Monthly Archives: August 2014

Excerpt With A Flaw

 

   ** So, the question is, why do characters do the things they do? What do their “flaws” mean? Here’s an example of an excerpt that might stir the question: Bryan “Weed” Tecco and his partner, Jill Evans (Chris Leavitt’s former girlfriend) are doing the road thing. Fraught with sexual tension, they’re driving down to LA, chasing an unknowing Chris Leavitt to retrieve files of a special video game called ‘The Situation’. Unbeknownst to them, they are also being followed by a Sahi security team led by Eric “fierce” Pierce, likewise determined to retrieve the files of the subversive game. Weed is giving the concerned but pitiless Jill some background, about himself as a keen observer of the video game industry, and more anomalously, about his and Chris’ shared preoccupation with visions they dub “Shadows”, and most shockingly, the way in which they have touched her life. Should he really be telling her this stuff? Having previously kept this secret from her–having decided overall upon a life of strict reticence–why would he be so open now? What strange decisions people make as they negotiate the distance between self and other.**   

 

Weed looks over at the gas gauge, sees that the indicator is hovering below the quarter tank mark. Up ahead are signs directing traffic east towards Bakersfield and the five freeway, which is a straighter run at this point so they agree that taking the turn is best. Weed figures they are an hour or so still to the base of the LA mountains, the so-called grapevine. He looks at the clock: just past four, it reads. He yawns. Still mid-afternoon: this has been a long ass day, he thinks.

            “We should stop soon,” he says. “Get gas, take a bathroom break.”

            “Sure,” Jill replies, accepting the end of conversation. For another quarter hour there is silence as they both gaze up ahead or sideways, looking at misty, distant mountain ranges, stretches of telephone towers, flatlands, farms, and stolid, uninspired cows. Weed dwells on his secrets, feels an odd, dull weight at the base of his stomach, like something’s pushing out.

            “A lot of people say that to me,” he suddenly remarks, presumably in reference to Jill’s last comment. “That’s partly why I wrote a book,” he adds.

            “Yeah?” says Jill in a bored voice. She bites. “What was the book about?”

            “It was about gaming. I thought Chris told you about it.”

            “He did but he didn’t describe it much.”

            Weed issues a barely discernible grunt. Disappointment. “Well, in case you’re interested it’s relevant to what we’re doing here. A few years ago I started blogging about games that were available on the market. I made You-Tube videos of myself playing games like Call Of Duty, commenting as I played. I got plenty of hits, then subscribers. Soon You-Tube wanted to partner with me, advertise on my site. Then with the blog, people started saying I should write a book or something, and I actually got a publisher a short while later.”

            Weed pauses as if looking for reinforcement.

            “Uh-huh,” Jill utters.

            “People seemed to like what I was saying, which was a full-on review of all kinds of games, but also a general complaint about a games market that lacked imagination. I mean, I was good at COD, and Battlefield whatever version, but these games are mostly about wandering around with a camera on your head, being alert for resources and enemies, and then figuring out ways to kill ‘em. I preferred Battlefield to COD, wrote about how lone ranger games weren’t as good as those which fostered teamwork. At the same time, I thought more games should be like Soulcraft, which is based on Minecraft—games which find different kinds of goals for players; more creative or complex goals. When I was writing the book, which took about six months—it wasn’t long, only a hundred pages—I thought that’s what people wanted to hear, deep down anyway. When I presented the book, called Play Gone Wrong, the publisher balked, said they wanted something more positive and less mysterious in the title, though they supported the content.” Weed stops again, shaking his head.

            “So what happened? What was the title?”

            “A bullshit title, Today’s Top Games. It sold about a hundred and fifty copies.”

            “That’s stupid,” Jill remarks awkwardly. “The title change, not the fact that it sold only a hundred and fifty copies.

            “Yeah.” Now Weed sounds bored. He goes quiet again, and it seems to Jill that talking to this guy, getting stuff out of him is hard work; just as hard as prying stuff from Chris, actually. Several times she thinks to ask another question, kick the pebble that is this exchange just a little ways further. She stops herself, reasoning that at some point Weed will simply resume talking, picking up from where he left off, the context obvious from his point of view. Weed’s mind is actually elsewhere, recalling that about a quarter of the books he sold were bought by his dad, and few others by book club friends of his mom who would otherwise read anything: cookbooks, travelogues, quaint stories about pets named Marvin. When that reverie stops, his thoughts turn back to the secrets he’s keeping; specifically, the stuff he now feels pressure to share with Jill. “I got something else to tell you,” he says.

            Jill raises her eyebrows. “Okay,” she answers warily.

            “What you were talking about earlier, about Chris: I kinda knew about that.”

            “Really? I’m listening.” Jill doesn’t sound shocked.

            “I don’t mean that Chris told me what you just said. Believe me, if he had then I’d have called him out.” Weed and Jill’s eyes meet. “Well, maybe you won’t believe me. Whatever, but that’s what I’m saying, anyway. But the thing is this: when I first met you—that night of the accident—I recognized you. I’d seen you before. You know what I’m saying?” He gives her a patient, studious look, the type a teacher gives when hoping a student will get a lesson that’s been suggestively imparted. Jill looks at Weed, confused.

            “No, I don’t,” she replies impatiently, “why don’t you enlighten me.”

            “You were a Shadow the first time I saw you—what I call a Breather-Shadow, something that I think…well, I saw you as a vision standing next to Chris, saying something to him. That meant, as far as I was concerned, that something had happened between the two of you, or was going to happen.”

            Jill’s patience, if not something else, breaks. It breaks almost to the point wherein it transfers to her feet, halting the car in the middle of the highway, which is especially dangerous given that traffic is thickening as the afternoon wears on.

            “Wait. What do you mean by ‘something had happened’?”

            “I mean…ya know,” he says, because he didn’t know.

            “Didn’t you say that Shadow sightings or whatever alerted you to crimes, future or past?”

            “Yeah.” Weed’s agreement is tenuous and foreboding. By the fierce look in her eyes and the jutting of her jaw, he gleans that Jill is about to hit Krav Maga mode with her tongue.

            “So if you thought Chris had committed or was going to commit some kind of crime with respect to me, why wouldn’t you ‘call him out’, as you put it?”

            Weed looks dumbstruck, caught without a good answer for the skilled inquisitor. That’ll teach him not to reveal his secrets. Should’ve stayed on Monads—should’ve have seen this coming. Not that he doesn’t have anything to say. He has an explanation for her; not a bad one, even, at least from one point of view. But it sounds feeble to him when he thinks about it—it’s too personal.

            It’s different. I know you now. I…

            “I don’t know. You’re right. It’s messed up that I didn’t even ask him about it.”

            “Just as I figured,” says Jill, disgustedly turning her attentions back to the road. “This Shadow business is just a load of bullshit wasting everybody’s time.”

            For the first time since he’s met Jill, Weed sits shamefacedly, his shoulders slumped; his jaw slackened, shorn of the steely mastication that Jill, unbeknownst to him, found quite sexy not that long ago. Meanwhile, Jill sits in her driver’s seat, fuming. The task of keeping her hands on the wheel is all that keeps her from lashing out and flailing her arms at the hapless passenger. Not for the first time with a guy roughly her age, she feels like a big sister driving a delinquent brother home after a disgraced appearance with a school principal. But it’s too late to turn back now. She’s in this thing, committed. Up ahead, appearing like an oasis in a desert, the outline of the grapevine, with the five freeway snaking its way into the hills, looms fantastically like the land of Oz. A sign by the side of the road indicates that a last chance of gas and food for many miles is coming up. Weed feels like a ten year old boy about to annoy an impatient parent with biological needs that ought to have been dealt with beforehand.

            “I really need that bathroom,” he says in a pitiful voice.

 

 

 

 

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The Importance Of Being Flawed

It was during a discussion about our top ten favorite musical performers—a merry debate Jay and I had wormed our way through numerous times—that I outlined my criteria for great art and great heroes: they must be flawed, I declared. I trod carefully, seeing the mischievous glint in my friend’s eye and knowing him as one who once delighted in finding flaws—flaws in my reasoning, that is; my faulty logic. Time has softened his position. Now aesthetics share space with his offbeat moral codes, Jay’s demand that people have courage, be self-sacrificing, even if otherwise behaving sinisterly.

As a result, Jay had issues with Chris Leavitt, my distracted protagonist of Crystal From The Hills, and redemptive support-player in its follow-up, The Situation. Jay was gingerly in his criticism: caretaking, self-deprecating (“…maybe it’s me”), yet quietly scathing. Among other things, Chris acts in ways that would not endear him to many readers. He behaves fecklessly, avoiding problems, especially this strange accident with a truck, his friend Bryan “Weed” Tecco, a lagoon in West Marin County, and some malevolent followers, possibly real, likely not, who are dubbed “Shadows” by the psychosis-sharing axis that is Chris and Weed. Over the following week, Chris retreats into the gritty streets of Oakland—a privileged, ill-fitting white male losing himself—rather than following a responsible, much less logical path. Over the course of CFTH, the reader is called to dally alongside Chris, enduring anomalous altercations with other lost, disturbed figures; surviving a more purposeful assault from local gangstas seeking Chris’ absent friend and their rival. Chris unknowingly emulates Weed, seeking to disappear, meanwhile hoping to grow down and not up; to lie about his age, not be responsible—to not be a hero, or even an adult.

Unacceptable. This is my guy, my hero, but more importantly, the carrier of secrets, pain, as well as the corruption of hierarchical systems, including families. What a burden. In order to understand, if not like him, the reader gets Chris’ back-story: the explanation as to why he is the way he is. Good enough? His near-salvation is his adjustment to reality, which happens slowly, serendipitously, and usually in spite of others’ strenuous efforts to help. There: a therapist’s idea of a happy ending. The efforts of Chris’ women seem particularly off the mark. His girlfriend, Jill, rather like his bossy Aunt Jenny, think haranguing Chris will lead to change. It doesn’t. Like many who are depressed, or addicted, or delusional, or all three, Chris avoids the messengers of prosaic yet worthwhile truths, instead preferring fantasies, the habit of meandering in between models of authority and mirrors of failure. In his mind, Chris half-listens to voices of reason, the present-day life-like figures, while ever keeping private counsel with the absent or illusory: his friend Weed, his hapless, deceased father; an elusive, affection-withholding mother; his “Shadows”. If characters like Jill, Weed, or the affable Sweet are in any way stand-ins for the departed or the ephemeral, it’s not clear. But it’s not implausible.

The flaws of my bi-novel narrative are surely plentiful, especially the flaws apparent through plain analysis of events: the point of view of reliable, rational human beings who behave logically, live consistently, and seem to know themselves. Damn you all. Regarding the accident that begins both novels, the even-tempered reader might wonder: is it realistic that Chris and Weed, separated due to the apparent sinking of a truck in shallow lagoon, would not find each other upon surviving and reaching the surface? Is the reader meant to believe that Weed’s fear of corporate followers, or Chris’ belief that a drowning Weed is beyond saving, would lead either of them to bypass the involvement of authorities? Would the reader further believe that such a traumatized figure as Chris would simply drift into homelessness, rather than return home, report the accident, the disappearance of Weed, and then resume work, relationships, and the general momentum of life?

Regarding the novels’ most prominent female character, would readers believe that the capable, head-strong, seemingly career-focused Jill would be in relationship with a character like Chris; would tolerate his immaturity, be anything beyond seduced by his dimpled face, lean body and puckish blue eyes; or that she’d be living in a derelict apartment in West Oakland, as opposed to one of its latter-day gentrified properties on Martin Luther King Street. As for Weed: having learned, albeit second-hand in CFTH, of his lechery, self-serving, and calculating nature, would the reader accept that he’d entrust the flash drives for an important and subversive video game (entitled ‘The Situation’) to Chris, who among other things, is known for losing belongings, especially electronic items like cell phones? And what of Weed’s penchant for procrastination: his three or four day break in Bolinas, wasting time with the elegiac Rosco, before resuming his cause? If he’d thought Chris alive and well, would he not concern himself with his stash, be chomping at the bit to get back and move on? What I’d hoped is that Weed’s latent heroism would vie with his dilatory, ambivalent nature, but ultimately yield a picaresque journey. That journey evolves like man: on foot, to car, ferry, and train. As a result, Weed belies his reputation as a mindless slob and criminal and gives meaning to that once inexplicable chase along a West Marin highway.

Love these flaws, hate them, or ignore them. Whatever you choose. Ignore CFTH. Ignore The Situation. Actually, I find it curious, this assignment of logic, or even consistency, to the constructs of character and drama. It’s as if readers think they know why people are the way they are. Jay does, and I know I do.

 

 

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Unseen Through The Window Of The Eyes

But seeing. In The Situation as well as its predecessor and best friend, Crystal From The Hills, much is made of characters’ eyes. Not the aesthetic qualities that art traditionally enjoys, but rather an expansion of a philosophical chestnut: that window to the soul thing. Or rather, it’s an attachment thing. Neurobiologists like Daniel Siegel and Allan Schore, and before them, John Bowlby, teach us that attachment is a biological imperative. Meaning, we will die without it, and therefore must attach at all costs. Those costs entail surrendering better parts of ourselves, those precious selves, borne of an archaic interaction, that carry the potential of growth.

Chris Leavitt learned early in life that secrets would keep him safe, if sick, and safe is better than sick…anyday. The truth is his parents should never have gotten together, so ill-fitting were they. Chris’ father, besotted by the elusive Nancy, pursued her obsessively, and she liked being pursued, but soon fell into a different role, one she didn’t understand but which carried her along. The momentum ebbed long enough for her notice other suitors, men who promised something better: maybe self-assurance, maybe reality. Young Chris started seeing visions of these men, and feeling their presence, but knew he should keep quiet. The truth: it hurts; has consequences. One of them was an altercation between Chris’ parents, a climactic frustration for his father–a likely rape of Nancy.

As a quasi-adult Chris he meets Jill, a would-be Nancy, a professional and habitual caretaker, and also a woman who falls into attachment for inexplicable reasons. Eyes. There was something in Chris’ blue eyes. They were sweet, beautiful, and seductive, but also dangerous, unreliable. Over a two day period, life collapses around a sequence of events: the disappearance of a friend, the exposure of his incompetence at work; an altercation with Jill that mirrors the violence between his parents. Accidents. Bewildered, Chris has the strange notion that all that has happened are just accidents he’s not supposed to talk about.

Speaking of accidents, Bryan “Weed” Tecco emerges from his, unseen. That fits his self image. So, too, does feeling unwanted, though the antecedent of that wound is ancient. He, too, has visions of important events that implicate the guilty, but until now, Weed has been content to live his own life, ignore secrets, and play out the role that appears to effect attachment in his life: villainy. And yet, it’s not good enough. These conditions of staying close–keeping secrets, caretaking, being bad–they just aren’t good enough. Something’s gotta give. Something’s gotta change. Weed’s day job is playing games, as a tester for a fictional telecommunications giant named Sahi, and he’s found a game that’s gone wrong, or will go wrong. It’s a special game called ‘The Situation’, which, on the one hand, seems like many others: it rewards quick thinking, fine motor skills, and ruthless decision-making…violence. But another level (literally) the game suggests ambiguous rewards for those who make different decisions; those who see into others’ souls, through the window of the eyes, and practice empathy. And this game, this new paradigm of play, is the creation of a Julian Assange-like figure ostensibly aiming to reach an apolitical, unattached constituency, by making it the unlikely recipient of whistleblower secrets.

The question is whether Chris, Weed, Jill, or countless others like them will hang in there as the adventure of their story unfolds. The question is whether they will settle for the way things are, versus staggering unconsciously along their respective trails, opening their eyes to what was previously unseen.

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Don’t Look At Me

*click on title for image

Recently, someone I know endured a traumatic episode—an assault—walking at night in the streets of Oakland, in the neighborhoods depicted in my two novels, Crystal From The Hills and The Situation. The victims were a middle-aged Caucasian pair on a night out, feeling a part of their community; empathetic, even celebrating of its diversity: of age, socioeconomics, gender orientation, race. On an unlit street a block or two away from a populated commercial districted, they approached a pair of youngish-looking black men, walking languidly in the opposite direction. The couple exchanged glances, but neither said a word. Through body language they consolidated a plan with a tacit underpinning: keep walking, don’t change direction; don’t convey to these young men a prejudice or fear based upon their age or race. Trust.
The plan backfired. Within ten yards of contact, the two men separated, moving to flanking positions on the sidewalk. The couple halted, realizing in an instant what was happening. One of the men pulled a firearm and calmly directed the couple to hand over their bag, while the other man stepped forward and reached into pockets, first those of the husband, then the pockets of his wife. The husband looked up, half-meeting the glance of the man groping around his body.
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “What are you looking at?”
“Sorry,” muttered the husband, immediately complying and looking away.
The man with the gun stepped forward, reaching out to the woman instead. With his free hand he grabbed her wrist, looking to snatch her bag which contained her cell phone, her wallet, identifications, plus an address at which the coupled lived.
“Let go,” he directed calmly, intimately.
The wife didn’t look at him. She wanted to speak instead, ask some of the following questions: do you have a mother? How could you do this? What is this about for you? Is it poverty? Don’t you realize we’re on your side? Don’t you know, or care, what a set-back this is, for Oakland, for relations between white people and black? She didn’t say any of this, of course. She cooperated, relinquishing her grip on her bag. While fearful still for hers and hers husband’s safety, or that of their home in El Cerrito, she was equally distraught over the psychological fall-out: the changes she foresaw in the aftermath of this violation. A minute later, the incident was over, and the couple, physically un-harmed, was soon talking to police, sharing their details. Meanwhile, the wife continued to ruminate: where was the empathy in this world? The civility?
Privately, I’ve thought of incidents like this in the context of writing my two companion novels, both of which—though especially the first, CFTH—depict life on the gritty streets of Oakland, where danger is presumed. Two of my characters, Chris Leavitt and Jill Evans, endure street assaults that are peripheral to the story’s main drama, but nonetheless endemic to the social milieu in which they live. These episodes are included for a few reasons, one of which is a realistic depiction of Oakland, though this is of secondary importance. Firstly, my novels are not so much realistic as surrealistic; they rely on subtext, the expression of fears which are as much felt experiences over a lifetime rather than emotions triggered by specific, present-day circumstances. Still, the characters, going about their lives, for the most part unconsciously, make implicit appeals for more civility in the world; more empathy.
The second novel, The Situation, provides meat to this theme in the form of Bryan “Weed” Tecco’s story. An absent—as in disappeared—character from CFTH, Weed’s actions and enigmatic motivation are the pretext of events in the first novel, now resurrected, like Weed himself, for the plot’s unfolding. Prior to Chris Leavitt’s dalliance with homelessness, likely psychosis, his absconding from work and home, he’d accompanied his similarly psychotic drug dealer/video game tester friend, “Weed”, on an unexplained road trip to the secretive village of Bolinas in West Marin, ostensibly to aid a getaway, but also, more quietly, to take possession of some corporate contraband. That road trip culminates in an accident involving their truck and a West Marin lake, during which Weed disappears, later presumed drowned.
Well, he hasn’t drowned, according to the first line of The Situation (BTW: contradicting the first line of CFTH—hopefully, the reader notices). He’s back and ready to explain himself and the meaning of that contraband, for anyone who will listen and care. The contraband is a set of flash drives, the files for a game entitled “The Situation”, designed by a programmer/quasi journalist, a Julian Assange-like figure, who wants to exploit the phenomenon of gaming popularity, and publish a game with unprecedented social purpose: the game, played at its highest levels, will reveal the whistleblower secrets of the US government as well as bastions of corporate America. While this parallels the secret-laden lives of Chris, Jill, and Weed, they are unknowingly embroiled in a chase for the missing drives; driven to be a part of something they don’t quite understand, but know is important.
Along the path of this mission, from the ill-fated drive to Bolinas, and throughout the events that unfold over the two books, characters experience events that trigger their various traumas, ambiguously calling for civility, empathy, amid the surface pursuit of survival. They do a lot of looking at one another, and a little more talking as time moves on, as therapists like me instruct. Within the drama that is about survival, then a nightmare; then a comeback, and finally a game, a shadowy character, a talisman of sorts, teaches about empathy, tells them they must learn to take risks, look into the souls of others, through the traditional window of eyes.
This fanciful lesson will compete with reality, I think. It is a story, a fantasy, but also a kind of prescription competing with other warnings.
Look at me.

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