The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

No one suspected that the shark had put himself in the box. Not only chosen the box, not only swum into it in careful, back-and-forth motions like a car squeezing into a too-tight parking space, but constructed the box itself, designing the enclosure with its supposedly primitive mind meant only to think about the sweetness of thrashing fish meat; somehow–with gesticulation of fin and careful clenching of jaw muscles, it riveted the iron beams holding the plexiglass.

And now, it holds still not through the effects of any formaldehyde emulsion, but through its own discipline, through commitment to its art.

On Creating People…

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I’m going along, revising my book, my latest little book, by changing all the “stopped” and “plodded” to “stops”and “plods” and I hear these words, all these things my characters are saying to each other, the words that fly between them that I think I really only have some marginal responsibility for and mostly just kind of exist on their own, and I think:

Yes, I am glad you two exist.

(And I am glad I will spend years with you, writing the rest of your story.)

And I don’t really feel they are my creations anymore at all. They simply are. And now I will follow them, write down what they do.

It’s a bit like those other people, the ones who live in my house and kind of look like me.

It’s strange to look at them and just marvel:

You are people, all in your own right and such.

Yes, I just marvel at it all.

On Reading All the Light We Cannot See


You start toward the end–you think it’s the end anyway. Two kids: a German radio technician and a blind French girl.

They’re trapped in different basements in the same coastal French city during the same Allied bombing just after Normandy. You know they’re going to come together. Know that that’s what’s happening as you’re thrown back several years to their separate childhoods in wave after wave of regressive chapters.

They have no idea, but you do. You know that the rare diamond the blind girl’s father helps smuggle away from the Nazis and the boy’s tutoring in radio triangulation are leading them to those basements in 1944 and that somehow they will emerge from those basements and find each other.

And the prose is beautiful. Really, really beautiful.

But it feels remote, distant. As distant somehow as a French girl reading her brail copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea into a scratchy microphone. A small voice floating through the air from her uncle’s radio transmitter. An iron submarine, alone beneath the sea.

It feels like that, this book.

And when the end comes, it’s not the end. The part you knew would happen happens. It comes and goes. And there’s more. Still beautifully written. Perhaps inevitable. Perhaps necessary. Perhaps.

But maybe you wish it would’ve been like the end of 20,000 Leagues: uncertain. Nothing but a vortex and a question.

Because you know they’ll meet and maybe that’s good enough.



I haven’t watched the video. Yet I’m haunted by it.

I know that there is nothing especially novel about the savagery inflicted upon James Foley by some hooded spokesman for ISIS. I remember Daniel Pearl, of course. And I know there were others in Iraq and other fronts on the “War on Terror” who were dealt similarly inhumane fates.

I have opposed that “war” (against an emotion) with every breath, but still when I look at the stills, knowing what follows these freeze frames, I think of that man behind James Foley.

I think about that man in black and I become angry.

Seeing him there, knowing what he is about to do to a fellow human being…

It makes me want to see the whole of the United States’ very bloated, but very powerful military machine come down upon that desolate land of Iraq again. It makes me want to see smart bombs and Abrams tanks and Hellfire missiles and shock and awe and depleted uranium–and whatever else we have to show for trillions upon trillions of dollars in “defense” spending–wash over that failed state and this new, barbaric caliphate like a Biblical plague.

Over this coward in black.

He’s hiding behind that mask because he knows if he shows his face someone on an aircraft carrier will paint his name on a cruise missile this very night. Then one more explosion and he’ll be gone. How does that compare? The precision deployment of advanced munitions vs. sliding a blade into another human being’s neck, another human being right before your eyes. Criticize the inhumanity of dropping bombs from drones and scoring surgically precise kills via computer screens half a world away–and I have, I have criticized exactly that a thousand times–but it is still nothing compared to the brutality of feeling another human in the world directly before you–feeling the presence of that life through the warmth of the air, the smell of his terror, the movement of his breath–and snuffing that life out with your own hands.

It cannot be. I would rather be the cold, imperial America, playing puppet master and blasting columns of enemies from afar. Give me that any day over something so perverse as the world this man in black thinks he is bringing forth.

Let’s show this man what America’s military can really do. Let’s let loose the full fury, the things we had on the drawing boards to stop Russian tank columns in Europe, the dark and sinister weapons we’ve kept chained in lightless vaults until the day we really, really needed them. Let’s forget all the hearts-and-minds restraint, with smart missiles and official apologies. Just hit that patch of nothing on the map with enough incendiary rounds to turn the sand to glass.

Let it glisten through the ages like a gem made of wrath…

No, I don’t really want these things, but it’s tempting, isn’t it?

No, I don’t want to see this man’s blood. I don’t want to kill him, or his. I just want them to stop. I want them to let all those innocent civilians they’ve chased off for having the temerity to believe in a different invisible deity just live their lives. I want them to put down their guns and let better souls rebuild that country. I want them to go kick at the dust with their sandals, grow wise with age, and then regret.

I want evil to die out from the world, is what I’m saying.

A childish wish. A simplistic wish.


On Reading Taipei

Tom sets the book down, though it is really a phone and not a book at all, because that’s how one maintains a twenty-first century reading habit with limited bookshelf space, and feels, he imagines, pretty much how the characters, with their over-taxed livers and gopped-up serotonin receptors must feel.

And he wonders for a moment how anyone could ever create anything in that state, how “kind of depressed” on this scale would have to just absorb anything resembling productive mental energy, like a super-massive black hole that can trap all the light even as the galactic mass of an unlived life continues to swirl around it, contributing to oblivion one day at a time, instead of plunging headlong into nothingness.

This is what Huxley’s Brave New World would really be like. Not blissful robots. Emotionally stunted infantiles walking through doped-up hazes, unable to form anything of substance between one another, and knowing it in every empty second.

He thinks that, ultimately, he is just a bag of chemicals designed, poorly and slipshod, to interact with the world, to match up the jagged edges of proteins to experiences with other types of matter and react. That’s what we are, ultimately, so yes, it was possible to fiddle with the mix, to change the formula, to pour new compounds into the bag and shake it up like a kid with a firefly jar, but in the end, it won’t change anything but you, not the world, not the waiting world with its sharp edges, so you won’t react any better to it, won’t know that great big it any better, won’t be better yourself in any way, including the experience of being in the bag, being the bag. And then, in that state, still confused, still in pain, still desperate for somethingness, you’ll have to know somewhere in the haze of MDMA and fungal psychoactives that what is confused and pained and desperate is no longer even you.

On coincidentally completing both Snow Crash and Lexicon on successive days…

This happened by accident.

I finished Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash yesterday. Then today, I first tried out a preview for a book called Codex, but it didn’t catch my interest. So I loaded a sneak peek of the next book down on my Amazon wish list (which is really, really long by the way) and it happened to be this book Lexicon by Max Barry. (Also coincidentally, both of these books found their way onto my wish list via recommendations/interactions from different and unrelated Facebook friends.)  It was interesting, so I bought the whole book. Then I just kept reading.

It turns out that central to both books is the idea that there is a root language that is so primal, so essential that it can directly “hack” the human brain. There’s a language beneath all language and if you knew these words then you could literally rewire or control human beings.

So Babel was real. It was something that happened.

Stephenson takes the time to really develop the software/hardware analogy in Snow Crash. This ancient/primal/metavirus language in our brains is like the BIOS in our mental computers. Our other languages and everything else we have running is just software. But this BIOS is the core machine language of the human brain. If you could speak directly to it, then you could circumvent all the rest–go right to running the hardware.

Of course, I don’t buy it. But it made for a great story. Well, two great stories.

The larger point, though, is whether the hardware/software analogy has broader application. Joss Whedon had a show called Dollhouse not long ago in which human beings could have their software rewritten–in which people could be programmed with different personalities, different identities.

Scary, but true shit: There are people working on that sort of thing in labs right f’ing now.

Western thought has always grappled with the question of our essential nature–of what cogito ergo sum really means for us in practical terms–and we, lucky us, are on the verge of living through the time when we will have that all worked out, down to a science. The implications are, well, obviously dangerous.

In Lexicon and Snow Crash, (spoiler alert!) the genie is shoved back in the bottle and civilization is saved from the madmen who want to use the uber-word to enslave mankind. The world of Dollhouse, not so lucky. In that story, human civilization has a slight case of Armageddon before destroying the unfortunate technology behind the global mind-wipe.

That’s not the scariest scenario, though. At least, I don’t think so. If our minds can be rewritten–and I guess based on recent science there’s no reason to believe that, given enough computing power and the right tools, they can’t be–then what value is there in our minds, really?

Isn’t it possible that one mad genius could use something (an all-controlling bare-word, a meta-virus mind-hack, a brain-wiping doll-making techno-blaster, what-ever) to enslave the rest of mankind to cater to his every whim, to truly be the Alpha and Omega of all Homo sapiens sapiens.

Then, as he looks down from atop his pyramid of orgiastic self-worship, might he not–in a soul-crushing moment of self-insight–realize that his desires, his wants, his megalomaniacal need was no more significant than all the thoughts he wiped out of the minds of the rest of us.

Maybe it’s like the end of Oldboy (look it up, if you dare). Maybe that’s why Babel happened–happens in myth after myth after myth. Because ultimately, it’s better to just be confused and aimless.


As he passed the tall windows that constituted the long wall spanning both the living room, the dining room and the kitchen of the apartment that clung to the outer edge of its building, he thought suddenly that it felt like weeks since she had gone out, leaving only a short note on one of the self-adhesive sheets they kept near the phone on the marble counter. The phone that they hardly used and which never, ever rang save for occasional telemarketers plumbing out-of-date registries bought on the cheap.

It had actually only been a few hours, he was sure, but it felt as though whole days had been passed in solitude there in the empty apartment, still and alien without the movement of her feet across the dark, dark wood of the floor or the bellowing of television voices or clattering of keys as she fiddled about on the Internet.

Then, pausing in the white glow of the diffuse afternoon light from without, he wondered if this might not be his best self. The him that existed when she was gone, but when he was still alive and in love with the idea of her, just as at that moment–with only the solid white wall of nothing visible from the windows and no sounds of the bustling streets below able to rise up like heat cushions to his ears–there was only an idea of the city outside.

Any other state would require him to engage his too-too sensitive gaze or attention on the reality of one or the other, such as the red blotches at the back of her heels where her overly tight shoes rubbed raw the underpink of her naked feet or the vague rotten meat flavor of the air on a summer day when the city’s thermostat had been rifled up too high. And then, in confronting those bits of reality, his temper might grow short, or he might make some offending remark that would reveal to her and to the city that he was just a cad at heart, that all sorts of pettiness stirred inside him, making him unworthy of either.

And there would be quarrels and bickering, and sheepish grins to try to ingratiate himself again.

But not now. With both remote and only remembered, he regarded them in perfect majesty, in the beauty of absence.


The light has changed, but the first car in line has not seen it, and he would very much like to go, especially knowing how short this particular light stays green, but anticipating the obnoxious noise of the horn he cannot quite bring himself to press the center of the steering wheel, as it would just seem too rude somehow, but apparently this first car still hasn’t seen the change because of an incoming text message or a particularly good song on the radio or god-knows-what, and really it is high time to be moving forward before the little illuminated arrow turns yellow and he is trapped at the intersection for another three minutes, so that he finds himself wishing that cars came standard with two horns, the usual one that seems to yell “get the hell out of the way” to other vehicles and another, softer one that communicates something more akin to “pardon me, but might we be going now,” but, knowing that any such innovation is years away at best, he decides instead on a short pump of the horn in the hopes that the brevity of the sound will communicate, somehow, his reluctance to use it all and that the other driver, having lived through similar conundrums at some point during her own life, will understand.

Strange Inspiration

Those who read these pages faithfully (and how many are you, I always have to wonder, since you appear to me as little spikes on a line graph and little more–do you forgive me that I never find the time to learn more about you) and study the time stamps carefully will recognize that lately I’ve been caught by a long, inescapable cycle of insomnia.

I never know what to make of this. At least, not entirely. I do know that in part, it’s a simple and inevitable consequence of two converging trends in my life:  too little exercise and too many little things at work nagging for attention, leaving my mind over-busy and my body lurching through its business like an engine with too many miles on it.

Finding the will power to get up and hit the pool before I slap eggos in the toaster oven and PB on slices of bread in the morning would probably set everything straight, but somehow I haven’t for weeks and weeks now.

And this is the consequence.

A ticking clock and a restless mind. Typical unsteady me.

Through it all, in the liminal space when I’m alone and awake but asleep and surrounded, there’s been these few staticky images recurring. Imaginary spaces where I take myself to be away from all the things that might keep me from being asleep. Places where there is only the white noise of some great world-engine and no dawn coming for years and years so I might as well slumber.

It was just a game I played with my own thoughts, to trick them into resting–the opposite of the jerking hallucinations of falling and spycraft machines in the wallpaper that sometimes jerk me awake–but now tonight, I’ve seen a form behind them all.

And I see it’s not just static, but a story arc waiting to be, like the keel of a ship seen from below, slicing through dark water.

In a fit I jotted it all down–a few phrases, a sketch of a girl and a man, one title–and I see that I have a whole set of novels waiting to be written. At least eight. It’s probably a decade of my future life waiting to be lived/written.

All from a thought I might have chased away weeks ago but didn’t.

On Insomnia

These late nights have almost gotten me killed. Falling down rabbit holes deeper than the Mariana Trench. Getting my feet twisted in similes wrapped inside of allusions knotted up with irony.

And it’s the loneliness, of course, that I really hate. I’m not really dreading the morning, the heavy fog in my head as I try to imagine what the day is going to run like with only 42% capacity. I can work that by just riding the groove of my life, just let the springs move me through the course, punch the cards, gently apply the brakes when the lights turn yellow, coast through the human interactions with courteous smiles and knowing head nods.

But the now. The deep-dark now of just me and the snoring up above in the dark spaces where everyone else has–temporarily–exited the world while I’m still in it.

Last man on when the pilot light goes out. Like Superman sitting on the raw, scorched Earth after Lois and Jimmy and ten thousand generations of human kind have expired, have shuffled off. The sun’s going all red and I’ve got no powers left, but still, dammit, I cannot die.

Not fast enough.

I blame different things on different nights. It’s a video game. Or a marathon on Netflix. Or a damned fine book.

It’s never really those things. Never really the trivial trappings of awakeness. All those are burn off. Residue built up on the edge of the pan. The real thing, the real cause, is what’s simmering in the center. Some dish that’s always cooking but is never quite ready to eat. Watched pots never boil and whatever’s promising to poke its head out and make sense of the whole stew never quite does.

So pop a few blue pills, even though the headache isn’t really a headache so much as a buzz of neurons pleading for REMs, and go lie down, knowing that it’s no solution, knowing that it’s going to follow you, up there, into the cushy folds of the sheets and comforter and the warm spot where the dog’s been lying waiting.

Because you don’t get away from the inevitable that easily.