Tuesday, September 11, 2012

10 Stories I'll Never Write

I keep a file on my computer called "Miscellaneous Writings." Initially, I envisioned this as a seedbed for ideas I would have later on. But it increasingly developed into a repository for ideas that would never come to fruition-- an infinitely expandable library of half-conceived thoughts, interesting ideas that could never lend themselves to a compelling narrative, brief sketches, quips and bons mots, short reviews of books by Tanizaki Junichiro, Cesare Pavese, Susan Sontag.

A significant numbers of the ideas contained here came to me in dreams. Typically, they seem utterly lucid and brilliant in the early morning haze. By the time I'm on the train to work, I realize just how shit they are. These are interspersed throughout the list, but don't expect me to reveal which stories they actually are.

Other stories were inspired by very specific experiences-- listening to one song, or reading one short story, or watching one movie. These sorts of experiences yield a great creative outflow within a few hours of the actual experience, but fail to have any real staying power-- they are mere images, fragments of dialogue, and settings.

Like all junk drawers, it grows in complexity and mystery while rarely yielding anything of value. So consider the following to be the steel washers, gummy electrical tape (bought for a home improvement project 5 years ago), expired coupons, and wheat pennies of my literary pretensions.

1. The story of the unspoken feelings between two old friends, told entirely through emoticons.

2. A day in the life of a professor of animal languages at a major American research university, rooted in the parlor-game absurdity of so much contemporary analytical philosophy.

3. A variation of the Canterbury Tales retold in the bar of a seedy budget motel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (called, of course, the Canterbury), with the pardoner as a gay antique dealer, the wife of Bath as a soccer mom, the clerk as a broke grad student, etc.

4. Close biographies and micro-level stories from one single Seattle neighborhood over the course of 100 years, using a fake (but potentially real) coffee table book of oral histories of said neighborhood. This coffee table book will be attractively priced at $29.99, and available at the Made in Washington Store in Pike Place Market.

5. The story of the last two weeks of someone's life as told through items in his or her garbage bin. This person has just committed suicide, or been hit by a car, or something equally dramatic.

6. A documentation of the presence of the map of a city that may or may not exist as it occurs, seemingly at random, through sketches in the margins of notebooks, frost crystals on icy windows, and other meeting points of intention, causality, and stochasticity.

7. Story opening: "Amy and Liz were at a bar in Pioneer Square drinking Diet Cuba Libres after work on Thursday." Where it goes from here, I don't know.

8. An observation: when I look at black and white photos from the early 20th Century, everything looks like it should be depicted in black and white. When I look at color photos taken in the same years, everything looks like a BBC costume drama. The story will be the analysis of color (one color, or maybe a class of colors, or maybe the entire spectrum) as it wanes and waxes over the course of centuries.

9. A postal worker begins reading other people's letters. He develops whole mythologies about who they are, what they do, but is ultimately overwhelmed by the stupidity and the venality of the people around him. He documents his own failures in a book he calls The Book of Disappointments, consisting of letters, bills, and other ephemera, followed by his commentary on them. The story follows the postal worker as he writes the book, including some of the letters and some of the commentary.

10. Two young men watch the Beijing Olympics in a house in some anonymous part of the West Coast, eating nachos. It's one of those houses with sheets for curtains that has the aura of a permanent hangover. An argument over something unknown and unknowable begins between the host and his girlfriend. The other is left alone in the livingroom, watching North Korean gymnasts.

By committing these ideas to the never-to-be-written, I am fully consigning them to their fate. Even if I am struck, for some reason, to continue writing one of these stories, my own stubbornness will almost doubtless preclude the urge to write them.

Italo Calvino wrote, in the introduction to If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, the story of all the books we'll never read that stare down at us, glumly, from their shelves at the bookstore. As more and more books are published year in and year out, this list expands indefinitely. My own to-read list expands at an exponential rate, and I am quite comfortable with the fact that I will die before ever reading a great many of these books.

Likewise, it is useful to take account of the things we'll never write. I won't call them books-- they are the ideas that must be disposed of before we can compose the things we want the world to see. Consider this short piece to be my salute to all the dross that we dispose of as we write, all the half-formed ideas that must be tossed aside in the creation of something greater.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Industrial Civilization

Lately, I've been spending hours looking at the photographs-- or "typologies," as they preferred-- of Bernd and Hilla Becher.  We see a water tower, a blast furnace, shot in a strict, almost clinical style.

Function is transformed into aesthetic. This plain, positivist architecture could some day be as worthy of beauty and admiration as the spires of the Hagia Sophia.

I've always had this fascination with industrial ruins. In other countries and other times, children could look around them and see the Romans and Cathars, the Wars of the Roses and the Ottomans and the Tokugawa Shogunate. Growing up in Middle America-- too far east for cowboys and Indians, too far west for minutemen and redcoats, too far north for Yankees and rebs-- this was the dramatic history around me. Past civilizations hadn't left cathedrals and battlefields, they'd left smokestacks and grain elevators.

When I first studied art history, I came upon Charles Demuth's paintings of the factories of his Pennsylvania hometown, and he called one of them "My Egypt."

And when I drove up to Minneapolis and wandered along the soft banks of the Mississippi River, it struck me as no coincidence that the 19th Century wheat barons had built their mills as the temples of industry, with Hellenic columns and massive arched windows.

As my home nation began its long, slow, brutal process of deindustrialization, industrial imagery took on a trendiness. 30 years ago, this was probably cool. Since then, it has become thoroughly obnoxious. We might fetishize shiny chrome and exposed brick, but we have scrubbed it clean of all of its implications. When I see a pile of rusting, jagged metal, it no longer looks like a pile of rusting, jagged metal, but a sculpture.

And now that I live in the new industrial sphere of Southeast Asia, the gloss dissipates, and I am left with the brutal contradictions of industrial capitalism.

I come home to the smell of welding flux wafting up to my apartment from the tangle of Chinese machinists' shops below me. The city of Bangkok is ringed by vast industrial estates. On the expressway to Chonburi, past the appropriately if charmlessly named Bearing Road, the landscape turns into Antonioni's Red Desert: low buildings covering acres of land; jagged rooflines beginning to rust in the tropical humidity; workers originally from Chiang Rai and Samut Sakhon dressed in identical blue boilersuits; 50-meter tall electricity pylons marching off into the sunset, the same pylons that grace the backgrounds of Stalinist paintings.

For the Thais, the imagery of industrial positivism is not retro, it is the present. They reserve their nostalgia for the old peasant Siam, memories of teak houses by the canalside, gardens of tamarind trees and jasmine flowers, the motion of the catfish in the rice paddies.

The old lie of post-industralism was that the new "information economy" would liberate humanity from the Dickensian mills. What has happened is that we are more dependent on the mills than ever before. Entranced by our computer screens, we are reliant upon a massive network of steel works, refineries, coal-fired power plants, mining operations for fossil fuels, tungsten, chromite.

Those of us who have or have had jobs in the suburban office parks and "revitalized" city centers of the west live in a tidy green illusion. In the tropics, one hears screaming from beneath the earth.