Have a Fictitious Meal

A book club I participate in recently asked members what characters from fiction they would like to host for a dinner. I went with Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye), Ignatius J. Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces), Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing (Fear of Flying), T.S. Garp (The World According to Garp), and Juliet Capulet (Romeo & Juliet) If they are allowed to bring a plus one it would be, in order, Phoebe, his mother, Adrian, Jenny, and Romeo Montague.

But what about the food? I’m not much of a chef and not very adventurous with menus. But how about a fictitious meal?

Fictitious Dishes is a bit of a cookbook without recipes, maybe a coffee table book that people page through, one they borrow from the library or give as a gift to a literary person who likes to cook. It is a pretty book. It has re-creations of meals from classic and contemporary literature with some excerpts from books, information about the food, author, their works, and the food itself.

I can see someone doing Mad hatter’s Tea Party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Maybe you can read The Bell Jar while eating its crab-stuffed avocado. Not every selection is elegant. From The Catcher in the Rye, we get a cheese sandwich (on rye?) and drink a malted.

But how about an elegant jazz age party with Gatsby: “glistening Hors-d’oeuvre” and cocktails. Looking to be fancy? Boeuf en Daube from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Some New England clam chowder with Ishmael and Queequeg from Moby-Dick

I love the novel Moby-Dick. I don’t love clams in or out of chowder. Ever since I dissected a clam in AP biology and discovered that people eat the part that filters junk out of the water I haven’t been a fan. I grew up with the Manhattan tomato-based version and the New Jersey variation which has Old Bay crab spices and asparagus and the less clam the better. I can live with the Moby addition of salted pork (Jersey Taylor ham or pork roll?), pounded sea biscuit, and lots of butter. Some good crusty bread and good coffee and I might just reread Melville again with a bowl of chowder in front of me the next cold November in my soul.

As I said, I’m not that adventurous when it comes to food. I tend to like the peasant foods from every culture – Italian, Mexican, French, Indian, German – take your pick. I’m going to go simple American with my meal from a favorite book – To Kill a Mockingbird‘s fried chicken, tomatoes (from my Jersey garden), beans, scuppernong (I had to look that up. They are a Southern big, white grape that is tart) and nice fresh-from-the-oven rolls. Dessert is some apple pie ala mode (coffee or cinnamon ice cream is my preference) from On the Road. Ala mode on the road. Sounds good.

Silent Snow, Secret Snow

I read the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken when I was 13 years old. It is probably his best-known short story. I returned to it quite accidentally this past week though with thoughts of snow coming for this weekend and more than a slight identification with the story’s protagonist.

I see that the story is sometimes listed as psychological, fantasy or even as a horror story.

The boy in this story, 12-year-old Paul, is finding it hard and harder to focus on schoolwork. He is also feeling less connected to his family. Both those feelings were in me at 13.

He does more and more daydreaming and those daydreams are more and more about snow. One morning while still in bed he only hears silence from outside. It is the silence that happens when snow muffles sounds. But when he looks outside, there is no snow.

He sees secret snow that can surround you with a comforting silence and attachment from the world. His detachment is increasing. It’s hard to even get out of bed and get dressed.

I don’t think my parents had any sense of how I felt. Paul’s parents call in a doctor after telling the doctor about the secret snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do eventually call a physician, who makes a house call to examine Paul. After revealing that he likes to think about snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do with the doctor or his parents – or the world.

At 13, I don’t think I probably recognized any psychological symbolism in the story. Fantasy over reality and even isolation over social relationships didn’t seem to me to be wrong. They seemed reasonable responses to what was whirling around me that year.

I also didn’t fully recognize that Paul was slipping into depression or even sliding toward something that might be labeled schizophrenia at that time. The snow and the white noise of it become more powerful. “The hiss was now becoming a roar—the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow—but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” appeared in 1934. FDR was in his first term in office and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, while a fascist government was in power in Italy since 1922, another fascist government was established in Germany that year as the Nazis gained control of the country. It was certainly a time when escape from reality would be understandable.

It was also a time when the theories of Sigmund Freud were popular and began to be used to interpret literature. When the doctor asks Paul to read a passage from a book taken from a shelf in order to see if he has any eye problems, the book (which I only discovered through researching this essay) is Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus. Is Aiken giving us a clue?

I also learned just this week that the Aiken family had a history of mental illness. When Aiken was eleven, his mentally ill father shot his mother, then himself. His sister later suffered serious mental issues and was hospitalized and Conrad worried about what might be hiding in his own mind.

Conrad Aiken wrote in several forms and genres, but preferred poetry and short stories. He wrote several novels which I found in my town library and I read Conversation because it seemed to be about people who were creative but I don’t recall liking (or understanding?) it.

Aiken also was a poet. He was a modernist and not what I was trying to write at that time or what I was reading, but I did get a book of his poems at the library. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1929) and a National Book Award for his Collected Poems (1953).

I read other stories by him, but it was this one story that has stayed with me.  I am not alone in having this story remain or perhaps haunt the memory. The story appears in many anthologies, and I found it online too.


The soundtrack for that part of my 13th year definitely included the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” the latter from the brilliant Pet Sounds album that came out that year and which I played over and over in my bedroom. I think Brain Wilson in the mid-1960s would have identified with Paul too.

Wandering Imaginary Places

watership down
View from Watership Down towards Nuthanger Farm || by  Peter S and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

When I was teaching, I often had students create maps for fictional “imaginary places.” Some settings in novels are so real that we might think they exist in reality. Many authors create imaginary places but base them on real places they know. We did some quite detailed maps of the half-real/half-fictional Tulsa, Oklahoma in the young adult classic The Outsiders. Creating settings maps required very close reading and a lot of critical thinking and sometimes some research into an author’s life and real maps.

The mystery writer Harlan Coben was a student of mine when I taught in Livingston, New Jersey. He often uses that town and part of New Jersey (he still lives not that far away) in his writing, but things are changed as needed. I recognize names and people (including my own) on those pages. When he describes a street he’s driving down, in my mind I can see that street.

I know from my child psychology classes that the creation of imaginary worlds and people is an important part of child development.

As a young reader, I loved books that had maps in them. Some books had a map on the inside covers. I had a Treasure Island and a Lord of the Rings that had maps. I also had a copy of Richard Adams‘ 1972 novel, Watership Down, that had a map.

picture book
Page from a picture book adaptation of Watership Down

That book is about a rabbit named Hazel who leads a group of his kind out of a dangerous place through an even more dangerous place. Their original home was being taken over by humans. The dangerous place they travel to is dangerous because of the rabbits that live there.

I love that novel and read it multiple times. I have always felt a connection to rabbits. It has been more than just liking these cute, fuzzy creatures. I feel some higher connection to them.

The rabbits finally reach Watership Down which is a chalk hill in England’s North Hampshire countryside. Adams lived in the nearby town of Whitchurch. He would take walks with his children to the top of Watership Down and, like some other authors such as A.A. Milne with Pooh – he told them stories about the rabbits who lived there. Eventually, he wrote them down and so the book was born.

All of the locations described in the book are real places and you could do a tour of the settings using the map in the book.

I have looked the place up online and apparently, it is a popular spot with cyclists, walkers, and exercising horses along Wayfarers’ Walk. A section of  Watership Down is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Going way back, the Down is in the midst of an area is with Iron Age burial mounds, enclosures, and field systems.

There is a tree that was planted at the north end of the wood to mark where the rabbits choose to make their new warren. That tree replaced a beech tree that was destroyed by a storm in 2004. The roots of that beech tree is where the rabbits’ warren is in the novel.

I have read that the wooden fence protecting the tree has been, perhaps understandably, “vandalized” by visitors who have carved the names of some of the rabbits from the novel, such as Bigwig, Fiver, and Hazel.

I had a shelf in my classroom with some novels that had maps in them and a few books about imaginary places and creating imaginary worlds. (click on the book covers below for info).  I always had a few students who would fall into those books and linger longer than necessary in them and sometimes ask if they could borrow one over the weekend.

I was such a dreamer thinking and sometimes drawing maps of Atlantis, Xanadu, Shangri-La, El Dorado, Utopia, Middle Earth, Treasure Island, Wonderland, Freedonia. These days I’m sure readers and watchers have been imagining Jurassic Park and the world of Harry Potter – although movies kind of ruin imaginary places by making them seem “real.”

I always thought that one day I might walk Watership Down with Karen, my longtime friend and fellow rabbit person. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe just in our imagination.

               

If it doesn’t matter, does it also antimatter?

canister
Antimatter canister from ‘Angels and Demons’

The Writers Almanac got me thinking this week about antimatter and the positron. If that seems a strange topic for a writing site, then you need to consider all of the fictional uses of antimatter in literature and popular entertainment.

Science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick are a few of the many who have played around with this scientific discovery. The British television series Doctor Who used it for a propulsion system. That sentient android, Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation has a positronic brain that gives him powerful computational capabilities. In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, the Illuminati try to destroy Vatican City using the explosive power of a canister of pure antimatter.

In physics, the idea that there may exist particles and matter that are exact opposites of the matter that surrounds us goes back to the late 19th century. It is difficult to grasp the idea that there are mirror-image anti-atoms for all our known atoms. take that idea bigger and there would be whole anti-solar systems.

And what if in those solar systems the matter and antimatter might meet? They would annihilate one another.

In 1932, American physicist Carl Anderson discovered the first physical evidence that antimatter was more than just an idea. Anderson was photographing and tracking the passage of cosmic rays through a cloud chamber, a cylindrical container filled with dense water vapor, lit from the outside, and built with a viewing window for observers. When individual particles passed through the sides of the container and into the saturated air, they would leave spiderweb tracks of condensation, like the vapor trails of miniscule airplanes, each type of particle forming a uniquely shaped trail. Anderson noticed a curious pattern — a trail like that of an electron, with an exactly identical, but opposite curve — an electron’s mirror image and evidence of an anti-electron.

He took a now famous photograph of the event and in it a particle is seen approaching the metal plate , and when it hits the plate, it loses energy but continues to curve in the direction appropriate for a positively charged electron. He later called it a positron.

He had discovered antimatter. The discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936 (at the age of 31 he was the youngest person to be so honored).

Antiprotons were discovered in 1955, and the antineutron was discovered the following year. In 1985, scientists created the first anti-atoms. And other antiparticles, such as antiprotons and antineutrons, have been discovered.

These discoveries led to speculation on its practical use. In Star Trek, it forms the basis of high energy propulsion systems. So far, the amount of antimatter so far created on Earth is orders of magnitude short of what would be needed to power a spacecraft.

Back in the 1940s, biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov took up the newly discovered particle and made it the means for his fictional “positronic brain.” Made of platinum and iridium, it was his way of  imparting humanlike consciousness to the robots in his story collection I, Robot.

Fiction and the Goldfinches Outside My Window

I started reading The Goldfinch, the third novel by Donna Tartt, when it was released. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Secret History (1992), but at almost 800 pages The Goldfinch didn’t grab me.

I’m tough on books lately. I tend to get library books most of the time nowadays – too many books in the house and it is getting harder to get rid of them. That means, especially for new, popular books, that I have two weeks to read them probably without renewal. I read slower than ever before and I only made it about 100 pages into the novel and didn’t renew it.

Tartt only produces a book about every decade, so there is plenty of time to read her work. And then The Goldfinch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. Amazon selected the novel as the 2013 Best Book of the Year, and it was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review

I am not the only reader who misses something in a book that is critically acclaimed later. One review of The Goldfinch reminded us that “It isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention,” was part of a review in The New York Times at the release of Nabokov’s Lolita. I liked that novel a lot when I read it in college.

The NYT (well, their critic) also declared that  Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was “Kind of monotonous… He should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crummy school.” And I loved that book when I read it at 13 and every time I reread it.

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is in my top ten novels list and many others, but it was called “An absurd story” by The Saturday Review while the New York Herald Tribune said it was “a book of the season only.”

My local library now offers me ebooks and audiobooks online via Overdrive and I saw that The Goldfinch was available as an audiobook. I downloaded it and once again had two weeks to finish. I started at the beginning again and this time I made it through the 32 hours and 29 minutes.

The novel can be called a Bildungsroman, which is the fancier German word for a novel of formation or education, and is sometimes called a coming-of-age story. The  first-person narrator is Theodore Decker who we meet at age 13. He survives a terrorist bombing at a NYC art museum. His much beloved mother dies in the blast. As he escapes the museum he meets two other victims and half-consciously takes a small, Dutch painting, The Goldfinch. 

Those two people will change his life path, as will having that stolen work of art.

The painting (shown above) is one of the few surviving works by Rembrandt’s most promising pupil, Carel Fabritius. I doubt that it is coincidence that almost all of Fabritius’ work was destroyed in an explosion in 1654 which also killed the artist.

The goldfinch in that painting is chained to its feeder perch. In the painter’s time,  goldfinches were popular pets. They could be trained to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket. The Dutch title of the painting, Het puttertje, pertains to the bird’s nickname puttertje, which refers to this training and translates literally as “little weller.”

I see goldfinches at the feeder outside my window. they are American goldfinches and more beautiful than the one in that painting.

goldfinches
American Goldfinches at a feeder – male on the left

I don’t find the painting that extraordinary but, as the novel makes clear, my review doesn’t match that of most critics.  With the painting, like the novel, maybe I am missing something.

The painting is nice. The novel was okay this second time around. But I can’t give either one a rave review. I don’t like reading reviews before I read a book or watch a film. But I did read reviews for the novel in between my first and second attempts. Some people loved it. Some did not.

But those goldfinches outside get five stars. They are perfect.

I may have started out as a voracious reader, moved on to be an English major and then a teacher, but now that all that life has pretty much passed, I find myself more fascinated by what is actually outside my window. Real birds. Real stories. Real people.

I haven’t abandoned the arts. I even make some attempts at them myself.  And I’ll still recommend Tartt’s The Secret History, and Gatsby, Lolita, and Catcher. But I strongly recommend looking out the window and then stepping out to encounter the world more often.

 

 

I Would Prefer Not To

bartleby shirtThis weekend I am starting a period of unemployment – or retirement. That hasn’t been determined yet. But it is definitely a new phase and perhaps it was more synchronicity than coincidence that I found this weekend an annotated version of the Melville story “Bartleby, the Scrivener, a story of Wall Street.” Andrew Kahn has added the commentary and they have added the option to see notes based on categories like history and Melvilliana.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is an odd story about a lawyer who hires Bartleby to work in his office as a scrivener. It’s an old profession from the times when humans were the office copy machine.

Bartleby is quiet and initially he is efficient. But he soon begins to refuse to help out with any other office tasks. Well, not refuse, but, as he states, he would “prefer” not to. The lawyer and other employees are startled and confused but unsure of how to respond.

Bartleby is always in the office. He does his copying and often stares out the window at a neighboring wall. We discover he is living in the office.

He reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld when Kramer begins going to an office where he is not employed and just hangs out, interacting with employees, but not doing any work.

Bartleby eventually announces that he will no longer do any work at all, but he prefers to stay in the office. The lawyer asks him to leave, but he just doesn’t.

comic

Don’t take this as real life and ask why didn’t they just throw him out. The story is, as Kahn says in his introduction, “part office comedy, part ghost story, part Zen koan.”

Kahn says that in 1852, the year before the story’s publication, the once best-selling author of tales of adventure, had literally been declared “crazy” in a newspaper headline about his writing.

Herman Melville wrote this story after Moby Dick, which was his masterpiece, but was not well reviewed and didn’t sell. He followed the white whale with the novel Pierre which was not subtly subtitled “The Ambiguities” and that subtitle is accurate.

In this story, he seems to be trying to make meaning as frustrating as the lawyer’s relationship with Bartleby.

The lawyer’s frustrations mirror the reader’s frustrations.

“In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, ‘I would prefer not to.'”

When I read this story in my college literature class, I wrote a paper around the idea that one of the few things we hear about Bartleby’s life is that he was rumored to have earlier been a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in the Washington, DC post office. What a beautifully symbolic place to work. Here’s how Melville, through the lawyer, ponders that job of sifting through letters that could not be delivered.

“When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.”

Spoiler alert: Bartleby ends up being imprisoned in the New York prison known as “The Tombs.”  There, he begins to prefer not to eat, and in a short time dies.

This story was first serialized anonymously in two parts in a magazine in 1853. Anonymously, probably because the Melville name would not help sales. Today it is viewed as a masterwork of his short fiction.

Let the critics and students of literature continue to ponder the story and how it uses philosophy, free will, ethics, depression, economics and all the other analyses. I’m rereading it this time as more of that Dilbert cartoon (above) interpretation of just preferring not to do anything and also preferring not to explain why.

Ah Bartleby! Ah Melville! Ah humanity!