Twenty Writers: Unstuck in Dresden

See the Introduction for more information on “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books.” The current list of reviews and essays is located at Continuing Series.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Early one August morning in 2011, I set off for Dresden. I was lodging at a surprisingly spacious budget hotel located in what was once known as East Berlin. I showered, snagged a Brötchen from the breakfast table downstairs, and rode public transit to Berlin’s central train station, the Hauptbahnhof.

The Hauptbahnhof was a modest-sized transportation hub with a grand planar green-glass facade and crystal strands of staircases and escalators within. A number of national and international rail lines passed through the station on all levels.

In contrast to its modernity, the area surrounding the Hauptbahnhof appeared bombed-out. Weedy lots and half-built (or half-demolished) concrete structures of uncertain purpose surrounded the station, even though it was located in the dead center of town, and not the outskirts where this sort of thing might be excused.

In 2011, dereliction was not unusual in the eastern reaches of Berlin. The area that was once West Berlin was clean, modern, bustling—as sleek and efficient as the capitalism it had boasted of to its neighbors during the Cold War. What was once East Berlin was largely a patchwork of low-lying buildings, many redolent of America’s 1970s aesthetics bereft of its most garish extremes. Anything not man-made was lush and overgrown from the humid summer. (Berlin, my travel guide explained, was built on a swamp.) Buildings with blasted-out holes in the plaster stood here and there in East Berlin, the rubble having been hauled off but the damage not repaired. As I learned from the natives, Berlin was still recovering from forty years of Communist rule, where counterrevolutionary ideals like aesthetics and grounds-keeping were not prioritized.

Having visited Munich a few times, I would bet a stein of beer that the meticulous, efficient Bavarians would never have allowed for this situation to sustain. For any undeveloped lot, the Bavarians would have installed a beer garden or a park or some nice shopping. Munich is the neighbor who keeps their lawn trim and packs away the Christmas decorations on Boxing Day; Berlin is the family with the half-built additions and a porch painted a color intended for the whole house, but Dad never got around to finishing the job. It’s for those reasons I found what was once East Berlin relaxed and livable.

Having visited my favorite beer garden in all of Europe the night before, I didn’t wake quite early enough. I missed my train to Dresden by precious minutes, in part due to being lost in the Hauptbahnhof‘s Escher maze of escalators. Running up to the platform for Dresden, the train chugging eastward, I wondered if this was a bit of Vonnegutian fate, the kind of nondescript event that leads to major ramifications for the character later in the book.

Literary tourism

My visit to Dresden bore some emotional weight. It would probably be my only chance to see the city Kurt Vonnegut wrote about so prominently in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Literary tourism is a recurring compulsion in my life. I’ve sought out Hemingway’s Key West house and the six-toed cats who drink from an old bar urinal in the garden; Henry Miller’s ramshackle Big Sur cabin, surprisingly spartan for a hedonist; Beowulf under glass at the British Museum in London, a city practically designed for literary tourism, right down to the pub reproducing Sherlock Holmes’ parlor; even Mark Twain’s cabin in California’s Gold Country where he reportedly penned “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. Literary tourism has even made its way into some of my stories, in particular “A Concordance of One’s Life”, and to a lesser extent Everywhere Man.

With only one more free day in Germany, I woke the next morning even earlier and made it to the Hauptbahnhof with time to spare. As my train left the platform, I was treated to the very European experience of an Italian family arguing with the unflappable German conductor over seats, some business about assigned seating and Second Class. As English was the common language between the two parties, I was able to follow the argument. The conductor eventually conceded and moved on, leaving the Italian family to overtake the compartment. The mother pointed out to me that there wasn’t enough room for all of them, and so I moved to the next compartment.

The train ride from Berlin to Dresden took two and a half hours. If I’d traveled the day before, I had planned to find a cheap room to crash in for the night. Now I had to make the same return trip in the late afternoon via the last train out of Dresden to Berlin.

The Slaughterhouse-Five Tour

In a different book, Kurt Vonnegut wrote

Ah, God, what an ugly city Illium is!

“Ah, God,” says Bokonon, “what an ugly city every city is!”

I was curious to see what had sprung up in Dresden’s place after the end of the war, after the firebombing. I was also curious how Vonnegut’s book was now received by the city. I had it in my mind that Slaughterhouse-Five was a literary gift to the City of Dresden, a rather lengthy handbill proclaiming to a cold and unaware world the war crime they’d suffered. Much like my trip to Hiroshima, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Everything I’d read about both cities focused on one subject: utter destruction.

I wondered if there were Slaughterhouse-Five tours of Dresden. If I ran a Slaughterhouse-Five tour of Dresden, I would dress up like Billy Pilgrim and pretend to be unstuck in time. I would start the tour with this:

“And now our tour concludes. So it goes.”

And end the tour with this:

“Welcome! My name is Billy Pilgrim. Today I’m your guide for the Slaughterhouse-Five tour. On your left is our first sight…”

For all my planning back at home, it never occurred to me to attempt to locate the actual slaughterhouse Vonnegut and the other American POWs huddled in during the Allies’ firebombing of the city, safe while Dresden burned to nubs and ash. I assumed (wrongly, it turns out) that the slaughterhouse had been demolished after the war. I focused on the city center itself rather than striking out to the industrial areas in search of the structure that saved Vonnegut’s life and changed American postwar literature.

On the last leg of my train ride, two young women joined me in the compartment, college-aged summer hitchhikers making their way across Europe. They hauled mountaineering backpacks with sleeping rolls, enough gear to scale K2. Minutes before the Dresden station, we struck up a conversation. They were from Switzerland.

“I’m American,” I introduced myself.

“We know,” they told me. Whenever foreigners know my nationality it’s a little discomfiting, like meeting someone who can read my thoughts.

They told me they headed to Amsterdam. When they said “Amsterdam” they giggled between themselves.

“I’m going to Dresden,” I told them.

“Why?” they asked me, honestly perplexed.

Anatomy of a church

Dresden workers' muralOn my walk from Dresden’s station to its Old Town I passed a reminder of the city’s time under the German Democratic Republic. A broad mural spanned the second story of an otherwise unremarkable building. In the town I grew up, such a building would have been the advertising offices of the local newspaper or something equally mundane. This is what I expected to find in Dresden: postwar Socialist-drab architecture erected in a hurry and on the cheap.

The building was forgettable but the mural was not. Like so much social realism to come out of the Communist bloc, it features idealized caricatures of workers—women in head scarves, men in Trotsky hats—raising their sickles and rifles in a show of unity. The mural stood over a wide walkway, where it could be admired as easily as it could be ignored.

DresdenOnce past the mural and its uninspiring canvas, I discovered Dresden was not ugly. In fact, the city was charming. Although seventy years had passed since the firebombing, plenty of time to rebuild, I did not expect to walk into such a minute jewel. With East Berlin as my primer to post-Communist Germany, I presumed Dresden would be a place of unkempt parks, weedy lots, and an opera house or civic chamber destroyed by the Allies and left as rubble with a statue before it memorializing the carnage.

Strange then to see Dresden work so hard to appear as the city it was five hundred years ago, more medieval than mid-century. Its stout Old Town proudly exhibited a collection of limestone spires and copper-green cupolas. In the Middle Ages, labor was cheap, free when pressed into service by the Church. In the 20th century it wasn’t so cost-effective to refurnish a city to its fifteenth-century original without making do with mass-produced raw material—the financial temptation to erect a Disney reproduction of the original must have been great. There was nothing fake or inauthentic about Dresden’s Old Town as far as I could see.

Dresden churchThe rebuild was so complete, so meticulous, at first blush I wondered if anything remained to mark the firebombing that melted this city down to hot rubble in 1945. I found one, a block of permanently charred masonry standing in a cobblestone platz before a stunning Baroque church, Dresden’s Frauenkirche. A wordless plaque indicated where the block had fallen from the cupola above during the firebombing. In the human anatomy of the Frauenkirche, the masonry block fell from its heart.

(I know now that many memorials for the Dresden firebombing exist, some in the city and others elsewhere in Germany. Some only exist on the Internet as frameworks for remembering. I didn’t visit Dresden to search out statues and plaques and modern art commissioned by governmental panels, but I did expect to more of these markers than I encountered.)

Hundreds of miles from the Berlin swamp, Dresden offered a cloudless temperate day, the air off the river smelling fresh. The church platz was ringed by bistros lively with business. Vendor carts served cold beer as fast as mugs could be filled. Standing aside the masonry block and surveying the scene, I developed a theory: Dresden understood that remembering is different than never forgetting.

Of course

My own failings hampered my time in Dresden. I don’t speak a lick of German. Unlike Berlin, where an English-speaker can manage thanks to a mostly-multilingual population, few people in Dresden spoke my native tongue.

Rendered all but mute, I pointed to the beer tap when I wanted a beer, pointed to the menu when I wanted a brat, and did my best to pronounce Bitte? and Danke schoen for everyone I had dealings with.

At one of the beer carts off the church platz I met an English-speaking couple. Not only did they speak English, they were American. I did not ask the obvious questions. With a beer in hand and the sun on my back, I was incurious to know where they were from or who employed them.

She was talkative. He seemed totally uninterested in conversation. She asked why I came to Dresden.

Slaughterhouse-Five, of course,” I said. That “of course” made me out as a snoot.

She searched the air above her. “Is that a book?” She asked her husband if he’d read it. He murmured “Never heard of it” and drank more beer.

I told her she probably read it in high school. She couldn’t remember.

Fox tossing

When I asked why they’d visited Dresden, she explained it was a layover on their bus trip to Amsterdam. She giggled when she said “Amsterdam.” His attention never left his beer.

“Have you visited the castle?” she asked me. Their package tour included a ticket to Dresden Castle, now a museum. “Their king was the King of Poland. Twice.”

“Augustus the Strong,” her husband said, still not looking at me.

“Why was he called ‘the Strong?'” I asked.

“Because he was strong,” the husband said. “He could dead lift hundreds of pounds.” A bit excited, he finally turned on his stool to face me. “And he was a master at this game called fox tossing.”

“What’s fox tossing?”

“You throw foxes as high into the air as you can.” So animated, his beer was sloshing.

Dresden?

I trudged back to the train station passing the workers’ mural once more. Now I saw how out of place it was in Dresden, this relic of propaganda today apropos of nothing. Like Communism, it was not erased and it was not forgotten, nor was it intrusive or even damned, but simply left to be, a curiosity.

On the train ride back, I experienced a conversation I would have twice more in Berlin, all with Germans. When I mentioned visiting Dresden, the Germans’ response was always “Why?” They expressed in their best English that Dresden was a boring town with nothing to draw a tourist, especially one who’d traveled so far.

I asked each if they’d heard of Kurt Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse-Five. None of them knew of him, which wasn’t terribly surprising. I don’t read German novelists, after all. The name confused them, though, since Vonnegut is distinctly Germanic. I assured them he was American.

I told the Germans Vonnegut had written one of the greatest English-language novels of the past hundred years. “It’s about Dresden. He was there during the firebombing.”

Only one of the three knew of Dresden’s destruction. (They were younger than me, I should add.) All were bewildered at the idea of a novel about Dresden—”Dresden?“—especially a novel important enough to be taught in American schools and universities.

It floored them. “You’ve read a book about Dresden?

Imagine the situation reversed. Imagine learning that every student in Germany read a novel about one of Bokonon’s ugly cities: Illium, or Bakersfield, or Walla Walla, or Duluth. Imagine if Germans eagerly traveled to Duluth because it was featured in a popular novel. Duluth?

The second bewildered German I encountered—”Dresden?“—sat across from me. We were at a picnic table in my favorite beer garden in all of Europe. It was muggy in Berlin and nine o’clock at night, strings of light bulbs threaded through the tree branches. When I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, I went straight to the beer garden.

We were joined by an American who’d emigrated to Germany to marry. He had a wife and a child, and had carved out a rather enviable life in what was once East Berlin. The first time we met he told me he never wanted to return to America.

“What are you two talking about?” He had brought us fresh mugs of beer.

“He went to Dresden today,” the German told him.

“Sure,” the newly-minted Berliner said as he distributed the beer. “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Other books in the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” series.

What happened to Longform.org? (part 2): Sponsored content

LongformBack in December I asked “What happened to Longform.org?”, a longish complaint about the changing course of my favorite curator of long-form journalism. Although I concluded that post with the tepid threat that “maybe it’s time for me to find a new curator,” I confess I never actually turned my back on Longform, the premier aggregate of long digital content on the Web. A few other long-form journalism aggregators have sprung up in Longform’s jostling wake (most notably, Longreads), but none have approached the ubiquitous or success of Longform. My hunch is that for an online magazine to get one of its articles listed by Longform is like hitting the daily trifecta at the track—a fat guarantee of tens of thousands of additional pairs of eyeballs being driven to the magazine’s site.

Today I noticed on Longform’s front page something new, that scourge of journalism, the advertisement masquerading as a hard-news essay, the puff piece known colloquially as “sponsored content”. Lodged between a New Yorker essay on euthanasia and Sarah Wambold’s reportage on natural burials in a Texas grove—make of that what you will—Longform dropped into their feed sponsored content from Hewlett-Packard, “Five Huge Industries That Never Saw Disruption Coming”. While the advertorial doesn’t shill HP’s hardware or services directly to the reader, any company established in the data services industry—or any company worried about being thrown aside by upstarts on their heels—is a bread-and-butter client for Hewlett-Packard, and so it’s in HP’s interest to appear as a high-tech sage, the rare Silicon Valley company with eyes on the horizon and not next quarter’s bottom line. “Five Huge Industries” paints HP as sitting in just such a tantric pose. Longform marked the link to “Five Huge Industries” as sponsored (and thankfully didn’t include it in its RSS feed), but the fact remains that the aggregation site is now using its linking power to send their readers off to corporations that have paid for that privilege rather than earned it through great timely writing.

I’m unsure if this is the first instance of sponsored content appearing under Longform’s lighthouse banner, as I’ve not followed the site terribly closely since I posted that first complaint six months ago. Linking to sponsored content is not an egregious sin or some tainting of hallowed journalist ground. I do know that sponsored content is not a good sign for anyone (including myself) who would like to see more diversity and greater breadth in Longform’s selections.

In 2013, gimlet-eyed media critic Jack Shafer wrote a great piece on sponsored content (known as “native advertising” in the business) and how it inevitably infects the reputation of even the most sterile news source:

If, as George Orwell once put it, “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,” then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted. The average sponsored-content page pits the advertiser against the publisher; the former attempts to make his copy and art look as much like conventional news or feature copy as powerfully as the latter pushes back as hard as he can to preserve “editorial integrity” without forfeiting the maximum fee. It’s common for both sides to come away from the transaction feeling soiled and swindled, but, hey, that’s the nature of most advertising.

I’d say this applies as much to a digital aggregator like Longform, which drives readers to other web sites via links and clicks, as much as it does for a traditional news site, where the advertiser’s content is integrated alongside actual content.

Twenty Writers: Yoshihiro Tatsumi in retrospect

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.


Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Last night I learned Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi had passed away at the age of 79. Revered as the grandfather of gekiga (a darker form of manga, akin to graphic novels or alternative comics here in the United States), Tatsumi was known in Japan for his urban, noirish comics featuring a gamut of characters, from gangsters and back alley hoods to college students and office workers. Only in the last ten years did he became well-known in the North America (and perhaps elsewhere) due to new translations of his work published yearly by Drawn & Quarterly and edited under the guiding hand of Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Shortcomings).

I don’t think I can express how much I enjoyed Tatsumi’s work or how his comics encouraged and shaped my own writing. I did not come to his work via manga (a form I honestly don’t know much about) but rather by accident while browsing the shelves at a local bookstore. The cover—a lone man in a raincoat receding down a seedy nighttime alleyway, his back to the viewer—led me to pick up The Push Man and Other Stories and read the first story, then the next, then the next. I promptly purchased the copy, returned home, and read the entire collection in one sitting. My only disappointment was that none of his other work was readily available in the U.S. at the time. (My novella Everywhere Man gets its name from Tatsumi’s Push Man, and takes a few other cues as well.)

It was remarkable, this voice from Japan whose stories respected their source culture while also digging up explosive emotional power directed at that same culture. Tatsumi’s minimalist style and quiet stories of “average” people are often compared to Raymond Carver, but they’re also deeply infused with American noir and crime fiction. Themes of sexual frustration and violence and emasculation are rampant in Push Man and elsewhere. His characters often seem like Japanese counterparts to Jim Thompson’s West Texas oilcatters and door-to-door salesmen: disposable men on the edge of breakdown or abandonment, with few choices other than to jump on the accelerator and push through their troubles rather than backpedal out of them. They rarely succeed. Tatsumi’s characters live in cramped rooms, cramped even by Japanese standards, usually only large enough for a futon and a hot plate. They sludge through dead-end jobs while watching from afar Japan’s miraculous economic boom of the 1960s and 70s. They aren’t preoccupied with death, they fear being erased. I have the idea these stories were intended for the same kind of audience Jim Thompson wrote for, young lonely men who felt shut-out from the American—or Japanese—Dream.

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

When recommending Tatsumi to friends, my trouble has always been what not to recommend. Of Drawn & Quarterly’s offerings, perhaps only the autobiographical A Drifting Life and Black Blizzard (penned when Tatsumi was 21 and the source of some embarrassment for him when reprinted) are reserved for Tatsumi completists. Otherwise the English editions we have available represent an impressive body of work which, as I understand it, remains an incomplete record of his full output.

In Push Man‘s stories, each limited to eight pages, Tatsumi deftly compresses grim situations down to their bare minimum and yet manages to leave himself the occasional panel for bleak panoramas of late-1960s Tokyo, its late-night bars and red light districts and walk-up ramen stands. The artwork is sometimes cartoony—even clunky—but the emotional force of his characters’ desolation carries through page after page. In later collections (Abandon the Old in Tokyo, Good-Bye, and Midnight Fishermen) the young men’s magazines Tatsumi was writing for opened up more pages for his work. His pen improves in these collections, trending toward photorealism and employing heavier use of shadow and contrast. These tightly-wound tales sometimes suffer from the breathing room four or eight additional pages allowed, but each collection stores more than a few gems.

A Drifting Life (2009)

A Drifting Life (2009)

Tatsumi’s autobiographical A Drifting Life is his most ambitious work translated to English, and perhaps his most ambitious work of all. Intense but careful to withhold the most personal details of his life from the reader, Tatsumi lays out his formative years and how he entered the manga field while in elementary school. Each stage of his life is a new round of jousting with manga as an art form, tackling a narrative outlet he found liberating and yet restrictive and overly commercial all the same. I wish more time was spent on the side story of the manga rental industry in postwar Japan and its power to create and demolish artistic reputations. Some of the editors and publishers Tatsumi fought with sound straight out of Hollywood’s star system, right down to the shoddy treatment writers on both sides of the Pacific endured to produce consumable work week after week.

Still jousting with the strictures of manga at the age of 74, Tatsumi published Fallen Words, eight “moral comedies” inspired by rakugo, a venerable form of Japanese performance where a seated speaker narrates a story with a fan and a cloth as props. Rakugo performers will often tell stories that have been repeated for over a hundred years; the art is in the retelling and voices and mannerisms and novel uses of the props themselves. Tatsumi took this verbal art form and produced visual versions that depicted them in their original Meiji- and Edo-era settings: “I attempted to take rakugo, where laughter is supreme, and to tell the stories in the visual language of gekiga,” an art form not known for its comedy. Some stories rely on twist endings that don’t quite work, some on puns that only makes sense to Japanese speakers, but the book as a whole demonstrates the kind of experimentation Tatsumi was willing to engage in right to the end of his career.

Fallen Words (2009)

Fallen Words (2009)

When I was a graduate student teaching undergraduates creative writing, I included one story from Push Man as required reading. “Make-Up” remains my personal favorite of his work. It involves a young office worker living with an older woman, a bar hostess. When she’s gone at night, the young man dons a kimono, applies her cosmetic, and takes to downtown Tokyo passing as a woman. Not only is it remarkable the ease with which Tatsumi tells this nuanced story (another woman falls in love with him as a woman), it’s also surprising the sensitivity and compassion he offers his main character without falling into bathos. Some of the students tripped up on the simple lines of Tatsumi’s pen, some had trouble with the quietness (entire pages lacking a line of dialogue), but many gripped that something interesting and surprising was going on, right up to the ambiguous ending that opens up rather than shuts down the story.

Tatsumi’s work is often criticized as heavy-handed, cliched, and moralizing, which is arguable for his earlier output (such as Push Man) but is not so easily asserted with Drifting Life or Fallen Words. My response is to look at the boldness of the subject matter, the narrative distillation of complicated situations converted to deceptively simple panels on the page, and his early mastery of story structure. Each page of “Make-Up” is a self-contained scene, as perfect as a zen koan. It’s harder than it looks. That’s what I think Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s detractors are missing. This was not a natural talent who slipped into the form with ease, but one who struggled with it and attacked its firmaments, sometimes with mediocrity, sometimes brilliantly, but always thinking of his next push forward.

More on Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s passing: Adrian Tomine, Paul Gravett, Bleeding Cool.

Rangaku, sakoku, and the Japanese cargo cult

A quote I came across while reading William Gibson’s Distrust That Particular Flavor, a collection of his essays and assorted nonfiction:

In 1854, with Commodore Perry’s second landing, gunboat diplomacy ended two hundred years of self-imposed isolation, a deliberate stretching out of the feudal dream-time. The Japanese knew that America, not to be denied, had come knocking with the future in its hip pocket. This was the quintessential cargo-cult moment for Japan: the arrival of alien tech…

Imagine the Roswell Incident as a trade mission, a successful one; imagine us buying all the Gray technology we could afford, no reverse engineering required. This was a cargo cult where the cargo actually did what it claimed to do. [Emphasis added.]

The book is filled with these spot-on observations and analogies, and it’s this intellectual microscope that propels William Gibson’s best fiction. Gibson connects technology as a cold untapped force with characters’ desires and failings. He understands that even the dullest human can become quite creative, even powerful, when a sufficiently complex piece of technology is at their disposal.

Distrust The Particular Flavor by William GibsonAnd certainly Gibson can write about the Japanese as well as any Westerner I’ve read. Neuromancer is practically a love letter to the Japanese circa 1983, their love of tech and costume and salaryman formalities framed within a culture that mindfully guards its feudal past. Who am I to question Gibson—he’s written more about Japan, and the Japan we otherwise would not have heard about, than any other Western fiction writer in the past forty years. But there’s an important proviso to his comparison of Japan emerging from its self-imposed shell and the plight of the South Pacific cargo cults.

When Commodore Perry forced Japan to open its doors, the country was not caught unaware by a flood of new technology and culture that poured in. In fact, the Japanese knew a lot more about the goings-on of the outside world than you might expect. The Japanese were doing what they could to keep up with Western technology and systems over those two hundred years of isolation, and doing it much better than other open countries in Asia and elsewhere who were suffering under the boot of European colonialism.

There’s two key words here. The first is sakoku, which Wikipedia translates as “locked country” (but I’ve also heard translated as “curtain”, as in “Iron Curtain”). Sakoku is the term aggregating a bundle of decrees and policies that led to Japan’s isolation. Unfortunately, “isolated country” suggests a backwards nation, no matter how politically correct you attempt to be; consider our common attitudes toward North Korea, which is currently going through its own sakoku. Now imagine North Korea as a world power and economic powerhouse twenty years from now. Sounds far-fetched, but it’s already happened once, and in a country not far off their coast.

Japan's first treatise on anatomy, copied from Western sources in 1774. (Wikipedia)

Japan’s first treatise on anatomy, copied from Western sources in 1774. (Wikipedia)

What’s less known outside of Japan (and even among the Japanese I’ve spoken with) is rangaku. The suffix -gaku means learning, while ran comes from Oranda, the Japanese pronunciation of “Holland”. Rangaku is the body of Western knowledge accumulated by the Japanese (via the Dutch) during sakoku.

The Japanese acquired rangaku two ways. They obtained it directly from the Dutch, the only Western traders allowed into Japan during sakoku, once the Portuguese and their meddling monks were banned. The Japanese also sent their best and brightest to Holland’s universities. That was the deal the Japanese emperor and shogunate cut with the Dutch: we’ll open one port to you (Nagasaki), and in return you give us access to your books and technology, as well as let our hand-picked students attend your universities. The Dutch probably thought they were getting the better end of this deal, right up to the 1930s.

A 1774 Japanese book, "Sayings of the Dutch", with a drawing of a microscope. (Wikipedia)

A 1774 Japanese book, “Sayings of the Dutch”, with a drawing of a microscope. (Wikipedia)

Through this lens, the Japanese no longer come off like hard-nosed traditionalists desperate to hold the clock hands of progress still. Rangaku is one of many explanations for how Japan emerged from its isolation and modernized in twenty-five years with remarkably little culture shock. The Japanese intelligentsia did not gape at the first steam locomotive, they’d already seen diagrams of it and were conversant with the principles that made it move. The Japanese even adopted a compulsory grade school education in the 1870s, forty years before the United States. Think how quickly our culture has adopted to the rise of the Internet and the rapid changes it’s bringing. That’s nothing compared to the Meiji-era Japanese transitioning from feudalism to modernity in one pre-planned, foreordained leap.

But it’s also easy to take the wonderment too far, to admire the Japanese for integrating the cargo perfectly and fluidly into their feudal culture. In a recent collection of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories, Haruki Murakami offers an oblique rebuttal to Gibson’s observation of the Japanese “buying all the Gray technology” they could afford. In the introduction, Murakami notes Akutagawa was

a child of the modern age. Western civilization and Western-style education were already things that could be taken for granted. … He wore Western suits, smoked cigars, drank coffee, ate beef, conversed now and then with foreigners, and appreciated opera. Such a Westernized lifestyle was, for him, entirely natural and entirely comfortable.

Rashomon by Ryunosuke AkutagawaIn other words, Akutagawa was accustomed to a way of life similar to the moveable feast the bohemian American ex-pats enjoyed after the First World War in Paris. It’s remarkable to me that such a writer would set modernistic and relativistic stories like “In the Grove” and “Rashomon” (and others) in feudal Japan. (Imagine Fitzgerald writing a Revolutionary War novel, or Hemingway writing a story about the Salem Witch Trials.) As a backdrop to Akutagawa’s stories, Feudal Japan appears to be constructed of the hard timber of clear-cut morality, duty, and honor—much like the mythologized Old West—and not the shaky plastic of “Rashomon”‘s moral and subjective ambiguities. Of course, perhaps that was Akutagawa’s point.

Murakami then speaks almost directly to Gibson. He notes that in Akutagawa’s adulthood

the most basic aspects of the life of the Japanese were still being governed by the old indigenous culture. … The Meiji government openly promoted a policy supporting precisely such a bifurcation, as represented by the slogan “Japanese spirit, Western technology”. They wanted to incorporate the technological progressiveness and efficiency of Western systems, but they also wanted the people to remain good, submissive Confucianists. … To some degree, the dregs of feudalism were left in place intentionally. [Emphasis added.]

In Europe, the leap from feudalism to modernism required a nasty and brutish slog through the Industrial Age and its factory child labor, black lung disease, and Marxist pot-stirring. Japan neatly sidestepped all that, cultivating the nineteenth century’s benefits, discarding its detritus, and in the process preserving the kind of feudal values that had been discarded as quaint and old-fashioned by Americans and Europeans. (For one example, see Mark Twain’s 1895 attack on Romanticism in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”.) Unfortunately Fascism loomed in Japan’s future, just as it did for the nations who’d persevered through the Industrial Age.

For better or worse, today we’ve implicitly agreed on a sink-or-swim policy for people to adjust to the Information Age we’re currently embroiled in. My grandmother still uses a corded phone and only recently installed cable television—but no Internet service, and she never will. There was no government edict for her to catch up with the Web, no compulsory service requiring her to join Twitter and enroll in Facebook. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Japanese explicitly decided on a negotiated course for their people, a compulsory upgrade of their society from Feudalism 1.0 to Modernity 2.0.

The Man in the High Castle: Amazon takes on Philip K. Dick’s first masterpiece

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick

Let me preface this with an admission: I am not a diehard fan of Philip K. Dick. I am not a “dickhead”, in the parlance of his devotees. It’s evident to me that the quality of his output is more varied than his admirers are willing to admit. Their reliance on that timeworn science fiction apologia—PKD was a man of “ideas”—is proof to me that his legacy is not as secure as the other sci-fi greats. Yet I return to PKD’s books once every couple of years like a miner hiking up a mountain once again, optimistic his next claim will hit the mother lode…only to so-often return home with mere nuggets or flakes for the effort.

One chestnut you’ll often hear regarding PKD is that some of the highest regarded science-fiction movies of all time are based on his work: Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck. But walk that list again and you’ll discover a real mixed bag of film-making. Total Recall is fun hyper-violent nonsense. Minority Report is a toothless speculation on the future of civil rights. The hot mess that is Paycheck may be John Woo’s worst film ever.

Blade Runner is obviously a Hollywood classic, but to polish PKD’s legacy on the lapels of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece gets it backwards. As a great fan of the movie, I eagerly picked up the source material expecting something even deeper, more atmospheric, and more profound than the film—and was puzzlingly disappointed. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is neither future noir nor an edgy humanistic soul-searcher. Like so many adaptations of PKD’s work, Blade Runner is best described as based on the book’s premise. The film’s central profundity (could Deckard be a Replicant?) is crumpled-up and tossed aside by the master: in the novel, Deckard administers the Voight-Kampff test on himself and obtains a negative result. Question answered, conundrum resolved, tension dissolved. It’s not a horrible book, just preoccupied with other matters.

A Scanner DarklyUnlike Blade Runner (and every other adaptation of PKD’s work), A Scanner Darkly is striking in its fidelity to the original material. Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped gem holds up thanks to a cast who takes the material seriously but not reverently, as well as Linklater’s own confidence in the script. But is it science fiction? PKD’s semi-autobiographical take on hard drugs, drug abuse, and the surveillance state was intended to be set in then-contemporary Anaheim (circa 1971) until he was persuaded by his publisher to introduce light science-fiction touches to satisfy his readership. The decision shows, as the advanced technology (“scramble suits” that hide the identity of the main character) comes across more like a metaphor of addiction, paranoia, and altered states than the speculative scrying of a future that never arrived.

A Scanner Darkly remains my favorite PKD novel. It’s human and humorous and touching and sorrowful. (Charles Freck’s pathetic botched suicide may be the best three pages PKD ever wrote, and is portrayed almost word-for-word in the movie.) Unlike the Bay Area’s 1960s and 1970s drug novels that preceded Darkly, PKD’s wild-and-wooly scenes of narcotics-fueled escapades are not left to stand on their own, defiant and proud of their craziness. PKD follows through to their grim consequences without blinking, flinching, or apologizing.

For all the emphasis science fiction puts on its authors’ treasured abilities to foresee our future, a survey of pre-1980s science fiction will reveal that those predictions almost entirely involve robotics, automation, and space travel. Very few predicted the scope, magnitude, and intrusiveness of the information technology revolution we are currently enjoying. Do not read science fiction for its predictive powers; you will be burned every time.

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. DickLike that ever-optimistic miner in search of another vein of gold, late last year I picked up The Man in the High Castle thinking that this might be the Philip K. Dick novel that finally convinces me of his preeminence. It’s a big-premise book, to be sure, but rather than a book of “ideas” PKD offers an alternate history where the Nazis and the Japanese have won World War II, smashed down Europe and Asia, and decimated Africa. The two fascist empires spread from the opposite coasts of North America inland, and there the dust of WWII settles. The Japanese and the Germans halt their campaigns hundreds of miles apart, leaving a swath through the midwestern United States free of either’s direct control.

It’s not quite the US of A—this strip of land is not run by the Constitution nor, it seems, any cohesive nation-state at all. It’s more like a No Man’s Land of diners and cineplexes that carved out its existence thanks to the two new superpowers’ reluctance to drive further inland. (I have to wonder if PKD was making some kind of statement about the Second Amendment here.) An action-oriented author would’ve launched a thriller from this starting point, something akin to the jingoistic Reagan-era Red Dawn. Fortunately, PKD’s more cerebral approach takes this supercharged premise and offers a calmer, thoughtful story of individuals caught in the middle of a brewing new war.

Those individuals are what give The Man in the High Castle a richer and more varied texture than the other PKD books I’ve read. The novel is shot through with parallel and crisscrossing story-lines: An antique broker in San Francisco caught selling forgeries; a trade bureaucrat assigned to the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America; a Jewish jeweler hiding in broad daylight from the Germans; a Colorado waitress and an Italian truck driver who take to the road. A big-premise book with geopolitics on its mind, PKD makes the most of it. He broadens its scope in each chapter without jumping the narration to the upper echelons of power the way a more populist novel might. (How many Civil War alternate histories feature stiff scenes of Lincoln consulting his cabinet, or Jefferson Davis arguing down General Lee? Too many, I’m certain.)

High Castle even features a taste of Kremlinology. With the death of Führer Martin Boorman, the German power structure goes wobbly, leaving the characters (and the reader) to read the tea leaves and guess who will assume the levers of power. (Hitler, having gone insane due to venereal disease, was pushed out of control years before the time of the novel’s events.)

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

The most fascinating device in the novel is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book-within-Man in the High Castle that is itself an alternate history. In Grasshopper‘s telling, the Axis loses the war and the victorious United States and Great Britain (maintaining its colonial holdings) enter into a kind of global stalemate, an Anglo-American Cold War. The Soviet Union, decimated by the Nazis, never recovers in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, or for that matter, in The Man in the High Castle.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen

When I first encountered the device of this alternate history inside an alternate history, it looked as though it was going to be abused. The characters discuss the book at length in some chapters. Unfortunately, they often discuss it less than artfully. But as a device for detailing the historical differences between our world and theirs, it works, albeit in a clunky manner. Other alternative histories will often use boilerplate exposition in prefaces and introductions to explain how the world of the book is different than our own. PKD moved that exposition into the mouths of his characters.

Although Grasshopper is banned in the German Reich, it seems widely available to party members and apparatchiks. It’s fashionable to discuss the book over drinks or while riding a zeppelin. The common dissemination of Grasshopper in High Castle‘s world is a nice touch; PKD understood that there’s a wide gulf between de jure and de facto censorship in totalitarian countries. Eight years before Tom Wolfe and Black Panther cocktail parties, PKD made Grasshopper “alt-history chic” in The Man in the High Castle.

Grasshopper is not the only literature discussed in High Castle. Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” also are referenced, but always in the kind of past tense that suggests the termination of America’s literary tradition. PKD never overlooks a chance to view America through the prism of bygone nostalgia. (Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War firearms are in particular highly prized as vintage artifacts.) It all lends to an atmosphere of a once-ascendent culture cut short by defeat and now cherished by its conquerors. The Japanese are eager to possess American culture, eager to transport it back to the main islands, but not terribly interested in emulating or absorbing it in any way—much like the West pillaged the Orient for its antiquities but not its wisdom.

Likewise, the Americans in High Castle have grown accustomed to their situation. There is little energy to fight the past wars, instead preferring to kowtow to the new regime and make do with the new reality.

Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle

the-man-in-the-high-castleNot long after I finished reading the novel I learned that Amazon had released the pilot of a new TV series adapting The Man in the High Castle to the small screen. (You can watch the first episode here for free.) I don’t know much about Amazon’s foray into producing television content. My business association with the company is little more than filling out a couple of Web forms to sell my books. In return, they send me automated emails and the occasional bank deposit.

That said, I was naturally curious to see how well High Castle could be adapted to the screen, especially once I learned that Blade Runner director Ridley Scott was producing the series. Mostly I asked myself if Hollywood would once again adapt the premise of a Philip K. Dick book rather than adapt the book itself.

Watching only the first episode, I can say Frank Spotnitz’s script has plumbed the novel deeper than its back cover blurb. This is not a TV series “reimagined” from the source material. Characters and situations have been converted one-for-one, albeit with different emphases, but with a fair amount of respect for PKD’s original vision.

The show is handsome, not going overboard with period costumes or locations (although the poorly-rendered CGI backdrops of fascist New York and San Francisco give an unfortunate cartoonish effect to certain scenes). The production elected to go with gray, washed-out film coloration and drab earth tones; it looks as though World War II never really ended. In fact, the palette reminds me of the scheme used in Captain America: The First Avenger. This pilot episode could easily be a sequel to an alternate cut of that movie, one where The Red Skull crushes Captain America, leads the the Nazis across the Atlantic, and steamrolls over the Eastern seaboard with wave after wave of Panzers and A-bombs. Now, today, in this alternate 1962, disenchanted Americans in clapboard shacks watch groomed Aryans on television game shows answer insipid questions while their military service medals glint under studio lights. There’s nothing wrong with this approach per se, but when a standard-issue gunfight broke out in the first ten minutes, complete with the good-guy shooting a bad-guy preparing to shoot the good-guy’s buddy, I wondered if I was going to regret devoting myself to the 1 hour and 1 minute playing time.

Where PKD’s narration jumps about in time and space, Amazon’s production linearizes the story, simplifying motivations and situations. These Americans are not sapped of their will and making small-talk with their Fascist overlords. They’re plotting rebellion, reminiscing about fighting the good fight on the beaches of Normandy and Virginia, and, in general, dreaming of headier days of fireworks and apple pie. PKD never mocks this sort of flag-waving nostalgia, but it’s easy to see he’s not enamored with it either.

PKD’s High Castle recognizes good and evil in the world; the book is not so postmodern that it morally relativizes the Nazis, for Christ’s sake. The good done in PKD’s world springs not from baseball and the Bill of Rights, but from more basic, philosophical sources: Goodman Brown’s epiphany, the suffering in Miss Lonelyhearts, the authenticity of pure thought, the good in acting beyond one’s immediate self-interests. For the television version, goodness comes from not being a Nazi.

In the show, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’s book form is replaced with a banned newsreel depicting stock footage (our stock footage, not the alternate universe’s) of VE- and VJ-Day sailors in dress whites kissing women in Times Square, US marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, Madison Avenue ticker tape parades, and so on. So explosive is this 8mm film, Americans are shot in the streets for possessing it; so moving, it drives a grown woman to tears upon her first viewing. This is the MacGuffin (of sorts) driving the episode and presumably the entire series: get that canister of film to Canon City, Colorado, and into the hands of the presumptive American rebel force. The producers of that failed Red Dawn remake are probably slapping their foreheads right now.

Having seen only one episode, it’s too early to damn the enterprise as a whole. I do wish that Hollywood could, for once, give us our due. There’s plenty in PKD’s High Castle for modern viewers to sink their teeth into. The alternate history PKD offers is surprisingly tasty. I could easily imagine the show recounting it (starting with FDR’s assassination) in the vein of Oliver Stone’s JFK, repeating events from different perspectives to emphasize the malleability of history. I haven’t even touched on the importance of the I Ching to PKD’s book, which is mentioned only briefly in the first episode. Knowing how the novel ends, I have to wonder how the show will weave the I Ching into the series. Or will they simply treat it as Oriental mysticism—a shame, considering how much respect PKD gives it as a source of meditation and reflection. (As well as it’s centrality to the book’s genesis and execution; PKD used the I Ching to generate early drafts.)

PKD’s novel wraps up not with explosions or theatrics—scrappy American rebels rappelling into Nazi High Command—but a lively discussion at a cocktail party. The Man in the High Castle is not a book of tidy endings. In the concluding pages, story lines open up rather than shut down. Philosophical questions lead to more questions. I’m not terribly optimistic that the TV series will see the wisdom in this. Fourteen years after 9/11—a decade and a half of US invasion and occupation, civil rights forfeitures, and the tightening omniscience of our surveillance state—I would hope that the producers of The Man in the High Castle would see the wisdom of not romanticizing the resistance against an occupation of the American homeland. Still, Spielberg and Tarantino both proved that the Nazis are the neatest, tidiest, most easily expedited film villains you can toss onto the screen. No reason to waste all that easy loathing in a story where they don’t get their violent, satisfying comeuppance.

Twenty Writers: Dashiell Hammett, The Flitcraft Parable (from The Maltese Falcon)

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.

Update:
Another interpretation of “The Flitcraft Parable”


The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell HammettDashiell Hammett was a prodigious writer, but in the most lopsided kind of way. He wrote north of a hundred short stories in less than five years, grinding out stories every month for an insatiable readership thanks to a plow horse work ethic the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s demanded of their writers. In 2011, a researcher going through Hammett’s papers discovered fifteen short stories that had been overlooked, all but lost. There are big-name published authors who’ve not written fifteen short stories in their career. For Dashiell Hammett and his peers in the world of pulps, fifteen short stories was getting your foot in the door.

It’s striking, then, that after all this output, Hammett was later unable to produce more than five novels, and after those did not produce anything publishable for twenty-five more years, until his death in 1961.

Like his short stories, Hammett’s five novels are of mixed quality and yet all impressive in their staying power. In Red Harvest Hammett created the “man in the middle” genre that directors Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, Walter Hill, and many others would borrow for their own uses. The man-in-the-middle story is a structure Hammett seemingly cut from whole cloth, as no one seems able to point to a true antecedent. Hammett’s genteel, Fitzgeraldean The Thin Man spawned a slew of successful Hollywood pictures. Its form—a fashionable society couple solving murders between martinis and canapés—may sound dated, but judging from the success of Downton Abbey, I bet it could stage a comeback at a moment’s notice. The Glass Key‘s story of a political boss’ right-hand man smashing down rivals rings familiar to any fan of the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (although Coen Brothers’ fans should also read James Cain’s mostly-overlooked Love’s Lovely Counterfeit for another important influence). Hammett’s books echo in all manner of 20th century entertainment, here and abroad.

Then there’s The Maltese Falcon, the most widely-known novel in the bunch. Like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, its title alone is a signifier: fog-soaked San Francisco, the statuette of a solemn stiff-winged black bird, back-alley shootings and mysterious packages arriving by ship from Hong Kong—John Huston knew a great novel when he read it, and he knew better than to monkey with a winning story. If you view the movie immediately after reading the novel, you’ll wonder if there was even a shooting script. Huston’s adaptation hews that closely to the book.

One omission in Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a brief story Sam Spade tells to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale. Spade’s story has nothing to do with finding the Falcon, nothing to do with the motley assortment of characters searching for it up and down the streets of San Francisco, nothing really to do with anything in the novel. The story is a mystery all right, but not in its elements of detection, which it has none of, but what the story means and why Spade is telling it to O’Shaughnessy.

The Maltese Falcon is a model of brisk pacing and efficient writing, a novel of sensation and suspense, and so the digression stands out all the more for it. Spade’s brief tale, two and a half pages long, is one of the most mysterious and puzzling aspects of The Maltese Falcon. Although never referred to as such in the book, it has become known as The Flitcraft Parable.

The parable

Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy of a well-to-do family man in Tacoma, Washington named Flitcraft. In 1922 Flitcraft left his office for lunch and never returned, missing the four o’clock tee-off he’d reserved a mere half-hour before. He also abandoned a good family and $200,000 in the bank, leaving behind no indication of another woman in his life, or any kind of double-life at all. As Spade says about Flitcraft’s disappearance, in what may be the absolute best of Hammett’s prose:

“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand.”

Five years after Flitcraft had vanished, Spade was working for one of the larger detective agencies in Seattle when

Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles—that was his first name—Pierce. He had an automobile business…a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season.

Although not told in-scene, it’s easy to envision Spade’s visit to Flitcraft not so much as a confrontation but a tense social visit. For a tough-guy book, there are no threats or intimidation in The Flitcraft Parable, no car chase or running down dark streets with revolvers unholstered. The parable reads like Flitcraft and Spade were drinking coffee while discussing the situation. But it is tense, as Flitcraft must attempt to explain the logic behind his actions, if any.

After all, what has really changed for Flitcraft? Once again he holds an office job, has a wife and child, a house, even that four o’clock tee-off, all in Spokane, a mere three hundred miles away from a near-identical life in Tacoma.

What precipitated his flight? While going to lunch that day in 1922, Flitcraft passed a high-rise construction site:

“A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. … He felt like somebody has taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

Realizing that his life had been randomly spared, Flitcraft decides to randomly upend his life. Like the prince Buddha shedding his family and power and worldly possessions, Flitcraft abandoned his comforts to wander the world. He drifted until he wound up in Spokane, a four-hour drive from his family, and settled into a situation indiscernible from his original:

“He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

The story ends there. Unimpressed, Brigid O’Shaughnessy shrugs off the parable and changes the subject. To the casual reader it appears as a digression from the thrilling search for the Falcon, and not a particularly relevant digression at that. What’s more, Flitcraft’s explanation does not satisfy. There must be more to his story, but Flitcraft is not mentioned again in the novel.

One cannot imagine The Flitcraft Parable finding a place in pulps like Black Mask, magazines that instructed their writers “When in doubt, throw a dead body at ’em.” No gun is leveled, no whiskey is poured, no dame is saved. In The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett crafted the most iconic private detective novel ever, the singular representation of an entire form, and yet in it he wrote the most unorthodox story of detection ever.

Charles Flitcraft

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

It can be overemphasized that Hammett was, prior to taking up the pen, a private detective. Too often his experience as a Pinkerton agent is treated as a trump card by his proponents, proof that Hammett’s work is authentic compared to the detective fiction of “amateur” hardboiled writers.

It’s important to state: The Maltese Falcon is not a work of hard realism. Hammett understood how to give people what they wanted to read, hence his success in the pages of Black Mask. He also had a preternatural gift of vivid and bold writing. Raymond Chandler asserted Hammett did “over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” That’s why, unlike most of his peers at Black Mask, Hammett is still studied and marveled over today.

But Hammett was a private eye and he knew the ins and outs of that profession. He knew that such work did not always involve reaching for one’s revolver to get answers. He knew sitting down and talking frankly will sometimes get all the information one requires. No hot lights, no pounding on the desk, no good-cop/bad-cop.

Look again at the subdued language when Spade is hired by Flitcraft’s wife:

Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right.

No leggy femme fatale arriving at the detective’s office wearing a mourning veil with a slit up her dress. Mrs. Flitcraft’s entrance has all the dramatic effect going to the phone company to request a change in service. The weary acknowledgement—”It was Flitcraft, all right”—indicates Spade knew all along it would be the same man, although his reaction later tells us he’d never seen a man skip town for quite the same reasons as Flitcraft’s. The subdued language is echoed in Flitcraft’s tepid attempt to explain those reasons to Spade: “He had never told anybody his story before…He tried now.” This is not a parable of a man making a considered choice. Flitcraft up and left with little self-examination at all, compelled, it seems, by cosmic forces beyond our ken.

Passivity is the standard in The Flitcraft Parable. Even Mrs. Flitcraft shrugs and lets it go when told by Spade of Flitcraft’s bigamy:

“She didn’t want any scandal, and, after the trick he had played on her—the way she looked at it—she didn’t want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell all around.”

The parable is built from the elements of scandal and recklessness and infidelity, but like tightening your grip on bread dough, Hammett lets the gooey salaciousness squeeze out and fall away. The three characters—Spade, Flitcraft, and his wife—simply give in to what has happened without complaint or fuss.

It’s not just an usual detective story, it’s an unusual story, no qualifier required. Hammett offers no hero or victim to identify with, no epiphanic moment, and no moral at the end, as most parables would conclude with. The tale has all the trappings of a Cheever story, but it never sneers down on the suburban way of life Flitcraft abandons and returns to. (Keep in mind that Hammett was an urban sophisticate in this period and sympathetic to the Communist Party and socialist movements; he would maintain strong leftist beliefs the rest of his life.) Flitcraft’s escape from domesticity to male freedom also sounds like the setup for an Updike novel, but again, the escape is not truly escape for Flitcraft, just as his return to Spokane is not a return to domestic imprisonment.

For a writer whose stock-and-trade is hot lead and wisecracking gangsters, Hammett tells The Flitcraft Parable with light, oblique touches. One is left with a sense that the falling construction beam shook up the cosmos and dislodged something vital, propelling Flitcraft out into the world. By the time Flitcraft’s orbit returned to domesticity in Spokane, that dislodged piece had slipped back into place and was wedged in tight. The dust settles and little has changed.

Charles Peirce

An important detail in the parable is Flitcraft’s assumed name when he settles in Spokane: Charles Pierce. This is most likely a reference to the American philosopher and polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced “purse”), the father of Pragmatism and one of the great thinkers of the 19th century. There is indirect evidence that Hammett knew well of Peirce’s work. In a letter to his publisher, Hammett describes The Maltese Falcon as the most “philosophical” work he’d produced to date. Peirce’s essays were published in popular magazines and his books were widely read and studied. The question then is why Hammett would namedrop one of the most important philosophers of the prior 100 years into a detective story about locating an old statuette.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

A clue may lie in Peirce’s work in philosophy. Peirce’s Pragmatism was multifaceted, but one of its concerns was the relationship between doubt, belief, and truth. Peirce was also fascinated with randomness and how it shaped history.

Peirce argued that the universe is not entirely deterministic, that an element of chaos exists, and that this chaos is necessary for variations to form and evolve. He dubbed his theory Tychism. Peirce saw Darwinism as just one example of Tychism at work. Peirce didn’t say that the universe is pure randomness, just that by the injection of a small amount of uncertainty—call it a seed of chaos—variations and change sprung forth, and from there true growth.

Regarding doubt, belief, and truth, Peirce expressed the role of imagination on the search for truth in an 1878 essay he wrote for Popular Science, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”:

…[Doubt] stimulates the mind to an activity which may be slight or energetic, calm or turbulent. Images pass rapidly through consciousness, one incessantly melting into another, until at last, when all is over—it may be in a fraction of a second, in an hour, or after long years—we find ourselves decided as to how we should act under such circumstances as those which occasioned our hesitation. In other words, we have attained belief.

According the Peirce, doubt is the key component to fruitful inquiry. Not just garden-variety doubt (as in “I doubt I can make the party in time”) but the kind of doubt that “stimulates the mind to an activity.” The stimulating doubt forces the mind to engage with the question and come up with an alternative that we believe is the truth. Our decision on how one would act is, in effect, how one did act—”in other words, we have attained belief.”

Putting it all together, the sound of the steel beam hitting the sidewalk, the fleck of concrete striking Flitcraft in the check and scarring him there (“He rubbed it with his finger—well, affectionately—when he told me about it”), the sudden question of why he had not been killed: This random accident and chance survival introduced a seed of doubt to Flitcraft’s ordered, static life. It caused him to consider an alternate reality—a reality without his family or fortune. When he could see his life without them, it was just a few more steps to actualize that belief.

Flitcraft’s snap decision seems monumental from our external viewpoint, but for him it was nothing more than a slight shift: “Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away.” Flitcraft goes out of his way to point out to Spade the “reasonableness” of this decision. Stepping back, maybe it does seem reasonable. It was also unsustainable—but no matter.

The reason for the telling

While Spade tells the parable, he and O’Shaughnessy are waiting for Joel Cairo to join them. Brigid O’Shaugnessy has had dealings with Cairo in the past and has come to Spade for protection. But O’Shaughnessy has lied to Spade already (her first words to him were lies) and he expects her to lie again. This is the commonly offered reason for Spade telling her the parable: Spade is indirectly informing O’Shaughnessy that he does not expect her deceit to end. Like Flitcraft, the thinking goes, she too will not change.

It seems too straightforward a decode for me. Sam Spade is not one for long-winded oratories. It would be much more in character for him to say, “You’ve lied to me before and you’ll lie to me again.” Done and done. In fact, he does tell that to her elsewhere in the book. There’s no reason for him to cloak it in a parable about a man in Spokane.

It’s worth noting that Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third-person objective. Although Sam Spade is in every scene and the narrator stays close to him, we as readers are never privy to Spade’s internal thoughts. We can only guess what Spade is thinking at any moment. That’s the true mystery of The Maltese Falcon, not whodunnit, but What does Sam Spade know, and when does he know it? When it comes to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, I think Sam Spade has her pretty well figured out, much like he knew he would find Flitcraft when he traveled to Spokane. (“It was Flitcraft all right.”) Spade will work with O’Shaughnessy, but only to find the Falcon and to dig out the truth about her…even if that truth confirms what he already suspects.

I also refuse to believe that The Flitcraft Parable is about a man who does not change. Flitcraft’s beliefs are challenged by the chance accident of the falling beam. His travels—his search for some sort of truth—lead him back to his original beliefs. That does not mean his travels were wasted. Flitcraft has no regrets for what he did. His travels—his inquiry—made him a different man, even if he seems to be the same man as before, which he is not.

Spade uses The Flitcraft Parable to issue a statement, a personal credo. He’s saying there is a truth out there and it’s worth looking for it, even if you wind up confirming what you already knew. What’s more, randomness and chance stir the pot, make things happen, creates possibilities. Spade is not Sherlock Holmes. He does not see the world as orderly deductions, one fact leading unquestionably to another. Spade gambles, he take risks, he bluffs. (He’s named after a suit of cards, after all.) Later in the novel an adversary compliments Spade: “There’s never telling what you’ll do or say next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing.” It’s as concise observation as any written about Sam Spade.

Peirce wrote “Do not block the way of inquiry.” Is there a more concise statement of the worldview of Sam Spade? Or, for that matter, the detective novel?

Or of Dashiell Hammett, a man whose left-wing beliefs led to his imprisonment at the age of 55, assigned the duty of cleaning toilets, all for believing that doubt and inquiry could lead to a better society?

November 13, 2015: Check out “Another interpretation of ‘The Flitcraft Parable'”

What happened to Longform.org?

Longform.orgWay back in 2008, Michael Agger wrote for Slate “How we read online”, a State of the Union on the dreadful shape of Web journalism. Agger’s piece enumerated the accepted practices of online writing that had been pounded into place by the invisible fist of SEO Darwinism: short paragraphs, quick sentences, lots of boldface to anchor attention, and plenty of bullet lists to attract eyeballs. Add a dash of in-the-know sarcasm and a pinch of holier-than-thou smarm, bake until bubbly hot, and you had Internet journalism circa 2008. Nothing mindblowing in Agger’s piece, nothing particularly damning either, just an observer stopping for a deep breath, looking backwards to 1997 (or so), and uttering, “This is where we’ve arrived after ten years?” If you enjoy reading, Agger’s article was a discouraging summary of your options online.

Hence my excitement in 2012 when I discovered Longform.org, an aggregator site of digital long-form journalism reliably curated by the University of Pittsburgh’s writing program. The site updates daily with links to long essays (over 2,000 words) published around the Web. A concise capsule summary accompanying each link provides just enough context to know if a story is your bag of oats. It’s a bit damning of our culture that 2,000 words counts as “long” when not so long ago Time or Newsweek would have categorized that as a filler article, but so be it: in 2012, Longform curated the Web I wanted to experience.

Longform’s bread-and-butter essays were willing to breathe and go in-depth, allowing the author time to wander a bit off the path and stretch out to take in the long view of things. They were the kind of articles that made you leave the browser tab open so you could come back to them later. The kind of material you would share with friends when you met them in the real world, not merely the clickbait that you dumped into your Facebook feed to further burnish your online persona.

Some examples of great work introduced to me by Longform includes “Cigarettes and Alcohol: Andy Capp” from PlanetSlade, James Surowiecki’s “A Brief History of Money” from IEEE’s Spectrum, and the Wikipedia article on the Taman Shud mystery, easily the strangest true crime story you’ll ever read. (Longform’s capsule: “An unidentified body found near the beach in Australia in 1948. An unclaimed suitcase. A coded note.”)

I could name a dozen more great articles Longform introduced to me, but these three form a snapshot of the Internet they were curating in 2012. In aggregate, Longform’s recommendations acted as a collective refutation of Michael Agger’s 2008 pronouncement: The Web doesn’t have to be written in smarmy bulleted shorthand. Longform proved people were ready to read substantial work online. (The years 2011–2012 may go down as the tipping point for the general acceptance of electronic-only written long work, not just long-form journalism, but also ebooks and the legitimization of short story and poetry web sites.)

The above snapshot of recommendations also points to something even more exciting about Longform’s aesthetics, namely their openness to a wide variety of sources. All comers were welcome under the Longform umbrella (or inside the Longform lighthouse, in deference to their logo). PlanetSlade is journalist Paul Slade’s personal web site, a kind of blog of essays he’s been unable to place with magazines, digital or otherwise. Spectrum is the mouthpiece of IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, hardly a purveyor of mainstream journalism. Everyone knows Wikipedia, but for Longform to pick one of its entries as a worthy read for the serious-casual reader is, I think, their boldest statement yet.

Today, nearing the end of 2014, Longform is going stronger than ever. They’ve ramped up their staff (sixteen editors, interns, and support staff according to their About page), offer a slick iPhone/iPad app with social media features, produce a podcast, and have promised lots more to come. If Longform is a weather vane, long-form journalism on the Internet should continue to enjoy sunshine and blue skies.

So why do I feel like a plaid-wearing hipster complaining he just heard his favorite college-radio band on a Top 40 station? I’ve not seen Longform make anything close to a bold statement in over a year. What happened to Longform?

Longform’s recommendations for personal blog posts or independent ezines seem far-off memories. Oddities like Spectrum are now rarities. Lately, Longform’s daily march of fresh links are a bland cavalcade of sturdy name brands: GQ, The Baffler, The Atlantic, Businessweek, and Grantland, just to name what I see on their home page as of this moment. There’s a couple of odd ducks in there (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eurogamer), but they are dying echoes of what Longform once was and would like to pretend it remains.

Longform’s saving grace is their fiction recommendations, a nice touch that keeps the flame alive for those of us not regularly producing non-fiction. But like its nonfiction staples, Longform appears to have its favorites for sources of fiction—I’m looking at you, Collagist and Atticus Review.

The homogenization of Longform’s picks is the most discouraging aspect of this shift. Today’s Longform is less varied and less quirky than the past, now more topical and aligned to the 24-hour news cycle of crisis-mode journalism. Longform’s greatest asset in 2012 was the element of surprise tinged with humor. You simply don’t read articles about Andy Capp or killer truck drivers very often. Longform put a much-needed spotlight on these great unusual stories and their writers. It seemed to revel in finding that story you never would have heard about before. Today’s Longform links to that dialogue between Frank Rich and Chris Rock, but let’s not fool ourselves: you were bound to hear about it anyway. Longform didn’t bring much to the table in that instance.

It’s not that Longform should banish mainstream journalism from their daily feed. There’s a place for big-name journalism, but considering those organizations’ resources, I would raise the bar on them to make room for other voices to enter the conversation. For example, Grantland‘s piece on Don King is astonishingly human and one of the best reads of last year. It remains a singularity in Grantland‘s publishing history (which is largely NBA trade analyses and movie retrospectives). Grantland attempted to surpass it in November with a tepid, torpid piece on sumo wrestling best remembered as a technical demonstration of HTML 5’s feature set, but Longform featured it anyway.

I keep returning to the word curation. A trendy term and overused at the end of 2014, but if there’s ever a Web site it applies to, it’s Longform. Digital curation is what Longform provides; curation is how it should be judged.

Here’s what I mean by curation. The Louvre is the most exhausting museum I’ve ever visited, a leafblower of art and artifacts aimed straight at your visual cortex. Yet the smaller, more modest British Museum is the better experience. Why? At the British Museum, traveling from room to room feels like thumbing through a pocket-sized guide of Western history. Empty space and shadows counterpoint masterpieces. When a room is busy with artwork, it’s busy like a rural British garden, that is, rigorously cultivated to appear untended. The British Museum’s success is the result of considered decisions, the curators picking and choosing with care from all the cultural riches available to them. The assembled pieces form a cogent experience, and so what’s left out is as vital as what’s included.

Yesterday, Longform’s curators offered to their audience an article with the Upworthy-esque title “This Doomed Alaskan Village Shows Just How Unprepared We are for Climate Change”. This is the straw that broke my back. I haven’t read the piece so I can’t comment on its quality, but everything I’ve come to dread about Longform is encapsulated in this recommendation. The breathless headline—juicy and primed for sharing on Facebook—tells me this not the long view, but instead urgency reportage, the journalistic equivalent of grabbing someone by the lapels and shaking them while demanding Don’t you care? And it’s Longform pushing another politically-charged piece in a time when we’re subjected to non-stop political cattle-prodding from all sides. It may be a beautiful story, it may be an important story, but as a piece of an assembled whole that’s rapidly losing my attention, maybe it’s time for me to find a new curator.