Extract 2: The Hidden Bend. Nastasiya in New York

Nastasiya Vladimirivna clasped her bag close to her body as she walked down the street, an avenue it was, in mid-town. The working day was finished. People strode forcefully, with purpose, on the pavements in the insular and frustrated motion of a million centipedes. This woman may not have existed except if she was hit by someone on their own path to a subway. She walked at her own pace looking at every shop window, curious by the displays and the products and most of all the prices and making quick comparisons with what she knew at home; but she had no aim, no appointment: no firm direction on her way simply to pass the time.

Now she heard the city itself which had been so far from her in the hotel room and she liked it. It was strange and forbidding as she had first thought but it was also energetic, alive, and craning her neck to look up at the tall verticals of the buildings she was awestruck by the power rising higher and higher emanating from the ground. This was real strength which she admired. And as she walked she heard the city, she began to listen to it, and it came to her more clearly. The listening was more than alertness; it brought an understanding of the place, although she had never been there before. It was not just an awareness of her environment, or shaking off the fatigue of the journey that made her listen better, she felt attentive in the city, as if she too was finishing her own work day and heading home on a train, and she might recognize the other commuters, with their rumpled faces; looking out to nowhere, but not her on the daily trip home once more. In the din of cars and lights, and the smells too, this combination of sensation and thought gave Nastasiya a familiar feeling and when she caught sight of a shop, a dress shop, she saw it as one of her favorite shops at home, with the name complete in Cyrillic script that she did not see it any differently.

She looked into the window and saw a pair of shoes and a bag she liked. She entered the shop, her eyes took in all the merchandise in a shot, and then she slowly browsed. Picking up the shoes, observing them instantly, they were made very well, and not cheap; she said to herself that they were better for Yeva, as the style was too young for her. She remembered that Yeva had a similar pair to these but she may not have them now. What is acceptable at that age changes all the time, she knew well. Perhaps she might buy them, as a surprise, for Yeva. That would be a pleasure. Money would be tight for her, for the cost of her studies and accommodation, every dollar accounted for, and it made her happy to buy a gift, especially when it was outside birthdays or Christmas. She replaced them on the stand and turned to examine the bag. She could not see why she had entered the shop as the bag too was not right for but perhaps for Yeva, the style was nothing like she had seen in Kyiv. A woman’s voice behind her said softly, “How can I help you?” And Nastasiya Vladimirivna said, ”Я ОК, Я просто переглядаєте.”

The woman shop attendant looked puzzled. And there was a pause as the two women looked at each other. “You know what day of the week it is, right?” said the shop attendant. And now Nastasiya became puzzled, the language surprised her, it was not what she expected to hear in Kyiv, and it suddenly became clear to her that the woman was speaking English and that she had replied in Ukrainian, but this was not Kyiv, such was her deep immersion in shopping and of thinking of a present for Yeva.

Nastasiya tried to explain in broken English: “OK. Looking” – laughing, smiling to show her genuine mistake, which because her mixed phrases were evidence enough of her skill was plain enough to the shop attendant how she had made this error. The woman, not much older than Yeva, said little, she looked at Nastasiya’s clothes to infer whether this woman was a tourist with money, or someone who was wasting her time. ”You look around all you like and let me know when you want some help”, she said. And Nastasiya smiled obligingly and made a small gesture with the bag still in her hand as if she was on the brink of buying the object. But with the illusion gone that she was at home it was plain to Nastasiya that she could not buy the bag, no one could have any happiness with it. The adjustment to the place, the shop, the city, where she really was hit Nastasiya; she placed the bag on its rack mounted to the wall and then surveyed the shop for the way out. As she passed the counter with the cash register she said to the woman she would come back, something the woman did not believe as she heard it often anyway and from tourists often and all the time, but Nastasiya said she wanted coffee and asked in her basic way for a café nearby. The shop assistant understood after a second and stepped out from the counter and went over to the door and gave Nastasiya directions with hand gestures – to the left and on the next corner – very simple it seemed even in the snarl of the woman’s accent. Nastasiya thought that his must be a low class accent; it stood to reason as she was like the shop girls in Kyiv and they had a type of accent that was not spoken by managers in offices. She thanked the woman, with firm reminders that she would be back, after she had coffee. The shop attendant shrugged and said, “You’re welcome. But hurry ‘cos we close in forty-five minutes.” And she raised her wristwatch to Nastasiya to emphasise closing time but Nastasiya did not understand closing time.

Nastasiya wandered in the thinner streets, the hustle of people had subsided, the pavements opened out with space, and she heard the city again, this time it was more familiar. She felt less oppressed, less nervous at her encounter with the great city.

Ahead she saw a basic back lit sign for the café, it glowed low with a dull light. The coffee shop was where she was told it would be. The interior was simple: tables in ordered squares, and a long counter by the kitchen and above the wall, the menu. She stepped in and found a table. A waitress walked towards her, not too near, “What’ll it be?” she asked. Nastasiya said coffee and the waitress asked, “Cream sugar?” Nastasiya nodded not knowing what the question was about. The waitress retreated in three back steps and picked up a cup, poured coffee from a long boiled pot of coffee on a plate; then poured cream into the cup. The coffee shop was deserted, the harsh overhead light reflected off the shiny surfaces but streaks of a greasy cloth that had just been passed over the table surfaces could be seen on the reflective tables. A television mounted on a wall on high was at a barely discernible volume with pictures of the evening news from this side of the world. Nastasiya’s attention was drawn to the TV, though she could not understand what the events were or who the people were. But the pictures had a dazzling interest of their own.

She looked out to the window, out to the street, dusk had come down now and the lights were on and although Nastasiya could see what time it was she had no real sense of time. It could be early morning, midnight, or lunch time as she was still residing at another place. The feeling had her remembering being at school and taking the early morning buses and always been out of time with the other girls at school. She had already been awake for three hours by the time she sat in a class.

The waitress brought the cup on a saucer over to Nastasiya’s table with two sachets of sugar on the saucer. As the waitress left the cup on the table she said, enjoy and Nastasiya replied thank you. She saw that the cup had cream in it; it was not her preferred taste, but nothing she could do now, or explain to the uninterested waitress. She sipped the coffee and didn’t like it. She put the cup down and tore open a sachet of sugar and poured it in, turning the turbid mixture over with the spoon and trying it again. She found that it was better, less coffee, than merely a sweet drink, with a stimulating effect. Nastasiya Vladimirivna sat in the somnolent coffee shop sipping her coffee occasionally glancing at the TV when the screen changed; and becoming engaged in the moving spectacle of the street outside, the flow of people crossing each other, single women, men, couples, parents with children, the harried, the self-important, the slow stepping vagrants, hobbling or striding in their space, past her own widescreen.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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Machines

I thought this subject might be interesting to blog about and then a remote hard drive crashed today and having lost a lot of material, some not very important, it seemed more pertinent because machines, software, not to mention consumer hardware, are central to everyday life.

A big theme now is what happens when machines take over work: the humdrum being done by capital equipment. There is a lot said about how this will transform work and the ramifications to people; even to the effects on certain industries.

In the commentary, publishing and writing have not had much focus, though it’s said journalism is threatened, talk to any freelancer and that is evident, news agencies scan releases and issue a new text

In the book business and the fiction trade, in which I have some direct interest, it seems more nebulous, at least for now. The idea of a machine reading submissions and using Gaussian algorithms to evaluate texts in terms of plot, character and then rank potential markets based on historical trends and data is dystopian.

It’s a horror scenario, and similar to one in The Black Swan, in the pseudo story of the bestseller which underpins Taleb’s psychological rendering of a black swan, to illustrate how thinking can be set on railway tracks.

This psychological dimension is not the same as black swans in logic. I spent a year deep in logical propositions and black swans were common, but that distinction aside, the trap of applying principles with machines to industrialize the process is troublesome. Artistic works are not always identical with shelf products.

If and when machines do become part of publishing they may just do the grunt work; processing, not analyzing; ensuring efficiency reigns supreme, not deciding on the fall list.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Recovered

This month has been fortunate for the discovered book and essay. Previously ‘lost’ manuscripts by Ayn Rand, Harper Lee and Charles Dickens have surfaced and brought new enjoyment to readers. Well, in the case of Rand, it is really a solemn obligation and given her style, it won’t be much fun at all.

It’s probably true that Ideal and Go Set a Watchman and What is Sensational? have a pool of interest and market ready in greater proportion than the quality of the texts. Discovering an old piece of forgotten work, or youthful disjecta, is more interesting to academics and writers. With long literary careers there is more to compare with a rediscovered text, and through it discern the lines that set into the characteristic forms of the author’s style. That is the case with Rand and Dickens, both were prodigious writers. Lee is not in the same category despite the large affection.

Dickens’s essay is full of vim and energy on the subject of the poor and excoriating on the degree of public hypocrisy. I will not be reading Rand or Lee. Rand’s mature work is barely readable, and as craft, is mostly shoddy and conceited. While English was not her first language she did not reach the accomplishments of Nabokov, with whom she shares a certain temperament, but her work is pretentious poshlost and excerpts of Ideal do not modify that opinion. As to Lee: it is too simple and allegory is most resonant for a particular age group, but having read Mockingbird at the right age but left indifferent by its straight lines, there is little impetus to engage with more.

In a world of economic inequality the Dickens’s essay is still powerful. With some edits it could be served today and undoubtedly deliver to the same effect to the same targets of his outrage.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The Same Day: Time in The Hidden Bend

Three different eras exist in The Hidden Bend. There is no rational basis to this choice, though it was deliberate, it seemed a stimulating way of writing the book, and, as the characters are separated and do not meet, the periods in which they live can be any era, even, I suppose, the future, although I never considered that.

I have written short fiction with snow as a central motif, and another short piece which has a man raking autumn leaves for no other reason than I wanted to experience those sensations again: dry cold and powder snow, and the moist smell of decayed leaves, because I was bored with a long run of hot sunny weather – always the same day – as I looked at it through the window of my writing room.

The time periods in The Hidden Bend are not explicit, say with a time and year stamp to tell the reader that this portion of the book occurs in a certain time period which is important to know.

Nastasiya’s story is in the present today, this last decade in any case, as her daughter is studying advanced computing. The soldier’s tale is a merging of time and events in the last forty years. The most bounded by its era is Piers’s story, which is largely set it in the early 1960s, though not absolutely definitely as some references are drawn from a slightly later period.

The time periods are related in small ways, through the appurtenances of life. The temporal objects are not clues, as a detective novel would serve them, there is no end objective in finding them and knowing what they are, rather, they are the commonplace, everyday objects of existence, not important, but which are associated with characters, just as a car, or a coat, is with people in real life.

Being aware of the different eras in The Hidden Bend may not influence the reading, certainly if the names and the objects do not signify something. But the different periods create an abstract time, whether of the present, or at some time in the past, it is the same day.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Dating Fiction

David Wallace’s 1990 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, could, or should, be read in conjunction with Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

There is no direct connection between the two, although they both overlap on the margins of the same issues: originality, creativity, the audience and the market, and others besides, which this blog won’t attempt to interpret.

Wallace and Benjamin’s interpretation is a political economy on how the writer, the composer, or the video installationist, works in the market; it acknowledges commerce, capital and its affiliated institutions, as well as supply and demand and how audience taste is formed.

As Wallace states “…commercial entertainment(s)…sheer ability to deliver pleasure in large doses changes people’s relationship to art and entertainment.” That is a considerable force and even though TV is losing its appeal, certainly with millennials and others, Wallace’s perspective remains true now with the web and social media, where gratification is multifarious, constant and self-regulated.

In response, fiction is attempting new ways of delivery, on devices and channels, via technologies which still follow the lines Wallace traced in 1990.

Despite differences between TV and software apps, the common denominator is time and how it’s used. In 1990 Americans spent 6 hours watching TV: with social media it can be over 3 hours per day. Over the last couple of years the number and type of dating apps has grown and Tinder users, for instance, spend 90 minutes each day checking their status. Compared to TV and many novels, these apps bring very quick interactive pleasure.

That sheer ability, as Wallace said, to deliver pleasure affects and influences how audiences decide how to use time, if any, to reading novels, and least of all to the books that don’t immediately bring an instant hit. Satisfaction has to be quick or else, it’s TLDNR.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.