Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Case of Writer's Block: From the Story's Point of View

Violet, the well-dressed villainess, stood frozen at the top of the stairs, her right leg hoisted in the air, suspended mid-step.

“Dammit!” she swore under her breath. "Can’t even get me to the bottom of the stairs without a hot shower, three cups of coffee, and a run around the block. Come on, man, focus!”

Violet was stuck like that for three days, and developed an impressively painful charley horse before her foot finally came crashing down onto the next step. She rushed wickedly to the bottom of the staircase, only to run smack into a stalwart blue swarm of policemen, who fingered their pistols and eyed her in that steely municipal "Myaah, nowhere ta go now, sheee?" sort of way. Violet stopped in her tracks and posed in a cloud of glamour.

“Well, boys,” she purred dangerously. “You’ve got me. But how did you ever guess it was me all along? What was the clue that put you hot on my trail?”

The policemen stared and blinked and blinked and stared, but none of them spoke. They scratched their heads and opened their mouths as if to say something, but no words came out.

“Well?” said Violet.

The policemen blinked some more, but no one had anything to say.

About a week and a half passed in this manner, during which Violet was obliged to bring sandwiches and coffee around to the speechless squadron in her foyer, for they were growing faint.

Violet banged her head against the wall in despair and wailed.

“Oh, wait, I know! It must have been my fingerprints all over the butcher knife--monogrammed with my initials, incidentally--which you found plunged into the back of the corpse!”

The cops blinked again.

“That was it, right?!” She glared up at the ceiling now, addressing some unknown force.

The cops jolted to life.

“Uh, yeah," they agreed with an exchange of tentative looks. "Yeah, that was it! Shheeee? We’ve got the goods on you now, sister, and you’re coming downtown.”

Violet sighed.

“Thank frickin’ God…let’s get on with it.”

She resumed her glam posture, raised a no-goodnik eyebrow, and winked an evil wink.

“But I’m afraid I’m not going anywhere with you coppers!” she said, and slyly twisted the head of a marble statuette on the bookcase to her left.

“Ha HA!”

But to her dismay, the bookcase did not swing aside to reveal a secret escape passage, or anything useful like that. It didn’t budge.

Violet balled up her fists and hissed at the ceiling.

“Aw, come on, you cookie-pushing bastard! I gave you that codswollop about the fingerprints, throw me a bone, here!”

As if by magic, the bookcase sprang aside to reveal a secret passage, through which Violet, the well-dressed villainess, promptly escaped.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Gift

Whenever anyone asks me why I'm so willing to resort to fisticuffs in defense of books as the greatest art form in the history of humanity, I say it's because a good book may look like an innocent heap of nouns and verbs at first glance, but then it sneaks up on you like a ninja and stabs you in the face with something like Vladimir Nabokov's description of a simple street:

It rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.

In one sentence he's managed to give you the street you asked for and roundhouse you in the skull with his clever clogs. It's just one sentence plucked from three hundred pages of hotshot dexterity, almost a throwaway there on page two, like the quick flick that bloodies a nose at the beginning of a long kung fu fight. And like the martial arts masters of yore, in that one slight sentence the author reveals his lifetime of training, discipline, education, understanding and anticipation of human nature, and pure, mind-boggling talent. This is a man who spent his youth behind the bleachers making out with every foxy bit of language and literature he could get his hands on. With tongue. Ok, I'm mixing my martial arts and sex metaphors here, but it's an accurate reflection of my personal experiences with the very best books in the world: I'm seduced, assassinated, and reborn all at once.

(P.G. Wodehouse knocks me out with clockwork regularity, too, although within this kung fu analogy he's more like Sammo Hung, the harmless-looking doofy dork who couldn't address a serious topic if you put a gun to his head and started counting backwards from five, but who nevertheless lays you out with his relentless superhuman moves.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Nicholas Shakespeare

I just flipped through a bit of a novel called The Dancer Upstairs by Nicholas Shakespeare. S'pretty good so far. I would put him on par with John Le Carré or someone like that. Solid work. I'll read the whole book later on down the road, but not right this second.

You know what I'm gonna say.

I cannot even begin to wrap my head around being a contemporary English writer saddled with the surname Shakespeare, having to maintain a professional countenance and not get stressed out that each manuscript you produce is simply not Hamlet. I mean, yeah, on the other hand, when you brush your teeth every morning, you are fully entitled to jab that toothbrush at your reflection and declare "Dadgummit, I AM SHAKESPEARE!" through your mouthful of foam with righteous authority. I would. But somehow I don't think this guy indulges in that kind of thing.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Breakfast Machine

O, Technology, I have a crush on you, from the innards of my MacBook to the Large Hadron Collider. I get misty over a good space shuttle launch, or a magnified view of the tiny spinning gears of a pocket watch. Good lord, but I love mankind's machines and contraptions.

I have a special soft spot for a certain invention, a Rube-Goldbergian peculiarity of Western pop culture: the Breakfast Machine. Pee-Wee Herman's got one, Wallace and Gromit have one--my personal touchstone is an earlier model, the breakfast machine from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (pictured above), in which the plates arrive on a wee train while a series of ferris wheels and levers crack eggs and distribute sausages, leaving crackpot widower Dick Van Dyke free to sing to his kids about how much he loves them. And dadgummit, they love him back, even if it does take the man a week to fry a freaking egg.

Maybe that's it. I cannot join the no-fun Luddites, who proclaim that technology will lead us to ruin, who pray for a Great Unplugging, and, like bloodthirsty French Revolutionaries cheering tumbrels on the road to the guillotine, would rejoice at the sight of shredded wiring and shattered motherboards strewn in the streets. But neither can I join with the no-soul techno-drones, who would take a beautiful machine and use it merely as a way to make us go faster and faster until we drop from exhaustion and despair.

But the breakfast machine is the best of both worlds. It is a pure celebration of humanity's hard-earned, intricate understanding of physics and engineering, but it doesn't save any time or pocket any money for the Man at all. If that's not punk rock, I don't know what is. The breakfast machine is a love letter to Newcomen and Thoreau all at once. It is absolutely pointless, but cannot be built without hard work and a brilliant mind. The breakfast machine is a way for the elegant clockwork of the universe, through the eyes of its sentient carbon-based children, to admire itself.

And that's just cracking, Gromit.

Bonus: Remember that classic piece of "machinery" music? C'mon, you know the one I'm talking about: the ubiquitous soundtrack of every cartoon that ever featured a crazy machine or the chugging of an industrial production line in a factory. I'm sure you're humming it in your head right now. It's called "Powerhouse" by Raymond Scott.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Immortality of the Lobster

Nature, as the poet says, is positively scarlet in t. and c., and has thought of many creative, messy, and painful ways of killing her mortal children.

Even if you manage to avoid tsunamis, man-eating tigers, pneumonia, traffic accidents, Patriot missiles, strokes, dirty lettuce, flamethrowers, cancer, roadside bombs, clogged arteries, and the corner of San Pedro and 84th St. in Los Angeles, you still won't make it past about 120 in the very best of scenarios. It's true. No matter how much danger and sickness you dodge, you're still going to die from being plain old, well, old.

A smarty-pants scientist friend of mine told me some interesting things about this recently. The reason we age is connected to a feature of our chromosomes known as the telomere. Put very simply, telomeres are bits of DNA at the ends of your chromosomes, which keep the chromosomes from deteriorating (kind of like how that little plastic aglet thingy keeps the ends of your shoelaces from fraying.) As your cells replicate over your lifetime, these telomeres get shorter and shorter, until they reach something known as the Hayflick Limit, which is when cells stop dividing because the telomeres have gotten too short. This leads to aging and death. So, essentially, even if you don't get sick or injured, your cells are simply programmed to die after a certain number of replications.

However, there is a creature who is immune to this cell death: the lobster.

Yes. This tastiest of crustaceans does not suffer from shortening telomeres, and therefore does not "age" in the sense that we know it. Lobsters show none of the usual signs of decrepitude, such as weakness or loss of reproductive virility; they simply reach sexual maturity and then just keep getting bigger and bigger. The biggest lobster on record weighed 40 pounds, and although there is no certain way to determine its age, based on the usual rate of lobster growth, he was probably around 100 years old.

Of course lobsters can die due to other factors, such as being killed in fights with rival lobsters or other creatures, succumbing to infection or disease, or, the most common cause, being so damned delicious with butter.

This means that lobsters are essentially the Elves from Lord of the Rings. I imagine that Tolkien pictured the lords of heaven bestowing this gift on a slightly more attractive, graceful species. But it just goes to show that Mother Nature has a much more ancient and Greek sense of humor, in that she will bless you with immortality, but make you taste like bacon.