Monday, September 28, 2009

Fatherhood in One Hundred Words

Today I had my seniors write hundred-word stories. Here's the one I wrote:

Sing-Along, With Daughters

On the front porch one Saturday afternoon, my daughters were playing with dolls and singing Disney songs. I lay on the porch swing, swaying back and forth, looking out at the street and the late September leaves just starting to turn color.

I couldn’t resist joining in. Knitting my brows in mock earnesty, I belted out, “I can show you the world, shining, shiiiimmering, sple-endid…”

Alice, three years old, interrupted me.

“Daddy, you can’t sing that.”

“Why not? I can’t show you the world?”

“No. You’re not Aladdin. Not at all.”

A tough lesson, perhaps, but she had me there.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dean R. Koontz Revisited

Back in eighth grade, almost twenty years ago, someone in my class discovered Dean R. Koontz. Soon we were all keeping his novels on the corner of our desks and cracking them open during spare moments.

Over the next few years, I read about twelve of his books. Mixing the thriller, horror, and sci-fi genres, they were just right for me from the ages of 13 to 15.

I recently came across this website devoted to Koontz, which contains images of first editions of all or nearly all of his works. Looking at the old covers got me thinking about the time I spent reading these books.

I read Watchers first. It was a fairly complex piece of work, actually, with multiple narrative strands—a love story between an introverted, sheltered woman and a more worldly but decent fellow; they eventually befriend a dog with human intelligence (the product of a laboratory experiment, he eventually learns to communicate with his owners via a device that dispenses Scrabble tiles); and they battle a homicidal monster created by the same laboratory.

There was some (marital) sex in the book, and a scene (eye-opening for a thirteen-year-old) in a strip club where the dancers explain secrets of their profession to the sheltered woman, but at base it was a rather wholesome, even moralistic, tale of good versus evil.

Koontz's plots could be ingenious, as in Lightning. In this novel, a woman has a time-traveling protector, who shows up to save her at crucial points over the course of her life. Throughout the beginning of the novel, he seems to be journeying to the present from some militarized, dystopic future. Eventually we learn that, instead of coming from the future, he's coming from the past: the Nazis, it turns out, had cracked the secret of time travel.

Koontz had his literary side, too: Midnight, about a brilliant but misguided inventor who experiments with the residents of a small California town, was a self-conscious updating of H. G. Wells's novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

A couple years after I read The Voice of the Night, I realized that a central scene, in which a disturbed youngster prepares to cause a train wreck, mirrors a similar scene in Jerzy Kosinski's famous WWII novel The Painted Bird.

But my favorite Koontz novel has to be Strangers. This 600-pager, long for Koontz, assembles a large cast of characters, all of whom are haunted by a mysterious but only dimly remembered event in their not-too-distant past. I remember reading this book around the time that I finished eighth grade, and being quite convinced by the characters—particularly one who was a professional thief. Koontz's narration of one of his heists was a great set piece.

It turns out that all of the characters witnessed an alien landing in the desert of Nevada. The government tried to brainwash them to forget what they saw, fearing that widespread, verified knowledge of extraterrestrial life would bring about chaos and pandemonium. But the brainwashing didn't take. Eventually, the characters all converge on the secret facility where the aliens are being kept.

Sounds a little cheesy now, I guess, but at the time I was enraptured by it.

I had to wait a long time for The Bad Place to become available for me to check out at the public library, and it wasn't really worth it. As I recall, the plot turned on a character who had paranormal abilities because he was born with three testicles, but they were all undescended. That sounds ridiculous, I know, so maybe I'm misremembering. But how could I make up something like that?

I kept reading Koontz into my first couple years of high school. In my high school library, in fact, I came across a copy of Koontz's book Writing Popular Fiction. I flipped through it a bit. As a way to invent ideas for stories, Koontz recommended crafting evocative titles—like "the key to midnight," or "the house of thunder," or "the face of fear"—and then trying to devise a story that would fit that title. He also suggested getting maps of the cities that you set your stories in, to lend verisimilitude to your story's geography.

It was in that same library that I finally lost my taste for Koontz. I was in one of the carrels reading Cold Fire, which really wasn't that good anyway, when my sophomore history teacher walked by and picked the book up from my hands, curious about what I was reading. He looked at it for a second then handed it back with a scornful smirk and walked on without a word.

And that, for better or worse, was about it for me and Dean R. Koontz.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What Comes After Oil

This passage, from a review of Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, by Peter Maass, sums up the message of that book:

Oil is the curse of the modern world; it is “the devil’s excrement,” in the words of the former Venezuelan oil minister Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, who is considered to be the father of OPEC and should know. Our insatiable need for oil has brought us global warming, Islamic fundamentalism and environmental depredation. It has turned the United States and China, the world’s biggest consumers of petroleum, into greedy, irresponsible addicts that can’t see beyond their next fix. With a few exceptions, like Norway and the United Arab Emirates, oil doesn’t even benefit the nations from which it is extracted. On the contrary: Most oil-rich states have been doomed to a seemingly permanent condition of kleptocracy by a few, poverty for the rest, chronic backwardness and, worst of all, the loss of a national soul.

We can’t be rid of the stuff soon enough.

This point is echoed by Michael Specter, at the end of his fascinating but scary New Yorker piece about synthetic biology:

The hydrocarbons we burn for fuel are believed to be nothing more than concentrated sunlight that has been collected by leaves and trees. Organic matter rots, bacteria break it down, and it moves underground, where, after millions of years of pressure, it turns into oil and coal. At that point, we dig it up—at huge expense and with disastrous environmental consequences. Across the globe, on land and sea, we sink wells and lay pipe to ferry our energy to giant refineries. That has been the industrial model of development, and it worked for nearly two centuries. It won’t work any longer.

What's ahead, according to Specter and the scientists he talks to, is a world in which scientists, wielding DNA like Lego building blocks, wrest the reins of creation from God and evolution:

The industrial age is drawing to a close, eventually to be replaced by an era of biological engineering.... “We are going to start domesticating bacteria to process stuff inside enclosed reactors to produce energy in a far more clean and efficient manner. This is just the beginning stage of being able to program life.”

This all sounds eerily reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's dystopian
Oryx and Crake and her new novel The Year of the Flood, neither of which I have read, but both of which imagine future worlds radically distorted by genetic engineering.

As Atwood puts it in this Times profile:

“We’ve just opened the biggest toy box in the world, which is the genetic code.... We can tinker and produce great things; we can tinker and produce horrible things.”

Like Atwood, I fear that what we come up with to replace oil will be even worse.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Real Death Sentence

I apologize for the back-to-back Hendrik Hertzberg posts, but here's his powerful statement, part of a blog post about the botched execution in Ohio, about what an honest death sentence in America would look like:

You are hereby sentenced to death. Before you are killed, you will be taken a maximum security prison, there to be held in isolation for twenty-three hours of every day in conditions of solitary confinement. The length of this imprisonment is indeterminate but unlikely to be less than ten years. Though it may be as few as two or three years, it is more likely to be twenty or more. At intervals you will be told that you will be put to death on a certain date. Neither you nor your jailers nor anyone else will know which of these dates will prove to be the correct one. You will suffer depression, extreme anxiety, and, most probably, severe mental deterioration. On one of these dates, you will be strapped to a gurney and poisoned by intravenous injection of lethal chemicals. Your execution may take an hour or more. Your death is likely to be accompanied by unbearable pain, though this will not be apparent to witnesses because one of the chemicals will have paralyzed you, preventing you from crying out or moving.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Paranoid Political Organism

This, from Hendrik Hertzberg's Comment in the current New Yorker, seems exactly right to me:

... lunatic paranoia—touched with populism, nativism, racism, and anti-intellectualism—has long been a feature of the fringe, especially during times of economic bewilderment. What is different now is the evolution of a new political organism, with paranoia as its animating principle. The town-meeting shouters may be the organism’s hands and feet, but its heart—also, Heaven help us, its brain—is a “conservative” media alliance built around talk radio and cable television, especially Fox News. The protesters do not look to politicians for leadership. They look to niche media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and their scores of clones behind local and national microphones. Because these figures have no responsibilities, they cannot disappoint. Their sneers may be false and hateful—they all routinely liken the President and the “Democrat Party” to murderous totalitarians—but they are employed by large, nominally respectable corporations and supported by national advertisers, lending them a considerable measure of institutional prestige. The dominant wing of the Republican Party is increasingly an appendage of the organism—the tail, you might say, though it seems to wag more often from fear than from happiness.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Adventures at QT

I was just at QT picking up some fountain soda, and the guy in front of me put a huge stack of big Slim Jims on the counter.

"$27.63," said the clerk.

The guy looked stricken. He looked at the clerk, dumbfounded.

"They're $2.29 apiece, man," the clerk said, pointing to the price sticker.

The guy took a deep breath. "How much for two?"

"Five bucks."

The guy thought for a moment. "How many do you get for ten?"

The clerk, slowly: "Four."


"I'll take three."

Friday, September 11, 2009

I Want Less Moore

Finally got around to reading "Childcare," the New Yorker excerpt from Lorrie Moore's new novel A Gate at the Stairs, which has been getting fairly positive reviews lately.

I liked it moment by moment, but I agree with Clifford Garstang that it doesn't stand alone very well. My other gripe is that at times the narrator's observations are way more sophisticated and worldly than this character, who grew up on a fairly isolated farm, could possibly be at this stage in her life. For instance, this description of her employer's restaurant:

It was one of those expensive restaurants downtown, every entrée freshly hairy with dill, every soup and dessert dripped upon as preciously as a Pollock, fillets and cutlets sprinkled with lavender dust once owned by pixies—restaurants to which students never went, unless newly pinned to a fraternity boy or dating an assistant dean or hosting a visit from concerned suburban parents. I knew that Petit Moulin served things that sounded like instruments—timbales, quenelles. God only knew what they were. I had once tried to study the menu in its lit case near the entrance, and as I stared at the words the sting of my own exile had moistened my eyes. The lowest price for an entrée was twenty-two dollars, the highest, forty-five. Forty-five! You could get a Taiwanese oil-and-water bra for that price!

Good writing, but Lorrie Moore's wit, intelligence, and eye are intruding far too much here. I don't believe in this character.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

An Enormous Advance

From Nicholas Lemann's short piece about Ted Kennedy and the current health care reform debate:

If a health-care bill passes this fall, it will be full of compromises: departures from liberal ideals, and fudges about how much it will cost. But anybody who stops fighting for it now is going to spend years repenting. As long as Congress passes, and Obama signs, a law that embodies the principle of universal, government-guaranteed coverage, the country will have achieved an enormous, and previously elusive, advance.