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:

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)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Poetry and Video: Brash Ice by Djelloul Marbrook

An entire year has passed since I last posted on this blog. Wow! But I don't follow the new wisdom that "if it wasn't blogged, it didn't happen." The year was full of actual living.

During 2014 my friend Djelloul Marbrook celebrated the publication of his third volume of poetry, Brash Ice, from UK publisher Leaky Boot Press. The term "brash ice" refers to "accumulations of floating ice made up of fragments...; the wreckage of other forms of ice." An apt metaphor for a long life.

I'm happy to showcase these two video "samplers" that I created to support the book. Each features three poems, read by the author. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book Review: Making Sense by Jim Murdoch

Is there any socially redeeming value to “making stuff up” - in other words, writing fiction? And does fiction offer any benefit for a reader beyond entertainment?

Unlikely as it may seem in this clangorous world, there are scientists studying those quiet little questions, and the first, best answer is one word: Empathy.

To my mind, empathy is what Making Sense, Jim Murdoch’s fifth published book, is all about. This book is a showcase of the uniquely human ability to understand the interior life of another conscious being; to transcend the limits of the self.

Making Sense is a slender collection of 19 brief stories, each exploring a different character, who is also usually the narrator. These are not plotted stories, but character vignettes and voice-driven monologues. Nearly half the narrators are women, and the range of ages and types is wide; they are not just thinly disguised versions of the author. All but two of the stories are narrated in first person, but even the third-person omniscient narrator uses a very conversational, first-person-like voice and even addresses the second person (the reader) with lines like, “Do you see that man over there….”

The whole collection is full of a lively energy, like meeting real people. Murdoch has a gift for imagining himself into the minds of others and capturing their ways of speech. The differences in the subjects, in their voices and their lives, is what provides the empathic spine of this collection. All these engaging voices show us that the Other is really just like ourselves, and that is one of the most crucial messages for a divided, brutal world.

George Ovitt explored this subject rather brilliantly in his Atticus Review article “Fiction and Empathy,” which I highly recommend.

And to dig a little deeper (getting back to my earlier statement about scientists): a series of experiments support the fiction/empathy claims above, and show that the empathy effect is strongest with literary fiction as compared to genre fiction, factual non-fiction, or not reading at all. Perhaps the first empirical data on the subject, the studies were recently published in a top journal, Science, and subsequently well covered in Scientific American and the The New York Times. (Thanks to the On Fiction blog for bringing it to my attention.)

So it’s true: stories that delve deeply into characters’ internal worlds, depicting the complexity and unpredictability of real life, effectively teach us how to empathize. Our world leaders desperately need to read more literary fiction!

In the never-ending struggle between dark and light forces, Murdoch’s Making Sense adds to the positive side.

There is just one more aspect to the book I want to address. Murdoch uses a few of these stories to experiment with technique: how to create distinct regional dialects or accents on the page so that they will sound authentic in the reader’s inner ear. While his urge to capture a unique voice is admirable, I found these stories less successful. As I struggled through the altered spellings and syntax for Scots, Cockney, and New York accents, I lost the fluid rhythm of the speech and even the line of the story. A lighter touch, just hinting at the dialects, would have been more to my taste (especially for New York, where I’ve lived for 25 years without hearing an accent like the one depicted here).

In the end, this is a valuable investigation. I respect the care and thoughtfulness with which Murdoch approached his dialect stories, and perhaps the effort serves best to illustrate how thoroughly immersed each of us is in the speech we hear every day. Language is indistinguishable from thought; it’s like the air we breathe.

In other words, there are simple, universal human sensibilities under the complex exterior of such stories, like the root language of which the dialects are just surface variations. This entire book supports the idea that we are One.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Can a stranger share your memories?

This entry could be considered a follow-up to last year’s post, Aah, Memory... A Review of “And She Was” by Alison Gaylin. I hope you’ll read that one too.

“Can a stranger share your memories?” asks the blurb on the back cover of Alison Gaylin’s new(ish) suspense novel Into the Dark. For me that’s an intriguing question, a place from which to launch an investigation. So that’s what this post is: an investigation, not a book review.

I am addressing the same question in the novel I’m currently writing. But I’m approaching it from a very different angle.

Into the Dark’s recurring protagonist, private eye Brenna Spector, is blessed/afflicted with a rare condition called HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (also called Hyperthymesia). When she encounters someone who seems to have knowledge of past events only Brenna or her missing sister could know, she is launched into a fast-paced whodunit with personal impact and an escalating body count.

SPOILER ALERT! Because this is a genre mystery, of course there is an explanation, and this one is both clever and surprising: a stolen diary. A filmmaker and his hired actress have managed to get possession of Brenna’s missing sister Clea’s teenage journal and are exploiting it for the sake of “art” (pornography, actually). And, a genius touch: the diary itself has a name, as if a person in its own right.

I love the rich questions and implications entwined in this plot: Does autobiography become fiction if authorship is claimed by someone not the author? Might it be legitimate for an artist to co-opt the private life experiences of a stranger (especially if that stranger is dead or missing)? Is this comparable to “found object” art? Or is it thievery because what is in question is not merely an object (a book), but the content found within, content whose value may be proportional to its private, personal nature?

If the diary were not “true,” would there be a crime? How can such truth be verified? Whose intellectual property is the diary of a dead person; who owns the copyright? If the crime is plagiarism, based on verbatim use of Clea’s writing, would it have been legal if altered, even if the core events remained the same? Legalities aside, where are the boundaries between ethics and art? Isn’t that what writers and filmmakers do all the time: rip off stories from people’s lives, tweak them a bit, put them out as art (“grist for the mill” and all that)?

What relationship to the “real” Clea does the actress have as she performs Clea’s private writings? If the actress is adopting a persona (Latin for “mask”), and the content of the persona is the intimate life memories of another person, who is really behind the mask?  Might personal identity, the “self,” be actually nothing more than the book of memories we carry, the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are?

Let us not forget: this entire story occurs only in the mind of Alison Gaylin, and subsequently, in the mind of the reader. Brenna is a fiction, whose fictional “memories” are the only place Clea exists. So Clea is something even less “real,” a fiction once removed, whose own “memories” (now twice removed, just a diary) are spoken by a fictional actress posing as someone not herself -- not even as a person, but as a book with a name. It becomes a spiraling fractal, a fiction-within-a-fiction-within-a-fiction. Speaking both metafictionally and metaphysically, this is a perfect metaphor for the illusory nature of “self”-- the Big Truth that every mystical tradition tells us in one way or another: “You” are simply an aspect of the Absolute, a single viewpoint in the One Consciousness.  As Alan Watts puts it, “I” is just the Universe “eyeing.”

Yet, like characters in a novel, we must carry on, acting out our lives, fully engaged in our roles. The only thing we may have that imaginary characters don’t is awareness -- the capacity to hold both truths at once: our own Duality within Nonduality.

So, “Can a stranger share your memories?” Because it is masterfully true to its genre, a pop artifact embedded in a culture founded on mechanistic / materialistic philosophy, Into the Dark would answer “No.” The memories were not really shared, because there is a “real-world” explanation: a stolen diary. Mainstream mysteries need solutions; questions must have answers -- or so goes the conventional wisdom. I don’t necessarily agree. To my way of thinking, “mystery fiction” could more accurately be called “no-mystery fiction.”

That’s why I’m drawn to what is sometimes called the “metaphysical detective story,” ala Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, in which answers never come. The real search is internal, for the seeker’s own identity. And in addition, external: a postmodern, metafictional exploration of the nature of authorship.

For me, questions are lovely: aromatic, enticing, delectable. They linger. Answers are pedestrian; they fall with a thud. Mysteries are rich, subtle, sweet. Solutions are just endings: “Done. Next!”

Granted, the reading public may not share this sentiment. So be it (sigh). Carry on.

Now… what if there were no pilfered diary at all, but one’s memories still appeared to be stolen by a stranger? In my novel-in-progress, that’s what happens. The question “Can a stranger share your memories?” might be answered, “Yes, but I can’t explain how it works; it’s a Mystery.”

Trouble is, I am also a product of this mechanistic/materialistic society (and I don’t love most science fiction or fantasy), so I want to have some sort of a foundation that makes sense to me. Fortunately, a combination of ancient philosophy and cutting-edge science begins to provide one. It goes like this: if my personal memories are not actually locked away inside my skull, like a little armored safe -- if instead they exist like television signals in the open air -- then maybe someone else, someone with just the right kind of mental “receiver,” can dial them in.

The latest book by controversial British biologist Rupert Sheldrake, Science Set Free, challenges the “10 Dogmas of Science.” Dogma Number 8 is “Memory is stored in material traces in the brain.” In an interview found here, he says:

In considering the morphic resonance theory of memory, we might ask: if we tune into our own memories, then why don’t we tune into other people’s as well? I think we do, and the whole basis of the approach I am suggesting is that there is a collective memory to which we are all tuned which forms a background against which our own experience develops and against which our own individual memories develop. This concept is very similar to the notion of the collective unconscious.
He goes into more depth in The Sun Magazine, February 2013, interviewed by Mark Leviton:
Leviton: If, as you say, memory does not reside in the brain, then where is it? And can it survive the death of the individual to whom it belongs?
Sheldrake: “Where?” is the wrong question. Memory is a relationship in time, not in space. The idea that a memory has to be somewhere when it’s not being remembered is a theoretical inference, not an observation of reality. When I met you this morning, I recognized you from yesterday. There’s no photographic representation of you in my brain. I just recognize you. What I suggest is that memory depends on a direct relationship across time between past experiences and present ones. The brain is more like a television receiver. The television doesn’t store all the images and programs you watch on it; it tunes in to them invisibly.
It may sound radical, but this idea was put forward not only by Bergson [Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory] but also by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. They all challenged the notion that a memory has to be somewhere in the brain. The whole of the past is potentially present everywhere, and we access it on the basis of similarity. I think we’re tuning in not only to our own past experiences but to the memories of millions of people who are now dead — a collective memory. It’s similar to psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious or Hinduism’s akashic records, which store all knowledge on another plane of existence.
Yes, there’s the potential for the memory to survive the death of the brain. Whether there’s survival of an individual’s memory, my theory doesn’t predict one way or the other. It leaves the question open, whereas the conventional theory is that, once the brain decays at death, all memories are wiped out.
For conventional science, an even harder problem to explain than memory is consciousness itself. Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance theory may be supported by brain research conducted by physicist Sir Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. Their “Orch OR” model gives evidence for the non-local (that is, not confined to an individual brain) nature of consciousness. Extending that theory even further, here is the abstract of a paper called Quantum Consciousness co-authored by Hameroff and Deepak Chopra:
The concept of consciousness existing outside the body (e.g. near-death and out-of body experiences, NDE/OBEs, or after death, indicative of a 'soul') is a staple of religious traditions, but shunned by conventional science because of an apparent lack of rational explanation. However conventional science based entirely on classical physics cannot account for normal in-the-brain consciousness. The Penrose-Hameroff 'Orch OR' model is a quantum approach to consciousness, connecting brain processes (microtubule quantum computations inside neurons) to fluctuations in fundamental spacetime geometry, the fine scale structure of the universe. Recent evidence for significant quantum coherence in warm biological systems, scale-free dynamics and end-of-life brain activity support the notion of a quantum basis for consciousness which could conceivably exist independent of biology in various scalar planes in spacetime geometry. Sir Roger Penrose does not necessarily endorse such proposals which relate to his ideas in physics. Based on Orch OR, we offer a scientific hypothesis for a 'quantum soul'.
I enjoy this thick sciencey stuff, walking the murky borders of the unknown, although I get quickly lost trying to dig into the technical meat of it. One of the main points of this whole investigation for me, and one of the things that motivates all my writing, both fiction and non-, is touched on by this quote from Sheldrake:
So for materialists it’s a simple two-step argument. Memories are stored in brains; the brain decays at death, therefore, memories are wiped out at death. Whereas, if memories are not stored in brains then the memories themselves are not wiped out at death. They’re potentially accessible. That doesn’t prove they are accessed, that there is personal survival. It just means that’s a possibility, whereas with materialism it’s an impossibility. So one position leaves the question closed and the other leaves it open.
Potential! Possibility! Whether we’re choosing among personal philosophies or approaches to scientific inquiry, I say let’s choose Open over Closed. How solid are  scientific “facts,” anyway? I agree with Dean Radin, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at IONS, who says in his book, The Conscious Universe:
That scientific assumptions evolve should come as no surprise. One of the most profitable consequences of science as an "open system" of knowledge, as opposed to rigid dogma, is that the future Laws of Nature will bear as much resemblance to the "laws" we know today as the cellular telephone does to smoke signals.
Okay, I seem to have wandered far afield from where I started. In Into the Dark, Alison Gaylin did her usual excellent job of keeping readers intrigued, tracking like bloodhounds the scent of an answer. I hope the story I’m trying to tell, currently titled Midnight at the Diner, can do something similar, keeping you rapt and curious, fully immersed in a question.

“Can a stranger share your memories?” Yes. And who knows what other amazing, marvelous things are possible in this infinite Universe?