Harry’s Trees – by Jon Cohen

I think I’ll be using this one as a comp title for THE FRINGE HIKERS.

I also saw a lot of myself in Harry – he’s a government forester who loves trees and he even lives on the same highway I do. He even describes his job as “counting trees,” which is the exact description I give people for my job as a research forester!

And Harry (or Jon Cohen) understand bad luck.

 

Bad luck is a manifestation of a universe that’s out to get you.

“The universe had found another way to torture him.”

 

Bad luck is hard to distinguish from coincidence. Bad luck maximizes its impact.

“When things go wrong they go very wrong.” “(No they don’t. There’s no pattern to anything.)”

A good luck charm is a risky thing to a chronically unlucky man.

 

“All the things that were supposed to go wrong, were going wrong.”

 

Bad luck can be hereditary. It’s not a choice.

“Harry, it’s in our blood. It never works. We’re the Crane boys. It always ends in disaster.”

The unfortunate have an aura of disaster around them, where things go wrong. This affects other people who happen to be near the bearer of bad luck. Often it affects innocent bystanders more than the source.

“Even addled and half-blind, Irv could perceive Harry’s consumingly desolate aura.”

His coworkers sensed this aura and left a radius of empty cubicles around him.

 

In HARRY’S TREES, Harry Crane is a walking disaster. The story revolves around his self-perceived bad luck, and his resultant guilt. Though it’s not set in the kind of universe where you can prove magic, there is a lot of evidence of Harry’s disaster aura:

  • His wife is killed in an accident just for being near him. First thing that happens in the book.
  • A switchblade launches itself across the room at someone
  • A public building collapses
  • Most telling of all, he gets into a car crash the moment he tries to hurry anywhere.

As you can see, bad luck is a function of Fate and predestination, in both HARRY’S TREES and THE FRINGE HIKERS. Fate by necessity influences the route an unlucky man must take.

 

Most importantly, bad luck has strict rules. They can be liberating in their way, but they must be followed. Harry’s rules all proscribe how he must free himself from the curse that killed his wife. He must rid himself of all his money.

“The way you get rid of the money has to be unsafe. It has to be an adventure.”

“Don’t die. It’s one of the rules of the Year One Club. Members aren’t allowed to die.”
“You never die. Unspoken list of Important Things About Harry Crane: Harry was a grum.* Harry was a giver of gold. And Harry, most of all, was a man who wasn’t going to die.”

“Tremble not. Cry not. Perservere against all obstacles.”

Doesn’t this sound a lot like the rules of Fringe Hikers, who cannot die but must spend eternity in ill-fated pursuit of their homes?

  1. Experience Catastrophe (the cursed lottery ticket)
  2. Avoid Annihilation (Harry struggles with suicidal thoughts and his catastrophe-aura)
  3. Push Homeward (the curse will lift when he gets rid of all his money)

 

There’s even a falcon, Endless Mountains, and a sense of dissociated time – plot element similarities between HARRY’S TREES and THE FRINGE HIKERS.

It even addresses the fringey difficulty of ending a story which is un-endable by definition.

“All the risks… will you face them with me?”

 

 

You already know all about the Fringe. Everybody has a story about the Fringe. HARRY’S TREES is one of them, and an excellent one at that. If you like a touch of everyday philosophy in your stories, you’ll like HARRY’S TREES.

*Grum – a troll-like being with a hoard of gold.

Stormy Weather – by Carl Hiaasen

Here’s a good book resembling THE FRINGE HIKERS in many ways!

STORMY WEATHER has an ensemble cast of misfits, a sequence of disasters and misfortunes, and an outdoor setting. Where it differs from FRINGE HIKERS is in the use of black humor, violent crime, and even more chaos than the Fringe! Where THE FRINGE HIKERS centers on the cosmological philosophy of the Fringe, Hiaasen’s novel brings up more mundane topics like environmentalism, but also man’s forgotten connection to the environment.

I picked it up because it promised some good stormy disasters. That turned out to be my favorite part of the book. It’s set in the aftermath of a Floridian hurricane, so there’s plenty of reason for disasters to befall the characters. Hiaasen’s characters also manage to bring a lot of disaster upon themselves. I’m impressed with the way he managed to line up so many catastrophes of different varieties, one after the other, without a drop in pacing or even so much as a break between conflicts. Some are funny, some are more serious.

The characters are perhaps a little less focused. It’s almost like a slice of their lives at this point in time, with no guarantee they’ll resolve anything. The only guarantee is that they’ll get drawn in to the mess. The ending is abrupt for a lot of the characters, and then you get a paragraph of epilogue for each one.

Which character brings the storm? Who is the source of all this bad luck? It’s gotta be Edie and Snapper, the two criminals who blunder from one scam to another, trying to take advantage of the hurricane victims. Snapper in particular is loutish and stupid, so there’s no question he is the direct cause of many of the disasters.

But the character from Hiaasen’s other novels, Skink, seems to me a more supernatural force of calamity. He revels in being a walking disaster. He ties himself to a bridge and laughs as the storm hits. He lives in the swamps, a Chaotic Good outlaw and environmentalist. He eats roadkill by choice. He feels in charge of every situation despite the inevitable disastrous destiny looming over each interaction. He appears as a side character but he makes the whole book worth reading.

I haven’t read any other books by Hiaasen, so if any blog readers have done so, let me know in the comments! Let me know which titles dig more into the philosophy of Skink, or the universal nature of black humor, or anything like that which could be relevant to THE FRINGE HIKERS.

The Gray House – by Mariam Petrosyan

I stumbled upon this while researching magical realism, and before I knew it I’d read all thousand pages.

This is one of the stranger books I’ve ever read. It’s definitely not fair to call it Fringey – 99.99% of the book takes place inside one home, and if the characters leave their home they are immediately stricken with a mysterious plague until they return.

THE GRAY HOUSE was originally written in Russian by Armenia author Mariam Petrosyan. I suspect she might be a little insane in a wonderful way.

The best way to enjoy this book is to go into it entirely unprepared. If you’re feeling adventurous and you have two weeks of reading time to kill, stop reading my blog and go read THE GRAY HOUSE before you obtain any of those pesky expectations.

 

 

Reading a thousand pages is a daunting task, though, so I’ll review the book for those who like to know what they’re getting into. No ending spoilers, of course.

One of those books where your imagination must fill in expository gaps, THE GRAY HOUSE ostensibly involves a group of students in a boarding school for the disabled. They’ve formed their own chaotic society, and the adults never enforce any rules. Think LORD OF THE FLIES. The Laws the teens follow are idiosyncratic and follow a lot of child-logic. So far, everything is perfectly in accordance with the laws of physics, if rather far removed from psychological and sociological probability.

Soon, though, you start seeing subtle mention of supernatural abilities among the students. Remember, it’s a home for the disabled, so the protagonists are in wheelchairs or use prosthetic arms or lack vision or the capacity for speech. They throw around the word “Jumper” and you experience interludes set in a place enigmatically called “The Forest,” despite the fact that none of the students ever leave the House.

As the depth of your experience progresses, you remain unsure if the ‘magical’ part of ‘magical realism’ is ‘real.’

While Petrosyan shares with us the details of the world of the House, you never know if the kids are engaged in imaginative worldbuilding of their own, or if the House has supernatural abilities of its own. You can only theorize if the drastic changes effected upon the House denizens are a result of psychology or of magical forces. You’re only getting tiny glimpses, often disguised as fairy tales and anecdotes and unreliable narrators, of the magic.

While the author spares no detail of ‘mundane’ life in the House – we know volumes of information on the fifty-odd male seniors and their homemade society – she gives us only sparse tidbits about the real mystery. This leads to unbearable tension like I’ve never before experienced as a reader. You don’t know how they’re going to solve their problems. You don’t know what their problems are. You don’t even know if it’s all real.

You start forming theories, though you have little to go on. You start analyzing possible metaphors, and you’ll never know if you’re right. You read on, in mortal fear of a vague (but somehow disturbing) threat coming to pass.

You get to the end and you see how all the nothing comes together and made something magical, impactful, and chilling.

 

This book has a very dark feel to it. You know the House is not safe, yes, but you also come to picture everything in dim lighting and foreboding gray, despite the colorful personalities and backgrounds of the House’s inhabitants. I love that. I love the implausibility and the way my imagination had to provide every detail. I love the way I know these characters so well now, despite how high the character count is.

You’ll spend some time not confused, but a little lost. It’s an important distinction when it comes to reader enjoyment. Lost – that’s a good thing.

One Hundred Years of Solitude – by Gabriel García Márquez

I saw that title and I knew I had to read it!

I was not disappointed. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, by Gabriel García Márquez, is one of the Fringiest books I’ve ever read!

I highlighted about a hundred passages that could have come straight from THE FRINGE HIKERS, if only I was as clever a writer as Nobel-laureate Márquez. The book is categorized as ‘magical realism,’ which could also perhaps apply to THE FRINGE HIKERS. Both are not quite Tall Tales, but share many elements with the stories of Daniel Boone, Calamity Jane, and John Henry.

It’s about the Buendía family, showing several generations of life in their South American village. Every member of the family, including the founder who crossed the mountains in search of the sea, is exceptional in some way. None have flashy magic, but there are gypsy fortune tellers, impossible weather events (such as four years of constant rain), and supernatural alchemists. What I’d like to talk about most is the magic of fate in this book, since it ties in to my own manuscript.

The founder of the little town is definitely a Fringe Hiker. At one point, he tries to cross the swamp and finds himself lost for weeks. He returns and proclaims it impassable. When his wife heads out, however, she returns in four days bearing trade goods from the village on the other side of the swamp.

He believes in, and experiences, the perversity of the universe. The harder he tries, the more lost he becomes.

He considered it a trick of his whimsical fate to have searched for the sea without finding it, at the cost of countless sacrifices and suffering, and to have found it all of a sudden without looking for it, as if it lay across his path like an insurmountable object.

Much like a Fringe Hiker, his family proves very hard to kill. Not a single soul in the entire village dies in the first ~thirty years of the story. Even the children who grow up to be soldiers survive against impossible odds.

“Tell him,” the colonel said, smiling, “that a person doesn’t die when he should but when he can.”

From the moment of birth, they seem doomed to share their father’s curse. Each child is different, but their defining feature is solitude, incarnate in many different ways.

He was silent and withdrawn. He had wept in his mother’s womb and had been born with his eyes open. As they were cutting the umbilical cord, he moved his head from side to side, taking in the things in the room and examining the faces of the people with a fearless curiosity. Then, indifferent to those who came close to look at him, he kept his attention concentrated on the palm roof, which looked as if it were about to collapse under the tremendous pressure of the rain.

At least that’s what I see through the lens of someone who thinks about the Fringe all day.

The writing makes the everyday feel supernatural in a way that really inspires me.

He became lost in misty byways, in times reserved for oblivion, in labyrinths of disappointment.

…that paradise of disaster…

…consuming itself in the inner fire of bad news…

The book shows dozens of the ways in which people deal with loss and eternal hopelessness. How they bear it alone. To me, that’s an appealing side of the coin of disaster.

She asked God, without fear, if he really believed that people were made of iron in order to bear so many troubles and mortifications…

It reminded me a lot of BIG FISH: tall tales, interesting larger-than-life people, intense interpersonal trials. I’m a big fan of ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, and I think I shall have to read it again to find all the patterns and brilliant turns of phrase.

One final note: Unlike THE FRINGE HIKERS, ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE isn’t appropriate for children. It actually gets quite uncomfortable and weird at times. There are entire chapters focused on violence, sex, and incest. But overall, it’s a fun book, the kind where you don’t even need a happy ending.

Happy Towel Day, all you hitchhikers!

Douglas Adams died in May of 2001. We’ve held Towel Day on May 25th ever since, to honor his memory. And not just for his literary contributions, either.

Adams was the author of the influential HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, a sci-fi satire trilogy consisting of at least five books, depending on how you count them. It started as a radio show, actually, and eventually became a miniseries, a mediocre star-studded movie, and a video game.

H2G2 is about a hapless ape descendant, Arthur Dent, on his trip across the galaxy after Earth is destroyed to make room for a hyperspace bypass. Adams embraces the concept of “everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and in the least convenient way.”

I love this series and I’ve read the first one at least a dozen times. It’s stuffed with dry humor and lots of really good one-liners. But the plot is really interesting too, once you see past the silliness. I don’t really think that was intentional.

The picture H2G2 paints about galactic hitchhiking culture lends itself really well to references and jokes in pop culture. The hitchhikers have their own vocab, their own ethics, their own philosophies – just like a Fringe Hiker. They accept that life isn’t going to be easy. It’s just the cost of a great adventure: a cost they’re more than willing to pay.

The most useful item a hitchhiker can have is a towel. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about the towel:

A towel is just about the most massively useful thing any interstellar Hitchhiker can carry. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course you can dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase which has passed into hitch hiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.”

So carry your towel proudly today and let everyone see you’re someone who knows where your towel is.