Frustrations with the Digital

As much as I like the internet and my laptop and the easy access to information at the press of a button (or more recently the tap of a screen) there are some things that I will always enjoy more in their analog form. Books are one such thing. I have a Kindle. It’s loaded with books, but I only really read it at work, where the convenience of not having to deal with pages is its biggest draw. Most touch screen command centers are also beginning to draw long, confused pauses from me, though as I get older, I find that a lot of my interactions produce long, confused pauses.

This week I added an item to my list that I never thought I’d ever add: real human interactions. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the cheerful yet automated voice of customer service knows what I’m talking about. It is infuriating and humiliating to have to yell your requests repeatedly into the phone for an automated system that neither has the capacity to recognize your frustration, nor has any clue what number you’re trying to select.

Interestingly, this exercise in hair pulling was brought on by yet another technological failure. I have been trying to be greener with my bills recently, by making them all electronic. While also saving a tree or two, this vastly reduces the amount of paper I later have to shred. This, however, also puts me at the mercy of The Machine (in previous generations known as The Man) as I had the unpleasant, Kafkaesque misfortune of discovering last Friday.

When I found my cell phone bill in my inbox, conspicuously showing me a figure several dollars higher than what I’m used to, my immediate instinct was to run a fine-toothed comb through the damn thing to find out what I was being over-charged for this time. Which was when I discovered that, no matter how many times I tried, I could not log into my account. That produced the thought of, “Oh shit, I’ve forgotten my password again,” because really, who can remember four dozen random arrangements of 15 uppercase, lowercase, numbers, symbols, and neolithic cave drawings all of the time? So I angrilly reset my password, and yet the problem did not go away.

Time to call customer service.

Well, it was a busy day for customer service. Thirty minutes spent waiting for ‘an available agent’ after the five minute maze of dial pad commands was not what I wanted to do with my morning. So I left my number for a call back and went on with my business.

My call back came in at the appointed time, and everything was going well, (I was bopping along to the elevator music) when suddenly it stopped and I’m patched through to a line.

An empty line.

The call didn’t drop. There was no dial tone. There was nothing but a faint white noise. Evidently I had been patched through to an agent who had left his headset on his desk while going off to take a wee. I waited for five minutes before I gave up in disgust.

Next option: live chat.

I like live chat slightly less than automated phone systems, if only because chat bots are becoming way more advanced every year and my fragile optimism coupled with my paranoid cynicism is always worried that I’m going to be the one that lets an AI pass the Turing test that then ushers in the robot apocalypse. Don’t laugh, it could happen!

As it happened, Veronica, my assistant was instantly on my radar. First of all, come on, no one has been named Veronica since “Archie” comics. Secondly, she spoke (or, I guess typed) a little too robotically. There are certain casual nuances to human communication that Veronica just didn’t seem to pick up on. Or else my phone company has a script written by an emotionless tin man that their employees are never, ever allowed to deviate from. But whatever. Veronica needed to be tested.

Me: Hey, Veronica, what’s your favorite animal?

Veronica: My favorite animal? giraffe

Very clever Veronica. Your programming has allowed you to deviate off your script. Time to throw another wrench into your machinery.

Me: Giraffe isn’t an animal, Veronica.

Veronica: No? Then what is it?

Damnit, Veronica, you’re not playing the game right!

Me: Veronica, can I speak to a real human please?

Veronica: I am a real human.

Touché, Veronica. Touché.

Clearly I was outmatched. This was either a very, very clever chat bot or else a very confused and possibly offended human woman. I may never know. Not until the robot uprising begins, that is.

In the end she gave me a very complicated work around that involved making a new account with a new email address and password. And while she wasn’t able to definitively prove to me that she wasn’t a metallic imposter, she did inform me that the error I had been experiencing was because my phone company had decided to muck around with their website, and had inadvertently locked a huge number of their customers out of their accounts. I told Veronica that their web developer needed to be fired, and possibly needed to be the first fleshy human to be put to work in the mines.

Whichever.

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This seems like as good a time as any to announce that my short story, “Customer Service” has been accepted by the Canadian magazine Neo-opsis. It will appear in a future issue that I will be more than happy to pimp out once I have more information.

In the meantime, the ink continues to [slowly] flow into other projects.

There will be updates.

Sometime.

Maybe.

Sixteen Seconds

2300 words
Originally published September 2013
Out of Print Blog

It was a day in March.

The sky was a flat, unimaginative northwest gray. Rain had been pouring for most of the afternoon while Charlotte ran her errands and then, just to be cheeky, wound down to a drizzle and finally stopped when she at last took shelter in the appointed cafe. Why couldn’t the month make up its damn mind whether it wanted to be spring or winter? It was hailing that morning for chrissake and it would be another two months before sunny weather became reliable. March was just a dismal reminder that pleasant weather was still a long way off. It should stop pretending to be spring, already.

The dark roast face in Charlotte’s coffee glowered sourly up at her as she stared into her cup. It was too expensive, too bitter and too hot to drink. She stirred in another packet of honey with nothing else to do. Aidan was late again, surprise surprise.

In her purse her phone buzzed. For a full minute she ignored it, blowing softly on the surface of her coffee, peeling away the heat one layer at a time in between each muffled vibration. Eventually, it gave up and stilled. She waited another minute before bringing her paper cup to her lips, scalding them again. She couldn’t have one victory — not one single victory today! Soaked to her skin by the rain, abandoned by Aidan, pestered by her phone, and burned by the one comfort she could usually count on. She clicked her tongue angrily and thrust her hand into her purse for her phone. Might as well just accept things as there were today.

She didn’t need to check it to know who had called. It was Suzie; the woman had been calling her all day. Her voicemail icon displayed a hopeful notification and disinterested, Charlotte tapped it and began counting.

It took sixteen seconds for her voicemail to get through all of the automated recordings telling her needless information: the date, the time, how many calls she had and how much space remained in her inbox. She didn’t care. She cared less about the message. At the end of sixteen seconds she flicked 7 on her screen, deleting it, and put it out of her mind.

Another honey packet went into her coffee and with her cheek pressed unflatteringly in her palm, she stared at the soggy world outside. Despite the weather, the streets were still busy with people just as soaked as she was. The rain seemed to have no effect on them. Like limp paper cutouts they carried on their business, expressionless and efficient. She envied them. She’d lived here her entire life and yet every year when the rains came and lingered for months like an unwanted relative she cursed the persistence of it, as though she’d never known a six month rainy season in her twenty-six years.

Her phone began to buzz again, edging threateningly closer to the edge of the table but she ignored it – spitefully now. The rain started again, coming down in full force and a black-capped mushroom grove of umbrellas popped up under it. Occasionally a brightly colored umbrella would bob by, on its own stubbornly rebellious against the gray of their world but Charlotte knew better; eventually, the rainy city bullied everything into monochromatics.

Fourteen… fifteen…sixteen. She turned her head without lifting it, mashing her cheek into her lips and she flicked the delete command again. Her phone sat reproachfully silent at the edge of the table. She slid it back into her purse and sighed, refusing to be guilted by a piece of technology.

Her stomach excused itself obnoxiously under her damp cardigan. There was no use in her starving while she waited; if Aidan had really wanted to eat lunch with her, he would have been on time. She stood and collected her purse. Her phone remained thankfully silent.

There were no other customers at the counter and the barista behind it looked for a moment as though she’d done her job in serving Charlotte once and wouldn’t do so again kindly. With aspartame sweetness she asked, “What can I get you?”

“The spring salad; low fat dressing. Do you have any more fruit cups?”

“No, sorry, we just sold the last one. Would you like a fruit tart instead?”

If Charlotte could eat a fruit tart, she wouldn’t have ordered wilted greens and a tasteless vinaigrette. She thrust her irritation into her purse in exchange for her wallet.

“No, that’s fine, just the salad.”

“Okay then— seven ninety-nine.”

A despairing sigh left Charlotte before she could check it, but she laid her last ten dutifully on the counter and watched it distill down into a handful of coins.

“Thanks,” she said, or thought she said— hoped she’d said as she took her change and her lunch and sat again. It wasn’t much of a meal, all things considered. A few brown edged leaves of romaine, cucumber sliced so thinly it could pass for a microscope slide and— was that dandelion?! Who the hell put weeds in a salad? Her head returned heavily to her hand and she mixed the deceptively sweet smelling vinaigrette into the over priced plastic bowl of yard trimmings. In her purse, her phone buzzed again. Why couldn’t Suzie take a hint? The woman couldn’t comprehend anything existing outside of her sphere of influence. It irritated Charlotte enough to be deliberately avoidant, just to throw a wrench in her plans. If she could, she’d tell Oliver outright that his mother’s micromanagement and constant badgering were suffocating, but then she’d have to deal with the hurt puppy looks and the passive aggressive silences.

She was halfway through her salad when the door banged open and shut and a new breeze of cold and wet spilled in. Moments later Aidan stood over her, shaking the rain from his coat onto the table and floor around him. Charlotte moved her purse and regretted for a brief, petulant moment that it also invited a seat for him. His childishness was starting to rub off on her and she lifted her head and straightened her back to hide it.

“You look like you’ve had better days.”

“Something like that.”

“Whatcha eating?”

“Weeds.”

“Sounds appetizing.”

“You’re late.” Her eyes turned up to him as he sat. She must have looked or sounded more accusatory than she’d intended. He frowned right back at her until she sighed and looked away. That look. That damnable, stony, chiding look that made her feel like a kid caught in the cookie jar again.

“Sorry,” she muttered without wanting to.

After a moment, the hardness of his expression cracked and broke away and his usual sunny features shone through. “Don’t worry about it. It’s the weather you know? Dark skies make people dark on the inside.”

“Except you?”

He grinned. “Except me. They serve anything here besides weeds?”

“Probably. Did you bring your bank account?”

“Even better.” He flashed her the gold surface of a MasterCard and then was gone again.

She took another sip of her coffee— too cold now, of course but at least the caffeine stood a chance at improving her mood. She stared spitefully into her half eaten salad.

Her phone went off again. She could almost feel Suzie’s impatience in every clipped buzz. They were even timed the same as the woman’s nervous lip smacks. She brought her phone out of exile just as the vibrations stopped. Three new messages. She was about to delete them all out of hand, when she noticed one was from Aidan. She tapped on the 1 key and brought the phone to her ear.

“Hey babe, it’s Aidan. I’ll be a bit late. Traffic around here is a nightmare. Don’t wait- go on and get something to eat. I’ll grab something later. See you soon.”

The message ended and she sighed. Only Aidan could make her feel so guilty with such friendly words. Well, Aidan and Oliver, if she thought about it. She didn’t want to think about it.

“Who was that?” Aidan dropped into the seat opposite her, surrounded by the smell of stracchino cheese and chives. Her mouth watered against her will and she quickly drowned it in another sip of coffee.

“No one. Just messages.”

“Yeah? Did you get mine?” He set a white paper package in front of her. It radiated warmth and was losing its opaqueness to grease.

“Just now.” She picked open the moist paper and stared at the cheese and chicken melted mess inside. “Aidan, you know I can’t-”

He held up a hand, his other cradling his own sandwich. “Come on, one meal off your diet isn’t going to hurt anything. Besides, everyone cheats, you know.”

There was something in the cheeky way that he said it that she didn’t appreciate. She almost sent the sandwich back across the table to him but another look down (it dolefully oozed a tendril of cheese to the paper) changed her mind. Of course, he was right – and God, it was good!

Her hone rang again.

“Fuck. I can’t even eat my lunch in peace.” Muttered of course; who knew where an overly sensitive parent might be lurking.

Aidan snatched her phone off the table while she was busy licking cheese off her lingers.

“Suzie, huh? You want me to answer for you?” He grinned an evil grin, his thumb hovering devilishly over the display.

“No!” She grabbed the phone before he could press the bright green button, careful not to nudge it herself. He lifted a shoulder.

“You’re still with Oliver, then?”

She dropped back into her purse. There was a grease smear on it that she’d have to clean up later.

“Yes, I’m still with Oliver.” She was so tired of this conversation. Life would be much simpler if Aidan would just live in the now.

“Are you ever going to tell him?”

“Maybe.”

“Do you still love him?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Do you love me?”

“Of course.”

There was silence between them. Her coffee grew colder, but she was determined to enjoy her calorie bomb of a sandwich while it was still warm, Aidan and Oliver and Suzie be damned —double damned for making her second guess her choices. She was an adult, damnit! in control of her own life. Whose business was it anyway whose bed she was in?

“So,” Aidan sighed at last. “What does mother hen want?”

It took everything in her not to send him the warning kick he deserved — he didn’t need to be so antagonistic, even if he had every right to be. She nibbled up a string of cheese sullenly.

“Nothing important. There’s a gallery opening she wants me to attend. I haven’t gotten back to her yet.”

“When’s the opening?”

“Tonight.”

“Oh.” He hid his expression behind his own paper coffee cup. Four sugar and a teaspoon of cream. She didn’t know how he could tell the difference, but she’d given him two teaspoons of cream on purpose one morning and he’d sent her back to the kitchen with a warning and a swat to her ass. Confident and casually in command —she supposed it was what drew her to him in the first place. It was so easy to give control over to him when he miraculously made it seem like she was still the one in charge.

“I guess dinner and a movie are out then, huh?”

“I told you noon. It’s not my fault you were late.”

“No, but you could have at least set out a whole day for me. We used to do that you know. Whole days.”

“I know,” she said, and set her mostly eaten sandwich back on the table. She’d never been fond of crusts.

He sighed again. “Look, no pressure, but think about it. You’re complicating your life needlessly and you’re going to end up hurting him, one way or another. You know that.”

She knew it, though it was somehow worse that he knew it.

In her purse, her phone began buzzing angrily again. They both stared at it and it seemed to Charlotte that this time that the vibrations had no intention of shutting off. Aidan stood, collected their trash and headed to the bin. When he returned, Charlotte and her phone were silent.

“You should probably call her,” he said quietly. Charlotte nodded. “Will you be free later? After the opening?”

“Maybe. You know how Suzie is with her family outings. It could be a while. It could be all night.”

“Well, give me a call if you want to come over. If you’re not held up overnight. I’ll probably be up.” He wouldn’t be, but he’d pretend that were the case, if she called him. She watched him leave without saying goodbye. He’d understand she had a lot of heavy thoughts on her mind, after all, he’d put them there.

The rain had stopped again, and here and there a few fingers of sunlight poked through the dark cloud cover. Umbrellas snapped closed and jackets unbuttoned. Charlotte watched Aidan’s head bob up and down in the crowd, turn the corner and then disappear.

She stood and slid into her coat. Her purse buzzed against her back. Outside, she finally obliged her phone and held it to her ear.

“Hello?—

“Suzie! Hey, how are you?—

“No, no, I’m all right—

“Yeah, sorry about that. I’ve been running errands all day. The rain has just made it impossible—

“Of course I’ll be there. Is Sophia coming?—

“Great! Tell Oliver I’ll be around at about six—

“Of course I’m staying for dinner. I wouldn’t miss it for the world—”

 

Tangent Reviews: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #198

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is always a delight to read. I don’t always necessarily like all the stories that they publish, but they tend to pick up stories with either very lovely prose or incredibly thoughtful speculative fiction. Issue #198 features a story about the life of a puritan settlement in America battling against the constant threat of the devil, and a haunting eco-tale about the ghosts of whales harnessed to the lanterns that burn on their oil.

“Or I Wil Harrie Them Out of This Land” by Thomas W. Waldroon
“Whale-Oil” by Sylvia V. Linsteadt

I loved the voice in “Or I Wil Harrie Them Out of This Land,” though the length made the story a bit tedious, and many of the strands it starts felt a bit unfinished by the end. “Whale-Oil” is a story that bleeds vivid colors into the reader’s imagination. With a fairy tale feel and brilliant imagery, “Whale-Oil” is a great piece of speculative fiction.

Read the original stories in issue #198 at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. My full review is available at Tangent Online Magazine.

The Writer’s Pinch

660 words

So here’s the scene: There’s this writer, you see? He’s there hunched over his desk, burnt out cigarette between his lips and fifteen of its cousins already stubbed out in the tray and on the desk and under the typewriter. There’s an empty bottle of whiskey rolling around under his feet and no less than seven dirty coffee mugs on the kitchen counter behind him. The one that’s sitting cold by his elbow needs a wash, but he’ll give it a rinse if he remembers, or pour the stale ghosts of beans past directly into it if not.

He’s alone, because that’s the responsible thing to do when your art is tearing you up from the inside to get out, but is shit at feeding a family or keeping the water hot. He’s barely got the lights on, which was what she said when she left the last time. He pretends not to care because the hurt makes the words more real. Pain is ink and he feeds it drop by plunking drop into the machine in front of him, hitting the keys like he’s in a brawl. Bare knuckle boxing against twenty-six opponents and their stuttering, stalling, questioning peanut gallery. And he fights on, hour after hour, endlessly, mindlessly typing because when he stops is when he hears them. Every single goddamned one of them and their poison-tipped words that keep him perched on the edge of a bottle: Kook, shut-in, layabout, mooch. Knife thrusts in what was supposed to be a fair fight. And he’s fighting, damnit but all the bets are against him, and they laugh at his bruises but don’t they know this is the only damn thing he’s ever been good at?

He’s got a stack of rejection letters eight miles high and four miles deep, but he wears his one acceptance like a badge of honor. Victory on the field of battle. Welcome home soldier, you’ve done your good duty. Sorry about the legs and all; we’ll get you looked after. And then he’s gone. Forgotten in the gutters and he digs viciously at the keys, recounting it all: the struggle over the mound of bodies, the rip of bullets through his flesh, and the flash of bayonets white-hot like match flames in the cigarette-smoky air. He tears his hair out at the sound of mail sliding through the door slot: planes overhead dropping their payload. Shell after shell of bills; he prays that the atom bomb of another rejection doesn’t land in the pile. It’s PTSD and he knows it but there’s no VA for writers who can’t get published, and no support for a man who can’t work a normal nine to five because the weight of it crushes his soul already undervalued beside what worth can be ripped out of the toil of his body.

He’s pinched. His stomach. His wallet. All of it. Pinned to the wall like a bug. One more beetle out of a hundred thousand others. And still he flexes, twitching in the last synapses of life before death. LOOK AT ME, he screams into the din. I’m special. I’m unique. Inspect me. Tear out my wings and catalog them. Every book: twenty-six letters: different patterns. Different spots in different arrangements. Pigment, flourish, camouflage. In an evolution of words his are failing natural selection. Failing to stand out. Falling out of the gene pool. He’d give his kingdom of cobwebs to be a butterfly right now.

His fingers slow to a stop over the keys. They hover and then drop, the mad hummingbird pace they’ve been keeping falters in uncertainty. Is this worth it? The world returns to him. The real world. Empty refrigerators, medical bills, and the sound of angry, bitter sex through the too thin walls. His head drops like a cracked clay pot into his hands. Ash stains his keys. He’s written fifteen thousand, seven hundred and eighty-four words today and erased fifteen thousand, seven hundred and eight-five.

Tangent Reviews: Clockwork Phoenix 5

Clockwork Phoenix 5 is an eclectic collection of speculative fiction stories from a diverse cast of authors. The stories selected reflect the diversity of the authors and while some of them failed to hit the mark with me, they all have something unique to offer the reader.

“The Wind at His Back” by Jason Kimble
“The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me” by Rachael K. Jones
“The Perfect Happy Family” by Patricia Russo
“The Mirror-City” by Mary Brennan
“Finch’s Wedding and the Hive that Sings” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“Squeeze” by Rob Cameron
“A Guide to Birds by Song (After Death)” by A. C. Wise
“The Sorcerer of Etah” by Gray Rinehart
“The Prime Importance of a Happy Number” by Sam Fleming
“Social Visiting” by Sunil Patel
“The Book of May” by C. S. E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez
“The Tiger’s Silent Roar” by Holly Heisey
“Sabbath Wine” by Barbara Krasnoff
“The Trinitite Golem” by Sonya Taaffe
“Two Bright Venuses” by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“By Thread of Night and Starlight Needle” by Shveta Thakrar
“The Games We Play” by Cassandra Khaw
“The Road, and the Valley, and the Beasts” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli
“Innumerable Glimmering Lights” by Rich Larson
“The Souls of Horses” by Beth Cato

I have five favorites in this anthology. First, Patricia Russo’s “The Perfect Happy Family” for its charming characters and its minimalist, surrealist apocalyptic setting. “Squeeze” by Rob Cameron is a wonderful benign ghost story, and the closest to a classical narrative in this anthology. Rich Larson’s “Innumerable Glimmering Lights” is a fantastic alien protagonist story that loops in a way that makes me smile. I appreciated Sonya Taaffe’s “The Trinitite Golem” for the way it slips fluidly between reality and myth and fantasy. Finally, “The Sorcerer of Etah” I enjoyed for its arctic setting and the interesting way it presented problems for the main character.

My full review can be found at Tangent Online. Clockwork Phoenix 5 can be purchased on Amazon.

Tangent Reviews: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #174

Last week I reviewed Beneath Ceaseless Skies issue #174 for Tangent Online Magazine. I was really impressed by the stories in the second issue of May. Maybe it’s just that my tastes in fiction run in the same vein as BCS, but I have really enjoyed reviewing them this month. Yoon Ha Lee and Kay Chronister are both fantastic writers who have a wonderful way with words. Go read my review here, and read the original fiction here, when you have the chance. You won’t be disappointed.

Robinson Crusoe: Afterthoughts

Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe
340 pages
three and a half

 

 

One of the most frequent difficulties I have with reading classic works is finding a way to reconcile historical context with reading for pleasure. Like many others, Robinson Crusoe is a book which reflects its times, and receives much of its fame for the literary firsts it accomplishes. That being said, it’s likely to be more enjoyable if read academically, rather than casually. By modern standards, Robinson Crusoe is a long drawn out adventure novel about an English imperialist with more wanderlust than common sense, told in such bland language as to nullify the ‘adventure’ part near completely. There were parts that I enjoyed, but lengthy passages of this novel are so boring that I found myself fighting a yawn every other page. It took me nearly a month to finish reading it, which I did by sheer force of will and the desire to finally be reading something else.

Robinson Crusoe

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.”

Robinson Crusoe is a difficult character to stomach, even with the historical context. He epitomizes English colonial attitudes, racial and cultural superiority, and just plain dickish behavior. Who is he a dick to? Well, everyone, really, except for maybe the Portuguese captain and the widow he entrusts all his money to. He disobeys the wishes of his parents and runs off on a sea adventure, wherein he’s shipwrecked and told plainly by the captain after they make it to shore that he’s going to be unlucky at sea. But he doesn’t listen, and runs off on another voyage where he’s captured and made a slave for two years. Slavery, to Cursoe, is apparently too unbearable for him to deal with for longer than two years (but perfectly fine for other people, later in the book), so he escapes with a boy names Xury, and they rock around the African coast for a while, shooting lions and such, until they’re rescued by a Portuguese captain. (Well, Crusoe is rescued, anyway. He sells Xury with the upstanding promise of the boy’s future freedom if he converts to Christianity. Yay.)

The Portuguese captain then drops him off in Brazil and helps him buy a sugar plantation, which he raises up quite nicely and is, by all accounts doing quite well for himself, until it’s suggested that he needs some slaves to work his plantation. After about two seconds of thought on the morality of that, and no reflection on his own time as a slave, Crusoe agrees to sail to Africa again to pick up some slaves.

Well, wouldn’t you know it but he’s shipwrecked again, and this time, everyone dies but him. He instead washes up on the shore of an uninhabited island where he spends a dreadful few days before picking himself up and pillaging what he can from the wreck before it finally is broken up in a storm. What he manages to collect is, conveniently, everything that he needs to survive, including wood, sails, iron work, some food, seeds, guns, knives and the like. He also picks up a dog and two cats, though the later he is forced to shoot when they breed with the local wild cats and become pests. So he’s a dick to cats too.

He sets up shop in a sort of dug out cave, where he packs in all of his things, but becomes alarmed that lightning might strike all his powder, so he squirrels it around different places on the island. Then he’s nearly killed in a cave in caused by an earthquake, so he picks up his stuff and builds himself a new shelter, where, I’m pretty sure he contracts salmonella from eating a turtle, falls into fever and has a religious experience. Or rather, he realizes “Oh shit, I could die here, I better prostrate myself before God, just in case.” So he reflects on how utterly impious he has been in his life and vows to change that, and thank God for all the small blessings in his life.

For the next twenty or so years, he makes his home on the island, raising goats, grains, teaching himself rudimentary crafts like agriculture, wood working, leather tanning, tailoring, ship building, herding etc. It’s okay if we skip over these years, because the book does too. Suffice to say, he’s miserable, but manages to convince himself he’s not because God.

After these twenty-odd years of living all by himself, convinced there’s no one else around, he finds a footprint in the sand on the other side of the island, and after much hand wringing, he finally goes to spy on the spot and finds that it’s been used by native cannibals as a feast area. Well, this throws him into a panic and not wanting to be discovered he stops using his gun, and takes great caution when lighting a fire so that they don’t see his smoke. At this point I have to wonder: he’s been living there for twenty years, both him and the cannibals going about their business without care of discovery and, strangely, without ever having discovered the other. There’s a lot of contrived events in this story, but this one takes the cake.

Anyway, he waffles for a while between, “I must kill the savages” and “they don’t know any better, poor ignorant fools”, and finally decides on the latter, and resolves to leave them very much alone, until another group of cannibals arrives on his side of the island with their captives to eat.

At about this time, Crusoe begins to fantasize about how nice it would be to have a couple servants in his ‘kingdom’ and puts a plan into motion to rescue one of the captives, which he does by killing all the cannibals. Turns out, their captive is a cannibal from a rival nation, and that just won’t do. So after assuring himself that Friday, as he calls him, is well and truly bound to him in gratitude, he begins his re-education, mainly by informing him that his religion is all a bunch of hogwash meant to keep him subjugated under a ruling class of kings and priests, while Christianity on the other hand, is 100% not that.

Right. Anyway, Friday eats it up and converts and is thus finally allowed to carry weapons, is taught English (along with being taught to call Crusoe ‘master’) and is from that moment on, ordered around like a servant, because that is the natural order of things.

sigh

They live like this for another couple of years until they spot some more cannibals with captives. So they repeat the same plan, killing all but two of the cannibals and taking two of their captives, one of whom is a Spaniard, and the other is, conveniently, Friday’s father, only it really could have been any native at all, for all the point their being related has. Crusoe nurses these two back to health and the Spaniard tells them that there are a bunch of other Spaniards on the mainland who have also been ship wrecked. Seeing his escape, Crusoe convinces him that all the Spaniards should be brought back to him so that they can build a boat together and sail to a civilized port. At first the Spaniard isn’t too keen on the idea, but Crusoe reminds him that he owes him his life, so he capitulates in the end, and sails off with Friday’s father to go get the other white men.

While Crusoe and Friday are waiting, an English ship comes into view, and by God, an English ship is like, 100 times better than sailing away with those half civilized, slave owning, inquisition doing Spaniards, so Crusoe goes to make friendly with them. The only problem is that the ship has mutinied, and the captain is a captive.

Well, Crusoe by now is now well practiced in freeing captives, so he does what he does and captures or kills the mutineers and frees the captain who is most gracious and agrees to whatever plan the crazy bearded man dressed in haphazard goat skins lays before him, and before long, they’re all sailing away, happy as clams on the ship back toward England.

But what about the Spaniards, you ask? Fuck them, that’s what. Crusoe doesn’t so much as spare them a thought as he sails away for home.

When he gets there, however, he finds he’s got no money anywhere, which sucks, expect for his plantation. So he goes to see the sea captain, who doesn’t recognize him at first, but then finally does, and is told at length how he might reclaim his portion of the plantation. He does this, and rewards the captain, and the widow who was holding his money for him before, and then heads back to England. But not by boat, because he’s had nothing but bad luck that way. No, he decides to go over land, but because he’s an idiot, who doesn’t take the well placed advice of anyone around him, he decides to hike through the mountains in the middle of winter to get home and he, and Friday and all their guides are nearly eaten by wolves because of it.

But he manages to get home alive, and marries and has some kids before he ever thinks about what may have happened to the Spaniards he’d sent for with an escape plan. So he hires a boat and sails off to them, and finds them still alive, still trapped on the island. To this he thinks, “Huh. All’s well that ends well, you’re now my colony, here’s some livestock and some women. Bu-bye!” He then sails home again, leaving them on the island he has been calling up until the end The Island of Despair and ‘my prison’.

The End.

Now, if you’re like me, you may be thinking that Robinson Crusoe is a self-serving asshole who is a master at self justification and selective thinking in which, when bad things happen to him, they are well and truly evil, but when the same bad things happen to other people it’s time to take advantage of their misfortune. I would give the book more credit for having been written in the time it was (published in 1719), however Crusoe as a character is so contradictory, and so blind to his own hurtful hypocrisy that he’s just not likable. I didn’t root for his success at any part of the book. I kind of wanted him to be eaten by his parrot, whom he also abandoned pitifully. He’s arrogant, self-serving, with an admitted lip-service to religion until he very nearly dies; he’s racist and misogynistic, and above all, learns nothing of moralistic value from his hardships.

Stylistically, the book is bland. While Defoe does describe things in great detail, the parts which should have been exciting and adventurous are told in the same tone one might use to describe the weather. What is, for all intents and purposes the prologue and the epilogue are way too detailed, and drag the story out longer than it needs to be with unnecessary events that add little to the character (though if they were meant to showcase the evil morality of imperialism, I could stomach them more). The capitalization of every noun (at least in the edition I read) was also hard to get used to at first, but it stopped bothering me by about halfway through the book.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to, which always upsets me a little. I hate being disappointed by books, especially by classics, but you can’t love them all. I suppose if you take it as a political satire it’s digestible, but on its own it’s not very savory.

Read more pokes and prods at Robinson Crusoe at this nice blog:

Fighting with Fiction

and have an academic look at the colonialism and racism in Robinson Crusoe here:

British Literature 1700 – 1900, a Course Blog

The next book on my reading list is The Man With the Knives by Ellen Kushner.

The World’s Greatest Short Stories: Afterthoughts

The World’s Greatest Short Stories
Edited by James Daley
236 pages
4 stars

 

I don’t usually review classic works for reasons I’ve spoken of before but which largely boil down to laziness. If I’m going to review classics it’s not enough to talk about how the story made me feel. I need to talk about the author and their lives, and how those lives reflect in their writing, what tools we can use to interpret their work and what, if any relevance do they still have today. If you want that sort of detailed analysis, then this blog isn’t for you. What you’re looking for is an English lit class. I’m going to review this book and its stories today because I don’t have anything else to talk about and I’m (still) avoiding talking about my actual writing.

Sometimes I like to spoil stories. Just so you know.

Sometimes I like to spoil stories. Just so you know.

 

To start with, this book introduced me to the writing of a few literary greats which I hadn’t had the chance to read yet: Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, and John Updike. It also gave me a chance to form a firm opinion on some others whose work I’d read before: Rudyard Kipling, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Chinua Achebe, and Virginia Woolf. Happily, it also introduced me to some authors who I’d never even heard of and in many cases whose works were a delight to read. Below are my completely candid, unsophisticated and largely uneducated thoughts on these stories.

Bartleby the Scrivener
Herman Melville

This was an infuriating story to read. Throughout the whole thirty pages of it I was tearing out my hair in the manner one does when watching a horror movie in which the stupid teenagers insist on investigating the suspicious sounds, completely alone, in the dark. “Don’t open the door!” you scream in frustration, flinging your bowl of popcorn at the television, spooking the dog and causing your spouse to roll their eyes at you. Similarly I found myself shouting, “Just turf his obstinate ass!”, throwing my bowl of popcorn at the book, spooking the bird and causing Alex to ask what the hell was wrong with me. I really couldn’t connect with the protagonist’s strange sense of charity toward Bartleby, which really probably says more about my quality as a person than the quality of the story.

The Necklace
Guy de Maupassant

I’m almost one hundred percent positive I’ve read this story before or if not it, then one very similar. It’s not a very unique story. O. Henry must have written dozens like them on his toilet paper. Chances are if you’ve sat through thirty minutes of any sitcom (I feel for you), you’ve seen this story. A financially strapped, yet high society minded woman borrows a diamond necklace from her friend, and then promptly loses it. She and her husband then work their asses off to buy a new necklace, during which time miss priss learns the meaning of hard work and sacrifice. Finally she works up enough money to buy an exact replica of the necklace she lost. But when she returns it and confesses what had happened, her amused friend informs her that the original necklace was a fake and worth only a fraction of the cost of the real one (cue laugh track).

The Death of Ivan Ilych
Leo Tolstoy

I liked this one. In fact, I loved it. I’d read it again, just not when I’m feeling sick. Or depressed. Or really any sort of melancholy. I was excited to read it as lately I’ve heard so much about it, and I can now agree that Tolstoy does know his way around words. Like, damn. The whole story is an account of a man from the peak of his life until his death. With emphasis on the death and the dying part. He goes through all the stages of grief as he degrades on the pages right before our eyes. I could most acutely empathize with his growing malcontent with doctors and their high-minded thought that if they can’t find anything wrong with a patient then there must not be anything wrong with the patient. Puh. If only Ivan had had webMD this story may have ended very differently.

The Man Who Would Be King
Rudyard Kipling

I’m going to take a stab in the dark and assume, without any previous knowledge, that Kipling lived in early twentieth century India. Am I right? Yeah? Hot damn. I mean, I had my suspicions after The Jungle Book and The Courting of Dinah Shadd but after reading The Man Who Would Be King I got to thinking that there may just be a bit of a pattern here. Despite Kipling setting his stories in one of the richest cultural environments I can think of, his writing is as dry as plain, stale toast. Buried in sand. Even a story that features a crucifixion and a bloody beheading takes way too long and three too many naps to get through. Not my favorite story in the collection.

The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

If this story were a person it would be of the sort that you back away from slowly while avoiding eye contact. I’m fairly certain it’s a commentary on postpartum depression, and the absurd way in which mental illness in women was treated back in the day, but damn. This story is just freaky. A lot of it calls up this quote from Jane Eyre:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: But women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.

Basically it’s a story of a woman who went a bit loopy and is taken to the country by her husband to recover, except he pretty much confines her to her bedroom and won’t let her do anything that he feels is strenuous. Anyone who has ever had to spend three or more days in bed with the flu knows that by the third day it’s a special kind of mental torture to not have anything to do all day. Eventually the protagonist figures that the wallpaper in her room is out to get her and loses it entirely. It’s a good story, is what I’m saying.

The Fortune-Teller
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

If you look very closely at the last period of this story you can see M. Night Shyamalan winking at you. I’m serious, go see for yourself.

The Lady with the Toy Dog
Anton Chekhov

Does the Chekhov’s Gun rule apply to items within a story’s title? ‘Cause if it does, I’m disappointed that the dog in this story didn’t shoot someone in the face. For someone who has such an energetic piece of story-telling advice attributed to him, The Lady with the Toy Dog is actually kind of boring, especially coming after The Fortune-Teller. It’s a pretty standard story of an adulterous affair between a jaded older man and a beautiful, naive young woman. They meet, have a few twists in the sheets and then she returns to her husband. Only then does the protagonist realize how unfortunate it is that he is actually in love with his guilt ridden mistress. He crosses the country to see her again where they continue their affair for a time before both of them realize that they can’t continue on in that manner, in secret. The last paragraph ends the story in chilling vagueness. On second thought, maybe the dog does shoot them both.

How Old Timofei Died with a Song
Rainer Maria Rilke

This one had a frame story so disconnected from the actual story that I forgot all about it by the end–and the whole piece itself is only four and a half pages long. It kind of reads like a fairy tale except without any magic or fairies or enchanted sticks. So not like a fairy tale at all I guess. I’m not entirely sure what this story is about. It’s a lot of events stitched together and none of them have more prominence than another so, yeah. It’s a fairy tale.

The Path to the Cemetery
Thomas Mann

Or Old Man Yells at Cloud, whichever you prefer. In this story an ugly old man walks down a path toward the cemetery to pay his respects to the family he lost, along with everything else in his life. Along the way, a strong, beautiful young man rides by on his bicycle and old man flies into an apoplectic rage because symbolism. He chases after the youth and knocks him off his bike. The young man, understandably pissed shoves the old man down, gets on his bike and rides away, leaving the old man foaming at the mouth and raving about the nerve of young people who dare ride their bicycles on the path to the cemetery. Yup.

The Prussian Officer
D. H. Lawrence

Good god, the homoeroticism in this story! I mean, I know it was written by D. H. Lawerence but wow! Every single scene between the Captain and the orderly is absolutely charged with sexual tension. Even the last scene between them feels like a great erotic release of frustration. I can’t be the only one who read it this way, can I? Can I? (Cue crickets.)

Araby
James Joyce

Oh, Joyce, but you take a long time to get to a simple point, don’t you? This story seems way, way longer than four pages.

Mrs. Frola and Mr. Ponza, Her Son-in-Law
Luigi Pirandello

Ok, here’s a nice little mystery for you: a frustrated man says it’s his mother-in-law who is mad, yet the old woman claims it’s the other way round. This curious state of affairs has the whole town divided down the gender line, and yet the only person who can shine light on the truth is the wife, who validates both stories. Honestly, I care less about who is insane and more about what the wife is possibly getting out of being so coy. Unfortunately, I get no satisfactory answer to either.

The Mark on the Wall
Virginia Woolf

Much like The Yellow Wallpaper, this is a story about a woman strangely preoccupied with what is on her wall. I understand that they didn’t have Xbox back then, but you’d think these women would have something better to do than stare at a wall all day. Even needlepoint has to be more exciting than that. The narrative is annoyingly stream of consciousness, which makes it difficult to follow. If I wanted to listen to an ADD wandering of random thoughts vaguely connected, I’d go sit in a quiet room alone for an hour.

A Hunger Artist
Franz Kafka

As noted, this one is written by Kafka, so I’m tempted to interpret it as commentary on the starved state of the literary soul forced to comply with so many rules and conventions in order to secure the means to sustain a meager life–even though it knows it is capable of so much more if only given the freedom of the attempt. Or maybe Kafka just had a soft spot for circus freaks. I’m not a literature professor; don’t ask me.

The Garden-Party
Kathrine Mansfield

So this is a bit of a depressing story. I read it last year in a different anthology actually, but I still remember the events pretty clearly. This rich family lives on top of a hill (the rich families always seem to live on top of hills) and they’re throwing this incredible garden-party. No expenses spared. I’m pretty sure there are elephants- Really? No elephants? Well, there could have been elephants, it’s that kind of party. As it happens, on the day of this party, one of the peasants living at the bottom of the hill has the gall to die, of all things–in a horrible accident, no less. It’s obviously a plot to ruin the party. Anyway, the only decent human in this story is Laura, who still has that innocent, child-like notion that holding a party literally a driveway up from where a man just died is kind of distasteful. Well, her mother needs to correct that sort of thinking right away, doesn’t she? Of course she does.

The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket
Yasunari Kawabata

I’ve lived in Japan for four years now, and with that experience well ingrained into my being I can say with confidence that I sort of understand this story. The protagonist is watching a bunch of kids play in the woods at night (nothing creepy about that), looking for bugs when one of the boys announces that he’s caught a grasshopper, and asks if anyone wants it. All the kids rush forward with their bug-baskets out for what is apparently a rare catch, but the boy holds out until the girl asks for it, at which point he drops it into her basket and low and behold, it’s not a grasshopper at all, but a bell cricket, which is apparently higher on the bug currency scale than a grasshopper, I think? While the protagonist is watching all this, he notices that the light from the kids’ lanterns is shining on each others shirts, and the names written on the lanterns have imprinted on the other child. So he reflects a little while on the nature of the name reversal, and grasshoppers actually being bell crickets, and bell crickets actually being grasshoppers and one day the children will grow up and find other grasshoppers that they think are bell crickets and visa versa. Yup.

The Sacrificial Egg
Chinua Achebe

This is pretty much Things Fall Apart from the other side of the fence. Told from the point of view of an African Christian convert, it paints the same struggle of tradition vs. western influence, though this time, arguably, tradition wins. I can’t say that it ends any happier than Things Fall Apart, however.

A & P
John Updike

Didn’t I just review this one like, two months ago?

Borges and I
Jorge Luis Borges

Thanks, Borges. Now you’ve got all the people in my head standing up and shouting about the unfair treatment of imaginary characters. How do you expect I’m supposed to sleep now with, “Why’d you have to kill me” and “You don’t even remember my name” and “You promised me my own novella”, huh? Puh.

 

The Tower

I finally have my March contribution to Out of Print up and ready for view. I learned a couple things from this one. Don’t write while ill, for starters. Half this story came out while I was running a fever and popping pain killers just so I could swallow down some tea. Secondly, it’s difficult for me to write short stories. The concepts my brain creates like to go on tangents that aren’t suitable for under 7,500 words. Also, sometimes the strongest ideas take the most work to flesh out. I thought I had this one in the bag, but it gave me almost as much trouble as ‘Techniques in Grafting’ did. Finally, I learned that computers just hate me. I don’t know what key combo I pressed but when I finally, finally got to the revision stage Scrivener randomly got stuck on auto-delete. Whole paragraphs started back-spacing before my horrified eyes. There was much cursing.

In any case, if you’ve got some time and like a decent dystopian fantasy(ish) story, go check it out.

“Please, Alp, reconsider. This isn’t wise.”

“You worry needlessly,” he replied with the laugh in his voice that Deniz hadn’t appreciated since they were small children. “It’s a petition, not a revolution.”

“But you know how the Serdar deals with threats. He’ll have you silenced for sure!”

“Me, Deniz? The Serdar and I have been long been friends. We cut through the mercenaries of Gelenek and the tribesmen of Karma to carve out a life here. We shared a common goal for Fert. Once.” His voice trailed as the Tower’s sagging imperial dome broke into view, dominating the flat, awkwardly asymmetrical construction of the streets below. The heavy gold finial slouched to the east over the marble parapets that had been known to slide free in great slabs. One block had even crushed a man, once. The sight of it terrified Deniz, but Alp had never shared her common sense.

“Alp please, think of what happened to Kųs. All he did was question the Serdar’s leadership and the next thing you know the bagum surrounded him in the streets, beat him senseless, and burnt down his shop.”

“I do think of Kųs. And all the others the Serdar has sent his secret police after. But as long as there’s still someone left to raise a voice for the people—“

“They cut out his tongue, Alp.”

“—there is still a chance to speak as reasonable men.”

Deniz wasn’t so sure.

“Could you not just send them a letter? Anything but going into that tower? People don’t come out of there… whole.” Bile rose against her tongue, but she swallowed it down again.

Her brother paused and turned, and took both of her shoulders in his hands.

“No, Deniz. I will meet the Serdar and the council on their own floor. I am not a coward, and I am not weak. Every man is equal in Fert, from the one-legged beggar to the Serdar’s seat on the council. I will have him remember that.”

“Please, Alp. You’re all I have,” she begged. His eyes swam over her face, while hers remained fixed on his brow. If only she could just penetrate that thick skull of his, make him see that a live brother under the shadow of the Tower was worth more to her than a dead one aside of it.

“Fear nothing,” he told her at last, then kissed her forehead and turned away to disappear between two sleepy looking sentries who were tilted forward against their spears, as wilted as the Tower itself.