Build up to invasion of Iraq; shift in political consciousness; and sections of untitled (and unfinished) novel.

1 Nov

1.

I flew all over for the junkets, including New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Sometimes the actors and directors came to Atlanta. When this happened, I often had one on one time.  (I interviewed Neil LaBute, for instance, in a single occupancy room in a Sheridan. He was acerbic and funny, but friendly beneath the acidic veneer.)

This was close enough to 9/11 that flying was strange and scary. Paranoia was high. On one flight, for instance, my dad pointed out to a stewardess that a passenger five rows in front of us had a cast on his arm and said, “It’s sticking too far out. It’s suspicious. I think someone should check into it.” For the whole flight he kept turning to me and saying, “I don’t like the look of that cast. He could be hiding anything under there. Someone needs to do something!”

I flew a lot anyway, but the extra inspections and anxiety made flights longer and more worrisome.

On one cross country flight back from L.A., the plane returned to Atlanta and then sat on the tarmac for an hour. I was sitting in the exit seat, and I could see out the window other planes landing. I imagined all those other people de-planing, getting in their cars and going home. I was tired and hot and nervous and I put my hand to the exit release, I could feel some force moving my body to push open the exit door and flee, and then . . . nothing. I waited. I grumbled. I rolled my eyes. I staved off a panic attack. Claustrophobia and a feeling of diminution, a shrinking away—I was desperate to push out the exit door and run away.

Instead, I used this as a jumping off point for my next novel manuscript. Here’s the first two paragraphs:

The impulse hit him like an invisible wave as he was sitting in the exit aisle of the landed airplane. He looked out over the tarmac, over the expansive concrete runways that seemed to go for miles. He felt the man’s elbow touching his on the armrest, and he looked at the instructions for the emergency exit. The plane was waiting for a gate to open.
It was a crazy thing to do, he knew, and yet he felt the compulsion in his chest, beating there with his heart. His brain had already enacted it in his imagination, and he could see himself running over the hard ground, the plane and everyone in it marveling at his freedom and bravery.

My protagonist was, more than in all the other stories, simply me. My life and my fictions had collided, intertwined. He returned to the apartment where I was living, he saw his roommates who were my roommates, he was reading the same book I was reading when I started the novel. I had donned the fiction suit and lowered myself into a story. The results were depressing.

2.

Still, my technique had come a long way. (And yet I had so very far to go.) I was still in my Philip K. Dick phase. This novel in some sense is a mash up of The Man in the High Castle, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, and my own life. The writing isn’t bad, but it’s at times limpid. It doesn’t crackle. It isn’t crisp. The workmanlike sentences don’t surprise. Still, for all its flaws, this is the work of an adult writer. There’s (some) subtlety, flashes of elegance.

And even a few little moments that shine. Here’s a description of the protagonist’s life as a child:

His eyesight was poor, and he had been given glasses at the age of eight. The year was 1984, and he began looking through curved glass to see things more clearly. But unknown to him, the glass was curved too tight, and everything looked elongated, bent. To his eight-year-old mind, this was the true nature of the world, and the blurry haze without the glasses hid some of the grandeur, and terror, of things around him.
Trees bent to the sky. Buildings seemed miles high. People were too long in the waist, and everyone seemed much larger (and much skinnier) than he was. But it was the methods of communication—the bare bones of the United States infrastructure such as telephone poles, power lines, television antennae—that worried him. The world seemed tied together by ominous strings, black and brown and sometimes blinking red. Driving in the car with his parents, he would look out the backseat window and marvel at the complex lattices, the criss-crossing of different lines, and the large poles that seemed to be behind everything.
But he had exceptionally good hearing. His hearing was so sharp that he heard the noises behind sounds. He could hear the hum of electricity in the electronic registers and computers in stores, he heard the sound of water moving through the piping when he leaned over and sipped the water fountain; he sometimes thought he heard blood moving through people’s veins as they walked around him.

It isn’t revolutionary or award-winning. It isn’t even that good. But it’s solid. I was making headway, of a sorts.

3.

I remembered this manuscript the least of all, which speaks to my destabilized mental state. Leafing back through my files was a fun—if also strange, frustrating and bewildering experience; I wrote the lines but don’t remember them.

The plot involves a mid-level bureaucrat who, for complicated reasons, decides to destroy the main character’s life. He uses the auspices of Homeland Security to do it. He begins to monitor the main character in his house. He has him followed. He has agents go through his trash. He becomes obsessed with this lowly writer who thinks he can step outside the rules of society because he feels like it.

The novel has immense problems. The story takes too long to move. The characters seem to wade through a viscous sludge. There’s a lot of thinking and milling about but not much happening. The characters do a lot of driving around Atlanta. Characters argue about ideas, make phone calls, ponder entropy. It’s a surprisingly boring affair, considering the subject matter.

Lowering myself via the fiction suit into the novel had turned out to be a very bad idea. My life was too circumscribed at the time; I had tethered my imagination too tightly to the ground.

4.

I try not to write about politics directly, despite my strike entries. But it’s germane to my evolution as a person and a writer.

I was in the midst of a profound political re-evaluation, and this psychic dissonance plays out in the novel. I was raised conservative, and up to my twenties subscribed to a tough libertarianism. Leave me and mine alone. Don’t dictate morality. Protect property and prevent plunder. I was a free market scribe. At 19, I went to an evangelical camp for up-and-coming ultra-conservative Christian intellectuals. (You can read a little about my Southern Baptist childhood here.) I read Bastiat. I read Stormer.  I read Lewis. I railed on about nuclear defense satellites and the erosion of American autonomy due to the United Nations. I subscribed to the idea of American exceptionalism.

I was opinionated, and like many right-wing people, I had a scaffold that I used to protect my opinions. That scaffold, to my mind, was watertight, logical, undeniable. Why doesn’t everyone see things exactly like me? I often wondered. It’s all so simple and obvious.

The problem, and I was starting to see it, was that my beliefs were predicated on a handful of falsehoods, misconceptions, and cherry-picking from history. It was muscular, yes, but also simple, unsophisticated, and too removed from reality.

And I was beginning to see things differently in the here and now. We had invaded Afghanistan and were clearly about to invade Iraq. It was clear to me from the start—and I was basically still a Republican—that we were invading Iraq because we could. The evidence, even in the scant reporting in the various news outlets, was insubstantial. Worse, involving the U.S. in two occupying wars was foolhardy; anyone who knew anything about military history should have known that. Worst of all, to unleash the machinery of death—and that’s what war is, widespread death and suffering—without some imminent threat of attack is immoral, evil and wrong. Wars are unpredictable and messy and murderous, by their nature. Even with supreme right on your side—think of the Allied powers in World War II—you still have incidents like Dresden and Nagasaki.

Literature and philosophy and history were working their alchemical magic, too. The more I read, the more paltry and small-minded the fundamental beliefs of the far right, which I was until recently a member, seemed to be.[1]

I also had become, through my old boss Randall Williams’s influence, a self-taught student on the civil rights movement. And anyone digging around in the civil rights movement will tack left, politically; you have to.

I wasn’t yet honest enough with myself to see my childhood beliefs dying. The process took another six or seven years to complete. But I was disillusioned and unhappy and felt adrift. Unmoored. I had some tough roads ahead. The old way was lost; I hadn’t yet found a new way.

The novel holds within it this dynamic. There’s both the libertarian and the socialist duking it out inside the story, like a half-hidden code. The thing is saturated with bitterness and anger.

I lacked the novelist’s skill to situate characters within a power structure but still allow them some agency. Instead, I have characters being eaten alive by the social structures around them. And there’s nothing they can do about it.

The result is a depressing, despondent read, where the main character again sort of floats through things, buffeted by large forces. After breaking free of the airplane, he does little else but feel morbid and morose.

It’s no way to build a novel. But I felt powerless in the lead-up to the Iraqi invasion. There was nothing I could do to prevent it. Nothing. I knew with every fiber that it was a mistake, that it was wrong, and that it would have catastrophic consequences. I also knew it was going to happen anyway.

I felt way outside mainstream American culture. I didn’t listen to popular music or read popular books or watch popular television shows or hold popular opinions. It was the punk rock thing again; I didn’t have a job, I didn’t make much money and I was, in this regard anyway, much happier than I had been when I was working full-time.

5.

I also wrote without any sort of outline or plan. There’s a great feeling of liberation when you do this, but it’s dangerous. Soon one of the minor characters was in prison and I was writing about life in the big house with zero authenticity. I felt phony, the writing was fake, and I didn’t know how to fix things. The novel was out of control. Characters were killed and kidnapped and yet there was no real plot. I finally had the main character’s cousin pick a prison yard fight during a basketball game and the scene was so asinine I gave up in a fit of self-disgust.

So here’s a warning to young writers[2]. Don’t start a novel without having some inkling of where you’re going. I wrote myself into a box, and couldn’t write my way out. It felt easier to start over with something new.

I read six or seven of Paul Auster’s novels around this time—he was a major influence for about a year—and most of them have a meta-fictional approach. In Oracle Night, Auster takes a minor character from The Maltese Falcon and then locks him into a room under the ground with no way out. Auster describes the feeling of frustration that he’s tricked his own imagination into some unsolvable puzzle. Then he drops this novel-within-a-novel completely. Auster circumvented the problem I was having by situating his failed novel within another novel. I was not yet so bold.

I’ve always written fast, once I sink my teeth into something. I’ll write very little, a few sentences here and there, and then have an explosion of a few thousand words, often fueled by caffeine.

Here’s a passage near the end, that I wrote one day when I was waiting for an appointment near downtown. Everything about this passage reflects how I felt about America, and my role in it, at the time. Not the bitterness:

With these thoughts in his head, he walked toward the huge stone federal building and felt utterly alone. That’s me, he thought as he scrutinized the cracked sidewalks, the slumped-over trees, the overflowing garbage cans. I’m the one sane man in the world, being slowly broken on the rack. The bureaucrats are winning, he realized sadly. There were no birds, no squirrels, not even any people. The parking lot was full of dead cars and the grounds were simply drying grass and some litter. The bright sun did little to illuminate the day. He sat on the park bench, knowing he was too early for the “appointment.” His head fell to his chest as he felt gravity pushing him ever downward.
The bench was hard, and it hurt the back of his legs. He felt a terrible loss. He knew at that instant that America—his civilization, his world—would not last. And that everything passed, that all things ended. He had known this intellectually for some time, he guessed, but not like this, not as a profound understanding in his heart. He felt decay in his breast, he felt the molecules that made up his arms and legs and chest and brain and muscles all slowly fading from each other, all moving toward an inevitable destruction. But it was the end of the idea of America, the end of his pure if naive version of this land, that made him saddest. In the face of this, his own mortality paled in comparison.

I had reached the end. The manuscript was going nowhere. I didn’t even print a copy. I saved the digital file in pdf form and decided to move on. Thirty thousand words and I never even deemed it worthy of a title. I shed no tears.


[1] More on this in another post.

[2] I don’t know if any young writers read this, but . . .

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2 Responses to “Build up to invasion of Iraq; shift in political consciousness; and sections of untitled (and unfinished) novel.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. My life with Ayn Rand and Steve Ditko. « simoneandthesilversurfer - November 26, 2012

    […] a penchant for Coors Light and trangressive literature. I’ve discussed this elsewhere (read it here) but there’s one immutable fact to my Randian beliefs and its cruel disconnectedness to […]

  2. Interlude 2: A found fragment. | simoneandthesilversurfer - August 30, 2014

    […] part 9: shift in political consciousness and unfinished novel […]

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