Saturday, April 28, 2012

On "Breakdown" by Joshua Citrak (2643 words) ***

The way I read Citrak's story is that it's one of those subtle ones that end just as the story is beginning. What I mean is we get the setup for the real trouble that's brewing to happen after the story ends. In "Breakdown" just about everything that could go wrong on a road trip does--because a vehicle seems absolutely unwilling to cooperate. But there's also something naive about the stories' characters that Citrak exploits, as if they are a vehicle that's never had troubles before that is about to crash. Read the story here at Stirring.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On "Fast Trains" by Mary Miller (3884 words) ****

This story from Miller's Big World features a narrator who is pretending to be someone she isn't in order to keep a man. Or at least, that could be one take on the story. Perhaps, she's not really doing it for the man; maybe she's just doing it to get along in the world. This isn't an over-the-top funny story one often reads about pretenders. This is about the masks we all wear, the subtle ones, the ones we're not even certain are masks because they are worn so long that they might even be us. And in that is where this story's kind of desperate sadness resides. I'm reminded also of some of the fiction a friend of mine has been writing of late, where nothing much happens and yet where by the end, we get a sense that all the world has come to us in under five thousand words. Read the story here at Trailer Park Quarterly.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

On "Cigarette Trick" by Chip Hubbell (1061 words) ***

Hubbell's short piece walks the line of mystery. In this case, it's the mystery of people. It's the story of a man who seems to have everything--or to be on the cusp of it--who turns it all down. What would inspire that? And why would such a man be so happy, so unconcerned? There's more than one kind of trick going on here. Read the story here at Istanbul Literary Review.

On "VALIS" by Philip K. Dick **

In places, this seems to me one of Dick's best-written novels. This is especially true in the first half of the book. And it is in the first half of the book that the text is in fact mostly autobiographical--and realistic. Dick's one strange plot device: he splits himself into two. So there is a first-person narrator (the first in the novels I've read of his) and a third-person character who is also, in a sense, himself. The third-person character is there to help him deal with his troubles, to be able to write this all down. In that sense, that character, Horselover Fat, is akin to a secondary personality in a person with a schizophrenic disorder. And indeed, one gets the sense that that is exactly that Dick intends.

The reason for the disorder is this: Dick's friend Gloria has committed suicide. He tried to stop her, or he didn't try to stop her well enough. Whichever is the case, it doesn't matter. She's dead. How could she do this? And how could he not stop her? Likewise, why does his friend Sherri suffer from an incurable cancer that also eventually kills her? And why did Fat's friend Kevin's cat die?

It is the search for the answers to these questions, the search for the answer to why their is pain and suffering in the world, that causes Fat and Phil to eventually become familiar with a cast of other characters and situations that lead him toward a partial answer.

In this book, Dick's concern with gnosticism is explicit. Long passages are devoted to theories of the universe and of God. Dick posits that there are in fact two gods, a god of the earth and a god above that god. The higher god is all good, but the lower one is not. It is the lower one with which we deal--and the reason that there is suffering.

Add to this a few science fiction plot devices in the second half of the book, and we get back to slightly more typical Dickian fare. It turns out the world is a toxic place and we're all being fed an antitoxin by a "VALIS" system that keeps us alive but that also keeps us from understanding the ultimate reality. For to understand the ultimate is to die. There's also a movie called Valis that reveals some of this info to the characters and ultimately helps Dick and his compatriots get in touch with a baby who is also a messiah figure who can tell them all. Sent out into the world to make disciples, their messiah dies, leaving them with seemingly no meaning.

So what then does it all mean? It means, I suppose, what we want--we are god, we assign meaning. This is the existential truth. But in the end, the novel seemed to me too weighed down by these lofty themes and discussions to be the usual fun text that I've come to relish from Dick's other better works.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

On "The Concierto of Señor Lorenzo" by Kenneth Yu (3936 words) ***

Yu's story steps into a world shared by other mystical-type writers. In this piece, a composer comes to live in a boardinghouse--nothing very strange there. What is strange is the music that he plays, a variety never before heard that seems to have deadly control over the people who happen to hear it.

Arguably, this is the stuff of B horror movies, but I think the setting and the feel of the piece make this also the stuff of some of your Latin American writers like Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortazar, and Jorge Luis Borges. The musician isn't just some vindictive evil one. He seems in fact to have some other worldly connection, as evidenced by the strange things found in his room and as emphasized by the fact the no easy explanation for the happenings is forthcoming. Much like fine music can spur feelings and emotions beyond our own understanding, Yu hints at the terrible power the irrational elements of art can have over people. Read the story here at Innsmouth Free Press.

Monday, April 16, 2012

On "Suspension Bridge" by Dorene O’Brien (3212 words) ****

Reading a story is in part about suspending our disbelief--or at least that's the theory. We create a character, a setting, a place, a list of events. Sometimes, we mix in a few real-life facts. Sometimes we encounter things that are completely impossible. Why are we drawn to such things?

Perhaps, O'Brien seems to be saying, we are drawn to stories that same way we are drawn to people. We like the sense of mystery that is involved with getting to know someone, the possibility that this person might open to us vistas we have only dreamed about, might in fact make our dreams come true.

At a bar, in graduate school, while I was with a roommate, a really pretty girl began talking with us. Beats me why she would have begun flirting with me, but I could tell. She asked me what I was writing my thesis on, and she claimed to have read this person's work. I didn't believe it, for her ignorance on the subject was clear. But she was pretty. Did I play along? No. But my roommate did, creating a past and present for himself, for me too, that didn't exist. I didn't want, that evening, to play the role of artist. Some play that role in print; others, I guess, do it in the dating world. And some write about how those two worlds coincide, such as O'Brien, here at This.

Friday, April 13, 2012

On "Stayin' Alive" by Kevin McIntosh (3776 words) ***

I liked a lot about high school, which likely makes me one of a minority. As such, I had much enthusiasm for high school reunions--or the idea of them--when I was in high school. Ten years pass, twenty, soon twenty-five, and my enthusiasm has waned entirely. I've not been to a one. It took maybe five years, but after that my interest in replaying those elements of my past disappeared. If anything, the prospect of such a reunion seems depressing. Perhaps, I'm not satisfied with where I am in life, and knowing that others have gone on to better things makes me feel even more the loser and knowing that still others haven't makes me feel terribly sad (I suspect, from my distant perspective, that I'd likely think more the former than the latter: things look rosier from the outside).

McIntosh's story is about a twentieth reunion. It's one that, contrary to the narrator's initial reservations, appears to hold much promise. That hunk from high school who never paid attention to you, that smart girl from high school who never paid attention to you--hey, it's twenty years later, and we're a lot more mature and not so scripted to our own cliques. Or are we? Read the story here at Grey Sparrow Journal.

On "A Maze of Death" by Philip K. Dick **

This is not one of Dick's stronger books. More an allegory than a novel, the characters largely serve the plot and the themes. As such, many of their actions are pretty much nonsensical, as their personalities turn radically from page to page in order to aid in the novel's twists and surprises. This is something Dick has shown a tendency to do in other books I've read, but here it is at its full splendor, if one wishes to call it such.

The particular allegory here has to do with the life we lead and the religion we live by. Why are we here? is the big question of the book. It's posed by the fourteen people who end up alone on planet. They're there to start for a project--perhaps to forge a colony, perhaps to explore the planet, perhaps something else entirely--but none of them, it appears, have any particularly useful skill sets. One's an economist. One's a psychologist. In other words, these are a group of white-collar workers with no skills worthy the hands-on projects they'll need to complete to survive.

A problem arises soon after they arrive, however. The true mission of their trip to this planet is bound up in a satellite transmission that, midway through its message, goes bad. "Your purpose is" ends with three dots on the end that will never see a finale. To make matters worse, they've arrived on one-way transport vehicles, so they can't get off the planet. Without a means to communicate and without a means to leave, they now have to make do as a colony of misfits.

The "death" part of the title doesn't take long to arrive. The planet features various small, man-made creatures--bugs that take photos, forts that scrabble around like mice. Some of these might not have the colonists best interests at heart. Some of the colonists die, and it doesn't take long for the rest of them to turn on one another.

There's an interesting twist that comes later in the book that at least partially redeems it and partially explains the silliness of the characters, but that's not something I'll reveal here, even though I'm not sure I felt like the hundred-plus pages leading to it makes the reading worth it. Suffice to say, much is not as it seems.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On "Mount Stromboli" by John Matthew Fox (2156 words) ***

The beautiful thing about this story is the way that Fox focuses on the various senses. There are smells, feelings of touch, and sights. This piece is awash with great verbs. We're encased not just in a mundane recounting of events but in a place itself, in the skin of this girl is hiking with her father. The attention to senses makes sense, for the girl's father is a painter, and she too is studying artwork. But there's a worry, the girl has, that so much study will ruin art for her. Her father, she notes, has an understanding of what goes into art, but she senses that he no longer feels art, no longer takes wonder in it. While the girl's sense of wonder may be intact, the father's understanding of technique is what ultimately proves to be salvation--a salvation that leads to some beautiful (wonderful) last lines. Read the story here at the Adirondack Review.

On "Understanding Philip K. Dick" by Eric Carl Link ****

This is the first book from University of South Carolina Press's "Understanding" that I have read, and if this book is anything like the others, I'm going to have to read some more. The book is a very short introduction to Dick's life and work, discussing his biography and major themes and giving closer readings of a few select works.

The biography I was very aware of by now, having read two books about Dick's life. But it was nice to have someone summarize it so well. Likewise, having now read six of Dick's novels and a small assortment of his stories, I'm familiar with most of his major themes and motifs, but having someone write those out for me--and explore what those things really mean--was satisfying as well. Having left off the academic study of literature fifteen years ago now, I don't tend to read as closely or as methodically as I used to, and I felt a bit silly not to have picked up on some of what now seems very obvious in some of the works that Dick has written. Most specifically, Link linked some of the reading in Jung, Binswanger, and the I Ching that I've done in a concrete fashion, something I'd been too lazy to think through thoroughly myself.

Of central concern to Dick is the ability to know--or to know transcendence--as Link puts it in hs book's conclusion. This is, of course, where he connects up with many of the concerns of the gnostics. And it also links to his concerns about the nature of reality and of the self--for if we can't know who or what "god" is, then how can we even know the world around us or within us? Or as Link puts it in his chapter on themes, Dick essentially sets out to know two thing: What is real and what is human? If some kind of transcendent existence is real, how do or can we know? Isn't it just as possible that such experiences are the workings of a madman's mind? Or are the mad the ones who truly understand the world (as in the case of the schizophrenics who populate many of Dick's works and who figure in Jung's own work)? For humanness, Dick posits his concept of empathy--it is our ability to feel with others that makes us human. However, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, even this can be problematized.

Other themes of Dick's work, to give a short list, include: what is real, what is the self, what is human, the nature of power, the effects of technology and media, the effects of drugs, and what is madness. One of the most interesting readings of a Dick novel, I think, was Link's critique of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. He sees the work as largely one about love--or different messed-up forms of love. He attaches Dick's biography to this, as it was written during the breakup of Dick's fourth marriage. The novel itself details various forms of betrayal amid love, including the incestuous brother/sister-man/wife relationship at much of the novel's core and the love of one's child (in the form of that family's own child). Indeed, Jason Taverner, who I see as more the focus of the book, loses his identity largely through an act of betrayal: his betraying of his friend with another woman, the other woman's vengeful act in return for Taverner's dumping of her, and his friend's betrayal in the form of her own affair.

Having read this book, I certainly came away having felt like I knew Dick's work even better than before.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

On "On the Surface" by Barron T. Byrnes (1295 words) ****

Split a story into fragments and make the reader reconstruct it. It's a strategy I found really exciting during my college years, but I've strayed farther away from such words as I've gotten older, falling more for straight stories. Byrnes's piece, however, is a throwback to that earlier fascination of mine. The story isn't so much one of a straight plot, therefore, but an accumulation of motifs and images--oceans, beaches, death, funerals, bodies, love. How do these all come together? Well, it's up to the reader to put the pieces of the puzzle in place. This one's worth a second read, here, at Super Arrow.

On "A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick *****

I enjoyed this novel of Dick's more than any of the previous one's I've read. Here are some reasons I think this might be so: (1) I saw the movie and liked it first; (2) it's more like a regular book than a sci-fi novel; or (3) it's about drugs and includes some cool plot devices.

The movie, directed by Richard Linklater, is an animated feature--or really, it's a live action theater that has been traced over with ink. Such seems appropriate in a way for the trippy subject matter. Starring Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves, Wynona Ryder, and Robert Downy Jr., the piece had no shortage of big names attached to it. Downy was the highlight of the film to me, and his character James Barris is a highlight of the book as well--extremely funny. Would he have been as funny in the book if I hadn't seen Downy's portrayal first? I don't know. Unlike many a film adaptation, this one actually seems to have followed the book fairly closely, so I've been hard pressed to say whether I actually like one more than the other. I can't even say they're that different, other than the fact that they are different mediums.

The tale itself has barely any tie to science fiction. The main reason it could be classified as such: a suit that police investigators wear that allows their identities to be hidden. The suit essentially changes its appearance several times a second, so you can't really describe a single person. At the time of the book, this was probably fantasy; today, it's likely possible, since it's possible now to wear a suit that would make you invisible. Cool technology.

Other than that, however, this is a book about druggies and about the police who try to catch them. But like many a noir novel, the line between the two is not very easy to see. Police engage in drug deals in order to work their way further up the drug chain; they take drugs themselves to fit into the culture. And because they work undercover and don't know their identities, many are the times when one agent is investigating the drug-related activity of what turns out to be yet another agent, who is also simply trying to find people higher up the pecking order to bust. In fact, one gets the sense that the entire system might be run by some kind of drug conglomerate.

In the middle of this is Bob Arctor (think Actor--he after is one of the police/druggie posers) or Fred or Bruce. Bob, as in the novel The Big Clock is eventually assigned the job of investigating himself. But in the process, he begins to lose his mind: Is he Bob or Fred or Bruce? Is he all three?

This gets back to a continuing theme in Dick's world--namely, that of identity. While Jason Travener, in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, loses his identity completely to the world, Bob loses his identity to himself. In both works, Dick seems to be suggesting that personal identity is at the least significantly created by the society around it rather than within the individual. The individual, ungirded from that social link, is nothing. Conversely, I suppose, one could argue that Travener has an identity because he spends the novel trying to regain it. Here, in A Scanner Darkly, however, Bob/Fred/Bruce isn't working to regain any one of those identities. At his core, he doesn't know who he is, and he comes apart as a result.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On "The Crystal Ball" by A.M. Amodeo (4703 words) ***

Pearl is a worrier, and she had good reason to do so. Her husband has a back problem. Her mom has married an old man with health problems of his own. And the best job that Pearl can manage is a shift at a convenience store, not enough to raise one daughter let alone another she'd like to have and really not enough to help support her own cash-strapped mother, who they live with. But one can dream, and that is what Pearl does. "The Crystal Ball" is part of that dream, telling of a future and a way to get there that depends, it seems, on destruction. Good fortune depends on someone else's bad. Read the story here at Fried Chicken and Coffee.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

On "Layers" by Kristy Webster (644 words) ***

Webster's story starts off with a bizarre premise that it wouldn't seem could possibly work. A number of shorter stories do such--catching our attention, exploring a goofy idea, and then dismissing it. Webster manages something a little different here, however, by extending the idea into a kind of metaphor.

In "Layers," Eldon is a man many times rejected who settles finally for an onion. That's right: an onion. Webster's description of the onion are what make this actually seem as sad as the situation is, and her conclusion hints at something special. Read the story here at A Fly in Amber.

On "I Am Alive and You Are Dead" by Emmanuel Carrere ****

In reading this biography, I was reminded a bit of the life of L. Ron Hubbard, another science fiction writer whose tales became eventually the reality of his life. Philip K. Dick seems to have gone similarly insane. Both were "crap artists" of a sort, though Hubbard was into the con, whereas Dick merely told tales--and took odd positions--for amusement. But in the end, they both seem to have been mentally sick gentlemen.

I had previously read the biography of Philip Dick by his third wife Anne. In that book, she comes across as a bit crazy and high strung but largely sympathetic and very much still in love with her husband. In this book, she is the subject only of a chapter or so, and she does not come off all that well at all. High strung, she pushes Dick over the edge. But then, every woman except Kleo, his second wife, seems to do that eventually. He was, it appears, a very difficult man to live with. (After all, what kind of loving man offers a dedication to his wife that also takes a swipe at her--namely, "For Anne, who stayed quiet long enough for me to write this.")

Carrere traces Dick's life from its beginnings, when Dick's sister dies in infancy, the survivor guilt from which Dick would carry throughout life and an event that would play a role in many of his novels (wherein Dick imagines one character in a dream world and the other--the dead one--in the real world). This is in part the subject of Ubik, apparently one of his best novels (unfortunately not among the books I chose for my reading list). The biographer also, as a more-distant observer than Anne, offers various critical views on Dick's work, beyond Ken in this book equals Albert in real life (as Anne was wont to do, a practice that seems somewhat dubious, since characters might be based on reality but aren't reality).

What is clear is that while philosophical ideas, psychological ideas, and religion fascinated Dick, he also liked to be a contrarian, one who simply took whatever position others weren't. And in the end, he began to believe his own crazy ravings and rants, his own books full of paranoia. Amid bad marriages, he heavily inundated himself with prescription drugs (which would allow him to write a book in two weeks). When his marriage to Anne ended, he moved on to living among a young crowd of druggies. In the midst of this, his house was robbed, and this robbery would become the focus of much of his obsession in later life: Who did it? Was it the Feds? Was it communist agents? Was it himself? He became so obsessed with such ideas that when his work found some following among Eastern Europeans, he wondered if it might not be a communist plot of some sort and started up correspondence with the FBI, which bemusedly ignored him.

Later, having given up the drug lifestyle (though not necessarily all of the drugs), Dick became even more heavily steeped in religion, such that he sometimes thought he was having visions. At some points, he claimed to believe he was a John the Baptist-type personage, announcing the coming of the One, the next prophet down the line to come from the beyond. And his books might indeed be part of this.

Carrere makes a case that at the end of Dick's life, he possibly had a change of view: toward a belief that this world, this concrete world we're in, is real. No use pretending otherwise. But because Dick was one to constantly change positions, to arouse a person's ire, there's no way of knowing how sincere he was even in this position.