Living the Part

You may play well or you may play badly; the important thing is that you should play truly,’ wrote Shchepkin to his pupil Shumski. To play truly means to be right, logical, coherent, to think, strive, feel and act in unison with your role.

If you take all these internal processes, and adapt them to the spiritual and physical life of the person you are representing, we call that living the part. This is of supreme significance in creative work. Aside from the fact that it opens up avenues for inspiration, living the part helps the artist to carry out one of his main objectives. His job is not to present merely the external life of his character. He must fit his own human qualities to the life of this other person, and pour into it all of his own soul. The fundamental aim of our art is the creation of this inner life of a human spirit, and its expression in an artistic form.

That is why we begin by thinking about the inner side of a role, and how to create its spiritual life through the help of the internal process of living the part. You must live it by actually experiencing feelings that are analogous to it, each and very time you repeat the process of creating it.

— Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, 1936

 

Googling the Random Short Fictions

I’ve written only 3 posts here since April, so it’s not surprising that there haven’t been many visitors to Ficticities. Still, I do get a hit here and there,  now and then. Today for instance someone came to look at this post — one of a series of fourteen posts from almost exactly a year ago, in which I interacted textually with short stories I selected at random from online literary magazines.

These occasional Ficticities visitors got me to wondering about hit rates. If I were to google the author and the title of each of the 14 stories on which I wrote a post last year, how high in the stack of google results would my posts appear? And how does each of my posts about these stories stack up popularity-wise compared with the original story itself, or the author’s website referencing their story, or the litmag’s tweet announcing publication of the story, or others’ reviews or comments on the story?

Well, let’s find out, shall we? I’ll google the stories in chronological order, using this search format: author’s name “title of story”:

“Cockatoo Tears” by Daniella Levy — the Ficticities post is the first result listed; the story itself comes in fifth.

“Pity and Shame” by Ursula LeGuin — Ficticities post comes in third, following the story and an interview with the author.

“Breadcrumb 398” by Olivia Hardwig — Ficticities post first, story second.

“Nobody Knows How To Say Goodbye” by Richard Spilman — Ficticities post first, story second.

“Christmas Lights” by Demian Entrekin — story first, Ficticities post third.

“A Legend is Born” by Calvin Celebuski — Ficticities post first, story third.

“The Singing Tree” by Shawn Goldberg — Ficticities post first, story fifth.

“Rattle and Spin” by Jeannette Sheppard — story first, Ficticities post second.

“The Wallaby & the Python” by Alexis Kale — Ficticities post first, story second.

“A Deceptively Simple Word Problem” by Samuel Rafael Barber — story first, Ficticities post third.

“Pop” by Carlo Gallegos — Ficticities post first, story not at all.

“Death for Serafina” by Rayji de Guia — story first, Ficticities post second.

“Big G Little G” by Kelsie Donaldson — Ficticities post first, story third.

“Entry 038::After Ash Wednesday>>Moon Quincunx Pluto” by Sade Lanay — story first, Ficticities post second.

So, for this random sample of 14 cases, the Ficticities post is the top google result for 8 stories, while the story itself gets top position for the other 6. That might be exciting for me, if I didn’t know how few hits these posts have received during their year of online existence. Still, on average these 14 story-based intertextual pieces fared better than other Ficticities posts I wrote that were original content, untethered from other published texts — which I find a bit disheartening.

I might find it even more disheartening if I were the author of one of these short stories. Why, I’d ask, should some random guy’s blog post about my story generate more Internet traffic than my actual story? To be fair, the stories might well have been read by a lot of people like me who happened upon the story while looking through the latest issue of the litmag in which the story was published. But still…

So:

  1. People are more likely to search for my posts about other writers’ stories than for the stories themselves.
  2. People are more likely to search for my posts about other writers’ stories than for my independently inspired posts.

Gossip? Do people want to hear what other people are saying about other people, rather than finding out what they have to say on their own behalf?

My takeaway, in the context of this website’s larger agenda, is this: If you’re a literary magazine, try to get other people to write something — anything — about the stories you publish, in order to draw greater attention to the authors and their work. If your magazine happens to be the work of a writers’ syndicate, then get one or more of the other authors whose work has previously been published in the litmag to write something about each of the newly published stories.

Apocalypse Porn

Thinking about the end of Wednesday’s post this morning before rolling out of bed, I realized that joining up with a collective of applied Ballardian fiction writers is just about the last thing I’d want to do.

I get it that Ballard exerts strong appeal in certain circles, and I do find myself intermittently drawn into their orbits. Ballard explicitly theorizes his own novels from inside the text — a kind of “theory fiction” that lends itself to traditional scholarly writing. And Ballard’s diagnosis of late-capitalist culture resonates with a lot of people. Here’s a passage from Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise:

These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.

Alternatively, their real needs might emerge later. The more arid and affectless life became in the high-rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behavior, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model for all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly “free” psychopathology.

That’s Ballardianism in a nutshell, or spilling out of the cracked shell. I’m skeptical that late-capitalist anomie and ennui, fermenting in the decay of traditional societal connections and expanding in the vacuum left by the collapse of traditional social constraints, is distilling itself into all hell breaking loose, the comfortably coddled bourgeoisie’s unrecognized and repressed desires frothing forth in a hedonic eroticized death drive pitting all against all and each against each. It hasn’t happened in the 44 years since High-Rise was published: the privileged bourgeoisie remain complacently conformist while those consigned to the lower storeys of the socio-economic high-rise are becoming more desperate, marginalized, precarious, more attracted to unshackling their aggression not as a Ballardian tonic for alleviating boredom but as an act of desperation.

Maybe the Ballardian reality is delayed but still coming. Maybe what seem like the side effects of late capitalism, the recoil from schadenfreudean hubris, the collateral damage and the unintended consequences, are really the main effects, the objectives. Maybe the distributed unconscious of the stock market really wants to crash. Maybe the multitude of immaterial labor — the creatives and bureaucrats and technocrats — really want to be made redundant by inhuman labor, tantalized by the nightmare of finding themselves suspended precariously above the abyss. Maybe the bored psychopathic elite really do mean to undermine their own security, to render the planet unlivable, to crank the creative destruction up to 11, to pick up the red phone and push the red button, to turn the controls over to an all-knowing psychopathic AI. Maybe Trump desires impeachment and imprisonment. Maybe the Democrats want to provoke the Trump followers to armed insurrection so they can call in the military to quell the insurgency, declaring martial law and suspending democratic process indefinitely. Maybe all of the Ballardian drivers are accelerating into the crash, thirsting for their own annihilation.

In contemporary theory, Ballardian notes can readily be discerned in Accelerationism, its Deleuzian lines of flight propelled by technology, capital, and intelligence, thrusting a disembodied affectless desire beyond the humanistic gravitational field into a posthuman exploratorium that to the normies left behind can look a lot like “the expression of a truly free psychopathy.” And Ballardianism permeates the world of fiction, from cyberpunk to the new weird to new horror into mainstream commercial entertainment. The medieval decadent ruling class in Game of Thrones and the well-heeled clientele of the futuristic Westworld theme park occupy recognizably Ballardian dystopian imaginaries. Are these cautionary tales or apocalypse porn?

Trump parades himself before his acolytes as a Ballardian president, flaunting his ill-gotten wealth and his “dark triad” personality traits of narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy, aggressively provoking confrontation seemingly just for the hell of it. It’s a performance enjoyed by the master showman, his routine choreographed and scripted and staged as an opioid-glazed spectacle for entertaining the inert masses. Fake news mingles with real news; all of it gets weaponized. High-Rise again:

A group of residents, all from the 14th and 15th floors, leapt out and hurled themselves into the mêlée. They were led by Richard Wilder, cine-camera gripped like a battle standard in one hand. Royal assumed that Wilder was filming an episode of the documentary he had been talking about for so long, and had set up the entire scene. But wilder was in the thick of the fray, aggressively wielding the cine-camera as he urged on his new allies against his former neighbors.

Nowadays Wilder might be renamed Fox. But he’s not the only one…

‘They’re all making their own films down there,’ Anne told him, clearly fascinated by her heady experience of the lower orders at work and play. ‘Every time someone gets beaten up about ten cameras start shooting away.’

‘They’re showing them in the projection theatre,’ Jane confirmed. ‘Crammed in there together seeing each other’s rushes.’

‘Except for Wilder. He’s waiting for something really gruesome.’

Like I said, I’m not sure I’d want to hitch my anarcho-collectivist wagon to an alliance of applied Ballardian writers… unless, secretly and unbeknownst even to myself, it’s what I crave.

 

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.

 

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