Sunday, August 12, 2018

Memoir in Fiction, Truth in Lies

Note: if you prefer audio-visual media to reading, here's an opportunity -- skip to the bottom and listen to the podcast while looking at a pretty picture! But I do hope you'll read first, then listen.

Even I, despite my intentional avoidance of mainstream news media, know that a lot has been said recently about the nature of truth -- a lot of words but not much substance. "Alternative facts," "fake news," etc. -- phrases whose very existence necessitates an opposing argument, but the entire exchange devolves into Us against Them. "Truth" deserves different definitions depending on the category of reality we're talking about. But the sound-bite world can't tolerate discussion with any depth.

Simplistic thinking is a cultural trend that may never abate, but I intend to continue quietly defending the boundaries of a tiny territory where everything co-exists in equilibrium with its opposite. Where there is no two, only one. Call it Nonduality Nation.

In the literary realm, this might be expressed in the old dichotomy between Memoir and Fiction. Granted, this is useful categorization for the marketing and selling of books -- but that's a mundane level that doesn't interest me much. Also, in my own internal experience as a writer, the distinction is very clear in intention and process: memoir is reportorial, fiction is imaginary. The act of writing in each of those modes simply feels different from the other. So yes, there are categories in which the dichotomy is accurate.

But for some people, Memoir = True, Fiction = False. In Nonduality Nation, this proposition is not valid.

Memory (on which memoir is based) has been proven highly unreliable. See the work of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, then go even further with the bizarre speculations of The Mandela Effect. So there is certainly no direct correspondence between an author's memory of an event and the objective "truth" of that event, if such a thing even exists. When we write memoir, we just do our best to remember and report. It's a faulty venture at best, but it can be a very rewarding one.

Fiction is a different exercise. My own fiction is subtly and inextricably laced with events and characters "borrowed" from my actual history. I suspect every fiction writer does this to one degree or another. We make conscious decisions to pull a scene, an image, a bit of dialogue, from our database of memories when it feels right for the otherwise entirely imaginary story we're telling. Or maybe those memories inspired the story to begin with. They are the foundation, and they get heavily embellished with imaginary (yet equally important for the story) scenes, images, characters, events -- which, by contrast with memory's "truth," must be "lies."

In that way, truth begins to mix with falsehood to make an undifferentiated soup. To anyone who's thought much about the subject, all this is obvious. But it's only the beginning. My conscious decisions to create that mixture are not as powerful as the inevitably unique expression of my subconscious mind. Every idea, emotion, image, sequence of events -- even word choice, sentence structure, punctuation -- is an expression of me. If I attempt to strictly control those things, as if to bypass my subconscious, the control itself becomes the expression. I can't escape it.

Fiction or non-, every book is a portrait of its author. (I have more to say on this subject... in a future post.) It's entirely possible that a work of fiction might contain more psychological and emotional truth than does a fact-filled memoir by the same author. "The Starry Night" might say more about Vincent Van Gogh than any of his self-portraits. Of course, nothing is certain.

So, in that light, my newly completed novel, Ponckhockie Union (yet to be published) is both true and not true. Also, here in Nonduality Nation, events in imagination are just as concrete as those in conventional actuality. The story takes place in a reality that is almost, but not quite, the same reality you (the reader of these words) and I (their author) are in right now, in this present moment. But the continuum of "real" to "not real" is just as subject to over-simplification, or just as blurrily overlapping, as "true" and "false."

That's one reason why I prefer questions over answers. Here are a few of many questions raised by my novel: Was my protagonist, Ben Rose, actually threatened by a shadowy international assassin, or is it all in his mind, a metaphor? Who would the well-known author Paul Auster be if he had never had publishing success? What if Yasser Arafat of the PLO was actually an impostor controlled by a hidden elite? Did a mercenary killer ever sit at the feet of the guru Nisargadatta Maharaj? In what ways does national history entangle with personal history? And how much of the book is actually autobiographical (in other words, haha, "true")?

I get a secret pleasure from the idea that my readers are asking the autobiography question as they read -- always wondering what is my "true story," or memoir, and what is "made up," or fiction. I hope they come away with an ineffable understanding that it doesn't matter. Those things are one and the same.

With all this in mind, I wrote a very brief, confessional, tell-all memoir. No more secrets and lies! I call it "Vagabond for Beauty." Tom Newton and I recorded it as a podcast for The Strange Recital. My reading is followed by a lovely bit of guitar music by David Temple, then an author interview that explores some of the foregoing ideas, and offers others. The whole thing lasts 23 minutes. I hope you'll listen.

(The photo of Delicate Arch is by me, taken over 30 years ago.)


Saturday, May 19, 2018

Alternate Lives: Books by Paul Auster and Jim Murdoch


A picture of two books.... Okay, so in their physical presence these two novels are completely different. So what?

4321 by Paul Auster is a 6.5 x 9.5-inch hardcover with dust jacket, 866 pages (a brick!). Published by Henry Holt and Company, a subsidiary of Holtzbrinck/Macmillan, one of the Big Five.

The More Things Change by Jim Murdoch is a 5 x 7.75-inch paperback, 329 pages. Published by Fandango Virtual, a homegrown effort.

The point of this little essay is not to compare them, but rather to explore them and to honor them, with an eye toward their shared meanings. And part of the context here is an invisible (so far) third book: my own novel, currently undergoing final edits. My book (working title: Ponckhockie Union) is perhaps more different from these than they are from each other. But I mention it here because of the topic of alternate lives. A key character in my novel is "Paul Auster," an unpublished novelist working as a local journalist in the Hudson Valley, married to a successful writer named Siri. He is almost, but not quite, the world-famous Brooklynite, husband of Siri Hustvedt and author of The New York Trilogy and so much morejust as the world in which my book takes place is almost, but not quite, the one we live in and think we know.

4321 is Auster's latest, and longest, novel. It has already been much praised andlike all Auster's workmuch criticized. It tells four stories in one: four of the perhaps infinite number of possible lives of one young man, Archie Ferguson. Starting from the same point (birth in New Jersey, 1947), each Archie takes a different path as a result of apparently random occurrences in his life and the lives of his parents, family, and friends. Part of Auster's impressive achievement is the depth of well-observed and well-imagined detail with which he describes the hopes, fears, interests, challenges, and loves of each Archieall seem equally authentic. Which one is Archie's "real life?" They all are. For me, this gets into the territory of the "many-worlds interpretation" of quantum mechanics, which suggests that all possible alternate histories and futures are real, each representing an actual world or universe. On a less scientific plane, it evokes the Mandela Effect, in which memories don't seem to match realitypossibly explained by the suggestion that some of us occasionally slip between parallel, very similar, realities, or "timestreams."

Jim Murdoch is a Scottish author living near Glasgow. I've reviewed past books of his on this blog: a story collection, a poetry book, and an earlier novelThe More Things Change is his latest, and longest, novel. It tells the story of Jim Valentine, a teacher-turned-author, an ordinary guy whose journey is anything but. He is living a life without distinction, job and marriage in a state of torpor, dreaming of being a writer but never actually writing. As Murdoch says, "Jim was forty and had been since he was thirty." Then one day in the park he meets an old codger who claims to be God. They have a long philosophical conversation over the following days, and the next thing Jim knows, he is standing in front of an apartment door, key in hand, with no memory whatsoever.

A fresh start, a re-birth. Thus begins Act 2 of his life, in which he writes a major bestseller and a less successful follow-up. This part of the story is told from 20 and then 40 years later, after he's fallen again into isolated obscurity, been divorced by his wife, and come to the end of his ability to write. Or has he? Could there be a third book in progress, one that circles us back to the beginning? Once again he meets the old man in the park and their dialogue (or is it repartee?) brings into focus the alternate life Jim has just lived, and the next (or is it simultaneous?) life he may be embarking on. He is, after all, a character in a book, subject to the metafictional whims of the Author. As, perhaps, are you and mesee this article about the "simulation hypothesis."

Murdoch is a master of a particular kind of narrative voice: a very subjective, internal flight of fancy, a torrent of ideas large and small, busily skewering cliches and deconstructing conventional thought, a careening monologue in which the events of a storyline seem almost incidentalall delivered with wry wit and good humor. His narration is funny, but never at the expense of his characters, for whom he always has affection.

Auster's book is also full of affection for his characters, perhaps more heartfelt than any of his past novels. I was surprised to find myself moved almost to tears more than once. But he is a storyteller first. Even when his story is twisted and strange, he moves straight ahead to address the question "What happened next?" I see Murdoch, on the other hand, as a philosopher first, entwining his plot in a complex tapestry of playful ideas and big, unanswerable questions. And he's funnier than Auster could ever be.

Both of these books are dense, presenting pages of text rarely broken by paragraphs and more rarely by dialogue. These authors ignore the tired writing-school trope of "Show, don't tell." To their credit, this indicates the courage to be true to one's own unique expression, rather than courting the biggest possible audience. Also, both use unusual structures. I've already mentioned Murdoch's jumping through time, but he also spices the book with short enigmatic snatches of dialogue in playwriting format, a way of embodying another layer of reality. Auster's four parallel lives are tracked in interleaved segments numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, then 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, and so on. It's very organized but the reading experience can blur the framework. I soon surrendered to the experience of never being sure, when I began a section, which story I was following. I found this a sort of delicious disorientation that served to blend the four lives into one, a perfect way of making a concrete reality out of a mental concept: how thin the boundaries are between one life path and another.

A final note about Auster's book: I only wish he hadn't dealt me a final twinge of disappointment with a too-easy, reality-bound ending, which I won't spoil by revealing. Perhaps there are many readers, those who like mysteries to always be solved, who will be glad for that ending. I appreciate the fact that Murdoch chose, with a smile and a wink, to keep the questions alive beyond his last page.

Bottom line: I enjoyed both of these books very much. Both are smart, brimming with verbal and cultural intelligence. Both are impressive achievements in the craft of writing fiction. So the question arises: what makes some people famous and others not? Could it be that each of us plays a scripted role, as I explored in my story "Wild Roses"? (Hear the story in audio form here.) Maybe, in some alternate life in a parallel universe (or simulation), Auster is the obscure one (as in my novel), and Murdoch, like his character Valentine, enjoys (or endures), a brief, brilliant moment in the well-deserved limelight.

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Relating Writings: Follow this link for more of my thoughts about underlying meanings in Auster's work, and go even further with this link to a long-ago post. Follow this link and this link for other book reviews that explore thoughts about the connection of memory to "self," as well as my opinions about the "mystery" genre.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Five Audio Stories...plus more

© tsugi.de
A blogger I am not. An entire year has passed since my last post here, the one about my father.

It's been a busy year, as all years are. Like kintsugi gold, the cracks between the priorities of family, job, and home have been filled with two things: finishing a novel (celebrate!) and continuing my collaboration with Tom Newton on our twice-monthly fiction podcast, The Strange Recital ("a podcast about fiction that questions the nature of reality").

Among the 40 episodes we've released are several of my own stories. Some are new, some are old. Some are read by me, some are not. Each episode is roughly 20 minutes long and includes a bit of good music plus an "author interview" that may be a little twisted (in a good way 😉). I'd love it if you would listen and let me know your thoughts.

In reverse chronological order, here are the stories of mine that have come out in the past year. Just click the player arrow below the picture:

Barney Rudolph

"Barney Rudolph was a solitary man. This is what he silently said in his private story of self. Alienated, a loner, lone wolf, outsider. Always an outsider."

Can a movie be made that is not a movie? Can a man be not a man? Maybe each of us is just something happening in a sea of happenings.




Ferret Love

"It was last spring, early, when I fell in love with the ferret woman. The first beautiful day, exquisite whirlybird of a sunny blue day, and I’m in the park, lying on the lawn."

Where does obsession come from? Why do people have pet ferrets? And shouldn't somebody warn the boyfriend?





Wild Roses

"On the border between Millbrook and Pleasant Valley, just off Route 44, there’s a little patch of woods where my boyfriend hanged himself."

A visitor from the other side... real or hallucination? Should you heed their message? Yes or no, it's already written in the script.





Messenger

"In the final year before the onset of Destruction, on the blessed anniversary of my birth, there will occur in the heavens an astrological Grand Cross. Yea, verily, He hath spoken!"

There are many kinds of messengers in this world. Hmm... should we heed the messages, or not?





Dewey and Fern

"When Dewey Bustle found the shriveled monkey finger, he just didn’t know what to think. He asked his buddy Fern...."

Can love persist in the face of harsh circumstance? Maybe we are all like these, the small and the lost.







Many thanks to Tom for his audio wizardry and good ideas.
Thank you for listening, and stay tuned for glimpses into my forthcoming novel (title TBD)!

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: