I mean, barring all those books about fascism and totalitarian regimes that everyone is talking about at the moment. 1984 is a best seller again. What I’d ask is, who the fuck either hasn’t read it or doesn’t own a copy? In my experience it’s the first (often the last) “serious” book people read.
I wrote a post towards the end of last year that detailed some of the books I’d read that I’d found notable. I thought it would be worthwhile to outline near the start of this year what I want to read, as it might be fun to refer back to it and see how far I’ve reneged on my hopes and dreams. It won’t be a rubric, exactly. I’ve talked before about how important it is to read exactly what you want, and the pitfalls of setting yourself targets and making yourself read things you don’t really want to. So I reserve the right to drop this shit like it’s hot. But I’ll at least try and read most of the stuff I’m about to outline.
What I mainly read after that year-end post were collections of short stories. Short stories were largely what I found myself writing, because I found writing them enjoyable (editing, proofing them, and publishing them was hell on earth). It’s a form of literature that I am conversant in because of my education, a lot of which focussed on short stories because they are a good teaching tool, but I had since rarely chosen to read them for pleasure. In terms of short stories, this year, I’d like to read:
That is not an exhaustive list, but is what comes to mind when I think about what kinds of short stories I might try and read this year to broaden my knowledge of the form.
I’ve also come across a post on Open Culture that reminded me of something I had been meaning to do for years, and that is to have a more serious look at the Five Foot Shelf. There are things on there I am probably never going to read, but one of the things that makes me saddest about my education is that I haven’t really covered the classics. My knowledge of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer and so on could not even be called a working knowledge. Seeing that post again occasioned my reading of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which I enjoyed despite autobiography not being something I tend to read, and also despite the fact that he was so industrious and good hearted that it made me feel a scoundrel the entire way through. So, I would ideally like to read a bit more non-fiction, whether that be autobiography, philosophy, or poetry, while trying to cover the classics a bit (I wrote a post on The Odyssey, I am about halfway through that, and hope to finish it this year).
In terms of novels, there’s a bunch I need to either finish, or have been meaning to read for ages. These include:
Gonna stop because otherwise I’ll eventually write down every book I own. These are the things that immediately come to mind. I set myself another reading challenge, again setting the bar low at 20 books. That is the bare minimum I can read this year without feeling fucking awful about myself; I will do my utmost to read more.
Oh and just to remind you that my first collection of short stories just came out. You can get it here.
My first collection of short stories is now out! It is available on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon. It features stories that have appeared on this site before, such as The King of Infinite Space, Head: A Short Story, and, You Better Watch Out. If you enjoyed those, you would probably enjoy my book.
If you don’t want to deal with Amazon, send me a message and we’ll sort something out.
So 2016 was a dumpster fire. I did manage to get some reading done though. My plan to set myself a low and achievable goal worked, and I ended up reading with more freedom and joy and worried a lot less about what I should be reading (apart from the last month or so, which has found me focussing on reading short stories). I also wrote a bunch of stories and am about to publish them, so watch this space. Books I want to particularly note my enjoyment of listed below.
The Figure in the Carpet by Henry James – I haven’t read any of James’ longer works but I’ve enjoyed his short stories and novellas immensely. This was the first book I read in 2016. A truer depiction of the logical endpoint of literary analysis has never been written. Anyone that has taken an undergrad literature course will find lines and themes from this already written in their soul.
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – I read a lot of SF in the first half of this year. This was one of the standouts. An antidote, as all of Vonnegut is, to the idea of grand human purpose.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – I also ended up reading a lot of Vonnegut this year. Haven’t read anything of his I haven’t enjoyed. I want to read Breakfast of Champions next. Cat’s Cradle is a melancholic family tragedy framed in a story about the end of the world. Also about the nature of authoritarianism. Required reading.
Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison – I’ve already written about this. Anyone interested in SF or weird, transgressive fiction should read it. There will be something in here you will love, and the rest is worth reading for educational purposes anyway.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence – Still pretty transgressive by the standards of today, particularly because of its contempt for the class system. If you can get past the word “Cunt” you’ll find a love story for the ages.
The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell – Another book about the class system. So much is better. So much hasn’t changed. Worth reading to find out what life in the mines was like, alone.
Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin – Read this aloud to my girlfriend. It was delightful dirty fun. Nin’s descriptive work is beautiful and her grasp of the ungraspable points of human sexuality is uncanny. Anyone who wants to brave putting sex in their fiction should read this book.
Consumed by David Cronenberg – His first novel. I hope he writes more. A horror novel that doesn’t try to scare you, but instead slowly brings you around to looking at things the way Cronenberg does, and seeing how horrifying everything really is.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – A masterful example of using an imagined future to talk about the present. Uses time dilation in FTL travel as a metaphor for the estrangement Vietnam veterans experienced coming home and finding out everything changed without them.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury – During a time in which we’ve almost acquiesced to ruining the planet, and billionaires do their best to give us vague hope that we can colonise space, this collection of stories about the human exploration and colonisation of mars is required reading. We’re going to have to try very hard to not repeat the same mistakes, and take the same troubles with us.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin – I’ve have loved everything of hers I have read. More anthropologists should write SF. One of the most heartbreaking novels I’ve ever read, let alone in SF. Takes pains to detail the care and attention we have to pay if we want to overcome differences of race, culture, and ideology. More required reading, considering 2016 just happened.
In one way or another, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read this year (partly because I did my damndest to stop being scared to put something down), but the above are the books I’ve enjoyed enough to want to shortly say something about. I am satisfied with the amount I read this year. It could (should) have been more, but considering that Football Manager has replaced the World of Warcraft shaped hole in my life, it could also have been a lot less. I imagine I might read a couple more books before the year ends. I’ll let you know if they make the list.
John was convinced that he was a machine. There was input, and there was output. He put food in and faeces came out. He put water in and urine came out. He put LSD-25 in and he had experiences that are dulled by clichés in the telling. He was sold health plans hedged in the rhetoric of the automotive industry. Working order, tune ups, oil changes. Machines tend to have purposes. He wasn’t entirely sure what his was, but he understood the functions, whatever end they were toward. He wasn’t sure where he was built. He had memories of his early childhood, sure, but he couldn’t remember the moment he was switched on, the moment he attained consciousness, or a very effective simulacra of consciousness. He tried to look into it but he just found pro-life literature on the topic of souls. If he was ever in a womb, with a soul, he certainly couldn’t recollect it, and if he was ever in a factory, without a soul, because he was pretty sure he didn’t have a soul, he couldn’t recollect that either. There was no command to view uptime. He just didn’t know.
He didn’t dislike being a machine. He reasoned that, for a machine, he had quite a few friends. In his addledness, he was too addled to realise that his friends were addling him with various inputs both chemical and information based, but they were his friends, he reasoned. They didn’t move when he sat next to them. They answered his phone calls. They remembered his birthday when he didn’t. He discussed things with them and he input the same things they did. One of them turned him on to Huxley and he latched on to the theory that psychedelics don’t actually stimulate activity in certain parts of the brain, but instead dampen activity, and that the dampened areas were what could be referred to as a reality filter, parsing the information from reality and making it sensible to us. His friends introduced him to ways of turning off these filters. DXM, LSD, DMT, THC, 5-HTP. They introduced him to ways of sharpening and understanding these filters. He interpolated the DSM-V in to his own patterns of thinking. He knew that, as a machine, he had levers, circuits, switches, and that there were ways of pulling them, shorting them, flicking them.
-Reality is just electrical signals interpreted by your brain.
–Have you been watching The Matrix again? Fucking hell John, I’m tired of this shit and I’m tired of your babble. We’re just trying to have a good time, not pierce the fucking veil.
-But when your brain stops working, reality goes away.
–And it comes back when your brain starts working again. It’s still there, for fuck’s sake. You just filter it for a while. Things are still there when you aren’t.
-How do you know?
–Oh, christ. You were in my first year philosophy seminars weren’t you? I’d still be studying if it weren’t for you. There’s questioning towards a deeper understanding and there’s questioning to draw an argument out and around, and guess what you’re doing?
-Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
-Have you ever read any Dick?
-A bit, but I prefer my philosophy peer-reviewed.
-When the electric ant cuts the tape, reality goes away. That tape is in. My. Fucking. Head.
John’s was a very sensitive instrument. He had a habit of letting things get to him. There’s drugs and there’s information and where the twain shall meet you get a lot of mad fancy about MKULTRA and chemtrails. John tried on ideas like he tried drugs. Smell it, swill it around, sense the mouthfeel. You’re supposed to spit it out, though, and he never did. One overarching theory gave way to the next but little bits and pieces that dropped off would begin to snowball and he would become pretty sure that he was a machine and that only he experienced his reality and that with enough experience, lacking the manual, he could change it for himself. His friend had been right, though. He had been that guy in the first year philosophy seminar.
His friends, too, had gained experience with his machinery. They knew that pressing certain buttons would lead to certain undesirable outcomes, say, vibes that would cause a mondo bummer, man, and so they learned how to steer him and how to stop him exploding. Not that he information in his head didn’t stop accumulating and feeding back. Curiosity got the better of one of them, when he first confessed that he believed himself to be a machine.
–You mean, you are certain that you are not human?
–How did you figure this?
-I have inputs and outputs. I respond to certain stimuli in a consistent manner. I can manipulate what I perceive to be reality by various methods.
–You’re human, that’s what humans are like.
-Yes, so we’ve been led to believe. But only I can appreciate reality. I cannot know things except for how I know them. I cannot be empathetic when I cannot forget myself and be someone else.
–You can imagine.
-Yes, I, can imagine. That’s socialisation.
–Yes, it’s socialisation, we’re humans, we’re socialised animals who experience the symbolic realm. That’s what makes us unique, if anything. Animals do not have these crises and believe they are machines. We do, and that means we’re human, not machines.
-Or we just have a specialised way of parsing and applying information gained through certain stimuli. We understand ourselves differently, but so much of it is filtered. Animals act like machines.
–Dude, I’ve seen you swat flies. You hate them. You automatically whap out with your hand and they become mush. Mush, John. Have you ever seen any gears? Any cogs?
Any gears, any cogs? He didn’t know. He couldn’t say. It was possible he had and they had been filtered. If he was a machine, he had programming, and he didn’t know where it had come from. The transposition of certain images? It was possible. He didn’t understand his own set of electrical signals but he knew he could manipulate, amplify or diminish them. He knew so much and it just gave him more questions. He considered the gears and the cogs as he came up on a dose of DXM. In that first year philosophy seminar, he had heard someone say that the truly intelligent know how much they don’t know. He didn’t know how intelligent he had been programmed to be, and he couldn’t know how intelligent anyone else was. He did know how to calculate the dosage for a fourth plateau DXM trip, though, which he had been planning for a while. He was turning off filters. The trick in making humans believe they are humans is making them aware they have a corporeal body. When John crested the fourth plateau, he no longer had a corporeal body. He had a set of experiences encoded in electrical signals that he remembered from a life where he had been led to believe he had a body. Cogs and gears. The measuring of intelligence. First year seminar questions. Can you program a machine more intelligent than yourself? He didn’t know who had programmed him, but he was certain, now, that his manipulation of the aforesaid was fairly strong proof that he was indeed a machine that had achieved some degree of self-knowledge, self-mastery. He couldn’t be sure though. He needed to find cogs, gears.
As he stumbled back down the plateaus. He decided it would be a good idea to conduct a more conclusive experiment. He had dropped out of first year philosophy, too. All that talking, all the thought experiments, no real results, just more questions. Around the point where he was again aware that his body was corporeal, he took some LSD. The DXM didn’t just disable filters, it put up stronger ones so that reality could not get through at all. The LSD would allow him to see it as something like it was, taking things down without raising too much else. This needed to be a conclusive experiment. As he readied the knife that his earthly body had found, the sharpest, most serrated one he could find in the kitchen, it occurred to him he was about to commit a form of sudoku, before he then realised that the act was actually called seppuku. The sudoku was a stupid joke one of his friends was fond of. He had no control over that word appearing in his head, if it was even in his head that it appeared. Language as virus causing machines to realise that they are in fact, as opposed to. What? He’d forgotten.
The signals that might have been interpreted as pain were not interpreted by John as such, but we cannot know. Reality was his and he was discovering himself as not himself. As his midriff opened, a curled, coiled mass spilled out.
The war on Christmas had become increasingly desperate. The conflict, such as it was, had been low level when it had been confined to rhetoric, bluster, and the occasional controversial act of apparent censorship, but now it was very serious, and very real. Christmas had taken our declaration of war and had run with it. It seemed we had been at war with Christmas for years before Christmas had decided to retaliate. A jolly adversary it is indeed who can take decades of aggression and turn the other cheek, but as we know, in the modern world, no threat can be ignored, however illusory.
It was Barry Jenkins, of Lowestoft, who was the first soldier to die in the battle. A local restaurant had been forced to refrain from putting a coin in its Christmas puddings. Health and safety concerns were cited. Local protesters sat up tables and chairs outside and served their own Christmas puddings, coins included. This continued fine until a tourist who didn’t speak very good English mistook this for an outside seating area, availed himself of a pudding, and promptly choked to death. None of the staff had had health and safety training.
Barry Jenkins, a man passing by who had witnessed the incident, was asked to give an interview when the news crew turned up. He fit the demographic they were looking for and collared him.
“How do you feel about Christmas?”
“I don’t like it, not one bit.”
“What do you think about these protesters, do they have a point?”
“Not in the slightest. I’ve worked in a restaurant, you don’t give people food containing foreign objects. It’s not hard.”
“You saw the whole thing, I believe. Who’s responsible?”
“Christmas is responsible. I hope we win the ‘war on Christmas’ and I hope they all choke.”
A Facebook page called “Lynch the Grinch” reached a million likes overnight.
Barry might have found his life severely impeded by this negative attention were he not found hanging from some intricately, and strongly, threaded red tinsel. The hanging had apparently been done for affect, as shards of what were found to glass baubles had been inserted in to both his eye sockets. He had had candy canes inserted under his fingernails. He was covered in soot, as if he had been up and down a chimney.
There was a note left at his feet, on paper that looked as if it had been torn from the end of a scroll. It read;
For years we have quietly toiled in service of all mankind. For years we have sought to preserve a holiday that means goodwill and cheer to all, regardless of faith, creed or colour. For years we have toiled to bring your children happiness. And how you despise us. And how you erase us. And how you no longer leave any brandy by the chimney.
We use our strength, now, to defend ourselves and our good name. Recognise our good name or perish.
Yes, the war had become desperate now. The efforts of a nation are not best mobilised when they don’t even realise they are at war, and by the time the bauble bombings had begun happening, it was too late. Of course, Christmas’ efforts to defend its good name were met with a shunning, instead of an embrace, of Christmas. Armed police were on the streets and anyone dressing as Santa was shot on sight. The postal service as it stands for civilians had been suspended for the Christmas period. The Secretary of Education had banned any nativity play from being performed in schools.
None of these measures had done anyone a lick of good. The bombings had continued. Prominent atheists who finally had some professional stock as talking heads, had been found in much the same state as Barry Jenkins. And cinemas found that every film they had scheduled to show over Christmas had been mysteriously replaced with It’s a Wonderful Life.
The situation was becoming quite unbearable.
Prime Minister Swine had retired from a COBRA meeting in something of a funk. The war was useful politically, of course, but it had been a long time since any Prime Minister had fought a war that they had any conceivable chance of losing. And Swine was certainly losing this one. Besides, Christmas was his favourite holiday, and it did so pain him to have to wage war on it. Of course, first he would have to find a target. Any target.
COBRA had been scheduled to meet because some people had some fresh ideas. They were bad ideas, but anything would do. Military Intelligence had resisted the idea, but when it became clear that the bombings would not stop, a scouting party had been sent to the North Pole. The plan had been ridiculous, but despite how it may seem, it is useful to have a target when you yourself start bombing back. The scouting party had found nothing. No sign of Santa Claus, no elves, no reindeer.
The minister who this time suggested that we accept the demands and observe Christmas as per usual was summarily dismissed. Swine had no time for defeatists, and he wasn’t going to be the first Prime Minister in years to lose a war. But what other ideas were there? Military intelligence had nothing left to offer. GCHQ found nothing in their dragnet and had then suggested that the means by which Santa can know if you are naughty or nice are probably encrypted. They left no evidence bar what they meant to, which often amounted to sacks of presents. In ordering these sacks processed and disposed of, Swine had become quite unpopular. He lamented for a time when a good old war would cement your base and win you an election.
Everything he had worked for had been taken away by some maniacs with explosive filled baubles and some tinsel, and his cabinet had been bloody foolish. Swine had been in a bad mood because, at this last COBRA meeting, the best suggestion offered would make him even more reviled. Five of his cabinet ministers, all of which had investments in fossil fuel companies, had suggested that we might accelerate CO2 emissions in the hope of flushing Santa out of whatever icy place it was that he must be based.
Swine had campaigned on green energy. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, follow through on it, but it had won him the election. And his cabinet wanted him to fire up the coal power stations and reopen the mines. They said it would help him get the working class vote next year, if nothing else.
Swine sat in his decorated drawing room sipping brandy and thinking over all this. Publicly he had nothing to do with Christmas but privately he celebrated with gusto. He had decorated his own tree this year, hoping to reconnect with the magical feelings of his youth. Instead he grimaced as each bauble went on, grimaced as he thought of the pictures they had showed him of Barry Jenkins, back when this was all a terrible controversy and not much more.
He was ripped from his thoughts when he heard sleigh bells ringing outside. They were very loud and at first he was thrilled. Bells! It felt like so long, now, since he had heard the bells of Christmas. He got up quickly, a child again, hoping to go outside and see snow, and a sleigh, and reindeer. But then he stood stock still. Had they come for him? Had they found a way to get at the publicly hard line anti-Christmas Prime Minister? He felt the brandy going to his head as he moved to the door, seeking the officer who should have been there. Always knowing, watching, and waiting.
A bit like Santa, he thought.
There was no officer there. He shouted and there was no reply. The ringing of the bells got louder, and louder. He shouted louder, and louder. The bells and the brandy and the fear. He didn’t know what to do except, in his befuddlement, open the door. If they could get this close, if they wanted him dead, wouldn’t he be dead already? He wanted Santa to be there, ready to negotiate terms. He wanted his presents. Bugger the next election and bugger the war, he wanted to enjoy Christmas the way he had when he was a boy.
When he opened the door, so loud were the bells that he did not know where they were coming from. The two officers who stood watch lay there, still. He saw they had been strangled with fairy lights. Between the two officers lay, could it be? A present. It was wrapped in green foil paper and red tinsel. There was a sticker on the top that said, “To Swine. Merry Christmas.”
He didn’t know what else to do except pick up the box. If he was dead, he was dead. Maybe it was a peace offering, maybe it was his terms of surrender. As he bent down, into his view at the gated end of Downing Street slid a sleigh. Riding the sleigh was someone dressed as Santa Claus.
He stood up to take a better look and saw Santa put down his reigns and pick up some kind of device.
Snow began to fall.
Swine realised why the sticker had not also said, “and a happy new year.”
Santa, the snow, the reindeer. At least, Swine reflected, he had gotten what he wanted for Christmas this year.
“Ho ho ho,” shouted Santa, just before he pushed the button.
Bob woke up to find himself locked in a room.
It was not a room he recognised, being that his house did not contain a concrete cell.
He definitely did not remember having light fixtures that were designed to prevent him hanging himself from them.
How did he get there? The last he remembered, he was in his study, struggling to puzzle out a scene in the novel he was working on; Laura was supposed to love Peter, but the way he’d written it, it appeared that she loved Paul instead. He was getting bogged down. It had been this way for some time. It wasn’t writer’s block, more like writer’s mire. His wife, Maria, had bought him some tea. He couldn’t remember whether he drank it or not.
He wondered where Maria was.
How much time had passed? Did she even know he was missing? He could spend large spans of time in his study, hacking away at his manuscript, trying to see some way forward. Maria often left him alone.
When he first stepped in to the mire, he had discussed it with her. She suggested he try a scorched earth approach. He had spent so much time and energy on the manuscript that he was in a delirium of sunk costs, and was not pleased at her suggestion. She had left him to it, resolving to be there when he came out.
Maybe she was looking for him. He wished for nothing more dearly than for Maria to open the door the same delicate way she always opened the door to his study, to try not disturb him, and step through with a cup of tea in her hand.
Maybe he was just assuming he was trapped, some contextual psychology thing. Maybe the door wasn’t actually locked.
He tried the door.
It was definitely locked.
Time passed, slowly. Or quickly. Bob had no way of knowing. He began to feel hungry. He gave himself over to fantasies of the meals Maria would prepare. Beef stroganoff, seafood pasta, roast chicken with all the trimmings. The pasta was his favourite. Maria did it with clams, anchovies, and capers. The capers, she said, made it salty like the sea, the way it should be. He loved the way she talked about food, using idioms he never heard her use otherwise.
He was so busy imagining the rich red sauce that he didn’t notice the footsteps approaching his cell. They had built gradually from the distance and infiltrated his consciousness with such stealth that he only noticed them when they ceased. He was pulled up from his reverie when the trap in the door snapped open. A second passed, and then a plate of food was shoved in, and the trap closed.
He was distracted to the point he almost forgot to even try communicate with his captor, so focused he was on the plate, heaped with pasta.
“Hello? Where am I? Why am I here? Who are you?”
“Hello?” he said again.
“Hello!” he tried shouting.
Whoever was on the other side of the door seemed to hesitate at hearing his voice. Were they weighing their reply? He heard the feet turn, and clop off at an even pace, to his right. The feet clopped? Clogs? What kind of prison guard wears clogs?
In one catlike motion he remembered himself and undulated off the bed to inspect the food. It was pasta. Not pasta the way Maria made it, though. He picked up the spork he’d been provided with. Was that suicide proof too? He thought he probably could kill himself with it, but it would be long and painful and besides, he didn’t want to kill himself. Not just yet, anyway. The pasta was sugary, watery. The kind of tinned supermarket pasta where they add all the sugar to make it palatable, because it also contains this week’s intake of salt. Salty like the Dead Sea.
A day in captivity is enough to make any man stop being fussy. He thought of the calories, then he thought of the salt, then he thought of the fact that it should be Maria he was missing more, and not her food. He finished quickly and moved to the sink to drink as much water as he could.
The next three days were pasta. The steps changed though. He wanted to do his best to keep his wits about him, to puzzle out as much as he could about who was holding him. He listened hard for footsteps. There was no pattern as to where they’d come from, or where they’d go to. And the shoes. He’d heard boots. He’d heard heels. There had been the clogs of course. He was pretty sure he’d heard the guard try sneak up barefoot, then put on some slippers and slide away. The stride, the heaviness of the footfall, always varied. He couldn’t tell whether it was one person with a split personality from the knees down or the most motley crew of captors he’d ever come across outside of a Guy Ritchie film.
On what Bob thought was the fifth day, he was very hungry. Was dinner late? He had no way of knowing. He kept his eyes closed and reached out with his ears, trying to consciously feel vibrations instead of just trying to hear. He felt nothing, heard nothing. The trap slammed open and his eyes with it, involuntarily, taking in the full light of the fixture and giving him a nice snapshot of the vasculature of his eyeballs. He heard something slide in, and the bolthole slam again. His stomach roiled wildly with excitement at the prospect of food, but he had to wait, being able to behold only a photograph of his retinas.
When he’d recovered, he rolled over and glanced at the floorspace near the door. He saw a black square with another, white square set inside it. When he looked closer, he saw what he thought must be a laptop, with a note on top of it. He took the note, opened the laptop, and pressed the power button. The note said:
“This laptop has a Linux distribution on it that boots straight to a word processor. In the ‘References’ menu you will find the complete works of Shakespeare, and the King John Bible. Save your work to the E: drive; the laptop is connected to a LAN. If we have received a story of reasonable quality by tomorrow, you will be fed. The quality of writing you give us will correlate with the quality of the food you receive. Why are you still reading this note? Shouldn’t you be writing?”
No time, no time. He’d spent enough energy thinking about his situation. He couldn’t miss his coffee or his writing playlist or the rubber duck that was taped to the top of his monitor, whose belly he’d rub just before setting down to work. He had to just shut up and get writing.
Shut up and get writing.
Bob thought that this must be about the worst time in the world to get writer’s block. He didn’t know what to do about it. He’d been wondering how to deal with writer’s block long before he’d been imprisoned. He’d once thought about being confined in a library and a typewriter, how that might help him put aside distractions and turn himself to his work with determination and grit. He realised now how lucky he had been to not often get what he wanted.
There had been days when he couldn’t do anything. He’d write fifty words and have to try consider that a decent chunk of work, because if he didn’t, he’d go mad blaming himself and his mind would twist and turn with recriminations regarding his hubris, his lack of talent, his work ethic.
What was it he always tried to tell himself when experiencing this kind of block?
The first thing they always tell you is to write what you know.
Well, a lot of what he knew about or thought about at the moment was being confined. He had difficulty thinking of much else. He wasn’t well enough used to it yet to cling on to any kind of hope, or have the ability to disappear inside himself and his own mind and build in there a fortress against the slings and arrows.
He decided to try writing a story about a man who’d been confined and forced to write fiction for his food. That was something at least that he had some idea about. It wouldn’t require much research, just his recollections. If he needed to know anything, he could just look around. How did the bed feel? What was the water like? Was the toilet dirty or clean? These things he knew.
He managed about two thousand words. He felt good about it. He hadn’t written with such freedom for a long while. No pausing to look out the window, no staring at the duck, no alt-tabbing. Two thousand words worth of tapping. More time had passed than he had thought, he imagined. He had a nap, gambling on having time to proofread it, at least. It might not cohere, but at least he wouldn’t spell tomorrow with two ms.
He was a charlatan and a brigand, for stringing his wife along, making her think he was a writer. And not only that, but given the opportunity to reflect at length on his wife and his love and respect for her, all he could think of was the mushroom bourguignon she’d do on Wednesdays, containing so few ingredients and so much flavour. He was nothing. He couldn’t write. He couldn’t even come up with a decent plot. No redeeming qualities to this work. And he was a chauvinist. Perhaps the author might consider trying his hand at something else? Has he considered becoming a bank clerk, perhaps?
Bob had been telling himself all along that this was all he was good at and even this he couldn’t do, not with any kind of art. He had defrauded his poor wife. Either he was blocked and couldn’t write, or he could write and it was garbage. Garbage that had felt like the lightning of the Gods flowing through his mind and fingers as he wrote it, but still garbage.
Never had he been so worried about a rejection letter. He didn’t have to wait long. Steps he didn’t hear had bought someone before the door. He saw a chink of shadow. Soft soled desert boots?
A note was passed under the door instead of through the trap.
“Writing a story about yourself? Really Bob, you must try harder if you want to eat. If you were Paul Auster, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
A metallic sound beat quickly away to the left.
They were right. He certainly wasn’t Paul Auster.
What else did he know enough about that he could use? That’s the problem when you become a writer because it’s a good excuse to spend time alone, and not because you’ve got something to write about. He had an imagination, sure, but he didn’t trust it. People had suggested journalism, but unfortunately he had a sense of ethics.
And all he could think about was food, anyway. Food and his wife. He missed them. Soon enough it would be in that order. Maybe it already was and he was kidding himself.
What else could he write about at the moment but food?
He ended up writing a description of a king at a grand banquet. The queen was going to poison the king’s favourite dish. Really it was just a vehicle for him to write long and lavish descriptions of beef joints, roast ducks, lobsters that seemed the definition of the colour red. And ale served by busty maidens and huge golden goblets filled with arterial wine.
The king offers his son the first cut of his favourite, the roast duck. The queen is agape, the son overjoyed. They all end up dead. Was he ripping off Hamlet? Didn’t that have a swordfight at the end? He couldn’t remember, and he didn’t check before submitting the story.
The crunching and grinding of glass slippers on gritty concrete let him know that a verdict had been reached. It pushed a bowl of thin, transparent gruel through the door, and left.
The only solid thing in the bowl turned out to be half of an overcooked potato. Bob was happy to remember what chewing felt like.
The attached note said,
“Better, but plot clumsy. Some nice descriptive work, but get feeling you misunderstood Hamlet. You have a copy, remember?”
He read Hamlet again that night. And the sonnets. Shakespeare really wasn’t meant to be read on a 800*600 screen, but it kept his mind off his stomach.
He lay and thought about his wife. He didn’t know how much time had passed, or whether he’d missed his deadline. All he knew was he missed his wife. Reading the sonnets had made it worse. Whoever Shakespeare had been writing about he had loved them, and in his love had given them the gift of living forever beside him.
He knew he might never see his wife again. What else could he do but write the truest vision of her he could. He knew he was no poet, and he couldn’t plot, but he could describe things.
He described his wife in length and detail. Her looks, her manner, her interests. The most complete portrait he could manage given his weakness of body and bluntness of technique.
He had an ambition in line with his abilities now. His wife would live forever as a vision of beauty, intelligence, and fairness, even as his lazy bones and wasteful mind rotted in this hole.
He no longer cared whether he was fed.
It was the most artful thing he’d ever written.
It wasn’t long before he heard the footsteps. Tentative, bare footsteps. What would he be getting today? Maybe a raw turnip, perhaps some cheap beans. He’d take it.
The bolthole opened and in slid a heaped plate of pasta. Had he really done that well? And a cup of coffee. He fell on the plate and took a forkful. It had capers, anchovies, chilies, garlic, all balancing exquisitely on his tongue. He even felt a twang on his tongue that lead him to believe there was some wine in the sauce.
The door opened.
There stood his wife, the very vision of beauty, made up exactly as he had described.
“I had to cure your writer’s block somehow. I was trying to help you. That last piece about me. It was… I’m so sorry.”
He looked at her. Then he looked back at the pasta, then back at her.
Once upon a time I sat down in my first GCSE English class and waited for the teacher to arrive. It wasn’t long before he’d sauntered in to the room and declared to us, before even introducing himself, that he would not be teaching us Of Mice and Men, because he hated it. We’d be doing the short stories in the anthology instead. I enjoyed the short stories immensely (it was the first time I’d read Hemingway or Plath), but still wonder what I missed out on.
That was nearly twelve years ago now, and I still haven’t read Of Mice and Men.
In fact, there’s a lot of things I haven’t read. An anxiety inducing amount of things.
I remember slightly later on, one of my A level teachers gave us an extract from Middlemarch. None of us recognised it. She said the examiners would expect us to have read Middlemarch. Ruh roh. Luckily I still managed to get my A levels without reading it.
One of my favourite anecdotes about the prodigiously well-read is that Coleridge was reportedly the last man to have read everything that had been written. This is certainly bollocks, but illustrates the point all the same. Who today could possibly claim to have read a hundredth of what is written, let alone all of it?
So, I must accept that I can’t read everything. I can’t even read all the books I own, because I keep buying more.
But still, here’s a laundry list of things I really ought to have read, but haven’t:
Of Mice and Men
To Kill a Mockingbird
A lot of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, King Lear)
North and South
The Age of Innocence
There’s more, I’m sure, that’s just slipped my mind. This isn’t counting the things I never read in school that everyone else did (1984, Animal Farm, The Catcher in the Rye). That also doesn’t mention things like Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, that I am familiar with but am by no means an expert on.
Until as recently as last week, Pride and Prejudice was on that list. No one ever made me read it, and I hadn’t ever gotten around to it. I have vague memories of bunking off reading Persuasion at university, but no one expected us to have read Pride and Prejudice. And really, I ought to have read Pride and Prejudice. So I decided to give it a go. I didn’t have high hopes. It just didn’t seem like the kind of thing I’d be interested in. But everyone raves about it and it’s one of those works that is constantly floating around in the public imagination, and I hadn’t even watched an adaptation of it. It was a huge gap in my knowledge.
It wasn’t as boring as I expected it to be. I knew it to be a comedy of manners, so I expected lots of drawing room conversations and scandalous gossip, and I knew Austen raised gossip to an artform. I knew enough, basically, to figure I wouldn’t be interested. But I thought I’d grind through it and be able to talk to people about it even if I didn’t like it.
It wasn’t a grind though. It went down easy. The prose is very, very modern. Even the fact it’s largely an epistolary novel doesn’t make it seem slow or archaic, given how much of our communications even with the people we love dearest are now done through text, and at a distance.
Austen does a remarkable job of portraying subtle shades of emotion and the ability of the human mind to trick itself and think past itself even as you are not conscious of the process. I still found it a bit difficult to care *that* much about what happened to the characters, but their inner emotional lives were certainly engaging, and Austen captures a certain interplay of egos that is interesting to watch unfold.
I don’t regret waiting this long to read it. Five years ago I might have found Elizabeth insufferable. Now, I know what it is to have grown up a bit and be sure who you are, only to have circumstances change and thus you with them, imperceptibly at first but then unignorably, such as you do even more growing up, and your ignorance is revealed to you. I should suppose if I had any grown daughters, it should take on new dimensions.
I fully intend to have read all the things. I want to read Middlemarch and Bleak House. I will, one day. Maybe I should try move that day forward, because the dips I’ve taken back in to the canon since passing the point of being forced to swim in it, I’ve enjoyed. And it is the canon for a reason.
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