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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

An introduction to the ever-so-slightly-odd worlds of Jonathan Gould


Daggy – adjective (Australian slang)

The opposite of trendy. Uncool, in an unfashionable sense. Think so last season, or old fashioned. Applies to people and things, not just fashion. Not particularly insulting; can even have friendly undertones.

That flannelette shirt is so daggy; why don't you update your wardrobe ?
Stop hanging out with your daggy friends, get with the hip, new crowd.

DoodlingJust what the world needs, another genre. Finding that his books were uncomfortable in any of the existing genres – Doodling, for example, takes place in outer space but you’d never call it ‘science fiction’ – Jonathan Gould had a think about it and decided to invent a term that he could use to describe the kind of writing he produces. The term he opted for, being an Australian, was ‘dag-lit’ which, based on the definition above, seems not a little self-deprecatory. The Wikipedia article on ‘Dag’ certainly makes interesting reading. This is what Jonathan means by his term:

It’s a term I’ve used to create a genre for my books, obviously based on things like chick-lit and lad-lit. Dag is Australian slang for someone who is uncool and doesn’t follow the crowd but usually in a funny kind of way. Originally it was an insult (a bit like nerd) derived from the wool industry (the dags are the bits of poo stuck to the wool on a sheep’s bum) but its meaning has been flipped around and many people (myself included) now wear that badge with pride. I like it, partly because, like a true dag, my stories don’t follow the crowd and can be hard to classify. It also gives a sense of the audience I’m writing for. Dags can be young or old, male or female – they just need to have their own unique view of the world. And that’s a good description of the sort of readers I’m aiming for. – L.T. Suzuki, ‘Jonathan Gould Interview’, Author’s Den

Personally I see his books as natural responses to the exigencies of life in the twenty-first century. Let me explain.

Two of the most important concepts in the rhetorical tradition – classical kairos and modern exigence – involve … special attention to the time of communication. Kairos has to do with finding the right argument for the right moment. Exigence suggests that topics emerge as urgent considerations at a particular historical time. The power of both concepts depends upon the author and audience coming to an agreement that the moment has arrived for a certain topic to receive close attention.


Exigence has to do with what prompts the author to write in the first place, a sense of urgency, a problem that requires attention right now, a need that must be met, a concept that must be understood before the audience can move to a next step. – M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Appeals in Modern Rhetoric, pp. 38,26,27

If Jonathan hadn’t provided his own label for his books I think I would have opted for ‘satire’. I never read Gulliver’s Travels growing up but for many years I assumed it was merely a children’s book like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland not realising alice06that both were, in fact, satirical works, the former, a transparently anti-Whig satire whereas the latter lampooned the ordered, earnest world of Victorian England. But if you look at the recent films by Tim Burton and Rob Letterman all of that edge has gone. The stories still have their points to make – which is why they have survived when others have become dated – and that is why they continue and will continue to entertain when other biting works of satirical fiction have faded into obscurity. Ever heard of John Marston or Joseph Hall?

The thing about a lot of satirists is that they can be a bit aggressive, even downright vicious, but that’s not what we get here. In his book on the subject George Test writes:

Satire allows opportunities for creative verbal and formal gyrations that transform aggression into a social and artistic expression that satisfies peoples’ needs for play and humour. Satire then is in part an expression of playful aggression, a sportive assault.


The general attitude toward satire is comparable to that of members of a family toward a slightly disreputable relative, who though popular with children makes some of the adults a bit uncomfortable. – George Austin Test, Satire: Spirit and Art, pp.3-5

In 1961 a new musical opened in the West End called Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. It’s been described as “a thought-provoking tale about the fleeting nature of worldly success. The hero of the show, Littlechap, attempts to apply some braking effect on his world before it spins out of control.” The metaphor of an individual as the centre of his or her own universe is not a new one but it is a modern one, “a problem that requires attention right now,” to quote Killingsworth. This is where Jonathan Gould’s novella, Doodling, begins:

Neville Lansdowne fell off the world.

Actually, he did not so much fall off as let go. The world had been moving so quickly lately and Neville was finding it almost impossible to keep up.

It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when keeping up was not a problem; a time when the world was moving at a nice, leisurely speed and, a gentle walk had been sufficient. But then the world began to get faster. Suddenly, Neville found himself jogging, and then running. His cheeks became flushed and his lungs panted and puffed as they struggled to get the air he needed to maintain his pace.

Still faster and faster the world went. Neville’s life was like a never-ending hundred metre sprint. There was no way he could keep this going. As his legs turned to jelly and collapsed under him, Neville grasped in desperation for something to hold on to. A tree, a stick, a small crack in the footpath. He dug his fingernails in and gripped tightly as the world dragged him along, his hair flying wildly behind him and his legs kicking loosely at the air. His whole body strained and tears began to well in his eyes as the wind rushed against his face.

Slowly, surely, he could feel his grip loosening, could sense the strength departing from his fingers. He couldn’t hold on much longer. Any second now and the strain would be too much. His arms would break. His fingers would be ripped off. His whole body would snap into two. The pain was unbearable. Something had to give.

Neville let go.

For a couple of seconds, he lay, breathing slowly, while the strength flowed back into his body and the feeling returned to his arms. Then he looked up and saw the world spinning away into the darkness of space. Neville was seized with panic. He leapt up and began chasing after the world, trying to catch up with it again so he could get back on board. But he was too slow. Soon the world was nothing but a tiny dot, no bigger than a golf ball.

Neville stopped and watched as the world diminished into a pinhole of blue and then vanished. He was alone. All around him was nothingness. Neville shivered. He wasn’t used to such quiet. It felt strange and slightly unnerving. What could it mean? How should he feel? What was he to do?

Neville looked around. High above, the lights of the stars twinkled. To his left, a comet flashed past. To his right, a distant supernova flared in a sudden blaze of brightness. It was a beautiful sight; an everlasting silent night.

Suddenly Neville was overcome by a feeling of peace. No more desperately rushing to keep up. No more frantically clinging on for dear life. Neville didn’t need the world anymore. He was free.

I don’t know about you but I grew up with two contradictory sets of the laws of physics in my head. There were those that applied in the real world, the ones that stopped me spinning off into outer space like Neville does, irrespective of the fact that the world was whizzing round at a speed of about 67,000 miles per hour, and WileECoyotethen there were the laws of physics that applied to cartoon characters, most memorably Wile E. Coyote, for whom the effects of gravity would often pause to allow him a moment to reflect upon his fate before we see him plummet to the desert below, something which ought to have resulted in him shattering every bone in his body but which, in this reality, often left him little more than bruised and dazed. This is not the first time the laws of physics have been lampooned, however: Voltaire famously mocked these in his satirical novel Candide.

So what happens to Neville? Is this a dream or an allegory like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? (The Wikipedia article Political interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz makes interesting reading.) Or just a bit of nonsense to amuse the kids?

Floating around aimlessly in space might have been a refreshing change to his prior hectic life but there wouldn’t be much of a story here if that was all he did. After a bit Neville finds his way to an asteroid “about the size of a large house” and climbs aboard. Actually Jonathan says Neville “walked quickly to the asteroid” and we just accept that that is what he did. Of course once he’s there it was hard not to think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novella, The Little Prince, whose home asteroid, Little Princeor "planet", was also the size of a house, has three volcanoes (two active, and one dormant) and a rose, among various other objects. Neville’s asteroid isn’t nearly as remarkable. What is notable is that one of the first things he does is decide he needs a country and since “countries need borders, [u]sing his heel, he marked out a series of lines on the dusty surface.” He decides to name the country Bolivia because that was a place he had always had an inkling to visit.

Question: Was Neville the first, or, perhaps, the only person to have found himself flung out of Earth’s orbit? Answer: No. After losing interest in his own asteroid, Neville trudges “away into the inky blackness of the universe. In search of a better place for a Neville.” Just as Gulliver makes his way through Lilliput and Blefuscu, Brobdingnag, Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg and Glubbdubdrib so Neville discovers that others have set up homes and communities amongst the stars. The first he encounters because he catches sight of an asteroid with “a flagpole with a small makeshift flag on the top, fluttering gently in the solar-breeze.” It’s the home of a small community who introduce themselves to him as follows:

“We, like you, are refugees from the world. … We, like you, could no longer handle the pace and the pressure. We, like you, have made the decision to escape the madness and to find here, on our asteroid, a far simpler lifestyle. A lifestyle you are more than welcome to join in.


“I don’t suppose you brought a toaster.”

Have you ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.?

Set in a Roman Catholic monastery in the desert of the south-western United States after a devastating nuclear war, the story spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the fictional Albertian Order of Leibowitz take up the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it. – Wikipedia

Leibowitz had been an electrical engineer and the monks have been copying his blueprints, notes and memos by hand as if they are holy relics. The Holy Book of the Toaster People turns out to be Operating Instructions for the A367 Toasterama and they have been awaiting the arrival of the eponymous toaster. I seem to recall some Jews had a similar notion once. In her review of this book, Donna Brown also found herself referencing Voltaire; his famous quote from Letter to the author of The Three Impostors: "If God hadn't existed, it would have been necessary to invent Him."

I won’t list all the other asteroids Neville visits but he quickly realises that all is not rosy in paradise. And it’s not just that everyone has their own ideas as to what perfection should be like; no, there is a bigger problem that is going to affect them all:

[I]f the world kept on getting faster and faster, it would eventually break away from [the] gravitational pull [of the sun] and fly off into space. And if anything lay in its way? … The first thing the world would crash into once it had escaped its orbit [would be the asteroid field].

Neville realises that something must be done and it falls to him to rally the troops but, in much the same way as Alice had difficulty persuading people to do things in Wonderland, Neville encounters a similar intransigent bunch, entrenched in their ways and unwilling to listen to the facts.

flidderbugsA similar situation is faced by Kriffle in Jonathan’s second novella, Flidderbugs. Jonathan describes this book as “a sort of political satire/fable about a strange bunch of insects with some very peculiar obsessions.” Whereas the problem with Neville’s world – he never actually says it’s the Earth – is that it is spinning too fast; Kriffle’s tree – which is all the world he knows – is lopsided, sort of. Put it this way: it’s in danger of collapse. On one side of the tree, the side we are introduced to in the opening chapter, there is a problem with the leaves which are growing uncontrollably; this is the side of the tree where the Triplifer tribe live. On the other side, populated by the Quadrigons, the current ruling tribe (and hence those in possession of the shears), life is far more comfortable. The tribes disagree on just about everything but the most fundamental issue on which they cannot see eye to eye is with regard to how many points the leaves on the Krephiloff Tree should have: the Triplifers are adamant it is three, the Quadrigons insist it is four.

Now I don’t know a great deal about dendrology but all the trees I encountered growing up tended to have the same leaves on them no matter what side of them you encountered. So I assumed what we had here was a Nineteen Eighty-Four-type situation: two warring (okay, bickering) factions who don’t care what the truth is but just believe what they’re told. Perhaps the leaves actually had five points! But, no, that’s not the case. If it were then surely someone of the Quadrigons would pick up a leaf, count the points and realise that there were only three points or one of the Triplifers would do the same and realise that there were actually four. But that would be too easy.

Kriffle’s father Proggle is “proud leader of the Triplifer tribe” but he is getting old. He’s at his wits’ end with the leaf issue and intends to bring the matter up that very day at the Fleedenhall debate. His wife will have none of it and tells him to permit Kriffle go in his stead. As it happens, the leader of the Quadrigons and head of the Fliddercouncil, Farggle, is also unwell and so his daughter, Fargeeta, stands up in his place. The debate does not go well. Elections are not far off and it doesn’t look as if the Triplifers are going to have any chance of winning unless Kriffle can find support elsewhere. He heads off to the Florddenbureau with its Kafkaesque snaking corridors to try and find support from an old friend of his father’s, Brakliff, who has risen over the years from third-assistant-junior-secretary to first-higher-senior-official-over-secretary but Brakliff is unwilling to help him. Then Kriffle visits the academics at Flooderversity but things are not easy there either: Professor Skervvle is only interested in the essence of leaves; Professor Horkelo's specialty is how many leaves there are; Professor Yangbelu only cares about the concept of leaf and, much to the consternation of his esteemed colleagues, Professor Sklinger only studies bark.

Kriffle is about to despair until he accidentally runs into Fargeeta and decides radical action is called for:

Without even thinking, he grabbed Fargeeta by the claw and began pulling her away from the trunk and out along one of the branches that led to his side of the Tree.

It took her a few seconds to realise what was happening, but when she did, she began to scream:

“Help, help. I’m being ‘bugnapped.”

But it was too late. Kriffle was moving so fast and with such fierce determination that they were already well clear of her gang of supporters back at the trunk.

It didn’t take long before they reached the bristling mass of leaves. Kriffle hurriedly reached out, grabbing the first one he could find.

“Count the points,” he roared, thrusting it roughly in front of Fargeeta’s face.

She does. There are three. All her life she had been led to believe that the Triplifer tribe were liars or fools but now she has seen with her own eyes. But the truth is never that simple, is it? Besides, much as in Doodling, the ‘bugs have a much bigger problem. Oh, if only everyone had listened to crazy old Professor Sklinger.

Doodling and Flidderbugs are both charming novellas without a doubt. Jonathan says they’re not exclusively aimed at children but they are definitely books that could be read to children. The kids will enjoy the stories as simply funny stories; the adults will appreciate the subtext. I don’t particularly like the title Doodling. The reason Jonathan kept it was because he “liked the idea that the story evolved from [his] literary doodling” but it doesn’t really work for me. Other than that I have no problems with either book but of the two I personally preferred the first.

You can read excerpts from Doodling online here: Falling Off, A Toast to You, Taking Aim, Not So Peachy.


jonathan GouldJonathan Gould is a Melbourne-based writer, doodler and a confirmed and proud dag. These are not his first attempts to have work published and he has authored two children’s books in the past, A Right Royal Day and Madoop and the Mountain Mower; you can read a review of the latter here. Over the years, his writing has been compared to Douglas Adams, Monty Python, A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, the Goons, Dr Seuss and even Enid Blyton – “in a good way,” he says. His next project is his first novel, Magnus Opum which he describes as, “An epic fantasy with a twist: Tolkien meets Dr Seuss.” Here’s a taster:

Far, far over the Mounji Mountains, past the shores of Lake Kroulchip where the boulcher fish bellow, across the misty, musty Plains of Plartoosis and beyond the depths of the dingy, dungy Drungledum Valley, lay the small homely village of Lower Kertoob.

And if you happened to be passing on a bright Tuesday afternoon, as spring slowly drifted into summer, there is a fair chance you would have seen Magnus Mandalora with his borse, out ploughing in his pflugberry field.

A borse, of course, was the primary beast of burden used by the Kertoobis, as the singular race who inhabited Lower Kertoob were known. It looked a little like a cow and a little like a pig and not an awful lot like a horse at all. However the most striking thing you would notice, if you should happen to see a borse for the first time, was that the two legs on the left were substantially shorter than the two legs on the right.

Not surprisingly, this meant that a borse was not the most practical sort of animal to use to pull a plough, displaying an annoying tendency to reel off to the left at the slightest notice. But although there were several other, far more suitable creatures, such as the powerful jingloo, the extraordinarily endurable truffelong and the seldom seen but much discussed diperagoff, none of these had ever been considered as an alternative. The Kertoobis were determined to stick to their borses, even if that meant ploughing a field was a constant battle to keep the wayward beasts going in anything vaguely resembling a straight line. That was just the way thing were done in Lower Kertoob, and once you got used to it, it really wasn’t such a difficult thing to manage. Unless, that is, you happened to be Magnus Mandalora on that particular Tuesday afternoon.

The basic theme of Magnus Opum is perception and how the various characters see each other.

Although Doodling and Flidderbugs are currently only available as ebooks Jonathan tells me that an Australian book chain has taken an interest in self-published authors and intends to promote both the ebooks and paperback versions thereof and so there, at least, you should be able to get your hand on a real book if you still haven’t succumbed to the pressure to buy a Kindle.

Further Reading

Writers And Their Chosen Settings – Jonathan Gould (the photo is actually of the former Scottish international footballer)

Kindle Author Interview: Jonathan Gould

Interview With Jonathan Gould

Friday, 16 December 2011

I love you


If love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?  ~ Author Unknown

I love you. Yes, you, the person reading this just now. I love you. I know, I know, we’ve never met and the odds are we never will but what has that to do with anything? It’s quite possible I don’t know your name, at least not your real name or what you look like now (assuming the photo you have online is you now and not you twenty years ago). But I still love you.

How can you possibly say that with a straight face. You’re joking right?

No, I’m deadly serious: I love you. Do you love me?

I’m sure there are many people you love and have loved and have yet to love, people and things and places and activities. And when you say you love them you will mean it every bit as much as I do just now.

I don’t fancy you. I mean I might fancy you if I met you. I’m sure there are a number of people who read my blog who I might conceivably fancy. There are a number I’m sure I could never fancy – all the blokes for starters (sorry blokes) – but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them. I’m expressing my love right now. I’m giving of my time and (limited) expertise and I’m doing it for you. I’m not doing it for me. I know all these things I’m talking to you about. No, I’m doing it all for you . . . and the couple of hundred other people who will read this blog today and the several hundred who might eventually end up reading it if I leave it up here long enough.

Raymond Carver wrote a short story collection entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I don’t think we know what we’re talking about. And yet we can’t stop talking about it. And writing about it. The following just concerns itself with the States:

By the 2000s, romance had become the most popular genre in modern literature. In 2008, romantic fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales, with 7,311 romance novels published and making up 13.5% of the fiction market. Over 74 million people claimed to have read at least one romance novel in 2008, according to a Romance Writers of America study. Nine point five percent of romance readers identified themselves as male, and the study reported that romance readers were more likely to be married or living with a partner. Of the entire American population, 24.6% read at least one romance novel in 2008. – Wikipedia

Love is complicated. In some respects it’s very simple. It’s easy to do but hard to explain. There have, of course, been times when I’ve thought I was in love but it wasn’t real love; it was a crush, infatuation, but it felt like love at the time and I’m not entirely convinced that it wasn’t love. Love is not an on/off switch and if it’s not reciprocated it can wither and die. Unless it’s a certain kind of love, the kind that exists for all people whether they’re your enemies or not. I’m talking about agápe love, principled love, the kind of love the Bible is on about when it says that God is love.

So, you’re some kind of religious freak? Should I be worried?

No, I gave up all that religious nonsense years ago but it’s the easiest way I can think of to explain what I’m on about. The Bible uses four Greek words for love: agápe (principled love), philia (brotherly affection – think Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love), storge (familial love) and eros (erotic love). I don’t what word the Greeks used for love of Nature or love of pets or love of a certain kind of food.

I have loved a number of women in my life but I’m not convinced that the love I felt for each of them, even the ones I ended up marrying, was the same thing. I still feel I love certain women I never married, never got even close to marrying, and haven’t seen in many years. To my mind I love each and every one of them uniquely. And it is impossible for me to communicate exactly what I felt for each of them. Utterly impossible.

I think we sometimes forget just how badly language does what it is supposed to do. Much of the problems are because we aren’t very good with words, any of us. We do our best, most of us, and we rely on the abilities of those we’re addressing to be able to decode what we have encoded. But always, always, always something is lost in the translation.

You don’t know what I mean and I don’t know if you know what I mean because no sooner do you try and explain back to me what I’ve just said to you, using your own words, the waters get muddied even further. C S Lewis famously said, “We read to know we are not alone,” but I say that we read to know we are not alone in being alone. A man in a prison cell is so much happier when he learns that there’s another man in the cell next to him even if he cannot communicate in any meaningful way. Why would he be happy that another human being is going though what he’s going through? Well, that’s not it. But somehow it still helps. He can focus his attention on the other and not on his self. He knows what a rubbish time he’s having in his cell and although logic dictates that his fellow detainee is having an equally miserable time it does help to know that he’s not going through this alone even though for all intents and purposes he is going though this alone.

I am in a cell. It’s a pretty decent cell as far as cells go. It has computers and a widescreen TV and nice things to eat in the fridge and the freezer and a comfy bed to sleep in but apart from the bird (who’s more interested in his reflection than me) I am alone. Carrie is in the States. There’s just me . . . and you. And the nearest any of you is to me is about twenty miles away. Most are hundreds if not thousands of miles away. And all we have is this wee slot to express ourselves through. But it doesn’t really matter. Even if you were sitting across the table from me in a nice local café (or at least the best of a bad bunch in the case of where I live) we would still have to resort to words to try and communicate. We could hug. I could hold your hand. But in my experience taction contact is as unreliable as verbal communication. It’s open to interpretation. People hear what they think/expect people are going to say and don’t listen. I bet you’re not listening right now. You just can’t wait to have your say in the comments. Or you might be wondering what I’m really saying. You know what I’m saying – no big fancy words there other than ‘taction’ and I’ve used that a number of times in blogs – but what am I really saying? That’s the thing about words; they don’t always contain the meanings one might automatically expect them to. Like I love you.

But there are other Greek words applicable to this topic: pragma (pragmatic, expedient love), ludus (playful love, and also joyous love), mania (in which the lover is possessed by being in love, unstable, highly emotional—what in Western culture is taken as romantic love, courtly love, obsessive love).[1]

Ignoring philial affection for some odd reason (which he lumps together with storge), these six form the basic love styles as defined by the psychologist John Alan Lee in his article ‘A Typology of Styles of Loving’:

This particular general theory posits three primary love styles: (a) eros, which is romantic os passionate love, (b) ludus, which is game playing love, and (c) storge, which is friendship love. Lee suggested three secondary styles are formed as compounds of the primary styles: (d) mania, which is a compound of ludus and eros, (e) pragma, which is a compound of storge and ludus, and (f) agápe, which is a compound of eros and storge.[2]

I find it interesting how he redefines some of these words but psychologists have been doing that for years.

When I was first getting to know my first wife I said to her at one point, “I’m in like with you.” It’s cute-sounding but it makes an important distinction. There are people we love and people we are in love with. So why not be ‘in like’ with someone? Makes perfect sense to me.

Why just ‘in’ though? There are about 150 prepositions in English, in fact the prepositions of, to and in are among the ten most frequent words in English so why don’t we have ‘of love’, ‘to love’, ‘at love’, ‘by love’, ‘for love’? To say that someone is ‘in love’ with someone suggests polar states – ‘in’ and ‘out’ – you are in love or have fallen out of love.

Levinger observed that there are five phases in personal relationships: (1) acquaintance, (2) build-up of an ongoing relationship, (3) continuation (couples commit themselves to long-term relationships and continue to consolidate their lives), (4) deterioration or decline of the interconnections, and finally, (5) ending of the relationship, through death or separation.[3]

We talk of falling in love but no one loves at another person. We can talk to someone but we can also talk at them. Would loving at someone not be an expression of manic love?

Do you love me? Love is too weak a word. I lerve you. You know, I lo-ove you. I luff you. There are two "f's." I have to invent... of course I love you. – Woody Allen, Annie Hall

AnnieHall2I hadn’t seen Annie Hall when I told that girl I was in like with her. I probably saw it with her in fact a couple of years later by which time we were married having decided were actually in love although I have my doubts whether that was ever the case; sexually attracted, yes, but so many people confuse sexual longing and actual love. Of course all of this is easy to say with twenty-twenty hindsight.

Broadly-speaking what is love? It is attraction to something, plain and simple. The closer we are to that person or thing the better we feel. It could involve anything from holding hands to ingesting (as in the case of chocolate). We entrust our feeling of wellbeing to someone or something else. Of course we’re social creatures (even people like me who like to think they’re not) and company is good for us, even virtual company seemingly, so in what ways can I become attached to people? Psychologists have identified three primary attachment styles:

  • secure,
  • avoidant
  • anxious/ambivalent (later renamed anxious/resistant)

Secure adult attachment was characterized by trust and a desire for closeness without the need to merge completely with another. In this group, the self was considered worthy of care and the partner was esteemed and expected to be responsive.

Avoidantly attached adults reported discomfort with closeness and an expectation that the partner would be unresponsive. They found it difficult to trust and depend on others and so dismissed the importance of the relationship in order to keep emotions at low levels of intensity.

Anxiously attached people, on the other hand, had a desire to merge with another. Their relationships were characterized by clinging and neediness, as the partner’s responsiveness was uncertain. Self worth was low and the partner was often idealized.[4]

Attachment theory is meant to describe and explain people's enduring patterns of relationships from birth to death.

I am separated from my loved one at the moment. (As I mentioned earlier Carrie is in the US visiting her parents.)

When a human or non-human primate infant is separated from its parent, the infant goes through a series of three stages of emotional reactions. First is protest, in which the infant cries and refuses to be consoled by others. Second is despair, in which the infant is sad and passive. Third is detachment, in which the infant actively disregards and avoids the parent if the parent returns.[5]

Every day we share a phone call. It usually lasts about ten minutes during which time I report what I’ve written, eaten, watched, received in the post and so on. Also what the bird’s been up to. Today he’s been very noisy and has been chastising various mirrors for the last two hours. The last time Carrie came back the bird’s response to her was interesting. For the first few days he treated her like a total stranger, wouldn’t fly to her and if I took him over to her on a stick he’d fly off. Does our bird love us? No idea. But we are his flock and he most definitely suffers from separation anxiety. It’s quite possible that all the noise he’s making today is him calling Carrie.

There have, needless to say, been a number of various theories about the nature of attraction. The Love Schemas Scale, for example, includes six categories of love:

Those who are interested in romantic relationships were said to fall into one of four types: The secure (who are comfortable with closeness and independence), the clingy (who are comfortable with closeness but fearful of too much independence), the skittish (who are fearful of too much closeness but comfortable with independence), and the fickle (who are uneasy with both closeness or independence). … Those who are relatively uninterested in relationships might fall into one of two categories—the casual (who are interested in relationships only if they are almost problem free), and the uninterested (who are not at all interested in relationships, problem free or not).[6]

In 1986, a psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed a simple way we can look at relationships via a triangle. Our experience of love is held together by three aspects:

  • Intimacy – the friendship element of love, sharing and bonding
  • Passion – the romantic or physical element of love including sexual attraction
  • Commitment – the basic decision to love another person - and the longer term part of keeping that love going

The "amount" of strength of each of these components in a love determines how that love will be between two people. From these three basic components he extrapolated eight states:






Liking / Friendship



Infatuated Love




Empty Love



Romantic Love




Companionate Love




Fatuous Love




Consummate Love




What he does say is that over time we all come to define love in our own unique ways, the bottom line being that no one knows how much or in what ways I love my wife, my daughter, my siblings, the bird or the box of chocolates in the fridge . . . probably not even me, not in any way that I could possibly communicate to you or to any of the above.

There are nine love instruments – methods of determining/assessing/ quantifying/qualifying/defining love – and you can read about them all here from the Rubin Love Scale to the Passionate Love Scale. Love is a multidimensional construct that has proven difficult to define and, consequently, challenging to measure. Jung got it right when he called it “a mystery”[7].

Is it any wonder that so much has been written and continues to be written about this one subject?

Of course all the above conveniently ignores the fact that there is as arguable a basis for love being nothing more than a chemical reaction. The three core stages of attraction all involve chemistry:

Strange that pheromones don’t get a mention. For more read The science of love.

I’ve just realised that I’ve got all the way down here and never yet mentioned Platonic love:

plato_bustIn short, with genuine platonic love, the beautiful or lovely other person inspires the mind and the soul and directs one's attention to spiritual things. One proceeds from recognition of the beauty of another to appreciation of beauty as it exists apart from any individual, to consideration of divinity, the source of beauty, to love of divinity. – Wikipedia

I suspect though it has been a long time since anyone has used the expression and meant that.

I don’t write much about love these days. I wish I did more because it would make my wife happy and it never hurts to make ones wife happy, let me tell you, but I find it hard to say anything meaningful about love anymore. But I’ll leave you with my last one, and, yes, that is a nod to Larkin at the end:


I am not in love with           you.
I am in love with           the idea           of you.

I hope
that is
with you.

You are flesh and bone,           merely
a holdall for aches           and painful memories

but that
is not
how I
see you.

You are a voice           in my head.
You are never           very far away           and so

when your
is gone
what will

remain of you           will be this:
an idea.            That is what love truly is.

6th December 2010

Now I think about it I probably don’t love you. Just ignore everything I just said.



Love Measures


[1] Art Durkee, ‘Erotica vs. Pornography’, Dragoncave

[2] Bruce Thompson, Donna Davenport, Rebecca Wilkinson, Lee’s Topology of Love Styles: A Confirmatory Factor Analysis of the Hendrick-Hendrick Measure with Implications for Counselling, p.2

[3] Elaine Hatfield, Theodore Singelis, Timothy Levine, Guy Bachman, Keiko Muto, and Patricia Choo, ‘Love Schemas, Preferences in Romantic Partners, and Reactions to Commitment’, Interpersona, 1(1), June 2007, p.3

[4] Julie Fricker, Susan Moore, ‘Relationship Satisfaction: The Role of Love Styles and Attachment Styles’, Current Research in Social Psychology, Volume 7, Number 11, 9 May 2002

[5] Attachment Theory, Great Ideas in Personality

[6] Elaine Hatfield, Theodore Singelis, Timothy Levine, Guy Bachman, Keiko Muto, and Patricia Choo, ‘Love Schemas, Preferences in Romantic Partners, and Reactions to Commitment’, Interpersona, 1(1), June 2007, p.2

[7] Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p.353

Sunday, 11 December 2011

This is the Quickest Way Down


People think I’m crazy, but they haven’t seen the things I’ve seen. – Charles Christian, ‘A Beretta for Azraella’

Proxima Books is a new imprint from those nice people at Salt who somehow – God alone knows how – manage to keep bringing out quality books at a time when the publishing industry is in upheaval if not out-and-out crisis. You would think they’d be battening down the hatches and getting ready to weather the storm but this is obviously their way of tackling the problem – diversification: Proxima Books is a science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint. Their other new venture, Embrace Books, was set to publish historical and romance titles but it didn’t take off as well as they’d hoped and Charles tells me they’ve decided to close it.

Proxima, however, is firing on all cylinders. The first books to be released under the Proxima banner are Jonathan Pinnock’s Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, Aly’s Luck by Renee Harrell and Charles Christian’s short story collection, This is the Quickest Way Down. Charles kindly sent me a review copy to have a look at. On their website, Steve Haynes, the editor at Proxima Books, lists the eleven stories in the collection and says a little about them. His comments make up the headings that follow with my own responses below. Hope that’s clear.

The book is being marketed as a sci-fi and dark fantasy short story collection.

First a few words about me and science fiction. I’m a huge fan of science fiction; huge. If anything comes on the telly or if anyone makes a film that could remotely be classified as Sci-Fi then I’ll want to see it. Strangely though I have not read a fraction of the science fiction available in book form with the exceptions – and odd bedfellows they are too – of Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick; I own loads of their books. But I’ve read novels, novellas and short stories by many of the greats: Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Brian Aldiss, Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, John Wyndham, Olaf Stapledon… writers of a certain period and therefore mostly dead or certainly not long for this world. I haven’t read anything you might call ‘contemporary science fiction’ since the seventies. That said, I have approached my science fiction in the same manner as I approached the rest of my reading: when I was only reading literary novels by people who had won the Nobel Prize I restricted my diet of science fiction to authors who had won Hugo or Nebula awards. So, as with the rest of my reading, I am not widely read but I’d like to think that I’m well read.

One of the problems with science fiction is that in every situation you have to explain the rules of that particular universe and exposition takes time so you’d think that short-stories would be avoided by writers of that genre. The odd thing is that it couldn’t be further from the truth. Short stories are the perfect vehicle for science fiction. When they work, they work well, but they only work well when people who can actually write write them. The key skills needed in being able to write quality science fiction short stories are the same ones required to write good flash fiction: knowing how much to safely leave out and what absolutely has to be kept in.

As far as fantasy goes (dark, light or whatever shade) I know very little. Bar The Hobbit, I have never read anything you could really label fantasy. George R R Martin, Steven Erikson, Anne McCaffrey, even Terry Pratchett – these are just names to me – so I didn’t know what to expect from ‘dark fantasy’ but I was willing to give it a go.

Waiting for my Mocha to cool has a killer first page, and is a primer for the themes explored in the rest of the book. It clearly has the author’s voice and is confidently written.

Okay, see what you think:

‘Listen,’ says Nikita, as she begins to unzip my jeans. ‘At work today I overheard a couple of the girls talking about me. One of them called me Concrete Eyes. What do you think she meant by that?’

Nikita looks up at me. I can smell the Jamesons on her breath. It’s obviously been another bad day at the office, so I lie. Well I am a man – and a pretty shallow one dimensional man at that. There’s stationery in my filing cabinet with more depth than me. And I am about to get a blow-job, so I make up a story I hope she’ll believe – or at least she’ll want to believe.

How do you tell a woman (a woman who at this very moment is tying back her long hair – using one of her Montblanc pens as a hairpin to keep it in place – and about to go down on me) that the reason the girls at work call her Concrete Eyes is because they are unusually perceptive? It took me the best part of twelve months to realise she’s possibly the most clinical, obsessed workaholic, emotionally sterile, empty, unlived-in woman to have ever walked the planet.

Sometimes I think this is the only reason why the sex we have is so good – because we both lose ourselves in the physicality of the action to escape from the world.

That’s the whole first page. It’s also the end of that scene those of you who realise that it’s nigh impossible to do justice to any act of sexual congress in just words will be glad to hear. Charles doesn’t avoid sex in this collection but neither does he make a either a meal or a dog’s breakfast out of it. Sex is part of life but it does tend to slow down the action.

Neuromancer_Brazilian_coverThis opening doesn’t quite have the power of William Gibson’s opening to Neuromancer – "The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel," or Orwell’s albeit now a bit dated, "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen," but as far as nicknames go, “Concrete Eyes” is a great one; I wanted to know more.

This is a story told in vignettes essentially; a novel (okay, probably a novella) squished down to eighteen pages. It takes just over twelve years to tell their story and for most of that time they’re actually apart; Nikita appears at the beginning and then at the end where she tells him precisely how long the intervening gap has been – 4481 days. Up until that point in the story there has been very little science fiction, fantasy or horror and even when the reason for its inclusion in the collection appeared at a precipitous moment in his life (a ‘manifestation’ let’s call it which both saves his life at that moment and sets him on a course which will put his life back on track) I was a little underwhelmed.

I think if I’d related more to the characters I might have got more out of it. The narrator, Lex, reminded me a little of a slightly-toned-down John Self, from Martin Amis’s Money.

Already Gone is a sharp piece of flash fiction.

This is two pages long, so about 500 words. I’m not the biggest fan of flash fiction. It’s trendy but I have seen it used to good effect even in a speculative fiction context. This particular one, despite its brevity, reminded me one of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. It’s not so much that there is a twist at the end, although there is, but so many of those tales leave characters on some kind of precipice. Again, as with the opening story, this is not what I’d call a science fiction story. It has a supernatural element and although it’s a decent story for what it is, it wasn’t what I was hoping for.

Kastellorizon is a good solid traditional sci-fi story.

This was much better; in fact I might have used this as the opening story if I’d been the editor. It begins:

I awake with a jolt – there must have been a sand fly crawling across my face – and for a moment I am disoriented. It is the same beach of my childhood dreams – and childhood nightmares? I look around. Next to me lies a dark-skinned woman, she is asleep and in her arms she is cradling a heavy calibre machine gun. Overhead an enormous sun, an enormous alien sun the colour of yellow ochre, blazes down through a cloudless, cerulean blue sky. No this is an entirely different nightmare.

This is how it begins…

At this point we jump back in time and through space, beyond the Oort Clouds, to his childhood and his sister, Aimee, with whom he used to play on the beach and just what brought him to this Dune-like planet. This looked like it was going to be a fairly classic story of the intransience of guilt and it is a bit, but the theme here is more one of redemption, of second chances. Like the very best science fiction stories if you filtered out all the sci-fi elements, maybe set the story in war torn Afghanistan or somewhere instead, it would still work.

More Important Than Baby Stenick has the vibe of an early Michael Moorcock.

I’ve only read a comic strip adaptation of one of Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné stories – not sure which one – and it didn’t grab me; I’ve never been much of a fan of sword and sorcery stuff. This five-page story couldn’t be further from that. It is set some time in the future during what sounds like World War III, "somewhere south of the former army base at Catterick. Not that the location matters.” A group of men including our narrator, a pilot, take shelter in an old garage workshop whereupon he chances on an old magazine still in its cellophane wrapper and, in a similar vein to the previous story, this triggers a reminiscence of how the world got to where he now found himself. They are clearly on the losing side if Fate has anything to do with it, which is ironic because there was a time not that long before when “there really was nothing more to concern [people] than the fate of Baby Stenick, the then “teenage darling and global superstar of the country and western music scene.”

The End of Flight Number 505 had the feel of an old-fashioned piece of sci-fi, a bit like The Twilight Zone.

twilight_zone2As soon as you mention The Twilight Zone to me I think about the original series that ran from 1959 through 1964 not the later incarnations. I think of the bibliophilic Henry Bemis who is content to be the last man on earth as long as he has his books, that is until he shatters his glasses and is left virtually blind crying out, "That's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was all the time I needed...! That's not fair!" Or what about William Shatner in the fifth season episode ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, the only person who seems to be able to see a gremlin tinkering with the wiring under one of the wing flaps?

‘The End of Flight Number 505’ certainly has that feel and I think much of that comes from the first person narrator who says stuff like:

Oh? My name? It’s irrelevant. You won’t have heard of me before and you certainly won’t be hearing about me in the future. However you will have heard the phrase ‘the holiday of a lifetime.’ Well, this was to be the holiday of my lifetime. Which is kind of an odd thing to say, seeing as I’m only 16 years old, but in my case fate has determined I will not live to see my 17th birthday.

There is also a nod to H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds – you know how that ends: “The smallest creatures "that God in His wisdom had put upon this Earth" have saved mankind from extinction.” Well, that’s not quite how this one ends.

Empire State of Mind - Steve Haynes forgot to mention this in his blog

This one reminded me of two things, the final episode of the American version of Life on Mars and the pilot for a show called Virtuality. The storylines in both cases involve malfunctions to the virtual reality modules which are installed aboard spaceships to help crews endure long missions.

This story is in three phases under the general heading: AGENCY PROJECT-SYBOT#29. In this case it’s…

‘Eight men and four women crammed together into a tight space…? Sounds like a recipe for trouble.

‘Haven’t you heard? We’ve been warned to expect 50 percent casualties.’

Is Jack out with his mates enjoying curry and beer night as they have done “every third Thursday of the month for the past 25 years” or is he actually trapped in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre on that fateful day in 2001? Or is any of the above real because suddenly we have Diane with her tutor discussing how to round off these two stories “without resorting to a cop-out of clichéd ending.”

That was also the problem Charles faced here and the problem with science fiction is that there is very little that hasn’t been done before. He opts for the old standby of the science fiction short story writer, the open ended conclusion.

This is the  Quickest Way Down is my favourite – it’s a sharp Harlan  Ellison type story, that’s very dark and very sexy.

This was not my favourite; I’ll get to which one was in a bit. Ellison I know primarily for three things, the Star Trek episode ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’, the film, A Boy and his Dog, based on his novel and an issue of Detective Comics (#567) where Batman spends the entire issue running to the aid of people who don’t need saving.

This is another short one; three pages long. It is an expanded version of the flash piece originally published in Micro Horror which you can read here. For my money this version would have worked fine in the collection. The Hellevator is a common trope appearing in everything from Angel Heart to Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. That the Hindu goddess Kali is the bad guy here is a novel twist, I suppose, but I really don’t see why this was Steve’s favourite.

A Beretta for Azraella is great fun, written in a kind of ‘cybernoir meets the devil’ style.

I didn’t see any noir elements in this one at all on first read. It felt more like a high-octane horror film, something along the lines of Doom, with guns a-blazing, and it has that too, but with the presence of the first person narrator and the femme fatale

‘My name’s Azraella,’ she says, ‘but you can call me Ella.’

Yeah, right, I think. As if Momma and Poppa Goth would have named their little girl after the Angel of Death.

I can buy it; there’s a touch of the Rick Deckard here, the film version anyway. I will agree with Steve on this one: good fun, nice surprise (as opposed to a twist) ending and some sharp dialogue:

Dawn is just breaking as we walk through the still open gate. ‘You choose,’ I say pointing at the abandoned Hummer and the Porsche that Retro will never drive again.

‘The Hummer’s got the coolest plates, but the Porsche is more ecologically sound,’ she replies.

We both laugh and get into the Porsche.

The Hot Chick is a very funny and naughty satire on sci-fi authors and conventions.

red dwarfFun and funny don’t necessarily mean the same thing – funny that – and Steve is perfectly right when he says that ‘A Beretta for Azraella’ is a fun story, exciting as opposed to humorous, whereas ‘The Hot Chick’ is intentionally comical. Science fiction and humour mix well when done right – just think about Red Dwarf – and it can also be a disaster – remember Morons from Outer Space or Red Dwarf in the hands of the Americans. But I do like a writer who doesn’t take himself too seriously and that’s what we have here. Not Charles Christian, although I’m sure that applies to him too, but the narrator of ‘The Hot Chick’ who describes himself as “a C-list science fiction writer … I write meat-and-potatoes sci-fi.” A taster of his style:

Flushed from drinking too much blood wine, the Klingon warrior maiden threw her puny Earthling prisoner onto the bed. Tossing aside her fearsome bat’leth blade, she tugged open the top half of her tunic, allowing her firm, ample breasts to fall free. ‘jiH DichDaq non IljHab Quch yab tlhej wIjneH,’ she growled. (‘I will blow your smooth-foreheaded mind with my lust.’) Then, grabbing her prisoner’s engorged penis with both hands, she plunged it deep within her mouth. As he watched the Klingon’s head rhythmically bob up and down at his crotch, the Earthling smiled. All was well in his universe.

So you have to wonder what kind of guy writes stuff like that for a living and, hey, we have the return of the guy from the opening story because this fellow also describes himself as “a typical, shallow, one-dimensional male” who has had several encounters of the kind described above even if the particular Klingon warrior maidens involved in his case have sported some less-than-fetching prosthetic enhancements. Where does he meet these extraterrestrial beauties? Where other than the many, many science fiction conventions he attends.

You may have wondered about the fetching blue creature on the cover of this book. Well, she’s n’Drangheta and even though I thought she was supposed to suggest one of the Na’vi from Avatar apparently that’s not the case; well, probably not. He’s seriously impressed with her make-up:

I’d expected her colouring to be limited to the parts of her body not covered by her clothes – but after she gets naked with me (and we get naked quickly), I’m amazed to find that every part of her is blue.

I can see the scalp beneath her short-cropped blue hair is blue. As is her tongue and, well, even those parts of her anatomy on which the sun doesn’t usually shine. They are all bright blue. It’s not a normal pan-stick or body-paint either. It must be some sort of spray-on body-dye as nothing runs, smears nor smudges, no matter how hot, sweaty and moist we get.

Then again she might just be an actual alien and I suppose if he had not thought his (space) ship had come in he might have actually considered that as a distinct possibility – where best to hide in plain sight if not a science fiction convention? – but the furthest he gets to wondering about her is why she chose the name n’Drangheta (apparently it’s “one of the names for the Calabrian mafia”) and what were all those cameras doing pointing at him?

Confessions of a Teenage Ghost-Hunter is a neat and pleasant ghost story.

Okay another not-strictly-science-fiction story – what’s that, four? – and it has a similar tone to a couple of the other stories. Charles lets us think we’re heading in one direction when actually he has something else up his sleeve. Seriously, though, who calls their dog, Woolfgang? Georgia and her boyfriend, the narrator, are strolling home one night, at least they’re trying to stroll, but Woolfgang is having none of it; something in the wood has scared him, his “ears are slicked down onto a head that never once glances back in the direction of the wood.” But the couple have sensed something too and once safely back at home Georgia brings the matter up; they share their past experiences of all things spooky and for a while I wondered where it was all going until the big reveal at the end that has Woolfgang’s “eyes rolling white in fear.” Somewhat similar in approach to the prologue to Twilight Zone: The Movie.

By The Steps of Villefranche Station is a great long-story to end the collection. A confident piece of a gentle apocalypse, very J.G. Ballard, that combines many of the themes that run through the book.

Loren Eaton in his blog I Saw Lightning Fall writes, “Even those only fleeting familiar with science fiction know the genre took a dark turn a few years ago and has kept the course since. Post-apocalyptic rules bookstore shelves…” I wouldn’t know. But I do have a soft spot for this kind of fiction so I was pleased that the last story in this collection takes place after a most unusual apocalypse. No nuclear holocaust, no alien invasion, no biological disaster. No, people just start dropping dead of, as far as anyone can tell, natural causes.

This was my favourite story without a doubt. I was a great fan of the British series Survivors devised by Terry Nation, the guy who gave the world the daleks. I also quite enjoyed the recent remake but I hold a soft spot for the original. In this short story, Lex, a journalist, decides that rather than staying “in the grey cold and wet on an English spring waiting for death [he] could head for the sun.” Which is what he does. (I presume this is the same Lex from the opening story.) He drives down to the Channel ports in Kent, blags his way aboard a yacht heading for France and then, driving a succession of abandoned cars, heads off through Provence along the Route Nationale N98 until he reaches Villefranche-sur-Mer, a town he knew from before, a place which brings back some good memories when he thinks about it; somewhere he’d once been happy. The community is welcoming: he buys his way in with a bag full of morphine – “[p]robably enough to kill off everyone still left alive on the Riviera – and is granted “life membership of the Club Civette.”

This is a gentle story. Life is peaceful there. The community is self-sufficient and friendly. Things have not degenerated enough at this stage for them to be afraid of road warriors or bands of cannibals. They fish, they drink good wine, engage in convivial conversation and, every now and then (apparently when there’s an energy spike from some dying reactor) they can even be entertained by the occasional e-mail including one from a Russian mail-order bride, Tasha, who, for the hell of it, the community invite to visit.

I pointed out at the start how derivative and self-referential science fiction has become and although this isn’t the most original science fiction story I’ve ever read it is a different take on the classic dystopian view of the future, a peculiarly continental one. Interestingly, in his short review of this collection, R B Harkness cites this story as his least favourite:

If there is one slight smudge on the shine, it’s the last story. ‘By the Steps of Villefranche Station’ is not a bad story, but it doesn't quite have the polish of the others. It feels as though it might have been written some time before the others.

All I can say is that it takes all kinds to make a post-apocalyptic world.

Overall then? This is a well-written collection of stories and considering the fact that it mixes fairly traditional science fiction stories with others that have a more supernatural bent I think he pulls it off. None of them wowed me – I didn’t feel the need to pull Carrie away from her editing to tell her what I’d just read – but I think that’s more because most science fiction these days underwhelms me. The best compliment I can pay these is that if they did decide to produce another anthology science fiction series along the lines of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits then several of these would be worth looking at adapting. Oh, one thing to watch out for: the sly reappearance of the mocha in many of the stories; that and Prisoner mugs, and probably more – a nice touch.


Charles ChristianCharles Christian is a former practising barrister which he quit because, as he puts it on his blog, “the work I was then doing was t-e-d-i-o-u-s-l-y sucking-my-soul-from-me-dull and that I would go mad if that was all I had to look forward to for the next 35 years.” From there he moved into PR and is currently a freelance journalist and writer.

He is the editor and publisher of the Legal Technology Insider newsletter and The Orange Rag is the newsletter's official blog and breaking news source. In addition he is the former editor and publisher of the Ink Sweat & Tears webzine, which is where I first became aware of him. He has also had a number of poems and short stories published in the UK and USA. This is the Quickest Way Down is his first collection. Currently he is working on “a revision and re-MacGuffinization of” his novel featuring a Russian nightclub gun-check girl and is “thinking about converting one or two of [his] stories into a graphic novel format. [He’s] therefore currently looking for a hot-shot manga-literate artist with good figurative skills as a starting point.” If you know one or are one, drop him a line.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Great Dream of Heaven

Great Dream of Heaven

What we've got here is a failure to communicate.Cool Hand Luke

Things being the way they are I would imagine Sam Shepard is best known by most people as an actor – the Internet Movie Database lists a respectable 56 entries for him spanning 5 decades including a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff – but his real claim to fame is as a playwright for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for his play Buried Child; he’s written almost as many plays as he’s had film roles. Not content with that he has also branched off into novels, memoirs, essays and collections of short stories. His third short story collection has just been published but I thought I’d have a look at his second, Great Dream of Heaven, which was published in 2002 and has been lying on my to-read shelf for a good couple of years now.

Carole Cadwalladr, who interviewed him in March 2010, describes him well:

If you had to invent an all-American literary hero, he'd be something like Sam Shepard. With his slow, western drawl, and his love of the open road and the empty badlands way out west, he's always seemed like the authentic voice of a certain sort of American manhood; telling stories – of suffocating families and wretched lovers – from the forgotten, inbetween places of the American outback.[1]

When I read that what jumped to mind was Arthur Miller’s The Misfits. I could even see Shepard stepping into the Clark Gable role if they ever decided to remake the thing. In the eighteen stories that make up Great Dream of Heaven three revolve around horses. (Shepard owns a horse farm in Midway, Kentucky and is passionate about them.) Also The Misfits was set in Reno in the Southwest of America and that’s where Shepard grew up:

All over the Southwest, really—Cucamonga, Duarte, California, Texas, New Mexico. My dad was a pilot in the air force. After the war he got a Fulbright fellowship, spent a little time in Colombia, then taught high-school Spanish. He kind of moved us from place to place.[2]

Although he has homes in New York and the ranch in Kentucky he still keeps a place in New Mexico.

His upbringing clearly did a lot to shape him as a man and subsequently as a writer. His father was an alcoholic (from a long line of alcoholics) with whom he had a difficult relationship. Needless to say in his own time Shepard has struggled with the bottle. In 2009 he was arrested for driving under the influence and ordered to attend an alcohol rehabilitation programme. He is routinely described as ‘taciturn’ and ‘private,’ “closer to the laconic and inarticulate men of his plays than to his movie roles.”[3] The irony is that he’s famous for the length of his monologues so I was curious to see how theatrical his short stories were, written, as one might expect, on an old manual typewriter; he has a mobile phone but refuses to even look at the Internet. Two reviewers[4] have called his short stories “one act plays masquerading as fiction” (one talking about this collection and the other talking about Cruising Paradise) and that’s a fair comment. If there were more internal monologues in the collection I might try to argue the other way but I can’t.

The pivotal moment in his life came on reading Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. At that point he decided he wanted to become a playwright and his “greatest literary regret” he says is that he never met Beckett. Shepard's early plays show absurdist influences but he’s come a long way since then and he’s read a great deal more. Calling him “[a] kind of cowboy Samuel Beckett”[5] or even suggesting that in his old age he’s starting to look a bit like his hero are things that would not displease Beckett_glasseshim at all. Beckett became perhaps the most influential playwright of the second half of the 20th century. Being influenced by him is not novel and too much should not be made of this; Shepard is his own man with his own voice. Just because he’s influenced by Beckett doesn’t mean he’s hiding in the man’s shadow.

There are eighteen stories in this collection which, at 139 pages, is not long. They are in the style of vignettes, character studies, slices of life, scenes snipped from larger works and saved from the cutting room floor if you like; two of the stories are completely in dialogue. So if you need your stories to have a beginning, a middle, an end and maybe a nice moral tossed in for good luck then these are probably not for you.

Me? I loved them. It wasn’t the Beckett connection – I discovered all that afterwards – but this is exactly the kind of short fiction I enjoy. The descriptions are minimal, the writing is tight – he says what he has to say and gets off the page. I read the book in three sessions and that’s probably fast enough.

The first story, ‘The Remedy Man’ (which you can read in full here) is perhaps the most traditional story. It probably has more in common with Steinbeck than Beckett. It was also the one I liked the least although I certainly didn’t hate it. Put it this way, if I knew what I knew now about Shepard’s life before I read it and someone asked me, “Who do think wrote that?” I would say, “Sam Shepard” without batting an eye. The narrator is someone remembering an incident when he was a fourteen-year-old boy, the day E.V., “a springy little man in his late fifties with an exaggerated limp from having his kneecap crushed in a shoeing accident” arrives in his beat-up ’54 Chevy half ton to help tame a horse:

[H]e was not a horse whisperer by any stretch. He was a remedy man. He could fix bad horses and when he fixed them they stayed fixed. That’s all he laid claim to.

We never learn the boy’s name nor where this happens but it’s probably somewhere in California – Sonoma and Oakdale are mentioned in passing as being local destinations – not that that’s very important. The imagery is a bit heavy-handed and obvious and it really said nothing particularly new at the end, nothing I didn’t expect it to say. The boy’s going to leave. We leave him at the end hanging from the rubber inner tube that E.V. brought with him and the boy tied to a tree for him. He hangs there while his father calls him from the house:

I just hung there spinning in silence. I knew right then where I’d come from and how far I’d be going.

The image of someone hanging, dangling, is one that permeates the book. Okay the boy is literally hanging but so is the man in the second story, ‘Coalinga ½ Way’ in which a man leaves his wife without thinking things through properly and because of that the story ends with him asking pathetically:

“Where am I supposed to go?”

Again as readers we’re left not knowing what will become of the protagonist. We can guess. I expect he ends up going back to his wife with his tail between his legs but who knows. This is a minimal tale in more ways than one. It’s not simply a tale told in a few words; very little actually happens. The bulk of the story is taken up in two phone conversations, one with his wife, to let her know he’s left, and one with his lover, to let her know he’s arrived. The sentences are short on the whole and even those that aren’t are broken up by commas and semicolons so that they feel short:

“It’s time to make the call.” It comes to him like a voice; a command. If he doesn’t make it now, he never will. Dread or no dread, it’s time to make the call. He swings out and slams the door of the Dodge. The sound doesn’t carry. It ends abruptly at his feet.

There are other women he talks to, the operators, “female voices, different ages, each one completely devoid of sexuality.” The only other women we read about are those he sees in the stretch limos once he reaches L.A. and they’re every bit as distant as the others. The woman I called his lover earlier is actually only referred to in the text as “[t]he voice he’s become convinced he can’t live without” – there’s no clear indication that they’ve ever even met. Have they? By this point in the story I’m ready to read the whole thing again to see what I might have missed. In that respect this story has a lot in common with Beckett: it’s easy to read the thing and get the gist but miss the point.

Minimal stories tend to skimp on descriptions. Much as I’m in favour of that descriptions can be made to pull double-duty: they describe both the location and also the state of mind of the protagonist: what jumps out at him says a great deal about it. For example in Coalinga (which is in Fresno County, California by the way) this is what the man sees:

Beyond the phone [booth], pathetic groups of steers stand on tall black mounds of their own shit, waiting for slaughter. Heat vapours rise from their mounds, cooking under the intense sun as though about ready to explode and send dismembered cow parts flying into the highway. Beyond the cattle there’s nothing. Absolutely nothing moves, clear to the smoky gray horizon.

and when he arrives at the Tropicana in L.A.:

The hotel logo, a red neon palm tree, dances its reflection in the deep end [of the pool]. A fat man wearing a black Speedo sits perched at the top of the water slide, staring down at his toes. He wriggles them as though testing for signs of life. A TV goes on in a room across the pool deck. Someone pulls their curtains shut.

I fully expected that Shepard’s dialogue would ring true and it does, in every story.

‘The Blinking Eye’ is a road movie for one, sort of. A woman is driving across Utah towards Green Bay on the east coast for her mother’s funeral. Her mother is in the car with her. In the urn in the seat beside her that is. That’s no problem. She talks to her anyway:

She’s glad she finally has this time alone with her mother and she speaks to the tall green urn … in a voice exactly like the one she used when her mother was living. She speaks out loud while her bright eyes scan the enormous white sea of salt.

“I don’t know, Mom – I thought that check was for me. I mean, I honestly did. I never would’ve cashed it otherwise. Now Sally’s all pissed – outraged, like I’ve stolen something from her, committed some horrible crime behind her back. She gets so violent with me sometimes. You’ve never seen her get like that but she does. … Now she’s going to be at the funeral and I’ve got to go through this whole thing all over again with her. This whole routine. She won’t give it up.

Little Sparrow HawkJust then she notices “something fluttering, hovering low over the broken white divider line” on the row ahead. She stops to investigate and it’s an injured hawk. Sally doesn’t appear until the end of the story and so the hawk stands in as her proxy, a wild bird that doesn’t understand that the woman leaping from one foot to the next in the scalding heat is actually trying to do the right thing.

‘Betty’s Cats’ is one of two stories in the collection that consists solely of dialogue. It differs from the other, ‘It Wasn’t Proust’ in that the latter story has a few what amount to stage directions. All we have in ‘Betty’s Cats’ is Betty and yet another unnamed character who I read as one of her two most likely younger sisters but in truth even the gender of the second speaker is not revealed. If you imagine Betty as the actress Betty White and Bea Arthur as the other then you have the idea:

Now Betty, how are we going to address this situation?

What’s the problem?

The cats, Betty.

That’s not my problem.

It’s our problem, Betty. They’re going to confiscate your trailer again if you don’t do something about it.

They can’t confiscate my trailer.

They did it once already.

Well they won’t do it again.

Betty – They’ve given you notice. If you don’t get rid of the cats they’re going to take your trailer away, It’s as simple as that. I don’t want to see that happen again. I mean where are you going to go, Betty?

I’ll find something.

And so we go on for another ten pages of trying to reason with Betty who, although the text never says, probably wears purple with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit her. Trailer parks exist the world over – we in the UK call them caravan sites – and so do ‘cat women’; there’s really nothing in this story that’s uniquely American. A delightful character study nevertheless.

There are a couple of very short pieces in the collection: ‘Foreigners’ is less than two pages long and ‘Convulsion’ is even shorter than that. Both have first person narrators and have the feel of little monologues. In the first a café owner talks about his attitude to his fellow Americans, how he treats easterners like tourists and how on a trip to Santa Fe he and his wife were made to feel like foreigners in their own country. I suppose non-Americans sometimes forget just how big the USA is – it might be a country but it’s a country that’s as big as a continent.

I think the two most interesting stories for me were ‘Living the Sign’ and ‘An Unfair Question’. They both involve confrontations but then there’s a lot of confrontation in this book; conflict makes good drama. Both reminded me of Pinter but that’s more to do with the setting than anything else. In the first story someone has put up a sign in a fast food restaurant and gone to some pains to hang it so that it’s at eyelevel and anyone standing at the counter can see it. It reads, in Magic Marker:


It’s a quote from John Lennon from his 1980 album Double Fantasy. The story doesn’t tell you that. I’m telling you that. Knowing that isn’t important. You’ll get the story without knowing that, but I just thought I’d mention it.

double_fantasyThe yet again unnamed narrator of this story enters this establishment – called ‘Wings’ by the way – and orders “a single order of ten wings” with Medium Hot sauce. While he – I reasoned it was a man this time – is waiting for his order he asks the stereotypical girl-behind-the-counter:

“Who wrote that sign right there, hanging over the chicken?”

“I have no idea,” she says, even more peeved that I’m demanding her attention beyond the call of duty.

“I’d like to meet him.”

“Who?” she says in disbelief.

“Whoever wrote the sign.”

“I don’t know who wrote the sign,” she whines.

“Does anybody here know?”

Eventually a kid with a pulled-down cap from under which his ears protrude owns up and finds himself being interrogated: What does it mean? Did he make it up? Why did he feel the need to even put up the notice in the first place? It’s not as aggressive or menacing as The Birthday Party for example but this is a guy who’s ended up working in a fast food restaurant, who dreams about watching it snow in Colorado and has never given his actions that much thought. When the man asks, “Who wrote that sign?” he’s not looking so much for who came up with the words in the first place – he may already know – but he wants to know why someone felt the need to pass on those wise words of wisdom. Towards the end of their conversation he says to the kid:

[Y]ou wrote it down. You cut that little piece of cardboard very carefully and found a Magic Marker and wrote all the words down in capital letters. Then you covered the whole thing with strips of invisible tape so the words wouldn’t get splattered with chicken grease and you punched that little hole in the top and threaded that shoelace through it and then you climbed up there, above the wings, balancing and manoeuvring you fingers through the electric wires, tying the knot so that it would hang dead centre just below the lamps in plain sight of anyone who might come in, right at eye level where you knew the eye would be seduced into reading it and the mind would then turn it over, replacing for just a second and thought about food or hunger with a new thought that might turn them toward the actual plain fact of living and away from dreaming about the stock market or their girlfriend or their failed marriage or their history grades or even Armageddon. And in that flashing moment some mysterious light explodes through their whole body, sending signals to a remote part of themselves that suddenly remembers being born and just as certainly knows it’s bound to die. You did that…

‘An Unfair Question’ on the other hand is menacing. Enclosed spaces are at the best of times. Being in one with a bloke with a gun and a bit of an attitude is another thing. It is a story of two halves; in fact with very little rejigging they could stand as separate stories. Why they work better as one is because we know the guy in the first half searching for basil for his wife’s party in an almost empty supermarket only to return home empty-handed to learn that she’d had some all along is the same guy who ends up scaring the bejesus out of one of his wife’s guests, a woman he believes is from Montana and who makes the mistake of asking his advice on purchasing a firearm, in the second half.

There are very few couples in these stories and those there are are odd at best and strained at worst. In two of the stories, ‘The Door to Women’ and the title story, ‘Great Dream of Heaven’ the couples living together are men; in the first, a old man and his grandson, in the second two old men whose wives have died. On the surface both relationships seem sound but as the stories progress you realise that that’s not really the case.

Most of the stories focus on the individual and just how isolated people can find themselves. The blurb on the back says:

In these … stories, Sam Shepherd taps the same wellspring that has made him one of America's most acclaimed playwrights; sex and regret; the yearning for a frontier that has been subdivided out of existence and the anxious gulf that separates men and women.

There’s no sex, no sexual congress of any kind, but there is frustration and not merely sexual although if I was being flippant I might suggest that what most of these people need is to get laid. If there is a single theme to the whole work it is an inability to communicate. Some, like the couple in ‘It Wasn’t Proust’ still try though:

The one reading Proust?

It wasn’t Proust!

Just kidding.

I don’t know what it was but it wasn’t Proust.

Take it easy.

I can’t tell you anything without some underlying –

What? Some underlying what?

(They both go silent. A sharp wind creates a rippling line of surf like a miniature tidal wave heading straight toward them. Neither of them acknowledges the unaccountable terror it sparks in them. The man continues his tale but now it’s more like he’s talking to himself or maybe the reflections of puffy clouds racing across the lake.)

I enjoyed this book. Collections like this can sometimes be a mixed bag but these stories hang well together. It felt American but not the bold and brassy America we foreigners tend to think the whole country is like. In the old days the West represented the American dream. “Go West, Young Man,” was once the war cry. Now that dream had deteriorated, crumbled away. Old frontier landscapes and ideals have given way to shopping malls and suburban malaise. There’s nowhere to run. All that’s left is to turn around and look reality squarely in the face. Violence is a word that gets associated with many of Shepard’s earlier works but these are not godotviolent stories. There’s the potential for violence but mostly what we find here are frustrated and isolated people who see no way out; there’s little or no fight left in them.

For the man who was once so inspired by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which as you know ends with the two tramps saying they’re going to go and yet don’t move a muscle, it’s notable how many of these stories also end with the characters unable to move, to make progress: "He stays like that" (‘The Stout of Heart’); "I have no plans" (‘Living the Sign’); "There's nothing to do" (‘Betty's Cats’) and "I watched them very closely but they never moved at all." (‘Concepción’). This is more than a snapshot of America. This is America in stasis – the stillest of lives. Dead still in fact.

The evocative cover of the book is actually a family photograph showing Sam and his son Walker. It was taken by his partner, the actress Jessica Lange.


[1] Carole Cadwalladr, ‘Sam Shepard opens up’, The Guardian, 21st March 2010

[2] ‘Sam Shepard, The Art of Theatre No. 12’, The Paris Review, Spring 1997, No.142

[3] Ibid

[4] Ben Fowlkes on Goodreads and Sarah Aswell quotes her friend Ben (who may well be the same Ben) on her blog.

[5] Michael Astor, ‘Sam Shepard's Day Out of Days offers glimpses of cowboy Beckett in era of the cell phone’, Washington Examiner, 11th January 2010

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