While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Even Better Than The Real Thing

I like writing. Most of the time it is not a chore to spend four hours after work typing words with a serious expression on my face. But sometimes I prefer to write something from the very top of my brain and not care about whether it’s Good or Not Good, or Publishable or Unpublishable.

Off and on these past few weeks I have been diverting these top-of-the-brain impulses into one particular Word file, which kind of became a love letter to Wikipedia. I’m weighing up whether to post this love letter to Wikipedia (a.k.a. ‘Orbital Resonance’) online, but I’d say there’s an 80% chance it will appear somewhere in the next fortnight.

Until then, here is something about Wikipedia, but also not about Wikipedia. I was looking for something a bit different to name a character and found my way onto the Wikipedia page for The Sons of Noah (the biblical figure) and then onto the following two pages:


Dr.Malachi Z. York

According to Wikipedia:

Nuwaubianism is an esoteric cosmology, a collection of religious teachings, a group of religious, tribal, and fraternal organizations, and a set of cultural practices that is multifaceted and ever-changing.
Now, until two hours ago, I don’t think I had any prior knowledge of the movement or its founder, and what follows is discussion based solely on two Wikipedia pages. It’s mind-blending to read too much of this stuff, so to come out at this stage and say anything too negative (or positive) about Nuwaubianism or the people involved or even the dude who created the faith (and is currently serving 135 years in prison for child molestation) would be rash and perhaps even dangerous.

What I want to say is, when I read through some of the stuff on the Nuwaubian page, I thought: there is a great brain for fiction being used for something else. What’s the difference between someone (Malachi Z. York) writing: “People were once perfectly symmetrical and ambidextrous, but then a meteorite struck Earth and tilted its axis causing handedness and shifting the heart off-center in the chest,” and, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, where Chinese people shrink themselves to the size of postage stamps so they can all fit in their country?

The difference, of course, is that one is fiction (Vonnegut) and the other purports not to be (York).

To skim through the bullet points under the Other Nuwaubian Beliefs heading is like reading the unused plot ideas from one of Vonnegut’s notebooks (or Philip K. Dick’s or William Gibson’s or George Saunders’).

  • …some aborted fetuses survive their abortion to live in the sewers, where they are being gathered and organized to take over the world.
  • There is an underground road connecting New York and London.
  • The clocks on Earth used to have a “tick” and a “tock.” Now there is only the “tick.” So time has been changed, and that missing “tock” is up for grabs that can be utilized by extraterrestrial beings who overstand this “altered time,” and they can come in and out of this dimension at will.

In isolation, these might be harmless ideas, or they might be the seeds of satirical sci-fi-leaning stories which entertain readers and supply the odd ‘uh-huh’ moment. But when you start to paste all these ideas together into one cohesive [sic] theology [sic], and tell people to not just suspend their disbelief (as with fiction), but actively believe, that my friends is when the trouble starts.

Actually, I take back that claim that Other Nuwaubian Beliefs section could be mistaken for ideas from the abovementioned writers because only a small fraction of the bullet points are as neutral as those I selected. Most valorise ‘Nubians’ and demonise the many forms of ‘Other’ in a not very ulterior motive. Some of the lighter examples include:

  • Alcoholic beverages are made cheaply available to Nubians by the powers that be in order to preserve their blood and organs better “(just like they preserve organs in jars in laboratories)” for later extraction.
  • Disco was created by the devil to win the souls of the Nubians.

This could still be the brain of a great satirist brain at work. Except, this brain isn’t being used for satire but scripture. And then there’s the concept of Sound Right Reasoning, where:

Nuwaubians try to discover the deeper meanings of words by using a method in which words are decomposed into syllables and then phrases are created using similarly-sounding syllables, so that for instance caucasian becomes “carcass-asian,”[citation needed] extraterrestrials becomes “extra-terra-astrals,”[63]gospel becomes “ghost spell,”[64] Jesus becomes “Jah+Zeus,”[65] planet becomes “plan E.T.,”[66] and television becomes “tell lie vision.”[35]
Ludicrous, right? It sounds like something the title character from George Saunders’ novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil would say.

I’m avoiding a clause-by-clause takedown of Nuwaubian literature because the people I imagine I’m talking to right now don’t need to have What’s Wrong With This Page spelt out to them. And because that’s not what is the most interest to me.

What I’m most interested in is my reaction that some of this would make good fiction. That there is something so appealing about a man who has sixty aliases listed at the bottom of his Wikipedia page and distorts a 1001 source mythologies into this new thing crawling with Vonneguttian ideas, that I am able to scroll over sentences such as, “state prosecutors literally had to cut back the number of counts [of molestation] listed — from well beyond a thousand to slightly more than 200 — because they feared a jury simply wouldn’t believe the magnitude of York's evil…” and all the stuff about medical diagnoses and racism and land bridges from Africa to Georgia. Somehow I am able to push these less interesting (to me) aspects aside and think about this all in terms of fiction.

One track mind. I know.

It sort of hammers home a point which has been floating round in my head since I posted about Zadie Smith’s call for greatness after the no prize verdict for the Willesden Short Story Competition a few weeks ago. Fiction can encompass the ideas which have, in Malachi Z. York’s case, been siphoned off into radical religious doctrine. It can feature characters who believe the devil created disco. But so often it doesn’t. I can see how reading 800 stories mired in realism could get to someone and prevent them from choosing one over the rest.

There’s a place for realism. Don't get me wrong. But is the area we set aside for realism too large? There is unrealism out there. More than enough. But it’s ghettoed off in the genre sections of book stores and the spinning paperback displays in libraries (which I hate, by the way… you can never find books which the catalogue swears are in…). The internet, for all the freedom it provides niche interests and acquired tastes, is happy to let realism reign in the respected journals and magazines. I’m not a big fan of pure sci-fi, so I don’t know a lot about that section of web-ready reading, but it’s pretty bloody hard to find great unrealism writing on the internet. There’s plenty of po-faced realism, and plenty of shoot-from-the-hip word-splashes, and plenty of cutesy, angsty Tao Lin wannabes. Am I typing the wrong words into my search engine when looking for great new voices in unrealism?

Examples of great unrealism writing would the already mentioned Kurt Vonnegut Jr, some George Saunders, some William Gibson… but also Cervantes, Rabelais, and Swift. I’m tempted to say The King James Bible here, but a) it sounds like something a real wanker would say, b) I read more of the stories as summarised on Wikipedia than in the actual Book, and c) I’m don’t want to get into a religious debate after trying so hard to avoid one thus far.

Regardless of my source text, I am drawn to stories like Noah building a big-ass boat and saving animals, then planting a vineyard, getting drunk and exposing himself to his poor son… and dying at the age of 900. That’s a cool story. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you write from the top of your head…

And that’s what’s a little troubling for me right now. This quest to write a million words in a calendar year has already pushed me into new directions. The thing is though, I’m writing so many things at once (usually focussing on one story or section of a larger work for a day or two, then coming back to it five or six days later) that I’m writing realism and unrealism side by side. I have stories which play it straight like, say, Updike or Chekhov, ones which are real with a twist, like Barry Hannah or Lorrie Moore, as well as New Zealand Picaresque with a hint of Barry Crump, and top-of-the-brain things like ‘Orbital Resonance’ and ‘The Kick Inside’. And when I come across something like Nuwaubianism on Wikipedia and go off on tangents about fiction, I feel like I should be writing one way above all others. That this proliferation of styles might just be a sign of my lingering immaturity as a writer. Or worse, that writing as much as I am, I’m still missing the mark I should be aiming for…

But, in my calmer moments, I realise that it is exciting for me is to be in this position. Without the pressure of writing an average of 2732 words a day, I would not have all of these stories on the go, nor would I have gone through the process of articulating whatever it is I’ve just articulated about Nuwaubianism and unrealistic fiction.

So, to those of you who’ve read this far, thanks for indulging me. I know full well what a self-absorbed prat I sound like in posts of this kind, but as I’ve said before: if anything is going to do me in, it might as well be my own words.

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