“I mean, we saw this coming, right?” — Adam Sternbergh on dystopias, imagined and real.

I never really thought of The Last Policeman and its sequels as being “dystopian”, but they have been put in that category—just as they have been put in the science-fiction category,  though I never thought of them that way, either. The thing is, if you have a giant asteroid in your book, your book is sci-fi (like it or not), and if you have a slowly disintegrating government, your book is ipso facto dystopian.

Someone whose work perhaps fits more squarely into the genre is Adam Sternbergh, whose grim, riveting, and hysterical book Shovel Ready launched in hardcover this past January. (Although his book is also, like mine, a bit of a detective story—and, like mine, it’s in the first-person, present tense, a formal choice I find endlessly interesting…but that’s a whole other blog entry…) Adam is also a busy journalist, moving just now from a position at the New York Times Sunday magazine to one at New York Magazine

He’s well positioned, then, as both author and cultural observer, to inform and enlighten on the subject of dystopias, both literary and actual.

Mr. Sternbergh?

***

crocuses
These two crocuses are deeply dystopian.

I was originally going to hold forth on my love of crocuses (or croci), but then I realized Ben had already teased this post with the promise of something “creepy and dystopian.” And it’s true that I have a taste for all things postlapsarian, from Adam and Eve’s mishap with fruit to anything remotely zombie/virus/economic collapse/catastrophic weather event/dirty bomb-related, so here goes:

Imagine a story set in a world in which potentially irreversible climate change is threatening entire economies, coastlines, even countries. Now imagine a coastal city in that world that’s been ruled over by its single richest citizen for roughly the past 12 years. Imagine that this fabled city is increasingly split between the superrich and the also-rans — shiny new apartment towers rise, Babel-like, to unforeseen heights over the skyline, even as the city’s homelessness problem explodes down below in the streets, with some even taking to subterranean living in subway tunnels.

The other citizens of this city — those who subsist, barely, in the middle —make hardly any move to protest these developments; most of them either imagine they too will one day live in a glass penthouse, or they’re continually distracted by electronic devices that they carry on their persons at all times. These devices—which aren’t issued by the government, but which citizens purchase willingly at great expense—track their locations, their communications, their purchases, their preferences, their interests, their every whim. In exchange, the devices allow people to play a maddening game about grouchy fowl.

Thankfully, it’s not like the government is running secret programs that tracks all this ready information — oh wait, yes, it is. But it’s all done in the name of staving off a shadowy foreign enemy whose specter is evoked constantly. Meanwhile, native militias prepare — oh wait. I’m sorry. I got confused. The assignment was “creepy and dystopian,” not “creepy and non-fiction and now.”

As readers, we may be witnessing the advent of Peak Dystopia, at least as far as fiction is concerned — when my own quasi-dystopian* novel, SHOVEL READY, came out last January, it was released the very same day as another dystopian novel, SUCH A FULL SEA by Chang Rae Lee. (*I say quasi-dystopian because, on the Grand Dystopic Spectrum, it’s closer to, say, the bombed-out New York of “The Warriors” than it is to the baby-roasting wasteland of “The Road.”)

shoverl readyWe not only have an abundance of dystopian YA novels, but we have competing dystopian YA novels that are almost identical in their premises. (Future society in which people are split into clans and forced to choose champions to fight in massive gladiatorial spectacles.)

You might think all this reflects some rising tide in our collective anxiety — that we’re telling ourselves so many dystopian stories because we’re unprecedentedly grim about our future. But is it really safe to assume we’re more pessimistic, or reflexively neurotic, than, say, the world that lived under the rise of fascism? Or the post-atomic threat of nuclear catastrophe? Or in a country openly split by tensions over civil rights that spilled into frequent and ugly violence? If anything, our recent age has been marked, in some corners at least, by a relentless, even gleeful, optimism — a belief that, thanks to all the recent technological advances, the future will be nothing but better, faster, shinier, more. So why are we also in such a freaking bad mood about tomorrow?

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Adam Sternbergh, who can see the future. Also, the present.

Maybe the answer lies in that opening parable, above — the details of which, of course, are not drawn from a pastiche of current dystopian fantasies, but from today’s most discomfiting current events. People who grew up with a Jetsons’ vision of the future — all robot dogs and flying cars — are constantly trying to figure out why things didn’t turn out as promised. But people who grew up (as I did) with visions of a darker future — post-Blade Runner, let’s say, though we could date it back to 2001, or 1984, or, hell, Brave New World — are left to figure out why so many things have turned out just like we were warned that they would.

I mean, we saw this coming, right? The video billboards and full-body scanners and instructions given in a creepily cold computer voice and the whole 24/7 surveillance state?

We were warned, and yet we couldn’t be bothered to step out of the way?

Today’s fictive dystopias aren’t about cashing in on a hot trend, or even reflecting some new plague of pessimism. It’s about doing what fiction, at its best, has always done: Grappling with the here and now. Sometimes that comes in the form of a novel written 150 years ago, yet which still perfectly captures the heartbreak of being denied a life with the one you love most. And sometimes in comes in the form of a story about a society that’s awfully similar to our own, if perhaps maybe two degrees more dystopic. If we’ve learned anything over the past 30 years, it’s that today’s dystopia can quickly become tomorrow’s reality. Before you can bring yourself to believe it, it’s already here.

***

 

Adam Sternbergh, folks. Give him a hand! And more tangibly, buy his book. Also, mine.

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“Mysteries…reinforce belief in the fundamental order” –Daniel Friedman on God and the crime novel

One of the best mystery novels I read last year — and, listen, I read a lot of mystery novels — was by a guy named Dan Friedman, who put it in my hands his own damn self in New York City one evening at a MWA event. That book was Don’t Ever Get Old: great title, great novel, about a super-old Jewish World War II veteran and ex-homicide cop named Baruch “Buck” Schatz who gets caught up in a late-life crime caper, looking for Nazi gold and—oh, you know. Revenge. There’s a sequel, out this month, called Don’t Ever Look Back, which I haven’t read yet, but early reviews indicate it’s equally terrific.

I’ve had this feeling since reading the first Schatz novel that Dan and I are sort of kindred spirits, not only because we’re both obsessed with the structure of the mystery novel (and how to mess around with it) but also because we’re both secular Jews, whose work in some way is informed by that background. Someday I will force myself to think hard about how my religious background functions in my own work; in the meantime, I made Dan do it for my Reverse Blog Tour.

Take it away, Dan Friedman: 

 

The arc of the archetypal mystery novel looks something like this: At the beginning, there is a crime, which disrupts the order of society. The business of the story is finding out why this happened, and rendering justice unto the perpetrator so that the orderly state that preceded the crime can be restored.

DanFriedman
Daniel Friedman, with New York City behind him.

No matter how depraved the crimes they depict might tend to be, mysteries that follow this structure maintain and reinforce a belief in the integrity of this fundamental order. The crime being investigated is fundamentally aberrant, and it will be set right.

This plot structure, and the worldview that underpins it are intertwined with the key questions of Western religion. Mystery novels deal with many of the same problems that we ask in church or synagogue: Why do bad things happen to good people? How can justice coexist with so much suffering? And, at the same time, the conventions of the mystery novel strongly imply that God is working behind the scenes; assuring that every knotty conspiracy is matched with a dogged, patient sleuth who will unravel it, every devious killer is a little dumber than the cop or federal agent hunting for him, and within every sick or corrupt institution, there is someone with the backbone and standards to insist on doing things the right way.

The truth about crime and punishment is a lot less sunny: In New York City, where one of the largest, best funded and best trained police departments ever assembled patrols a city with a per-capita violent crime rate significantly below the national average, only two murderers out of three are caught and convicted. In smaller towns where violence is rare, resources are scarce, officers have little investigative experience and police officials are functionaries rather than detectives, homicides tend to have an even lower clearance rates.

If crime fiction reflected the truth about crime, it would be upsetting and demoralizing. Readers don’t want to see forensic tests take months to process and come back inconclusive. Readers don’t want to see serious crimes investigated by uninterested clock punchers. Readers don’t want to see bureaucratic breakdowns. Readers care who the killer is, and they want the hero to care as much as they do.

More ambitious crime writers will try to complicate the message a little bit: In my novels, my elderly detective’s triumphs over his adversaries does little to mollify his grief over the death of his son, and nothing to change his declining health. Ben’s novels, of course, place the criminal investigations in the shadow of a fast-approaching human extinction event that dwarfs the stakes of his hero’s main business. Both of us, I think are using impending, inevitable calamity to ask a question about whether anything we do matters when set in contrast with the inevitability of death

But they’re still mystery novels. Even in the shadow of a giant meteor poised to wipe out civilization, the readers will expect to know who did it, and why. The question of who did it has got to matter, and justice has got to be dispensed, even if you qualify the catharsis.  Mystery novels, as we understand them, don’t work unless they take place in a universe where there is a God.

almighty God
Thou shalt not neglect to craft satisfying character arcs.

I think readers know this subconsciously, even if they’ve never thought about it in these terms. Seeing mysteries unraveled feeds the same need we try to address by searching religious texts for answers to unanswerable questions. And the revelations are always more disappointing than you hope they’re going to be, because the authors generally aren’t in possession of any definitive answers to fundamental questions. At the end of most mystery novels, you usually find out that some asshole did it, for some asshole reason. And, if we’re being honest, the resolution can never really set right the initial wrong. Authors try to hide it with gunfights and car chases and explosions, but our catharses tend to be kind of anti-cathartic.

Religion in my books serves several purposes: It wedges my character in a history and a worldview. It makes him specific, rather than general, but I could have done that by making him the fourth son in a big Italian family, or the child of patrician WASPS, or just an old redneck.

But it also allows me to more directly explore the fundamental moral questions that are inextricable from the genre’s subject matter. In DON’T EVER GET OLD, Baruch can look at Christian notions of forgiveness and redemption with an outsider’s skepticism, because he is not a Christian. But his inability to forgive others suggests there are things in his past he can’t forgive himself for.

delbIn my second book, DON’T EVER LOOK BACK, neither Baruch, an American WW2 veteran nor his antagonist, an Auschwitz survivor, can put their trust in a deity as a result of their experiences. Each of them tries, in a sense, to become God, by taking control of his own narrative, and when the stories they are trying to live out cannot be reconciled, they have to clash.

I’m not particularly devout or observant, and I have serious reservations about the applicability of ancient texts to modern problems, but I don’t think you serve much of a purpose by avoiding reference to God in books that are concerned with questions of justice.

 

 

Thanks, Dan. You, like Buck Schatz, are a mensch. Stay tuned for more special guests, and don’t forget to pre-order World of Trouble. It comes out on July 15.

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Mystery writing / writing is a mystery

This is a very short blog entry that is really just to share one thing with you.

I’ve been doing research on the author Richard Price because on Thursday night I’m teaching his book (masterpiece, if you ask me) Clockers for my mystery fiction class at Butler.

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I found this quote in an interview with him and it just about knocked my head off. One of the great true things I’ve heard said about writing…

“I have to be a little intimidated by what I’m writing about. I have to feel a little bit like I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can master this, I don’t think I can get under the skin of this, because when you’re a little scared, you’re bringing everything to the table because you’re not sure you can do it unless you bust your balls and really, really get into it. Terror keeps you slender. I need a sense of awe.”

That’s probably true of all art forms, and maybe all things that require effort to yield something complex and complete: “when you’re a little scared, you’re bringing everything to the table.”

In other words, when it’s hard you know you’re doing it right.

Can you tell I’m working out the idea for a new book? Can you tell it’s making me feel various complicated emotions, ranging from joy to terror?

The other thing that happened today was that I had a call with the marketing department at Quirk Books (or as I like to call her, Nicole) to discuss this summer’s little book tour in support of World of Trouble: The Last Policeman Book III. We’ll be announcing all the dates soon.

 

 

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#TwitterFiction recap

What follows is the full text of the “story” I posted today as part of the #TwitterFiction festival:

 

Twitterfacepix

 

This is not the story I’m supposed to be writing. (#TwitterFiction 1/66)

 

Nor is it a story I particularly WANT to be writing.(#TwitterFiction 2/66)

 

I pitched @TwFictionFest (&wrote) a tense multi-character hour long drama called Free Charlton Connors (#TwitterFiction 3/66)

 

The tale of a desperate man named Atlee Connors who seizes a bank to demand his bro’s release from prison. (#TwitterFiction 4/66)

 

In the story,”@AtleeConnors” live-tweets as he takes hostages, negotiates w/ cops. etc. (#TwitterFiction 5/66)

 

I was excited about it. (Excited & nervous) (#TwitterFiction 6/66)

 

But then two weird things happened, related to this story (#TwitterFiction 7/66)…

 

…which together pitched me into a spiral of confusion and dread (#TwitterFiction 8/66)

 

[Preface this by saying that I am under the BEST circumstances a welter of self-doubt and uncertainty (#TwitterFiction 9/66)]

 

First of 2 incidents: Mon. eve., checked phone during #LegoMovie, had email from man named “Atlee Connors” (#TwitterFiction 10/66)

 

[Same name as character from my planned story)  (#TwitterFiction 11/66)]

 

Email was sent vis the Contact Form on my website (BenHWinters.com) (#TwitterFiction 12/66)

 

It was the WEIRDEST AND MOST AWFUL communication I’ve ever received. (#TwitterFiction 13/66)

 

Basically someone sent this guy a link to publicity about @TWFictionFest and my story http://twitterfictionfestival.com/schedule/hostage-situation-real-time/?timezone_string=America/New_York— (#TwitterFiction 14/66)

 

—and he is super pissed. Also deranged. And ALL CAPS. (Next 2 tweets quote the email NSFW).  (#TwitterFiction 15/66)

 

quote 1 DEAR FUCKING LIAR & THIEF BEN H. WINTERS THERE IS NO SHAME AND PEOPLE FUCKING DIE FOR SHIT  (#TwitterFiction 16/66)

 

quote 2: YOU ARE A COWARD TO USE REAL PEOPLE’S HEARTS FOR SPORT I FUCK YOU YOU GET STOMPED  (#TwitterFiction 17/66)

 

The rest I kid u not is about the dude’s plumbing company being audited & how the government hates True Christians (#TwitterFiction 18/66)

 

There are people prob who would shrug this of thing off, but I AM NOT ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE (#TwitterFiction 19/66)

 

I read the email over and over in deepening panic and horror. I felt sick. (#TwitterFiction 20/66)

 

I considered a polite return email (“dear clearly insane man, thanks for taking the time…) (#TwitterFiction 21/66)

 

I considered changing the name of my story or the character “Atlee Connors”(#TwitterFiction 22/66)

 

But I couldn’t just change name of 1 character, since 2 lead characters are BROTHERS…(#TwitterFiction 23/66)

 

and the TITLE of the story has their last name in it (#TwitterFiction 24/66)

 

AND I’d set up all these fake Twitter handles (inc. @AtleeConnors), they’d been “cleared” by @TwFictionFestival… (#TwitterFiction 25/66)

 

AND the whole thing had been publicized by me & @TwFictionFestival & @QuirkBooks, posted on schedule etc (#TwitterFiction 26/66)

 

AND I had already changed my whole story idea & had to resubmit to @TwFictionFesival once already! (#TwitterFiction 27/66)

 

[And had  felt REALLY bad about it: I’m conflict-averse, nervous about how I’m seen as a writer & a professional) (#TwitterFiction 28/66)]

 

Considered consoling possibility that angry email was fake (joke by @ADamZucker? @BWesthoff? @EricSmithRocks?) (#TwitterFiction 29/66)

 

But not in character for most of my friends. Stayed up late gripped with anxiety. Do I have ENEMIES? (#TwitterFiction 30/66)
Tues. morning I defaulted to lifelong habit of cowardice & inertial: archived crazy email, did nothing. (#TwitterFiction 31/66)

 

I got back to work on new novel + putting finishing touches on “Free Charlton Connors” (#TwitterFiction 32/66)

 

I worked at @IndyCENLibrary—tried to work—working under the dark shadow of “real” Atlee Connors (#TwitterFiction 33/66)

 

Thinking will he see the story? How will he feel when I show “him” murdering strangers, blowing up a bank? (#TwitterFiction 34/66)

 

AND THEN WHEN I LEFT @IndyCENLibrary A MAN RUSHED ME ON THE STEPS (#TwitterFiction 35/66)

 

Skinny dude/shaking hands/ overalls/matted hair/pale skin/ twitchy eyes. Pushes me against library pillar (#TwitterFiction 36/66)

 

He comes right up in my face, grabs my shirt with both hands. His teeth are all fucked up. (#TwitterFiction 37/66)

 

Backstory: I have written tons of violence but have NO experience. I am a coward. Dread discomfort let alone pain (#TwitterFiction 38/66)

 

Dude has got some kind of kitchen knife peeking blade-first out of the front pocket of his overalls. (#TwitterFiction 39/66)

 

And Of COURSE i’m thinking “It’s him! It’s him! It’s Atlee Connors!” (#TwitterFiction 40/66)

 

Worst part (except for the knife): The dude is shouting “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare!”. Over and over. (#TwitterFiction 41/66)

 

Just raving, muttering and raving; prob. schizophrenic or paranoid, maybe coming down off something or going up. (#TwitterFiction 42/66)

 

But to me, at that moment—and now, still, sort of—I was convinced. “Holy shit it’s him.” (#TwitterFiction 43/66)

 

“I’m sorry,” I said. Pure cowardice. Pure fear. “I’m really sorry. It’s OK. It’s OK.” I was TERRIFIED.  (#TwitterFiction 44/66)

 

At last he lets go and spits on steps & stalks down steps of the library (#TwitterFiction 45/66).

 

I clutch the side of the building, trembling, in the shadow of the donut sculpture. (#TwitterFiction 46/66)

 

Driving home my panic slowly subsided & gave way to melancholy; a well of grief & confusion opened up inside me. (#TwitterFiction 47/66)

 

I was sure of it—it was impossible, but I was SURE that the man on the steps was the man who had emailed me— (#TwitterFiction 48/66)

 

& I was sure moreover that he would torment me forever, because from his (madman’s) perspective I was his NEMESIS (#TwitterFiction 49/66)

 

I’d picked his name at random & implicated him in a crime he was innocent of—a crime which had never existed (#TwitterFiction 50/66)

 

I’d stepped across some line separating make-believe from reality, & the prospect filled me with sadness and horror (#TwitterFiction 51/66)

 

I felt as if I had invented a character who’d become real— (#TwitterFiction 52/66)

 

—an avatar of all my anxiety about being a writer, trying to make a living in a world of pretend (#TwitterFiction 53/66)

 

It was like from Grimm’s or Poe or @StephenKing: the murderous double, the dark self made flesh & given a weapon (#TwitterFiction 54/66)

 

I was lost in these complicated shadows, feeling obscurely scared, baffled, defeated, lost— (#TwitterFiction 55/66)

 

—certain I had to back out of @TwFictionFestival, maybe I had to back out of being a writer in general— (#TwitterFiction 56/66)

 

When I realized that THE GUY HAD STOLEN MY WALLET. (#TwitterFiction 57/66)

 

I laughed. I mean, I freaked out, but I laughed. (#TwitterFiction 58/66)

 

Here I was, contemplating the Borgesian oddness of my situation, mulling the blurred line between truth & fiction (#TwitterFiction 59/66)—

 

Having a little narcissistic writerly pity party for myself— (#TwitterFiction 60/66)

 

& my tormentor was back at library park using my 65 bucks and chance to get high! (#TwitterFiction 61/66)

 

And so there you have it, dear Twitter: the story of a desperate man named Atlee Connors. (#TwitterFiction 62/66)

 

Not the SAME story of a desperate man named Atlee Connors that I had planned, but it’s better. I think it’s better. (#TwitterFiction 63/66)

 

I think it has something to tell us, though I’ll be damned if I know what. (#TwitterFiction 64/66)

 

The only moral of the story I can think of is: that dude’s got my Geico card, which has my address on it. (#TwitterFiction 65/66)

 

So if this is the last tweet I ever send…you know why. (#TwitterFiction 66/66)

 

 

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A bold experiment

I am not, as I have said  (most recently in this interview) particularly adept at the whole social media world, but I was nevertheless delighted to be asked to be a “featured author” in the upcoming Twitter Fiction Festival.

I am always game for a—well, a game—a challenge—a fun new way to tell a story.  images

The story I’ll be telling—tweeting—is called Free Charlton Connors. It plays out in real time over one hour, as a desperate man takes over a bank demanding that his brother be released from  prison.  It’s a classic multiple-POV kind of story, with five different narrators weaving the tale from their varying and overlapping and sometimes contradictory points of view.

To play along you’ll need to be online and on Twitter from 2 to 3 pm on Thursday, March 13. 

AND sometime before then, follow these Twitter accounts:

@AtleeMiller (that’s the man who has taken over the bank, demanding his brother’s release, and has hostages with him in the vault)

@UplandNB14thSt (that’s the official account for the bank)

@UplandPD (the local police)

@USPDanvers (the official account for the federal penitentiary where Charlton Connors is serving a life sentence for a murder he may or may not have committed)

@UplandBEE (the local newspaper)

So come play along, and let me know what you think! (And be sure to check out the listings for the rest of the festival — the line up is quite remarkable, and includes friends of mine like the admirably twitter-savvy Eric Smith.)

Here is the official description of my story, from the festival homepage:

“Free Charlton Connors” is a crime story that plays out in real time over the course of one tense daylight hour. Atlee Connors (@AtleeConnors) is a “regular guy” who has barricaded himself inside the bank vault at a branch of Upland National Bank (@UplandNB14thSt), with six hostages and a bomb strapped to his chest, demanding the release of his “wrongfully convicted” brother Charlton, who is being held in solitary confinement at nearby United States Penitentiary, Danvers. Local police (@UplandPD) enter into a dialog with @AtleeConnors—who insists on communicating only over Twitter—even as the hardline warden (@USPDanvers) is flatly rejecting Charlton’s release. A local newspaper reporter (@UplandBee) is on the scene, and her reports add color—and contradictory information—to what’s coming from the cops and from Atlee in the vault. One way or another, Free Charlton Connors is a story that ends with a bang.

 

 

So please tell

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Mystery Dance

An open letter to my fellow murder-fiction aficionados:

This spring I’ll be teaching a class here at Butler University, where I adjunct in the MFA writing program,  about  reading crime and mystery fiction—my (accurate) thesis being that truly great crime novels and mysteries, far from being mere “popcorn books” or “beach reads”, have much to teach us about structure, style, tension, conflict…you know, all the elements of good writing.

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So I’m in the process of drawing up a list of ten classic crime/mystery novels—no, you know what, forget “classic”—ten crime/mystery novels that are A) really good and B) pedagogically valuable, in terms of showing off some aspect or aspects of craft particularly well.

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All I’m 100% certain on, so far, are The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and Clockers, by Richard Price.

What else would you insist that I include?

 

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