22 April 2013

I Like My Similes Like I Like My Metaphors

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Language, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:57 am

[I’m about two-thirds of the way through the current book. This excerpt comes from the immediately preceding one.]

“Hey Lois,” he shouted out the open office door as he veered toward the flipchart. “Go get us a round of beers if you would.” He studied the top sheet for a few seconds before ripping it from the pad and tossing it to the floor. Uncapping the black marker he began writing something at the top of the page. The marker was nearly out of ink and Karas flung it across the room, its tip making a short grey smudge on the wall between two of the taped-up sheets before caroming onto the hardwood. He snatched up the red marker and began again:


“This is the progression, yes?” But Karas wasn’t waiting for the Courier to keep up with him now. “We’ve always thought – I’ve always thought about the progression in individual terms. A man becomes a mighty man becomes a god. Pilgrimage as decisive and extreme movement away from the norm, from the collective. The outlier becomes a double outlier, and maybe finally a triple outlier. Instead of waiting for the one in a million to come along we would accelerate the difference engines, turbocharge the thrusters, propel more of the exceptional people out of orbit. Some of them might shoot out of sight altogether, never to be heard from again. But others – well, instead of launching one revolution at a time they might catalyze simultaneous cascades, multiple singularities in art, science, economics, warfare…

“Still, there has always been the statistical underpinning. Difference relative to the norm, stretch out the axes of deviation. We’ve always speculated that a society of outliers might emerge, reticulated through the Portals via some unknown and perhaps unprecedented mechanisms exceeding mere empathy and cooperation. We didn’t want the Stations to be seen as anything more than termini linking the Trails, transient nexuses for Pilgrims passing through as each by each they pursued their separate trajectories into exceptionalism.

“But now we face the empirical facts: most of the Pilgrims are going nowhere fast. Money, power, sex, prestige – the vectors and endpoints are all so fucking predictable. Sure there are exceptions, and exceptions are what we prize above all. Maybe our project is doomed from the start, but we wanted to establish the preconditions and the apparatus and the impetus for cultivating a whole host of exceptions. Hey, we should make that our new motto.” Karas turned back to the flipchart and printed in large block letters, filling the sheet:


Lois brought in two tall tapered glasses of cloudy beer with a skim at the top. “Belgian blond lambic,” she announced as she placed one of the glasses on the conference table in front of the Courier.

“I like my beer like I like my women,” Karas insinuated archly as Lois handed him the other glass.

“Cold and flat and murky?”

Karas watched Lois walk back out to the antechamber.



  1. I like the excerpt a lot, it reminds me somewhat of some of my things about ‘metropolis’ and ‘crawlspace’ when you talk about ‘exception’. That’s really doing it, not just talking about Portals, which is fine but sometimes you can’t feel the portal just by talking about it. With this ‘exception’ you can feel what it means, whether you call it a portal or not not so important, It’s the specificity of things like ‘cultivating a whole host of exceptions’ that takes you into something actual and real, whereas ‘portal’, however dear to you and useful in any case, is too general (to my mind, at least). You can still do ‘portals’, but my immediate response to this is that ‘portal’ has never quite worked all the way for me when you’ve talked about it, because you have not always been specific about the bill of particulars.

    The beer thing is even funnier when you first hear it, the ‘cloudy’, the Lois (very waitress, like Mavis) just elaborates on it so that you know you were right to think the beer was drear to begin with.

    ‘Money, power, sex, prestige – the vectors and endpoints are all so fucking predictable. ‘

    Yes, I like that too, because it completely explains the ‘money-music’ of Barbra Streisand, and proves that that is but one mode of being. After all. Peter Jennings spent most of his adult life on an ego trip (including special smiles on live TV to his gf. that were then publicized), and then what did he do?

    He perished.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 22 April 2013 @ 5:10 pm

  2. I’m glad you like it. This character Karas appears in an earlier book: I think he’s pretty great but other readers have deemed him crass, so I gave him a reprise in the Courier. Certainly he’s a more aggressive advocate of exceptionalism than that the passive portalist O’Gandhi. What stimulated me to post the excerpt was a conversation with Michael at Ombhurbhuva about a Wallace Stevens poem in which metaphor is the stated subject. I don’t go in for metaphor very often, but this little exchange between Karas and Lois on the beer simile came immediately to mind. I think that at this stage of the game Karas is concerned that his project, like his Belgian beer, has become cold and flat and murky.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 April 2013 @ 7:28 pm

  3. ” I think he’s pretty great but other readers have deemed him crass, so I gave him a reprise in the Courier. ”

    Marvelous thinking, I would have done the exact same thing. We’re not all under the ‘rougist police’ when it’s a literary matter. I can’t even believe how many times I’ve seen some of the poets and would-be novelists in the leftist bleugosphere talk in this whiny self-conscious way about how they have to ‘fashion a socialist fiction’. Dreadful, and that’s what Katie Roiphe was talking about with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen (although given the latter’s brattiness and borderline personality disorders, I don’t know why he would have bothered).

    Crass personalities are a natural for fiction and Norman Mailer was full of them. On not quite so high a level, but still quite important in my book, are Jerome Weidman’s fantastic Garment District characters in ‘I Can Get It For You Wholesale’ and ‘What’s In It For Me?’ I read most of the first in the 60s, and had only heard of it as a musical, which I later found out was Streisand’s B’way debut, with a score by the serviceable, but uninspiring Harold Rome, who actually did write a musical version of ‘Gone With the Wind’, first for Japan, for god’s sake, and then with Horton Foote for London. It never opened here, but I have the LP of the London, and it’s got one very good song, surprisingly. Harve Presnell and Bessie Love both in it. The ‘Wholesale’ song that has survived is purely by virtue of Barbra’s fame, and she even sang it in her Millennium Concert, ‘Miss Marmelstein’. It is so bad it is unspeakable, and she bragged ‘i just heard the-ah’s a Miss Mah-mel-stein Club, isn’t that something?’ Rome’s ‘Pins and Needles’ had a couple of good songs, with very early Barbra on a re-recording, including the hilarious ‘Nobody Makes a Pass at Me’. But he’s banal.

    Anyway, sorry about that tangent, I didn’t read ‘What’s In It For Me?’ till about 2005, and it’s terrific. The main character is crass and has a gorgeous bosomy blonde who always makes you think of Barbara Nichols, that wonderful comedienne from Queens who is so good in ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ and Lang’s ‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’. It constantly mentions ‘450 7th Avenue’ as the scene of all his thefts and various chicaneries with the dresses and clothes racks, and the money, which finally ends up in the blonde’s hands, as he finds himself in Philadelphia unable to even afford train fare as the book ends. At some point, he finds her note that says “Thank you for the money…I don’t like the way you operate and I don’t like YOU.” It’s really good, and you don’t find these characters quite so hard elsewhere, not even in Budd Schulberg or John O’Hara (I love O’Hara, by the way, ‘The Big Laugh’ is a great Hollywood novel). I remember walking up to find 450 7th just after I finished the book, and was surprised to find that it’s still one of the thriving (and quite tall) buildings of the Garment District. It still looks sharp. I dislike this photo, graceless, but shows the height by comparing to 1 Penn Plaza.


    Anyway, it’s never referred to by Weidman as the Nelson Tower. Some other authors have praised Weidman, but he’s never been taken as seriously as I think he ought, although he made a lot of money. Good short stories too.

    My own new post, as of this morning, about the old original Macy’s around the corner from me, and thinking then about the Nelson Tower, has made me finally make surface what I’ve always half-consciously thought about big metropolises, especially New York. It’s the opposite of of ‘You can’t see the forest for the trees’. It’s ‘You can’t see the trees for the jungle’. And then you learn to.

    But Chandler always has plenty of crass characters, even Marlowe himself has some crassness, or at least a sympathy with some of it, even if he always wants to protect innocents, as esp. in ‘The Little Sister’. Maybe your Karas (Greek?) thinks his project is fizzling, but I wouldn’t have picked that up from the excerpt alone, because it seems like he’s just beginning to articulate it very well. But then I don’t know what comes before. I just took the beer business literally as a nice detail ‘with a skim on top’, which was good, and also can never get metaphors and similes straight, so don’t tend to think of anything but metaphors. Although ‘metaphor as subject’ is hard for me to stomach. I wouldn’t read anybody’s poem if that was the subject.

    Once I wrote on ‘Ideas for New Ballets’ on the old board, that I thought the [obviously crass] Leona Helmsley would make a nice divertissement-ballet based on her old ads as ‘The Only Palace in the World Where the Queen Stands Guard’, and in the TV movie with Suzanne Pleshette, these ads had been turned into a waltz at one point. This idea met with cold silence. But Leona was a different kind of crass, and was funny despite always being in a hostile mood. Very Old Testament.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 23 April 2013 @ 1:08 pm

  4. I’ve tried to “fashion a socialist fiction” as a counterpoint to Karas’s elitism, but that thread is hard for me to envision very clearly. As a result the socialist element tends to lurk in the shadows as a vague promise/threat. This sense of a political obligation to craft socialist fiction reminds me of the Christian fictionalists who feel a moral obligation to inspire their readers to godly thoughts and deeds. As I come to the end of this fictional series I’m more concerned about what I suppose are aesthetic concerns. Is fiction a metaphor for non-fiction? I.e., do the characters, stories, situations, and so on present themselves as analogues to the real world, like representational painting? Even Robbe-Grillet’s expressionist meditations on creating worlds with words rather than describing worlds that pre-exist in the writer’s imagination: the things he describes remain very much like things encountered in real life. I suppose this is a motivation for modernist poets, to create texts with words that don’t directly represent anything, that are in effect abstract shapes and colors and textures rather than pictures. But I’m with you about poetry: I just don’t find myself drawn to it as a reader. Something like Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition is an entertaining enough experiment. Maybe this is a motivation for writing short fiction: long experiments get tedious without the usual emotional pull. It’s also the advantage of musical composition, not having to paint pictures in song and so on. When I finish the current book, which is the last in the series, I’ll have to regroup.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 April 2013 @ 3:26 pm

  5. John:
    That reads well and there are all the elements mentioned in it that intrigue and move the story along. That is the really difficult thing and even in well known authors momentum flags. You get the sense that they are doodling and hoping that the thing will pick up again. Maybe multiple viewpoints make the load lighter I think. How do you manage that, do you draw up a chart or a mind map to keep track of things?


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 23 April 2013 @ 3:30 pm

  6. It’s good to hear that the passage moves along, Michael. Momentum might well flag over a longer span, but as you suggest the multiple viewpoints do tend to keep things moving along. The risk is that the continuity fragments into a collection of interrelated short stories, but I think the broader thematic elements hold it together. Besides, I enjoy reading collections of interrelated short stories. In this book the mind map is a good analogy: the narrative follows the Courier as he moves geographically across the US, picking up and delivering parcels. He moves from the east coast to the western mountains and then south into the desert. So before I began writing I sketched out the first few stops he would make along the way, and whom he would encounter there. That worked for maybe the first half of the episodes, but by then I had enough momentum to improvise subsequent stops. Karas was a prime mover of the action in the first book in the series, so I had a pretty good idea what might be on his mind a few years down the road.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 April 2013 @ 5:54 pm

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