Readings: Piranesi, All The Beautiful Sinners, and The All-Consuming World

This selection of readings has a common theme: major characters who have been brainwashed into acting against their own interests, remade into something else, something useful to a manipulative other. It seems apropos, given that this is life as we collectively live it. In these books, though, the brainwashing and the manipulation are intensely interpersonal rather than the apparatuses of mass social indoctrination. In Cassandra Khaw’s The All-Consuming World, this is a transformation is engineered and sustained with chemistry and conditioning, which is to say, love in everything but love. Maya may be a pit of bottomless rage and violence but she’s in love with two people at once—the one who pushes her buttons and the one she thinks she doesn’t deserve—and helpless before either of them. This is a book of jagged edges, with an off-kilter style. It’s a heist, but it ends before a heist would. It’s a last stand but it ends at the threshold of climactic violence. And it’s a love triangle that gets resolved as part of someone else’s plot, which seems unsatisfying at first, but it also feels like a fittingly unceremonious end for a master manipulator, to be simply shunted aside by a more effective one playing for bigger stakes.

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi lives in a quiet, almost-deserted, perhaps-endless house with a sea in it. A journalist is gaslit to the point of total amnesia by his target, and transformed into a native informant of a world uninhabitable by anyone who wants to keep their self intact. The mystery gets a little too filled in, perhaps, by the neatness of the ending; this is one book where I wanted the mysteries of world and identity to remain unresolved. As we return to the mundane, the dreamlike beauty of the unending house fades, but there is a last-minute return of the otherworldly, too, as if it were a horror film trading in just a slightly different flavour of dread, where we see that there are not two worlds, but only one. Like Piranesi, we too are creatures of forgetting, or worse, never knowing about the world’s other face, the one which sees us as we are.

Both of those are violent remoldings of the self, but in All The Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones it’s even more primal than perverted desire or the dreadful secrets of being, which is to say, this is a book about monstrous parenting. Not only is Amos stolen as a child by a serial killer and brought up to be one, but he is renamed and reraced to better fit into his terrible parent’s vision. The near-complete erasure of who he once was is more total than that of even Piranesi, who at least gets to come back. Piranesi becomes innocent through his remaking, by scraping away most of his self and learning empathy by taking care of the long dead. Amos’s rebellion, ultimately, happens in the same way, in his need to rescue and return his father-kidnapper’s long-dead child victims. He can’t help but see them as alive, even as he hauls their corpses through the narrative, because that would mean it was still not too late. Of course, it is.

Readings: My Sweet Girl & Crossmatch

I read a lot of crime but I’d not particularly paid attention to Sri Lankan crime fiction until recently. I’m not sure what could be said to constitute it, really, in English-language novels—there’s that Ondaatje novel I haven’t read, maybe Shehan Karunatilaka? Meanwhile, googling this unfortunate question has led me to a white British writer who visited Sri Lanka in 2015 and promptly decided to write a colonial murder mystery series set in 1930s Ceylon and is now some eight books deep into this … thing. I shall do them the great and unearned courtesy of not speaking of this further.

Carmel Miranda’s Crossmatch is the most recent Gratiaen Prize winner—Visakesa Chandrasekaram (whose science fiction novel I must write about sometime) read a poem by Ahnaf Jazeem at the online ceremony, which I appreciated. I don’t generally read in that Gratiaen-y space (being somewhat removed from Sri Lankan literary culture) but I was intrigued that this seemed to be a straight-up genre novel. And in fact it’s two mysteries at once: the first, which works reasonably well, where a medical student, through a combination of happenstance and curiosity, uncovers a very middle-class conspiracy of black market organ trafficking; and the second a rather off-the-shelf scaffolding of confused parentage and overly foreshadowed secret baby swapping, which it could have rather done without. The strength of the book is in the fascinating window into med student life in Colombo, and in its willingness to be precise about the damaged human body. I wish it had leaned more into the body horror that it might have aspired to, and less into the soap opera of whose child is which.

As an entertaining counterpoint, the question of whose-child-is-which is also the main engine of Amanda Jayatissa’s My Sweet Girl , but here, at least, is a story with a clearer grasp of its own nature, which is to say, the book is not shy about its horror, with doppelgangers, creepy children, infinitely creepier adults, the dual terrors of orphanage and adoption, a classic Mohini haunting and a gothic mad attic wife situation to boot. The orphanage setting in particular is beautifully ominous, and I enjoyed the code-switching between San Francisco and Ratmalana Englishes. The adult narrator is delightfully awful, just a huge dick and in no way an ingénue, and for me this compensates for the mystery being not all that mysterious. If I wanted something more from this one, it was for a slower, denser prose that spent more time on its many horrors. But ultimately, what this is is a slasher, and it’s paced like one. Having recently attended the Stephen Graham Jones school of Final Girl appreciation, I enjoyed the one we got here quite a lot, even after having seen it coming.

Solaricisms

Happy Stanislav Petrov Day! And this is a special Stanislav Petrov Day, because 2021, in addition to being the second plague year, is the Year of Lem, so in addition to apocalypses that are and might have been, we must also confront the untranslatable other.

A Lem story was recently published in English for the first time, “The Truth,” in a translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I was reminded of Solaris by this passage:

Just before the explosion, the string of plasmatic flame, until now almost uniform, had narrowed at identical intervals like a plucked cord, and then, having broken down into a series of round grains, had ceased to exist as a whole. Each of these grains was growing and changing, the borders of these droplets of atomic heat became fluid, and projections began to come out of them, producing the next generation of droplets; then all these droplets converged toward the center and formed a flattened ball, which, contracting and inflating as if it were breathing, was at the same time sending out on reconnaissance something like fiery tentacles with quivering tips …

This short story was published three years after Solaris, and you can see the echoes of the one in the other. “I wonder what we could talk to the Sun about? What are the common issues, concepts, and problems that we share with it? … First communicate with the bacteria in your bodies, with the bushes in your gardens, with the bees and their flowers, and then you’ll be able to consider what methods to use for sharing information with the Sun.” Lem’s question is precisely not about the alien as the other, in fantastic literature’s all-too-easy (and racist) device of racialization, whether in elves or klingons, but about the alien as the incommensurable being: a response, perhaps, to the widespread failure of fantastical literature to imagine aliens that are not merely foreigners to be, in some fashion, conquered and tamed. The solar entities in “The Truth” are even more unknowable than the planet Solaris, which at least has the decency to haunt its intruders in their native guilts.

It’s easy to see why Lem was not fond of the cinematic adaptations of Solaris. The extended review of solaricist literature that takes up so much of the book is both masterful and unfilmable, because it is so very much a thing of text. Even the lovingly detailed descriptions of the transient formations of Solaris, the mimoids and the symmetriads and so on, are not about those visuals, for all that the images are stunning—rather, the book is about the different interpretations of what those phenomena mean, as advanced by generations of theorists of Solaris, and the dizzying effect of moving through these endless models and theories as we the reader mirror the history of futile attempts to make sense of something that is incomprehensible in any human frame of reference.

He was simply a pedantic classifier, one of those whose outer calm concealed an unflagging passion that consumed his whole life. As long as he was able, he relied exclusively on the language of description; when words failed him he managed by creating new words, often infelicitous ones that did not match the phenomena they were intended to describe […] “dendromountains,” its “extensors,” “megamushrooms,” “mimoids,” “symmetriads” and “asymmetriads,” its “vertebrids” and “rapidos” sound terribly artificial, but they do give some idea of Solaris even to those who’ve seen nothing but a few blurry photographs and poor quality films. Of course, even this conscientious classifier was guilty of rash moments. Humans are constantly coming up with hypotheses, even when they’re being cautious, and even though they’re quite unaware of it. Giese believed that extensors constituted a root form, and he compared them to greatly magnified and heightened versions of tidal waves in terrestrial oceans. Besides, anyone who’s immersed himself in the first edition of the work knows that he originally named them precisely “tides” led by a geocentrism that would be amusing if it weren’t for his helplessness.

Lem, Solaris

Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris makes a heroic attempt to adapt all this rampant textuality to video. Where in the book we read the text of Burton’s testimony, in the film we see a film of it. There is even a film within the film within the film, as the recorded younger Burton attempts (and fails) to show his tribunal what he has seen on Solaris—while the older Burton impatiently fast-forwards through chunks of his younger self’s testimony. Or Gibarian’s cryptic note to Kelvin, which in the film is a (somewhat less cryptic) video instead. All of this works quite well. What doesn’t work is that film adaptations seem compelled to insert massive doses of sentimentality absent in the novel. Tarkovsky, for instance, adds forty minutes of opening prologue set on Earth, attempting to ground Kelvin before he’s sent off to space. There is a father and a crying aunt. After forty minutes of this, the film finally catches up to the novel’s in media res opening.

Interestingly, this is not where Tarkovsky breaks up Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 continues through Harey’s arrival, her dress without seams, their first conversation. It’s only when Kelvin takes her to the rocket that the film switches to Part 2, even though there is no significant gap in time and no break in setting. Even the theme of violence is not new by this point, because Kelvin reached for a gun (absent in the novel) as soon as Harey first arrived.


Other people’s ghosts are only eerie, perhaps, but our own are compelling. Kelvin, upon seeing again the woman he loved, who killed herself long ago, cannot help but respond to her with tenderness along with the terror and revulsion. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells the ghost haunting him. They are both afraid. How to tell the beloved dead that they are dead?

Neither Tarkovsky’s film nor the 2002 Soderbergh Solaris make any serious attempt to depict Solaris itself. At least in 1972, you could argue, maybe Tarkovsky didn’t have the technology to make a real go of it: he did what he could to suggest strange fluids and miasmas. The 2002 film is, unexpectedly, even worse on this front. There is no attempt to CGI up some mimoids. The planet is merely a vague blur in the distance while the focus is entirely on the romance between George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. “The book is called Solaris,” a caustic Lem observed on learning this: “Not Love in Outer Space.” Though this is true even of Tarkovsky’s film to some degree, or at least its marketing. All adaptations are, sooner or later, Love in Outer Space. But Solaris is not any recognizable human storyteller, and therefore not a romance novel author. The hauntings are not an opportunity for the guilty or grieving to make peace with their lost ones; it is not a neat device of closure or an attempt at communication. The hauntings are an epiphenomenon of human proximity to the truly alien: we only shatter along the faultlines that we bring with us.

Readings: The Space Between Worlds, My Heart Is A Chainsaw, Minor Detail

I have not had the brain to write full-length essays or reviews but I have been reading a lot this year, so I thought I’d try writing about books briefly (and therefore, one hopes, posting a little more frequently.)

I didn’t expect Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds to turn into a parallel worlds soap opera when I started it, but I suppose that is the nature of parallel worlds: evil twins and doppelgangers for everyone! I enjoyed this. The multiverse felt vast, but the individual worlds feel small and claustrophobically contained. The damaged narrator oblivious to being loved is a trope I’m fond of, and there are, conveniently, just enough moving parts between all available worlds for a neat resolution.

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones is, of course, great. An SGJ binge this year has recalibrated my hitherto meh feelings on the slasher as a genre and made me want to go back and fill in the vast gaps in my viewing of the canon (I’ve seen, like, some Friday the 13ths and an Elm Street or two …? Nobody tell SGJ.) This one does feel like familiar ground, in that it’s basically The Last Final Girl as seen through Demon Theory, but without that screenplay-ish narrative device, which probably makes it more accessible to people who are not big nerds (I loved the screenplayish thing obv.) But Chainsaw also feels more polished and much more accessible to the slasher newbie, since the narrator’s homework assignments are a neat way of filling in the lore for those of us who have not done our own homework.

Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail is brief, lovely, and devastating. As you might expect, it’s incredibly good at the details, and the shift in style between the two halves works wonderfully: the first half is the crime of the past, recounted in an almost fable-like fashion, and the second half is about the crime that is the present, which its nervous, boundary-crossing narrator manages to almost make sound normal for a while, so much so that the ending doesn’t feel predictable (in the sense of dull), even though it is (in the sense of inevitable and narratively necessary.) It’s not surprising, but it is painful, and perhaps even sudden, which ought to have been impossible.

My debut novel: THE SAINT OF BRIGHT DOORS

Some big news I’ve been sitting on for a few months! I’ve signed a three-book deal with Tordotcom Publishing, all three standalones, and the first of them, The Saint of Bright Doors, is due in early 2023.

Here’s the full announcement from Tor, and below is how I described the book.

The Saint of Bright Doors is a book that (it turns out) I’ve been writing for longer than I even knew, in fragments: a nail, a light-footed boy, monstrous inheritances, broken worlds. It’s a story about how destinies and history are made—spun out of manipulation and lies, cemented in violence—and how, in the crumbling and terribly unsafe ruins of other people’s grand projects, you can still sometimes make choices, love unwisely, and go into the dark in your own way. I’m very happy to be working with Carl and the team at Tordotcom to put this book in the world, and I hope you all enjoy it, by which I mean I hope this devil book takes ragged bites out of your souls like it did mine.

Facilis Descensus

In “Break It Down Logically” I wrote about a 1949 short story by Howard Schoenfeld, originally published in the anarchist journal Retort before being reprinted in F&SF. The editors and publishers of Retort, Holley Cantine and Dachine Rainer, also published Schoenfeld’s account of his incarceration as a conscientious objector to World War II.

Ten years after Schoenfeld’s story was reprinted in F&SF, Holley Cantine also published a story of his own in F&SF. It was called “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble”:

I found that by leaving the city I had shed the radical movement like a bad dream. While I still believed vaguely in the desirability of socialism, once I had the chance to achieve some perspective, it became perfectly obvious that the wrangling little sects that had consumed so large a part of my life would never amount to anything, and I was well quit of them.

To fill the void in my life left by the cessation of political activity, I began to revive my old interest in magic.

Holley Cantine,“Double, Double, Toil and Trouble”, F&SF, 1960.

Cantine’s story is about the narrator’s mastery of a single magical ability, which he calls doubling, whereby he can magically produce a duplicate of any object, including persons. This is an inversion, in a way, of the neat closed loop of Schoenfeld’s rabbit vs. not-rabbit. Cantine posits doubled rabbits instead, a profane multiplying of objects—like Borges’s “mirrors and fatherhood” (which, incidentally, was published the same year that Schoenfeld and Dellinger were in prison, though not published in English until the year after Cantine’s story), an abominable mass reproduction.

The narrator at first merely uses this ability to multiply his scant resources so he can sell them and make money. It’s not wealth he’s seeking: he is content with self-sufficiency. What he really wants is to form an amateur brass band with himself. So he duplicates himself, or rather, himselves, one per instrument, and in the process discovers that the process of duplication is not perfect and his copies are not identical, having inherited different aspects of his moods, interests, and politics. One of his doubles returns to the radical politics that the narrator himself had given up on, by doubling and redoubling himself into an army and invading the Capitol. (This story predates the Marvel Comics character Multiple Man by fifteen years.) The imperfection of the doubling is doubled down upon: the militant self, attempting to defeat a conventional army through sheer numbers, doubles and redoubles himself relentlessly, the fidelity of the copies and the copies of copies becoming only ever more degraded, their politics only becoming more violent and less coherent in every iteration.


Between the publication of these two stories in F&SF, Dachine Rainer founded the Committee for the Liberation of Ezra Pound with, among others, e.e. cummings. Pound was arrested for treason for his pro-fascist radio broadcasts in Italy during World War II, and institutionalized in an American mental hospital for over a decade. Rainer wrote this in his defense in 1991:

It was once fairly common knowledge and it must be stated here that Pound was declared insane as a humanitarian act in order to avoid a trial and what in the hysterical postwar climate would most probably have been an execution.

Dachine Rainer, “Standing Up to Ezra Pound“, New York Times, 1991

Rainer is fully a Pound apologist here, even to the point of denying that he was a fascist or antisemite, which seems to rather fly in the face of Pound’s extensive body of pro-fascist and antisemitic utterances. “He is obviously crazy,” Hemingway wrote of Pound a couple of years before his arrest.

He deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves most is ridicule. He should not be hanged and he should not be made a martyr of. He has a long history of generosity and unselfish aid to other artists and he is one of the greatest of living poets. It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warpeing and twisting and decay of his mind and judgement should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a completely unpopular but an absolutely necessary thing to do. I have had no correspondence with him for ten years and the last time I saw him was in 1933 when Joyce asked me to come to make it easier having Ezra at his house. Ezra was moderately whacky then. The broadcasts are absolutely balmy. I wish we could talk the whole damned thing over. But you can count on me for anything an honest man should do.

Hemingway in a letter to Archibald MacLeish, 1943

A couple of years after this letter, about a month after Mussolini was shot, the sixty-year-old Pound was arrested. They held him at a detention centre in Pisa, apparently within sight of the leaning tower.

For the first three weeks of his detention, Pound was in the specially reinforced cage that can be partially seen at the left in this photo.

A photograph of the row of ordinary cages shows just a corner of this special one. All have concrete slab floors, about six feet wide and six and a half long, simple timber frames, ¼″ wire netting walls, flat wood and tar-paper roofs, except that for Pound’s the steel grille is about an inch deep with four-inch interstices. The cages were open to the elements, to the summer sun, to wind and rain, to the dust blown in from the road to Pisa or from the drill field on hot windy days; and open too to the constant observation of the guards posted to watch him night and day, and to the gaze of passing military police and prisoners on their way in or out of the camp. All night a bright ‘reflector’ light shone on the cage. For furniture he was at first given just a slop pail and six blankets, and slept on the concrete; after some heavy rain, a cot was put in, and took up half the space; then he was given a pup tent which could be arranged to provide shelter from sun and rain. There was a general order that he was not to be spoken with—anyone could stare at him in his cage, but no one was to have a word with him.


A. David Moody, Ezra Pound, Poet. Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (2015)

A young guard at this camp, David Feldman, wrote about Pound decades later, too.

After about three weeks of his caged existence I could see a change occur, an unpleasant change. He appeared to have lost weight and stopped all activity. He looked terrible in his army ‘fatigues’ that became larger on him daily.

I recall a three or four day gap between my strolls past “The Cage”. When I did find time to return to the area, I found him gone. It was at least a week later that I discovered him in the medical area. A good friend in the dispensary informed me that, “He cracked”. The truth is that he became hysterical, lost his memory, and was having nightmares […]

He made good progress and after about three months he was really fit. He was so fit that he asked for and received permission to use the dispensary typewriter. It was at the typewriter that I approached him just to say hello. (I never thought of him as a criminal, just a poet.)

David Feldman, “Ezra Pound, A Poet in a Cage“, Paideuma: Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, 1981

A lot of sympathetic writing on Pound dwells on the cage. It is part of the iconography of his rehabilitation, or rather, the rehabilitation of his image, as Pound himself continued to associate with fascists and white supremacists during and after his incarceration, and he unsurprisingly continues to be an icon for neo-fascist movements like CasaPound today. The simultaneous project of imagistic rehabilitation is meanwhile ongoing (note The Tragic Years in the title of Moody’s biography above.)

For a particular type of unsympathetic response to Pound, we turn to Malcolm Cowley, to whom Hemingway once referred as a stupid-looking potato face. Cowley wrote:

The spoiled great poet was also a spoiled traitor, despised and laughed at by his foreign masters. After being arrested by his own countrymen he was sent to a mental hospital without being granted the dignity of a public trial. It was the perfect retribution, a spoiled punishment for a soiled crime.

Malcolm Cowley, “The Battle over Ezra Pound”, New Republic, 1949. This is after the imprisoned Pound controversially won a poetry award.

To Cowley, Pound’s imprisonment is “perfect retribution” for what he considers a failed treason, because he finds Pound’s broadcasts “silly and ineffective.” They were of course silly, but fascism is silly—the beliefs, the ideas, are so mind-numbingly foolish that they often hardly seem to bear refutation and yet they must be refuted. Both Rainer and Cowley point out that Pound is not directly responsible for any deaths, though from opposite directions: Rainer uses this to claim Pound’s total innocence, and Cowley to suggest that his guilt is ameliorated by his sheer incompetence as a traitor.

Hemingway, MacLeish, Rainer and others supported Pound’s eventual release, sometimes through gritted teeth. In 1957, Hemingway, then a recent Nobel winner, wrote yet another letter in support of Pound’s release, in which, Michael Reynolds writes in his biography, Hemingway continued to “emphasize that he could not abide Pound’s politics, his support of fascism, or his anti-Semitic and racist views.” When Pound was released the following year—the indictment of treason being finally dismissed because he was judged incompetent to stand trial—he received a cheque from Hemingway for $1,500 to sponsor his relocation to Italy. As he had said to MacLeish over a decade before, Hemingway did what he thought an honest man should do.

Of course, Pound had been a mentor and early champion of Hemingway, along with many of the other writers who supported him. Their campaigning for his release was also, perhaps primarily, driven by their sense of indebtedness to him, their need to rescue his celebrity status as a great poet. Where does that leave the less connected writer at the mercy of the state? Would Pound have been less worthy of support if he had not been a famous and much-admired poet with personal ties to Nobel Prize winners? Well, obviously not—and equally obviously, he would not have received that support either. Celebrity trumps principle, in practice if not in theory.


To become a traitor is easy, so easy that it often seems like treason is the natural point at which the citizen would come to rest, gravitationally speaking, if one were not artificially suspended above the pit, as it were, of this original sin by grace of the state—an unearned support easily withdrawn, if you were to oppose the wars of your state, for instance, or the state of your war, which would make you a traitor regardless of whether you oppose this war because you oppose all war, even a “good war”, or whether you support the enemy. For the paranoid state, it is the same operation in either case. Lacking the discerning organs of principle to distinguish between nonviolence and fascism, for instance (what states tend to have instead of principle are constitutions, which are, as self-proclaimed non-war-criminal Kamal Gunaratne indicated recently, just so much toilet paper) the pareidoliac state can find opposition in a grain of sand, enemies in a wild flower.


“Front rouge” [a poem by Louis Aragon] contained several lines advocating militant aggression against the liberal government of Léon Blum. […] Taking the commands “Feu sur Léon Blum” (“Shoot Léon Blum”) and “Descendez les flics” (“kill the cops”) literally as a call to arms (and extracting them from their poetic context), Blum’s Department of Justice accused Aragon on 16 January 1932 of attempting to incite unrest, an act punishable by a prison sentence of five years. […]

Upon hearing the news of the accusation against Aragon, [André] Breton immediately drafted a rebuttal. He circulated this rebuttal as a petition, acquired over three hundred signatures, and published it […]

Breton’s act of solidarity probably saved Aragon from being brought to trial, for the Blum government, at first incensed by the poem’s treasonous call for violent insurrection, felt even more threatened by the negative publicity it would receive as a result of surrealist agitation […] Not wanting to be associated with the dictatorial tactics of censorshop, Blum’s justice department simply dropped the case.

Carrie Noland, “Red Front/Black Front“, Diacritics, 2006

As Hemingway and others supported Pound despite disagreements, André Breton supported Louis Aragon in this situation despite their having fallen out. Upon his release, however, Aragon promptly doubled down by publishing a repudiation of Breton’s petition, the very one that may well have kept him out of prison. Aragon called Breton counter-revolutionary for arguing for the right of a poem to be read as a poem. He’d wanted it read, it seemed, as a call to direct action, and felt that Breton was unnecessarily muddying the clear waters in which les flics were to be descendu.

Break It Down Logically

Howard Schoenfeld’s short story “Built Up Logically” was published in F&SF in 1950, when Schoenfeld was thirty-five. Ten years before that, he spent almost a year in prison for being part of a group resisting conscription for World War II, a group led by David Dellinger, who would go on to a lifetime of anti-war protests. He protested against the American war in Vietnam, for instance and so became one of the Chicago Eight.

Dellinger—played by John Carroll Lynch in Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), who also played the Zodiac killer in Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and Marge’s husband Norm Gunderson in the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996)—spent three years in prison in the early 40s to Schoenfeld’s one. He could have been exempted from service as a divinity student, as were most of his group, but chose prison instead as a pacificist. In Schoenfeld’s account of their shared prison experience, Dellinger caused a stir on his very first day by crossing the colour line in the segregated mess hall and sitting with the black prisoners, for which he was of course punished. Dellinger’s background of privilege, a white man who went to Yale, is a big part of his story throughout his life. For instance, in 1969 the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven after the chaining and gagging of Bobby Seale (as Gil Scott-Heron puts it succinctly in “H20gate Blues”), the kind of treatment that Dellinger, as a white man, would not be subjected to. Over the years Dellinger became an elder statesman of protest, defanged through lionization. Here is how he was described in 1987:

For the past five weeks, Dellinger has been in a D.C. courtroom as one of 18 defendants in a First Amendment civil-disobedience case. The group was arrested last August while protesting nonviolently in the rotunda of the Capitol. It opposed what it saw as the government’s support of killing and violence by the contras in Nicaragua. On Feb. 12, he and his codefendants were found guilty on three counts: unlawful entry, blocking and impeding public space and unlawfully demonstrating in the Capitol. Dellinger and nine others will be sentenced in April. Last Monday, eight co-defendants were given suspended sentences.

At 71, Dellinger was the senior protester. He was also the most jailed—“oh, about 50 times, I guess, I’ve lost count”—and the most articulate.

From Yale to Jail”, Washington Post, 1987

Dellinger himself had something to say about that article in his memoir published a few years later under the same title.

To this day, I am more apt to mention the education I received in prison than the one I got at Yale. But that attempt at identification with some of society’s rejected can also bestow a different kind of unwarranted prestige. Having spent nearly three years in prison for the sake of one’s principles (and numerous shorter stays) is viewed in some circles as more impressive than it should be. So I point out that compared to most of the people I met in prison I was a short-timer. And for similar reasons, I have never kept count of how many times I have been arrested or in jail, a question I am frequently asked by the media and others. (One media writer wrote that I said “about fifty times,” but he made that up.)

David Dellinger, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter, Rose Hill Books, 1993

Howard Schoenfeld’s account of the prison time he shared with Dellinger in 1940 as a conscientious objector took the form of an essay published in the newspapers later in that decade and eventually, in 1950—the same year as his F&SF story—reprinted in Prison Etiquette: The Convict’s Compendium of Useful Information published by Retort Press.

Schoenfeld in solitary, from Prison Etiquette.

Prison Etiquette was an anthology co-edited by Retort Press owners Holley Cantine and Dachine Rainer, anti-war activists and writers, themselves conscientious objectors and fascinating characters—more on them in a different essay. Rainer and Cantine had worked with Schoenfeld before: his F&SF story, “Built Up Logically,” was also a reprint, having been originally published in their anarchist journal Retort a year earlier, under the title “The Universal Panacea.” Retort didn’t pay contributors at all, so one hopes F&SF paid full rates for reprints back in the day.

Always thought this was a hideous cover.

There are some small differences in the text between “Built Up Logically” and “The Universal Panacea”. Here is an archive.org link to the full F&SF issue with “Built Up Logically” and here it is in audio, via a 2008 reading at the Slug of Time podcast; here is a PDF of the full issue of Retort that contains “The Universal Panacea.” The differences are mostly to do with drug references carefully excised in the F&SF version. This version has been anthologized numerous times—for instance, it appears in the 1973 Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss, which, via a second-hand bookshop in Colombo sometime in the mid-90s, is how I encountered this story for the first time.

“Built Up Logically” is funny, twisty, and metafictional: the initial narrator-author Aspasia, who writes himself into the story twice so that he can get laid offscreen in the background “without interference from the censors” while continuing to narrate in his primary characterization, is engaged in an eventually deadly struggle for authorship of the story with Frank, who has a certain gimmick whereby he can invent things and make it so that they have always been part of the universe, such as rabbits and pianos, and eventually the universe itself.

More than the contest between would-be narrators for authorship, more even than Sally La Rue’s time machine that moves the whole universe forward in time so that everything always looks exactly the same and you’re not sure if anything real has happened—is there a better image of Progress—this is the part of this story that stuck with me for the last quarter-century or so.

The opening lines of “The Universal Panacea” (Retort, 1949)

The universal panacea in question is, explicitly, marihuana, as Schoenfeld puts it—so “The Universal Panacea”, in its original form, is less about narrative metalepsis and more about being extremely high, unless you consider those, not unreasonably, the same thing. The F&SF version excises all explicit mentions of weed, but without changing the line to make the edit make sense. For instance, it simply replaces reefer with cigar, like so:

“The universal panacea,” Frank said, lighting a cigar. “Have one.”

Opening line of “Built Up Logically”, (F&SF, 1950)

This tobacco-ized version never made sense to me. I was a smoker for some fifteen of the twenty-five years since my first reading of this story and it didn’t seem like a natural thing for a smoker to say. But it’s a very odd story, so I’d chalked this line up to another random oddity for a long time, only to discover that it does in fact make perfect sense in the original, much in the way that the mysteries of the universe resolve themselves when you’re high.

The thing with the rabbit is one such profundity that, however, does not seem to lose relevance upon sobriety. Everything—any object, any creature, any sufficiently complex part of the universe you care to point at—implies the rest of the universe. The universe, considered as the union of rabbit and not-rabbit: not just the space and time it takes up as a particular being, but its ancestry and evolution, the environment it requires and is adapted to, the cosmic laws and material histories that must be in place in order to rabbit.

I say any sufficiently complex part of the universe because it seems to be that such cosmic reconstructibility relies on a focal point (the rabbit, the piano, a poem, a prison) that is the way it is because everything was the way it was. So the universe you build depends on your choice of focus. The world you make depends on the seed you use as its absent heart. You could reconstruct a universe from a hydrogen atom or from water or a rock, but such a universe does not necessarily need to include a human civilization. You could reconstruct a universe from a bone flute and it would not include the history that postdates that object. A rabbit born well before this story was published—say, while its author was in prison—would be markedly different from a rabbit born after: the latter would carry in its body the mark of the bomb pulse, as we do.


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Strange Halves

I started thinking about this essay after my story “Redder” was published, to briefly talk about a specific technique of storytelling: stories whose structure is intentionally discontinuous but nondual, built out of seeming halves. As always, this essay is brought to you with the support of my patrons! Some personal news in the meantime: having written what will hopefully be my first novel, I am now represented by Michael Curry of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Satpralat (2004) is called Tropical Malady in English, not Strange Creature, which would be a more literal translation of สัตว์ประหลาด. Most reviews speak of the film as having two halves. In fact, it’s difficult not to speak of it as having two halves—there is an explicit transition between the two, and while there is (some) continuity of character, there is a massive shift in style, register, and tone. This may not seem all that uncommon a device: for example, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020) does something very similar, where Aubrey Plaza’s character goes from being the manipulator in the first half to the manipulated in the second. But Black Bear flattens itself with its framing device that repeatedly shows (yet another?) Aubrey Plaza character drafting multiple versions of a screenplay, of which the two halves—the bear in the road and the bear near the boathouse—are only drafts in different genres. So Black Bear is less what I’m talking about and more like an American remake of Sion Sono’s Antiporno (2016), where the first half is revealed in the second half to be a film, with the power dynamics of the film-within-the-film being inverted in the story of the production of that film-within-the-film. But both Black Bear and Antiporno have continuity between their halves: they are not discontinuous halves but unfoldings.

In Satpralat, the first half is a romance between two men set in a world seems like ours. The second half is a world apart, a fantastical sequence of transformation and apparition, where one of the lovers is sometimes a tiger, but not the generic cinematic weretiger that one might be forced to imagine, with the howls and chains and writhing and cracking bones and predictable guilts; no, this is not that. Between these worlds, these halves, there is a pause: a black screen that slowly fades into a tiger who announces that we are embarking on a new path.

Still from Satpralat (2004): the threshold between its halves.

The halves read each other, but we encounter them, necessarily, in sequence. So it is only in the second half that we understand that we’re meant to read both what we’re seeing now and reread what we saw before. An hour later, when we get to the tiger facing the man in the jungle, we understand their dynamic of desire and pursuit. The first half reads the second as much as the other way around. This isn’t metafiction: this is a mirror-fiction that doesn’t tell you which side of the mirror you’re on.

Still from Satpralat (2004): the climactic faceoff.

In Jess Barton’s strangely doubled poem “Lord, Be A Femme” (2017), published on Tumblr, read by the author here, and included in the Nameless Woman anthology, available here for free, the transition is similarly tight and explicit—“My asshole becomes a glorious portal through time and space fucked back to Mayan brothels in Guatemalan jungles.” Then it does, and we are in another world peopled by men who are jaguars, not tigers. But at the same time (and in another time) it’s the same people and the same story, too. This is what’s important about these strange halves: despite being clearly distinct, they are not dyadic but nondual. Not separate stories cut together, not unfoldings of a fiction into a metafiction, but each half precisely a reading of the other. A prediction, or a prophesy—a vision. The cloud of connotations shifts too much with each of those words. Prediction is too sfnal, a model or forecast; prophesy is too fantastical, a destiny, a fate, a doom. Vision, at least, feels appropriately mystical, or at least mysterious: a weird, a word, a word in your ear, whispered by the voices of the dead.



In April 2019, Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested for a short story that he had posted on Facebook. The story was in Sinhala, called “අර්ධ”: ardha, which means half. The strange arrest was instigated by a faction of Buddhist monks who I would have called hardliners if there existed a softer line worth speaking of; as it is, they are merely representative. Their problem with the story was, in a word, blasphemy.

It would be four months before Sathkumara was even given bail. The case is still ongoing, and the possibility of prison time is still on the table. Meanwhile, the story, originally written in Sinhala, was eventually translated into English and published by the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. I did my own translation, too, though I didn’t publish it at the time: well, there it is, for what it’s worth. It seemed redundant then, and perhaps it is even now, because such cases are not truly about the words or about art or its place in our lives.

What precisely about Sathkumara’s story was so objectionable as to land its author in prison is itself somewhat entangled. One half of that tangle is simply that it depicts monks in an unflatteringly realistic way, such as by acknowledging the rampant child abuse that characterizes Buddhist temples or by having a monk named Gnanasara show up as a character accusing social workers of helping “Tiger families,” or even just by having the main character be an ex-monk who sees monkhood as pointless and miserable and is glad to be rid of it. In other words, the story depicts Sri Lankan Buddhism as it is. Its genre is unbearable realism.

Then there is the other half, perhaps the major part of the offense that was taken: the blasphemy. This is the brief short-story-within-the-short-story where Siddhartha is cuckolded by his charioteer. This fiction-within is too small, you might say, to constitute a half. But considering its outsize impact, its wildly disproportionate consequence, it would be more correct to say that this paragraph is the bigger half of the story. As the fiction-within gives way to the metafiction, the characters acknowledge that the joke is unspeakable: the narrator urges its author to burn the story-within. Perhaps if he had, the author’s author would not have gone to prison. But what then would have been lost, and whose loss would it have been?

In May 2020, Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested for a book of poems, “நவரசம்,” Navarasam, written in Tamil. He is still in prison. The book is now online but not yet in translation. The accusation this time is not blasphemy, but promoting terrorism; where Sathkumara was detained under “hate speech” legislation, Jazeem is being detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. As that article notes:

Ahnaf’s book of poetry was also cleared by an eminent scholar of the Tamil language and retired Professor of Tamil at the University of Peradeniya, M.A. Nuhman, who famously authored “The Murder of Buddha,” a poem about the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981. Professor Nuhman said he had read Jazeem’s tiny anthology of 45 poems after hearing of the poet’s prolonged detention under the PTA and found nothing on extremism in the collection.

“On the contrary, there are several poems against extremism, violence, and war in this collection,” Professor Nuhman said in a statement on Jazeem’s arrest.

Professor Nuhman, a widely respected Tamil scholar, said Jazeem work mostly concerned religious morality, humanism, love and a peaceful life. “How can these sentiments be seen as promoting extremism,” he questioned, adding that the authorities who could not read or understand poetry in the Tamil language may have run away with that notion because there were a few pictures of people in arms depicted in the printed version of Jazeem’s anthology.

The discontinuity between prosecution and defense is so complete that these two halves of each case are not even debating the same thing. These cases are absolutely about the freedom of art (dead as it is on this island, are we not still haunted) but at the same time these cases are, clearly, not truly about art at all. What here has been lost, and whose loss is it? These cases aren’t even necessarily about words: Ahnaf was arrested and detained without investigators or magistrate being able to read the book, which they still are not. The prosecution happily wallows in illiteracy; it is the belated defense that must now read poetry, that must seek real translation, that must argue that words mean things and that the truth matters. The prosecuting state is happy to take the easy position that truth is reducible to power, and that art is at best a nuisance and at worst a kind of disease—hardly a pandemic, of course, merely the last remnant pockets of infection, something nearly eradicated.

A Murder of Darlings

Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) is the film that inspired the Misfits song of the same title, some twenty years later.

Humorous or exotic collective nouns for animals—a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks and so on, known as terms of venery—apparently date back to a fad in 15th century memes. Venery comes from a PIE root which is probably a cousin of both வேட்டை and වැදි, all meaning to chase, to pursue: to hunt. So these various collectivities are terms of the hunt, but in their excess and general ridiculousness they are also, obviously, supposed to be funny. They are Bits, of long standing and continued memeability. From a perspective of naked utility, if you think in terms not of Bits but of Data concerned with the efficiency of the hunt, they are redundancies at best, errors at worst: a useless ornamentation of language.

Which, of course, is frequently repeated advice to the writer, usually parroted without attribution or explanation beyond the claim that it is self-evident: to kill your darlings, to murder your darlings, to avoid ornament. Specifically, the advice is to avoid superfluous ornament, but this has long since become streamlined through relentless citation into repudiating prettiness in general: down with the floral, the lyrical,the baroque. And obviously to some extent this is both perfectly reasonable—in that superfluous ornament is by definition superfluous, the extraneous has extra right there in the name, look—and useless by itself, because the trick is to be able to tell if it’s extra or not, isn’t it? If you could tell that it was unnecessary, you wouldn’t write it that way in the first place, thanks. But it’s not as simple as stripping out all the Bits and leaving only Data. For one thing, that would leave your language dead, which after all is what happens when you kill something. For another, and more complicatedly, there is the small problem that words mean things.

The meaning of a text isn’t only discrete units of data transmitting information in dots and dashes, but a vast and mutable weather system of connotation, subtext, and allusion that shifts and fluctuates as your mind moves along the sentence and reconstructs both it and the world around you. So killing darlings means changing what is being said: saying it a different way means saying something else. Another writers’ truism and a more useful one is that there are no true synonyms, if you account for the worlds they make.

But this is all besides the point, in a way: what made me want to add my own small note to this overcooked topic is that I have heard this advice cited a thousand times but rarely heard it correctly or fully attributed to its fascinating origin, which we begin by going back slightly over a hundred years to 1916:

Now you will find much pretty swordsmanship in its pages, but nothing more trenchant than the passage in which Newman assails and puts to rout the Persian host of infidels—I regret to say, for the most part Men of Science—who would persuade us that good writing, that style, is something extrinsic to the subject, a kind of ornamentation laid on to tickle the taste, a study for the dilettante, but beneath the notice of their stern and masculine minds.

Such a view, as he justly points out, belongs rather to the Oriental mind than to our civilisation: it reminds him of the way young gentlemen go to work in the East when they would engage in correspondence with the object of their affection. The enamoured one cannot write a sentence himself: he is the specialist in passion (for the moment); but thought and words are two things to him, and for words he must go to another specialist, the professional letter-writer. Thus there is a division of labour.

[…]

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

Arthur Quiller-Couch in On the Art of Writing: Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, 1913–1914 (1916)

So Quiller-Couch is asking us to murder our darlings so as to avoid this trap of the Oriental mind, this “extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation” which is something other than Style. But who is this Newman that he himself is citing for support? For that we have to go back another half-century t0 1852.

Thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one: style is a thinking out into language. This is what I have been laying down, and this is literature; not things, not the verbal symbols of things; not on the other hand mere words; but thoughts expressed in language. Call to mind, Gentlemen, the meaning of the Greek word which expresses this special prerogative of man over the feeble intelligence of the inferior animals. It is called Logos: what does Logos mean? it stands both for reason and for speech, and it is difficult to say which it means more properly. It means both at once: why? because really they cannot be divided,—because they are in a true sense one. When we can separate light and illumination, life and motion, the convex and the concave of a curve, then will it be possible for thought to tread speech under foot, and to hope to do without it—then will it be conceivable that the vigorous and fertile intellect should renounce its own double, its instrument of expression, and the channel of its speculations and emotions.

Critics should consider this view of the subject before they lay down such canons of taste as the writer whose pages I have quoted. Such men as he is consider fine writing to be an addition from without to the matter treated of,—a sort of ornament superinduced, or a luxury indulged in, by those who have time and inclination for such vanities. They speak as if one man could do the thought, and another the style. We read in Persian travels of the way in which young gentlemen go to work in the East, when they would engage in correspondence with those who inspire them with hope or fear. They cannot write one sentence themselves; so they betake themselves to the professional letter-writer. They confide to him the object they have in view. They have a point to gain from a superior, a favour to ask, an evil to deprecate; they have to approach a man in power, or to make court to some beautiful lady. The professional man manufactures words for them, as they are wanted, as a stationer sells them paper, or a schoolmaster might cut their pens. Thought and word are, in their conception, two things, and thus there is a division of labour. The man of thought comes to the man of words; and the man of words, duly instructed in the thought, dips the pen of desire into the ink of devotedness, and proceeds to spread it over the page of desolation. Then the nightingale of affection is heard to warble to the rose of loveliness, while the breeze of anxiety plays around the brow of expectation. This is what the Easterns are said to consider fine writing; and it seems pretty much the idea of the school of critics to whom I have been referring.

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1852)

But who is Newman even arguing with, this “the writer whose pages I have quoted”? For that we go back almost another century, to 1766.

This is Laurence Sterne. While I delight in the long s and the little ligatures of the c and t (a useless ornament if there ever was one) let me reproduce the relevant part, as quoted by Newman, in a slightly more readable format:

There are two sorts of eloquence, the one indeed scarce deserves the name of it, which consists chiefly in laboured and polished periods, an over-curious and artificial arrangement of figures, tinselled over with a gaudy embellishment of words, which glitter, but convey little or no light to the understanding. This kind of writing is for the most part much affected and admired by the people of weak judgment and vicious taste; but it is a piece of affectation and formality the sacred writers are utter strangers to. It is a vain and boyish eloquence; and, as it has always been esteemed below the great geniuses of all ages, so much more so with respect to those writers who were actuated by the spirit of Infinite Wisdom, and therefore wrote with that force and majesty with which never man writ. The other sort of eloquence is quite the reverse to this, and which may be said to be the true characteristic of the Holy Scriptures; where the excellence does not arise from a laboured and far-fetched elocution, but from a surprising mixture of simplicity and majesty, which is a double character, so difficult to be united that it is seldom to be met with in compositions merely human. We see nothing in Holy Writ of affectation and superfluous ornament … Now, it is observable that the most excellent profane authors, whether Greek or Latin, lose most of their graces whenever we find them literally translated. Homer’s famed representation of Jupiter—his cried-up description of a tempest, his relation of Neptune’s shaking the earth and opening it to its centre, his description of Pallas’s horses, with numbers of other long-since admired passages, flag, and almost vanish away, in the vulgar Latin translation.

[…]

Let any one but take the pains to read the common Latin interpretations of Virgil, Theocritus, or even of Pindar, and one may venture to affirm he will be able to trace out but few remains of the graces which charmed him so much in the original. The natural conclusion from hence is, that in the classical authors, the expression, the sweetness of the numbers, occasioned by a musical placing of words, constitute a great part of their beauties; whereas, in the sacred writings, they consist more in the greatness of the things themselves than in the words and expressions. The ideas and conceptions are so great and lofty in their own nature that they necessarily appear magnificent in the most artless dress. Look but into the Bible, and we see them shine through the most simple and literal translations.

Laurence Sterne, Sermon XLII, The Sermons of Mr Yorick, Vol. III (1766)

It seems the original Orientals with their gaudy, artificial, affected prose—those dashed darlingmakers—were the writers of the Greek and Roman classics from Homer and Herodotus on down, being chastised by Sterne for not matching up to the unornamented ſublimity of the Bible. Newman then argues with Sterne, attempting to rescue the profane writers by shifting the source of iniquity to the East and its dastardly scribes and freelance copywriters, filthy practices not behooving the white writer; Quiller-Couch agrees, and suggests that Style is that which the East is not, and that the path to racial purity lies in the ruthless purging of all that is Oriental within (and without, of course, as was a habit of the culture.) And from there this advice becomes a miasma that infects and endlessly reproduces itself tommyknockeresque in the bloated carcass of literary advice culture, from Stephen King in 2000 (On Writing) to, as recently as a month ago, some scam called MasterClass dot com, where you can sign up to be told the same thing by Neil Gaiman for $180 a year.