San Luis Rey by the Hudson

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.

I don’t do good with unexpected freedom. It was a Thursday. I should have been working but a bottleneck ruined my plans. I couldn’t stay idle in my house because my mind would wander to someone else and then thoughts of what never could be would loop in my head, so I roamed the city with a book and my earbuds and headed toward the waterfront—blue sky over the river, the Manhattan skyline, ferries streaming across the Hudson—and I sat and read and listened and watched people go from work toward the train station and vice versa.

The book was The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, which I bought for two bucks from a street vendor. It was five by the time I got my coffee and sat on the rocking chair underneath the granite portico with a view of the river and listened to a shuffle of songs (starting with Manchester Orchestra’s I Know How to Speak) and cracked open the book and started to read it only to discover it was not about a WW2 battle but instead a bridge collapse. In the book Wilder kills the five travelers from the get-go. Then he explores those five in detail and what led them to that bridge at that moment. The first of those characters is Doña Maria, described as unattractive and unloved, who was finally married off at 26.

Still, she lived alone and thought alone, and when an exquisite daughter was born to her she fastened upon her an idolatrous love.

Unfortunately Maria’s daughter, Clara, took after her father, cold and intellectual. Still, Maria persisted, persecuting Clara with nervous attention and a fatiguing love. A grown-up Clara moved to Spain, but Maria’s desire for her daughter only grew more intense. Maria knew she would never be loved in return, but she couldn’t quit her desire.

I thought of that someone else. Desire, someone said, is not love but the awareness of distance. That’s true. For me and for Maria, too. She was obsessed with that distance between her and her daughter. And me, no matter how close I could possibly get, that someone else would always be separate from me. I see it and I feel it and I know it but it doesn’t matter much. It doesn’t kill the desire. That’s the essence of desire, I guess.

While I read I watched men walk by wearing loafers with no socks. A woman held her mask loose in her hand as if she was about to let it go. A man passed in the sunlight and I judged him adequate according to that inventory list in my mind and I ached (Dumb word, ache. Romance ruined it.) and told myself that he doesn’t feel shame, not like I do, that no one could feel it like I do. Something rumbled in my gut, some undigested thing from some long-gone yesterday, and I wondered if it would ever be digested, or if I would I carry it around with me forever. When that adequate man left my line of sight I felt relieved and read some more.

She wanted her daughter for herself; she wanted to hear her say: “You are the best of all possible mothers”; she longed to hear her whisper: “Forgive me.”

I looked out at the pier and at the men and women who crossed its planks. What was here a hundred years ago? A thousand years ago? What would be on this spot a thousand years from now? Wilder wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey a century ago. He’s gone. The people he wrote about—people who lived three hundred years ago and who seem as real as any of the men and women on the pier before me—would be long gone, if they ever really existed. But I still felt them resonate.

She lived alone and she thought alone.

I read that line again and again. Like her, I am separate. Separated. I don’t know if this feeling is a Covid hangover or an ancient psychic wound or some personal flaw or just a hallmark of what it means to be human. I wanted to bring that feeling, that eternal separation, out into the sunlight, dry it out it and shrink it until it was small enough to fit in my hand and tuck into my pocket instead of having to wear it like a giant dripping shroud hanging over my shoulders and head and blocking out the rest of the world. But I don’t know how.

Maria could never figure out how to let go of her desire. News of her daughter’s pregnancy led her to cross that fateful bridge to a certain shrine where she would pray for the health and safety of her daughter and grandchild. She was convinced this devotion would finally win her daughter’s love. Her desire was her undoing.

My coffee was getting cold. A woman took a chair across from me and she rocked in her summer dress staring at her phone, legs extended, smiling, and I felt so far from her I could barely even find myself. Then she was gone. A man in a suit and sunglasses walked past me with a hands-in-pocket swagger that told me he was trying too hard, that he, too, carries a dripping shroud heavy on his shoulders. I’d never want to slip into his skin; I have enough shame for one man as it is, so why take on his as well? But I did, and then I was stuck with sadness for two. Someone once told me I lacked empathy. I wish I could lack some more.

By 6:30 pm my coffee was empty. I’d watched so many people pass by on to some other life, and me, always apart. All I wanted was to escape whatever inside me makes me stay so apart. I wanted to feel what they feel, like one of them, like they do, but I never do and it leaves me like an alien on this planet. I could’ve sat and watched the people all night until the morning and then all day again but that longing, that desire, would grow so unbearable that I’d want to rip my chest open and pull out every last poisonous fiber. If that someone else were beside me and if I could be totally honest, I would say this: Come sit beside me and take my pain from me. To me it’s poison but to you it’s dust.

And if I did and if it happened, then what? Would I still be alone, even with that someone else beside me? I think I would. Does this go back to my father, who taught me how to live in distance and separation? I don’t know. And while I’m being totally honest, do I truly, really, care about that someone else? Who they are? What they feel? Their own poisonous pain? Did Maria care about her daughter, or was Clara just a receptacle for her mother’s needy desire?

I finished the section about Maria. Two days before that bridge fell out from under her she realized that her desire was her undoing, that she need to surrender it to ever feel peace in the world, that she needed to live her life with courage and not fear.

Let me live now,” she whispered. “Let me begin again.”

I left my chair and the view of the skyline and the commuters with my own desire still by my side.

Wait…Gendercide Is a Thing?

I like to consider myself a fan of all things speculative–horror and supernatural and sci-fi books, movies, TV shows, etc., and I believe I know a ton about these genres.

Apparently I don’t. The other day I was rabbit holing into the latest of a long line of literary controversies (I won’t go into it here) and I read this article asking whether it’s time do do away with the gendercide trope, a trope I’ve never heard of before.

What is gendercide? It sounds nasty, because it is. Gendercide is where either the men or the women in any given story are killed or die off from some nefarious or mysterious or viral reason. The book that inspired the article introducing me to gendercide is The Men by Sandra Newman. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s about a world where all males suddenly vanish. The remaining women adjust to this disappearance, while videos online depict the men living in a hellish landscape.

There are others, too, such as Y: The Last Man, a comic turned TV show where (almost) all men die of a virus. One of my favorite books, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, is a variant of the gendercide trope; the novel opens in an all-male society where the women have mysteriously died off.

According to TVtropes.org, gendercide isn’t super popular, and most of the time only a variant is used (only some or most of either men or women die or disappear). Stories where the men disappear are more in line with the theme of feminist utopia, and stories where the women vanish are considered dystopic.

In reading about Newman’s book, I found it disturbing that all the men were sent to a hellscape ruled by demons. Oddly, the writer of the article critical of gendercide (and Newman’s book), didn’t write about that disturbing aspect of it. From me, though, disturbing is not a criticism. I want to learn more about this trope, and see how different writers explore it.

The Health Benefits of Writing

Writing saved my life. Okay, that may be an exaggeration as well as a cliche, but cliches have a foundation in truth, and while writing may not have stopped a speeding bus from pancaking me as I ventured through a crosswalk, the (almost) daily act has helped center me and give me purpose.

With that in mind, how much do writers (and readers) consider the health benefits of writing? And by health benefits I mean psychological, which is as important as the physical. In a recent blog post for Jersey City Writers (a large, community-based writing group I’m a part of), one of the moderators, Sara Stone, reflected on the mental health benefits of writing, and she came up with a surprising benefit of putting pen to paper and SHARING it: the act of sharing your writing for critique requires TRUST, and trust in turn can foster community and acceptance.

I’d never thought of that aspect of writing. Even here, this act of writing these exact words right this very minute forces me to build my resiliency, to face and accept that some might not like these words. But others might. And that’s cool.

To read more of Sara’s post, plus all of the nitty gritty psychological links, click here.

Wuthering Heights? Vampires? Of Course!

WutheringHsscreenDTI read Emily Bronte’s one and only novel Wuthering Heights back in high school, and it’s a book that stuck with me all these years.

Why? I’m not into romance, or English period dramas, so those weren’t the draws. Instead, it was the strangeness of it all. There was something weird about the book, something supremely off-kilter that I never could identify.

For those who don’t know, Wuthering Heights is a gothic romance about the tortured relationship between the darkly brooding Heathcliff and the spoiled Catherine Earnshaw. Their love (if you can call it that) is charted through fights and marriages to others, and ultimately death — first hers, then his.

The book, while heavy on the melodrama, carries an undercurrent of horror. Dreams are filled with the pleading ghost of Cathy. And the dreams are downright creepy.

I read an article today on Chuck Palahniuk’s website LitReactor that, if correct, makes sense of the weirdness that is Wuthering Heights. According to the writer, Wuthering Heights is secretly…

…a vampire novel.

The article’s writer expertly makes her case, including details regarding the deaths of both Cathy and Heathcliff, details that sound reminiscent of vampire lore.

Another fact she brings up: vampire mythology was well-known and popular in mid 19th century England.

If her theory is correct (and it makes sense to me), then Emily Bronte pulled off a brilliant trick — crafting a vampire novel without ever naming the creatures, or dwelling on their vampirism.

Read the article and judge for yourself.

 

 

Read this book: Ready Player One

How do you write a book about a dense subculture and make it accessible to a wider audience. I don’t know that trick, but Ernest Cline, the writer of the book Ready Player
Ready PLayer OneOne
does. Somehow he managed to take the incredibly detailed world of video games and obscure Japanese anime, and make novices like myself care.

Ready Player One is best described as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Tron. The story takes place in 2044 in a world that’s suffering from a significant depression. While the people’s real world is dystopic to the max, they have an out — OASIS. Created by James Halliday, OASIS is virtual reality perfected. As such, most people in the miserable real word spend all their time and money in OASIS. Halliday dies, and his virtual perfection is threatened by the evil conglomerate IOI, which wants to corporatize OASIS.

But Halliday left a plan in place. He established a hunt — Easter eggs hidden throughout his vast virtual universe. Whoever finds these Easter eggs will inherit Ready 2OASIS. Here comes our hero, teenager Wade Watts (who also narrates the story). A video game fanatic, Wade, who goes by the name Parzival in OASIS, is among the scores determined to find these Easter eggs. Halliday, it turns out, was a fanatic of all things from the 1980s — music, movies, TV shows both foreign and domestic. Wade spends years geeking out and studying this era, as well as mastering the video games of that time.

Ready Player One centers around Wade’s exploits as he solves Halliday’s riddles. But he’s not the only one. Questing alongside him are his vfriend Aech (pronounced H), famous blogger Art3mis, who he has a crush on, and a pair of Japanese dudes — and all of these people he’s only met in OASIS, never in the real world. As this rag-tag group progresses, they must also battle the genuinely evil conglomerate IOI, which uses all its resources to win control of Halliday’s empire.

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So now the breakdown:

The good…

–Wade/Parzival is an engaging narrator. Cline writes Wade with an assured and consistent voice. Wade is one of my favorite types of hero: the ordinary guy who rises to extraordinary circumstances. Keep your crusading CIA/FBI/forensic detectives. Give me more Wades.

Ready 3–This book is a page turner. I am a slow reader. I read this 300 page book in a week. That is light speed for me. There were times when I did not want to put my Kindle down and get off the train. That good.

–I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to video games. I enjoy playing them, but I’ve never been a fanatic. If there’s one around, I’ll play, as long as it’s not too complicated. Ready Player One reads like it was written by someone who lives and breathes video games. Normally I wouldn’t be interested. Why would I care on that deep level? But by using an engaging narrator and a high-stakes plot, Cline makes the world of gaming accessible…and interesting.

–By peppering Ready Player One with a range of cultural references and tasks, Cline keeps the story interesting. For instance, one task involves Wade/Parzival having to play the Matthew Broderick role in a virtual reenactment of the movie War Games. Pretty damn inventive.

Ready Player One ends. There is no cliffhanger forcing me to wait, or pony up to read. Cline leaves ample room for a sequel if desired, but he doesn’t pull a literary bait and switch, where the end isn’t really the end. Save the sequels for book two, not book one.

And the not so good…

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 2–Cline spends a lot of time in the beginning building his world. The first fifty pages are exposition heavy and not as interesting as the rest of the book.

–The romantic subplot between Art3mis and Parzival was a little clunky. Parzival was a little too lovestruck, and Art3mis’s aloofness got annoying sometimes.

–With all the careful world building, I had a hard time blindly accepting that these people could spend hours and hours in their virtual reality gear (no food or drink, no bathroom breaks, no sleep).

But these are minor points. Ready Player One isn’t a book I would normally pick up, and I’m glad I did. I’m not the only fan — none other than the 1980s icon of film making Steven Spielberg plans to direct the movie version. I can’t wait to see how that turns out.

Doctor Who and plot regrets

Writing is hard. You have to not only come up with compelling, believable characters, you also have to create dramatic tension. You have to give the character a reason to do what he does — motivation. And that’s not always easy. Especially when you’re rebooting a beloved, decades-old sci-fi franchise like Doctor Who.

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But that’s exactly what head writer Russell T. Davies did when he brought Doctor Who back to the BBC in 2005. He created a dark version of the Doctor, one who ended the war between his home planet Gallifrey and their mortal enemies the Daleks by sacrificing his home world to rid the universe of the Daleks forever. What Davies gave us in this new Doctor, played brilliantly by Christopher Eccleston, was a withdrawn, shell-shocked hero burdened by guilt. Sure, Eccleston’s Doctor showed flashes of that childlike wackiness that is the hallmark of the Doctor across incarnations, but the guilt was a strong undercurrent.

daleks

This theme — the burden of guilt and the loneliness of being the last of your kind — carried through to the new incarnations of the Doctor as played by David Tennant and Matt Smith. Doctor Who became a balancing act between darkness and frenetic energy.

But then the new head writer Steven Moffat changed it all. In Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary episode, not only did we see the Doctor who ended the time wars, we also had a shift. Gallifrey was NOT destroyed. The Doctor was not guilty of genocide, however well intentioned. The Doctor was given a new purpose — rescue his home world from the static universe they were trapped in.

Now Moffat believes he may have cheated, in a way. In a recent interview, he stated that he, like the Doctor, is haunted by guilt:

“I know some of you, including friends of mine, were upset that we reversed the outcome of the Time War. My defence, however feeble, is that given the chance, the Doctor would do exactly that. And it was his birthday, how could I deny him that chance? What could define him more? This man who always finds another way? And there he is, at every moment of his life, proving to himself – literally – that there is always a better path.”

I say Moffat should get over his guilt. Why? The morose Doctor had run his course. After several years, we understood that the Doctor was tortured. What more could we get from this particular plot point? Why not switch things up? In the world of sci-fi and fantasy, writers have a broad canvas to paint on. Why not take advantage of every square inch?

Now Doctor Who has a chance to be reborn. Now we can witness a Doctor who has a genuine shot at redemption, one who is hopeful and can save his home world. Just imagine the new stories that can come from that.

In praise of Neil Gamian

If you haven’t read any works by fantasy writer Neil Gamian, you should. The British-born writer is best known for works such as the comic series The Sandman and books including American Gods. I’ve reviewed American Gods and for anyone into fantasy or mythology, American Gods is a must read. It is sprawling and thrilling, and I can proudly say it has influenced my writing.

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Aside from novels and comics, he’s also had a long friendship with Tori Amos, popping up as a character of sorts in several of her songs. He’s written a glorious Doctor Who episode titled “The Doctor’s Wife,” and he also gave one of the best commencement speeches you’ll ever hear.

Now Neil Gaiman is taking on another role, one that would seem obvious for a writer: free speech supporter. PEN America, an organization of writers dedicated to supporting freedom of expression, is slated to give an award to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which lost several members following a terrorist attack. Some PEN members pulled out of the awards gala citing concerns that the magazine was racist. And now, several writers, including Gaiman, Alison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman, have stepped in.

In an interview with Salon, Gaiman was blunt in his reasons for joining: “…for f**k’s sake, they drew somebody, and they [al-Qaida] shot them, and you don’t get to do that.”

Freedom of expression is a bedrock principle of mine. I know what it’s like to be afraid to speak your mind, to express yourself, for fear of backlash in ways small and large. I know what it’s like to feel intimidated. I know what it’s like to feel that I have no voice. Writing has helped me find that voice. It’s given me the freedom to speak my mind and reveal who I am. And I am thankful that when it comes to my fiction, the only barriers in place are the ones that I choose to erect.

I understand the controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo. But my support of the right to free expression is nearly absolute. And there’s no way I could NOT stand up against violence or government coercion against freedom of speech.

I’m heartened that Gaiman is claiming a spot at the PEN America awards gala. And I can’t wait for his next Doctor Who episode.

A quick and dirty guide to the YA novel

My friend Angela sent me this link some time back and it cracked me up. A young, enterprising writer named Randall Knox broke down the YA novel. His post, How to Write a Shitty YA Novel, is a classic.

Katniss_EverdeenNow don’t get me wrong. I love YA. The Hunger Games was great (even though book 3 faltered, with Katniss continually running to the closet to hide) and Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is one of my favorites. Ness created a vivid, unique world.

But Knox’s list takes sharp aim at the tropes that plague YA novels. For example, of the protagonist, he says:

“Your main character needs to be flat and uninteresting. Save your really good and compelling quirks and nuances for your side characters, because you’ll need those in order to justify their existence in the story.”

As for plot, he writes:

“Along the way, show your protagonist going from childish to slightly less childish. That’s what we call character growth. It’s not actually, because the protagonist isn’t taking stock of his or her life, looking at the world through any lens but his or her own, or really showing any semblance of self-awareness, but the act of becoming slightly less annoying will stand in for that reasonably well.”

And he touches on the beauty of emotional manipulation:

“The world must be on the brink of destruction, every love must be the greatest love of all, and every character must be willing to pay the greatest sacrifice–except for the protagonist, because he or she is a boring, selfish asshole, remember?”

Check it out. It’s a fun read. Now I have to get back to rewriting my YA book.