Archive for August, 2011

From Conception to Realization: Jacob Wherly in Delayed Reaction

There are individuals who from an early age know exactly what they want to do with their lives and pursue it without deviation from their plan. They amaze me. They single-mindedly follow a career path to achieve their goals. They don’t change their college major five times before they finally decide what they really want to do.  They amaze me because I am not one of those people. My character Jacob Wherly is not one of those either.

A large part of the value of a higher education is to discover there are multiple world views other than the one we grew up with by virtue of being born in a particular time, place, culture, or religion.  When we leave the bosom of the family, we discover other ways of thinking and undergo experiences that call into question the givens of birth. Jake follows the norms of his society until an event in later life triggers his awakening.  Young men have always marched off to fight the wars older men claim are necessary. Jake was one of those men who blindly followed the expectations of society. Until age 32, I was one of those who let things happen to me instead of consciously making choices.  Jake wants to instill into the teenage boy Lenny a desire to pursue knowledge and to form a philosophy of life free of the prejudices, xenophobia, and narrow-mindedness into which he was born. He wants Lenny not to delay a genuine spiritual awakening until later life. He prefers that Lenny not have his coming of age at the butt end of a rifle in a jungle as he did in Vietnam.

I created Jake as a counterpoint to the religious fundamentalism that I believe poses today the greatest danger to a democracy. I did not want my novel to be a heavy-handed, vitriolic diatribe against fundamentalists, but to poke fun in a lighter manner at the absurdity of their teachings and the simple-mindedness of their adherents who abdicate their power to think, letting “fancy-pants” preachers who are more showmen than men of God hand them a pre-packaged belief system devoid of logical thought.  To allow demigods to do our thinking for us is to pave the way for a Nazi-like leader who will waste no time undermining the underpinnings of democracy: religious and ethnic toleration, free elections, freedom of speech and the press. This Nazi demigod/haranguer will tell the masses that multiculturalism is a danger; he will preach “fear your neighbor; don’t love your neighbor as yourself. The Other is your Enemy.”

These are a few of the concepts that were operating consciously in my mind when I wrote Delayed Reaction. I wanted to explore what wisdom my generation–people who came of age and had been forged in the furnace of the Vietnam War era and the civil rights movement–could pass on to their grandchildren. It is that leap over one generation where the wisdom is stored and handed down. That communication link between grandparents and grandchildren is where the lessons are told and where they are listened to. Parents are too close to their children to always have the time or the courage to tell them the truth.  Their emotional investment in their children interferes sometimes with communication. In contrast, a grandparent is removed enough to know that the welfare of the world is at stake and not just the success parents usually understand for their children in terms of educational, financial, professional and social achievement.

In Delayed Reaction I created Jacob Wherly as a comic character, a bit of a buffoon, who could evince these themes in a light-hearted manner while serving as a grandfatherly mentor role for Lenny Dickerson. He is the non-conformist juxtaposed against the conformists in a materialistic society. The women in the novel, Shelley and Gloria, do not question their assumptions; and therefore, they do not change. The male characters do grow and develop. I thought this is a refreshing change from the denouement in many of the contemporary novels I have read.  In writing Delayed Reaction I wanted men to be drawn into the story and to identify with the characters.  Although it treats of serious themes, this novel was fun to write and was also meant to be fun to read.  Writers must leave the judgment to the juror–the readers.

Cover Delayed Reaction: Jake Wherly & his Harley Davidson

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Salman Rushdie: A Writer for Our Times

Rushdie is an important writer because he bridges the cultures of the east and of the west. Our world needs his global, multi-cultural perspective. Prior to 2001, I made several attempts to read Rushdie. More than ten years later, the sluggard that I am, I was ripe to appreciate Rusdie’s fictive world. Before most people fully comprehended the dangerous thinking of fundamentalist religionists and the roots of political terrorism in ethnic and religious intolerance, Rushdie already was describing the phenomena in his novels. His fiction is dense, allusive and far too erudite for many readers, but a journey into his fantastical world is also far more rewarding than the run-of-the-mill realistic story. Rushdie studied theology and history. He is versed in the world’s religions, and brings his knowledge to bear of Hindu mythology and of Islamic and Christian texts to his work. Versed in several languages, he revels in multi-lingual word play. Rusdie makes no apologies for this, saying even children like to encounter new words in their books and then delight in flinging them around whether they fully understand the meanings or not.  All of these qualities make his writing difficult to understand. His complex story line, bizarre characters and mixture of magic and realism more than compensate for any of these difficulties. Paul Brians of Washington State University has partially remedied the problem with his “Notes for Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses.  All of Rushdie’s novels could use such a guide. This time I came to the rereading of Satanic Verses with fresh eyes. I have now read it three times; The Enchantress of Florence twice; and was newly delighted this year for the first time with Shalimar the Clown.  Several years ago I started Midnight’s Children and put it aside for other reading after about a hundred pages. Recently I read the novel from start to finish and concur with the Booker Prize people that it is has to be one of the best, if not the best book, of the last forty years. Rushdie cannot be read once. I am faced with the delectable choice of rereading Midnight’s Children or going on to The Moor’s Last Sigh.

It is not my purpose in this essay to supply plot summaries of the four Rushdie novels that I have read. Such a task is daunting and other reviewers have attempted it. In singling out some plot elements so much more is neglected in the telling that I feel inadequate to summarize these magically realistic stories that are as interlocking and enchanting as the Arabian 1001 Nights. I will offer a few lines about each book as enticements. The crux of Satanic Verses is not to blaspheme Islam, but to decry the demonization of the other in a mixed society, that is, to demonize the immigrant in your country. Rushdie wants to laud the contributions of every ethic group in a multi-cultural society. To paint anyone either all good or all evil is the real evil. To see one’s religion as outside of history is to reject the breakthroughs of the period of European Enlightenment. To accept the stories of one’s sacred text as the literal truth is to misunderstand myth and the purpose of storytelling in the first place. Midnight’s Children depicts the intersection in the lives of Shiva and Saleem, switched at birth at the historic moment when the nation of India was born in 1947 and the strife between Moslem and Hindu resulting in the creation of Pakistan. In The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie takes us to Renaissance Italy and Mughal India to weave another story about the intersection of East and West. Here he displays his knowledge of history and of both cultures. The novel dazzles with the intrigue of the period. Shalimar the Clown takes the reader on a ride from Kashmir to California, again suggesting how East and West, Moslem and Hindu have failed at understanding. Rushdie paints Kashmir as the original Paradise where Moslem and Hindu live side by side in peace until the politics of division intrudes, leaving them caught in the vise of warring Pakistan and India.  Love disintegrates into a terrorist act as Shalimar, the tightrope walker, single-mindedly pursues the American ambassador, his wife’s lover.

I like Rusdie because of his rich imagination, his inclusiveness, his storytelling virtuosity, and his facility with language. I recommend him to readers who are not afraid to dig in and work hard to probe beneath the easy platitudes of their society and grapple with global inter-dynamics, and to readers who want to put aside national shibboleths and comprehend the roots of terrorism and ethnic conflict wherever they persist.

I like Salman Rushdie because he affirms the importance of fiction. Storytelling is not a frivolity, but essential to humanity’s well-being. Raised a Moslem, Rushdie has a right to state that the Islamic world needs to develop a greater capacity for self-examination.  He has felt the wrath of fundamentalists, because the novel as a literary genre has been slow to develop throughout the Islamic world, although writers like the Egyptian Naguib Mafouz and the Saudi Abdelrahman Munif have tried to accelerate the general acceptance of the novel as a legitimate art form.  The increasing number of Lebanese, Palestinians, and other Arabs writing novels portends well for the growth of understanding of the value of novel in Islamic literature in which the traditions of poetry and prose treatises have predominated.

Rushdie’s response to a question in a Salon interview (January 1996) heartens me. He was asked how seriously should fiction be taken. He answered:

Very. I think there is nothing wrong with the idea that fiction is a matter of life and death. Look at the history of literature. Look at what happened in the Soviet Union. Look at what’s happening in China, in Africa, and across the Muslim World. It’s not just me. Fiction has always been treated this way. It does matter and it’s often very bad for writers that it does. But that just comes with the territory.

Courtroom Drama: A Nursery for Novelists

I plead guilty to spending hours this summer following the Casey Anthony televised trial. Because I no longer work outside the home, it was easy for me to be sucked in by the coverage. The personalities and the motivations of the players intrigued me. It is obvious why so many lawyers turn their hand to writing novels and so many aspire to join the ranks of John Grisham and Scott Turow.  When I was living in Illinois, every aspiring author with a day job in my Rockford writers’ group hoped to do what Terry Brooks of Sterling, Illinois did.  After his third Shannara novel, he quit practicing law in 1985 and moved to Seattle to write more books. Writing part-time, it took him seven years to finish The Sword of Shannara. I’m sure you can think of many more novel-writing attorneys. They are educated to write well and to speak well.  In the practice of law they encounter firsthand a carnival of characters, motivations, plots, conspiracies, scams, and complex relationships to people a library of novels.  Lawyers have witnessed the darker side of the human psyche.

The drama of the courtroom is ready-made for mystery, surprises, plot twists, and the range of human emotions.  Mystery, suspense are inherent in criminal cases. Did the accused do it or not? Is there reasonable doubt or only a reason to doubt being planted in the jury? Successful writers have always used the built-in tension and suspense of the courtroom. Harper Lee used it in To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird - film adaptation starring Gregory Peck

Court Scene: Atticus Finch Defends Tom Robinson in film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck

Who can forget the courtroom scenes in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  Think of the courtroom scene in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible . You can think of other unforgettable courtroom scenes from other plays and novels. (Inherit the Wind, anyone?)  Many writers derive plot ideas from court cases.  The theatre of the courtroom is a nursery to grow budding novelists.

Legal celebrities Nancy Grace and Marsha Clark have transferred their skills to novel-writing. Curious to know how well they perform as novelists, I read sample chapters of their books online. I thought Nancy’s glib tongue would transfer well to the written page, but it did not. Her prose hobbles and I would not finish reading her novels. Marsha Clark (the O.J. Simpson defense attorney) shows skill in crafting a pleasing sentence. Her book’s prose and introductory paragraphs did not have an amateurish ring. It read like she knew what she was doing and how to set up a dramatic scene. I probably could finish her book.