Thursday, August 6, 2015

Juvenilia One: The Attempted Overture

I'm inaugurating a new form of shameless self-exhibitionism on the blog today, which I hope will become a semi-regular feature. (Quarterly? Annual? We'll see how long it takes me to run out of juvenilia.) I was trying to remove some of the clutter of old files from my laptop yesterday and kept stumbling across things I'd begun work on as a teenager and abandoned after a few pages. Usually such finds are a source of stabbing pain to me, but not this time. I was surprised and pleased to discover that enough time had gone by at this point that I could look back on my early writing without expecting it to be any good, and therefore with the freedom to be mildly amused when it isn't and pleasantly astonished when, in the odd line or two, it is. Given that the internet allows me to publish pretty much anything I want (it just makes no promise that anyone will see it), I thought I might as well do something with these efforts.

This juvenilia, all imported years ago from the ancient Dell desktop I had in high school and thus bearing file names with that nostalgia-inducing phrase [Compatibility Mode] after them, runs the gamut in terms of genre. Most of the pieces are of course utterly derivative -- there are Pinter-esque (and therefore not especially picturesque) playlets starring sadistic generals and the heroic leftist prisoners of conscience who have fallen into their hands (See Pinter's Death, Etc.); there are doggerel poems in which I constantly sacrifice meter to message (I'll sacrifice anything to message, it turns out); there are various openings of never-completed novels and short stories, most of them featuring a single hero (resembling me) who has to face off against a world full of clods and knaves (resembling no one).

Enough of this stuff is bad in an uninteresting and unfunny sort of way -- or else semi-plagiarized-- that I don't think it needs ever to see the light of day, if you'll just trust me on that one. Rest assured, however, that I do intend to offer up the best, worst, and most embarrassing bits as I find them, broken up by genre. Today, in the first installment of the Juvenilia series, I will focus on the many openings to unfinished novels that I attempted as a teenager, accompanied of course by my wry commentary.

As I have looked through these, I notice a fair number of things about my past self that are foreign to who I am today, or at least, harder for me to access -- such as the intensity of the anger I evidently felt back then. However, I can also see the beginnings of a sensibility in formation-- one I continue to possess. There is still the bludgeoning satire, for one ("deft irony" is not the cliché that comes to mind when reading what follows). There is the even more bludgeoning (and closely related) didacticism. Plainly, I have always lived in mortal terror that someone might miss the political or moral point of something I wrote, and I will let many niceties of literary art dangle in order to secure myself against this threat.

My style may not have improved in subtlety and indirection since then, but neither have my ideas. I find that, after making a few brief detours in the direction of greater sophistication, most of my deepest beliefs about the world have wound up back where they were, more or less, at age fifteen -- or even where they were when I was eleven. As Poe writes in one of his essays: "It is really wonderful to observe how closely, in all the essentials of truth, the child–opinion coincides with that of the man proper–of the man at his best." I don't know about the "at his best" part, but I do find that my teenage self evidently had a loathing of dictators, of cant and hypocrisy, of the Republican Party and of the more vindictive elements of Christian doctrine -- all of which still seem to me to be the right things to loathe.


To get us started, here's something that would have been called "Gregor" if ever it had made it past the first five pages (the usual terminus of my projects)-- I remember nothing about the original impetus behind it.
Gregor Klimpt was only eleven years old when he stopped believing in the system.  It happened all of a sudden one day, and [...] it took him as much by surprise as it did his parents.  He had always dreamed of going to America.  Not because he particularly like Americans, but because America was where they made Star Wars and where the presidents had so much money that they could build huge force fields and call them 'Star Wars;.  But one day, he decided it would no longer be a dream.
[Given that Gustav Klimt was an Austrian and Gregor Samsa a German-speaking resident of Prague (presumably), I must count "Gregor Klimt" a complete strike-out as an attempt to come up with a Russian name, but there you go.]
Gregor was out on a scouting expedition, you see.  
[I think I swiped the Soviet scouting motif from Goodbye Lenin.]
He was always slower than the other boys, and to tell you the truth, he would rather not be scouting at all.  It was on a particularly long hike in the woods one day that he decided that he had done all the scouting he was willing to do, so he sat down on the ground as an act of nonviolent protest.  The scouting master didn’t really like scouting any more than Gregor, so he stayed behind as well.  [...]
“Gregor… Are you planning to get up out of the dirt anytime soon?”
“No,” said Gregor.
“That’s a shame,” said the scouting master, “because we can’t continue our hike without you.”
“It will have to be a shame then won’t it.”
Gregor stared at the dirt for a few more seconds.  Then he felt himself ask the question.  He didn’t know what made him ask it, but it came out anyway.
“Comrade,” said Gregor, “what is Communism?”
“Communism, comrade,” said the scouting master, “is whatever is.”
“But what is?”
“What you see around you.”
“So, if I see a man help a blind person across the street, that is Communism?”
“Yes, comrade.”
“And if I see that same man trip a blind person in the street, that too is Communism?”
“Oh no, comrade, that is capitalism.”
“And how about in America?  If they trip a man there is it capitalism?”
“Oh no, comrade, there they call it communism.”
“They do!” said Gregor, very much unhappy.  “Well, what if they are right?  What if that’s what communism is and we’ve had it backward the whole time?”
[Hey, I actually like this bit! But now we must fast forward, thereby skipping the part where I belabor the joke I have just made:]
Gregor had always felt bored in school.  For some reason everything became horrible when a teacher said it.  Gregor had, as a young boy, harbored a love of Gogol, for instance.  But then one day during break period, Gregor happened to mutter what was then considered a coarse word.  He didn’t know what exactly a coarse word was but it appeared that they existed.  Gregor had always assumed that all words were equal, as all people were equal.  And even if certain words were unequal, was it really so bad that he had used one of the less equal ones?  But at any rate, after muttering this coarse word, the teacher grabbed him by the ear, marched him to the front of the class and waved him about like an olive speared on an index finger.  “Listen to this coarse boy,” said the teacher, as Gregor felt the fluid in his ear slosh about unnecessarily.  “He lives in a land where they speak the language of Gogol, yet to hear him talk you’d think we were living in the Ukraine.”  And after that Gogol became horrible to Gregor.
[Gogol was of course ethnically Ukrainian. Did my teenage self know this and was simply satirizing the pretentious Russophile instructor by having him contradict himself? I hope so, but I fear...

Anyways, that "olive on an index finger" line is really good! I must have stolen it from someplace. The "coarse boy" thing sounds like it's probably lifted from "Such, Such Were the Joys."

Later on, back at home with Papa and Mama Klimt:
“I don’t want to write this essay,” said Gregor.
“Nonsense,” said his father.
“But why should I?” asked Gregor.
“So that you may work hard and beat your classmates.”
“Then what would I get?”
“Then you would get a good job like me.”
“Then what?”
“And a wife like your mother.”
This was remarkably disturbing to Gregor, but he pressed on.  
“Then what?”
“Then you will be powerful and important.”
“What good will that do me?”
“You will be able to make a difference in people’s lives.”
“What if it’s a bad difference, like when you trip a blind person?” asked Gregor.
“Why would you want to make a bad difference?” asked Gregor’s father.
“Exactly,” said Gregor.  
Gregor was almost certain they had found better things to look forward to in America.  In America you could do more than live in a box with Gregor’s mother.  You could build giant force fields that could shoot down missiles.  You could win wars in Afghanistan without even going there.  [...] And it was in that moment that Gregor decided he no longer believed in the system.  He wasn’t yet willing to tell anyone of this fact, but he was sure of it in his heart.
The next day he roamed the streets a rebel.  A revolutionary.  He had to turn his back now on everything he had known.  [...] 
But Gregor quickly grew frustrated at the lack of attention his new-found rebelliousness received.  Things at school seemed to carry on much as they had always done.  Of course, part of the problem was that Gregor had not told anyone about his rebellion, but still, he assumed it would show itself in his features somehow.  One did not abandon the system lightly.  Surely such a betrayal would leave its mark upon one’s forehead.  And yet, although Gregor scanned his face nightly in the mirror, no scar or gash appeared.  
Eventually, Gregor lost patience, and he decided that he had better get to America as soon as possible.  Taking with him only a few changes of clothes [...] Gregor took to waiting outside of the American Embassy for the ambassador to appear.  When he did appear after an hour or two, Gregor ran to him, gesticulating wildly and calling, “Mr. Ambassador!”
The Ambassador, it would seem, did not hear him.
“Excuse me,” said Gregor, “But I am ready now to go to your country.  I’ve decided this country is not for me and I would like to give yours a shot.”
“Excuse me,” said the Ambassador, but it wasn’t the hopeful sort of excuse me that Gregor had uttered, but the curt, get-out-of-my-goddamned-way sort of excuse me.  Gregor was somewhat put out, but he persisted.  “You’re excused Mr. Ambassador.  Now, about this business of me coming to your country, how might we arrange that?”
The Ambassador pushed past Gregor and got into the limousine parked in front of the Embassy.  The limousine then started to move, which was bad.  Then it pulled out of the driveway, which was even worse.  Then it hit a puddle on the side of the road and splashed Gregor across the face with mud, which was the worst of all.  Gregor spent a few minutes feeling sorry for himself as he strolled down the street back toward his house.  He had only made it a few feet, however, before he noticed the limousine sitting motionless in a knot of traffic.  He hurried forward, but decided this time to pursue a plan of action which did not rely upon the generosity of ambassadors.  He crouched low behind the back of the limousine before hoisting the lid of the trunk and climbing inside.
It was dark inside the trunk, but Gregor knew he was safe, and that the car would never be searched.  The diplomatic plate on its rear bumper stared up at him like an old friend.
While it was dark there, it was even darker in the luggage compartment where Gregor next stowed away.  As soon as the limousine pulled up at the airport and the Ambassador got out, Gregor popped the trunk and spilled out himself, his suitcase coming open in the process.  The Ambassador didn’t notice, however, so Gregor quite calmly doffed his cap and asked, “Where should I put the bags, sir?”
“Huh?” said the Ambassador, who seemed not to recognize Gregor, despite the intimacy of their last conversation, “Oh, just put ‘em… with the others.”  The Ambassador had never seriously considered what one did with bags.  They had always just disappeared when he got to the airport and reappeared when he reached his destination.
Gregor saluted and clicked his heels before wheeling the ambassador’s bags toward the waiting plane.  He whistled to the men at work and helped them load in the suitcases.  Then, when they weren’t looking, he hopped in himself.
It was cold in the luggage compartment.  But Gregor was on his way to someplace hot.
This, I assume, is how the story would have played from there: Gregor would have gone on to land in America and discover that people there are just as stupid and corrupt as they are back in the Soviet Union. Another chastened Candide, he would return home to cultivate his garden. But I never got any further than what you have just read.

Here is the tonally similar opening of a different project:
I had for many years resided in a small college in the North of England when I was blessed, one bright Saturday in November, to receive a visit from Ronald T. Esteridge.  I did not know who he was at the time, as I had devoted my adult life, such as it was, to the study of thick volumes of philosophy.  Poetry, therefore, was the most frivolous and barbaric of arts—the most impoverished form of literature, second only to the ignominious novel, the shameful play, music, art, and opera.   In fact, only philosophy passed muster, as it offered no enjoyment to the human heart whatsoever.  I had been in the habit of telling everyone I met that I attended “university,” which invariably led them to assume that I made my home at Oxford or Cambridge.  The truth of the matter, however, was far more ignoble.  My father had for many years been a Dissenting minister of the Unitarian faction—a liberal of the most detestable and dangerous persuasion who even had the affrontery to suggest, on occasion, that Ireland might be best served by an independent government.
And so forth. This was mostly swiped from the actual biography of William Hazlitt and the rest was going to be drawn from the latter's essay on "My First Acquaintance with Poets." Esteridge was going to be Coleridge-- do you see the labyrinthine complexity of my creative process?


Here's another opening:
I was at home attempting to study when my father turned on the radio.  He was not a learned man, my father.  He was not in the habit of reading important books [...] Nor did he read newspapers or watch CNN, for that matter.  

As a teen I often felt stymied and frustrated in my creative ambitions by the fact that I had an intelligent and supportive family. I therefore evidently felt the need to write compensatory fantasies like this one in which all adults were fools and I was a misunderstood artist with something to rebel against.
But there was one thing he never missed: the right-wing call-in shows on 1073 FM from five to six with Karl Kristof Kingsley.
[Get it? The initials! Such devilish wit]
 It was his habit after returning from work to hide away in the study, where my mother could not reach him, and to turn up his desk radio so loud that I could hear it through the walls.  Today, Kingsley’s topic was gay marriage:
My fellow Americans, conservatives, and lovers of liberty, I have with me today a man you all know—a man who, for the last four years, has been among the most vocal opponents of homosexuality in the country. [...] You all know who I’m talkin’ about, it’s the Reverend James T. Sanatarium.  
[Like Rick Santorum, see! You can fill in the rest of the exposition yourself, such as it is. Let's skip ahead to some of the Rev. Sanatarium's pearls of wisdom.]
Well first of all, K., I object to that term.  I don’t feel myself that gays are any less deserving of our respect than regular people who, say, committed a horrendous crime.  I have never disparaged those who have strayed from the flock, and I feel that before we can bring them back into the grace of God, we must seek to understand them.  
[...] I intend to make great strides forward in this country.  And I know what you are all thinking—all the presidential candidates have said similar things.  It is no great feat to say that you will work for progress in America.  But let me ask you one thing—do you, now I’m talking to all Americans, not just Republicans, do you truly feel that any of the other candidates share your concern about homosexuality?  Now, I am not an enemy of the homosexuals; in fact, I am their greatest ally.  Oh, there are those who claim to defend them, but let me ask you this—would a lawyer defend a murderer by defending the act of murder?  No, of course not, my fellow Americans, you know as well as I do that we must attack the sin, if not the sinner.  We must stamp out the dread disease of homosexual behavior, and do not fool yourself that you are immune.  Your children and your children’s children could fall victim to it, and you know as well as I do that it is becoming ever more prevalent.  [Applause as he searches his note-cards.]
[This probably strikes you as implausible even as satire, but you actually could have heard this kind of stuff on a lot of FM radio in Florida in the Bush years (it was the Anita Bryant state, after all). You probably wouldn't have heard it from a presidential candidate -- but, then, who could have foreseen Trump?]
But do not be concerned that there is only one issue upon which I have staked a claim.  I have many other sweeping reforms in mind apart from my pro-morality agenda.  Now, I’m sure you know as well as I do that sin is ever more prevalent in this country.  Not just homosexual sin, but other kinds of sin too.  [...] Violent crime, robbery, murder, arson, theft, rape, all are at an all-time low.  And you know as well as I do who’s to blame.  Those complacent Washington politicians, who care more about numbers than about people.  Those secular, leftist, card-carrying ACLU-ers who spend all their time worrying about statistics.  The GDP, the growth rate, the unemployment rate, poverty, what do those mean to you and me compared with the real problems in our society?  Now there are some who say that we elected those politicians—that the people chose them to represent us.  They say it has something to do with democracy, well, I’m here to tell you about democracy.  Democracy, for me, is about the land of the free.  Now let me, uh, tell you what I mean by that.  Now, you know as well as I do that the city is the den of sin.  And, of course, it’s the city where people tend to congregate.  That’s what makes it a city.  There’s lots of people in it.  And because there are a lot of people in ‘em those Washington liberals say that cities oughta be more represented in state elections than the country-side. I’m just gonna repeat that.  More represented!  You know who else wanted some people to be more represented than others?  Racists during the Dead and Buried era of segregation.  Now, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, perhaps you’ve heard of him, is a great hero of mine, despite his unfortunate remarks about Ho Chi Minh.  And he thought that everyone oughta be represented equally.  Now, of course, those liberals would say again that one vote per person is equal representation, but I say humbug.  Don’t you remember the song?  It’s the LAND of the free, not the people of the free.  That is why I would reform the constitution, so that voting representation would be one vote per square mile rather than one vote per person.  I’m tired of seeing whole red states go Democrat just because of one cluster of trouble-makers around Chicago or Minneapolis/St. Paul.”[...]
[Later on, Sanatarium has taken over the planet, and is still speechifying:]
  As The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. probably said, 'Equal rights are for the good of the nation.'  And I support equal rights for everyone.  Not just for every straight man and straight woman and, of course, for every square mile of land, but also for all the homosexuals of the world.  I support them, and I want to guarantee their inalienable rights.  Rights like the right to eternal life at the right hand of God.  Those liberals in Washington whom I deposed this morning, they tell you that they support the homosexuals of this nation.  But what kind of supporter would allow his supportees to give themselves over to eternal damnation?  It’s like Alexander Pope, the Elizabethan dramatist, once wrote, 'To be or not to be?'  And I will no longer stand by and let homosexuals be.  [...] And speaking of 'inalienable rights,' I believe that when Ben Franklin wrote that immortal phrase he was not referring to illegal aliens.  Our nation may have inalienable rights, which belong to both the people and the land itself, every square mile of it, but to be illegal is not one of them.  And I have no doubt that my opponents will leap upon the fact that the word 'inalienable' has the word 'alien' in it, unless they come up with a better argument, but let me assure you, I looked up that word in the dictionary, and nowhere did I see anything mentioned about condoning illegal behavior.  For you see, we have laws for a reason.  Some of those laws are there to help people, like the law about homosexuals that I just passed, or the law against murder.  Others are just there.  Like the laws about immigration.  But they are laws, people, and however inalienable certain Mexican aliens may be, I have no choice but to build a vast wall along our Southern border the like of which Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, the current ruler of China, would be proud.
[A year after I wrote this I found myself assigned a freshman-year roommate who was a College Republican and an admirer of Tom Tancredo. One of life's savage ironies.]
Now, I am not a racist.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am against racism.  Some of my heroes are black Africans, from Omar Sharif to Mohandas Gandhi, despite the latter’s unfortunate remarks in favor of Lenin.  But just because I am not racist, that does not mean that all races are equal.  I think we all know, as you do, that America is a special land.  Not, perhaps, a special people, as I tried to prove with my square mile initiative, but the land itself is certainly special.  It was placed here by God for our personal use, to be a shining city upon a beacon [...] And there have been many great Americans, some of them white, some black, some men, and some women.  Of course, most of the great blacks and women showed up around 1970, like Clarence Thomas and Anita Bryant, but that hardly lessens their greatness, and I continue to support the right of both groups to exist[...]  But despite all the equality that I have just supported, we all know that people are not equal, and that even if racism is bad, the American race is far superior to the Middle Eastern race, the Chinese race, the Western European Socialist race, and certain races in Latin America which are currently run by left-wing governments.  You see, I am blind to skin color, as I’m sure you are.  But I am not blind to culture, and we have here a great culture of liberty and democracy, of the inherent right of all people to live freely, which can never be trampled on by some flash-in-the-pan dictator.  But in the Middle East, you see, they have no traditions.  At least not any traditions that I care to look into.  Same goes for the rest of the world, except Albania, which can truly claim a superior, America-loving race.  I also do not mean to disparage our fellow freedom-lovers around the world, such as the brave freedom-fighting Contras in Nicaragua.  I mean, of course, that they were fighting for freedom, not fighting freedom.
And if America is superior, what, then, makes us superior?  Surely our freedom, our democracy, and our heterosexual families, but what else?  Well you know, folks, it was a long time ago, but before I was called Supreme Lord and Conqueror, they used to call me Reverend.  Do you know what a Reverend is?  It’s a sort of God, and it has to do with religion.  
[Could I have imagined then that I'd be enrolled in divinity school a bare five years or so later?]
You see, it’s religion that made this nation great.  And by religion I don’t mean any religion.  Of course, all religions are equally great and valid, but none is more valid than Christianity.  And that is why I hereby declare that the state religion shall hence-forth be Protestantism; the government shall be God, with me filling in as his divine representative here on Earth.  Now, I know it’ll be hard for some Catholics to adjust.  Now, I have nothing against Catholics.  [...] No, it was Catholics that made this country great, right after Protestants. [...]
George Orwell once wrote, “Freedom is Slavery,” and I think we can all learn a great deal from his example.  Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re wondering just what he meant when he said that.  Well, I’ll tell you.  He was talking about homosexuality, people…
[The protagonist eventually assassinates him and saves the day.]


And those are the more subtle parts!


Well folks, I think that's all I can stand for our first installment. There is plenty more where this came from, however, for better or worse.  I think next time we'll turn to the art of dramatic writing, where I shall treat you to such all-time show-stoppers as "Political Broadcast" and "Bush and the Sultan Go Scuba-Diving." I bet you can't wait.

1 comment:

  1. Update:

    So, after tuning in to the GOP debate tonight for about ten minutes, the Rev. Sanatarium above no longer seems like an over-the-top caricature but more like a prescient forecast. Trump would seem to favor the good Rev.’s agenda on immigration for one thing (but we knew that) including the big apartheid wall à la Qin Shihuangdi (the current president of China). The Rev. would actually score above the Donald on any humanitarian score. He’s starting not to seem so bad. Then of course we had Ted Cruz talking about Obama and the “Washington Cartel’s” quest to “fundamentally change America” by bringing in more “illegals” – a racial dog whistle if ever there was one (but he’s a Hispanic candidate so it’s okay!) Then we spent some time ginning up the posse about the Kate Steinle murder. “It was done (allegedly) by an illegal” we are told. This is how unspeakable atrocities get started.

    And let us not pass lightly over the line about Egypt’s El-Sisi being the good Muslim who understands the true danger of “Islamic radicalism.” Good to know that a GOP election victory will not threaten our relationship with the Egyptian president who lead a military coup, gunned down 900 peaceful protesters in the streets of Cairo, and is currently poised to execute the previous head of state after a kangaroo court trial. ( Apparently that’s the kind of muscle we need to win the War on Terror.

    Maybe my angry teenage self was right. To quote Harold Pinter, in the spirit of the post: “There’s no escape. / The big pricks are out.”