Friday, June 21, 2019


(This is a modest rewrite of the Afterword to a new, quickly written novel. Some spoilers ahead.)

THE OPPOSITE OF BREATHING has a relatively simple beginning.

I'm a fiction writer before I am a blogger, and appreciating the taste of Adrenalin, I often focus on timely political issues or long-term conundrums. You know, those topical subjects that jerk up the blood pressure, letting me write angry, semi-rational letters to the editor.

Unfortunately I don’t wake up angry, and I don’t relish pushing myself into that state.

Playing with stories. That’s what I enjoy.

I’ve been actively stockpiling unwritten blogs about my usual obsessions. Greenland is melting. Our leadership and economics are corrupt. Pakistan is a nuclear warehouse that will eventually misplace its keys. The human brain is not large enough or wise enough to conquer this century’s enormous challenges. Of course Trump plays a role in my musings, but he hasn’t been as generous with the gloom as you might assume. 9/11 and Iraq and the meltdown of ‘07 and the endless rush to burn oil and coal. Those troubles predate one inept salesman’s sudden rise to a status of relatively modest power.

One of my recent stories tapped into this nightmarish fun. Published by Gordon van Gelder in WELCOME TO DYSTOPIA, “Suffocation” offered a pathway to a much larger work. Maybe a new novel. But I didn’t know how much effort that would entail, or when it would happen, or if I'd prove strong enough to march through to the end.

THE OPPOSITE OF BREATHING began in a single day. I found myself writing a scene or two, one sexless voice talking to an undefined prisoner about the grim past as well as the unknowable future. And with that, all of my plans for future columns were forgotten.

An episodic mode seemed right. Another little chapter written every day, with the goal of a short novel to be published as a purely Kindle work.

Needing a title, I considered reusing “Suffocation.” But that single word felt too scant and too obvious. And too easily lost in a word search on Amazon. No, I decided to give the reader a bit of a puzzle. “The opposite of breathing is … oh, yeah! I understand now.”

With a suitable name and opening chapters on file, I let J give a fantastic grim and occasionally dark-funny account about rough justice and intricate schemes.

“Suffocation” and THE OPPOSITE OF BREATHING share one SF notion: Our CO2-enriched atmosphere impacts our cognitive skills, and not for the better.

Other chapters were already vivid inside me. J buying a stranger’s shirt, and J lecturing to the well-educated, unabashedly racist uncle, and the image of nuclear winter and cooking human limbs in a well-built fireplace. Those are three blogs that I’ll never write, all devised while enduring uncomfortable family functions. And the mules in the mountains? Born from an article read years ago -- a deliciously researched essay on the nature of uranium and its vibrant daughters. (“How to Get a Nuclear Bomb” from THE ATLANTIC, Dec 1 2006.)

But much of what happens in BREATHING, particularly in the later chapters, stood apart from my first intentions and various plans. The clever narrator was in charge. I was just another reader, and this transgender predator was manipulating the world and me, striving for a solution that I didn’t appreciate until the final couple weeks.

The transgender nature … I’m uneasy about this element.

I don’t doubt that J is a legitimate invention. Indeed, J, the purely fictional character, seems well-suited for our time. And I’m not going to worry about my protagonist reflecting badly on the LGBTQ community. There is no reflection if very few people purchase this book, which is one of the powers of obscurity. And frankly, even if millions were to read THE OPPOSITE OF BREATHING, I can think of no group or cause more plainly deserving of an effective Angel of Death.

No, my discomfort centers on two areas.

First, there’s the urge to clearly define categories here, and I don’t want that to happen. If you read it, you will notice that I never describe my narrator, not in strict terms. What I assume is that J was born male, with the skeleton and muscles of a football linebacker. And likewise, I can envision some kind of mixed-race parentage leaving her blessed with beauty and shoulder-length black hair. But is there a J who actually exists anywhere in our world? Someone with this peculiar set of skills and fearlessness? I doubt it. And while she might occupy one point in the continuum of the single human gender, it’s important to remember that this character, this invention, is someone who can and will gladly take whatever form is necessary to serve the mission.

In other words, don’t get carried away about J’s dress or sexual capacities. Since both can be changed at will.

And my second discomfort?

The unavoidable problem that I am the author. An old white heterosexual. And what the fuck does R know about this subject?

I confess. I’m not an expert in these intriguing matters and never will be.

But lacking expertise isn’t the same as lacking experience. For example, I have a niece who used to be a nephew -- an event that has caused ugly wounds inside the extended family. And my daughter has several friends who aren’t happy with their legal gender -- a situation that seems perfectly natural to her.

At this point, let me offer a passing notion:

In dire times like these, with all the hatred and fear, one way to help the world would be to compel every adult to sit down at a desk, Chromebook at the ready, and write stories about someone like J. Someone who has no great investment in any specific gender. Put yourself in the other person’s skin for 40,000 words, and I guarantee, your perspective will change.

This has been an enlightening exercise for me.

In the end, this book was written quickly, several chapters to the day, and there wasn’t much pain to the process. The plot fell together for me. There weren’t any stumbling blocks over twists or characters, and each draft got to build directly on every version that came before.

Forty years of writing, and I trusted my instincts to find elegant routes to a satisfactory conclusion.

Though others, being others, might decide otherwise.