughness and poetic romanticism, and this makes him ever interesting. He narrates as though he is a simple, uncomplicated guy, an observer, rather self-deprecating, and yet again and again I have been surprised by him. My own view is that, possibly because Lin is based on Roberts himself, Roberts has underestimated Lin's uniqueness and paradoxical qualities, with all the power these suggest for storytelling.

Lastly, and most importantly for me, Roberts narrates with the conviction that life is a place where important things happen: that what we do and feel and believe matter. Life is where our values are discovered and tested, often at great cost. He is an antidote to the frivolity of the great mass of contemporary fiction-writing. Though light in tone and often funny, he takes life seriously. I appreciate that, because I'm dying before too long--and so are you.

A perfect book? No, far from it. But page for page, Shantaram compares favorably with what else is out there. Roberts suffered to write this book (written over 13 years, largely in prison, with Roberts's blood literally on the paper), and the result is accordingly worth our attention. No regrets.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

hermaphrodite dream

A night of dreams. Here is one I remember from shortly before I woke at around 4:45:

I'm with Kimmie. We're at an exhibition or a theme park. The particular locale seems to be a kind of football or soccer field. It has historical and maybe archaeological exhibits on it, like ruined portions of buildings. I see that off to one side of the field are the great stones of Stonehenge. I'm surprised to see these here, since we’re in Israel; why would Israel have the stones of Stonehenge? It might be incongruous, but I feel awe. Don't others feel how special they are?

K and I go into an annex at the side of the field, a kind of trailer for museum exhibits (more like a ferry-terminal waiting area). A few tourists are trailing out, having seen the last screening of the film they show here. It seems we're just in time to catch the next showing--something to do with the overall exhibit: the history of the area or country.

K and I take seats in a row that is getting full, hard-plastic bucket-type seats on fixed racks, as at an airport or bus depot. A group or family next to us is taking seats. One woman, a plain-looking woman in glasses and a gray sweatsuit, but energetic and lively, is dropping off her stuff, trying to get her friends and family to save her a seat while she goes to do something. For some reason she has to fetch something from or put something in a big cloth duffel-bag that her female friend has in front of her on the floor. I watch while the friend opens the bag wide, and the woman tugs down her sweats a little to produce her large, semi-erect penis with black pubic hair. She flexes her legs to point her penis into the bag, as though the bag provides cover so that only--or almost only--her friend can see her flash it. Her attitude is saucy and mischievous. Is it a joke? Is she relieving herself somehow? She covers it up and whisks away.

Now K and I arrive at the couple of little rows of seats facing the TV screen where the museum film is about to start. There are just a few tourists and bored kids here. We take our seats and the film starts: maybe previews featuring old black-and-white documentary footage.

I typed up this dream during my morning coffee session, and made some interpretive notes. The image of a museum or theme park made me think of my recent reflections on theme, in both my work and my life. Theme = meaning. So a park (it was set up on a playing field, actually) to do with the meaning of the past. My work is historical fiction, and the dead hand of the past reaches through my life as well, as through everyone's.

The park is in Israel, and my story is about the ancient monarchy of Israel: the "Holy Land". I'm treating it as a place of origin for some of the most important cultural and mythological strands in our world today.

The sight of the monuments of Stonehenge was awesome (I in fact visited Stonehenge in 1978) in the dream. They were not in their circular formation, but standing in a row discreetly at the side of the field, near bushes and trees; and they were not being paid particular attention by the rest of the visitors. I'm reading about henges (ancient circular ditches that were used for astronomical purposes) in Uriel's Machine by Lomas and Knight; there are 40,000 megalithic sites in Britain--more than there are modern settlements. The megalithic structures date back to 4000 BC and earlier. The authors are making an argument that the megalithic monuments were the products of a culture that practiced relatively advanced astronomy, and that these astronomers were the ones referred to in the Book of Enoch, a core spiritual text of a Jewish tradition that never made it into the Bible. In my dream the stones have been brought to Israel; the connection has been made, but is not being paid attention to.

As for the hermaphrodite in the annex, this was a powerful and uncanny moment in the dream. The duffel-bag made me think of the magic wallet of Perseus, in which he put the severed head of Medusa to hide it after he cut it off. The bag, like his other accoutrements, was owned by Hades, and kept by the three Stygian Nymphs--the women who shared a single eye and a single tooth, passing these between themselves. I had a unique point of view into the bag, and saw a strange sight. I was witness to a secret, a mystery.

Here's what Cirlot, in his Dictionary of Symbols, says about the hermaphrodite (compressed):

The hermaphrodite is a consequence of applying the symbolism of the number two to the human being, creating a personality which is integrated despite its duality. The hermaphrodite is, above all, a god of procreation, closely linked, and ultimately identified, with the Gemini archetype. Psychologically hermaphroditism represents a formula of "totality", of the "integration of opposites". In other words, in expresses in sexual terms the idea that all pairs of opposites are integrated into Oneness. In addition, it is a symbol of an intellectual activity not in itself connected with the problem of the sexes. Blavatsky says that all peoples regarded their first god as androgynous, because Primitive humanity knew that he had sprung from "the mind", as is shown by traditions such as that of Minerva springing from the head of Jupiter. In alchemy, the Hermaphrodite plays an important role as Mercury; he is depicted as a two-headed figure, often accompanied by the word Rebis (double thing).

If the hermaphrodite is Mercury, the transformative agency of alchemy, then the bag is the alchemical vas, the vessel in which the transformation takes place.

Things are changing within me. I already know this. But I don't know from what, or to what.

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