Monday, January 28, 2008

Imitative fallacy

The summer before last I went to Salt Lake City for the Writers at Work conference. In workshop with Steve Almond, I was introduced to the term "imitative fallacy." Until then, I'd always called the concept, "A boring story about a boring man." It was a Dangerous Writing caution: you must avoid falling into the trap of adopting the narrative tools of your narrator when telling a story—unless your narrator is a gifted story teller. It's up to the writer to craft a compelling story, even if your main character is an idiot. Or, in the case of The Secret to Love's Fifi, an emotionally disconnected scientist.

Part of the challenge I'm facing is because, like Fifi, I'm sort of a geek. I'm not as smart or as educated as Fifi, but I think I share with her the tendency to cause glazed eyes when I go off on one of my conceptual epiphanies. In workshop a few weeks ago, I shared a first draft of a critical scene at the end of the novel's first act. There's a lot going on in the scene, four people all doing something different, and the anticipation of an important family gathering. But something goes amiss, and in trying to unpack the tension leading up to that something, I'm trying to shine the light on an activity that serves as a metaphor for the whole first act. The activity is boiling live lobsters. But, remember, this is a laboratory scientist boiling these lobsters, so it's fitting to engage in some of the character's unique sensibilities while she's boiling these creatures alive.

Even though she's cool as a cucumber while reporting the killing of the lobsters, I need to show how her body betrays the coolness. I need to demonstrate that she's not heartless lest the reader be too turned off to care about her. I have to mitigate imitative fallacy by revealing, somehow, Fifi's broken heart—or at least her discomfort:

It's show time. Grandmother always set the egg timer, plunked the lobsters into the pot, placed the lid atop, and then promptly left the room until the ding sounded—not wanting to offend her genteel sensibilities with the futile scratching and scraping from inside the pot as the aquatic arthropods protested their being boiled alive.

There was a time that we children questioned this practice. During our fleeting vegetarianisms and outrage at various injustices. None of us had the nerve, of course, to confront the matriarch on her barbarism, but we complained loudly to our mothers. Loudly enough so that Grandmother interrupted the shooshing and sighing with her knowledge of the life sciences.

"My dears," she assured us, "They don't feel pain. They have no cerebral cortex, you see. Only an instinct to scuttle off to a certain density of liquid."

We never challenged this. Never looked it up officially. Grandmother was notoriously and perfectly final in her proclamations.

Eventually, in a marine science class, I discovered that Grandmother's guilt-alleviating speech was typical, but inaccurate. While it's true that lobsters don't have cerebral cortexes, that piece of neuro-anatomy is merely responsible for translating pain as an emotional experience, not registering pain in and of itself. A lobster, I found out, can indeed receive stimuli—it can feel things through its carapace. Lobsters have nociceptors and prostaglandins and neurotransmitters—rudimentary versions of our own equipment. They have all the hardware needed to register pain, in other words, but maybe not to experience pain.

These lobsters will take fifteen minutes in the boiling water before their antennae pull out with ease—the old Watch Hill litmus test. But they remain alive in that boiling pot for the first of those minutes. And that's why I do what I do.

In the lab, we call this the Kevorkian Rapid Unconsciousness Method. K-Rum. Disable the frontal ganglion. Ice pick to the forehead.

I reach into the rubbery pail and grasp the first victim. A slimy handful, this big boy. His eyestalks wag like Egon's tail. I look away as I set him on the cutting board and reach for the large brass nail and hammer. I am horrible. A monster. But. My dying cousin wants a lobster dinner tonight, so that's what she shall have. Lou-the-Lobster is wriggling his ten little legs. His experience of the air must be like being drowned. A person's horror at being held underwater against her will. A maneuver like this requires a little anesthetic. The Beefeaters bottle—a Watch Hill kitchen counter staple—glistens in the spill of sun through the transom. A half dozen highball glasses still remain in the cupboard and offer themselves up, I like to think, eagerly.

Friday, January 25, 2008

the latest news from chuck and choke

Chuck Palahniuk just came back from Sundance with great news. His book Choke, adapted to screen by Clark Gregg, has just been picked up by Fox Searchlight ($5 million, if you haven't heard). Unlike many authors whose books get made into films that miss the mark or otherwise piss off the originator, Chuck has only praise and respect for Gregg and the entire cast and crew responsible for Choke--the movie. Myself, I'm fascinated by the whole odyssey. Having been lucky enough to see the entire process of Choke's genesis--from draft to revision to final edited manuscript, the dessert will be its ultimate form after Fox Searchlight puts it into post-post-production. I'm not alone in my awe at "Once" and "Juno." Hm... Chuck's not the only artist sticking to one-name titles!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

planet of the apes?

This weekend I attended a science teacher's conference with Kirk. The purpose of this confab was to provide a venue for high school science teachers to reveal the findings and results of research they'd conducted the previous summer, to practice sharing this research with other science professionals, and to gain some insight and mastery at getting kids fired up about engaging in science—not just teaching it, but doing it. There was lots of food, booze and swag, too.

Aside from getting treated to a wonderful winter interlude in San Diego's warm and sunny climate, and spending uninterrupted time with the man I love, I had an unexpected windfall—a happy accident, you might say. Turns out there's a primate research center in these parts, and I made a few contacts over the weekend, including the Director of a lot of the research. Someone who might just serve as a model, work-wise, for Frances.

Spending more time around the monkey people, I started getting that excited feeling—the way you do when you think the stars are aligning to help you write your book. It's always wonderful when your life and writing collude to make you think what you do is a real thing, and can borrow from the real world. The danger, I suppose, is in forgetting that you are weaving a fiction, and don't have to stay true to every detail the world presents. Remembering to be judicious and discerning when it comes to what you're going to take can be hard—because writers sometimes feel they owe the truth a story, instead of the other way round.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

mouth of babes

There was a dry spell at work today, so I did a rain dance. Went to a matinee and saw Juno. It worked, came back to the office and hydroplaned through client emails. Luckily, I’d already done my writing for the day, so all those word chunks dislodged while in the darkened theater will have to compost overnight.

The movie was very good, but I must admit, it took me a while to suspend disbelief and go with the farcical dialogue. No sixteen year old sounds like that, has that sort of dry wit and acid-tongued machine-gun-fire retortability. At first, I thought the script too pleased with itself. Too clever. But the girl (played by the very talented Ellen Page) won me over in the end. Once the story got to climax the character showed, at last, the sort of vulnerability I was hoping for—not sentimentality, vulnerability.

I was once a child, and I’m 70% done raising my brood of three. Look, there’s my littlest. He’s 8 and still innocently goofy, but getting hipper by the day. The hat. The skater hair. The drum sticks.

In art, I’m a fan of the adultified, precocious kid ala Peanuts, but as a real parent, I’m decidedly not. My two older kids I tossed into the Waldorf School to assuage the effects of premature sophistication, the media-inspired onslaught and the tendency of public education to thwart critical thinking. Turned out the Steiner disciples my children got were not exactly free-thinkers who encouraged questioning minds. True, my kids were spared the uninterrupted barrage of commercialized drivel during the Waldorf years, but they were subjected to a different shade of fascism: cultish adherence to the tenets of a man who was born a century before neuro-scientists got a really good peek at the brain. Dyslexia, for instance, was explained as a stage afflicted children would transcend once the long bones matured. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that simplistic, but the shrugged shoulders and head nodding still irks me when I remember the way parents with learning disabled kids were dismissed.

So, when it comes to romanticizing childhood, I guess I’m selectively cynical. I don’t buy that childhood is only pure if a kid is dressed in woolens and brings a hand woven basket of homemade bread to school each day—aesthetically it’s a nice thought, but, some days I’m really glad that God invented juice boxes and Ziploc storage bags.

On the other hand, if teenagers really were sophisticated enough to expound, convincingly, on the nuances of punk rock that was produced a decade before their birth, I’d be scared.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

on being codependent in behalf of one's character

So today I wrote a chapter in which a beloved character kills herself. I was going to hold off on it for awhile, play out a few more "getting to know you" scenes, but as I tried to weave those together, I realized that the tempo was right for this to happen now--not three chapters from now.

A curious side effect of this was that I decided to hang on to my protagonist's inability to face the impending death of the suicide character (who was slated to die of cancer) by letting her play out the scene she (I) would have rather experienced. One in which all family wounds are healed over a big family dinner. A ridiculously sentimental conceit that not only would not have worked in and of itself, but would have pulled the whole manuscript into flatness.

In my "solution," I allow my narrator to envision an over-the-top, lovely dinner party, providing, I hope, respite from the dark, painful actual event, as well as an overlay of sympathy for this rube of a woman, who must then go on and continue on her heroic journey through the nether-regions. Here's a snippet of the stalling tactic she employs as she ascends the staircase where tragedy awaits:

The trickling water through the wall suddenly stops. It is quiet with the loudness of dread. No stomp, stomp, stomp. Just the beat of the engine under my apronned chest. My legs, suddenly without muscle or bone, begin to bend and move and then climb up the back stairway. Ghost legs. Phantom limbs. Somebody’s voice, not mine, but somebody’s, asks if everything’s okay. It has a slightly British sound, this voice of inquiry. Grandmother, but not Grandmother. Maybe someone screams out. Maybe it’s Annika. Maybe it’s Cherry. Maybe it’s the UPS guy slipping a disc picking up the box with the andirons. Boiling lobster smells compete with burning endive. My hand is wrapped around a high ball glass of mostly ice and tonic. How many times have the women of Watch Hill ascended this staircase accompanied by a glass of gin?

Ah, where would we be, us novelists, without booze and prodigality.