A few more images from my feet on the street in New Orleans.
Walkabout around Jackson Square this morning. Musicians always working in New Orleans.
But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. …So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later.
How's that for prescience? Dick wrote that in 1978, for a speech titled, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart in Two Weeks."
Back in New Orleans after an absence of a few years. One of the greatest of American cities.
Where, on a visit with my parents, I walked down Bourbon Street and heard a barker at the door of a strip joint say, "C'mon in and see what's coming off on the inside." Made an impression on me. I was 12.
Where, on that same trip, an elderly pedophile tried to pick me up in front of a pinball parlor.
Where, on an epic grown-up evening that a colleague still says he can't remember in detail, I strolled into a blues bar just as the band was playing it's newly released single, "If That's All You Got to Say, Just Get Your Sorry Ass Home."
Where a half-hour ago I stopped by the hotel bar for a snack. Waitress: "You want a drink?" Me: "I gotta pace myself." Waitress: "What's that?"
The computer is dangerous because it shapes your capacity to understand what’s possible. The computer is like an apparently submissive servant that turns out to be a subversive that ultimately gains control of your mind. The computer is such a powerful instrument that it defines, after a while, what is possible for you. And what is possible is within the computer’s capacity. And while it seems in the beginning like this incredibly gifted and talented servant actually has a very limited intelligence—the brain is so much vaster than the computer. But, the computer is very insistent about what it’s good at, and before you know it—it’s like being with somebody who has bad habits, you sort of fall into the bad habits—and it begins to dominate the way you think about what is possible. … [You counter this] by doing things that are uncomfortable for it to do.
In all honesty, and I don’t think there should be any other kind, there are several reasons why I have not been a novelist, at least not yet. I have written a couple, one when I was in my early 20s and the other when I was 45 or so, but they are both bad and deservedly unpublished. The manuscript of the first one—we wrote on machines called typewriters in those days, children, and produced piles of paper called manuscripts—was stashed by me in the basement. One day the cat found it and peed on it.
I like writing fact-based true stories because there’s so much more room for implausibility, coincidence, and no shit? wonder, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the idea of using some those 10,000 days I keep talking about here to write a work of fiction. It’s a true fact that I’ve been pawing at an idea for a novel for about 20 months now.
The idea came out of a weird little Gedankenexperiment (look it up, lazyass) involving the multiverse. The multiverse is one of the stranger places that the math of quantum physics can take you: the idea that our universe right here is but one of an infinite number of parallel universes that constantly branch off from each other. So, thinks I, let us posit that the multiverse theory is correct, and what’s more, certain people possess the ability to cross from one universe to another and back again. That would create a frontier, and what do you find at frontiers? Smugglers. What might they smuggle, since everyone knows you can’t drive a truckload of duty-free cigarettes from one ‘verse to another? Code. They’d smuggle stolen computer code that would have all sorts of commercial value on the black market. Code that might, for example, include the formula for a pharmaceutical that could cure the viral plague ravaging our home universe. Victims of this plague would include my protagonist. (I was really rolling by this point.)
I started calling this proto-novel Crosser, the slang term for the smugglers who cross the frontier between universes. None of this lined up with the laws of physics, even the really abstruse ones, but that was a petty detail. For months at odd hours I worked on the idea in the confines of my head, stashing occasional notes on my hard drive, even dropping a few bucks to reserve a domain name, for the novel’s website, of course.
Then I happened upon Blake Crouch’s brilliant Dark Matter, about a guy who finds himself crossing willy-nilly from one universe to another. What made my heart sink wasn’t the idea that I couldn’t have cross-universe travel figure into my novel just because Crouch had done it. Tolstoy didn’t abandon Anna Karenina just because Flaubert had written Madame Bovary, thereby beating him to the great wayward-wife plot device by 20 years or so. What made my heart sink was I couldn’t imagine writing anything half as good as what young Crouch had done, goddam him.
Still, I kept turning the story over and over. Then the Starz cable television channel broadcast Counterpart, a series about a portal between universes that suddenly opens up in Berlin due to a mid-1980s physics experiment gone wrong. I loved the show’s two seasons, but damn it to hell, the story includes smuggling across the secret frontier. And there’s a devastating pandemic at the center of the plot. And they refer to those who illegally go from one universe to the other as “crossers.” Smack me in the mouth, why doncha?
Turns out there are other novels written by people more clever than me that spring from the premise that the multiverse exists and people can pop from one into another. I keep coming across them like the guy in 1972 who paired a white belt with white shoes and left the house thinking no one else could possibly have thought of it. As we still say 50 years after Slaughterhouse-Five, So it goes.
What to do? I don’t know what you would do, but me, I keep toying with my idea, poking at it and holding it up to the light, turning it this way and that. Maybe the best part of being the 30th guy to dream up an idea like this is the way you’re forced to work harder to find the story no one has told yet. Worked for Tolstoy.
Fenton Johnson, from his essay "Going It Alone":
The multiplication of our society’s demons has been accompanied by a ratcheting up of the sources and volume of its background noise. What is the point of the chatter and diversions of our lives, except to keep the demons at bay? Meanwhile, we are creating demons faster than we can create noise to drown them out — environmental devastation, global warming, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, uncontrolled population growth, uncontrolled consumption held up by the media as the glittering purpose of life. The appropriate response is not more noise. The appropriate response is more silence. To choose to be alone is to bait the trap, to create a space the demons cannot resist entering. And that’s the good news: The demons that enter can be named, written about, and tamed through the miracle of the healing word, the miracle of art, the miracle of silence.
First, John Updike:
Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention. Without us, the physicists who have espoused the anthropic principle tell us, the universe would be unwitnessed, and in a real sense not there at all. It exists, incredibly, for us. This formulation (knowing what we know of the universe’s ghastly extent) is more incredible, to our sense of things, than the Old Testament hypothesis of a God willing to suffer, coddle, instruct, and even (in the Book of Job) to debate with men, in order to realize the meager benefit of worship, of praise for His Creation. What we beyond doubt do have is our instinctive intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here.
Now, Charles Bukowski:
We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system.
We are here to drink beer.
We are here to kill war.
We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.
We are here to read these words from all these wise men and women who will tell us that we are here for different reasons and the same reason.
Which to embrace? I don't see it as an either/or proposition. I choose both. Some days, I want to marvel at the universe and bask in the idea that it exists because we are here to witness it.
And some days, I just want a beer.