Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Time used to seem, if not infinite, at least a comfortable possibility. It all closes in so fast. I wanted to produce one good work I gave up that idea and settled for producing what might at least entertain. Ah well, I never existed. Je n'existe pas. Finally I fulfill my name.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Google +1

While posting a book review a few weeks back, I noticed that two pages have received high scores on the Google +1 system. As of today, Designated Listener had a G+1 score of 7,437, and Books 2012 (1) had a score of 20,993. Since this is far greater than the total number of people shown as viewing these entries, the scores are perplexing. I think that the first time I noticed this the score for the Designated Listener was in the 6,900s range. Since no one has been able to view any entries on this blog for almost two years now, these scores make no sense. If memory serves, the system was introduced only shortly before I took the blog off line. I will need to keep a watch on this. (Update: 8/10. The plus-one scores are now 7,400 and 20,770. This makes even less sense. Do the plus-ones expire? Do people revoke them?)

Friday, 23 August 2013

French Gastro-Pubs

Creams Pasha Nell's

Owl 'n Daze

Airy Covaire

Monday, 25 March 2013

Thoughts between first and second sleeps

3/25   The bugbear of thought is to confound words with reality, signifier with signified. That is a commonplace, but can thought function without words? Is it possible to experience reality without words? Is expressability in words the litmus test for 'exist'? The search for the experience beyond words is one of the driving forces of mysticism, but doesn't mysticism thereby acknowledge the power of words? Is language the original sin? Isn't language part of the game of thinking and experiencing? Can I conceive of something without simultaneously 'wording' it? And once I 'word' it, I begin limiting it and differentiating it from other 'worded' things. Again, philosophical commonplaces but it is difficult to get past them in daily life. Our existence is fuelled and maintained by words, by signifiers.

4/2    My first encounter with lapis lazuli was through a picture. My initial impression was that the colour was impossible, it was too blue to be natural, and the object could only be manufactured, perhaps plastic made to look like stone. I never have lost the suspicion that this substance is unnatural and unreal. Sometimes things can be too beautiful. Sometimes physical beauty is the result of makeup and a good haircut, carefully chosen clothing, and the photographer's skill with light and shadow. There are those startling pictures of quite ordinary people who are remade to look like models (and vice versa). There is a certain level of beauty in which we assume that a human being played a role. My dislike of lapis lazuli derives from back formation from this assumption.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

From Words

I found this when going through my parents' letters. I wrote it in the early 1990s.

From Words

To see lilacs
      and to think
            'When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd'
            'April is the cruellest month'
      and only then to remember
            (from words that mean too much, O Lord, deliver us)

     a green glass vase with a fluted edge
        filled with heavy-headed lilacs drooping the scent of spring
     broken, cracked stems witnessing through the glass and water
        my grandmother's last confession of meagre sins

One by one we crept quietly into her room
     hoping not to disturb her.
     'Can I get you anything? A drink of water?'
     'Don't the flowers look nice? Mrs Amberdale picked them this morning.'
     'Try to sleep now. We'll let you rest. George will be here later.'

And crept quietly out to the sitting room
     hoping not to disturb her.
     'It won't be long now. Her suffering is almost ended.'
     'Didn't the flowers look nice? Mrs Amberdale picked them this morning.'
     'Did you put a copper in the vase? They say it makes them last much longer.'

To see lilacs
      and to think
            'When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd'
            'April is the cruellest month'
      and only then to remember
            (from words that mean too little, O Lord, deliver us)

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Biographies, fictional and nonfictional

The biographies on Wikipedia usually mention the subject's marriage and children towards the end of article, if at all. It's as if that personal information has no bearing on the subject's accomplishments. Other personal information such as parentage, schooling, siblings usually appears towards the top of the article. That makes the placement or omission of the data on marriages and children all the more curious. Are natal family and education seen as more important determinants of success than marriage and children ? This contrasts with novels, which foreground family life and often focus on marriage and children.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Nexis Guide 1

 The Nexis Guide to the Planets of the Milky Way

Cloux. Spatial access number: Ac173DT987 x 98Y, ext. 5550 (Cloux City SpacePort). Class M Planet. Gravity 1.02 Earth normal. Oxygen levels within acceptable limits. Climate moderate except at poles and around the equator. Rotation: 0.96 Earth normal (day = 25 hours). Carbon and water-based life forms. Rated 97% Earth compatible. Standard inoculations recommended. Tourists and business visas available at all Alliance of Five embassies and consulates. Class 3 security checks in place for all visitors. All otherworld access to the planet is through the space port at Cloux City. No restrictions on travel once on the planet. The two moons are heavily fortified for planetary defence and off-limits to otherworlders.

Dominant life form: The Clouxians are an advanced bipedal trisexual humanoid life form. Socialability rankings: L5+ D2 S0 W3 Y2 K9 (access link for an explanation of these codes). There are several major languages but most Clouxians understand Galatic Standard and an estimated 82 percent speak it fluently. The population is highly educated, peacable, and friendly. Clouxians are generally hospitable to otherworlders.

Economy: Advanced Singularity.

Political organization: Founding member of the Alliance of Five. Popularly elected planetary council headed by a president.

Cloux is one of the most Earth-like planets in the Milky Way and considered one of the planets most amenable to visits by human beings. The inhabitants are friendly if somewhat formal in manners. Attempts to discuss personal matters with be politely rebuffed and the subject changed.

Local food is edible but considered bland by most visitors. Eat only food from replicators. Galactic standard replicators capable of producing a wide range of Earth foods are available in all large cities and at most tourist hotels.

Warnings: Public rowdiness is not tolerated—Cloux is not recommended for heavy drinkers or carousers. Sex with otherworlders is considered repugnant and any otherworlder proposing it will be arrested. Never approach a Clouxian whose skin is blue. This condition signals the start of their reproductive cycle, and any approach will be considered a sexual overture and result in arrest. Most Clouxians sequester themselves when they become blue, but occasionally a blue Clouxian may be encountered in public.

Major tourist attractions: At the age of five each Clouxian is given a rough pebble approximately three centimetres in diameter by its parents. For the remainder of its life, it holds the pebble in its left hand, constantly turning it. Over time, the rough edges of the pebble are worn smooth. At death, the pebble is cemented in place in a memorial wall as part of the burial ritual. The largest of these walls begin near the capital city of Cloux on the main continent and radiate in all directions. When completed, each wall is a uniform 1.6 meter wide, 4.6 meters high and extends in a straight line until it reaches the sea or some other natural barrier. The longest extends nearly 350 kilometres. Much care is taken to keep the walls in good repair. The walls have deep religious and cultural meanings for the Clouxians, and visitors should treat them with proper respect. . . .

Friday, 27 April 2012

Random thought about a character in a future fiction

He is one of those people who thinks modesty corrodes the soul.

Saturday, 21 April 2012


Warning: rant ahead

I have been asked to write an article about six first-time American novelists and 'recent trends in American fiction'.  The book reviews editor of the Sunday supplement in which this article will appear chose the six novelists on the basis of reviews published in leading American newspapers. The books were delivered to me with a strict injunction that I was not to read other reviews of these books. I found the books well written and competent but not in the end exciting. I didn't come away with the feeling that I had encountered major new talents, and I didn't add any of the author's names to my watch list.  (None of the six books has appeared, or will appear, on my reading list 'Books 2012' here.)

All six of these 'serious' novels begin with an acknowledgements section. Five of the six authors list the writing courses or seminars and certificate programmes they have attended. Three of these five authors list one course; two authors list two. The sixth author apparently has not attended a formal course in writing, but she thanks her writing circle as well as an arts organisation that gave her a grant that allowed her to stay at a artists' retreat for several months and finish her book. All six mention feedback from an impressive array of friends, relatives, teachers, and colleagues, as well as the help of agents and editors and other publishing personnel. Three of the authors cite specialists who helped them with points of law, medicine, and psychology. More than any other aspect of these works, these acknowledgements pages attracted my attention. Since that subject is outside my brief for the article I am writing, I decided to discuss it here.

Such acknowledgements are not confined to serious works. As anyone who has glanced at the Books 2012 page here will know, I consume a lot of junk food for the mind, such as mysteries and science fiction. Over the past three decades, writers of such works have come increasingly to include an acknowledgements page listing, among others, the experts who gave them technical help.

Does any of this matter? Without much effort, one could compile lists of competent writers who never had a lesson in writing as well as those who have emerged from writing programmes. It also would take little effort to list many incompetent published writers from both groups. Writing programmes and courses do force an aspiring author to write, and practice in writing is never wasted. Some of these aspiring writers would probably arrive at the same point on their own; the programmes simply provide an environment that forces them to work out their problems with writing. Any participant in these programmes would undoubtedly benefit from the critical eye of a good teacher. Works written for such programmes tend to incorporate the instructors' views, however, especially if getting a good grade in the course and eventually receiving the certificate depends on satisfying the teachers. There is always the danger that rather than helping a writer achieve a personal voice, the programme will teach them to write to a formula or to think of writing in terms espoused by the teacher. (I have found that graduates of such programmes tend, for example, to be obsessed with 'point of view' and to be on continual alert for any violation of a unitary point of view in a work. This seems to be the latest successor to the Three Unities. I think the better advice would be to always be aware of how point of view can be exploited and played with.)

Friends, relatives, teachers, and colleagues can be helpful, but advice per se is not necessarily useful. And more often than not one receives a different opinion from each of them. The writer still has to choose, and it's been my experience that authors (like all of us) are quite capable of dismissing, indeed ready to do so, views that diverge from their own or would require a lot of work. Some of the most injurious advice comes from those who praise an author. The last thing an author needs to be told is how good the work is--the best advice deals with how to make the work better. But when confronted with praise from X and criticism from Y, how many of us are going to think more of Y, especially if it means a major rewrite?

By consulting experts, an author may improve the accuracy of the details in works that touch on specialised subjects or fields, but it does nothing to improve the quality of the writing or of the overall work (there are many of the opinion that the accuracy of details is a major factor in assessing quality; I happen to feel that this ignores the nature of fiction, but that is quite a different subject from the one I am discussing here--this may become the subject of a future posting). The apparent purpose of acknowledging the experts an author has consulted is to lodge a claim of accuracy and to make the story seem plausible. I have consulted an expert in dart throwing and hence the poison-tipped dart that pierced Lord Darlington's heart is a realistic means of murder. These claims are often followed by "Any remaining errors are my own", which is nothing more than a disingenuously modest assertion that the credit really belongs to the author.

Agents' opinions are directed mainly towards what needs to be done in order to improve the works' chances of finding a publisher--their concerns tend to be driven by the market (after all, their income depends on pleasing the market). Editors can be extraordinarily helpful in catching inconsistencies as well as grammatical errors, typos, and misusages, but they, like agents, are ultimately concerned with the market--their livelihoods depend on sales.

As must be apparent, I am doubtful about the benefits of credentialing. For me, the interesting question is not Is this valuable? but Why do authors and the publishers who include these acknowledgements think readers will be impressed? Does a certificate from the University of Iowa Writing Program convince us that the work that follow is worth reading? Does a list of the names of the twenty-five readers who offered the author comments on the work as it was being written guarantee that the work is good?

The purpose of all this credentialing appears to be to reassure the reader that the author is qualified to write and has done the research necessary to make the work accurate. Credentialing as a phenomenon seems to have begun in scientific and technological fields. Should I need an operation, the list of letters after the surgeon's name is at least some assurance of competence. I could dress like a surgeon and wield a scalpel, but it would be unwise of you to let me near you with one in my hand. As skills have become more technical and the acquisition of bodies of knowledge more time-consuming, credentialing has assumed more importance. The perceived need for credentialing in these fields seems to have spilled over into other fields, where a certificate of training is less necessary or even totally unnecessary.

Another reason for the growth of credentialing may be the growth of education. Our higher-education systems now offer degrees in an incredible range of subjects, and along with this growth has come a need to justify the necessity of these degrees. There seems to have been a progression from the view that a degree in, say, history indicates some knowledge of the past to the not unreasonable view that those with degrees in history may have more knowledge of the past than those without such degrees to the somewhat iffy view that they are hence better qualified to speak on the subject. The danger is that this sometimes becomes only those with degrees in history are qualified to speak on the past. The last is certainly an option exercised by many academic historians, who can be quite ruthless in dismissing the opinions of anyone without the proper licenses to have an opinion. Granted training in historical 'science' may help develop the skills historians need, but these are not difficult skills to master. The insistence on the proper acquisition in accredited schools of the skills of 'the science of history' owes much to the desires to limit entrance to the field and to justify the ego-defenses necessary to maintain a feeling of superiority to 'amateurs'.

And now credentialing is spreading to fields that depend primarily on talent, such as writing or painting or music-making. All the training in the world, all the mastery of theory or bodies of knowledge, will not make anyone a good writer or a good painter or a good musician. A course in oil painting may introduce one to the basics of mixing paints--indeed one may become a master in mixing paints as a result of the course--and that knowledge may improve the quality of one's output, but it remains no more than a skill. Properly mixed paints don't create a good painting by themselves. Following the precept that one 'should show and not tell' does not guarantee that what one is being shown is worth reading. A unitary point of view is simply a unitary point of view, not a guarantee of a good story.

It seems to me that many of these courses concentrate on the mastery of techniques. This is understandable--technique can be taught and mastered; talent cannot. A writing instructor may point out to a pupil that his characters are wooden and stereotypical and may even be able to show the writer how he should be thinking about his characters to make them more lifelike. But if the student is tone-deaf psychologically and simply can't understand others, no amount of training will help him overcome this defect. Authors offer stereotypical characters not only because they are lazy and resort to clichés but also because that's how they envision other people.

IMHO, aspiring authors should spend their time reading rather than taking courses.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Home and the dying

A friend of ours died last week of a condition called Levy's syndrome. It's one of those awful brain and nerve deterioration diseases. It is described as a cross between Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. People who have it lose both motor control and mental abilities. The first apparent symptom, a problem with walking, appeared about two years ago. Within a few months he began forgetting how to do simple tasks, such as how to get water into a drinking glass. The progress of the disease is not constant. Some days he was fine and lucid and relatively in control. Other times he had hallucinations or could barely walk.  Last October, he had to be put in a care home because he needed full-time professional nursing. About two weeks before he died, he lost the ability to swallow and had to be fed through a tube. His white blood cell count was over ten times the normal level, and his kidneys ceased to function.

His wife had to make some terrible decisions. When his kidneys failed, she was given the option of dialysis, which would have meant loading her husband into an ambulance, transporting him for nearly an hour to a dialysis centre, and then returning him to the care home in another ambulance. She was told that dialysis is painful and that it would stave off death only by a few days, a week at most. She decided against that. I suspect that, like most of us who have had to care for someone who is dying, she concluded that further treatment would be cruel and that allowing the person to die is the final kindness one can do. That knowledge doesn't make the decision easier.

The doctors and the nurses can only outline the options and try to present them as factually as possible. The standards of their professions don't allow them to counsel allowing the patient to die. Our priests also cannot condone assisted suicide or murder through neglect. Their standards tell them to offer prayer and hope and to counsel acceptance. These professionals' ability to help one decide is limited but they do acquiesce, silently but efficiently, when they feel the decision is right. Friends and relatives can be a bit more open, but the burden always falls on the spouse or children to make the final decision.

All of us know the rationalisations--'It's what he would have wanted,' etc. In truth, guilt and relief go hand-in-hand. It's difficult to avoid that thought that in ending someone else's suffering, we are also ending ours.

The care home was a torment for our friend. By the end he had forgotten most everything except that fact that he wanted to be at home. That was often the only thought he had. When we visited (which became harder and harder to do), he would repeat over and over, 'Take me home. I want to go home.'  He knew his wife almost until the end and knew that she was the only person who could decide to remove him from the care home. He sometimes became very angry with her that she wouldn't do this for him. When we spoke with her after his death, she focused on the fact that her husband had wanted to go home and that she hadn't been able to grant his wish. She felt guilty about that--unnecessarily. All we could do was to assure her that she had made the right decision.

One of my aunts spent her last weeks in a care home. She, too, was constant in her demands to be taken home. My father chose to die at home rather than in a hospice, even though he knew that it meant a lower standard of care. People with terminal illnesses seem to have this desire to be somewhere they identify as 'home'. Even when the person knows that death is imminent, 'home' seems a refuge. That feeling is understandable when the other choice is a hospital or a care home, which are gruesome at best. I have been inside only one hospice. It attempted to provide a 'homey' environment, but that made its institutional nature all the more evident. One's lair or den seems the best place to die.

All this prompted another discussion between Lewis and myself, assuming that we will have a choice. It's made more complicated in our case because we are not legally spouses in many places and our legal right to make such decisions would not be recognised. We have living wills, but again those are not legally binding in many places. Niamh, I know, would accept Lewis's decision. Lewis's nearest relatives are his two siblings, one of whom lives in California and the other in Boston. Lewis has told them of his wishes. I don't think there will be a problem, should it become necessary. The worst would be to be kept in a twilight state because of a legal problem. I hope we can avoid that.

A related thought: I have read that married people live longer. Of course, these statements take heterosexual couples and marriage as norms. Long-term unwed heterosexual or same-sex couples are not factored in, as far as I know.  We seem to be counted automatically among the lonely unweds. The implication of most of these studies is that marriage makes people satisfied and happy, and that happy and satisfied people live longer. I think there might be another explanation, and that is the power of nagging. A partner (married or unwed) is likely to encourage the other partner to seek medical help if there is a problem.

I had my annual check-up a few weeks back. My doctor's office asks people to turn the mobiles off. I had barely exited the office and turned my phone back on before Lewis rang to ask if I had remembered to show the doctor the dark spot on the skin under my right eye. Had I mentioned the stiffness in my legs and asked about post-polio syndrome? What did the doctor say about the arthritis in my right thumb? Was my high blood pressure improving? A week later, I no sooner walked into our house than Lewis handed me a letter from my doctor with the lab results and ordered me to open it and show it to him. The doctor said that there were no problems except for a slight dip in the 'good' cholesterol reading and that I should get more exercise and to see him if my legs got worse. More nagging. Because of my blood pressure, salt has become a dirty word in our household, and soda bread has been banished. I am sick of hearing about post-polio syndrome and being watched for problems with moving and having my stiffness fussed over. (I'm getting old, Lewis. Some stiffness is normal.) It's great to have someone who cares so much and I hope that Lewis is healthy, but I would like him to have at least one small problem that I could nag him about.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Memorable short stories

Yesterday a remark in another blog prompted thoughts of a short story I read many years ago. I knew that Isaac Asimov was the author and that the story had to do with reversing entropy and ended with the words 'Let there be light'. A search on Google quickly led to the story, which is entitled 'The Last Question'. The Google link led to Wikipedia, where I learned that I am not alone in remembering this story. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Question.)

The experience led to further musings on memorable short stories. I wrote down the following list as they occurred to me over the space of two or three minutes. It's definitely a mixed bag, ranging from the sublime to the ordinary.

Shirley Jackson, 'The Lottery'

Saki, 'The Open Window'

Frank O'Connor, 'My Oedipus Complex', 'First Confession'

Henry James, 'The Beast in the Jungle', 'The Jolly Corner', 'The Figure in the Carpet'

Edith Wharton, 'Xingu', 'Autre temps'

Eudora Welty, 'Why I Live at the P.O.'

Kafka, 'The Penal Colony'

Maupassant, 'Boule de suif'

Balzac, 'L'Auberge rouge'

Eugene McCabe, 'Music at Annahullion'

A. S. Byatt, 'The Thing in the Forest', 'The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye'

Raymond Carver, 'Where I'm Calling From'

I also thought of Elizabeth Bowen's story about a country weekend but can't remember the title. I don't know why I immediately thought of these and not the hundreds of other short stories I have read. There doesn't seem to be any link among them other than the workings of my mind. I encountered the French stories the summer before I went to university.  I thought of the Maupassant story first. It followed the Balzac story in the collection of French stories I was reading as part of my preparations for university, and I was impressed at the time by the great change in writing styles between Balzac and Maupassant. That was what brought the Balzac story to mind. Except for the McCabe, Byatt, and Carver stories, I read all of these as a teenager or when I was in my twenties or thirties. They've stuck in my mind for forty-odd years now.

I fell into the habit of reading short stories at that period of my life because I commuted to school or work on a bus or the subway, and I could finish one or two short stories in the time it took to travel the distance. There were many days when I couldn't read because I couldn't get a seat or the ride was too crowded or too bumpy to hold a book while standing. Novels were less accommodating to the commuting process because several days might elapse when I wasn't able to read, and I would lose the thread of the story and forget minor characters or details of the plot. So I hit upon bringing a short story collection in my briefcase and reading a story or two when circumstances allowed.

The Jackson story probably owes its inclusion and its position at the head of the list to Jonathan Lethem's remarks about it in that collection of his essays I read a month or so ago. The Kafka is memorable for me because it's one of the few pieces of writing that have made me physically ill. Anne Enright once described a piece by John McGahern as the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolling across the kitchen floor. That's what the Kafka was for me.  I felt the description of the workings of the punishment machine on my own flesh, as it were.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

E-books vs P-books

Because of Coetzee's mini-essay on Dostoyevsky in the last novel I read [see no. 38 in the Books 2012 (2) section], I decided to re-read The Brothers Karamozov. My reading speed has been considerably slower than my usual, not only because this is a novel that needs to be read slowly but also because my copy is a paperback edition purchased in 1962. As common for books of that era, it was printed on non-acid-free paper, which is now almost brown. This reduces the contrast between the black type and the background. Moreover, the type size is very small, and there are almost no margins. It stresses my eyes considerably to read this work on paper (hereinafter, a p-book), and I find that about twenty pages is the most I can tolerate in one go. If I haven't finished reading the work by the next time I visit the library, I will borrow a copy with larger type (if the library has one).

Or I could download the entire text from Project Gutenberg and manipulate the screen image to make the type larger--which brings me to the point of this note.

What I miss in reading e-books is the certain sense of where I am in the book. In reading a p-book, one is aware of how much one has read and how much one still has to read. This knowledge may be more sensed than thought about, but one can gauge, however unconsciously and roughly, where one is in relation to the end of the book. This knowledge is, I would argue, important to the reading of a novel. In a mystery novel, for example, the end of the book brings the resolution of the mystery, and one knows that the closer one gets to the end, the closer one gets to the solution. I think this knowledge instinctively shapes our sense of the plot as we are reading.

Such information is of course available in a e-book. Among the control buttons at the top of a PDF file is one indicating that the present page is, for example, 234/702, or no. 234 out of 702. Even in the most primitive form of e-book file some indication of where you are is available. But the point is that one has to search for this information. It isn't there to be sensed immediately. In reading an p-book, a variety of sensory inputs tells us how far we have read in the book. The most prominent clue is visual, but even in holding a book to read it, our sense of touch tells us the relative weights and thicknesses of the blocks of pages we are holding in our right and left hands. Our senses provide clear feedback on how much remains to be read. All one sees in an e-book is the text on the screen at a given moment, and one doesn't instinctively know where this text falls in the book. There is no immediately apprehended feeling of where one is in relation to either the beginning or the end of the book.

I think the same is true of all works that exist physically as one unified narrative published in a physical book. Even our reading of books that aren't meant to be read for the plot is shaped by our expectation that a narrative is rounded off at the end and that we either are or are not approaching that point. In an e-book we lose our sense of progress through a book, progress in terms of not only how much we have read and still have to read but also how quickly we are reading.

A similar point can be made about reading a short story printed on paper within a larger context, say, an anthology or a magazine. Without paging through the publication to find the end of the story, the reader has no certain idea where the page(s) now visible fall in relation to the end of the story. This knowledge only comes when one turns the page and sees that the type ends midway down a page or that there is a new title visible somewhere in the facing-page spread. Or think of an article in the paper version of a newspaper. One instinctively apprehends the size of the article if all of it falls on the same page. But what happens when one reaches the bottom of the column and finds "continued on p. X"? Until one turns to page X, it remains a mystery how much remains to be read. Or consider what must be a common experience for all readers of books--"I'll just finish this chapter and then I'll scrub the kitchen floor"--without paging through the book to find the end of the chapter, one doesn't know how much remains to be read.

So in some senses our readings of short stories, chapters in books, articles in newspapers or magazines that we are reading in paper versions are akin to reading in some electronic format. In most cases we do not immediately have available to us the knowledge of where we are in relationship to the end of the story, chapter, article. That is one way in which our reading of short stories embedded in a larger work differs from our reading of a novel that occupies the entirety of a physical book. We don't know where we are in relation to the end of the narrative, and that uncertainty can be exploited by the author (assuming that the reader doesn't cheat and check the length before beginning to read). Is what I have just started reading the beginning of a short anecdote or have I embarked on a novella? Of course we can sense when we are approaching the end of a story. But even for a skilled and practiced reader, until that reader gets well into a work, there is no sense of the quantity of material to be read.

So back to The Brothers Karamazov--this is a novel of ideas. The plot--what happens--is secondary (at best!) to the discussions of ideas. I left off reading in the middle of the biography of Elder Zossima that Aloysha wrote after Zossima's death. I can see from the bookmark sticking out of the top of the book that I am slightly less than halfway through. I remember from my previous reading roughly what happens next in terms of plot. So it is difficult for me to think myself into the position of a first-time reader of The Brothers Karamazov. I think, however, that a virginal reader engaged with an electronic version of the text would have a very different sense of the book from one reading a p-book version. It moves at such a glacial speed that the knowledge of where one is in relation to the whole of the book shapes one's sense of the book and of the portion currently being read to the book as a whole.

I was surprised in fact to discover that the Grand Inquisitor section falls relatively early in the book. I had remembered it as one of the highlights of the work and thought it far closer to the end that it is. Physically knowing where I am in the reading shapes how I view a particular episode. The Grand Inquisitor's tale becomes less a summing up of the ideas of the work and more a disquisition that will play into the reading of the subsequent text. The tale is prospective (it shapes our reading; it poses questions and ideas to be tested in the novel; it tells us something about the character who is telling the story, knowledge we will use in evaluating that character's subsequent acts) rather than retrospective (imagine if it had been the final chapter in the book--then it would have become Dostoyevsky's final comment on the novel; it would be definitive rather than open). Knowing where one is in the text provides clues on how its parts are to be read.

Later addition: Similar factors are at work in cinema and television shows. Think of a film in which the principal characters are put in peril in the first half-hour. The audience knows that, however bad things look for the leads, they will escape with their lives--they have to survive until the end.  So the 'will they, won't they live through this' tension the film tries to create around the peril is tempered by the knowledge that they will survive. This forces a shift in the dramatic interest to a vicarious enjoyment of a safe danger and perhaps the hero's cleverness in overcoming the threat or her bravery and insouciance in confronting it (peril and wisecracks are commonly paired). The good ship Enterprise will survive the nasty aliens' attack and live to fight again in next week's episode or in the next sequel. Similarly any repeat viewer of the CSI series knows that those accused of the crime and brought in for grilling in the first three-quarters of an episode are not the guilty parties. Their alibis will hold up; their DNA will not match that found at the crime scene.

I have seen a few films in which a 'star' is killed off in the first half-hour. It comes across as a shock. Audiences gasp when they realise that an apparently major character is dead so early in the film. The death seems profligate. It violates our sense of narrative conventions and increases our sense that this movie is serious. A writer's ability to subvert genre conventions depends on the audience's knowledge of those conventions. Surprise works only when we have expectations of what is normal.

Every narrative genre that foregrounds plot (novel, short story, or drama) has stereotypical ways to spread the action over the required space or time. Our knowledge of the limits imposed on the work (either because we can see the size of the book; or because we know that the dénouement of the TV show will come about five minutes before the end of the show to allow time for the final barrage of ads, a final minute showing the characters recovering from the trauma of that particular episode, and the credits; or because we know that the play will last two hours) conditions our instinctive reactions to individual scenes. Hamlet's failure to kill Claudius until the end let Shakespeare address the moral uncertainty surrounding revenge. Shakespeare would have had to find a very different focus if Hamlet had disposed of Claudius early in the play. The delay in killing Claudius forces us to think of the play in a certain way. It matters when something happens in relation to the length of the work.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Boy Who Danced with the Sea

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island

The Boy Who Danced with the Sea

Nexis Pas

© 2012

No one in Munfrees knows when the boy lived, but everyone agrees that it was long ago. The oldest people in the village say that their grandparents told them that the boy lived many years before even they were born. Nor does anyone know the boy’s name. Some of the Aherns say that he must have been an Ahern because half the villagers are Aherns and it is more than likely that he was an Ahern too. Kevin Garrighty was drunk one night at the pub and tried to claim that the boy was one of his ancestors. His brother Conor set him right by pointing out that the boy was only a lad when he disappeared and could not have fathered any children and that Kevin should look elsewhere to account for his stupidity.

But everyone agrees that the boy was mad and that the music caused his madness. ‘It captured his soul as soon as he heard it and he was never right after that’ is how old Mrs Ahern put it when she told me the story. That was the first time I heard about the boy. I had been wandering by the ocean, peering into the small pools of water left by the receding tide in the clefts of the black shale rock that lines the shore. They were filled with activity—snails crawling on bits of seaweed, barnacles topped by waving fronds. Occasionally a tiny fish startled by my appearance above its world would dart towards a haven within a pool and lie motionless. I was following the movements of a minuscule blue crab when Mrs Ahern saw me and stopped to tell me the story of the boy who danced with the sea and what happened to him.

‘The priest was away to see the bishop and the villagers decided to hold a dance. The priest had warned them against the fires that music feeds and forbidden dancing but no priest has ever been able to quiet the blood of the young or the desire of the old to relive their youth. Everyone in the village took an unholy oath not to tell the priest.

‘They gathered down by that open flat space at the lower end of the village, next to where the pier is now. That was before they built the stone wall to moor the boats. There was just a sand beach surrounded by the black rock. They had only small boats, small enough for one man to row, and they pulled them up on the shore beyond the reach of the waves and turned them over when they had finished for the day. The musicians sat on one of the boats. There was a fiddler and a drummer. It was St John’s Eve and the light was still high in the sky. Even so they built a fire to mark the night as we have always done in Munfrees, priest or no priest.

‘The young ones gathered in a ring around the fire and the old ones sat in a circle about them. The boy was thought too young to dance, and his grandmother held him on her lap. The girls wore their best dresses and shoes and bound their hair with bright ribbons bought from the peddler. The young men wore knee breeches and covered their calves with stockings and put shoes with bright brass buckles on their feet.

‘When the fire shone red on their faces, the music started and the dancing began. The young men capered. One brave one was the first to jump over the fire and that started the rest of them. Each of them tried to leap higher than the others. The young women lifted their skirts so that their feet in their slippers and the ribbons tied round their ankles could be seen as they danced on their toes. The fiddler played faster and faster and the drummer beat louder and louder. The old folks began to clap and shout to encourage the dancers.

‘Then the boy slipped off his grandmother’s lap and began to dance. Dance like no one in Munfrees had ever seen. Later they said that he had the Devil in him. He spun faster and faster. His feet moved so fast that no one could see them or trace his movements. He leaped higher and higher until he was soaring in the air above them. The fiddler and the drummer couldn’t stop. The faster the boy moved, the faster they played. The boy drove the other dancers into a frenzy. Their faces grew red, redder than ever fire was. Their breath tore at their lungs. The blood burned hot in their bodies. Their feet blurred. Even the old people rose to their feet and began dancing. They clapped until their hands blistered and their throats grew hoarse with the shouting. Even stranger, the fire burned brighter and brighter and higher and higher, though no one was feeding it. But no matter how high the flames, the dancers, man and woman alike, leaped even higher.

‘They danced throughout the night, never tiring. It was like Munfrees had been cursed by the music. When the first light came over the hills, the fire died, the musicians stopped, and the dancers fell to the ground. Those pretty slippers the women wore to attract the men and show off their slender strong ankles and hint at their legs were danced to rags. The horsehair on the fiddler’s bow was tattered and fluttered in the wind. The skin on the drummer’s drum was thin, so thin that one more beat would have broken it. The men’s jackets and trousers were split at the seams. Aye, it was a sore-looking and tired group that greeted the dawn that morning in Munfrees. They were too stunned to speak or wonder at what they had done. They dragged their weary bodies home and fell into their beds to sleep throughout that day and the next night too.

‘All except the boy. He watched the villagers stumbling home. “Come back, come back,” he cried. “Keep dancing. Dance with me.” But the villagers ignored him. One by one they entered their houses and closed their doors, leaving the boy alone in the open space by the boats.

‘When the boy saw that no one would dance with him, he turned his back on the village and walked between the boats down to the sea. It was one of those mornings when the waves are ripples on the surface of the sea, barely lifting the water. It was more like the sea was whispering against the land, breathing quietly, each incoming wave little more than a foam hissing for a foot or two across the sand. The music was still loud in the boy’s ears. He hummed a bit of a tune and danced a step and then another. A line of footprints formed in the wet sand by the water’s edge, some shallow where he had put his whole foot down, others deeper where he had capered on his toes. It was like he had written a record of the dance on the sand.

‘The prints filled with water that gleamed in the light. A wave surged higher up the sand than the others and tugged at the sand, softening the footprints that the boy had left. The boy danced back across the sand. A second wave erased the new footprints. The boy laughed. He danced back and forth between the waves. He moved so quickly that the sea never caught him. As one wave ebbed back into the sea, the boy would streak across the shore, leaping and turning to the music in his head, and jumping onto the rocks at the edge of the sand before the next wave came in.

‘ “Dance with me,” he cried to the sea. And the sea laughed and began to dance with the boy. Caper for caper, turn for turn, step for step, they moved as if they were one, now drawing apart and inviting the other to follow, now coming together and smiling flirtatiously at each other. No pair of lovers have ever danced so joyfully as did the boy and the sea. The boy’s ears filled with the music of the dance, the beats of the bodhrán sounding from within the waves, the fiddle’s tune in the wind.

‘It was early morning when their dance began, while Munfrees lay in the shadow of the hills to the west. Far out at sea the sun shone on the water, making a great pool of light. As the sun rose over the hills, the light rushed toward the shore. It was like a golden path on the surface of the water. But the boy had no thought for anything but the music and the dance. The waves leaped higher and higher and moved faster and faster. “Dance with me,” the sea cried. The lover called to the beloved. The path of light bedazzled the boy’s eyes and befuddled his senses. He danced along the golden path, leaping with the waves, until he was far out to sea. And still the music gripped him.

‘That was the last the villagers saw of him. When they awoke the second day after the dance, the area between the boats and the sea was filled with small footprints, but that was all that remained of the boy.

‘Still, sometimes, when the sea rages towards the shore and the wind catches at the waves and blows the water off the top of them, if you look closely, you can see the boy dancing along the waves as they curl. The men who go out to fish say that when the sunlight shimmers on the water far out at sea, they can see someone dancing there. And there are those who swear that on quiet nights they have heard voices coming from the sea, one deep and full and one high and thin like a child’s, saying “Come dance with us. Dance with us.” Those who have lived to tell the tale say it is hard to resist that call. Their feet begin to twitch as if the music were beckoning them to take to the floor. They need all their will to turn their backs on the sea and close their ears to the music. But there are some who cannot resist, who dance away with the sea and are never seen alive again.’

Mrs Ahern turned her gaze away from the sea and looked down at me. ‘So, young Patrick Brennan, it is wise to be careful around the sea. It can take you away if you are foolish enough to listen to it.’ She held out one of the pails she was carrying. ‘Here. Take this. You can help me milk the cow. I hear you are good at it. Your hands aren’t rough from work yet, and the cow likes you.’

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Too Late for Hallelujah

Too Late for Hallelujah

© 2011 by the author

The trucks rumbling down the street invaded Edwin White’s sleep, his dream merging with the sound outside and coalescing into a nightmare. He came to with a start. For a second Edwin did not know if he was awake or asleep. He clutched the blanket and pulled it up to his chin as if to protect his body. He lay there warily alert, tracking the movement of the convoy as it neared his block. His breath caught in his throat, and his heart raced. Sweat beaded his forehead.

As he had grown older, almost any noise awakened him. Others might sleep through a child crying or footsteps in the hallway outside, but not Edwin. Even the sound of someone coughing or a toilet flushing in a nearby apartment woke him. Traffic during the curfew roused everyone, however. And these particular drivers made no attempt to creep stealthily down the street. They wanted to be heard. The trucks’ transmissions screeched shrilly during the frequent changes of gear, and the treads of their oversized tires hummed as they tore at the asphalt paving. No one who heard them needed to lift the edge of the curtain and peek out the window to see who was driving past that early in the morning. Nor did anyone want to attract their attention by standing at a window. It was safest to present a façade of innocent slumbers unperturbed by night noises.
Edwin lay tensely in bed, afraid to move lest he attract attention to himself even through the walls shielding him from the eyes of those passers-by. He held his breath, waiting for the squeal of brakes and the familiar sequence of terror. The shouts of the officers propelling the Guardians from the trucks and forming them into squads, the cadenced tramp of their boots against the ground, their chanting as they invaded one of the apartment towers, the screams of those arrested, and then the sudden silence as the Guardians clubbed them into unconsciousness. Not until he heard the Guardians march noisily back to their trucks and race off with their harvest of prisoners for the day would he be able to ease himself down into his bed again and try to find sleep for what remained of the night. Edwin wondered if everyone in the surrounding apartment blocks was praying, as he was, not me, please, God, not me, let it be someone else.

His fingers closed around the “quietus” pill in the dish atop the nightstand. He had stolen it years before from the pharmacy of the hospital in which he had worked before he retired. An order had come down to dispense the pill for a terminally ill patient in one of the private wards. Only the rich and the powerful could afford such drugs. They were not available to ordinary patients. Of course, no one called them quietus pills. The fiction was that they were simply strong sedatives used to alleviate the sufferings of those in extreme pain, a kindness in the final hours of life. But everyone knew that they brought instantaneous death, apparently without pain. Within seconds, the heart stopped and breathing ceased.

But by the time Edwin had filled out the necessary paperwork, had it signed by his supervisor and the attending physicians, presented the papers to the guards at the locked storeroom, waited for them to check and stamp the forms, retrieved the drug from the safe under their watchful eyes, and delivered the pill to the patient’s room, she had already died. The regulations called for unused drugs to be destroyed. He had completed the proper forms, but instead of putting it with the other pills to be incinerated, he substituted a similar looking capsule to keep the count accurate. The technician who operated the incinerator was lazy and never bothered to check each pill against the list the pharmacists gave him. He simply counted them to make sure the totals matched. To make sure that he paid even less attention, Edwin distracted him with chatter about the upcoming baseball season. Edwin wrapped the pill in plastic film and carried it away with the remains of his lunch. He deliberately exited the building at the end of his shift, along with hundreds of other workers, instead of waiting for the crush to clear. The guards at the exit made him turn his pockets and cuffs out and patted him down. They opened his lunchbox and glanced inside, but Edwin was relying on their reluctance to soil their hands by poking through half-eaten food. He was successful. The guard slammed the lid of his lunch box shut and handed it back to him. He waved Edwin away and impatiently motioned for the next person in the queue to step forward.

Now that he was retired, Edwin always kept the quietus pill on his person during the day and beside his bed at night. The rubbery softness of the capsule reassured him. If ever the Guardians came in the night for him, he would crush the pill between his teeth as soon as he heard the first thuds of the ram against his door. He would be dead before they found him. He thought he was safe, however. He had followed all the rules, conformed in every way demanded. The state had no reason to notice him and make an example of him, but then the state needed no reason. Some days they just needed a face for the evening news broadcasts or a subject for the preachers’ sermons. The state always had its case prepared.

But he thought himself an unlikely candidate now that he was 76 and had officially reached the status of senior citizen. He was safe at least until his savings ran out or until he had a serious illness. That really was why he had the pill. Better to die at the time of his own choosing rather than wait for the state to confiscate his life and charge him with becoming a public burden. Of course, the state would see his suicide as a crime. For the state, the good citizen gave his life willingly to the state to help others see the truth. But he would be past punishment.

The convoy continued down the street, the sound gradually growing more and more distant. Then Edwin remembered. It was the first Monday of the month. He often lost track of the date since he had reached retirement age at the end of the previous year. Today was the day of the citizens’ festival at the stadium. There would be no arrests today.

The trucks were transporting the participants in the event. There were never less than one hundred and often many times more. He wondered if he should attend. Everyone was expected to play a part in the monthly festivals two or three times each year. He hadn’t been since July, and a fourth consecutive absence might be noticed. He no longer had the excuse of work for missing them. The forecast predicted mild weather, probably the last of the year for the festival. If he attended today’s, he could use the pretexts of his age and the colder weather to justify skipping another three or four months and not go again until the spring.

The stadium sat over two hundred thousand people, about one-fifth of the adult population of the city. The chances of his being chosen as a juror or as the Messenger were quite small. He always clung—secretly—to that small point. It would not do to show less than enthusiastic hope in public that one might be chosen and disappointment when one was not. But, to his relief, he had never been among those selected in the fifty-eight years since he had become eligible. He had attended almost two hundred festivals, but he had never been one of those called to play a more active role in them. He couldn’t have done that, he knew. He had spent his life feigning a commitment to the state. Survival depended on outward conformity and lip service. Luckily he had never been required to demonstrate his willingness to be a “good citizen” more actively or had to test his resolve never to be more than a passive participant in a festival.

When the sirens sounded to indicate that curfew had ended, he switched on the light beside his bed. He knew that if he looked out the window now, he would see hundreds of lights being turned on. He dressed quickly and then drew back the curtains. Good citizens did not hide behind curtains. They had no secrets from the neighbors. As he ate his breakfast at the table in front of the window, he planned his day’s activities. Should he do his shopping before or after the festival? The stores opened at 7:00 and he wouldn’t have to be at the stadium until around 10:30. Perhaps he should wait until after the ceremony. There was always tomorrow in any case. It was the beginning of the month, plenty of time to spend his assigned quota. It was best to arrive at the festival early—that was viewed as enthusiasm.

He left his apartment at 9:00 and caught a bus. It had, he realized immediately, been wise to skip the shopping and leave so early. Even three hours before the start of the festival, the streets leading to the stadium were already jammed. All the seats were taken, and the aisle of the bus was packed. A child perched on her knees faced the window, watching the scene outside slide past. The young man seated next to the aisle picked her up and moved over, nodding at Edwin as he did so. Edwin maneuvered his body gratefully past the other standees and into the seat the young man had vacated. “Thank you. Your daughter? What a pretty child.”

“You’re welcome,” said the young man. “Say ‘thank you’ to the man, Susan.”

The child glared at Edwin and struggled in the young man’s arms. “Let me go, Daddy. I wanna sit by myself.” She kicked at Edwin’s leg with one of her feet and elbowed him in the chest.

“Now, behave yourself, Susan, or I’ll take you back to school and Daddy will go to the festival alone.” The man grabbed the child’s foot and pulled it back. He glanced apologetically toward Edwin. “This is her first festival. She’s very excited. I arranged for her to take a day off from school. She’s going to make a report to her class tomorrow and tell them all about what happens today. Aren’t you, Susan?” He smiled at the child. When he received no response from his daughter, he turned back to Edwin. “They have had several lessons on attending festivals, and the school is encouraging parents to take their children so that they can experience one firsthand and practice what they have learned.” He put his arms tightly around the squirming child and held her firmly. “And the first lesson, Susan, is that we behave. Bad children are not allowed to sit in the stands and watch the festival. They have to take part and learn their lesson in another way.”

The threat worked. The child ceased her struggles and turned her attention back to the street, pointedly ignoring both her father and Edwin. There was much to attract her notice. The closer the bus got to the stadium, the more crowded the sidewalks became. Throngs of people dressed in the national colors of white and gold and waving miniature flags spilled out into the street. The crowd-controllers tried to keep a path open for traffic, but even they were infected with the festive mood of the crowd and grew tolerant of jaywalking and other minor offenses.

The young man offered Edwin the support of an arm when they reached the bus stop and began the trek up the hill to the stadium. He accepted with thanks. As the crowd neared the entrance gates, the fences and barricades forced the throng into orderly lines. A group of young people in the queue ahead of Edwin had painted their faces and hands white and gold. One of them was exclaiming, “Today’s my turn. I woke up this morning feeling lucky. I just know I’m going to be picked to be the Messenger.” Her companions laughed and shouted her down. “Not a chance, Sarah.” “You should be so lucky.” The line became more subdued as it neared the entrance, each person holding out his or her identity card to be scanned and receiving a ticket with a seat assignment in return.

Edwin was relieved to find that his seat was in one of the lower tiers. His knees would have protested if he had had to climb to the upper seats. He thanked the young man for his help and waved good-bye to the daughter, who scowled at him and turned away. Their seats were in the section reserved for those with small children. The young man wished him good luck on being chosen as a juror or the Messenger—because he was with his daughter and needed to watch her, he was not eligible for selection. Edwin almost wished that he had a grandchild to take to festivals so that he did not risk being conscripted into serving. The young man’s good fortune, Edwin noted, was mixed, however. The child was already pulling her father by the hand toward the concession stands and pestering him to buy her a souvenir doll dressed in a hooded black robe. The man won’t get much enjoyment from today’s festival, thought Edwin. The daughter had better learn to behave or she will end up becoming a participant in a festival as the father had threatened.

The stadium was filling rapidly, and Edwin’s progress toward his seat was slow. Luckily it was three seats in from the aisle, and he only had to edge past two people to reach it. Even more fortunate, the seats further in were already filled. With any luck no one would step on his toes getting in or out. And he wasn’t too far from an exit gate. He should be among the first to leave after the festival ended and might even catch one of the first buses. The last time, he had waited over two hours in the bus queue.

The noise level rose as the start of the ceremony drew closer. A person sitting two rows behind Edwin had brought an air horn and let it off every few minutes to the encouragement of his companions. When the cheerleaders rushed onto the central platform waving white and gold pompoms, the crowd exploded. The stadium became a moving sea of flags and banners, and the cheers grew deafening as the crowd rose to its feet and sang the anthem of the fighters of the Second Revolutionary War. Its rousing chorus with its repeated refrain of “Death to the . . .” and its long list of outlawed groups was particularly popular at these events. The song ended with a sustained cheer from the crowd.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our leader for this joyous occasion,” the stadium announcer’s voice cut through all the noise, bringing expectant silence. “The Reverend Todd Heath.” The crowd erupted in cheers again as Heath came into view on the top tier of the platform. Heath raised his hands above his head and waved. The platform on which he stood rotated slowly to allow him to acknowledge the applause coming at him from all sides.

The supersize television screens suspended above the platform simultaneously displayed his image. The wind ruffled his silver hair. His locks were still abundant despite his seventy-plus years. His white teeth shone against his sun-bronzed skin. His blue eyes twinkled in his guileless face. “God blessed me with looks and health,” he was fond of saying. “And He has further blessed me with abundant opportunities to use them to His greater glory.”

Heath motioned for the crowd to be quiet. They responded by applauding and cheering even more loudly. Heath smiled helplessly at someone off screen and shrugged his shoulders. He raised his arms again and waved to the crowd. After a minute, he began speaking. His amplified voice echoed throughout the stadium. “Let us pray.” All sound in the stadium ceased instantly. Everyone stood silent, hands clasped before their chests, their heads bowed, their eyes tightly shut.

“O Lord, who guides us in the path of righteousness, bless our endeavors today and watch over us as we celebrate Thy victories. Bless our President-for-Life and support her in her holy work of cleansing our nation of sinners and leading us to Thee. Bless those who help her. Bless the members of the Revolutionary Army and lead them to victory in their wars against the remnants of the heathen states in the west and the northeast still resisting Thy goodness. Bless the Guardians and help them root out the sinners in our midst and deliver them to Thy justice. Give us this day the wisdom to judge the wicked brought before us. Lend us the strength of Thy mighty arms so that we can render the punishments they have earned. . . .”

Reverend Heath continued praying for another fifteen minutes. Edwin felt someone move almost noiselessly down the aisle near him. Without opening his eyes, he knew that it was a Guardian watching the crowd for any sign of restlessness or disrespect. The Guardian and his colleagues would not interrupt the prayer, but they would record the seat number of anyone they found wanting. The misdemeanor would be entered on that person’s record and followed up by a visit from the local warden, if not a member of the Guard.

With one voice, the crowd echoed Heath’s closing “amen.” There was a loud rustle as everyone sat down. Hats were replaced on heads, programs were consulted, water bottles were pulled out, and drinks and snacks were hurriedly purchased from the hawkers who suddenly swarmed the aisles. Someone seated further down Edwin’s row bought four bags of peanuts, and the money and then the bags were handed from person to person. The bags were still warm from the roasted peanuts as Edwin passed them on.

Heath let the crowd settle in for a few moments before continuing. “And now, we will select the jury for today. I am pleased to announce that Patriot Motors on Avenue of the Revolutionary Martyrs in Park Woods is giving each member of the jury a new car to celebrate their work here today. Patriot Motors, where every day is a sales day, is proud to sell only cars manufactured solely with components made in this nation.  It guarantees that all parts are made by your fellow citizens for you. Please join me in giving a big round of applause for Mr. Robert Wilson, President of Patriot Motors.”

Beside the jury box, a man stood up and waved to the crowd to acknowledge the applause. The television screens briefly showed his face before cutting back to Reverend Heath.

“Each member of the jury will also receive a gift certificate worth 500 Revolutionary Dollars from NewMart, your one-stop center for all your shopping needs. If you can’t find it at NewMart, you can’t find it anywhere. NewMart guarantees that everything it sells is made here in the home of democracy and freedom by certified citizens just for you. Ladies and gentlemen, remember to support NewMart the next time you go shopping. And now, Citizens, the selection of the jury. The names will be chosen at random by the stadium computer. If your name is called, please identify yourself to the nearest Guardian, who will escort you to the jury box, where Mr. Wilson will hand you the keys to your new car. Our jury bailiff for today is Angela Carson, this year’s student association president and head cheerleader at Holy Tabernacle High School. After Holy Tabernacle’s football team lost its first two games this year, Angela knew that the Lord must be angry with the school. Thanks to her investigations, the Guardians were able to arrest a group of teachers and students who were polluting the school with foul practices. The Lord showed his pleasure the next Friday by granting Holy Tabernacle’s football team a victory. Please join me in welcoming Angela, a model for young women everywhere.”

A teenage girl bounded up the steps leading to the platform. Her long blond hair was swept back into a ponytail. She wore a white, long-sleeved blouse, a gold skirt that fell below her knees, white knee socks, and gold tennis shoes. To celebrate the day’s events, she had tied a gold and white ribbon around her ponytail and wore a belt in the same colors. The maiden’s monitor suspended from a gold chain around her neck glowed white to indicate her continued purity of mind and body.

Heath advanced to meet her, microphone in hand. Angela smiled, revealing a perfect row of straight, white teeth. “Oh, I’m so honored to meet you.” The words spilled out in a high-pitched squeal, magnified a hundred times over by the loudspeakers. Angela giggled, “And nervous too.”

“No need to feel nervous, Angela. Everyone here is rooting for you today. Well, not everyone. There are a few people who aren’t happy to be here, but we’ll deal with them later.” Heath grinned and winked knowingly at the cameras. The crowd exploded in raucous laughter, mixed with cheers for Angela and a few jeers for those to be dealt with later.

“How do you feel today, young lady?”

“Well, I’m like so honored to have been chosen. It’s a great responsibility. But I know that it’s not me who is choosing today’s jury. I am but a vessel for that power that is mightier than all of us and who has blessed this great nation with a leader who can restore His dominion on earth. The Lord is choosing the jury today. I am only His humble servant.” Angela’s face shone with fervor.

“Praise the Lord,” shouted Heath. The audience rose to its feet, and the cheerleaders led the crowd in repeating his remark. The stadium rang with their cries. On stage, Heath escorted Angela to a large display board, with a prominent red button. His voice could not be heard over the noise of the crowd, but the television screens showed him pointing to the button and apparently explaining her duties to Angela. A signal was given, and the cheerleaders turned their backs to the crowd and faced the center platform.

Heath lowered the pitch of his voice and spoke in a deep dramatic tone. “And now, Angela, if you would choose the first juror.”

Angela smiled at Heath, closed her eyes briefly as she mouthed a few words of prayer, and then pushed the red button. Above her a series of nine-digit numbers sped across the television screens. The machine stopped first on the right-most digit, and then a few seconds later on the second digit. One by one the numbers were filled in until the screen was still. A name flashed on the screen.

Heath announced the name jubilantly. “The first juror is Michele Brookman. Come on down, Michele.”

A television camera zeroed in the face of a middle-aged woman. She held her hands to her cheeks, and her mouth gaped open in surprise. Her companions patted her on the back in congratulation. The man sitting beside her hugged and kissed her. A Guardian came down the aisle and motioned for the others sitting in the row to move aside so that Michele could reach the aisle. She waved to the crowd and rushed down the steps as the crowd applauded. When she reached the jury box, the president of Patriot Motors handed her the keys to her new car.

“And how do you feel, Michele?”  Heath motioned for an aide to hold a microphone close to her mouth.

“I’m so honored. I’ve always prayed for this opportunity to serve the Lord and our president. It’s a dream come true for me.”

“The Lord and the nation are depending on you, Michele. Don’t fail us.”

“You can count on me to do my duty, Reverend Heath. I won’t falter.”

“Take your seat, Michele Brookman. This is your lucky day.” Heath spread his right arm expansively and motioned the woman to sit. Brookman smiled and waved at the crowd again. Heath waited until the applause for her was dying before speaking again. “And now, Angela, the second name.”

The same ceremony was repeated eleven times. Each juror selected outdid those selected earlier in fervent protestations of a desire to serve. When all twelve members of the jury were seated, Heath addressed the crowd again. Edwin let his thoughts drift. Heath would talk for half an hour on the virtues of the state, the importance of vigilance, and the duties of good citizens to practice goodness and watch their neighbors for signs of weakness or backsliding. Weaknesses were to be reported to the local warden, backsliding to the Guardians’ special hotline. Even though monetary rewards were given for such reports, the good citizen cherished not the money but the satisfaction of working to promote goodness. It was a familiar message, one that everyone heard dozens of times a month, if not daily. Edwin kept half an ear cocked to respond at appropriate times with applause and other expressions of enthusiasm. When he heard Heath call for everyone to stand and pray for the safety and well-being of the President-for-Life, he knew that the preacher had reached the end of his sermon.

Everyone remained standing with head bowed until the playing of the national anthem finished. Edwin didn’t recognize the singer, but, as he reminded himself, he no longer kept up with popular music. To judge from the enthusiastic cheers from the younger members of the audience, the singer was well known.

“And now, Citizens, are we ready to rumble?” Loud cheers and whistles greeted Heath’s question. No one knew why, but it was the traditional signal for the start of the second half of the festival.  Led by the cheerleaders, the crowd began shouting “Bring them to judgment. Bring them to judgment.” For several minutes the demands grew louder and louder.

When everyone in the audience was standing and shaking both fists in the air, Heath signaled for silence. “And now, Citizens, the moment we have all been waiting for.” A long drumroll began as the picture on the screens above the platform focused on one end of the stadium where two uniformed attendants were opening a gate. For a minute all that was visible was a gaping black hole. Then a squadron of Guardians marched out and formed two rows stretching from the gate to the central platform. When they were all in place, they turned as one and faced one another across the space between the rows.

As Heath announced “Citizens, the first group comes to judgment,” a line of people began entering the stadium. A pair of Guardians escorted each of them, holding them tightly by their arms. Their hands were cuffed behind their backs, and each wore a black robe with a black hood over their head. “Today the first group consists of three persons accused of manslaughter and five of murder.”

The Guardians led each person in the group to one of the hundreds of poles that suddenly rose from the stadium floor and refastened the handcuffs so that the person was chained tightly to a pole. The crowd gasped in anticipation as the number of poles sunk in. Today’s festival promised to be special.

“Praise the Lord,” someone in the row behind Edwin said. “There must be four or five hundred participants today.”

“I knew this would be a good day to attend,” said someone else. “The Messenger’s reward will be enormous. I hope I get selected.”

“Members of the jury, what say you,” Heath intoned, “Guilty or not guilty?”

“Guilty,” shouted each member of the jury.

The crowd clapped politely. Only a few whistled or cheered. The person sitting to Edwin’s left yawned. Her elbow hit his arm as she covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh, pardon me. I didn’t get enough sleep last night, I was so excited about today’s festival.” She gestured at the group of eight murderers. “I’ve heard that they’re thinking of eliminating this group from the festival. I hope they do. This is so boring.”

“It’s supposed to make us appreciate what comes later,” Edwin smiled sympathetically and mouthed the usual rationale for including those who had taken or attempted to take a life. “But you’re right. This isn’t the most exciting bit. Still, they deprived the Republic of the services of another person. And for that they should be here.”

“I suppose so,” said the woman. “But it will never be my favorite part of the festival. I guess I’m just impatient for the morals segment today. I reported the couple who lives next door. They were behaving inappropriately in public. Kissing and pawing at each other. They couldn’t keep their hands to themselves, and with the drapes open so that anyone looking in their windows could see them. Luckily they were only married a few months ago, so they don’t have any children. I think it’s terrible when the children have to suffer for their parents’ mistakes.”

“They were arrested?”

“Oh, yes, three weeks ago. They didn’t return, and the block warden told me that their unit has been reassigned. So I’m hoping they will be here today, and I can collect the reward. Of course, I didn’t turn them in because of the reward. We have to protect ourselves from immorality. We all know where tolerance of sinners led the last time.”

Edwin nodded to show that he was listening. His eyes were on the television screens. Down on the field, the technicians had finished their preparations. As each of the eight criminals was wired, a Guardian pulled the hood off exposing the criminal to public view. The television cameras zoomed in on the faces one by one. As it did so, the person’s name and address and the crime of which he or she had been found guilty appeared at the bottom of the screen. Five of them waited with the usual resignation of the condemned. The faces were slack and betrayed no emotion. Their bodies slumped forward away from the poles to which they were chained. A young woman, a mother whose child had drowned while she was occupied elsewhere, was crying and pleading for mercy. A man struggled against his chains and began jeering at the Reverend Heath. A Guardian rushed over and hit him with the butt of his rifle, knocking him unconscious. The eighth person, an elderly woman, appeared to have fainted. She had attempted suicide upon learning that she had cancer and that her medical benefits had run out. Luckily she had been found and resuscitated. The state expected its citizens to show forbearance and acceptance of their fate and not attempt to short-circuit their eventual demise.

“No abortionists today,” said the woman beside him. “There must be none left. Are the women still included in the morals group?” She sounded disappointed.

“I think so,” said Edwin. “They were at the last festival I attended.”

Heath’s face filled the screens again. “And now, Citizens, the second group comes to judgment.”

Down on the field, the cheerleading squads lined up on either side of the rows of Guardians. “Make ’em pay. Make ’em pay,” they began to chant. As the doors in the stadium walls swung open and the line of those accused of economic crimes began to emerge, the crowd joined in the chant. The organist began tapping out the rhythm of “Make ’em pay” on his instrument. The crowd clapped in time, and the chants grew louder and louder. The cheerleaders began to form pyramids. Each time one of the cheerleaders completed a successful vault on to the shoulders of her fellow team members, the crowd cheered.

The number of criminals in the second group was much larger. It took nearly half an hour for all of them to be paraded onto the field and then bound to the stakes. By the time the last criminal had been dealt with, the stadium was rocking with trumpet blasts and shouts. The cheerleaders led an even more tumultuous round of “Make ’em pay.”

Heath let the chant continue for several minutes before motioning for silence. “Members of the jury, what say you? Guilty or not guilty?”

The answers of the jury were drowned out by the shouts of the crowd demanding punishment. The television screens displayed the statistics. The twelve jurors had found all 132 of those accused of economic crimes guilty. There were 54 cases of theft, 28 cases of work sabotage, and 40 cases of medical or welfare claims exceeding the lifetime allotment. The Guardians quickly wired each of them. The crowd was growing impatient for the third group to be led out.

Even before the Guardians were finished, Heath motioned for silence. “And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The third group comes to judgment.” Heath paused to build suspense. The crowd waited breathlessly. When Heath was satisfied that the moment was right, he said, “Today we have 33 members of outlawed political parties, including a coven of 22 Democrats discovered in East Ferndale; 14 environmentalists; 6 proponents of ‘evil’ution; 23 feminists and witches; 42 unpatriotic wretches who expressed discontent with our government and the President-for-Life; 18 heathens and nonbelievers; and 143 people accused of improper sexual behavior, including 8 couples accused of public immorality, 10 couples who committed adultery, 11 women who sought to use birth control, and a shocking 96 perverts. I refused to sully my mouth or your ears with the crimes of which those 96 are guilty. I can only add that it is thanks to the efforts of Angela Carson that 89 of those in this group were uncovered at Holy Tabernacle High School and their godless practices brought to an end.”

Heath paused between each group to give the crowd time to hiss and boo. Heath’s announcement of the size of the last group momentarily stunned the crowd into silence. The number of perverts was unusually large. Most of these had supposedly been removed from the body politic at the close of the War of the Second Revolution.

“I know that most of you,” Heath continued over the noise of the crowd, “will be shocked at the young age of many of these criminals in the last group. You may be inclined to pity. Do not be. We must defend ourselves against this unspeakable practice and rid ourselves of those among us who would revive it. Have no pity. Show them no mercy.”

Before he had finished speaking, half the crowd was on its feet, jeering and shouting for punishment of the offenders. A chant of “Stone them, stone them” started in the section of the stadium reserved for the families of the accused and quickly spread around the amphitheater.

Heath motioned for silence. “What say you, members of the jury? Guilty or not guilty?”

The jury rose as one and cried out “Guilty.” Applause and cheers filled the stadium as everyone stood up. The screens above the platform zoomed in on the face of a boy, one of those convicted of perversion. He was shuddering so uncontrollably that the pole he was attached to was shaking. He looked up and watched as the Guardians positioned a large stone ball above his head. It was held in place by a guide wire secured to a crossbar. The bottom end of the wire was attached to the chain at the back of his neck. As tears rolled down his face, the crowd began to laugh and point at him.

“He can’t be more than twelve or thirteen,” thought Edwin. “What could someone that young do that was perverted? What did he do to catch that Angela’s attention? Eighty-nine people—she’ll be set up for life with all the reward money she’s earning today.”

The jeers of the crowed continued as the Guardians wired the rest of the third group and suspended a large stone above each person convicted of perversion or adultery. As the last of the Guardians moved away, however, the crowd suddenly became silent.

“And now, Citizens, it is time to choose the Messenger. Please welcome Angela back.” A polite round of applause followed Heath’s request. The audience was too intent on the next act of the ceremony to accord her more than minimal amount of attention. “In a few seconds, Angela will activate the computerized program that will randomly select the Messenger. We know that you will want to congratulate the person chosen, but we ask that you refrain from obstructing the aisles and allow him or her to reach the platform quickly.”

Heath consulted a piece of paper before continuing. “I am pleased to announce that today’s Messenger will receive a new car from Patriot Motors on Avenue of the Revolutionary Martyrs in Park Woods, a certificate from NewMart worth one thousand Revolutionary Dollars, and a check for $50,000 personally signed by the President-for-Life.”

“Oh, what a big prize today,” said the woman next to Edwin. She crossed her fingers and silently mouthed a few words of prayer. “I hope I get chosen. I hope. I hope.” Everyone in the stadium leaned forward.

“And now, Angela, if you will select the Messenger.”

Angela clasped her hands in front of her chest and again bowed her head in prayer for a minute. Then she stepped up to the console and pressed the selection button. She looks insufferable, thought Edwin.

The television screens showed a blur of numbers as the computer cycled through the list of nine-digit ID numbers of all those in the crowd who qualified for selection. Again the right-most slot was the first to be filled in. One by one, the remaining slots were filled. For a few seconds the ID number of the person selected remained on the screen. Then the numbers faded, to be replaced by a shot of Edwin’s stunned face.

“It’s you. It’s you,” shouted the woman sitting next to Edwin. “Oh, you are so lucky.” She began thumping him enthusiastically on the back. When others seated nearby realized that Edwin was the Messenger, they too began touching him and congratulating him. A group of Guardians quickly moved up the aisle to the row in which Edwin sat. They beckoned the other members of the crowd to move back and allow Edwin to reach the aisle.

It had happened—something that Edwin had counted himself lucky to avoid all his adult life. All he could think of was the young boy’s tearful face. He did not want to be the Messenger for him, or anyone else. He reached in his pocket and found the tissue that he had wrapped around the quietus pill. He removed the pill quickly and, on the pretext of covering his mouth while coughing, put it in his mouth and crushed it between his teeth and swallowed the liquid. There was no taste.

He felt weak and faint. He stumbled and nearly fell. The officer in charge of the group of Guardians escorting Edwin motioned two of them forward. They practically carried Edwin down the stairs and onto the field.

“Citizens, the Messenger for today is Edwin White.” Down on the field, Heath was reading a short account of Edwin’s life to fill in the time it took Edwin to make his way to the platform. Edwin felt like one of the condemned. The pill wasn’t working. He should have been dead by now. It must have been too old to be effective. He couldn’t go through with it. He couldn’t play the assigned role of the Messenger. But if he refused, he would be cuffed to a pole and wired up. His breath grew short. He felt weak.

“Here, are you all right?” The commander of the Guardians looked into Edwin’s face with concern.

Edwin shook his head slightly. “Dizzy . . . the excitement,” he said.

The commander signaled to Heath. Over the loud speakers, Edwin heard Heath say, “Citizen White is overcome with emotion at the honor of being chosen the Messenger. Let’s give him a warm round of applause to encourage him and show our appreciation.”

The organist played a six-note fanfare ending on an upbeat. As one, the crowd leaped to its feet and shouted “Charge” and then erupted into an orgy of screaming and fist-shaking. As the cheerleaders waved the national flag, thousands of those in attendance did likewise. Every air horn in the stadium sounded.

The Guardians lifted Edwin up the stairs. Edwin felt the platform shift beneath his feet. Black circles swam before his eyes. The bile rose in his throat, and his heart began beating irregularly. Finally, he thought, the pill is working. Heath switched off his microphone. The last thing Edwin heard was Heath saying, “Quickly, help him push the button.”

A Guardian grabbed Edwin’s right hand and bent it into a fist with the index finger extended. The television cameras closed in for a tight shot of Edwin’s finger. Quick editing by the broadcasting crew eliminated the Guardian’s hand from the picture. As the television screens showed Edwin pushing the button, the stones suspended over the heads of the sex offenders were released. As the stones crushed the heads of those beneath them, 2,500 volts of electricity surged through the bodies of all the condemned. Their bodies convulsed and spasmed. Fountains of flames burst from jets in the poles. A smell of burning clothing and hair and flesh drifted across the field. The screams of the condemned went unheard over the jeers and laughter of the crowd.

“Take him below,” ordered the commander, motioning to the two Guardians holding Edwin’s body. “Tell the crowd that he fainted from the excitement,” he said to Heath.

In the staging room under the field, the Guardians dragged Edwin’s body across the floor and left it on a trundle. “What shall we do with it?” asked one of them.

“Just toss it on the trucks with the others and take it to the crematorium,” said the commander. “Poor devil. It must have been a heart attack. Well, he saved the state some money by dying. It will make a good story for tonight’s news. A citizen’s final patriotic act. With his dying breath, he serves the state by fulfilling his duty as the Messenger.” The commander checked himself in a mirror. That peacock Heath was still occupied with the ceremony. If I hurry, he thought, I can find a television reporter before he finishes and be the one to make the announcement. It will be my face on the news tonight and not his. “Hey,” he called to his troops, “What was this guy’s name? Does anyone remember?”