24 Cigarettes and One Pipe: Hammett and Chandler

When I was a writing student in college, I came across a how-to manual called The Essence of Fiction, by Malcolm McConnell. It was not like most other writing books I had read before or have read since. My professor, to whom I showed it, was mildly appalled at its strict focus on the mechanics of story construction, and indeed, The Essence of Fiction has no clever exercises a la John Gardener’s The Art of Fiction, nor does it inspire you to live a life devoted to creativity a la Natalie Goldberg’s excellent Wild Mind. Essence is plain and direct and even, to my old teacher’s point, rather crude, but one of its precepts has stuck with me over the years: the rule against “cigarette action.”

Cigarette action is McConnell’s term for the meaningless physical business a writer will assign a character in order to pace a scene. When writing a dialogue scene, you can’t simply follow one speech with another and then another: it gets fatiguing to read, and the scene gradually loses its sense of place, its physicality. (Not that that stopped Elmore Leonard.) So writers solve this by having their characters do … something. Get up and look out the window. Check themselves out in the mirror. Change positions on the couch. And, of course, light cigarettes.

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Did You Ever Have to Remake Up Your Mind?

Or, How to Convert an Atheist in Seven Extremely Difficult Steps

Faith, defined a little too simply, is a belief one holds without evidence. Perhaps that definition sounds somewhat derogatory or appears to contain an implied rebuke. But people of all stripes have beliefs they cling to for no intellectually defensible reason, whether they be common superstitions (“Crime is more prevalent during the full moon” — it isn’t), personal idiosyncrasies (“Something good always happens to me when I wear my lucky sweater”) and even moral or philosophical precepts (“If I make a point of being trusting and kind, others will be encouraged to follow my example”). Most beliefs of this sort are quite harmless, a few are beneficial and the rest are a small price to pay for the freedom to be occasionally irrational. I think it would be a terribly dull world if everyone had a solid empirical basis for everything they did. Besides, I’d probably have to stop buying lottery tickets, and I like having something to fuel my daydreams.

The snag is that a belief held without evidence is also extremely resistant to change. Christopher Hitchens once said that anything that is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. That’s an intellectually justifiable position, but not a very satisfying one, at least not if you find yourself wrangling with someone whose judgement you otherwise respect about an issue you can’t agree on. Faith beliefs are felt in the gut; they accord with our sense of how the world operates and are the result of influences we are mostly unaware of, from our parents and families to the media messages we’re exposed to every day. Though I defend recreational irrationality, I don’t hold it as justification for never changing your mind. Resistance to evidence is usually rooted in fear: fear of admitting you may be wrong and feeling stupid, fear of having your worldview attacked, fear of having to start at square one in determining just what it is you believe. This kind of fear is unhealthy and ought to be stood up to, at least once in a while. So occasionally I undertake the mental exercise of determining what it would take to change my mind on an issue I care deeply about. Today’s issue: religion.

I am an atheist, and I am an atheist of a particular stripe: I do not believe in a god or gods. That is not the same as saying “there is no god.” The latter is a statement about the nature of reality, the former about one’s own knowledge and the limits thereof; another way of saying it might be “I have seen no evidence of a god.” This distinction is sometimes called “soft atheism” versus “hard atheism” (neither of which are to be confused with agnosticism, an oft-misused word that describes the belief that true knowledge of god’s existence or non-existence is unknowable by human standards). In practical terms, there is not much daylight between the two positions, and holders of either belief/nonbelief would be indistinguishable in how they lived their lives. The only difference is that one has come to a conclusion and the other hasn’t. In the spirit of jiggling a knife into that small chink in the armor of certainty, and in keeping with Carl Sagan’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” here are the conditions I would require to renounce my atheism and adopt a belief in god.

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They Live

You’re a drifter — down on your luck, roaming from town to town with a bedroll and a tool chest strapped to your back. Everywhere around you, other people seem to be getting the breaks — although, admittedly, many more seem to be just as up against it as you are. You find a job as a scab laborer on a construction site, and a squatter’s village that at least offers a hot meal and a place to sleep. Despite all this, you don’t let it get you down. You still believe firmly in the lessons you learned as a kid: that the world is fundamentally a fair place, that people will treat you well if you treat them well, and that working hard and playing by the rules will one day get you to a place of comfort and security; maybe not the mansion on the hill, but not the squatter’s camp either. America still works, you tell yourself, and that gives you the strength to pick yourself up and keep trying.

Then one day you put on a pair of sunglasses and see things you never saw before, and your world goes to shit.

John Carpenter’s They Live looked unflinchingly at the underside of Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America. While Gordon Gekko was rhapsodizing about the goodness of greed, migrant worker George Nada trawled through a stunted shadow economy that grew like a fungus on America’s underbelly. They Live presents an America that seems decent enough to justify George’s faith: the squatters’ camp where he finds shelter runs on compassion and good old American hard work, a true expression of the generosity we hold as one of our core values. The problem, as it turns out, is the ultimate viper in the garden: the elite feeding on America’s underclass are actually aliens in human form, hopscotching rapaciously across the galaxy like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Galactus. Even more heartbreaking is when George discovers why he was able to maintain his faith in the American dream while it fell apart around him. The aliens have submerged the culture in subliminal messages, with every surface blaring a mute clarion of stasis and conformity. Thanks to a pair of sunglasses invented by the revolutionaries fighting the aliens, George walks through L.A. and finally sees, in literal black and white, the new guiding principles of America. SLEEP 8 HOURS A DAY. MARRY AND REPRODUCE. WATCH T.V. STAY ASLEEP. CONFORM. OBEY.


What makes They Live resonate so much for me, a decade after I first saw it and well after it was first released, is what it reveals about paranoia and the comforts of conspiracy. While the film bears the trappings of a sci-fi-based horror movie, its central conceit — that American society is being undermined by alien invaders — is actually more comforting than frightening, because it supports the premise that people are too fundamentally decent to create the kind of society depicted in They Live. Suddenly, we didn’t do it — it was done to us. This preserves our ideas of our own goodness while offering a tantalizing promise of redemption. An alien menace is a menace that can be fought and destroyed; what came from outside can be sent back outside. Sure, defeating a technologically advanced alien race is not going to be a walk in the park. But if there’s one thing we know how to do as humans, it’s kill those who are different from us. Whether the solution proved to be sunglasses, computer viruses or red anti-alien virus powder, we’d find a way. If, however, the problem turns out to be us — if we, not alien invaders, made the world around us, with all its greed and its waste and its callousness — then we’re probably screwed.

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Truth and Beauty: Tender Is the Night

While traveling in Spain I finally read Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. It seemed a nice “continental” choice for a trip to Europe.

I have a soft spot for Scott (whom I occasionally call by his first name). Raymond Chandler felt that Fitzgerald just missed being a great writer, and I can see his point: an awful lot of Fitzgerald’s work is either not quite formed (his first two novels, which honestly I have been so far unable to finish) or commercial and vaguely hacky (much of his short fiction, although many of his stories are beautiful and completely honest). Someone once said Fitzgerald is a writer best discovered when young, and as a no-longer-quite-young person, I think that’s true. He has a young person’s longing to be swept up and away, a young person’s ideals, a young person’s eagerness to admire — even to worship — and to mold himself in a beautiful and noble image.

Yet while I am no longer able to look at life quite as breathlessly as his characters do, I sympathize with, and even admire, their determination to live in a kind of refined and rarefied grace. I am nearly Fitzgerald’s age when he died, and I marvel at how strong his idealist streak remained through years that tried him severely. I can’t remember where I read it, but I recall he once described Tender Is the Night as a “testament of faith.” Partly it was simply faith in himself, in his ability to persevere while living with a mad wife, deepening debts and dwindling inspiration. And partly it was faith that the beautiful illusion was still worth cherishing, worth nurturing, worth bringing, however improbably, toward reality. Beauty is truth, as Keats said and Fitzgerald believed, and it’s no coincidence that a Keats verse inspired the novel’s title.

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The iPad and the Dog that Didn’t Bark. (And the Dog that Barked too Soon.)

The product Apple revealed yesterday was largely what most people expected. Called the iPad (well, that name probably wasn’t expected), it is slim and elegant, engineered with meticulous care to do a few things well: deliver the internet, display movies and photographs, play music and serve as an electronic reading device. The latter capability was revealed about halfway through Steve Jobs’ launch presentation, not quite an afterthought but lacking the marquee position of an A-list feature. As Jobs remarked several years ago when dismissing Amazon’s Kindle, people don’t read anymore; certainly they don’t buy books the way they buy music, movies and TV shows. Perhaps this justified the middling prominence of the iBooks application and its accompanying online bookstore, which aims (like the Kindle) to do for reading what iTunes and the iPod have done for music. And perhaps that explains why one of the day’s most significant announcements was made as little more than an aside. “We are also,” said Jobs, not sounding very excited, “very excited about textbooks as well.”

Perhaps Jobs soft-pedaled this announcement because he knew it wasn’t a surprise at all. The night before the iPad launch, McGraw-Hill CEO Terry McGraw spilled many of Steve Jobs’ beans in an interview with CNBC, breezily confirming that Apple was announcing a tablet computer running the iPhone OS, for which McGraw-Hill was collaborating with Apple to provide educational content. It might not appear entirely out of character for Jobs to lop McGraw-Hill out of his presentation, provided it had ever been included — Jobs famously dropped graphics chip vendor ATI from a keynote when they revealed upcoming Mac models before he could. And it prompts a mordant chuckle to imagine the look on Jobs’ face as he watched McGraw blithely steal his thunder. But I give Jobs the benefit of the doubt. It is likely that Apple’s negotiations with textbook publishers are still in progress, and that Apple will formally tout the iPad as an education tool at a later date. Because this arrangement is a very big deal — one that could potentially have a huge impact on both parties.

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Torture

Having finally gotten around to reading Sam HarrisThe End of Faith, I was surprised to discover a lengthy digression on torture as relates to the prosecution of what we still called, in those benighted days, the War on Terror.

It would be inaccurate, I think, to say that Harris stood in favor of torture as such. However, he did argue powerfully that our revulsion to torture is essentially hypocritical, extending as it does from a sort of moral blind spot. Harris’ argument is too lengthy to quote directly, so I will summarize it as fairly as I can.

  1. We are resigned to what we call in warfare “collateral damage,” meaning the unintended destruction of non-military targets and the injury and death of civilians.
  2. The toll in pain and death exacted by collateral damage is as gruesome as that of any other wartime horror: men, women and children are blinded, crippled, mutilated or killed, or suffer thirst, starvation and sickness in the wake of attacks that destroy local infrastructure and services.
  3. The pain and suffering of the collaterally damaged is, in fact, qualitatively of little to no difference to that suffered under torture.
  4. The preceding premises being true, one cannot morally object to one but not the other; anyone willing to accept collateral damage in wartime has no basis from which to declaim torture as immoral.

Harris made this argument to illustrate the limitations and biases inherent in our moral reasoning, particularly the human tendency to respond to individual suffering while remaining relatively unmoved by the suffering of a great many people. There is a component of torture — perhaps the way in which it is reducible in our imaginations to a dichotomy of victim and tormentor, the latter holding the former utterly in his power — that seems immediate and visceral. Yet Harris, while admitting even he found his own conclusions unsettling, was not simply arguing as the devil’s advocate. Those who have read The End of Faith will know that Harris has a very large axe to grind against Islamic fundamentalism; unlike most thinkers of essentially leftist bent, Harris has no compunction about denouncing Islam as a religion of ignorance, hatred and cruelty, nor does he balk at describing its war on the West in essentially neoconservative terms: that is, as a clash of civilizations, a zero-sum game in which compromise or rapprochement is out of the question.

As a person repulsed by the torture that has been carried out by my government ostensibly on my behalf, I was brought up short by Harris’ arguments. Had I been too quick to give in to my instinctive reaction of horror and outrage? How can one argue with any conviction that slamming a man’s head repeatedly into a wall is worse than, say, burning a little girl with napalm while denuding the forests surrounding her village? Is one of these things really worse than the other?

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