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.

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