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Blog Archive October 2012

Words on Walls

It has become a cliché that we are unable to resist telling each other stories. The building blocks of a story are words and images. They transmit a message of how we see, interpret and understand the patterns of everyday life. What we value, what we desire, and what causes us happiness, grief and suffering. It is what makes us human—this ability to transfer thoughts in the envelope of words and images and sail them across space where they land inside someone else’s head. Often that hidden away thing is alienation. The feeling of anger, emptiness, insignificance and fear that things will end badly.

Rats make a powerful image for the excluded. What is more vile, dirty, feared and hated that urban rats? There have been periods of history where ethnic groups have been likened to rats and we know that boxcars followed those words and people were pushed inside them and sent to their deaths.

My images are metaphors. My words are mostly found inside of books I’ve written. I often write about the ‘rats’ because they deserve a voice. And also I sympathize with their lives. Some of my words leak out in spaces other than books but not that much. This information tells you that what I have to say to you is funneled through commercial channels. You buy one of my books. Or can come here and look at my wall and see what I’ve written.

You don’t have to pay for the words found on this blog. You don’t have to go to a store and ask a clerk if they have my words in stock. Because part of what I do is share ideas and connections because I think this creates a kind of wealth. Any time your words or images make you deliberate about something you have always accepted and never taken the time to think about, your wealth has increased.

You can print out these words and give them to your mother, girlfriend or boyfriend or the neighbour next door. I hope that you will consider doing that. Print it out and slip it under the door. Because the ideas expressed on the paper might just increase their wealth, and you as a wealth generator will have added something to another’s life. Words and images are the outlier’s frequency for transmission work, it becomes slightly more difficult for governments and corporations to control the consumers of their words/images. That’s why censorship has and will likely always remain popular in the official arsenal of weapons to win the daily battle with who challenges the masters. A good essay is a survival kit. Food for thought when you get really hungry for an idea and none is around.

Here are words and images on a wall that is worth a library of noir fiction.

I’ve been thinking about one of the little known wealth creators who uses words and images in public places. His name is Banksy.  My good friend Tito Haggardt who together with Mervyn Gillham went to a great amount of trouble to send me Banksy’ Wall and Piece.

I recommend you buy Wall and Piece as a present for upcoming holidays. It may be one of the best gifts you ever give to someone. They will thank you. Like I thank Tito and Mervyn. I owe you. And I always pay my debts especially when someone gives me a book that increases the kind of wealth that I value. This essay is about the wealth I acquired, thanks to the efforts of these two friends. Wealth defined as relieving pain and suffering is explored in a brilliant essay on  Ribbonfarm

Who is Banksy? He’s a blank slate. A famous English blank slate born in 1974. Since the 80s (he started young), Banksy found a powerful tool in graffiti as a way to deliver messages left in public places. You won’t find a picture of him. He chooses to remain off the grid; he communicate only with his words and images left in public places—London, Melbourne, Toronto, Los Angeles. Banksy gets around. Until someone in ‘authority’ dispatches a minimum wage worker with a scraper and hose and orders him to remove the words and images. ‘Graffiti’ is the tag society puts on Banksy’s art and I am here to tell you, that is just wrong.

Banksy creates wealth. It is free. He doesn’t ask for money. Though it seems in recent years he’s become very rich through his acts of rebellion and subversion. It’s the way all systems co-opt the Banksy’s of the world—make them one of the elite. From as far as I can tell, Banksy has remained true to his ideals. It would be like Christopher Hitchens making a dead bed conversion to Christianity for Banksy to appear on the Daily Show wearing an Armani suit.

If you study his images and words you will become richer. This is the place where I want to talk about rich and wealth not in the conventional sense of the money in your bank account the worth of your house or car.  It is liberating to understand that adding wealth can be done without an exchange of money. Your vault filled with the words and images you’ve collected over a life time will need to be reshuffled, refilled, updated, rearranged, and some of the stuff you’ve been holding onto—well just throw it away. Because there’s stuff you base your ideas about life that are based on bullshit—commercialized words are the worst manure because they don’t smell and we are taught the messages are wholesome, good, beautiful and uplifting. That’s how bullshit works. You didn’t know that as you clutched onto them, but trust me all of us need to periodically house clean the word and image horde we believe represents a coherent view of the world.

This weekend when you go outside your house, apartment, room, tent or trailer rig, stop for a moment and look around at the buildings, walls, bridges, and billboards. Take a look at the assault of words and images trying to get inside your head. You hardly notice them. They are part of the landscape. Look closely and you’ll find all of the spaces are covered with words from officials or businesses—lots of large corporations have pasted your landscape with logos, brands, words, and images. These don’t create your wealth in terms of knowing more about the world. These images are a way to extract wealth from you. They call on you to pay money for something. The words and images are intended to be ‘sticky’ to rattle around inside your unconscious thoughts until you turn into a shop, and find yourself putting a product in your shopping cart and you not sure why that is happening.

What Banksy does is claim the space, which has owners who rent it to people selling you bullshit. These people don’t like the Banksy’s of this world. They are outliers, who stencil non-paying words and images on spaces that mock the bullshit, the lies, the deception and hypocrisy of modern consumer driven life and the political class owned by the corporate class. Or maybe they are one in the same and not two separate things. That is a separate debate.

The authorities and business interest hate it when someone like Banksy creates wealth at their expense. This is the ultimate threat to the entire superstructure of capitalism. How does Banksy create wealth? By making the words and images of our overlords who deliver in all spaces we inhibit one Big Message after another, something quite different; those Big Messages suddenly are small, empty and false.

While a case can be made that artist are by the intrinsic nature of their work are engaged in a form of rebellion. Criminal are almost always not rebels but those who find that money is the quickest path to power, and words and images aren’t anything more than the slogans and brands they can’t wait to possess with their stolen proceeds.  Crime fiction—especially the noir crime novels—track the dysfunctional social and political and economic system—showing that putting lipstick on a pig is bound to come to grief once the audience sobers up and pays attention. Banksy’s audience—those who have no voice, no future, no hope or dreams—look to someone to notice there are people like that in the world, to understand that is most people.

BangkokEyes  is a great website for many reasons. One of those reasons is the websites extensive collection of hundreds of graffiti images/words found on walls, sidings, buildings and bridges scattered around Bangkok. As a method of expression by the excluded class of people living on the margins, this is the place where the true pulse of ordinary lives can be found. Not on TV, newspapers, the Internet, or in most books. The raw, vibrant, colourful in your face images of and from people who are ignored and want their stories to be told.

That vast audience for the walls painted with unpaid for words and unrented images and make them look at the paid for stuff in a different way. If the mass audience taught to be consumption machines, could switch off that motor, look around, listen to the silence and then write or paint, they’d write a noir crime fiction or they’d find a blank wall and put a story in images to make us think how most people really see their lives if you shut down the noisy motor that destroys all signals except the paid for ones. Tune in to another frequency. Next time you go out the door. Look for what the forces that shape your view of reality want you to ignore.

We have only the illusion of the buyers of wall space to go on. When the caveman carries the tray of fast food and stares at the audience, he’s saying, “WTF are you staring at?”

The answer for those who live margined lives confined to the outside, the message is obvious:  Banksy just held up a mirror. For a second time, the same question screams at your from the screen—WFT are you looking at?

That’s you. That me. Can I supersize your day?

Posted: 10/25/2012 8:47:22 PM 

 

Self-Deception and Self-Forgetting

Watching the presidential debate Wednesday morning (17th October) Bangkok time was a reminder that what people saw, judged, and talked about was the ‘self’ on display by both Governor Romney and President Obama. The projection of ‘self’ is as important as the substance of their respective policies.

Such a debate is a medium in which the presence of ‘self’ becomes the central message. Projection of that ‘self’ is intended to convince the watchers of ‘self’ that the person on display is trustworthy, reliable, honest, quick witted, capable and knowledgeable.  The color of the necktie, the American flag pin on the lapel, the smiles, smirks and frowns, the standing and pacing and circling, the position of the head and eyes all give clues as to the ‘self’ seeking to convince others of his leadership qualities. Each of these selves deliver packets of memories—of events, incidents, meetings, and those memories are paraded and defended as if they are universal in validity. Viewers are asked to ally their memories with the person addressing them. It happened this way or that way, or this is what I said, or what someone else said.

Memories are transient, fallible, and often distorted or false. It should be obvious that people remember different things, emphasize some details over others, overlook or fail to see something. In reality, people cling to their memories like a dog to a soup bone. That memory is provisional, often unreliable, or incomplete is a hard concept to accept for many. Western culture is built on an idea of ‘self’ that depends on the reliability and trustworthiness of memory. No one hears in a presidential debate a call to humility when it comes to memory. No one ever finds an admission that the other person’s memory, though different, may prove to be correct. Presidential debates are verbal wars between competing self’s (the attempt to call them ‘visions’ or ‘points of view’ are disingenuous), the compulsion to win the debate means defeating the other self, and along the way the casualty count includes ignoring the role of fallibility, gray zones of doubt, or cognitive biases.

Debates are in the same category as writing an essay, an opinion piece, or non-fictional account of an event or personality. The ‘I’ of the writer is front and center. He or she is uncoiling judgments, opinions, speculations, marshalling arguments and facts—the techniques featured in most non-fiction writing. The author of the essay like the debater doesn’t disappear and open a realm occupied by ‘characters’ with their ‘dialogue’ and their fears, uncertainties and doubts locked inside their private interior, the emotional realms where, in fact, most people spend a great deal of their time.

Debates and writing are influenced by the values and social norms. The starting point is to ask whether the debate you watch or the book you read is influenced by a culture based on a religion that promotes self-preservation or one that advocates self-extinguishment.

The three major abrahamic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—share a similar belief—‘self’ preservation in the afterworld. It goes by the name of a ‘soul’ but that is religion speak for the you; the self, the one you know and love—will exist for eternity in heaven or hell. That gives a presidential debate a mythic, biblical quality as two selves—two self-identified angels—battle for supremacy. One will prevail just as the other will fail.

What is missing in an essay or a debate is the absence of self. In Buddhism the ultimate goal in life is to have extinguished the ‘self’. This is what I find the essential difference between what I am writing in this piece and when I am writing a novel. At every turn, I am aware of myself in writing these words. They are mine. The thoughts behind them belong to me. I have called them out of my memory and present them as if they have no bias, are true, and that you should believe what I say. In other words, my ‘self’ is on display.

Fiction is quite different (in theory). In fiction the author who can never get over himself or herself will have a limited career. It is a forgetting of self. Letting go of self is a precondition for empathy. James Wood in a recent essay about the novelist Tom Wolfe examined how Wolfe had failed book after book to rid himself of ‘self’ and the result was every character sounded like a megaphone for Wolfe’s own self that never managed to leave even on dialogue line uninfected with his personality.

An author who in the act of writing sheds her ‘self’ is Hilary Mantel. Sophie Elmhirst’s essay in the New Statesmen is a revealing portrait of an author’s past and how it shaped her ability to forget herself and slip inside her character’s lives. Mantel disappears into her fiction; Wolfe shouts, screams and dances from a platform hand-waving to the audience as if he’s in a presidential debate. Mantel would make a good Buddhist and probably a good president. Wolfe’s literary ‘self’, on the other hand, I hope finds eternal peace.

In the absence of a highly evolved sense of empathy it is difficult for a fiction writer to enter into the dreams, thoughts, insecurities, doubts that people experience in their daily life. A fiction writer often talks about losing themselves in the characters and story. That is what they mean. Their self has vanished. They occupy a realm where the characters channel through the writer’s mind and reveal their most private secrets; the place where evil lurks, where the shadow of doubts trail self like a mugger, where the skin is stripped from the body of good intention and left out to dry.

Rather than hearing the two candidates debate about the middle class and working class they wish others to believe they care about so much, I’d ask them to write a novel. I want to see what comes from such men when they suspend their sense of self and enter into the emotional lives of ordinary men, women and children. That would be the kind of ‘information’ I’d like to know. Ultimately it is the empathy connection that is the thread that ensures fiction won’t die. It should be part of the sewing kit that goes into the mix of an election. We can’t trust the self presented in a debate or an essay if that is all we have to go on.

We should be asking leaders to not pepper their debates with references to having met this person or that who had a problem as a nod to empathy, a way for them to identify a sympathetic self. That won’t tell us much about their capacity for empathy. ‘Self’ is the main character in presidential debates. We need to know, and deserve to know, what leaders pay to attention to when they look at other lives. If they can never escape the ‘self’ you can’t ever be sure as their term spools out before your eyes whether they really have the ability to tell a story through the lives of other selves in the full glory of lives haunted by doubts, racked with suffering, and disappointments. Paying attention to how ordinary people cope with their lives shouldn’t be limited to fiction.

I’d like to read Obama’s novel and Romney’s novel. I want to know how their minds work when it isn’t focused on self. I want to understand how empathy works for them through the words and acts of characters who make stupid decisions, crazy choices, people who fail, those who give up, those who get up and struggle to keep going. Or a painting in the style of Francis Bacon self-portrait might also be interesting.

If I had that sense of these men in the act of forgetting themselves—that is the nature of the best of fiction—I might know something important, more important than a vague policy or intention to do this or that. I’d have a sense of someone who walked a mile in someone else’s shoes and was able to communicate what that experience was like and could make that experience real enough for me to believe he understood something genuine about the human condition. Both profess belief that the ‘self’ is preserved. They have a lot at stake. We will likely never know if their novel would have been written in the tradition of Wolfe or Mantel. I’d like to think one day that might matter, and how someone forgets ‘self’ and embraces empathy is better indication of leadership ability.

Posted: 10/18/2012 8:49:58 PM 

 

Fashion and Crime Fiction

As social creatures, in strict accordance with a primate nature, we can’t help but measure our rank and status. Writers are no different. The chatter about foreign rights, film options, foreign rights, audio rights, large print editions, paperback deals, best seller lists, sales figures, advances are just some of the many ways that writers seeks to show their perch on the literary ladder. I call them “perch placement events.”

Now Amazon has come up with an author’s ranking. Like the ranking of books or the DOW, the status of a writer can follow a bull or bear trajectory, and writers can waste yet more valuable time checking to see if they are up or down. It won’t be long before there is some exotic derivative that arbitrages writer’s ranking.

Now for something new (or at least new to me) has rolled out of the digital world and opened on my screen. It has to do with Vincent Calvino, the private eye, who appears in thirteen novels (counting Missing in Rangoon January 2013).

Let me set the scene.

Halloween is on its way. That night of All Souls when children dressed up as ghosts, rock stars, demons, and celebrities requires a costume. Going door to door seeking handouts is sanctioned once year so long as you are suitably dressed.

The world of commerce cashes in on Halloween. It’s nothing like Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day and probably a half a dozen other lesser holidays but it is not overlooked by the world of commerce. And the fashion industry notices Halloween as a chance to sell for the evening outings.

A fan brought a website to my attention that is selling a costume collection in honour of Vincent Calvino.  I am not certain if Vinny is the first private eye to be so recognized, but one thing is for certain–fashion and commerce have found a new way to scare people on the mean streets of Bangkok.

I love the idea of Vincent Calvino fashion. A writer if he or she keeps at it long enough will accumulate one or more Perch Placement Event. But getting a fashion collection in honour of a fictional character is not something you frequently see in a Wikipedia entry. But..but…and there are always a ‘but’ lurking in the dark shadows of your personal alley, waiting to jump you and knock you off your perch. I am talking about the downside.

As with most gifts from the blue, this one comes with a certain limitation. The fashion isn’t for a man; it’s for a woman. As the author of Vincent Calvino I can assure you that he’s not into cross-dressing. Thought I leave that option open for future novels in the series in case I get stuck for a novel idea. If you want to dress your wife, girlfriend, secretary or other woman you feel fits the noir black fashion in the Calvino collection, take out your credit card and order the whole wardrobe.

This fashion collection all comes at the wrong time in my career. My agent was in the midst of a steamy negotiation for a bondage apparel deal as this classic Vincent Calvino collection has gone viral (in certain sections of Sukhumvit Road).

If there is a catwalk show featuring the clothes, I’ll get back to you. Assuming I am not too absorbed in checking my hourly ranking as a mystery author. I am waiting for Amazon to come up with algorithms that factor in a clothing line based on a series character. I should do quite well. And Amazon’s gnomes will no doubt figure out a way to package a Calvino book, shirt, and shoes with a free shipping offer. Before long, I suspect Amazon will have suggestions for Calvino inspired lawn mowers, nail clippers, and cameras. Those are all potential Perch Placement Events that will keep me writing and hopeful for a better future.

Posted: 10/11/2012 8:52:20 PM 

 

The Third Act

A writer’s life is not unlike a drama with three acts. The first act ends around 39 years old, the second act runs from 40 to 59 years old, and the Third Act is 60 years old until the final scene.

Some writers start their career late in the second act of their lives (e.g. Raymond Chandler). Other writers never make it to the Third Act (e.g. George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver). Some like David Foster Wallace don’t make it alive out of the First Act.

The Third Act for a novelist who survives that long is becoming more common. Sure, authors like Christopher Hitchens bow out early in at the very top of their Third Act performance. Georges Simenon and Charles Bukowski continued to produce excellent work during their Third Act. Some say that the Third Act  produces works that don’t quite measure up to the early work. Writers wear out, they run out of ideas, energy, focus and the passion that is required to produce a professionally written novel.

The authors who write about Bangkok are mainly Third Act authors: Timothy Hallinan, John Burdett, Collin Piprell, Dean Barrett, Alex Kerr, and myself. We’ve all been around a long time. At the beginning of the Third Act , an author should take time to reflect on his first two acts.  After finishing that self-appraisal, he can assess the possibilities that lay ahead. Does one have anything left to say? Many authors as they enter the Third Act believe that they are only just hitting their stride. That sixty is only a number, and besides, is sixty the new fifty? There is no way around it. Sixty years makes for a lot of candles on a birthday cake.

It is a sobering sight—all of those lit candles against a tropic night on a Thai beach, a tiny bonfire of vanities burning bright. Each author turns that bend in the road and sees the stretch of the road ahead in a different way. In Thailand, the civil service, the military and corporations retired sixty-year-olds. Turn them out to pasture to make way for those behind them. There is no age expiry date for writing novels. With a number of novelists, their books remain pretty much the same and hitting the Third Act doesn’t change their style or content. They keep plugging way for the fans that followed Act one and Act two, hoping to bring in new fans along the way. It would be as if Picasso stayed with his ‘Blue Period’ and kept it blue to the bitter end.

Colin Cotterill joined the Third Act club on 2nd October. I single Colin Cotterill out because I’ve just returned from his 60th birthday party in the southern Thai province of Surat Thani. Colin did a reasonably good King Lear performance on the beach in front of his house as he railed against the forces of nature (it did look like rain most of the time) that carry men forward through time.

In his separate Hobbit House where he writes, his handwritten notes for his latest book was open on a small stand next to his computer. His computer was turned off. He wasn’t writing. He was entertaining. I flew in from Bangkok, another Canadian friend flew in from Chiang Mai, and a Norwegian friend drove up from Phuket, his romantic interest from Japan and six German nationals descended on his compound. Colin met my plane at Surat Thani airport and took what he called the romantic route from the airport on a 2-hourdrive to his compound. It was raining. His Japanese companion was in his blue Brio following the pickup, no doubt wondering why she was in a separate vehicle.

Colin arrived at the provincial airport driving a clapped out manual shift pickup. Also waiting at the airport were the six German nationals. They were on my flight but I didn’t see them on the plane. I didn’t see much of them after Colin loaded them into the back of his pickup. The Thais at the airport smiled. They must have thought a new human trafficking ring had been organized with Colin driving, me riding shotgun and four teenaged Germans in the back. Or may be Colin does this on a routine basis. I didn’t ask.

The father of one of the German teenagers is a famous German journalist who had written a profile on Colin a year ago. He brought his son and his son’s friends and another journalist along to celebrate Colin’s birthday. We all came to Colin’s place to celebrate the start of his Third Act.

His six dogs occasionally fought. His guests mainly drank buckets of wine and beer as they ate fresh crab, prawns, mackerel, squid, and spicy Thai salads. The German teenagers, it turned out, hated fish or anything else from the sea. They were lobbying for real meat. So sausages were specially made for them. We were reminded not to mention the war. The German editor broke the ice as we all stood looking at the sea and said every sixty years or so German liked the idea of holding onto a beach much like the one Colin had built his house on.

There was a birthday cake and candles—the kind you blow to make a wish and appear to go out only to pop back to life. Colin kept blowing the trick candles for some time before he gave up. He understood that candles were a birthday metaphor gift. One author to another, letting him know that at his newly advanced age, there is no choice but to continue to huff and puff and sooner or later the candles will go out. Meanwhile, Colin’s unfinished novel left untouched during the days of celebration, like the trick candles, was a reminder that nothing is ever as easy as it seems and the end is rarely in your control.

A delegation of Thai neighbours, including local politicians and fishermen showed up. They inspected the German. The head fisherman seemed to think the teenagers might make a reasonable crew until he found out their anti-fish bias likely made them a bad choice for fishing for squid and crabs.

The night of the birthday there was a huge bonfire on the beach, the flames fed by people throwing on dead palm leaves. On one side were four tents on the beach where Colin housed the Germans. The rest of his house had places for others to sleep on the floor. I tried to convince the Laotian NGO worker, an extremely kind woman, to type a couple of fables into the book that Colin was working on. I suspect the Dr. Siri novels were written this way during Colin’s Second Act. I suggested he expand that process in Act Three. I put it to him, that in return for not mentioning the war, each guest should add a page or two in their own language: Laotian, German, Norwegian, Japanese, Thai, and Canadian. It would save on translation cost down the road. Besides, when an author enters the Third Act, he needs not just inspiration but all of the help that he can find from others wandering past the office space.

Colin might be hitting the final stretch like the rest of us third-act authors, but I suspect he will surprise us all. I call it Colin Renewal, a reset, a new First Act. You see, Colin has bought a new car, built a new house, and has a new, beautiful Japanese partner. That’s not the kind of thing someone who is winding down is expected to be doing. Building, designing, hugging, and dancing on the beach.

He said it was his best birthday party ever. He didn’t want us to leave. I can understand why he felt that way. Once the party ends, and we all leave, he has to go back to his Hobbit House and finish the book that awaits him. The book he started late in the Second Act, now requires a newly minted Third Act author to reach down deep and find something he’d always wanted to say but had ever found the words until that night on the beach with the moon in a clear sky reflecting on the sea, and bonfire burning and an international cast of friends, he might have found himself understanding that when that many care enough to make a journey to the middle of nowhere to sing happy birthday on a remote beach, it is worth carrying on.

Posted: 10/4/2012 8:52:16 PM 

 

 

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