Forty years of practicing psychotherapy have left me somewhat immune to the bittersweet tragicomedies of life. At least, I find myself these days just a bit short on tears. But the last ten pages of David Mitchell’s new book, The Bone Clocks, turned me back into a weeper.
The book is too big and too complex a story for easy summary. Also, it’s too damn good. Like great music or a superb dinner, The Bone Clocks needs to be encountered, wrestled with, and savored. Not munched like Cliff Notes.
Let me, however, offer a few hints about what you’re in for when you read Mitchell’s masterpiece:
Hint 1: The book tackles enormous themes, with nary a didactic word or explanatory passage. Despite the themes’ depth, Mitchell shows everything though the actions and interactions of compelling flesh-and-blood characters, drawn with realism, emotion, and precision. What are the themes? Here are a few (there are more): Try life and death (and life after death). Try climate change and its impact on civilization. How about the birth, death, and rebirth of human society? Or the possibility of mental evolution to levels far beyond ours?
Hint 2: There are at least four, count ‘em, four, protagonists – Holly Sykes, Hugo Lamb, Marinus, and Crispin Hershey – and each is simultaneously an antagonist to at least one of the others. (And that doesn’t even count the actual bad-guy and bad-gal antagonists in the plot.) Even the most dreadful characters seduced my reluctant sympathy – and I fell in love with Holly Sykes by page 10.
Hint 3: The four protagonists’ stories are vivid and compelling near-novellas in their own right, but each is entirely, grippingly, and integrally woven into the fabric of the whole novel. Everything — and I mean everything! — coheres and contributes to an inexorable march to the final climax. You can see it all at the climax. Although the enemies seem alien at first, we realize by the book’s end that, in Pogo’s immortal words, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Hint 4: Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law is Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The Bone Clocks can be considered magical realism. Clarke’s law holds true, though, because all the magical elements of the story turn out to be kin to the “miraculous” actions of some advanced Tibetan Buddhist lamas, doing “magical” things with their profound mental training. To me, it would be more accurate to call Mitchell’s style technological realism, if you’re willing to consider sophisticated mental abilities to be like “sufficiently advanced technologies.” It’s a semantic stretch, but when you read the book, you’ll get it.
Hint 5: Despite having 624 pages, the novel appears to end at page 545! Then, without warning, we’re in an entirely (well, not entirely) new story, set eighteen years later! A seventy-nine page epilogue? Nope. For twenty or more of those pages, I kept asking “Where the hell is he going with this?” Finally, befuddled once again (Mitchell’s story-telling is nothing if not delightfully befuddling), I gave up and let myself sink into this last masterful tale – and that’s when the tears started.
Hint 6: The ending, specifically the last seven pages, is perhaps the most bittersweet – or perhaps I should write, sorrowful-uplifting – prose I have ever read. To my mind, the very last line is nothing short of a masterpiece.
That ending and that last line are what opened me to weep deeply, to let the sorrow and the hope Mitchell portrays so profoundly enter my consciousness fully. I could let the anguish and the aspiration of Holly Sykes – like those of so many clients over forty years – take hold of my emotions as deeply as almost any book has ever done. And so The Bone Clocks proved redemptive – at least for me. I hope it will for you as well.
On May 24 of this year, Pope Francis issued his encyclical, a teaching letter, on climate change. Its title is Laudato Si’, the opening words of a song by St. Francis of Assisi praising God for the beauty of nature. Its subtitle is “On care for our common home.” At times, the writing is lyrical, almost beautiful; at others, hard-boiled and fierce. In English translation, though, it is clear and readable.
In his writing, Francis paints a powerful picture: The environmental crisis we are all facing is tightly woven into the economic and social arrangements of modern capitalist societies – and into the psychology that such societies and arrangements engender. Here are two paragraphs (203 and 204) from Laudato Si’ that highlight this tight interconnection:
Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals. . . . This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. . . .
The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes “a seedbed for collective selfishness” [quoted from John Paul II]. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs. So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction (emphasis added).
The Pope’s equation is straightforward: Excessive consumerism drives social instability through the psychological mechanisms of insecurity, self-centeredness, even greed.
Elsewhere, Francis makes the obvious connection between consumerism and environmental crisis: Everything in the postmodern capitalist economy depends on the consumption of energy, and the selfishness of large fossil fuel companies obstructs the development of alternative sources of energy. The excesses of capitalism lead to consumerism, which in its turn reinforces the excesses of capitalism, to the detriment of our social and economic health and the destruction of the natural world.
As ecologists and systems thinkers have known since the pre-WWII era, everything is interconnected. And there’s another writer on this topic who knows it too, as do all Buddhists.
So when the environment changes, climatic conditions also change. When it changes dramatically, economic structures and many other things also change, even our physical body. So you can see the great effect from that change. So from that viewpoint this is not only a question of our own survival.
Therefore, in order to achieve more effective results and in order to succeed in the protection, conservation and preservation of the natural environment, first of all, I think, it is also important to bring about internal balance within human beings themselves. Since negligence of the environment – which has resulted in lots of harm to the human community – came about by ignorance of the very special importance of the environment, I think it is very important first of all to instill this knowledge within human beings. So, it is very important to teach or tell people about its importance bring own benefit (emphasis added).
In both these writers, you read the same ideas about interconnectedness among individuals’ psychological makeup (fear, greed, and ignorance leading to consumerism), social and economic relations (competitiveness and unfettered capitalism), and ecology and nature (climate change). Both insist that the problem exists at all levels, and that a solution at only one level will ultimately fail.
I don’t mean to suggest, nor do Francis or the Dalai Lama suggest, that everyone must be active at all levels for effective positive change to occur. Rather, the message seems to be: We each can contribute, at whatever level we prefer, to solutions for the planet, our people, and our civilization.
Here’s how Francis writes this in Laudato Si’:
Not everyone is called to engage directly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organizations which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban. Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges. Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism. These actions cultivate a shared identity, with a story which can be remembered and handed on. In this way, the world, and the quality of life of the poorest, are cared for, with a sense of solidarity which is at the same time aware that we live in a common home which God has entrusted to us. These community actions, when they express self-giving love, can also become intense spiritual experiences.
My books are not environmental treatises. They are fiction, set in ecologically distinct and robust places, similar to where I live in north Idaho, but they aren’t based on environmental themes. Still, I write this blog, in which I focus on psychological, literary, or spiritual aspects of both writing and being. The pressing issues of environmental and ecological degradation and climate change concern me, as they concern millions. I was struck by Francis’s use of writing to address the issue as not merely an economic and social issue, not only a psychological issue, but also a moral issue.
In our small communities, Sandpoint and Hope, Idaho, many people and groups who are deeply engaged in these matters, such as Wild Idaho Rising Tide. One manifestation is a growing concern and movement to counter the growing threat of coal, oil, and gas trains funneling through our communities.
These trains are coming from the North Dakota Bakken oil field and the Powder River Wyoming coal mines and going to the Pacific ports for export to Asia. Sightline Daily estimates that coal and oil train traffic through Sandpoint and across Lake Pend Oreille will more than double from its current levels, leading to hours of road crossing closures and, of course, the risk of derailment and explosion or waterway pollution.
Efforts to stop the coal trains and the so-called “bomb trains” carrying crude oil are not NIMBY selfishness.
They are serious, thoughtful, and concerned social actions to raise attention all along the routes taken by these trains, from the Midwest to the Pacific coast. They embody what Francis calls “civic love.” As a writer, I can do a small part to bring these things to readers’ attention; it is not the most I can do, but it is certainly the least I can do for the world, the country, and the land that I love.
Originally, today’s posting was going to be about bullies and writers; in a way it still is, but with an added personal slant. In my forthcoming novel, tentatively titled The Third Noble Truth, one of the characters, who had been abused by a monk in his youth, achieves a radical and nearly lethal resolution to his suffering – one that is entirely a surprise, even to him. I found myself, writing those scenes, liberating some of the anger I’d accumulated over more than thirty years working with adult survivors of clergy abuse in Minnesota. Beyond working on committees to advance mandatory reporting laws in the state and providing consultant services to attorneys attempting to sue the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on behalf of victims, I had to contain my rage at the cover-up by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minnesota so as not to betray my clients’ privacy. Now that I am retired from practice, I can write about what, then, I could not say: The Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, John Nienstedt, is a bully.
Nienstedt resigned on June 14, after his Archdiocese was charged by the Ramsey County (St. Paul) prosecutor with failing to protect minors from sexual abuse by a priest. I rejoiced. Although it’s my opinion, it isn’t only mine that Nienstedt, like too many powerful men at the head of too-big-to-fail corporations, is a bully.
Now, I’m not taking on faithful Catholics or other spiritually minded people whose churches happen also to be big corporations. Nor am I cynical about Pope Francis, who seems to be a fresh wind blowing through the Vatican: He accepted Nienstedt’s resignation in fewer than twenty-four hours. No, I’m talking about the corporate bullies who use their power to hurt real people. And archbishops aren’t the only examples of this.
For a fair sampling of what others think of him, you can click here.
To save you the time, here are a few examples:
On September 17, 2013, the Huffington Post reported that “In October of 2012, . . . a letter he [Nienstedt] wrote surfaced in which he tells the mother a young gay man that she must reject her son or go to hell herself.”
Earlier that year, Jesse Marx of the City Pages blog wrote that Nienstedt “used his position to bully proponents and demonize fellow Catholics who disagreed with him.”
In 2012, Nienstedt ordered priests in the Archdiocese to refuse Holy Eucharist to any openly gay persons – and even to anyone wearing a gay pride button – who came to the altar for the sacrament.
In that same year, as part of his virulent campaign against gay marriage (on the ballot that fall), he sent teams – a priest and a married heterosexual couple – into Catholic high schools to deliver mandatory lectures against gay marriage to seniors, who presumably would be eligible to vote in the next fall’s election.
He ordered his priests to form political action committees in their parishes – and parishioners’ expense – to support the gay marriage ban in the upcoming election.
He ordered his priests either to speak out against gay marriage (before the election) or to remain silent if they could not condemn it.
Naturally, then, it surfaced in 2014 that Nienstedt had been accused, it’s reported, of having had sexual encounters with priests, seminarians, and other adult men, and that he may have had a sexual relationship with the very priest who sexual abuse of children he failed to report to authorities. (Clearly, since any results of those investigations have not been made public, he remains innocent until proven guilty.)
I’ll reflect on some of the deeper psychological and literary issues those allegations raise in next week’s post.
Allegations are not facts, of course, so my calling Nienstedt a bully will have to stand on his overt behaviors, some of which are mentioned above, and others of which can be found easily online.
Writers need bullies, of course. Called, more primly, “antagonists,” bullies (for fiction writers) usually are people – and not all antagonists are bullies (think Fred Clumly and the Sunlight Man in John Gardner’s The Sunshine Dialogues). For writers of non-fiction, ideas can be the antagonist (as in Eli Levin’s Disturbing Art Lessons: A Memoir of Questionable Ideas and Equivocal Lessons); or, a hiker’s incompetence and the trail itself may serve (as in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild); or a German submarine aided and abetted by the British secret code-breaking agency will do (as in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania one hundred years ago).
Whatever form they take, we writers need our bullies or antagonists for the conflict and tension they generate, and all writer’s hope that their bullies have dimensions and heft, even perhaps some redeeming qualities. The more complex the bully’s character is, the greater is his or her potential to capture readers and hold them to the page. Bullies are great in books.
But real life is too full of bullies like John Nienstedt. I am very glad he is going away.
When Michele and I visit our grandchildren in springtime, one delight is to watch them practicing with their baseball or soccer teams. Any of you who have children or grandchildren know how the five-year olds all cluster on the ball like puppies going after a chew toy.
Or how, when the nine year olds catch ground balls and their throw to first is on target (once out of five or six times!), they strut for a moment, face the outfield, and spit, as confident as Derek Jeter. I smile.
One of the things I enjoy most is watching the coaches patiently and ceaselessly teaching the basics, reminding the kids to master those before trying the harder things. “Stay in your position!” “Eyes on the ball!” They don’t try to get the kids to play far above their abilities, just a slight bit better.
In his thoughtful book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyosto, recalls a charming story of a similar “coaching” scene:
“I remember most vividly my first lesson on [what “mental” means] as a child, when I had to memorize the dictum, ‘The definition of the mental is that which is luminous and knowing.’ Drawing on earlier Indian sources, [this is how] Tibetan thinkers defined consciousness. It was years later that I realized just how complicated is the philosophical problem hidden behind this simple formulation. Today when I see nine-year-old monks confidently citing this definition of consciousness on the debating floor, which is such a central part of Tibetan monastic education, I smile.” (The Universe, p. 124).
Whether it’s Little League or the Tibetan debating floor or third grade, good coaches and teachers tailor their lessons to their students’ capabilities. Writers have a similar responsibility: I am to “know my audience, and write to them.”
My friend, Lou Kavar, who’s both a psychologist and a pastor, writes Emerging, an excellent blog on spirituality (you might want to check it out). Once, referring to his audience, Lou told me, “My age group is mostly over 40 or so. Because of that, my blog uses a larger font.” He’s taken know-thine-audience to a higher level of compassion.
I write adult fiction, with “adult” defined as folks around thirty or thirty-five and up, whose experiences in the world provide them some understanding of what my characters are going through. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever write for my grandchildren, but then I’ll write differently. However, I know at least one writer who feels quite differently about this business of knowing one’s audience. He put it this way: “Audience doesn’t matter. Writing fiction is art, and it’s the artist who decides what is artistic.” To my friend, writing to a particular audience is “pandering.” It’s his word.
Do good coaches or good teachers pander when they calibrate their instruction to the capabilities of the students? They say the Buddha gave his message quite differently to different audiences, fitting the expression of his teachings to their spiritual maturity. That’s not pandering.
John Gardner, an American writer, taught that good writing creates a “dream” or dream-world in the reader, and that writers must do nothing to “wake” the reader from that dream.
I suspect that the art of writing lies precisely here: Crafting words and sentences that allow your audience to enter and remain in the “dream,” without being distracted by how you write.
In an earlier post, I talked about how Jesus taught in parables. One day, the authorities challenged him for breaking the rules – he was eating dinner with tax collectors working for the Roman empire. In the simplest of language, he offered a very complex and profoundly revolutionary message. But rather than saying, “My mission is to propose a regime-threatening and radical new way of envisioning social and political relationships.” Nope. He said, “You don’t put new wine in old skins. New wine, new skins!” (Mark, 2:22). So, who was his audience? Even though he was rebutting the highly educated and sophisticated Pharisees, I don’t think they were his actual audience. The Pharisees would have been quite prepared for a philosophical argument. No, his audience had to be the ordinary Joe-Six-Packs with whom he was eating, and for whom he tailored his answer.
Madeline L’Engle once said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” This seems to be different from know your audience. Is she saying, “The book determines the audience”? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I think she’s telling us that really serious and important themes can get muddied up when their expression is too complex – too “adult.”
“New wine, new skins!”
But what do you think about this business of writing for your audience. Let’s talk.
It may seem brash, but I’m going to share two amazing sources of lessons I’ve learned about writing: Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. I’ll start with Jon Stewart.
As he ends his years as the guiding spirit of The Daily Show, I’ve been reflecting on his work, and I’ve realized that he’s leaving me an important lesson about writing fiction. Four nights a week, he has turned serious, complex, and often disturbing news stories into informative and insightful 20-minute laugh-riots. As a fiction writer, I’m intrigued that he can produce such quality night after night.
Granted, he has a team writing with him. An article on the New York Times City Room blog revealed that his scripts are written by his team of roughly twelve writers, producers – and himself – each working about eight hours a day: 96 writer-hours produce 20 minutes of hilarious and penetrating social criticism: Rachel-Maddow-meets-Robin Williams. So, how does that shake out? So: One minute of high-quality writing for The Daily Show requires 4.8 writer-hours!
Let’s see: I write, on good weeks, about fifteen hours, so using The Daily Show as my standard, I should produce about 2.4 pages of excellent content each week! (I can read a page in about 74 seconds.) That’s double-spaced, of course.
(Naturally, there are bad weeks, like this little guy is having.)
Sure, it’s a cliché: Devote more time, do more revisions, and your product will improve. Jon Stewart’s success adds dimensions to the cliché: “Good” writing requires a serious story, a wildly entertaining way of telling it. and many hours of hard work. Seems like a no-brainer, eh? Maybe, but I think there’s something else at play in great writing. This is where Himself, as the Irish call him (Jesus, not Stewart), comes in.
Full disclosure: My mother’s career choice for me was the priesthood. Although I drove that train off the tracks early, I’ve stayed engaged with Jesus as a hero, a prophet, a teacher. I don’t actively practice Christianity; in fact, I prefer his friend, Gautama Buddha’s, approach better. In any case, Jesus wasn’t a writer, so what relevance does he have to the craft of writing?
Well, first, he had a team of writers working for him—you know, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the guys. Jesus himself, of course, never wrote a word, or perhaps I should say, never published one. Nor was he a demanding editor: When his writers quote him, they often differ! With his writers, Jon Stewart runs a much tighter ship; Jesus, not so much. And loose ships confuse lips.
Still, his message endures. So, what’s that got to do with writing a novel, like my Climbing the Coliseum?
Note the word: message. Think, “Have a message, but bury it in a story.”
That is, parables. Embed a message in your story that touches people’s desires, but don’t say the core message in so many words. People say to Jesus: “Tell us how to find God!” He replies, The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Huh? Say again?
The parables raise questions and generate tension by forcing those who hear them to ask questions, to think. I can imagine his listeners looking at each other: What’s he mean by that? He forces people to engage, to dig in. Just what writers want, correct?
The covert message (or theme, if you prefer) of my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, is that when folks skirt the toughest challenges life throws at them, they suffer, and when they turn around and face their challenges head on, redemption happens. It’s about how ordinary folks in small communities help one another survive terrible things. However, nowhere in the novel will you find that message. It’s hidden, like a treasure buried in a field, woven into the story and the plot, but never spoken out loud.
Jon Stewart taught me to entertain, but to entertain about subjects worth grappling with. And Jesus’s parables taught me to hide that message in the field of plot and story. Keep readers entertained, engaged, and wondering—that’s the art of fiction. But make the story worth wondering about. That’s the morality of fiction.
What are your thoughts about this? Send me a comment so we can talk . . .
Welcome to “The Blog at Bill Percy Books.” (In resort towns like ours, you find places with names like “The Seasons at Sandpoint” or “The Old Church in Hope.” Maybe I’m hoping, with that blog title, that you’ll find visiting here to be like heading off to a ski resort or a summer cabin on the lake. Who knows?)
Lake Pend Oreille Idaho on a hazy summer afternoon
By way of introduction, I’d like to share a bit about myself. In this blog, I’ll focus on writing in all its dimensions, but I’m organizing my thoughts around three key areas, which I’ve tagged as psyche, story, and spirit. More on them later. Fiction is my “home base” as a writer now, although for forty years I wrote as a psychologist, for teaching and scholarship, and a guy doesn’t leave forty years and walk away!
During those forty years practicing psychology, I developed a keen interest in brain science, especially the science of how emotional and physical trauma affects its sufferers. I keep up with developments in that field; so much of literature deals with people’s experiences of traumatic events. Not only the dramatic, big-news traumas such as war, natural disasters, rape, or auto accidents, but also the insidious cumulative traumas, like meaningless jobs and daily horror shows in the news, the small-change traumas that wear on our spirits like repetitive stress wears on our bodies. In fact, there’s an emerging field of literary theory that focuses exactly on trauma in literature. If you’re interested, here’s a good introduction to that emerging discipline. http://tinyurl.com/kxburxm.
My interests aren’t all bleak, though! I love Bach and Bobby Dylan and Arvo Pärt and Wolf Hall and James Ellroy and Neal Stephenson and good food and oaky Chardonnay (which reminds me a lot of fine writing) and A Game of Thrones. Oh, yeah: I love reading history when it shivers me into recognizing something about the present day. For instance, have you noticed that the political rhetoric leading to the French Revolution and to the American Civil War sound (and smell) a lot like the politics of 2015?
Baseball games on the radio stop me in my tracks, as does a well-played pipe organ or a beautifully designed church. Or a custom bicycle. So look for the occasional excursion into those cultural regions, especially when they link to good writing. And watch for resources and links to other blogs and sites that help writers write – and think – better; a guy can’t help but pass along the things that make him grow at what he does!
Now, what about those themes in the blog’s tag line: psyche, story, and spirit? Why did I chose them rather than, say, psychology, fiction, and spirituality? For me, these shorter words evoke a deeper and broader range of possibilities than their longer cousins.
Psyche can be the mythical young woman turned into a goddess through her passion for self-investigation, or the word can evoke the soul, the self, the inner being, the personality, or four of the Buddhists’ six “aggregates” that make us human (perceptions, feelings, mental formations, and consciousness).
Story, rather than fiction, widens the space for us to play with all kinds of writing, and it alerts us to a core purpose in all writing – to tell a story. More on that in another post.
And why spirit? Try these for openers: Holy Spirit, school spirit, a spirited child, he spirited her away, to be in good spirits, team spirit, the spirit not the letter, the spirit of the times. That’s the spirit!
I hope my thoughts provoke your own, and if they do, please add yours to the conversation—or share mine with like-minded friends. I intend to post about writing — its explorations of psyché, the stories that embody it, and and the spirit of great communication, not to mention the spirit behind the spiritual dimensions of life — on a Fridays each week (as long as I can get to my laptop) and I look forward to getting to know you! I”d love to hear from you about the interests and loves that feed your writing . . . Any thoughts?