Archive for June, 2012

Today’s teaser is from a work in progress. I’m not yet sure what it’s all about, but at least some of it is about hunger. This is a chapter or so in, but I think you’ll figure fairly quickly who the players are. I used to be troubled by detailed food descriptions in books, but my friend Dana Fredsti has sufficiently brought to her point of view that I’m giving it a go.


When Willie finally returned with the bucket, Jing put water on to boil and made what she called soup, but was a nearer relation to tea: boiling water with a sprinkling of dried ginger, a shriveled clove of garlic, and salt. There was no shortage of salt. They were surrounded by it.

Always before there had been something to put into the soup-tea. Some rice or barley or even wheat. A few wilted leaves of greens. Something. Willie stared into his bowl of hot, fragrant water with a new look. An older look. He drank. In a moment, in a mouthful of salty water, he was grown up.

“Tomorrow, before you ask Kwok Menglu for work, I want you to go early to look for coal. Be careful of the trains, but get coal for Zhang Zoek, too. As much coal as you can pick up and bring home. Cold is coming.”

“It’s already cold,” Willie said.

“It’s coming worse. It always does. Do you remember winter before last, when the snow came in the gap of the roof?”

Willie frowned. He didn’t remember. He was still young.

“After you finish your soup, I want you to carry some coal to Zhang Zoek. Take some of ours and light her stove.”

Daydreaming of soup

A few swallows later, he set his bowl on the floor and went to the hearth to gather a handful of coals. While he was gone, Jing opened the battered crate that served as their linen cupboard. Much of what remained were things that had belonged to their mother, that they couldn’t yet bring themselves to sell. None of Jing’s clothes were nice enough to wear to the train depot. She wore the same things to the laundry every day. A plain gray shirt with stains from drops of bluing. A pair of blue trousers with a band of striped mattress ticking sewn on the bottoms to make them long enough. She had grown up but not out in the last four years. A patched wool jacket with the elbows gone threadbare enough to show the cotton wadding inside completed her winter wardrobe. In her own clothes, Jing would look exactly like what she was: desperate.

Among her mother’s clothing she found a plain cotton nightdress, a blue and white embroidered silk jacket that had only three repairs, a heavy quilted wool skirt that could have served as a bed cover on a very large bed, and a pair of her father’s boots. Too large but not by a great deal if she stuffed rags in the toes. The slippers she wore at the laundry would never carry her the distance to the train station.

Jing was trying it all on when Willie returned. His eyes opened wide and he cried out. Not bothering to shut the door, he ran to her and threw his arms around her waist.

“Granny was right! She said you were leaving!”

“No, I’m not leaving.”

“But you’re putting on clothes to go away.”

His fear frightened her, but she made herself push him away. She went to the open door and closed it, before turning back to try to calm him. He stood at the hearth, tears on his cheeks, his raw red hands hanging at his sides. Did Kwok Menglu already have him working in the bleach room?

“In the morning, I am walking to the train station, to ask about a job. A good job. Then I will come back. I’ll bring food,” Jing said. She hoped that was true. Any food would be a good omen.

“You’re not leaving?”

“I’m not leaving, Wei Lian. I’m only going to work the same way I go to work every morning.”

In that way, Jing talked him out of tears and under the quilt on the lone bed. With her mother’s soft voice she made sparkling stories about the food they would eat when she had a new job. Snowy mountain ranges of rice, pocked with carrots and onions, like boulders on a cliff face. Great vats of egg flower soup, the egg tendrils dancing like seaweed on the tide. Dumplings as plump as pillows, full of nose-tickling steam and cabbage like shredded silk scarves studded with jewels of fatty pork.

Her stomach protested the sumptuous but empty meal, but she went on talking until the fire died down and Willie slept.

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It didn’t take long for the initial reports out of Miami to turn into a roar of “Zombie Apocalypse!” People didn’t even wait to hear the details. Give us a man eating another man’s face and we will run with it, even if it requires us to make a joke out of what looks like a tragedy in the cold light of day. Why?

Because we need stories. As zombies love brains, as meat loves salt, people love narrative. We thrive on narrative, because it holds back chaos. It introduces order and meaning and structure. Narrative is at the heart of religion, for example. Humans invented religion to explain things they didn’t understand. Not sure what lightning is? Make a story about a god who uses it to punish people. Voila! Order out of chaos. Not sure what happens after we die? Frightened by the uncertainty? A good story explains away the uncertainty. Don’t worry, you’ll come to a river, where you’ll have to pay a boatmen to ferry you across. If you’ve been good, you’ll go to a beautiful meadow. If you’ve been bad, you’ll go to terrible place of torment.

Without narrative, we have to stare down the chaos of life. Instead of zombie apocalypse and its offer of freedom and survival of the cleverest, we end up with some unfortunate man with a patchy history of bad and desperate behavior who took a drug and did terrible thing, and it means nothing. That’s one of the scariest phrases in the English language–it means nothing. That’s why as crazy as it sounds, we like the idea of “zombie apocalypse” better than we like the sound of “random act of gruesome violence.”

Fear of meaninglessness is why people start charities. To honor a loved one who died of cancer. To protect people from the fate of a loved one killed in a drunk driving accident or a kidnapping or some other horrible, random act. The stunned and wounded people the dead leave behind want death to mean something. They don’t want it to be brutish and random and meaningless.

And so narrative becomes the savior. Random horrible death becomes a story. The cancer victim becomes a valiant hero whose death will encourage others to walk for a cure! (Until bad PR causes problems with that narrative.) The guy with his face eaten off, he’s the start of the long-awaited zombie apocalypse!

This is why I laugh at people who bemoan the encroachments of reality television. As though it were reality.  Other people complain that reality television is scripted. The outrage! You mean the producers are manipulating the show to produce more drama? They’re–dare I say it–crafting a narrative? Kim & Kris weren’t really in love? They were just acting?

Our love of narrative is the reason we will never tire of telling stories. Books aren’t dead. Cinema isn’t dying. Yes, it’s probably going to change, but not so much we won’t be able to recognize it. Sleep for a thousand years and return to civilization and there will still be stories you recognize. In fact, they’re likely to be the same stories told a thousand years ago, even if we use new technologies to tell them. Stories will never end, because we need them to understand our own chaotic lives.

You mean it’s not real?!?! NOOOOOOOO!!!!!

To my mind, one of the more interesting things about “reality tv” is that it’s all about the self-narrative. The characters create themselves as the show goes on. Like deeply imbedded improvisation. I know that as a culture we like to dismiss reality tv stars as narcissists, but imagine what it would be like to have a TV crew filming your life. Think of the ways that your life could be manipulated to tell a cohesive narrative arc. Think of how you would want to create and reveal your own character. For extra credit, consider what kinds of freedom to do and say what you want might be born out that scripted narrative. Show your work.

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