Category Archives: Fiction

A machine is lying, or I’m boiling alive

This is what I saw while driving past on my way home today:

Byron IL Middle School, 1 May 2013

Byron IL Middle School, 1 May 2013

I was just driving home, minding my own business, when an epistemological quandary in the shape of an unhealthily high temperature flashed at me: Do I accept the meaning of these symbols, or do I instead choose the differing message I’m interpreting from what my senses tell me, thereby regarding the printed symbols as empty of meaning? (And while I ponder, I’ll stay inside my air-conditioned car, just in case.) Ah, I’m always having to decide what is my reality. And the symbols with which we or others used to describe reality may not be describing reality at all. This afternoon, this public school’s message board started publishing fiction.

$6 for story, $10 for good story

Idea: What if a book — say, “Of Mice and Men” — was sold for different prices based on the quality of the story?

The paperback of “Of Mice and Men” costing, say, $6, ends with a meteor blast that kills everyone.

At the $10 level, George shoots Lennie in the head, but from the front, so Lennie sees George pull the trigger.

The $12 version has Lennie beating Curley’s wife, but they get interrupted before she dies and Lennie goes to prison and eventually gets the social work help he needs to re-enter society as a contributing, nonmenacing member.

For $14, George and Lennie are bankers who struck it rich in a Florida land scheme and don’t have to work as laborers.

And for $20, the book is hardcover and it’s “Anna Karenina.”

Bizzy! Bizzy! Bizzy!: Metaphysical Implications of “Frosty the Snowman”

“Frosty the Snowman” cartoon was broadcast on CBS last night. Though I’ve watched this cartoon many times before, I watched it last night partly to experience that holiday tradition, and partly because I wanted to see Prof. Hinkle say the line — “Busy! Busy! Busy!” (though it sounds more like “Bizzy! Bizzy! Bizzy!”) — that is one of the many cultural references in the two-person culture that my wife and I have semi-consciously created for ourselves. I didn’t remember that the full line was “I’ve got to get busy writing — busy, busy, busy!” (or however one punctuates a three-word repetition — which, digression: I saw a t-shirt message — “Let’s eat grandma. Let’s eat, grandma. Punctuation saves lives.” — in a catalog yesterday whose message resonated for ol’ English teacher me). So, while Hinkle is doing punishment writing for Santa, and I will not be, I may introduce the longer quotation into my home-culture.

But here’s the other thing about that show: it’s narratively absurd, and this never bothered me as a kid, but I think that’s because I was more a believer in the whole of Christmas magic than I tend to be now. Now, I’ve long had some trouble with the part where little beskirted Karen (her cold knees!), the titular suscitated snowman, and a problem-solving, communicative magician’s rabbit get on a refrigerated rail car headed north (I noticed last night that the reefer car is the only car between the engine and the caboose, which inefficiency could explain why the ticket agent tried to charge the trio $3000.04 for a ticket to the north pole, which, also inefficiently, routed through Saskatchewan, Hudson Bay, Nome, and the Yukon, which map-path drawing started to give me a headache). I’ve also wondered how far north they got before they decided to jump off the train because Karen was, if memory serves (I somehow skipped this moment last night), getting cold in the reefer car, a pragmatic gesture that throws the other absurdities into relief.

So, they’re in a forest where numerous animals are somehow decorating for Christmas and awaiting Santa’s arrival. It didn’t used to bother me that the animals were apparently practicing Christians — what denomination? — or maybe they’re secularly celebrating, but the rabbit, under Frosty’s direction, seeks out the woodland creatures, explains that the little girl needs them to build a fire so she can warm up, and so the woodland creatures pile sticks and rub two together until they get a fire going. So far so good, although last night I wondered why, if the animals had mastered communication and fire-production, why they hadn’t moved into bungalows in the city. Are they perhaps hippie animals who have renounced industrial society, and this works for them (as opposed to human hippies) because these critters haven’t evolved out of their all-weather hides and ability to survive on bark?

Anyway, this works for a while, and Karen ostensibly warms up, until Hinkle shows up and Frosty has to “bellywhollop” (if I correctly recall the term Jimmy Durante used) with Karen on his shoulders to escape, which leads them to an apparently poorly managed (since it is still stocked, on X-mas eve, with Mr. Poinsett’s flowers, about to be deeply discounted)  greenhouse, wherein Frosty melts. Hinkle has shut the door on them, but he had not barred or even locked the door, so either the greenhouse is so poorly managed that its doors are inescapable, or Frosty and Karen forget to leave. Now, earlier, Karen has explained to the traffic cop that Frosty, being newly animated, is ignorant of worldly ways, and so perhaps she should have been cognizant that she should have opened the door to let Frosty out?  Just now it’s occurring to me that perhaps Karen, in her selfish desire to be warm, could be convicted of snowmanslaughter through willful indifference?

But then, there’s the Santa ex machina who, upon the instructions of the rabbit (because Santa “speaks rabbit,” we are informed), turns up to rescue Frosty, punish Hinkle (by threatening to never bring the professor another gift — a surprisingly unforgiving action, I thought, from a Christian figure), and return little Karen to the roof of some house (even if its her own house, how’s she supposed to get down, I wondered as I watched). This business about Santa being real always feels like a cop-out, since one of the central tenets of Christianity (correct me if I’m wrong) is faith, is believing in things that cannot be directly experienced, that cannot be seen, and so Santa showing up sorta renders faith moot.

Even in the beginning of “Frosty,” the kids make a point about adults not believing in the magic that kids can see (the adults who do see the snowman leading a parade through town seem to faint (or concussively run into other shoppers, or make themselves mute by swallowing their own whistle)), leaving Prof. Hinkle as the one adult who agrees to have seen the magic of Frosty’s animation. Hinkle, however, tells the kids he will admit to seeing nothing, as he wants to keep the hat now that it seems to be the agent of Frosty’s animation. (I keep saying “animation” because, in some sense, Frosty is like Frankenstein’s monster, in that both are mere matter that becomes alive. However, Frosty seems to be composed entirely of rolled snow, unlike the differentiated tissues that were used for Frankenstein’s monster — how about Frosty-stein? (This thought too occurred to me last night as I watched. Maybe this all says more about me than about the show.)) Of course, Hinkle has a problem: if his hat really is magic, and he uses it in his future performances, how will he expect his audience to accept his illusions as mere illusions? The way the townsfolk respond to Frosty, I’d also expect them to react irrationally to any true magic they saw.

There’s the moral issue of ownership of the hat, which ownership is conferred (by Justice Santa) on those who would promote the continued existence of the personality of Frosty (which, combined with the human-like consciousnesses of the animals, seems to imply a vegetarian or vegan morality?), rather than on the fact that Hinkle has not fully abandoned his ownership rights.

But maybe the larger issue is the one of magic vs. faith. The children believe in magic, which the adults (besides Hinkle — who is perhaps a kind of prophet, doomed to repeat his tale of witnessing magic to a hostile, unbelieving public for the rest of his days?) deny, and yet the children indicate no religious understanding of the holiday, and Santa shows up to prove himself real. How are we to understand the implications of these narrative antics?

And where is reality here?  Does the story of “Frosty the Snowman” take place in a world where magic is real, and Santa is real, but only kids can accept magic, no adult believes in magic, so that we could speculate that perhaps adults undergo some sort of “forgetting” procedure? Or are we to understand that the adult world is the real one, and that once our POV character Karen leaves the normalcy of the classroom, with its bossy teacher, dismissal times and inept magician, she imagines or hallucinates the whole thing; Frosty’s animation, the rabbit’s intelligence, and even Santa’s existence are all some kind of break with reality that Karen experiences, perhaps as a result of a head injury sustained in the snow play the kids engage in after leaving the classroom. That Frosty and all were some kind of dream world actually would explain one of the first strangely unreal sightings: the visible rising and even throbbing of the thermometer, which Frosty explains confusedly as causing the rising of the temperature that motivates him toward the north pole. What we can deduce is that one group of the humans in this story, either the adults or the children, is not acknowledging the same reality as the other group of humans. (It could be argued that adults trying to get children to acknowledge and accept the reality that the adults perceive is the purpose of schooling.)

Sure, this is just a goofy cartoon, produced by some poor bastard of a writer who had to turn a three-minute song into a 20-minute cartoon. I’ll also concede that I appreciate fiction that’s not entirely realistic, which fiction I tend to write myself. But any artwork, any human creation (I’d argue), is based upon certain philosophical assumptions and it’s kinda fun to explore these, no?

Fiction link: Very short stories by Lydia Davis

Lately I’ve been reading some stories by Lydia Davis.  Here are three copied from one site:

THE MICE

MICE LIVE IN OUR WALLS but do not trouble our kitchen. We are pleased but cannot understand why they do not come into our kitchen where we have traps set, as they come into the kitchens of our neighbors. Although we are pleased, we are also upset, because the mice behave as though there were something wrong with our kitchen. What makes this even more puzzling is that our house is much less tidy than the houses of our neighbors. There is more food lying about in our kitchen, more crumbs on the counters and filthy scraps of onion kicked against the base of the cabinets. In fact, there is so much loose food in the kitchen I can only think the mice themselves are defeated by it. In a tidy kitchen, it is a challenge for them to find enough food night after night to survive until spring. They patiently hunt and nibble hour after hour until they are satisfied. In our kitchen, however, they are faced with something so out of proportion to their experience that they cannot deal with it. They might venture out a few steps, but soon the overwhelming sights and smells drive them back into their holes, uncomfortable and embarrassed at not being able to scavenge as they should.

ODD BEHAVIOR

You see how circumstances are to blame. I am not really an odd person if I put more and more small pieces of shredded kleenex in my ears and tie a scarf around my head: when I lived alone I had all the silence I needed.

FEAR

Nearly every morning, a certain woman in our community comes running out of her house with her face white and her overcoat flapping wildly. She cries out, “Emergency, emergency,” and one of us runs to her and holds her until her fears are calmed. We know she is making it up; nothing has really happened to her. But we understand, because there is hardly one of us who has not been moved at some time to do just what she has done, and every time, it has taken all our strength, and even the strength of our friends and families too, to quiet us.

And here is another one I found online after I first read it in her collection:

Letter to a Funeral Parlor

Dear Sir,

I am writing to you to object to the word cremains, which was used by your representative when he met with my mother and me two days after my father’s death.

We had no objection to your representative, personally, who was respectful and friendly and dealt with us in a sensitive way. He did not try to sell us an expensive urn, for instance.

What startled and disturbed us was the word cremains. You in the business must have invented this word and you are used to it. We the public do not hear it very often. We don’t lose a close friend or a family member very many times in our life, and years pass in between, if we are lucky. Even less often do we have to discuss what is to be done with a family member or close friend after their death.

We noticed that before the death of my father you and your representative used the words loved one to refer to him. That was comfortable for us, even if the ways in which we loved him were complicated.

Then we were sitting there in our chairs in the living room trying not to weep in front of your representative, who was opposite us on the sofa, and we were very tired first from sitting up with my father, and then from worrying about whether he was comfortable as he was dying, and then from worrying about where he might be now that he was dead, and your representative referred to him as “the cremains.”

At first we did not even know what he meant. Then, when we realized, we were frankly upset. Cremains sounds like something invented as a milk substitute in coffee, like Cremora, or Coffee-mate. Or it sounds like some kind of a chipped beef dish.

As one who works with words for a living, I must say that any invented word, like Porta Potti or pooper-scooper, has a cheerful or even jovial ring to it that I don’t think you really intended when you invented the word cremains. In fact, my father himself, who was a professor of English and is now being called the cremains, would have pointed out to you the alliteration in Porta Potti and the rhyme in pooper-scooper. Then he would have told you that cremains falls into the same category as brunch and is known as a portmanteau word.

There is nothing wrong with inventing words, especially in a business. But a grieving family is not prepared for this one. We are not even used to our loved one being gone. You could very well continue to employ the term ashes. We are used to it from the Bible, and are even comforted by it. We would not misunderstand. We would know that these ashes are not like the ashes in a fireplace.

Yours sincerely.

I like these stories — well, let’s say, I find these stories interesting, and I like the expanded sense of what fiction can be that I feel when I read these. I like that there aren’t the familiar old plots, characters, etc., of the typical realist short story. I have thought that maybe the narrator-characters themselves are the story, in some sense. And yet, I don’t know if I actually like the stories themselves. Maybe that doesn’t even matter. But I think her stories are worth reading, even if they aren’t satisfying reads, per se.

UPDATE: Here’s a 2014  New Yorker profile of Lydia Davis (partially blocked except for NYker subscribers).

Fiction: Beyond the Senses (graphic fic)

Beyond the Senses

Fiction: Ten minutes ago, you lost all hope

Ten minutes ago, you lost all hope.

You ate my socks, and then, to get the foot-stink out of your aperture, you gnawed off my candles. You’ve done things that only Charlie Manson or Charlie Rose would do. You’ve refused invitations to talk shows! You, who’s wanted so long to be asked about yourself! It’s as if you don’t even want that “Oh Henry” I bought just because it has your name, “ry,” on it. And there you go, bingeing on candy canes and ginger ale, when you know that just rots your fingernails and pulls the dent out of your dimple. You’ve become the Rumpelstiltskin of the fairy tale anthology that is my Facebook friends list.

I’ve owned so many antique carbines that dripped rust, grain by flakey grain, like the decrepit farmhouse faucets I had to use as a child. And now you’re reminding me of all of these things and more. You’re the 30-cent can of pineapple rings at the Aldi’s of my afternoon. Your despair smells like rotten pairs of pears, of tears in holy baby tears, or marked up, multicolored argyle socks of the imagination. Your wounded water buffalo of an ego was not hacked to death on Coppola’s filmstock; the King Kong of your enfeebled imagination retains its inner-ankle grip on the Empire State Building of our friendship. The ball-and-paddle game of our afternoon together has veered so far off a stability point that I’m running to make the next paddle-whack.

Now I see that I’ve stirred you to action, that you’re no longer luxuriating in the infinitesimals of my metaphor calculus. You’ve risen from your fabric-encrusted davenport and seized the pencil of your ventricular abdication. Like the nurse who advised you to take a half an hour apart the three lozenges she gave you–so as to avoid upsetting your stomach—I too have distorted the reality in which you live, in which we live, to further my own ends. “I don’t pay attention to you that much,” you finally retorted. “You never know. It might be the hardest thing I ever took,” I answered back, where “it” referred to the camaraderie I’d offered.

“I’m full of words of wisdom today,” you bragged, and I let you go toward the rainbow of macular degeneration. Now I too have lost all hope of our friendship surviving. You can take back your mix tapes (which were on CDs but which you called “tapes,” anyway).

“Man, we’re about to leave; I was about to look up ‘shenanigans,’” you appended.

Fare thee well, my former friend.

Fiction: Distinction without Difference

Distinction without a Difference

When we were alive, we never believed in what we have since become. But that’s OK – now I’m not sure I was ever anything else.

Fall 2011, MH

Fiction: Pinch Bite

Pinch Bite
Dogs bite the way we pinch: hard.