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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Fever Dream and That One Moment When Everything Changes

Part of my method when I write these posts is to look up some quotes from the book to structure the thing around. I usually go to Goodreads for this, though this exposes me to the toxic strains of ignorance and big-word blatherance that one only finds in communities of English majors without jobs. They seem to subsist almost exclusively on free books that they receive because they've written so many reviews on a website that profits handsomely from the free content their users provide in exchange for nothing beyond that oh so tempting specter known as "exposure." Also known as the model for the entire internet in 2017.

I went through this meat-grinder for a few years as a young college student with creative writing stars in my eyes and single dollars in my pocket every day to exchange for the one daily corn dog for lunch that my budget allowed. I changed majors for two reasons: the first was that I realized that there wasn't a job at the other end of a creative writing bachelor's degree and I found myself in constant fear of graduating and applying for the same jobs I was applying for before spending thousands of dollars and hours at school.

The second was that I started to hate reading and writing. During those years I was trained not to read the book for the story or characters or to find out who, if anyone, really done it. The point of reading instead was to decipher the subtext. What was the author really trying to say, we asked ourselves, knowing full well that often what the author was trying to say was this: "I don't know what's going on. Do you? Anyway here's a story about a girl detective and her sarcastic dragon, Duncanarian."

Actually it didn't matter what the author was really trying to say, it's what lessons we could get from it anyway. Part of the appeal of being a writer is to have your words live on in perpetuity after your death, I imagine. But I also think it would be weird for people to be pulling out all of these analogies about socialism from your lighthearted romp through the magical faerie land of Tanverkan one hundred years after you thought up the characters in high school.

Does this sound familiar because it happens here every week on Wednesday's, usually around 10 AM unless I forgot to post it. The logical leaps I've taken to try to rope a poor, unassuming book into a rambling story about me or a tangential political statement do not come easily. You need to sit in a lot of college classrooms to pull of that kind of literary derring-do, believe me. You think Margaret Atwood thought when she wrote Stone Mattress, "Gee, I hope someone figures out a way to tie this to the acquisition and collection of old video games."? I hope so, honestly. She would be so excited to find this blog (until she reads my other posts).

It took nearly a decade before I could read for fun. It took longer still before I could let myself write just because it feels good to write, regardless of who is reading (which is nice because hardly anyone is). Writing these posts really is like play for me. I'm super stoked and eternally grateful when I find out that any of you have read it, but here is the honest truth: if I were writing in order to gain and retain readers I would have given up years ago.

I don't blame this on my professors, by the way. They were almost universally awesome and very encouraging. In a lot of ways I flourished in that program. What I had to force myself to admit, though, was that I didn't love reading and writing as much as I needed to in order to finish that degree and attempt to carve out a life as a professional writer. In that sense it was a complete success, in that it forced me to reconsider and find myself in a job and profession that provides a great deal of satisfaction and thank goodness for that. Also, the critical thinking and writing skills I developed in that couple of years of intensive reading and writing still benefit me on a regular basis in my job.

It also introduced me to nature writing, which in turn got me interested in ecosystems. I thought that I would write creative nonfiction based on ecological systems, so when I decided to change career paths, the choice was pretty simple. Instead of writing about natural resources in order to influence others to try to fix them, I could do it myself.

What a story! So inspiring!

The funny thing is that I spent a large part of my adult life lamenting the time I wasted. I watched people my same age get master's degrees in the time it took me to get a bachelor's. As they quickly surpassed me, career-wise, I identified my failed ambitions of being a professional writer as the reason I was always perpetually behind. I was embarrassed to have been suckered by society into thinking that it was worthwhile to pursue a dream. How freaking dare I?

It's super-duper easy to blame one thing in your life on how the rest of it turned out, especially if we can blame it on someone else. We're all a bunch of Uncle Ricos secure in the knowledge that if Coach had put us in, we would have won state. Looking back on my career, I can identify times when I was given a responsibility which I misunderstood, or didn't try to get better clarification, or just plain screwed up. There were times when I was working long hours for weeks in a row in 100-degree weather and maybe my mind didn't hold up like a hundred percent of the time. Some things I just wasn't good at.

Sometimes our lives do spin around a very certain event, though, and that's the case in Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream, a book that I read that is like nothing else I've experienced. It's a slim little volume meant to be read in one sitting. And y'all, it's deeply and profoundly terrifying. It also doesn't explain much, which in this case I find to be a positive. It feels very much like a good good Twilight Zone episode told by an expert storyteller.

I complained at length once about a book that introduced lots of questions but didn't answer them, but my issue with that was that there simply weren't answers until the 3rd book. In other words, it was one third of a story packaged as if it were a complete novel. Fever Dream is its own story and the answers are there, you just need to look for them. At no point is the scary thing directly addressed, but as we learned from last year's Stranger Things, the longer we were kept in the dark about the scary thing, the scarier it was. Only when confronted with the actual computer generated scary thing did it lose some of its foreboding.

That was one of the Goodreads complaints. The other one is that several folks said that they couldn't believe that such a thing could happen. Surely someone would step up and put a stop to it. To this I say, HA. Thank you for proving the very point I think this book is meant to make. In fact this very thing is happening all over the world on various levels. Read it and let's talk.

By the time we catch up with the main character and the strange little boy who is talking to her, the major life-changing event has happened and there is nothing that can now be done. The terror is learning the consequences. Without giving away too much, there's a very unsettling parallel to be found here beyond the scary story at hand, again, like a good Twilight Zone episode. Or just your average day on Howie's Book Club.