The Blind Swordsman

Here is a story idea:

Master Ito Jituemon Muneyoshi is a newly appointed doshin, a samurai law enforcement officer, under the command of the playboyish yoriki, Master Kotani Genzaemon Yoshiaki in the city of Edo (soon to be Tokyo), investigating the murder of a blind debt collector. Blind men, believed by some to be harbingers of bad luck, were often employed to sit in front of stores of debtors, pretending not to hear the pleas to go away, in order to pressure them to pay their debts. As such, the murdered man was not a popular person. It seems at first like a simple murder by vengeance.
Master Ito was born to an impoverished samurai family and his only hope for advancement was to marry a daughter of a higher ranking samurai family who lacked a male heir, or win a job through sheer scholarship, the former being more advantageous. His childhood friend and rival of similar background, Kannoshin, a taller and more handsome man, was eventually chosen by such a noble family to become heir, but Kannoshin inexplicably abandons his family and official position and disappears.

In the opening scene, Master Ito, the green doshin investigating the murder, enters roughshod into the hall of House of Marumi, a merchant clan ostensibly three ranks lower than the samurai class in the social ladder but rich enough to have great political power. He is humiliated and driven away, but meets Kannoshin, now re-named Kanbei, dressed in commoner clothes and a leader of the fire brigade, an honorable position for a commoner. He also befriends a blind masseur named Nagi, who is secretly a master swordsman. The Kengyo, a politically powerful leader of the blind men’s guild, has ordered Nagi to investigate the murder outside the knowledge of the shogun’s police force. Master Ito, Kanbei, Nagi, and Master Ito’s ne’er do well deputy, form an uneasy alliance while they try to solve the mystery of the murder.

Meanwhile heavy construction is underway in the city of Edo. A foreign barbarian by the name of Commodore Perry had arrived the year before and he will be back in five years’ time. The shogun had ordered the construction of batteries along the coast to defend the city, soon to be called Odaiba. But rivalry among the various noble clans given the work is hindering the construction. Much money is being wasted and the construction is falling behind schedule. There are even rumors that Perry will return in two years instead of five.

Master Ito, being new to criminal investigation, is not taken seriously by his more experienced colleagues. But Master Sato Hanjiro is an exception. Sato Hanjiro is a man so ugly he can make people jump at the sight of him, and he can stop street fights with a glare. He is from the lower ranks of the samurai class and had he not inherited the position of doshin, he would not have a job at all. He cannot get any higher in the ranks, and he has only one ambition in life; to secure the honor of grand master swordsman. But the days when pure swordsmanship decided the honor of grand masters was long gone. It took political power, connections and a good name to get even a fair chance at a trial. One day, while he is practicing his swordsmanship in the dojo, he meets Sasaki Bunsho, a mysterious swordsman of great skill. They connect as only swordsmen can, though neither talks very much.

Two high class geishas appear in the story. One of them the mistress of playboyish yoriki Master Kotani Genzaemon Yoshiaki, known as Gen-san in the social circles of the night life. She has a “nephew” named Yuta who is in the care of an old samurai couple to whom she sends large amounts of money for his education. She never calls Yuta her son, or mentions his father, but is always working an angle to give Yuta a social advantage. As an owner of a large night time establishment, where lots of secrets are traded, she has a lot of chips to bargain with.

The other geisha is younger and much less powerful, but a popular entertainer and singer. She protects a witness of a murder. There was a second murder of a master of a sawmill who was killed on his way home from a bar at night. The geisha helps the witness, a prostitute, to escape to the women’s seminary, a Buddhist sanctuary beyond the reach of the law. The girl was a prostitute because her parents were in debt, and now that she had escaped the debt could not be collected. Helping her escape amounted to larceny.

Playboyish yoriki, Master Kotani Genzaemon Yoshiaki is summoned to the jonai, the shogun’s palace usually off limits to such a low level (but in reality quite powerful) bureaucrat like the yoriki. He is warned by his boss, the metsuke, not to meddle in the businesses beyond his jurisdiction. Crimes committed by high ranking lords were the province of the oh-metsuke, an enforcer of very high position. Master Kotani defiantly declares that he will arrest anyone who commits violent street crimes that are well within his jurisdiction, even though it was beyond his reach to arrest lords for graft or treason, both of which he suspected.

It is eventually found that Lord Ota, one of the high lords on the construction project, was skimming money off of the shogun’s treasury. Sasaki Bunsho was his hired assassin. An evil merchant was the middleman between Lord Ota and the skimming scheme. While blind Nagi, Master Ito, Kanbei and his firefighter commoners fight the band of rogues hired by the evil merchant, eventually arresting him, the ugly doshin Sato and the assassin Sasaki engage in a duel for keeps. When Sato cuts down Sasaki, Sasaki produces paper documents saying that he was grand master. Now that Sato has defeated a grand master in a duel, he could become grand master. He dies saying that he was happy to die in a fair fight with a friend.

The girl prostitute is captured while she is out of the sanctuary to visit her sick mother. The geisha who helped her organizes an illegal march of protest to win her freedom. She claims that she was not on an illegal march because she was singing, not shouting, her protest. She had the license to sing in the streets. The judge rules in her favor, but warns her never to do it again. He also frees the prostitute from both execution and further service as a prostitute but rules that she must work to pay off her debts. Everyone rejoices, but the few who saw the geisha’s action as a threat decides to make an example of her by slashing her face in the back alley. She loses her job because of the scar. Sato, the ugly samurai, still a low income doshin but honored a grand master of swordsmanship, asks the wounded woman, to whom he had always been in love with, to marry him. She accepts. She had always loved him too.

Lord Ota, the ringleader of the series of crimes, dies quietly in a hushed up ritual suicide. The official story is that he died of sudden illness. Since he had no heir who was not implicated in criminal activity, an official envoy is sent to fetch his illegitimate son, Yuta. His mother, the geisha, is happy to see her son in his rightful place, but she can never see him again. Her lover Gen-san had pulled considerable strings to reach this outcome. He asks if this was what she wanted. She nods and presents him with a stack of gold coins.

Perry returns just 18 months after his first visit. A state of emergency is declared. As soldiers rush from around the country to defend the city, the blind swordsman makes ominous predictions about what is about to come. The End.

I had the idea of writing this story in English about fifteen years ago. I never wrote beyond twenty thousand words into the first draft. The problem is, although the blind swordsman is a compelling character, he does not quite tie the story together. I can see now that I should delete him completely but at the time I found it difficult to kill my darlings. I lost the original manuscript and I made up the names of the samurai as I wrote the above. I think I had better names before. Kanbei, the samurai-turned-firefighter experiences a crises of sorts when he realizes that he was not really needed in his adopted family once his son was born. Then one day he sees a firefighter risking his life to save lives and realizes that is what being a samurai was supposed to be about, but he could not become a fire fighter as long as he was a samurai. So he abandons his family and disappears into the city. He finds new life among the commoners. When pressed by his old friend Master Ito about the choice he made, he takes off his clothes to reveal a large burn scar masked by a tattoo that incorporated the scar to turn it into a picture of a winding dragon. This was his life now.

The triple story lines of the political intrigue, the criminal investigation, and the rebellious geisha should give the story enough substance. I only need something to tie it all together. But the blind man is not it.

The lesson here is, sometimes you just have to kill your darlings, even if he was initially meant to be your main character.

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Lit Lite

Nitobe Inazo, born in 1862, was not only a notable agricultural scientist, botanist, economist, author, educator, diplomat, and politician. He was well versed in Confucian philosophy, Japanese and Chinese history, Latin literature and Christian Scriptures. He wrote highly literate books in English, German and Japanese. Here is a random paragraph sampled from his most famous book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan.

“Again, in Japan as in Europe, when feudalism was formally inaugurated, the professional class of warriors naturally came into prominence. These were known as samurai, meaning literally, like the old English cniht (knecht, knight), guards or attendants—resembling in character the soldurii whom Caesar mentioned as existing in Aquitania, or the comitati, who, according to Tacitus, followed Germanic chiefs in his time; or, to take a still later parallel, the milites medii that one reads about in the history of Mediaeval Europe. A Sinico-Japanese word Bu-ké or Bu-shi (Fighting Knights) was also adopted in common use. They were a privileged class, and must originally have been a rough breed who made fighting their vocation. This class was naturally recruited, in a long period of constant warfare, from the manliest and the most adventurous, and all the while the process of elimination went on, the timid and the feeble being sorted out, and only ‘a rude race, all masculine, with brutish strength,’ to borrow Emerson’s phrase, surviving to form families and the ranks of the samurai.”

This book was written in English by Nitobe in 1900. The extent of his multi-cultural learning more than a century ago is obvious. In a span of a few sentences, he makes references to old English, Roman history, Medieval history, Sino-Japanese etiology and Emerson. If you read on, you will find that his book is loaded with more amazing examples of learning. This was in an era in which Japanese scholars used, not the modern 2,500 ideograms in current usage, but the full breadth of the over 8000 ideograms and their combinations just to read and write their own native language. On top of that, they had intimate knowledge of, and as likely as not memorized, the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucian Canon, which was read in Japanese straight off of the original Chinese text. It was only after this education, which in Nitobe’s generation was completed by about the age of ten, that they were allowed to start learning the sciences and foreign languages such as English, German, French, Latin, and Russian, all of which Nitobe studied extensively. He eventually earned five doctorate degrees from universities of North America, Europe, and Japan. He was one of the early proponents of Esperanto, converted to become a Quaker, and even married a Caucasian woman named Mary P. Elkinton in 1891. He was the original multi-cultural scholar.

The volume of his learning stand in stark contrast to the so-called multi-culturalism of the 21st century, in which watching foreign movies with English subtitles passes for a multi-cultural experience. Most professors of our generation would have been rejected as students in Nitobe’s time.

Nitobe was not the only polyglot-polymath of his time. In fact, his level of learning was pretty much the standard. Mori Rintaro, who took on the nom de plume Mori Ogai later in life, rose to the position of the Surgeon General of the Japanese Army before he became immortal as a poet and novelist. He was one of the primary investigators into the cause of beri beri, which was later proven to be a vitamin deficiency. On top of the mandatory Asian Canon, he was versed in several European languages, most notably German. He studied microbiology, one of the cutting edge sciences of his time, on top of learning clinical medicine.

It should not come as a surprise that this level of learning was not limited to scholars of Japan. Academics from China, India, and the Ottoman Empire all studied their cultures extensively before they embarked on studying the arts of Western Europe. And once they started studying the foreign cultures, they did not stop with the humanities but went on to study the religions and sciences as well.

There has been a considerable amount of protestations about the lack of ethnic and cultural diversity in North American academia and publishing, but the entire concept is deplorably Anglo-centric. People are not so much upset that African, Asian, or otherwise Aboriginal perspectives are not being published, but rather that they are not being published in English. Multi-culturalism, as promoted in modern North America, does not involve Americans learning Swahili, but insists on Swahili texts presented to Americans  on a silver platter in English translations. Nobody ever complained about the lack of written texts in Bantu (although that is a significant problem). And nobody seems to see the irony in the fact that the frequently bemoaned lack of cultural diversity is not about too few English speakers writing their works in non-English languages, or about the dearth of North Americans who have studied the Confucian Canon or Buddhist Scriptures in their original languages. It is always about a Puerto-Rican writer, say, not having her perspectives published in English by a North American publisher.

Americans have this weird mind-set in which they think they are complimenting a foreigner when they say “You should immigrate to America”, but believe they are being insulted when they are told to immigrate in the reverse direction. It also, more or less, extend to their ideas about culture. Frankly, this is getting old. True multi-culturalism is not about watching foreign movies with English subtitles. It is not about reading tragic African narratives in the English language. It is not about sitting in the comfortable cocoons of America-centric hypocrisy bemoaning Eurocentric culture while you wait for foreign perspectives to be delivered to you in your native language.

Nitobe Inazo studied his own culture extensively. Then he studied foreign languages and foreign cultures. Then he expressed his ideas in his own language and his adopted languages. That is what a true multi-cultural scholar does. Anything less is multi-culture Lite. Or perhaps even “Literacy Lite”. So snap out of it, step up to the plate, and swing for the benches. Be this guy. Be Nitobe Inazo.

A Solution for Female Writers

Female novelists seem to be having a rough time of it in the English speaking world. Not only are books written by women writers under represented in the publishing world, but according to organizations like VIDA, they are also under-reviewed, under-promoted, under-appreciated, and under-taught.

Now, to be fair, if you take a sampling of books written in, say, the past one hundred years, of course you will find the landscape thoroughly male dominated because, let’s face it, feminism in the U.S. did not really kick in until at least the 1970’s. Even women’s magazines ran articles like The Good Wife’s Guide and actively participated in the indoctrination of women to become docile house servants to their husbands. (The Good Wife’s Guide is said to be a fabrication, but it is only a hybrid and condensation of numerous similar articles that actually were published around the 1950’s.) So it should come as no surprise that novels written in the 20th century can only be construed as sexist when seen through the sensibilities of the 21st. So, pardon me if I take the liberty of limiting the discussion to the world of 2010 and later.

There is considerably less excuse, in the post 2010 world, that the literary scene should be dominated by men, both actual and fictional. And yet female protagonists are still outnumbered by male protagonists, and when you find one, the chances are the protagonist is much more likely to be looking for romance than trying to take down an evil empire. And when you do find female protagonists who are looking for bigger goals than hitching up with an ideal man, the book is much less likely to receive literary acclaim. And a writer is more likely to be represented if the manuscript had a masculine name attached to it. The last would have been funny if it had not been so tragic. A female writer named Catherine Nichols actually sent out queries of a manuscript to agents in a social experiment. Although the queries were mostly unanswered or rejected when the author was “Catherine”, they were accepted with great enthusiasm when the author was “George”. You could not make this stuff up.

Some of the remedies suggested by women to reverse this trend may sound somewhat extreme. Enraged that silly pirate books by men were getting more attention and better reviews than serious literary works by women, a writer named Eva Jurczyk declared that she would not review any more books written by men. A writer named Rebecca Solnit, enraged by a male dominated reading list on the Esquire magazine, declared them (humorously she says) to be 80 books no woman should read.

The frustration is understandable, but the way it is sold does not inspire compassion. It is not that books written by men are all bad, or that books written by women are all good. It is simply that good books written by women are not getting the attention, and sales figures, they deserve. This is a very tricky thing to remedy because good books written by anybody do not receive the attention they deserve. The trend is only more pronounced when the books are written by women or are about women. Women ranting at the men in this small, withering industry, where everybody is struggling, is like the few remaining human survivors killing each other in a zombie apocalypse. It does not spell well for the future.

The only good way to correct the literary imbalance is to write, publish, and promote more books by women and about women. Kicking down books by men about men is not only misdirected, it is counterproductive to the promotion of literature in general. Any kind of book banning, is still book banning. Nobody will ever succeed in suppressing male-orientated literature. They will only succeed in suppressing literature.

There is, however, a solution for female writers that can be utilized before the male/female imbalance of the English literary scene is corrected. It is not a solution I expect anybody to like, or is likely for many people to adopt, but it is a solution I can honestly get behind. Women should write their works in Japanese. Japan has a long tradition with female writers. Kinotsurayuki, a male writer, wrote under the guise of a woman as early as 935AD (No, not 1935. A thousand years before that). Male writers took over the field from the late 19th century onward with the Westernization of Japan, but women are still prominent in the business. Of the 10 best selling books in the Japanese language in 2015, 5 were by women. 44% of all professional writers in Japan are women. That is not bad at all in a male dominated country like Japan. Of the past 20 winners of the Akutagawa Award, the most prestigious literary award in Japan, 11 were women. Contrast that to the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in which only 7 out of 19 finalists between 2010 and 2015, and only two out of five winners, were women. Being female is not a disadvantage for a writer in Japan. At least not as much as it evidently is for women writing in English.

I am a native of Japan writing in English. There is no reason at all that a native speaker of English cannot write in Japanese. People of every vocation change locations, adopt nationalities and learn languages in search of opportunities, why not writers? In fact, there is a long tradition of that. Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, switched to writing in French. Joseph Conrad, a Pole, Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian, and George Mikes, a Hungarian, all switched to writing in English. Quite tellingly, foreign authors who have published books in Japanese include, Jinny FujiFrancoise Mor´echandEdith Hansen, and Yang Yi, all of whom are women.

Japanese is a language with a rich literary tradition, including the world’s oldest known novel (again, written by a woman). It is a language of a wide range of nuances and great flexibility. It is a language that has adopted vocabulary from both Asian and Western origins. Although only Japanese people read it, Japanese publishing is a ten billion dollar industry. There is plenty of money to be made and recognition to be had. Books originally written in Japanese have become Hollywood movies and Japanese writers have won Nobel Prizes. If the situation for female writers in America is so dire, why not come across the pond? We could use some fresh talent on the scene.

After all the talk about bigotry and misogyny and prejudice and racism, what is it really that makes writing in Japanese so unthinkable?

 

 

Building a Complex Villain

Here is a story idea:

A man in his late fifties, dressed conservatively in a tweed suit, is found travelling with a twelve-year-old girl. They have just flown in from the Middle East and have landed in New York. The passport identifies them as Mr and Mrs El-Amin. An officer at customs security, FBI Senior Special Agent Irene Javert, is aroused from her drowsy perch when she suspects foul play and stops the couple. The man claims that they are a happily married couple and that they are on a honeymoon. Agent Javert is not convinced and proceeds to question them separately, but the little girl collaborates the older man’s story. They both produce papers proving that they are legally married. Airport commissioner Benny Myriel tells Javert that there is nothing she can do about the couple but to let them through, but their nervous behavior betray that they are hiding something. She buys time to consult a child rights lawyer, who says that she can advise the couple that they cannot have sex, consensual or otherwise, on US soil legally, but there is no grounds to hold them if they have all the legal documents. Javert, taking on a deliberately rude attitude, warns the couple that they cannot have sex on American soil, hoping to provoke a violent response in order to find a reason to hold them longer, but they both agree without resistance. Javert, a passionate feminist, cannot shake the hunch that there is foul play involved. Against Myriel’s orders, she latches on to a technicality and arrests El-Amin for child trafficking. A Muslim child services organization is called. When Javert informs the little girl (Mrs. El-Amin) that she will soon be able to go home, she refuses strenuously against what Javert thought would be good news. She believes that the girl is afraid of El-Amin and assures her that the man will be in jail for a very long time, against which the child begins to curse at her. When it seems inevitable that she will be sent back home, the girl seeks political asylum in the US on the grounds that she would be jailed if she returned without her husband on what would amount to an unauthorized divorce. Javert is still fixated on her theory of child abuse and again consults the lawyer. The lawyer answers that although he cannot vouch for her safety in her home country, as long as she is still married to her husband on paper, she could theoretically defend herself against prosecution for illegal divorce. Once again, Javert tries to send the girl back on the next plane, but the assistant DA informs her that there is no case against El-Amin on the charges of child trafficking. Javert goes to the man and tells him that she is going to send the girl back to her country in the few days it takes for the case to be dismissed. El-Amin says that he will plead guilty for child trafficking if Javert will let the girl stay in America. Javert demands a written confession, which El-Amin proceeds to write. Javert once again talks to the girl, delivering what she believes to be good news. El-Amin has written a confession and will spend the rest of his life in jail, and that she can stay in the US. The little girl flies into a rage and attacks Javert. Javert leaves the room flustered, but is still convinced that she is doing the right thing and that the little girl will eventually thank her. The man from the Muslim child services arrives and informs El-Amin and Javert that the girl will be taken into custody. When the man asks a puzzled Javert whether the girl had been “purified”, El-Amin tears up his confession, says that it was written under duress and cannot be used. Javert has El-Amin tased and suppressed. Myriel gets wind of what is going on and demands an explanation. El-Amin claims that he had been forced to write a confession, but then says he will confess again if the girl will be handed over to a secular organization. An assistant arrives with the news that the little girl has confessed to being a terrorist. When Javert questions the girl, she explains that El-Amin is innocent and that he was her cover for entering the country. Javert asks if the girl would rather spend the rest of her life in prison as a terrorist than go home to her country. The girl answers yes. Javert again tries to explain away the girls actions according to her feminist beliefs. A Homeland Security agent confirms that El-Amin is not listed as a terrorist threat, but also expresses doubts about the girl’s story. Javert is still convinced that the girl is a victim and El-Amin is a perpetrator up to dirty tricks. Myriel suggests that they drop the case and let the couple pass. Desperate for a lead, Javert goes to El-Amin and falsely tells him that the girl had been loaded on a plane for home. The man breaks down and weeps. He curses Javert. Javert demands to know the truth but he steals Javert’s gun and shoots himself. Not understanding what is happening, Javert tells the girl what has happened. She does not believe her. Javert takes the girl to the dead man’s body, where she cries over him in genuine sorrow. She tells Javert that El-Amin was a trafficker who shipped out little girls trying to escape khifad, female genital mutilation. The girl, due to special circumstances, could not escape the country without marrying El-Amin. She truly loved him. After the confession, she swallows poison believing that her deportation was imminent. Javert had forgotten to tell her that it was a ruse. In a daze, Javert rummages through the evidence bag for her gun, points it at her temple and pulls the trigger, but the gun is empty. THE END.

I must be growing old. Ideas like this used to come to me twice a day. Now, I can only come up with an outline like this every few months.
I decided to share this one because I thought it illustrated my idea of a complex villain.
The villain, in this case, is Javert. She believes that she is on the good side, just like her namesake Inspector Javert from Les Miserables. I made her a feminist because feminism is based on good intentions. It is a belief system that is not meant to harm anyone. And of course she believes she is doing good. By all appearances El-Amin is either a pedophile or a child trafficker. She is blinded only because she cannot drop the “male-bad, female-good” paradigm. She is fixated on being good, which, in this circumstance, makes her bad.
Christopher Nolan wrote the line “You either die a hero, or live to see yourself become villain.”
You can have a Darth Vader type villain, an archetypal baddie from start to finish, and it would serve most purposes quite well. But a complex villain must turn bad without being conscious of it.
Javert in the above example starts out as a pencil-pushing bureaucrat, peaks into a cop with a hunch, then an increasingly fixated ideologue, and ultimately comes to a devastating realization and a finished career. She does not start out as Darth Vader. She eases into the role of the destroyer. If executed properly, the reader should root for her in the beginning of the story and scream for her to stop what she is doing as the story progresses. If it is executed very well, the reader should feel schizophrenic through a large portion of the story, not knowing who to root for.
A good complex villain is an embodiment of good intentions falling down a spiral staircase. And they must believe in their own righteousness until the very end.

 

The Seventh Seal

By today’s standards, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal must be the most boring kind of movie. It moves slowly, it meanders, it falters, it has lots of monologues, it has no action to speak of, and it is in Swedish.
But if Christian conservatives can sit through 3 hours and 40 minutes of The Ten Commandments, they should certainly be able to tolerate the 96 minutes of The Seventh Seal. The movie is relevant today because so many people seem to believe that Christianity is under attack and faith in the general public is eroding. It may be useful to take a step back and get a little perspective by looking through the lens of an era when belief in God was really in genuine jeopardy.

The Seventh Seal takes place in the era of the Black Death. A knight and his squire had just returned from the horrors of the Crusades only to find their homeland population decimated by the Plague. The knight engages the Grim Reaper in a game of chess and earns a few days of reprieve to find the meaning of life. Then he proceeds to wrestle with the question, “Where is God when all the world is praying for help?”

It must have been terribly difficult to believe in God in the era of the Plague. When all the unanswered prayers of the world lie as corpses all around you, how can you believe in the existence of an almighty savior? There is, of course, no happy ending for a movie like The Seventh Seal, but there is an element of hope. Faith survived.

Over the dead bodies of 200 million unanswered prayers, Faith still survived. People continued to pray. Churches kept operating.

You do not have to be particularly religious to grasp the gravity of this historic fact. Now contrast this to the screechy, hysterical, over-blown alarmism of  modern Christian conservatives preaching about the attack on their faith. Could these drama queens in robes possibly have the resilience to take on a real theological crises like the Plague? One must realize that the constant screeching of the religious victimhood pushers is only weakening the backbone of Faith.

Christianity has never been safer in the history of humanity. There are more Christians today than ever before. There are fewer challenges to Christianity than ever before.There is no need for alarmism when the biggest challenges are coming from people who wish you “Happy Holidays” on Comedy Central and HBO.

Which brings me to the flip side of the political spectrum; the sort of people who hysterically protest against Halloween costumes or dive into tantrums when women are complimented on their looks. If you are protesting that white girls are dressing up in Indian costumes on Halloween, it leads me to think that you are not really in touch with the real problems facing modern Native Americans. (Hint: They have more pressing issues than Halloween costumes.) And women who believe that it is a major affront to their dignity to be told that they look “attractive” should chill and realize that women in first world countries are safer today than in any other time in the history of humanity. There are bigger problems facing women in other parts of the world than being complimented on their looks.

Some have said that people today are being too sensitive. I do not believe they are. They are being self-important. On December 5, 2014, a Korean Air passenger liner was forced to abort a take-off from a JFK runway when the airline vice president Heather Cho, who happened to be seated in the business class section of the plane, flew into a rage because macadamia nuts were served to her in a bag instead of in a bowl. After a heated confrontation with the flight attendant, during which she assaulted him, she ordered him off the plane, requiring a return to the gate and delaying the flight, which incidentally happened to be against international aviation law. Although Korean Air eventually issued and apology, the company initially tried to cover up the incident in order to shield the vice president who was also the daughter of the CEO. Heather Cho herself eventually expressed remorse, but she was initially adamant that her reaction was appropriate to the level of humiliation she experienced. As reward for her grudging repentance, she was given a suspended sentence on her obstruction of aviation safety.

The Korean Air incident, otherwise known as the “nut rage incident“, has been attributed to social class problems specific to Korea, but entitlement and privilege knows no borders, as evidenced by the behavior of American privileged youth on airliners.

Privilege makes you see transgressions where they do not exist. The richest people are enraged at the smallest slights. The Christians of predominantly Christian countries  complain the most about the erosion of their faith.  I do not know which is more tragic, the pampered women who complain about sexism so often or the abused women who so seldom complain of the same. Not everyone in the world is rich or privileged, but it seems that more and more people are adopting the entitled attitudes of kings. They are not being sensitive so much as believing their problems to be more important than those of lesser people.

These are the people who need most to go back to The Seventh Seal. They need to see this depiction of a world where the strongest belief was called into question and humanity itself hung in the balance. A world where people had real problems.

Movies like The Seventh Seal will probably never be made again. And in spite of an ever growing library of “hyphen-awareness” books, truly introspective fiction is long dead. When real crises of faith has been replaced with outrage over “Happy Holidays”, social courage is exemplified by Caitlyn Jenner, and the biggest media concern is Kanye West and the Kardashians, what place is there for a story about the human soul crushed to the absolute breaking point?

I wish I could tell the whole lot of them to sit down, shut up, and just watch the movie. Forget about your own petty problems and just take in the spare, spooky story of a world falling off a cliff.

 

Writing Exercise (3) “The Ghost”

(This is a second draft of the story that was posted on Writing Exercise 2. The opening lines have been streamlined.)

My lunch of grazed foie gras and salted octopi was rudely interrupted by a rugged looking man in faded blue jeans and a worn leather jacket that seemed to have ducked through a hundred gun fights. His moustache was cut apart by scars that made it look like a Hitler moustache with broken wings coming in for an emergency landing.

“Daniel Fairbanks?”

“Yes,” I said.

He flashed his badge. NYPD.

“We need to talk.”

“I’ll see you in my office in thirty minutes,” I said with my usual smile.

I was having lunch with a Republican senator at a restaurant that had recently won the James Beard Award entertaining him with my vast knowledge of movies and television programs relating to police work. I was not about to drop my pretense at being a competent liaison officer.

The detective grabbed me by the arm and lifted me off my chair.

“Right now.”

“Excuse us senator,” I said. I barely had time to tell the waiter to send the tab to my office before I was walked out of the restaurant.

He kept his hand firmly on my arm, his fingers biting into flesh through my tailored business suit, until we rounded two corners and reached a non-descript diner. We sat down and he ordered two cups of twenty-five-cent coffee.

“I am lieutenant Jack Piraino,” he said.

My first reaction was that I wanted to ask for his autograph. This man was the embodiment of my dreams. He started his career in narcotics where he accumulated a substantial number of successful drug busts until a turf war with the DEA put a stop to his winning streak. He then took the rap for a run-in with a rogue DEA agent and was briefly demoted to traffic duty but soon re-emerged as a homicide detective. After an impressive forty three arrests with twenty six convictions and twelve plea bargains, he disappeared off the map. He was rumored to have gone undercover. Every now and then, there was an arrest that was quietly whispered to have been a “Piraino case” but nobody knew for sure. According to his records, he should have been in his mid-thirties but it was hard to place his age from his looks. His pock marked cheeks, his brittle moustache, his scarred knuckles and his hardened demeanor screamed “Tough Guy” like nobody I had ever seen. I was immediately in awe. This was the cop I wanted to be. It was almost like falling in love.

“What can I do for you lieutenant?” I said.

“I need you to help me find a man,” he said.

“Sure thing.”

“He’s a difficult man to find.”

“Right down my alley.”

“I’ve been through every police record, every file. Birth records, death certificates, driver’s licenses, social security, school records, everything. No luck. But then I heard about this guy at the liaison office who could complete any report, find any data…”

That would be me. I made my reputation as a data miner.

“Who are you looking for?”

A fat waitress in a pink uniform and white apron came and dropped off the two cups of coffee.

Lieutenant Piraino paused until the waitress was gone. And then he spoke in a hushed voice.

“Danny Abatangelo.”

I nearly choked on my coffee.

“He is also known as Danny the Ghost. He’s a mechanic. He specializes in tampering with cars. He also uses some kind of toxin to illicit an ischemic attack to provoke car accidents. He has been linked to at least seven homicides.”

“Seven.” I was shocked.

“That’s assuming he has no other MO. He might have killed more people with other methods, but his signature method with a car has killed seven people. He is a legend primarily among the Italian mob but these days you hear his name from other people too.”

“What other people?” I asked in a hoarse whisper.

“Most recently a New York leader of the yakuza clan Marubatsu Gumi choked to death on a spider roll and there were some whispers that it was the work of Danny the Ghost.”

“That… could have been an accident,” I said defensively.

“All the deaths attributed to Danny Abatangelo could have been accidents. That’s the point. He never leaves a trace.”

“He could be an urban legend. Maybe he doesn’t exist.”

“A lot of people seem to think so. But he does.”

Lieutenant Piraino produced a crumpled piece of paper with a sketch of a man’s face drawn with a ballpoint pen. I could make out that it was supposed to be a Caucasian male with short hair, clean shaven face and a square jaw but that was about it. The artist was not very good. You could not tell who the picture was unless you already knew who you were looking at, but for me it was unnervingly accurate. It was a portrait of me.

 

How Deeply Do Readers Read?

“One hundred cord breaks and understanding shall arrive on its own.”

This is a Chinese proverb that dates from the era when books were written on sticks of split bamboo tied together side by side with cords to form a scroll. One stick carried one line of writing which you read top to bottom. If you read the scroll many times, the cord tying the sticks together will wear and eventually break, requiring a repair. If you had read the scroll so many times that the cord has broken one hundred times, understanding of its contents should come to you naturally. When my father first told me this proverb, he updated it and said it meant one hundred “spine breaks”, and that I should read a book so many times that the spine would break in half and needed repair one hundred times over. My first English dictionary and my first Japanese dictionary both went through a somewhat gentle version of this ordeal. They were held together with duct tape.

I grew up believing that this was the way books are supposed to be read. I cannot even begin to tell you how damaging this was to my reading habits and writing career. If you cannot understand the text after looking up the words in the dictionary, you are either reading something you are not ready to read, or a piece of nonsense. If you do not understand the historic background of a novel or do not know the cultural references in a story, you should put the book down and read something else. If it is not your lack of knowledge and you still cannot understand, then the book is crap.

Micro-reading of books never did humanity any good. It has caused numerous political conflicts and religious chaos. Almost all conspiracy theories are derived from over dissection of observable facts. Some unexplained lights seen in the sky is interpreted as space creatures on flying saucers, which is further associated with a secret conspiracy by shady government organizations. Words in a book can turn into those lights in the sky if you stare at them too hard.

Finally it has done disservice to the books themselves. Readers should stop “discovering” hidden messages in the Harry Potter books and J. K. Rowling should stop encouraging them. It has come to the point where it is subtracting from the mystique of the stories. Lewis Carroll’s books have been so thoroughly combed through, you cannot talk about them without risking an encounter with someone wanting to lecture you on some arcane psychobabble.

So now that I am telling myself to stop reading meanings into the books I am reading, a question has come up: How deeply should you expect your readers to read the books you write?

It is an article of faith among writers that you must respect your readers. Any cynicism on the part of the writer will be sensed by the reader. If you cut corners, your readers will know. If you are making your story more erotic than it needs to be under the assumption that it will make the book sell better, readers will likely catch on to the trickery. And if you insert Easter eggs of, say, references to Prez Prado’s Mambo No. 5 in your story, somebody will definitely pick up on it.

But at the same time, the majority of your readers will just skim over the boring parts. That is all parts that have nothing to do with sex, violence, romance, or offensive material. On average, only about a third to a half of the readers of any given book read all the way to the end. Only about a quarter of the readers finished Fifty Shades of Grey. Most readers do not read deeply. Most of them barely read at all.

Then there is the famous story of how everybody (including his biographer) misinterpreted Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It had become a matter of common knowledge that Fahrenheit 451 was a book about government censorship, and particularly about the political tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. So much so that when Bradbury finally announced in public that his book was about how television destroys interest in literature, people argued to his face that he was wrong. These readers, to their credit, read Bradbury’s book very deeply. Perhaps too deeply.

Our minds have a function called “agency detection”. It is that part of the imagination that gives meanings to things our senses do not completely capture. Maybe that creaking sound is just the old lumber of the house shrinking in the dry weather, or maybe it is a serial killer lurking in the basement. Maybe the rustling of the tall grass is just the wind, or a hungry wolf. We assign meanings to things we do not fully see or understand. That is the origin of superstition, some aspects of religion and/or paranoia.

The same agency detection also works with words. A computer programmer named Seb Pearce developed an instrument called the New Age Bullshit Generator which is a computer program that will produce a series of profound sounding messages which are actually meaningless. It’s great fun playing with it, but a serious student of cognitive psychology called Gordon Pennycock used this device to study the reactions of people to superficially profound-sounding series of words. Pennycock explains that the same agency detection that alerts us to wolves we cannot see in the rustling grass makes us believe that computer-generated nonsense is profound philosophy.

Long ago, another psychologist edited shots of an actor into the scenes of different movies. If the scene was sad, the viewers said the actor looked sad. If the scene was happy the viewers said he looked happy. In reality, the actor did not belong in the scene at all. He was taken from a footage in another movie. This demonstrated that we attribute meanings to things that we see. So how much of the brilliance we see in the actor’s craft is the work of the actor himself and how much of the credit should go to the film editor? And how much of it is due to our own minds?

The same question can be asked of books. Is the author really such a profound writer? Is the story really that good? Given that we read meanings into gobbledygook produced by a computer, the logical conclusion seems obvious. The author does not write meanings into the book. It is the reader who projects meanings into it. This is the reason it is never wise to make the underlying message or theme of your story too obvious. You must leave some room for the reader’s imagination, but not because the readers are smart enough to figure it out for themselves, it is to let them lend you the power of their agency detection.

It is human nature to feel insulted when our agency detection is exposed as being faulty. When that rustling actually wasn’t a wolf and that creaking wasn’t a serial killer, it makes us feel embarrassed, even humiliated. This is a necessary evolutionary product because next time it might be a wolf, and that bit of overactive imagination might save our lives. So we have a tendency to cling to our faulty beliefs, however irrational they may be. If we believe a book means something, we defend our beliefs, even to the extent of telling the author that his own interpretation is wrong.

And that is the precarious nature of literature. The reader, even when skimming through a book just gliding past the words, project meanings into the story that never appeared in print. The writer intentionally leaves gaps in the explanations to facilitate such participation. And this is not always a case of the reader figuring out the story for themselves, but often times stumbling over monsters in the woodwork that do not exist, or were never meant to.

I have come to accept that it is evidence of quality in a book if numerous crazy theories surround its interpretation. Ray Bradbury may have been frustrated when readers told him that he had the wrong interpretation of his own book, but that is what happens when you walk the tightrope of writer-reader collaboration competently. It is the inevitable result of stirring the reader’s mind. As writers, we have to live with that.

If you start micro reading, the author is no longer there to help you. You may be reading meanings into the text that does not exist. And that is why micro-reading can be dangerous.

In the Interrogation Room

Cop: Let’s make one thing clear. We’re pros. If you lie to us, we’ll know. If you tell us the truth, we’ll know. It’s that simple.
Suspect: Okay, let me make one thing clear. This is a lopsided conversation. Because I know one thing for sure that you can never know for sure.
Cop: What’s that?
Suspect: I didn’t do it.
Cop: We’ll see about that.
Suspect: No you won’t. You literally will never know for sure because it is your job to suspect. You are not here to protect my rights. You are not even here to find the real killer. You are here to get rid of a problem. A problem that very well may have flown the coop by now. But you have to catch someone, so you caught me. And only I know for sure that you are barking up the wrong tree.
Cop: Where were you at the night of the murder?
Suspect: Like I said. At home, alone, reading a book.
Cop: So you have no alibi.
Suspect: No.
Cop: You have a motive.
Suspect: I don’t think so.
Cop: He was sleeping with your wife.
Suspect: Ex-wife. She was sleeping with a lot of people. Only one of them ended up dead.
Cop: Maybe you were out to kill your ex and missed. Shot him instead.
Suspect: So she was with him at the time?
Cop: That’s not for you to know.
Suspect: Well, you don’t believe I went to kill my ex.
Cop: Why not?
Suspect: I just won the divorce case. I proved she was sleeping around. She gets nothing.
Cop: Nothing?
Suspect: She keeps her handbags.
Cop: You got a better deal than most.
Suspect: No reason to shoot her now.
Cop: If not her, you still had a motive to shoot her lover.
Suspect: I barely knew the guy. He was just one of many people screwing my ex.
Cop: Nobody else has a motive.
Suspect: It could have been a random burglary gone wrong.
Cop: It was a safe neighborhood, with no recent burglaries.
Suspect: Not any more.
 Cop: I can get more aggressive with you. You know that.
Suspect: I can lawyer up and stop talking.
Cop: Tell us what you really know.
Suspect: All I know is that some rich guy that I barely ever met died in his home in Orange County and, from what you say, it sounds like my ex was there with him when it happened.
Cop: Is that how it sounds?
Suspect: It sounds like that to me.
Cop: Then how come you haven’t asked whether she was alright?
Suspect: What?

Cop: I never told you the specifics of the murder scene. How do you know no one else was shot?
Suspect: I didn’t know…
Cop: She was your wife.
Suspect: Yes, but…
Cop: You believed she was at the scene of a murder and you didn’t ask if she was hurt.
Suspect: Oh… I see. She wasn’t there, was she?
Cop: That’s not the point.
Suspect: You planted that idea in my head to see how I would respond. To see if I worried about my wife.
Cop: Oh, now it’s your wife, is it? I thought she was your ex.
Suspect: I think I’ll call my lawyer now.
Cop: You’ve already told us enough.
Suspect: You had your mind made up from the beginning. You weren’t investigating. You were just accusing.
Cop: We’ll see about that.
Suspect: There’s nothing to see.