Thursday, November 29, 2012

False Start Friday the Last

Submitted for your approval.  Snippets of discarded prose, growing in yellowness of age, in drawers both wooden and virtual.  Do their authors dare to unearth these moldy words, and risk infecting their present-day lives with the thoughts of their former, sloughed-off, selves?  Even if it's not technically Friday yet?  This is the dimension of clumsy constructions and sublime reminiscences that we call... the False Start Zone.

I was preparing to just make a list of all my other unfinished writing projects, some of which rivaled the Theothany in unnecessary complexity and unrealistic ambition.  But then I dug out "December," an unfinished short story only about three and a half pages in length.  I'm nowhere close to being happy with it, but it's got a unity of purpose not unlike a fifties doo-wop song.  I'm curious what alchemical reactions will occur upon exposing it to the light of 2012.

(I can only bear to type out the beginning and a bit of the end... the middle is just too awkwardly terrifying to behold.)
- - - - - - -
March 16, 1990; Philadelphia

If he hadn't tripped, he wouldn't have seen her.

His pleasant downward movement was caused by a jutting piece of sidewalk at 17th and Chestnut Streets.  His shoelace decided to remain behind for a while.  A common enough occurrence, pratfalls being the rightful realm of the clown's face he often found himself wearing these days.  During the first few moments he took to re-tie that stubborn lace, his gaze was interrupted by a woman's spiked heel, attached to a vaguely familiar ankle about to step on one of his dropped bags.  He looked up at her face, the face that echoed in his dreams and waking life for the three months they were together and the three months they had been apart.  He saw her.

"What are you doing down there, Steven?"

Steven.  He almost forgot.  Never could get rid of that final N, could she?

"Oh, just decided to take a little trip."

Being down there on the ground, still looking up at her, struck him as strangely symbolic.  Composition of opposing foreground figures:  up/down, male/female, passive/aggressive.  With blurred city streets in the background.  He remained on the sidewalk, sat cross-legged, and slowly gathered his parcels as she stood, nervously looking at her watch.  Glint of gold.

"So, you're working around here, right?" he inquired up to the sky, though he thought he already knew.  She was going on interviews when they broke up, and in one of those final frigid phone calls she brushed off his inquiries with a wonderfully offhand never mind about that.  Subtlety her specialty.

"Mm hmm," she bit her lip and looked around.  "Steven, you really ought to get up. You look like a homeless person.  People are watching."

- - - - - - -

In between:  A knife-edge smirk.  The groundhog seeing his Jungian shadow.  Blood-red eyes.  A bit of light stalking.  Lastly, a flashback:

- - - - - - -

You stand trembling in the winter chill, your arms locked around his waist.  He speaks to you about when he can come back for you.  Hopefully by Christmas at least.  You kiss him as the snowflakes begin to fall.  You are getting too attached, you think.

He tells you that he loves you.

You reply that you love him back.  You have a reason for not using "too."  Undaunted by your shade of meaning, he happily gets in his car and starts the long journey home.  Second in his mind only to the love he now knows is mutual are the shapes of the tiny snowflakes in your hair, reflected in the blinding porch light in the starry December night.

- - - - - - -

Monday, November 26, 2012

Perry Mason's Dungeon Master

In the past, I've posted about my fascination with narrative plots (see the letters B and P from last April's A-Z), and the search for patterns and forms in them.  Although I realize what a dull world it would be if all plots could be broken down into a consistent and logical "grammar," I still feel the need to search for some order in that seeming chaos.

A fun thing about role playing games is that Game Masters usually are on the prowl for this same kind of order, since they're often spurred to come up with plot "hooks" for their adventuresome players with little to no prep time.  A good table of random choices can really save the day.

Burr-ning gaze
Now, you may ask, how does Perry Mason enter into this?  The famous TV detective show was based on a series of popular pulp novels (82 of them -- running from 1933 to 1973) by Erle Stanley Gardner.  Many people suspected for years that Gardner used a formula to construct the plots of the novels.  Recently, it was found that he constructed elaborate "plot wheels" which contained multiple options for various pieces of the story. He pinned them up on a cork board and spun them to provide a total of 36,864 possible combinations.

After seeing original images of the hand-made wheels (see, for example, here and here), I looked around to see if their options had been typed out and tabulated for more easy reading.  No dice (pun unintended)!  Thus, here for your enjoyment are the contents of those four wheels.  Two of them have 16 entries and the other two have 12 entries, so my paper-and-pencil RPG peeps can either use a d20 for the former (and ignore results greater than 16) or get their Zocchi on...

Blind trails by which the hero is misled or confused (d16):
  1. Client misrepresents
  2. Client conceals
  3. Witness "planted"
  4. Document forged
  5. Witness lies
  6. Impossible statements
  7. Planted clues
  8. Witness sells out
  9. Suiciding witness
  10. Kidnapped witness
  11. Flight witness
  12. Genuine mistakes
  13. False confessions
  14. Vital witness refuses [to] talk
  15. Villain's asst pretends betray
  16. Friend pretends betray
Hostile minor characters who function in making complications for hero (d16):
  1. Detective
  2. Newspaper reporter
  3. Attorney
  4. Hick detective
  5. Thickheaded police
  6. Hotel detective
  7. Incidental crook
  8. Spy
  9. Hostile dog [?]
  10. Suspicious servant
  11. Meddlesome friend
  12. Gossip
  13. Blackmailer
  14. Father [of] heroine
  15. Rival in love
  16. Business rival
Complicating circumstances (d12):
  1. Zeal of hick cop upsets plans
  2. Rival in love tries [to] discredit
  3. Some character not as represented
  4. Heroine's mind poisoned against hero
  5. Hero violates law & is sought
  6. Witness mistakes hero for villain
  7. Hero commits incidental crime (speeding battery) & is arrested
  8. Detective believes hero guilty & attempts to arrest at critical time
  9. Father of heroine hostile to hero
  10. Heroine's maid is a spy
  11. Every move of hero gets from frying pan to fire
  12. By spies, hero is betrayed to villains
Solutions (d12):
  1. Hero turns villains against each other
  2. Hero smashes obstacles by sheer courage
  3. Meets trickery with horse sense
  4. Gets villain to overreach self
  5. Gets villain killed while trying to frame other
  6. Villain hoist by own petard
  7. Tricks accomplice into confessing
  8. Frames circumstances so villain thinks discovered
  9. Fakes evidence to confuse villain
  10. Puts additional evidence -- planted -- nullify villain
  11. Gets villain [to] betray self through greed
  12. Traps villain into betraying hiding place [of the] incriminating thing by: (a) Fake fire; (b) Giving something also conceal; (c) Necessity for flight.
FYI, I don't pretend to understand what all of them mean, or to have deciphered Gardner's handwriting with 100% accuracy.  I also tried to do a little clarifying cleanup with a few words in square brackets here and there.

My favorite!

Friday, November 16, 2012

False Start Friday 2: Electric Boogaloo

Last week I took the plunge and discussed (for the first time ever, I think) some old and ambitious plans for a world-spanning novel.  At the heart of that novel was going to be a rediscovered ancient manuscript called the Theothany that described the death of the Greek gods.

FYI, I honestly don't know how I would have inserted these ancient words into the "present-day" action of the novel.  It probably would have been too ham-fisted just to include the whole thing, in feaux epic-poem translation, but I would have hated to give only small pieces.  Like I said last week, a huge majority of my research time was devoted to the ancient manuscript instead of to the story of my idealized alter-ego.

Anyway, after digging through my Theothany notes, I found my detailed (and dot-matrix printed!) outline of the ancient manuscript, dated September 24, 1989. I didn't read it last week, but I did now.

Urgh... I think I just rolled my eyes almost as much as I did in my last post.  Bloated and disjointed to say the least.  But I'll press on!  ;-)  Hopefully my fortysomething brain will mold my twentysomething thoughts into something that makes a little more sense as I summarize...

Live from New York, it's the fire bearer!
It starts with Prometheus.  You know his deal: bound to a rock and tortured for crimes against the gods.  Not only for giving fire and forethought to mankind, but also for refusing to tell Zeus the name of the woman he will impregnate with the son that is fated to dethrone him, as Zeus overthrew his own father.

I have in my notes that Prometheus said he wished to become mortal at the end of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, to end the pain of the torture. So, in my alternate take on the story, I had Zeus grow exasperated enough to eventually grant that request: "Sure, BE mortal. Try to lead men as I lead the gods and see what I have to put up with!"

Prometheus is released, now mortal.  He still has his memory and knowledge, so he doesn't wander far before people realize he's special.  I noted in my outline that this occurred in 1464 BC (der... why so exact?) so it turns out he gets crowned king of Minoan Crete.  His people appreciate his limited future-sight, but they remain distant from him because of his sullen and solemn nature.

A wandering dude soon appears at Prometheus' court.  He is Senenmut, recently exiled from Egypt because of some intrigue with the queen.  He's traveled far, and he's learned many things.  He knows that many past generations of gods have come and gone throughout human history. He teaches Prometheus about their eternal cycles.  They become friends and initiate a cultural renaissance (giving rise to the Atlantis legends, to boot).

Prometheus eventually finds a wife and has a son.  The son, Glaucos ("bright one"), dies from some malady, and Senenmut uses his Egyptian healing arts to bring him back.  But one of Hades' minions sees that the butterfly-like soul of Glaucos started to enter the underworld, but then flitted back up to the world of the living.  Hades reports this anomaly to Zeus, and Zeus thunderbolts Senenmut for messing with things he shouldn't.  This brings back all of Prometheus' prior rebellious rage, and he swears a very loud and vocal oath that all of the immortals will DIE on this very spot within the next 1000 years.

Zeus no like that, so to punish this whole Minoan renaissance, he thunderbolts the island of Thera, whose volcano is known to have destroyed said civilization.  My notes have some suggestions for Prometheus to survive this devastation, make it to the island of Samothrace, start up their mystery cult, and live out the rest of his days in exile.  Kind of anticlimactic, though.  But Prometheus and Senenmut (the latter becoming the model for legends of the healer Asklepios) live on as shades in the underworld, and hold their grudges.

Anyway, flash forward to 456 BC.  Two men have re-sparked Zeus' fear of being overthrown.  One is the playwright Aeschylus (whose entire Prometheia trilogy is conveniently lost to us), who was accused of revealing the secrets of mystery religions on the stage.  The other was a brash Olympic athlete named Brisos -- my notes mention similarities to this guy, who I recall being very full of himself.  Brisos was a distant descendant of Achilles, and thus a carrier of the blood of Thetis, one of the possible fated mothers of Zeus' dethroner.

Long story short: Zeus thunderbolts these guys, too.  Sigh. I said it was disjointed.  Now there are FOUR ghosts in the underworld who are carrying a torch (pun unintended) for the death of the gods.  Their hopes are to be fulfilled by young Socrates.

The infamously disagreeable philosopher is contacted by the ghosts, who can't accomplish much in the living world in their ethereal state.  Socrates has some ideas of his own, too.  He proposes they find a temporary ally among the gods who would be a natural supporter of mankind's bid for "independence."  That ally ends up being Pallas Athena.  She has a soft spot for Prometheus (who helped her be born from Zeus' skull), and is well balanced in her wisdom.

Socrates travels around and uses that persuasive rhetorical power of his to convince Greeks to elevate Athena to a more prominent position in their worship.  Over years, they do, and she absorbs this new power and sets herself up on another mountain as a rival to Zeus.  Guess who begins to become increasingly jealous?

Zeus eventually destroys Athena (gah, I repeated that trope a lot).  This causes Metis -- the mother of Athena, still tucked away inside Zeus' head -- to freak out.  "That's enough!"  Zeus' head throbs and throbs, and eventually explodes him with a golden light.

What emerges is a golden, youthful god, the second child of Metis, whom Socrates (seeing this in a vision, I think) recognizes as Phanes of the Orphic mysteries. Phanes had some primordial "Logos" action going on, since he actually existed before any of the other gods, but was also ever-new.  Phanes extracts the immortal "ichor" from all of the gods (including himself) and disperses it, much diluted, to all of humanity, present and future. This is a kind of "grounding" of the heavenly energy back down to the earth.

Socrates wakes up from his vision, and the world looks fresh and new.  No more gods -- we must be our own inspiration from now on.  His final line is "I have so much to learn...."


Like I said, not too polished!  I probably tightened up the plot in a bunch of small ways in the act of typing out the above, and I can think of many more things that could be done to improve it.  But do I want to?!?  I should make it clear that I was hugely inspired by Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.  At the time, I even memorized the final few stanzas that began,
This is the day, which down the void abysm
At the Earth-born's spell yawns for Heaven's despotism...
Yes, yes, Romantic angst mixed with Nietzsche's "Gott ist tot."  Fun for 1989-me; much less my bag in 2012.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Clockwork Angels, the Novel

In June, I posted a review of Rush's newest album, Clockwork Angels.  I also reported that drummer and lyricist Neil Peart was in the process of collaborating with an author to devise a sort of "novelization of the album."  The book was published a short time ago, and I just finished it.

It's an odd little bird, I'll tell you.

We can get the most of the bad out of the way quickly.  My initial impression of it can be boiled down to one word: "simple."  Peart and author Kevin Anderson took the basic adventure plot from Voltaire's Candide, removed nearly all of Voltaire's wit and subtlety, and substituted in some stale steampunk set dressing.  Having to take the plot through the rather linear set of situations suggested by the songs was a bit plodding and ho-hum.

Other than a few exceptions, the characters were cartoonish.  The evil "Anarchist" is motivated by a backstory only Lex Luthor would see as viable.  His counterpart, the evil "Watchmaker," micromanages his kingdom like a mad puppeteer, determining everyone's careers and approving their marriages and living situations.  That's okay on its own, but to drive the point even more to the edge of overkill, he also forces scientists to hew to a literal Ptolemaic cosmology.  The deviations of the planets from perfect circular orbits is recognized as a "problem" by some, but it's a problem that all have faith in the Watchmaker to fix by (someday) moving their orbits into their proper, anal-retentive shapes!

And the "Easter Eggs."  Oh, the Easter Eggs.  I get that Anderson is friends with Neil Peart, and is probably a huge fan of the music.  But the insertion of out-of-context song lyrics from Rush's 40-year history -- pretty much one every 3 or 4 pages -- was jarring and annoying.  I'm not misusing the word literally when I say I literally turned my exasperated gaze skyward whenever I came across one of these groaners.

Okay, the worst is over.  What's left?

The negative points listed above were just about all that were filling my head as I was reading the first few chapters.  But then, somewhere around a third of the way in, I had a mental shift that made me far more forgiving of its flaws:  I pictured reading it to my son.  He's 11, and will soon be a wistful teenager looking to break away and have adventures of his own.

Actually, this book couldn't be a better guide for that.

Its simplicity can be forgiven as the allowances that (I assume) must be made in all Young Adult type fiction.  In that vein, it does remind me a lot of the overall reading level of the Harry Potter books.  (And by "reading level" I don't just mean vocabulary and sentence complexity, but also the themes, ideas, and challenges the main character is exposed to.)  The cartoonish characters are no worse than those created by George Lucas, and they may be just as memorable for someone who doesn't know the dozens of literary originals that were plundered to create them.  The Rush lyrics wouldn't be a problem -- unless a prog-geek Dad like me would be constantly pointing them out and talking about each song they come from!  :-)

There's one other troubling aspect that I discussed in my review of the album.  ("Spoiler alert," I suppose.)  In both the lyrics and the book, we see that the main character eventually finds a happy home and leaves behind the grand battle.  We learn in the book that he was a symbolic "pawn" that both the Anarchist and the Watchmaker desired to convert to their way of thinking.  He said "No thanks" to both and went his panglossian way.

I know that a protagonist doesn't always need to defeat the bad guys and save the world, but I still felt the lack of righteous "comeuppance" for the villains as a pang of emptiness at the heart of this thing.  They need to be checked, or their darkness will grow.  The Watchmaker will always want more.  If I can quote myself from my review of the album:
Okay, maybe I'm not at that point of inner peace where Neil Peart abides.  I still want to see the redeemed Prince By-Tor defeat the Necromancer.  I want to see the apotheosis of my namesake Cygnus, the god of balance, who teaches silly Apollo and Dionysus the errors of their extremism.  I want to believe (yes, there's Fox Mulder again) that the death of the guitar-discoverer in 2112 wasn't in vain, and that the elder race of man really did return in the end to knock some Syrinxish heads.
I guess I'm guilty of including Rush Easter eggs, too, but the book didn't give me the kind of closure that Neil has espoused in the past.  Maybe it's the mature choice, the choice that will help guide young readers to live healthier lives full of forgiveness.  But it's enough to stop me from loving this story wholeheartedly.

Friday, November 9, 2012

False Start Friday: The Theothany

A certain desert lily has thrown down the gauntlet and issued a challenge for people to post bits of their shelved and dusty writing projects on Fridays in November.  Although I'm not a fiction writer in any sense of the word, in my college days I spent a number of years fervently taking notes and building the superstructure of a "great American novel" of sorts.  These notes just celebrated a birthday that would make them of legal drinking age in most US states, so maybe it's time to air them out and see what they contain.

I should warn the reader that I only wrote a teeny, tiny bit of actual prose for this book -- and this post won't present any of that!  The inch-thick folder that I've been looking through contains outlines, bits of plot and character, and even some poetry.

So... gulp... here it is:

Alma-Tadema FTW
The Theothany.

That title is meant to be an ancient Greek neologism, the flip side of Hesiod's Theogony, which dealt with the birth of the gods.  My term deals with their demise (theos + thanatos), and thus is a closer cousin to the Norse Gotterdämmerung.

There was a Greek myth component to this novel, but that was just one part of it.  The main action was supposed to take place in the present day, with a protagonist who was a thinly veiled surrogate for myself.  (I was entranced by Joyce's fiercely independent alter ego at the time...)  But the "twist" is that the action takes place in a slightly alternate world than our own.  In the late 1970s, archaeologists in that world discovered the manuscript of an ancient Greek epic poem -- also called the Theothany and reported to be a lost work of Aeschylus -- in which the death of the gods is starkly portrayed as something that happened literally.

The discovery of these ancient words changes history, but only subtly.  The first chapter of the book was going to be a "show don't tell" example of that divergence:  After reading a published translation of the ancient Theothany, an infamous individual goes further off the beam and kills himself before, in our world, he would have killed John Lennon in 1980.  I researched Chapman's mental illness quite a bit and attempted to weave some of it into this chapter, with his own final thoughts interleaved with the lyrics of Lennon's Starting Over.

(I think Zack Snyder did something eerily similar in his 2009 movie of Alan Moore's Watchmen.  The introductory montage showed the introduction of "real" superheroes into that alternate world with Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A Changin playing in the background...)

But most of my book was going to be about the protagonist, who in my Joycean fog I gave the provisional name "Finn."  We see a bit of his time in college in Philadelphia, but then something happens in his life that makes him reevaluate his path.  Inspired by Lennon's further alt-history activism in the 1980s, Finn joins the Peace Corps and begins an international journey that forms the backbone of the novel.

There's love, there's loss, and there's an ending in which, naturally, our hero finds himself among the ruins of Greece.  Through it all, there are parallels between Finn's present-day travails and the events of that ancient manuscript.  (If I ever would have started writing this thing, I feel I would've gone overkill on those parallels!  Learning the finesse of "less is more" is something it took me much longer to do... in many aspects of life.)

I think I'll save the scary/fairy-tale details of the ancient manuscript for next week's False Start Friday.  Despite my desire for parallels, it really is a Different Thing than Finn's journey.  For now, I'll just reminisce about some of the other characters that continue to call to me for attention...
  • In Philadelphia, Finn is dragged to see an avant-garde play at a dingy little theater. On stage, he first spies Tamara Albayeff, free-spirited girl of Kalmyk Mongolian descent, who is to be the love of his life.  Yes, I think she was a "manic pixie dream girl" long before they were a thing.  "Tara" initiates Finn into the wonders of life, shares her quirky spirituality with him, and dies an untimely death later on in the novel, after Finn meets up with her again in a foreign land.
  • Finn is initially good friends with his slightly older cousin, Shandon Corrigan.  (Actually, neither of those Irish names are Joyce-inspired... so there!)  Shandon starts out as somewhat puckish comic relief.  He's the one who introduced Finn to things like Monty Python, SNL in its early days, and prog rock.  But, much like Loki in the Norse myths, his trickster side gradually grows darker.  When Finn runs into trouble and turns to his cousin, he is disappointed at the nihilistic way Shandon retreats from challenges.  (Shandon is partly inspired by Svidrigailov, the disturbing "shadow" of the protagonist in Crime and Punishment.)
  • I'm not sure at what point Finn meets South African Betty Botha, but it's lust at first sight. Outwardly she's blonde and bubbly, with many other personality traits that make her endearing.  However, eventually conversations turn to certain topics, and the bigoted opinions she shares with a fraction of her 1980s countrypeople make themselves known.  Actually, Betty is the result of my trying to understand the lyrics of a song by the Housemartins called Johannesburg.
  • I was toying with the idea of Finn's uncle (his father's brother) being an Apollo astronaut.  The old family story was that the uncle hated the idea that the only non-astronaut's name to be left on the Moon for posterity was that of the despised Tricky One.  So he smuggled up something else -- maybe some immortal words of Hunter Thompson or Ken Kesey?  I never decided.  However, Finn's experience of the uncle was always filtered through the bitter lens of his father, who was the brother who always worked harder and never got the rewards.
Upon looking at the sheer number of cliches in the above list, I realize that a builder of realistic characters I'm not.  :-)  My high-minded goal with this book was to reconstruct and present a new mythology for a new, god-free world.  Yes, I was full of Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Bertrand Russell, and Neil Peart's early lyrics, and was convinced that the only good god was a dead one.  I'm certainly not that twentysomething any more, but I still do think a healthy D.I.Y. approach to spirituality is what's called for.  I'm still hard at work reconstructing, is what I'm saying.

I admit that I never worked out Finn's final scenes in Greece.  After all the adventures and heartbreak, I imagined a "rock bottom" which at some point would drift into the surreal and hallucinogenic.  A temptation in the desert, complete with a dragon or lion (like St. Jerome -- or Eustace Scrubb)?  Maybe the astronaut makes an appearance?  Some unfinished part of Tara's philosophy gets cleared up, surely.  There's definitely a deep connection to the distant past, via the ancient Greek text that I probably spent 80% of my time thinking about, despite it being a small part of this whole story.

Which probably sets things up for the next False Start Friday.  In a week, I hope to talk about this putative lost work of Aeschylus, and just maybe post the epic-poem verse that I toyed with that started it off...  :-)

My Theothany notes are dated between 1987 and 1991.  In 1992, I started graduate school in earnest and also realized that if I ever wanted to really write a novel, I'd have to put in thousands of more hours honing that very specific craft.  Many other aspects of life got in the way of that, but I'm happy to have spent the time thinking and dreaming about this particular little world and its denizens.