Venus on Mars

Three (or more) Sheets in the Wind

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on April 18, 2010

Venus the cow watches the universe unfurl

OK, I’m now actually reading the book Reality Hunger, instead of just reviews, and it’s talking to me.  The idea of a narrative not as a blended smoothie but as a chunky mix.  The chunks retain the essence of their origins, which means they can be pulled from the mix and used again, perhaps within another context, most certainly to generate another meaning.  It’s the old (by now) analog vs. digital comparison.  Analog has no separable pieces – its homogenous content cannot be deconstructed and reassembled at will.  Digital material, on the other hand, is the sum of its discrete parts, and these parts are nothing if not easily separated from its larger mix, and infinitely reusable.  A blue lego will always be a blue lego, even if it becomes part of someone’s castle, someone else’s farm or submarine.

Digital narratives, according to author David Shields, will become more relevant precisely because their parts can come and go.  He forsees our literary future as a virtual deep and wide free-flowing Amazon river of digitized text/images/sounds/movies. Each item in the library is still an original chunk because it’s digital. Future readers/users will be able to dip into this stream, coming up with pieces of meaning that are useful, inspiring – perhaps these become chunks of this user’s next creation.  Shields’ entire book is composed of such chunks; he cites their origins only because his publishers made him.  Presumably he doesn’t mind (since it’s not his to begin with) if we “re-reappropriate” some of these chunks into our own creations:

“In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail.”

“Technology will transform isolated books into the universal library of all human knowledge.”

Is this where fiction is headed?

“ravenously referential and intertextual in ways that will strain copyright law to the breaking point. Novels will get longer–electronic books aren’t bound by physical constraints–and they’ll be patchable and updatable, like software. We’ll see more novels doled out episodically, on the model of TV series or, for that matter, the serial novels of the 19th century. We can expect a literary culture of pleasure and immediate gratification. Reading on a screen speeds you up: you don’t linger on the language; you just click through. We’ll see less modernist-style difficulty and more romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative throughput. Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life.”

(Lev Grossman in Time Magazine article “Books Gone Wild”)

It would be a downright shame, argues Shields, for silly things like copyright laws to get in the way of this kind of progress. It’s the old hippie worldview upon which the world wide web was launched – everything belongs to everybody (web inventor Tim Berners Lee thinks it should still be this way).

Legality aside, I’m more interested in the idea of co-mingling books.

From Lulu’s diary:

What if the pages could be released from their binding and allowed to float freely? The loosened pages from one book might choose to march alongside the pages of an entirely different volume, fiction and reality combined, or fanciful poetry settling down next door to serious prose.

My book has chunks that leave the book and end up elsewhere. Sometimes we see pages from the book, sheets of paper, blowing around in the wind. Sometimes new sheets find their way into the very book we’re reading. It’s a very unusual book in that its pages do not stay put, and I’m not yet quite set on how I want to present its free-flowing parts, but if I tell you more, I may ruin it for you.

Now I’m recalling phonemes and monemes from the days when I studied linguistics. Discrete pieces of words that themselves have meaning, even before combined into words with yet another meaning.  We may not even be aware that a sound, a mark on a paper, has its own meaning, until we create the combination. Now I’m thinking of  Lulu’s typewriter, based on Wrexie’s actual typewriter in Flagstaff, a futuristic design whose keyboard displays scientific symbols; in my book, pressing a key sends a meaningful signal out into space. These discrete signals combine to become even more meaningful cosmic sheets (also known as membranes, “branes”) separating one from universe from another (yes, we have multiple universes – I thought we’d already established that).  Then “string theory” must be the clothesline the sheets hang from. Don’t question it.  It’s not my reality.  It’s what the chunks are adding up to.

When I was researching Wrexie Leonard (my character Lulu is based on her) at Lowell Observatory, I was intrigued by her handwritten letters in which the cursive characters go both horizontally and vertically across the page.  I took one look at it and nearly dismissed it as unreadable, but then realized when I looked only at the text going in one direction, I found I could read it easily.

I can’t imagine the need existed at LO to conserve paper – as the boss was a wealthy man and freely spent on his private observatory.  Why write this way, except for some need to break up the linearity, the meaning, the flow?

Then there’s her book, published after Percival Lowell’s death, An Afterglow, beginning with a “poem” (unattributed) in which the first letters of each word, when separated from the word and recombined, compose the initials “PL” and “WLL,” names of the star-crossed lovers in real life and in literature.

What Wrexie would do with her words in the digital world?  A delicious notion.

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One Response

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  1. Harriet Ellenberger said, on April 19, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    OK, now I’m hooked. Venus the cow watching the universe unfurl … a typewriter that sends signals into space, the signals forming sheets that separate one universe from another … string theory the clothesline the sheets hang from … this is weird and lovely. I have to see how you weave together science and story.


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