In the evenings, when I’d dispatched my diplomatic duties of the day, I’d change out of my professional attire and take long walks around the city. It never really felt like a single city to me, this Erva Bereo, and the more I wandered around it — through Old City, Millenium City, the Square and the Central Tower — the less it seemed like a city and more like a conglomeration of communities that happened to co-exist.
Emerging from Subterra is, in a sense, impossible.
A short story inspired by Italo Calvino.
Gideon and his new, somewhat irascible friend are already deep in conversation by the time Font gets back to their table with three mugs of dubious looking substance called coffee. Font can’t understand why someone would want to drink something that tasted bitter and made you shake all over, much less why someone would want to build houses that sold the stuff and encouraged you to buy more, but he supposes time travel broadens the mind.
“Sitting on a bench at the edge of the water, lights snaking out across the banks like the delicate bones of a lover’s spine. Couples are everywhere — fingers interlaced, heads bent towards each other, smiles silly and shy — infesting the place.
“No, there’s no annoyance this time, now you can’t call it up. Instead what you feel is an ache marrow-deep, a pain in the stomach, an unhappiness that makes you slump into yourself as you sit on the bench, because you sit there alone.
“The air is sharp and particularly beneficial to the pairs of people who lean into each other until their coats are indistinguishable. But there is a thickness to it. The feeling that there’s an invisible glass wall, a cold atom-thick barrier, a boundary between your life and others’. Like a child, longing and loving, waiting your turn to grow up, you lean into the wind and press your face into that window.
“Your nose will leave no mark. No one notices.
“Three days later, she meets him. Or perhaps he meets her, it is immaterial. When she thinks of him speaking, she realizes that he is all of these things: a) unassumingly intelligent, b) unaffectedly hilarious, c) unintrusively kind, and d) undoubtedly devoted. She uncovers them like presents, buried under layers of conversations. When she thinks of him, a warm glow ignites in her. It eases the pain in her stomach.
“It is his mind that she loves first, but he has such kind eyes. A smile she wants to trace with a thumb. Palm on his cheek that he can lean into. Hair that she likes to think is deliberately unruly before she combs through it with fingers. She wonders if she would ask permission first. She imagines him aloof, her curling her hands into fists at her side with the fingernails biting into the palms as he expostulates with her about art, science, history.
“She believes he is a few inches taller than her. Good. She can turn up her face to his. She likes that image. At night she plays certain very particular songs, willing herself into sleep, feeling lighter than air.
“Sometimes it’s hard. She feels this glass wall grow thinner and thinner, the press of people and reality abrading it away. He begins to fade, until his absence is far more real than his presence. Seeing other couples meandering along, no longer is she reminded of their arms intertwined, faces animated in conversation and each other’s companionship. She simply sees — well, other couples.
“Eventually he becomes a pale shadow. Fingers slipping from her waist if they were ever there; an echo of his laugh from another room; his ghostly presence at her back. She knows that if she turns, he will not be there.
“So she doesn’t turn. She tries harder.
“So she comes to sit on this bench, wires trailing from her ears and certain very particular songs playing, aching for the glass wall. Of course, by now, she is not quite certain whether the wall is hers or whether she only sees it.
“And gradually, she lets the scene change. The pool of lamplight illuminating lucky couples now widens to include her. When she takes a breath, she can taste the stirring of anticipation.
“She has her eyes closed and the earphones in, so she doesn’t see or hear him. He walks distractedly, a few inches taller than her, hair a little disarranged, thinking of other things entirely.
“And by the time she opens her eyes, he has already passed her, heading towards the opposite bank with the lights like the points on a lover’s spine.”
It’s only a matter of time before the Oxford English Dictionary heaves a giant sigh of suffering and accepts the word into its hallowed pages of English correctness, but this entire week has been one huge “meh”.
I wouldn’t even have minded if I’d had an extremely full week; indeed, I’d been planning for it, and getting stuff done is always sort of exciting (ok shut up you know it is). But after the programming assignment got postponed – again, because what idiot posts an FAQ three days before the thing is due? – and I had a very interesting visit to the clinic, all I can think of is sleeping a lot.
When I started this blog, it was with the resolution that nothing in it would be very personal. Intellectually personal, yes, but not emotionally so. But a badly mangled assignment, and the sleeplessness that came with it, and some bad news earlier on in the week, made yesterday far less bearable than others. So I’m trying a little writing catharsis. It’s one of those times where you think anything in the world, even failing spectacularly, is better than fumbling along in a mediocre fashion. It’s not making me feel fantastic about myself and I’m not sure at all that I deserve to have fun this weekend.
Unfortunately, my way of resolving this is (since it’s Thursday night and we all know what day Friday is!) to edit the living daylights out of some upcoming articles. It’s like purging, really – ridding the world of comma criminals! – but I’m afraid I’m going to lose it any second now and start writing pointed, nasty comments at the end of the article.
When we got the call, it was already one in the morning, and all Sam and I could think of was going back to our respective empty apartments and sleeping until three. The night duty officer took one look at our faces and transferred the complaint back downstairs, where some poor cadet could take a crack at it.
I sank back in my chair as Sam rattled around the room making hot chocolate, and made the mistake of looking up at the blank white ceiling of the office. A swarm of words threatened to obscure my vision, and I groaned and put my head in my hands.
“Here,” said Sam brusquely, plunking a mug down in front of me and handling me a pair of chunky visualizers. After spending five hours tracing through fifteen volumes of the Encyclopedia, the word blitz could be unbelievable. I drank my hot chocolate while staring blankly at an African savanna; the sound was getting worse every day, and I finally took off the contraption.
And then I nearly dropped my mug when the phone rang off the hook.
Sam poked his head out of the door. “We’re done, Arthur!” he roared in the direction of the duty officer.
“They want a comma crack team!” Arthur yelled back. I gave Sam a black look and picked up the receiver.
Two minutes later, we were re-shouldering the holo-lexicons and running out the door.
Language, as one of the greatest lexicographers put it, is sacred. Its rules are not immutable, it is true, but they are always in the service of clarity. Which was why, descending from philosophy to pragmatism, contextual grammar checkers, or CGCs, cost thousands of dollars. And which was why, when they began to run amok, CGCs were the most dangerous things in the world of language.
The University’s Department of Rhetoric employed one of the biggest CGCs around, a beast of a computer that took up an entire room of the mammoth building and hummed quietly through the year, day in and day out. It was one of the finest pieces of technology the University owned – so it was with considerable urgency that the Dean of Rhetoric had called a squad in to investigate a malfunctioning CGC.
It was a gruesome scene, after a fashion. When Sam and I arrived, breathlessly tumbling out of a squad hovercraft, Dr. Ffothering-Smith was sitting in a table with his skull cradled in his palms*. Standing grimly in front of him was Dean Smelt, gingerly flipped through a one inch-high stack of papers. The more pages he turned, the more his face – curdled, I suppose, would be the right word. By the time we ran over to his side, he was ashen.
I snapped on a pair of gloves while Sam cordoned off the area, and picked up the first sheet of paper. “On the Appropriateness, of Neurologically Induced Linguistic Correction” read the title, a timestamp below it proclaiming that “This paper has been checked for contextual grammatical accuracy by UDeptRhet CGC Module A”.
Then I read the title again, bile rising in my throat.
I heard Sam only vaguely in the background, my eyes scanning the page in front of me. Though, previous results of the neural scans revealed, a diminishing…
“And you’ve got a maintenance team that takes the system offline, Module by Module, once every month. Correct?” said Sam.
Smelt was speaking. “… clean her out religiously, officer. Access is restricted to a handful of Linguisticians and L-mechanics. And myself, of course.”
Several subjects, drawn from a previous study were seated in a room of…
“And there were no anomalies in the work being produced two hours earlier?” Sam again.
“Absolutely not. We opened her up to check a small comma-before-and issue…”
… exercise, their right to basic medical treatment. I’d read enough. I slapped the pages down on the table, trying to keep my face from twisting in distaste. “Sam,” I said quietly. “What does this remind you of?”
Sam flipped through the rest of the manuscript, and looked up grimly.
The high security Follett Corrective Facility was a dreary maze of blank-faced officers. As we reached the sub-secondary basement, the lights grew sharper, the smell of disinfectant masking some other evil scent in the air.
Sam sat in the booth, separated from one of the most dangerous men in the city by a three inch-thick pane of projector glass. I would not, in ten million years, admit to being nervous, but I stood stoically behind Sam while I waited for the criminal in chains to shuffle to the window.
“Get a lot of friends, do you?” said Sam. I watched as the words appeared on the glass, the crim’s eyes following every letter and punctuation mark. When he spoke, the little shaft embedded on his shaved head seemed to pulse.
“Look like I have a lot of friends COMMA do I?” he rasped. I nearly flinched at the volume of the corrective device. He must have been acting up lately – this was the solitary area of the facility, to boot.
“You tell me,” Sam shot back. “We went out on call just now, Phil. Saw a bunch of papers. You know what was on them?” He leaned in, and I fought the urge to pull him back. “Comma splices. Misplaced commas. Missing commas. Commas where no other comma’s ever gone before. Made us sick to look at it.”
Phil’s eyes flickered briefly over to me. “Oh COMMA really? Well COMMA I’m sorry for your misfortune. In case you hadn’t noticed COMMA I’m sitting here in this damn corrective facility COMMA hah COMMA not out there splicing your damn commas. Can I get back to bed now COMMA please?”
“Not until you tell us who your protege is,” growled Sam.
And Phil’s eyes grew wider just for a second. I could have sworn it. He was, as we in the Linguistics Force put it, creatively re-interpreting reality. He was lying.
* You get the chocolate of your choice if you tell me how many times Dan Brown uses the phrase “cradled the skull in his palms” in The Lost Symbol.
Apologies for the title, but I really don’t know how Dan Brown manages to stay published. He really is quite an asinine writer – and it’s not just the occasional language problems that crop up, it’s the puerility of his writing. And let’s not forget the tiredness of his plot. Because, following Dan Brown’s very own TOP SEKRIT PLOT CODE, I uncovered two (well, three, really) of the major plot twists in the book.
But let’s examine my dislike for Brown systematically, shall we? Here are a few things I don’t like about how he writes:
1. Italics. Brown employs italics like a hypochondriac popping pills – utterly uselessly. The smallest passing thought is recorded in dramatic fashion, including things Brown could have just told us. A critic points out one example: “They’re not icons, Langdon thought. They’re symbols.” This is, in fact, an excellent article on how useless these italics are. (Also, please note the truly preposterous use of the “?!”)
2. Langdon is annoyingly, stubbornly, unbelievably cynical. Even after being through Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, Langdon insists – insists, dammit, insists, I’m telling you I insist – that the Mason myths are just that: myths, and not real. Oh yeah? What about the Holy Grail, Mr. Smarty Pants Prof? You know? The one you helped find?
3. The Etruscan oakwood-paneled, Lourdes stained-glass window-decorated, leather bound-first edition-book-filled study. Dan Brown loves information. That’s cool – so do we. But not this much. Do we need to know exactly how Key4 explosive is manufactured from C4? Do we really need to know what kind of daybag Professor Langdon carries with him when he’s arrested by the CIA? No. If Brown had given his plot, characterization, and content this much thought, we as readers would be immensely better off.
4. Mystical symbolism. The essential information Brown wants you to understand is that we’re all as one, God is within us, and we just need to open our minds to the idea of a measurable human soul. Brown really wants us to get this point. In fact, he bludgeons you over the head with this so much, you won’t have a choice. But that’s the thing about mystical symbolism – overdone, it’s a complete farce.
I’ve read all of Brown’s books, most unfortunately, and after a while I began sensing a certain… repetitiousness about them, shall we say. In fact, I think you could describe a Brown-plot with a simple equation:
number of plot twists and/or horrific revelations = (total number of characters in book) / (number of federal agencies working with or against main characters) * (number of pages in book)/(number of times the word “symbol” is used)
There’s another formula that describes one of the pivotal characters:
biggest villain in the story = most unlikely person in the book OR someone thought to be dead OR most powerful person around
At this point of time, I would like to issue A SPOILER ALERT.
Now, I’m not the kind of person who likes thinking ahead to solve a mystery, unless I’m being guided gently by the author. Dan Brown’s method of creating suspense is to do what a three-year-old does when he’s trying to hide his teddy bear: sit on it, and point frantically somewhere else.
1. Zachary = Mal’akh. Let’s not even go into the whole ridiculous villain aspect of Mal’akh, who’s essentially a tattoo freak with an obsession for anarchy and a daddy complex. It’s just the fact that, by dint of carefully looking for the missing element in the story (i.e. Zach), we’re led to the identity of the man who has absolutely no backstory at all (i.e. Mal’akh). Just to make the point even clearer, Mal’akh wants to destroy the whole of the Masonic order, but is the treasured, lost son of the Masonic grand master. Ooooh Brown, clever.
2. Langdon doesn’t die. When Mal’akh drowns Langdon in a coffin (really?!) filled with what appears to be water, I grew hopeful. Perhaps Brown wouldn’t be torturing us with his annoyingly affable two-dimensional loafer-wearing professor in the future. But I knew, with all the dull certainty of a Dan Brown chapter ending, that this was too good to be true.
3. The Washington Monument is where it’s at. Okay, really. It’s the most imposing, tallest building in DC, and even I know what it is. We’ve raced through the Library of Congress with the help of its conveyor system, we’ve glanced over the Smithsonian Museums, we’ve descended to the subbasement level of the House and Senate – what else is left?
Possibly the worst part of the entire Dan Brown experience is reading the back of the dust jacket, where various people – including NYT, for heaven’s sake – praise Brown’s
pigheaded literary tenacity stunning storytelling. And one of them compares him to Umberto Eco.
This is a travesty I can barely wrap my head around. Eco is one of my favorite authors (the Italians are the best at everything), and I’ve read The Name of the Rose as well as Foucault’s Pendulum (and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which was a sort of Italian Mussolini-era tour-de-force). Both of these strove to master vast stores of knowledge, not just spew it out randomly at unsuspecting readers. While Brown dashes madly from scientific discovery to technological innovation to mysticism to Masonic ritual to measuring souls, Eco spins a tight web of information, wherein the final layer of knowledge is carefully constructed and revealed to intelligent readers. I’m not saying he’s perfect, but Eco doesn’t insult his readers. His facts and his research urged me to find out more about the content, instead of wearying me with repetition and breathless factoid generation. And you know what? Eco had an actual plot – something that wasn’t based on ridiculous melodrama and two-dimensional character development. Or Mickey Mouse villains with Middle Eastern names.
But if you want a really excellent description of Brown’s ineptitude, I suggest you start here, and then make your way slowly through these. I find the “Dan Brown Is America” one particularly interesting, although the others are really funny.
Allow me to leave you with one final fantasy:
Renowned blogger AtLeastInTheory leaned back on her ergonomic pillows, specially flown in from Switzerland. Her back was aching, the result of a crippling childhood disease that had only strengthened her resolve to conquer the world with WordPress technology. But she paid no heed to the pain. That day’s events had given her much to think about, especially the stunning revelation that people could literally shape the world with their thoughts.
We can master the world. If we just… think.
Slowly, she began to construct a plan of mind-blowing simplicity that would yet be devastating in its consequences. It would all stem from a single principle – the principle of thought. And as she typed, fingers clacking on her Cyrillic character keyboard attached to her Hewlett-Packard DV5T laptop, she felt her pulse begin to race with the magnitude of her actions.
She would shape the thoughts of the world – transform them, meld them, and combine them into one single thing. And that thing, if thought by the whole world, would bring about the downfall of one of the most terrible men in the history of time. This one thought, she knew, would destroy this master villain, would topple this false throne that he had established in his stronghold in New England.
She felt a rush of adrenaline as she finished typing, and then sat back, fingers trembling, to admire her handiwork. The 15 inch screen now contained just four words – words that would still change the course of history and shape the future of mankind.
Boycott Dan Brown novels.
The rhetoric class I’m taking requires a research paper to be submitted at the end of the semester. I’ve decided to do mine on creative writing and how that’s addressed at the undergrad writing center that I’ll be interning at. So I thought I’d check in with some creative writing profs to ask what their opinions of the place were, and what they recommended to their students.
Dear Professor H-S,
I am contacting you regarding research material for a course that I’m taking from the Department of Rhetoric. This course prepares its students for an internship at the Undergraduate Writing Center (UWC), and requires a research paper to be submitted at the end of the semester. My topic is on the services offered, or lack thereof, to students coming to the Writing Center with creative writing concerns. As a professor of creative writing, your responses to a short questionnaire would be invaluable in determining how the UWC can further help creative writers.
If it is not an inconvenience, I would really appreciate your responses to these questions:
- Have you heard of the Undergraduate Writing Center? If you have, what do you believe to be the purpose of this place?
- Do you encourage, or have you encouraged, your students to make use of this center? If not, why?
- Have your students ever approached the UWC? (Usually a note is sent to the instructor to let them know that the student came to seek help, unless the student expressly mentions that this shouldn’t be done) To the best of your knowledge, how well did the consultations go?
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I apologize if this email is irrelevant to your current coursework. I hope to hear back from you soon.
1. Yes, I have. The purpose is to help students learn punctuation, usage, clarity, mechanics, and grammar. (Do you know what all of these terms mean?) (??!!)
2. I used to encourage them to attend; we are no longer allowed to do so. I don’t recomnmend the center because of this, but I ask them if they know about it.
3. I used to receive notes.
Not all of the young men and women who work there are aware of the terms in No. 1, and sometimes students have come to me saying that I was wrong. When I ask them for point out the error, they say they were told so by the person assigned to them.
After highly bemused conversation with my father:
Thank you for your reply. Your comment on my knowledge of clarity and grammar was, however, entirely unnecessary.
You asked for an appraisal and you received it.
… in what way, shape or form was that an appraisal that I asked for? And how was it meant to be an appraisal of myself?! The last line of his first email is actually grammatically incorrect! And how did he decide to make an appraisal of the entire center based on a few bad experiences?
This is a well-known, respected professor of English? A grumpy old man who picks a fight with a young woman whom he’s never met before?