(Hello, my dears, to the end of the “Passing Current” newsletter and the beginning of something new. The day before the stay-in-place order, the man ahead of me in line at the bookstore (I swear this is true) was buying a presentation copy of the Decameron – Boccaccio’s collection of a hundred stories, as told by ten people sheltering in the country outside Florence during the Black Death. There’s no time like quarantine for telling stories.
Between personal and professional changes and a creative block, I let this newsletter go fallow. Working on it and corresponding with you brought me more pleasure than any other writing I’ve done in a long time; I appreciate the opportunity, and if ever there was a time to start again, well –
I had already migrated this newsletter to a proper platform – Buttondown – with a new title, “Twelves,” for something new every twelve days, a clock of stories running on its own cycle inside the calendar. For now, it will come more often. I find that even the thought of starting to write to you again, between housecleaning and carework, job responsibilities and pacing around making phone calls, is helping me. Writing is always a way of addressing the unknown future, and at the moment it feels like the cable strung from shelter to shelter in a whiteout blizzard: just keep following the line.
The magnificent W.G. Sebald talked about where writing began for him as a kind of “self-defense” while constrained in life, under pressure from circumstances: “One of the best means of self-defence, as one knows, is to go into the potting shed and build something that no one understands or no one knows what it is meant to be.”
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There are writers with systems (three pages a day, one page a day, a thousand words, red and black ink, white and yellow pages) and then there are what we might call system writers: those beautiful souls whose relentless rigor in the execution of their adopted rules makes the calendar’s grid of their schedule into a trellis on which can grow baroque and weird vines heavy with flowers not found in nature. Think of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain – previously – who cranked out a four-hundred-page Fantômas novel every month by dictating alternating chapters, trying to flummox each other with unresolvable cliffhangers.
Think of the almost infinitely strange Raymond Roussel, writer and dandy, who spent his inheritance (aside from commissioning the first motorized mobile home, his roulante, which included a sitting room and servants’ quarters – trust me, we’re coming back to him later) putting on plays and publishing documents in which, for instance, a change of a letter creates two wildly different sentences, and the whole of the story exists to make one logically result from the other.
And Chicagoan Harry Stephen Keeler, whose singular, hallucinogenic mysteries extruded from the machinery of his homebrew “web-work” plotting system (about whom more later too).
And then there was A.E. van Vogt. Born into a Plautdietsch-speaking family in a Mennonite farm community in Manitoba, he drove trucks and processed census forms in Winnipeg and dreamed of storming the skyscraper battlements of pulp-mag New York City’s science fiction industry. Which he did – through total submission to a system, first for writing and then for everything.
“I have devised professional-level mental systems,” he boasted; the first was a kludged-together version of the techniques of John W. Gallishaw’s The Only Two Ways to Write a Story (1928) repurposed for sci-fi production. Gallishaw had done something akin to a time-and-motion study of “successful stories by great authors,” from which van Vogt derived a “presentation unit-scene” – a narrative atom – of 800 words, within which five steps take place, culminating in a twist or “story problem.” He took this approach quite literally, bless him, and thereby wrote whole books in which increasingly bizarre and psychedelic events happen, like clockwork, every 800 words: sudden falls through the floor of reality, double- or triple-agent reversals, secret brains inside of one’s brain, molecularly perfect blocks of wood that could connect the universe.
Because he was constantly creating baffling story problems for himself, at a rate of three or four a day, he was often stricken with anxiety – how on earth to resolve them? He would wake up in a sweat. “It was not until July, 1943, that I suddenly realized what I was doing.” He took an alarm clock to the spare room, thought about his story issue, went to sleep, and woke up with a plot twist in mind – “the unusual solution, the strange plot twist.” He set his alarm to go off every hour and a half. “During the next seven years I awakened myself about three hundred nights a year four times a night.” He navigated his tales of super-rational heroes by dream logic, with storylines dropping by and then breezing out again.
He later built a more elaborate alarm clock rig for self-administered “dream therapy”: “I had an industrial timer, and it turned on a cassette recorder, on which I had recorded a few sentences to awaken me and to remind me what problem I was trying to get rid of.” This was inspired by the work he and Edna May “Mayne” Hull were doing at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation of California, Inc. – the West Coast outpost of what would become the Church of Scientology.
Van Vogt, lover of systems, was always convinced a system existed for his life: a way to generate “unusual solutions” for the various problems of being human. He wrote a get-rich-quick book, a book about hypnotism, and – God help us all – “a novel about my theories on women,” “which has never been published as such” (small mercies). He wrote entire novels based on the system of General Semantics, a set of language and logic practices for becoming more objective and reasonable – to streamline the process of thinking. He sketched out schemes for meta-systems of living, with names like “Null-A” and “Nexialism,” and spent a decade or so in Dianetics, fiddling with e-meters and tape recorders amid piles of pamphlets offering superhumanity in a storefront on Sunset Boulevard. (He shared this peculiar trajectory toward transforming consciousness – Semantics, Scientology, and pulp science fiction, rather than, say, Marx or activism or acid – with William Burroughs.)
What all these threads shared was the idea of the system as a particular kind of mail order DIY transcendence: a promise that with the home study and practice of rational experience you, too, can become superhuman. Van Vogt’s scene shares a kind of Sears-&-Roebuck-Catalog-of-the-mind vibe with productions like the Whole Earth Catalog – a way to join the evolutionary vanguard from the kitchen counter. But where Whole Earth presented guides to street theater, composting, home birth, and yurt construction, the van Vogt fantasy was always internal: that you could, by systematic mental training, become smarter, more rational, clearer, and through that lay a life transformed without ever having to leave your desk. This was a very seductive promise for people already convinced of their superior intelligence, some of whom began to found their own cooperative houses – to put these plans into practice …
Anne Müller’s Drifting Circles off her 2019 masterpiece Heliopause. Shimmering, flashing music, always the same but constantly changing: the sound of sunlight in the current of cold, clear “rivers north of the future”.