Saturday, September 26, 2009

Enough Crime Fiction Already

How many ways are there to end up dead?

Don't get me wrong -- I enjoy a good detective story as much as anyone. And the genre's prolific practitioners, from Edgar Allan Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and many more, have left us some wonderful works. But it seems to me we may have exhausted the possibilities of inventing new and ever more bizarre ways for people to be murdered. I don't doubt we can keep it up, but I question whether the exercise is worthwhile. It may even be destructive.

This doesn't tarnish my admiration for the likes of Chandler. For example, one of the many times that his hero, Phillip Marlowe, wakes up after being knocked unconscious, what does he see? A beautiful woman of course. And what does he say when describing her? "A glass of beer stood tall and amber at her side."

Is that great writing, or what? It's a line that sings, a piece of iambic poetry that jumps off the page while bringing the woman into focus. She's elegant because she sips her beer from a tall glass. At the other end of the literary scale, Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled Mike Hammer would have said, "she had a beer next to her." Not the same thing at all.

But that's Chandler for you. He had a way of giving you the whole person or place with just a pair of details. So he calls forth an entire room by focussing on the single yellow rose in a vase atop the grand piano. Or the life of a gin-soaked old woman by noticing the dead fly trapped behind her window screen. It's a kind of writing with images that must even survive translation.

Unfortunately few of those who followed after have equaled Chandler in poetry or matched his chivalric sense of bringing order to the chaos of the unlawful. The public demand for more has called forth an endless stream of imitators, many of whom must qualify only as lesser talents. But if they can't write they can still dream up endless new variations on the demented criminal mind, with loads of ingenious ways for them to torture and kill their victims.

I confess I fell into this trap myself some years ago. Combining my fondness for Marlowe with an interest in Miami history, I invented a detective of my own named Jonathan Spare who came down here from New York in the 1930's on a manhunt and stayed. My original idea was to do something different with the genre. There was to be no murder, only a haunting kind of search in which the watcher found himself being watched.

But when I arrived at the end of the novel I was dismayed to find that three people were dead, and my hero had killed two of them himself. What happened? Two things, I think.

First, the genre makes demands of its own. When I was about two-thirds of the way through and trying to figure out how it should end, I realized my hero had to confront the evil he had uncovered. If he didn't, it just wouldn't be a story. And confronting it seemed to require doing battle with it, and since good must triumph the evil ones had to perish. Well, they had it coming, after all. And my hero had to be transformed by all this.

The second thing is that I fear the contemplation of these evil deeds must have an effect on the author. We have to imagine what we write to the point of living it. Whatever our characters are up to we have to be there with them and see it through their eyes. One wonders how Jim Thompson, for example, was able to live with himself after spending so much time closeted in the dark and cramped minds of his demonic, obsessive characters.

It reminds me of a story by Jorge Luis Borges where a wealthy man gives a big party. In his basement he has a museum of weapons that he has collected, and one of his prize pieces is the actual knife that was used in a notorious murder. Later, two inebriated guests go down to look at it and end up having an argument. You guessed it: one of them dies. The knife has struck again.

So too with the "mystery" novel. Nowadays there is less mystery in it, but ever more graphic and depraved violence. The audience demands it. The publishers demand it. The movies demand it. The characters and plot demand it. What's a poor writer to do?

In spite of all this, it is not impossible to transcend these demands and to create something truly marvelous. Look what Graham Greene did in The Third Man, where a man searching for his missing and presumed dead friend finds him very much alive, but having caused the deaths of untold numbers of innocent people by blackmarketing worthless medicines. Or his earlier Brighton Rock, in which an average woman rises to heroic stature as she makes it her business to bring a couple of thugs to justice.

More recently Denis Johnson's Resuscitation of a Hanged Man accomplished something like what I had in mind -- his hero, only a part-time detective, seems to end up hunting for himself in a wonderfully detailed and dreamlike archetypal fantasy.

I had an epiphany about all this one year at the Miami Book Fair when I attended a session called "Crime, Real and Imagined." The panel included two crime novelists, one of them a woman new to the field, the other a former NYPD officer. With them was Arthur Jay Harris, a reporter for the Sun Sentinel, who had just published Until Proven Innocent, an account of a real Broward County murder and the police detective who showed that the prime suspect was innocent of the crime.

What struck me about this presentation was the contrast between the ways murder was represented. In the fictional accounts the violence was exciting, and the tension leading up to it was titillating, almost sexual in intensity. The factual book began with the first visit to the crime scene, an ordinary house drenched in blood, and the understandable horror that comes over anyone who has to see such things.

I realized that only the real-life (or real-death) account elicited the normal reaction of disgust and revulsion that most of us have when we actually encounter violent acts. The fictional stories were just playing with the idea. There was no reality behind them, so they had to make up for that with senseless excesses.

That was the day I gave up on my fictional hero. Somewhere in his alternate reality he is free now to go his own way, to choose another profession, one that will not call upon him to become as evil as those he has to pursue. He won't have to go through all those other things I had planned for him in sequels. No hunting for fascists during World War II, no encounters with KKK racists, no agent provocateurs during the McCarthy communist witch hunts.

Maybe he'll sell real estate. That used to be a good business in Miami. He can buy a house himself, settle down, maybe get married and have a kid. He can have a life. And the rest of us can get on with ours.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Voice of the Oracle

Daring to listen to those who are ignored ...

On the first day I passed her at the bus bench in front of the South Miami City Hall: a small, middle-aged woman just beginning to turn elderly, with the usual collection of shopping and garbage bags filled with all her worldly possessions. The sort of person we have all become accustomed to turning away from and ignoring lest they accost us for money.

But she was impossible to ignore, because she was in the middle of a tirade against the world. As I came closer she turned a withering gaze at me, lips curled in a snarl as her teeth bit out these words:

"I never broke the law, and that's more than I can say for you, Jack!"

I acknowledged her with a nod as I went on by, meaning only that I had heard her words and accepted them. She was probably right about never breaking the law. Except that now, having been forced into her current circumstances by who knows what convolutions of fate, economic violence, and lack of social concern, her condition itself has been declared illegal. We live in a country where one is not assured of a home but not allowed to be without one, the ultimate of all Catch-22 paradoxes.

Kurt Vonnegut described it this way in one of his novels (paraphrasing): The way it works is, gravity causes everyone to have to stick to the planet, but some people own all the places there are to stick to, so everyone else has to pay them for the privilege.

So I believed her that she was innocent, and when I reflected on it I knew she was right about me as well. Oh yes, it is true that I have broken the law. No matter now that the infractions were minor, or that I never got caught, or that I'm sorry and would not do it again, or that enough years have passed for the statute of limitations to have expired several times over. Time doesn't change the fact.

On the second day I passed her in the same spot on the same bench, but totally transformed. Now meek as a kitten she came up to me and with sorrowful eyes said simply, "Do you have anything to spare so I could get something to eat?"

"I have something," I said, and gave her most of the change from my left pocket (preserving my dollar coins for the morning commute in the other one because, hey -- I have to look out for myself too).

Guilty? No, not really. I gave, and having given moved on. My drop in the bucket would take her as far as it could, and someone else would have to take over from there. That's how we do it, such as it is. And she's right about one more thing: we owe it to her.

On the third day she was gone.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Creating from the Silence

You can't make this stuff up ...

The idea that human acts of creation are divinely inspired is an ancient one. We only have to consider that the Classical Greeks had a staff of nine muses to preside over the various arts – and this must have been a formulation of a belief that was already ancient two thousand years ago.

Today we tend to admire the creative powers of the artist rather than to consider the source of what he or she creates. Yet where the creative impulse springs from, the source of inspiration, remains mysterious. To attribute it to such modern generalities as “the unconscious” is only to apply a new term for the muse. My suggestion is that we consider it to come from the same source as messages in Quaker meetings, and to think of it as "creating from the silence." For me, as a part-time writer and poet, this not only serves to improve my understanding of the process but to nurture and cultivate it as well.

Interestingly, the dictionary has a lot more to say about “inspiration” than it does about “creation.” The latter is simply the making, the craft of the art; the former speaks to its source. To inspire is "to have an animating effect upon; to cause, guide, communicate or motivate as by divine or supernatural influence.” [Webster's New World.] Specifically in theology, it means “a divine influence upon human beings, as that resulting in the writing of the Scriptures.” If we believe in continuing revelation, then this process must have been at work in other writings as well -- pehaps even most of them.

People who may have no interest in spiritual works may find a comparable resource in all forms of artistic expression, just as most of us find satisfaction in admiring a beautiful sunset or an astounding mountain range. Before composing his famous Choral Symphony using Schiller's “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven penned an earlier work, the Choral Fantasy, in which the “divine spark of the gods” was substituted by “the gifts of high art.” Clearly for Beethoven inspiration came from the realm of the divine, and art was a bridge leading us back to the source.

There is one other connotation of inspiration: “to arouse or produce a thought or feeling; to affect with a specified feeling or thought.” What's of interest here is that, having been so affected, the artist proceeds to arrange words or paint or musical notes in such a way as to affect others the same way. There is certainly an analogy to be drawn with the giving of a message in meeting. I would suggest the message is more fully received in the act of sharing it with others, just as music is better when performed than if it were only heard in the mind of the composer. A similar creative impulse is at work in both cases, and they both improve with communication.

In using poetry as an illustration of this idea, I like to use a piece by Billy Collins, our former Poet Laureate, titled “Introduction to Poetry,” from his collection The Apple That Astonished Paris. (Go ahead and read it, then please come back.)

Besides being wonderfully funny, this poem manages to give several examples of how poetry works its magic – by drawing comparisons between things that do not normally seem to resemble each other – while contrasting it with the kind of plodding, rational analysis that not only misses the point, but extinguishes the life of the poem. 

[There is certainly “art” made in this way, and one of the kinder things said about it is that it is “uninspired.” We only have to consider the torrent of popular novels and soap operas and situation comedies, not to mention the forgettable Broadway musicals, that occupy our time without nourishing our spirits.]

What do a mouse and a light switch have to do with poetry? How is reading a poem like water skiing? These are not the first ideas that would occur to most of us, yet even on a first reading his wonderful analogies stimulate us into a deeper understanding of what poetry is, why we like it, and how to listen to it better. But where did Collins come up with these ideas? How did he decide that this was the best way to say what he wanted to say about poetry? Certainly it was not an entirely rational process done with compass and protractor on a sheet of graph paper. Rather, the images and substance of the poem must have emerged from a place of quiet contemplation, and they may have leapt instantly into being, regardless of how long he later refined them into their final form.

Someone said (I have not been able to locate the source) “When I know what I want to say, I write an essay; when I don't know what I want to say, I write a poem.” In other words, the poetic process is a search for meaning, not a report on one. This process cannot be rushed, and resists direction. Robert Frost said, “Asking a poet to write a poem on a certain subject is like asking a woman, eight months pregnant, to give birth to a red-headed girl.”

Another saying goes, “The problem with being a poet is figuring out what to do with the other 23 hours in the day.” Those hours may be filled with many things, including a search for the quiet place where creation can happen. This may not be the usual hour of sitting in silence in a Friends meeting, just as not all artists are Quakers. Rather, it may be only a momentary sinking into reflection, even in the midst of activity.

Here's another example from my own work:

Star Gazer

Looking at the night sky through glasses
I begin to be bothered by the rim around my vision
so take them off -- there, so much better,
my eyes not so bad after all, a bit fuzzy maybe

but still there’s a rim around my vision:
the sockets of my eyes, the ridge of brow,
both sides of my nose displaced to left and right
in binocular transparent apparition,

so take off my face and it’s better yet,
but still that dark behind where I can’t see
so remove the back of my skull, and
while I’m at it, the eyes.

There. Perfect.

I don't know how many times before I had noticed that I could see parts of my own face -- like the sides of my nose and the sockets of my eyes -- as if I were peering out from the mouth of a cave. Probably the first time was when I was a child, dozens of years before the poem happened. But somehow, in the midst of this particular evening, it suddenly meant something, it “spoke” to me. The ideas that the face could be removed, and that vision is somehow enhanced by the lack of eyes, simply occurred to me, and seemed to express a desire to witness and encompass the whole universe with nothing in the way. And, too, that looking out and looking in are much the same. I didn't go to the beach with anything to say. I didn't go there looking for a poem, but I came back with one.

For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings saw dew drops on morning leaves. Countless times, people must have noticed that things looked “funny” under the drops, before someone in the Netherlands realized that things were being magnified, and discovered the microscope. 

It must be that all of us are receiving messages and inspirations on a regular basis, though we may be too busy most of the time to notice, or to do anything about it. All we can do is nurture the process, by quieting down and paying attention. Then maybe we can learn to do what feels like taking dictation, and to speak and share those “gifts of high art” as they emerge from the silence.