Erzsebet Foldi

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For the 2100, June 27th, 2013

Secret Hero discovered at a young age she could make her little lavender plastic record player play just by wanting it enough. “Everything is nothing if you got no one,” she heard it play and then it stopped. Secret Hero was frightened when this happened the first time.

She decided to want it again. Long silence. Long staring. Then the record player gave a slow demon mumble, then, “You came walking in,” slow mumble, then “the real thing.” And so on.

“Oh my God,” she said. She looked down out of her window at the other kids playing across the street. It was hard to get them to do anything by wanting and this relationship with a lavender record player was so much more rewarding. The distance away from the kids felt good. The cold wood of windowpane felt good, far better than human play. She crouched in the corner so no other kid would see her and kept wanting music, wanting it and wanting it over and over until she played full records this way.

Secret Hero as an adult DJed in a lot of clubs, including a singles dance club called Guys and Dollys owned by a sentient teddy bear named Struggles. He told Secret Hero he built the club for her, but he was always saying ridiculous things like that to make her laugh.

“This club was here long before I met you,” she told him.

“I willed it into existence because I knew you needed the perfect place.”

At least it had her beloved elevated DJ booth to keep her above the terrible dancing people and their sweating hairy human bodies. She could stand back in most shadow like the entity the music turned her into.

But then Struggles did his dumb dances and made her laugh, invited her onto the floor to dance as well. She would never ever come, but Struggles might be the only one to make that happen.. Their whole friendship was this laughing denial.

Then one day while Secret Hero played her set, she saw Struggles came in with his three hulking bodyguards in fuzzy coats the deepbruisepurple of pimps. Those bodyguards were in truth all fuzzycoat and muscle from top to bottom. They had no necks or faces or any other sign of humanity but stood a head and a half taller than all other patrons. Sometimes seeing the fuzzy pimp coat heads was the only way Secret Hero knew Struggles was in the building. He was so small he drowned in the ocean of dancing people. She wondered if he started those wacky dance circles only so people could finally see him and he could be in the center. Or maybe it was only so Secret Hero could see him. One bodyguard pointed to Secret Hero, and then he pointed menacingly to the loft behind her. Struggles had never been mad at her in all the years she’d known him, but this seemed like angry pointing.

She extended her set as long as she could reasonably get away with. The uncertainty of what an angry Struggles would be made Secret Hero want to delay the experience, but soon her time ran out.

The glassed loft behind the DJ booth, built to be her lone retreat, was set up like a second bar. They sometimes used it for private parties, even a little elevated turntable for her to play, plush couches all around, now creepy in its emptiness in contrast to the crowded club. Struggles sat in a booster seat at a small table and lifted his whiskey glass with both of his tiny teddy bear paws. Since his insides were only plush, this made him wet and stinky. The khaki colored fur of his chest, dark and whiskymatted, could’ve lit on fire easily if Struggles decided to pretend to smoke. He was made of more burnable stuff than humans. “Secret Hero, come in and sit,” he said. “Want some whiskey?”

“I don’t drink.”

“I know, but boys can dream,” he said with the random creepiness of someone who imitates humanity.

“You’re not a boy.”

“Indeed.”

Struggles tapped his fuzzy paw against the table, a nervous tic or a method a tougher guy might use to make a menacing sound in the silence, but the table patting did nothing. “So…been busy lately? Still DJ down at the Mouse Factory after hours?”

“What’s this about, Struggles?”

“You think this is about something? Does it have to be about something?”

“You took me off the stand. I’m guessing it’s not to chat.”

“We used to chat. We used to have long chats. Is it so unusual I’d want one now?”

“…Yes.”

“Fine. It’s about the tapes. I sent you tape after tape after tape, and you didn’t respond.”

“And you don’t know why?”

“Of course I don’t know why.”

“Seriously?”

“Should I?”

“You wanted me to do music for your rap career…”

“Is it so wrong to want a rap career?”

“But you called yourself St. Rapes.”

“You see, it’s like Saint Rapes and Street Rapes and Strapes, like strafes and stripes. Because I strafe over other rappers. Also, I like stripes, and I can wear stripes in my performances.”

“Yeah, but on the tapes you say stuff like ‘St. Rapes raping across the countryside.’”

“So you listened to the tapes? That’s wonderful.”

“You’re missing my point.”

“You don’t like my word play?”

“No, I don’t think rape is funny.”

“Why didn’t you go by Struggles? That’s a fine rap name.”

“Struggles is my given name. That’s awfully hypocritical of you quote unquote Secret Hero quote unquote. Nobody knows your given name.”

“It’s Erzsebet Foldi.”

“Oh…I didn’t know that.”

“You never asked.”

“Oh. I thought I knew you a long time.”

“No problem. Not a lot of people care to.”

“I don’t think you know how personae work in performance. As St. Rapes, I’m a douche. I’m arrogant and stupid because that’s hilarious. Rape is wrong, sure, whatever, but in my St. Rapes persona, I don’t know that. I act like I think it’s cool. That equals hilariousness.”

“I really can’t be friends with you if you think that’s true.”

Silence.

“Oh…I didn’t realize…it was like that.” He was trembling. He liked to pretend he was drunk when he drank, but this was involuntary. “That’s not a big deal. I…I make friends so easily, I can hardly keep them all straight. I sometimes even forget we’re friends. My best friends are these three guys. They’re Cuddle Monsters. They’re only golems you buy at the store. But inanimate objects only come to life if you give them love so they must love me, right?”

“I don’t think it works that way.”

“Me and the Cuddle Monsters, we have long conversations you wouldn’t believe.”

“Cuddle Monsters have no faces and no mouths and ears.”

“I didn’t say it was two sided.”

Silence.

“Look, I’ll do the music for you if you do one thing for me.” She pulled a book out of her satchel and handed it to Struggles. “It’s called Teaching Men Not to Rape.” Struggles had difficulty holding it in his little paws. He said, “Condescending title. Like all men rape and need to be taught not to.”

“We use it at the crisis center.”

“Why? For you to feel superior?”

“Write a song based on these ideas, and I’ll help you make the music.”

“That would turn St. Rapes into the wrong kind of asshole.” Secret Hero stared at him with the sort of cold severity she hoped one day could cause legitimate combustion. Struggles, in a weird sort of terror, said, “That’s…okay, I’ll do it.”

Secret Hero knew he would. She wanted to say, “After that, climb on the roof and jump off. After that, climb in a blender, push on.” He’d do it. She only wanted him to do this because it would be the most satisfying way to humiliate him.

Like the idiot he was, Struggles opened the door separating the loft and the club and shouted above the music: “Party in the Champaign room! My bff is still my friend!”

He put a record on the player in the smaller room that competed psychotically with the music in the bigger room: “Baby when I met you I found a peace unknown, I set out to get you with a fine tooth comb.”

The whole room, she suddenly realized, was amazingly the same lavender as her childhood record player.

“Stick around,” Struggles said. “We can hash out the song details and our practice schedules and all that.”

She did stick around, but she sat in a booth alone as Struggles danced with a hundred people he essentially paid to like him, nearly as humiliating as the blender image. Struggles tossed money and pretended to be drunk because he so needed others to think this meant something.

The afterparty lasted so long only sleeping people remained on couches and Struggles alone dancing with Cuddle Monsters. Secret Hero in the same spot all night found herself slipping into sleep when music got slow and quiet and dancing got repetitive.

She woke up when she felt Struggles humping her leg. She kicked him across the room.

“I’m drunk,” he mumbled in his heap.

Secret Hero stood and walked away without saying anything.

Struggles shouted after her: “Just gonna leave like that? You know what your problem is?” She stopped and waited to hear what her problem was. She didn’t know sometimes. But he had nothing. He staggered in his pretend. Or maybe she’d just kicked him that hard.

“Well?”

“No, seriously, you know what your problem is? You’re frightened. Too scared to be you. That’s why I’m your only friend. Because I can’t hurt you, and you’re too afraid of hurt to have any other type of friend. I’m just somebody you can stomp on and he keeps coming back for more stomping. You have to think you’re better than me to feel okay at all. When you squeeze all the evil joy out of me you can get, you drop me like a dry husk, some lonely pathetic shit you used to know. The problem is you’ll always be afraid and you’ll always think you’re too good for me or anyone like me and you’ll never feel. And you’ll never love because assholes who only care about their own fears can never know how to love!”

“Are you done?”

“I think so.”

“You can keep the book. I hope you read it.” She left. She didn’t come back to that club.

She thought about Struggles every once in a while only to laugh. He called every day for the first week, but then he stopped and never called again.

She liked to ride the elevator to the top of the tallest building in the city at a height where the sky looked lavender, stand back in the concrete corner of the observation booth, feel all the cold of it. In this way, Secret Hero was able to make things okay, at least in that moment.

The Good Thing

Unicorn blue red yellow and orange

Brian Panowich got the hero bonus at his station in a slow year for fire danger and bought his soon-to-be fiancée a unicorn. Joanna Levesque had told him long elaborate stories of her own father’s abandonment (“he used to come home bloody knuckled, but I never knew what he did for a living, but he took us on these RV trips up in the mountains until one day the RV was gone and everything he had was gone like some magic act,” and so on, and she’d always be crying at this point). She told him all about the unicorn-and-dollhouse set that stood in metonymically for the dirt bag abandoner (“The only thing he left behind was this empty ‘Usury-the-Ware’ brand dollhouse, a one of kind, and a single unicorn, but I made these paper knights to ride in on the unicorn to fulfill the destiny of the imaginary no one inside the dollhouse. We lost them all later in the fire,” and so on).

So Brian knew the only acceptable proposal was to ride a unicorn. In fact, she directly ordered it. “The guys down at the station would rag me no end if I did something like that,” he told her as a way to teasingly keep that future from existing.

But he was raised to always do the good thing, and that meant making loved ones happy over all else. If he couldn’t bring himself to do this unmanly unicorn riding today, he could keep delaying as long as possible.

But then he noticed a unicorn farm near the station, and a unicorn cost exactly as much as the hero bonus. It seemed like destiny did the deciding for him

Brian hired a Peter Cetera impersonator to sing “Glory of Love” (their song) while he rode into the scene (Joanna surely assuming the Peter Cetera impersonator was the extent of Brian’s romantic gesture) dressed in his rented knight costume on his unicorn (whom he named “The Good Thing” under racehorse naming principles). Her shockface in seeing this whole set up, real unicorn included, would soon double in intensity when he knelt down and pulled out the ring – and double again when he told her they owned the unicorn. He unfolded the paper with his proposal but still fumbled (he had never been so nervous): “You are vibrant, transcendent, and astonishing. I can’t wait to embark on this journey together,” and so on.

But Joanna’s face was not the sort of shockface he hoped for.

Then he realized she was looking behind him at the unicorn. Brian turned around and saw blood dripping from the Good Thing’s mouth. The Peter Cetera impersonator had no head and stumbled this way and that, spurting blood out of the gaping hole where his head used to be until he fell and filled a red puddle at the unicorn’s feet. The Good Thing kept chewing dispassionately like he hadn’t just bitten a dude’s head off.

Joanna said, “I don’t know how I should feel about this.”

After the Peter Cetera impersonator tragedy, Brian and Joanna didn’t see each other a long time. Brian considered staging some new elaborate proposal as an apology, but a girl who’d break it off because he bought her a unicorn who just happened to bite a guy’s head off – who could’ve seen that coming? – maybe she wasn’t a good girl. But then there was the matter of how to care for the beheading monster (whom he now only called the Thing because he could no longer bring himself to call it the Good Thing). He kept it leashed outside of his trailer in the yellowing hay field, but it refused to eat the sparkle daisies all the farm supply stores sell as unicorn feed, and Brian couldn’t let it starve to death.

“What’s your deal? Do you only eat human flesh?” Brian said because he was very lonely and had to say all his thoughts out loud these days.

The unicorn didn’t answer and only stared at him like it could never die.

He spent nights on the phone to the most horrible places trying to get deliveries of human flesh. “I’m a good guy,” he kept saying over and over to people who couldn’t care less.

“You want to hear a crazy thing,” Joanna said to him one day over the phone. “That Peter Cetera impersonator, you know the one who got his head bit off by the unicorn, he was kind of a murderer. He was a serial killer, actually, called Ondcain hiding out in a stupidly elaborate way. Your unicorn must’ve known that because of the magic of purity…or something. Isn’t that amazing?”

Brian realized the Good Thing wasn’t an evil monster after all (despite the pounds and pounds of human flesh Brian fed it on a daily basis) and Joanna, who had watched a unicorn bite a man’s head off, only needed time to shake off the awfulness of the vision. Maybe Brian was the bad one for thinking anything other than this. He had to make things right with a new proposal.

Brian bought that dollhouse Joanna called one-of-a-kind, the Usury-the-Ware brand, and he knew enough bad people now he could find any rare thing he wanted. He held his hands over her eyes and led her to the room where he had the dollhouse wrapped in a bow and the tiny knights riding unicorns all set up.

But when he said “Surprise!” they both saw the room covered in headless neighborhood songbirds and the dollhouse smeared with blood in a place that might be the mouth if dollhouses had faces. One thing was for certain: the dollhouse had become some evil predatory creature and decapitated a hundred songbirds. Of course.

Brian said, “You gotta be kidding me.”

Joanna said “Is it bad that I’m super into this?”

Postal Automations :oR: The Blood Has Stopped Pumping

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“As you may know, the Red Queen Corporation, when it bought the U.S. Postal Service, decreed all of you would be replaced by robots.” Maury Holliday, the postal supervisor, had given a similar sort of speech for a million mornings (it seemed) with dispassionate tones he hoped sound professional and authoritative and stone-like in its superior power, but certainly his subordinates must have seen it as the pure broken sucked dry dispassion it actually was. All the postal faces he spoke to were so drawn down by gravity, so prone to die at any moment, how could he put any passion into any of this variety of speechifying? “We’ve known for a long time you’d be integral in training the robots who’d replace you. However, news has come down the pipeline that, considering the expense of programming robots, the Red Queen Corporation has outsourced the development to mad scientists who work on the cheap with the agreement that their robots may also be used one day to take over the world. That being said, as you train your robot replacements, please, and this is vital: don’t let them take over the world.”

“Is it likely they’ll stage some bid for world domination from the post office?” said one of the workers whose name Maury couldn’t recall and didn’t really care to recall.

“It’s part of the contract that they can, if they choose to, conduct world conquering business elsewhere as long as that does not interfere with mail delivery. However, I have to remind you that these are not regular scientists programming these robots. These are mad scientists. Ergo, therefore, keep an eye out, people, see something, say something, and so on. Insanity is not the topmost psychological state we’d wish for for postal efficiency, but it’s our job as representatives of the postal service to be stalwarts of sanity.”

Silence. As usual.

The Red Queen Corporation sent three robots:

  • The Bloodmonger Porcu-Bot Mark 19 (or “Mark” for short) was a robot who ran on blood he sucked from victims with porcupine-like needles all over his body, scored like drill bits spinning, so his body seemed to be covered in tiny spirals (likewise, the mad scientist decorated his face, chest, and shoulders with blood-red spirals). The postal workers had to give him a daily break to hunt down and suck dry park squirrels to keep him from degenerating into lethargy (on both the physical and psychological level). They had to often stop him from stabbing the hands of stamp buyers (who screamed and ran and left their stamps behind), so often they had a broomstick behind the counter designed only for smacking Mark’s spikes and hands away.
  • doG the Soulless, who looked a lot like a dressing dummy the size of a teenager, was supposedly traveling backward through time for the sake of historical assassinations, but he seemed to spend most of his time holding his mechanical belly and moaning, “I want a baby” with his pathetic and crazy head hanging to the side. He’d scare off stamp buyers for entirely different reasons than Mark’s blood sucking. A customer might say, “One book of stamps, please,” and doG would reply, “I want a baby,” and the customer would be stuck, uncertain how to proceed, looking backward to flee, wanting to stay to help the pathetic little bastard. The customer might then say, “I’m going elsewhere for my stamps now. Good luck with your life.”
  •   Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein, a creature who seemed created by a child aiming to one up every past version of Frankenstein and all other automata by combining every version into one gratuitous creature – the embodiment of gratuitousness. He had the clichéd massive green monster body at base but covered in (apparently non-functional) gadgets and laser cannons and spiky silver armor that made walking through the too-small post office doors extra awkward. Plus there were the pockets, lots and lots of pockets. The pockets didn’t seem to hold anything or function in any way. It’s as if the child-like creator got the concept that robots needed pockets for some reason and decided the best robot must have a thousand useless pockets. Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein, for his part, seemed desperate to be loved, as desperate as his creator was to make him seem badass. “I’m so glad to be here, you guys,” he said, touching postal workers on the shoulders way, way too much. “I think this is going to be some fun times. I don’t want to speak too soon, but I think we’re all going to be really good friends. Am I right?” The postal workers looked at him with their dying faces and didn’t bother to respond. He talked a lot about his dreams as if to emphasize he was as human as everybody else, not realizing no human ever likes to hear about other people’s dreams. “I had this dream I was a giant black dog with a Lincoln zombie hanging from my face,” a childish concept of what dreams are like if the child never actually had one himself. “That’s weird, right? Or normal? Maybe?” The most unpleasant thing about Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein was the way he gave his flesh bits over to the Mark the Bloodmonger in a tacit agreement to give him love in return for blood, a love he seemed incapable of giving. Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein had to keep replacing his dry-sucked pieces of flesh. This would seem pathetic except he insisted on talking about it so much: “You guys ever have to replace your flesh pieces? That’s normal, right?”

There is no force on earth quite like postal workers who no longer give a crap, but in this case, the postal workers only had to stand back and do very little and laugh with a joy they’d rarely ever known as the Red Queen Corporation’s plan to automate away the humanity in postal service obliterated itself with such glory and majesty.

There was one postal worker who took no joy in this failure: Maury Holliday. He would be the sole human remaining in this post office had this plan succeeded. He looked on at all his workers laughing at these horrible robots in silence, but he couldn’t punish anybody. What good would that do? What could he possibly hold over their rock bottom existences to force them to stop laughing? But he couldn’t laugh along with them.

Take, for example, Mark the Bloodmonger: workers slapping his hand down from the counter soon became pointless when customers stopped coming all together, but the workers kept doing it, smacking him around with broken broomsticks and laughing.

Then one day when closing by himself, Maury saw Mark’s mad scientist creator (Dr. Hydraulic Pastor, a man seemingly made out of prosthetic limbs, his maybe-missing nose and mouth obscured by a gas mask) pull up in a ratty sedan (tricked out in stupid ways) to take Mark home. “Why are your hands always busted up?” he said. “What do you do all day?” Mark gave a servo-buzzing shrug (most of his arm mechanisms were loudly malfunctioning). “Get in the car! Don’t stand out here embarrassing me one minute longer!”

Then one day Mark was too slow getting in Dr. Pastor’s car, so his maker kicked him against the wall and drove off. Some of his blood vials broke, and he slumped onto the ground in a puddle of blood (kindly given to him earlier that day by Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein).

Maury walked up and said, “Hey, pal, you need somewhere to stay tonight?” Mark looked up, the blood-red spiral decoration on his face like a baffled eye, the neck turning mechanisms loudly pulling against his malfunctioning shoulder sinews. “Come on, let’s go,” Maury said and pulled him to his feet, careful not to prick his finger on the needles or get the stupid leaking blood from the broken vials on his postal uniform.

They sat together at the kitchen table, and Maury ate in silence as Mark slumped lower into failure (Maury knew the slumping well). “I don’t know how to fix you, pal. You sit there as long as you like.” That was the last thing he said that night. He let Mark sit and buzz alone and went to bed.

Maury’s home was empty. He never lived with anyone else. His whole life was the post office. He hated the post office.

Soon, the Red Queen Corporation called it quits on this robot program. Humans may keep running the postal service apocalyptically, caring less and less, until the whole thing spiraled down to nothing, and their human bodies gave way to death.

Maury took in all three of the robots on the agreement that Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein would never say anything, so he held his hand over his mouth and wiggled like a kid who needed potty. Meanwhile, doG, slumped always the same sort of slump as the servo-busted Mark the Bloodmonger, but holding his belly and moaning about his baby needs. This was at least a little more tolerable than Ultra-Mecha-Frankenstein.

Even in forced silence, it was nice to have these three bodies in his home. Maybe this was the better life he always needed to block out the bland awfulness of postal work, bodies of any kind, even barely living bodies.

But he was so old, and there was so little left of anything.

The Ear-Body Problem: The Failures of Cory Doctorow’s “In Real Life” Exemplify Common Storytelling Delusions and Fallacies.

 

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Reading the comic “In Real Life” by Cory Doctorow and “Anda’s Game,” the story on which the comic is based, I’m reminded constantly of the Fallacy of Composition – the misconception that something true for one part is true for the whole – on multiple levels, from the plot which seems to apply the Fallacy of Composition to real world problems to the clichéd story which follows beat by beat the clichés within a genre I call the Workshopped Story. I make no claims here that Doctorow legitimately came from the workshopping system, but this story so thoroughly exemplifies the clichés of stories born from that system, the connection is irresistible.

Doctorow actually evokes the Fallacy of Composition directly elsewhere when explaining how science fiction diagnoses social problems (whether or not that’s a valid claim about science fiction is an argument for another day, but to narrowly isolate the function of science fiction to this highly cerebral, emotionally-stripped endpoint valuation hints at many of the other problems with “In Real Life”). In presentations with his partner in creating the “In Real Life” comic, the artist Jen Wang (and I’m not heaping any blame here on Wang, despite her role in essentially co-writing the comic, because she compensates for story failures with lovely art), Doctorow says an ear doctor can look in a patient’s ear and understand, based on this limited information, a lot of facts about the body as a whole. His point is that the sci-fi writer, in the diagnosis business, need not explore the whole society if one piece of technology is a sufficient metonymy, but the Fallacy of Composition comes in when assuming every other part of the body works the same way as the ear, to use ear ache medicine to treat migraines, for example.

This Ear-Body Problem is intrinsic to the workshopping system. If something works well with Hemingway, it must work well with all kinds of writing everywhere else on the much more complicated spectrum. If something doesn’t work within the Hemmingway model, it must be a malignant anomalous growth to be excised, like a bodiless ear that suddenly grows an eyeball and the doctor trained in ears-are-the-only-body-parts philosophy interprets this eyeball as a cancerous tumor. More relevant in the creation of the Workshopped Story genre are the three cliché pillars: “write what you know,” “find your voice,” and “show, don’t tell.” These are not problems in and of themselves, just as a body still needs an ear, but the problem that leads to cliché, boring, lifeless, ugly, lazy stories within this genre is assuming that these clichés are all there is to storytelling.

Keep in mind, to avoid the Fallacy of Composition myself, I intend this as an object lesson for some intrinsic misconceptions about storytelling and not as a critique of “In Real Life”/“Anda’s Game” necessarily, so to say, “‘In Real Life’ is a boring panoply of clichés that undermines its aesthetic value in at least three different ways, not least of which is sentiment drowning in didacticism,” etc., and you could disagree with me, and that would be fine. We’d both be right. Maybe the Workshopped Story genre is your favorite. To assume everyone feels the same way I do about a story would be wrong and hypocritically undermine my point.

However, the story is stunningly infused with Fallacy of Composition on nearly every level. The whole plot of the story is based on this fallacy. What works in Arizona must work in China as well (the settings are different in the comic and the short story, so I’ll use the settings of the comic for simplicity’s sake and because “In Real Life” is an offensive title, but in reference prose ugliness, I’m talking just about the story). Here’s the Fallacy of Composition as plot (spoilers): Anda encounters exploited Chinese workers while inside of this virtual world, she assumes the same sort of strike that works in Arizona will work in China, it doesn’t work, and she learns lessons about making assumptions – except in the end what works in Arizona actually does work in China, everything ends happily despite her presumptiveness, and the Fallacy of Composition is apparently the mechanism for worldwide salvation.

More importantly, the story seems so irresistibly demonstrative of two of the deeply flawed clichés that so thoroughly infect creative writing education – specifically “Write what you know” and “Find your voice” – its failure shows the failure of this system. (The third pillar of workshop cliché, “Show, don’t tell,” hardly seems relevant here, as Doctorow seems to ignore it needlessly.*)

The creation of art involves optimization of stimulation, and for storytelling that is optimization of empathetic stimulation. Far more important than rules of any kind, this involves recognition of various seemingly paradoxical factors pulling against each other – including the Threshold of Familiarity, situating story elements between the overly familiar and overly unfamiliar, as I will discuss momentarily. Writers determine this subjectively given recognition of these mechanisms and optimize stimulation through a complicated array of techniques. In the workshop system, this complexity somehow turns into “write what you know” and “find your voice” because these clichés have worked enough times to seem like absolute rules – the ear medicine did seem to cure the migraine. This technique substitutes factors like accuracy of voice for any other aesthetic value. I call this trick the Framing Effect. Take anything – beautiful, interesting, or otherwise (and often it’s otherwise) – and frame it in uncanny displacement of the object, action, etc., and this endows the story element with some measure of stimulation. This is a light shift into the stimulating middle ground of the Familiarity Threshold away from the too familiar end of the spectrum. It’s one of the easiest ways to trigger stimulation, so if you tell susceptible, unexperienced writers that this is such an important technique in storytelling, you will get a lot of false positives – so many false positives that it births a (boring, lazy) genre.

However, the most potent factor in making “write what you know” work is the easy way in which it triggers empathy. Triggering empathy is the core of the work of fiction writing, and the easiest way to do this is to focus on voice accuracy. If you use your own voice accurately and you are a human (a method as effortless as using the Framing Effect), empathy is an automatic result. This does not require the writer to give the character anything interesting to do an is even less likely to lead to any genuinely stimulating dangers (why submit yourself to any dangers). If you use the accurate voice of another (slightly harder), empathy is still an automatic result. Accuracy in this case is just a method, not a solitary value. It get results because it is designed that way, but that’s such a narrow sliver of the spectrum limiting what stories are.

Doctorow to his credit at least avoids the most effortless method of voice creation and accurately channels the voice of a twelve year old girl (presumably), but he undermines the potential value of his sole aesthetic stimulator monumentally in at least three ways:

1) He subordinates empathy and all other aesthetic values to politics and lesson learning. The most massive violation the story’s aesthetic is the most obvious. The deadliest storytelling tendency (if a character’s life is important) is to moralize or politicize, but politics seems more important to Cory Doctorow than storytelling anyway. I could tell him, “Your story was ugly, sloppy, and boring,” but he’d likely be more concerned about whether or not I got the message about exploitation. To make a story didactic is to remove a story to its farthest degree away from its empathic aesthetic core. It becomes a cerebral exercise, not an emotional stimulator. This tendency contradicts the barrier-destruction necessary for empathetic stimulation and instead creates a barrier of condescension since the writer presumes he is teaching us something we don’t already know. For most potent effect in the business of triggering empathy, a character should be able to live outside of the author’s overt conscious control. Overt conscious control undermines stimulation because it is offputtingly condescending and manipulative, triggering instead a resistance to manipulation. I hope most writers know this already. My purpose is to use “In Real Life” to exemplify common delusions, but I haven’t encountered many fiction writers who still believe, like Doctorow, political commentary is the primary purpose of fiction. Plenty of critics still maintain that the purpose of fiction is to teach lessons, advance political positions or communicate meaning with emotion as a secondary effect but cerebral argument and teaching us what we don’t know is the more legitimate business of the critic, so this difference in perception is understandable. In my experience, no serious fiction writers whose business is emotional stimulation would favor didacticism over emotional honesty – except Cory Doctorow apparently.

2) Every moment is a cliché. A lot of time is spent in discussions of creative writing in why so-called literature is superior to so-called genre because genre is clichéd, but why is cliché so bad? Considering the Familiarity Threshold, in order to optimize stimulation, a story element shouldn’t be too familiar (as determined by each individual writer/reader) or too unfamiliar. This is the root of the assumption that genre must be inferior to literature since the name implies genre is generic, overly familiar. However the Workshopped Story born from the “write what you know”/”find your voice” clichés – which itself was presumably born from superior so-called literature – is arguably far more generic than the sci-fi and fantasy dismissively called generic. More accurately, the generic elements in so-called genre are essentially shorthand for elements for which stimulation is unnecessary but they provide a framework for more thorough exploration of the possibilities of the imagination. Also, they function as mechanisms for interesting characters to do interesting things within an otherwise predictable framework. The new technology turning evil may be unsurprising in a sci-fi story, but the imaginative quality of the evil technology and the characters fighting it make or break the story. Fantasy characters going on a quest is unsurprising, but the quality of the characters and the imaginative originality of the creatures the heroes encounter can make or break the fantasy story. The core of a good story is human acting free of overt conscious control of the author, but this human doesn’t have to be a literal human, and these activities don’t have to be realistic activities. Some people find the lack of realistic activity and literal humanity off putting and a barrier to empathy, but that is how taste works. There is no universal superiority or inferiority implicit in that. The Workshopped Story genre comes in a smaller number of varieties than the dozens of dozens of sci-fi and fantasy stories possible – I count around three or four versions. Here is a popular standard story structure: a character within an entirely normal setting has some vague past trauma which leads to present insecurity, the character encounters something new and mildly challenging to make him or her question assumptions, conflict is purely internal and revealed through show-don’t-tell Hemmingwayish icebergs, the character has some mild epiphany leading a mild emotional change, and essentially nothing happens externally. Beat by beat, this is far more predictable than most sci-fi. Part of the problem with Cory Doctorow is that he self-defines a science fiction writer, and defines sci-fi so narrowly/poorly as predicting the present, revealing significant social problems in our world today, giving no value to what I would considered the much more important value of sci-fi: character and imagination. “In Real Life” is devoid of imagination and laid out in predictable beat-by-beat paint-by-number progression of the Workshopped Story genre. It does contain some superficial sci fi and fantasy elements: the game Anda plays seems like science fiction though it is very a common sort of game familiar to anyone of a certain age, and those unfamiliar with this type of game may score more stimulation on the familiarity spectrum. However, in the short story, the game squanders the imaginative possibilities of this sci-fi framework by just making the game a Star Wars type – monsters are even called Chewbaccas. In the comic, the game is more fantasy-based, but still devoid of imaginative elements. We get a tiger, and that’s about it – not even a very interesting-looking tiger. From a purely subjective perspective, I would have forgiven a lot about this story if the monsters had been interest. I love monsters that much. Give the tiger two heads. Give the tiger horns. Give the tiger a sweater, anything beyond the blandly normal. I’m not a gamer, but I’ve seen the monster designs in games, and they are impressively imaginative. I have difficulty accepting that any game would leave a tiger as a plain, unadorned tiger. The story seems so dedicated to the Workshopped Story genre in which realism is absolutely necessary that putting effort into imagination might have betrayed the genre, yet it still betrays realism by making the game far blander than any real game would be.

3) Doctorow undermines any sense of legitimate risk at every turn. Risk is not an absolute necessity of storytelling as long as the writer compensates for releasing the potential tension by providing some other stimulator, beautiful imagery, euphonious prose, complicated characters whose complete lack of motivation makes them interesting, anything. Just look at Samuel Beckett for great stripped of morality, risk, motivation, forward progression, change – the story teller’s standard tools for stimulation but he compensates for this void of risk with beautiful language and amazing characters. Most writers short of Beckett’s genius should understand risk as an essential tool. Risk is often mild in the Workshopped Story genre, but a well-made story need not ramp up risk to ridiculous levels. It need not be the standard mortal danger of fantasy or sci fi. Or take for example another standard story with the workshopped genre: the character dealing with a much more extreme experiences like rape, abortion, coming out of the closet. A good writer can turn much more mundane risks into high tension: losing a friend can feel life ending. But what risk does Anda face? She makes reference to mild bother of males in gaming which she solves mildly by entering the blandly named virtual world occupied only by girls – mild problem solved mildly. The problem structurally in optimizing these mild risks the massive displacement intrinsic in the virtual reality gimmick. There is a lot of mortal danger and killing with in the game, but this is never elevated to legitimate sense of risk. This sort of virtual world second tier removal can still work quite well. I happened to read this at the same time I was watching Sword Art Online which is so much better at stimulating despite being set in a virtual world, “In Real Life” might have seemed unfairly lazy in contrast, but Doctorow even strips the risk from the story elements he clearly cares more about: the plight of the gold famers in China. Anda befriends a gold famer in the game, she feels bad for him, but what does she ever risk? She barely knows Raymond, and we barely know Raymond. Furthermore, Raymond’s problem is that his job sucks, he works too long, and he can’t get insurance for his back pain. That’s unfortunate, exploitation is wrong no doubt, but beyond that, so what? Not to sound heartless but based purely on what Doctorow gives us, waitresses I’ve known in the U.S. have it just as bad. This is not to say that real Chinese workers have a better life than American waitresses, but Doctorow’s workers hardly seem to have a worse life. Doctorow failed to convince me otherwise. If he only cares about political awareness and not about storytelling, his storytelling weakness has failed him on both fronts. Anda then hears about her father striking which seems in the story portrays a risk free political action. Anda then decides she should condescendingly inform Raymond that unionizing is a thing. She does some light research, convinces him to organize and make demands of his bosses, and he gets fired. Finally, we get risk. This poor guy we barely knew at least had a job, but now he has no job and medical problems. Anda, despite not really knowing this guy, ruins his life through her condescending presumptions. Finally, Doctorow seems like he knows how stories work. But then in the biggest are-you-kidding-me moment for me, the other workers unionize in Raymond’s honor, and we’re left assuming Anda’s twelve-year old wisdom has saved them. Raymond gets a new job elsewhere, so happiness for everyone. Even giving Doctorow the benefit of the doubt, if this is what happens when a writer values lesson-learning over all other values, perhaps there is some legitimate value in the lesson, perhaps a moral we cause to tell us what we ought to do and ought not to do, but what is that lesson? What is that moral? Twelve year olds really can teach Chinese people how to better their lives by unionizing? If you ruin someone’s life when he buys into your condescension, don’t worry, he’ll be fine? Even by the standards of didacticism and realism, this is a failure.

This story reminds me so much of the stereotypes of millennials who have been so sheltered from danger they have a warped any sense of what danger means, but at the same time they have access to all the information in the world, and this has caused a swelling of know-it-all tendencies coupled with the moral righteousness devoid of the wisdom that comes with legitimate risk. No wonder a bland Workshopped Story genre is so popular with this generation. I pray this is only a stereotype since stereotyping is another species of the Fallacy of Composition, so let’s just get of the Fallacy of Composition entirely. I pray instead that storytelling in the future is born from the more substantial value of pure irrational empathy.

*I fear Doctorow demonstrates why creative writing educators should teach students “Show, don’t tell.” In my own writing, I recognize “Show, don’t tell” and choose to ignore it because it is not a universal rule, but ignoring it should be worth a beautiful sentence or practical story advancement in the end. As the extraordinarily sloppy following line demonstrates, editors/writing teachers seemingly neglected to drill in “Show, don’t tell” (or the problems with passive voice and verbs in participle form and so many other issues): “The kids in the sweatshops were being exploited by grownups, too. It was why their situation was so impossible: the adults who were supposed to be taking care of them were exploiting them.” I certainly don’t think “Show, don’t tell” should be an absolute rule, but there is value for beginning writers to understand how this works, perhaps at least recognition that statement of obvious abstractions is both condescending and devoid of beauty.

Boodlepax vs the Robot Conveniences (comic book rough draft)

Boodlepax vs the Robot Conveniences 8

Here is a rough draft of a comic book I wrote for #30DaysofSummerStories. Since this is the official part 20 of the 30/day 20 of 30, I’m obliged by rules (entirely imposed by myself) to share it. So please enjoy.

Boodlepax vs the Robot Conveniences

ONE

Panel 1 (full page): Boodlepax (a tiny, monstrous creature who looks like a horned barn own with big, wide, sympathetic, frightened, monstrously scaled eyes; no mouth; arms that seemed made a dozen connected squeaky balls with tiny, barely functional claws at the tip of each) stands at the bottom center as if posing for a school photo. To his left/our right is a full body picture of a disinterested, handsome dude present only to demonstrate that Boodlepax is only shin high.

Caption 1:                   Boodlepax was born a Living Nightmare. His favorite dreaming boy abandoned him long ago which made him very sad. He has worked most of his adult life as a Hell Torturer. Hell liked to employ needy monsters of any type. Stereotyping didn’t bother Hell. But Boodlepax loved humanity and never wished any harm on anyone. He was mostly very kind and wanted to uplift humanity. He decided to be a super hero. He was very tiny compared to humans and had no powers. The right mix of guilt and good intentions can turn anyone into a super hero.

Caption 2 (with an arrow): Actual size of Boodlepax compared to normals.

TWO

Panel 1: Boodlepax in his school picture pose but now with a cape.

Caption 1:                   Boodlepax started with a cape. He presented himself to the world as if the cape’s presence alone would draw superhoic necessities to him. Nobody noticed. Nothing much happened. He needed a villain.

Panel 2: Boodlepax surrounded by the Robots Conveniences (standard robots of any type).

Caption 2:                   He noticed a lot of humanity purchasing Robot Conveniences at the Robot Store which seemed to be enslaving their will and attention. He decided to destroy the Robot Conveniences.

Panel 3: Boodlepax holding a giant wrench and facing a single robot.

Panel 4: Boodlepax in the aftermath of having hit a Robot Convenience to no effect except the vibrating wrench causing Boodlepax to vibrate comically.

THREE

Panel 1: Boodlepax staring at the robot with a sword lodged in it (implying Boodlepax was responsible for the stabbing).

Panel 2: The same set up except the robot now has a second sword lodged in it.

Panel 3: Boodlepax holds a .45.

Panel 4: We see the aftermath of Boodlepax having fired the .45 to no effect except the trails of Boodlepax comically flying backwards from the gun’s force.

FOUR

Panel 1: Boodlepax in his school picture pose next to a giant blue rabbit. Proportions indicate that the rabbit is much, much bigger than a human being.

Caption 1:                   Boodlepax decided to employ a junior sidekick, a giant nautical rabbit called Ingypoo. His history as Living Nightmare and Hell Torturer meant he knew a lot of interesting monsters.

Ingypoo:                      I am a super hero! You shall call me Tuba Toothpaste! Tremble before me! O ye lowly masses!

Boodlepax:                  Please stop. Just follow my lead.

Caption 2: Ingypoo struggled to understand humanity and human languages. Boodlepax wanted to tell him that Tuba Toothpaste was a terrible super hero name. Just call yourself Ingypoo. Be yourself and the world would love you. These are lessons he would one day teach everyone.

FIVE

Panel 1 (full page): Boodlepax and Ingypoo standing before a street full of humans with their Robot Conveniences.

Boodlepax:                  Just beat up all these robots for me.

Ingypoo:                      Will do, boss.

SIX

Panel 1: (full page): Boodlepax and Ingypoo in the same positions, but now the whole page is red, implying Ingypoo has painted the world red in obliterating the bodies of all the present humans.

Caption 1:                   Ingypoo had a bit too much enthusiasm for super hero work and no compunction against blowing human bodies to bits and pieces.

Ingypoo:                      Everybody’s dead, boss. What next?

Boodlepax:                  Oh. Well. That’s not good. How bout we stop being superheroes now.

SEVEN

Panel 1: Boodlepax sitting on his bed staring into the distance.

Caption 1:                   A few days later.

Panel 2: The same shot of Boodlepax. Ingypoo now appears to his left/our right.

Ingypoo:                      Hey there, guy.

Panel 3: The same shot.

Ingypoo:                      So guess what I found out. Remember how I killed a ton of people the other day? Turns out those robots they bought were suicide robots. It’s this scam so they can kill themselves and still get insurance money. So I did all kindsa good for the world. Like a super hero. Right?

EIGHT

Panel 1: Same shot.

Ingypoo:                      Okay. Bye. Buddy. Partner. Boss. Call me? Yes? No? Okay, seriously, bye now.

Panel 2: Boodlepax, alone again.

Panel 3: Same shot as Panel 1, Ingypoo present again.

Ingypoo:                      Did I forget to mention I can bring people back to life? I’m, like, very magical. I’m talking insanely magical. All those people I killed, I can totally bring them back to life if you’d like. Just let me know. Yes? No? I’ll take your silence as a yes. Boom. Done.

NINE

Panel 1-9: Various slaughtered and rabbit-exploded humans pulling together, waking, coming back to life, etc.

TEN

Panel 1: A crate labeled “Robot Conveniences: Suicide Model. Return. Damaged.”

Panel 2: A wider shot of a human standing next to this crate.

Panel 3: The same human, head bowed, hands in pockets, walking along past disinterested crowds.

ELEVEN

Panel 1 (full page): The same human staring at a sunset.

TWELVE

Panel 1: The same as panel 3 from page TEN, anonymous human walking alone in a crowd, head bowed.

Panel 2: The same human stands before Boodlepax on the crowded street. They stare at each other a moment.

Panel 3: Boodlepax walking in the crowd the opposite direction, mirroring the anonymous human but traveling to the left of the panel. He is now alone.

Panel 4: The same crowd, no Boodlepax

Panel 5: Ingypoo bounces in as if following Boodlepax. He is chained to something off panel to the right.

Panel 6: Ingypoo bounces to the left again, revealing that he is hauling a tank even bigger than he is.

Panel 7: The bouncing progresses, now with only the tank visible.

Panel 8: Now only the crowd.

Ecstasy as the Deepest Level of Aesthetic Purity: The 7 Levels of Aesthetic Subordination

Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination

The discussion of value of a particular narrative too often misidentifies rhetoric or realism as the sole factor placing a text at a high (or the highest) level of quality; realism, in particular, has this false association with narrative purity, and rhetoric in narrative has the mistaken association of intellectual engagement as a necessary component of artistic value. This is a narrow perspective born from the notion that rationality has a greater value than emotional/visceral reaction. A more significant problem with this perspective is that it displaces value from the text or the work of art itself. The text has no intrinsic value, only its capacity to represent something else: so-called reality, a philosophical concept, a social condition, a sociological perspective, etc.

This is the aesthetic problem of subordination which art in the twentieth century strove to and should have eliminated. William Carlos Williams and the Abstract Expressionists should have, finally and completely, highlighted the falsity in the notion that subordination is superior to aesthetic purity.

Alas, critics seem resistant to accepting what Williams should have taught the world, slow to accept that thousands of years of traditional Western concepts of artistic value have been upside down this whole time (something that Eastern concepts of artistic value have acknowledged for just as long). This is partly because there are so few systematic ways to analyze a text given the elimination of subordination. Understandably. How do you rationally analyze something that is at its core irrational? When writers say (as so many writers do) that they have no rational purpose or intention in writing a narrative other than to explore a character’s tapestry of emotions, how then do critics take that irrational but perfectly valid claim and honor it without forcing rational analysis in places it doesn’t necessarily belong?

This is why I keep attempting to make something systematic, hence the Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination.

A more effective way to approach a work of art which has greater potential to give the irrational core its due weight is to look at the various levels on the spectrum between aesthetic purity and subordination. Considering this as a spectrum better highlights the value at both ends (since critical analysis has been stuck at one of the spectrum for too long).  By “aesthetic purity,” I just mean acknowledging the text based on its own value without subordinating the value to something outside of it. The most aesthetically pure is the least subordinated; the most subordinated is the most rational/cerebral but also furthest removed from its aesthetic core, that which gives it stimulant (visceral/emotional) value.

A spectrum, however, is not the most accurate way to consider these levels since each element in the scale builds on the next, so a work of art must start with that pure, irrational core as a condition of being a work of art. Thus, one could argue the higher levels have greater value in their relative complexity. What I have identified as the “Rhetorical” level, the highest level of subordination, most likely contains the other six levels as well, thus allowing the possibility of argument for the superiority of this type of text. However, as this level is farthest removed from the aesthetic core, it is least likely to be enjoyable, beautiful, viscerally stimulating, etc. Also, this complexity is not a necessary condition of the Rhetorical level, and containing each of the previous six levels is likewise not a necessary condition. For example, most children’s narratives are Rhetorical without necessarily being complex and without necessarily containing all seven levels within them.

Also, to clarify, I focus on levels  narrative subordination particularly because the first two levels (“Ecstatic” and “Paratactic”) work well with any type of art, but the other five apply best to narrative. For example, considering the rule systems relevant to each level is a way to understand its level of subordination, a consideration that is less helpful for non-narrative art. As a more specific example, the “Mythological” level functions based on its own internal rule system, a concept that is very useful in understanding narratives but not as useful in understanding visual art. Rule systems in narratives are an important aesthetic consideration since violation of a perceived rule system may seem like a flaw. To say this is an intrinsic or universal flaw is false, but it is important for a writer to recognize that the reader is likely to perceive this as a flaw. For example, a story on the Mythological level may include imaginary creatures who must adhere to an internal rule system without necessarily adhering to the rules of the so-called real world. A violation of this internal rule system may seem like a flaw no matter how beautiful the text may be at its core. Likewise, what I identify as a Rhetorical story must adhere consistently to the premises of the argument, and failure to do so may seem like a flaw even if the story itself is beautiful and adheres to internal rules irrelevant to the argument.

Here are the seven levels:

1)Ecstatic: The direct, visceral, irrational experience that eliminates the barrier between self and other.

  • Rule System: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No distance between the work itself and the experience of the reader/viewer.
  • Analytical strategy: As this is the most irrational level based purely on individual experience, the easiest element to access and analyze is individual emotional/visceral reaction.
  • In brief: As the narrative or artistic experience requires the elimination of the barrier between self and other, this is the most basic and purest level of an artwork or narrative, and each subsequent level must contain this at its core. This level could be called “Absurd” as absurd narratives are the most characteristic examples and least likely to contain one of the other levels as well, and it’s provocative to say that all narratives must be absurd at their core, but that word contains so much baggage it may be counter-productive. Most philosophical treatments of absurdity as a concept are Rhetorical in nature, not truly and purely absurd. The Ecstatic level is the level of pure artistic absurdity where philosophy is irrelevant and unnecessary (in other words, absurdity certainly isn’t a problem to be solved). To clarify, narratives or artistic works can function on other levels, and often with more purely absurd texts critics attempt to impose order and meaning on them (the need to impose unnecessary order and meaning on things is a common and often intense desire); however, since absurdity/ecstasy is at the core of all successful narratives and art works, meaning and order are more incidental factors than necessary components. There is resistance to recognizing this as the core of all art, arguably, for two reasons: 1) artifice appears impure; 2) pleasure for its own sake engenders discomfort and seems like a frivolous, indulgent, gratuitous, or self-serving moral violation. The answer to both of these objections/misconceptions is in the nature of ecstatic engagement: it eliminates the barrier between self and other. It is artifice (and all art is artifice to a degree) only in that it has no necessary relationship with physical reality and exists primarily in the interaction between self and other free of barriers. Tangible/physical/material reality is only more pure than this if you believe science is the only authentic mechanism for discovering truth. That is a valid position to hold, but it is hardly helpful in creating or understanding art. This connects likewise with the notion that ecstasy is mere frivolity or self-pleasing immorality, but empathy (elimination of the barrier between self and other) should be the root of morality, arguably, and is the root of morality in many religions, from the “Love your neighbor as yourself” of Jesus to the compassionate non-duality of Buddha. To feel the pain and joy of another can only be immoral frivolity if your moral system is devoid of empathy as an essential component. Again, this is a valid position but hardly relevant to art.
  • Favorite Examples: Incidences by Daniil Kharms, Amedée by Eugene Ionesco, “Sorrows of a Family Man” by Franz Kafka, etc. Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is essential reading in understanding the one-to-one interaction of the ecstatic text and the irrelevance of universality.

2)Paratactic: The juxtaposition of viscerally stimulating but seemingly unrelated images without a rational, directly stated, or necessary connection.

  • Rule system: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No element is necessarily subordinated to another, by definition, but images can relate to elements or concepts outside of the text itself.
  • Analytical strategy: Determine the images that create a visceral response in juxtaposition. Do not look for a rational connection but a purely irrational resonance. If you find a rational connection, especially where one element is subordinated to the other, this likely qualifies as the Representational level and muddies the aesthetic purity with overt rationality.
  • In brief: The line between the Ecstatic and Paratactic level are blurred since both levels function quite similarly. However, the Paratactic differentiates from the Ecstatic in that images can relate to concepts or a so-called reality outside of the text. For example, a William Carlos Williams poem might relate a “red wheelbarrow” and “white chickens” without stating how they connect (a classic, basic example of parataxis), but understanding of this parataxis might relate to the reader’s own experience or concept of farming or poverty without necessarily subordinating the images to the concepts or experiences. The text, however, becomes one step away from the pure ecstatic experience in this outward-stretching web. Another example: a text might contain multiple blue objects, and the reader may yearn to find some rational connection between these blue objects. However, the yearning for connection (a type of visceral stimulation vital for this level) is far more important than an actual, rational connection, and the reader may think of traditional associations of blue and the Virgin Mary without necessarily subordinating the text to Christian concepts. In other words, the color blue does not necessarily make the text about (“about” generally implying a level of subordination) the Virgin Mary or Christianity simply because of the presence of blue, but this irrational connection could add visceral value to the text. If the weight of history aids in arguing the importance of parataxis, subordinating a text to abstractions may be the traditional Western way of understanding a narrative (thus the taken-for-granted superior position), but parataxis is the traditional Eastern way of understanding imagery in multiple art forms.

3)Mythological: This narrative level functions based on its own internal rule system.

  • Rule system: Internal rule system set by the author, genre, narrative conventions, etc.
  • Subordination: A concept of order is grafted on the irrational/visceral elements of the text, but this rule system is essentially arbitrary; it may relate to rule systems in reality/outside of the text, but this is not necessary.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal rule system and how the text fulfills or violates this rule system; recognize the relationship between the imposed order and the irrational, visceral core. For example, if a character has imposed a system of order on the absurd universe, does he/she violate this imposed order, or does the universe violate/fulfill this order in some way?
  • In brief: I call this level “mythological,” not because it has a relationship to myth criticism (as most of that sort of criticism functions on the Representational or Rhetorical level) or any narrative identified as myth (which is only one of many other types of stories on the Mythological level) but because it comes from the same impulse as myth making: to impose order on the disorderly whether or not that order has any rational relationship with scientifically measurable reality. Myths, likewise, must conform only to their own ordered system and not necessarily to any system outside of themselves. I would go further and say most narratives, by the nature of being a narrative, are intrinsically mythological if they have any sense of order or conform to any rule system. The most obvious place to see this is in so-called “genre” fiction – a vampire story follows the well-established vampire rules or sets its own but follows those consistently. However, internal rule systems are as relevant to a so-called “literary” work as they are to a so-called “genre” work. The terms “literary” and “genre” are grossly inaccurate and sloppily applied in most cases, but considering their relationship with internal rule systems clarifies their basic difference more accurately: a “genre” work conforms to rule systems within its own type and a “literary” work establishes its own, supposedly (and a “literary” work becomes “genre” when it follows the rule system established by the “literary” type). However, the most egregiously applied term associated with this level is “escapism” – escapism is indeed one of the effects of works which remain more purely within the Mythological level, but this one effect is hardly its most significant value. “Escapism,” especially in its pejorative sense, inverts the value system placing so-called reality above the narrative experience. The narrative experience can as easily be considered a greater level of reality. The relationship between the mythological and the realistic level is incidental – so-called reality fills in the gaps left by mythology but is far from a necessary condition of mythology.

4)Psychological: A separation between the purer aesthetic levels and reality by attributing the contrast to an internal/external split.

  • Rule system: Two separate rule systems, internal and external. The internal rule system may function the same as the Ecstatic, Paratactic, or Mythological level, but the subordination implies that the external rule system functions the same as the Realistic level.
  • Subordination: The non-realistic or seemingly disorderly elements are subordinated to external reality because they are attributed to psychological reflections of external factors.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal and external elements in the story and determine how one reflects the other; for example, how does a non-real element reflect some more realistic element within a character’s world or something psychologically significant to the character?
  • In brief: This is the transition between irrational and rational levels because it acknowledges the value of both sides. However, this dilutes the aesthetic power of the Ecstatic core because it is subordinated to so-called reality. This is not necessarily limited to psychoanalytical criticism or rules of psychology, psychoanalysis, etc. though this can be enlightening method for approaching texts on this level. Most forms of criticism hover in the Representational level, but the Psychological level can resonate in both directions as long as it remains rooted in this two-level contrast between internal and external forces. For example, elements can function by internal rules, thus making it a Mythological narrative, but function simultaneously on the Representational level if elements stand in for abstract concepts. If this resonance takes place on two levels – for example, Mythological elements take place inside a character’s mind while Representational elements are outside of the character’s mind – and the internal elements are subordinate to the external elements, this narrative exists on the Psychological level.

5)Realistic: The narrative exists to depict something in the real (material, tangible, physical) world.

  • Rule system: The narrative must follow the rules of the scientifically measurable, so-called real world.
  • Subordination: The narrative is subordinated to the real world outside of it.
  • Analytical strategy: Focus on the accuracy of the narrative within the context of the real world. For example, an element inaccurate to material existence, scientifically established rule systems, or social conventions becomes a flaw.
  • In brief: While works within the genre called “Realism” are often depicted as purer forms for their elimination of imaginative elements, they are aesthetically impure because of their dependence on a material, tangible, physical reality outside of the texts. Any consideration of the text’s basis in reality displaces value from the text and places value in elements only incidental to the text’s core Ecstatic value. This is not applicable only to texts based on real events or texts in which events are depicted as being real. More important at this level is recognition of a narrative as being dependent on reality and valuation of the accuracy of this depiction of reality. However, if a text functions to reflect some universal concept (like the “human condition,” etc.) or has non-realistic elements which stand in for universal concepts, it is more likely Representational, a step further in subordination.

6)Representational: The narrative stands in for some abstract concept such as philosophy, sociological perspective/condition, or universalized concept of humanity.

  • Rule system: The narrative may follow essentially the same rules as the Realistic level but applied universally or at least broadly to a sociological condition, or it may follow the rules or principles of a particular philosophy without necessarily making an endpoint argument.
  • Subordination: Both real and non-real elements are subordinated to universal/philosophical concepts.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Rhetorical level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: When considering narrative analysis, this and the Rhetorical level are too often considered the only relevant levels or the levels with the greatest capacity to highlight the value of a narrative – this is the limited perspective I’m attempting to correct. The concept is that a narrative has value in that it “means” something or is “about” something when this perspective separates, by several levels of subordination, the narrative from its core aesthetic value. The Representational level essentially bridges the Realistic and Rhetorical level in that realistic elements are elevated into the abstract realm by being treated as representations of universal conditions (humans aren’t humans but stand in for all of humanity, for example) or reflect one of thousands of possible philosophical perspectives without necessarily making an argument (which would qualify it as Rhetorical). The various philosophies are well-established within criticism, so I need not spend much time explaining them, but an example might be a Marxist perspective which views elements within a text as representations of class oppression, commodification, historical cycles of revolution, etc. Characters aren’t people but social forces and conditions and only have value in their capacity to represent.

7)Rhetorical: A catch all term for anything with an endpoint value based in some abstract concept, argument, lesson, etc.

  • Rule system: The narrative must consistently follow the principles of the argument or lesson.
  • Subordination: Elements within the narrative are subordinate to the argument or lesson.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Representational level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: I call this level “Rhetorical” for the sake of the catchy three R’s of rational-level narrative subordination, but this includes many types of narratives beyond the argumentative – didactic narratives, for example. The significance is that the narrative has a purpose or that the narrative is leading to a particular end. This endpoint may be open to interpretation, but the writer is proposing some rhetorical premise subject to the rules of rhetoric or a moral principle subject to the rules or designed to develop or disseminate that particular moral principle. It differs from the Representational level only in that a Representational narrative can function more purely as a portrait of an abstract or universalized concept, but the Rhetorical level further subordinates that portrait to the ultimate purpose, argument, lesson, etc.

Blockhead :oR: Leaps Away

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“The Blockheads that haunt this apartment complex will kill you the worst way, worse than any other ghost,” said Sister Mary Michael (whom Eve Eeny called “Sister Mary Michael Jackson”). “But don’t worry. They’re easy to spot and leave alone.”

Eve Eeny had been in therapy for “anorexia brought on by fear of sexual assault by ghosts,” as the doctors called. She’d gotten so bad about this fixation she bolted from all court imposed therapy and all enclosed spaces and lived unhauntably out of grocery carts containing only a small number of objects she needed to live:

  • A safe full of bullets and ballet money (she still worked and showered at the city’s best ballet, and she was a very, very good dancer, so she would never lose her job, but she bought nothing but onions and bullets and batteries);
  • Onions (she’d only eaten ghost-frightening onions and garlic for years (her physical condition was more like classic malnutrition than anorexia, but doctors only called it anorexia out of ballerina stereotypes));
  • Batteries;
  • A battery-operated record player (to play her Michael Jackson records, from Off the Wall to Dangerous, because what else does anybody need?);
  • Plenty of other bauble charms she had for ages to keep the ghosts away (a particular metal might ward off a scratch ghost or there was an incense for sheet specters or any kind of charm for any kind of ghost ever, but it felt like it did little good because the closer she got to living in any walled building, the closer she felt to being hauntable).

That’s when Eve Eeny’s friend Sister Mary Michael Jackson found her chronically losing as a street person and saved her. At least that’s what Sister Mary called it to anybody else who’d listen: “I saved her from a street life, suffering and miserable,” and so on.

That’s all it took to go from constant fear of everything to give a fearless existence a chance: one person caring. It had been so long. Eve had this uncanny feeling in her gut. Could it be happiness or self-respect? It was tiny and deep, deep down below the diaphragm, so she could hardly even get access and explore it, but it was there. Sure, there was the dancing that everybody loved, mostly because Eve was very, very good at it, but this was something Jesus blessed her with and she destroyed her body over, and still most people only considered it a gift object from Jesus delivered to their eyeballs with Eve only as the conduit.

But then there was Sister Mary caring for no reason at all, and it made all the difference. “I’ll get a house if you want me to,” Eve said, “but only because you want me to.”

“I know great realtors,” Sister Mary said. “I know way more about real estate than a nun ever should.”

“Is real estate something inherently sinful?”

“Well…it can be.”

But then Eve, whose natural inclination was to doubt/escape/hate/fear/that sort of thing, said, “I doubt realtors would listen on the ghost assault phobia.”

“Well…we’ll see.” Sister Mary may be a nun, but she was an honest nun.

Later, they went together on tours of possible apartments, and Sister Mary, with her honesty and delicacy, would be the buffer between the normals and Eve’s particular issues.

The realtor might say, “This next apartment is the former waiting room of a family doctor.”

And Eve would say, “Any evil doctor ghosts?”

The realtor stumbled, attempting to avoid rudeness and not shatter the poor delicate crazy lady’s hope of getting a home: “It … depends … on your definition of ‘evil.’”

Sister Mary saved them both: “Sweetheart, houses at this budget are historically inclined to be haunted. I can find you a house with a nice ghost like a Blockhead. A Blockhead is known to be very slow and very rarely ever attack. He just shows up and hangs out. More a light bother.”

“Why is he called a Blockhead?” Eve wondered aloud.

“His head is kind of block shape.”

“That name makes a lot of sense then.”

It was only later, after Eve had chosen an officially Blockhead-haunted apartment, that Sister Mary said, “The Blockheads that haunt this apartment complex will kill you the worst way, worse than any other ghost. I just have to warn you about that. But don’t worry. They’re easy to spot and leave alone. Just do your little ballet leaps away from them, and you should be fine.”

She was inclined to do her little ballet leaps away from all of this, and this Blockhead business sounded far more terrifying than anything Sister Mary could understand, but for no dramatic reason other than Sister Mary asking and her sickness at the sameness of her homeless existence, Eve broke her long history of ghost avoidance, Eve agreed to live there. She didn’t back away out of the door and run down the open sidewalk screaming in her brain. This gave a sort of bravery she’d never known, a forgetting, a sort of bravery where anything untoward went to dark outofview places, and her dealings were with waking pleasantries. It was like peeling away black clouds to find out a sun existed when you assumed suns were only myth.

She lived alone, an out loud “I can do this” filling all the silent moments the first day and Michael Jackson records filling the rest. She only planned one weekly visit from Sister Mary on a Thursday noon, giving her four days of nobody but ghost potentials and Michael Jackson and her own echoes of “I can do this.”

“Are you sure?” said Sister Mary.

“I can do this.”

“Repeating something doesn’t make it true,” said Sister Mary with her damned honesty.

“…I can do this,” Eve said because other phrases seemed beyond her at the moment.

The truth was Eve could do this. Delighted by the new sensations of bravery, she embraced all the things that being homeless and ghostphobic robbed her of. Like dishwashing and grocery shopping. That’s about it, really, but that was huge. Eve used her surplus ballet money to buy a pot and a pan and stopped because that was overwhelming enough, but she spent a lot of time staring at her pot and pan and washing them though she hadn’t cooked anything yet. She still mostly only bought onions and garlic to eat, but now she had a place to put them. Then she decided to go wild and buy some bacon, lots and lots of bacon.

Then she saw a Blockhead.

The first time (and, honestly, there would only ever be two times) Eve saw a Blockhead, it didn’t seem exceptionally good at murdering.

It sort of hung there in the hall like any normal ghost. Both she and the Blockhead froze midmotion a long time. Both seemed to own this frozenness as a natural position.

Eve was only going out to get her mail. It was only junk mail. Nobody would be writing her. Junk mail was utterly fascinating to someone who had never received it. But then the Blockhead blocked the hall. Eve’s heart beat hard seeing it suspended there. This was the only sound, this heart beating. Once motion was finally possible again, she ducked back in her new place and slammed the door, but this door slamming hardly made more noise than her heart in her ears thumpthumping.

But wait a minute, she thought (or at least the new Eve forced this thought into the real Eve’s brain): she was strong and independent now. She had to be reasonable about the danger of some silent and still unmoved ghost. She opened the door for one more peek. Besides, she needed to get her mail someday, maybe a couple days from now.

When she opened the door in her forced bravery, the Blackhead was gone, frightened off by the smell of her courage and the whoosh of her door, like ghosts were secretly made of a smoke that would be blown away that easily.

But her courage went in the wrong direction, not bolstered by this first victory. Instead, it seemed like luck was a commodity she used up totally her first brave ghost encounter, and death in their second meeting was more certain. Soon the Blockhead haunted her dreams but only that brief uncertain glimpse hovering just in the distance, assaulting her just as she always feared but remaining impossibly always at the original distance. Soon it was all she could think about. She couldn’t walk down halls anywhere without assuming Blockheads would be waiting.

Only a few days after she moved in, she decided leaving her new home and entering that horrible hall was no longer worth it. Who needed mail? Or the world?

But then the junk mail called her. What if a furniture store had a sale she might one day, years from now, need to know about?

When she opened the door again to the Blockhead hallway, after only a day of dithering, there was the Blockhead. Of course. It was her fault really for wanting to check her mail. Why this obsession with mail? Damn you, Eve. What foolishness.

Then a strange feeling filled her up. A different resignation she hadn’t known before. The inevitability of this second meeting and oncoming death only a few minutes away allowed her to leave the door open a few extra minutes to get a good look at him.

The scariest thing was his stillness and his silence. Like a creature born from nothingness to take others into the nothingness must resist movement or speaking or any other form of certainty.

Also, his head was a giant block. This was certain. The name Blockhead was literal. A block shaped like but bigger than the cardboard box Sister Mary lent her to move her stuff in (a box she hardly filled with onions and records and a record player). Except the head of the Blockhead was covered in brown puppet felt and wide enough to nearly hit both walls of the hall. His body was long and droopy like proper ghosts, but he wore the boring brown suit of 70s insurance salesmen. What an odd and awkward and terrifying and not-so-terrifying ghost.

She slammed the door and made wind that scattered apartment renting paperwork and junk mail all about, cut her finger locking the lock too hard, got blood all over the paper. All this renter info she’d likely be making irrelevant soon as she’d likely be leaping away at the first opportunity.

She stuck her bloody finger in her mouth and sucked (a blood she seemed to need to drink in her poorly nourished condition), and she hoped the Blockhead wasn’t the sort of ghost who smelled blood. Like a halfshark halfghost. (She imagined the breeding process of sharks and ghosts, laughed half a second, then kept her mind on the business at hand.)

Sister Mary said the Blockhead murdered worse than any ghost, and Eve now had to imagine what that meant. It had to involve eating. Eve (hungry now in the weirdest way possible) cooked herself some bacon and onions, all of her bacon and all of her onions, but had to cut it all tiny with her one tiny knife and eat it one tiny piece at a time because she was weird about pretty much everything in her life. Eve hoped the Blockhead wasn’t the sort of ghost attracted to bacon smell who’d come into your house to murder you and eat all your bacon. This was no way to survive, to eat the last of one’s bacon as a murderous ghost lingered outside. She’d be without all food as soon as she wolfed this all down in her slow, slow way. The desperation to now remain inside could overpower any animalneed including eating, drinking, sleeping, company.

Eve decided after a few bites, screw this, and she step out into the hall to stare at the Blockhead. She’d never get this opportunity to stare at, contemplate, study, understand, appreciate, and love the worst thing possible while it was immobile.

Then an old neighbor lady came out of the door and saw Eve staring (she must’ve seemed crazy). “Do you need help?” said the old lady staring in her scruncheyed way at Eve.

There was no good/noncrazy answer to what she was doing: “I’m looking at this ghost to be less afraid of it”? That wouldn’t be good.

Then the Blockhead moved. It reached out a hand with its long skinny finger and touched the old lady. She folded in half at the middle. She folded the worst way to be folded: at the waist and backwards. The terribleness of this murder lived up to the hype. There’s no defense against a touch that folds you in half backwards at the waist.

“Holy crap, that was terrifying,” Eve said out loud and laughed.

Then somebody exploded out of the old lady’s apartment, looked at Eve, looked at the Blockhead. “Why didn’t you say there was a Blockhead out here, crazy bitch!” This must’ve been the lady’s son. He had an axe in his hands for hacking. “You just killed my mom!” he screamed to Eve perhaps but mostly to the Blockhead but maybe mostly to Eve. Who knows? But the fact that the axe-hacking son had an axe so easily accessible for hacking a Blockhead to pieces at a moment’s notice and that seeing his mom split in half backward had an obvious Blockhead cause indicated to Eve that this was a familiar experience. People in this apartment must’ve just known what living with a Blockhead was all about. The axe-hacking son ran screaming at the Blockhead but one touch, a surprisingly quick and graceful touch, and the son split in half backward too. The axe and the rage did little good to save him and did little good for anything at all.

“Hmm, that was horrific,” Eve said in an understatement that surprised her, considering the two split corpses in the hallway. She laughed again. A little, tiny laugh. It was entirely inappropriate and senseless to laugh in this situation, and the Blockhead likely realized she was being kind of horrible right now, so Eve ducked back in. Out of embarrassment at her laughter as much as fear at this point.

Eve assumed she should call a doctor. Maybe not the police because she never heard of arresting a ghost. Then again what could a doctor do for two people so thoroughly dead? Still, she had to do something.

Eve called 911: “I sort of have some dead people in my hall. A ghost killed them. I’m not sure who needs to know.”

“911 does not officially acknowledge the existence of ghosts,” said the operator. She sounded a little like Sister Mary, kind and honest, and this was comforting. “If this is a prank, I must remind you of the legal implications.”

“Sure. Great. Regardless, I’ve still got dead people in my hall?” She inadvertently turned this into a question as if that would be a polite way to communicate with a 911 operator.

The 911 operator said in a definite and officious tone, “Let me finish: officially 911 does not acknowledge the existence of ghosts; unofficially, can you let me know what kind of ghost you’re dealing with?”

“A Blockhead.”

“I see. Thank you. We can handle this. I’m going to get you to do a few things, and you have to do what I say as quickly and quietly as possible, and you should be safe. First, answer this question: Are the walls in your building wood, plaster, concrete, or other?”

“Other. Oh wait, wood. I think.”

“Wooden building increase the danger of Blockhead hauntings. Your realtor should have informed you of this. Has the wood gotten hotter?”

Eve put her hand against a near wall. “Yes. Weird. I mean … relatively.”

“There is a possibility that you will be trapped soon. This may last an hour or several days. If you are trapped, extraction teams are available though the official status and duration of extraction process must remain, by necessity uncertain. Do you have enough food?”

“I’ll manage.”

“Just stay there in your apartment. Waiting is the safest option.”

“The ghost won’t come through the wall?”

“The Blockhead doesn’t go through walls. It warps walls to trap victims, but he does so only in cases of vendetta and/or family history. This is important to remember: in most cases, a Blockhead is perfectly harmless. In other words, avoid a family history of ghost murders, and avoid pissing the Blockhead off, and you should be fine. I repeat: the best way to avoid a Blockhead is to avoid vendetta and/or family history.”

“What about axe attack? There was this guy who tried to get the Blockhead with an axe while I was watching.” Eve laughed a little. “And I laughed a little at him dying. In my defense, I am fully aware that this was inappropriate, but I think the Blockhead saw me. Do you think this pissed the Blockhead off?”

The 911 operator didn’t reply. This silence was unsettling.

“Hello?”

“Listen to me carefully,” the operator finally said. “This Blockhead may be very pissed and may be coming through your wall soon. Try not to be afraid. It feeds on fear. Remain low to the ground. That is the Blockhead’s blindspot. This is your only option. Don’t let it touch you, or you will die. Repeat: if the Blockhead touches you, you will die.”

“That’s terrifying.”

“That’s the point. But, you know, I’m sure you’ll be fine. So…yeah…good luck.” Then the 911 operator hung up.

Eve wondered if that really was Sister Mary on the phone. So typical.

But the room didn’t change. Everything was silent. “This is not so bad,” she said out loud. But of course the room really did start to change shape. Eve noticed it first when she tried to open the window to escape because Eve Eeny loved escaping and wasn’t an idiot. But the window seemed sealed shut, and soon there wasn’t a window at all. Then the wall opened. Like the weird brainwarping of the horrible medicines she’d known too long, but this was real as all this tactile stimulation told her, all the heat and splinter grain of the windows wood as it soon ceased to be a window. The whole room seemed to shift into a dozen possibilities of rooms, and soon it was only one hall, no apartments, all the apartment’s innocent residents tumbled together as the walls narrowed. It’s like the Blockhead and the building together were a single being made for consuming. Like a pitcher plant. Like the building funneled in the prey and the Blockhead delivered the killing touch, blood and flesh absorbing into wood.

The Blockhead picked off the floor’s residents one by one, a touch and split in half along the waist. Every last one. There was nothing they could do.

Eve, in her immobility and alien calm, was the most readied for survival of a ghost like this.

The calm in Eve now, the calm of realizing there was nothing left: either split in half or calm. She knew well what resignation to rockbottom felt like but always the ghostfear remained: rockbottom or this. Now she saw the Blockhead, the worst possible manifestation of ghostfear, and it was like all the fears shorted one another out. She fell to the floor, not as a surrender as she might once have done but in a pure knowledge of the Blockhead, the way it moved down the hall like she and the wood and the Blockhead were all one now. Ballet had made her movement so delicate, the living building trap and the Blockhead couldn’t see her as any separate living being. Homeless starvation had made her so thin the Blockhead would pass over without touching. Any part of him might split her, even a toe touch, but Eve was too thin for this.

Still, she had to hold her breath as he passed over. He stopped. I’m dead, she thought. Only a moment of her old self creeping in, but she was okay with dying now.

But then the Blockhead kept moving.

He’s nothing but a pitcher plant she thought, just responding to stimuli. Nothing but a creature made by evolution to eat fear and split bodies. That’s all he was. That’s all this was. I can do this.

Once he finally passed, Eve stood and tiptoed through gore. She tried to pick up the axe, but the same starvation that saved her kept her from lifting it. Hate might help. Hate might give her power. But the same realization that took away fear robbed her of hate. She cried about not caring. She cried at the loss of her old self.

This somehow unlocked a dark box inside her containing all those wasted years living on the street. For what? For a pitcher plant with a stupid looking block for a head. She couldn’t hate it, but she could hate herself. Before she realized, the axe was through the Blockhead’s right arm and ribcage.

But now the axe was stuck. She couldn’t dislodge it. The Blockhead started to turn around, finally recognizing her presence, but the axe handle caught the wall, pushed the axe head all the way through his torso, so his whole bottom half fell off. He seemed to look down though his lack of eyes and stupid block for a head made it hard to tell if he was looking anywhere.

She laughed. “You dumb ass.” Eve was easily able to duck him now. She grabbed the axe, lifted it with greater ease, and considered finishing him, splitting the remaining bits of his body to pieces. But he was floating to the ground, sinking like a wrecked ship. It was a very pathetic death. Very silent. Very slow. Eve felt sorry for him. Briefly. He was cute with his brown fuzzy face.

She used the axe to open a bottle of wine from somebody’s apartment and drank it as the Blockhead slowly died. She finished the bottle as first responders broke the wall with their own axes.

If they denied the existence of the Blockhead, what must they think of this skinny little ballet dancer holding an axe, surrounded by a dozen split-in-half corpses?

She had a good laugh, the best and biggest laugh of her life.