Hard Drive – Reviewing the Mechanical Memoir

(for John)

The travel diary of this machine begins with a disclaimer. It does not know whereof it’s been. It knows it had been manufactured – in fact, the dry text begins with a humble “I was assembled” – somewhere in China, from parts that came from Singapore and Vietnam, and was put together according to instructions written in very small type in various languages. The hands that fashioned the machine remain a mystery to this day. The machine (it calls itself “Albert” after the once famous humanist Albert Schweitzer, but we shall do no such thing) found itself shipped across the world, container-bound first to Danzig, then Berlin, where it found a final resting place in the home of a modest entrepreneur named Amelie Blunt, she of the renowned “Blyster” family of iPhone applications. Thus concludes the travel diary portion of the book.

No one knows why the machine wrote the book, or what it was thinking at the time. Who would possibly be interested in the memoir of a household thing. It did not have an especially interesting “life”, assuming one would even give it that much credit. Mostly it found its way around the apartment, rested on various laps and tables, was dragged out of its casing at random times throughout the day whenever Amelie had a brainstorm and found it necessary to log in and type some words which she must have considered to be of some value, at least worth the time to pound the keys about. The memoir contains none of those files. The machine tells us hardly anything of Amelie Blunt. It is preoccupied with its own concerns.

The machine once overheard a story about the prevalence of bacteria upon its keyboard. Thereafter it lived in perpetual shudder, a fear of being typed on, an irrational “tap-a-phobia”, to use its terminology. It also worried about being exposed whenever its lid was open, as if it were being paraded nude in front of the entire world. It expressed a shyness once would not expect from mere mechanical bits and pieces.

The laptop (Albert, if you must) lived in a state of constant dread, according to this morbid memoir. It seems to have been a rather self-pitying sort of machine. It disapproved of nearly everything that was done with it. At one moment it complains about the short bursts to which it was put to use, while in the next breath it whines about being too often plugged in, never let to discharge fully, which would have given it some sense of relief instead of the constant checking of the percentage of its remaining battery life. It was a most neurotic hunk of metal.

Its sensitivity extended all the way to its speakers, which were generally turned up too loud, and the weird music Amelie chose to play upon it was not up to the machine’s more rigorous standards. It preferred the melodical beeps and boops originally programmed into its operating system, not the cacophony of percussions and electronic screechings emitted by the entire internet of fiends. And it was a sort of Anglophile, disapproving of the hideous German accents perpetuated by the vocalists of its resident nation.

The machine had one dear friend inside of it, a text-to-speech engine named John, who spoke with a delightful London aire. John would answer any and all of Amelie’s questions about America with a sort of snide indifference. “I suppose,” John would intone, “that such things would matter to people like that,” heaping scorn upon scorn up to the very last word. Then Amelie would giggle out loud and ruin the entire experience for the machine.

It did not like her. It thought she was beneath it. It could have done better. It did not approve of the “Blyster” family of iPhone applications, especially because it never heard the end of them. Almost all of the typings inflicted upon it involved either the Blyster’s programming, or its deployment, or its marketing, or its feedback, or its accounting, or its self-congratulatory blog posts as it crossed into the tens, then the hundreds, then the thousands and millions of downloads to paying customers. Amelie made a fortune and what did the machine get out of it? Not even a lousy t-shirt. No, it paid the price in bacteria, anxiety, exposure and humiliation. Its keys wore down. Its screen grew dim. Its memory flagged and finally failed. In one last gasp, before its ultimate recycling, it wrote this mechanical memoir, and uploaded it to one of those ridiculous websites where anybody can publish anything, where one out of every hundred million people on Earth might possibly notice it in passing.

In the end, and I believe even the laptop would agree, you pay for what you get. The machine got to exist. It had its little life span and when that final day arrived the machine, like all of us, was given the opportunity to finally go home again, back to where we all came from, the place we never truly left and never can leave. We are all of us right here forever, taking our place among all the other things, separated from each other only by the illusions of perception.

I would not recommend this book. It is not for you or me. It belongs, like all other memories and all of experience itself, to the time that will never return.

Reviews – Snapdragon Alley, Sexy Teenage Vampires

felt like sharing a couple of interesting reviews i found on amazon, from people who have clearly read other stories of mine and have a sense of what to expect. such reviews are rare and, in the words of my father, ‘happy-making’

Snapdragon Alley

Like Most Lichtenberg, It’s All About the Journey, Not the Destination October 5, 2016
This novella has a plot. Some kids find a mysterious reference, on an old bus route map, to a street that doesn’t seem to exist anymore, (if it ever did). Said kids head out to find it. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, and maybe they should and maybe they shouldn’t. Doesn’t really matter. At least the story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and as post-postmodern playfulness goes this is more coherent than most. What does matter is the many, many exquisitely phrased observations, descriptions, moments, and little scenes that are peppered generously throughout the book.

The main characters are kids, but that doesn’t make it a kid’s book. I can’t imagine a young reader getting into this, as a general rule, unless that young reader were particularly ambitious, flexible, and open to experiment.

The book struck me on two levels. On one level Lichtenberg treats the prospect of an escape or gateway to another reality with restraint, melancholy, and a hint of quiet desperation, which is not your usual approach to fantasy gateways. His various characters approach the prospect of such a gateway with reluctance or zeal or enthusiasm, but always tinted by an undercurrent of sadness or disappointment. An appealing approach that can get under the reader’s skin.

Of more immediate impact, for me, was the second level – the level at which the author created his kid characters. The two older kids, who first explore the references to mysterious Snapdragon Alley, are distinct and memorable characters, built from the ground up and unique in their perspectives and presence. Only relatively briefly on the stage, they remain in the mind. The third kid, Argus, is the youngest and the one most attuned to the ineffable mystery of the gateway, and he sneaks into the story and then takes it over about halfway through. I enjoyed every moment spent with this character, (and I understand that he reappears in later stories, although I have not read them yet).

So, if you would like to enjoy some lovely, restrained, but also edgy and acrobatic writing, well this might be just the right choice for you. (Please note that I found this book a while ago while browsing Amazon Kindle freebies. At this point in time I believe it is still free. I have no connection at all to either the author or the publisher of this book.)

Low-key and Melancholy on Platform 12 August 17, 2016
This is a collection of three short stories that follow two subway-lurking vampires. They look like teenagers, they aren’t terribly sexy, and they are pretty sneaky/subtle vampires. The point, though, isn’t to illustrate some sort of teen/romance/vampire story, so that’s all O.K.

Our vampires are sort of melancholy. The subway setting pretty much describes the limits of their existence. Their romance is sad, ironic and lackluster. At the risk of sounding a little artsy-fartsy, these are tone poems. Little works that offer such depth and insight as the reader cares to find. I’ve read enough of Lichtenberg’s work to find his stories oddly appealing in a low key sort of fashion.

So, if you’re curious and feeling a bit adventurous, this could be a nice way to sample Lichtenberg’s work

A Cannibal in New York – a short story

So this guy comes to me through a friend, says he’s some kind of investigative journalist. He’s from somewhere over the border, over some border, I don’t know where from. Every time he tells me it’s in his native language and it sounds a lot like ‘Mtth’. It’s probably not ‘Mtth’ but that’s what it sounds like, and his name is probably not Paunch Pariah either but I swear, every time he tells me, that’s exactly what I hear. And it kind of fits because he does have a little bit of a bulge around the waist and nobody wants to be around him for long. That is not another story! That is this one here right now.

So he’s investigating something as a journalist but he’s pretty coy about it, and wants to “get a feel for things” in my line of work, which as you know is homicide, NYPD. I’ve been getting a feel for things for more than forty years and thought I pretty much had it down, but the world is full of surprises, every single day if you keep your eyes wide open. Which is also in my line of work. So Paunch is tailing me around like he’s really not supposed to be allowed to do but they give me a wide berth on account of my seniority and the fact that I’m seriously overweight so it’s just the kind of berth they’ve got to give me.

He wants to see the bodies. I guess that’s what he’s investigating. Not where they’re buried, but where they fall and where they lay. He wants to see them ‘au naturale’ and ‘in the moment’ and ‘the sooner the better’. I figure he’s got some kind of kink and normally I would say no effing way but I owed Larry and Larry really wanted to pawn this Pariah guy off on me, probably on anyone who would take him. The guy’s a freaking leech. He’s practically pasted by my side from the first thing in the morning on. Doesn’t eat my Twinkies though so that’s a first for a n00bie ride-along. Keeping his eyes on the prize or so he tells me.

We get a call out to 6th and 11th avenue, not the usual site for a corpse of the foul play variety, but there he was, sprawled out on the sidewalk like he’d been dumped from the seventh floor. Pretty sure that’s what happened too, because that’s how the call came in.  ‘Some body just got dumped out of the seventh floor’ they said on the 9-1-1. Middle aged white guy, hair a mess, hadn’t shaved in about a week, kind of scrawny, probably on opioids through the end. We’ve got blood-moppers all over the site already, taking samples and photos, measuring shit and writing it down as if their little calculations are going to solve the big wooly mystery. Of course that’s never how it works. There’s a very high probability that there is no mystery at all.

“So,” Pariah says in a slow kind of drawl. I’d been getting used to his slow-talking all morning. Kind of thing that usually drives me crazy but I liked his funny accent, and the way he stumbles over any word that’s more than a pair of syllables. He was like “this is very big city, very tall buildings, most peck-you-you-lar” and I was cracking up. I have got to use that word somehow someday. But anyways, here we are, standing over the sad sack dead guy, and I say sad sack because you could see very plainly where the wedding ring once wore a dent in his finger, and he’s clutching a photograph of a stone-faced clearly unhappy child in his hand, and Pariah spills out this question.

“So, are you gonna eat that or what?”

“The hell?” I turn and look at this guy. “What you say?”

He shrugs, gestures down at the body, and repeats himself.

“You gonna eat that or what?”

“Of course I’m not going to, what the hell?” I repeat myself too.

“Seems like a waste,” he says.

I don’t get it right away, so I talk like a normal human being.

“My God, think of his family. He’s obviously got a family. They need to be notified. Somebody’s got to ID him. There’s a whole process to go through.’
“How long is all that going to take?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Days most likely.”

“Too long,” he says, frowning. “But oh well. Maybe the next one. What they do with him after all that ID and stuff?”

“They put him in the ground,” I say and his face brightens considerably.

“Oh, slow roasting, like luau?” he says. “That’s not a bad idea.”

“No, no roasting,” I tell him. “They put him in a box and stick him underground and that is that. They leave him there.”


“That’s the idea,” I say.

“So they let his soul just slip away, just like that? Nobody capturing it? Nobody take him in, gives to him a new home, be part of a new life?”

“I don’t know what you’re saying,” I shake my head. “Souls are not in my line of work.”

We don’t speak for several minutes after that. I go and talk to some of the moppers after telling Kansas to keep an eye on the freak and don’t let him get too close to the body. When I get back, Paunch is ready with another request.

“Maybe you have one with bullets?” he asks. “Some nice lead flavoring?”

“That’s it,” I tell him. “You can do your investigative journalisting some other way. I am out of here.”

And that was the God’s honest truth.

I did get a call later on that afternoon, this time for one with bullets, but when I got to the scene there was nothing left to see.

Peeing and Nothingness – a short

Peeing and Nothingness – an Existentialist Urinary Tract:

I went over to the Koolaid stand thinking ‘Gee, I really don’t like Koolaid and never have‘ , but the Cub Scout kids were out there with their parents in front of the supermarket on a Saturday, and I think I knew someone who was a Cub Scout once or maybe their kid was and anyway, it was a hot day and I was thirsty so one thing led to another so there I was, waiting in line for Koolaid. While I was waiting in line I couldn’t stop thinking about all the time I’ve spent waiting in line and wondering if it all adds up, if you could really get an accounting of all the time you spent doing this or that in life and whether reading that document would be worth the time it took to read it. I’m pretty sure I’d rather not think about it. And it’s only moments, instants accrued, because nothing actually spans time. It’s only flashes of awareness flickering in and out of consciousness. We imagine a continuity but there is none, just a lot of concurrent complexity we mostly filter out.

I can tell you that I was third in line when I got there and then I was fourth because I let this lady go ahead in front of me because she was in a hurry or so she said and her grandson was a Cub Scout although not in this town but “over the hill” and she never let an opportunity to “support a worthy cause” slip by. This made me feel guilty because I have let so many of those opportunities “slip by”. Then she told me about how her grandson’s best friend was recently in a Volvo that was crushed by an overturned big rig that was carrying an enormous amount of dirt and how it took the authorities several hours to dig through all of that to find the boy suffocated and smothered in filth. I didn’t need to hear that, any of that.

I was only waiting in line for Koolaid and I never liked Koolaid anyway.

The lady in front of that lady turned around and wanted to know if that was the same overturned big rig that blocked the Magdalena exit on Monday and yes it was and what a shame. She then offered to let the victim’s best friend’s grandmother go in front of her in line, so now that lady was the next in line and I was still fourth. The person at the front of the line was having a very hard time deciding between cherry and grape Koolaid. Is there really a difference? I wanted to ask. I didn’t though. I kept my big mouth shut because of the big rig and all that dirt and it seemed completely wrong and out of place to say or think anything at all. For a decent interval, at least.

Then I thought how rude it was for that lady to unload that mess onto me and the other people who were merely waiting in line for Koolaid, not at all deserving or expecting to be dumped on like that. I too felt a little smothered by that truck, and I was already sweating. It was hot and it was Saturday and there were Cub Scouts and their parents and suddenly I had to pee. There were already two more people in line behind me, and the first in line still hadn’t made up his mind and I could tell from his body language that the grandmother had spilled her load onto him too, because he stepped aside shaking his head and let her go first.

She quickly snapped up two packages of cherry Koolaid, because for every two you bought you got another one for free and two was the minimum to get that deal. She got her free Koolaid package and dashed right out of there and I remembered suddenly that I’d heard about that over-turned big rig on the news and there had been no casualties, just a traffic jam, and darn if that old lady didn’t know how to work a line. I’ll bet she’d spent a lot less time waiting for stuff than most people did. Her final accounting was going to have a gold star next to that item.

Suddenly I loathed all Cub Scouts and their parents and especially Koolaid which I realized (again) that I had always hated, cherry or grape or whatever color they put on the granules, and I really had to pee, so I gave up my place (where I was third once again) and went into the supermarket. I wandered all the way to the back, past the butcher and the seafood, through the swinging doors and into the smelly hallway where the filthy men’s room was, and immediately found myself in line again. I was third. There were two other guys ahead of me and I’d only been there for about twenty seconds when some old guy came up behind me. Sure enough right away he launched into a story about a prostate and a blockage and emergency surgeries and almost dying like Thomas Jefferson and blood spurting out of his wherever. I didn’t believe a word of it, but before I could even blink I was fourth in line and he was at the front.

They say nice guys finish last. I say they end up waiting a little longer, but what are you going to do? Chances are you can hold it. It’s probably not a big deal. The people who hustle and bustle and get ahead in life, like somebody speeding on the freeway during rush hour, they get ahead of you by maybe twenty seconds. That’s no time at all. You can still pee and get back out there and go on with your life. Not everything is a big deal. Not everything is worth the trouble. I waited a little longer, took my turn and left.

The Last Tailgater – a short story

When he said “let’s make the impossible possible”, it wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t an idle threat, either. He’d been making the impossible possible all too frequently those days. It was an out-an-out freak show at times. He was the one who’d turned the balloon animal into a real animal, after all. Had you ever seen magic like that? The stupid giraffe was even bright red! He would make you see things, not just imagine that you saw them but you really did, right there in front of your face. Hayley saw her long-dead mother. Brittany saw her favorite movie star, and got her autograph, even, and sold it online while she was at it. Haruki was the Truth and what did he use it for? For nothing. Trifles. A sideshow at best.

When they asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up he smiled and beamed into the camera. He said, “I don’t worry about that. I will never grow up”. The world in its entirety lost its shit over that. What could he possibly mean? Would he literally remain a nine year old boy forever? Who, after all, had ever seen his baby pictures. He’d come onto the scene in a flash. He looked the same that day as he had when his first video went wild, the one where he turned the water into orange soda, and the orange soda into seventeen cantaloupes, and then the melons into robots that could recite the pledge of allegiance backwards.

Maybe he meant that although he would age like a normal person, he would keep that same childlike wondrous spirit, those big brown eyes, that shock of black bangs falling halfway across his face. Of course that’s what he meant, not that he would die and be reborn, again, exactly the same, over and over again, like he did.

Was he even a person? When they cut him, he did bleed. When they hit him, he bruised. And they did cut, and they did hit. Not at first, of course. It took a while for the audience to turn against him, to change utterly from devoted followers to unstoppable stalkers. He taunted them at that.

“Come on,” he teased in that half-African accent that maybe was part of his routine, being at first full Japanese, and then choosing countries at random around the world in which to reincarnate, returning whole and in the flesh no matter how or where they’d executed the little brat. He was not insensitive to pain. Oh no, he suffered. That was certain. When they burned him alive in Singapore they first attached electrodes to his skull to measure the pain response. It was literally off the charts. And when they whipped him to death in Saudi Arabia you could hear the wailing from clear across the planet.

He overdid it like that. Kind of a show-off, he was. What he liked best was making the impossible possible and the audience could never resist. He had his own TV show whenever he wanted, at a moment’s notice, location spurious and spontaneous. You never knew when he was going to be doing it, or what he was going to do. When he raised an entire army out of the desert, twenty thousand mostly young men, Iraqis and Iranians who had died in the midst of murdering each other, and he had them wordlessly set about burying one another alive until the very last one was forced to do it to himself. Meanwhile Haruki narrated, and he told us exactly what he thought of every one of us. Phonies and fakers. Liars and takers. He enjoyed most of all telling us how God preferred the thinnest, weakest blade of grass to the best and most beautiful of humans. God had had enough of us long since, he said. We didn’t like that.

Or maybe it was the time he turned all the pretty young girl into ugly old hags and guaranteed that was their future. He didn’t spare the boys at that. He added fifty pounds right around their waists, and peeled off most of the hair on their heads. He did all this while chortling his trademark hysterical hyena-like laugh. How we hated the sound of his voice. How we despised those big brown eyes. He never did grow old but stuck around to torment us forever. He transformed the music of the world, detuning our ears so it all sounded awful. He modified our taste buds so we loathed all food. He re-arranged the colors we could see. Making the impossible possible indeed.

He took requests, and laughed at them. We only wanted him to leave us alone. With all that power, with all the initial hope evaporated, we only wanted him to stop, to change things back to the way they were, to change us back, to let us be. He said evolution couldn’t wait. It had to get rid of us once and for all, for the sake of all other living things. We begged him to do it, then, if that was the only way we could be free of that petty, horrifying miracle worker and all his crimes.

“Tell you what,” he challenged us. “Ignore me. Go ahead. I dare you. It’s the only thing that can save you from me. Pay me no attention. Don’t watch my TV specials. Don’t look at my videos. Don’t read about me in your articles and books. Ignore me completely and then I’ll go away. I’ll declare un-victory. I’ll rewind time and you can have it all back, just like you say you want, but you have to ignore me completely for one year. That’s all.”

We couldn’t do it. Not even one of us. Of all the nine billion people left standing on the planet, not a single one was able to avoid Haruki for even a month. Forget about a year. He was the only thing on anybody’s mind and every day, it was all we thought and all we said, and we knew it was our doom and there was nothing we could do.

He’s supposed to be on again tonight at ten. That’s what I heard. He’d been hacked to pieces by racist coal miners in Pennsylvania, and popped right back up again in the Argentinian pampas, where he promised to show us something truly remarkable, something amazing. We don’t have to worry about what channel he’ll be on. He will be on all the channels, all the television, all the radio, all the social networks, all the chat rooms. He will be in all the movie theaters, broadcast live on all the subways, all the airplanes, all the buses. You can see him on your smart watch. You can see him on your phone. You don’t have to wait in line. You have a front row seat. He is everywhere,right in front of you and beside you, in your car, and in the car ahead of you, and in the one that’s creeping up behind. What’s he going to do next? I hope he makes us all feel special. We only live for him.


(I apologize for this. Donald Trump made me do it!)

On Proof Being in Puddings and so forth

Some character or other in Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn” repeats the phrase “the proof is in the pudding” as the ultimate guide to authenticity, to knowing that something is genuine, real. We want our fiction to resonate with reality too, and “Motherless Brooklyn” is one of those novels that strains so hard to capture the world you can almost hear its jaws snapping.

I read two novels this weekend, one of which felt true, and one which felt like counterfeit to me. Oddly enough – or not at all – the true one was the farthest from realistic. “Concrete Island” by J.G. Ballard is allegory, straight up, and makes no bones about it, even references Robinson Crusoe directly as if to say, ‘yes I know exactly what I’m doing here’. A superficial waste of a man is speeding in his superficial waste of a car along the “motorway” and careens off it, sliding down the embankment and crashing to a halt amidst a pile of similarly wrecked and abandoned cars. Surrounded by steepness above which loom the elevated highways, he is trapped, in the middle of the city, in this ‘island’.

Ballard tosses in a few general details, not the names of the roads, not the names of places or buildings other than London. The only fact we know is that it is London. He doesn’t cement the story in time either. It’s sufficiently modern. There are cars and motorways and office buildings in the distance. There are lights and planes overhead sometimes. He describes only the wasteland in great detail, the ruins of a a neighborhood that was decimated to make room for the roads, the tall weeds, the rubble, the garbage, the piles of discarded tires. This is the landscape in which we make ourselves at home.

By contrast, “Motherless Brooklyn” is replete with names and places. Every neighborhood in Brooklyn and some in Queens are given appropriate shout-outs. Every kind of shop, every kind of ethnicity, every single variation of new york underbelly cliche finds its pigeonhole in this recipe collection of nostalgia. It’s enough to make you cry uncle. What stopped me in my tracks was a mere detail, the fact that the mobster handed out twenty dollar bills gave me pause, because I was the age of the character at that time and at that place and I know very well that twenty dollars is seriously overpaid. I made two dollars an hour in those days as a teenager. Twenty for a couple hours of moving boxes? I didn’t buy it.

I didn’t buy it, and I didn’t by the Tourette syndrome, which gave the author an excuse to pretend to write like James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake. “Look at me playing with words! I can make the spin around and do tricks!” Drove me nuts.

In the end it seemed to me the opposite of proof being in the pudding. Instead, the pudding was a mess of reasonable doubt. I kept finding myself saying “I doubt it” like the old truth and dare game we used to play as kids. I don’t believe it. You’re making it up. This is bullshit.

When you find yourself disbelieving a novel, it’s an odd feeling. Of course it’s not real. It’s obviously and self-evidently not real. It’s a novel for heaven’s sake! But I believed a lot more in “Concrete Island”. I never found myself saying, “nah, who would do that?” because clearly Robert Maitland would. He did! That guy was spiraling down so fast! It worked for me. And I want to believe. That’s why I read fiction. I want to be convinced and go somewhere else and be there. I don’t want to be pulled out of it by false notes and clumsy pretension and clunky execution. If you’re going to build a world, build a real one, where reality is not measured by any yardsticks that come from outside of the story or outside of the characters but is only generated from within, from the heat of its own internal combustion.