Speaking of locations, another important setting for the novel is the desert. Above, the first image came from Utah, a place I journeyed to in preparation for writing the final chapters, which unfold in the wasteland west of Salt Lake City. The second image comes from the Arabian desert. One idea that links the two is that my male protagonist could simply not escape his appointment in this archetypal landscape, even by fleeing around the world.
What does it mean? You’ll recall that Jesus spent forty days there following his baptism by John, and was visited by the Devil. Many of the western Native American mythologies are set there. And Hollywood continues to dip its toe in the sand, as seen in the recent Transformers and Pirates of the Carribbean sequels.
For me, the Desert signifies the stripping down of life, to its bare essentials: technology fails, civilization stalls, and struggles of ego give way to struggles for existence. It’s where people confront the illusions they’ve lived under, by having them stripped away. Bodies and minds fail there, too, of course. But this makes it the ultimate arena for trials of the spirit: deprived of the usual distractions–luxuries, money, time, even food and drink–a person finds what, if anything, is left of himself.
I had need for many locations for this novel. Will, of course, travels the world, while his wife Nexus stays closer to her birthplace. Still, her journey does not take place entirely within the offices of Domino & Wright, nor within her suburban neighborhood. Today I worked on a mid-chapter which features a retreat to a cottage belonging to one of Sage’s cousins–thus, a vaguely European feel, even if located in the U.S. It needed to feel isolated, safe, and cozy, be located in a sylvan landscape, and yet serve as a base for several minor adventures. Having put my protagonist through the wringer, I required a place where she could rest, regather her strength, and learn new skills for the greater trials that await her in the latter chapters.
People who have lived in many houses, many regions, and yet have been always on the search for a real home to call their own, will find much to empathize with in these pages.
UPDATE: When I created this blog about six weeks ago, I had targeted this time in June to finish final editing, and upload the entire novel. Turns out, the work is going slower then I prophesied, and the release date will be put off until later in summer. While the book is in very good shape as it is, I find I can’t resist the urge to continue tweaking, even as I correct more obvious errors: looking for just the right word or phrase, like picking up a single grain of sand or rice, takes considerable effort.
Funny, when I set out to write this novel, I was about five years younger than my two protagonists, and had to imagine (a bit) what 40 years old would feel like. Now, in the final stages, I’m five years older than they are–and oh do I envy them their ability to stay the same age–and now I have to remember.
One thing that seems to have changed from my thirties to my forties is a total loss of my sense of hurry. Ironically for an enthusiast who spends much of his spare time under the hood of cars, when actually on the road, I drive the speed limit and just let everyone pass, thinking, I’ll get there. So I guess this is my way of begging the indulgence of folks who are kindly paying attention to my musings here, enduring the hype. In future retrospect, I believe the few extra weeks I’m taking now will make for a work, overall, more worth my readers’ valuable time: because I sincerely disbelieve in books and movies that drag you along, hoping “maybe it will get better.” I think the enjoyment, in some form or other, should come, if not on every single page or frame, at least in a steady stream of moments.
Odysseus makes a BIG mistake (hamartia, Gr.), taunting the Cyclops
The ability to name people, places, objects–as seen in Judeo-Christian mythology, for example, when God gave the newly made Adam dominion over all other creatures, and specifically the privilege of naming them–means power. When Odysseus (above) proudly reveals his hitherto carefully concealed name to the Cyclops Polyphemus, he unwittingly grants him the ability to curse his enemy for the next nine years, effectively altering his own personal destiny.
When we first acquire, as children, dolls and pets, our first act is to name them, designate them as our own possessions. And when we grow into adults, we do the same with our own children.
Many will balk at the unusual names I’ve given my fictional characters. A work of pure realism would undoubtedly avoid this as “improbable.” However, the Romantic side of me could hardly resist the opportunity to embed more meaning in the work, by any means available. So rest assured, every name was carefully chosen. Sometimes I merely wanted to communicate an ethnic or cultural heritage, enhancing the personal histories of my characters. At other times, I had a deeper philosophical and literary agenda. Some of the names, while evoking only a shrug in isolation, may even work together.
As a wise man–now what was his name?–often declared, ’nuff said.
Not a particularly original idea, but I decided to set my novel over the course of one approximate year–in this case, beginning with Spring and ending in Winter. This fairly universal symbology allowed me to incorporate others: Water/Air/Fire/Earth and childhood/adolescence/young adulthood/maturity. It also indicates the direction and tone of the book: one could, alternatively, begin with winter (or any other), but that might not be so appropriate for tragedy.
I was particularly attracted to the notion of cycles in the world. One can see that from the very first paragraphs of the opening chapter (see Sample section if you haven’t already;} .) “Solid to liquid to ether to energy.” When one falls into sync with such cycles, one prospers–or at least progresses–and when one does otherwise, one suffers. This could be signaled by anything from the relatively harmless act of staying up too late one night, to something more designed to return a human being to the natural order, even if it means hitting rock bottom: like a plane crash.
And of course, as Ma Joad put it in The Grapes of Wrath: “Ol’ folks died off an’ little fellas come.”
I had a tremendous amount of fun embedding such potential meanings, from the word and sentence level to the overall structure, some of which undoubtedly came to fruition better than others. I hope you enjoy picking them, or, if need be, gathering the windfalls from the ground.
How much free will does anyone really have? We each live within the space of a hundred years, within a temperature range of about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and are confined by gravity, education, social and economic class, race, gender, upbringing, the law, custom, history, and our own psychological limitations. Additionally, we are conditioned to believe we should spend about 1/4 of our short existence earning money to spend out of proportion to our needs, to worship clocks and technology of every kind, to hate and fear those who are different, to procreate without regard to the future, and to believe each one of us is special, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As Jim Morrison said, “We chased our pleasures here, dug our treasures there. . .” Who among us can break on through to the other side?
In my novel, I had my protagonists grapple with these various forms of brainwashing, to explore if it were possible to shake loose from invisible shackles, and what alternatives might exist to wearing them. What if we refused to believe, say, and do what the “authorities”–family, government, peers, advertisers, schools, religionists, the media–tell us? Who programs you?
To me, any war novel is, by definition, an anti-war novel, because even if and when somebody wins, everybody loses. Some novels and films are simply more true to the experience than others. Inasmuch as The Avengers does many things right, it is not the great war movie it aspires to be. So for the sake of the young people who see it throughout the world, I wish that one of the usual Joss Whedon trademarks–dramatizing the cost in human life of armed conflict–had made it into the film more poignantly.
I wanted to capture our cultural ambivalence about this subject in my own work, and attempted to have it tear apart my male protagonist. This lead him to actions that some will interpret as lazy, stupid, traitorous, even cowardly. Here I took my inspiration partly from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1950). It’s always a big risk to potentially alienate one’s audience from one’s main characters. But I felt, justifiably I hope, that a man who was 39 years old might feel very differently about journeying to the other side of the planet to fight his nation’s declared enemies, than a 19 year old might–even if it were the same man. In a sense then, it’s the same experience that many men and women who went to Vietnam lived through–going in believing one story, coming out the other side with quite an altered one.
I tried purposefully to be inexact (in true Romantic form) about the specific locations Will visits, because for the past twenty years we, as a nation, have been following the exploits of our own soldiers throughout the Arab world, and I felt this was a bit of a universal issue anyway. Having personally known men who, by their own accounts, in 1990-91, had a pretty easy time of it during Desert Storm, I think it’s safe to say many of the agents of our government’s policies today epitomize the weariness and cost that their generation has suffered, to fuel the ceaseless machine of war.