Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Transmission (under the hood / of ideas)

Well, this business with The Zeroes (my novel, now available for the Kindle and all enabled devices!) has been on my mind pretty constantly for the last week or so, so I haven't had much opportunity to worry myself with much else. In order to calm myself down, I went back to Jersey for the weekend to visit the family, meet up with friends, play EarthBound, and generally avoid doing or thinking anything productive. I needed a break, dammit.

The day after I arrived home, my car began acting funny. You know what you don't want to see when you open up the hood to take a look? TRANSMISSION FLUID EVERYWHERE.

So I'll probably need to have a new transmission put in or buy a new car. The place I'm living/working at gives me a $500 stipend once a month. In all likelihood, a new transmission will effectively cost me two months' pay.

All of a sudden it seems tremendously imperative that I move as many copies of The Zeroes as possible. (Available on Kindle! Check back in two to three weeks for a print version! FOR GODS SAKE I NEED THIS REALLY

In the meantime, I haven't got much else prepared this week -- except for maybe this letter I wrote to a colleague recently. Guess something in his one-paragraph message must have hit some sort of spigot.

Sorry for taking so long to answer. I’m awful at keeping up with personal email, since my inclination is to give the most worthwhile response possible to anyone who took the time to write me a worthwhile response. So instead of just answering these things off the cuff, I put it aside and think it over – and then forget about it until I’m cleaning out my inbox three to six months later. Ach.

Your praise is much appreciated, and I can understand and sympathize with your not reading fiction. Novels aren’t really in vogue these days (except for the kind with vampires, private detectives, and/or vampire private detectives that you buy at the airport, read in a week, and then never touch or think about again), and people with artistic temperaments tend to gravitate towards alternative forms that promise a bigger audience and a greater potential for gain. (Well, the sensible ones do, anyway.)

I think this New Media business is partially to blame – and not only because of the havoc it’s been wreaking on our attention span/s (“span” in the individual case, “spans” in the cultural). Why follow the life of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina when you can just flip on some reality TV show or follow somebody’s Facebook feed a few years backward? Why push through some author’s pretend version of events when the world now converts itself – seemingly automatically – into a series of concentric, simultaneously-occurring narratives that perpetually spell themselves from one day to the next?

I think there’s still a place for good fiction – even if not many people are writing or reading it anymore.

I recall once reading a tract by some Nietzsche/Kierkegaard-spouting philosophy student about how he stopped reading fiction and now only reads philosophy books because fiction doesn’t go far enough. At its best, he says, it’s only distilled philosophy.

My tendency is to see it as the difference between an idealized principle and the situation “on the ground.” You can read an economics textbook and get an understanding of what the markets should be expected to do over the next few months or years, but there are always too many unseen variables and fudged assumptions at play to do anything but produce educated guesses. Nor can you understand the whole extent of any situation within the system on purely economic terms; there is more to humanity during a given fiscal year than what they produce and consume. Another comparison (one closer to my heart) would be how Kepler’s Laws should permit you to understand and predict everything about planetary motion within the Solar System, but that’s not the case. They’re extremely accurate, but it’s the smaller variables – the orbital perturbations from the interactions of the planets’ gravitational fields on each other, for instance – that prevent the idealized model from fully matching the truth of the situation.

Fiction is very often philosophical, but philosophy always assumes nice, round, easily-divisible numbers and simplified cases that prevent one from fully understanding its implications within dynamic, mutable circumstances without accounting for the particulars. Am I making any sense? It’s the difference between the Republic of Plato and North Korea’s “socialist paradise” (their words, not mine). It’s the difference between reading a statement like “the meaning of the world does not reside in the world” from some early twentieth-century philosopher and understanding what this might really mean (or how it might apply) to a person living their life on this planet.

Fiction gives us a controlled environment in which we can explore what happens when the pure idea is introduced to the muddy reality. (Plato would certainly agree that any object from the World of Ideas can never be pulled into physical existence without suffering some significant wear and tear.)

Sometimes the truth is too elusive and subtle to be condensed into a declarative statement. Sometimes it’s too good at evading articulation to be conceived (or conveyed) on its own. Fiction offers us a way of giving these fragments a “delivery” vehicle, without which they would be meaningless and inert.

If a novel doesn’t take its argument and follow it to the scary, uncharted place it needs to go – stops short at a point where it’s easy to do so – then that is the fault of the novelist, not the novel. (Of course, nobody really understands how far anything goes. That’s why people still puzzle over philosophy and write novels nobody reads.)

(Another problem I have with replying to email like this is that when I finally get around to it, I end up penning very long answers to questions I wasn’t actually asked.)

Long story short: maybe you shouldn’t read my novel, but I’d suggest taking War and Peace for a spin while this life affords you the opportunity. If you ever break your abstinence from fiction, that is what you should do it with.



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