Thursday, September 26, 2013

Everyday We Know a Little More

When I spotted this sculpture on a lawn down in Providence, I desperately wanted it to get up and walk. For this strange desire I blame Matt Denton. He's the ingenious fellow behind the Mantis, a massive, six-legged ride-able robot. I wrote about his work in Popular Science; the article is here.

While we're on journalism, here’s a quote from a scientist I interviewed recently: “There is no way human beings can comprehend the deepest secrets of the universe, but everyday we know a little more. We accumulate more knowledge so we can appreciate our life in the universe a little more.”

To a young reader named Devin: I'm sorry, but I lost your address. Thanks for the notes. That's so cool that you have a fort down the road from your house and that you discover something new every time you go there. As for the changes to Fish, I like your suggestion. Thimble definitely could have been Thread. But there's something about the name Thimble that works a little better for me, and connects more with the other, not-very-pirate-like side of him.
Some kind of illness knocked me out last week, and I took advantage of the time off to read both versions of Kerouac’s On the Road. I’m speaking of the original draft, which he wrote in three weeks on a single piece of paper taped together at numerous points, known as the scroll, and the finished, published version that came out several years later. Comparing the two, and reading them back to back, made me want to yell at his editor. The finished one feels and looks like a novel, but the original is a madman’s soul spilled out on the page. It is real. I did not feel like I was reading the work of a writer. I felt like I had a seat inside someone's brain. And I love that the narrator does not refer to himself as a writer in the original scroll. He’s just telling this insane story that he absolutely, desperately has to tell. The final, published version is more polished, and has many of the same lines and scenes, but it lacks that frantic energy.
A few lines great lines, which do turn up in both, I believe:
“I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”
“It was like the arrival of Gargantua; preparations had to be made to widen the gutters of Denver and foreshorten certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies.”
That last one reminded me of the great Sappho fragment, via Salinger: "Raise high the roof beams, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man."
This scene also stood out:
“When Pauline saw me with Neal and Louanne her face darkened...she sensed the madness they put in me. ‘I don’t like you when you’re with them.’ ‘Ah it’s allright, it’s just kicks. We only live once. We’re having a good time.’ ‘No, it’s sad and I don’t like it.’”
You’re mostly seeing this story unfold from the narrator’s perspective, and he’s generally thrilled and excited about all that’s happening. Now, though, he lets Pauline speak, and as a reader you’re left with a better sense of what it might have been like to be around them. There had to be a powerful undercurrent of sadness or desperation.
This is a common writer’s trick – the narrator suddenly noticing someone reacting differently to a scene or sequence. As the reader you’re exposed to the narrator’s perspective, and he or she is convincing you that everything is one way, and then they point out that someone’s crying, and you recall that you’re only seeing this story from one particular vantage point, and that it might be a wholly different story to the others on the scene. Look for it. Unexpected tears are everywhere in fiction.
And speaking of roads…I could not throw away an old plastic shower curtain last week. Just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Why? Because of The Road. The insane, post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel. I have the audio version and listen to it often and when I was trying to throw out the old curtain I kept thinking how the man and the boy really could have used that plastic sheet while they were wandering around, to use as a roof or cover from the rain. So it’s in my garage. Stuffed in a corner. In case there’s an apocalypse.

Friday, September 6, 2013

It's Just Not Like Music

This well-dressed gentleman on the left greeted visitors to the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Fair this summer. Who would have thought the grim reaper would go in for a strapless dress?

The summer was moderately hot, but our local power company recently informed us that we are far more efficient than our neighbors, and it’s only right to thank Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ever since reading this passage from Love in the Time of Cholera -

“…in the end they were convinced of the merits of the Roman strategy against heat, which consists of closing houses during the lethargy of August in order to keep out the burning air from the street, and then opening them up completely to the night breezes.”

- we have been using the technique at home. 

In the past few weeks, I spoke with various experts about cryptography, neutrinos, viruses, and the process by which bread, rolls, and other freshly baked goods move from ovens to delivery trucks. Surprisingly fascinating. In fact I’m embarrassed to confess that I found the baking supply chain stuff more interesting than the secret sharing. Perhaps this was due to degree of difficulty.

Recently we took our kids fishing for the first time, and in doing some reading beforehand I came across this line from the nature writer Ellington White:

“I have never yet caught a fish on a first cast, nor have I ever made a first cast without thinking I would catch a fish.”

The kids were surprisingly patient and eventually pulled a few snappers out of the bay. Here’s a very different quote, from a physicist I recently spoke with about the challenges of communicating science to the public:

“The language and the concepts are built on so many layers. It's just not like music. You can know nothing about music and still appreciate the song. Science is much harder that way.”

One of our neighbors recently had their house painted. The painters posted a sign with the following words outside: "Led Paint. No Drinking! No eating!"

When I noticed this misspelling - LED is the acronym for light-emitting diode, a cool and bright little light source – en route to work, it set me thinking about a paint filled with these little lights, and what would happen if you were to ingest it. Would your stomach shine? Would bright light rush out from your nostrils, mouth, and ears? After a moment or two spent imagining that, I started wondering why the painters felt the need for that sign. Had some desperately thirsty neighborhood flaneur drank their paint before? Had he or she mistaken it for a container of almond milk, perhaps?

Here’s a good quote from the dog in those movies with Charles Grodin:

"Don't only practice your art. Force your way into its secrets."

Speaking of art, there has been progress on the art side of the soda bottle book. I hope to have more updates soon. 

And, finally, a correction, and a writing lesson. In my first children’s novel, Fish, the main character tries goat milk for the first time and describes the flavor as somewhat grassy. We are all different, and I suppose someone could draw that conclusion from a sip of the stuff, but I recently bought a pint and tried it with my kids. We concluded that it is actually quite creamy, with a more tangy ring to it than regular milk. I don’t know that my uninformed description in Fish damaged the book substantially – Saul Bellow wrote a novel about Africa without setting foot on the continent! – but given all my prognosticating about the importance of becoming an expert, I feel it’s only right to admit my error.

Maybe in a Fish sequel I’ll have him revise his assessment.