Thursday, March 30, 2017

Thoughts About My Dad

My dad and me, 1952
If my father, Cal Jack Robison, were still with us in this temporal reality, he would be 90 years old today. I last saw him alive twenty years ago, the day he turned 70.

In December 2015, I took advantage of a few days in an Authentic Writing workshop to explore some thoughts about him. Here are some of those exercises. The headings are the writing prompts we were given. I hope you'll read to the end.

Vagrant

The snow began drifting down not long after we started walking. The sky was low, the color of old porcelain, above the many shades of gray-brown and muted green of the rocky, brushy slopes, where stands of pines filled the ravines. Duane had moved on ahead of us and disappeared, his rifle slung over his shoulder. “That long-legged son of a gun,” my dad said. “We’ll have to meet back at the cabin later.” They knew from many hunts together that my dad’s short legs could never keep up—his pace was better matched to mine, the kid, ten years old. I’d be taller than him in just a couple of years, and I already told him frequently how to spell words, but now, out here, there was no sense beyond this: he was a man, I was a child.

I walked behind him, staying quiet, no sound but the crunch of our boots on stones and leaves, and the snow continued to fall, heavier, thicker. I often wondered: why is there so much walking when we go deer hunting? Wouldn’t it make more sense to stay still? Aren’t we scaring them away just by moving, just by entering their silent home with all our loud rustles and creaks and snapping twigs?

We hiked higher and higher, where the view of the surrounding wilderness should have widened, but by now the wind had picked up and snow swirled around us so thickly I could see nothing but my dad’s back, his rifle over his shoulder, his boots making one track after another. The ground was no longer visible under the deepening snow. Pines would appear as looming shadows in the white-out, then pass away behind us. Flakes caught on my eyelashes and I knew my hat and earflaps and shoulders were covered in white. A gust blasted my face. We kept walking. Should I be worried? I stayed silent. With him, this was my way.

Out of the swirling whiteness appeared a huge fallen tree, it’s tangle of roots jutting up as tall as my dad. He walked around it, where the other side was against a huge boulder. He stopped and turned to me.

“In there,” he said. “Quick.” Under the roots of the fallen tree, walled in by the boulder, was a little dry space, no bigger than a bathtub, all earthy dark brown, perfectly sheltered from the blizzard.

We crouched in the tiny cave together and suddenly I knew that he was scared. But he tried not to show it. “Hell of a storm, I’ll tell you what,” he said. Together we found a few sticks and dry leaves and started a miniature fire. We warmed our hands. I didn’t know if my dad and I were going to freeze to death, buried under a mountain of snow—whether I would ever see my mom or my little sisters and baby brother again. But somehow, I didn’t care. There was some sort of fierce joy in me—with my father, facing the elements in a battle for survival. I was being taken care of by him, but at the same time, and more importantly, I was somehow his equal. Two men, strong, smart, brave, surviving together. The rest of the world didn’t matter.

I don’t know how long we sat there in our little shelter. Maybe it was only an hour until the blizzard died down and we climbed out, resumed or ended our hunt, met up with Duane again, drove down out of the Uintah Mountains to our little cowboy town. Back to school, church, then my dad’s different jobs that took him away more and more, then moving to another town and another like vagrants… the routine that continued until, gradually, before I reached the end of high school, he was entirely gone from our lives, off with a new woman and a child on the way.

And I was expected to be the man of the family, a job that no hour under a tree in a blizzard could prepare me for.

Exploring

In 1993 I lived in downtown Jersey City but had explored the streets of Manhattan well enough to give good directions to out-of-towners. No other members of my family had ever been there. It was Christmas time and I was 41, newly in love. I decided to take my New York born and raised girlfriend to Utah for her first time, to meet my family—my mother and her husband, my father and his wife, my teenage son and daughter. In Salt Lake City we picked up my kids from my ex, piled into a rental car, and headed south. First up, my mother’s house in Orem, next door to Provo, the home of Brigham Young University, the dark heart of Mormon country and my mother’s lifelong home. Surely my mother had no idea what to make of this tall young woman in her beret, black leather jacket, long scarf and slim black jeans, but I had long-since ceased to care and we enjoyed a surfacey chit-chat amongst the family photos and Jesus tchotchkes. Then on the road again.

I hadn’t seen my father in many years—possibly only once since my younger brother’s funeral in 1982. It might have been ‘88—I had driven down to Washington, DC, to meet my dad and his third wife for a tourist afternoon. His only trip to the East Coast, made for the sake of visiting his wife’s daughter in Virginia, but driving a half-day north to New Jersey to visit me was more than he could do.

Now he lived in a ranch house development in the small desert city of Saint George, in the southwest corner of Utah, retired from the oil field, working part-time in a country club shop and playing golf in all his spare hours. Maybe I’d been opened up to hope by the dizzy state of new love—I had the notion that he and I would do a lot of warm and honest talking. We’d reconnect.

But it was only an hour into our conversation in his living room, barely enough time for introductions and shallow catch up, that I saw an exchange of glances between him and his wife. Then his expression changed to one I’d seen before: the guilty, apologetic little boy. He seemed to squirm as he said something about having made a reservation for us in a motel nearby. At first I couldn’t take it in, as if he were speaking a different language. Then I understood. They had been expecting us for days and had never told me that we weren’t welcome to stay in their home. There was room for all of us; that wasn’t the issue. It was only later that I realized: his wife had never liked me. She thought I was a bad son, and my sisters were bad daughters, for not somehow spending more time with the father who abandoned us and never made an effort to reconnect himself. And through adult eyes I now saw the man I’d only glimpsed before: an overgrown child who followed his own convenience and the wishes of whomever was closest to him at the moment, never living by any principle or deeper thought.

But I was also the hurt boy, the artsy introvert, whose loud, unconscious dad had never understood him. I stood up to my neck in the motel pool under the red sandstone cliffs and raged in a whisper to my new love, my wife-to-be, about this man who was the father of my body but never of my soul.

Tentative Love

There is a photo of my dad standing in a doorway—young, grinning, cocky—his torso from neck to waist and his entire left leg encased in a white plaster cast. Under one arm, a crutch, and in the other: me, a baby under two. He had fallen asleep at the wheel, driving alone at night. A broken back and leg did not cure him of that narcoleptic habit; it was forever a source of tension on family trips.

Maybe it was to keep him awake that I was sent with him on an overnight trip away from home to another small Utah town some hours away. I was a pre-teen, maybe younger, and remember nothing about the purpose of the journey and nothing about our conversation, if it occurred at all. I remember only the rugged scenery out the car window and, most vividly, our night in a dingy roadside motel. I had never seen a Gideon Bible before. I felt awkward about sleeping in the same bed with my dad and I lay still and awake in the darkness, listening to an amazing parade of noises—rustle, shift, creak, sigh, cough, burp, shift, rustle, sigh again. He probably farted but I must have blanked it from my memory since my mother never allowed such things. Eventually he snored and I slept too. But it made me wonder: is this what it’s like to be an adult, a man? To have a big noisy body that can’t relax, that fills a dark room with its presence?

Maybe it was the next morning, or maybe it was some other morning on some other trip, just him and me, that we drove a drab main street of a little Utah town in the slanting light of dawn. A ragged, drunken Indian man staggered across the street in front of us. We went into a divey coffee shop, all shadowy with glints of chrome, and sat at the counter with a few other silent men. No children, no women. Men. I had never done this before. My dad actually ordered coffee, something no Mormon is supposed to drink. Of course I said nothing. I was just the student, learning. I suspect he ate eggs over-easy with plenty of pepper, and maybe I did too—although I preferred scrambled—to copy him, to try out being a man. My memories are as if I was not physically present at all, but was only a pair of eyes, always watching him. Looking up.

There is another photo from over thirty years later, 1997. I stand with my dad, my two sisters, and my half-sister from his second marriage. We are in front of his house in Saint George, Utah. I am the tallest in the image. He barely stands to my chin. It’s been many years since I had to look up to see him. We’re all smiling in our summer clothes in the sunshine, although it’s only the end of March, there in the southern Utah desert. The only indication in the photo that anything might be wrong is that his head is bald. No sign of the thick, curly, dark hair that had begun going silver. We are gathered from several states, with our children, his grandchildren, to celebrate his 70th birthday. To celebrate while he’s in a good period, feeling healthy for now, during his battle with leukemia—the leukemia caused by a doctor’s prescription of two contraindicated medications while he recovered from heart surgery. The doctor who retired before any justice could be served. Not that my father or his wife wanted to sue for malpractice—too much stress, you know, and that’s not how you should treat doctors anyway. Better just to die. 

Three months later in the sun-blasted heat of June, I was back in Saint George to speak at his funeral.

The Right Way

"The right way to live is according to the revealed word of God as delivered to his chosen servants: the Prophet, his two Counselors, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Any other way of living will lead only to unhappiness in this life, and to an eternity of disappointment in the next."

My grandfather the Mormon bishop made sure this message was taught to all his children, but I suspect that by the time his sixth child and youngest son, my father, arrived, his teaching energy was fading. Cal Jack had a bit of a wild streak. He knew the right way—all Mormon kids do—but it hadn’t imprinted in his cells deeply enough to guide his behavior. He was too full of fun to walk the straight and narrow path.

For that I am grateful. When I imagine who I would be if my father hadn’t had a spark of rebellion in him, the vision is too horrible to contemplate.

Let’s say he had denied his urge to roam, to hunt and fish on Sundays, to drive cool cars he couldn’t afford, to wear kangaroo-skin boots and polished agate belt buckles, to flirt, to drink, to whistle while he worked, to tell crude jokes and laugh loudly. Let’s say he had settled into a bank job, stuffed himself into a suit, stayed twenty years in one suburban ranch house with his wife and kids, instead of following the oil wells across all of the far-flung deserts and mountains of the west, dragging family along, or spending months alone in his little geologist trailer at the end of a hundred-mile dirt road, communing with wolves and moose. And let’s say he had bowed his head and stayed a Mormon, never missed a church meeting, done his duty in pious silence. Let’s say he did that—then who would I be?

I’d be dead. The spark that makes me live would have been snuffed out before it had a chance to grow. For all the ways he failed to live the right way, I thank him.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Calling by Jamie Turndorf

I am not typically a consumer of the "whodunit" genre, but I have studied its tropes as part of my self-education as a fiction writer. I can confidently state that The Calling by Jamie Turndorf will satisfy aficionados of the genre: a twisty plot launched by a late-night anonymous phone call, an atmospheric murder scene, a hero with inner conflicts, cops with their own agendas, ambiguous clues, courtroom shenanigans that distort justice, a time-pressured chase for final answers... oh yes, and sex. One entire chapter is dedicated to an explicit scene that is best described as a universal male dream come true. Definitely more fantasy than realism, but hot!

Full disclosure: Dr. Jamie Turndorf has been my therapist for nearly a decade. Her deep understanding of the effect of childhood emotional wounds on adult behavior is one of the strengths of this novel, lending empathy and subtlety to the psychological struggles inherent in following a priestly calling… or deciding not to. A foundational theme addressed in this book may present a serious challenge for dutiful Catholics: the story is a loud statement of opposition to the rule of celibacy for priests.

The fact that this tale’s lone hero investigator is a Catholic priest puts the novel on the fringes of the popular priest-as-detective tradition that may have begun a century ago with G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. But The Calling’s Father Bernardo is no amateur sleuth looking for crimes to solve; he’s a reluctant detective forced by circumstance to try his best to save the life of an unjustly-accused fellow priest, his childhood friend. He succeeds because that is the genre convention: the mystery must be solved. The mystery cannot be allowed to remain a mystery because questions without answers are just too uncomfortable! Or so the conventional wisdom insists.

In this case, another agenda is added: the mystery must be solved so that a real-life Church coverup can be exposed. Jamie Turndorf’s late husband and co-author of this novel was once a prominent Jesuit, so he provides authentic insider knowledge. According to the marketing blurb, the novel is “Based on a never-before-revealed Vatican cover-up….” While the promise of Vatican-level intrigue is never fulfilled, we do get a priest’s convincing view of rampant sexual hypocrisy in a northern Italy diocese in the 1960s - 70s.

For me, the best “mystery novels” are those where the plot’s mystery (the unsolved crime) is really just a pointer toward deeper mysteries, existential or even cosmic, the unsolvable kind -- questions without answers. So that’s what I look for. In The Calling, the most important investigation, in my opinion, is not about the murder at all. It is Father Bernardo’s search for his elusive Self -- that congruent core that is his truest inner being, free of the controls of Mother, Duty, or Church. In those passages, the book enters my preferred realm of “metaphysical detective fiction,” in which the world is one of questions, not answers; interpretations, not solutions; and the sleuth is seeking not "Whodunit" but "Who am I?"

(For more on this subject see my earlier post: Nondual Auster, Metaphysical Detective.)

Monday, January 16, 2017

Till Human Voices Wake Us by Alan Brooks


My friend and neighbor Alan Brooks' latest book is Till Human Voices Wake Us. Other reviewers have accurately described the book’s plot, and I agree with their comments about its strengths: a convincing future world, recognizable characters, a believable math/tech milieu, a tightly paced narrative. For readers of both thrillers and science fiction, Till Human Voices Wake Us will not fail to satisfy. Brooks has deftly merged noir and sci-fi, with the admirable creative choice to set the story not in outer space, but in inner space: underwater.

That’s where my thoughts begin to depart from the standard review. I’m interested in the meaning that can be found just off the page, at the borderlines of the text. The decision to set the story in a world drowned by climate change is more than either a timely topical gimmick or an activist’s plea for environmental awareness. Undersea = subconscious. I suggest this is a dreamscape, where nothing is merely what it seems.

The first point of view we encounter is a whale, a natural denizen of the deep, looking from the outside in through plexiglass to the world of the intruders, humans. The whale belongs; the humans don’t. We’re not equipped for underwater life; we live in glass bubbles… that is, our essential makeup is to remain separated, perhaps for our own survival, from the primal forces of our actual psychological environment. Dreams give us our only glimpses.

In dreams, objects and ideas can be frustratingly elusive to the grasp. The hero’s discussion of how secrets are hidden in the tech world -- lock it up, hide it, keep it moving -- sounds very much like the organic security system at work in the depths of our minds. Or… of our, it could be said, brains in vats (because we can’t prove otherwise).

Early in the story, the protagonist encounters a bit of software that appears to be able to forecast his future behavior. Among other things, he’s seeking that predictive code... a metaphor for self-awareness. How do I find the part of me that can predict what I will do? Do I really want to know? Or… what exactly is leading me? What is buried in my subconscious (or my repressed memory) that determines my choices despite rational logic?

A recurring story device -- that is to say, dream symbol -- is the submarine. Whether the hero’s broken down jalopy sub or his enemy’s sleek high-tech one, the submarine is the one instrument that can navigate the murky, dangerous subconscious. And, in the end, it becomes the vehicle for a final deliverance from the threat of death.

Another symbol is the interface pad or portal used by techies in this future world. It’s the tool, like our mobile devices today, through which so much amazing work gets done. In this advanced world, the pad rolls up into a slim tube that is a visual metaphor for a magic wand. When these are wielded by opposing geniuses, the meta-image is of archetypal dueling wizards.

Two women have major roles in this dream drama: a brilliant, foul-mouthed, principled punk, and a brilliant, elegant, unscrupulous scientist. Both are beautiful and sexy, two halves balancing out the dreamer’s fantasy mate.

A secret equation that promises great power for either evil or good, pursued at great expense by both sides and ingeniously hidden in circular logic, is the MacGuffin in this plot. It’s the device that powers the self-discovery storyline, but, exactly like a dream, it is never revealed. The final sentence in the book is “He picked up the stylus and began to write.” What he wrote is…unknown. After that: only the blankness of the empty page.

In other words, we have just awakened from the dream and the profound insight we discovered has suddenly evaporated. But fortunately we’re left with the delicious remnants of the whole dream: snippets of visions never before seen, the buzz of danger survived, the satisfaction of thought provoked, the aura of mystery ongoing.

Because I prefer questions over answers, here’s a final one: in the title, who is the “us” that may be wakened by human voices? Is it that denizen of the deep that opens the story? Or is it you and me, the sleeping dreamers?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Launching The Strange Recital

Seven months ago I embarked on a creative venture that is unusual for me because it’s a collaboration -- a thing for which I’d come to believe I have no talent. Fortunately, my collaborator and I seem to think alike in a few ways that are important for this particular project, so now the landing gear is up and we’re off the ground, gaining altitude slowly but steadily.

It may actually have started over a year ago, with one of those dog-walking meetups. My wife met a fellow pooch owner on Woodstock’s Comeau trail, a guy who wanted to find local writers-for-hire to create an episodic genre fiction podcast, a commercial venture. She referred him to me, I gathered a few likely folks, we had meetings, then the whole thing took a left turn and disappeared. But meanwhile, I mentioned it to my new acquaintance, local author-musician-audio engineer Tom Newton, during our very first get-together over coffee at Bread Alone. It was a connection born on Facebook; I had read and reviewed Tom’s surreal e-novella (Warfilm, Bloomsbury Publishing) before I ever met him in person.

So would Tom later have suggested collaborating on a podcast anyway, or not? No way to know. But suggest it he did, and when I said yes let’s do it, he came up with several stories, the title, the audio tag, the music, the graphics, and the website itself (which is why I think of him as the Mad Renaissance Genius of Byrdcliffe). I contributed a subtitle: "a podcast about fiction that questions the nature of reality."

Since then we’ve each reached out to our pools of writer friends and now have a pipeline of stories in various stages of production, lined up to be released twice a month into the indefinite future. I’ve learned the ins and outs of podcast distribution, a whole new way of getting good writing and ideas out into the world, a great addition to the book production skills I’ve gained over the years as a small indie publisher.

Explore our website here: The Strange Recital -- and join our email list. Or listen at one of our various other venues:  iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, Google Play Music, Facebook.  It's all free.
Always a highlight of my week, Tom and I get together in The Palace of Materialized Dreams (his studio) as often as we can, usually with a writer/reader friend. We do a little recording and editing, and then he performs more audio magic into the wee hours. We're hard at work subtly undermining conventional ideas of reality... and having fun while we do it.

In dark times, is it enough to simply pursue what you enjoy? Maybe it is, but I like to think there's a little more to what we're doing than a pleasurable literary pastime. I agree with James Baldwin:
“You write in order to change the world…. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”
Our eighth episode (just out this week) is this story written and read by me:

The December Ninth Study

"Amid fits of laughter and clouds of pot smoke, Dave and I would debate: Do thoughts have density? What is the weight of sadness, the volume of anger?..."

Is this story a glimpse of a vast synchronistic web of invisible interconnections, or is it mostly a convoluted but loving tribute to John Lennon? You decide.

And listen to the author interview (of a sort) that follows. A smile is good.

All you need is....

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

My Radio Interview


I had a very enjoyable time being interviewed by my friend Bonnie Lykes-Bigler on The Writers' Voice radio show on WIOX, 91.3FM, Roxbury, NY. For the first half-hour, we talked about writing and publishing: my past influences, my current projects, my creative process. We touched on both Bliss Plot Press and The Strange Recital. In the second half, I got to read from the beginning of my novel in progress, Ponckhockie Union. The whole thing was a lot of fun!

Maybe there's something in this hour of audio you can learn from, be inspired by, or just use to ward off boredom. Please listen and tell me your thoughts. Just click here:
https://soundcloud.com/user-262879014/sets/brent-robison-wiox-the-writers

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Refresh My Memory

"Benson Randall awoke one morning with someone else's memories..."

How can you be absolutely sure that your "memories" are not just a broadcast your brain is receiving? Or an accidental download of someone else's thoughts? Is a "self" just a life story?

Listen to me read my new short story on The Strange Recital, a fiction podcast I co-host with my friend Tom Newton. Plus an interview (of a sort) afterward.


More to come about The Strange Recital!

Friday, March 4, 2016

A Journey into the Dark Woods

There is a myth that by middle age, one is fully formed; growth should be finished, the mountain scaled, the work done. Fred Poole’s memoir, The Aqua Mustang: Detours Into My Past, puts the lie to that idea. He looks back thirty years to when he was fifty, a time of powerful change rather than of resting on laurels, of conscious forward movement rather than a tired surrender to stasis.

In an introspective narrative voice that reminded me of strongly subjective first-person novels like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger or Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Poole weaves a story that travels from dim childhood memories in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, to exotic international dangers, to New York City’s streets, art museums, and ACOA rooms, and back again to rural New England. But the journey is not about geography. It is a journey of self-awareness.

It takes courage to hunt down and confront the phantoms in one’s own psyche, to dive like Beowulf to battle the monsters at the bottom of the lake -- to kill Grendel and his mother and lift the longtime curse from the kingdom of the self. That’s what Fred Poole is doing on his bike around the streets of Manhattan, and in his aqua Mustang on the shadowy country roads of his family history. His story is his own, but it’s also classic. As John Yorke says in The Atlantic (Jan 1, 2016): “In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs—the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.”

I'm pleased to have made this video to promote The Aqua Mustang:


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fierce Subjectivity: Mean Bastards Making Nice

Djelloul Marbrook’s fiction is like no one else’s. Perhaps it’s the rich stew of being half-Bedouin, half German-American, born in Algiers, raised in New York’s art world, educated in a Brit-run boarding school, helped by a Sicilian stepfather, then going on to a stint in the US Navy, a newspaper career, years living on a sailboat, and a classic ten-thousand hours of poetic practice—all those ingredients and other less visible ones—that worked an alchemical magic on his sensibilities and vocabulary.

Full disclosure: Djelloul is a dear friend of mine. I don’t always love his work, but I always respect its powerfully idiosyncratic intelligence.

Mean Bastards Making Nice is a slim volume from small UK publisher Leaky Boot Press. It contains two novellas related by theme and setting. It’s a thoroughly New York book, but that doesn’t mean stock Big Apple accents or tired tropes from TV. It means both city streets and upstate forests are simply there: as integral as the air the characters breathe.

To gloss the surface: “Book One: The Pain of Wearing Our Faces” introduces a painter, a composer, their shared alcoholism, and a mysterious woman who is a muse for both of them, but a dangerous one. “Book Two: Grace” follows a girl on the run from country to city, her discovery of her own warrior strength on the streets, and her profound impact on a few of the city’s art-world glitterati.

However, for a Djelloul Marbrook story, a plot description cannot begin to capture the actual reading experience. Nor can a mention of the astonishing lexicon he employs. Instead, it has to be acknowledged that the journey a reader takes between these covers is primarily a journey into the author’s mind. His voice is profoundly subjective.

Which is certainly not to say Marbrook only writes as Marbrook. Each of these novellas is about a woman, and one is narrated in first person. Both women are painters. Marbrook is neither a woman nor a painter, but the masks he creates are so vivid they transcend categories. The sensibility that drives the storytelling, that crafts the sentences, is recognizably a product of a singular author’s interior.

Granted, every writer’s narrative voice is subjective to some degree. It can’t be otherwise; at the level of everyday living, every human is a solo consciousness encapsulated inside a sensory apparatus. One point of view for each of us. But when we communicate, and especially when we use the consensual abstraction of written language (music and visual art not so much), we are moving into a zone of commonality, a dilution of our lone uniqueness. Writers, whether they know it or not, are embracing that dilution—especially those content to work with a fairly limited database of words, the words they’re confident their readers will understand. That means most of us—but not all.

Marbrook, a seasoned, professional newsman, is skilled at prioritizing clear, communal message-sharing above personal, idiosyncratic expression—all the better for journalism, but his fiction is something else entirely. It shows a conscious choice to resist the diminishment of unique subjectivity. To, instead, master the tools of the art form—vocabulary, syntax, metaphor—until a distinctive, muscular, uninhibited (but never sloppy), even hallucinatory voice emerges, seemingly without effort.

This is prose that reminds me of film school: Russian cinema pioneer Sergei Eisenstein claimed that meaning in montage (editing) came from the “collision” of adjacent shots. Marbrook’s prose accrues its dense power from the continual collision of words, phrases, images, ideas.

In addition, Marbrook puts the lie to all those Internet writing sites that say a fiction author should be invisible so the story can come through without distraction. He proves the stupidity of that idea. What would art be if all artists made their expressive style invisible so the subject matter could be seen without distraction? Van Gogh would have been a photographer taking mundane snapshots.

As a reader, submerging yourself in these novellas is like being lost in some sort of fever dream, a foreign land that’s familiar but somehow off-kilter, a parallel universe, an impressionistic, almost psychedelic vision simultaneously more vivid and convoluted than your own. To choose a convenient example, the book begins with these lines:
     I don’t trust words. That’s what he said. They’re swindlers, mean bastards making nice, he said.
     I felt like swatting his words out of my head as I swarmed into Bloomie’s on Christmas Eve in full city roast. I needed gloves. I needed a new head. I’d left my rabbit-lined Danish gloves in a cab. The cheap wool mark-ups I bought made my two first-water rubies and clitoral opal itch. You don’t want to itch anywhere, but in Bloomie’s razzle of cut-glass perfume pumps and dazzle of capitalist excess itching is a criminal impulse. I gulped three Benadryl caplets with my own spit.
     On a good day my sexual jewels are eyes for seeing in the dark, sensors to explore ocean floors, microscopes. On a bad day, they’re nails to bleed me on a cross, tear me apart. Today they itch and shine at trouble up ahead, like all good jewels. Isn’t it what they’re for? I’m an artist. I never know trouble in my head, it’s always somewhere else, tactile, fragrant, unwilling, unable to be put off. Why else would a woman want to be an artist?
You ask: Who speaks this way? Answer: Marbrook’s people.

You ask: What does it mean? What’s going on? Answer: I’ll re-read, and I’ll notice how I feel. And I’ll keep going, and I’ll observe the cumulative effect of this deluge of image and language, and viscerally, I’ll understand.

Marbrook is an award-winning poet. Perhaps a poet’s fiction is to be expected to deliver this sort of fierce subjectivity. Perhaps not. All this is to say: read him.

Here’s a video I’m pleased to have produced to promote the book:


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird - Dreams Redux

Consider this Part 2 of my previous entry, Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird (please read). No sooner had I finished and posted it than I realized I had more to say about those books and other ideas they sparked.

I’ve been thinking and reading, as always, about stuff like lucid dreaming, Möbius strips, precognition, quantum effects, nondual awakening, memory… the endlessly tangled strands of Mystery we live in. I’ve always been attracted to lucid dreaming, in which one is aware of being in a dream and so is able to control events, but I’ve never applied the self-discipline to learn how to do it. Right now I’m feeling pushed a little closer to taking it on.

Quick detour: To talk about lucid dreaming, we first have to dispense with the obligatory reference to the blockbuster movie Inception, in which writer/director Christopher Nolan squandered his opportunity to do something deep in favor of making one more Hollywood shoot-em-up thrill ride. It is not included in the discussion to come. No more to say. Onward….

If both Tom Newton’s Warfilm and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are, at the macro scale, depictions of dreams, then how should we look at the dreams their characters experience inside the story -- these dreams-within-dreams? Newton’s protagonist in Warfilm, Franz, under the hypnotic influence of the mysterious Lord Strange, slips into sleep and dreams himself into a DeChirico landscape scarcely more surreal than those he’s seen in the book’s “reality.” While there, in the dream-within-a-dream, he murders Lord Strange, who is never seen again in the book. It’s tempting to think this suggests the power of dream action to impact “reality”... but it’s all a dream, just different layers circling back upon themselves, like the Escher-style edifice of doors and stairways that he attempts to navigate before he wakes up.

If, as psychotherapy suggests, all objects and characters in a dream are aspects of the dreamer, did Franz kill himself? Maybe, but maybe not, because Newton’s third-person narrative point of view, as I discussed in the earlier post, is crafted to never answer the ultimate question: “Who is dreaming this dream?” We are left with the response: “We all are.”

Or: “I am.”

There’s no evidence that Franz was lucid dreaming in his dream-within-a-dream, but Murakami’s first-person protagonist in Wind-Up Bird, Toru, is very intentional about entering the dreamspace and forcing events to go his way. He isolates himself at the bottom of a well until, as he says,
“The darknesses inside and out began to blend, and I began to move outside of my self, the container that held me.” 
This sounds a lot like astral travel, an out-of-body experience (OBE). Toru finds himself in a labyrinthine hotel, makes his way to Room 208, and in the darkness there kills an unseen man who was threatening him. Later, back in “reality,” he learns his cruel brother-in-law has had a stroke and lies incapacitated in the hospital, never to trouble Toru again. Does dream impact non-dream? Does metaphor equal fact?

If I have to choose a one-word answer to that last question, I’ll go with “yes.” Metaphor and fact are like the infinite recursion of facing mirrors. When Charles Foster Kane walks through his hall of mirrors, does it really matter which of the many Kanes is the “real” one? Also, Murakami muses in Wind-Up Bird:
“To know one’s own state is not a simple matter. One cannot look directly at one’s own face with one’s own eyes, for example. One has no choice but to look at one’s reflection in the mirror. Through experience, we come to believe that the image is correct, but that is all.” 
So maybe “self” is a belief system we invent for ego survival, a mirror that needs only its own double to explode into an infinite conundrum.

But in the final analysis, the multiples are illusion. There is just One (as in: Ultimate Indivisibility). In perhaps my favorite passage in Warfilm, near the end, Franz encounters for the last time a recurring character who drops in to offer bits of trickster wisdom. His name is just a number, a different number each time he appears. This time he is Forty-Five:
“He reached into his pocket and pulled out a rectangular strip of paper.
     Watch this.
He looped it into a ring by holding the narrow edges together then he twisted one edge and rejoined them.
     See? A Möbius strip, a closed Möbius strip, a non-orientable object. It has only one side and one boundary. Two planes have become one. The inside is the outside.
He ran his finger along the plane to illustrate his point....
     For example, take the idea that two planes become one and map it on to the concept of self, then you might see the boundary between one self and another is dissolved, so you and I could be the same person. I said that I oscillated between existence and non existence. If you applied the Möbius strip poem to that thought, you could say that I just oscillate because are not existence and non-existence the same thing? Then maybe you would deduce that I do not exist, for with only one plane, what is there to oscillate between? Take your question and answer obsession. The questions are the answers are the questions are the answers ad infinitum. You can do what you like with it.”
Forty-Five is showing Franz a glimpse of the deepest nature of the universe, and the funny thing is that it puts Franz right to sleep. “He had been so tired he might have dreamed it all,” the narrator says a bit later when Franz awakes. He awakes just in time to step outside of surrealism into mythology for a fateful meeting with an entirely unexpected band of Maenads.

I found myself wondering: is Franz living a Möbius strip life? Does he proceed seamlessly from the end on a Greek hillside to the opening sentence, “He was an ordinary German, walking one night on a Berlin street…,” over and over in an endless loop? Is he a recurring dream in a realm where time has no direction?

One of Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird characters says,
“One by one, with my own hands, I had to make this thing I called 'I'-- or, rather, make the things that constituted me.” 
According to some, “self” is an edifice built of our memories. My current favorite blog is The Nightshirt by brilliant science-writer-on-the-fringe Eric Wargo. In “Feeding the Psi God: Precognitive Dreaming, Memory, and Ritual,” he mentions his hypothesis that “the function of dreaming is the formation of long-term memories through playful associations, the art of memory operating automatically while we sleep.” But he also makes a case for the non-linear, simultaneous nature of Time, with precognitive dreams as evidence. About a 9/11 dream of his own, he says,
“My dreaming mind hadn’t peered into the shut envelope, in other words; instead it picked up on the most emotionally salient event in the landscape of my near future. That event bore a chicken-and-egg relationship to the dream that precognized it. It was truly ‘acausal’ or even Moebius-like in precisely the way we should predict could occasionally happen in a science-fictional world where information can travel backward in time.”
By “science-fictional world” I take him to mean the very world we live in. In a later post, “The Great Work of Immortality - Astral Travel, Dreams, and Alchemy,” he ventures into the arcane territory of old alchemical texts, discussing how lucid dreams, astral travel (OBE), and “enlightenment” are on a continuum. He argues that the Mutus Liber (Wordless Book) of 1677, with its enigmatic depictions of a man and woman gathering morning dew on sheets and wringing them out to be distilled, is an illustrated cypher:
“So I think that the Mutus Liber is basically a Baroque astral projection manual disguised as chemistry: The stuff of dreams is the materia prima, the murky raw material that must be taken, analyzed, worked with, to create true philosophic gold: a special 'blended' state in which the soul (alert consciousness) fully joins with the spirit double/'energy body' on its nightly travels.”
I love this esoteric stuff, and long ago used the following quote from the Mutus Liber as the epigraph for Prima Materia, the literary journal I published: To find the philosopher’s stone,“Pray, read, read, read, read again, labor, and discover.” But I digress….

As a dreamer, I confess I’m pretty illiterate and unconscious. But I have ambitions to begin moving toward more dream awareness, in the direction of exactly what Wargo suggests in The Nightshirt:
“If anyone’s innocence is lost here, it should be yours: Time is not what you were raised to think it is. Neither is your own mind. Dreams are a royal road to discovering the bizarre Moebius structure of time and mind; if you are not already keeping a dream diary, what are you waiting for?”
On the other hand, there is always the option to forego such busy striving in favor of the supreme stillness of the “I Am,” as taught by my favorite Indian sage:
“The very idea of going beyond the dream is illusory. Why go anywhere? Just realize that you are dreaming a dream you call the world, and stop looking for ways out. The dream is not your problem. Your problem is that you like one part of the dream and not another. When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that needs to be done.”
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That

Friday, October 9, 2015

Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird

A few observations about two books I read this summer: Haruki Murakami’s hefty (600 page!) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Tom Newton’s debut novella, Warfilm (128 virtual pages on Kindle). Very different books, unexpectedly similar.

What we’re talking about here is dreams. According to the famous and dead writer/teacher John Gardner, the art of fiction is creating a vivid and continuous dream. So fiction as dream is one way of seeing the artform in general, a valid way. But the two books I’m looking at here go further. Rather than fiction as dream, we might call them dream as fiction.

Imagine you’re asleep. dreaming a dream that begins with Hitler as a movie director embarking on the most epic film production in history: World War II! Cool idea, but this is not a novel of ideas or politics or speculative fiction; this is not a novel at all, this is a dream. A novel might take a cool idea and develop its coolness with logical allegory, consistent characters, mandatory narrative arc, etc. But this is a dream, and dreams don’t roll like dat.

Dreams go other places. Dreams surprise you. Warfilm is a dream, and while its WWII shell and its concreteness of detail feel entirely “real,” it does nothing you’ll expect. It lands you in a DeChirico painting where you’ll be trying to get your bearings until suddenly the dream is over. You’re awake. Or are you?

Much has already been written about Murakami’s dreamlike narratives, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle may be the pinnacle of his work in that vein… the Twin Peaks-like merging of mundane reality with strange, twisted, dark dream-worlds, and no predictable resolutions. One interesting note is that World War II also plays an important role in this book, but it’s the Pacific War rather than the European War.

So the War and the imagistic illogic of night dreams are common between these books. But their difference is in point of view: the objective camera that views everyone from an equal distance, versus the subjective camera that acts as one character’s eyes. Newton’s omniscient third-person narration moves from character to character without an identified “self.” It’s detached and dispassionate, as opposed to the internal nature of Murakami’s first-person narration, limited to one individual. Murakami’s protagonist is the one having the dream, and the other people who enter his dream may tell their first person stories, but it’s all happening to just one “self.”

What this means is that Newton’s work embodies “dream as universal human reality” while Murakami’s view, surprisingly, would seem to emphasize the individual over the collective. Philosophically, Newton seems more Eastern, Murakami more Western.

To go a little deeper, Newton’s narrative POV and the surreality (reality heightened, exaggerated) he depicts work together to suggest that we are all sharing the Big Dream: life is a dream although we don’t recognize it as such. We see life’s banality first, a mask that screens its deeper magic from our awareness. With this book, Newton is doing what Melville’s Ahab urges: “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”

Newton might be suggesting, as do Jed McKenna and other gurus, that the “wall” is the illusion we call Reality and we are prisoners until we can break through it to see the inexplicable, the ineffable, the nonsensical truth... to acknowledge the quantum field from which we arise, in all its inexplicable whimsy, its anti-classical weirdness. Remember Plato’s Cave: to those who know nothing but the shadows on the cave wall, anything else seems impossible nonsense.

Let’s have more dreams, more invisible made visible, more impossible nonsense!

(For Part 2 of this review, see Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird - Dreams Redux)