My novel Enigmatic Pilot and the story cycle it’s part of have stirred comparisons with Pynchon, which generally pleases me. But when the book was featured in a course at Seattle University, I was asked some pointed questions by students about who I personally think my river sources are. Here’s how I answered.
William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick (long ago a neighbor of mine in Berkeley) remain very important writers to me. I honestly believe they will be read far into the future, because they were so very far ahead of their time, both in terms of their understanding of private psychology and the even more mysterious mechanisms of society. They each present some unaccountably original perceptions, and while unquestionably eccentric as authors and individuals, their work is highly social—and their vision of the novel as an art form is fundamentally one of social commentary.
I find this a refreshing tonic to so much of the so-called “realistic” fiction that dominates mainstream literature today, and I think it connects American writing at large with the greater flux and flow of world art. They’re not the only ones to do this of course, but they’re two writers who instantly come to my mind who can stand with Kafka for opening the blurred windows of possibility in the 20th century.
Two quotations also drive my mythology. “We have become the tools of our tools.” –Thoreau. “Strategy is what we need to employ because we recognize that others too have plans.” – Ulysses S. Grant.
While some may think of Thoreau as but an early rebel Nature Boy, I take the view that his small body of work actually sets out a surprisingly articulate agenda of social concern that was literally a century or more ahead of the curve. Well before industrialization and the power of mass media really took hold, he was looking forward, where a later writer such as Mark Twain was essentially looking back.
While he’s often associated with the natural conservation movement (and seems to fit right in with what would become a great science fiction theme as depicted in say the film Silent Running), Thoreau is almost brutally unnostalgic and bitingly predictive of many of the human psychological implications of technological progress and dependence. Put very simply, I believe he’s the American writer, and perhaps the writer, who glimpsed modernity first. All the New England foliage calendar and yearbook quotes that have followed since can’t undermine the essentially subversive alarm he sounded back in the 1840s.
Grant is another fascinating figure. A great military leader who became President—and became mired in a period of astonishing corruption. A famous drunk and hardheaded pragmatist, he nonetheless shows what Arthur Conan Doyle, in the voice of Sherlock Holmes, would call “a remarkable subtlety of mind.” More so than any of his contemporaries and colleagues, he understood that history as it ultimately unfolds can be no more clearly understood in near time than the smoke and mess of a battle. History, he would say, is how we report the battle—and he grasped that this is another form of battle too.
Perhaps even more importantly, he expressed in sharply simple terms that events of “great pitch and moment” rarely have simple causes—and almost never discrete causes.
While a kind of cult adoration has developed around the assassinated President he served as General, along with an unfortunate dismissal of his own Presidency, Grant nevertheless offers us some poignant insights into the muck and rumble of social movements and decisive historical events. I encourage a reconsideration of him as damned prophet of modernity, in that he reminds us of the smoke of battle, and the smoke of media. Like Thoreau, he had one foot firmly rooted in a lost past, and one foot reaching forward into our perhaps lost present.
Finally, I’ve been heavily influenced by Henry James’ immensely peculiar novella The Turn of the Screw. Readers of this famous work will know that the first experience of it is as a ghost story—just as James’ copious notes about the book indicate he intended.
But something happened in the course of the writing. The story evolved, and so do our later readings of it. A second, more mature age investigation reveals other layers. Typically these take two forms. One relates to a new awareness of narrative strategy—the complex framing of the story and the question of narrator reliability. The second and more significant is a psychosexual interpretation to fascinate any Freudian.
What we are left with as readers who have looked twice is, to me, a highly provocative conflict. Supernatural explanation or psychological? Are the ghosts “real” or are they in the mind? If the mind is theater for all reality, to what extent are the ghosts not real if present there? It’s one of the most basic and enduring philosophical issues.
With a disturbing level of fastidious precision, James keeps all doors open. I count this as one work that you need to read almost word by word. It’s very definitely inspired some of my own deepest thinking on the nature of ghosts, and the nature of mind.
The “reality” of ghosts (or big yellow taxis and dogs made of balloons for that matter) is at street level determined by the simple question of—do you see what I see? I could be hallucinating or imagining. Things get considerably stranger if you and I are hallucinating or imagining together.
The idea that ghosts (in all the complicated guises this concept holds) may not be photographable, like a dragon’s head in the clouds, and yet still be perceived and active in the theater of many minds simultaneously is in fact the essence of civilization.
As one of my characters in Enigmatic Pilot says, “I show you plenty ghosts.”