Friday, March 31, 2006

Stephen King's Cell

Stephen King's new thriller, Cell, reminds me of how compelling King can be, in a way that leaves me feeling manipulated and used. He shows a deep-rooted "damned mass" view of human nature, even while he displays authorial hate for characters within the story who share a view that's perhaps not as extreme as his. And in an effort to raise his book from a beach read to something Socially Significant, he ends up spouting tin-hat political slogans that will be pathetically out of date after the 2008 elections (by which time, of course, he'll have earned more royalties on this book than I will in my entire life, just in case anyone thinks I don't know the "If you're so smart, how come you're not published" response).

My view of King's writings has swung between disdain at the goriness of it and at his gimmick of taking the friendly and familiar -- a car, a dog, a cat, a rambling lodge in the mountains -- and making something horrifying out of it -- and respect for real talents of storytelling and observation of human nature. His coming of age novel, The Body, surprised and delighted me with its look at the relationships among a group of schoolboys, and the 12-year-old storyteller character gave me a grounding in the adult author's boyish reveling in the "Oh gross!" After running across The Body, I counted myself a fan.

Cell brings me back to my weariness with the Kinginess of King. He goes back to his attacks on the familiar with the cell phone trick -- cell phones are ubiquitous, and a lot of people love them, and a vocal minority hate them, and King with his $80 kajillion in the bank proudly notes on the cover copy that he doesn't own one, thus showing how morally superior he is. (I know. There are people who are unmannerly about their cell phones. They are also frequently unmannerly about radios, loud conversation and chewing gum. Will King go after these menace also? Justin wondering.)

Even though I couldn't put the book down, at the end, I felt that I had -- in a literary sense -- wasted my time and attention. All the same, for a writer, there's much here to learn.

A certain element of the "page-turner" quality is important in a book. If a reader isn't curious about what happens next, he may very well put a bookmark in the page and look at the book six months later, thinking, "Maybe I'll get back to it sometime." At the other extreme, if the book is just a page turner, when I'm done, I feel as if I've just gone through a chocolate frenzy -- disoriented, guilty over the loss of time and nauseated.

But how does King pull off the page-turner quality that he does so well? Sharp detail and a lot of foreshadowing. He keeps revealing what will happen later, in terms that leave the outcome open to speculation but that, when fulfilled, leave the reader thinking, "Of course." King also imagines the situation so vividly that the reader never gets around to thinking, "Now just a gol-darned minute . . . ." For instance, what happens to the cell-phone users is that there's some kind of signal sent by satellite that fries their brains. So the hero uses a landline to call long distance. Well, aren't all long-distance calls sent by satellite? And all these people use their cell phones and get their brains wiped, so there's no alternative source of information? And nobody in the book has heard of the Internet. But he papers over these plotholes with breakneck pacing and one dire circumstance after another.

Dire circumstances bring me back to what I used to hate about King, before I became a fan. It's a weird thing about movies and literature that an author can commit all kinds of mayhem against people and readers nod and turn the page. When the villain kills a dog or a cat, readers write angry letters to the publisher. I don't understand it, but I feel it myself, and King shows a man in a business suit, under the influence of the pulse, bite the ear off a dog. King's POV character says he doesn't know anything about dogs, with an intimation that he doesn't care very much, and I wonder if that's the attitude of the author. Reading it, it comes across as "he doesn't stop at anything." Looking back, it seems more like a cheap trick.

The novel I finished before Cell was Notes from Underground. Dostoyevsky is an author who really doesn't turn back from anything. The speaker tells about a conversation with a prostitute, and the outcome of that conversation is as wrenching in its way -- in the destruction of the innocent -- as cruelty to an animal. The difference is that Dostoyevsky is saying something deep and heart-breaking about the state of a man's soul. With Cell, King is exposing readers to the torture of a dog just for effect.

Or maybe for King, it's slightly more than an effect. His characters later arrive at the conclusion that the cell wiped out people's minds, leaving the murder that lies at the base of the human mind (soul?). Well, I've heard that King was an Evangelical Christian (still don't know whether to believe it), but this would suggest that he's at least a one-point (total depravity) Calvinist. He expresses characters' hatred and author's hatred (by his one-sided, all ugly, bad, and unfashionable description) for a pushy end-times fundy creep -- whose kind apparently demonstrated at abortion clinics in one character's past -- but he never deals with the similarity between said creep, who assumes that the two men have taken the girl for immoral purposes, and the author's apparent view that if you strip away our self-knowledge and socialization, there's nothing left but the savagery of a rabid animal.

I tell myself it's a beach read, and I'm asking too much to expect him to deal with any bedrock issues. But if that's the case, why the political frippery? What does it add to the story to make a snarky comment about Bush's "inadequate plan" in Iraq (whether any given reader favors the war or not)? If I were reading a beach book from 1944, would it add to the effect or take away from it that the writer thinks Roosevelt's plan for the Pacific Theatre was crazy? Or from 1965 and Johnson's plan for Vietnam? Again, it's a pose of relevance that has nothing to do with the story and everything to do with an illusion that something Important is happening here.

If you're a writer, it's worth a read for King's techniques of detail and foreshadowing. If you're a reader, a Batman comic would be a more profound investment of time.

How Will Borders Celebrate Banned Books Week This Year?

After years of "edginess" and "speaking truth to power," Borders Bookstores (and its little brother Waldenbooks) has rolled over before the Islamist fringe.
Borders and Waldenbooks stores will not stock the April-May issue of Free Inquiry magazine because it contains cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that provoked deadly protests among Muslims in several countries.
And why is that?
"For us, the safety and security of our customers and employees is a top priority, and we believe that carrying this issue could challenge that priority," Borders Group Inc. spokeswoman Beth Bingham said Wednesday.
But wait. I thought Islam was a religion of peace. Is Borders saying that selling a magazine with the Danish cartoons could put customers in danger? From whom? Fundamentalist Christians?

Combine that with what seems to be a consensus if not a policy among stores in the chain: Borders has begun putting the Koran on top shelves -- "out of respect for the religion." Is this the same religion a chain spokeswoman has just accused of being out-of-control lunatics who have gone nuts over some cartoons? Upper-shelf Koran placement doesn't offend me, though. It's the stuff at eye level that sells.

But I think I'll be shopping Powell's or Barnes and Noble in the future.

H/T: My friend Susan, who doesn't have a blog but ought to.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Dangers of Political Correctness

J.R. Dunn, at American Thinker says that political correctness runs the risk of poisoning relations between moderate Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States and elsewhere.

He points to three recent, egregious instances of political correctness run riot -- Umar Abdul-Jalil, the New York prison chaplain, fired for making anti-Semitic comments and then reinstated; Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, the North Carolina SUV jihadist whose terroristic comments don't seem to merit anyone's notice; and of course Sayed Rahmatullah Hasemi, the Taliban jock at Yale.

Political correctness doesn't do anything for ordinary Muslims -- only raises people like those and groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the status of "ordinary Muslims," leaving the rest of us to say, "If that's normal, then these people are scary."

We have to keep turning away from the politically correct crowd, with their blinkers of denial, and acknowledge that some Muslims are our enemies so that we can see the ones who are friends of humanity. Dunn lists several -- "the Trainer," who brought down a terrorist group; Wafa Sultan, a psychologist and a woman, who argued an imam into a sputtering fit on Al-Jazeera; columnist Amir Taheri, and others I hadn't heard of (which backs up his point). He omitted the Saudi ex-pat blogger, the Religious Policeman, who is able to laugh at Muslim foibles -- and be outraged at cruelties passing for Muslim piety -- without denying his faith.

The elites pushing political correctness -- by their arrogant and elitist view that the mere mortals below them can't handle the truth -- make the danger larger in both perception and reality than if they dealt in truth and distinction.

Dunn finishes with a good point:
We have matured since WW II and the disgrace of the Nisei relocation. We are in some ways a better people than we were.

That may well have surprised our enemies – who can say that Osama bin Laden wasn’t counting on a domestic anti-Muslim backlash to turn the Islamic world further against the United States? A schism between American Muslims and the rest of the citizenry would be an answered prayer for Al-Queda. That’s something worth keeping in mind.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Fun find of the day

The George Mason University Speech Accent Archive.

Native and non-native English speakers from around the world read a short paragraph, giving a flavor of what makes their pronunciation different.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Europe, the wolf is not just at the door

He's on the dining room table eating your dinner and growling at you.

This symposium in Front Page Magazine explains what the cartoon fracas was really all about, in the context of increasing incidents of gang rape of non-veiled women:
The conduct towards these women is due to the new developments initiated by Salafists like Tariq Ramadan. He has invented and introduced a new definition for the Western countries: they should no longer be seen the traditional way as Dar ul-harb, the space of war, but as Dar el-dawaà, the invitation to Islam, or Dar ash-shahâda, the space of testimony.

While orthodox Sunni Muslims, stuck to the unchanged application of the tradition are not at all in line with this 'modern' interpretation, the 'scholar' Tariq Ramadan has paved a soft way for Muslims to taking possession of countries formerly belonging to the Dar ul-harb. When living in Dar ul-harb there are two alternatives for the Muslims: either conquer the land by force and rule it by Qur'anic law or, if not strong enough, keep quiet and wait, not touching the property of the enemy.

Dar el-dawaà and Dar ash-shahâda are two of the trickiest inventions ever to reach the goal of conquest: at a quick and superficial glance it means resigning from the conversion of the West to Islam, permitting everybody to keep on in his belief, but on closer examination that means what the French call 'l'entrisme', unnoticed penetration.

By its weakness and willingness to compromise, Europe has revealed itself to be no longer in the "House of War" but in the "House of Almost Muslim." I don't know if there are any alpha dogs left in Europe. It looks to me that anyone who stands up to the wolf there gets murdered, and all the beta dogs look at each other and shrug and say, "There, but for the curvature of my own spine, go I."

Now the wolf looks to tame the alpha bitch (I mean this in the most clinical metaphorical sense, but think about it). It's the independent woman who breaks down the Islamofascist social structure, at least as it's interpreted by the Tariq Ramadans of the world.

I acknowledge that there are Muslims who want to live at peace with their non-Muslim neighbors, but if the secularists and Christians aren't willing to stand up, why should they?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Positives of St. Ephrem

O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk,
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant.
Yea, Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother,
For you are blessed unto ages of ages.

A while back, I wrote about the negative line of the Prayer of St. Ephrem, and my parish priest challenged me to get to the positives before Lent. I thought it was unlikely, given that I'd taken 15 years to learn the negatives, but I have collected a few thoughts.

Here's the line I'm referring to as the positives: "Give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant." I had expected to find that the positives filled slots left by departing negatives or that there would be some kind of neat parallel between the lines. Instead the reality is much richer and more complicated.

The word "chastity," in the way most people understand it, has come to be entirely sexual, and in the licentious general culture of our time, "chastity" even has a connotation of being unhealthy or ridiculous. But the Greek word is sofrosini, "wholeness."

To be whole is to "have it together," to be complete, integrated -- drawing on the related Latin root, to have integrity. St. Paul told the Corinthians that sexual promiscuity joins a person to various sexual partners, leaving him scattered, and we have a bit of understanding what that means when we say out our attention is scattered -- we're here and there, but not present where we are.

In this moment is the only place my life is happening, and I lose too much of my life by being elsewhere while appearing to be here. In Charles Williams' novel War in Heaven, there's a stone that gives its holder whatever he wishes for. One character thinks he can go into the future and make a killing at the stock market or something, and as a test, he wishes himself a half hour into the future. What really happens is that he moves his decision-making capacity out of the present time and spends the rest of his life reacting to what he's already done -- in this instance having killed a man. Williams' description of the character's vague memories of having done the murder exactly fits my vague memories when I've interacted inattentively.

Chastity is like being a grownup driving a school bus. In the back, feelings and passions, fears and wishes and expectations, nostalgia and regrets vie for the bus driver's attention. They want to stop here or go faster or change direction. There may be a reason to stop, speed up or change direction, but I need to keep my adult decision-making capacity, in harmony with the Holy Spirit, as the driver.

Humility makes its natural and sometimes painful appearance when I realize how often I've let the kids drive the bus. But beyond that, thinking through this line of the prayer, I made a list of the things that tempt me away from sofrosini. It was a short, unscientific survey, but I learned how often the voices in the back of the bus were saying, "I don't want to be [there]," or "I don't want to do [that]," or "I don't have time for [that]." Humility doesn't say, "I deserve better." Humility doesn't say a lot, in fact, except maybe to repeat St. Paul's description of love, "Love suffers long and is kind . . ." (1 Cor. 13:4-8). Humility doesn't keep us from working to improve our situation, but it begins here, in this moment, with the reality at hand.

Patience also follows sofrosini, and, oddly, not so painfully. Without sofrosini, the effort to be patient is a battle of will against hurry, a sort of teeth-gritting, watch-watching, "Will you hurry up?" on the inside and a tight smile on the outside. But when I do have the adult driving the bus, each moment has its own purpose, and having to slow down is a gift to at least one of the kids in the back of the bus -- so I can enjoy that short sense of leisure.

St. Paul's description of love is worth repeating here, because it captures the interplay of the positives in this line: "Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails."

Finally, a few words on the next line of St. Ephrem's prayer: "Grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother." Seeing one's own faults is an aid to humility, but I've learned something new about judging.

I've always thought that warnings against judging one's neighbor have to do with negative judgments -- and misunderstanding the meaning and effect of "judgment," tended to narrow it to judging someone's eternal disposition. But my search for sofrosini has taught me that even positive or neutral judgments can damage a relationship. I heard a fairly famous author say, "You don't meet people at zero anymore. They think they know things about you, and they project things on you." This is not about the poor, misfortunate author -- she wasn't even complaining, just saying -- but an illustration of how even positive expectations can interfere with truly seeing a person.

In another example, I had classified a woman I know as "not very adept with mechanical things." I had put her in that box in order to overcome a tendency toward impatience with her mistakes with mechanical things, so it was well meant -- and possibly true -- but I was glad I happened to be working on sofrosini when she asked me a computer question one evening, because it reminded me to be still and listen to her question -- in other words, to open the box and see if she really fit in it. She didn't, actually, and the conversation was more interesting and profitable to both of us than it would have been if I hadn't bothered to open the box.

I suppose it's necessary to say that I'm confident that St. Paul and St. Ephrem are not asking us to deny history, to disregard proven dangers or to ignore the intuition that is one of the voices sofrosini should pay attention to in the back of the bus. But most of the time, what I'm afraid of is not actual danger, but rather discomfort or embarrassment or something that won't do me any lasting harm at all.

What I've learned from short forays into sofrosini is that it's not just a moral good -- "good for you," like some nasty medicine -- but an existential good -- adventurous, exciting, sometimes scary, and dotted with delightful surprises -- "life and more abundantly," as Christ said. Another thing is that it doesn't take years of disciplined practice; it takes only this moment and my undivided attention. I've been surprised to find that St. Ephrem's prayer -- rather than being something dour and self-flagellating -- can be a door into the richness and potential of the moment.

Friday, March 03, 2006

I never thought I'd say this

It's been a really bad week, and now, to top it all off, I find myself siding with Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown in a plagiarism lawsuit filed by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the 1982 work of "nonfiction" that provided the central conspiracy of the Code.

They're arguing that his plagiarism consisted not in copying their words -- which is what plagiarism is -- but by adapting their ideas, which is dangerous for every fiction writer.

The irony is that in order to make their case, they all but have to acknowledge that HBHG is a fake -- I can't be sued for asserting that Lincoln died in 1865 -- that's a fact -- but apparently, if I were to write an alernative history based on a Lincoln-assassination conspiracy theory, itself based on a hoax, I could be sued for plagiarism (provided I made a lot of money).

Another irony is that the Code has already, no doubt, been a sales boost for HBHG. No doubt it was languishing in warehouses, if it hadn't gone out of print, before Brown gave it cachet by casting it in the form of a thriller romance.