Dimensions drift; realities shear and blend. Whatever you want to keep as true, hold close in the center of your mind, or when you wake the landscape may have shifted.
I used to think that too much stayed the same, that lives were locked in stable states of déjà vu. As a child I stacked in fascinated horror the stones of nearly identical moments, as the school bus passed the same spot on the road to our house. The same view from the window, the same exposed foam where someone had dug through the olive green seat in front of me with a ball-point pen. This, and this, and this, and this. The stack of nows grew higher but never fell, as if gravity did not exist.
When I visit Chicago it frightens me how the subways sound just like they did in 2002-2003. “This is a red line train…Doors open on the right at Clark and Division.” The same homeless man still begs on the street near where I used to live.
Nowhere, though, is so familiar that I can’t get lost. That might be where the idea of dimensional drift started: my abysmal sense of direction. I can stay somewhere for years, and still take a wrong turn. I have a remarkable talent for disorientation. “It’s not my fault,” I say. “In that last dimension, things were different.”
I have learned, in a way, how to navigate realities, skipping tracks into alternate, parallel continuities, tipping over the towers of identical days when they grow too high. Now I ride a different subway. The recorded voice is a woman’s, not a man’s, and she speaks a different language. “Soğanlık” is the stop where we get on and off. The word itself is beautiful, worth crossing oceans for (the definition, it turns out, doesn’t live up to the sound: “soğanlık” means a field of onions). If I miss hearing words in English, the ride from Soğanlık to Kadiköy is a perfect podcast length. I listened to a story a couple weeks ago called “Why I Left Harry’s All Night Hamburgers.” It’s free, and you can find it here.
In it, a teenager gets a job working the night shift at the eponymous, out-of-the-way diner in South Carolina, and quickly learns that it is a favored stop for all sorts of bizarre characters who, it turns out, hail from alternate dimensions. The greasy-spoon’s remoteness makes it an ideal nexus for dimensional travelers, unlikely to have been affected by the environmental, political, or nuclear cataclysms that befall so many of the parallel worlds.
Normally, when I hear or read stories that veer too close to themes from my own perpetually unpublished novel, I feel a creeping authorial anxiety, as if the writer is stealing my ideas, or proving they were unoriginal. The multiverse concept is different. It is expansive enough to accommodate all attempts to tell it. Infinite worlds can never be exhausted. The trope of multiple realities is too fictionally ubiquitous for any copyright claims to ever contain. Before Dr. Who there was Cthuhlu, and before that was…well…any mythological realm you care to name. The Incans had the Uku, Kay, and Hanan Pachas (the sky, surface, and under-worlds), and storms that allowed you to travel in between. The Drift, the Warp, is everywhere, built into the machinery of storytelling itself; what is reading fiction but entering into other worlds, orthogonal to ours?
So listening to Lawrence Watt-Evan’s story in an Istanbul subway car, I didn’t feel a stab of fear that his telling of an inter-dimensional tale would trespass on my own, only a glow of grateful recognition, knowing the archetypal gateway would be wedged open a little wider.
The character in the story learns how to serve the pluralistic stream of late-night guests (not one of whom, from all those worlds, is vegetarian!), and starts to talk to them, asking where they are from. He has never left his small home town, so you can imagine the symbolic weight those strange travelers acquire: they are charged with representing experience (sexual or otherwise), knowledge, adventure, and escape. He decides, understandably, he wants to quit his job and join them. Here is where the twist comes in, Lawrence Watt Evan’s take on the infinitely adaptable trope of multiple dimensions: once you leave your own, you can never return. Every person who comes to the diner is a perpetual exile. None of them have found a way, reliably, to navigate the Drift. You can travel forever through mysterious realms, but you can never go home again.
Now, probably, you can see why that podcast got to me, in the middle of a country that, while I can’t really call it “foreign” anymore, neither can I call it my own. It took a science fiction story for the reality of what I’ve done to really sink in: I can never go back. I can, that is (unless I end up on some no-fly list), but that past, that country, will have drifted into a subtly different configuration, an approximate and proximal dimension.
Worlds drift. No reference points are ever certain. We were taking the subway to Kadiköy to get more books from me from the pasaj, since I’d read all the ones I had. I knew what I wanted and where it would be: there were two more Warhammer 40,000 omnibuses (omnibi?) where I’d bought the first. Since they were trilogies, that meant I would have six more novels in which to immerse myself in that gloriously horrifying dystopian universe. I was sure I could find that stall again, with the stacks and shelves of English books, but we’d entered the pasaj from a different level, from the opposite side, and I was disoriented. Dimensional drift, I thought. Even worse, when I did find the shop, the books weren’t there. I even checked my camera, from a picture I’d taken mere weeks ago, and there they were, the books I was after, their thick spines clearly visible. How could they have been sold, in less than a month? Who would have bought them, other than me?
I found two other Warhammer books, but of an obviously lesser quality: Dark Apostle, featuring on the cover a Chaos Space Marine so covered in spiky, skull-adorned, blood-red armor that it seemed while he would be unable to get hurt, he would be equally unable to move. Daemon’s Curse featured on its front the main character (Malus Darkblade) riding what was apparently a dinosaur. His armor, too, had enough spikes that he would apparently self-impale with a shrug of his shoulders. I bought them, though, falling stupidly for the logic of logos, the bait of branding, believing in a Warhammer universe when, or course, it is actually a multiverse, the quality of which cannot be assured.
On the other hand a picked up a great Paul Auster novel, The Book of Illusions. Reading the back cover gave me a powerful dose of déjà vu, and I’m fairly certain that I’d considered buying it a year ago, the last time I was in Turkey. Also, an unexpected treasure: an advanced and uncorrected proof of Shadowbridge, by Gregory Frost. I’ve read them, now, and will try to find some way to organize the following observations. As usual, it looks like this post might be rather long.
GEHEHMUNET OF OIL
“One can imagine the comments of the lunar astronomers. ‘These creatures have a remarkable and perhaps unique tropism toward fossilized carrion.'” -Aldous Huxley (Point Counter Point, 156)
The druchii in Warhammer are like the drow in forgotten realms: bloodthirsty, evil elves. Malus Darkblade is the bastard son of a feuding high-born family, a torturer and slave-trader who plots with his half-sister to steal a relic from her sorcerous brother, Urial. The relic, a skull of a long-dead necromancer with his soul trapped inside it, “is a key that, legend has it, will open an ancient temple hidden deep within the Chaos Wastes,” where Malus will find a source of tremendous power (72). Skipping to the end of the book (past a largely uninteresting series of battles and betrayals) the druchii reaches, with the few remaining elves that have survived the extended campaign against undead hordes and savage beast-men, the “gate of infinity” protecting the hidden temple. Here is how it is described:
“The very air seemed alternately gelid and charged with rapacious energies violet and green lightning raged through billowing clouds of red and purple. From one heartbeat to the next the vista beyond the portal warped and shimmered. One moment Malus beheld vast, desert plains red as blood, another moment and it seemed he looked out on a vast, starry sky lit by hundreds of ancient suns. Another flash, and he beheld a flat, endless plain baking under a pitiless, red sun. Vast armies raged across that blood-soaked plain, fighting a war without end. Another flash, and he looked upon a land beneath a moonless sky. Under cold stars a ruined city of cyclopean towers waited for sleeping gods to rise and drown the universe in blood.” -319
A dimension gate. Terribly familiar. Supposedly a portal to infinite realities, but you might notice that the worlds described are all infinitely bad. Like a diner between worlds where everyone is fine with hamburger meat. Malus uses the skull of Ehrenlish not to open this nexus, but to destroy it, using the trapped necromancer’s soul as a sacrifice to the “ancient beings of incalculable wisdom and cruelty” glimpsed within the gate.
The Demon’s Curse and The Dark Apostle, presumably set 40 millenia apart, are remarkably similar. Both feature a remorseless, power-hungry warlord engaged in brutal conquests and cut-throat rivalries, part of a hierarchical society based on bottomless suspicion on endless war. In fiction, as in capitalism, when all relationships are reduced to competition and self-interest, nothing interesting can really happen. Both Marduk and Malus Darkblade start out as evil monsters, and by the end of the novel…well, they are still evil, and still monsters. Nothing changes. Character development is difficult when all of the characters start out as Manichean, Machiavellian archetypes. At the end of The Daemon’s Curse, when Malus Darkblade makes it through the Gate of Infinity to the hidden temple and is possessed by a demon, his behavior remains more or less identical to what it was before. The Chaos Space Marines in Dark Apostle have demons trapped inside them from the beginning, that emerge in battle to make their physical forms more terrible, but leave their psychologies fundamentally the same.
War, war, war. Dark Apostle is one long siege. When all you have is Warhammer, everything looks like a nail. The difference between the Chaos legions and the Imperial forces they are up against isn’t even great enough to make the two readily distinguishable, unless you really pay attention. In my last post about the Grey Knight’s Omnibus I talked about how Ben Counter interestingly plays up the chaos-like qualities of the Imperium (destroying the universe in order to save it), and reading Dark Adeptus I was struck by the corrolary: how thoroughly the militaristic paradigm pervades the narrative, to the point where “Chaos Space Marines” ceases to be a contradiction. For example, the “Coryphaus” Kol Badar (second in command after the Dark Apostle) can order a retreat by saying “front coteries detach, third and fourth lines lay cover. Second and fifth lines, intersect with the first, overlap and close out. Third and fourth, then detach. And pull back those damned Dreadnoughts and daemon engines” (208). An orderly kind of chaos indeed.
Military discipline, perhaps, is the white heart in the black half of the order/chaos yin-yang. Or maybe order isn’t always good, and chaos isn’t always evil.
Tanakreg, the imperial planet targeted by the Dark Apostle, is over-run, its human population enslaved and driven mad by hovering propaganda-machines called “dischords.” They are forced to labor in the construction of a gargantuan obelisk called the Gehehmenet, which they begin to love, despite how many of them are killed in its construction. They feel obscenely comforted by its presence, and protective of it when the Imperial ordinance draws near. The skies of their planet are turned toxic with pollution, the land industrialized into a sterile, baking waste. When the Gehehmenet is completed, a bell called the “daemonschage” is set at the summit, and its tolling sets forth a cataclysm that engulfs the world: earthquakes, tidal waves, mountains disappearing and giant chasms opening. Beneath the obelisk, “deep in an abyssal channel that just moments before had been hidden beneath kilometers of inky black, acidic waters, was a structure…a black-sided pyramid, its sides perfectly smooth and gleaming” (371).
My interpretation of The Dark Apostle, the main association that cracked open in my mind, was probably influenced by the other podcast that I’ve been listening to regularly on subway rides: Ecoshock radio, where Alex Smith reports on climate change and ecological disasters. I’ve also been reading articles like this and reading dooms-day reports on the Fukushima fallout.
Here it is: with dischordant, omnipresent propaganda, we have been enslaved and invaded by a feul-intensive infrastructure, predicated on automobiles, suburbs, and foreign wars. The way we live is a result of the petroleum industry conspiring to engineer a society dependent on their world-destroying machinery. We have somehow, perversely, been made to love the abominations we have built, meanwhile transforming our planet into a wasteland, constructing a Gehehmenet of oil wells, fracking sites, and pipelines, pulling our own extinction up from the earth. Our planet will be torn apart, revealing the sign of a new, chaotic order: a black-sided pyramid, with an all-seeing eye on top.
“But why draw the line at one novelist inside your novel? Why not a second inside his? And a third inside the novel of the second? And so on to infinity…” -Aldous Huxley (Point Counter Point, 351)
A bereaved professor in The Book of Illusions is pulled from his alcoholic depression by a few seconds of a silent film he happens to catch on television. Deep in grief over the loss of his wife and sons in a plane crash, the clip of the comic, Hector Mann, makes him laugh.
The Daemon’s Curse and The Dark Apostle are brimming over with scenes of slaughter, dismemberment, bludgeoning, shooting, stabbing, and every other conceivable variation on the theme of murderous brutality, but the overall effect is merely to place death at a distance, like Hades seen on the horizon, under a bloody haze of sunset. The severing of spines is turned into slapstick, or a comic book. That, I think, is the answer to the riddle of our insatiable appetite for written or televised gore and horror: it makes real possibilities of pain and loss seem absurdly remote. A flood of fictional atrocities inoculates our minds against the contemplation of actual violence.
Aside from the off-screen plane crash, there are two episodes in Auster’s book where violence or its potential occurs. In the first David Zimmer, who has at this point in the book thoroughly researched Hector Mann, hunting down his obscure and scattered reels of antique film, and publishing a book-length study of them, is visited in Vermont by a woman claiming that the actor, who disappeared mysteriously sixty years ago, is still alive. Prior to this he had received letters from the actor’s wife, saying that Hector was ill, and would like to speak to him, but David had dismissed them as a hoax. Then this woman, Alma, turns up one night (the professor had just non-fatally crashed his truck driving home drunk in a heavy rain, and is in a terrible mood), and insists that he go with her to New Mexico immediately, to meet the dying actor and screen the films he has been secretly producing, which will be destroyed 24 hours after his impending death. The professor does not react well to her intrusion. To get to New Mexico in time, he would have to take a plane. Determined to bring him back, she pulls a gun.
“When Alma Grund pulled out that revolver and pointed it at my chest, it didn’t strike fear in me so much as fascination. I understood that the bullets in that gun contained a thought that had never occurred to me before. The world was full of holes, tiny apertures of meaninglessness, microscopic rifts that the mind could walk through, and once you were on the other side of one of those holes, you were free of yourself, fre of your life, free of your death, free of everything that belonged to you.” -109
A far cry from sword-slinging elves and deamon war-machines, and far more real and scary. The gun is a dimensional gate, capable of transporting him (by going off) into another unrecognizable realm. “My Life had stood,” the Emily Dickinson poem goes, “- a Loaded Gun – / In Corners – till a Day / The Owner passed – identified – / And carried Me away…” David, sensing that the gun Alma holds isn’t loaded, grabs it from her, points it at his own head, and pulls the trigger. The gun was loaded, but Alma had forgotten to turn the safety off. The situation is ridiculous enough to be realistic. The gun, although never fired, easily outdoes in terror all the apocalyptic explosions and excruciatingly detailed killing in The Daemon’s Curse and The Dark Apostle.
The second scene of gun-violence, though, is not nearly as convincing. The narrative backs up, chronologically, to tell the story of Hector Mann, the silent film comedian, during the long period of his disappearance. Actually, I need to retract my claim that there are only two episodes involving guns: I’d forgotten the one where Hector’s ex-lover, pregnant and driven mad by his rejection, is shot (accidentally) in the eye by Mann’s new fiancée. Like the plane crash, though, it occurs off-screen. Some of the stage-machinery might begin to poke through the curtain here, but despite the melodrama, the murder of the jilted lover seems plausible because (unlike in the Warhammer books) it actually has consequences for the narrative. They bury the body, and Mann leaves for a long wandering penance of silence and self-exile.
Okay, so the third scene of gun violence was where the realism of the narrative, for me, deflated. In an interview prior to his disappearance, Mann had fabricated a fictitious biography for himself, in which he had grown up in Sandusky, Ohio. He happens to see the name again in a bus depot, and decides to go there. He then happens to walk by a bank, and happens to decide to “convert a couple of his fifties into a stack of fives and tens and ones” (193). Inside, he happens to make eye contact with a beautiful young woman.
Reading this part in the book, I saw what was coming. “There is going to be a bank robbery,” I thought, and to my intense disappointment, there was. Predictably, the attractive woman is taken hostage (she happened to be the closest to the door), and Hector heroically takes a bullet to protect her and foil the theft. Predictably, they fall in love, and she happens to have a small private fortune which can be used to finance Hector’s return to producing masterful films. Still guilt-ridden, however, Hector only agrees to make the movies with an added condition: they will never be seen. For decades these cinematic masterpieces are acted, filmed, and kept completely secret at the ranch in New Mexico, until, just before his death, Hector reads the book by David Zimmerman on his earlier silent films, and his wife (the woman in the bank) sends Irma to bring him to New Mexico for a private screening, so the rest of the plot can unfold.
The bank-robbery scene bothered me, and I remembered a similar discontent with Moon Palace, surrounding a similar sudden acquisition of wealth. Auster’s plots evade what is becoming a fundamental facet of American culture: there can be no real art or scholarship by or for the poor. All the working class gets are Warhammer books, with no time to appreciate anything else. In order for the exploited immigrant Hector Mann to be able to make his secret movies (which are the focus for the book) he needs a miraculous, improbable source of funds. The deaths of David Zimmer’s wife and children at the beginning of the novel are themselves statistically unlikely, hinting at an authorial deus in the machina of the airplane’s engines. Without the resulting insurance money the impecunious professor would not have had the time or money to indulge his obsession with Hector Mann, traveling to see the films, staying in hotels, renting an apartment in New York to write the manuscript. Auster needs to paper over the austerity of his protagonists, stretching the limits of verisimilitude to set his novels in the United States. It is not surprising that, in this case, he draws the miraculous wealth from the two great wellsprings of unreality in the American imaginary: plane crashes and banks.
Let me register one last complaint about The Book of Illusions: whenever a book has within it some oh-so-admirable artist, who becomes the intense focus of appreciative study and contemplation, it strikes me as somewhat conceited, something of of a cheap trick. The implication is obvious: we are encouraged to identify, as readers, with David Zimmer, and are supposed to view The Book of Illusions in the same way Zimmer idolizes the seen and unseen work of Hector Mann. Paintings of painters, songs about musicians, poems about poetry. The work of art, according to this transparent device, contains a miniature modeling of how we ourselves should stand in relation to the work of art. It reminds me of those restaurants that put mirrors on opposite walls, so the interior appears infinitely larger than it actually is.
I’m probably just jealous. Auster tries to write about unseen works of art, films that are silent in more than one sense, and yet his books are published, and read by millions. What does he know about obscurity?
Bridges and their Shadows
“The largeness and the importance justified an almost indefinite delay in its completion. He had already been at work on it for more than seven years and as yet, he would say to anyone who asked him about the progress of the book (shaking his head as he spoke with the expression of a man who bears an almost intolerable burden), as yet he had not even finished collecting the materials” -Aldous Huxley (Point Counter Point, 299)
I sent out a story to the online magazine Strange Horizons, and it got rejected. A one-line email, no comment or critique. The story I submitted is about a bridge that goes on forever, high enough that the ground, imperceptible, is only speculation. A whole world, a society, that has never seen the Earth, and spends their lives traveling East or West. I’d put it online as a web-comic chapter, and someone commented that it was very familiar, hinting that I had stolen the idea from somewhere. Maybe I had. Maybe, like the bridge I wrote about, I’ve been walking on that narrative for so long I forgot what it was connected to. I read far more than I can remember.
In a bookstore, where I bought Our Friends from Frolix 8, I saw a novel called The Bridge by Ian Banks. I was suddenly scared, and almost angry. The bridge was mine. The Strange Horizons editors might have heard of Banks’ book, and think I was unoriginal. Looking it up on the internet later, I saw I needn’t have worried: the similarities don’t really go that deep.
Then, in the Kadiköy pasaj, there was an advance copy (where those Warhammer omnibuses should have been) of Shadowbridge, hiding under an indistinct, unillustrated cover. A society that lives entirely on bridges. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t affect me in the same way as the Banks novel. Maybe because by then my story had already been rejected. One of the characters from Our Friends on Frolix 8, maybe Thors Provoni, says that Carl Jung was the greatest psychologist that ever lived. My wife, who also read the novel, laughed at that part. Still, there might be something to the Universal Unconscious theory. I imagine it as an airy, archetypal space with long, thin bridges connecting us in sleep. The bridge idea is narrower than the multiverse, but I suppose there is symbolic room for everyone, since it does go on forever.
Shadowbridge is a wonderful text, much better than my own stupid little story. There is a shadow-puppeteer who collects stories and performs them, but unlike with the silent films in The Book of Illusions I wasn’t bothered by the potentially pretentious equivalence between the author of the book and the artist in the book. The difference, maybe, is that between storytelling and literature, one of which is shared and told, the other which is written and owned.
Frost, by the way, has an online story that you can read for free.
Like last time, I finished another book while writing up my thoughts on those above: an old, smelly hardcover of Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, which I’ve been using for section epigraphs. It deals directly with the perennial problems of economic and class positions that Auster tries to magic away with his plane crashes and bank robberies. Published in 1928, it reads as surprisingly contemporary (with ruminations on ecological collapse and two-party politics), although it is heavy with the polite stink of British over-cultured empire, with far too many illusions to Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Proust (I have a Proust novel for next time, by the way…).
In November, I’m going to attempt 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month, taking a break from writing my novel to write a novel. So there might not be a new post for a while. After that, I’m considering changing the format of these blogs. As a writer, I enjoy trying to prize out patterns from whatever random books I happen to have read, but I’m not certain that it is useful for you, as a reader. More thorough treatments of individual texts might be more appealing, since I feel like, for most people, the length of these pseudo-essays is becoming prohibitive. If you have read all the way through this (or even if you just skipped to the end), I’m genuinely curious about who you are, and what you think. Email me at psuedoghost at gmail-dot-com (note the misspelling), or my real address if you know who I am.
Dimensions drift, realities shear away and blur, so lets talk while there’s still this bridge between us.