I read 203 books in 2011, or, on average, a little more than one book every two days. You would think I would be burnt out, and I am a little, but, as trials go, it was strictly Judge Wapner presiding. Small stuff. (I don’t want you to think I’ve got a big head or anything (I do, but only in the literal sense — can’t wear hats).) Continue reading
Mark Brand is a Chicagoland polymath: editor, writer, videopodcaster, former medical assistant. We met not long before I was a guest on the Breakfast with the Author podcast (ep. 3), with fellow Chicago writer Lawrence Santoro. Other guests: Ben Tanzer and Jason Fisk (ep. 1), Kathleen Rooney and Gina Frangello (ep. 2), and Russell Lutz, Len Nicholas, and Paul Hughes (ep. 4). His new novel(la), Life After Sleep, provided the occasion for his submission to the complex mental challenges you have come to know as The Big Other interview.
Life After Sleep summary:
It is the day after tomorrow, and a device has been invented that immediately induces REM sleep, otherwise known as “Sleep” with a capital S. Society has been transformed. The average person now only needs two hours of rest a night. The work day is officially sixteen hours long. Americans party at clubs until daybreak, then log into virtual worlds and party in a reunified Korea all morning, too. And within this busier, noisier, more global society, we watch the intertwining fates of four people as they struggle with issues regarding Sleep: new parents who for postnatal reasons aren’t allowed to use their special Beds; an Iraq vet and PTSD victim who is haunted by the non-ending nightmares that Sleep produces; a harried, arrogant doctor whose Bed has stopped working, driving him to the brink of madness; and a band promoter with an illegal Bed that lets her Sleep for hours on end, then stay up for four straight days and nights.
Chicago science-fiction veteran and former medical assistant Mark R. Brand presents here a stunning and nuanced look at the world that might just await us around the corner–a place where GPS, Facebook and cellphones mesh perfectly to tell us where even in a nightclub to stand, yet traditional enough for couples to still have fights over groceries, and for office politics to still have enormous repercussions; and since it’s being released by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, it means you pay only what you want for an electronic copy, even if you want to pay nothing, making this mini-novel (available in EPUB, PDF and MOBI/Kindle editions) easily worth taking a chance on. Rich in its prose and deep in its metaphor, you do not have to be a fan of sci-fi, Michael Crichton or Malcolm Gladwell to love “Life After Sleep”…although it certainly wouldn’t hurt either.
Davis Schneiderman: Describe where the idea for Sleep emerged from, if you can…
Mark Brand: I first started piecing together Life After Sleep in 2007, shortly after the birth of my son. I was working 50+ hours a week in a medical office and was sleeping only 3-4 hours per night. As all new fathers do, I eventually came to accept that this is typical life with a new baby at home, but at the time it felt to me like I was the lone astronaut on a rocket to Planet Insanity. I had also always wanted to write something that pulled in some of my knowledge of medicine and the hospital/clinical environment, but I hadn’t really come across an idea I liked enough to make that happen.
By chance, I stumbled across an article in Discover magazine called “How to sleep 4 hours per night.” The article made mention vaguely of TMS technology and the potential side effect it has of putting people straight into REM sleep. My first thought was THAT’s what I want for Father’s Day, and my second thought was this would make an awesome short story. So I sat down over the course of a few weeks and wrote a short story that eventually became the “Dr. Frost” section of Life After Sleep. His section initially was a standalone short that I really liked and got some good reactions to from readers, but I just felt like I hadn’t done enough with the premise, and that there was so much more to say there about sleep and work, and it seemed to grow more and more relevant and alive in my head with each passing year. So I floated the idea to Jason Pettus, my editor at CCLaP Publishing and he liked the idea and told me to run with it. I went back and added Max and Lila and eventually Jeremy to make it more one large work.
Aside from just pure plot cleverness and a giant pile of subtext and not-quite-pointed statements about what I think people would do with a technology that allows someone to have 6 or 8 more hours in a day, (and not a few medical inside-jokes), I wanted to capture some of that experience of just being absolutely flat-out exhausted for an extended period of time. Things start to get wonky, you start waking up not knowing what day of the week it is and you realize you’re at work and you have no memory of having breakfast or driving there, that sort of thing. And in the middle of it, especially if you’ve got a new baby at home and you’re so mentally tied to two different and equally demanding facets of your life, you start to feel really bitter and fatalistic about it sometimes. I tried to grab onto that emotion and show the characters just full-on in the path of that oncoming wrecking ball.
Whenever I hear someone say that a written word, like “said,” is invisible, I usually cringe, since I don’t think of anything written as invisible, even in a metaphorical sense. But this is not that essay. On the surface, this short essay is about dialogue tags, but it’s also about how so-called masters, and even masters, can lead you astray.
When I wake up and drink my tea, I lie in bed and stare out my window. There is a tree outside of my bedroom window that has branches that resemble, to me, a man running forward, with his arms outstretched. I project this onto the tree—this vision—and soon enough I also see other branches as other people running, arms outstretched. The question is: are they running away or toward something? This question seems very important to me, and yet, it’s a tree with branches. And so I can make up whatever meaning I want. Really.
When reading fiction, many people argue the reader can take away whatever meaning he gleans from the text. That the author’s intention doesn’t matter. I find this take on reading fiction fits with certain writers, and here I will argue (in another essay) that Brian Evenson is one of them. And in general, I agree that this can be an interesting way to engage in literature, but I also feel that in many cases, it causes for the inversion of meaning. The inversion of meaning is not the same as “misunderstanding”. It is the turning upside down of a meaning. It is beyond missing the point, it is, for the writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor, a sort of blasphemy.
McCarthy is a man who has much more in common with Sarah Palin than he does with any of the young men who worship his work. Young men like violence and they love the violence in Cormac McCarthy’s work as well. I have met so many twenty-something year old literate men who talk reverently about McCarthy’s violence in his work. Words and phrases that are used are like “violence is everywhere” or it is “meaningless” or “inevitable” and so on. These young men, often without any real experience of violence (we’re not talking about soldiers here, we’re talking about students) find it engaging or “interesting”. (Other people do as well, but I’m not discussing them here.) They like to watch it, read about it, and discuss its meaning or lack thereof (see Note 1, below).
“You suffer The Lime Twig like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t.”
– Flannery O’Connor
The stakes get raised again. After reading John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig I’m of a mind with Louise Glück lines from “Mock Orange”:
And ‘odor’ is a very apt word. I’ve never read a book where there were so many scents, so much olfactory maneuvering. Here the narrator speaks of the femme fatales sent to distract the married Michael Banks:
The smell of women–girlish, matronly–and the smell of meat sauce were the same. As soon as it spread across his plate it went to his nostrils and they might not have bothered with their clothes, with procrastination. (150)
Having just reread William Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid” yesterday morning, I decided to do a study of associations–what my brain does as I read, what I think of, what I take away–though right there I sally and this Heraclitus quote, used as an epigraph in W.S. Merwin’s The Lice, drips back into my consciousness:
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”
Is this nugget saying that which we can’t understand stays with us? Maybe. But more and more I take with me what is mysterious. The trove of Wallace Stevens poems that I’ve examined recently has somewhat sunk into me as what I write now leaks his influence. But really the conglomerate of Gass/Gaddis/Rilke/Stevens via John Madera has been instrumental in boosting the language quotient and destroying a quasi-plain style I took on after a few months with Lydia Davis. So lines or formations like, “She wouldn’t let him do what he wanted to do and this frustrated him,” become “There is a way you carry yourself, he said, quickly breaking off because evening drew on, evening and everything evening measures. Our pace, the space between canyons, this leaf living in the book on the chair.”
He has some good odds, but what does it mean if he wins (apart from sales and more prestige), if anything?