Open Loops

Office Politics by Shag. Copyright is his, illustration reproduced for discussion purposes only, please don’t sue.

Over at Electric Lit, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has an interview about his second novel, Universal Harvester, and his reliance on beta readers to provide “gentle reminders that I have to close loops” in his fiction:

There’s a scene where they’re editing video tapes, and originally there were cryptic labels on these canning jars that suggested something besides jam would be going into them — who knows what. Blood, or plasma, or whatever, right? It was creepy as hell, but you can’t plant that seed and never say anything about it again. You can’t. If I introduce something to the scene, I have to — at the very least — acknowledge that something has been left unknown there. I can’t just say something and never refer to it again … but the appeal of that is very strong and hard to resist.

I have to wonder if Darnielle is a Robert Aickman fan. Aickman wrote what he called “strange stories,” stories that aren’t horror and don’t always involve the supernatural but were intended to leave the reader unsettled, often via a lack of explanation or full context. This has given Aickman a reputation for being baffling, though this is an exaggeration; more accurately, the vitreousness of his work spans the gamut from dirty windshield to outright opacity.

Take, for example, his best known story (and for good reason), “Ringing the Changes.” It involves a pair of newlyweds — Gerald being much older than his attractive wife Phrynne — arriving in the small seaside town of Holihaven for their honeymoon. They arrive in late afternoon only to learn there is one night during the year when tourists most certainly should not visit Holihaven. By the story’s end it’s fairly clear what has transpired — there’s little confusion — though the motivations of some of the characters are oblique. Over and over, the townspeople chastise the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Pascoe, for accepting the couple’s reservation on that most notorious of nights. Why did she endanger her two guests? But they, and we, never hear a clear response.

It was so dark where Mrs Pascoe was working that her labours could have been achieving little; but she said nothing to her visitors, nor they to her. At the door Phrynne unexpectedly stripped off the overcoat and threw it on a chair. Her nightdress was so torn that she stood almost naked. Dark though it was, Gerald saw Mrs Pascoe regarding Phrynne’s pretty body with a stare of animosity.

A favorite visual artist of mine is Shag, aka Josh Agle. He’s well-known in tiki and mid-century modern circles; his paintings are populated by lithe women and dapper men drinking cocktails while spy jazz presumably plays softly in the background. But often his canvases also feature other, more inexplicable details, like anthropomorphic animals or sinister characters and scenarios. In an interview (which I can’t find now), Shag stated he likes creating ambiguous scenes in which full context is unknowable, thereby forcing the viewer to create her own unique narrative of what’s taking place inside the frame.

“Office Politics,” shown above, is a perfect example. The woman in the foreground carries a broken bottle, presumably to use as a weapon. But on whom — the man? The woman? Both? Meanwhile the other woman entertains the man with a puppet. But wait — the puppet is a pink elephant, a common symbol for drunken delirium (and a recurring motif in some of Shag’s paintings, most notably “Pink Elephants,” “Seek Help,” which he said was about him quitting alcohol). So does the puppeteer represent alcoholism and the broken-bottle woman sobriety, each vying for the man’s soul? There’s no wrong answer, and that’s the beauty of Shag’s work — he engages the viewer into a subjective experience. Two people can see the same painting and walk away with very different stories about it.

In college I took a drawing class in which I became fascinated with the concept of pareidolia — the phenomenon of the brain forming faces or other recognizable shapes and patterns out of random meaninglessness, like clouds. My final project consisted of a long scroll of paper on which I had quickly jotted hundreds of squiggly lines. Once the scroll was hung on the classroom wall, yes, I could see a few faces within the lines — though whether anyone else could, I don’t know.

When I discovered Aickman a few years ago, he helped ease my anxiety over open loops in my fiction, of tying every string’s end into an explicit, visible knot. It was OK, said Aickman, to leave things unexplained and let the reader connect the dots, even if the shapes created by those dots weren’t the ones I had intended. That designed pareidolia is something I have since resuscitated in my fiction: let the reader have his own interpretation. Maybe Aickman could work the same medicine on Darnielle for book number three.

Please Stand By

You may have noticed the URL jacksonkuhl.com now redirects to my Contently portfolio. But if you click on the link under my name on the Contently page or if you’ve bookmarked jacksonkuhl.com/blog/ you’ll land right here. Fret not; dear old bloggy isn’t going away anytime soon, but currently I want to steer potential clients and editors toward my clips.

So far 2017 has been very productive for me. I’ve sold a spate of short fiction — including two acceptances on consecutive days, something new to me — which has drained my reservoir of manuscripts to near zero; I guess I need to generate more. I have a long overdue project which will finally appear this October. I’m also excited by two other bigly projects in progress: a series of essays and a piece of long-form fiction.

All of that, as well as sporadic nonfiction assignments, house projects, Pats watching, and assembling travel and adventure plans for Q2 and 3, have left little time for bloggy. But keep watching this space! In the event of an update, it will be updated.

In a Modern World

Back in the fall as I was returning to writing after being laid off from my main hustle, I had an alarming string of bad luck pitching articles. Not only did my pitches fail to sell, but their recipients couldn’t even be bothered to respond to them; and not only did they not respond, but these recipients were either editors or markets to which I had made previous sales, or at least were very friendly to me on Twitter. Follow-ups were likewise met with stony silence. Welcome, Jackson, to the newest flavor of New Media.

I told myself that everything I was doing was wrong and immediately set out to do everything — anything — completely differently. What did that mean? Well, I consciously moved away from my usual subjects, like history or politics, and targeted markets that I had only recently discovered, markets that tended to be less visible. Almost immediately I made a couple of sales, the latest being an article for Nifty Homestead about a favorite hobby of mine.

For me the takeaway of 2016 is that everybody needs to pull their shit together. I had predicted that Clinton would narrowly win Florida, allowing her to limp to a weak victory over Trump. I was very much in error. But here’s the thing: it’s not my job to watch elections. I’m someone who takes a casual interest in the news, and when he does, focuses more on local than national politics. Meanwhile the vast majority of news outlets whose content revolves around things like elections completely imploded in the months leading to November 8.

In the back of my head I always thought that if I landed a writing gig, either freelance or salaried, for a mainstream-ish publication I would be in clover. Now I look at many of them and recoil. While Trump was winning Middle America the ostensibly serious and strait-laced Atlantic published this. More recently the co-founder of The Federalist thought this was good content. Vox and Salon are parodies of themselves. None of it is news, fake or otherwise. It’s Twinkie filling.

I’ve recently discovered Medium. It’s an odd, nonintuitive place, basically a blog aggregator except a few of those aggregated are paying markets. Some of it is dreck; there’s a lot of “I fed the pigeons at the park today and have #feels about it.” But I’ve also found some gems too, like Pacific Standard, which has terrific feature writing, and the history site Timeline. It’s where I’ve been going for thoughtful analytic journalism, and with the exception of the Washington Post, nothing I’ve encountered on there could be construed as mainstream. Of course, it figures the day I write this, Medium closed two offices and laid off a third of its staff.

Do everything different. With Trump soon to be in power and media muckety-mucks falling on their asses, I feel a strange optimism entering 2017. Quoth Conan the Salaryman the morning after the election,

Black to the Future

Over at Electric Literature, you can read about my childhood fascination with Marvel Comics’ Black Panther, and more specifically with his native land of Wakanda:

Black Panther is a hero in the Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark mold, a super-wealthy bachelor who uses science and athleticism to pound on bad guys. There are no secret identities — everyone knows who BP is: he’s T’Challa, the king of the African nation Wakanda, which is a mix of grass huts, deep jungle, and 1970s futurism.

The essay is a departure from my usual stuff, very loose and free floating, a sepia stream of consciousness about comics and growing up in a household where futurism was literally just laying around on tables or bolted to the roof. Whereas Panther’s color resonated with many black readers, it was the setting that captured my imagination, and still does: I nearly jumped out of my seat at the brief glimpses of Wakanda at the tail end of this year’s Captain America: Civil War.

As of this writing my essay has received 20 retweets and a dozen likes on Twitter, more than my book ever did, suggesting maybe I should write about pop culture more often. Unfortunately I’m poorly qualified for the job: I generally hate TV (some exceptions may apply), I can count the frequency I go the movies in a year on one hand, and the number of video games I’ve played to completion since 2011 tallies at exactly three. I love music but not being a musician myself I feel I lack the vocabulary to adequately speak about it. Which leaves book blogging, something I’m hoping to do more of in the new year.

Rereading my old BP comics within the full and complete context of “Panther’s Rage” has been gratifying, with Wakanda coming across as smaller than I remember (the sci-fi technology is largely confined to T’Challa’s palace) and yet bigger (more dinosaurs! snowy mountain wastelands chock full of yetis!). It’s interesting being at an age now where I can experience a phenomenon both as contemporary futurism and as retrofuturism. Something like Vernean steampunk will forever be out of reach as a potentiality and exists only for us as a quaint, even naive, vision of how things were supposed to be; but by simply living past tomorrow we can experience both the very real possibility and the hindsight of existing in what invariably turns out to be a different future. I was recently talking to my dad about the solar panels on his house, which are solely for heating water. When I asked him whether photovoltaic panels were available in the 70s, he told me no, not commercially — the technology was in its infancy. And yet as we spoke while driving through the streets of his town, we spotted several houses with PV arrays on their roofs. Wherever you go there you are, but almost never where you thought you’d be.

I’ll be there on opening day in 2018 when the MCU Black Panther movie drops, and I’m sure I’ll have many opinions about it. Maybe I’ll even write some of them down. Meow.

Short News, Post-Election Post Edition

In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: not necessarily to win, but mainly to keep from losing completely.

— Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt

We can’t stop here, this is bat country. Are you experiencing anxiety, depression, and terror after last week’s election? Congratulations! Now you know how it feels to be a libertarian after every election! As a veteran of such emotional swings, might I suggest a period of self-reflection? During this time you could consider the libertarian idea of opposing government’s — and specifically, the executive’s — possession of far-reaching powers; as well as the possibility that blaming white people for all the world’s ills is unproductive, and that better ends might result from outreach toward America’s rural working classes. Following that, I propose sampling my daily medicine. Work out. Run. Read. Write. Help settlements. Don’t assume someone else will fix a problem. Keep a sense of humor. You’re not alone.

Let us not have such a machine any longer. Earlier this week LitHub published a list of 25 books for resisting the coming Trump junta. Notably absent was Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Thoreau’s full-throated cry has been out of favor with some on the left ever since Ronald Reagan (who was raised a Democrat) co-opted the radicalist idea that government is the problem and not the solution, but maybe it’s due for a comeback. Open Culture has a nice backgrounder on Civil Disobedience, an essay I find supremely inspirational and evergreen.

Truth is weirder than any fiction. If instead of nonfiction you’re in need of a politically relevant novel, I really enjoyed Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country.

By the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto. Doctor Strange was a fun but fairly mediocre experience with its main strength being the excellent interpretation of Steve Ditko’s vertiginous artwork from the character’s early days. While not a 1:1 translation, the visuals conveyed that same MC Escher sense of distortion and confusion that disconcerted this young reader. Over at Vulture, Abraham Riesman has a great piece about stalking Ditko (still alive — who knew?), and along the way details Ditko’s feud with Stan Lee and his gradual withdrawal from the world in anger and bitterness. It’s a fascinating and yet scary CT scan of an incredible talent consumed by mental illness.

Just say nyet. Probably because the Russians and Chinese are inside all of our servers these days, I’ve been flooded with spam through the phonetically rendered e-mail address that used to be on this site’s About page. I’ve removed the address until I can determine a better way to present it. In the meantime, if you want to contact me the best way is either @ing or DMing me through Twitter.

Antisocial Media

Diogenes by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1860
Diogenes by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1860

It’s not unusual to hate LinkedIn. The biggest complaint, of course, is the endless tidal surge of e-mails and notices it vomits into your in-box, a result of LinkedIn’s strange blacksmithery wherein a CV-posting site has been hammered into a shape wanted by nobody except management consultants and listicle-writing malarkey gurus. What started as a competitor to Monster.com and HotJobs has mutated into a kind of business-centric Facebook, a misshapen chimera of a job site too incompetent to help users actually find a job but well placed to poke you into sending pre-scripted junk mail about work anniversaries. In that sense I hate LinkedIn as much as the next person.

But what really frustrates me is its structural prejudice against freelance and gig-oriented careers. LinkedIn is made for nine-to-fivers, for people who have regular jobs with HR departments and second interviews and responsibilities that can be reduced to bullet points and executive summaries. It’s complete shit for writers and artists and other project-based doers and makers (we’re called “creatives,” apparently). Sure, you can list articles you’ve written, only to learn LinkedIn automatically orders them by date of publication. This means that book you wrote a few years ago will be buried by all the little stuff you’ve written since, whereas you might actually want to showcase the book at the top of the column. Worse, you cannot add an image to accompany that publication, so you can’t even post, you know, the fucking cover of the fucking book you wrote. Contrast that with the Work Experience areas where clock-punchers can input all sorts of pictures and videos and presentations to describe their duties at Acme Widget.

I know freelancers who have completely deleted their LinkedIn accounts in frustration. I haven’t gone that far yet; instead, exasperated and angry, I have stripped my profile to the basics and walked away.

As an alternative, last week I established a profile on Contently, which is a marketing company that advertises access to 55,000 creatives to generate content for said marketing. I suspect the 55,000 freelancers are actually mannequins in the shop window and any real work is performed by in-house staffers, but regardless Contently does have a nice GUI for displaying freelance work. You can add URLs, edit the headlines and story descriptions, add images, and rank stories however you please. You can even upload PDF scans of print clips, which is good for me since many of my favorite clips are no longer online (and the PDFs download and display quickly too). The easiness and attractiveness of the site is definitely a rabbit-hole: I wrote more than a hundred articles for Dig and Calliope alone, all of which I could scan and upload. For now I’ve added 14 greatest hits, with more to come as I jump-start my writing career once again. Forward always.

Recently my buddy Eric and I were discussing why the culture of Instagram tends to be generally nicer and more kid-friendly than, say, Twitter. He pointed out that Twitter weighs all input, whether it’s a piece of original news or an insulting response, as equal whereas IG demands that users contribute unique content, with commentary on that content being secondary. This means it’s easy to fire off an insult on IG but it’s also easy to control and destroy it, while the process of posting an image is itself a barrier (albeit not insurmountable) to trolls and haters, who add nothing. And yet that same hierarchy of content means you would never use IG as a go-to source in a breaking-news situation as you would with Twitter.

I have no idea what good will come of making my Contently profile; there’s no networking element like most social media so it sits there, cold and isolated. But that’s all social media in a nutshell: imperfect. Facebook is 10 percent pictures of your nephews and nieces and 90 percent “I can’t believe so-and-so posted that;” Goodreads a madhouse where contact between authors and readers is resented; and Twitter a news service and public forum co-owned by a Saudi prince that likes to ban women’s rights groups. Each platform is capricious and opaque, useful in some senses and completely unreliable in others. A best-case scenario would be an assignment from Contently. But it’s probably better to expect nothing because all of the promises of social media are empty.