Another Reboot

Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been about two and a half weeks since my last post. Ten days ago I got pretty far along with one called “Already Too Late” before intent wavered and momentum flagged. In the interim I’ve continued to imagine what sort of public interactive fictional space might open up here, what it might accomplish, whether I could generate the energy and enthusiasm to give it another go. In the most recent iteration of this website I linked to  and engaged with dozens of short stories, hoping to lure their authors into exploring the possibilities of collective publishing. Most of the stories were good; several stimulated my active written engagement, not in the form of critique or review but as interpretations and experimental fan fictions. However, with one notable exception, the writers didn’t take the clickbait. That lone exception, however, has proven an unexpected source of renewed enthusiasm for me as both reader and writer.

While there are a lot of magazines publishing short fictions, there aren’t many public forums where readers and writers can discuss these texts. It’s a similar situation with academic articles: the texts might challenge and intrigue and provoke readers, they might be discussed and debated informally in labs or formally in classrooms, they might influence new work, all without the original author getting wind of it. I’m prepared to put some of my responses to short fictions out there where the writers can see them.

So I’m going to give this website another shot. Like last time, I’m going to read short fictions selected at random from various online litmags. This time instead I’ll read at most one piece per day, posting whatever observations come to mind. Rather than passively waiting for the authors to google themselves, I’ll do my best to notify them directly about these posts by tracking down their emails, commenting on their blogs, or figuring out how to work my inactive Twitter account. Maybe discussions will ensue. This time though, instead of trying to catalyze an overhaul of the industry, I’ll be explicitly trying to reconnect my own fictional circuitry.

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Exaptation

Last week I explored online the possibility of writing a variant of Prop O’Gandhi that’s ten percent leaner than the already-existing version. In a comment to that post I observed that the randomly selected page of text, excerpted from the present version of O’Gandhi and subjected to the editorial slimming experiment, was nearly identical to the original draft version of that page written fourteen years ago.

But while the words themselves have persisted with few changes, the context in which those words appear have altered significantly and repeatedly. Originally the page in question was part of “Episode Three” in what was envisioned as a 15-episode novella. Once it was finished I interleaved the episodes of O’Gandhi with the episodes of the Time Out! comic I’d written a couple of years before, compiling what had been two separate works into a single aggregate piece. Several years later I pulled O’Gandhi apart from the comic, expanding it into a text that’s three times as long as the original. I also reorganized some of the original material: what had been Episode Three became the ninth chapter of the novel-length rewrite. More years passed; more long fictions ensued. No longer a stand-alone novel, O’Gandhi was repositioned as the second “movement” in an eight-part “suite” of interrelated fictions.

Has the experimented-upon page, originally drafted so many years ago, found its final resting place as a particular page in a chapter in a movement in a suite? Not necessarily. The suite might expand from eight movements to fourteen. O’Gandhi might get shuffled in the sequence depending on what new movements are composed. It might get disaggregated, asked again to stand alone as a novel. The page in question has even been extracted from its original narrative context and inserted into a different context, serving as the subject of a blog post here. In that post the individual sentences in the page, the individual words in those sentences, came under scrutiny, being experimentally altered and interpreted before being restored to their original configuration. Some day I might delete that post, or I might incorporate it into a longer piece as illustrating one tactic among many for constructing an imaginary slimmed-down O’Gandhi döppelganger.

On this website I’ve also disaggregated other writers’ fictional texts, reassembling excerpts to describe locations or movements in an intertextual fictional City. I’ve linked some of these excerpts from multiple short fictions together into an alternative narrative. I’ve also split some of the excerpts into their actual and counteractual components.

Maybe these fictional phrases are like selfish genes, preserving themselves across various phenotypic configurations in pursuit of adaptive survival. Certainly the individual words persist, incorporated into a potentially unlimited variety of phrases. On the other hand, the ten percent reduction experiment hints at the possibility that an alternative O’Gandhi could be built that retains its phenotypic integrity using ten percent fewer genes, fewer words. Could O’Gandhi persist if every one of its phrases were swapped out for a different set? In a sense that’s what would happen if it were translated into a different language. But under other circumstances couldn’t I have written the same book while deploying an entirely different array of English phrases? I’d have been an inverted döppelganger of Borges’s Pierre Menard, an early twentieth-century fictional fictionalist whose admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided — word for word and line for line — with those of Miguel Cervantes.

Libraries Should Replace Amazon

The other day Forbes published an online op-ed arguing that local Amazon bookstores should replace public libraries. A shitstorm blowback ensued, prompting Forbes to take down the article. Unfortunately I never got to read the offending piece, but from the reactions posted online it seems that the public outcry centered on the value of the local library as a “third place” — a social environment that’s neither home nor the workplace. For members of the local community the library offers free meeting space, educational programs and services, access to computers and the Internet, and a place to hang out without having to buy a cup of coffee. The Forbes writer pointed out that libraries aren’t free because they’re funded by tax revenues. That’s right: the venerable public library is a socialist institution, paid for as a collective resource by the citizenry rather than as a commodity by individual consumers.

In an earlier incarnation of this website I made a strong pitch for decommodifying books altogether, replacing bookstores with libraries. E-books cost nothing to copy and distribute, so an unlimited number of free copies could be made available on demand without ever having to return them. But what about the authors: how do they get compensated when copies of their books get handed out for free to all comers? My proposal: have the local libraries retain their socialist function by buying the copies of the books they distribute.

The United States has around 16 thousand public libraries, including branch facilities in larger cities, providing localized services to a nation of 320 million people. Suppose 10% of U.S. libraries — 1600 of them — were each to buy a copy of a particular book. At $10 a pop that’s total sales of $16,000. For that price 10 percent of the national population, or 32 million people, can acquire, on demand and for free and for keeps, their own personal copy of the book. That’s a cost to the general public of less than one cent per copy.

But $16,000 total revenue — that’s not enough to pay the author, is it? Well, it’s nearly double the status quo: most authors get paid $6,000 or less per book. Yes, but it’s not just the author who needs to get compensated: what about the publishing house, the agent, the editor, the printer, the warehouse, the distributor, the retailer? In today’s book industry the author gets maybe 12 percent of the total revenues, with the remaining 88 percent going to these various middlemen. By getting rid of printed books and replacing them with e-books, a lot of those costs disappear. Get rid of for-profit publishing houses by having authors organize themselves into publishing collectives and even more costs go away. Get rid of retail outlets, selling books only to libraries, and the costs go down even more. Pretty soon most of the $16K in hypothetical revenues goes to the author — still not enough to quit your day job, but a much better deal than the commercial book industry offers most writers.

Replacing local libraries with Amazon retail outlets merely perpetuates the status quo of commodity capitalism, which in the book industry has been rendered an obsolete business model. Instead, replace Amazon by local libraries. It’s a better deal for the readers, and it’s a better deal for the writers.

Leaning Into a Fictional Döppelganger

I’ve been challenged with the idea that trimming one’s fictions by 10 percent makes them better, not just for readers but for the writer. To experiment with this proposition I selected a random page from the Google Docs version of my long fiction Prop O’Gandhi: the excerpt comes from the seventh chapter called “The Travel Agency.” [You can download the e-book for free here.]

First, the page as written:


…sent word back from the other shore. “First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, and then the travel agencies.”

It is conceivable that Prop O’Gandhi was overly hasty in abandoning the travel agency idea. Couldn’t his hero, the Time Traveler, have arranged passage to and from the year 2547, say, without ever having actually been there himself? The Time Traveler provided the means of transport. He could have built a whole garageful of time machines; he could have hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way. With the infrastructure in place, The Time Traveler could have sat behind the desk with the phone and the computer, the brochures and the books, and done some business.

What happened was that Prop O’Gandhi realized he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. He didn’t want to be the guy strapped into the machine, either. He didn’t even want to build the machine. Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do, as well as the general principles by which it would operate. It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the kind of guy who would be there to cash in on the boom. As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how it had been totally co-opted by money and success and power, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Prop probably saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency. In fact, this writing also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

If you open the doors wide enough, people will come through.

A psychologically minded observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success. That wasn’t likely, since he had relished those rare successes he had experienced in his life. He feared many things, but success wasn’t one of them. The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success. Here again was evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory, which in another Reality is his spare bedroom, envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, people riding the Strands from one Reality to the next, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals? Prop O’Gandhi’s Lab is a room that measures 10 feet by 13 feet, its two small windows looking directly onto the roof of his neighbor’s garage. If he were to peer around the edge of the garage Prop could just see the window of the neighbor’s kitchen, some tall lilac bushes growing up next to the house partially occluding the view. Nonetheless, as he thought about the hypothetical Portalic travel agency, Prop could glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen. Based on what he watched her doing – chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – he guessed that she was going to have spaghetti for lunch. He realized he was hungry. He wished she would invite him over for lunch. He could bring a nice bottle of red wine, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out in her yard, at the picnic table, and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.


That’s 610 words — which means I’d need to trim 61 words to cut the length by ten percent. Here I go:


…sent word back from the other shore. “First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, then the travel agencies.”

It is conceivable that Prop O’Gandhi was overly hasty in abandoning the travel agency idea. Couldn’t his hero, the Time Traveler, have arranged passage to and from the year 2547, say, without ever having actually been there himself? The Time Traveler provided the means of transport: he could have built a whole garageful of time machines, hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way. With the infrastructure in place, The Time Traveler could have sat behind the desk with the phone and the computer, the brochures and the books, and done some business.

But Prop O’Gandhi realized that he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. Or the guy strapped into the machine either. He didn’t even want to build the machine. Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do and its general operating principles. It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the guy to cash in on the boom. As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Prop saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency — writing that also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

If you open the doors wide enough, people will come through.

An observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success. That wasn’t likely, since he had relished those rare successes he’d experienced in his life. He feared many things, but success wasn’t one of them. The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success — more evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals from one Reality to the next? Prop O’Gandhi’s Lab is a room that measures 10 by 13 feet, its two small windows looking directly onto the roof of his neighbor’s garage. If he were to peer around the edge of the garage, around the lilac bushes, Prop could just glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen. Chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – looks like spaghetti for lunch. Prop realized he was hungry. He wished she would invite him over for lunch. He could bring a nice bottle of red, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out at her picnic table and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.


Okay, that gets the passage down to 511 words. I chopped it by 99 — 37 more than I needed, a reduction of 16 percent! It didn’t take long, and it was fairly painless. No critical information is deleted, no essential meaning is lost; even I can barely notice the differences. Is the leaner alternative version of the fictional text better than the actually existing version? Is it worse? I’ll take it one sentence at a time: deleted words are lined out; added words are italicized.


“First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, and then the travel agencies.”

In this chapter Prop O’Gandhi is thinking about setting up a portalic travel agency. By this point he’s doubting that idea. The alternate realities need to be discovered and charted and made hospitable before the tourist trade can open up. The and in this sentence emphasizes the divide, both temporal and categorical, between the first three professions and the one that Prop is presently considering. The and stays.

The Time Traveler provided the means of transport. He could have built a whole garageful of time machines; he could have hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way.

The repetition of he could have emphasizes the qualitative distinction between two separate hypothetical moves that the Time Traveler could have made: first, the design and construction of amazing devices like the prototype he’d already made and pilot-tested; second, the mundane managerial task of staffing an ongoing business. The second he could have stays.

What happened was that But Prop O’Gandhi realized he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. He didn’t want to be Or the guy strapped into the machine, either.

Throughout the book the narrator intercedes with observations, and occasionally critiques, of the titular character. The what happened was accentuates the intrusion of the narrator at this point in Prop O’Gandhi’s ambivalence. It stays. The repetition of he didn’t want to be accentuates Prop’s Bartlebyesque reluctance to act, his sense that none of the options arrayed before him is viable. It stays.

Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do, as well as the and its general operating principles by which it would operate.

As well as emphasizes the distinction between the “what” and the “how” of the machine. The more economically worded operating principles combines pragmatics and theory into a single phrase; in contrast, principles by which it would operate emphasizes theory as foundational to practice. Prop is a theoretical sort of fellow who would insist on that distinction. The original wording stays.

It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the kind of guy who would be there to cash in on the boom.

Prop O’Gandhi is reasoning from abstractions, not from personal preferences: he’s not just the wrong individual; he’s the wrong kind of individual. Who would be there emphasizes both the futurity and the inevitability that someone is going to cash in eventually. The original wording stays.

As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how it had been totally co-opted by money and success and power, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Here’s a case where the shortened version eliminates not just words but an idea. Avoiding capitalist co-optation is a central tenet of Prop O’Gandhi’s project, or perhaps a key cognitive dissonance reducer he invokes to rationalize his loserhood. It stays.

Prop probably saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency. In fact, this — writing that also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

The probably and in fact again signify the narrator’s interpretation. The original stays.

A psychologically minded An observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success.

The narrator is an observer; here he’s dismissively claiming not to be psychologically minded in his presumably more profound interpretation of O’Gandhi’s inertia. The original stays.

The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success. Here again was — more evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

More is a quantifier; here again emphasizes a repetitive pattern. The repetition is the important consideration here, how each episode in the narrative illustrates a consistent pattern in O’Gandhi’s life.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory, which in another Reality is his spare bedroom, envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, people riding the Strands from one Reality to the next, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals from one Reality to the next?

Here again the proposed deletions affect not just nuance but content. Prop is searching for portals to alternate Realities, whereas he’s already straddling two Realities every time he steps into his “Lab.” This chapter begins with a quote from Prop’s Portality Notebook — “A Strand is a link between a Self and a Reality” — so invoking the Strands here embeds this paragraph into the chapter’s framing context. Stick with the original wording.

If he were to peer around the edge of the garage, around the lilac bushes, Prop could just see the window of the neighbor’s kitchen, some tall lilac bushes growing up next to the house partially occluding the view. Nonetheless, as he thought about the hypothetical Portalic travel agency, Prop could glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen.

Prop doesn’t just happen to see the neighbor lady in her kitchen with a casual glimpse. He has to peer through his window, around obstacles blocking his view, into her window — voyeurism. Though he’s purportedly hard at work in his Lab, he finds himself distracted by what, and who, is outside. The original wording accentuates Prop’s unconscious urge.

Based on what he watched her doing – chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – he guessed that she was going to have looks like spaghetti for lunch.

The watching and the guessing — indicators of Prop’s intensifying distraction — are at least as important as the neighbor lady’s meal prep. Stick with the original.

He could bring a nice bottle of red wine, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out in her yard, at the her picnic table, and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.

Dropping the wine from the bottle of red seems almost too casually cool for Prop’s nerdy asocial persona. In her yard establishes a lush feminine sensuality for the bare feet in the green grass. Keep the original wording.


In each pairwise comparison I’ve opted to keep the original wordier wording. A psychologically minded observer might diagnose me as suffering from effort justification, preferring the weightier (fatter?) creation to its leaner döppelganger. Of course this isn’t the only way to strip ten percent of the skin off a cat. I could get rid of this whole Travel Agency chapter. I could scrap the intrusive observations of the narrator, letting the reader do the work. Why do I get the feeling that I won’t be the sort of guy to make those streamlining improvements either?

 

Wandering and Tripping

[From the Wikipedia entry on the default mode network]

In neuroscience, the default mode network (DMN), also default network, or default state network, is a large scale brain network of interacting brain regions known to have activity highly correlated with each other and distinct from other networks in the brain.

The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. But it is also active when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future. The network activates “by default” when a person is not involved in a task. Though the DMN was originally noticed to be deactivated in certain goal-oriented tasks and is sometimes referred to as the task-negative network, it can be active in other goal-oriented tasks such as social working memory or autobiographical tasks. The DMN has been shown to be negatively correlated with other networks in the brain such as attention networks.

Evidence has pointed to disruptions in the DMN of people with Alzheimer’s and autism spectrum disorder.

The default mode network is known to be involved in many seemingly different functions:

It is the neurological basis for the self:

  • Autobiographical information: Memories of collection of events and facts about one’s self
  • Self-reference: Referring to traits and descriptions of one’s self
  • Emotion of one’s self: Reflecting about one’s own emotional state

Thinking about others:

  • Theory of Mind: Thinking about the thoughts of others and what they might or might not know
  • Emotions of other: Understanding the emotions of other people and empathizing with their feelings
  • Moral reasoning: Determining just and unjust result of an action
  • Social evaluations: Good-bad attitude judgments about social concepts
  • Social categories: Reflecting on important social characteristics and status of a group

Remembering the past and thinking about the future:

  • Remembering the past: Recalling events that happened in the past
  • Imagining the future: Envisioning events that might happen in the future
  • Episodic memory: Detailed memory related to specific events in time
  • Story comprehension: Understanding and remembering a narrative

The default mode network is active during passive rest and mind-wandering. Mind-wandering usually involves thinking about others, thinking about one’s self, remembering the past, and envisioning the future. Electrocorticography studies (which involve placing electrodes on the surface of a subject’s scalp) have shown the default mode network becomes activated within a fraction of a second after participants finish a task.

Studies have shown that when people watch a movie, listen to a story, or read a story, their DMNs are highly correlated with each other. DMNs are not correlated if the stories are scrambled or are in a language the person does not understand, suggesting that the network is highly involved in the comprehension and the subsequent memory formation of that story. The DMN is shown to even be correlated if the same story is presented to different people in different languages, further suggesting the DMN is truly involved in the comprehension aspect of the story and not the auditory or language aspect.

*   *   *

[From “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” a 2010 Science research article by Killingsworth and Gilbert:]

We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy…

Although negative moods are known to cause mind wandering, time-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence, of unhappiness.

*   *   *

[From How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, a 2018 book by Michael Pollan:]

Perhaps the most striking discovery of Carhart-Harris’s first experiment [to study the effect of psilocybin on the brain] was that the steepest drops in default mode network activity occurred with the volunteers’ subjective experience of “ego dissolution.” (“I existed only as an idea or concept,” one volunteer reported. Recalled another, “I didn’t know where I ended and my surroundings began.” The more precipitous the drop-off in blood flow and oxygen consumption in the default network, the more likely a volunteer was to report the loss of a sense of self…

The transcendence of self reported by expert mediators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the default mode network. It appears that when activity in the default mode network falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away…

In its normal state, the brain’s various networks talk mostly to themselves, with a relatively few heavily trafficked pathways among them. But when the brain operates under the influence of psilocybin, thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information. In effect, traffic is rerouted from a relatively small number of interstate highways onto myriad smaller roads linking a great many more destinations. The brain appears to become less specialized and more globally interconnected, with considerably more intercourse, or “cross talk,” among its various neighborhoods.

*   *   *

[From “The Yard Boy,” a 1977 short story by Joy Williams:]

The yard boy was a spiritual materialist. He lived in the Now. He was free from the karmic chain. Being enlightened wasn’t easy. It was very hard work. It was manual labor, actually.

The enlightened being is free. He feels the sorrow and sadness of those around him but does not necessarily feel his own. The yard boy felt that he had been enlightened for about two months, at the most.

The yard boy had two possessions. One was a pickup truck. The other was a stuffed and mounted plover he had found in the take-it-or-leave-it shed at the dump. The bird was now in the room he rented…

The yard boy is disgusted with himself. The spider’s web is woven into wanting, he thinks. He has desire for his girlfriend. His mind is shuttling between thoughts of the future and thoughts of the past. He is out of touch with the sharp simplicity and wonderfulness of the moment. He looks around him. He opens his eyes wide. The yard boy’s jeans are filthy. A green insect crawls in and out of the scapular feathers of the plover.

The yard boy goes downstairs. He gives the plover to his landlady. She seems delighted. She puts it on a shelf in the pantry with her milk-glass collection. The landlady has white hair, a wen and old legs that end in sneakers. She wants the yard boy to look at a plant she has just bought. It is in a big green plastic pot in the sunshine of her kitchen. Nothing is more obvious than the hidden, the yard boy thinks.

“This plant is insane,” the yard boy says.

Here It Is! Flânerie 1 Revisited

I suppose I could have gone this route, linking the short story excerpts together into a loose narrative…


After sanding every appositive and polishing each comma, you will send it to the finest English-language literary publisher in the world, a man of profound understanding and exquisite tastes who funds the press out of his rear pocket, stuffed with a staggering fortune in steel. He will be the only man capable of seeing your work for what it is on the first pass. While reading your manuscript one long summer afternoon, “Here it is! Here it is!” will be heard coming, at approximately half-hour intervals, from his second story office, the “At last” unnecessary, implied in his exclamations’ very torque.  1

Exalted, the publisher will sprint to his office window. “Here it is!” he will shout to the cars and walkers passing anonymously below. The window won’t open, cannot open, was designed not to, installed per specs drawn up by the REIT’s design people two years after the real estate bubble made high-rises like this one a real steal investment-wise. He scans the urban landscape: not an open window to be seen. Directly across from him, three buildings to the right, a pair of window-washers suspended midair dangle their legs from their slowly descending platform. “Here it is!” they shout. Only the bearded man looks up. He nods gravely, holding the white-on-white taqiyah in place, and walks on.

He enters the mosque compound before going to the rectangular bathroom to perform wudu — ablution, where he robotically drenches and systemically cleanses the face, beard, ears, fingers and palms, wrists and elbows, and toes and ankles. Sandals, initially left outside, are then reworn — and immediately taken off — to enter the main wide mosque doors, where carpet arabesques paint the floor and equal amounts of Arabic calligraphy surreally encapsulate the walls, spiritually caving out a tightly woven meditation.  He goes to the microphone — attached by the loose wires through the outside to the megaphone at the top of the minaret — and starts summoning by call of prayer, in a broken Arabic, monotone of an accent. 2

“Here it is,” he intones in the language of his people. “Here it is, here it is, here it is…”

A woman, graceful of motion as she gathered the empty glasses on a tray, barely noticed the disembodied voice issuing its incomprehensible summons. She glanced toward the man seated in the rattan chair drinking coffee.

The biggest cat she ever saw, white and black, made its way across the deep red tiles of the patio flexing its shoulder muscles and looking up. Esteban pointed to the birdcages it fixed on, out of reach.
“Here’s the question,” he said.
“I’m ready.”
“All those exquisite feathered creatures, an orgy of killing and eating just waiting to happen, and the cat will never catch a single one of them. I make sure of that.”
“So what’s the question?”
“The cat’s existence.”
“Okay.”
“Is it Heaven, or Hell, or someplace in between.”
“Purgatory, you mean.”
He shrugged. 3

“The cat is indifferent,” she replied “‘Here it is,’ you might inform the cat: here is hell; there, heaven; between them, purgatory. Or perhaps now is heaven; then, hell; between now and then… The cat will at times make its smooth passage between them, forward and backward in space and in time. Then it will stop, lie down, undertake its ritual ablutions, sleep. ‘Here it is,’ the cat will say without speaking; it goes where I go; it is where I am.”

The man sipped his coffee, no longer concerning himself with the cat, with the eternity, with her. There would have been a time when he would have been studying a musical score, jotting marginalia as the coffee cooled, stepping distractedly through the sliding door to the piano to experiment with harmonics and dynamics. Leaping from the bench, flailing both hands wildly, asking why, dear god, can’t the coffee be hot for once. Now he was working a crossword puzzle.

Once he seized in the middle of a performance and no one knew. Sometimes his seizures were like that, so far deep in the head that it barely located itself in the body. No one knew, of course, except for her, watching from the front row, like she always did. Before, she used to watch for pleasure. Now she anticipated pain. She recognized it in the back of his neck—his head inched down slowly, like he was trying to withdraw into his chest, and his shoulders narrowed. In his hands, the batons continued their movement, but the world between them was smaller now, and the orchestra hastened to keep abreast of this new changing world. The back of his head, so bare and pale, folded over so that all she saw was neck, a headless man swinging his hands whichever way they’d go. 4

“Here it is!” he would shout at the double-reeds, jabbing a baton at the sheaf of papers on the music stand. “Here, goddamn it!” Now he traced his finger along a row of letters. “Here,” he muttered, tapping the eraser lightly on the empty squares. “Or…”

She glanced through the iron patio gate at two young men walking past. They looked in; she smiled. “Hello again Eric, Gabriel.”

Gabriel and Eric walked halfway down the block in silence. Though it was hardly observable, Gabriel noticed that Eric walked a step further from him than he had all day, or the day before.

“Why do you think she asked us?” Eric said, a jagged edge in his voice. “Do you think we look gay to her?” 6

“Here it is,” Gabriel says. He pushes through the revolving door into the menswear boutique, Eric following reluctantly behind. They seem surprised to see me there, my reflection appraising them critically from the three-way mirror. The sales clerk approaches me perkily.

“Are you ready for a new version of you?”
“Yes, honey,” I say. “I’m ready for it. Who is the new me going to be?”
“Oh, it all depends! You have to give me some input! Do you want to be cool, but accessible? Or do you want to be greedy, right under the surface, mixed with an insouciance that’s irresistible?”
“I just want to be normal. Just kidding. I don’t know, I want it all, darling, give me the full package!”
The plastic woman, who has not been deterred in the slightest by my removal of her right arm, is a little overwhelming, to be honest. I think about removing her head but I know this would be rude, and that it wouldn’t shut her up, either. Across the sales floor in other artfully lit alcoves, other customers gab away with their plastic attendants. 7

“Here it is!” my personal fashion advisor announces, a tinge of excitement playing skillfully on her practiced modulation. With a tilt of the head she beckons toward a closed curtain in the changing area.

“Your arm?”

“Excuse me? Oh that.” She waves her left hand dismissively. “No, here it is! The new you!”


References and LInks:

Skip Fox, “Sortilege”

Haitham Alsarraf, “Friday Prayers”

Mark Jacobs, “Old School”

Naira Kuzmich, “Cadenza”

Juan Alvarado Valdivia, “A Pedestrian Question”

Robin Wyatt Dunn, “The Plastic Woman”

 

 

Bartleby the Litmag Publisher

Now I’m going to check back in on “Between Sleeps,” that Salvatore Difalco story I referenced in my last post, the one where I wrote a comment late last week that has been awaiting moderation. Between my own sleeps has the comment finally been ushered from the waiting room onto the comment thread, or maybe even rejected by the moderator as spam? Let’s see… and nope: still waiting.

In late March I reported that fewer than 10 percent of the short story authors I excerpted in my “Flânerie” posts actually clicked through to the Ficticities website. What about the literary magazines in which those stories appeared: did any of the publishers show up here? Each story highlighted in a Flânerie post was written by a different author and was published in a different litmag. As best as I could discern from limited data, maybe 1 or 2 of those 57 publishers followed the google keyword trail from title-author of stories they’d published back to their citations in Ficticities. None left a comment or sent an email.

If I published an online literary magazine I’d google every story I published for a few months. No doubt there’s a way of placing a standing order with Google to track particular strings of keywords on an ongoing basis, so my online monitoring protocol wouldn’t even require me to do it by hand one at a time on a daily or weekly basis. I’d keep the authors apprised of my findings, passing on the links to websites mentioning their published pieces. And if the linking websites had a comment feature I’d probably also drop comments, at least thanking them for reading and referencing the texts, perhaps also engaging in online discussion.

Why would I do it, at least hypothetically? To satisfy my curiosity about how many readers refer to the texts online and how they interact with those texts — do they cite, critique, analyze, interpret, make intertextual references, etc. To promote the magazine I suppose. Certainly to promote the authors. Mostly to encourage and to participate in the culture of fiction, the virtual ecosystem that links writers, readers, and publishers through texts.

What about the actually-existing online litmag publishers: why don’t they do it? Evidently they prefer not to.