Buy or Die

Phillip K. Dick on Prepping and Consumerism

Throw a rock in any direction these days and you’re bound to hit somebody who has heard about prepping. There are articles, TV shows, and seemingly countless You Tube videos meant to inform, entertain, and persuade. Phillip K. Dick’s “Foster, You’re Dead” makes some insightful connections between prepping and consumerism that are worth discussing.

I’ve been a fan of Phillip K. Dick for years (ever since my first viewing of Blade Runner which lead me to the source material Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). I reread “Foster, You’re Dead” about a month ago and was reminded why Phillip K. Dick is considered a master of science fiction. This short story, set in 1971, centers around the fear of a possible Soviet nuclear attack and preparations to survive it. Preparations include purchasing bomb shelters that become obsolete shortly after they are installed. Dick’s story addresses the roles fear and the government play in convincing people to prepare for a possible attack.

Selected Stories of Phillip K. Dick

The first point Dick makes concerns fear. Nothing sells quite like fear. Fear can convince people to purchase things they do not need or may never use such as a bomb shelter. Most people of wealth can readily purchase such luxury items while people of less economic means are often unable to. But fear is not a luxury, and fear is profitable. Dick develops this idea through the dilemmas of the Foster family. Dick’s ability to show the struggles of the typical American family trying to prepare for a possible nuclear attack is a profound criticism of the economics of fear. The second point Dick makes concerns the government’s role in protecting its citizens. The family of Dick’s short story is ostracized because of their belief that it is the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens. The government of Dick’s story convinces the population that individuals should be responsible for their own protection, effectively abandoning them. The government’s unwillingness to protect it citizens creates a collection of frustrated groups (some with money and others without). This second point has a eerie prescience to it when read in 2022.

Prepping has become a common activity for some and a way of life for many others. Although prepping may appear to be a relatively recent phenomenon it has been part of our culture for decades. Phillip K. Dick made some insightful connections between prepping and consumerism over a half century ago that are relevant and worthy of study today.

-K-

Selected Stories of Phillip K. Dick (2013) by Phillip K. Dick.

Where is Your Faith?

“Young Goodman Brown” and Belonging

To what extent are people willing to go to belong? Do some put their faith into belonging or are they willing to give up their faith to belong? Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is a look at faith and the desire to belong.

Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories

Humans are social creatures and several millennia of conditioning has developed a strong desire to belong to something larger than oneself. But that desire to belong may, at times, be contrary to what one believes. Goodman Brown , the protagonist, finds himself facing such a dilemma. Brown must decide where to place his faith (you’ll find Faith is a key element to the story if you haven’t read it yet). Does Brown make a deal with the Devil where, “…the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints.” or does Brown hold true to what he believes? Brown knows that whatever his choice is there will be life long consequences and his faith (or Faith) will never be the same.

The desire to belong and to be part of a group is a common desire for most people. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” addresses this desire through a pretty explicit bit of symbolism, Faith. A take away for readers is to ask where do we put our faith? Do we put our faith in what we believe or do we give up our faith and make a deal with the Devil in order to belong, to be part of some special club?

-K-

Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories (1992/1884) by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Getting Over is Not Getting By

James Joyce’s “Two Gallants”

Hard times often call for tough decisions, but the decision to use another person is not getting by, it’s getting over. James Joyce’s short story “Two Gallants” centers on two individuals who use others for their personal gain. The characters of Lenehan and Corley appear to move through life by getting over on those around them without much thought to how their actions impact others.

Dubliners by James Joyce

Joyce’s Dubliners is an incredible study of a city and those who inhabit it. “Two Gallants” follows Lenehan, a nondescript man of middle age, as he kills time wandering around Dublin waiting for his friend Corley to, “pull it off.” The reader is allowed into Lenehan’s thoughts as he ponders his current state and how he is living his life (I won’t spoil it for you, but Joyce’s use of the epiphany is subtle here). We aren’t allowed into Corley’s inner thoughts but his words and actions clearly define the type of person he is.

Lenehan and Corley are men who have become so accustomed to using others for their own gain they barely think of it. They may tell themselves that they are getting by in a tough world but in reality they are simply getting over on an innocent victim. “Two Gallants” is a good read for anyone interested in the motives and means of those who use others for personal gain.

-K-

“Two Gallants” from Dubliners by James Joyce.

Stereotypes and Selling Out

Don Lee and Labels

What connections can be made between stereotypes and selling out? I read Don Lee’s short story “Reenactments” yesterday, and it has me thinking about the ramifications of being labeled a stereotype and how that label can lead to accusations and/or feelings of selling out.

The protagonist of Lee’s story is Alan Kwan, an aging Hollywood actor known for primarily for his action roles. He has landed the largest role of his career in a standard action shoot ‘em up movie that has sequel potential which would secure a recurring role and guaranteed work. Unfortunately the script plays to several stereotypes including Alan’s role as an Asian hit man. This is not he first time Alan has dealt with stereotypes during his career. He changed his name to Alan Kwan from Alain Kweon years ago to improve job prospects.

“Reenactments” by Don Lee

What distinguishes Alan’s current situation from previous experiences with stereotypes is that now fellow actors and crew expect Alan to respond to the stereotypes. Alan’s dilemma is whether to call out the stereotypes he and others have been labeled at the risk of losing future work or to remain quiet. Lee’s protagonist must grapple with not only how others will view him but also how he will view himself.

If you are looking for a short piece of fiction that addresses stereotypes and the personal ramifications that may accompany selling out then Don Lee’s “Reenactments” is worth a read.

-K-

“Reenactments” by Don Lee. One Story Issue #275

Chekhov on Solitary Confinementhat

Anton Not Pavel

When I started thinking about the topic of solitary confinement one of the first stories to come to mind was Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet.” I’ve read the story a few times over the years, and with each read I came away with some new and interesting insight. My recent reading was during the current Covid lockdowns and quarantines is no exception to finding something new to think about.

Anton Checkhov The Complete colection

The plot of “The Bet” is straight forward. A wealthy banker bets a young lawyer two million rubles (a large sum of money for the time) that the lawyer won’t commit himself to fifteen years of voluntary solitary confinement. This story is an insightful commentary on the long term effects of solitary confinement, but reading it in the time of Covid has me focusing on two points. The first is that voluntary confinement is much more difficult to bear than compulsory confinement. This is an interesting point when you see the spike in anxiety and depression in recent months amidst lockdowns and quarantines. The second point focuses on the lawyer’s reading habits during his confinement. His reading list got me thinking about what I’ve been reading during the past nine months and how confinement is influencing my reading list and impacting how I’m seeing the world.

Covid 19 lockdowns and quarantines have impacted all of us in varied ways. Fortunately none of us have been confined as long as the character of the story, but being able to relate to his self-imposed solitary confinement and the impact it has on him may help us better deal with our own lockdowns and quarantines. Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet” may help to put feelings of solitary confinement in perspective. Give it a read and let me know what you think.

-K-

“The Bet” from Anton Chekhov the Complete Collection (2018).

Horror Stories Are OK

…if They Are Educational?

What was you first experience with a good (that is as subjective of a word as you can get) horror story? I’m talking about the first time you read an adult horror story, not a children’s story. My guess is that some story by Edgar Allan Poe will come to mind for many of you, it does for me. Most of us had our first experience with Poe in junior high or maybe freshman year, and “The Cask of Amontillado” is often the first story we read and/or is the most memorable.

The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

“The Cask of Amontillado” came to mind when I started thinking about this month’s topic concerning grave thoughts. I don’t want to spoil the story for the few of you out there who haven’t read it (well, maybe it’s not taught anymore but damn near everybody my age has read it). A grave, of sorts, plays an important role in the story so I decided to give it another read. I came away with a few observations. First, the exposition of the story discusses some of the finer points of revenge. Second, there is a whole of drinking going on in this story (hell, the title references booze). Finally, with proper planning and execution you can get away with murder. I’m not trying to disparage the story in any way. It’s a well written, compact story that incorporates many elements of classic gothic fiction, but damn I don’t remember these points from way back in junior high.

I figure my teacher all those years ago was more interested in teaching Poe the author (the man’s tormented life plays a large role in his appeal to many people, adolescents included) than really focusing on the content and context of the story itself. Either way I remember the class reading it and enjoying it. But I can’t help but think that today, in a world where people are easily offended and triggered, if teaching the horror classics of Poe would still be considered educational? Give it another read or first read and let me know what you think.

-K-

“The Cask of Amontillado” from The Best Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (2011) by Edgar Allan Poe.

Vanishing as Metaphor and Violence as Act

in Joe R. Lansdale’s “Listen”

One of the great things about horror fiction is it often is a closer reflection of real life than more traditional fiction genres. Talented writers of the horror genre show us a world that is both scary and familiar. Joe R. Lansdale’s “Listen” is an interesting read as a horror story, but it can also be read as a metaphor of individuals who are marginalized.

A Fist Full opf Stories (book cover)
A Fist Full of Stories (and Articles) by Joe R. Lansdale

Floyd Merguson visits a psychiatrist and reveals a troubling condition; he is slowly fading away. In an extended monologue Floyd recounts a series of events that have convinced him that he is becoming transparent, invisible. The violence that occurs at the end of the story would appear to confirm Floyd’s belief that he is suffering from some sort of terminal illness. Lansdale’s story has the required elements to make it a solid horror story, but it can be read on another level. Floyd Merguson’s vanishing, his invisibility, can be viewed as a metaphor. One does not have to physically fadeout or vanish to feel marginalized and invisible. The forgotten, the neglected, the discarded, and the bullied all feel invisible. These marginalized individuals, like Merguson, can recount numerous instances of slowly vanishing, of becoming transparent, of being invisible. And sadly, like Merguson, may come to a similar violent end.

One of the best elements of horror fiction is its ability to show the reader how scary the world around us is, how real life is scarier than fiction. Joe R’ Lansdale’s “Listen” is a well written horror story. If you take a different view “Listen” becomes a scary metaphor, and if we do not listen to this metaphor it may result in violence.

-K-

“Listen” from A Fist Full of Stories (and Articles) (2014) by Joe R. Lansdale.

An Hour, A Day, A Lifetime

The Use of Time to Create Tension

Tension is wound into time. I could come up with some sort of watch metaphor here but most people don’t even wear watches (especially the kind you wind) anymore so let’s just jump right into it. Tension drives conflict in fiction, and conflict is necessary for a good story. Utilizing time to build tension is a good storytelling technique. Kate Chopin and Ernest Hemingway incorporate time into “The Story of an Hour” and “A Day’s Wait” to build tension that drives their respective plots forward.

Complete Novels and Stories by Kate Chopin

The titles of these short stories (and I mean short-added together they aren’t seven pages) establish specific time frames in which the stories take place. These time frames, an hour and a day, create a limited amount of time for the action of the story to unfold which adds to the tension. These timeframes also show us how an hour or a day can feel like a lifetime depending on the conflict the character faces. Both stories build subtle tension toward their dramatic reveals. Both Chopin and Hemingway use time to build that tension which in turn makes the stories’ climaxes all the more powerful.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

Using time to build tension is an effective storytelling technique. Kate Chopin and Ernest Hemingway use this technique in “The Story of An Hour” and “A Day’s Wait” to drive the plots forward and develop powerful climaxes. I don’t want to spoil the stories for you, I’ll just say that both are worth a read (or should I say worth your time, yep I just had to add that).

-K-

“The Story of An Hour” from Complete Novels and Stories by Kate Chopin

“A Day’s Wait” from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway

The Importance of Place

In “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”

What’s your favorite place to hang out? Is it a café, a coffee shop, or a corner bar? Regardless of your libation of choice it is important to have a place that you feel comfortable spending time at. Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” stresses the importance of having a place to spend your personal time.

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a study of the three stages of life through an existential lens. You’ll get no argument or questions from me regarding that analysis of the story. But Hemingway also presents the reader with an explicit message regarding the importance of having a place one can feel comfortable spending time at that is not his home. One of the characters, an older waiter says, “…there may be someone who needs the café.” This comment follows an exchange between two waiters who agree that drinking a bottle of alcohol at home is not the same as drinking at a café. There is some special quality the cafe can offer that home cannot. The story ends with the older waiter heading home after failing to find a place that that meets his requirements of clean and pleasant.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s story shows us the importance of these special places in our lives (mine is a local bar). The implication is that sometimes a home away from home, a special place or hang out, is necessary for any number of personal reasons. We may outgrow security blankets but we still look for comfort, and that comfort can come in finding a special place to hang out, to call our own (even if we share it with others).

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is an existential study of growing old if you use Hemingway’s iceberg theory. Sometimes you just need forget about what’s under the water and look at the iceberg itself and see what is explicitly conveyed in a story. Whether it is a café, a coffee shop, or a corner bar there is something comforting about having your own place to hang out. When you are drinking that next cup of coffee or pint of stout think about Hemingway’s idea of the importance of a clean and pleasant place.

-K-

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway

There is No ‘I’ in Team

Especially if You Lie About It

Most everybody who participates in organized sports has, at one time or another, exaggerated their skills and accomplishments. The motivations for such exaggerations vary. Some athletes may wish to impress peers, others to impress fans, and yet others may just want to feel a little better about themselves. Whatever the reason for the exaggerations all of the athletes have one thing in common, they participated in the sport. But what about individuals who do more than exaggerate their skills and accomplishments? W.P. Kinsella’s short story “The Eddie Scissons Syndrome” focuses on an individual who lies about playing Major League Baseball and questions the motivations for such a lie.

I mentioned in the July 5 post “Kmart, Ghosts, and Going Home Again” that Kinsella has a talent for writing baseball stories that are about much more than baseball. “The Eddie Scissons Syndrome” is no exception. The story is narrated by Lawrence “Dumpster” Kavanagh, a senior research assistant, who is working for Professor Eugene Willis. Professor Willis is conducting a research study on, “…psychology having to do with sports impostors, people who lie about having played professional sports, lie until they believe their own lies.” Professor Willis’ research brings him into contact with Charles Jefferson Kiley, a man who claims to have played for Comiskey’s White Sox in the spring of 1917. Their interview culminates with Professor Willis accusing Mr. Kiley of lying about playing for the White Sox. Although Willis’ accusation isn’t resolved (the ending of the story is worth an article of its own) the motivations of sports impostors in particular, and impostors in general, are at the heart of the story.

“The Eddie Scissons Syndrome” tells the stories of three impostors. Charles Jefferson Kiley is the third story and is given the greatest amount of attention. Charles Jefferson Kiley is a ninety-four year old man living out his final days in a VA hospital. Kiley seems genuine, his story believable. What is most important is that he does not seek to profit from his lie. The first story of an impostor in the story receives the least amount of attention. Kavanagh relates an experience of sharing a cab with a man who claims to be a famous movie star. Kavanagh is certain that the man is not the star he claims to be but does not question his lie (this is a bit of possible foreshadowing for the end of the story). This man claiming to be a movie star, like Charles Kiley, does not seek to profit from his claim of stardom. The second story of an impostor is told by Professor Willis and given a fair amount of attention. Willis tells the story of a colleague who lies about the importance of his role while serving in the military during WW II. Willis describes him as, “…an impostor who was not a con man.” The colleague, like the other two men, does not seek to profit from his lies. Living in fear of being found out does prompt him to stop lying, but he never admits about lying to his peers. If profit was not the motive for these three men lying, then what was? In the case of Charles Jefferson Kiley, and possibly the other two impostors, it is the desire to belong to something greater than oneself. Kiley wants to be associated with Major League Baseball. If he truly was a catcher for the Chicago White Sox then he becomes a part of history. The desire to belong is a powerful thing and telling what may be considered a harmless lie would seem no worse to the impostor than a professional exaggerating about his/her skills and accomplishments.

Kinsella’s story is a look into the motivations for lying about one’s experiences. One common motive for lying is to profit in some way. Grifters and con men are well aware of their lies and can often be exposed after some detailed fact checking. But what of those people who aren’t looking to profit from their lies? What is their motivation? Kinsella would have us believe that one motivation is the desire to belong. Those of us who have been part of a team (professional or amateur) know that feeling of comradery and belonging to some bigger than oneself. Is it hard to believe that others wouldn’t want that feeling too?

-K-

“The Eddie Scissons Syndrome” Go the Distance Baseball Stories (1995) by W.P. Kinsella

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