Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Lost Chord & the Joy of Parody

It's official: according to Chris Baty, the Director of the Office of Letters and Light and the guiding force behind National Novel Writing Month (30 Days of Literary Abandon): 167,150 authors signed up of which I was one of 32,150 winners (a 19.23% success rate) – meaning we wrote at least 50,000 words during the month of November – writing a grand total of 2,147,483,647 words.

But what to do, now that it is “cold-hearted December” after the otherwise squandered joy of a novel-writing November (extra points for Sitwell fans)?

The Lost Chord” (my parody of Dan Brown's “The Lost Symbol,” for those of you who have somehow gotten to this post without realizing that) is not yet ready to be serialized. In fact it's not yet ready to be finished: I'm only about 43% of the way through the initial story-line. There are some spots that need to be tweaked, others revised if not rewritten, but on the whole, I'm up to Brown's Chapter 58, if you've already read it. That brings me to the equivalent of the CIA agents chasing Robert Langdon, newly joined by Katherine Solomon, scurrying through the Library of Congress, just before the Capitol's Architect, Warren Bellamy is captured.

Except in my parallel universe, it's Dr. Dick, recently joined by LauraLynne Sullivan, being chased through the basement of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center by agents from the ICA (that's the International Composers Association, though others think it refers to Boston's Institute for Contemporary Art or the Idaho Cowboys Association), just before they capture one of the architects from the company designing the major renovations of Lincoln Center, a fellow named V.C. D'Arcy, a former composer turned architect.

Finding a parallel for Brown's central Masonic environment was one thing: in my case, they've become classical musicians, a 'class' often viewed by the general public as equally arcane and secretive. The problem came in finding the scientific study of creativity that would be the equivalent of Katherine Solomon's study of noetics (which most people had never heard of before and assumed he'd invented it: not so). So far, I haven't found a specific term that applies to such a study, and since there is no Greek word for “creativity” to form it from, I ended up calling it “demiurgics.” This is great because, now, no one will know, just by looking at it, what it is.

A “demiurge” is, according to its Greek derivations, a “public or skilled worker” formed from the words for “belonging to the people” and “work” (as in something made by a craftsman), a philosophical term first introduced by Plato but which later became applied to a divine Creator – specifically Zeus – as the deity responsible for creating the universe. In this sense, it follows the reverse path of the early Christian concept of the Creator which became, by the 18th Century's Enlightenment (with its more philosophical approach to religious ideas), “creativity” was something that could now be applied to artists.

Like the Masonic concept that aspects of God exist within each of us (at least, as Brown explains it in his novel), “demiurgics” studies the idea that “creativity” can exist within every human being, not just those considered artists: we each have the potential to become an artist, whether we actually do or not.

This idea came to me fairly late in the book which I was reading initially just to read through it without focusing on various sources for future parody. In the last official chapter of the book (p.502), Katherine Solomon tells Langdon,

“If I hand you a violin and say you have the capacity to make incredible music, I'm not lying: you have the capacity but it will take enormous amounts of practice to manifest it.”

This is part of her argument that each of us, in our minds, has tremendous powers not yet understood which need to be “practiced” before they can be unleashed as a societal force to be reckoned with.

This led me to define LauraLynn Sullivan's view that, in many senses of the word, education is failing us because its primary use for “music education” (something I'd realized while still an undergraduate Music Ed student) was to identify future musicians, not necessarily create an artistically aware audience who could better appreciate music and enjoy the thrill of making music on their own.

Once we'd identified who has the potential for becoming professional musicians and future music teachers, the role of music in education – or for that matter, any of the arts – was reduced to entertaining the rest of us, not to enlighten or inspire or motivate us.

Students who don't have “what it takes” to become professional musicians are therefore urged to drop the study of music as a waste of time, regardless of the personal benefits a child may experience from it.

So there's the serious side to an important plot element. The fact we can all be creative in so many different ways, not just in the arts but in science (which, according to the Greeks, was initially under the jurisdiction of the Muses), in business, or in the practical side of life with things that are not usually classified as artistic (in cooking, in gardening, in raising children and so on), is something many scientists today actually are studying – how the brain works, how we come up with “original ideas” – even though those specifically interested in “the creative process” are usually called “experts in human creativity” rather than “creativonists” or something equally unwieldy, “creationists” already being used for something else entirely.

I liked “demiurgics” because demiurge is not a word in standard use in English and can lead to confusion with similar sounding words like demagogue, considering the ease with which, given only a little bit of information and no real understanding to speak of, people can make decisions based on false information and spin their whole lives around that misconception.

(An example would be how some members of the Tea-Bagging conservatives today regard Barack Obama as a Communist on the basis of his appointing “Czars” to oversee some particular aspects of the issues facing our society. By associating Czars of Imperial (non-Communist) Russia before 1917 with the fact that Russia became the Communist Soviet Union after 1917, it must hold true that anyone appointing Czars would be a Communist. This also disregards the fact that a “Drug Czar,” overseeing the drug issues of the 1980s, had been appointed by none other than Ronald Reagan. While such positions had been around since the days of FDR and the name generally regarded as catchy media jargon, there were several “Czars” appointed by George W. Bush or confirmed by the Bush Congress, including even an Abstinence Czar.)

The problem is I'm neither a philosopher nor a scientist, so my trying to form philosophical or scientific arguments for these points is bound to strike a false note. My excuse, of course, is that it's a parody.

At one climactic intellectual moment (as opposed to those climactic “action” moments typical of a thriller), Katherine Solomon tells her brother – the abducted Peter Solomon whose severed hand sets the whole story in motion – about her experiment to quantify the human soul (Chapter 107, p.393-395). By rigging up a dying man with all manner of very subtle scientific apparatus – no challenge to the imagination of anyone who's watched modern day medical or crime shows on television – she can prove that “the human soul has mass” by weighing the man before he dies and comparing that to his weight after the moment of death: though no exact weight is given afterward – he writes only “The man had become lighter immediately after his death. The weight change was minuscule, but it was measurable” – it is done with such attention to detail, I'm sure some readers will later refer to this as a fact, not fiction.

My intent, then, will be to create something so over-the-top with such a leap of logic, it cannot be misconstrued: but I wonder?

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

There are elements of style, also, that play into parody. For instance, if editors squeamish about his use of the expression “what the hell... (was that/is going on/do you mean)?” were to delete it from the text, it would probably reduce the book's length by several pages. So I thought, "hey, what the hell..."

Katherine Solomon has a nervous trait, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear which, considering how often she is running, her hair certainly likely to be a little unkempt in the process, strikes me as humorous after a while. Instead, I apply it to the parallel character of Brown's Inoue Sato, the ICA's Director of Security Yoda Leahy-Hu who (if you remember Yoda) will occasionally be tucking stray wisps of hair behind her ear – except in this case, she's doing it only when she's talking to or thinking about Buzz Blogster. Eventually it becomes a “sexual thing,” implying some physical attraction of hers for Dr. Dick's young side-kick. This was a nod to Buzz's own constant throat-clearing whenever he was thinking longingly of the beautiful Antoinette Avoirdupois or Tony, the ingénue heroine of “The Schoenberg Code.”

A favorite moment of transparodizing comes at the end of Brown's Chapter 54 (p.214) when, having escaped from the hands of the villain, Ma'lach, she's driving away from the building where her lab is located (in a vast room called Pod-5). Racing down the street, she sees fireworks in her rear-view mirror. She assumes they might be to celebrate the end of the Redskins' game (a recurring plot device throughout the story) except it's too early and that's not the right location for the stadium. Of course, the reader knows this is her lab which Ma'lach has just destroyed with an intricately created explosion. As Katherine tries to figure it out, Brown ends the chapter with this line that had me falling off my chair:

“Then, like an oncoming truck, it hit her.”

So, in my parallel universe, LauraLynn has just escaped from the clutches of the villain, Tr'iTone, who's been chasing her through the unused storage pod in the basement of the Metropolitan Opera (her lab is located in one corner of Pod-Niebelheim). Breathlessly, she manages to find refuge in the Met's vast scene shop just across the hall when she hears the explosion, thinking at first it would be too early for fireworks celebrating a Yankee victory at the World Series (a parallel plot device in “The Lost Chord”). And so, I end my segment (p.129 of the rough draft) with the line,

“Then, like a rapidly falling sandbag, it hit her.”

This explosion is experienced from several vantage points: first, from Tr'iTone who creates it, from LauraLynn who realizes all her research has gone up in smoke (literally), then from the security agents led by Chief Phil Harmon (who predictably says “What the hell...?”), from Dr. Dick and Architect V.C. D'Arcy who are, meanwhile, lurking in another part of the Scene Shop (my equivalent to Brown's setting in the Library of Congress), and even from the view of the performance upstairs on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, approaching the finale of Act I of Rossini's “Barber of Seville.”

In this case, I was able to find – courtesy of two video clips from the Met's HD Transmission of Bartlett Sher's production starring Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez on YouTube (naturally) – a spot where the explosion could pass unnoticed by the audience: Count Almaviva (Flórez), disguised as a drunken soldier, is about to be tossed out of Dr. Bartolo's house and far away from the beautiful Rosina (DiDonato) – he draws his sword, chops the potted orange tree in half while threatening the Doctor, then Figaro enters, bringing everything to a momentary stop at 8:24 into the first clip, complaining about all the noise which has attracted a crowd of on-lookers in the piazza below.

The audience might think the noise is just another part of the action. But technicians backstage must prepare for the impending activity of the First Act's finale, the conductor in the pit (after a moment's pause with Figaro's “Olá!”) or the singers on the stage all have to process “what the hell” that was. Joyce DiDonato, having a flashback to her July performance in London of “The Barber of Seville” where she'd fallen, only later discovering she'd broken her leg (doing subsequent performances in a wheel-chair, her leg in a cast), steadies herself against Berta, the servant, thinking “No way! Not again!”

Better yet, at 3:45 into Clip #2, a very strange thing will happen during the performance recorded in "The Lost Chord." In the expanse of the empty, brightly lit stage behind the line of singers (all “frozen like statues,” confounded by the sudden turn of events), a trap-door will rise up from the scene-shop and slowly deliver three unexpected characters onto the set who must now also act “frozen like statues” themselves – the equally confounded LauraLynn Sullivan, V.C. D'Arcy and Dr. Dick.

At 4:34, as the action comes suddenly to life with Figaro's finger-snap, they will now join in the mayhem, hiding amongst the singers as the four heavily armed, black-clad ICA agents – Kay Gelida Manina, Oona Furtiva-Lagrime, Ellie van Sierre and DePuis LeJour (formerly an exotic dancer known as “Toots”) – enter from the wings, hiding behind the doors and the otherwise inexplicable wagon full of pumpkins being wheeled on from the left of the screen (stage right, right?).

That, of course, is pure slapstick and if not exactly right out of Dan Brown, certainly owes a lot to the Marx Brothers' tearing up the scenery in “A Night at the Opera.”

This is just one of the bows to Old Comedy lurking through the pages of “The Lost Chord.” Aside from the conveyor belt scene (bringing up memories of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance at the Chocolate Factory assembly line), there is also my leading lady's name, LauraLynn Hardy Sullivan (perhaps there's a piano-moving scene in the future). And of course, given Director of Security Yoda Leahy-Hu, I can now use my chamber orchestra skit, “Hu's on First.”

Unfortunately, the problem I've just realized, as I'm getting ready to write this scene, Architect D'Arcy will have already separated himself from Dr. Dick and LauraLynn as a decoy to get caught by the ICA.

When D'Arcy kidnapped Dr. Dick from the underground practice room (the equivalent of the secret room in the Capitol crypt), he left sidekick Buzz Blogster behind. I did this, initially, because I felt it was too cumbersome having an additional “non-Brownian” character engaged in all the chases scenes that litter the remaining pages.

Plus, I just wrote this delicious little scene where, having Buzz Blogster all to herself, Leahy-Hu interrogates him not in an interrogation room (since the temporary security trailer, during all the renovations at Lincoln Center, would be too small to actually have an interrogation room), but in the men's room...

Rather than give up that scene and not add Buzz to the rest of the chase sequences (I know Buzz Blogster fans will be upset by this but it really will be serious cluttering later on), perhaps what I'll do is postpone D'Arcy's getting caught until after the “Barber of Seville” sequence: that really does need three people. And of course, I could always add some lip-synching for them in the manner not of Milli Vanilli or Ashley Simpson, but of the Three Stooges, in their classic performance of the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor.

By the way, saying that was my earliest introduction to opera when I was 5 or 6 years old will no doubt explain a lot...

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Dr. Dick

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