4 May 2013

Fictional Fiction Writers at Work

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:00 pm

[Yesterday the new fiction surpassed 80,000 words, and now I can smell the barn, as they say in horse country. If I keep up the pace I should have a first draft finished in two weeks. Here’s a short chapter I drafted last Tuesday. In this interlude, two unidentified writers are inventing a story together, a story about a character — the bathrobed man — who has an ongoing role in the larger story. I’ve written dialogue for these two storytellers before, in earlier episodes. Every time it’s been fun, fast, freeing to distance myself from my own fiction by handing my job off to these two guys.]


The bathrobed man bundles up his twenty-one birthday installments, plus maybe whatever’s left of his money as part of his legacy. He sends the parcel to his designated under-the-radar courier, along with instructions and mailing address. Obviously the unborn child has no name yet, so the bathrobed man can’t write Dear Jimmy or Dear Susie at the top. But he can still sign as Dad at the bottom.

Perhaps the instructions include sending each year’s installment from a different location, again protecting against the possibility of discovery by the enemies.

Good idea, but that’s going to set the courier back financially.

Perhaps the bathrobed man includes in the parcel…

…Includes in the parcel some money to defray his courier’s expenses over the next twenty-one years.

Yes. And we presume also that the courier is a loyal and trusted person. He will feel duty-bound to honor what may be the last wishes of his doomed friend, even after all of the money has been spent.

Great, that’s it then.

Excuse me, but I have a question. We are presuming that the bathrobed man is about to be killed by his enemies. Imagine that, through his resourcefulness, he manages to survive this seemingly fatal ordeal. Would he then retrieve the first parcel from the lawyer, as well as the second one from the courier?

Or would he lay low?

Remaining undercover for a month, a year, twenty-one years, until at last he emerges from seclusion. What changes would have been wrought in him? From some underground control center would he have masterminded the implementation of his hermetic scheme? Would he have teetered over the edge into paranoia, into madness, remaining forever in seclusion, perhaps taking his own life?

But how could he have escaped? The thugs have him cornered, his house is surrounded. They’re professionals, and in their profession the consequences of failure are dire. The bathrobed man isn’t the sort of guy to break out the windows and start shooting.

And he is alone, our bathrobed hero. An amateur, alone, pits himself against several hired guns? Even in a B Hollywood gangster film this one-man stand cannot succeed. One thug keeps him occupied by returning fire through the front window, while two of his associates calmly walk around to the back door. A locked door? These are hired killers. The bathrobed man is a duck in a shooting gallery.

Booby traps?

Are you suggesting perhaps the noose around the ankle ploy, hoisting the thug into the air, suspended from the stout branch of a nearby tree? Or perhaps the patch of leaves disguising a pit into which the gangsters who tread upon it will drop? Or do you recommend something more lethal, in which explosives are involved?

Do I hear sarcasm?

Indeed. Simply put, our bathrobed man is not the sort of fellow who goes in for violence. He is an engineer; his genius is conceptual, systemic.

So couldn’t he engineer devices to ward off the thugs? He is at his own house after all, plenty of time to set things up, work out the bugs. And he is motivated, wanting to protect his mysterious invention, his Icon, even if it turns out to be just a crackpot scheme after all. And he is paranoid, maintaining constant vigilance against those who would steal it for nefarious purposes or financial gain. Why wouldn’t he booby-trap his house?

Yes, I concede that these are valid points which you are making now.

Okay then.



Even without the booby traps, the boobies will make a great deal of commotion, no? They will fire their guns at the bathrobed man. If he is prepared to take violent means into his hands, he will return their fire. The neighbors will hear, they will telephone the police, the squad cars will soon surround the house. Our bathrobed man will be taken into custody. He will be required to reveal information about his Icon. No, none of this is permissible for him.

So he needs to escape. Now we’re back to where we started. He’s surrounded so he can’t escape, and he’s not prepared to call attention to his grand scheme through gunplay and explosives. He’s dispatched the parcels, one to his childhood lawyer friend, the others to his trusted courier friend. And so now he dies to protect his secret schemes.

Perhaps taking his own life to avoid being the subject of so-called extreme interrogation tactics, by means of which the thugs would attempt to extract the truth from him.

So why aren’t we satisfied to leave it at that? It’s a good story the way it is. It’s as if we’ve gotten too attached to the bathrobed man, like he’s calling on us to save him from his fate.

And it is a fate that was sealed twenty-one years ago when the bathrobed man sealed the secret parcels. Now we have moved on in the story, far into the future. The thugs have perhaps discovered the lawyer friend, the son or daughter has gone in search of the father. The future becomes the present. This is where we must concentrate our attention.

Wait a minute…

Of course. After twenty-one years of waiting, what is another minute?

No, listen. The Icon. Bathrobed man designed the Icon, this awesome system linking everyone and everything together across vast distances. Okay great. So listen. Bathrobed man sent off his drawings and documentations. But didn’t he also start building this thing, this Icon? We’ve already said that he has associates, that he had financiers backing his work. The written documentation is a backup, we said. There’s also an oral tradition, a means of communication propagated among a cadre of operatives, associates of the bathrobed man who are secretly building the Icon according to his prior verbal instructions.


Maybe the Icon has bootstrapping potentials that help with the implementation. For example, maybe some module of the system enables an unspoken means of communication, letting the Icon-builders communicate with each other without leaving a paper trail, or an electronic one.

Yes, and perhaps the Icon, as gradually it is taking form and substance, enables the secret cadre to identify others who could join them, others whom the bathrobed man never met, others whose behavior patterns or brain waves conform to a certain profile that identifies them as promising co-conspirators.

Fine. Now, the Icon links people and things together across vast distances.What about across time? Across long spans of time? Does the Icon make temporal linkages?

Yes, perhaps also the dimensionality of time is built into his grandiose schematics. The likelihood is high, I think now. So the bathrobed man anticipates that the Icon will gradually be assembled over the years after his demise at the hands of the gangsters.

And he set it in motion across time, this gradual assembly. Built by his associates, by new co-conspirators…

Eventually achieving the ability to assemble itself.

Yes, that’s great.

Even if the bathrobed man did not know how to design this autopoietic capability of his Icon, he set it on the course toward its eventual emergence as a self-generating device.

And perhaps also self-regenerating, the ability to diagnose and repair its own breakdowns.

And self-replicating.

Yes. So the bathrobed man envisions the gradual self-creation of the Icon as something like an organism, or even a new species of organisms capable of reproduction. It extends across vast tracts of space, across multitudes of people, across long spans of time. Now, does the Icon also extend itself backward in time?

Oh God. You wish now for the Icon to turn itself into a time machine?

Why not? It does everything else.

What does it do precisely?

Hell, I don’t know. It does everything. And if it does everything, then surely it ought to be able to manage time travel.

But have you not yet seen enough such stories of time travel? Must we be doomed to repeating the time travel trope, as though stuck in a time loop that repeats itself again and again, never to be surpassed?

You mean like Groundhog Day?

I’m sorry – like what now?

Never mind. But look, this is how we rescue the bathrobed man from his imminent and inevitable demise.

The Icon returns from the future to save its master, its creator, its father?


 Oh my God. The tears will be flowing down the aisles. Or perhaps they already flowed. Have flowed? Have been flowing? These verb tenses…

But yes, suppose we do that. We have the what, now we need the how. How will the Icon save the bathrobed man, twenty-one years in the past?

I don’t know. No, yes I do. It is already happening. We are the instruments, the vessels of the Icon as it performs its heroic time-traveling mission into the past. This is what the Icon will do. It will invade our minds so that we will write a scenario that saves its father, twenty-one years in the past. But of course it is the past only in diagetic time. In narrative time the rescue remains, happily, poised as a future unfolding of the story. Is invading our minds? Has been invading?


  1. ‘Every time it’s been fun, fast, freeing to distance myself from my own fiction by handing my job off to these two guys.’

    In that case, I suppose you needn’t worry about the text being despoiled by the public readership. Salman Rushdie said something about the ‘book doing its work just by being written’, which sounded a little superficial coming from someone whose work did shake the earth until they quit (I don’t quite know why it was so effective, the laying off of the fatwah), not to mention sells, but it’s true nonetheless, even if he’s got sort of a big mouth about a lot of things.

    This is very good stuff, and the bath-robed man reminds me somewhat of you and your ‘covert operative’ with his ‘Icon’ (influence culturally but invisibly for a long time) and also my recently-deceased icon-maker upstairs, whose belief in reincarnation may have allowed her to go through the pain of dying upstairs until she was ‘caught’ at it, and sent to Bellevue. Then again, I’ve only read these excerpts you’ve put here, so I don’t know why you even ended up with ‘bathrobed’, but it’s a smart, strange image.

    You definitely like to stand on opposing sides of some dangerous things.


    Comment by Patrick — 4 May 2013 @ 1:01 pm

  2. Yes, I can see you are attracted to sneakiness. It would be personal to wonder if you are not yourself sneaky, except that the general perception of you (at least in the bleugs, not at all dinner parties) is that of a kind person, and I usually think it too. But your self-proclaimed ‘lack of empathy’, if true, is not an attribute of kindness. You told us about surprising Anne one breakfast morning with the revelation that certain qualities were not ‘virtues’, at least not particularly so. It’s like what I said about my old attraction to noir, when you get close to it, the reality is not all that romantic. Likewise, just visiting CIA at Langley was more than enough for me.

    Well, okay, you might want to do some more work at treating PTSD, but I’ve long thought of myself as neurotic enough, even if others have agreed with this assessment more than I did.

    You are clearly extremely neurotic, which I don’t imagine would make you a less effective psychologist. But this passage is much tauter than anything I’ve ever read by you, easily the best. Therefore, some of your hangups have become somewhat irritating..


    Comment by Patrick — 4 May 2013 @ 1:28 pm

  3. According to my online Big Five Personality profile I’m only moderately neurotic, but I’d say that’s averaged across several ways in which I’m practically not neurotic at all along with other ways in which I’m very neurotic. In a way the writing of the hidden characters has been a way not so much of expressing my innate sneakiness and secretiveness, neither of which is how I think of myself, but of dealing with being rejected and ignored. But there’s good precedent for making creative use of one’s neuroses, or even psychoses.

    I don’t know if I’ll actually do any more counseling. I’m getting to the end of this cycle of novels, and now I’ll have to figure out if I’ve become an inveterate fiction writer or if want to do something else. In a sense the bathrobed man’s Icon is a stand-in for fiction: it can do anything, even travel back in time. I’ve been so thoroughly immersed in fiction writing, so insulated from practical considerations, that I’d have a very difficult time pulling myself away from it in an attempt to be useful to real people. It took me long enough to stop thinking about fiction writing as potentially useful that I’d hate to back off from that now. I presume that Bill the novelist in Mao II is going to try something else, but then it’s not DeLillo himself doing it. Writing fiction about a novelist becoming a PTSD counselor seems more up my current alley than actually doing it. I agree with you though: if you’re going to be a therapist, it’s more important to acknowledge your own neuroses than to be neurosis-free.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 May 2013 @ 6:36 pm

  4. You’re like the Little Prince looking at the fox out of the corner of his eye like sometimes late at night when the nerves are at you (one) something appears to be occurring just out of sight which you might catch if you turned quickly. Writing through the characters must be like that. Myles na Gopalleen did it in At Swim Two Birds which never got the attention it deserved due to a German plot called the Second World War.

    The time travel paradox thing is always engaging and also the alienation factor of the discussion. I was looking at Persona the other day and it was possibly a 60‘s thing telling you that ‘this is a movie’ and you are projecting and it’s all a projection. The real is irreal not unreal. The noir voiceover, hardbaked from the beyond, long dead planning his past. I like this, mucho. 80,000 words. Aghast I am. Keep her going, don’t stall the digger.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 5 May 2013 @ 1:44 am

  5. I thought this yesterday, but wanted to think about it. It’s taut, yes, but it’s powerful primarily. The two unidentified writers make it technically skillful, but the power is the character they are finding. I can’t be sure how subjective my reading of it was yesterday, but you’ve got this character who is both ambitious, unique and maybe insane from inevitable paranoia and probably some immense fatigue. I was more viscerally affected before I got to the time travel part, although I can see what that’s for. “saving his life” retroactively is not quite as important to this particular reader, nor is the blurring of tenses quite as intense as just the way he’s operated. Although the ‘two writers’ is good as the basically ‘non-violent’ curio of a man might resort to at least some self-defense. And some of the terms like ‘professionals’ might be relative. But it’s already a character away from ‘real life’, for the most part, even if he’s just being invented this way himself.

    This seems somewhat related to the ‘Bill’ in Mao II, the movement toward a secretive ‘godlike’ that may or may no longer be working. But has some of the qualities you talk about when you’re dissecting Zizek. Since it’s possibly a ‘crackpot project’, it’s hard to know whether you’re going to fully sympathize with him or not. Donald Barthelme’s ‘The Balloon’, which was a NYer short story in the 60s and then put in the collection ‘Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts’ also ‘could do everything’, or ‘was everything’ (I read it when it came out, way, way back and loved it, I think the balloon covered all of Manhattan for a time and captivated the populace, that’s long ago though), so that doesn’t quite get developed by the writers, since if it could be a crackpot project, it might thereby not be able to do everything. But maybe in the subsequent narrative, there is possibly mention of some specific things the ‘everything’ consists of. OR, it could just be the continued development of the post=traumatic subjectivity, which is more multi-faceted than it may have seemed when the emphasis is more on the zombification-it may be that even the most wizened subjectivity is what is most highly prized, and should be. Perhaps, the ‘performance death’ of the girl upstairs which ‘just missed’–she ultimately was surrounded by ‘professionals’– was to some degree an example of this, she cared, though, about no one but herself, which would doubtlessly not be the case in this ‘icon’ of the bathrobed man, or no one would care to further it, much less re-animate him posthumously. He is still rather mysterious, though, and you really don’t know yet where it is going, I reiterate, when you say ‘it can do anything’, which I think Barthelme’s balloon was supposed to do, or at least ‘mean’ anything and everything. The ‘bathrobed man’ sounds like part-abomination, much like this girl, who, interestingly, was often bathrobed at her door, but she was perhaps closer to real abomination, being one example in which abomination does not prevail. That last idea comes from someone that I don’t want to bring up at the moment, and the time travel also suggested some of his recent (or not too long past) writing about time travel, and that can wait till another time, or be completely abandoned. But about 2/3 of it is very ‘in your face’ and makes you keep thinking about variations on such a character, which is always going to be exceptional, if not the ‘rule’, as Karras had said.


    Comment by Patrick — 5 May 2013 @ 10:08 am

  6. Metafictional moves seem almost nostalgic now, don’t they, but sometimes it just seems like the right tool for the job. At Swim Two-Birds is terrific; I’ll have to give it another go after I finish the current project. I found the Balloon story online and liked it — it offers another trajectory for fiction worth considering, as others have. I read Barthelme’s novel The Dead Father quite long ago and remember practically nothing about it. I’ve requested a collection of short stories from the library.

    The bathrobed man and his project have been enigmatic and off-stage throughout, though they’ve influenced other characters, other projects. But as I accelerate toward the end the bathrobed man and the Icon have become more pivotal. That I think was what I needed from the “two writers”: a way of breaking myself out of the narrative frame I’d been immersed in, letting the narrative thrust get twisted slightly off course onto some other trajectory that might lead to a different unanticipated destination. The ending does function as a kind of fictional time machine, retrospectively imposing a different meaning on earlier episodes long after their place in the narrative has come and gone. Kind of like the New Testament writers seeing Jesus as the real meaning of Old Testament stories written hundreds of years before.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 May 2013 @ 1:20 pm

  7. I just looked back: the first time I used this two-writers conceit was in January 2009. Originally it was a stand-alone story about the bathrobed man, written a month and a half after writing the “Looking Up” short story for the ill-fated Open Mic event and a month after the subsequent commercial fiction writers’ group fiasco. I modeled the italicized writer after a certain blogger with whom I’d recently corresponded about a possible but inevitably futile collaborative project. His fictional double is still sarcastic, but while his English is a bit worse he does manage to contribute creatively to the collaboration. This 1/09 short story would eventually get incorporated into the first novel in the series I’m just finishing; “Looking Up” got inserted near the end of the second one.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 May 2013 @ 11:50 am

  8. I might not have used Zizek for this novel, but today I did use big chunks of my blog description of the Commercial Fiction Writers’ Group, which I hadn’t thought about until I put the link on this thread.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 May 2013 @ 3:36 pm

  9. Here’s Bill, DeLillo’s fictional fiction writer, talking with his NYC publisher friend in the chapter from Mao II that I read last night:

    He said, “We have an innocent man locked in a cellar.”
    “Of course he’s innocent. That’s why they took him. It’s such a simple idea. The more heartless they are, the better we see their rage. And isn’t it the novelist, Bill, above all people, above all writers, who understands this rage, who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it’s the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 May 2013 @ 9:17 am

    • I can’t believe I came over here to remark on that beautiful passage (where I don’t even notice the 14’s and maybe you shouldn’t tell people things like that kind of technical blueprint, at least not always, but as you wish) about the smooth milky stone, and how much it reminded me of DeLillo, although maybe sometimes in Paul Theroux or even the pot-bellied one, whatsis name? Wrote ‘In the Name of the Rose’, and was absurd at a reading I heard at YMHA; I sort of like that I can’t remember him, and have gotten into this habit of refusing to look up things. He’s Italian.

      Because you get a strong visual image of a crepuscular, beautiful girl, a bit like something out of Graham. I never can resist that sort of stuff.

      On the contrary, this passage of DeLillo is the most repulsive thing I’ve ever read by him. In fact, I think it’s a crock of shit. The only time I ever thought a terrorist was written up in such a way that you could sympathize with him was in American Terrorist, written while McVeigh was still alive. The hurt caused him while he was in the Gulf War by what he saw Americans doing was quite palpable in Michel and Berbeck’s book, and they weren’t novelists. One of the murderers ‘Perry’ in Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ had poor Truman in tears all the time; I like to then think about Wm. Burroughs talking about being in Venice at the same time as Capote, and saying ‘Truman spent the whole time blowing gondoliers’. Man, he sure didn’t ‘understand’ when Lee Radzwill dumped him.

      Anyway, I get the point of ‘feeling affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark’. That’s like Fritz Lang’s ‘M’, rather a tour de force for any period, but early 30s, rather amazing. He would, though, being a murderer himself, and a total egomaniac, hated by everyone in Hollywood, himself hurt because Goebbels turned on him once he was found to be half-Jewish, though brought up Catholic, as I recall. What kind of time is there for ‘feeling affinity for the violent man’. Maybe someone can write something on the Sandy Hook boy, since he’s not even in custody. But I don’t know why it would be ‘novelists’. Right after 9/11, Sean Penn went on Charlie Rose and expressed ‘affinity’ for OBL, to which Rose immediately, quietly and firmly countered. Penn acted like an idiot the whole time, chain-smoking and generally doing the Hollywood White Trash routine.


      Comment by Patrick — 15 May 2013 @ 10:05 am

      • Bill neither affirms nor refutes this little speech by his publisher friend. Maybe here DeLillo is taking a shot at publishers trying to read their writers’ motives and coming up with ridiculous attributions. Bill is on a covert mission, trying to get this innocent writer released from terrorists’ custody. I suspect that the mission won’t succeed, though I’ve not gotten that far yet. But it’s like the publisher is playing Zizek here, claiming that Bill’s unconscious desire is to become the terrorist’s victim, to take the other innocent writer’s place in the dark cellar while simultaneously identifying vicariously with the terrorist who takes him captive — to get so close to his desire that it falls upon him, ties him up, and kills him. It was probably worth DeLillo’s while to explore these ideas fictionally, putting his alter-ego Bill into the situation to see how he reacts. To me Bill’s motivation is that he’s become disillusioned with the writing and now he wants to be helpful. But he’s not practical, not shrewd or cunning, too naive and trusting — not the sort of man to become a covert counter-terrorism operative. Halfway through now, I’m not finding Mao II to be one of DeLillo’s more successful books. I will finish it though. Eventually I’ll take another crack at Underworld.

        I see the girl that way too; I’m glad it comes across in the prose-poem. No, I won’t explicitly point out the 14x14x14 framework in that chapter, beyond noting it in the blog thread. I presume that musical composers do this sort of thing too, working from a scaffold that merges invisibly into the finished piece. The structure helped envelop these closing mementos in a kind of crepuscular transitional interval for characters who have occupied my attention for a long time, characters of whom I’ve grown fond.


        Comment by ktismatics — 15 May 2013 @ 10:50 am

  10. “I presume that musical composers do this sort of thing too, working from a scaffold that merges invisibly into the finished piece.”

    Yes, but they often more freely talk about the construction and analysis behind it. Somehow it’s not distracting, and also it’s the kind of talk usually understood only by other musicians (I’m thinking of the way the high modernists used to write, and their very old survivors still do to a degree; it can be very nice.) I think what still really threw me off was Lawrence Durrell describing how he’d manipulated the plot of one of the novels of ‘The Avignon Quintet’ (I think it was ‘Monsieur’), which made me stop reading it, and actually even ruined it for me. Worse, I had truly loved The Alexandria Quartet, and began to wonder if maybe I hadn’t loved it so much after all. It’s full of wonderful characters, and discussing formulas for writing a novel is something most keep quiet about. I think Didion was one of the ones who was very firm on not telling things about ‘the material itself’, and she was absolutely right about that. When I asked her about things in ‘The White Album’, that was different, because those were explicitly autobiographical things, kind of like ‘fiction-coloured reportage’, but they were things she didn’t mind answering, and god knows she likes to be a pain in the ass. Like so, when you asked me about ‘Crawlspace’ way back in the fall. That was a very disturbing post, but maybe you were confused, fixating as you did on one sentence about ‘repositories for anger’ and applying globally. Some of it has still stayed with me and even hurt a bit, like ‘apparently not enough’ [Crawlspace] and ‘ambulance chasing’, and there seemed to be some sarcasm about Polynesia. My first response was positive, a kind of residue of my eternal naivete, and also the way I let myself be manipulated so easily by the trolls at CPC. Then I realized I had to make myself clear, that the sentence might mean ‘one of the things Crawlspace was’, and then we turned the whole post into a kind of rhapsodic thread. I think it was worth it, because by the time we got to Patty and Misha and Suzanne and Peter, we had together turned what had started out as something of a sow’s ear (replete with Gaycee mugshot) into a silk purse. I feel I can say this to you because you are now on such a roll, and also, if the writing is not ‘better’ than before, it is certainly writing I’m responding to more viscerally or I wouldn’t say so (I just wouldn’t say much.) I also appreciated your valiant attempt to ‘out’ some of the very-pervasive ‘ambivalence’, because that is something that can be either meaningful or abusive, according to how often it’s in effect.


    Comment by Patrick — 15 May 2013 @ 12:09 pm

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