Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Parenthetical Remark

This week's serialization is full of parentheses. After a relatively sober (if nonetheless "surrealistic") opening chunk, this one is a bit antic.

I hope that readers find all these parentheses, all these digressions, "fun." I hope it feels like Dickens, and not like, say, Derrida. I hope the reaction is "Wheeeeeeee!" (rollercoaster) and not "Ugh."

It is probably a bad sign that I feel the need to justify myself for all these parentheses. But allow me to justify myself anyway.

Firstly, this book adopts a maximalist approach to most things. It's going to be long, and filled with plot twists, and subplots filled with plot twists, and plays within plays, and bizarre situations, and odd characters. So it only makes sense to fill paragraphs with similar twists—to replicate on the micro level what is happening on the macro level.

Secondly, it is being serialized online, where publication is cheap. There are no pieces of paper to expense here. Downloading a 1kb html file versus a 1.3kb html file won't make your day or ruin it. I am working without an editor to tell me to "cut to the chase" or to "show" and not "tell." I am working without the ghosts of Hemingway or Jeremy Bentham looming over my shoulder, bothering me with diagrams of icebergs or efficiency equations (was it really efficient to have your corpse stuffed, Jeremy Bentham, and to have it preside posthumously over important meetings at the LSE?). I do hope that some day this novel will be printed as a book. Perhaps by then an editor will encourage me to drop the parentheses. But perhaps by then the novel will be famous for its parenthetical style, and readers will demand their preservation. Or perhaps by then the parenthetical style will have so completely alienated all readers that there will be no readers left, and so no editors and no publication. We'll just have to see.

Thirdly—and I realize this is another bad sign—one of my favourite writers is Marcel Proust. For Proust, revision meant addition. He was not one of those relentless cutters. "Away with section one! Away with all exposition! Away with the narrator as a personality!" To edit, for Proust, was to lengthen, to enrich, to embellish. So far, revision is going that way for me, too. I do hope Girl School is less initially alienating that Swann's Way, which took me about a hundred attempts to finally enjoy.

Finally, this is how I write, more or less. (More.)

We really will have to see.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Concerning the Serialization of Celestial Fictions

I have decided to serialize Girl School, a novel I have been working on for some time. To be more precise, I have decided to serialize it online, at (with redirects from (NB: is a porn site.)

Why have I made this decision? Because I would like to finish the novel, and I need some motivation. Serializing it online will allow me to see whether this novel is able to reach any kind of audience, and so whether it is worth the effort to continue. It is not because I want to exploit any interactive or multimedia aspects of digital presentation. Indeed, I would like this to be published as a book eventually.

Two sources of inspiration deserve mention here. First, Dash Shaw's amazing BodyWorld, which was originally serialized online, which found an audience, and which then was published in a beautiful print edition by Pantheon. Also the essay "Less Talk, More Rock" by Superbrothers which told me to stop thinking about this novel, and just do it. There is wonderful leeway for sloppiness and roughness in digital publication, anyway.

How will I carry out this serialization? Beginning tomorrow, I will post about one thousand words of the novel each week. The design will grow as the novel grows. It will begin as plain text, and then will slowly gain features, becoming HTML first, and then growing into various CSS touches, and maybe some day incorporating HTML5 things like animation. It will definitely have sound (I'm already working on recording credible versions of Diana's Sex Kitten Overdose songs). I will try to add one new design "feature" each week.

It all begins tomorrow...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Raccoon's Delight

And now, the second in my triptych of animals in difficult circumstances: "Raccoon's Delight."

Last month, right around Easter, I bought a whole barbecue chicken from a newly-opened local store that was having a spring sale. (It cost $6.99.) They gave me the chicken in one of those foil-lined "thermal" bags, but neglected to put this in a plastic bag. Since the "thermal" bag was not in the least sturdy, the bottom fell out of it as I was nearing home. This happened in the alley adjacent to my apartment. A whole chicken lay in the alley. In a fury, I left the chicken where it lay and returned to the newly-opened chicken shop to demand a properly-bagged replacement; which, to their credit, they gave with me bonus potatoes.

There are two distressed animals in this tale: myself and the imperilled whole chicken. (I'm told that a chicken does not so much mind sacrificing itself to the health of other animals [an appropriate sentiment for Easter], but particularly resents being wasted—or, their preferred term, gaspillé.)

But one animal's misfortune is often another's delight. In this case, the beneficiaries were many. Most obviously, a sixsome of raccoons of varying degrees of corpulence, who feasted lustily on the discarded fowl. Afterwards, an attentive but shy cat in raccoon camouflage who eventually descend her perch on the roof of a garage and partook of some leftovers. A brave mouse arrived last, and ate enough scraps to last her an entire month.

It it courtesy of this Mouse (who wrote me a letter recounting the events) that I was made aware of the narrative. She also conveyed to me the raccoons' and the cat's extreme thanks. To convey my own heartfelt thanks to the Mouse, I have drawn her in to this picture on the extreme right, where she is in the anachronistic act of writing me the letter, which she achieves by means of dipping her pointed snout in a jar of ink. (Click on the picture to get a proper view.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Why the Man I Love Can’t Love Me Back"

Late last night, I received the below from a reader who identified herself only as an Englishwoman living in Toronto. She asked me to publish her story and to illustrate it if I wished. She is a very poor writer, but I sympathize with her situation. But I think she is more fortunate than she realizes. For so many of us, the sudden end of a relationship leaves us terribly confused—with so many unanswered, unanswerable questions. Not so for our anonymous Englishwoman. Her pathology is complete and irrefutable. The blame rests entirely on him. It wasn't her fault. —A.N.S.

I am in love with a wonderful man. He’s friendly, unpretentious, kind-hearted, gorgeous and interesting. I want to share my whole world with him, understand all three of his levels. But I’ll never understand him completely, neither will anyone else. He’s a hamburger.

Part of the fast food spectrum, men who are hamburgers have normal or above sodium levels and are relatively socially high-functioning. Although they can integrate into society on many levels, they are mainly characterized by having difficulties in communicating. They can’t fully empathize with or understand others, especially in terms of reading their non-verbal information. They show a limited range of emotions and easily feel out of control if routines are not followed.

Looking back, I should have known that he was a hamburger from the beginning. We met at a local restaurant, where he struck up a conversation with me and my girlfriend. Within 10 minutes, I learned that he was of 100% Angus stock, had been cooked only a few minutes before, lived in a small box, was involved in the food service industry and was devastated when his ex-girlfriend died of a heart attack. All of these were red alerts: hamburgers are often loquacious, artery-clogging and have no qualms about revealing personal information to strangers.

A. N. Swick for

As we began dating, signs that something wasn’t quite right kept cropping up: His text messages were often blank as he had no fingers to type with; when he called, conversations were more like monologues than interactions; if I wanted to discuss his buns, he would just change the subject. He loved the grill, was in his box by 10 p.m. every night and rarely came over to my (much nicer) place.

I stuck around because there was also a lot of good stuff. We took exotic holidays. He showed me his family’s cattle ranch. He was sweet, tangy, honest to a fault and sexy. We got to know each other more, and I was falling in love. I desperately wanted to tell him, but waited for him to make the first move. He never did. The closest he came  was whispering that he didn’t want to share me with fries.

We carried on fairly happily for another year or so. Although he didn’t show affection conventionally, he showed he cared in many other ways, sharing his favourite “marinating” spots around the city with me, helping and encouraging me to run the Heart and Stroke marathon, being there for me when my father had heartburn.

Yet, I still felt there was something missing. The relationship was stagnating. He insisted on maintaining his routines and refused to sleep at my place. We were inseparable, but I still felt we were somehow separate, disconnected. I poured my heart out to a friend whose son is a hamburger, and she suggested I research it online. It was an eye opener: He met most of the diagnostic criteria. His behaviour suddenly made sense.

Excited, I brought this information to him, and gently asked if he thought he may be a hamburger. To my relief, he admitted it seemed like he might be, and then asked what the cure was. Unfortunately, there is none, but burger partners can learn to communicate more effectively with each other once there is acknowledgment of the problem and a desire to improve the relationship. He later was formally diagnosed.

Sharing his situation brought us somewhat closer. I understood his need for isolation more—hamburgers can be overwhelmed with stimulus and need time in their box to regroup. I tried to teach him what people would do in situations where he acted inappropriately (no more squirting mustard in lieu of a handshake). This seemed to help him, and his confidence and, I thought, our love grew.

Then, out of the blue, I received a letter in the mail, written in ketchup: “Darling, I don't want to hurt you, really I don't, but I cannot be in a relationship now, with you or anyone. If we stay together longer, you’ll suffer more, so it’s best to end it here. I hope you find a proper boyfriend soon.”

I was destroyed and cried for weeks. I wondered why he was doing this: I was sure he loved me, and despite the fact that he was a hamburger, I was deeply in love with him. What saved me was online support groups. I learned that my experiences were not unusual in the hamburger world, and I was warned off pursuing the relationship long-term by wives of hamburgers, who said it was a heartbreaking struggle to constantly remind the man you love to show some empathy and warmth. I learned that leaving a good relationship cold is typical, especially if the burger feels you've overcooked him.

Despite all his faults, I still love him and miss his company. After our breakup, he completely shut himself off from the world. Maybe one day, we can be close again. I want so badly to reach out and help him flip on the grill, to be there for him when he needs more relish, to take care of him. But first, I know I have to do all that for myself for a change.

Update: an attentive reader has pointed out that someone appears to have plagiarized my reader's letter in a shamefully maudlin and un-self-reflective piece in The Globe and Mail. For shame!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Marshall McLuhan on Wyndham Lewis

A few days ago, while reading a Marshall McLuhan interview in Understanding Me, I came across this:
I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what's happening because I don't choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you're in favour of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I'm resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button. (101-2)
I found this extremely interesting—it reminded me that I don't know much about McLuhan, one of the more interesting Canadians, though (in my limited experience) a somewhat "careless" and confusing writer. I found the above statement very direct and apt, given my feelings about "social networking," which I will discuss before long.

It also reminded me that I have a strange McLuhan interview in my collection of Wyndham Lewis things. In the November 1967 issue of artscanada—a special issue on Lewis edited by Sheila Watson—there is included a 7" Flexidisc with recordings of Lewis reading his poem One-Way Song and McLuhan talking about Lewis. Since the Lewis recording is available on The Enemy Speaks I thought I would just include the unavailable McLuhan interview.

The interview on Side A isn't particularly interesting, except for the last part, where McLuhan talks about Lewis's frustration at finding his books were never taken as seriously as he hoped they would be. It's also the first taste of Sheila Watson's incredibly weird way of talking (spliced in after the fact, as you can tell from the different background hiss from the McLuhan sections.) Here it is, with the transcript below.

Now, here is Marshall McLuhan recalling his experience in recording Lewis reading.

In St. Louis—Lewis came down to visit and to do some paintings. And I managed to persuade him to read something from One-Way Song for our little home recorder. And it was most interesting to observe Lewis upon hearing his own voice. He just simply roared with laughter! In all the years preceding it had never occurred to him that he had essentially an English voice. Anyone who reads Lewis doesn't tend to get a very strong English effect or English enunciation from his prose. And Lewis himself apparently had nourished the idea that he spoke with a rugged American accent. And so he just went into fits of laughter when he heard this very English voice coming forth. And upon hearing the Harvard recording myself just now I too was surprised at just how English he sounded because after years of talking with Lewis I had forgotten altogether that he had an English voice. He didn't bear down on his English character at all.

He was very fond of opera. And he would occasionally produce a trill or two in that direction. But I wasn't—after all I wasn't in his presence all day and night, as it were. But I can certainly recall his breaking out into song occasionally. But often to illustrate a point. He would use some operatic aria just to "theme in" some discussion.

I think Lewis thought of his work as having immediate relevance to decision-making at the highest levels of human affairs, and naturally felt somewhat frustrated that his kinds of perceptions could not be made available in decision-making at very high levels.

The interview on Part B I find more interesting. It contains a very direct statement of Lewis's influence on McLuhan—one that is not, I don't think, available anywhere else. Here it is:

We asked Marshall McLuhan what influence Wyndham Lewis had on him.

Good Heavens—that's where I got it! [Laughter] It was Lewis who put me on to all this study of the environment as an educational—as a teaching machine. To use our more recent terminology, Lewis was the person who showed me that the manmade environment was a teaching machine—a programmed teaching machine. Earlier, you see, the Symbolists had discovered that the work of art is a programmed teaching machine. It's a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well, Lewis simply extended this private art activity into the corporate activity of the whole society in making environments that basically were artifacts or works of art and that acted as teaching machines upon the whole population.

Why was this book of poems called One-Way Song?

In many of his writings he asserts the primacy of the visual. In his perception and his general feeling of preference of the visual over the other senses his feeling was that the passion for musical form in the later nineteenth century and in his own time betrayed this—betrayed our traditional visual values. Now, the clue then to One-Way Song may be in the fact that the visual sense is the only sense we have that is continuous and connected. All the other senses are discontinuous—whether touch, every moment of which is different form every other moment, or hearing, which is discontinuous—the interval is necessary for the very act of hearing. In sight alone, or in the visual alone, is there [sic?] a continuum—a connected universe that we associate with rationality and detachment. But One-Way Song seems to draw attention to these qualities of rationality and detachment and continuity and connectedness in thought and perception.

Now, back to Wyndham Lewis in 1940.

Friday, May 7, 2010

L'homme à tête de chou: an original translation

What follows is an original translation of Serge Gainsbourg's song "L'homme à tête de chou," from the album of the same name. (Whose cover, somewhat unsurprisingly, has a picture of a statue of a man with a cabbage head.)

The highlight, of course, is the second line: "Half vegetable, half guy." I also like "white foam wrack." The complex silly wordplay on "chou" (cabbage) can't be captured, nor can the rhymes, but of course you can hear that in the song. I have retained much of the slang in its literal form. Rather than translate "feuille de chou" as "tabloid" or "rag," I have just left it as "cabbage leaf." This I do to inspire you and myself to develop weird personal slang. (The Toronto Sun has just become for me a "cabbage leaf.") This in its turn inspired by Wyndham Lewis's advice in "The Code of a Herdsman." (Though I am not ready just yet to say "I like a fellow with as much sperm as that.")

I am going to do more or these sorts of things, and post more songs and pictures, and less of the long Jean Brodie style posts, which I will nonetheless conclude at some point.

Serge Gainsbourg (Adam Swick tans.)
The Man with the Cabbage Head
I’m the man with the cabbage head:
Half vegetable, half guy.
For the lovely eyes of Marilou
I went off and pawned
My Remington and my ride—
I was in the depths of the hold,* on the edge
Of my nerves, I didn’t have a kopeck left.
From the day I mixed myself up with 
Her I lost almost everything—
My job at the cabbage leaf,*
Where scandals equal beefsteaks*—
I was finished, fucked, check-
Mate in the eyes of Marilou,
Who treated me like a white-beak*
And drove me half mad.
Oh no you have no idea, guy—
She needed discothèques
And dinners at the Kangaroo
Club, so I signed the cheques
Without the funds, it was nuts, nuts—
At the end I waited and waited
Like a brainless melon—a watermelon—
But how—No, I’m not just going
Spell it out for you like that, cut and dry.
What? Me? Love her still? Nails!*
Who and where am I? Cabbaged* here or
In the white foam wrack
On the beach in Malibu.

* "in the depths of the hold": (nautical image; cf. "white foam wrack"): at the end of my rope
* "cabbage leaf": pejorative slang for newspaper
* "scandals equal beefsteaks": i.e., they put food on the table
* "white-beak": "greenhorn"
* "Nails!": No way!
* "Cabbaged": stuck

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Part I)

Means and Ends

When a close friend of mine—pictured top-left—read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as an undergraduate, it left little impression. But when she re-read it recently, while working at a large law firm, the impression was made. What struck her this time were the novel's passionate defences of the importance of art and literature. For example, at the opening,
'Little Girls,' said Miss Brodie, 'come and observe this.'
They clustered around the open door while she pointed to a large poster pinned with drawing-pins on the opposite wall within the room. It depicted a man's big face. Underneath were the words 'Safety First.'
'This is Stanley Baldwin who in as Prime Minister and got out again ere long,' said Miss Brodie. 'Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan "Safety First." But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.'
As an undergraduate, studying literature, my friend had no sense that Goodness, Truth, or Beauty were under any sort of threat—from Safety or Stanley Baldwin or anything else. But working in her law firm, with her hateful office mate—pictured bottom-right—for company, their imperilled state was evident. She found in Muriel Spark an ally against the Philistines.

This particular Philistine—this office mate of hers—made sport of ridiculing her for her literary interests. The Philistine only read books in order to ingratiate herself to the partners at the firm; this meant being conversant with The Book of Negroes, which they were reading, and having a book of selections from Dante on her shelf. Even with these useful books she read the last pages first—not out of any "quirky" reflections on her morality, but because she didn't want to delay the supposed "payoff" that would come in the conclusion.

My friend values means over ends. She studied literature and she reads the books that interest her. Her office mate values ends over means. She prefers massive dollar bills.

Teleology and Wandering

Just as there are two types of people in the world—my friend and the Philistine—so too are there two types of narratives: ones that are concerned with ends, and ones that are concerned with means. This is visible in the plots of the first two works in the Western Tradition.

Above is a diagram of the plot of The Iliad. It begins in Ithaca and heads straight for Troy. It is "telological": it proceeds toward the conquest of the Trojans and then stops. The Philistine would get her "payoff" from the concluding pages of The Iliad, for it is there that the conquest finally happens.

Compare this with a spatial plotting of the the action in The Odyssey:

Odysseus's journey is much more complicated. He wanders all the way from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, and in fact even makes a brief visit to the unplottable Underworld. Though he does have a goal in mind (home and Ithaca), he is easily and repeatedly diverted from it. To read the last pages is to learn nothing of the plot and experience none of its charm, which comes not from the "nostos" or homecoming but from the disconnected episodes that Odysseus related.

The narrative structure of The Odyssey reflects the wandering of the protagonist: it is mostly narrated retrospectively through embedded stories. The chronology is much more complicated than in the straightforward Iliad.

One might think that since the Iliad came first and The Odyssey second, that Homer preferred "wandering" as a principle to "teleology." Perhaps he did. But for Miss Brodie's much-beloved Romans, the order was clearly the reverse. Consider the plot of their epic, the Aeneid:

The first half of Virgil's epic is concerned with Aeneas's (much less wayward) wanderings. He pauses here and there at various places in Greece. Then the next six books are concerned with a very specific "end" or telos: the founding of Rome. Unlike Homer's epic cycle, Virgil starts with wandering and proceeds to teleology. In space he wanders for a while at sea and then proceeds directly for land and Rome. In time he proceeds toward the period of Roman domination—an early "end of history."

Here are some other examples of wandering and teleology in various things.

Philosophies of History:

Classical cyclical history wanders: it just goes around and around, again and again, without ever reaching "Troy" or "Rome." Christian history is more concerned with teleology than anything in Homer or Virgil. It begins at the "end"—Paradise—and then descends into the fallen world whose sole purpose is its own extinction into the Millennium and the Apocalypse. Yeats's "grye" is a sort of a mix.

(I'm sure if I told my pagan friend she could live a day in her life again and again, reading books and playing with her cat, she'd be pretty happy; her office mate would surely perish without thoughts of advancement to keep her going.)

Political Philosophies: 

Liberal Democracy, with its idea of "progress," is also a bit of a hybrid. It says we're advancing, but doesn't say what to exactly. Things just go on and on, getting better. Marxism (perhaps I should have labelled the diagram that way) has everything in common with Christian history and is tremendously teleological. There are revolutions, which push things forward discontinuously, until eventually the Worker's Paradise is reached, and we all live in millennial conditions, presumably forever. Hitler may have had something similar but less well-thought-out in mind: there is the war, and then there is the Thousand Year Reich—which only resembles the Millennium numerically, of course.

There are lots of other examples. Think of the difference between movies and TV shows. The former usually proceed toward some climactic moment—the explosion of the Death Star springs to mind. TV shows generally do not (and cannot) advance: Seinfeld is "about nothing"; Bart and Lisa don't age.

And think once again of my friend and her nemesis, and the divergent "paths" they took toward their employment. My friend did a BA and MA in English before going to law school—a most uncertain route indeed! The Philistine did two years of Commerce and went straight to law school. When they worked together, my friend was 28 and her office mate 20. It boggles the mind.

In my next post I will start thinking about whether The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie wanders or is teleological. Until then, I will proceed to diversions of my own...