This morning, I had the ambiguous pleasure of taking a regional flight from Pullman-Moscow to Seattle, straight plumb across the state of Washington. I think short stories are regional flights such as these.
The takeoff feels no different from any other length of trip. It could be a 50 hour flight to Xanadu or a 45 minute up-down to SEA-TAC: it is the same same. The quick ascent thrills and you may, even if you are a pro at flying, consider your current relationship with life and death. The preparation is the same, the physical sensation is the same, and the goal is the same—to take to the sky.
The First Portion
You notice how the man’s scalp in front of you quivers. You didn’t know scalps could do that, but they can. Some anonymous artist sketched out the outline of a koala in the dirt on the wheel strut. It is a good koala. The wheels shutter into their beds faster than you thought they would. The velocity kicks up the dust of your life.
You look down and consider the world for its miniature status. You see the cars, toy cars always, and the houses, always where doll’s live. Details takeover after takeoff.
The Next Leg
The next leg of your trip is very much less about detail. The earth below no longer strikes you with its minute charm. It has matured into a broad-shouldered, big-boned thing. There is breadth to it all extending into the hazy horizon. You cannot take it all in. Small windows, jets, wings, heads, and seats all obscure your vision. But you know that the world out there is bigger than all you could ever see and it is the inability to see it all that proves it.
Breadth has its own charm over detail, but that charm does not involve precision. There is nothing precise about our world from a distance. So what then is the purpose of this burgeoning breadth and why should we ever acknowledge it? Is precision and detail, like, everything? I think it’s kind of to show you where you are, really, so that when you land, you know where you’ll have come from.
I hesitate to say it’s boring, but eastern Washington is nothing that might inspire an essay on literary form. The Palouse softens into the obscurity of a muddy desert. It is the kind you see after the tide has rolled back out in such a hurry that it didn’t even bother to pick up the puddles it dropped. You half expect some monstrous old woman to step over the mountains with a bucket and warbly rain boots and start looking for clams.
And I maintain that the first part of the short story, after its fiery rocket-like takeoff that feels like a bad idea to our bodies, should be just a touch boring. Not too boring, but boring enough to make you crave the interest and resolution. If there is too much interest in the first part, you spoil the surprises, the main course. Potatoes do not make the steak dinner, but they do complete it, you know what I mean? You know that a descent is inevitable. It could crash and burn thanks to your human error or you could pull it off flawlessly. The first part is nothing in itself but a tease, a flirt, and is best enjoyed the second time around when you know what’s coming next—only if you enjoyed your flight.
The mountains happen and they happen quickly. The sun had only risen twenty minutes ago. It hangs ten feet above the east, but already the mountain peaks are hard at work. They are like farmers in a field, standing over the haze huddled in the furrowed valleys. They diligently cut through the haze with the plows of their parallel shadows.
And underneath the line of workers, I saw the mountains look more Pacific Ocean than the Pacific Ocean itself. Because of the angle of the sun, everything but the snowy peaks were pitch black. The mountains really were tossing waves in a storm, the snow the froth of violence. My enthusiasm prevents me from describing the sight more honestly, so I profligately used two extended metaphors.
Like a short story, we had managed to get somewhere in forty minutes. I barely had time to finish my coffee before the flight attendant walked down the galley with her latex gloves.
A regional flight can show you an entire state in under an hour. You will see the vast flat mud desert, rolling hills, mountain ranges, a sound—and the glassy Pacific Ocean behaving better than the crashing, rowdy mountains.
You are always grateful for a safe landing, the reversal of the takeoff, the mirror image. And you remember what the purpose has been all along. The purpose has always been to take to the earth and feel in your bones and your ears that you belong here for now.
Pastor Heehee Haha, best known for his peemillenial scatological religious blog, On Beefing, has this to say about safe spaces for the same-sex attracted in churches:
I am a same-sex attracted pastor and I know firsthand how hard it is not to find a safe space for all the cute same-sex attracted boys to gather. They’ve been through so much by the hands of the church, it’s the least we can do.
You know, being a same-sex attracted gay flaming homosexual Christian has been really really hard. You don’t know the mean stuff people have said about me. Boys would look at me on the ball field and say, hey you, you’re probably attracted to the same sex! They’d say, you’re gay! You’re flaming! You’re homosexual! And that’s been so hard to take as a same-sex attracted gay flaming homosexual Christian.
And it’s not just mean boys in the sixth grade. It’s people in the church. The church! They don’t understand the difference between being drawn to the same sex sexually and being drawn to the same sex sexually. They’re very different things. When I say that I’m gay, a lot of Christians go, “So does that mean you’re gay?” And I say, how dare you!
But it’s not all been bad. Because of the critical line errors in my software, failing to send the proper commands to my hardware, I have luckily sort of got superpowers. For one, I’m more understanding. And for twosies, I am also more sensitive and basically just am more perceptive of people and of nature and of even animals. I can actually read animal’s minds.
I can additionally tell if something has a greater essence of masculinity or femininity. My printer is a flamer. And I feel super duper extra equipped to reach out and give a helping, comforting hand to people in similar situations that step into my office, which is underneath the stairs to the right and please don’t step over my cat’s litterbox, just go around, she really hates it when people step over. She feels like it’s a sort of violation of her space. Which I totally get, because she’s got all those droppings she has laid, those little easter eggs hidden underneath the smelly good sand.
But back to the flaming printer. I want to let you all know, while I got you here listening, about an initiative I am part of, sponsored by the Christian think tank on all things important, Q-Tip Ideas, which involves a really under-considered minority in the church whose rights we need to protect. The object-attracted Christians. I want to point out that they identify this way, not to draw attention to themselves, but so people know they are out, they are proud, and they really do exist. So go down to the like button and show your support for object hot-hot-hot Christians.
I gather and gather and no natural force will stop my mounting power. I hover about the earth and stammer thuds. I cast my shadow over roofs and fields and mothers clamor at their husbands’s absence. I billow and hammer!! But the next morning, when you think I am off in some other town breaking necks and tearing trees to shreds, I hide above the lake with no strength left. My white hair is thin and blows easily. You can see the scalp of the sky.
The shell containing hope trickles away. Jesus was the firstfruits of hope and he did not just cast off the shell—he ascended on airfoils and he did not stall, but maintained the attack. And he could not be moved out of the air, but rose and burst through the clouds and the disciples could not see him anymore and Jesus coolly carried our human form with him into heaven.
So Jesus was the firstfruit of calm ascension past the tremulating turtle shells of lightning storms. The turtle shells of storms contain their flickers of light and the rain falls and the shell wastes away to wisps tracing out the memory of flight. And we raise our heads and say, “It’s coming down so hard. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it come down this hard.”
And we do not lose heart. Though our outer shell is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen past our fright contained in shells. For the things that are seen are turtles that hunger and bite and the things that are unseen are eternal and light as fleet bird bones lit with light.
For a little while, we must contain our flickers of hope and not lose heart, though we are as light and dissipate as clouds. And we will gain the weight of heavy, glimmering things and with this weight we will coolly ascend the heights of heaven and our crossed shadows will barely trace across roofs and baseball fields. But we rise some more in our living coffins—who can find our shadow now?
For a little while, we feel the instability in the air of our hearts. And we waste away and the tails of our thunder untwine and fall to earth like safety ropes. So the world will hope when they look up at us and say, “I’ve never seen a coming down like this.”
We plant hope when we do not mean to; even our envy blasts bright.
Our hope is the waiting in the chair while the spirit lifts us up the air. And the dimming darkness in the light of hope (a hope contained within) meets us as nothing but light and temporary affliction.
But what are the light and temporary afflictions that fill our lives with instability and fit us to burst with rumbling blues? We know sadness, we know sadness, we know sadness.
II. Affection, familial attachment
III. Ambition, visions of the future
IV. Creative inspiration
V. Romantic desire
VI. Diminution (we are overcome by men and mountains bigger than us, but sublimity and subservience leave us with shame at seeing just how lesser we are compared to the powerful things)
These are the Eight Afflictions of the Soul. And while they are light and temporary compared to our future glory, they still threaten to consume us. He or she who is born is born with these conditions and illnesses. The light and temporary affliction that gives way to all these children is the affliction of being a soul living in an unredeemed world. The world groans so deeply in the aches and pains of its own rebellion and longing, that it is hardly present-minded enough to hold our souls as it should.
These are the eight illnesses that prove we are souls in matter, but matter corrupted and angered. These eight illnesses arise from the unredemption of the world. Our immune systems are not just weak, they are broken and they have to be fixed.
The eight afflictions—memory, romantic desire, inspiration, ambition, affection, diminution, solitude, and death—will kill us if we do not get the right treatment for them. Each affliction is meant to be a property functioning properly. Yet when we are born, we are born broken. In this life, it is our hope that helps to heal us and get everything working properly again.
With a doctor who knows how to administer hope, we can treat the conditions of memory, romantic desire, inspiration, ambition, affection, diminution, solitude, and death. We will walk through what this looks like for each affliction of the soul. For the afflictions are light and temporary only when we receive the cures the Holy Spirit administers.
I feel pretty unneeded which makes me think that maybe I have gone at life the wrong way.
But as Leonard Cohen says or said (because he dead), “I don’t need a reason for what I became. I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired and they’re lame. I don’t need a pardon, no no, no no, no. There’s no one left to blame. I’m leaving the table. I’m out of the game.”
The difference for me is that I’m still in the game and will be for the next few decades. Fingers crossed.
But when your morning regularly starts at 1pm and you have so much dissipate work, it is pretty easy to feel unneeded and then to insert the excuses that make it seem like other people are to blame. Half of my life has become a dream, one extended dream, where love and futilities unrealized in life come to the forefront. So much dreaming is not good for us.
Maybe I should get a real job. This whole gig economy thing is not working for Caleb. How should we then love people? I think I could love people more easily if I were not dreaming my youth away.
And so someone could come along and light a fire under my butt, but I’m not sure what the right fire would be to get me moving. I feel content with the knowledge that all I attempt turns to dust in my hands. I do get things done, but as soon as I get them done, it feels like I have never done anything. Where is the evidence and proof of all my labor? Who cares?
Maybe I need someone there to shoot me every day of my life, that would be great. But then the man holding the gun to my temple would need someone there, like St. Moses, to hold his elbow up every day of his life. Ensure victory!
I’m only thinking out loud here. It is my tendency to feel totally depraved and anemic when I am not writing, a season in the wake. But in the wake of some great catastrophe I have unleashed on my own psyche, like writing a tremendously obscure albatross of a novel that to my deep shame has missing words and letters in the passages I wrote with my eyes closed (what a terrible idea), I simply feel cavernous and dead. It is as though I have swept the house of my heart and now a million things come to fill in the space that is going unfilled.
The difficulty is that I feel completely hopeless about my writing. I thought and assumed, like a sane person, that writing a novel would get me out of myself and restore my confidence. But now that I have written it, I almost feel sick.
I have woken up from a long dream, the writing of the novel. So it feels more or less entirely natural to sleep for twelve hours a day, dreaming, because that’s what I have been doing for a year. And not a year, but years.
It feels accidental that I write stories.
As John Cale says, “You’re a ghost, la la la la la.”
But I will go and do what I always do when I feel this sinful, which is to pick myself up and to say that I should stop complaining about my chosen lot in life, that I should go and look at other people in the eyes and ask them what they are all about. I should go and take one or five of those unrealized ideas and realize them.
I have plenty to offer, but the difficulty is what will contain these offerings. If you have breath and life and enfleshed soul, you have love to give this world. But you have to fight for that love. I do love writing and I do love telling stories, I love being in that web of unconscious connections, hanging there between the words like a spider, waiting to see what truth I might catch. And it isn’t up to me what gets caught in the net. What is up to me is setting the trap and, feeling with my hairy spindles the wriggling of terror so many inches away, pouncing with the poison of my humanity to capture it.
Picking myself up means that I have fallen, fallen because of exhaustion. So I need to eat, need to work and make the sleep worth it. But I still ask, what will contain my offerings? Will the world contain my offerings, will I contain my offerings, or will it just be anyone who passes by?
By God! Some people have wives and children, some people have businesses and normal jobs in cubicles and all that security and even they wonder where to put all their good things. So where do I put my gifts?
People wonder where they should be,which is a way of wondering what they should be doing. But when it is obvious what you should be doing and when it is obvious what you have, because we all have something, you have to ask a different question. Where should that work be? As in, where should that work go?
Considering my state as dust as sloth as actualized perishability, I crave imperishable vessels.
Some untouched tomb in the desert, covered over with sand for thousands of years. The golden tables might gleam still in torchlight.
A myth. Orpheus, you undying lovable sucker!
A McDonald’s french fry.
The hands of God. After his patient hands crafted the world, they opened and spread out to me.
Tattooed across his index finger were the words, “Many, many tickles for your heart, son.”
And tattooed across the line of his palm were the words, “You have been weighed, measured, and found.”
And tattooed on his wrist was a goblet. And around the rim of the goblet it said, “He who has little will give much.”
And there was a flaming puncture through each hand, as if from a pen or nail, but the flames restored the flesh that had been lost. And when the flame dissipated, there were scars. And the scars were like parchment and there were words written across the scars. And the words were, “My favor rests upon you. I establish the work of your hands.”
But I said to the hands, “Then why am I dying so quickly?”
And he said, “Come up here!”
And I said, “But I’m afraid you will close your fingers and crush me in your fist.”
And he said, “Come up here!”
And I climbed into his hand and the scar rose and became a pillow for my head and the hands flew up into heaven and the trip was long. I pulled up the words traced across the line of his palm for my blanket. I ate the words tattooed across his index finger for my food and I started to laugh.
I laughed, because I did not know where I was going, but I knew where I was and who I was with and what must happen after all these things, these perishable things and dying things and petty things and a life of many dreams.
The primary concern of canonical literary fiction is adultery, or, more loosely, abandonment and broken sexual bonds. This first came to my attention during my attempts to explore well regarded 20th century fiction. To my great frustration, I came to novel after novel that primarily involved the main character whoring around and/or their wife leaving them. Incidentally, this plotline was often paired with a sort of post-colonial fantasy of the main character traveling to some third world country (Paul Bowles, Saul Bellow, Malcolm Lowry, the list goes on) to continue having adultery there. In any case, I began to compare these books to works of classical literature, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized classical literature revolved around adultery as well.
Gilgamesh – Story begins with the creation of Enkidu because of the people protesting Gilgamesh’s enforcement of primae noctis.
Iliad – Paris running off with a king’s wife sends the world into war.
Odyssey – This story is all about Odysseus and everyone, Penelope and no one.
Greek Myths – almost entirely populated by Zeus’ adulterous sexcapades, and if not Zeus, then others.
Alexander Romance – Alexander is born when an Egyptian sorceror in the likeness of a god sleeps with Philip’s wife.
Aeneid – Aeneas bewitching and ditching Dido.
One Thousand and One Nights – the frame story begins with the king marrying virgins and then killing them because he thinks all women to be adulterous, and the stories come out of Scheherazade’s ability to keep him strung along.
Parzival – Gahmuret’s two sons from his two different marriages reunite at the end; Parzival himself marries and then abandons his wife.
Troilus and Cressida – Cressida pledges her love to Troilus but then ditches him.
Canterbury Tales & The Decameron – just generally sexed up story anthologies.
Arthurian Romance – Lancelot and Guinevere.
Dante’s Divine Comedy – the arc is Dante’s platonic love for Beatrice, a woman who is not his wife.
Hamlet – Hamlet’s mother & Claudius.
The Faerie Queene – plot revolves around all kinds of suspected unchastity and sexual temptations.
Gulliver’s Travels – Gulliver leaves his wife to be at sea.
Moby Dick – Ahab abandons his family to search for the whale.
Anything you’d like to add to the list? Feel free to comment. Sacred scripture, while not fiction, fulfills these narrative requirements as well, often on a down to earth level – so many of the old testament narratives feature adultery and polygamy – but especially on the cosmic level, where Israel’s repeated adulteries are finally resolved by the faithfulness of Christ, the bridegroom.
Now, I won’t bother listing all of the modern fiction that meets these requirements. But I will to try to list the major historical works of fiction that I feel do not involve their premise in adultery (or more broadly abandonment), but I feel like I’m going to have a tough time of it. Children’s fiction doesn’t count, of course, because it seems what makes something children’s fiction is that it isn’t about ‘adult’ literary subject matter, where ‘adult’ is just code for ‘adultery’. My question is whether it’s possible to create proper adult literary work without it just being about the same subject matter.
I have no doubt there’s other major works I’m not thinking of (certainly in other non-anglophone canons), but still, you get my point. I really do think throughout history fictional narratives without adultery in some form are the exception. So, does this make me want to read more 20th century literary fiction? Hmm…
Hi, I’m Caleb. I am a lover, a fanboy of the frivolous, and I dig that hurts-so-good of denying myself.
There is a vision for hope that remains opaque and will remain so for the rest of my life. It is a vision so powerful, even people who do not have it struggle to see it with lame reminders on their espresso machines. “Smile today—you deserve it.” As a matter of fact, no you don’t and as a matter of fact, I saw this reminder on the espresso machine at the Dunkin’ Donuts here in the Denver Airport.
If you fight something for long enough, you might enjoy the pleasure of old age killing it. Nowhere is this more true than in our own sins. God, every time I hear someone say they have struggled with anxiety, what sympathy am I supposed to have? Maybe the sympathy of all humanity, but not the sympathy someone in an accident deserves. It is no accident that so many of us have our fertile gardens of neuroses. We come built this way, it’s in the packaging. We are born into this world with a few protocols locked into the system unwinding. Anxiety and depression are fickle protocols, however, and all you have to do to kill them is watch their slow demise.
Watch! As the particular textures of your misery burgeon under their excess. Watch! As you struggle to remain petty enough to remember what it is you are struggling with. With complex, minute narratives like these, what work do you have to do but sit and point at it and laugh at yourself for ever paying any mind to your overactive reason? What a rational mind we have, that we cannot get those thoughts out of our minds, what a rational mind we have, that we are on our knees in the bathroom retching for our complex fear of some OH or another UGH. You should be thinking, “Why did I ever trust my mind with anything?” You should be thinking, “Isn’t this a waste of my time?”
And you say you cannot defeat the darkness, and this is something we all nod our heads at. “It’s not so easy, you cannot just say no!” But saying no is not the solution, just the beginning of a victory. Saying no to yourself and to the bureaucratic processes of your very important rational mind is the practice of watching as your own brittle controlled ecosystem crumbles in. There is simply too much in our lives for us to manage and we hem and harm, because darkness lies so close by. We should be thinking, “God, I hope I fail.” We should be thinking, “Wouldn’t it be so nice if my sense of control broke?”
It has been said, grasshopper, that we ought to break apart everything we once knew and rebuild it. And we hum and ho at not knowing how to break the processes. That part is easy—in order to break the ticker tape and sever the spinal cord of the Dutch men in the corner recording the minutes of our ugly thoughts with sharp pencils—all we need to do is lean into it. Give the Dutch men hell. God, may the paperwork pile so high that the Dutch man huddling in the corner of our minds, fiercely seeking to record it all, may he fold up his hands and shout, “I quit! And also—I never liked you, anyway!” That is easy enough. When an ugly thought comes into your mind, do not desperately seek to throw it out. Do not say no. Stare at it directly and give it as much time as it needs. Give it the floor. You will not see its ugliness for what it is until it removes all of its clothes.
And there you are, the nude and embarrassed patient before the surgery—a most passive and exposed position. Congratulations, you may now allow someone else to perform the surgery on you. May the God of our hearts peel back the flesh flaps as we lie in deep dreams. May the All-Seeing Anesthetist drug us with death. And when we wake up, it will be all about the little comforts.
You are just a body again and a hurting one at that. God, may there be a bowl of buttered peas when we wake up! A little water, a little bread—it’s all we need. It’s all we ever needed.
What rational, dead minds we have. May God sever your spinal cord! May God shut you up until you’re ready to receive your buttered peas and cold water with the ecstasy of a heavy-tongued child.
And so here is this whole business of building up again, which you do not need to worry about. Your problem the whole time has been to build yourself up. You idiot! What do you think the whole surgery was about? All that pain tucked into your chest cavity and removed, soaked with black blood?
Sin dies of old age if we are willing to be the witness to its death. Recovery happens in this life if we are willing to go down under. Going down under may or may not be the same thing as going outward—what else is observation? And what else is observation but prayer?
But look at these fancy jumps I make with my prose. Thank you, synapses. And thank you, God, for the reconstruction of my brain. I am afforded a few, brief moments of clarity before the end, before I fly off this earth in the bitter ether of senile dementia. I approach grace as a continuum of uplifting accidents and faith is the confidence to believe that accidents happen.
Meanwhile, as we go about stealthily looking for the right kind of accidents—or, rather, we look for the right places to stand so the accidents can fall squarely on our foreheads—we must be mindful of everything around us. This includes you, doll. And the occasional old friend, but for the most part I believe our prayer lives involve the frivolous worries of strangers. Strangers have such dull problems. Yet being awake is the confidence to take them as our own.
Life after crises and/or reconstructive knee surgery is one that feels peculiarly dull. That dullness we feel is called peace, and peace takes time to get used to. After all, our whole lives we have been addicted to our own problems. But I think that proclivity to obsess about our shit is just a misdirected empathy. We are designed to obsessively care for others like we do with our own internals. And you were just about to be bored at the bleak future of not having personal crises. God, the heathen say, hates fun. God tells us that if we are to get a good insurance rate with him, we have to stop lustin’ fussin’ messin’ ‘n’ stressin’. What fun is there in life when we get rid of our primary source of entertainment: anxiety and struggling? Good news! All that energy and skill, you Master of Fine Arts in Self and Ennui, is for the sake of caring about others. What is prayer for, but to get our minds off ourselves?
Prayer is for observing the world how it is, how it really is, and not how it is framed by the narrow lens of our mind, a mind too busy opening new tabs/new tabs/new tabs and fragmenting our disc like a bitch.
Pray for others, thank God, and watch as your sin dies under its own dead weight and the pressure of new desires pushing in.
After failing to procure a ride to the early service of church, I find myself enjoying the absolutely wonderful peace of solitude. Rare this is, oft I sleep.
I was thinking last night about a description I always end up using when I describe someone driving. This is pertinent, I suppose, to my situation this morning. As one without a license or much experience being in the driver’s seat, mine is the perspective of the passenger. And this has been true my whole life. Some of my earliest memories are of being in the car, looking out the window for the hours. I get a little sick when I try this trick these days. Somewhere along the line, I lost my car legs. Back then, when I stared out the window for hours perhaps on some road trip, I would watch the optical illusions created by the speed of objects moving past me. We all know about this.
Every time I have a character driving by cornfields—which happens quite often, since many of my stories happen in the Midwest—I have this gut instinct to describe the lines in the fields “ticking by.” Every time, it’s that verb and I can’t seem to manage getting out of it. Does the driver see the fields ticking by? No, not really. It’s instead the four year old boy in the backseat of the fifteen passenger van with his bony shoulder pressed hard against the cold window. It is raining sometime in April. The buds are green in the black soil. God bless it.
I read “American Childhood” recently by Annie Dillard. It is, as everyone suspected, sublime. She has in there a description of when she was a child in the car. At the time, she felt enamored with the colors in the world, the excitement of discovering new, exotic bugs or deep sea creatures. For me, anyway, it was the marine that really got my goat—and Egypt. We had this small cardboard covered book with a title page desiccated by the bathroom usage of many male toddlers. Who knows who the culprit really was (I think those who still kept reading the book shared some measure of blame) and frankly the siblings might not agree that it was the book on Egypt with the Abomination of Desolation on the title page. It might have been the other book with the big question mark on the cover, the one, you know, concerning the “special cuddle.”
God, why are we so obsessed with the special cuddle, even now?
Anyway, Annie Dillard found herself almost existentially bored by a particular route through the mountains. Blown out by dynamite to make way for them, the rock surfaces on either side of the road would be slick with rain. And that sight was such a tremendous bore, her only way out of the insanity was to imagine the beautiful, colorful crystals perhaps hiding behind the walls. She would then proceed to imagine that it were her on the slick sides with pickaxe in hand, uncovering the opportunities all the boring adults drove past.
I know what she means. Risking the boredom, I miss being the child not in control of where I was going. To imagine. I would like some of those moments again, to be able to stare out the window without getting sick, to find some solace from the boredom inside dreamlike fantasies which sometimes had as characters the blue and red floating cones and rods I could see with my eyes shut tight. The itch I’d hope it would scratch is the one about solitude, the one about getting a little bit lost, the one about having hours to pass being carried away by any thing whatsoever, the one about almost heightened perception, not knowing the destination or when the next stop is going to be, the one where I am completely and totally safe.
God, why are we so obsessed with being safe, even now?
My parents knew where we were going. All I had to do was sit and be patient—and praise and gummy worms would rain down upon my head. “You were so good,” they’d said.
I would have been good if there was someone there to drive me every day of my life.
O Lord, God of my salvation, you and I both know that I have cried out day and night for you and have cried your name when I felt like you couldn’t hear it. I have spent hours lying in bed, you know, feeling like I will not make it to the morning and have thought that maybe it would not be such a bad thing that I might slip away inch by inch beyond my own body, my soul or maybe just my perception creeping into the wall. First the phantom of my head punctures the drywall, then my arms flat against my sides without the blanket to cover me break into the ground outside and the darkling beetles crawl across my chest and the worms wrangle between my toes and finally the dirt falls into my rib cage, because the tension of my skin against the bone could hold no longer hold it out. My skin is like wet, wrinkled paper and dirt clods fall in to the cavity, fall into my veins, make my heart black as the earth you have made.
Let my prayer come before you, incline your ear to my cry! I know you can hear me, so come out of your hiding place. Why would you hide your face from me? Why would you not listen? Is it because I’m dirty? Well, you were the one who declared that I am clean, you were the one who said I could come here and make these petitions. God, when did I start having to call them petitions when all they were in the first place was a GAH?! A GAH at life, a GAH at my own inadequacy, a GAH at the repetitions that exhaust me. Sleep at night is not enough to restore my energy, food is not enough to give my eyes light, friends are not enough to cut through the fog of confusion I have been left with as my own and only companion. The fog is like a heavy mist and it pores into me through the nostrils and parted lips, it clings to my skin, it moistens my eyes and I feel they are swollen, swollen and bloodshot with lack of sleep. I can never get enough sleep and because my eyes feel like this, I am prone to cry easily, cry because I don’t know what in your name I am doing anymore. And the mist has seeped into my ears like a poison when I have my head against the pillow—is that maybe why I can’t hear you? My ears and cranium are full of poison and there is no room left in my humid skull for messages of hope, or even just a single good word.
For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. Sooner or later, there is a darkness that comes and closes all our eyelids, when this absurdity of striving to remember and striving to remember what we are to be comes to a steaming halt. God, those coals on my tongue have turned to ash in my mouth and all I taste now is the hot smoke of fires extinguished, of passions that no longer keep me motivated, of a life-force and a spirit and a soul that has lost its source of oxygen, its source of rekindling. Sooner or later, Father, I will lose what rekindles me and keeps me going day to day. Have I invested in the wrong thing? My very own soul, that burning hot engine that churns out steam underneath my skin to travel along the femur, up and down, up and down with the natural cooling that comes from my toes exposed to the frozen air, to come back to my heart and soul and to be reheated again, sooner or later, my heart and soul will break up the logs and wood you’ve put there. But thank you for the time enough to withstand a few moments of this entropy, thank you for the kindling, the chopped trees, the dry leaves, and all my passions and desires that keep me roaring in spite of the troubles that will someday break everything down inside me. My body will not go on forever, it will stop and with it my soul.
Because I am counted among those who go down to the pit and I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. And why is it that they are slain? Isn’t it for the same reasons that now pummel me, now stone me? But a little bit of happiness here and there in my day, a little bit of joy, the ability to see through the troubles inherent to my being that youth and passions hold back like a levee for a moment. I hear a fine melody on the piano and the steam of the coffee and the angle of the light is just right that I can convince myself to not be troubled for one or two moments, moments that justify me feeling like I too am slipping down into the pit, moments that prove I have no strength, because they would not be such fine moments if I did not have a memory of other moments, moments of other people’s pain. God you know I have lived my life without much pain, but God you and I know what pain others have lived through. How on earth do you justify yourself?
Maybe you and I justify ourselves by heaven. I try to do as you do, so I will remain silent after I speak or else the silence will mean nothing.
I have been tortured with even passing stories of other people’s deaths. Even the death of a stranger is enough to shut shades over my day with its stupid pretty angles of light. This is why those moments of steam rising from a cup of coffee make me say, “Yes, but what is this? I will die tomorrow. And if I don’t die, they will.” I am set loose among the dead and with this empathy guiding me to their graves, I cannot in my right mind enjoy anything here as the source of my lasting comfort. God, I fear that you will someday forget me. And someday even I might forget myself. The pain of forgetting myself would be the greatest pain. After I had felt the pain of others like I do now, where would I escape to? Let me not forget myself, or at least, keep some place ready for me to come back to at the end of a long, dark day…
But you take even that away from me. You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me and you overwhelm me with all your waves. God and I know why! Promise after promise that I have made vainly to you not to destroy your delicately tamed garden. You are not angry because I am dirty, but because I am clean and keep sticking mud and leaves on my face. But you’re not a doting mother who wants me to keep my Sunday best clean, you’re not a stern father who wants me to not pick my nose at the dinner table (though it shouldn’t take sternness to nip that habit in the bud). What have I done that has made you so angry? You know! I have simply believed lies. I have believed the very lie that has made you out to be a doting mother, a stern father. But I have forgotten my crime and in the process have demanded sympathy from you to understand where I am coming from. But if we were in court, let’s have the jury see the pictures of what I’ve done. Show the jury the pictures taken at the scene. Take them out of the manila folder, do it! Then the lawyers and the ties can wonder why it is you are angry with me. Pretty words come from the tie’s mouth, pretty words to please the abstract intellect about the masticated craniums of those I have murdered and destroyed. “I am totally harmless,” I say, “I wouldn’t even step on a frog—” and the whole world lies dead in its graves.
You have caused my companions to shun me, you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape, my eye grows dim through sorrow. Day by day, I spend roving around in my apartment, lost in my own thought. And though I can take a friend by the shoulders and try to plead with them simply with my telling eyes, I cannot break through. It is as though you have put me in a glass box and everywhere I go, I bring with myself a small exhibit on emotional distance with a bronze plaque that reads, “Here you can see the finest specimen of what you feel like when the conversation does not reach that pitch perfect note of having discovered someone else, and the conversations continue to lack that discovery for years—but oh! Not just the discovery and not just the conversations. Here you see what it looks like to be the last man alive and the last man to remember and believe that it is worth it to remember at all the promises when the days have grown dark and the friends have all died and everyone has forgotten themselves and lost the sense of wonder about the world, an illusion pitifully created by possibilities not yet acted on early in life, an illusion of wonder shattered as soon as the ball of action starts rolling and misses, and misses, and misses again, and external circumstances crush designs, and money is pilfered and houses burn down and ideas lose their shine and fame never comes to throw its warm blanket of temporary adoration over you.”
Strangers used to look like people I could get to know, friends of friends would come to me, friends would share with me the inner workings of their life, and I believed for too many stupid moments that other people could never be understood, could never be seen through, could remain mysteries closely held to the chest. I am saddened to see younger strangers following the patterns of discovery I once followed. I know the disappointment they don’t yet know, the disappointment they will carry by themselves in the dark hours before falling asleep. And though the essence of other people has not changed, my ability to receive them into myself has, because I have lost hope. Because I have lost hope, I am a horror. I am shut in, because there is nowhere for me to go that could be deep enough to feel like I have gotten to know a stranger completely. No one has access to that knowledge when they are living under the hands of wrath. Even if I got married, what would I be but a stranger? And even the people I have kept close to me all my years, these people fill me with sorrow because I see them aging, I see how things move along, the shuffling of cards and the rotation of posts. And to catch a glimmer of the daily lives of family even reveals to me the distance I have from them, even them. If I can not count even my brother or mother among those shut into the house with me, then I how will I be able to escape from this solitude? I don’t know who to call my brothers and who to call my mother.
But every day I call upon you, o Lord, I spread out my hands to you!
Do you work wonders for the dead? Do you really, do you?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Does this literally happen?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? What would this even look like?
Are your wonders known in the darkness? Why should I believe you?
Is your righteousness known in the land of forgetfulness? Who remembers you anymore?
But I, o Lord, cry to you! In the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors, I am helpless. Youth is not enough to keep me from feeling and knowing deep inside myself that we are dying. It is this very fact that has oppressed my spirit, has made my heart weaken and the cough emerge, made me gag on nothing and vomit out air, made me feel like all I can do is lie in bed, prevented me from having any energy at all. I have literally grown faint as a result of being close to death from my youth. I am afflicted with what has not yet afflicted me. But these are your terrors, they are of your invention. You invented these feelings. You invented the claustrophobia I have felt on airplanes, gliding towards death, an absolute shut in, unable to go anywhere or do anything, but sit carefully, lest I disturb the symptoms sitting close by my side on the couch, smiling. A chilly arm rests along my shoulders.
Your wrath has swept over me, your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long, they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me, my companions have become impermeable darkness.
Name one man in the Bible who had a normal monogamous relationship and a healthy family.
Adam – Son murdered the other son
Noah – Son saw his father’s nakedness, cursed
Abraham – Pharaoh situation, Hagar & Ishmael Situation
Isaac – Tricked by rivalrous sons
Jacob – And behold! It was Leah (also, his sons sell one of their brothers into slavery)
Moses – Maybe is polygamous?
Samson – Ha!
Samuel – Evil sons
David – Many wives, many kids, much rebellion
Elijah – Maybe no family?
Esther – Chosen by her husband in a beauty contest (bring me the hottest babes in the kingdom, the king declared, and it was so) to replace the old sour one
The Prophets – all the performative marriages (Ezekiel loved his wife apparently, but then God took her in a sort of performative death)
Paul – Celibate
Christ – Celibate; symbolically and mystically wed to his Bride the Church (a woman generally to be regarded as a crazed harlot apart from his influence)
So maybe it’s just that the men and women who did have healthy relationships and functional families didn’t do anything crazy enough to end up in Scripture. Anyway, you get my point.
With this history, the words of Malachi bear a lot more weight: truly what we need more than anything else is for the hearts of the fathers turned to the children, and the children turned to their fathers. If you look about in the world, there’s a lot of unturned hearts. But Christ, as the Bridegroom: what is his goal if not to build his people into a holy household for God? We are all one family, of course, but we are also a lot of little families.
Is it too late in history to start a new tribe? (re: The Michaelites)
Eschatology and economics seem a lot more entwined than people let on. If economics is the ordering of one’s household, well, how is Christ going to order his household? In a postmillenial or an amillenial sense, or neither? How are we going to order our families and our societies in accordance with this?
So many Christians that I know advise investment and interest as a means of securing one’s household. And certainly that has worked well for many. But is this kind of capitalism a double-edged sword? Undoubtedly Christ is using it as a tool to extend his reign, as he uses all things. But when will it be discarded, if ever? Perhaps interest and capital are just slavery in another form, weakened and reshuffled and distributed more efficiently. Maybe slavery can never be abolished but only shared more evenly across the nations.
Riches are good. Riches allow for leisure, and leisure allows for education. Education is necessary for wise civic action in this world. Education is necessary for good craft and liberty. Good craft and liberty bring riches, and so on. The question is: how does Christ want us to educate the household? On the smallest level, we have our families, but on the largest, the nations. Does a capitalist social structure educate us in all the wrong ways? It has certainly given us much leisure. But how are we taught to use that leisure? To what end are we being educated towards? If we give power to those with capital, power can be distributed much more evenly. I think that is helpful for peace, as a bulwark against tyranny. But happiness and virtue are greater kinds of wealth than cryptocurrencies and stocks.
So are we really wealthy? Are we encouraged in this system towards natural happiness and virtue, or are we encouraged to do whatever we want? I don’t think we can have the former with the latter. So we need someone to guide us away from our weird desires and towards that which is universally good – or, at the very least, clearly good for all in a specific geographical and historical context.
Would we be a more happy and virtuous people if we had a monarch, a father of our nation who could bring us up in the way we should go and educate us? Of course we would, but maybe such a man cannot be found. And no doubt however well he educated us, his own heirs would betray him in the end, as we have seen in all the patriarchs. Why are the good kings such bad dads?
Let us say that, by securing your household by investment and modern financial practices and overall participation in the current system, the numbers in the bank computers allow you and your family to be safe and strong and well educated. Good citizens and generous to all. That is without doubt a good thing as far as we can see. But beyond what we can see: are you absolutely sure that you are participating in a healthy system? What if, by trying to secure your own wealth this way, you have made it much harder for others to build good homes — either directly through material exploitation or, more nebulously, through the promotion of a world system that educates us to be foolish? Where does the profit come from? How do you know that all those companies and projects are virtuous, building good things for all the world, helping everyone become truly wealthy?
I would want to build my household in such a way that does not hinder others from building their households. And building a good household is not just a material concern but also an educational concern. Even if capitalism provided mongo wealth for everyone, it wouldn’t be wealth if we had been taught by the structure to act foolishly and sinfully. Our hopes would be weak and frail, our labor alienated from our hands, our faces hidden from others, our bodies hidden from the sun and the wind and the woods, our spirits only supported by mass produced pharmakeia: sorcerous pills that chemically induce a facsimile of eudaimonia. Can you encapsulate good spirits, or only unclean ones? How many in this system (in any earthly system?) are able to have strong marriages and abundant households? Without a strong marriage and good kids, what is a household for? How much will we see in this life of a father’s heart turning to his child and a child’s heart to his father? If I could make it so with a word, I would have a good wife and good kids, whose descendents would be wealthy and Christian forever. Forever virtuous and blessed on this earth.
Perhaps it is not possible to judge wisely a global process that consists of billions of different people and their desires, actions, decisions, circumstances, abilities. Nor can you cleverly arrange through infant baptism and parenting techniques that all of your descendents be both wealthy and Christian. The ways our social and economic structures are built and then build us in turn are mysterious. The nature of this planet-sized trellis on which we grow and bear our fruit – maybe it is all too complicated for us to ever make a reasonable decision, to declare reasonable visions. So in this respect, or at a certain scale, we must surrender our intentions to God and trust that he will build our houses as his own.
“Come on,” he said, “Surrealism is just more spiritual than fantasy…you know? You feel that?”
Somewhere along the line, I have stopped writing what I want to write and it’s made me realize how substantial questions of genre are, not just for stylistic preferences, but for the fictional process itself. Different genres are different ways of thinking—and deal with different subject matter! Genre is not just an album cover.
And it’s not a coincidence that J.R.R. Tolkien had bad prose, as I hear them claim, or that Philip K. Dick doesn’t have believable characters, as I know from experience. With such as these, it doesn’t matter entirely.
I have discovered through trial-and-error that at a certain point, fantasy devolves into plotting with an emphasis on metaphysical ideas. I never wanted to believe this about fantasy and I thought that fantasy could be so much more. I thought that the metric of what constitutes fantasy was far blurrier and vague. It turns out that all you need to thrust yourself into the fictional processes required by fantasy is to make an assumption about the world that does not apply to our world.
Why is that wording important?
Because I used to think that if you made one assumption about the world, say, that everyone had to drink liquid mercury to survive instead of water, that the story remained in the genre of surrealism or something near there. A surreal story, I basically thought, was a fantasy that only made a few above-mentioned assumptions instead of enough to build a world. But it’s not the amount of assumptions, it’s their quality. Developing assumptions about the world means you are probably going to succumb to the patterns of fantasy, but presumptuous eventsare different. They are more like conceits.
No assumptions-beyond-reality about the world are made in a surrealist story, and LO! The unbelievable happens. The woman is a succubus, Gregor Samsa turns into a bug, the hat flies into the air. What are these? Does having a story with hats that fly into the air imply that all hats in that world can fly? I have my doubts. I think you would have to gather up all the hats in that world and perform tests on them in order to verify beyond a shadow of a doubt that all hats do or do not fly.
Having a conceit like that, an event or character that is surreal, affirms our assumptions about the way the worlds works—it does not generate a new world beyond ours. The qualification to be made is that, of course, all fiction is a generation of new worlds, but always emphasizing that muddies the waters and is beside the point. Telling us that all fiction is basically fiction does not inform us at all about how fiction at the end of the day relates to our world.
What is fiction’s relation to our world?
Our answer depends on genre. Fantasy relates to to our world by intentionally developing a new world by lifting a copy of our world off its axis with one or five hundred new assumptions. Surrealism, on the other hand, does something else. It keeps us in this world, but suspends us slightly above it. It puts us in an uncomfortable situation. Surrealism presents to us a story of someone living in a world much like ours, only to discover that they have been wrong, or they are not entirely right. That is one way the surrealist can play his cards. Haruki Murakami does this in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. In that collection, people encounter what is to them totally unbelievable and it forever changes how they see their world.
There is another way. Take that growling infant story. It might work merely as a comedy—children are not tigers, never will be. It might also work as a morality tale: don’t let your child act like a tiger. However, it might work also symbolically. The child-tiger is a symbol for the wild havoc the parent’s infidelity will wreak on following generations. Almost a similar thing happens in One Hundred Years of Solitude, actually, where all that incest eventually leads to a child getting born with a tail.
By the way, so much more is going on than what I am claiming here. But I am primarily concerned with genre and what genre can and cannot do. There are things I can and cannot write about in my fantasy novel right now and it’s driving me nuts. Let’s continue.
Kafka takes the symbolic approach. In Metamorphoses, the purpose of the surrealist story is more symbolic. The conceit of him turning into a bug is not about the world. It’s about what it feels like to feel terrible. I could say more, but I am not going to. The meaning of Metamorphoses is extremely clear. Basically, he’s nothing more than a bug. It’s a metaphor taken literally and turned into a symbol for his interior world, blah blah blah, and it’s a great story and super powerful because of how vivid it is and all that crap about concrete imagery allowing you to experience a fictional dream beyond the words. It’s great.
Retroactively, I would just claim that some kinds of surrealism are not concerned at all with the interior world or with harvesting the extremely rich symbolic fields that seem fundamental to surrealism and how it works. In my opinion, if you are going to make use of the surrealist genre, you are probably concerned with the spiritual. If you have absolutely no taste for the surreal, it might mean you don’t know how to read the signs and symbols that reality is pregnant with day in and day out and you’re also probably a spiritually dead ape.
Okay, moving on.
Intellectuals cast their golden crowns upon the glassy sea before storytellers.
I have never been that interested in ideas. When it comes to fiction, ideas bore me. When it comes to conversation, ideas tend to bore me, too. I prefer experiences that sublimate reason and the intellect. Why? Is this because I’m a provocateur? No, it’s because I’m not very smart and can’t cogitate for very long without wanting to soak my head in a lather of beer. I’d rather use my brain to dream (whether sleeping or awake) than use it for sustaining long conversations dependent on logic and arguments that at the end of the day are just as tenuous and absurd as any absurdist story I could spend my time writing. The plus side is that a story well-written should please all the faculties, not just the intellect. And it does so not just by throwing you into another sensory world, not just in making you fall for the illusory lies of art, but in being the gateway that allows you to discover the sensory world you live in and constantly need a reminder to appreciate.
Without stories to guide us, at least for myself, I become dull to the way the world is. I become dulled to reality. This has very little to do with my intellect. I think it’s important to reason, of course, and have arguments and good ideas and all that jazz, but frankly essays like this are boring for everyone but me. That’s why our editor here at Reforming Imagination asked that I insert silly images and
heading 3 font.
But what am I entering into here? I am entering into nothing more than my mind. I am helping myself to cogitate and understand the art I love, but it is not the art I love. Essays like this don’t last or make an impression beyond maybe influencing other storytellers. They are only interesting for people who either know me or who are trying to become experts in fiction like I am. It is not interesting to the average person—and it shouldn’t be. This essay isn’t designed to please all the faculties, it’s instead the transcript of a rational process. That is why all my language so far has been abstract. It’s just easier and because it’s easier, it’s worth less. Arguing is easy, ideas are easy. Show me the magician who can with words bring me somewhere inside the interior of reality and I will show you a legion of cogitators.
Also, sometimes I hate to hear the ideas and arguments of favorite artists. It can be embarrassing. The liner notes of David Byrne’s new album, American Utopia, are terrible! Am I double-minded by loving his music and hating his intellect? Not entirely. They are different facets of the man and he is clearly better at one than the other, though admittedly some blank spots in his music might be the result of an under-developed morality.
Every business needs an accountant and every story needs good plotting.
This doesn’t mean that it is all inspiration and muses. Very little of fiction writing is that at all. It is craft and the ability to be very careful and precise with your words. It is difficult. It takes a long time. It takes a love of the world and a love of people and a depth of self-consciousness that can be shelved at any point in the process. It takes strength of character and courage and very little of this I have right now. That is one of the reasons why writing has been so slow going.
But it has also been slow going, because I am writing fantasy. And although all fiction ought to be concerned with the world and with entering into it more deeply, some fictions do this in a more mystical way than others. All stories need plotting in order for them to be effective, whether it is a short story, novella, or novel. If you don’t know how to balance events and scenes and the moving parts of a story structure, then you will never know how to write a story. A lot of the craft of writing has to do with the arrangement of parts to form the most effective whole. And yes, the intellect is essential here, too, as is the dreaming life. A fiction writer will spend many waking, conscious hours asking himself, “Where should this bit go? How can I prepare the reader for that scene?” Questions like this are questions of craft and questions of how the effect of entering into reality more deeply will be achieved for the reader. And achieved for the storyteller. Because like the intellectual, the storyteller must follow a process. And he follows the process, because he loves discovery. What is the storyteller discovering?
He is discovering the fundamentals of the world. Stories either work or do not work based on their aesthetic merit. Aesthetic merit is the relation of all the parts to the whole and finally the entire story’s relationship to the world. All people can sniff out a falsity, a lie, in a story. The famous author Flabbery O’Cobbor said something like that one time. It’s true. The storyteller discovers truths about the world by following the fictional process—even if it is something as basic as plot.
Archetypes and symbols in fiction are not the same thing.
I have still managed to say nothing about how the fictional process of fantasy is different than the process I prefer. The difference is rooted in what I said at the very beginning. Fantasy is concerned with how a world is built. Fantasy is wonderful for metaphysics and philosophical problems. It deals and trades, not in symbols and the interior life projected, but in archetypes and enfleshed concepts.
You might ask how that is different than the symbolic way. That is a really tricky question and I am probably not smart enough to answer it, but I’ll give it a try. So the two things I am currently counterpointing are: archetypal matrices and symbolic structures. Fantasy works tend to work in archetypal matrices and surrealism tends to work in symbolic structures—actually, so does realism a lot of the time.
Both genres if they are to be conventional, as Gardner has pointed out in The Art of Fiction, largely pass or fail passed on their ability to project a fictional dream. If you are in the business world, you’ll be familiar with the basic idea of flow. That’s what I’m talking about and anyone who has ever enjoyed reading knows about this, so why am I even bringing it up? Well, when you get into a flow with reading, when time slips away and you are no longer focusing on the words, but are instead in some kind of play projected by the words, then you have experienced the fictional dream. That means that the fiction you read largely succeeded and all conventional fiction is busy with crafting a piece that will in whole or in part produce this dream.
The fictional dream is not everything. When you are dreaming, how often do you wake up? What kinds of connections do you make when you wake up? When you wake up, are you busy with thinking about what it all meant or connected, or did you simply enjoy the sensation of discovery as you were carried along?
When we wake up from a dream, or are conscious inside a dream, we can ask ourselves what it might have meant. Archetypes are the embodiment of abstract concepts, but symbolic structures are the embodiment of what cannot be approached by any other means. If you understand this, you will understand why much bad fantasy can be easily dispatched by a clear essay or two. Why?
Fantasy, in my experience, comes down to being object lessons and concrete examples of the effect ideas and beliefs have on the world. Fantasy is wonderful at teaching. It takes the abstract concepts of good and evil, plugs it into two characters, and we see through the generated story what is preferable. Fantasy takes some concept about the structure of the world, let’s say that there are many dimensions, and shows us what that looks like. This is why the temptation of the fantasist is to become didactic and abstract in his explanations of his world. In the bad fantasist, we can see the basic impulses of fantasy unconcealed by mastery. The bad fantasist does not show us his world. He tells us about his world, the implications of the many assumptions made, without showing us through dramatic action and dialog. Because of that, he has demonstrated not his art but his primary goals. Archetype matrices are the enfleshed concepts interacting.
Symbolic structures are entirely different. We might say the symbols might represent equally abstracted ideas, like sadness. But although sadness is an abstracted idea, the symbols within a surrealist story do not deal with that abstracted idea. They deal with the very thing that the abstract word sadness is also trying to get to, but gets to less effectively. The abstract word sadness is essentially just a symbol too on which we hang those experiences that cannot be abstracted. That is what symbolic structures are after. Symbols can be far more precise than abstract words. We might hang many connections on the word sadness, but take any symbol that deals with sadness and you have reduced the symbol—especially because symbols derive their meaning from their function within a context.
By relating many symbols together within a story, we get a picture and a knowledge of the unapproachable. In many cases, we cannot talk about sadness abstractly in any satisfying way. We have to instead show it. We get no pleasure or sense of discovery from realizing that the broken toy horse is a symbol for the abstract idea sadness. Making that connection actually provides us with very little information about how the symbol is working within the story. Whereas in the fantasy story, I would say that in general when we see that the bad guy is an archetype for bad, we do get some information. Relating him to the abstract concept he points to can guide us through the rest of the story.
You might be thinking—and you should be thinking now—that my concepts of genre are pretty limited, if I am arguing that fantasy cannot work with symbols like this. But fantasy can work in symbols like this, I just don’t think it’s particularly good at it. What if the ring in the Lord of the Rings was not the archetype of sin, but instead a symbol that was rooted particularly in how Frodo felt some of the time that only made sense if you knew what he has gone through emotionally or what the state of his soul is when he looks at thunderclouds? Sounds like my cup of tea. But Lord of the Rings would not really be fantasy if Frodo wasn’t us, if Gandalf wasn’t good, if Sorrow Man wasn’t evil incarnate.
And yes, yes, while fantasy can be concerned with internal states of people and characters, while it can approach the unapproachable through symbols, it seems to do so awkwardly. Genres have their limits and a fantasy novel that focuses so much on the internal world of the characters is probably not great fantasy. It’s fantasy wanting to be something else, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to. It’s bad. It is trying to perform the heavy-lifting of symbolic structures without presenting us with a story fundamentally about the experience of encountering the symbols that make us feel what we thought could never be felt again. Woof, what a sentence.
Breaking into the shadowlands and depths is not exclusive to surrealism, but surrealism is one of the many genres concerned with capturing the mysteries of lived experience on a page through the use of symbols and the re-contextualization of objects that cues us to what that object might symbolize. We either see this along with the author, or we don’t. A lot of this comes down to the spiritual perceptiveness of the reader.
Though fantasy and surrealism both work as projected dreams, one plunges us into a world that our intellect largely cannot touch. The intellect is essential for plotting surrealist stories, should there be a plot, but it has very little business tinkering with the symbols or what they might mean. Surrealism is a sort of prayer that is trying to express those groans too deep for words St. Paul talks about. It is a means of laying up to God the mysteries that are beyond us, but revealed in the symbols of trees and clouds. How can I further express what I am trying to express here in such clumsy words?
Well you might think that I have no business talking about fantasy if I don’t like fantasy, but I have come to some conclusions at least about why I don’t like writing it.
Writing fantasy is an unhappy accident.
I began writing stories that were generated largely by feelings, feelings with different textures. Not only were these feelings informed by some lived experience that seemed incomplete to me, they were also informed by images in my mind. I wrote stories that, with those feelings in my mind, gave that symbol or image meaning and conversely allowed the image to inform what it is I felt.
These stories bordered, in terms of genre, on surrealism and eventually broke into surrealism. But that was a very natural move after writing realism that dealt so heavily with the spiritual movements underneath and within dramatic actions and dialog. These sorts of discoveries in my soul I did not think and do not think could have been captured and understood in any other way.
From surrealism, I began to have a fascination with situations. Instead of projecting my internal world and the world I feel is at work in the rhythms of all reality, I started asking how I could make certain absurd situations believable. I applied the conceits—those images that impressed themselves upon me—on my world. I asked question after question about how a world where both monsters and ghosts and mutability might exist. Much to my surprise, the world became increasingly coherent.
I deluded myself with humor and comedy, believing that I was still writing surrealist stories. The humor of the world was that the world was totally ridiculous. I produced the world counterpointing a random set of surreal conceits. Who knew!
But as the world has grown more coherent, I have been forced to take it more seriously or else it won’t work. I would describe the world as fundamentally comedic, satirical. This puts me in a class of writers I’m not comfortable being in, but so let it be. I have to work with what I have done. Now that the dust has settled and I have created a world that works on its own terms, I am staring at it and then feeling out what my story is supposed to be and I am saying, “Oh no, this is fantasy…this is really fantasy.”
No wonder it feels so unnatural to me. The comedy feels natural, the sudden shifts in tone feel natural, and the story is still strongly planted within my voice. But the voice is at work for a god I have never been tempted to worship, the god of worldbuilding. It is essential that I at least get tea with him every now and then to talk shop, but I hate that I am roped into the metaphysics of the world or the internal logic and consistency of it. Now logic matters!
And this has retroactively changed all those surreal short stories I wrote before. They have now become an essential part in this fantasy novel. Where the surrealism or the realism in them before was genuine and deeply imbedded, I have successfully turned those particular conceits into signposts for later fantasy. I have turned what was once genuine into a stylistic facade. Am I happy about this?
I don’t know, but I did it. I changed realism and surrealism into fantasy. And it feels very strange, but now I am just trying to ride the wave of plotting. I am trying to keep this the story that I want to tell. I am daily surprised by what happens and the shifts and turns in what has become essential for the world to be convincing. And my fall-back with most of it is that I am writing satire
With finger raised, he said, “Which is true!”
I dislike writing fantasy, because while my world is extremely interesting and wonderful and alive and full of (INSERT: potentiality or awesome-sauce), at the end of the day I have been forced to leave symbols to the side and pick up the bludgeon of archetype. I now find myself tempted to explain my world and its mechanics, instead of giving into the opposite temptations of surrealism to not give any explanation. I find myself less concerned with the interior worlds of the characters and more with how the characters should act given their essential functions as representatives. I am no longer allowed to have surreal things happen. If anything surreal happens in my fantasy novel, it feels out of place. I know that. I will have to explain it and it will have to fit in with the overall metaphysics of the world. Otherwise, it is a critical failure. All my other surrealities have to be sufficiently explained and plugged into the overall structure, or thrown out.
It’s an interesting process to convert the genre you’re writing in on such a fundamental level, but only a psychopath would have chosen it. I certainly did not see this coming, nor would I have chosen it if I had.
I want to be writing stories that embody the spiritual world at work in my life and in the livers of others through beautifully plotted dreams. I am far less interested in writing a scathing satirical fantasy novel about how America is doomed to be destroyed both by water and fire because of sexual promiscuity and ego confusion. If I want to write about sexual confusion and ego promiscuity, I have in the past chosen surrealism.
I am actively finding ways to not make this entire project a complete pile of dog poop, which means I am trying to maintain my own interest as much as possible. But every time I try to give myself a taste of those old interests of ushering private spiritual mysteries of out precisely chosen words that provide a sublime experience for the reader, my hopes are dashed. Because it sounds cheesy, so I then have to amuse myself by making fun of those processes that are my particular interest. At every turn, I am having to make fun of my spiritual tendencies. In different places, that is worthwhile. But in the space that used to be sacred, I feel hurt and let down. I don’t know if I have the will to be both the joker and artisté.
What’s more difficult for me is that I need themes for my stories now! This is more a function of it being my first novel in forever than it being fantasy. Writing novels is a pile of pain. I don’t even read novels.
I initially wrote a collection of short stories steadfastly in the genre of surrealism. And now that it’s gotten weird, really weird, and to the point of breaking at every point in its believability and ability to convince the reader that this world exists, I am forced to say, “It’s satire!” This is much like when people hated Tommy Wiseau’s serious drama The Room so much that he was forced to call it a dark comedy. Isn’t it the same thing? I am afraid that I am becoming my own Tommy Wiseau.
Or maybe I have fallen into a room deep underneath the Egyptian desert not yet plundered. Maybe the dark room I am stumbling around in is full of treasure and all I need is for someone to follow in after me, light a torch, and hand me an empty bag to carry home the loot.
The Extra flung pulp at the sides of the house. Where the pulp stuck to the house, there it grew into unnecessary and atrocious additions. A laundry room! A guest bedroom! A master bath! Linoleum siding replaced wood siding. A massive gable patched up the wound in the roof. Gable after gable plagued the main bulk of the home with confusion and burdens. The four windows at the front of the house, once in proportion with one another, were replaced with windows of different heights and sizes. The window to the kitchen was larger and lower down than the horizontal and high window of the first-floor bathroom. The top of the chimney disappeared and instead became a gable for the attic affixed with an octagonal window. The house shed its shutters to make room for nonfunctional shutters tacked onto the siding with nails.
Inside the house, a complete renovation was transmogrifying the Bliss Homestead into something (thankfully) no one would ever get a chance to see. Green shag carpet spread over the old hardwood floors. The walls that separated the dining room from the kitchen were knocked down to make an open floor plan. Everything was painted white—Edison light bulbs plinked down above the kitchen island. Granite countertops, hollow bedroom doors, and styrofoam insulation. The death-knell for the house, that final addition which weighed it down so much it fell back into the sea straight to the bottom where its sentience finally suffocated out of its angry renovated form, was the cumbersome burden of a four-car garage.