The Silence Where I Am

Obsolete data storage technology delayed the transmission, but on 6 January Jim emailed me a readable copy of Scott’s novel. I’d expected to receive a screenplay, but evidently Scott later rewrote and expanded it into the manuscript that Jim sent me.

On 11 January I emailed back to Jim some observations about the first half of the novel. In that communiqué I acknowledged mixed feelings about reading with a critical eye a text written by an old friend whose life trajectory paralleled my own, in midlife peeling off from the corporate career path in order to write fictions, though I didn’t know it at the time. Did I regard Scott as forerunner, as colleague, as competitor? Scott had experienced some success as a writer, winning a fellowship and a screenwriting award. In 1997 his prizewinning screenplay was optioned by DreamWorks, though it was never made into a film. The novel Jim sent me is copyrighted 2006 — 9 years after the screenplay, a year before Scott killed himself. I anticipated excellence, the work of a tragic undiscovered genius, a solid track record embellished by romanticized caricature. I also knew that the story was largely autobiographical, about a kid who grew up in the same town, and on the same street, as I did, so I anticipated finding the book personally captivating.

Am I disappointed or pleased to find my expectations unmet in the first half of the manuscript? I don’t think it’s just a matter of personal taste; in my email to Jim I elaborated on a number of aspects in the text that in my view don’t pass muster. Writing style, character development, plot, narrative voice — all come under critique. To be sure there are aspects of the novel that I like, that I deem very good. Also, as the text moves across its midpoint I detect marked improvements — my sense is that the text has reached a turning point, segueing into the part of the story that had already been carefully honed in its prior life as a screenplay. So my expectations are on the upswing again.

Is the novel unredeemable? Not at all. A lot of things need work, but they could be fixed or chopped. In my email to Jim evaluating the first half of the novel I offered a caveat, or perhaps a wish unfulfilled:

As I write these remarks I picture myself telling them to Scott, constructive criticism and all that, mostly because my sense is that I’d rather hear something negative than to hear nothing at all, to know that the critic actually read what I’d written, taken it seriously, engaged me in dialogue about it.

Jim, a history professor at a large university in the Northeast, replied in part:

You are a well practiced and insightful reviewer, the art of the reader/reviewer rather than the writer… I much enjoyed your read of the mss. Scott would have loved your insights.

To which I responded, also in part:

One of the things I like about academic texts is that by and large the writers and the readers are the same people, part of the same intellectual ecosystem. Clearly peer review isn’t foolproof, but there’s a shared commitment to excellence, to advancing the field. Higher education builds on a foundation of reading and critiquing others’ work, so one’s set of review skills gets honed in conjunction with learning to do one’s own creative work. And no doubt it helps one’s own writing of academic texts to have read others closely and with a critical eye. It seems harder to pull that off in fiction, music, painting, etc. where there’s such a sharp structural divide between “artist” and audience, performer and reviewer, producer and consumer…

Yeah I’d have enjoyed talking with Scott about this book, though with some trepidation. it’s hard to gauge how he’d have responded, given how personal the story was to him and his building frustration. To quote the last line of Beckett’s novel The Unnameable:
“…it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”





Christmas Wishes Revisited

Being reminded about Scott this Christmas got me haunted by a ghost of Christmas past, taking the form of another old Ktismatics post. I’ve always liked the first line:

The last time I watched It’s a Wonderful Life it made me want to jump off a bridge.

I was curious about the timeline: it turns out I wrote this post on Christmas Day 2006, three months after starting the blog and five months before Scott jumped. He and I must have been feeling the same pull around the same time, although I acknowledge that for me the impulse to emulate George Bailey was more explicitly aesthetic. It was right around then that I googled Scott, tracking down some information about him, discovering that he’d gone to Hollywood to become a screenwriter, but failing in my search for his email address. What would have happened if I’d made more of an effort, gotten in touch with Greg or Jim, asked them for Scott’s email, made contact, commiserated with him about the immiseration of fiction writing. Maybe I could have offered him some hope, or at least some company in his misery. Maybe he wouldn’t have jumped. Or maybe the influence would have flowed in the other direction and I’d have followed George Bailey’s lead myself. Most likely it would have made no difference whatsoever. I probably couldn’t have gotten Scott’s email anyhow: Jim told me that Scott had cut off contact with his old friends until he’d made a success of himself.

I quite liked my It’s a Wonderful Life post. Afterward I emailed it to the only other person I knew who wrote fiction — the mother of one of our daughter’s classmates, an American who with her husband and three children had come to France as “church planters,” together with another American family co-founding an evangelical church. The seed didn’t grow in French soil; some sort of melodrama roiled church leadership; our daughter’s pal’s family returned to Texas. Meanwhile the mom, who had been writing Christian YA fiction, got a first novel published. I sent her my Freudian interpretation of her book, based largely on the unheimlich scene in which an old lady’s glass eyeball falls out during church service and the kid protagonist sees it looking up at her from the floor. She expressed mostly amusement at the possibility of such an interpretation. I followed up by sending her my Wonderful Life post. Yeah, life can be hard sometimes, was the gist of her response; and have you been writing? I restrained my impulse: What do you call this post I just sent you, you stupid bitch! Meanwhile she’s gone on to a solid midlist career, turning that first novel into a series, writing Christian self-help parenting books and memoirs about her own traumatic childhood, etc. I remember how relieved she was to leave godless France and to go back to Texas and the nurture of her superchurch.

I don’t know how the post has fared audience-wise over the subsequent twelve years. I know that it didn’t make the top fifteen for 2018. Maybe if I’d titled the post “It’s a Wonderful Life by Capra, 1946” it would have gotten a lot of clickthroughs, especially around this most wonderful time of the year, from people googling that beloved seasonal classic. I could change the post’s future by renaming it, luring future unsuspecting readers hoping to indulge in a bit of nostalgic cinematic Yuletide cheer. For me though my fellow-fictionalist’s disregard for the post served mostly to intensify it, weighing it down as it sank ever deeper into the Abyss. Eventually that post would get incorporated into one of my long fictions as part of an alternative past. In my (ongoing?) suite of fictions we last we see Prop O’Gandhi sitting on the couch with his family waiting for the skyhooks to carry them off to an alternate reality. Now, a few books later, an alternative last scene takes shape — it needs a final edit, but here goes:


Prop O’Gandhi slipped the videocassette out of its box and carried it over to the old bulky TV shoved into one corner of the basement. He turned on the set, slid the cassette into the slot, grabbed the remote, and settled into the olive-green velvet stuffed chair positioned directly in front of the screen. He pushed the green button and waited: nothing – just a blank screen, like an all black canvas framed and hung low on the wall. He hit rewind, but the tape was already at the beginning. The player had worked as recently as last week, when Prop had sat in his green chair and watched Last Year at Marienbad for the fourth or fifth time. He’d first seen it in college, where it had been screened in one of the big lecture halls as part of the weekly art cinema series, catering to the sort of student who derives the most exquisite pangs of self-validation while alone and in the dark and disoriented. Though he had taken his customary seat near the front, Prop felt a million miles away from the beautiful characters drifting languid and ghostlike through the deserted rococo corridors, speaking to one another in a language that even with English subtitles remained impenetrably foreign to him.

Not until many years later, after he had become a Portalist, did the film begin to draw him in. The Marienbad spa was a time machine, he realized, transporting the woman and the man back. But was it really last year, or twenty years ago, or some time in the future? And if it was last year, was the man revealing the contours of the past through their precise retrieval, or was he shaping events in conformance to his words, to his desires? That afternoon the radio had played one of those looping compositions by Glass, or maybe it was Reich, repetitive to the point of monotony yet changing in the smallest increments from one iteration to the next, until by the end the tune and the rhythm had become completely different from where it had begun. The eternal return: could it change with each revolution, with each bite of its own tail the Ouroboros assuming a slightly different shape, its triangular scales a bit more acute, the pattern on its back more distinct, through successive iterations turning and turning into something else altogether, a dragon perhaps, or a man, or a vortex? We want to be sorcerers of the future, in the midst of the fatalistic determinism of cause-effect conjuring pure difference tomorrow under the presumption that it’s too late to change the past. But what if yesterday is not locked in, if there are gaps in the cause-effect vectors, if following the labyrinth backward we can traverse a different pathway into a different past?

Prop would like to have written down some of these thoughts on the indeterminacy of the past, but his Portality Notebook was still upstairs. Besides, he conceded, I’ve already written these same ideas at least once before. The same but different. If the Notebooks too passed through the Portal that was already opening around him, around his family, around his house, then he could leaf through the pages later. If the Portal is not just spatial but temporal then perhaps he will have already written something in the Notebooks that had not yet happened, thoughts he had not yet thought.

Here and now, though, Prop was trying to validate a different recollection. He could have sworn that Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” to Rosemary Clooney that night while the two of them were sitting around the blazing fireplace in the chalet. But maybe it had been around the piano during rehearsals, or maybe it had been a different girl and not Rosemary at all. Now, in attempting to conduct this bit of cinematic research, the tape wouldn’t play. He fast-forwarded for a minute or so to see if the whole tape was blank. This time instead of blackness the screen displayed a flickering field of static. Prop watched, not really expecting the visual noise to resolve itself into a fake Vermont ski resort occupied by popular singers and movie actors of a bygone era. He tried seeing the static field as the snowstorm taking shape inside the story, giving new hope to the old Army general who owned the place, watching his investment turn as dry as the weather. Prop wondered if there was a signal hidden in the static, if the static encoded the movie according to a standard intergalactic protocol that could be beamed into the cosmic void as a SETI transmission. He wondered what questions the movie might stimulate among viewers watching it on their alien receivers while sitting on the alien equivalent of his olive-green stuffed chair.

After a few minutes Prop ejected the videocassette. He positioned it back inside its rectangular cardboard sleeve and replaced it in the empty space on the shelf that it had previously occupied. Next to it he noticed another Christmas movie he knew well. He even remembered the first line: “I owe everything to George Bailey.”

The last time Prop O’Gandhi had watched It’s a Wonderful Life it had made him want to jump off a bridge…


At this point I plugged in most of the old Ktismatics post, with minor alterations to fit it more snugly into its new narrative context. Afterward other shit happens to O’Gandhi, sinking him into a trajectory other than the one that had played out in the original scene.

Of course It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie that’s predicated on exploring an alternative past. “I wish I’d never been born,” George laments; overhearing George’s Christmas wish, his guardian angel Clarence makes it so. And now we’ve circled back around to the premise of my old post. If you like — if you dare, buahaha! — you can read it here.

Solstice Greetings

Lately I’ve been going up into the attic, sorting through old memories, digging up the graveyard. Now the attic is seeping down through the floorboards…

The other day I heard from Jim, an old friend who’d seen my name and email address on our mutual friend Steve’s annual Christmas letter listserv. I had neither seen nor heard from Jim since he and yet another old friend Greg visited me at college for a football weekend. Jim’s childhood best friend, and best man at his wedding, was Scott. In our email exchange Jim wrote about how for spring break from college at Northwestern he’d visit Scott at Columbia, who “introduced him to the mean streets of Manhattan.” I too visited Scott at Columbia once, which brought back to mind a 2007 blog post I wrote about that incident and about Scott. Jim filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge of Scott’s life and of the events leading up to his suicide. Jim has copies of some of Scott’s screenplays; I’ve asked him to send me two of them. One is a semi-autobiographical tale of an abusive childhood, which of course interests me on a personal level. The other is a story about Brad the Impaler, a serial killer who specializes in murdering Hollywood agents. That latter one tickles me. Once I wrote a short piece of dialogue between two guys sketching out a possible TV screenplay that sounds a lot like Brad. In my version it’s a literary agent; the chronically rejected writer sends a series of inquiry letters that include excerpts of texts outlining how and where he plans to murder them. Moral of the story: what you don’t read can kill you. It must be the ecology of fiction that spawns such ideas.


Reciprocal Attention Economy

More rummaging through the attic… In a recent post I noted that my old blog Ktismatics gets about ten times as many hits per day as does Ficticities, even though I’ve not written a new Ktismatics post in nearly five years. Take yesterday for example: as of 2:30pm there had been 1 page view here at Ficticities and 31 page views at Ktismatics. Though disappointed that my new stuff hasn’t garnered much of an audience, I do find it gratifying to discover that texts I wrote years ago continue to attract readers.

What sorts of texts are they? Between October 2006 and March 2014 – the seven and a half years during which Ktismatics was an active blog – I put up 977 posts. Here are Ktismatics’s greatest hits for 2018, the top fifteen posts in terms of numbers of views so far this year.

  1. Derrida and the Metaphysics of Presence (842 views). Accumulating far more hits than any others, this post explains in layman’s terms a theory expounded by philosopher Jacques Derrida.
  2. Charolastra Manifesto (519 views). This post reproduces a document that appears in Y Tu Mamá También, a 2001 film by Cuarón.
  3. The Shining by Kubrick, 1980 (414 views). Five screengrabs from the movie, with 105 comments discussing it.
  4. Does Atonement the Movie Betray the Book? (410 views). A bit of a critique of the 2007 cinematic treatment of McEwan’s 2001 novel.
  5. The Divine Irreference of Images (293 views). This, the third post I ever wrote, refers to and expands on the first subheading in the first chapter of philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s 1994 Simulacra and Simulation.
  6. Mors Ontologica (225 views). This title refers to the chemical name of a street drug called Substance D in Philip Dick’s 1977 A Scanner Darkly.; the post compares Dick’s book favorably with the 2006 movie The Departed by Scorsese.
  7. Melancholia by Von Trier, 2011 (191 views). Three screengrabs with 187 comments discussing the movie.
  8. WR: Mysteries of the Organism by Makavejev, 1971 (182 views). Five screengrabs with 21 comments discussing the movie.
  9. The Color Purple by Spielberg, 1985 (170 views). Five annotated screengrabs with 23 comments discussing the movie.
  10. Office Space by Judge, 1999 (167 views). Five screengrabs, no comments.
  11. Mythical Truth, Mythical Reality (149 views) Here I was critiquing the possibility that a text can be true without being factually accurate.
  12. The Unconscious God of Lacan (148 views). An exploration of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s famous contention that God isn’t dead; he’s unconscious.
  13. The Science of the Concrete (144 views). Refers to and elaborates on the first chapter of Claude Levi-Strauss’s Savage Minds.
  14. Doppelgänger Theory in Colossians 3 and Romans 6 (142 views). An exegetical investigation of the Apostle Paul’s contrast between the “old man” and the “new man.”
  15. Coraline by Selleck, 2009 (142 views). Four screengrabs with 26 comments discussing the movie.

It’s notable that 9 of the 15 biggest hitters, 8 of the top 10, are about movies. Fandom. Four interact with philosophical texts — more fandom. One interprets Biblical text — still more fandom. The only post from this year’s 15 greatest hits that isn’t explicitly about a particular movie or text is number 11, the one exploring mythic truth, a concept that refers to particular kinds of text, especially religious ones.

In more than one Ktistmatics post I made reference to Jonathan Beller’s 2006 The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle. From page 181:

Increasingly, part of the value of the commodity, be it a painting or a Hollywood star, comes from the amount of (unpaid-for) visual attention it has absorbed.

When I wrote a post about Y Tu Mamá También I was doing unpaid labor, directing readers’ attention to the movie, to the director, to the producer and distributor. But the movie is also doing free work for me, drawing its fans’ attention to my post, to my blog, to me. Reciprocal attention economy.

In grad school I did some predictive statistical modeling of how often published scientific research articles are likely to be cited in subsequent years’ publications. Bottom line: if you cite a lot of studies, and a lot of other researchers also cite those same studies, then your study is likely to be cited frequently in turn. In my last post I quoted a passage from A Separation, a 2017 novel by Katie Kitamura. On the book’s back cover are four blurbs by novelists, each attributed to so-and-so, author of Such-and-Such. I’d read all four of those blurbists’ featured such-and-suches: if you like those novels, you’ll like this one, and vice versa. Reciprocal attention economy.

Attic Revisited

“How many times are we offered the opportunity to rewrite the past and therefore the future, to reconfigure our present personas — a widow rather than a divorcée, faithful rather than faithless? The past is subject to all kinds of revision, it is hardly a stable field, and every alteration in the past dictates an alteration in the future. Even a change in our conception of the past can result in a different future, different to the one we planned.”

– Katie Kitamura, A Separation, 2017



We’ve been cleaning the attic. Mostly it’s a matter of winnowing, clearing out some of the older and more useless junk in order to make room for the new junk we’re presently accumulating. Of course there are the physical mementos, the old baseball gloves and so on, but mostly it’s paper: receipts, documents, forms, reports, notes, letters. I’m pretty efficient; nostalgia doesn’t typically waylay me. For me a stroll down Memory Lane feels more like digging up a graveyard.

I have however found myself decontextualizing the junk.

I know what these old things used to mean, their purpose and value, their provenance and history, their rise and fall. But what if all this junk had been somebody else’s junk, stacked up in somebody else’s attic? Unplugging it from the context it once occupied for me, alienating it, rendering it opaque, stripping it of meaning — I’d likely be even less hesitant about getting rid of it: if it’s not valuable to me in the here and now then it’s worthless. But if I took the time to scrutinize these things one by one, sorting and categorizing them and piecing them together, would I be able to infer some sort of backstory for them, some context, however alien to me, into which they once fit together? Let’s call that sort of meaning-making the Rosebud Protocol.

Or, invert figure and ground: keep the context but drain it of its contents. Each empty cardboard box, each hanging file, each manila folder has a label already affixed to it: family history, class notes, expert-novice differences, AI system specs, questionnaires design/scoring, national demonstration project, startup business plan, taxes, insurance, home buy/sell, homelessness, ex-/repatriation. What sorts of junk, in what alternate realities, might fill up these empty sets, these blank slates, these formless voids?


Proust’s Eulogy for a Fictional Novelist

He was dead. Permanently dead? Who shall say? Certainly our experiments in spiritualism prove no more than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying the burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even, nor make the talented artist consider himself to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must for ever remain unknown and is barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations which have not their sanction in our present life seem to belong to a different world, founded upon kindness, scrupulosity, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this, which we leave in order to be born into this world, before perhaps returning to the other to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we have obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, knowing not whose hand had traced them there — those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only — and still! — to fools.

– M. Proust, In Search of Lost Time: The Captive