Monday, 30 April 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Stock-taking, Part II, Golden Corral

  When I began to write here in late February, I'd never blogged before; I hadn't spent much time looking at blogs either (under ten minutes, to be honest). My feelings about blogs weren't mixed. I'd never read them because, well, there was already plenty for me to read without adding another genre to my list.
   Lacking experience, I nonetheless maintained a vague faith that blogging would be somehow sociable (this faith was based on seeing Julie & Julia, so I'll blame Hollywood for misleading me!). I imagined that blogging would be more interactive than writing an essay or a review or a scene from my novel because I was joining a community. I overestimated the sociability. 
   Soon, after reading a few articles with titles like "10 Tips from Successful Bloggers," I did come to understand that there are all kinds of networking strategies that can lead to higher reader volume and greater 'net visibility and establishing valuable connections, and so on.
   With that realization came another thought: that sounds like work, not fun. I seem to have a constitutional aversion to attending meetings, joining committees, and showing up at group gatherings (from dinner parties to the English department's Xmas tea). It could be, then, that the successful blogger strategies I read about set off an internal alarm. Anyway, for the time being, my blogging will remain largely un-networked. If people write to me or respond to any of the postings here, however, that's cool. I'll happily dialogue with them.

   If blogging has not so far been an especially useful way of connecting with the world, it's been a terrific venue for revising. Each serialized chapter segment gives me a chance to re-read and reevaluate.
   Unexpectedly, too, breaking the chapters into serialized chunks made me realize that (a) I want chapters to have titles instead of being numeric, and (b) I prefer the chapters broken into numbered sections (making them all relatively bite-sized and thereby easily consumed). The prologue, now called "Sow's Ear Silk," is chopped into two sections; and Part II, which I'll begin serializing this week, begins with "Kerplunk" (which is how, back in 1907, John B. Watson described the sound a rat makes when it runs into the wall of a maze).

   As the title of the novel's second part makes clear, "II: Penticton to Oroville" covers the extremes of territory in the Okanagan Valley where the location shoot for The Prophet Djoun, supposed biopic of Hester Stanhope, takes place. That the TV movie has been retitled The Battle for Djoun (and, ultimately, will be Alien Advance: Desert Assault) is a surprise—and an unwelcome one—to Marta.
   The section's epigraph—"Help Yourself to Happiness™"—comes from the Golden Corral Corporation; according to the company's website, GC is "well known as America's #1 buffet and grill" and attracts customers with a "legendary, endless buffet."
   When you think about it, GC's corporate motto is quite strange. I rather like the claim of endless face-stuffing at an endless buffet as being equivalent to happiness. Freud and The Biggest Loser might argue otherwise.
   The concept of helping yourself to happiness, though, is terrifically North America. The U.S. especially is a land founded on the myth of self-made individuals who can help themselves to success. Or maybe, now, it's "if you can dream it, you can become it." That's siren's song heard by the thousands upon thousands of hopefuls who line up full of expectation for singing and talent competitions year after year. 
   Built into the motto as well is the idea of being careful what you wish for. You say, or even fervently believe, a bottomless bucket of "Country Breaded Wings" (featured on GC's hot buffet menu; 100 calories per wing) is what you want/need/desire. But there they are, a pile of wings on your plate. You eat them all and go back for more. Are you happy now? Are they really what you wanted, needed, or desired? (Or are they in fact a substitute for something else?

Friday, 27 April 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Hot-knifing, Blogging

   Hot-knifed hash was everyone's first choice at the filthy, rank-smelling staff house I slept in (my bedroom a cliché: a single mattress on the floor, clothes strewn everywhere) during my summers of restaurant work in Jasper, Alberta—where I grilled countless New York strips before making the move to serving countless New York strips, in case you're curious.
   The tips of all the house's butter knives were permanently scorched black from heavy usage; as a result, eating dinner always included a visible reminder of parties past and yet to come. When no one had hash to share, beer and mixer with Canadian Club—empty bottles of which sat on window frames—were the standard back-up plans.
   Jasper was unusual (and probably still is) because its population ballooned in summer. Streams of students came for three or so months to serve bus-, train-, and carloads of tourists. The ethos of the summer population was simple: work hard, party hard, maybe save some money. In working double shifts and then heading to a house party and then returning (with a hangover) for a shift early the next morning, I was far from unusual. For decades the town has been a trial-by-fire for student livers.
   At the staff house people would congregate in the early evening. And if there wasn't a party rumour in circulation, we'd hang out, swapping stories and talking shop while drinking and smoking. In that staff house basement (the main floor was reserved for the highers ups of the pecking order) air took on an increasingly blue tinge as the night progressed.
   Later, a guitar would appear. Straight couples would make out (if there were gays in that village, I never met any). And like clockwork, someone—usual a guy—would sit next to me on one of the sunken plaid sofas with hopes of reciting a poem or three. The poetry was invariably rhyming and earnest but awful, and I'd always lie and highlight the "complex imagery" and "musicality." I made efforts to suppress that fact that I was studying English literature at university.

   Until two months ago I'd never read a blog, nor created one of my own. I'm still getting used to the experience.
   At times, the blogging process makes me think of journal-writing, a habit I never developed. The insularity is similar, I imagine, though with a diary there is no Publish button (and, save for inquisitive family members or lovers, the author writes for an audience of one).
   There's a poet-at-a-party aspect to blogging too: let me share my words and perspectives with you, please. True, I do not sit next to anyone and corral them into listening to me and then eagerly ask, "So...what do you think?" Still, the public element is undeniable. A while back, Kevin Chong wrote, "I consider Twitter to be a form of loud talking, 'meaningless conversation' meant to be overheard," and it's simple enough to swap "Twitter" with "blogging."
   When someone says "I'm just thinking aloud" they seem to infer that while they've said something that's not private, the utterance is also necessarily half-baked, tentative, and/or still being worked out; it's a public declaration with a build-in apology: "Sorry, I'm testing out an idea." For the moment, I'm going to think of blogging as serving that purpose for me, at least in part. Somewhere between baked and half-baked, then, and accordingly provisional.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Vincent Lam's 'The Headmaster's Wager'

   Brutal, condemnatory book reviews, I've noticed, typically focus on an author's egregious errors of conception and execution. Details like sentence mechanics, meanwhile, receive scant attention.

   I tracked down a few reviews of notorious harshness to see if this idea held up.
   First up, excerpts from Michiko Kakutani's dismissal of Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil in the New York Times Book Review: "misconceived and offensive"; "a botched and at times cringe-making fable"; "borrowings from — or, at best, homage to — Beckett go well beyond a simple premise, and they serve no persuasive end. Rather they are another awkward element in this disappointing and often perverse novel."
   In short: for Kakutani, the novel is a dismal pile of stillborn ideas.
   Across the pond, in the pages of the London Review of Books, James Wood reviewed Zadie Smith's second novel, The Autograph Man: a "dreary blank"; "an empty centre entirely filled by [the protagonist's] pop-culture devotions"; "a text incapable of ever stiffening into sobriety, a flailing, noisy hash of jokes, cool cultural references, pull-quotes, lists and roaring italics"; botched "management of irony and sincerity"; an "anarchy of styles"; "amid the cartoonishness and excess, the misplaced ironies and grinning complicities."
   Um, he detects sound and fury signifying nothing, apparently.
   And of course I'd be remiss in neglecting Dale Peck in The New Republic. His review of Rick Moody's memoir, The Black Veil, could be in a literary Hall of Fame: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation"; the work is framed "as a series of imitations or echoes of Moody's more talented, or at any rate more authentically individual, peers" and symptomatic of "the wrong turn in our culture that led to Moody's status as one of the anointed ones of his—okay, our—generation"; for Peck, the "beginning of a Rick Moody book is a bit like having a stranger walk up and smack me in the face, and then stand there waiting to see if I am man enough to separate him from his balls"; and, furthermore, Moody is technically weak: "This isn't a matter of poetic license. We are talking about Freshman Comp. Moody's passage is just wrong, grammatically, stylistically, and, most importantly, semantically"; pages upon pages are filled with "banal yet apparently heartfelt hyperbole"; and one passage "isn't simply a bad idea badly rendered. It is so awful that it is easy to see the book as in league with the very crimes that it seeks to redress."
    Summary: fatuous, emblematic of all that's wrong with American literary culture.

    Kakutani and Wood's reviews support my observation quite well.
   While dwelling on what they identify as wrong decisions about approach, tone, and mood, they spend little effort identifying compositional mistakes at the level of sentence and paragraph.
   Peck's review is lengthy, and perhaps by having few word-count restrictions (700 words is characteristic for my review assignments) he's able to devote criticism to massive problems (ie, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation") and seemingly minor technical ones (re: "This isn't a matter of poetic license. We are talking about Freshman Comp. Moody's passage is just wrong, grammatically, stylistically, and, most importantly, semantically"). The review's detail is an exception to the norm.

   Since I was concerned about running over-length and already feeling that I'd already said my peace about Vincent Lam's debut novel, my meh-tinged review didn't talk at all about parts I'd circled while reading the Advanced Readers Copy (which I always imaginatively link to the Remedial Readers Copy, but which is really just an almost complete version publishers send out early so that, I suppose, reviews can be published to coincide with the retail release date of books).
   A few of these circled parts were related to Lam's apparent discomfort with writing sex scenes. Some latitude is required here since sex is notoriously difficult to transcribe. Besides, I decided, perhaps I'm drawn to sex writing that's direct and pornographic, while Lam prefers lyrical and soft focus. A "po-tay-to" / "po-tah-to" situation.
   Other passages I scribbled comments about while reading stood out as bad writing. Weeks after having submitted the review, I'm not satisfied that "bad writing" is an exact fit. The description feels inaccurate. I haven't come up with a better one yet.
   Felt marker poised, I read hundreds of essays during any given school year, and by now I'm adept at catching examples of truly bad writing: grammatically incorrect, misspelled, etc. In contrast, writing in a published work is rarely awful (Dale Peck's view excepted). Yes, the lyricism might be overblown and the writer might rely too much on stylistic tricks, and so forth, but those 'mistakes' might be more or less a matter of taste.
   Still, there are bits scattered throughout Lam's novel that caught my attention. 
   Here's one: "Thunder swelled, and the rain pounded the roof of the car. The traffic was slow, and the car stopped often. The wipers flashed back and forth, and the rain blurred..." 
   And another: "When crew-cut Americans in civilian clothes became more common, the Percival Chen English Academy began to make decent profits. Once U.S. Army uniforms became a common sight, the school was making more money than..." (I've added italics to emphasize the bits that drew my eyes).
   I'm not sure how to label these examples. In both cases, I wonder why the author chose repeated words and sentence structure. I can see disadvantages, but no compelling reason for believing they are necessary, or indeed helpful, contributions to the story. If oversights, they're surprising to find at all.

   [The review-for-pay of The Headmaster's Wager appeared in the Vancouver Sun.]

Monday, 23 April 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Cheryl Strayed's 'Wild'

   Right after reading Drop Dead Healthy and taking in its author's repeated, research-supported warnings about the dangers of the sedentary life, I devoured Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, beginning on my couch (Saturday morning), then (all Saturday afternoon) on the couch of Alex, whose plants I'd agreed to water. Sloth never felt so satisfying.
   Strayed—a name of her own choice, selected after the divorce that was finalized shortly before the trek described in Wild—has assembled the most remarkable of stories, all the more impressive because she lived through it: about two decades ago, during summer, she hiked a large chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail, starting in literally blistering desert heat in SoCal and finishing up at the rain-soaked Oregon-Washington border. Strayed planned the expedition as a solo experience. To call her a veteran hiker would be a gross exaggeration.
   Her boots did not fit; she over-packed and was tragically underfunded (at one point between check in points, she possessed exactly two pennies); she got lost several times; and she was not physically or mentally prepared for the solitude, the obstacles, and the overall hardship.
  Shortly before the trek, though, Strayed's life had become unraveled. A profoundly close relationship ended with her mother's death from cancer. Her marriage and family life soon disintegrated. Living Peaches' famous call to 'Fuck the pain away' before Peaches had sung the words, Strayed fell into sad promiscuity and, eventually, heroin use.
   For Strayed, the Pacific Crest Trail was not an adventure so much as an escape route. Without it, addiction and death seemed nothing short of inevitable.
   For a book of tremendous sadness and much fury at the cold heart of the cosmos, Wild can also be surprisingly joyful. Strayed is looking back at herself from a distance of two decades, and makes fun of her lack of preparation and not infrequent mistakes (such as: having a backpack so unwieldy that she cannot lift it, or buying the totally wrong fuel for her camp stove and initially having no means to cook food). She recounts friendships, adventures, dangers; a latter-day Romantic, she's keen to depict the spectacular, balm-like beauty of the natural world. (All the while, though, she's grieving and furious; she does not seem the kind to accept mortality and unfairness and cruelty with poise and resignation.)
   A delight throughout its 311 pages, Wild will no doubt appeal particularly to readers whose life has gone/is going pear shaped. Despite addiction, a violent father, poverty, divorce, and a mother's too-early death, Strayed has thrived. That resilience is astonishing, truly inspiring.

[The actual review appeared in the Vancouver Sun.]


Fiction Installment #18. Chapter 7: Marta and Jake

   Winking at Marta, Lora picked up the receiver. “Your one o’clock appointment, Dr. Spëk, has arrived, Mr. Nugent.” She hung up and drew an arrow in the air toward Marta’s destination. “Your meal will be along in a heartbeat,” she said, “Question: You still like Thai, I hope.”
    With thoughts settling on caged factory farm chickens and habitat destruction caused by Malaysian prawn farms, Marta answered with a smile. “Oh yes, thank you.”
Furnished by a the same budget office equipment leasing firm, Jake’s office—a painted metal desk with imitation wood grain top, gray filing cabinets, spun-nylon chairs—matched Lora’s exactly. The functionality and sparseness, so at odds with Marta’s imaginings, served to assure her that filmmaking was above all a bottom-line business with deadlines, responsibilities, lists of hourly goals, and a high risk of failure.
    “It’s good to finally meet you, Professor Spëk.” Jake stepped from behind the desk to offer a firm hand. “Please make yourself comfortable.” That smile opens doors for him, Marta thought, cowed by the well-tended edifice of impervious masculinity. Well-proportioned and aware of the fact, she surmised, here’s the strutting cock of the henhouse. At least he possessed the manners to not chew gum.
    “Marta, please. ‘Professor’ makes me feel one hundred.” Sitting, Marta fussed; the cuffs of the new blouse were a shade long. Jake’s carnivore watchfulness was disconcerting, recalling the momentary eye-squint—instantaneous assessment and dismissal—of SRLFI’s industry cronies. Stiff-backed in the wheeled chair, she watched Jake’s flitting eyes and imagined a low-charisma figure reflected in them, strangely invisible despite festive colours.
    “Sounds good. Marta, I’m Jake. Jakob was my granddad’s name, and it makes me feel about the same age.” He sat and pushed into the chair’s adjustable back. “I suppose you’d like a clearer picture of why we’ve invited you here.”
    Lora knocked, stacked Styrofoam-encased lunches in hand. “Lady and gentleman, luncheon is served.”
   Jake laid out the basics of the production with veteran efficiency. He dabbed a spring roll in shared plum sauce, bit off a third, and said, “If I’m going too fast, just say the word.” Pencilling bullet points on a pad of yellow paper, he sketched the contractual particulars of the consultancy, and broke between each to lift pad thai noodles steaming in the container. “This stuff tastes like crap when it gets cold.”
   Marta, surprised to be warming to the unusual intimacy of a meal with a virtual stranger, wrote in a notebook and asked questions, relieved that the anticipation of a hard-nosed exchange of terms was completely unfounded. She’d sat through seminars with greater antagonism.
   Jake’s answer to Marta’s unasked question, “Why me?” deflated her excitement considerably. “You know,” he said “there’s no one in the entire region—well, no one else alive anyway—that knows a thing about this Lady Hester Stanhope. She’s no Marie Antoinette.” Marta hadn’t been vetted, then. No, her presence was a convenience. And local, far cheaper than flying in a biographer from England.
    Unaccustomed to bargaining, Marta judged the terms of employment to be exceptionally generous; demanding greater compensation was uncalled for.
    Jake likewise felt confident about their negotiation. Unaware that scholars often spent years writing one volume and received a pittance in royalties, Jake was stoked that Marta’s expertise had been leased at an attractively low price; that would keep the bean counters off his back.
    “We’re looking forward to your input, Marta.”
    “Yes, I’m keen to help out.”
    Jake handed Marta a copy of the script—“Nothing’s nailed down, so think of it as a work-in-progress, okay?”—and recommended flipping through it.


   Stepping across the yellow safety line and into the deserted return car, Marta stood before the vista. Past concrete, asphalt, and mottled rooftops, she caught a glimpse of the dwindling streaks of snow on backdrop mountain peaks. With the system’s precautionary gong sounding, she slid into a seat.
   The Prophet of Djoun—and accompanying penciled notes—demanded surprisingly little effort. She'd filed the script in the valise well before transferring to the last bus connection.

[That's the end of both the chapter and Part I. There's a change of scenery next, since the location shoot takes place in Oliver, BC.]

Friday, 20 April 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reading—A.J. Jacobs' 'Drop Dead Healthy'

   There are plenty of good news/bad news situations in Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. For the benefit of readers who might have thought about going on a 3-day fast or taking a pole-dancing class, irrepressible "experiential journalist" A.J. Jacobs has dedicated 26 months to exploring myriad ways to become the healthiest person possible. His efforts run from the usual (dietary changes, working out, etc) to flirtations with non-mainstream beliefs, including slow eating and the "Paleo movement," which requires exercising in the outdoors and having cave-dweller eating habits (lots o' meat, no grains). And, yes, he does take a pole-dancing class and go on a 3-day fast.
   The impressive time Jacobs devotes to research also shows how being better informed doesn't necessarily lead to better decisions because so many studies contradict one another. There's a dizzying amount of information available, and it's far from conclusive.
   The basics that he accepts, though, make sense: little to no white food (refined grains, potatoes), no mammals, eat less (choose smaller plates, don't eat while watching TV), more exercise and sleep, less stress. Oh, yeah, and get a pet (a dog, preferably). Floss regularly and wear noise-cancelling headphones too.
   Filtering my own daily habits through Jacobs' book, I found that as a soft core vegetarian (mostly vegetarian most of the time for decades, but also a consumer of cheese and yoghurt as well as fish now and then) who exercises regularly, I was doing okay. 
   Except for one facet, that is. 
   An early challenge in Jacobs' quest was to become less sedentary. He discovered that he sat—and we sit—far too much. 
   For readers and writers (as well as most professions) there's a lot of sitting in the ordinary work day. And being a couch potato is a national pastime. According to Jacobs (and the researchers he cites) being sedentary is crazy bad for us, not least because it alters our metabolism and increases the risk of heart disease. What's more, the "desk is where most of the Crimes of Excessive Sedentary Behavior occur," Jacobs writes. 
   He MacGyvers a "Treadesk," which is a treadmill with a secured platform on which to use his laptop. Over the course of his book he walks over 1,000 miles while writing.
   Sitting is bad news, but I noticed Jacobs doesn't say anything about laying. A treadmill will not fit into my apartment and there's no way I can write while pacing I wonder about the Marcel Proust approach of writing from the recumbent position while in bed. Yes, laying is sedentary, but no, it's not sitting. Is that a loophole?
   Eating less sugar is a challenge, but sitting less seems Herculean. I'll probably wait to hear further research that proves how earlier research exaggerated the dangers, and continue to write and read while seated in a semi-slumped position.


Thursday, 19 April 2012

Fiction Installment #17. Chapter 6, pt. 3: Jake

   At the studio’s main gate tipped Pat tipped her hat and leaned into Jake’s cabin. “Howdy, hoss. You’re like clockwork.”
    “Hi Pat, it’s the All Bran.” They bantered easily. “Any problems at the corral?”
    “As far as I can tell everything’s running smooth as silk.”
    “That’s what I like to hear.”
    “She’s a beaut. New?” Pat slid a hand along the hood and returned to the side mirror. She’d been a teamster before taking the semi-retirement guard job and took an interest in all things automotive.
    “The finest in German engineering, I’m told. The dealer’s a buddy and let me have it for a week’s trial run.”
   “Sweet.” She whistled. “Maybe you’ll let me take her out for a spin later? I’ll give you my professional opinion.”
   “For sure, Pat. Come by the office on a break or after your shift or something and I’ll give you the keys. Just promise: not a scratch.”
   “You got it, boss, not even a bug smear.”
   “See you later, then.”
   “Welcome to the compound,” she said, waving Jake through. 

    Lora greeted Jake with a hug and a short stack of messages on pink paper. “Nothing’s in crisis so far, Boss Man,” she said. “Good morning to you.”
    “To you too, my dear.”
    Lora called their close working relationship plant-fungi mutualism. A biology major back in the day with a still breathing, if typically highball-authored, ambition to hunt down life-saving greenery hidden deep within the Amazon Basin, Lora willed selective blindness to stiff mortgage payments and an absolute intolerance of all winged insects. She relied on Jake’s talent for latching on to new shows; and Jake, who preferred the flower and bee picture of their symbiosis, never took the awesome organizational capabilities of his right-hand assistant for granted.
    “Where’s Chaz? I need him to make a run. No major fires to put out later?”
   “It’s pretty much business as usual, but remember that Dr. Spëk will be here for lunch at one.”
   “Doctor who?”
   “You remember, ‘Professor Gasbag’ from ‘that sunset industry.’” Lora’s fondness for finger quotation had not abated in the years she’d worked at Jake’s side. “Chaz will be back in 5, I expect.”
   “Oh right. Jesus, that’s today?” He foresaw the specimen: as rigid and unsmiling as a budget department bigwig. Jake knew the type.
    “That’s why those clever gods in Cupertino invented the organizer calendar on your phone, Jakob, all pretty and highlighted in purple by yours truly.”
    “Jeez Lora, I should kick my own ass. I’ll be ready.”
    “Yeah, I’ll get Chaz to pick it up. Same for you?”
    “You know it!”
   Inside his office, Jake typed the password of the laptop. He scanned email, relieved to see a trickle instead of the usual Monday deluge. Pleasure before pain, he figured, and clicked on a new blast from Exconfessio.

   Ex A.W. (Toronto, ON)—
   1. I often smoke pot or have a couple of shots of whiskey (rarer) before I go to work in the morning. I’m a middle manager in a corporate environment—suits, ties and everything—and I get off on being bombed at 8:30 a.m. while everybody is slaving around me.
   2. I have recorded with my camera phone the hot secretary in my office who insists on wearing tight skirts walking down the hall. I can’t beat off when she’s in front of me, but I can when I’m at home later.
   3. I’ve never cheated on any girlfriend...but I’ve never been offered the opportunity.
   4. I once fucked a woman twice my age who I met over a chat line. I wasn’t attracted to her in the least, and I almost couldn’t go though with it, but I did. I came on her face.
   5. I minored in Women’s Studies in university.
   6. Sometimes I eat my snot, but I’m cutting down on that activity lately.
   7. Sometimes I smile at gay guys on the street, just for the attention.

    "What a douche," Jake said, smiling at the global village of human piggishness the website exposed, and thankful again for his gut’s aversion to suit-and-tie strangulation and middle management drudgery. Exconfessio’s honesty was as exhilarating as the sheer inventive profanity. As one of those villagers, he thought he should participate too and had even compiled two lists of seven. He’d send them eventually. Maybe: the thought of having them become part of the visible world, even anonymously, made him feel exposed.
    Time to check in with L.A, he thought.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Digression: Books and Reviewing—A Query Inspired by Margaret Atwood's 'Murder in the Dark'

   1. You're a reviewer, say. 
   A book you've been assigned is awful. Not just awful, as in, the author's style or novel's subject doesn't appeal to you, but so awful that you resent having wasting hours reading it and you're convinced that (a) no one else could possibly like it and (b) there's no good reason for it to have been published at all.
   You contact the books editor who assigned it. He says, "You can write the review if you want, or you can scrap it altogether." As a result, the newspaper will likely not run any review of the novel.

   2. You're a novelist, say.
   Through a literary grapevine, you hear that your book has been assigned. You're happy because a positive review in a well-respected newspaper guarantees exposure and, in theory, boosts both your sales and national profile.
   Later, by that same grapevine, you discover the reviewer loathes your book and has been looking at Dale Peck's notorious review in The New Republic for inspiration. That scathing review of Rick Moody's memoir, The Black Veil, the one that begins with a brutal declaration: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation."

 3. While you know the expression "There's no such thing as bad publicity," you're not wholly convinced of its truth.
   You are offered a choice: bad review or no review. Neither is desirable, but one must be made. What's your decision?
   You're a reviewer, say. What's your answer?
   Do you have a different answer if you're a novelist?

Friday, 13 April 2012

Fiction Installment #16. Chapter 6, pt. 2: Jake

   Home-shot photos of Jake’s towel-wrapped torso were currently attached to Mascskorpio and Muscgymdude, the to-the-point generic names chosen for two commercial sex site profiles to reveal relevant material—that his was an upper-echelon physique and disposition that would seek gratification with similar bodies that measured up. Why be coy or falsely democratic, Jake had thought when inventing these guises. Between the two profiles he expected to line up a suitable few options; he’d keep the programs running for an hour and comb through the mail then. While Jake was aware that the search might be fruitless, his gut said go. Failing that, he could try another site. It wasn’t like there was a shortage of choices online; any could be activated with a few screen taps.
   Normally Jake preferred to reserve his juice for a bigger bonanza and rarely wanted the sort of expedient assisting to orgasm he’d find in a park—stand, gesture, unzip; be back on the road in short minutes. The compressed efficiency of hasty sex had its natural merit—like sneezing it demanded no time and blasted out the pipes, equally crude and effective—but Jake was partial to sex as sport; in part, the spark resulted from being immersed in unknown conditions and improvising to control the outcome. It didn’t pan out every time, of course, but the successes were considerable and a cooling splash over the sporadic stings of failure. Today he was wound up; a quick park session made sense. He was fully cognizant that five minutes of masturbation would unscramble the circuits; he resorted to that only in dire circumstances—even a quarter-adventure had greater appeal than the warmth of a solitary hand.
   He rubbed his eyes lids at the last of what seemed like hundreds of stoplights of the morning. Dehydrated a tad, he suspected. After work and dinner yesterday he’d stopped by The Recovery Room. Dark-paneled and lit with ultra low-watt bulbs amplified by a long wall of beveled mirrors, the place was a magnet for a professional crowd that drank from the celebrated cocktails menu. Fashionably cool, it would have been called yuppie years ago. The men there checked expensive watches often and laughed with toothy, faintly predatory smiles, watchful of their pretty, carefully-tended women—whom they regarded as integral parts of their social profile.
   At the bar Jake had met, shaken hands with, and sized up Antony, “no H, man.” Clean-shaven with shaggy hair as black as Jake’s, he was shy despite the outgoing appearance, a guy who lacked—and desired—the wolfish aggression of the other men. Jake responded positively to the man’s soft give and pictured Antony’s reluctant mouth accepting his tongue and, later, the slow and progressively deeper thrusting of his dick.
   Antony, “in finance, but breaking into real estate,” introduced Jake to Krysta—“that’s with a K and a Y,” Antony said with a grin, igniting Jake’s hope—a freckled blonde day trader whose small frame was blessed with an ample, gravity-defying rack.
   The couple talked about work evangelically, as though they believed real estate and day trading were necessary, soul-saving subjects; Jake began to feel that he’d stumbled into the convention of an accounting cult. What the fuck, he thought. The pair was young and active, so they ought to have more to spout about than condo prices, interest rates, and the housing market’s crazy rollercoastering.
   “What do you two do for fun?” Jake decided that the conversation would benefit from shepherding. “Besides hanging out here with the beautiful people, that is.”
   “Krysta and I started snowboarding last year,” Antony replied.
   “Cool.” Jake looked around. Maybe this venue was a shade too indirect for his drives tonight. Or, he’d shown up before alcohol had lowered inhibitions.
   “And we’re really getting into traveling.” Krysta’s perky addition confirmed the couple’s von Trapp wholesomeness and that, disconcertingly, they weren’t following his lead. “We went to Jamaica in February! It was great!”
   Jake had pondered alternate options.
   Bored with the lack and the glacial proceedings, he said, “Excuse me for a minute. Beer.” He pointed downward, intending the physical detail to direct their eyes and to signal a reluctance to keep on with the office lunch room chit-chat. He emptied the green bottle in a gulp.
   The walls of the toilet were covered in hexagonal brass tiles and dark weatherbeaten-effect planks.
   Antony came in as Jake washed his hands. “Man, it’s like yawning. Now I have to go too.” He faced the wall above the urinal, reading a page of sports scores tacked behind glass.
   Jake waited at the black stone sink. Testosterone and impatience were edging him toward reckless disregard. “What do you two have on for later?”
   “Later?” Antony seemed surprised. “It’s a weeknight.”
   “Oh, I see. I was hoping to get some tonight.” Jake smiled widely, inviting this new acquaintance to join a conspiracy.
   Antony approached the sink. “Oh, I see. You mean us. No, man, you’re way off base. Jeez.”
   “Oops.” Jake said. He figured the situation didn’t need defusing, but kept his tone confident. “I misread you, the both of you actually, man, no sweat. Forget it. I just thought…” If something was going to happen, there was no chance it’d be tonight. Alone and with a few drinks in his bloodstream, Antony might cave.
   “‘I just thought’? What made you think anything?” Within Antony’s indignation, Jake caught an undertone of curiosity.
   “A vibe, that’s all. Hard to define. Don’t sweat it. My mistake. Obviously I’m not a psychic.” The words he’d initially planned—“We could take turns on Krysta, then maybe you’d let me tap that too”—remained stowed away. There were limits: Antony didn’t look like a fighter, but you could never tell a guy’s reaction when intuiting his ass and territory were threatened. “I’ll see you around, man.” Offering a handshake was no option, so Jake nodded a goodbye.
   Jake left the bathroom and made a beeline for the exit. He knew when to concede defeat. Approaching the rain-beaded car he mumbled, “Everything in moderation, Jakey.”

[The third and final part of the chapter will be published released shortly.]

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Billeh Nickerson's 'Impact: The Titanic Poems'

   Okay, technically, Impact is not a book I'm reviewing. Impact and its author Billeh Nickerson are the subject of a profile I've written. Profiles tend to feature positive descriptions of the book and the author's publication history/interests; they're usually supplemented with interview material. Profiles are rarely hostile (or even critical), that's why they're sometimes disparaged as "puff pieces"—eg, "Author X is one of the greatest living novelists, and his latest work is one of the best books in recent memory. It is impossible to find enough superlatives to describe its breathtaking compassion and astonishing intelligence."
   I'm not saying mine is a puff piece, of course. Heaven forbid!
   While I give myself permission to freely evaluate novels, short fiction, and a variety of non-fiction, poetry is reserved for classroom discussion and personal consumption. Frankly, the formal criteria for the evaluation of good/bad/meh poetry eludes me. I don't review poetry, in other words.*

   Choosing to write about a topic that's been so widely discussed and so widely depicted it has become part of global consciousness is an act of artistic bravery. 
   After all, there's a strong temptation to believe nothing fresh or new can be said about the trenches of WWI or Studio 54 (to name the first two well-worn topics that sprang to mind). And by focusing on the tried-and-true, any writer risks cliché and/or boring readers silly with repetition of what everyone already knows.
   Yet, authors still go for broke and manage to breathe fresh life into familiar material [writing while tired leads to hackneyed phrasing and godawful mixed metaphors].
   Grant Buday's Dragonflies and Margaret Atwood The Penelopiad are enjoyable especially because they give readers insight into characters and settings that have been part of literature for thousands of years. Even Every Man For Himself, Beryl Bainbridge's characteristically and delightfully weird contribution to 'Titanic literature,' enables readers to revise what they imagine as the facts of the great disaster—thanks in no small part to James Cameron, his cast, and that song.

   Nickerson, then, is likewise commendable for writing a book of poems about the nautical disaster of all nautical disasters, one that was also the subject of the biggest box office earner of all time (well, until Avatar).
   Replying to my questions about his new book of poems, he said:
   "I purposefully stayed on the peripheries of the story and tried to concentrate on areas that weren’t as common knowledge. This included many Canadian angles. I was also surprised by how little I actually described the physical size of the ship. I wanted to let the readers bring in their own thoughts. It’s similar to when something awful happens off camera in a horror movie in that the imagination can often be more potent."
    He wrote understanding perfectly that the subject matter was dangerous for the reasons I mentioned.
   To my eyes, the poems (and their avoidance of both the story's legendary facets and rich girl/poor boy endless love) encourage us to reconsider how the tragedy has, er, impacted an astonishing assortment of people for more than a century. Attentive to ship builders in Belfast and latter-day visitors to a cemetery in Halifax, the poems quietly meditate on meanings, showing that the legend is really composed of myriad stories, feelings, and responses, each of which is as valid and significant as the next.

   * Any resemblance to a review here is purely accidental.

[The profile appeared in the Vancouver Sun.]

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Fiction Installment #15. Chapter 6, pt. 1: Jake

   Jake deemed his driving to be suitably aggressive, bounding miles above average. Harshly judging drivers with an incessant need to yammer while ignoring basic rules of road conduct—“They’re called signal lights, you fucking moron”—he kept calls to a minimum. Restless and pent up today, he tapped the phone’s glass surface at red lights and traffic snarls.
   The plan was to stop for fifteen minutes in a suburban park after shutting up shop for the day; and he’d already posted “Quick Service?,” an online ad that listed relevant statistics and a time guestimate. If the ad produced negligible results—and Jake could predict from past experiences that zilch was almost a given—he would search pay sites to better the chances for success. The number of active online profiles fluctuated, sitting at an economical mid-range at the moment. Periods of duress or boredom rocketed the number from zero to four, though never—almost never, in truth—higher.
   Flux was a constant, and Jake took for granted that the course of his hankerings would normally run into peaks and valleys. As he charted the situation, he was human, humans were part of nature, and winter/spring, ebb/flow and wax/wane were cosmic principles, as fundamental as life and death. Simple. It all added up, most times at least.
   In those rare episodes of self-doubt when comparing himself unfavorably to colleagues—content with a home-cooked pot roast dinner and several hours of prime time television that might include a celebrity news show with a 30-second clip about a hurrying figure in black sunglasses checking into a clinic for sex addiction treatment—Jake’s normal-because-natural theory seemed filled with Swiss cheese holes. He faltered, seeing a too intimate relationship with back-in-rehab Americans, literally scabby off-Main prostitutes bartering orifices for tiny rocks of crack, and park denizens he’d catch sight of during a late night’s ramble. The guilt by association was discomforting.
   The doubts were infrequent but ultimately therapeutic. During them, Jake thought over his would-be degeneration logically, backing steadily away from the cliff’s edge. Perspective was key. Side by side, he judged, there wasn’t an epic divide between 24/7 nights of TV with Honey Bear, the cubs, and a bowl or two of microwave popcorn and the codger at a department store toilet playing with a limp tool and waiting hours on end for action. They were the same species of pleasure-seeking, give or take, and each capable of sinking into dull and imprisoning habit of going through the motions: the tubby, sedated, and glazed-eyed couch potato family laughing in perfect time to laugh-track cues and the inflamed, bat-eared satyr were the flip side of the same coin.
   The main difference? One had lower pariah standing than the other.
   Anybody ever alive was born with the same potential, Jake believed. Appetite for pleasure was genetics, a truth of existence, who could argue with that? The billions—trillions, maybe, if you threw in porn—shelled out by generations of moviegoers was evidence enough.
   At a handful of off-the-wagon scenarios Jake had concluded that management was the only true challenge. He possessed a ferocious sweet tooth that he kept in check because of its looming potential to become an insatiable urge. The fix had been a trial and error discovery. Allowing an overload holiday now and then throughout the year—a feeding frenzy of pastries or sex, and, years ago, the typical range of nightclub intoxicants—was surefire, he’d learned, a gratifying hedonistic release that while meeting the needs of brain chemistry didn’t totally cave into its every demand. For the rest of the time, Jake found a routine walking of the proverbial dog kept systems in shape but well rested and less prone to ripping up the furniture.
   He was secure in the belief that self-denial actually served as a salve for the fears of others—uptight puritans!—and based on mirror time on visceral mornings-after would testify that frequent indulgence came at too steep a price. The body had real limits. And he wanted no part in the ballooning beer-batter midriff and drooping man-breast phenomenon of peers. Or worse. As for waking with a pounding headache next to a stranger in a messy unfamiliar room: the bloom was long off that rose. One remedy of pungent medicinal shampoo and hurriedly buzz-cut pubes had led to a nervous dread of bed bugs and other skin crawlers. Better to skip the nosebleed or headache or artless exit-eyeing conversation and sleep in the laundered oasis of the bedroom for which he made monthly mortgage payments. Balance, everything in moderation, know your limits, those tried and true maxims floated up whenever Jake found himself up late at night—groin humming the urgent tune of its constant fervour—and prepared to drive somewhere for unknown exploits and, with luck, eventual gratifying spurts. Pace yourself. Avoid remorse.
   As Jake slowed at the Pet Superstore and Big Box Factory Outlet intersection he saw the flow of traffic streams merging. No surprise there, the story was nearly identical Monday through Friday. He checked the phone. The first response to “Quick Service?” contained no photo and two words: “Ur stats?” Jake deleted it. He’d like to smack any guy who asked dumb-ass questions, especially when the answer was already posted clear as day. The second and third were no better. Waiting for the green light, he irritably powered-down the screen. The pursuit was exasperating some days, he’d readily admit.
   Approaching the studio grounds Jake began to prioritize the day’s meetings.
   He expected a few department heads to report in; otherwise he’d be closely tethered to office phone lines. There would be plenty of time to check back online. Ads had a pastry’s shelf life and responses would dry up shortly in any case. After that, producing results meant posting another ad—different words, same idea—or covert perusal of a site where his profile was active. True, he could always drive to the park on the way home and throw the dice. All of it was work, though in separate guises.
   Getting laid without effort did happen, though rarely, and men were considerably easier to locate than women for obvious reasons. Women never parked their cars near highway rest stops and waited, pants unzipped, in search of lusting monosyllabic strangers in ball caps; nor did they wander in solitude within the shade of forests and loiter near public toilets.
   The persistent idea that they might was only fantasy fodder that men whispered to themselves and, in his Dad’s time anyway, printed in magazines. In the actual world scenes like that wouldn’t be realized unless a hefty financial transaction was involved, or else extensive pleading—“Please, honey, just this one time, please. You’re a hitchhiker and I pick you up and rape you at the side of the road, c’mon it’ll be fun.” Jake felt that even though female reluctance was understandable it was regrettable—he’d like porn fantasies to come to life, at least some of them. C’est la vie, he thought.
   When the wisdom of being fearful did cross his mind he was relieved to be a guy. He’d never expected violence despite hundreds of sexual contacts and shivered with nervous excitement in places his assistant or sister wouldn’t dare visit after sunset. The bungee jump thrill of danger was related to engaging in forbidden activity, not bodily harm.
   The adventuring rush was particularly acute to him when no names were involved—the drunken woman he chatted up at a lounge and eventually led to the toilet stall for a quick exchange—in order of frequency: tongue-deep kissing, handjob, blowjob, fuck, muff dive—or the wordless figure in the murky woods who’d drop to his knees or yank down grey sweats in proud exhibition of hard prick and ass. Striding full of secret knowledge, the return to the car or crowded room following the frantic rushed tussle—face flushed, greasy mouth wiped, hastily tucked clothing emanating faint earthy scents—was a singular pleasure. Jake never tired of it.
   The quest for high-rev experience was nothing new to Jake, its germ as old as memory. Childhood forecasts for distant adulthood included digging up the bones of dinosaurs, becoming an Egyptologist, a cat burglar, an assassin, and a spy. Those goals took him through elementary school. He considered the practical high school years when publicizing dental school plans as an aberration resulting from daily pressures to “think in the long term, Jakey” (Dad) and “try to be realistic, Jakob” (Mom). As for the vision of residing in Paris while slaving to make his name as a fashion designer? The briefest of phases.

[Parts 2 and 3 of this chapter will appear shortly. I'm editing and revising currently.]

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Yasuko Thanh's 'Floating Like the Dead'

   There's magic of a sort when art responds to actuality by creating a new representation of it; in doing so, the artist can remap that supposedly 'set' actuality and allow us to see and/or know in new ways.
   Thanks to Stan Douglas' "Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971" and Jeff Wall's "Mimic," for instance, I cannot pass by brick storefronts or flat warehouse buildings in the older parts of Vancouver without seeing the elaborately composed scenes captured by those photographers. Staged scenes? Yup. Bring history to life? That too, as much as it's possible. 
   Similarly, Michael Christie's superb stories in The Beggar's Garden continue to give me pause. His astute evocations of place (Vancouver's downtown east side in particular) and people (like the woman who runs a thrift store in "The Queen of Cans and Jars" and the man in "Discard" making contact with his down and out grandson via food proxies) spring to mind each and every time I walk along Vancouver's bad reputation streets wearing the habitual default face of the middle class urban dweller—psychically retracted and determined to make no contact—and inspire me to look beyond my own set of 'known facts' that might really be nothing more than prejudiced acceptance of stereotypes.
   For me, Christie's stories build upon/over Nancy Lee's peculiar vision of Vancouver in Dead Girls, but that's another philosophical quandary...

   This weekend when hubby and I were walking around Victoria (re: blustery, damp, cold, grey), looking at the historic photographs scattered throughout the Empress—FDR visiting; John Wayne, a frequent guest; and so on—and taking the ferry to and fro, Yasuko Thanh's story of a Chinese man with leprosy exiled to D'Arcy Island just off the southeast coast of Vancouver Island encouraged me to think about stories rarely told or completely brushed aside.
   As a tourist mecca, Victoria of course aims to sell a skewed vision stitched together from arbitrary facets of Olde Tyme Englande—bag pipes, double-decker busses, high tea, candy shoppes, bucolic prettiness, etc. Implied too: harmoniousness since forever. Even the totem poles sprouting up in parks and green spaces by museums suggest an extended history of mutual understanding and working together for the common good. Colonialism rendered quaint.
   In Thanh's story a medical officer from Victoria visits a leper 'colony' that is in fact a bare-bones internment camp where immigrant lepers were exiled (so to protect the non-leper population). The place is not a comfortable hospital. Nor does it come close to being a care facility or a sanitarium. Thanh's story is a subtle evocation of time and place; the author doesn't soapbox about inequality or racism because the (actual) historical setting speaks for itself. And Thanh artfully meditates on that setting.
   Two other stories in Floating Like the Dead are set in tourist towns, one in Mexico and the other in Honduras. The stories feature women who travel far (from Canada, from France) for love or to find themselves (or both). In both too the dream of travel and starting over is complicated by an unavoidable fact: the imagined destination and the real one are hardly the same. What's more, the dream of remaking yourself—somewhere else you become somebody else—conveniently forgets another fact: that baggage called personality.
   While "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" is tired (but true), Thanh's brilliant exploration of the theme is such that when I'm in a Mexican tourist town next month, I can safely predict that when I catch sight of a tourist woman who's running a small hotel, it's Thanh I'll be thinking of.

[The actual review of Floating Like the Dead appeared in the National Post.]

Monday, 2 April 2012

Fiction Installment #14. Chapter 5, pt. 3: Marta

   The short-term options, Marta thought, are simple: walk to the studio or stand and wait for an inbound train and, later, a perplexed and likely curt email. Calling a taxi would be silly.
She strode to the exit stairway. What kind of cut-rate studio is this, she wondered, Jakob Nugent will probably ask me to split the cost of our no-frills lunch. Or we’ll each plug coins into a vending machine and retrieve plastic-sealed sandwiches. She felt stalled. While the effort of the walk might erode her composure, Marta suspected that not arriving at all would be something she’d bemoan louder the executive and his assistant, the daydream of her crucial necessity revealed as being only that.
   Grumbling as she trudged along the sodden makeshift path at the road’s edge—strewn, she counted, with a narrow range of discardables: cigarette packages, torn condom wrappers, fast food takeout bags, soda cans and beer bottles, Styrofoam containers, trampled clothing, plastic bits snapped off from cars, and panties (why were there always panties?)—Marta envisioned herself as the kind of crazed abject individual living beneath septic overpasses or within the dirty blackberry brambles that thrive on the perimeter ground between commercial buildings.
   Hearing the volume of the fault-finding, she paused. Were these low utterances like a gateway drug—one unexceptional day you begin with a few choice expletives, and soon enough you’re pushing a stolen overflowing shopping cart and warning passersby of your precarious mental balance by talking several decibels louder than what’s acceptable in polite society?     
   Marta switched focus to the approaching interview, terminating the portal to madness.
   At the foreground of the blocky mass of white stucco and vinyl-clad buildings a single guard waited on duty, soaking up afternoon sunshine. She’d leaned a stool against the plywood booth that housed gate controls, a computer, and communication equipment. Stray blonde locks fell from beneath her police-style cap.
   Marta had been given no pass code or specific instructions about a gated entrance. Her name, she supposed, must be on a list.
   The guard did not move as Marta approached.
   “Good afternoon,” Marta said.
   The guard nodded, but remained silent. She didn’t remove the mirrored aviator sunglasses when she faced Marta. And though the creased woman appeared to be a stone’s throw from retirement age, Marta imagined she might be nicknamed “Sarge.”
   Marta patted the valise. “I have an appointment.”
   “Do you now?”
   “Yes. With Jakob Nugent.”
   “Lucky for you.”
   “Excuse me?”
   “Pardon me?”
   “Your name, girly. What. Is. It?” The woman couldn’t be bothered to mask impatience.
   “Spëk. Dr. Marta Spëk.”
   She scanned a computer tablet. “Right, there you are. Be a doll, will you?” Handing Marta a clipboard, she tapped at a line for Marta’s signature. In exchange for the clipboard, the woman gave Marta a photocopied site map; with an incongruous bubblegum pink nail she etched a path to Building 7.
   “Watch your step, honey. There’s always some jackass PA running with scissors or some damn thing. They get younger every year, I swear to you. Little cucarachas.” Insectile fingers scurried in the air. “There’s a lot of material there, but it’s not quite a dress. You know what I’m saying?”
    “Thank you for the assistance.” Marta thought the woman should work on her interpersonal skills; sitting through a course on hospitality similar to the one waiters are required to pass before serving the public could polish that gravel abrasiveness. The guard hadn’t been rude, quite, but close. Crusty. Salty. Odd. “Half a bubble off,” her father’s judgement. In any case the experience had been distressing. That schoolyard bully routine was the domain of overcompensating guards in banks and at border crossings, not grandmothers.
   Marta’s footfall echoed. There were no costumed extras, nor fanciful props being carted from one soundstage to the next. Likewise, the dangerous scurrying PAs she’d been warned about made no appearances. The locale appeared deserted, though the mild green of the day suggested a spontaneous group picnic rather than an angry work stoppage.
   Paused at the entrance Marta told herself that the sign taped to the window of the entrance of Building 7—Desert Queen Productions sat over an image of the Great Sphinx onto which Elizabeth Taylor’s face as extravagantly eyeshadow’d Cleopatra had been superimposed—was without significance. It was a graphic designer’s little jest and bore no relation to the ideas stored in the minds of Jakob Nugent, the director, the studio, or the screenwriter, which if nothing else would not be campy and would have commercial viability or artistic integrity as an ultimate target. Hester Stanhope, Queen of the Desert? It would be too ridiculous. The sign was an indicator of nothing, and makeshift, likely the project of an underling with an excess of free time.
   She climbed the stairs to the second floor. The large room was unimpressive, furnished with leased items otherwise found in the offices of a used car dealership—dark woodgrain plastic surfaces, neutral metal cabinets sitting on tough indoor-outdoor carpeting, off-white electronic equipment. A residue of latex paint hung in the air.
   Unable to locate a washroom where she could change into contact lenses, Marta walked to a woman at the nearest desk; the blonde immediately held up an index finger. Marta waited as she completed the call.
   “Yes, what can I do for you?” She spoke rapidly, eyes attentive to far corners of the room. Marta, admiring the delicate coral shade of the woman’s lipstick, expected the receptionist to rap the surface of her wristwatch at any instant.
   “Hello, I have an appointment today with Jakob Nugent.”
   “Alrighty, my dear, that narrows things down to a small army.” The women wore a white message T-shirt: “We Must Avoid Deluded Motives.” 
   “Pardon me?” Marta’s exchange with this blonde was becoming as awkward as the tussle with the gatekeeper.
   “Jake, er. Mr. Nugent has scads of appointments all day, all week in fact. What’s the name?”
   “Spëk. Dr. Marta Spëk.” Why hadn’t the guard made a call? It would be efficient compared to this lunatic repetition.
   “Aha, hello, we were wondering what you’d look like. I’m Lora Wilkes.” She cackled then, a sound like no other that suggested a perturbed parrot and a cartoon witch. Marta was tempted to ask how closely she matched their predictions. Of course they’d want to guess. Fair is fair, she admitted, and after all she had spent plenty of time charting the probable Hollywood excesses of her soon-to-be colleagues.
   “A pleasure to meet you.” Marta held out her hand, feeling stiff, under scrutiny, and overdressed. Lora—whose firm ample bust looked to be the product of elective surgery—had swiveled her chair toward another woman whose computer screen display caused an eruption of laughter. Hand lowered hand, Marta saw that this crew was familial and boisterous, if unprofessional; while workmates, they’d still likely go out for dinner and drinks or catch a movie. A composed and altogether more insular environment existed within the Dark Tower—a monastic one minus a hearty sense of community and surgical augmentation. Marta had informed few of her colleagues about summer plans and had heard nothing from anyone else except holing up with business as usual—grant applications, conference appearances, journal essays, reviews, and chapters for forthcoming books.
   “Hold on a sec, love, I’ve got to get this. Newsflash: LA is king and he knows it.” She tapped a hasty reply on the phone’s glass surface. Lora glanced up and gestured toward the executive’s partially open door. “The meeting of the minds is that way! Have a seat right there, and we’ll set it in motion in just a bit.”