Friday, 7 August 2015

A blurb, a cover design, a back jacket

   Aside from the cafe artiste (with a Mac's sliver of matte aluminum-clad screen positioned next to an Americano), I'm supposing that most writers tap tap tap in isolation. When they're lucky they can break from that creative solitude and rely on the kindness of colleagues, with whom they've established a quid pro quo relationship: "Sure, I'll happily read your _____ [novel, story, play, or poem, screenplay...]" (Of course there's an unstated but completely understood reply: "So long as you return the favour and read my _____ [novel, story, play, or poem, screenplay].")

    This time around, C and D, two locals, came over to my place for dinner and presented feedback, mixing kind words with excoriating ones. (During the recovery period later that night the old chestnut "With friends like that who needs enemies?" blossomed in my consciousness a few times. As did "Be careful what you wish for" with an addendum: "You asked for criticism, what did you expect?!?")

   The third colleague-reader, thousands of km away in Ontario, emailed me a short list of literary misdemeanors and freely offered a blurb—

   From Up River and One Night Only is not your typical rock 'n roll novel. Sure it's full of wild misfits, day job drudgery, and dreams of stardom. But the real headliner here is Grubisic's intoxicating, immersive language. It's a cacophony of linguistic power cords, a picaresque road trip with no particular place to go. We have never seen a coming-of-age story quite like this one. 
                                              —Mark Sampson, author Sad Peninsula and The Secrets Men Keep

   For a novel set in 1980 and featuring adolescents making decisive moves from their 1970s-era youth to 1980s-influenced adulthood, discussions between Finn at Honk Honk Graphic Arts and myself centred on all things vintage—from orange, brown, and yellow smiley face wallpaper (not desktop wallpaper, but the kind of wallpaper that came in rolls and was used to decorate a kid's room or kitchen) to a circa 1980 photograph from a friend's archive of high school party pics. The result of our conversations and exchanges of historical images (including flocked brocade wallpaper that, while historically true possessed a visual loudness that made it impossible to use) can be see below. Hello 1975 and 1980 in all your decade-specific glory—

 Here's a single-chapter excerpt—

Déviation: Harmony

    Even though once upon a time he’d caved to pressure and agreed to make an effort, Gordyn could admit that his opinions about the Barbershop Harmony Society had lurched drunkenly from the get-go. The weekend gatherings organized under the Society’s firm if benevolent rules (which under certain light looked fascist, Gordyn thought, a benevolent dictatorship) felt constricting enough already. Worse, the endless quest for “Let’s track down that darned overtone, gentlemen. From the top, 1 and 2 and 3—,” that holiest of grails, edged him nearer to insanity.
    He reported these facts to Dee. Her dull parallel experiences with their mother meandered from a placid stream of easy listening radio tunes before and after torturous Canadian TV to pulverizing crackers with a rolling pin for next week’s casseroles #1 and #2 while listening to reminiscences about girlhood crushes and huge family picnics in Quebec. Moping, Dee stared out from shut windows and wished for a pet—something high-strung and requiring long walks, preferably.
    Intellectually, Gordyn saw the sound reasoning of events reserved for fathers and sons. He admitted too, the choice could have been worse. Like Jay’s dad, his might assume thrilled, bellowing attendance at the rank air—BO, popcorn, and snuck booze, reportedly—of pro-wrestling matches. Or, debate-worthy and fierce dedication to idiotic ring heroes named Mr. X and André the Giant. Or, Edmund could similarly expect eternal low-wattage bouts spent in grimy striped coveralls while stuck beneath a car on jacks in an unheated garage. And see his face register signs of deep caring about the manly arts of eyeballing spark plug corrosion and oil viscosity.
    Selling the surefire barbershop quartet idea, Edmund had tousled Gordyn’s hair (prompting corrective mirror time shortly after). He lured him with the inevitability of trips to fancy hotel banquet rooms in historic Philadelphia and sun-dappled Sacramento. He’d repeated “We’ll have a blast, just you wait and see” with an air crash prayer’s desperation. That last promise proved exactly halfway correct. The former anchor baritone of an army barracks quartet, Edmund returned to the stage with unabashed gusto, eating up the attention, Gordyn’s mother commented, like an elephant with peanuts.
    Two years and seven months later, the upcoming events—definite anti-blasts now—loomed greyly, ominous as mushroom clouds. Blind to his son’s heels-dug body language, or simply ignoring it, Edmund charged headlong into literally harmonious crowds, visibly eager for trial runs of fresh jokes he’d scooped up at the office and revved to propose catchier arrangements for standards.
    They’d made it as far away as a plum-curtained stage in a high school gymnasium on the outskirts of exotic Spokane, Washington, Gordyn noted sourly, the Versailles of eastern Washington.
    Earlier, Gordyn had predicted that Edmund’s enthusiasm would turn out to be a phase. Over and again, he felt annoyed by that paltry, flawed intuition. Instead of a showdown he continued to go along, never not straggling. Sooner or later his father would grow weary of his captive son’s clearly signalled acts of going through the motions and giving not one breath more.

    Permanent authentic smiles cemented on, gleeful Evergreen District fathers, visiting from as south as Oregon, strutted and yukked in escalation, saying “Right as rain,” “Smooth as silk,” and “Fine as frog’s hair” as they adjusted velvet bow or string ties and twisting waxed moustaches (real and mimed varieties). They threw in “23 skidoo” alongside hearty backslaps whenever possible, as though they breathed in the Edenic air that had circulated before the invention of mustard gas and trench warfare, when everyone exclaimed, “Golly gee whiz, what a humdinger!” whenever one of those bicycles with an enormous spoked wheel wobbled by.
    Surveying the rooms coldly, Gordyn thought that bygone became bygone for a reason. Each and every one of them took strides away from the past each and every day, so why pretend otherwise? “Knucklehead,” he’d hear, sure that none of the men used that one at home. “‘Rapscallion’?” he’d hiss. “Yeah, right, dipshits.” He yearned to spray “Wake Up, You Fuckers” on walls using black paint.
    The sons, meanwhile—of two unequal-sized camps: dutiful but sullen and watchful for cigarette-sneaking opportunities, or chirpy chips off the ol’ block—milled around perimeters until instructions boomed from one of the handful of regional bigwigs. The Big Cheese would whip out a brass kazoo and declare they ought to all clear their throats and warm up with “Wait ‘til the Sun Shines, Nellie” before the actual competitive harmonizing hummed into buzzing life. “Gentlemen, start your engines,” and another round of yuks echoed.
    Alone on washroom breaks, Gordyn would sense his father’s need for a renewed display of mooing enthusiasm. He’d stub out the hour’s one pleasure and blow smoke out any window he could crack open. “Fiddlesticks,” he’d mutter, on a roll, and dawdle a few extra minutes. “I’ll skedaddle a while, crocodile.” Activity in rooms with toilets was sacrosanct to Edmund. He’d never ask.
    Even ad libitum, the true love of barbershopping that had once sparked Gordyn’s sense of wonder, gradually tarnished due to continued exposure. Returning on Saturday nights, and sometimes Sundays, he’d crumple the Delphine-sewn green and white striped vest at the bottom of his closet. But like a magical fairy tale object its reconstituted form—laundered, ironed, folded into a perfect square—appeared in a T-shirt drawer at the dawn of every barbershop weekend.
    His mother made no secret that she appreciated the father-son hobby slot. More to the point, Gordyn suspected, she relished the serene, joke-free household of their occasional days away.
    Everyone grumbled about The Chords of Damocles, a weak, nonsensical pun of a quartet name, but since a previous generation had voted it in an abrupt change seemed tantamount to an insult, a back rudely turned on glorious history. And if nothing else, barbershoppers bowed deeply at tradition, or one wholesome strand of it at least.
    On nights before the other classic warm-up number, “Hello, My Baby,” launched in wolfish croons that bounced around the hall, the painfully distended “rag time doll” of an otherwise unremembered dream woke Gordyn before sunrise. At the twice-yearly meet-and-greets with perfumed clusters of Sweet Adelines in billowy translucent pastels and churchy white stockings, childhood complaints about a sudden fever or catching a bug sprouted on Gordyn’s tongue.
    Oblivious, his father pushed him toward girls, pointing right at one or another he’d deem “a beaut.” And as Gordyn got older Edmund added “Old enough to bleed, old enough to butcher” in a husky, hopeful whisper.
    Gordyn always said “Cute outfit” in a clipped voice that implied the spite-full opposite. “Did your grandmother sew that at home?” He absorbed details with Mr. Blackwell precision—constellations of white cotton eyelet, a bubble bath froth of lace trim, satin ribboning from the More is More School. He regretted the girls’ dismay, but couldn’t resist; any shame evaporated quickly.
    By mid-Grade 11 Gordyn felt certain that if he spotted one more copy of the Norman Rockwell poster of men harmonizing with sharply parted oil slick hair and comically high-waisted pants, he’d heave. He embraced the dramatic scenario of going postal or transforming into a mad, crashing china shop bull, foreseeing his father’s embarrassed expression and beet-cheeked vows to never return. As an idea, raving lunacy had its uses.
    Edmund, now on the Evergreen executive, hoped to leave his mark and bring the group’s name up to date. West Coast Express, he offered (with sincere if tentative alternates: Vest, Left, Best), but everyone thought it reminded them of a passenger train.
    Beyond tuned Society ears, Gordyn recommended The Dapper Hams, and said as much whenever the topic arose. His father wondered aloud how someone so young could get so cynical. The hurt expression guilted Gordyn into screwing on a smile and tilting his neck and aligning with the lonesome, moon-worshipping wails of the rest.


Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Literary Life: Pondering 'Success' and 'Failure' (an essay-in-progress)



Success and failure — and the meanings and measurements of each — has occupied my mind more often than usual with This Location of Unknown Possibilities. The first bout related to the challenge (which occasionally felt like an ordeal) to secure (1) a literary agent interested enough in it (its literary merit, to a degree, but more so — I suspect — its saleability) and (2) a publisher willing to offer me a contract and bring the benighted novel to market.
This rough period reminded me of thankfully bygone days of seeking employment. You know: you're greenly young, have no practical experience to speak of, and pad your resume with enough material so that its one page of content doesn't look too sad and empty. You screw up your courage to walk into strange businesses and ask for "the manager, please." You hear one of two responses: "We're not looking for anyone right now" or "We'll keep this on file" (with the image of the resume sheet landing in the trash can a shadowy truth in the eyes of the speaker). 
So it was with literary agencies, only worse. Typically, not even an automated line of reply to the self- and talent-promoting letter of query so artfully crafted. Or else, a response that simply emphasized the ineligible nature of the project. As such, an implicit message: you and your work would be a losing venture for us...with a roster of writers like you, we'd be bankrupt in a season.
Less bottom-line oriented perhaps, or just staffed by nicer and more generous and caring people, the publishers responded with generally positive and even lauding words, but also with the familiar brute facts: that they're able to publish only a relatively small number of titles each year; that with so many people writing books, the field has become fiercely competitive; and that the novel submitted isn't quite right for their catalogue.
"It's the nature of the business," you tell yourself. Beneath that and myriad other feel-better and hate-the-world platitudes, there's another: "Loser." The persistent j'accuse-ing finger is pointed at right at you, a so-called representative of the creative class.
Then you're offered a contract and you celebrate that small, wonderful miracle. Attractive cover and all, the book comes out. You get a few lauding reviews, and you're thankful, but at the same time you notice how many review venues, the national ones everyone desires and prays for, ignore your book. Just as they did with your first novel. You can rationalize their thinking, true. Limited available space for book reviews. The smallness of the press. The obscurity of the author. Etc. All the while the furious thinking is returning to condemnatory words: failure, loser. Giving up and not leading yourself into disappointment or self-doubt appears as an insight that has all the markings of True Wisdom. 
And at last a royalty cheque, paltry of course, well under half of what your first book earned, which in itself was nothing to brag about. Not enough be pay a month's rent. You joke that if you'd really wanted to earn tons of money, you'd have gotten a realtor's license. But still. You can't help but feel — and think, and zealously believe — that all of these events form a pattern that has an unpleasantly plain message woven right into it: by the measures that matter, your book was and is a failure. Ditto for you, since you're its author. How could anyone argue otherwise?

More on this later...



The above might come across as tiresome, whiny, and childishly self-pitying, I realize. There are moments when that’s more or less exactly what I tell myself. (Says my harsh inner parent: “Boo hoo, in the time it takes you to feel wallow in woe-is-me, a fellow human has died of starvation.”)
So, don’t get me wrong. Essentially, writing in itself has ordinarily felt like — and usually feels like — a worthwhile experience. Despite discouragement, I write and will no doubt continue to write. I publish just about whatever I do manage to finish. On good days I enjoy spending hours (how many of which is of course contingent on my full-time, real-life paying job) tapping on a keyboard and figuring what I want to say and how I’d like to phrase it.
Still. As a hedonist and someone who doesn’t particularly want to loiter under a grey cloud mood or to feel that a chosen endeavour that could give me both pleasure and a sense of accomplishment is in fact not, I’m interested in stepping beyond a paradigm that I’ve fallen into (in part because that paradigm has become so normalized and widespread as to seem natural). 
And if I don’t want to accept the daily self-directed accusation (ie, low sales = failure, no prominent reviews = failure, no literary prominence = failure, no literary prize = failure, and so on), then it’s clear to me that opting out — says me, writing right now; send me a Giller nomination, and I’ll no doubt change my tune! — of a particular system or at least the mindset encouraged by that system, might be of stupendous benefit. 
What’s that system, you ask? Writing as a commodity that’s solely produced to be sold in epic numbers. 
As an enterprise and a kind of adjunct profession, publication — the single goal of writing when writing is a sales-driven profession — is often woefully lacking. If the measure of success is  sales and the pinnacle of that is sales plus recognition, then there’s no mystery why I don’t feel very contented with the contemporary version of ‘the writer’s life.‘ 
In large part that’s because in associating writing with the very word “profession” I’m necessarily also taking it closer to “business” (and with it toward entrepreneurialism and, ahem, marketing and sales). And once I’m there, comparing myself to a business results in the deflated states of mind mentioned earlier. If as a writer I’m also a business, then I have no doubt that I’m a flailing business, deeply in the red. Numbers don’t lie, right? If a small business, my doors would have shut years ago due to lack of customers interested in my unique inventory. Writing-as-business (that must thrive to remain afloat) and writer-as-brand (that constantly needs to grow its market) seems anathema to writing-as-art or writing-as-fun or writing-as-intellectual-activity because if the steady growth of sales is the primary goal of the business model, then finding ways of widening the market and moving more and more units becomes the primary purpose of the writer-as-entrepreneur. Anything less is backwards thinking, anti-business. 
That business view — which is on the ascendant — encourages me to see any publication (a novel, a review, a short story) as a part of my expanding brand portfolio. It leads me to consider each story and each novel and each review and each public reading and each appearance of my name somewhere as part of a brand-building undertaking, the goal of which is not brand maintenance but steady growth, quarter after quarter. 
As the language and expectations of the business model creeps in, I gradually become a weird kind of corporation in which I’m at once the sales force, the corps of workers on the factory floor, and the imperious Board of Directors that notices the laughably puny royalty cheque, the dismal sales numbers (and utter remoteness from a bestseller list), the lack of reviews in prominent, national-level media, and absence of the brand on literary prize longlists and shortlists, and the overall under-performance of the brand at the level of consumer recognition. That same Board demands results, but as for the right answer to the question “How?” all the underlings — the sales force, the product developers, and the grunts at the assembly line — seem wholly incapable of generating. 
The business model also encourages shuttering the whole place and saying “enough’s enough” since the business hasn’t proven to be competitive enough. What fool, after all, keeps the door to their business open day after day when no customers come in? What entrepreneur in their right mind spends countless hours sitting at the till of an empty shop? What salesperson would continue pounding the pavement when, after a few years’ work, their earnings amounted to considerably less than the monthly wage earned by a McDonald’s patty-flipper? 
If the philosophy of business is “Sell and succeed or quit,” then that simple combination of words informs me of my obvious option. 

More later...

[August 2015, several months later.] The advantage to blog-writing is its immediacy. The disadvantage is the same: what might seem pressing and relevant and oh-so-important on the hour it’s being written about may seem wank-y, whiny, or wildly overstated by the next day. The comments above stemmed from a need to write out my feelings, to organize and make some sense of them. Feelings related to failure and shortcomings occur in everyone, I suppose. I think that by writing out my feelings related to my perceived severe limits as a writer I was trying to write my way to a solution, a eureka that would make me see a tired old subject in a fresh light and give me solid reasons to continue.

Since I last wrote about my feelings of failure above, I’ve of course continued to write. Arts journalism like author profiles and film and book reviews, mostly, along with scholarly stuff.
And there was that novel to read one more time. (Not one last time, though. Currently the typeset manuscript is sitting on my kitchen table, being ignored. When I do get to it, my read-through will be the final opportunity to make any changes before off-stage magic at the printer turns it into an actual book.)
Also, there was the writing of letters to American and UK publishers, all of whom to date have sent back kindly-worded rejection emails that simultaneously praise my novel and its style while telling me that the book does not fitting into their current publication vision (whatever that means).
As you’d expect, the trickle of rejections has kept the failure subject within my thoughts.
Despite knowing better, I’m still drawn to the writing-as-business view and the writer-as-brand perspective. Those ideas circulate through the air and, for me at least, unavoidable.
Still, other perspectives have made their way to me and offered ways out of being in the position of the small business operator whose unequivocal failure as an entrepreneur is made clear as he writes GOING OUT OF BUSINESS, EVERYTHING MUST GO on a cardboard sheer after his banker has declined an extension of his line of credit.

Lately, I’ve been considering another option: writing as a hobby. Similar to kite flying. Or knitting. Or bonsai-keeping. Or being in a dad band.
The advantages of the hobby strategy strike me as limitless. (But please keep in mind that I’m writing this as someone who has no hobbies. My speculation, then, could be completely off the mark. I could be idealizing.) For one, you choose a hobby because you enjoy both the thing itself (standing in a field on a breezy day, say, and watching the kite flutter and swoop in the blue sky) and you find pleasure in its challenges (keeping the kite aloft as a breeze subsides). It’s relaxing and stimulating; essentially it’s leisure. It’s fun. If there’s a goal—a Buckingham Palace from Lego, all the recipes from Julia Child’s first cookbook, making jam from berries you grew—the enjoyment’s the foundation and primary goal. It’s all inherently unprofessional because it’s a form of play. And as a hobby, it’s exclusively for you. There’s nothing much at stake. The jam’s too runny, try again and learn from previous mistakes (but also eat the failed version because it still taste good even if its looks leave something to be desired). As a result, it’s uncompetitive. While you’re standing there, smiling with a tilted neck at the fluttering kite, you’re not fretting about crafting the perfect letter of introduction to an agent who, if she discerns enough salability in you, might deign to represent you. Knitting that scarf for your nephew Colton, likely as not you’re not wondering how you can make sure the National Knitting Post and maybe even the New York Times Knitting Review will notice you and assign a reviewer to sing the praises of your latest project.
As a strategy, there’s much promise in the humble hobby.

The other came to me heavy-handedly via House of Cards. I’m pondering it, but not sure I’m going to make a purchase.
On an episode when all of Frank and Claire’s machinations appear to be amounting to pursed lips, high blood pressure, and not much else, there’s a group of contrasting figures—Buddhist monks spending a week in the lobby of President Underwood’s house constructing an elaborate  mandala from coloured sand. The effort is exacting and physically demanding; it consumes whole days.
At the end: bye bye. It’s swept away, the entire week devoted to a sustained meditation on and lesson about impermanence.
Relatedly, an acquaintance, another writer, wrote to suggest that writing should be meditative and therapeutic. Yoga with a keyboard, in essence.
Intellectually, I can see the appeal of that approach. At the same time, it strikes me as “not me,” just as a suit and tie and working at a bank seems impossibly foreign to my personality type (The type, you ask? The type that balks at formal woolen clothing the same way a dog reacts to plastic anti-itch-scratching collars.)
Should I take the monk’s lesson in spirituality to heart and begin to write as an exercise that teaches me something valuable about the truth of human existence, I’ll be sure to report it here (before, of course, I erase it from existence).

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Trash(ed) Ideas

   A new writing project. Yup, I'm at that point in the cycle. What's next? My mind is shooting blanks, my cup does not runneth over...
   Normally, an idea for a story or novel bubbles up. So far, though, nada.

  (As for the hows and whys of this creative bubbling? Who knows. That's that, despite reading a ton of T.S. Eliot's criticism years back re: "Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity" and "The other aspect of this Impersonal theory of poetry is the relation of the poem to its author. And I hinted, by an analogy, that the mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of “personality,” not being necessarily more interesting, or having “more to say,” but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations.")

  Anyhow, the new project currently consists of discards. Ideas so bad, projects so unwieldy, so profitless, and so very dubious that they're only mildly worthwhile as blog entertainment.

   To date, they are— 

   (1) a campy, comic revisiting of Aaron Spelling's Dynasty, but with vampires.


   (2) an updating of How To Marry a Millionaire set in a somewhat dystopian future à la William Gibson's Neuromancer

   If you dare, feel free to use either. I'm formally disavowing them!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Favourite Readings: 2014

   For me, 'best of' lists aren't so much quantitative—empirical evidence or absolute proof that authors X, Y, and Z wrote the definitive best literature of a given time period. 
   Instead, I use them to see what other writers or reviewers have read that I may have passed by or overlooked altogether. And, admittedly, to see how someone else's opinion about the same book can be so radically different than mine. And so wrongheaded, of course. 
   This year, for mine—I was asked to contribute my five favourite books of the year—I opted for gut feeling, and chose books that stayed with me for being emotionally impacting, intellectually stimulating, or aesthetically distinguished (and, I guess, any mixture of those three). 
   In no particular order, my choices were—

1. The Western Home: Stories for Home on the Range, by Catherine Cooper [review]

2. Orfeo, by Richard Powers [review]

3. Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Adderson [review]

4. All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews [review]

5. The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell [review]

   That 'choose just five' restriction also meant quite a few couldn't make it to my Top 5. Still, I enjoyed them in assorted ways and would be negligent if I didn't mention them here.
   They include Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher [review], Lorrie Moore's Bark [review], Sean Wilsey's essay collection, More Curious [review], Ian Weir's Will Starling [review], Mark Sampson's Sad Peninsula, C.P. Boyko's Novelists [review], Rae Spoon and Ivan Coyote's Gender Failure [review], and Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress (a book that I actually purchased and did not review). 

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks"

    The Vancouver Sun ran a truncated version of my review of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks this past Saturday. Here's the complete version—

    Lugging around an advance copy of The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell’s doorstopper of novel (that’s now on the Booker Prize longlist), and devouring its six weighty sections over July—in cafes, on busses, at parks—drew interest from normally shy or indifferent locals. For the sake of reader edification, then, this review is built upon their questions.

    “So, what’s a ‘bone clock’?”

    A bone clock is a derogatory term that’s spoken at just a couple of points in the novel. Sort of like “muggle” in the Harry Potter series, it’s used to dismiss ordinary humans, or to put them in their place.

    “There’s magic in the book?”

    In a sense, yes. In Mitchell’s tale, two rival groups of shadowy immortals have assorted psychic abilities that would strike you or me as supernatural. Their Acts of Psychosoterica (which include Hiatus, a kind of freezing, and Suasion, which persuades individuals to obey a mental direction) are complemented by psychic communication.

    “You’re joking, right?”


“What does it remind you of?”

    Well, plenty. Over its 620 pages and in no particular order, I thought of David Cronenberg’s Scanners, Timor Bekmambetov’s Wanted, Doug Liman’s Jumper, and Highlander (the television series). Also, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. I’d probably have thought of certain Dan Brown thrillers if I’d read them, so I’m referring to the filmed versions and their labyrinthine conspiracies. Ditto for Harry Potter. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. Oryx and Crake. Cloud Atlas (the novel, not the film). Let England Shake, P.J. Harvey’s album. Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice.

    “Okay, what’s it about?”

    Gee, that’s really complicated.
    On one level, it’s an account of the hard life and times of Holly Sykes, from 1984 to 2043.
    Acting out after her rural pub-owning mother forbids her from dating a much older “cradle snatcher,” teenage Holly runs off to find him only to catch...well, she comes to doubt his reliability, so runs away again and eventually winds up at a farm. During those dramatic hours, Holly’s autistic brother goes missing and she’s an eye-witness to a horrific murder. These traumatic events are knit into the remainder of her history.
    While Holly appears throughout, she’s not always the central figure. Later sections emphasize other players as well as Mitchell’s fooling around with other literary genres (à la Cloud Atlas).
    For example, “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet,” a funny and irreverent middle section set in 2015, stars an exceptionally vain and petty author (aka the Wild Child of British literature, a man with more than a passing resemblance to Martin Amis) who has stalled for years with his career-reviving next masterpiece. He briefly meets Holly, who has written an enviably popular memoir about hearing voices in her head during her youth.
    Holly’s part of the Script too, which ties her to and makes her an integral component of a centuries-old dispute between Horologists (aka Returnees, or Atemporals), a small group of immortal quasi-humans, and Carnivores (aka The Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass), whose shortcut to immortality necessitates sporadic feeding on the souls of regular humans who have pronounced psychic abilities (the call it “decanting”).
    “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” the novel’s thrilling and taut fifth section, offers a play-by-play of the epic final battle of the War between these two powerful factions.


    Do you have a spare hour?
    These feuding immortals have an elaborate but sketchily drawn cosmology (complete with proper nouns) and concurrent terminology. They talk of pyscholassos, chakra eyes, quantum totems, Acts of Exposure and Reveal, and psychosoteric potential. There’s the Deep Stream (as in, “Is a psychoferno a Deep Stream Invocation?”), the Way of Stones, Black Wine, the Dusk, the Shaded Way, and the Seaward Wind to the Last Sea. There’s a Codex, a Script, and a Counter-Script. Their silent communication is frenetic with subwaking, subasking, and subreplying.
    By giving his characters mouthfuls like “I revoke my cloak and invoke a body-shield” and “Even without using those methods, unless you’re hidden by a Deep Stream cloak, they could get to you with a quantum totem,” Mitchell sincerely courts silliness.

    “What’s its genre?”

    That’s tricky too, but... In SF Eye #5, back in 1989, influential science fiction writer Bruce Sterling sought to define “a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is a fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously.” He added, “this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books ‘slipstream.’” Handily enough, The Bone Clocks fits into that definition.

    “Where does it take place?”

    Mostly in southern England and Ireland, but there are important scenes set in Canada, the United States, and Switzerland. Plus: Russia circa 1816, Western Australia in 1871 and San Marino near the mid-seventh century.


    As one of the good Horologists explains, “As a Returnee, each of my resurrections is a lottery of longitudes, latitudes, and demography. We die, wake up as children forty-nine days later, often on another landmass.”
    In other words, the metalives of characters such as Xi Lo and Marinus have occurred in dozens of bodies and locations.

    "Is it similar to Cloud Atlas?"

    Yes, quite, especially in terms of structure. The warring immortals aspect is new, though.

    “What’s its future look like?”

    Bleak, mostly, but slyly funny too. Justin Bieber gets his fifth divorce in 2024. And: “The world’s twenty-seven richest people own more wealth than the poorest five billion and people accept that as normal.” Worse, by 2043: “the Endarkenment,” post-oil and post-internet, during which the “news turned into a plotless never-ending disaster movie.”

    “Are you enjoying it?”

    Yes, definitely. Even if the occasional silliness grows bothersome, you can’t doubt the author’s mastery.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Short fiction: "Ways to Ruskin"

                                                             Ways to Ruskin

    Huddled at a railing damp from a heavy dew, Miss Nora Tingley watched river flotsam pass by—bark, branches, entire logs scarred by who knows what, and, no surprise given the season, a smattering of catkins from cottonwood stands bunched along the shores. Once a week perhaps voices rose about the quicksilver shadows beneath, sturgeons that riled men to parry boasts about fishing trials worthy of Jonah.
    Soon after she’d boarded at the wharf in Mission City, the grizzled bargeman had removed his cap and approached the gathered ladies (herself and two stout widows, standoffish mill workers of some ilk who muttered sharp Teutonic phrases to one another). Smoothing his hair, he cautioned them: rot had eaten through the weatherbeaten former port rail; the replacement plank might yet be sticky with sap. He didn’t extend the courtesy to the liberal helping of men. Their calloused hands would be sullied soon enough.
    Miss Tingley breathed in palpably moist air, a tonic, she believed, despite the bargeman’s toothless mouth. Haze drifts along the water’s surface caught her eye, and she pictured a Fraser Valley rainbow of grey (sullen clouds in heavy banks), brown (a steady expanse of river), and green (vibrant trees above striving brambles). Channeling the impulse to write toward a practical end, she reached into her mother’s gift, a petit point tapestry bag of forest grove deer that gamboled innocently rather than raiding gardens—as in daily life—for strawberries and carrots. With a stubby pencil she jotted in a notebook: “silt,” “incalculable,” “Styx,” “Charon,” “Ophelia,” “muddy death.” A lyrical history lesson for eleven students whose hearts did not beat for verse or fine sentiments, she wondered? Perchance, next winter.
    Gaze sweeping from distant southern shore to barge lip (the water level in between as swollen as expected after a uniform winter of deluges) she noted the sodden hem and sighed—experience had taught her that the irksome stitched wool would not dry till midday. She gingerly raised the skirt by a fraction and braced for the influx of brisk morning air.

     For this new lesson Miss Tingley’s pupils would have to wait. Today she had bigger fish to fry, as Mrs. Dollar, her neighbour right next door, declared both fondly and often. Straddling the fence between overbearing and bearable, Mrs. Dollar frequently spoke her mind when she wasn’t freely dispensing advice. Miss Tingley sometimes loitered inside when the woman thundered through the packed mud pathways of her sloping back property, headstrong and capable in ways advanced years and a stooped posture belied. She pitied Mrs. Dollar’s husband, whose unmentionables she saw on the line far more frequently than the fellow himself. Apropos of nothing, his wife explained he was resting his eyes as she whittled down the list of chores—chop cedar kindling, dig potatoes, chase broody hens from the coop. Townsfolk made unkind mention of this ghostly man as Mrs. Dollar, a weakling who tippled to ease the pain from a slippery morning’s mill fall during the winter of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald’s sad passing.
    By the day’s close Miss Tingley hoped to broach a delicate topic in Ruskin and feared she’d be waved away once again, her person rendered an irritant, a pest little better than a mosquito. The egalitarian rhetoric of the Canadian Co-operative Society aside, Miss Tingley understood her stature: well beneath the apex of the Society’s great chain of being, itself a simple chain within a larger jumble.
    The Whethams, Gilchrists, and Twiggs, esteemed landowners and men of enterprise, shared a provisional link with Mr. Willband, the Society’s president, a contradictory man of ambitious schemes and monastic inclinations in debt to their benevolence. Without the Twigg brothers’ grant of four cleared acres, a field of mud, the Society’s dream of a workers’ paradise named for Mr. John Ruskin would have remained inert, a germ, pages of hopeful notes in a private journal.
    Miss Tingley had met Mr. Willband once, a year ago, before she’d even stepped into the classroom; principles, organization, and masculine debate in closed-door rooms evidently fired the waspish Englishman’s imagination. The mewling of a replacement teacher in her middle years failed to altogether. She exhaled in gratitude that an invitation for a subsequent interview hadn’t dawned on him.
    The Society’s secretary and indispensable public agent, Mr. Thomas Robinson, possessed a long face whose beseeching quarter-smiles and imploring meditations on the horizon she’d grown to resent. With the dull blue eyes of an Edgar Linton and the fiery pedantry of last summer’s tent preacher down on the river flats (reputedly: she’d not seen this itinerant American up close and relied on Mrs. Dollar’s account, which condemned the evangelical soul as a windbag, a stranger to reserve, and a ridiculous scarecrow flapping in the breeze), Mr. Robinson strutted along paths and bounded through doorways with the zeal of Dr. Livingstone scouring the Nile.
    Miss Tingley disapproved of Mrs. Dollar’s inclination to judgement and strove to limit that impulse within herself. Still, the conviction had grown that Mr. Robinson sought her out only because he’d exhausted the goodwill of the Society’s sparse membership. Verbiage came as naturally to the man as breathing. So too did a histrionic fretfulness—not infrequently, he spoke of the poetic sensibility that burdened him—that suggested time spent facing limelights.
    Miss Tingley suspected he saw in her apparent appreciation an opportunity for further discourse, perhaps an object for his handiwork. Consequently, when she caught sight of him approaching from the distance she turned for any pupil within eyeshot, or else stopped, stock-still, with the aim of blending, squirrel-like, with the surroundings.

    Mornings presented Mr. Robinson at his worst, as though he woke from troubled dreams of Socratic schooling. She’d watched him on occasion as he lingered on the rise, studying the mill grounds but keeping an eye fastened on the river landing, keen to separate the expendable chaff of trudging working men from her, the singular nugget of wheat. After ritual niceties about weather and student progress, he’d wrest control of the conversation; he considered Department of Education business as his own, if only as a gateway to matters of greater value. To her utilitarian bleating about the proximity of the mill’s deafening machines to the schoolhouse—the euphemism they’d agreed upon when referring to a sawdust-littered building anyone would describe as a hovel—he offered Thought.
    “Good day, Mr. Robinson,” she’d begin, resisting his efforts with occupational minutia about arithmetic lessons and absentee students and, on occasion, whooping cough, until uttering her refrain—“The children cannot hear, let alone learn”—and gesturing at the placid lakeshore in hopes of inspiring remedial actions.
    “Yes, yes,” he’d nod, and then change the subject: “Miss Tingley, I’ve been thinking” or “Last night at the shore of the Stave, Miss Tingley, I had a Thought.” He’d pause, wearily, as if readying himself to unveil the weightiest of secrets.
    And until an interruption rushed forward she felt obliged to listen. “Oh, pray tell?”
    With each word the man exhaled his titanic reluctance, eternally thirsting for a kind, sympathetic audience. A doubtful explorer and a revolutionary lacking fire, he questioned every decision and his very purpose. He often began his disquisitions with a question: “Do you believe, Miss Tingley, that we are meant to be here?”
    She’d learned early on that Mr. Robinson desired no answer.
    He’d barge forward on the path, a step or so ahead. “Consider the story of the Tower,” opening the passageway to a favored topic. “Are we not confounded scatterings from Babel, punished for daring to build a tower with a top that reached for the heavens? Is our paradisiacal undertaking”—he’d stop, two large hands gesturing widely to survey the immediate view—“not the selfsame folly on a new continent?”
    Counterpoint came from Mr. Darwin, entire passages of whom Mr. Robinson stowed in memory. “And what of natural selection and the favoured races?” With such questions he might peer down at her eyes, momentarily curious, a wizened teacher fathoming the depth of a pupil’s obtuseness. “Mr. Darwin wrote, ‘We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species.’ Is our little settlement here, then, assuring our own dominance?”
    On a few icy January mornings, Miss Tingley worried that her expression of rapt interest might become a permanent feature, the punishment fitting the crime.
    Ever the last word, Mr. Ruskin’s voluminous wisdom about civilization and what is good and necessary and ennobling for the souls of all men, proved to be a fertile garden from which Mr. Robinson could pluck a sumptuous feast.
    Miss Tingley had seen that a man, as with an infant, tires after lengthy squalling and succumbs to a contented silence. That hypothesis failing with Mr. Robinson, she found any sentence that began with “The children—” granted her the freedom to break free.
    Mr. Robinson threw questions as stones into water, expecting no rebound. In turn, she harboured unspoken answers, retorts. For example, no matter how long a man studied their words, stories—Babel, natural selection—contained not one lone truth, only layered possibilities. Comparable to rats swimming from a sinking ship, Hoxton smiths and Dublin maids (and a soldier lovestruck by a waif shelling peas in Covent Garden, the tale told by her own grandparents), who’d been packing trunks and sputtering for generations about their dreams to any passerby whose faced wasn’t snapped closed like a clam, fought only against being extinguished; dominance was a blind happy accident rather than the champion’s silver chalice of victory. As for a community of legislated equality and good souls engineered with clockwork precision by visionaries, Miss Tingley felt no faith in the premise: one could no more make a silk purse from a sow’s ear than a sow’s ear from a silk purse; and a marriage of the pair succeeded only in a monstrous graft, a specious idea transformed into a foolish result, such as a cabbage-cow. It might be accomplished, but why?


    Cheery—milky white walls, trim the hue of pine needles—but smelling of stable even when no horses stood in the hold, the Ramona paddled as slowly as a swimmer against strong current. Passage on the sternwheeler cost half that of a train and afforded ticket holders a semblance of leisure, especially on benches at the prow during stretches of fine weather. Better yet, when stepping off Miss Tingley did not feel, as with trains, deafened, queasy, and manhandled, as though she’d tumbled down a long hill inside of a whiskey barrel. She agreed to the CPR on increasingly rare Saturdays when her mother’s eyes twinkled with the suggestion of riding the rails for the afternoon, splurging on a pot of Darjeeling and fancy iced cakes near the Royal City station.
    By late afternoon steady cold downpour had turned Ruskin into a swamp of puddles and mud. The gloomy dampness changed pupils into squabbling miscreants puffed with abundant pride at forgetting all but the vestiges of recent lessons. In their guise as dunces Miss Tingley saw a choral accusation: incompetence, incompetence. She’d hurried to the boat landing, rushed up gently bowed boarding planks.
    Elbows resting on the flat railing of the open-air promenade deck a flight above the river, she stood safely distant from rainfall and fellow travelers but within view of the blunt-nosed prow. She wanted the panorama and rhythmic current to ease away her cantankerousness before the Ramona docked in Mission.
    Poorly this spring and growing blind in plodding worrisome increments, Miss Tingley’s mother spent whole days indoors; and by five o-clock she was particularly avid for news and trivia about the cluster of mills, pupils and their families, the river’s likelihood of flooding, any of the outside world’s concerns.
    Miss Tingley believed her mother would reach out to Mrs. Dollar once she felt lonesome enough. In the meantime, as Mrs. George Tingley, formerly Miss Fanny Smithe of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, prepared and served tea, she relished quotidian details of Ruskin, as though they rivaled the palace intrigue of Versailles.
    All the while, Miss Tingley knew, her mother waited to pounce: “And what did your Mr. Robinson have to say today?”
    The portrait Miss Tingley had sketched for her mother had gradually warped into a caricature, insofar as she gave prominence to the man’s business acumen, social graces, and penetrating intelligence while including not a pinch of his lesser qualities.
    The result: Fanny Tingley heard wedding bells, a loose end she’d like tied before, she hinted theatrically, Meeting her Maker.
    Miss Tingley had seen that coming from the first half-truth she muttered.
    To explain the sparse news and lack of progress, Miss Tingley had taken to “responsibilities for mill business keep Mr. Robinson locked out of sight” and its kin, which etched a deep frown on her mother’s face—one that might have been lifted from the schoolhouse’s youngest pupils.
    Mrs. Tingley did not ask about Ephraim Metzger, a man she thought suspicious with his family’s foreign syllables and doubtful because he did not work with his hands, not really.

    Ruddy and stocky but nimble, Ephraim worked in a room overlooking the mill’s choked interior, ledger books, pencils, and ink his chosen implements. When this clerk said, “Please call me Ephraim,” Miss Tingley had not inquired about the national origins of his name.
    He belonged to the Society and partook in club meetings alongside Mr. Willband and Thomas Robinson, though he possessed a gentler spirit.
    A man of true democratic temperament would say, “Do you believe that we are meant to be here?” and wait a proper time for the reply. Miss Tingley had come to have faith that Ephraim represented such a figure, interested not only in her perspectives about setting aside funds for a new schoolhouse but whatever subject struck her fancy.

    Miss Tingley stared ahead, indifferent to what species of debris floated by. She’d spoken with Ephraim right after noon in the dripping but protected passageway between the classroom and the mill’s infernal concatenation of saws, belts, and chains. Nodding in sympathy at her concern, Ephraim then expressed—voice raised to compete with clanking machinery—grave doubts about the mill’s prospects, and thereby hers, his, and the Society’s. He mentioned back-to-back dry summers, dropping lake water levels and resulting timber shortages, and financial difficulties rising as the sun.
    The crux: composed of nothing more than lines of ink on paper, dream civilizations find success readily in bound volumes; quixotic seasons, unaccountable human nature, and a recondite God join forces to assure the terrible, futile struggle of their nail and timber counterparts.

    At the wharf Miss Tingley watched the remaining passengers skirt puddles and scurry then slip on matted grassy mounds, and vowed she’d wait to summon the wherewithal to cross the dismal flats, a flooded plain just four years earlier and a fertile breeding marsh for thick clouds of mosquitos each and every spring that could drive a man to his knees with prayers begging for Arctic gales. After that, a short climb up the stubbled hillside—partially slashed and cleared bushland that would take years to cultivate and, as important, prettify.
    She did not have the heart at this instant to chirp brainlessly about mill goings on. Nor would Ephraim’s forecast for the impending termination of her position serve to lighten the house’s sober mood.
    Upon her mother’s passing, an eventuality not long in the future, she’d be pecked at by decisions. To bide her time and take up teaching nearby, or bid goodbye to Mrs. Dollar and the snug house where she’d lately resided, settling perhaps in New Westminster, or Victoria? Let out rooms by the week and cook meals for tongue-tied itinerants from Poland and China, pretend an interest in quilting patterns while selling yards of calico cloth at Mrs. Tretheway’s general store? And before then, what? Write to the Department of Education and plead for a position? Raise poultry and sell eggs like Mrs. Dollar, grant her mother one final happiness by securing an acceptable prospect, or lower her sights and flutter her lashes at the bargeman with his house on stilts near the bridge?

    Shawl adjusted and bonnet retied, Miss Tingley charted the driest path across the monotone puddles, mud, and rivulets of the flats.
    On vexatious mornings Mr. Robinson spoke to her shortly, as though she stood before him an affront, an empty vessel that needed constant filling, or worse, a leaky one, a sieve, from which his wealth of ideas trickled away and seeped uselessly into the ground below. She did not correct his presumption; he was not her pupil and would not care for a clarifying lesson. She let him carry on believing 2 + 2 = 22 because he did not wish to know otherwise.
    No stranger to Mr. Ruskin, Miss Tingley thought of the utility of his words as her skin puckered from rain suddenly falling sideways in bracing dollops.
    Though Mr. Ruskin had travelled in fine, rarified circles, the man never abandoned common sense. He believed, as he’d reasonably written, that variety is a necessity to the human heart and brain. Less common was his claim that change and monotony have their uses, like darkness and light, “the one incapable of being enjoyed without the other: change being most delightful after some prolongation of monotony, as light appears most brilliant after the eyes have been for some time closed.”
    Soon, surely, she would usher in change, open her eyes, and spy an elsewhere.
    On the morrow she’d query Ephraim about his future outlooks and suggest that Victoria ought to welcome a man so handy with a pencil, just as it should a woman with hand’s-on knowledge of the stingy ways of the world.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Promotional Material: An Excerpt From "This Location of Unknown Possibilities"

   I'm so pleased to report that my second novel—a long-gestating and intermittently frustrated project (and, in fact, the starting point of this blog)—has an official publication date of April 15, 2014. 

   If you'd like to read a plot description click here; but if you're more attracted to reviews, please click here (re: "A fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of a major motion picture, this is an absorbing, thought-provoking, and sharply witty novel. Grubisic’s densely layered prose will appeal to fans of Dave Eggers and DBC Pierre..."),

here (re: "The work is surprisingly warm, accepting its characters' foibles without meanness, happily cynical about the realities of the entertainment industry without being jaded or spiteful; the contrasting views of naive Spėk and veteran Nugent grant the work greater depth. Absurd without being absurdist, the satire draws its strength from its verisimilitude, the impression that as ludicrous as parts are, none of this is impossible or indeed, particularly unlikely"),

here (re: "Opening the cover of Brett Josef Grubisic’s new novel, This Location of Unknown Possibilities, is akin to pushing the button on one of those laughing toys. But to suggest that he’s written a comic novel sounds too benign as assessment. His book is way beyond the merely comic; it’s a densely ribald and culturally astute treatise, and it’s fuelled by its own manic combustion engine"),  

here (re: "I’m happy to report that his true métier is clearly novel-writing. NoN has once again shown, ahem, impeccable taste by publishing this bold, bawdy, and downright hilarious sophomore effort.... What’s interesting, though, is that the various machinations of the plot – an injury on the set, the impromptu hiring of a waitress as the new star, the wrap-party shenanigans – are almost immaterial to the enjoyment of this novel. The real star here is the novelistic voice that Grubisic has created, so assured and observant and full of erudite wit. This Location contains a richness of language that immediately establishes a trust with the reader: no matter the twists and turns of its off-the-chain plot, you’re happy to follow them wherever they leads you.
Indeed, the comedy here is reminiscent of vintage Kingsley Amis or Evelyn Waugh, and This Location
establishes Grubisic as a daring new satirist in the CanLit fold"),

here (re:
"As the film, the narrative, and the characters spiral further out of control, the book gets darker, stranger, and funnier. By the time the film has wrapped, it has morphed into something utterly different, and the novel's own narrative has mutated, twisted, and slipped its bonds. When the book goes off the rails it is shattering and glorious—just as shattering and glorious as the lives we pretend we're authors of"),

and/or here (re: "Grubisic uses a vortex of references from literary works, self‑help books, online personals, B‑grade slasher flicks and Hollywood actors to produce a meta‑narrative that is oddly recognizable but defies labels. This stripping of labels applies not only to the book, but also the film at its centre as well as the characters responsible for creating it").

Naturally, there's a review that's full of complaint and disappointment too. If you'd prefer to peruse that one, finding it isn't difficult.

And if you're a short interview fan, there's this and this.

   If, however, you'd like to read an excerpt to get a sense of style, content, degree of difficulty, characterization, number of expletives per page, or suitability as a gift for Aunt Clarice to enjoy during her 14-day Alaska cruise, etc, keep reading. 
   There's an excerpt right below. Following a prologue set in Studio City, CA, the opening chapter introduces Dr. Marta Spëk and her seasonal allergies, above average organizational skills, and deep-seated career discontentment...

A Career in English!


   A transparent stream of mucous seeped from Marta’s left nostril, slow as a glycerin tear. Clasping a tissue, she blew gently in hopes of avoiding the unnerving pop—Oh my, is this an aneurysm?—of distressed eardrums. I cannot have caught a cold, Marta thought. No, not a cold at all, she determined, merely aggravating invisible particles enveloped within nasal drool. Natural, normal, automatic immunoresponse triggered by diminutive organic motes suspended in odourless, life-sustaining air. The bad inseparable from the good. Serpents and fruit trees. Typical. Pseudoephedrine mood swings too, Marta noted crankily. Springtime. She’d experienced better days.
   Tilting the desk chair back, Marta blotted the watery rims and pictured the lids as bee-stung, having swelled and grown blotchy. Bloodshot eyes too, quite possibly. Would students in the impending class look up from their phone screens and comment, believing she’d been crying? Surely they’d have no ready-made explanation for the spectacle of a weepy professor. What soap opera scenario might they spin? A lost grant, perhaps, or tenure unfairly denied. A sniping review. The visible handkerchief and a vague comment about the peril of pollen would suffice to nip murmured speculation in the bud. They’d readily accept that external source over the implausibility of crushing disappointment or, another long shot, heartache so fierce that it had spilled into the classroom.
   Marta’s desk clock and computer agreed: 12:45pm. Exactly five minutes before she must depart for the week’s final class. She closed the skinny office window. It wasn’t supposed to be opened, anyway. People had heightened sensitivities in these seasons of compromised immune systems. Everyone expressed keen awareness of bounding allergens and environmental flux; rogue microbes failed to recognize personal space, and protection had become imperative.
   In lieu of the marvelous transparent domes and lab-engineered enhancements of science fiction, Grounds+Maintenance had just finished with a series of practical paper and email bulletins that explained how the building’s renovated ventilation system rendered a breath of fresh air obsolete, counter-productive. Marta’s eyes had settled on the falsely reassuring scientific language of the latest: cutting edge technology that deployed ozone and ultraviolet light for optimized ionization and departicalization. In short: hinged windows have become an outmoded indulgence, comrade, and the health of you and the university community relies on individual cooperation, thank you for the ongoing compliance.
   As she cautiously dabbed the inflamed leaking rims a final time, Marta began to organize the papers on the desk, sliding notes—lined yellow sheets highlighted in purple (key concepts, pointed questions for students) and green (relevant trivia, humorous asides)—into the valise and pitching the scarcely read administrative announcements into the recycling bin.
   Two white sheets remained.
   Marta placed the letter into a folder labeled Homeward: Admin. She’d already secured a photocopy in the Correspondence: History file in the desk’s bottom left drawer. The letter’s duality, banal and momentous, was proving so difficult to resist. She’d snatched glances between classes that morning. If nothing else the offer promised diversion, a break—ludicrous and unprecedented but invigorating—from routine, she’d been telling herself. Tempted by celebrity, so facile chimed in a background voice, less friendly.
   12:48pm. She swiveled the chair away from the wall of books and studied the immense vista. The scene felt underdeveloped, a photographic study Ansel Adams might have discarded, since all the surfaces—turbulent inlet, coniferous mountainsides, densely cumulous sky—seemed mopped by inky watercolour. Graywashed, a vision of springtime stripped of the usual green bursts and life-affirming connotations.
   Black-pebbled concrete formed a thick frame around the inset window panes of the office. A home away from home, this stout fortress of a building. After the resurgence of seen-but-not-read Tolkien a few years ago, two arts students had said, “In the Dark Tower?” within the same week when arranging an office meeting—as though the roof sprouting paired horns or a wrathful amber eye would surprise no one. 
    Trends cycling as they did, though, the name’s sticking was anybody’s guess. The matte concrete slabs of the exterior had appeared on cineplex screens more recently as the barricaded compound of a fearsome African warlord in a mutant superhero movie sequel. Perhaps quizzical students now exclaimed, “I’ve seen that place somewhere before, I just know it” as they passed by. Or, no one commenting at all: equally plausible.
   Marta conceded that the tower’s facade—that of an unadorned modernist bunker—loomed imposingly. After that, she found the Tolkien analogy nonsensical. Early- mid-, and late-career vanity and politicking flourished, naturally. But brooding evil, Machiavellian tactics? Hardly. Assigning a C+ to an essay barely indicated a sign of power, let alone chthonic malevolence. The vin ordinaire of any office environment, professional rivalries, intense resentments, and grievance accretions were likewise known, albeit stored out of sight. As for the elaborate class hierarchy—untanned latter-day devotees of Matthew Arnold still genuflecting toward Oxford nested at the tip of the pecking order; at the base, brown-skinned women with broken English providing custodial services: “If you find a moment today, er, Dhatri, will you please vacuum my office?”—Marta supposed that arrangement, like good and evil, reached far back, as old as tragedy.
   The portentous architecture, then, meant nothing except unlucky coincidence. True, alongside the kind- and coldhearted, she did pass by hunched Gollums and tightly-wound Lizzie Borden types muttering in hallways from time to time; as with asylum lifers and feral animals, a simple rule applied: steer clear, don’t meet their eyes.
    Marta withdrew the letter and read the familiar words, for an instant miffed by the author’s choice of a nostalgic typewriter font:

   Dear Professor Spëk:
   I have been instructed to contact you because our production team has the good fortune to be in your vicinity. You may have heard that The Prophet of Djoun, a biopic of Lady Hester Stanhope, is currently in pre-production.

   Of course not, Marta thought once more, why would I have? Oh, movie people and their egotism.

   Your expertise, as revealed through your book Imperial(ist) Empress: Mysticism, Écriture Féminine and the Levantine Writings of Lady Hester Stanhope, would be a tremendous benefit for our production.
   If you can spare some time, one of the project’s executives, Mr. Jakob Nugent, would be happy to explain our offer and the technical details over lunch.
   We thank you for your time and hope to hear from you soon.
   Lora Wilkes
   Assistant to Jakob Nugent

   Folding the letter, Marta shrugged: what’s the harm of one meal? Alongside the usual low morale doldrums coinciding with the school year’s sputtering out, distressed thoughts had been mushrooming about the shiny prestigious career she’d willed—through methodical labour, more or less—into existence, on track now and unwavering until the onset of decrepitude. That legacy brought to mind a luckless character from a Poe story, walled inside a dusty catacomb for eternity by pages instead of stones. Losing mental pliability year after year as bones grew porous and brittle: squinting at a hidebound future that hadn’t yet unfolded drew Marta’s breath short.
   Marta pictured Poe pacing inside that leased white Bronx cottage on a swampy, sweltering August night, the air gassy and fetid; months earlier Lady Stanhope had passed away, obscure, half the world away. Stripped to a disheveled vest and shirt and grumbling drunkenly, Poe threw the tale whose plot he’d been sketching into the unlit hearth: “Preposterous, what fool would wall himself in? No, there must be a villain and a lure.”
   Guiltily peering into her unsettled state of mind, Marta saw first the luxuriant illegitimacy. From Chongqing to Zhenzhou, polluted industrial sprawls of dawn-to-dusk wage slavery were truly entitled to complaint. Ditto for a famished, war-pitted continent with medieval life expectancies. But not her, in an office with optimized ionization perched over a distant city of glass spires and postcard-worthiness. “A champagne problem,” her mother’s diagnosis, sounded accurate in its way.
   Marta nonetheless leaned toward crisis of faith despite the exaggeration; mundane as dandruff, occupational doubts didn’t quite capture it. Misgivings? Discontentment? A tad vague, undirected. Whatever the case, she’d trust intuition for the remedy.
Nudging Marta forward as well: the reasonable sound of her father’s oft-voiced motto, “The proverbial knock of opportunity should never be ignored.” 
   Save for the onslaught of final exam grading the semester verged on being history, and she really ought to get out into the real world—an elsewhere—more often. Life’s a banquet; do or die; broaden horizons; not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end: carpe diem’s bravado stretched back to cuneiform. Presumably, she’d find equivalent philosophy carved into a Bronze Age tablet. Who could argue with such longevity?.
   Marta pinned the vintage brooch watch—a thrift store find decades ago—to her sweater; another reality, a thirty-faced composition class, demanded acknowledgement. She’d contact this assistant to Jakob Nugent later.
   The computer gonged for incoming mail. Marta read the weekly announcement from Exconfessio.

    Ex G.B (Seattle, WA)—
1. I always see full-grown adults at stoplights picking their noses and it makes me want to stab them in the face.
2. I lost my wallet once with 4,000 dollars in it and the guy gave it back and would not take a penny.
3. I love my wife and kids, but would help a dog over a stranger any day.
4. I worked for the government and abused the job, stole time and hated every second and every person I worked with until I quit.
5. I had a friend commit suicide the day after he said “keep an eye on me.”
6. I saw a friend put his cock all over his wife’s best friend’s face while she was sleeping and then smack her lips with it and she never woke up.
7. I saw a guy fall off a 5-foot drop off into a mud pit and didn’t help him; I only laughed hysterically at him from across the street.

   Rereading, she savoured the cinematic fullness of each confession.
   The week’s offering was tamer than others but intriguing nonetheless. Another historical constant: people behaving badly (even when the story was patently untrue: what person keeps 4,000 dollars in a wallet?) had been enthralling onlookers for millennia. Gossip, rumour, whispered speculation, outrageous misdeeds. Such an excess of libidinousness—a perennial cup that runneth over—harbored in countless minds. Who could tell how it would manifest? Stabbed faces and hysterical laughter. Misanthropy over philanthropy at a ration of at least 10:1, if one believed Exconfessio. What malice! Marta’s nominal professional interest dedicated scattered thoughts to pondering what people chose as worthy of confession. An essay about secular ethics would be publishable, surely.
   Last semester a student had handed in a curious polemical essay condemning Exconfessio. The pious student’s evident outrage—galled in particular at the site’s “inappropriate” All Confessions, No Reprisals™ mandate—initially drew in Marta. Actually signing up to receive the confessions (Seven Sins, Deadly Honest™ available in weekly and monthly allotments)? Whimsy, an afterthought. Reading the litany of offenses she occasionally aligned herself with unseemly figures, the peeping tom or the supermarket housewife tsk tsking at the vapid images of exposed cellulite and extramarital rendezvous in Hello!
   People were capable of declarations of astounding perversity. The alarming fact reassured Marta. Besides, the audacity of the confessions rarely failed to impress.
12:50. Time to vacate the sixth floor. She applied lotion to hands now papery courtesy of Purell.
   As for Do You Know Yours Rights?, Marta tacked the pamphlet onto the cork board, its  message ready to revisit on Monday. The folded photocopy had been slid under the office door, one sentence highlighted in pink: “Managing perception of your brand is the essence of personality rights.” For the moment the immediate puzzles—the identity of the anonymous messenger, that faceless interloper’s agenda—dropped away. And personality rights might be useful to mull over. Trickle down from celebrity culture and—Marta’s middling score of 3.2 an affront, like coming across her own name on a bathroom stall. Everyone an unstable, easily snuffed out star and in need of tweaks, damage control, and, always, upkeep. 

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  If that reading experience sated you, thanks for reading. If it didn't, there's one more excerpt posted and available here.