Dear Jon . . . (#26) Re: Joyce, at the start of the Wake

BY JON PILL

This crinkled and ragged bletter arrived many, many, many weeks ago but I failed it. It has been sat on Jim’s blog, waiting to be mirrored here. But alas it went unloved for so long.

Here it is now. Unrolled and a little smudged from the steam of the iron I used to flatten it out so it would fit into the internet:

“Dear Jon,

So thanks for your pre-game thoughts, here at base camp. The game was my idea. I’d been glancing at Finnegans Wake here and there for some time now: a dull metallic grey flash in the corner of my eye, probably as I mosey around the bookshelves toward its companions either side – Isherwood, Kelman, Kennedy. Like a mountain, at a glance, the book is intimating. And some books, like mountains, have reputations that precede them – often simply to do with sheer size. If we do a brief geological survey of books, we can see the notable English summits of Clarissa and Middlemarch (a seemingly rare exception to the predictably male propensity for writing long prick-waving novels) and the imposing imperial heights and panoramas of the Victorian social epic – the sooty slopes and smoggy climes of the Dickensian massif. Over the water, there are the modernist mountains of The Man Without QualitiesIn Search of Lost Time and Joseph and His Brothers. Eastwards stands The Brother’s Karamazov and behind that, its sister peak, the vast Russian plateau of War and Peace; westwards the American rockies as thrown up by the postmodern orogeny, the anarchic peaks of Gravity’s Rainbow and The Recognitions, Underworld and Infinite Jest. Even now, and probably unwisely, seeing as I’ll be starting on the Wake shortly I’m lost in William H. Gass’s sixhundredworder The Tunnel[…]”

Click here for the rest.

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Update: 12th July 2017

BY JON PILL

Goodness, gracious, where does it all go? The time that is. The time between tossing out the last fortnightly missive to Jim and the sudden tumbleweed silence of the last two months.

This is not a return to your regularly scheduled programming unfortunately. Work, by which I mean, writing work – off which I have been living for the last month or so – has slurped, and continues to slurp, up time and, far more importantly, energy. The blog, with its pious penury is fun to write and in its own way an important place for me to expend some of my creative soilings, but it does not cough up the necessary potatoes and so cannot take up too much of my time at the moment.

That said. I am hoping to get at least a skeleton posting schedule back up and running shortly. In the meantime, consider this a hopeful fluttering in the ribcage of the corpse.

Here’s what you’ve missed:

Writing

June was my most productive month possibly ever for writing, a little over 40k in words the vast majority of them for Poker Tube, where I was doing the live tournament reporting for the World Series of Poker.

I’ve also got back on the Buzzy Magazine roster and should have something out with them shortly on Season 7 of Game of Thrones which is airing this Sunday.

And I am continuing to write for Front Vision. But there is always room in my schedule if you need something written, or know someone who does. Blog posts, ghost writing, articles, erotic poetry… you name it I’ll write it. Get my email from the About part of the site and hit me up. I’m not proud and I gotta eat.

Reading

A lot of this, mostly disciplined until the last few weeks when my ‘Currently Reading’ pile exploded to sixteen books. Among them is Finnegans Wake which I continue alone, having been abandoned both by the GoodReads group and by Jim, both of whom were reading it with me.

Other key books include The Expanse series (on book 2 atm, not as good as the TV series, but fun) and the gigantic The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism which I suspect will be an endless frustration of pseudo-intellectual gabble about stuff which sociology, anthropology and psychology are all studying by looking at facts.

Much to Jim’s relief, I have also started American Pastoral.

Life

Keeping on top of writing, reading, and the various habits I try to keep going: eating well, meditating, exercising, socialising and various smaller things mostly aimed at keeping my mental health solid as the little grey cells will allow, all makes for a certain amount of cat juggling and ball herding.

While May was a fabulous month where everything lined up, the last month and a half-has been rather more chaotic and as a result, while specific things have been working it comes at a cost of other things. Word count goes up, exercise gets pushed out for example.

Being self-employed gives me plenty of flexibility to manage my time. But it is possible to get a little paralysed by the choices. I’m hoping that there will be a series of articles on time management in a little while, but not until I get back into practice what I intend to preach.

Till then there should be a few more Dear Jim’s and book reviews coming out. But they will probably remain sporadic at best for the next couple of months.

For everyone reading this, thanks for sticking with me. You’re my kind of sucker.

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Dear Jim… (#25) Re: Work In Progress

BY JON PILL

Rolled him up in a nice clean sheet
And laided him upon the bed
A bottle of whiskey at his feet
And a gallon of porter at his head

And whack Fol-De-Dah now dance to your partner
Welt the floor, your trotters shake
Wasn’t it the truth I told you
Lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake

Dear Jim,

the Wikipedia page for our upcoming joint-toss of Joyce’s word-salad epic. I read it recently as prep work. Because if Ulysses can ‘only ever be reread’ then one suspects that going cold into the most notoriously difficult English language (is it really a) novel is unfoolwisehardy. The Wiki Wiki West whips out a heavily caveated synopsis:

–Given the book’s fluid and changeable approach to plot and characters, a definitive, critically agreed-upon plot synopsis remains elusive, it says.

So armed with a vague sense of what to look for, I look forwards to barging up past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay and out to Howth Castle and the environs where I am anticipating onomatopoeia (especially mck-gneow for prfffft bodilybleeeeeugggghhhh functions ), graphic sexual descriptions (in his sexts to Nora Barnacle he uses the phrase ‘arseful of farts’), and liberally scattered Celtic myths and languages (Saint Finnegan’s Fisher Salmon of Grail Snakes thrown out of the Mabinogion).

I am also looking forward to passing off other’s critical ideas about who dreams what in what chapter of the novel as my own original thoughts at pointy-headed literary parties while swilling cheap Irish whiskey like its fine Scotch (I am myself a quarter-Scotch through my mother’s line).

My expectations are mixed ;or the Whake seems like something that will annoy and enjoy me in equal measure. Joyce is both horribly pretentious in general – with his prescriptions for what the novel should be – and funny, silly, beautiful, striking, puzzling strange, absurd and interesting in the specific (Anthony Burgess reckons there’s a laugh on every page of Tom O’Finland’s Hake).

I recently reread Ulez because the ‘phones were slack at work and I picked up some lectures about it on Audible.co.uk, its much better on second reading and parts I felt were failed experiments worked better this time around.

You can only every reread Ulysses, they said.

That makes me hopeful for this undertaking. I can’t help by think this is going to be tough, but we’ll take it one sentence at a time (sounded out loud in my best Irish accent I suspect, and sometimes in my worst). But even as we stand on the precipice that is page one (past riverrun) I’m still not 101% sure I know what I’ll be in for. So expect the unexpected and I’ll see you next week to discuss Chapters One and Two.

And that more or less is my pre-game thoughts. We will see exactly how much fun we have at Finnegan’s Wake. I’m hoping for Lotsa, but will accept just some as I’ve been reading

Yosinaccertainly pun-ishmentally,

Jonathan-David-Jesus-Adam-Bloom

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Dear Jon . . . (#24) Re: Getting the Alternative Facts Right

BY JON PILL

TRUE FACTS OF VICTORIAN SCIENCE CONCERNING THE BLETTER.

Fact, The First: You can read an example by clicking here.

Fact, The Second: It is a good bletter.

Fact, The Third: It is a bletter from J S Loveard.

Fact, The Fourth: It is a bletter for myself.

Fact, The Fifth: Bletters do not fare well in the wild.

Fact, The Sixth: This is a wild bletter in the wild, being wild, and faring extremely well.

Fact, The Seventh: There is no seventh fact about bletters.

Fact, The Eighth: Seven is an unholy number, tainted by the dark bletters of the Necroblettercon.

Fact,  The Tenth: Wine is fine, but bletters are better.

Fact, The Ninth: Aldous Huxley Died in 1963.

Fact, The Eleventh: The bletter begins, ‘To address the question of your last missive, the how of my research is, I guess, like everyone else. I google. I input search terms into library catalogues. I scribble a lot of library classmarks on notecards and shlep through libraries. I get out books from libraries, and I frown over the books, and maybe even read them. I go to a place, mosey about, take notes, photographs. I ask someone about their experience of x or y or even z…

Fact, The First (Redux): H You E can R read E a H bletter E by R clicking E .

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April 22, 2017 · 9:00 am

Dear Jim . . . (#23) Re: Pregnant in the Head-Brain

BY JON PILL

Dear Jim,

Fertilisation of the womb requires that sperm are deposited high in the vagina of a woman close to the time of ovulation, says my university physiology textbook. You did ask about the earliest point of gestation right?

Oh, reread your letter. That makes more sense.

Gestation as metaphor for art has a heavy pedigree. I’ve just been corralling the Oxen of the Sun in Ulysses for the second time and apart from the fact that reading that section feels like a labour of a different sort, it also gives us the subtle imagery of Joyce’s avatar Stephen spouting off about exactly this gestatory idea of art, while an actual parturient shits out a wee bairn (or whatever the Guinness-swillers call them) on the upstairs landing.

You are more aware of these things that I am, but presumably the whole thing goes back at least to Plato’s apology for pederasty in The Symposium – in which ideas are treated as spermatozoa and young minds as vagina’s into which the semen of wisdom is to be deposited. Less is said about exactly where the beloved’s literal deposits are going, but that may have just been prudishness on the part of the translator.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [… … …] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

I think gestation is a rather grandiloquent word for what art is and does (imagine a carpenter discussing the ‘gestation’ of your dining table). I rarely go in with as clear a sense as you do when putting together a story; or at least am unclear in a different way (no musical touchstones or trees in the mist). Most often I have an idea or a voice or a form I want to play with and I just start a game. The mucking about continues until there’s enough of a sense of what can be done with it all. Then the mucking about becomes mucking in as I get a sense of direction. Most often this point comes when I know how the whole thing will end.

To be more specific I might have to look at a given story. The story that has left the clearest tracks in the snow is probably one called Switches. That story came from my reading a story on the New Scientist website about Boltzmann brains* (with one of the greatest headlines ever). As I began to write a stream of consciousness for one of these things from the point of it coming into existence.

It ran out of steam and I needed a new thread, and I was reminded of two things: I had also previously read about the China brain on Wikipedia and the two ideas bonded. The third part of the story came from a Brian Greene book on types of multiverses in a chapter of which he describes the universes we might simulate in a computer.

A little more batting around and I had my format, plot and ending. The rest is history (or will be when I can find a damn place to publish it) as I sat down to hammer out Switches.

He who sees everything and founded the land, who knows (everything) and is wise in everything.

But you can probably go further back on that story. Those two brains and a universe were harvested as story materiel because of the types of things I like to to write about. For whatever reason, non-human consciousnesses stimulate my creative prostate, I can’t get enough of them. The great apes, GM-animals, insect swarms, computers, human hive-minds, clockwork synapses, Boltzmann brains its all fabulous grist.

To keep following the tracks of the gestating story-fetus: some of that interest can be traced back to my teenage reading of Michael Crichton books; Prey and The Terminal Man in particular – maybe also Congo. They set me up to think of a person’s mind as mechanical and mechanical-minds as potentially persons. (In that vein I recently read the excellent Blindsight by Peter Watts – thanks to Laura Heron for putting me onto that – which can be read for free here).

Probably some of Dan Dennett’s TED talks, Richard Dawkin’s science books, and my various readings in psychology during A-level. All these things till furrows into the folds of grey matter, thickening the womb lining in preparation for the fertilised zygote which then metamorphoses into words on the page.

I want to speak of bodies, changed into new forms.

As well as the plottier ideas: formal conceits, voices and structures also come from external fertilisation followed by manipulation once they have accreted onto the original play-draft.

In Switches, the rhythms of the voices refer back to my other teenage obsessions: Fight Club and American Psycho, both of which have a particular kind of narrator, flat of affect and simple and direct in his sentences. Palahniuk also does a line in line-repetition that I have stolen and used in almost everything I’ve ever written.

Switches is particular marked by repetitions because of the voice but as well as stealing other people’s voices and moulding them into something new, there is also the more direct theft from Hitchhikers of the mind suddenly brought into being by chance and then being destroyed by its not naturally tenable position in the galaxy. The monologue of my Boltzmann brain is – ahem – very like the whale’s. Which is another case of  something being stolen and then redrawn in a fun-house mirror.

The end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

I feel like learning something new next week. Since you’re doing sondage on a number of topics lately, I’d like a letter on how you research for your fiction and how much getting the facts right matters to you.

Yours originally,

Jon

P.S. These are theoretical consciousnesses that must arise in an infinite universe in which quantum fluctuations are constantly producing matter at random in the void of space.

P.P.S. This is a theoretical brain made up by the population of China who are given walkie talkies to communicate with each other and specific instructions which, if followed, will mean they communicate with their compatriots the same way as a given neurone in a human brain. The idea is that this brain of people would be just as conscious as any of the brains in the humans that make the China brain up.

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Dear Jon . . . (#22) Re: The Lowest Hottest Place on Earth

BY JON PILL

EXT. DESERT – NIGHT

A figure stands in the desert, silhouetted against a bad moon, which rises from between two plateaus leaving a dark valley in which the figure is trapped.

MEDIUM SHOT – The figure, shot from behind, still in silhouette, standing in the middle of the prickly pears which line the valley. The night is so hot that we can see vast Fata Morgana’s forming over the blurred horizon where the moonlit soil touches the deep-sea darkness of the sky.

The figure turns and we can see it is you. But you have no eyes.

There are no eyes here.

BLETTER (v.o.)

This is the other extreme, says the voiceover. The shot travels low over vivid green pools crowded with strange almost coral-like formations. The shores of the pools are white, crystalline. Only the blue sky seems to confirm or suggest that this isn’t some other planet.

The shot does no such thing, ignoring the voice over and dollying in on you. Suddenly you are lit by a flickering glow.

You stare about the scene walleyed – you have eyes now, loads of them, at least fifty, a wall of wall-eyed eyes, there are loads of eyes here – and confused.

YOUR FACE

Where is this bletter speaking from?

The camera moves in close on the back of your head. We hear a CRACKLING fire from behind us on the surround sound.

BLETTER (v.o.)

The place, as the voiceover continues to say, is the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia – one of the lowest and hottest places on planet Earth. The footage, from Planet Earth, that flagship BBC programme of the 2000s. The voiceover, of course, David Attenborough.

This place patently is not. You spin around and are confronted with the lie. We see the look of anger on your face before we CUT TO:

POV – Your-eye view, just one of them there are so many now that this eye can see other eyes falling off and rolling away. It can also see a BURNING BUSH, 26, a multi-foliate rose of the desert. Bush speaks not with the voice of David Attenborough, but with the monstrous voice of the Bletter.

BLETTER/BUSH (v.o.)

For many people, perhaps particularly for those of our generation, this was one of those TV that sticks in the head, that stays with you…’

The flames freeze. The crackling stops. There is a RECORD SCRATCH and a sudden burst of light as the celluloid in the projector burns up. Then there is just the clatter of the maltese cross and sprockets, and the harsh yellow light on the screen.

TITLE CARD: CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE BLETTER.

FADE TO BLACK.

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Dear Jim… (#21) Re: On Space

BY JON PILL

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” – G. H. Hardy

Dear Jim,

So at the end of your letter on time you asked for a letter about space. Conveniently, space – in its broadest sense – is what Measurement by Paul Lockhart is about. I will come back to that. First allow me a series of digressions.

(The Greeks treated all of mathematics spatially. Three was a line three times longer than a line of length one. To add you put the lines end to end, to subtract you cut away a stick of the relevant length. They did all their maths in this way, shapes were vital.)

As may have come up in these letters before: I was a religious kid. I don’t think that my dislike of mathematics has featured; so cliff notes are that I found maths to be too algorithmic and formulaic – in all of the ways – to be of interest at school. Another thing unlikely to have come up is that I find the song Amazing Grace very sad, and somewhat discomforting, especially the final verse.

Consider all this to be foreshadowing.

(Geometry is ye olde Greeke for measuring the Earth. Plato’s Acadamy had a sign behind the bar that read ‘Let No One* Ignorant of Geometry Enter’, but in ye olde Greeke.)

When I was but knee high to a woodlouse I had the disconcerting feeling of coming upon infinity in a deeply disturbing way. I was small and so this memory is probably a composite of several moments but my brain has been somewhat fried by my travels in time (and indeed space, especially the space enclosed by the pint glass). The way I remember it is as a conversation with my mother in church regarding Heaven and the unending nature of it. What started as an innocent question ended in tears as my mother explained that there was no end, that every day would be followed by another; that at the edge of space there would have to be something else beyond, some sort of nothingness.

(They also believed the universe was infinite in all directions, and that ideas existed in a very real but very abstract way. They also believed that their complex and varied beliefs spanning several centuries and most of the Eastern Mediterranean would be over simplified and bled of all nuance so I could make word count.)

The result was physical discomfort.

(In their maths however, they avoided infinity. Largely thanks to the confusions introduced by Zeno and his tortoises. They also didn’t have a numeral for zero. No one did until the Indian’s started using it. Nothing and infinity are tied up by the idea of the infinitesimal – a fragment that takes up no space but has a value. Something we only really started to get to grips with in Newton / Leibniz’ work.)

I sympathise. The idea that like that extra day after infinite others, there was another mile of space after the infinite miles behind it. It was an emotion I haven’t really had about anything else. It was a real horror, but wasn’t fear. It wasn’t about scale or feeling small. It was about something more abstract. Something about existing in the infinite something about having something definite but completely unknowable.

(Of all the scientific disciples, I’ve been told that mathematicians are the most likely to be religious. This seems weird when their field is about such refined and precise logic which seems kind of incompatable with the non-rigourous thinking implied in the word ‘faith’.)

It hurt my gut, but not in the way sadness does. It was unpleasant, and I sat for a long time wanting to cry. Then I did cry for a bit. Then the whole congregation rose to sing Amazing Grace which ends with the verse:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright Shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun.

This was all a bit much for me and I had to be taken outside.

(Then again, there is clearly something in the abstraction of the subject that overlaps with the spiritual. Especially in the Abrahamic tradition where God is not so much a personality as a concept.)

Anyways. I was reading Measurement. So the book is Lockhart’s way of teaching maths that isn’t everything that turned me off maths when I was at school. His approach is to teach methods of proof, then to lay down questions or problems that are to do with applying mathematical argument. There are no answers.

He urges the reader to treat maths as a creative endeavour. Find a proof, work on it, polish it like you would a poem. Make it shine. Then try and find a better one, or an alternative one.

The emphasis is on getting you to discover maths. You won’t be the first to prove there’s only so many platonic solids. But the discovery can be totally original to you. It is genuinely thrilling. This maths is out there, existent in a perfectly objective way. Nothing comes closer to Plato’s world of ideals than mathematics.

Some of it feels kind of arbitrary. It is logic so you take a bunch of assumptions and you run them as far as they will go, see what happens. It doesn’t matter how long your first stick is, as long as you can work out how long it is compared to something else.

But somehow it produces specificity. (Pi emerges, e emerges, sine and tangents, the primes.) These things have a realer than real existence. They are necessarily true. They are capital-T Truth. And that is easy enough to understand, but understanding is not feeling and when I finished Measurement I got a hint why so many mathematicians are religious.

In his discussion of (how e emerges), I started to have that infinity feels again. The discomfort. Here was a glimpse of the sun, of real objects, after watching the procession of shadows on the wall. It was also the closest thing I’ve had to a genuine religious experience since being slain in the spirit as a kid.

It was – appropriately – (transcendent).

I didn’t cry this time. Much. But I would still recommend the book.

This has all got rather highfalutin, why don’t you do something about something low next week: Low-life, low-brow, low-culture, low-lands – Whatever, I leave it up to you.

Yours finitely,

(Jon)

P.S. *’No one is not one word… Don’t quote me on that.‘ – J. S. Loveard

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