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Essays

Essays that only appear online, but not in the print journal

Ted Chiang’s Impersonal Universe

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second or perhaps less; I don’t know how many birds I saw. Were they a definite or an indefinite number? This problem involves the question of the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because how many birds I saw is known to God. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because nobody was able to take count. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let’s say) and more than one; but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, but not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That number, as a whole number, is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.

— Jorge Luis Borges, “Argumentum Ornithologicum”

Ted Chiang 1Jorge Luis Borges is one of a handful of writers whose every work fills me with awe and envy. I’m awed by the precision of his paradoxes, his ability to usher me into mysteries at once beautiful and haunting. I’m envious because his aesthetics so resonate with me that I feel as if each story I read is a story I’ll never get to write.

Ted Chiang is another such writer. Like Borges, his craft is as precise as clockwork. The elegant inevitability of his plots, which unfold as if mapped upon some narrative Golden Mean, suggests an orderliness to reality without diminishing its mystery. Take, for instance, “Tower of Babylon,” in which the biblical story of Babel is reimagined sans-idolatry: an entire civilization is organized around the desire to be nearer to God Most High. When the hero at last pierces the vault of heaven and enters the “waters above,” he swims upwards until breaking the surface—and finds himself on Earth again, just outside the city, swimming in the “waters below.” The structure of reality is precise, circular, self-contained—and for that reason, unfathomable.

“Argumentum Ornithologicum” is but one of many pieces that illustrate the kinship between Borges and Chiang—their passion for the ambiguities of language and mathematics, their careful, laconic rendering of complex ideas. It is also emblematic of their greatest divergence: Borges was a mystic; Chiang is a materialist.

I had the opportunity to hear Chiang speak this past spring at the University of California at Irvine, where I teach. Students in our Rhetoric and Writing courses had been reading Chiang’s collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, and were primed to listen and engage. Chiang’s subject was the differing worldviews of science fiction and fantasy, which dovetailed nicely with the focus of our courses. It was a fascinating, astute analysis of the political and moral implications of genre. More interestingly, the talk and subsequent Q&A session revealed important tensions in Chiang’s own work.

He opened his talk with a well-worn Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While superficially true, Chiang argued, vast differences exist between the technological wonders of science fiction and the magic of fantasy stories, the most significant difference being that in fantasy the universe is presumed to be personal, whereas in science fiction it is impersonal.

Chiang offered a short discursus on the history of science. In his telling, the pivotal moment was the emergence of chemistry—a genuine science—from the magical discipline of alchemy. The latter involved the purification of the soul alongside the purification of a base metal into nobility, while the former was grounded in observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and systematizing. Alchemy failed and chemistry prevailed, said Chiang, because the soul is of no consequence.

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Coda, or a Ninth Case: Trump v. Hawaii

Trump v. HawaiiThree years ago, my essay “Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases” approached the border from eight different routes. The years since have only increased the urgency of dealing with the border in a humane and just way.

“The law constitutes a ‘we’ through an official story,” scholar Priscilla Wald wrote in her 1994 book, Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form. But: “An official story of ‘a people’ invariably lags behind the seismic demographic changes and corresponding untold stories that ultimately compel each revision.”

These days, we’re immersed in the conflict that churns beneath the changing text.

When Donald Trump issued his Muslim ban a week after his inauguration, protestors poured into airports around the country. Federal courts issued injunctions, the Trump administration twice revised the ban, and the Supreme Court let it go into effect while it heard the case. Later, the Trump administration began blocking people from seeking asylum at official border points and taking the children of those who do manage to cross. Lawyers filed lawsuits. Protests bloomed. On July 4, sparing no symbolism, seven people dropped an “Abolish ICE” banner from the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Now, in Trump v. Hawaii, the Supreme Court has rubber-stamped the Muslim ban. My printed copy of Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion is marked with angry notes. I was one of the people marching through SeaTac airport a year and a half ago, lifted by the “joy of disobedience,” and I’m one of the people now who’s spent mornings holding a handwritten sign in front of the Seattle ICE office.

In 2018, we know we’re living in history. I imagine a person like me, sitting at a desk one hundred years from now in whatever United States emerges from this catastrophe, reading Trump v. Hawaii. This reader, comfortable but conscientious, peers at the decision as if through a telescope. Distance can make everything smaller, especially if there’s no political and moral crisis bearing down on the reader to bring history to the fore as she sifts through the pages.

In August 2018, we are experiencing a genuine crisis—not just a crisis of intensified border-related brutality but also a crisis of sudden awareness and loss of meaning. Who are we? It’s a double question: who’s included, and what’s the nature of those of us who are? The border touches both sides of this question. Donald Trump so luxuriates in his contempt for the lives connected to the border that many of us who previously could escape or ignore the border—not just as a place but as an instrument of power—can hide no longer; many don’t want to anyway. Ignorance is complicity, and complicity ruins our souls. Continue reading

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Notes on the First 30 Days

IWillFightForYou_1.21.2017On the morning of Inauguration Day, I met up with a friend in midtown Manhattan, where we rented a car and set out for Washington, D.C. Our plan was to make the drive before nightfall, have a quick dinner, finish making our signs, and get a good night’s rest before the Women’s March. Not only was it less expensive to rent a car than to fly or take a train, but our road-trip had the added benefit of keeping us away from TV all day—a serendipitous media blackout for which we were both grateful. We didn’t turn on the radio, either—we brought a playlist. There was in this avoidance an expression of grief, a turning away or a lowering of the eyes.

***

I have found, at times, only temporary reprieves from the anxiety, persistent since the election, that whatever we do, whatever donations and calls we make, whatever petitions we sign or letters we send—it is not nearly enough. Though I harbor no confusion over the moral obligation to try and keep trying, I know I’m not alone in feeling besieged time and again by the crushing worry that nothing I can do will amount to an adequate response to the moment.

The demands of the moment are urgent, complex, and enormous. What art will suffice for this darkening time, what activism? One way in which the new president and Steve Bannon, his primary advisor, exercise power (however instinctively, however strategically) is through language (the deluge of lies and misdirection), another is through demoralization. (What practical purpose could threatening to defund the already modest National Endowment for the Arts possibly serve, if not to send a chilling message to artists and writers and the organizations that support them?) What power can the resistance harness in language and images to fight back; and what can we do to uplift and inspire each other?

That others have been here before, have felt the pressure of these same questions is saddening, yet also a source of solace and, potentially, guidance and inspiration. Wallace Stevens’ “Of Modern Poetry” echoes frequently in my mind:

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.

Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.

In just the first month of the Trump presidency we’ve already lived through several extraordinary tests. The deluge of public lies, the ethics violations, the travel ban, the ascendance of Bannon, the ICE raids: as each new event jolts our consciousness, many of us cycle through feelings of helplessness, anger, sorrow, and determination, and sometimes we land on a perch of hope. We find some way to respond. We show up, we make calls, we share information, we make ourselves seen and heard by our representatives. We savor a momentary satisfaction while surveying the landscape—looking for what more to do, and for what may be next around the bend.

***

By mid-morning my friend and I were looking for a restroom and a snack. We stopped at the Clara Barton Travel Plaza along the New Jersey turnpike, and as we pulled into the crowded parking lot I saw women in groups of four and five emerging from dozens of cars and vans, many of them in pink hats. The line for the women’s room was lengthy, and a sense of energy and anticipation radiated from the clusters of women gathering in the small food court. We exchanged nods and smiles with strangers when our eyes met.

We bought a pint of what looked like sugar-coated doughnut holes and a container of caramel dipping sauce and, noting the light rain that had started to fall, decided to eat our snack there and take a short break from driving. We found a spot by the window, but as I sat down I realized I was directly in view of a television mounted from the ceiling, broadcasting the inauguration. Mike Pence was being sworn in. And then Trump. A small crowd gathered to watch, and I watched their faces in profile. No one spoke for some time—as if the room was holding its breath for a moment, waiting to see if something might somehow intervene and disrupt the proceedings. As the new president turned to receive congratulations from his family, the rain picked up, pounding the pavement. Restless and dumbstruck once again, we got back on the road.

Back in San Francisco the following Tuesday, I was heartened to hear from my office the muffled call-and-response of protestors on Market Street. Show me what democracy looks like; this is what democracy looks like. I was even more heartened to learn later on the evening news of multiple protests around the country that same day: in Austin, New York City, Denver, Orlando, Philadelphia; in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; Overland Park, Kansas; Vienna, Virginia; Rochester, Michigan, and many other places. It all felt like a muted answer to the question that had haunted me since the march: now what?

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How Reading to My Kids Helped Me Give Better Author Readings

Publishing a book can mean a lot of things. You might, for example, find yourself at a book club meeting where an elderly gentleman confesses that he didn’t think he’d be able to finish your novel but he nonetheless managed to “struggle through it” (true story). You might, on the other hand, achieve a staggering level of success that allows you to quit your day job (unfortunately not a true story). Or, more likely, you’ll probably have to give a reading.

This was the part of being a published author that I was dreading the most. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, not at all comfortable with public speaking or standing in the spotlight; at forty-nine years of age (yes, I’m a “debut” author who’s on the cusp of fifty), I still blush when I’m the focus of attention, cursing the redness in my cheeks that I can’t control.

But, much to my surprise, I didn’t completely suck at reading from my novel in front of a crowd of people. And at some point during my first book tour—on a plane, in an airport, staring at a hotel ceiling, writing notes and scenes for my next novel—it dawned on me why: I’d been reading out loud to my kids for the past ten years.

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Poet Laureate of Spaceship Earth: An Excerpt from ‘You Belong to the Universe’

You Belong to the UniverseThis Thursday at 7 p.m., author (and ZYZZYVA contributor) Jonathon Keats will be at City Lights to discuss his newest book, You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future (Oxford University Press). Called by Douglas Coupland a “wonderfully written and highly necessary book about one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic outliers,” the book takes Fuller’s life and personal myth as a basis for applying his world-changing ideas in the present.

The following is an excerpt from Keats’s book.

Late one evening in the winter of 1927, Buckminster Fuller set out to kill himself in frigid Lake Michigan. At thirty-two years old, he was a failure. He had neither job prospects nor savings, and his wife had just given birth to a daughter. A life insurance policy, bought while he was in the Navy, was all that he had to support his family.

So Fuller walked down to a deserted stretch of shoreline on the North Side of Chicago. He looked out over the churning water and calculated how long he’d need to swim before succumbing to hypothermia. But as he prepared to jump, he felt a strange resistance, as if he were being lifted, and he heard a stern voice inside his head: “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.” Then the voice confided that his life had a purpose, which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world, and that his family would always be provided for, as long as he submitted to his calling.

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Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984).

Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency Room Notebook”, “My Jockey,” “Private Branch Exchange,” “Temps Perdu,”) during this time. I imagine her composing them at night and on the weekends, and then stealing time at work to edit. We often spoke of stealing time, as though it were a necessary concomitant of creation. All but one of these pieces went into the new book of 15 stories and a play.

The title, Phantom Pain, refers to the haunting ache an amputee feels for a missing limb. The phrase neatly sums up Lucia’s work for me. Many of her best stories transform life’s fleetingness and loss into deeply felt—yet comedic—memories, more real than life, without coloration or emotional distortion. The haunting ache they deliver to the reader is tempered by tenderness and bemusement. Her style may appear to be offhand, an accretion of detail. It is anything but.

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A Possible Way for Tech and Artists to Work Together?: Digital Art from Depict

Yue Li's "Untitled" (2014), digital painting

Yue Li’s “Untitled” (2014), digital painting

A lot of the conversation in the Bay Area about art and tech describes an alienated, if not antagonistic relationship between the two spheres. Tech workers “displace” artists in much of the dialogue about rising rents and gentrification. Tech also threatens art by making its replicability ever easier and cheaper, and by fostering a culture of consumption that habituates people to enjoying the works of writers, artists, actors, and musicians for free.

And yet, a fruitful relationship between the two camps isn’t impossible. San Francisco startup Depict is hoping it has found a way to (in startup language) “optimize” the performance of both with its new venture: an online gallery that lets people collect digital art and display it on any desktop or mobile screen.

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E-remorse and Writers

“E-mail,” snorted Molly Young, in the New York Times last December. “A medium I associate with cowardly ex-boyfriends and offshore Viagra vendors.”

On the face of it, yes. Social media scorn the e-mail habit: a sad old grandfather, smelling of camphor and oatmeal.

But I’m still waltzing—more like, locked in a tango—with Grandpa. I depend upon e-mail, check it obsessively, prefer it over real-time, physical confrontations for the same reasons I turned to writing in the first place: leisure to think deeply (or stall for time), speak from the heart in shiniest prose, curry favor and influence—all this accomplished either as subterfuge during day jobs, or in pajamas.

I sense, too, that I’m in a big club.

A writer’s love for the form dies hard. It’s our last remnant of old-fashioned letter-writing, a ritual most of us adore. E-mail’s as malleable, swift, and cheap as air. Sometimes it lets us discover what we think. But because e-mail is also how most writing business is now conducted, we’ve no choice but to learn (and re-learn) the etiquette, the rhythms.

Whom to bury, whom to praise.

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All the Lost, Autobiographical Novels

The Haunted Life and Other WritingsYears ago, when novelist Alexander Chee couldn’t sell his first book, a literary agent told him, “The first novel you finish isn’t always the first novel you publish.” The agent was right.

Hunter S. Thompson, for example, wrote his first novel, the autobiographical story of a boozy Kentucky boy in the city titled Prince Jellyfish, in his early twenties. After numerous literary agents declined it, Thompson shelved the manuscript and finished a second novel called The Rum Diary, which Simon & Schuster released in 1998, nearly four decades after he had completed it. And just last month, De Capo Press published Jack Kerouac’s lost, semi-autobiographical novella The Haunted Life, seventy years after Kerouac wrote it. It isn’t the Beat author’s first novel. That title goes to The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel, penned in 1942. Nor is The Haunted Life Kerouac’s only “lost” novel; both it and The Sea Is My Brother took seven decades to reach print. The troubled twenty-two-year-old supposedly left the manuscript of The Haunted Life in a New York cab. But the novella surfaced in his friend Allen Ginsberg’s Columbia University dorm room closet, and much later in 2002, it sold at Sotheby’s for $95,600.

*

It might be true that the first novel you write isn’t the first novel you publish, but like many writers sitting on a finished manuscript, I used to want to publish mine anyway. It isn’t simply the first novel I’ve written. It’s the only novel I’ve written, possibly the only one I ever will write.

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Reading Music

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is one of the great examples of program music, which means notes, not words, are the storytellers. The story here is a lurid one of opium induced reveries and unrequited love that descends into murder, execution, and hell. I heard it for the first time in junior high school, back when music appreciation was considered a part of a public school’s core curriculum and stories of opium and sin didn’t trigger over-protective hysteria in the PTA. The work became the first piece of classical music I could recognize, despite the fact that music of all kinds (but not Symphonie Fantastique) was ubiquitous in my house growing up. I haven’t heard the work since my son studied it at his own school over ten years ago, nor did I listen to it very much in the many years prior. Still, I can easily hum the piece’s major theme—its idée fixe—recall its unusual instrumentation, and tell the story.

I’ll never know if the music, without the narrative, would have been as compelling. Having heard the tale and been shown in the score where certain events are “told,” I cannot separate the music of Symphonie Fantastique from images of the warped waltz, the walk to the scaffold, or the Witch’s Sabbath. When you attach words to music it is magnified in the same ways pictures enrich words. But I’ve often read books where my image of a main character doesn’t match the one the graphic designer decided to put on the cover. Can branding a piece of music with a story be equally limiting?

Abstract music does not tell a story but that doesn’t mean it can’t contribute toward an inner narrative. As a former flutist, playing was an alternative form for me of speaking a feeling or relating a sensation. When I was in college, I played in the orchestra that accompanied a performance of Bach’s great choral work, his St. Matthew Passion. The work includes a beautiful duet between flute and the alto soloist. We were performing in a gothic cathedral whose gloominess had settled over me like a shroud. The vocalist was my voice teacher who had no fondness for me nor I for her. Yet by the end of the duet, I had become the music and, in becoming the music, had no defense against anything that might harm me. Music leaves me vulnerable.

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The Outlaw Barney Rosset

Because my brother Howie and I collected comics as poor kids in the Bronx, hoping to score a prized first edition of, say, Avengers #4 (which heralded the return appearance of Captain America) or Amazing Fantasy #15 (containing the origin of Spiderman) we haunted the sleazy second hand bookstores around the Bronx of the 1960s, dark moldy storefronts stacked with boxes full of lurid paperbacks and stag mags.

In such a shop, I found a wooden grapefruits crate containing back issues of a magazine called Evergreen Review, edited and published by one Barney Rosset.

Fred Jordan, the other name prominently displayed on the magazine’s masthead, bore the intimidating title of Managing Editor. The small print somewhere described the review as an offshoot arm of a publishing house: Grove Press.

I bought a pile of Evergreens for a dime apiece, hauled them home in a shopping bag and stretching out on the cot that served as my bed poured over the black and white pages, little understanding what I read, mostly impressed by  the authors’ exotic high-sounding names—Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, William S. Burroughs, Vladamir Nabokov.

I aspired to write and  would have given at least one eye, possibly an arm, to appear in the pages of such a periodical. But, published in Manhattan, the distance between the offices of Evergreen/Grove Press/Barney Rosset and my Last Exit to Bronx neighborhood was like that between Cape Canaveral and Venus.

Nevertheless, decades later, and despite enough misadventures to fill the pages of several books (which in time they would), somehow I found myself sitting as an invited guest in the Fourth Avenue walk-up loft of the very same Barney Rosset (and his lovely wife, Astrid) whose magazine I had held in my hands as a child.

The journey to the Rossets has been one fraught with improbabilities. My anthology, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, had just appeared, containing a poem from Barney, as well as his picture. And just days before, Fred Jordan—the very same whose name had appeared as Managing Editor of Evergreen Review (and now, decades later, head of his own house, Fromm International, an imprint distributed by FSG) had acquired my memoir Jew Boy for hardcover release, which Barney later published in paperback on his Foxrock imprint.

I had by these and other weirdly karmic routes, arrived on Barney’s sofa, and now sat directly across from the famed publisher.

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San Francisco Opens a Walk-In Human Cloning Agency

For millennia people have struggled to craft the human form in materials from clay to silicone. But while there have been some popular hits such as Michelangelo’s David, nothing in the world’s museums shows the subtlety to be seen in the living body. In our scientifically advanced society, the optimal way to create a portrait is to clone the human subject.

Conventional genetic cloning is technically problematic, but only because cloners apply antiquated genetic concepts. Recently biologists have learned that the genes you inherit don’t determine who you become. What matters is which genes are expressed, and gene expression depends on your environment. Epigenetics takes into account environmental factors from diet to pollutants. By evaluating these factors and replicating them, I’m pioneering the field of epigenetic human cloning.

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