Dispatch #12: Devil Town
Random thoughts--truly, truly random
Have you ever crept into your child’s room in the middle of the night and leaned down to kiss their hot sweaty sleeping face, and marveled at their stillness and innocence and beauty? And what about the smallest child, who whispers sing to me as you kiss their cheek? What else can you do but sing?
This week I am thinking about this.
Also, this: the science fiction author M. John Harrison wrote a viral blog post in the early aughts against world building. When I teach setting and world building, I end with this quote of his, which begins:
Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.
Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, and if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder and the worldbuilder’s victim, and makes us very afraid.
It’s not what you might think—that he values story over exposition, or even that his own seminal science fiction novels don’t have much world building (apparently they do). It’s more of a political statement. He argues that the world is already so mediated by corporations and brands who are presenting us constantly with a falsely coherent, virtual world—even as our own, literal, world dies around us—that we don’t need more of that in our narratives. He and other writers of his ilk argue that science fiction can’t be “a literature of consolation,” but must contend with the complicated, fragmented, diminished and unresolved world.
The same goes for any kind of fiction, no? Lately, all my podcasts are talking about how they only want happy content, or, at least, not-sad content. I get it. The world is hard right now. And while I suppose others might find solace in easily resolved narratives where no one is ever in danger, emotionally or physically, they entertain me for a bit until I am bored and I am left cold. As Helen Marshall writes in an academic article I read all about this world building question:
“If fiction offers an escape, it is not an escape from pain; it is rather the awareness that this pain is the experience of life and that it is the purpose of fiction to reflect its painful contradictions, not to resolve them but to flare them in our minds.”
Turns out I was a vampire myself
In the devil town.
Question: When people read romance novels, do they have to masturbate or have sex after the book has successfully turned them on? This is a sincere question. Or, does the story’s narrative closure provide the only climax one requires? Is this why people say they read the entire romance novel in one sitting? Seriously, tell me.
(Speaking of masturbation, I wrote this.)
Another question: Why did LAUSD begin serving students BAGS of milk, rather than cartons? Must be way cheaper, right? They are literally clear plastic bags that you have to somehow stick a straw into, like sucking up a jelly fish. Bean calls them Diet White Paint. Ginger brought one home and I was like…Is this an animal bladder in your lunch?
When I talk about world building, I say it’s in every piece of fiction you read, even realist fiction. Generic realism is a “couch” in a “room” and everyone fell asleep reading your work because it was without sensual detail, social mores, history, rules, mood. It wasn’t real. There are so many versions of the real world. Give us one. We talk about how vulnerable that is, to present a world to the reader; you have to declare: this is what is central, this is what matters, this is what gets noticed, this is how power and desire work.
Remember, being a kid, and seeing the inside of another family’s fridge? What a shock it was to see it organized that way! And when you visited a romantic partner’s family for the first time, and you found yourself organizing in your mind how the family worked—that was a whole world you entered. You learned what and how they ate, where they kept the soap and how they handled the mail, and what they talked about, what they never discussed, and how humor functioned, and what made their mom upset and their brother curse. You were the reader in that scenario, and your lover’s family was a book to read. And what a book!
Books. I am fifty pages from the end of Lonesome Dove and don’t want it to end. Talk about world building!
A book: Ginger’s teacher gave her a picture book about gardening called Tops & Bottoms, and Patrick said, “Oh…I thought it was going to be about something else.” And Ginger kept asking what he thought it was going to be about, and I remained silent as he tried to get out of this one. He finally said, “I thought it would be about a power bottom, which is someone who is passive but also assertive.” Or something. Ginger didn’t even understand enough to ask another question.
Mickey is calling my nipples my pimples. If he sees me naked he says, “Let me see your pimples. Let me see your pimples.”
Speaking of, I loved this essay/poem/art “Is the First Technological Question the Question of Nipples?” by Mary Margaret Alvarado, which begins:
What kind of a machine is found by smell, in the dark? What kind of a machine turns blood into food? What kind of a machine works better unwashed? What kind of a machine gets darker when ready? What kind of a machine tingles, grows, consumes itself? What kind of a machine may be repaired with cold cabbage leaves or beer? What kind of a machine runs briefly while dead? What kind of a machine may start when a stranger cries? What kind of a machine do you suckle? What kind of a machine can’t be replicated? What kind of a machine seems sexual but mostly isn’t? What kind of sexual is food?
I also loved this essay by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore about mothering and writing during the pandemic: “I had no choice but to write that book in a state of mortal and financial terror, without much sleep or hope. I am proud of it, but certain it shaved years off my life.”
I watched the beautiful, odd film “Bergman Island” and mostly wanted the main character’s clothing. Patrick said, She’s your style icon! And she is! But did her husband really have to be that much older than her? I know he’s supposed to be a more famous and lauded director than her, but, come on! Tim Roth is an OLD MAN. Once I said to Patrick in front of the kids, “No actress can be over 35 whereas the actors can be old as dirt,” and now both of the older ones ask me, “Why can no actress be over the age of 35?” They keep asking me. They’re building the world from my diatribes.
I was really hoping the stupid, tautological phrase “it is what it is” would finally die once Trump used it to talk about COVID deaths. But, no, it persists. Please, everyone, stop.
Finally, in fashion news: I’m preparing to chop all my hair off in the next month or two, so I am slowly acquiring some new clothing. I’m turning on the feminine so I can butch it up with my street urchin little boy ‘do. I got this skirt and I love it.
Tell me something random you’re thinking about.