One of my favorite authors is the late Shirley Jackson. Like her, I married a Jew. Like her, I had problems with alcohol and drugs. Finally, as a writer of “dark fiction,” I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Jackson’s take on what writers must do to make their creative work more interesting to the enemy: you, the reader.
In the piece she wrote about writing that was recently re-published in the New Yorker, called “Garlic in Fiction,” Ms. Jackson gives specific examples from her classic horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House. She also comments in the beginning of the article about the “distractions” the reader has to contend with while reading. I find these distractions have become almost insurmountable in today’s reading atmosphere, as the Internet and accompanying media have become a problem in and of themselves when it comes to providing the enemy with the interest and excitement he or she deserves on the written page. Be that as it may, I still believe that the suggestions Jackson provides in this article still ring true for creative writers in our era of high technology and “white noise.”
In fact, in order to perhaps update the personal examples that Ms. Jackson gave in her article, I want to give you writers two examples from one of my most recent works. I want to illustrate the basic concept of using images to make your writing more interesting to the reader–even today–while still understanding that the reader of today, just like Jackson’s reader, can still “close his eyes at any moment.”
I recently completed a novella about a young Jewish southpaw in the Padres organization who makes a Faustian deal with an Israeli computer scientist. The novel is called Smartarm, and I want to discuss the character of Jacob Aryeh Golden, the young pitcher and main character in my piece of creative writing. Just as Jackson was aiming to attract the enemy readers into reading “horror,” when they may not have been specifically interested in the horror genre in the first place, I wanted to attract readers who may not be interested in reading the conventional baseball story. Instead, my “garlic” was the world of science fiction. My love-hate relationship with SciFi began with authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Phillip K. Dick. In addition, my years at Caltech in Pasadena also gave me a worshipful attitude about the underlying wonder and threat that technology can bring.
I wanted to give Jacob Golden the symbolic curiosity needed to cause the enemy reader to play along with him as he makes his way up the ladder to the major leagues. First, the name. Golden becomes as important to my overall purpose in the novella as Jackson’s “white cat” is important in order to weave her main character’s inner fantasy world. In the Hebrew Bible, the “golden calf” is worshiped. Jacob becomes “Israel” after he wrestles and defeats the angel of the Lord. These images symbolize my main character’s basic problem, which is learning how important technology is to his achieving his goal of pitching in the big leagues. In fact, I wanted the reader to follow Jake as he, step-by-step, passes over into the state of existence as “living android.” As an author of SciFi, I believe androids and robots will soon be an every-day part of our social reality.
In point of fact, they already are. We have just not anthropomorphized the technology sufficiently enough for us to recognize them. Therefore, although the reader may feel a bit threatened as my story causes problems for Jacob, my young pitcher, I wanted to also show how this technology is an inevitable complication of our social structure that has been woven into the very fabric of our existential being. This programming of technology is, of course, Jacob’s main enemy. On the one hand, he knows he needs the extra boost that technology is bringing to his performance on the mound. On the other hand, as he gets more into the guided programming of this technology, he also realizes the acute dangers of becoming a slave to that same technology.
To conclude, I want to discuss the two major symbols I created for my novella, just the way Shirley Jackson discussed her symbols in her novel.
First, Jake’s philosophy of pitching is implanted in his programming, and it is a highly symbolic image that incorporates all the dangers to come in the novella (if the enemy is paying attention):
After the call, Jake began to pace the locker room. His mind was focused on some of the information given to him by Hirsch’s programming. When he passed by the ball bags, Jake reached down and picked one of the balls up and began to fondle it with both of his hands.
The circle. It’s the counter-point to the geometry of the baseball diamond. Just as the star is the nucleus of the planetary system, so is the baseball the center of all that revolves around it. You, Jake, are the controller of this nucleus, this star in the systematic chaos of geometry around you. Feel this ball for the first time. I know you’ve felt it before, as a child, as a young boy dreaming of his heroics on the mound. Why a mound of dirt? It’s to poise you above the fray, is it not? Sixty feet, six inches away from home. You control the power over that home plate, that disk of Euclid’s dreams, where everything converges in the heat of the moment. The moment of scoring runs by your opposition. The moment of arcing your ball toward that pendulum of doom, the bat, the vehicle of terror that can swat a ball over one hundred miles per hour back at you—blind you like Herb Score was almost blinded by Gil McDougal’s line drive. Score was a lefty power pitcher like you who lived in a dark room as a broadcaster and never really came out of that darkness. Now, I am giving you the chance to be the light that shines through all the line drives, the shattered bat shrapnel rocketing toward you, the runners stealing home, the hitters digging in like tanks on the battlefield, leaning over the plate, your home plate, your place of peace and quiet until they attempt to shatter that round sphere you hurl toward them to defuse your power over the sport. I am returning you that power, Jake. Smell the ball. Turn it around in your hands. Those seams are the woven links, like Indra’s Net, holding together your private universe of circular concentration. You can mold your fingers into the ball like a man holds hands with infinity. Feel its power? The possibilities of rotation are almost unlimited. We have programmed them. The spin on the ball, whether it’s scuffed or moistened, what happens when the ball is without spin, the knuckle effect, we will explore the vast reaches of baseball physics. You will need to know this in order to guide the players behind you. You are the spin-doctor, like the modern journalists, you control the way the game is seen by the fans and played by the players. We will give you the power of spin, the power over home, the power over the game itself. Get ready, Jacob Golden, to get rocketed into a new dimension of glory for you and for your team.
This first symbolic rendering of the circle can help the reader understand what alien presence has been implanted inside our uneducated 20-year-old. He had no philosophy before it was implanted in him. Thus, there is the first hint of danger to give my story an interesting overtone.
The second major symbol was the Jewish “Shema,” or prayer of the dedication of faith. This symbol proves to be the only safeguard Jake will have against the increasingly ominous technology that comes his way later in the story. This is how I rendered this for the reader:
Jake slept that night in a large Victorian house near the stadium where many of the bachelor players on the Missions stayed. His bed creaked loudly, and it took about an hour of games on his smart phone to put him to sleep.
Thousands of orthodox men with automatic weapons shot into the air. The bullets rained harmlessly down on Jake as he stood on the pitcher’s mound. The shots fell from the clouds like manna and then quickly turned into loaves of his mother’s challah bread for Friday Shabbos. As Jake stood there, attempting to tell the crowd that it was all a trick and that he was a complete fraud, his face began to grow a beard, and his sideburns sprouted into long, curly peyot. From the stands around him, people covered their eyes with their right hands and began to chant in Hebrew, but the words came to him in English, out of the bread as he ate it:
Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.
Then, they spoke to Jake in a whisper:
Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.
You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
And it will be, if you will diligently obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be sated. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the L-rd’s wrath will flare up against you, and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the L-rd gives you. Therefore, place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates – so that your days and the days of your children may be prolonged on the land which the L-rd swore to your fathers to give to them for as long as the heavens are above the earth.
The L-rd spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to attach a thread of blue on the fringe of each corner. They shall be to you as tzizit, and you shall look upon them and remember all the commandments of the L-rd and fulfill them, and you will not follow after your heart and after your eyes by which you go astray–so that you may remember and fulfill all My commandments and be holy to your G-d. I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d; I, the L-rd, am your G-d. True.
Thousands upon thousands of people in the stands began to converge toward him like a wave of humanoids. Each person was a robot, and their eyes glittered, and their bodies moved with mechanical precision. They were wearing clothing of the orthodox, however, and when they reached Jacob they suddenly began to converge into one shadowy being. It was the tall form of Saul Hirsch, and his body glowed with the power of the masses. Saul’s form fell upon Jacob, and they wrestled in the dirt of the pitcher’s mound. The powerful grip of Hirsch’s hands was around Jake’s neck, and he thought he would soon suffocate, but from within a sudden and other-worldly strength took over Jake’s body, and he reversed positions with Saul. Jake’s hands were now around the older man’s neck, until Saul screamed, ‘I give up! Turn me loose!’
Saul’s body once again separated into the thousands of orthodox robots, and they all turned toward Jake proclaiming, ‘Oh, Jacob, you are now the arch-father. You are now Israel!’ They all came at him and began pulling at his arms until Jake could feel his body begin to separate. His tendons stretched, his bones snapped, and the blood began to spurt like a river all over the pitcher’s mound.
Jake woke-up screaming on the wood floor of the room. The first thing he wanted to do in the morning was to call Saul Hirsch to find out about the orthodox invasion into his life. Even in a dream, Jake knew he could never have remembered the entire Shema prayer of the dedication of faith. Something or someone had planted it in his mind, and Jake wanted to know why.
In conclusion, I admire the guts of authors like Shirley Jackson. She had the fortitude to not mince words and to create the symbols that both threatened the sanity and the resolve of the enemy readers everywhere. If my work can do 1/4 of what Ms. Jackson was able to do in her work, I will be quite pleased indeed!