Flip Hiply and the Derogation of Coherence
Saturday, March 24, 2018
A few years ago, a friend of mine wrote a book called The Northern Caves. The story is set against the backdrop of a fantasy author, Salby, who wrote a young adult fantasy series that was initially much beloved by the public, but which became strained, self-indulgent, and much less mass-appealing as the series went on. Salby was even reduced to self-publication at the end—though some of his hardcore fans remained. And then he disappeared for years, and died, but left behind an unfinished book, a single, massive book (also called The Northern Caves), thousands of pages long, which mirrored the entire series he had written before, but was about as legible as Finnegan's Wake—which is to say that it sounded (to the few who succeeded in reading it) like 10 percent artistic vision and genius, and 90 percent incoherent ravings of a lunatic off his meds. Here is my favorite passage from that book:
Councillor 14 "WARM POOLS OUT THROUGH THAT ANGEL"
Councillor 5 "ELABORATE 14"
Councillor 14 "LOCAL CHIASTS HAVE FORMED STEREOSTATIC BRAID"
W "how many times more"
Councillor 2 "MANY"
W "that entity and my angel are paired and braided"
Councillor 6 "LOCAL CHIASTS WRAP THAT ANGEL IN CHAINS FOR IT PULSES WARM"
Councillor 2 "NO STRUCTURE IN THE ENTITY RADIATION"
Councillor 15 "PURE ZERO FROZEN CRYSTAL"
W "but with the angel Amsthivena the stereostasis is broken"
Councillor 1 "WARM ILLUSION"
Councillor 2 "W PRECEDE ANGEL"
W "before i was, there was the angel Amsthivena"
Councillor 14 "LOCAL CHIASTS ADVISE UNRAVEL AND REBRAID W TO PRIMAL STATE"
W "i will be remade before the birth of my angel"
Councillor 2 "REBRAID W PRECEDE ANGEL"
One of my other favorite passages reads thus:
clest mmdm clest abup with Tommy boysmoke fun with the kidly mddm and more? For it is said that mmembmp. Un in the boy we had a deep palaver canyon, down in clover depths, with precious mineral deposits ridging a central shaft about yea deep and lit only by the luminodes upob from cletes understurm. So then aleatory wreath of charles cadaver was levered above the main netting spread across the wide chasm, his blood as chrism for the new vile chiasm of cletes bull hide rutted formal establishment, arena for us n em to fight oer the bits of charles severed pinnae eyelids and if we so willed even the bit of protruding duodenum, such a cornocopia. such breaksmoke mmp lower in there, so far down the various species of colourated gemstones and he copious luscious calcite deposits, delicious for us n em, pull ord quaver. For itissaid that pull ord quaver, but said among the luminodes that lurk vile and malodorous among the unspeakable folds in the lurleen flesh of clete, master of arms, esquire. selah, it is said, ironical, u n em know, since after all who can say how deep that shaft plunges and thus which correlates it may render among the mites and motes in the intestinal cavities of clete et al, esteemed gentlemen, and so, pull ord quaver indeed, but only, fealk our words, for those not perceiving the long undertow. undertow in full sway, the reticulation of neeting swayed this way and that and the flecks of new seed climbed atop it and among the walls, as mest un know, indeed, clete franz has beckoned and who cannot heed, not us, we swing with the reticulation, mm full indeed, gentlemen.
In both instances there is wonderful cadence and rhythm to the text, and the tantalizing promise of deep meaning locked inside the words—a great credit to the true author of those passages (not the fictitious deranged genius Salby, but my friend who actually created these segments on Salby's behalf). And, in the story, Salby's hardcore fans pore over the meanings, great and small, of his unfinished work.
This style of writing, and those passages in particular, and a few others like them, stayed with me keenly, because there are viscerally reminiscent of a style of storytelling that I would like to do more of.
It always attracts my attention when other people produce things similar to ideas I've had myself. (Just consider my reaction to Life Is Strange.) Perhaps this should concern me, as writing in the "Salbian" style flagrantly defies the fundamental obligation of communication—being comprehensible within reason—and can only be the work of deranged geniuses or talented authors speaking on behalf of deranged geniuses.
Indeed, in the spring of 2016, when I was in the midst of my first iconic mental breakdown, I got so thoroughly tired of trying to write for the purpose of being "understood" in a world where few people read my work anyway, that I produced some work of my own in this vein. Only when my grip on reality was at its weakest could I find a pathway to escape the strictures of coherence I've assimilated my whole life long.
There is a tension in my writing, one rarely seen by you the reader. Most who read me know me as a verbose author quite thoroughly absorbed with his own ideas and fixations, with many interesting ideas, textures, and modes to offer, but not necessarily in an optimal or efficient way, and certainly not in any way that challenges the foundations of English. Due to gratuitous skewing of the sample population, those who read me tend to enjoy my work, but the work they know is stuff like the Prelude, or these weekly articles, which is richly baroque but ultimately quite accessible to any strong and attentive mind. Run my published fiction through the grade-level analyzer and it comes back mostly as middle-school fare. The individual sentences are quite easy to grasp, as are their connections with their neighboring sentences. This is a consequence of my efforts to textualize narratives that are inherently visual and emotional.
Yet this writing—the only writing from me that most of you know—belongs to but one of the buttons on my control board. There are others, and this is where the tension begins. Sometimes I will have a moment of frustrated realization where it occurs to me, hardly for the first time, that I am laboring so hard to write visually—that is, to convert cinematography into text: clear, coherent text, for visually is how I daydream, and that is the kind of story I usually write—yet completely failing to address other, equally important elements of the dreamt story that are much less concerned with visuals and the motions of physical bodies in their environments.
This is where that other style of writing comes in—a kind of writing I rarely do and which in healthier mental states I am quite poor at pulling off convincingly. This is the writing that addresses my deep wellsprings and subterranean rivers and lakes of basic philosophical thinking—and I would presume that my mind is, below the depths of comity and civility, quite unsettling to most people. Not because of mental illness in recent years, but because reality is a pretty daunting landscape when you look at it without the buffer of our shared languages and customs and anchors of human society. And I am someone who can do that, at least some of the time. And I would write about it more if I could, but like Josh at the piano my skills are weak.
You'll be reading this article more than two weeks after I wrote it, and I am speaking to you from that past now: As I write this, this week is the one-year anniversary of the weeklong flurry of storytelling that I did in March 2017, wherein I wrote most of a novel set in my Star Trek Ripoff universe. In that book, I experimented again with this hazy, incomprehensible style of storytelling—not for the entire text (goodness no), but in a certain, key sequence of the story. Being in a better state of mind, I couldn't pull it off as well as I wanted, and resorted mostly to cannibalizing some of the work I'd done a year earlier, during my mental breakdown. Here is an excerpt, which borrows heavily from the stylistic conventions used in The Northern Caves (and, regarding that, do keep in mind that this is a rough draft version and I would have eventually put a more personal spin on it, though the overall similarities would still have remained to anyone looking for them):
C: "Issue the remarks, Omicron."
L: "We should gather together in joyful harmony to partake of this delicious bread. Our humble benediction is issued by the indicator-obeying officiator of office, the baker, the baker in the flesh, the hinge, the gyre upon which all is fashioned into stately loaves. Are the breads baked to your satisfaction, O Pious Ones?"
"I don't understand you!" shouted Cherry.
C: "The convexities are adequate. It shall not be for hunger that all is destroyed but for atmospheric geometries alone."
R: "Obey all indicators under the Shimmering Firmament."
L: "More evidently Cherry Ilyapa, art thou pluperfect in form and figure, lovely like the hills and the lambs and the nodules, O beloved nodes between the tectonic plates and the Dishes of Antioch."
It's a bit chaotic to describe what's happening in this scene: Cherry (our protagonist) is inside a virtual world inside a virtual world (etc.), speaking with three unknown intruders, while the real world outside is actively blowing up. The metaphors are nearly all borrowed from my 2016 writings, and, recontextualized for this story, represent—what else?—the futility of communication. (Among other things, natch.)
Well, it's another year later, 2018, and as I look ahead to this year's novel project I find myself wondering, yet again, if I should try and dabble in this dangerous space. Truthfully, the danger is illusory. In fiction we can speak of a book driving its readers insane, or concealing powerful magic, but in reality those marks are harder to hit. If I dabbled in this "dangerous" style of writing, I would probably succeed only in confusing the story's few readers. Yet it feels dangerous to write. I wonder about the implications of that feeling.
You may wonder, of course: "Well, that's all fine and dandy if you want to do shit like that in your avant-garde work, Josh, but what about The Curious Tale?" And the answer to that question is no: I don't intend to incorporate that kind of writing into The Curious Tale, except possibly in the most peripheral of capacities, to help build a sense of mystery or horror at certain points—but never in the primary narrative where the deployment of such text would obfuscate the flow of the story.
Indeed, I create alternative outlets for things that don't belong in The Curious Tale proper. Hence works like Empire on Ice, which represent yet another style of writing of mine, which in turn further contributes to the tension I spoke of. Empire on Ice conveys my sense of humor—absurdism, delightfulness, surrealism, and flippancy. It would be hard to imagine the Silence of Empire on Ice, who might uncharitably (and unimaginatively (and unfairly)) be called a manic pixie dream girl, showing up in After The Hero. Yet she is the true Silence, as surely as the actual Silence from ATH is also the true Silence. The "true" Silence encompasses them both, and more.
So it is for my styles of writing: None is artificial to my muse; none is outside the boundaries of my perception of reality. None is beyond philosophy or the officially sanctioned canon of the Cosmos. All modes are true. Human society exerts an immensely powerful "gravity" field of conformity of thought, body, and deed, and we don't ordinarily realize just how normalized our actions are when compared against the true potential behavioral space of the human being. Even the eccentricity of incomprehensible (but meaningful) writing is relatively tame compared to what is fully possible.
It would be appealing to write my own The Northern Caves, an inscrutable book, mirroring a comprehensible series I'd already written, baffling all who tried to master it, and hinting at the one form of magic available to humans in the real world: perception. Alas I do not have the luxury.
The Curious Tale is devoted, knee-to-the-floor, to the cinematographic experience. The opening words of Book I are beautiful, an ode to morning, to the dawn, to the sandscape, to the fading stars, and the oncoming lights of Gala. It's all terribly easy to read, if you allow yourself the counsel of a good dictionary.
But what I can do with The Curious Tale, and indeed have always done, even back to the days of the RPG, is flirt with this static haze out in the upper structures of the story. Perhaps the individual sentences are legible, and follow naturally and easily one after the other. But what of the whole? Aha! I've got you.
I've mentioned before that the Prelude, my largest published work, is dripping with foreshadowing, stuffed to the gills with worldbuilding, brimming with layers of thematic meaning, and swollen with interconnections to other parts of the story, in both chronological directions. I went to the Prelude and randomly selected a piece of text. It turns out to be a line from Silence during the balcony scene:
[Galavar says: "That's a bit of a generalization." Then Silence replies:] "A little bit. Don't get me wrong. Order serves its purpose. If everybody could kill with impunity, we'd fall back into the Dissonance. But that's only because most people are so untrustworthy, so ignorant. The ugliness of dependency. They need their order. But...ah...those ludicrous contortions...that people impose upon themselves and each other. It's all such a silly mimicry...the desperate pretense of society as though it were truly civilization. In the end, they're more animal than I am."
I promise I did not pick that out deliberately. It's a happy coincidence that it so perfectly encapsulates the point I am trying to make. Worldbuilding? Vague, true—except for "the Dissonance"—but definitely present from a textural standpoint. Foreshadowing? I'm not even gonna comment. The thing is basically entirely foreshadowing—to more than one future event! Thematic meaning? Well, the damn thing is straight-up philosophical exposition from the central character of the entire Curious Tale!
What I am trying to say is that this excerpt actually is incomprehensible gibberish—that is, the intentional meaning it contains is almost incomprehensible to the readers. Yes, the individual sentences parse, and from that you can get an idea of what's physically happening, and so you can follow along with her words and build conceptual frameworks to interpret them...but you have no idea at all what I am really saying—what's really happening at that moment in the story. Not because I'm trying to be coy or smug or better-than-thou or whatever, but because the tools of communication are weak in describing the full breadth of what is possible. To repeat myself, reality is a pretty daunting landscape when you look at it without the buffer of our shared languages and customs and anchors of human society.
So, what do I really mean, in that excerpt? Can I put it into words you'd understand clearly? I think the best I could do is ramble for hours. If all spoilers were unlocked, and I spoke to you as I would to the walls, or the mirror, I could touch on the dozens of deliberate intentions that stood trial before the court of my authorial executive and were deemed worthy for inclusion in the final draft of that quotation. Even without spoilers I could talk for a few hours about it.
It is incredibly hard for me to create narrative superstructures. I'm not actually very good at it, from a technical standpoint. Quite apart from the oceans of meaningfulness they contain, the superstructures themselves are extremely demanding to engineer, and require the good care of my craft—the pacing, direction, mood, and so forth that make for compelling prose. Does it make a little more sense why I am such a slow writer? And is it clearer, now, when I lament how hard it is—indeed, how at the deepest level it is impossible—to be truly and fully understood?
Salby, the insane writer from The Northern Caves, became enslaved to his perception of an all-encompassing mundaneness. The perceptions we create for ourselves, and which are created for us beyond our consent, dominate our thinking days. They ultimate drive our moods, at least to some extent. Perhaps therein lies the only real danger of writing down madness.
Finding the Words
Since today's article, like last week's, isn't super exclusive to all things Curious Tale, I'll close today with an After The Hero special for you:
This is a scene fragment (story pieces not yet formally integrated into the manuscript; most of The Curious Tale is created this way), presented in raw form—unedited by me today—that I wrote in 2005, long before the Draft 10 Era. It is unlikely to ever appear verbatim in ATH. Titled "Doyen of the Sages," it describes the moment that a teenage Silence outgrows the last authoritative boundary containing her:
No sooner had they crossed swords than she outfoxed him yet again, before the middenhour chimes had even finished, this time with a technique so mundane it should never have succeeded. And the strength of her blow, when it came, was a surprise in itself. So at the hand of a mere pupil, no less a figure than Doyen Ioraeilis Kestrel Antiadoan He fell poorly and all the robes of his station went fluttering right down with him. There he sat, flat on the ground, and for a moment it disoriented him.
Not by courtesy, but out of genuine rapport Silence moved to help him. Yet she did not sheathe her sword. Instead she took it in her right hand, so that she could offer to help him up with her left. She loved their sparring, and clearly a rematch was her bent. Ioraeilis waved off the notion for now and received her proffered hand gratefully, but could not help but notice that the strength of those muscles, howsoever vibrant in her arm, could never have brought him such a defeat on their own.
"That was no mere pratfall," he mused.
Silence wore a look on her face so smug that
"Soon, I will be the master here," she said.
Ioraeilis sheathed his sword and she immediately followed suit. The day's sparring was closed; Silence had won again. The scents of their sweat mingled into a sense of accomplishment. But as the teacher composed himself, her words loomed above them. He took her by the shoulder, and they walked together through the cathedral together.
The great hall could go on forever. She could sense his disquiet Silence looked down into her own reflection within the rosalia marble. She was a part of this place. She imagined wrapping her hand around it, all of it, and then the cathedral would be a part of her, instead. Was that not the ultimate awareness of one's surroundings?
Ioraeilis spoke, "Ambition for a thing often frustrates its attainment. One does not become a master by grasping for it. He sharpens his thrust. He bolsters his footing. In time, his discipline becomes that of a master. The ambition to be a master is meaningless and distracts from true study. Grasp for it, and you will forget yourself." His fingers flitted on her shoulder.
And then he laughed. It caught Silence by surprise, and they stopped in their tracks. She withdrew from his embrace to give him a puzzled look from within the comfort of her personal space, and for the first time in her life she realized she had outgrown him. It was at once an embarrassment to look down on her master even physically, but in the instant before his reply, she wondered why she had not noticed when they stood eye to eye.
"I could feel the tension in your shoulder. You simply could not wait to disagree with me. You have an irrepressible urge to covet, Silence. Were it not for your sense of propriety..."
He frowned. Then she frowned. And he looked at her with a kernel of suspicion that wasn't there before. When the understanding had passed between them, he told her the only thing he could.
"When you become the master, do not raze the school."
That's all for this week. Join me next week when I follow up on Kerrigan.
Until then, may you find your words.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!