Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Bit of Personal Whimsy: Why on Earth Do We Dream What We Do?

       Last night I had a really goofy dream -- goofy enough for me to want to share it and possibly make you chuckle.

       It seemed there was a new TV station starting up and they were building a news team.  (I presume this is from my having watched so much wildfire coverage lately.)  I had been hired as a news anchor.  Unfortunately, they signed me to do sports (a subject I know nothing about; the only sport I follow is ice hockey).  But I must have needed a job because I took the assignment. 
       But the other strange thing was that all the anchors had to top off their reports by singing a song. (?)  When my turn came, I sang "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts."  Is anybody here old enough to remember that song?  Here is what the Wikipedia article says about it:

" 'I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts' is a novelty song composed in 1944 (as 'I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts') by Fred Heatherton, an English songwriter and published by Box & Cox Publications (ASCAP). In 1949, it was a top-ten hit in the U.S. for Freddy Martin And His Orchestra with vocalist Merv Griffin and sold over three million copies.  The following year, it was a number-25 hit for Danny Kaye. It celebrates the coconut shy (coconut toss) at funfairs."

       When I was in the 4th or 5th grade (about 1950), I learned to play a little on the ukelele and I just loved that song and learned to sing it and accompany myself on the ukelele.  I would mimic Merv Griffin's rather phony British accent fairly well, I do think.  I did it once at school for show-and-tell.  Obviously I was a lot less inhibited as a child than I became later! 
       As a child, I didn't really understand what was going on in the song, although I got the sense that it was some kind of game at a fair.  In fact, I only just now learned from Wikipedia that the coconuts were not the thing that was being thrown, but the prize you were throwing balls at (see the article Coconut Shy in Wikipedia.) You're never too old to learn something new!
       I'm sure that ancient memory of singing that song as a child was why I picked it to sing in my goofy dream!

      Here is a link to the Merv Griffin version.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch. 11

Here is yet another installment of my unfinished novel, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, a fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the starship Captain who made the first contact with extraterrestrials in the 28th century (some 2.5 centuries before the time of The Termite Queen).
A list of the previous posts (point to the chapter and the link will appear):
Chapter 1 The Captain Eats Crow
Chapter 2 How Robbin Nikalishin Got His Name
Chapter 3 The Captain Receives an Unexpected Assignment
Chapter 4 School Days at Epping Academy
Chapter 5 The Captain Takes Command of the Red Planet
Chapter 6 Crises and Decisions
Chapter 7 An Old Love and Another Assignment
Chapter 8 (Pt.1) Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves [pt.1]
Chapter 8 (Pt.2) Robbin Nikalishin and Sharlina Graves [pt.2]
Chapter 9 Aboard the Ore Freighter Hell's Gate
Chapter 10 How the Relationship between Robbie and His Silver Mother Changed 
       Still employing the usual flash-back/flash-forward format, Chapter 11 follows Chapter 9.  Capt. Nikalishin returns from his voyage on the Hell's Gate, to find that his year of punishment has ended.  However, the malfunctioning scrubbers on the antiquated vessel have left him sick as as dog and he turns to his old friend Wilda Murchy for help. 
10 April 2767
By the time Capt. Nikalishin returned to Earth after completing five months of servitude aboard the ore freighter, he understood why Asteroid Class vessels bore names like Hell’s Gate, Torment, and Broken Dreams.  For one thing, they did not run in squadrons like the Mars ships and so the sense of being alone in the void was an ominous burden rather than the benevolent escape it had always been for Robbie.  The return had been far worse than the voyage out, for the incessant forward progress of Earth made it twice as long, day after day of the same monotonous routine.  All the limited recreational opportunities aboard the ship had been pursued to tedium, and by the last couple of weeks, anything with the slightest resemblance to fresh food had been depleted; the crew was living on stale prepared cereal, rehydrated soymilk and juices, vitamin supplements, and Pre-Packaged Modular Meals, commonly referred to as “peepums.”  And the final insult was, the coffee had run out.
Although additional processing of the cargo kept the ore-handlers busy, the members of the flight crew simply performed their duty shifts and then went looking for any activity they could find to break up the boredom.  This often included getting into altercations that led to fisticuffs and Robbie spent half his time dealing with disciplinary problems.  He didn’t dare let things get out of hand and so the brig was kept full.  Cmdr. Sakata became openly insolent as the voyage approached its end, and Robbie was forced to handle him carefully in order to avoid an incident.
Furthermore, the situation with the ore dust grew far worse after the cargo hold was filled.  By the time the ship reached Luna Base, the scratching in Robbie’s throat had become a fire that filled his chest and he had developed a disturbing cough and eye irritation.
When he emerged from the shuttle at Old Heathero, he was met by a Lieutenant who snapped a salute and said, “I’ve been instructed to say that the Board of Command welcomes you home, Capt. Nikalishin!  Here are your orders, sir!” and presented not an info key but a sealed plastipaper envelope.  Inside, Robbie found the following: “Please report immediately upon disembarkation to Base Hospital for a full physical and mental evaluation.  Upon its completion, you will receive additional orders.  [signed] R. Adm. Jivanta Soemady, Personnel Liaison Officer, Board of Command, Old Heathero Flight Port.”
Robbie cursed inwardly, then sighed.  He was physically and mentally drained, he had been functioning solely on adrenaline for the last couple of weeks, and all he wanted was to get back to Sloe, fall into bed, and sleep.  But the sigh caused a sharp burning in his chest and he thought, I suppose a check-over by the medics might not be such a bad idea …
 … although he deeply loathed medical examinations.  This time the first thing they did was send him to take a shower.  Robbie chuckled a bit at that; it didn’t reflect well on the sanitary facilities aboard the Hell’s Gate.  The exam itself involved a lot of sitting on scanning tables in one of those garish green hospital tunics that always reminded him of the night his father had almost killed him.  You sat there and froze to death with your feet and legs dangling naked, until the doctor came in and scrutinized you as if you were a lab specimen.
Usually there was a different doctor for every routine physical, but this time Robbie happened to know the man who entered.  Dr. Jay Yacubian was a pulmonary specialist and he seemed puzzled.  “The Techs’ preliminary work-up revealed some peculiar symptoms, Capt. Nikalishin – pharyngitis, a cough with a dark sputum, conjunctivitis, and a rash on the neck and wrists.   But your temperature is normal … ”
“Nickel allergy.”
“Nickel allergy.  I’m allergic to nickel.  It’s in the record there.”
Dr. Yacubian scanned his reader for the subject.  “Oh, yes, I see it.”
“The ship was an asteroid-ore freighter, doc.  It was full of metallic dust – iron, nickel – who knows what else?”
Yacubian reacted with alarm.  “Those things are supposed to have super-powerful atmospheric scrubbers.”
“They do, but I don’t think these were working properly.  I’ve already submitted a request for them to be … ”  Robbie was forced to stop and get his breath.  “Didn’t seem to bother anybody else on the crew, though.  But I’m allergic to nickel.  Always have been.  I can’t wear cheap jewelry – gives me contact dermatitis every time.  The rashes are from the particles getting under my collar and cuffs.  The cough … well … ” 
“And you were – what?  Three months in that environment?”
“God almighty, man, we’d better begin administering an appropriate antidote!  And you need a detailed thoracic scan and a complete chemical work-up!  You’re fortunate your throat didn’t swell shut!  What in the world were those Command people thinking? – assigning an officer with a nickel allergy to the asteroid gig!”
“They probably didn’t know.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“Look, doc, I’m trying to do what I’m told and make everybody like me again, you know?”
Yacubian was paying no attention.  “I seem to remember that you almost died from pneumonia two or three years ago,” he said, scrolling the chart again.
Patiently, Robbie said, “It was in December of ’65,” thinking, You absent-minded nit, you were the principal doctor on the case.
“We’ll have to keep you in hospital for a while … ”
Robbie gestured despairingly.  “Aw, doc, don’t do that.  I want my own bed more than anything.  I’ve been five months and five days in that bloody ship’s iron bunk, and I don’t take kindly to these souped-up scanners you medics make their patients sleep on.”
“Well …  Will there be anybody with you, in case you suffer a flare-up of pulmonary edema?”
That scared Robbie a bit, but he said, “I’m living in a hostel.  There are a million people around all the time.”
“Well … ”  The doctor was running a scanner over Robbie’s back.  “Take some deep breaths.” 
He did so.  The process made his chest hurt rather acutely, but he repressed any reaction to the pain.  He wasn’t about to get stuck for an extended stay in a hospital.
Yacubian said, “I think I’ll at least keep you overnight.  The antidote for metallic poisoning has to be administered slowly, and you ought to receive some intravenous antimicrobials just as a precaution.  An infection on top of this inflammation would not be a good thing at all.  If I do let you go home, you’ll have to come in every day for breathing treatments and blood work.”
“For how long?”
“At least a week, and then at wider intervals for as long as it takes to rid your body of all traces of toxicity.”
Robbie gave in and agreed to follow orders.
*          *          *
The set of instructions that Robbie received along with his release requested him to report immediately upon discharge from hospital to Adm. Soemady’s office in General HQ.  He was also informed that a hopper was waiting to convey him there.
All this really surprised him.  He had expected to simply return to Sloe Hostel to await his fate.  The strangest thing was the private conveyance.  Earth’s petroleum reserves had been depleted centuries ago (no real misfortune, since the misuse of fossil fuels had played a significant role in the degradation of Earth’s environment), and the restricted supply of personal electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles was allocated to dignitaries and official bodies.  Reluctance to use either one’s own two good legs or the ubiquitous public transport system was viewed as decadent.
However, at the moment Robbie’s own two legs did not feel as if they could have gotten him to HQ or even to the cross-Base rail terminal, so he had no objection to making use of the hopper.
At Headquarters, he was instantly admitted to the Admiral’s presence.  She was seated at her desk and Robbie didn’t wait to be asked to sit; he sank into a chair, saluting on his way down.  “Sorry, sir.  I’m kind of out of breath – a little under the weather.”
Her scrutiny was every bit as intent as the doctor’s.  “I know.  I have the medical reports here.  Robbie, I must apologize to you on behalf of the entire Board.  We thought we were familiar with your medical records, but I swear none of us knew about the nickel sensitivity.  If we had, we’d never have taken this course.”
“I did wonder for a minute there, sir, if you were trying to kill me.”
Soemady laughed ruefully, shaking her head.  “I’m placing you on medical leave for six weeks.  The medics say you’ll need at least that long to get back to your old self.  I’m ordering you to follow their directives to the letter, Capt. Nikalishin – treatments, rest, nutrition – the whole ball of wax.”
“I’m crushed that you think I wouldn’t, Admiral!  But – does this mean that I don’t get to learn more about whatever those hints were that you dropped during our little stroll?”
Her smile now turned mischievous.  “That’s what it means.”
“Damn.  But dare I very delicately remind you that my year of penance is supposed to be over in some ten days?”
“As a matter of fact … ”  She pushed an info key at him.  “ … it’s over now.  An unconditional reprieve is detailed in this document.  A somewhat insignificant bonus for good behavior, as it were.”
This brought Robbie to the edge of his chair.  “Honestly?”
“Well, aliluya!  But does that … What?”
“What in the world was that expletive you just used?”
“‘Aliluya?’  Oh … ”  Robbie tried to take a deep breath and winced.  “ … it’s just something – a friend of mine used to say.  It’s sort of a ‘god be praised’ thing.  He – my friend, I mean … he was Eirish, you know.  And he had some funny ways of talking … ”
She nodded seriously, as if she quite understood.  Then she handed him a key card.  “Your flat has been released from lockdown.  You’re free to resume residency there any time you like.” 
“Really?  Holy cry!  And – does this mean I can access my bank accounts again?”
“Absolutely.  Furthermore, you’re restored to full Captain’s pay and are once again entitled to all the perks due a Senior Officer.”
Robbie wondered if he had died and was now residing in a kinder dimension.  “The Officer’s Mess?”
She nodded.  “And the Club and the Gymnasium …  You’re back among the living, Capt. Nikalishin – among the so-called elite.”
“I have to say, Adm. Soemady – getting orders from you sure beats getting them from Maj. Nwinn.  But don’t get me wrong – I found him a delightful chap.  In fact, I’d really like to recommend him for a promotion.  Why don’t you stick a Lieutenant Colonel’s insignia on his collar and put him in charge of the Greenlend Weather Station?”
She laughed heartily.  “Robbie, you’re incorrigible.”
He chuckled hoarsely and said, “I’ve always had a hard time seeing the rank before the man – or the woman, as the case may … ”  Suddenly a wave of dizziness surged over Robbie and he swayed a little, clutching the arms of his chair.
Adm. Soemady looked concerned.  “Are you going to be all right by yourself?”
“Oh, yeah … it’s just – my blood oxygen levels are depressed.  The docs gave me one of those little oxygenerators, along with a bucketful of oral medications.  Everything’s here in my duffel.”
“Damn, Robbie, this experiment of ours did nearly kill you.  We just about cut off our noses to spite our faces.”
He regarded her, not quite sure what she could mean by that.  But then he said, “There’s something I really must tell you, Admiral.  I don’t know how you’ll take it, but … ”
Soemady nodded.  “It’s in the psychologist’s report.  You were very forthcoming.”
“And you weren’t going to say anything?”
“Well, personally, I wasn’t surprised.  I was about 99 percent certain you’d experience a flashback out there.”
“It only happened twice.  The first time was on the Bridge – it was pretty awkward.  Cmdr. Sakata is a very unforgiving Second Officer.  The second was in the night – more of a dream rather than a flashback with a bona fide trigger.  Neither created any kind of danger for the ship, and I don’t see any reason for that sort of thing to recur on a regular basis, unless maybe you’re, uh – planning to give me permanent command of an ore-hauler.”
“Now that we’re cognizant of your nickel allergy?  I assure you, we’re not that merciless!  And I can say that was never part of our plans in any event.”
  “Whew, that’s a relief.  But I realize – it’s the same old problem rearing its ugly head again; you can’t put any vessel under the command of a Captain who might not be in full possession of his wits in an emergency.  Of course, it’s presumptuous for me to think you have any command in mind for me at all.  Oh, you might be planning to put me in charge of a latrine brigade or a loading dock detail … ”
Soemady was smiling ambiguously.  “Our plans involve neither of those things you mentioned, I can tell you that much.  Now, that’s all I’m going to say.  You just concentrate on getting your strength back, Robbie.  I’m ordering you to undergo another complete physical in six weeks, and then we’ll see.”
“Oh, I can’t wait for that.”
The Admiral had reached for her com piece.  “Maj. Chalmers, order up the hopper again.  I’m sending Capt. Nikalishin home in style.”
*          *          *
Robbie asked the driver to take him to his flat.  Now that he really could go home, even the presence of Wilda couldn’t make Sloe Hostel appealing.  But after he had unlocked the door and stepped inside, he was not so sure that he had made the right decision.  The place was close and musty and unwelcoming, and it was in exactly the same condition it had been the year before when he had begun serving his sentence.  He wasn’t certain it was habitable, and he doubted he was capable of making it so.
The flat consisted of a living room and a kitchen – separate rooms, the height of status to Robbie in his green youth – as well as a large and a small bedroom, a bath, and a tiny office alcove equipped with communication ports.  The flat was filled with comfortably upholstered furniture, while the rugs on the floor had been wedding gifts to him and Fedaylia.  It was an appropriate accommodation for his rank.  But it hadn’t really satisfied Feddie – she had wanted a townhouse.  And if she had gotten that, she would have probably wanted a mansion standing on its own piece of ground …
Robbie punched up the enviros and fresh air began flooding in.  That helped a little.  He stood looking around, noting that his MaCray watercolor of the boy and the eagles was still hanging on the living room wall just as he had left it.  Beneath it stood the little handmade statuette of a merlin, which had also been a wedding present.  He relaxed slightly; his flat was supposed to have remained untouched under the lockdown, but still he had been afraid that somehow something might have happened to the possessions he treasured.
Robbie hoisted his duffel and headed unsteadily for the bedroom.  He found his bed sitting there desolate, unmade, the humped, stale sheets staring accusingly at him.  It must have been like that since the day he left on his disastrous final mission; Fedaylia must have slept in the little bedroom before she moved out, leaving the other in a mess as a reproach.
He’d have to change the sheets – and even the clean linen was going to smell like the closet …  Dizziness seized him again and he remembered the doctor’s words … Will there be anybody with you in case the pulmonary edema flares up?  He felt distinctly uneasy.
But then Robbie's attention turned to a corner of the ceiling over the chest of drawers.  And there it was – the toy space plane from his childhood, swaying in the draft of the enviros, with its star, a bit tarnished with age now, winking bravely.  When he had been permitted one last visit to his flat to extract his belongings before being sent off to Sloe, he had purposely left the plane behind; it had not seemed right to ask it to share his self-inflicted disgrace.
Usually Robbie took the plane with him on his missions.  Until the last Solar Wind mission the only occasion when he had failed to do so had been the final flight of the Darter.  He hadn’t taken it then because he had been expecting a bad end to that episode.  But he had always wondered if leaving his good-luck charm behind had jinxed the mission.  And who knew?  Maybe its absence had done the same for his probationary flight.  But the truth was, that bad outcome had been his own doing.  After all, nobody but himself had chosen to substitute the bottle of vodka for the plane when he packed his duffel.
Robbie opened a cabinet and took out some sheets.  The simple act of bending over made him break out in a sweat and he thought, I don’t think I can do this.  Thinking some nourishment might help, he went into the kitchen and opened the cold box, forgetting that anything in there was a year old.  A ghastly smell assaulted his senses and he gagged.
That was just too much.  Robbie suddenly felt completely overcome – hopeless and alone.  Why had he ever thought he would be able to do anything with his life again?  Here his sentence was lifted and the brass apparently had something planned for him – and his life was over.  He just wanted to lie down and die.  He didn’t even have a clean change of clothes – anything he did have that was not stuffed in his duffel was at the hostel, and there was no way he could go …
Then he thought, But I’m not in the Brig any longer and I’m not in solitary.  And there are times when a man must make it alone, but then there are other times when he has to have help …
Robbie made it out to the com port and rang up Sloe.  After some dithering, his old friend came on.
“Wilda, this is Robbie.”
“Capt. Robbie!  You’re back!”  She couldn’t have sounded more pleased if she had been informed she had inherited a million credits.  “But you don’t sound very good, love.  Is that you breathing that I hear?  Where are you?”
“I’m at my flat – they’ve released it to me, Wilda.  But – I’m not in such good shape.  I’ve got nickel poisoning and … well, I was wondering if …  Dammit, Wilda, I’ve nothing to eat and everything is … I just wondered … Wilda, I need some help … ”  His voice was quavering.
“Hold on a minute!”  After some authoritative background conversation, Wilda came back on.  “I’m taking the rest of the day off right now!  Do you want me to bring some of the stuff from your room?”
“Oh, Wilda, would you?  Darlin’, there’s no better woman than you ever been created.”
“I think it’s some mothering that you need.  Can you hang on there for – like, maybe, two hours?  I’d like to fetch you some decent food from home.”
“ … I think so … ”  As his breath rasped in his throat, Robbie desperately suppressed the urge to cry.
Apparently Wilda didn’t like what she was hearing, because she said, “Now, don’t you go dying on me, Robbie!  At least wait till I get there!  Just give me two hours!”
She disconnected and Robbie staggered to the couch and dropped onto it.  Aliluya for Wilda … if only I could have married that woman when I was 21, it’s for sure most of my troubles would have never happened!
Coming next:
Chapter 12: A Summer Adventure and a Term at Oxkam

Monday, June 10, 2013

Fantasy Animates All Great Books: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Pt. 2)

Click here for Part 1 of this analysis.      
       I hold this notion about great fiction:  A great book always incorporates elements of fantasy. Fantasy (and poetry, also) requires symbolism (or myth, if you prefer), and we gain our greatest insights into the nature of things through symbolism, metaphor, and myth.  Gatsby reaffirms my notion. 
        First, a word about the book's lyricism.  It's fraught with images that are a delight in themselves. Here are two examples.
         Gatsby is showing Daisy his shirts:
        "He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher -- shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
        " 'They're such beautiful shirts,' she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because -- because I've never seen such beautiful shirts before.' "

        So much poetic sensuality and color pulled from something so simple! And of course it's symbolic, too. It reminds Daisy of what she may have missed out on.

        And then this quotation, describing how Gatsby's parties develop:
        "The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music [isn't that wonderful?], and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light."

        When I read that paragraph, I paused and thought, that reminds me of the style of some other writer -- who does that remind me of? It eluded me. And then it hit me. Dylan Thomas! That sea-change at the end. Sea metaphors are so important in Thomas. The room becomes an ocean of shifting sounds and colors, in which nothing is permanent and all this vitality is swept along toward dissolution.

        Before I speak of the book's deeper symbolism, I want to talk about its comedic qualities, for while its tragic slant may take precedence, it remains a sharp, funny satire. Some of the most notable comic elements occur in the extravagent parties held at Gatsby's mansion. There are some great comedic vignettes here -- the man in the library, the permanent guest who occupies a bedroom as a squatter. But my favorite comic element is the mock epic catalog of the names of the attendees at Gatsby's parties. The book is worth reading for that alone! I don't have room here to quote the whole thing (it's on p. 61 of the Scribner, 2004, edition), but I will quote the first paragraph:
        "From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie's wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all."
        This goes on for a good two more pages and I can just imagine Fitzgerald having a blast writing it. It's definitely a blast to read! But it has a certain serious purpose, also. These hilariously named people are all hollow, insubstantial, satiric cliches without lives apart from the venue of Gatsby's magnificence.
       Before I get to the deeper symbolic elements,  let me insert an example of incidental symbolism in the awkward scene where Gatsby and Daisy meet. It involves a "defunct clock" that the agitated Gatsby knocks off the mantel, catching it in his hands and apologizing.
        " 'It's an old clock," I told them idiotically.
        "I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor."

        This isn't just an idle bit of business; the dead clock symbolizes time standing still, as Gatsby and Daisy are transported back to their last meeting. But of course it's impossible to recapture the past; time has been symbolically smashed and can never be restarted.
        The first chapter of the book displays the beautiful people, the elegant home and lifestyle of the Buchanans. However, there is trouble in the Buchanan paradise; Tom Buchanan is having an affair. The chapter ends with our first glimpse of Gatsby, a shadowy figure in the dark gazing with trembling yearning across the water at the green light at the end of the Buchanan's dock that symbolizes Daisy for him. We are ushered into his world of a misty, unattainable dream.
        Chapter 2 (the "slumming" chapter) couldn't contrast more sharply. We meet Tom's mistress and see how the scruffier portion of humanity lives and how the rough-and-tough football player Tom can move between both worlds without compunction.
        And here is how Chapter 2 begins:
       "About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is the valley of ashes -- a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghostly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with laden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight."
        We can see that we are actually in the sterile world of T. S. Eliot, the world of the Waste Land and of "Prufrock" and of the "Hollow Men." But brooding over this ash dump (in the days before gas and electric heat, all of New York City would have been warmed by coal and wood, and the ashes have to be disposed of somewhere) is a remarkable vision: Dr. T. J. Eckleburg's eyes behind a pair of enormous yellow spectacles -- a billboard advertising an oculist's business. What a sight! By the end of the book this unsettling vision has become a symbol for the all-seeing, all-knowing (perhaps uncaring or perhaps vindictive) watchfulness of God.
        How this transformation occurs I won't discuss, not wanting to play the spoiler. But I will say this: This question remains to the end: Whose version of the accident was correct? The narrator wasn't present in the car, so he can't verify anything (clever!). Gatsby tells him Daisy was driving. Obviously Daisy told her husband that Gatsby was driving, because Tom says at one point, "He ... never even stopped his car."
        But isn't it possible that she told him the truth and Tom -- or both of them -- chose to put the blame on Gatsby, anyway? There is a scene where Nick peeks through the window and sees Daisy and Tim talking:
        "They weren't happy ... and yet they weren't unhappy, either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said they were conspiring together."

        Obviously we'll never know for sure. Personally, I think Daisy would have never had the backbone to take responsibility if she had been driving, and I think it's entirely possible that she lied to Tom, or else caved in to him or willingly conspired against Gatsby.   And I'm inclined to think Gatsby was telling the truth. He made his money in the sleaziest way imaginable, and he can't be called honest, and yet he retains a kind of impractical dreamer's sense of honor.  I don't think he would have let Daisy take the rap as it were if she hadn't actually been driving. And he's talking to Nick, who is his only real friend -- he had no reason to lie, nothing to gain by it. It's my opinion that Daisy was driving that car.

        What we do know is that the Eyes of Dr. Eckleburg found an avenging angel who wreaked his vengeance on the wrong man because of Tom Buchanan's lack of honor. Perhaps an adaptation of my favorite quotation from Evangeline Walton's The Island of the Mighty is relevant here: the god Eckleburg went forth "after the fashion of all orthodox gods, to damn the creature that he had fashioned ill."

        And so we return again to "The Hollow Men" (who meet in Gatsby's mansion, search for the unattainable, and await the vengeful Eyes of Eckleburg):

In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star

Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

Friday, June 7, 2013

"We Are the Hollow Men": The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Pt. 1)

Find Part 2 of this analysis here.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.  Alas!
--T.S. Eliot (published 1925)
        In my American literature class in college, we read the 20th-century novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.  It's a compelling piece of realistic fiction, but it doesn't hold a candle to The Great Gatsby and it's too bad I never got around to reading Gatsby until now.  Of course, I'm a person who relishes a subtle, poetic style and complexity clothed in simplicity, and that's just what Gatsby has.
       I realize that thousands of essays, critiques, masters' theses, and doctoral dissertaions have been written on Gatsby, and I haven't read any of that material.  What follows is not a scholarly analysis, but simply my personal impressions of the book.  I don't plan to publish a review on Goodreads or Amazon -- it's superfluous for a classic of this sort -- but I did rank the book on Goodreads.  I noticed that, incredibly, some readers had given it only one star.  I assume those are people who have no literary education and no grasp of literary fiction, and they can't be faulted for that.  That's why we have such a wide variety of authors and books.  But certainly  I find anything less than five stars for Gatsby to be laughable.

       First, the Zeitgeist.  We're told that Fitzgerald acutely rendered the Jazz Age -- the time of affluence and loosening moral sensibility that arose in the 1920s.  But life at any period is multilayered and fiction reflects only the layers that the author chooses to discuss.  No period of history is so simple that displaying one aspect or portraying one class can reveal it completely.  I say that because my mother grew up in the 1920s.  She was born in 1909 and so was only 13 in 1922, the year the book is laid; the book's characters are thirtyish.  But she was definitely a flapper -- she and her mother both "bobbed" their hair about 1922, she danced the Charleston, and she wore the short dresses with fringe (but she always said they came just above the knee -- nothing like the underwear length women sport nowadays).  Her family was comfortably off but not rich; she never drank or frequented speakeasies and organized crime was only a story in the newspapers.  She was also a smart, serious student in high school, studying Latin and loving math.  She belonged more to the class discussed by the book's narrator near the end, where he is about to return home to the Midwest.  So I would say, don't take Gatsby as typical of the great majority of people in the United States in the Jazz Age, any more than aliens just come to Earth ought to take reality shows, the Kardashians, and Lindsey Lohan as the types by which to measure our own moment of time.

       I do think Fitzgerald fits with the era's artistic sensibility, however, because as I was reading I kept thinking of T. S. Eliot and of James Joyce, both of whom wrote in the same period.  I couldn't give you a direct comparison with Joyce because I haven't read him recently, but something about Chapter 2, where Tom and Nick go "slumming," reminded me of the way society is portrayed in Ulysses and other Joyce books.  And the same sense of emptiness and despair that underlies most of Eliot's poetry also exists beneath the beautiful exteriors in Gatsby.  These really are "hollow men," destined to end with a whimper.
       The narrative technique in Gatsby is worth studying.  However, I want to point out that apparently nobody ever told Fitzgerald that it's a no-no to use speech verbs other than "said," "asked," "replied," etc.; or to use adverbs to describe how people are speaking.  Here is a list of certain phrases:  he asked helplessly; she cried ecstatically; she added irrelevantly; he remarked decisively; I answered shortly; she complained; Daisy retorted; she remarked contemptuously; demanded Daisy; objected Daisy; objected Tom crossly; insisted Daisy; I confessed; broke out Tom violently; insisted Tom; she whispered enthusiastically; suggested Miss Baker; I inquired innocently; she said hesitantly, I repeated blankly; she said suddenly; inquired Daisy coldly; I asked quickly; demanded Tom suddenly; he advised me; corroborated Tom kindly.
       And that's just the first chapter!  It would be easier to count the few times that Fitzgerald actually used an unqualified "said."  So, if an unquestionably brilliant stylist like Fitzgerald could do that, I don't think the beginning writers out there need to worry too much about an occasional "he queried abruptly."  Actually, it's the overall effect that matters.  If it's obtrusive and awkward, then don't do it.  (I confess, I doubt that I would ever write: corroborated Tom kindly.)    
       However, that's just an amusing quibble.  Let's talk about the point of view and the characterizations.  I'm not fond of first person; it often feels artificial to me, because it always implies that the narrator is writing the tale.  Was Huckleberry Finn really writing his own story?  I don't think so!  I do use first person in my Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head series; Di'fa'kro'mi is a bard and he is composing the story, so it doesn't feel phony. 
       This said, I found Gatsby's narrator, Nick Carraway, to be exactly what the story needs.  He isn't just a wooden figure posed to observe and tell about the action; he is both a bystander and a essential participant in the plot and it's made clear later in the book that he is indeed writing down these memories.  He is Daisy Buchanan's cousin so he has a right to step into her social circle; he lives next door to Gatsby, so of course he would meet him and get to know him; and he is a subtly drawn character in his own right.  
       One never knows with narrators; when they make statements about themselves, can you take them at face value?  Nick says at one point: "Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known."  Should this statement be believed?  Somehow I think it should; in his actions Nick comes off as a decent, honest man who is grounded in compassion and who tries his best to do the right thing.  I found the first few pages of the book to be a bit enigmatic; I even thought, if the whole book going to be this obscure, I don't know if I'm going to like it. 
       But if you go back and reread the beginning after you finish the book, you understand that Nick is trying to account for why he behaved as he did during the course of the story.  "I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me."  People sense this and tend to share confidences with him and reveal intimate things.  This makes Nick the perfect narrator.  Nick ultimately becomes disillusioned about this inclination of his: "I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.  Only Gatsby ... was exempt from my reaction -- Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn." 
       In fact, all the way through, Nick's reaction to Gatsby consistently displays this ambivalence -- he goes on to say in the beginning: "No -- Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men." 
       Even the last time Nick sees Gatsby, his reaction is ambivalent:  " 'They're a rotten crowd,' I shouted across the lawn.  'You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.'  I've always been glad I said that.  It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end."  It isn't Gatsby himself that Nick admires; it's what he symbolizes -- an incorruptible, idealistic dream that can never be fulfilled amid the world's cynical, self-seeking corruption. 
       The book ends like this:
       "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. ... and one fine morning -- 
       "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

       Presumably, a past that symbolizes a better time.

       As for the other characters, Nick's non-judgmental approach allows us to view them with a dispassionate and unsentimental eye.  There is no cut-and-dried villain; all possess the same character flaw of  smallness, of never seeing the need to take responsibility for one's actions.  Tom Buchanan is the most despicable in that regard, and Daisy is simply too weak a character to even understand the possibility of rising to any noble plane.  She is not the newly liberated woman of the 1920s; it's Jordan Baker the golf champion who typifies this phenomenon -- a woman who doesn't need to truckle under to a man for support (consider the symbolic contrast of the names "Jordan," more commonly a male name, and "Daisy," a quickly fading feminine flower).  Baker remains a bit of an enigma.  At one point, Nick pronounces her inveterately dishonest; she once got into trouble for moving her ball in a golf tournament, and yet toward the climax, he describes her as "too wise to ever carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age."  Perhaps her type is destined to survive.
        Among the lesser characters, even Mr. Wolfsheim, unfortunately portrayed as the stereotypical Jewish shyster, is not castigated; he is merely the opportunistic charlatan seizing all opportunities to advance his self-interest.  George Wilson the mechanic and his wife Myrtle (who is Tom Buchanan's mistress) play more significant roles.  Myrtle deserves a better fate; she is simply acting out a desire to share the life of beautiful people as she understands it.  Wilson, whom Tom describes at one point as "so dumb he doesn't even know he's alive," ends by being the agent of the plot's climax.  Interestingly, when Tom realizes that Daisy and Gatsby had a relationship, he remarks to Nick, "You think I'm pretty dumb, don't you?"  And shortly thereafter, Nick observes "there is no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well."  Both Tom and George Wilson have just discovered that their wives may have cheated on them, and it is making them equally sick.
 In Part 2 of this analysis,
I'll consider the symbolic and mythical underpinnings
 of the book, as well as its comedic qualities.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Ye Olde Grammarian Is Ba-a-ck! (No. 4)

       It's about time I wrote a lighter-style post, isn't it?  And yes, Ye Olde Grammarian is still in the land of the living!  I can't believe that old curmudgeon hasn't put up anything in this series since January!  This one was inspired by a piece I found through somebody's Facebook link: "Apostrophe Now: Bad Grammar and the People Who Hate It," by Tom de  Castella (BBC News Magazine).  I'll use that piece as a take-off point for some remarks.
       The article itself deals with the resurgence of emphasis on grammar in the British school systems, but it also hits on specific grammatical gaffes.  To quote: "Grammar is not just an educational issue. For some adults, it can sabotage friendships and even romantic relationships."  The article cites statistics showing that bad grammar and bad spelling can be a huge turn-off in romantic first-contacts (ah, when two aliens meet, what miscommunication we may have ... )  So make sure you don't split your infinitives when you court that girl or guy of your dreams, or she or he might just split with you!  Same thing holds when you meet that alien blob that lives on Alpha Centauri!
       However, the article goes on to say that knowing what constitutes good grammar is not that easy.  Some ways of speaking are simply colloquial and informal.  Thus, I personally have no objection to split infinitives, which was an artificial rule based on Latin, where, since infinitives are  only one word, they can't be split.  Ergo, you shouldn't split them in English, either.  You'll see split infinitives in my writing, depending on the context.  If it's in dialogue and the person is an academic making a speech, I probably wouldn't split it.  But if this academic is engaged in an informal conversation about her upcoming vacation, then I prefer to colloquially split it (colloquially to split it?  to split it colloquially?  To split colloquially it?  Don't be ridiculous!)
       The article mentions starting a sentence with "and."  I would add "but" to that.  Technically, you shouldn't start a sentence with a coordinate conjunction, because its purpose is to connect two coordinate clauses, not to serve as an adverb.  BUT I will do both of these things at times (see?)  In this case, I should have said "However, I will do both of these things at times."  In this context, I like "however" just fine.  BUT (? -- sorry, however) people don't talk that way -- they start sentences with "but" and they tie ideas together with "and" dangling at the beginning of the sentence, and to get rid of all of these is to make your style sound artificial and even choppy.  Too many "howevers" become a pedantic bore, especially in dialogue.
       AND (ha, ha!) so I pass on to another subject, which is going to dominate the rest of this post.  (Somewhere there is a stylistic rule against verbosity, but Ye Olde Grammarian never mastered that one, she fears!) 
       The author of the article brings up the Oxford comma.  I always use the Oxford comma, although I didn't know it was called that at the time I was taught it.  It is sometimes called the serial comma, and it consists of retaining the comma between the penultimate and the ultimate elements of a sequence: What I would write is "He ate bread, eggs, meat, and jam." It seems this usage is favored by Oxford University Press, and what's good enough for that venerable publisher is good enough for Ye Olde Grammarian!  BUT (ha!) seriously, sometimes this comma is essential to prevent hilarious ambiguity.  If you wrote "He ate bread, eggs, meat and jam" it sounds like (or preferably "as if") he is eating the jam with his meat.  Now, if the sentence were (instance of use of subjunctive) "He ate meat, eggs, bread and jam" then you could correctly consider "bread and jam" to be one item. 
       If you're really interested in the Oxford comma, the Wikipedia article is quite thorough.  It concludes with this remark, quoted from The Cambridge Guide to English Usage: "In British practice there's an Oxford/Cambridge divide … In Canada and Australia the serial comma is recommended only to prevent ambiguity or misreading."  Apparently, American English doesn't exist for the University of Cambridge, unless we were included in the ellipsis!
       Now I will close with a quotation I found on a website called Mental Floss (with deepest apologies to Nelson Mandela, a figure for whom I have much admiration and respect)
"By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."  The website goes on to say "Languagehat dug this gem out of a comment thread on the serial comma. It's from a TV listing in The Times. It supports the use of the Oxford comma, but only because it keeps Mandela from being a dildo collector. However, even the Oxford comma can't keep him from being an 800-year-old demigod. There's only so much a comma can do."

     By the way, did you know there is a song entitled "Oxford Comma" by an American rock group called Vampire Weekend?  Wow, what exciting trivia you can learn from the internet!