Tag Archives: mystery novels

Accidents

 

My twin novels, good friends Crystal From The Hills and The Situation (published 6/29) both begin with accidents—the same accident, but with different conclusions, different, uh, opinions as to what really happened on a last Wednesday in March. Someone died, says book number one, CFTH. Someone’s still alive, says the spoiling follow-up, bringing hope, or denial. Distortions. It’s a problem when two people experience the same event but come away with different ideas, different memories. What really happened? What really happens in drug treatment? In yet another book I claim to know the answer to that question. Who’s in charge? Who gets to decide the truth, the way things ought to be?

Accidents. They’re all accidents, the things that happen in life. They have to be, for to insist otherwise is to say that things are consciously determined: mapped out, overseen, foreseen, and taken care of. Are we being taken care of? When accidents happen, someone is meant to step in and mollify bad feelings, guilt and inadequacy—things we download somewhere between 2 and 5. Someone’s meant to step in and say everything’s okay when we break things or fall down. But what if they don’t? What if those grown ups are gone, or just preoccupied; depressed? We forget the early stuff, the wrongdoings of our bodies, the pre-sexual mistakes of bad touch, upsets in the crib; inexplicable, cosmic aloneness. Do we really want to grow up? Some, like my characters, don’t so they keep having accidents—violent, sexual, toilet-centered, water-based accidents—things that keep us young, hoping to be picked up and rubbed until feeling better. One protagonist’s parents gave him up early, passed him off to another couple, one that tried and still tries to love. The other one’s parents stuck around, but clearly had other things to do, and perhaps should have given him up, broken up with him like women tend to; let bossy yet formidable aunts take over; just disappear, maybe.

Give the kids a break. When they’re men, let them grow down and not up, just a little. “Gimme time,” says Chris Leavitt in hapless climax. It happens too fast, this life of responsibility and mission: like this opportunity that fell upon the lap of Bryan “Weed” Tecco at some point before the text of either novel. The flash drives, plural of drive, drove him to steal, and then head out on a doom-laden drive. Weed had a vision, just like Chris Leavitt, his friend, has visions, and the vision informed Weed that the video game he was expertly testing, “The Situation”, contained elements he recognized: these “Shadows” that the likes of he and Chris see on a regular basis, pointing out truths that no one is willing or able to speak of: about wrongdoings, what’s happening in the world; what ought to happen. Weed has a problem, a God-like problem. He foresees that fallout, the events that will unfold, subverting all that should happen. The problems start when Weed starts to plan: to steal the plans for “The Situation”; to lead his corporate security followers on a chase; to take his friend Chris with him for back up, as if that were something he needed. Maybe human beings should never try to plan things. You see, we don’t it well: planning. All things are just accidents…horrible, wonderful accidents.

 

 

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Everything We Love Vanishes

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A quote from W.B Yeats. In The Silent Past and the Invisible Present, Paul Renn writes about the traumatized, the pathological mourning of those whose ambivalent yearning for and anger with attachment figures becomes dissociated; split off and embedded into personality. Through Renn’s case examples, the reader learns that those with attachment difficulties, personality problems, are beset with distorted representations of self and others, and that time is lost; meaning, past and present become conflated experiences: the past denied, but acted out in the present. In Crystal From The Hills, protagonist Chris Leavitt (nicknamed Crystal) is an itinerant trauma victim, suffering from (among other things) post-acute withdrawal resulting from (you guessed it!) methamphetamine use. He is unconsciously playing out a conflicted identification with absent caregivers: a distant, self-absorbed father, and a protective yet similarly detached and secretive mother. The backstory has yielded his character and thus the first two-thirds of the novel, his “acting out”. Chris tries to be “nice” in life, but as often as not his attempts are disengenuous, especially when dealing with authority. His mentor, Aunt Jenny, advises, “there’s nothing nice about being nice”, articulating the demand that he be real. And he has acted out upon anger: Chris’ problems at work–his “suspension” for insubordination–reveals his impulses, his sporadic rebellion against authority figures and systems. More sinisterly, his present-day drama contains a mystery: the disappearance of his friend, the malevolently reptilian Weed. Chris is noticeably evasive. If attentive, the reader must consider some dark possibilities as the mystery unfolds: is Chris psychotic? a killer? a rapist, even? Meanwhile, ambivalence thwarts Chris’ other ambitions: sleep disturbed, his dreams are interrupted, and his perceptions are marred by visions, his so-called “shadows”. His ideas, such as his strange and somewhat silly diaper invention (an indicator that his dreams entail regression) are tentatively delivered, but easily withdrawn or dismissed with self effacing humor. Back in the day, he once tried to be an actor, and still does affect the odd scene here and there (incongruous quotes from film or literature), but surely the best actors must first be grounded in reality, and reality, through no fault of his own, actually, has also been elusive.

Above all, Chris has failed at love, just as his father had. That is, Chris has tried to sustain love and relationships, but the truth is that parents, friends, women, have all left. And so the story begins upon a two-fold leaving: the disappearance of his doppelganger, Weed, followed by Chris’ disappearance into the anonymous milieu of Oakland.

 

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Where there is hierarchy there is violence (part two)

 

…Which means there are casualties. They are victims, if you’re feeling sympathetic and outraged. They are losers, if you’re not. Chris Leavitt, my protagonist from Crystal From The Hills, is not much of a victim, but he is much of a loser. And I write that with love. In a way, I prefer losers to victims, though they are in some respects the same. Losers lack the hubris of victims, mostly because they haven’t the fortitude to call themselves victims. So Chris Leavitt is a traumatized individual; a casualty and a loser, not a victim: he is privileged, free for the most part but wary of his onlookers–his shadows, both real and not. Ironically, he pays more attention to the less than real shadows, which render him paranoid yet oblivious to what’s right beneath his nose. He is innocent in so far as he is uncalculated, uncensored and anarchic. Whether too impulsive enough or just lacking in political savvy, he is unequipped for any tight, hierarchically-driven order.

There are hierarchies all around: some are tacit structures, governed by race, class, gender, philosophy, religion–prejudices of various kinds. This is not original, but then neither is the hand-wringing that surrounds public controversies. It’s not nice to judge people for being different, people say on camera. But they do. Of course they do. It’s the correct thing to aim for the center (“the center holds” our President tells us), but all around us (and him), splitting, the thoughtless, triage-like division of life into “good” and “bad”, right and wrong, is occurring, and meanwhile, we are all shepherded into cliques, nurturing our prejudices and providing succor within echo chambers. I was once clique-bound at Thunder Road, the workplace that employed me for fifteen years, and which I depict in another book, Working Through Rehab: An Inside Look at Adolescent Drug Treatment. Contrary to my younger observations, Thunder Road is just another typical hierarchical system governed by shadows who determine who fits and who doesn’t; whose turn it is to be in charge, and whose turn it is to go…what works and what doesn’t. Leaders use corporate tools for the most part: manuals, handouts, HR policies, lawyers and spreadsheets, to create order. Meanwhile, the world they govern is an inchoate mass driven by an oral tradition, and the unconscious.

My turn on the rollercoaster lasted longer than most, though it was never my goal to merely have my turn. It was my pretension to do more, and now I have, only from the outside looking in. The point of my book is that taking a turn is not enough. Being politic, fitting in and censoring dissent may suit a hierarchical system, but it is psychological death to the conscious individual, the growing professional. I could avoid hierarchies, mess with hierarchies, dissent and maneuver only so much until shadows converged and told me that if I was to continue avoiding the trappings of leadership and compliance, then it was my time to leave. Cohesion: it means togetherness, which is good, sort of. But coherence, which is like music, is superior. I remember being told once by someone in charge that if I was to really take a turn being in charge, then I’d have to assert just that, regardless of what is right. The decisions were mine, I was told: ultimately, what I said prevailed, not because I was right, but rather because I was in charge. Reluctant leadership. I nodded compliantly but remained slippery, thinking this a dangerous, undemocratic idea, this thing about being right because it was necessary to be so. The problem with equating rightness with being in charge is that being in charge doesn’t last.   

One of my favorite passages of literature reminds me that the exiled exist in numbers, are neither contained nor containable, even if they’re not in charge. Even if they’re not right. This is John Self from Martin Amis’ Money:

“I hate people with degrees, O-levels, eleven-pluses, Iowa tests, shorthand diplomas…and you hate me, don’t you. Yes you do. Because I’m the new kind, the kind who has money but can never use it for anything but ugliness, to which I say: you never let us in, not really. You might have thought you let us in, but you never did. You just gave us some money.”

 

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Crystal takes it on the chin

Pardon the deflection. Actually, it’s me that’s taking the hits, the most important ones from sources yet to be revealed. But I’ll tell you what they’re saying, and why it stings.

I’ve asked people to put their thoughts down in writing so that I can track feedback. With Crystal From The Hills I’ve given them 140,000 words, or thereabouts. I’m getting about 250 back, on average–not that they should write more–but it isn’t fair is it? Where’s the balance? The triage of my not-so-picaresque (according to my harshest critics) yarn has yielded some of the following: words like “muddled”, “unwieldy” (referring to prose), and “not making sense”. With respect to certain elements, such as those calling for psychological terms, a passing knowledge of psychoanalysis, I’d agree that a perceptive, though not necessarily learned reading is required if one is to fully appreciate my tale of trauma, disordered identity, and social conscience.

Action? This brings me to the biggest complaint: what’s happening? some ask. Or worse, where’s the happy ending? Where’s the hope? What am I doing? I wonder: d’ya think I’m gettin’ the wrong people to read my stuff. D’ya think? I know. Try not to be defensive, right? These people are telling me what’s out there; what the average reader is looking for. Do I want you, average reader? do I need you?

Apparently, but maybe I can help…just a bit. Just a nudge, a hint here and there to clue you in as to what I’m doing, and why? Please.

So, first of all, with respect to my much maligned “flurries” of exposition, with respect to workplaces, memories related to fire, make-overs, terrorism, ruminations on women’s opinions, telecommunications: it’s all necessary. It’s all a story, the aggregate of these fragments. Believe me, I worked hard to make all these pieces add up and lodge in the reader’s mind. They are referenced circularly, but not repetitively, and the story of CFTH–it’s plot–runs alongside this collage of reality. Sorry, fans of the unfettered narrative flow, if I’m making life difficult.

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Fragments resembling accidents

In writing a story about accidents and trauma, I had the challenge of insinuating these themes into all areas of the narrative. I had to. Victims don’t have a choice. The memories of events are there for them everyday, in every waking moment, even disturbing the somnolent ones–encoded in the insignificant details of life. I sought to embed these elements into my characters, both central and supporting, but somehow let ’em leak out. There are leaks in Crystal From The Hills, my tale of an itinerant drug addict and trauma victim wandering the milieu of Oakland after falling down its idyllic hills. An accident. Chris Leavitt never meant to hurt anyone. He doesn’t mean to trigger the phobic response of those who understandably associate the sounds of ringtones and doorbells with disaster. He doesn’t intend to stir a chill in those who crave truth but are surrounded by secrets and liars. Accidents happen. That’s what people once said to Chris, trying to make him feel better. Feeling better: it never made him better. Observe a few revealing fragments:

“Have you spoken to your mother recently?”

“No,” Chris answered, suddenly robotic.

“She understands more than you think.”

“I don’t want to talk to her.”

Aunt Jenny held a napkin to her mouth, suggesting an emergent revulsion. She quickly eyed Magdalena, who was hovering about the table, not quite waiting upon them; seemingly undecided as to her role. Jenny nodded, uttered hints about forthcoming stacks of clothing including all that Chris had brought with him. Between them they communicated a solution: an ironing board. Old clothes of his ought to be unearthed from the guest room closet, she also directed.

The angelic, chiming sound of the doorbell stirred them all out of this quiet, embarrassed arranging. Magdalena shot a glance in the direction of the front door, as though the sound were one that triggered old, traumatizing memories. Fleetingly, Chris noticed her wide-eyed bearing and speculated that it was borne of full-moon nights when doors were knocked upon, delivering bad news, illness and violent death—or accidental death—of prodigal loved ones. Aunt Jenny, startled, gaped expectantly at her obedient servant.

“I wonder who that could be,” she said, surprised. Magdalena marched dutifully and solemnly to the door, whispering in Spanish some ominous imprecations. Aunt Jenny turned her puzzled, yet vaguely inquiring expression towards Chris. Shrugging, he suspended his fork over his half-eaten omelet, and indulged a nameless foreboding. He looked down upon his food, upon the raped shreds of congealed egg and frayed greens. What an accident this all resembles, he thought.

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Nothing nice about being nice

Not a very humanistic attitude, is it? I think the Kleiniens would agree with the sentiment, though I surely don’t mean sentiment. Anyway, my novel avoids positivism, almost religiously. In my other book, the one about rehab, I touch on this a bit more, with a bit less surrealism. In that one I’m writing about countertransference: the weight of problems, the past, and the need to deny.

12 examples of being nice, from Crystal From The Hills. (purchase link):

*“Of course, I’m just trying to be nice. Jeez, you don’t have to be like that.”

*thinking his moodiness would fit in nicely: if dispirited, he’d blend

*“Hey, what’s up?” Chris spoke out in a friendly voice.

“Leave me alone,” she curtly replied, and then quickly stepped past him like he was a piece of dog shit in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Nice talkin’ to ya,” Chris said laughingly

*A mop and an ammonia bottle appeared to have been thrown in a corner instead of carefully placed. On top of a towel dispenser, flanking a sink below a two foot square mirror was a book someone had left behind. Nice, thought Chris: reading that didn’t outlast a bowel movement

* He pushed his lower lip across his teeth and looked into Chris, as though the exchange were setting the stage for an opportune critique.Chris laughed heartily. Well done, he thought. Nice. “Alright, I get it. What did you have in mind?”

* There were some nice men along the way: men who were dealt with ruthlessly; men who were sometimes sent scurrying from her dorm rooms with their jeans still climbing past their knees

* A nice man: that’s what she wanted, ultimately. She actually thought she’d met a nice young man recently, someone who was genuinely like a boy. His name was Chris Leavitt. The problem was the girls. Other girls thought Chris was nice, also.

* She sort of accepted that his libidinal overdrive had been a function of his stimulant use, thus overriding the “nice” aspects of his character

* “You have a problem with my place, or my neighborhood?” They’d actually talked about this once before and her answers hadn’t satisfied Chris. He took note of her then explanations: the piece about student debt plus an unwillingness to accept her mother and step-father’s financial support made sense in the context of those supposedly difficult relationships, but it still implied a preference for living elsewhere.

“It’s my what’s-a-nice-girl-like-you-doing-in-a-place-like-this question, I guess.”

“A place like what?”

* She looked over at the bed and saw Chris roll over to her side and flop his arm onto her pillow. There it is, she thought, catching the unintended action that was a replay of the beating she’d received roughly three hours earlier. That’s what she got for being nice

* “Nice earrings,” said one. His Aunt Jenny, a woman raised on the East Coast, once said that Californians lacked irony. She was wrong. At least, if sarcasm is a subset of irony, then Californians, Chris found, were full of it.

* “I thought we might spend some time expressing how nice it is to see each other,” Chris supplied cheekily. He was fidgeting, having difficulty getting situated. His chair was a somewhat disjointed piece of furniture; misplaced, with a distorted iron bar that had gotten literally bent out of shape. As soon as he leaned back, Chris felt the hard protrusion of the un-cushioned upright section. It had a deliberate feel about it, like it was Aunt Jenny’s torture chair.

“Nice to see you?’ she echoed querulously. “Let me tell you, young man: there is nothing nice about ‘nice’. I’ve been concerned about you.”

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Everything we love vanishes

A quote from W.B Yeats. In The Silent Past and the Invisible Present, Paul Renn writes about the traumatized, the pathological mourning of those whose ambivalent yearning for and anger with attachment figures becomes dissociated; split off and embedded into personality. Through Renn’s case examples, the reader learns that those with attachment difficulties, personality problems, are beset with distorted representations of self and others, and that time is lost; meaning, past and present become conflated experiences: the past denied, but acted out in the present. In Crystal From The Hills, protagonist Chris Leavitt (nicknamed Crystal) is an itinerant trauma victim, suffering from (among other things) post-acute withdrawal resulting from (you guessed it!) methamphetamine use. He is unconsciously playing out a conflicted identification with absent caregivers: a distant, self-absorbed father, and a protective yet similarly detached and secretive mother. The backstory has yielded his character and thus the first two-thirds of the novel, his “acting out”. Chris tries to be “nice” in life, but as often as not his attempts are disengenuous, especially when dealing with authority. His mentor, Aunt Jenny, advises, “there’s nothing nice about being nice”, articulating the demand that he be real. And he has acted out upon anger: Chris’ problems at work–his “suspension” for insubordination–reveals his impulses, his sporadic rebellion against authority figures and systems. More sinisterly, his present-day drama contains a mystery: the disappearance of his friend, the malevolently reptilian Weed. Chris is noticeably evasive. If attentive, the reader must consider some dark possibilities as the mystery unfolds: is Chris psychotic? a killer? a rapist, even? Meanwhile, ambivalence thwarts Chris’ other ambitions: sleep disturbed, his dreams are interrupted, and his perceptions are marred by visions, his so-called “shadows”. His ideas, such as his strange and somewhat silly diaper invention (an indicator that his dreams entail regression) are tentatively delivered, but easily withdrawn or dismissed with self effacing humor. Back in the day, he once tried to be an actor, and still does affect the odd scene here and there (incongruous quotes from film or literature), but surely the best actors must first be grounded in reality, and reality, through no fault of his own, actually, has also been elusive.

Above all, Chris has failed at love, just as his father had. That is, Chris has tried to sustain love and relationships, but the truth is that parents, friends, women, have all left. And so the story begins upon a two-fold leaving: the disappearance of his doppelganger, Weed, followed by Chris’ disappearance into the anonymous milieu of Oakland.

 

 

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