The New American Regionalism

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

An untested opinion I’ve held for a many years:

Modern mystery fiction has supplanted 19th-century American regional literature, sometimes known as “writing of local color,” as its dominant form.

Regionalism is most strongly associated with Southern writers like Kate Chopin and Joel Chandler Harris, but local color writing sprung up from all over the country. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”) cataloged New England’s parochialism while Bret Harte wrote roaring tales of California’s Gold Rush. Scholars make distinctions between the terms “regional literature” and “writing of local color,” but I’ll use them interchangeably here.

Regionalism in America faded after the turn of the century to be replaced by a more consensus-based literature. Perhaps the twin rise of mass literacy and mass media contributed to regionalism’s fade, although it did not go extinct. Faulkner and Jean Toomer wrote well after the turn of the last century, and wrote using techniques that would have been foreign to the earlier regional writers, but their fiction is unmistakably grounded in regionalism.

But did regionalism truly fade away? Or was it replaced by something else?

It seems to me that mystery fiction quietly—almost subversively—filled in regionalism’s absence. Every major city in America is host to at least one major crime or detective writer, from Seattle (Aaron Elkins, G. M. Ford) to Boston (Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane) to Chicago (Sara Paretsky) to New Orleans (James Lee Burke), all representing their respective locales in their work. Name almost any place in America today and you’ll find crime writers prowling its dark corners. In the process, they’re introducing the region’s colors and textures to a national audience.

More than any other form of fiction today, mystery is concerned with setting. Science fiction has almost no restrictions when it comes to setting. Fantasy explicitly takes place elsewhere than the here and now, otherwise it’s not fantasy. Romance fiction has setting too, but it’s concerns are before the fireplace and in the bedroom.

Even contemporary American literature—”fiction of literary intent,” so-called hard realism—is not as connected to setting as mystery fiction. Too often stories from the small literary magazines feel as though they could take place in any city or suburb or small farm, whichever backdrop suits the characters and the emotional arcs they traverse.

Perhaps the only other form of American fiction so tied to setting is the Western, a genre that not coincidentally shares a great deal in common with the American mystery, especially the private eye genre.

I’m not saying other forms of fiction don’t possess a setting, or that they don’t concern themselves with setting. I’m saying that, for the form as a whole, mystery adopts a priority for regions—regionalism—other forms do not.

In mystery, scenes unfold on streets with names and in bars with a history. A great mystery reads like a travelogue of a town, a neighborhood, or a county. The American mystery has a tradition of hewing to real-world settings, such as the streets of Nob Hill in Hammett’s stories and novels. Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” police procedurals make take place in a fictional New York City borough, but it’s the Big Apple all the same. Sue Grafton’s stand-in for Santa Barbara (“Santa Teresa”) is so Southern California, you can imagine The Eagles cutting a single about it.

This, I say, is the New American Regionalism. Mystery writers delight in bringing alive their surroundings, and by doing so they share their surroundings with their readership. Local color means local characters and local charm. Look at what stylist Elmore Leonard did so expertly did in his Florida novels, capturing the many dialects and cultures within Miami. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry of local color concentrates on “the features and peculiarities of a particular locality and its inhabitants.” This fits Florida crime writing to a T, with an emphasis on the peculiarities and particulars of the genre’s always-colorful cast of characters (Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Edna Buchanan).

My first inkling of the connection between regional writing and mysteries came to me twenty-five years ago living in San Luis Obispo, California. An ever-reliable bookstore there stocked a case of local writers, including several mystery series. Perusing the back cover blurbs, it was apparent the writers had mined the peculiarities and particulars of San Luis Obispo County for all it had to offer. My cynical younger self found it ludicrous, these over-boiled private eyes and steely Lt. Detectives walking the mean streets of San Luis Obispo, a place ranked “one of the happiest cities on Earth.”

Over the years I’ve lightened up. I came to realize the mystery writers of SLO Town were merely doing what all regional writers have done in America: Explore, critique, and celebrate they places they live.

Remember when everyone thought ebooks would replace physical books? Me neither

A tweet today reminded me of a topic I’ve wanted to get off my chest for some time now:

To answer Kessler’s question, no, I do not remember any moment in time when authors and publishers (or even readers) thought ebooks would replace paper books.

I’ve seen and heard this claim so often I can only conclude some massive rewiring of collective memory has beset our culture. There never was any serious wave of self-congratulatory back-patting in the publishing world, never a moment when all involved parties joined their voices and spoke in unity about the demise of physical books. It never happened.

A Google search of “ebooks will replace physical books” discovers exactly one (1) entry on the front page advocating for such a change—and that page is a summary of a debate from a Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance conference in 2015. An august association, I suppose, but not a representative body for all “#authors and #publishers.”

The remainder of the Google search is an object lesson in Betteridge’s Law: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” The Google search results include:

As Betteridge predicted, all of these missives declare paper-based books will never die, even though their authors drop in the usual journalistic escape-hatch clauses admitting, yeah, okay, ebooks are here to stay. From the way these writers discuss the issue, you would think there’s zero latitude for personal reading preferences. The mere existence of ebooks is treated as a mortal threat to the traditional form.

Since I publish ebooks, some people seem to presume I’m a kind of cultish advocate for end-of-lifeing paper-based books. I’ve even lost friends over the topic. Only about 50% of my reading diet is digital, the remainder being physical books which I cherish. You can purchase my latest book in paper-form, and I’d be more than delighted if you did.

Look again at Kessler’s tweet; there’s a subtle discrimination packed inside it. Ebooks aren’t “real” books, a frustrating non-distinction for many struggling writers. It’s 2017, the 21st century. Indie music acts sell their songs only online; Netflix and Hulu produce award-winning shows only available via streaming; and yet authors who distribute digitally aren’t writing authentic books. A hundred years ago paperbacks were sneered down on as not “real.” Today the distinction seems quaint.

A nickel’s worth of unsolicited advice to those who prefer physical books: Keep reading and keep buying, but by all means, quit ginning up outrage over a nefarious trend that never happened.

Sherlock by train

Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson by Sidney Paget (1860-1908) (Strand Magazine)Last summer I had the great fortune to spend ten weeks in Japan. I traveled by train up and down the islands, from the agriculturally diverse Hokkaido to the richly historical city of Nagasaki at the southern tip of Kyushu. Japan is a fugue of culture, architecture, and landscape. The country never repeats itself, but is stitched together by interlocking themes.

On one leg of the trip I made the key mistake of failing to pack a second book, thinking B. Traven‘s The Death Ship was a hefty enough read until my return to Tokyo. Well, I ripped through The Death Ship in no time (a great novel, by the way) and found myself facing a long stretch of time on Japan’s shinkansen (bullet train) without a thing to read. Even if I understood Japanese, Japan’s trains are not like other systems where you might chance on a discarded newspaper or a light magazine in the seat-back pocket. The Japanese do not leave their detritus behind when they detrain. They even pick up their trash when they exit a baseball game.

Desperate, I searched my smartphone and discovered on my Kindle app The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), the first published collection of Holmes’ adventures. Most of the collection’s story titles are as well-known as books of the Bible: “The Adventure of the Red-headed League”, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, and more. The stories have fallen into the public domain, hence the collection is often the free sample book Amazon supplies when you buy a Kindle or install their app.

Before my trip to Japan, I was never a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I found the Victorian airs and British pleasantries stuffy compared to Holmes’ American counterparts. When I first read “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” at age ten or eleven, I was going through a boyhood codes-and-ciphers phase. By all rights I should have loved the story. Instead I felt a bit let down by its lack of focus on actual cryptanalysis. As I learned on that train ride, Doyle’s stories are often more concerned with a viscount’s ancestry or Tsarist intrigue or preserving the good name of the British Empire than the dead body lying at Holmes’ and Watson’s feet.

All this is to explain that although I’ve read mystery fiction my entire life, from Encyclopedia Brown at the age of seven to the adult pleasures of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (which I reread every few years), on that bullet train ride I was not terribly conversant with the Sherlock Holmes corpus. I’d read The Hound of Baskersville a few years before at an acquaintance’s suggestion when I mentioned I’d enjoyed the neo-Gothic Rebecca. Other than some Sherlock Holmes movie spoofs and casual viewing of Jeremy Brett’s BBC series, my exposure to the detective was largely through cultural references and the turns of phrase that have entered our common language, much like someone ignorant in Shakespeare will recognize bits of Hamlet.

Something wonderful happened on that train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto. As these stories of detection and deduction spooled out before me, I realized much of Doyle’s contemporary British audience would have been reading these stories on trains as well. Since he was writing for Strand magazine, Doyle’s audience would’ve picked up a copy at a newsstand before boarding, the Victorian version of downloading an app before a long plane ride.

The cadences and rhythms of Doyle’s stories almost appear crafted for train reading. The percussion of the shinkansen tracks below and the low whistle of the passing wind was the perfect white noise to accompany a Holmes mystery. More than once I started a story as our train left the station, and by the time Holmes was announcing his solution, we were slowing for our next stop. Obviously Doyle wasn’t timing his stories for bullet trains, but it felt he crafted them with a sense of being read in a single sitting between destinations, whether traveling by steam or horse or electromagnets.

How often does Holmes send Watson scurrying to locate a train schedule to confirm some paramount clue or destroy an alibi? Or does Holmes engage in mysterious research in London before setting off by train first thing in the morning, only revealing the details of his research to Watson on the ride north?

Holmes and Watson call for cabs, hire carriages and watercraft, borrow steeds, follow bicycle tracks, and so on. Freedom of mobility is vital to a Sherlock Holmes story. It’s the core question in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”. A horse-and-carriage ride is the central puzzle in “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”. The climax of A Study in Scarlet involves, of all things, hailing a cab off Baker Street.

All fiction writers are writing to a perceived readership, whether they acknowledge it or not. This is distinct from a “target audience,” which commercial writers are all too familiar with. (A staff writer for Wired magazine will consciously know her target audience, which is distinct from the target audience for a sportswriter in a Midwestern farming community.) My notion of a “perceived readership” is more personal than a target audience, a writer’s internalization of their desired audience rather than a market demographic.

Some writers write with magazine editors and agents and publishers in mind—people they hope will publish the story they’re crafting. Some writers think of authors they admire or authors they desire to emulate. Some writers are thinking of friends and family whom they hope to impress, or at least earn their respect. Some writers are thinking of the public at large (whatever that abstract concept means) hoping to earn a wide audience.

Unlike “target audience,” it doesn’t mean the writer is actually writing for this perceived reader. The writer doesn’t actually believe only their friends will read their book, or that some big-name writer will pick it up, especially since that big-name writer may be dead. But just as painting a house requires a house to apply the emulsion, a perceived readership in the back of a writer’s mind gives the writer a kind of fuzzy target to aim for without committing to it.

By the time I returned from Japan, I’d devoured three Sherlock Holmes collections. For all the faults and stuffiness, Doyle is a generous writer, one who engaged with his readership and even challenged them a bit, but never denying them their desires. I suspect Doyle (like Dickens) read correspondence from his readership and was sensitive to their criticisms and praise. I don’t think it’s an accident Doyle modeled his first-person narrator as a physician, his own intended profession, and that Watson wrote of Holmes’ exploits as though writing a newspaper article. Not only did it give the public the sensation Holmes lived—many believed so at the time—but Watson’s audience also gave Doyle the house for which to apply the paint.

Doyle’s perceived readership began to coalesce with his target audience, like blurry double-vision sharpening into a single distinct form. I’m not arguing this is desirable or advantageous, but I do think it happened and that Doyle’s writing was the better for it. I also believe this is part of the reason for Sherlock Holmes’ character persisting as a vivid creative construct well into the 21st century. After all, Holmes’ as an individual is not some empty vessel for each generation of readers to pour their own ideals into. His persistence is that he’s odd, unique, idiosyncratic, and ripe for reinterpretation.

This connection between author and perceived readership is a direct rebuttal to the 20th century myth of the “walled-off” author, the lone genius in a room with a typewriter penning works of art unsullied by mammon or mass culture. While Nabokov, Faulkner, and Woolf may not have be writing for money and fame—although I think people are too quick to assume such things—I certainly believe all three were writing for a perceived readership, some idealized notion of the reader they wished to attract.

With the rise of ride-sharing like Uber and Lyft, and with the inevitable arrival of driverless cars in the future, we may experience a fresh resurgence of people with additional time on their hands to read. Who knows? Much as digital music led to the renewal of singles, there may soon be a burgeoning market for short stories and story collections, mysteries and otherwise, for people who seek a brief sojourn while traveling between Point A and Point B without a steering wheel in hand.

What kind of story matches the cadences and rhythms of a self-driving car? Can America produce writers as sensitive and generous as Doyle to produce such work?

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Greatest rejection letter of all-time

Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1953Recently I picked up Robert Silverberg’s superb Science Fiction 101: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction, an unfortunate title for a remarkably sturdy book. Part memoir, part writing guide, part anthology, I’d recommend it to every writer whether or not they’re interested in science fiction as a genre or pursuit.

Silverberg mingles his breezy autobiography of struggling to get published as a young man in the 1950s with nuggets of practical writing advice he picked up along the way. All of this package is humbly offered to the reader. Even when penning the book in 1987, Silverberg remains in awe of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein (“our Great Exception in almost everything”), although by that time Silverberg’s name was mentioned in the same breath as those masters, and more.

Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1951Science Fiction 101 also reprints thirteen classic science fiction stories from authors like Damon Knight, Philip K. Dick, Robert Scheckly, Vance, Pohl, Aldiss…the table of contents reads like the short list of first-round inductees to The Science Fiction & Fantasy Hall of Fame. Alongside each story, Silverberg comments on why it impressed him and what he gleaned, offering hard, complete examples to his writing wisdom that so many other guides lack.

It’s fair to compare Science Fiction 101 to Stephen King’s On Writing. Both books are a bit more practical and pragmatic in their advice than loftier musings on the craft, such as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I suspect Gardner would peer down his nose at writing advice from Silverberg or King, which is too bad. Anyone who can forge a lifetime career with pen in hand deserves to be listened to and considered.

As a young man, while sweating over a typewriter struggling to earn publication credits in the science fiction magazines of yore, Silverberg also earned a degree in English Literature at Columbia University. He applies some of that study here, coming up with incisive observations about storytelling I’ve not seen made before. Offering advice on how to build a story, Silverberg does something wonderful and avoids the conflict word. I’ve discovered “conflict” is off-putting to some young writers, possibly because it suggests violence or supercharged stakes or overwrought emotions. Instead, looking back to the ancient Greeks, he frames story as propelled by dissonance:

Find a situation of dissonance growing out of a striking idea or some combination of striking ideas, find the characters affected by that dissonance, write clearly and directly using dialog that moves each scene along and avoiding any clumsiness of style and awkward shifts of viewpoint, and bring matters in the end to a point where the harmony of the universe is restored and Zeus is satisfied.

It’s not the final word on how to write a story, but it’s a surprisingly serviceable start.

Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1951Silverberg’s candor and generosity to the reader is so no-nonsense, he even reprints the rejection notes he received while canvassing science fiction magazines with his early work. Big-name writers usually dip into their rejection stack for the wrong reasons: to settle a score, or thumb their nose at those who stood in their way years past. Here, Silverberg reprints rejection slips that served to make him a better writer, admitting how he deserved them, and how he was often too young to take their advice at face-value.

My favorite rejection letter comes from H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction. Galaxy was a bit before my time (I grew up reading Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction). but Galaxy was well-known to me merely by its reputation. Galaxy was a “serious” science fiction magazine, known for avoiding the lewd subject matter and titillating covers the other science fiction magazines lured in readers with. (I’ve included a few of Galaxy‘s best covers here. The Internet Archive has a remarkable collection of back issues, covers and inside matter, that’s well worth perusing if you have any interest in science fiction’s past.)

Galaxy editor H.L. Gold sent Silverberg this rejection in 1956, when Silverberg had already broken into the field and was padding the back pages of science fiction magazines:

You’re selling more than you’re learning. The fact that you sell is tricking you into believing that your technique is adequate. It is—for now. But project your career twenty years into the future and see where you’ll stand if you don’t sweat over improving your style, handling of character and conflict, resourcefulness in story development. You’ll simply be more facile at what you’re doing right now, more glib, more skilled at invariably taking the easiest way out.

If I didn’t see a talent there—a potential one, a good way from being fully realized—I wouldn’t take the time to point out the greased skidway you’re standing on. I wouldn’t give a damn. But I’m risking your professional friendship for the sake of a better one.

Robert Silverberg was 21 when he received this remarkable letter, perhaps the greatest rejection letter of all-time.

Rewatching Slacker

SlackerAlthough I can’t imagine any of the characters in the film Slacker being terribly nostalgic about anything, it’s worth noting that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Richard Linklater’s gem. Sanctified in The Onion A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” and topping numerous critics’ “best indie film of all-time” rankings, Slacker is an odd addition to any best-of list. After all, this is seemingly a film about not giving a shit.

At least, that’s the most immediate impression on first watching Slacker, that and its nontraditional film narrative. Slacker doesn’t follow a story arc of one or two characters, and it’s not a collection of marginally intertwined stories, like Altman’s Short Cuts or the animated Heavy Metal. In Slacker the camera lens floats from one set of people to another, lingering for a minute here or ten minutes there. The camera eavesdrops on a stream of unrelated interactions—in sum, a day in the life of Austin, Texas, circa 1991. Often these moments have no distinguishable beginning or ending, just slices of time in the company of cafe philosophers, conspiracy theorists, guys trying to get laid, and girls trying to be taken seriously.

Entirely linear, Slacker never flashes back or forward, always remaining in the moment, giving the film a kind of bald, unprotected sensation. The camera drops into discussions midstream, giving us the opportunity to watch and listen but leaving it entirely for us to surmise backstories and histories. Then, as one or two people in the group grow fidgety or distracted—or bored—they move on, as does the camera, floating to the next interaction. There’s no soundtrack to speak of, only the occasional background music from a radio or club band, but nothing more. The camera is the star of Slacker, although it took me years to realize it.

The film opens with a young man (director Linklater himself) arriving in Austin and launching into a chain of free-form ruminations while a disinterested taxi driver takes him into town. The film closes with a raucous group of friends driving a convertible up the mountains outside of town and, in a final pique, throwing the camera—the star of the movie—down a cliff. In between, the camera moves between perhaps fifty different vignettes, eavesdropping on everything from the inane and mundane to the fantastical and bizarre.

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Impossibly, each of these moments is wonderful in its own right. Some of the episodes reach father than the others. Everyone who’s watched the film remembers its most famous scene, the overly-familiar young woman (Teresa Taylor, drummer for the Butthole Surfers!) fencing a stolen jar containing Madonna’s pap smear, pubic hair and all. My personal favorite remains the inept burglar caught in the act in an elderly anarchist’s house, only to receive a gentle education on the history of anarchism in America. It’s the most complete and well-rounded episode in the film. It comes near the film’s midpoint, giving the audience a kind of narrative breather before the tour of Austin’s alt-underground bestiary continues.

Considering its unconventional narrative style, Slacker is refreshingly not self-conscious (or self-congratulatory) of its rule-breaking. (The opening with Linklater in the cab may be the only “meta” moment in the film.) For all the ground this self-financed film breaks, it’s comfortable and comforting viewing, the absolute opposite of the avant garde. That’s another reason Slacker sustains after twenty-five years. It’s hard to mock a film-school film and its no-name cast when it’s so relaxed in its own skin.

Any review or retrospective of Slacker is bound to name-drop “Generation X” and I won’t disappoint on that count. (After all, I’ve got some skin in the game.) Slacker is often called the definitive film of my generation. But when I think of the “great” movies of a generation—Easy Rider and The Big Chill for the Baby Boomers, The Social Network for the Millennials—I see aging, curling Polaroids losing their currency with each passing minute—movies of like-aged, like-minded, similarly-groomed people bellyaching they’ve not gotten their due. Slacker is not that film.

One observation critics sometimes make is that this is not truly a Generation X film because not every character is of that age. It’s true, but it’s also true the older non-Gen-X characters are treated differently than the rest. In films like Easy Rider and The Social Network, the older generation is treated with disdain and suspicion. In Slacker, those suspicions are reversed. An age-worn hitchhiker and the anarchist mentioned before are voices afforded the opportunity to air their wisdom to a welcome audience, while the specious logics of the younger characters are treated more as clever amusements. In the film’s final moments, an elderly man strolls down a street narrating into a tape recorder the quiet poetic wisdom of a long, full life—only to be interrupted by a young man, 20 or 21, driving a car with mounted loudspeakers, blaring into the microphone empty rage about guns and knives solving all political problems. It’s obvious where this film’s sympathies lie.

For the A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” review, Scott Tobias puts his finger on why Slacker is distinguished from other generation-defining movies:

It isn’t enough to think of Gen-Xers as merely jaded and sarcastic; indeed, there’s little of that attitude on display in Linklater’s film. But there is a sense of profound disconnection, a refusal by young people to participate in a system that will bring them no joy and wither their souls. As one character puts it, “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death.”

My personal introduction to Slacker was in 1992, not long after its release, watching the movie on VHS at a Saturday night pasta feed. Eight or nine of us were crowded into a duplex’s living room in San Luis Obispo, me and my college-aged friends, some I knew well, some I didn’t. In particular, the singer and rhythm guitarist of our band was there. (We were going to be big, but no one could understand what our music was doing.) We were feasting on plates of red-sauce spaghetti and hot garlic bread. One of the women had made her easy-bake Apple Brown Betty. Others brought red wine and six-packs of the local beer. Dinner and a movie, on the cheap.

We were young and about to grow old. The singer was engaged to marry one of women there, the Brown Betty baker who was a housemate of mine. I was becoming involved with another woman in the room, a second housemate of mine that I would go on to live with for thirteen years. There were most likely other sub-plots in that room I was unaware of.

We knew, collectively and subconsciously, we were about to be dropped on a high-speed conveyor belt and told to run as fast as we could to keep up. Some of the people in that room thought they could step out of the way and stay clear of the inevitable. The rest of us knew, it’s called “inevitable” for a reason. For us, “getting ahead” sounded an awful lot like “falling behind.” We were all resigned to what was coming, and resigned to it in our own ways.

That’s why Linklater’s cafe au lait Dostoevskys and conspiracy savants sustains twenty-five years later. The game for the viewer is not teasing apart thought-provoking insights or brilliant dissections of American culture. Most of the musings in Slacker are, in fact, well-adorned horseshit. The game is piecing together how reasonably-educated people would arrive at such philosophies—and everyone in this film has their own philosophy, make no mistake. There’s a postmodern dignity that comes with assembling a personal credo from piece-parts and staying true to it, no matter how whacked-out it is. And that’s what’s going on in this film, with zero irony and zero sarcasm.

Pre-Internet and pre-Seinfeld, Slacker might come across as a grungy sun-drenched film of a drearier, less-snarky age. I say Linklater offers blueprints for an examined life—not the examined life, but examples of them. This is an earnest film. With few exceptions, the characters in Slacker withhold judgment about each other. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. Even when it’s obvious one of them is babbling nonsense from out in the weeds—”We’ve been on the moon since the ’50s!”—the other characters give them their space. There’s a moment in the film where a character takes a swipe at Texas Libertarians, but it seems to me that Slacker‘s code of live-and-let-live stands not far off.

Most critics pick up on a line uttered late in the film: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” It’s often interpreted as the film announcing its own thesis statement (possibly the only other “meta” moment), but it’s worth taking a second look.

I don’t see a lot of disgust in Slacker. There’s a bit of it sprinkled around: the roustabout hitchhiker (“I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it”), a mouthy “anti-artist” berating a hipster at two in the morning, an enraged polemicist in an old-fashioned electioneering sound truck. That may be about it in the disgust department, though.

Slacker 2011, a "re-imagining" produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Slacker 2011, a “re-imagining” produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Listening to Linklater’s director’s commentary (recorded for Slacker‘s 20th anniversary), I gather he’s not terribly interested in elevating emotions like disgust, rage, vengeance, or hatred. So many of his anecdotes about Slacker are soft recollections of easier times: a buddy who came through with film equipment, good times working in a T-shirt shop, a girlfriend-actor he’s still friends with, that sort of thing. Slacker is a compendium of this manner of life. Sleeping on couches, trips to dusty used-books stores, the quest for the best burrito in town: It’s not a universal way of life, but it’s a way of life mimeographed and stapled to telephone poles all across America. Any smallish city or town with a college or arts school has this scene. Slacker is its Platonic ideal.

Returning to that immortal line—”Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy”—I don’t even think there’s much apathy in the film, at least in its purest destructive form. Shrugging off others’ pet theories or forgoing a work ethic is not apathy. Questioning whether ex-convicts should be denied the right to vote or wondering if the media used Smurfs to inculcate America’s youth—both voiced in the film—doesn’t strike me as apathetic either.

Withdrawal is the common filament of Slacker, the third rail powering the camera’s dolly as it journeys through Austin. The closest Slacker gets to engagement is a gung-ho “cultural terrorist” selling T-shirts on the street. Slacker‘s characters don’t merely question, they question the act of questioning.

What did E. M. Forster write in Howard’s End? “Only connect”? Slacker is “only connect” put to film.

Twenty-five years on, I’ve lost touch with all the folks in that room in San Luis Obispo watching Slacker and drinking red wine. Over the years I intersected with a few of them, connecting briefly before moving on.

I’ll be bold and surmise that, back then, laughing and marveling over Linklater’s creation, none of us wanted to leave San Luis Obispo, or even that room. After leaving, we never wanted to return either. Perhaps we never truly left it behind.

I suppose that’s why I rewatch Slacker every few years, just as I reread certain books which have deeply affected me at points in my life. Rewatching Slacker is reconnecting with a past and making it present for a moment. It keeps alive within me a little bit of that necessary withdrawal.

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Philip K. Dick on realism, consistency, and fiction

Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other ConversationsI recently dove into the so-far-superb Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (from Melville House, publisher of the increasingly-intriguing Last Interviews collection) and am enjoying every page. I’ve written before about my semi-tortuous negotiations with PKD’s novels, and am finding (some) justification for my issues in these interviews with him.

With PKD I remain hamstrung: he’s more of a speculative fiction (and philosophical) writer than the run-of-the-mill hard sci-fi writer, which is right up my alley; I absolutely love his questions of existence, identity, and freewill that lay the foundations of his novels; and he’s a Bay Area writer to boot. And yet I find him to be a flawed writer, one who was so-very-close to writing perfect novels but had trouble overcoming basic hurdles, such as the cardboard characters and sci-fi’s obsession with “ideas” over story.

(For the record, my list of great PKD novels, in no order, remain A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle. I’m sure PKD’s fans find that list ridiculously short and astoundingly obvious. I still pick up his work now and then, so who knows, maybe I’ll find another one to add. PKD was more than prolific.)

In The Last Interview, PKD mentions to interviewer Arthur Byron Cover his early affinity for A. E. van Vogt. (I recall being fascinated with van Vogt’s Slan in junior high school, a book built from much the same brick as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.) PKD observes:

Dick: There was in van Vogt’s writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null-A. All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.

Cover: What about Damon Knight’s famous article criticizing van Vogt?

Dick: Damon feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor.

It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he’s building your house. But reality is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s the questions after my emphasis that make the book’s back cover (“How frightened are you of chaos? How happy are you with order?”), and for good reason: they seem to strike near to the questions asked in all of PKD’s work.

But I’m interested in the line about the building inspector. Damon’s review of Null-A is dismissively brief (but I suspect what’s being referred to here is Knight’s essay “Cosmic Jerrybuilder”), and I’ve not read Null-A, but in principle I line up behind PKD on this one. Reality is not as sane and orderly as many writers would have us believe. If I’m critical of contemporary literature’s fascination with “hard realism”—obsession, really—it’s because I think PKD has put his finger on a kind of shared truth: reality is fragile, but what a thorough facade it provides. It’s one thing for the average person to think they have total understanding of things they have no access to—the heart of a politician, the mind of a celebrity, the duplicity of a boss or coworker—but it’s truly tragic when a writer writes as though they have this reality thing all sewn up.

In contemporary literature, there are many moments where the narrator (either first-person or third-) will have some moment of clarity into another person’s life. Often this moment is the epiphany, although it’s barely epiphanic. (See Charles Baxter’s “Against Epiphanies” for a better argument on this point than I’m capable of producing.) These moments are the obverse of contemporary lit’s obsession with quiet realism, its cult of poignancy. But there’s chaos in our world, and it produces strangeness and unexpectedness that is neither poignant nor tied to fussy notions of realism. These fictional moments of clarity usually reveal what the writer fantasizes the world to be—a charge usually leveled at genre fiction.

My only quibble with PKD’s observation is that I don’t see chaos as an external dark force in the universe tumbling individuals and civilizations about in its hands. We are the chaos. We produce it. I’m less concerned about the wobble in Mercury’s orbit than the ability for just about anybody to murder given the right circumstances. (See the 2015 film Circle for an exploration of just that.)

The human psyche is like a computer performing billions of calculations a second. Most of the results are wrong, some off by orders of magnitude. But the computer smooths out the errors (in its own calculations and others’) to walk a thin line of existence and consistency. And the computer tells itself that its footing is steady and sure, when in fact it’s walking on the foam of statistical noise. The number of calculations it gets right are the rounding error.

Update: Shortly after posting this I discovered Damon Knight partially backtracked on his criticism of A. E. van Vogt:

Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period [while writing Null-A] he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.

Reading closely, Damon isn’t exactly agreeing with PKD’s comments (or mine, for that matter), but he does concede some flexibility on the supposed rigid strictures of fiction writing.

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.