Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Four Novels that Shaped Me

I've been invited by the prominent poet and editor Cameron Mount to share four novels that shaped me. He made the offer in a tweet, and I gather that the idea was that I respond in the same channel. But I'm me, so I'm choosing to overthink the question.

The first thing that I'm overthinking is what question I'm actually being asked. It would be easy to identify four favorite novels. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that most of my favorite fiction hasn't influenced my own in any meaningful way. I adored the work of Douglas Adams as a teen, and I would love to be able to write like him, but I know damn well that I can't.  (And neither can anyone else; people need to stop trying.)  I made a conscious effort to write a story like Terry Pratchett at one point--the story is "The Rule of Three", and was published in the anthology Strange Economics--but his wry sensibility and subtle profundity doesn't infuse my work. I admired Catch-22 but I have no particular gift for nonlinear narratives or for portraying the inhumanity of bureaucratic processes. I loved The Moon is a Harsh Mistress but I never developed the balls to pursue moral libertarianism to the extent Heinlein does and I don't have his imagination for alternative social systems. I don't have the capacity for the world-building of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire or the epic sweep of Stephen King's The Stand, though King's novel The Long Walk, which he wrote as a teenager, narrowly missed this list.

Yet even after recognizing the difference between "enjoyed" and "was influenced by" doesn't quite address the question.  As Brad Porter points out via Twitter, "shaped" is not quite the same as "influenced". The former term goes deeper. It implies that the novel didn't just inspire imitation, but fundamentally affected my worldview in ways that were later reflected in my work.

With those precepts in mind, here's my best shot at answering Cameron's question.

1.  Thieves of Light (Photon:  The Ultimate Game on Earth) by Michael Hudson

I have been a milquetoast since early childhood. Even so, every adolescent seeks to expand his or her horizons to some extent. My version of an "adventure", in my pre-teen years, was to walk a mile or so from my suburban home to Brookwood Shopping Center. I would, of course, do it the dangerous way, abandoning the paved sidewalks in favor of the dark, wooded area surrounding the Shunga-Nunga Creek.  I'd pick up a pack of mini Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and a glass 16-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper at Dillons Supermarket, then head for the stationary store, where I would purchase pretty much any piece of paperback fiction they happened to stock on the shelves that day; I think my primary purchasing criterion may have been brightness of the colors on the cover.  I'd then proceed to the creek, where I'd lay out on the bank, chow down on candy, and read my book in the mid-afternoon sun.

I am confident that at least 50 of the books I read were Choose Your Own Adventure mini-novels (or the inferior "Which Way" knockoffs), but those mostly blend into an indistinguishable morass in my memory. Sorry, Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery. Then as now, there was a buttload of cheap pulp to be experienced; I dived in head-first, indulged in some pleasant escapism, shoved my purchase into a cubbyhole in my bedroom, and in most cases never thought about it again.

One of the many, many books with which I spent an afternoon was Michael Hudson's Thieves of Light. I do not remember it well, and in order to write this piece I had to do some digging even to figure out what the title was. As best I recall, it was sort of a laser-tag version of The Last Starfighter--teenager discovers that the combat game he's super awesome at is actually training for a real galactic war, and his Mad Skillz identify him for recruitment as the new Chosen One, selected to go to war for the fate of the Earth.  We've seen it before and we'll see it again; even Ernest Cline recently and regrettably chose to walk this dark path.

I'm sure the book was fine. I have only one solid memory of it, though. I opened the front cover of the book thinking of writers as some sort of exotic species of alien experts, practitioners of a wonderful art which was impossibly remote from the little stories I sketched out in class.  By the time I closed it, something had changed.  There's a lot of stuff like this on those shelves. Most of it's more fun than it is brilliant. Somebody's producing it. There isn't any real reason that somebody couldn't be me.

I didn't come back to that idea for about three decades. But this is the first distinct memory I have of experiencing it.

2.  A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

This was probably the single work of fiction I enjoyed most between the ages of 10 and 18. It's possible that, in terms of pure joy, it's still #1; we never quite commit to fiction with the same intensity once we reach maturity, do we?

I re-read it a couple of years ago while waiting for Ana Duvernay's ill-considered movie adaptation.  It was, of course, a completely different experience as an adult. And I discovered, as I read it, that I had picked up more from L'Engle than I realized.

People: this book is a justly celebrated masterpiece, but we have lost track of the fact that it is also crazy batshit insane.

I did not remember Meg Murray--the viewpoint character--as being so violent that she had to be removed from school for the safety of the other students.  I remembered Charles Wallace as a bit of an odd duck, not as this bizarre amalgam of borderline-scary cognitive capacity and Christlike kindness.  And Calvin--well, I remember him as being sort of there, but I think that must have been mental scar tissue, because from a writing perspective Calvin is just plain broken. He speaks sentences that no human being in history has ever spoken, or ever would speak; the closest syntactic equivalent is probably the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Jay Gatsby. These three heroes are then plunged into a universe full of winged centaurs singing gospel hymns, mystic teleporting crones one of whom used to be a star (not a celebrity, but an immense ball of incandescent hydrogen in outer space), furry tree-things named "Aunt Beast" bearing bowls of healing porridge, and disembodied throbbing brains operating evil Stepford Civilizations which can be overcome only through the Power of Love.

Folks, this book is off the charts nuts, an impossible synthesis of hippie sentimentality, ludicrous pseudoscience and unmistakably and overwhelmingly Christian cosmology--it borders at times on being a religious tract. And, folks: it WORKS.  It WORKS LIKE ALL HELL.  And the reason it works is that Madeleine L'Engle commits to the whole thing one hundred percent, and doesn't back away from any single one of her bizarre characters or plot decisions. Having a rational person try to "edit" this book would utterly ruin it--as indeed it did when Duvernay and Disney tried to update and improve the story by making it a paen to self-belief featuring the loving guidance of Oprah Winfrey.

And you know what?  I write like L'Engle.  Not as well as L'Engle by any stretch of the imagination, but she and I do share one positive quality: shamelessness. Like L'Engle, I will write the story I wanna write, without regard to whether there is the slightest chance of a publisher picking it up or a reader considering it comprehensible or sane.

And so you WILL get stories from me about Amish space colonies, and Benedict Arnold fighting Genghis Khan and Rasputin in a sword-and-planet afterlife, and magically-enhanced urban professionals escorting a Kennedy baby to Dallas to be inaugurated as God-Emperor, and sentient treasure hoards and corrupt corporate elves who snort gold dust like cocaine and books that turn people gay and all kinds of other madness that takes weeks to write and months or years to sell, if it sells at all, when it would be much, much more rational of me to study up on functional metanarratives and write my stories using sane, functional mechanics.

I could be a better writer, but I'm not. Madeleine L'Engle broke me.

3.  The Book of the SubGenius by The SubGenius Foundation (primarily Doug Smith writing as Ivan Stang)

We all get a little bit unhealthily sure of ourselves in college, and paradoxically, we also become amenable to persuasion by people in authority. I suppose it's part of being a New Adult. We spent fourteen years or so in awe of grownups, with their vast and unfathomable knowledge of the world, which we sort of assumed that would magically be instilled in us via osmosis at some point prior to our eighteenth birthdays.  Then we spent four years being increasingly disappointed by, and angry about, the fact that these people in fact had access to no hidden store of knowledge; they'd been making it all up as they went along.  And now WE'RE the adults, and we know goddamn NOTHING, and that's terrifying, because if we don't know, maybe nobody else does either, and there's no sane force behind the steering wheel.

So: we become attracted to certainty. Maybe it's the certainty of our college professor railing about the evils of capitalism.  Or, in some cases--though not as often as used to be the case--we do a deep dive into religion, either that we grew up with or some newfound alternative. Or maybe adopt some kind of political orthodoxy. Or maybe we just flat-out join a cult. Anything to avoid the terrifying prospect of universal incompetence; there's got to be some solid rock somewhere that we can cling to.

As a freshman in college, I ran across The Book of the SubGenius in a Borders bookstore in a shopping mall in Des Moines. I'd had a glancing interaction with the teachings of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs prior, but I'd considered them juvenile.

And I wasn't wrong, exactly.  Because there's plenty of sardonic, too-cool-for-school smirking at True Believers within the teachings of Ivan Stang's pipe-smoking guru, and a fair amount of stuff that's funny at the level of a fart joke. 

But here's the thing, though: farts are funny.

Farts are damned funny, and people really DO commit themselves 100% to doctrines that are at best 2-3% more insane than SubGenius doctrine, and those people really DO gain meaningful power in society and enact policies that really DO immiserate and kill thousands or millions of people, and that isn't funny at all.  And "Ivan Stang's" response to that wasn't to critique it directly, but instead to lean into the madness.  He built a pseudo-comic, pseudo-serious Frankenstein's Monster out of bits of Scientology and Christianity and Lovecraft and Jim Jones and 1980s New Left politics, and he incorporated it and called it a religion and gave it its own pipe-smoking Christ figure and a sci-fi cosmology and creation myth and a set of religious principles that celebrate a sort of enlightened laziness called "slack" and demand that true believers schism at the first opportunity.

It is the single most impressive work of fiction I've ever encountered.  My young adult novel borrowed from it, up to, and perhaps past, the point of plagiarism.

I sort of flabbled and wobbled my way through a brief infatuation phase with SubGenius philosophy during which I was pretty insufferable, in the way college kids often are.  I bought the ordination card and everything, and declared myself capable of performing weddings (with or without the consent of the participants; indeed, without even their knowledge. A great many of you are going to hell for adultery.). I stopped talking about it so much after a while, but that ordination card is still in my dresser drawer somewhere, and it's presumably as valid as it ever was.

And now I write fiction.  And recently, when I was asked to finish the sentence, "All my stories have...", I struggled mightily for an answer.  And I think the truest conclusion I can offer is, "...a problem with consensus."

I have always been contentious; being in a room where everybody agrees sets my teeth on edge, because people who agree get self-righteous, and self-righteous people do that whole "certainty" thing that college kids do, and that "certainty" ends up directed at the people who reject the conclusions of which the self-righteous are certain. And then people end up dead. And so my stories, and the characters in them, test ideas, and the consensus that forms around them.

This is not the wisest approach for a working writer. A professional will always, by definition, be better served by catering to a consensus than by attacking it. Consensus is where the money is. But I fear consensus, and what it can do. I learned that from J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, and from Ivan Stang.

4,  The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

I think it's fair to say that our most recent literary influences exercise disproportionate impact, isn't it?In my case, I started writing at just about the same time I started reading Joe Abercrombie.  I haven't realized, until very recently, how this has created some problems for me.

I don't apologize for being an Abercrombie fan.  The so called "King of Grimdark" is just flat-out awesome, providing the most complicated and nuanced characters I've encountered in contemporary fiction, regardless of genre.  Moreover, as I've mentioned elsewhere, I think the bleakness of his work is somewhat overstated by critics. The claim that his characters never learn or grow is simply factually untrue; Jezal dan Luthar and Caul Shivers both walk away from their character arcs as wiser men, if not happier ones.  Nor does virtue (always) go unrewarded; look at the Dogman, who is arguably the most sympathetic character in the First Law trilogy and eventually prospers thereby.  Even Sand dan Glokta (a reprehensible human being) and Ardee West (a broken human being) achieve what is probably the greatest happiness of which they are capable when they change their behavioral pattern and make a pivotal decision with someone else's interest in mind.

That said:  yeah, Abercrombie's pretty damn grim.  His work involves people with profound character flaws acting on those flaws, thereby producing horrible results for themselves and others.  And I admit that I find this grimness pretty fascinating. I dug George R.R. Martin's subversion of fantasy tropes in A Storm of Swords and elsewhere, and found it interesting to see Abercrombie double down on his work, and in his quest to show how unhappy people end up unhappy.

And so, I wrote a whole bunch of stories involving some pretty wretched people, and some other people who were maybe pretty okay but made some bad decisions and had awful things happen to them. And after a while, I started to wonder why nobody wanted to read my stuff all that much, and why I couldn't motivate myself to write more.

And here's the thing.  It turns out that, mostly, people don't enjoy reading work that makes them miserable!  I know, shocking, right?  And it wasn't until I started lining my work up with a possible collection in mind, and assigning it a rating between 1 (grim AF) and 10 (zip-a-dee-doo-dah), and looking at those strings of low, low numbers all in a row, with no relief, that I began to realize just how dark I had allowed things to get.

So: Abercrombie shaped me, no doubt. But maybe I needed to learn that you can't really please readers being Joe Abercrombie unless you have the psychological insight of a Joe Abercrombie.

So perhaps I'll be looking to produce work that doesn't make the reader want to slit their wrists. Next time you see me discuss my inspirations, you might find work of a different tone.

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