The Ghost Inside My Child, Prime, edited by Caleb Emerson

The Ghost Inside My Child, Prime, edited by Caleb Emerson.

I wrote a story a good while ago (I don’t exactly remember when, because it wasn’t very good) about reincarnation. The plot was simple. This rich guy had found a chemical marker that could be traced and he could leave his substantial wealth to himself. Cut out the middle man, sons and daughters. Win-win. Hokum. I was, of course, aware that of the myths of paying the ferry man a coin to ferry your soul across the River Styx to Hades. On the way back into the world your body would be washed clean of all memory that would hinder a present life. Such stories are impossible to corroborate. The dead don’t talk.

If we look at how the next Dalai Lama is picked that offers clues. You guessed it, I wrote another story about that, well, not about that exactly, but it was another clunker.

George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo creates a fictional space between life and death, in which certain rules apply. It’s also a good modelling tool for thinking about such things.  

The Ghost Inside My Child does likewise. It follows a certain pattern in which the neonate is more advanced than his peers. S/he walks and talks relatively early. Then s/he has nightmares (in Americanised lingo it’s described as night terrors). Mothers are unable to comfort them. The child then reveals that s/he has been here before. They’ve lived another life. In most cases these are white, Christian couples, living in Middle America. Probably even Trump supporters.  For a wee boy, for example, to tell his mum he liked her earrings. And say he had the same kind when he was alive the last time is quite a shock, especially since she was a black women killed in a fire. I never knew the Empire State Building was also hit by a plane.  

That’s when we get the scary music. Fathers are always the ones to play the sceptics. I don’t believe in that kind of thing, they usually say. But the evidence, while actors are used to dramatize key scenes, is pretty overwhelming. A circularity in which each story is different, but patterns remain the same. An imprinting of a violent death that is being lived in the child’s body. Yeh, I know about confirmation bias and finding evidence to support the things you already believe.  If you believe in life after death it’s not such a big jump. If you don’t, it’s not a jump you’ll make. It contradicts everything we believe about individuality. We are all each other. And the idea of consciousness existing after the brain ceases to function defies the logic of the mind being a product of electrical neurons firing and creating a sense of self. Dare I say it, mind become akin to soul. The mind is not a product of consciousness or the brain. But like babushka dolls the soul contains the seeds of reality. Artificial intelligence, however, complex it becomes will lack the one element that makes us human—soul.

George Saunders, A Mastercraft in Writing and life in conversation with Max Porter.

George Saunders, A Mastercraft in Writing and life in conversation with Max Porter.

Chop a Chekov story into pieces.

Echo of class at Syracuse. Break up a story, a page at a time. Forces us to ask that question, why do I keep reading?

If I read a paragraph I’m in a different place than before, where is it?

Granular level. More irritating if the story is really good (cf, working with a shit story).

Forcing the pause.

Sit there for a few minutes asking, where am I now? What bowling pins are up in the air?

Why do I want to stop? Why do I want to keep going?

Noting emotion, I’m irritated. Wondering why?

Setting the baseline. For the rest of the year, that’s the kind of way we’ll be reading.

Read something, react to it, and try to articulate it.

There’s an intuitive noting we’re always doing, even if we don’t articulate it.

At a very basic level, we like it or we don’t.

Success in creating digressions, emotions into something worthwhile?

Second kind of noting. Rather that yes/no, remembering those reactions. And articulating them.

You can’t go into a class and say, shut up and listen. You can say I’m bringing you an object I think is worthy of consideration. Let’s see what sparks fly.

Put them in the path things that can show them the writers they were meant to be.

Touch on the obstructions they may be having.  Or they dynamic they’re trying to figure out between being funny and being serious.

The job is to put explosive devices in front of them.

You’re going to get a lot of pushback.

Students ask questions. One of the things about getting older is your intellectual sphincter tighten up and you’re already sure you already know everything.  You’re reminded talent springs eternal.

For many years as a working class person I have a reaction and I stifle it, because it can’t be right. (I can’t be right).

You try to override your initial reaction with another reaction. Something you’ve heard by somebody smarter than you.

Intellectual falsification and it can make you a crazy person.

It’s like walking into a party. It seems like a good party. There must be something wrong with you. Do you acknowledge that unease? [Ignoring it is one way of coping].

You can go astray. You can read something with too much defensiveness for example. [I’m not going to like this].

At first teaching was just something I had to do to go on writing my books. When you’re faced with a roomful of strangers you have some choices.

You’re involved in an active projection about those people. Do they hate you and find you stupid? Or are they a bunch of friends willing to be converted.

Connecting across age, gender and class, one of the best ways is looking at a made-up story.

What can happen in a room when the person at the front, trusts them.

In the US there’s been a steady devaluing of certain areas of the intellectual life. Reading and writing. Literature is this gauzy, cute, accessory. Nothing to do with the work of the real world.

Master and Man by Tolstoy.

Editing and re-drafting not the story, but yourself.

The Snowstorm

40 years pass and Tolstoy writes another story set in a snowstorm, Master and Man.

Indebted to the first story, but nothing like it.

Read them back to back. The difference is in what Tolstoy learned in those 40 years.

The latter is a more highly organized system.

What we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to take our first thing (draft) and trying to make it more highly organized.

Eg. Causality is tighter. Less waste. The thing is more universal. More itself. Framing greater truths.

Something weird about revising and the way I’ve come to understand it is you’re giving yourself chances, thousands of chances, to re-decide things at the phrase level.

Read every day with a pen in hand, and deciding whether I like it or not. And change it.  Be a little bolder.

That process causes the work to be more elevated. Smarter. Have more causation. Weirdly, it causes it to ask better questions. And to ask those questions more precisely.

What I try to do in my work is recognise micro-opinions, do I recognize them in my work, do I recognize them when they appear?

Am I fearless in honouring them? Am I playful?

Commit to micro-decisions and the thing will become more like you.

Reconsideration machines. Ghosts, but literary ghosts.  Peering over your shoulder. Your previous versions are haunted by your past versions.

Dialogue with previous selves.

Something close to intuition and iteration.

The great thing is you have to go with your intuition, but you have to come back to it. You’re letting a bunch of different yous act on the text.

It’s not your job to decide what kind of writer you are. It’s your job to write. I don’t have to be committed to theme, for example. I just have to be committed to making those choices again and again. Style will come out.

I’d a particular way of thinking that I thought that was me. Sarcastic way of seeing the world. You can step out of it. And that can happen at this late-stage revision. Literature become more than literature.

Milan Kundera, Super-personal wisdom finding its way in. Something we don’t have access in our daily life somehow find their way in during the cracks during revision.

Editing and writing gives me ideas how my mind works. My baseline idea is the ruminant part of your mind goes quieter. Monkey mind gets quieter. And in that quiet something else comes up.

There’s a little part of me that says, ‘Ooh, the New Yorker will love that paragraph’.

I need to say to myself. OK, step aside, back to the story.

To be aware of those micro-fluctuations in your mind. Like a smiling uncle saying, yeh, yeh, yeh, but you can’t deny it, because you need all of your energy to do this work.

Different minds and martial of this grand parade in your head. The mind is always in flux.

Principal of fiction, if you can get your stories to ask a valid question.

Our first draft is mostly projection and to revise it is a useful thing.

Mood boarding, the changing of the atmospheric lights.

Ben: I wonder if being in proximity to the mystery is useful. Being in proximity.

What I’d say to my younger writer self? Keep going. Whatever I’d have told him, he’d have rejected. The magic of time. We create these problems with our minds. And we solve them with our minds. The 10 000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell talks about. Yeh, you’re on the right track, but you’re ego is out of control.

The brain-dead megaphone essay. We should always consider the source and the motivation. He wanted you to buy, but mostly the agenda is to do something lovely.

Social media. The agenda is to be liked. Somebody’s popping something out of their butt. Encourages you to project incorrectly about people.

Short stories change your perceptions.

Revising, like Buddhist meditation. Opening the door to it being no good. Asking the question how can it be better (how can I be better)?

Accept what is. A saner base for being what may be.

Teaching is the kids will get it- eventually- they might not get it at first.

Trick of teaching. Try to imagine those beautiful 19 year olds as being the 40 year old they will become.

That person needs those stories. You’re doing them a favour be seeding in…a love for this work.

The gentleness of Russian writer in dealing with silly people.

First draft, slighty cartoonish, then as you re-draft that slightly low character comes up a bit.

Chekov, taking somebody you may have overlooked and take them to a higher level.  

Is your story responding honestly to the things you put in motion? Are your characters?

Kindness (of character) requires exactitude.

Flannery O’Connor always fierce in her exactitude. The way people are.

George Saunders (2017) Lincoln in the Bardo.

george saunders.jpg

Usually, I know what I’m going to say, although I’m not quite sure how I’m going to say it. I guess I’ll start with the author, George Saunders. He’s won a stack of awards and a litany of  writers—Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon, Jennifer Egan, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, Hairi Kunzru and Tobias Wolff—are stacked like library cards to testify to his originality and brilliance.

I find Saunders hard work. And I don’t like reading to be work, because I read for pleasure. I’m shallow that way. I did kinda enjoy Lincoln in the Bardo or I wouldn’t have finished the 343 pages and the bit about the author afterwards telling you how brilliant he is.

343 pages sounds a lot, a hefty tome. But if I skim through the book from the back and get to chapter LIV this is how it reads.

Had we—had we done it?

hans vollman

It seemed that perhaps we had.

roger bevins iii

That’s a chapter finished. hans vollman and roger bevin iii are ‘shades, immaterial’. There is different shades of meaning and understanding as there as shades of ghosts. They enter President Abraham Lincoln’s body and brain to remind him that he still had the key for the white stone house, the crypt, where his twelve-year-old son lies dead and he’s no longer sure if he locked it or left it open. Doubt is the key.

The voices of demons and angels are heard and heaven and hell are present in each shade. The reverend everly thomas reaches the gates of heaven and goes inside to await judgement. He has two companions with him. One wearing a pair of swimming trunks is asked to speak honestly about his life by a Christ-like figure and his heart is weighed.  There is rejoicing throughout heaven and angels sing as he is found to be one of the elect. His companion’s heart is a shrivelled thing and demons come to collect their due. When the reverend’s heart is weighed, there is a dull note and he runs from that place, expecting to be pursued, but is not and expecting to understand, but does not. He only knows his existence is marked by the boundary fence of the graveyard and he must rest in his ‘sickbox’, his body, during the day and at night he may roam, mingle and intermingle with other shades. None can be forced from that place seems to be a rule, but they must voluntarily give up that existence. Their going is marked by a state of bliss and unravelling of self into what was, is and would have been, each person existing as the shade of a multiverse.

Their staying –or overstaying – such as Willie’s refusal to move on because his father the President said he’d come back to visit causes an unpleasant stink and allows demons to enter and wrap the shade to the spot. Willie, quite simply, is in the Bardo and he should have moved on to heaven. His pure soul staying is a catalyst for change. I’m not sure if that makes sense.

Juxtaposed with the voices and backstories of the various shades inhabiting the graveyard are other voices, commentators on the social scene and what President Lincoln is doing, or not doing, or should be doing. Their voices mirror the voices of the shades, often contradicting each other and petty and vindictive as the modern-day media.

Chapter XLVII, for example, reads.

Young Willie Lincoln was laid to rest on the day that the causality lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson were publicly posted, an event that caused a great shock among the public at that time, the cost of life being unprecedented thus far in the war.

In ‘Setting the Record Straight: Memoir, Error and Evasion,’ by Jason Tumm, “Journal of American History.

The details of the losses were communicated to the President even as young Willie lay under embalmment.

Inverness, ibid.

More than a thousand troops on both sides were killed and three times that number wounded. It was ‘a most bloody fight,’ a young Union soldier told his father, so devastating to his company that despite the victory he remained ‘sad, lonely and down-hearted.’ Only seven out of the eighty-five men in his unit survived.

Goodwin, ibid.

President Lincoln’s loss of his son is magnified a thousand fold, his grief mirrored by thousands of others and yet it is and can only be a private affair. Whatever way the President turns in public or private he will be found wanting.

I guess I’m found wanting too. I don’t hold with the elitist nonsense and with what W.B. Yeats termed ‘the fascination with the difficult’. But in quoting Yeats I align myself with somebody well known and give myself kudos. The truth is if I’d picked up this book and read a few pages and didn’t know the author I’d have put it down and left it unread. Saunders’s added value and the weight of other author’s praise made me read on. That’s shades of shallowness in anyone’s language. But equally in another multiverse if an unknown had presented this same book to publishers I doubt without the publicity and heft of positive praise associated with Saunders’s name that it would have been published. Read on.


George Saunders (2013 [2014]) tenth of december

george saunders

George Saunder’s book of ten short stories, tenth of december, won The Folio Prize. Anyone that knows me knows that tenth of December is a very lucky and was a very propitious date for me and I should look upon this book favourably, but let’s be honest Saunders is already a success, he’s a New York Times bestseller, his short stories regularly appear in the New Yorker and  Harper’s, he’s won the genius award MacArthur fellowship and in the introduction Joel Lovell New York Times Magazine begins with the headline: ‘GEORGE SAUNDERS HAS WRITTEN THE BEST BOOK YOU’LL READ THIS YEAR and your thinking—really? The truth is I didn’t really like this book.

There is, of course, more than one truth and I don’t have a monopoly on them (although I think and act as if I do). Some stores are like a long drink of water – figurative language Saunders uses on one or two occasions to describe a particular character. Other stories have stickability in that they’re memorable. Sticks, for example, is just two pages. It begins with ‘Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal poles in the yard’. Time passes. His kids fall away.  Dad has grandchildren. But he sticks with this weird obsession with dressing the metal poles in the yard with different guises. That’s it. It’s kinda sad and gives us insight into a kinda half-life of others. Job done. It sticks.

The first story in the collection Victory Lap I didn’t like, and if a reader doesn’t like the first story, the truth is s/he rarely ventures beyond it, but again, there was a kind of truth in the ending. It starts conventionally enough ‘Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.’ Then it gets a bit weird. I’m not sure who is narrating the second paragraph. It sounds like {a pastiche} on the Olde Worlde English and later the pretend French argot of a bygone era that should never have existed and Yes it does have ‘{special one}’ in brackets like I’ve shown. And for a reader not really sure what pastiche is, or what it should mean in a story, this can be a bit frightening and off-putting. I persevered because I’m an Olde Worlde type of guy that also doesn’t exist. Alison is the town beauty. Her neighbour Kyle Boot, who she spent many an hour in the sandpit with, she describes as ‘the palest kid in all the land?’ Sorry, that’s a rhetorical question that’s not a question. Begad, but does not Kyle love and worship the most beauteous Alison as all men born of flesh are prone to do, even perverts with borrowed work vans that plan to have her for his own and make her his queen, as they did in the old days, even if it was only for a borrowed hour and if she does not come round to loving and honouring him?

There are two stories that stick out. Escape from Spiderhead and The Semplica Girl Diaries.

Jeff, the narrator in Escape from Spiderhead, is being held in a prison. We learn later in the story that he’s a murderer. He got into a fight, he was losing, with a puny younger guy and he picked up a rock and killed him. Could happen to any of us. Particularly stupid older men that drink in pubs and should know better. The narrator’s mum has used her life saving to get him moved to a research facility where he should be having an easier time. It certainly seems that way. Roll over any rock and you’ll see they have ‘voluntarily’ tested drugs on prisoners and psychiatric units. Abnesti is the head-researcher in both meanings of the word. ‘Verbaluce’ for example makes the prisoner/experimental subject more verbose and quicker thinking. A theme My Chivalric Fiasco explores more fully in a small-town dependent on passing tourist income. Abnesti has at his disposal an arsenal of different kinds of drugs. The one he is currently testing and which the company have great hopes for is ‘ED763’. ED763 reduces love to a biochemical reaction. Jeff is set up with another experimental subject Heather and, after lunch, Rachel. They make passionate love to each other exactly three times and are enraptured by each other, but only as long as ED763 is in their bloodstream. When it is withdrawn, they are indifferent to each other. Heather and Rachel have made love and been enraptured by another two male experimental subjects that day and also made love to them exactly three times. To test Jeff’s post-study indifference Abnesti asks Jeff to choose whether to administer ‘Darkenfloxx’—‘Imagine the worst you have ever felt times 10’—to either Heather or Rachel.

The Simplica Girl Diaries is a simple story of a dad, ‘Having just turned 40’,  trying to do the right thing by his girls, but doing the wrong thing for everyone. The narrator’s takes his daughter Lily to a school- girl party that has got everything they’ve not. ‘That treehouse is twice the actual size of our house’. Ha. Ha. But it’s no joke. The diarist is particularly impressed  ‘on the front of the house, with sweeping lawns, largest SG arrangement ever seen, all in white, white smocks blowing in breeze’. His daughter’s birthday is in a few days and she’s asked for a few classical figurines that cost a few hundred bucks that the narrator has not got, but he maxes out his credit cards before pay-check day in an attempt to keep her happy. It doesn’t work, but then a windfall, a $10 000 lottery-card win. He goes for the best little-girl party ever for the best little girl. He splashes out even leasing four SG units to hang on microfiche on his front lawn. SG units are Third World poor people who live in such terrible conditions the diarist tells us they are happy to come to America, have a wire put through their head, which doesn’t hurt at all, and hang on that wire for the duration of their contract. It’s a win-win situation, until someone cuts the microfiche and they shuffle off, still attached together and the sheriff explains that there’s some strange groups intent on liberating SG’s and explains that, no, they don’t usually get them back. The owner of the leased SG units also explains that if he had read the contract he was responsible for them and would have to pay all costs. Lose-lose, but a lesson learned?