A Note on Kazoo Concerto

Whenever I write fiction, I am fascinated by the apparently irrational and backwards way in which I make up stories. It is disappointing that most novelists choose to hide the process that they followed to imagine their work, as it may often be more interesting than the work itself.

Kazoo Concerto was born with the desire to devote an issue of The Ethical Spectacle to fiction. I did not at first see that the stories should be related to one another. Instead, several ideas which had been floating in my imagination, in one case for more than fifteen years, provided the starting point for the issue.

I believe in general that a story grows like a crystal does, by forming a core and then attracting more material onto it. A person who interests me or an encounter between two such people may start the imagination racing. Typically, I am trying to answer a question about the background of the person or the antecedents of the incident, and that leads to the story.

The first two stories, Change at Jamaica and White Courtesy Telephone, were instead inspired by a phrase and an object. Neither are my usual inspiration for story ideas, and in fact I think one runs the risk of telling a sterile story when one begins with a thing or a word instead of a person or an incident.

In the early '80's, in order to make ends meet, I commuted out to Long Island once a week, to work in a law firm there. It was a dreary experience. Every week, I heard the conductor say, "Change at Jamaica, track 8," and I decided that one day I would write a story inspired by these words. There are only a limited number of stories you can tell in which the lever for a change in the protagonist's life is a railway platform; having him fall in love with a girl there was an obvious choice.

One thing I discover almost every time I write a story is that it takes on an independent life once I have written a piece of it. More accurately, if you have created your characters well enough, you may discover that they cannot or will not do what you thought they would. Change at Jamaica was intended to end with Daniel running away from his beloved when she smiles at him on the platform. But in the course of the story I had created his strong co-worker and friend, Samantha. She was not necessary to the original idea; she was born as a result of the job I gave Daniel. He needed a mindless, boring employment to draw him into New York City by train every day, without giving any meaning to his life. I gave him one of the dullest jobs I ever had: sorting index cards in the Columbia library. But the months I did it, I had a really good time, because of my appealing, smart co-worker. So I put her into the story, as Samantha Lazare; but once she existed she had to be accounted for, as the planets affect each other's orbit. I suddenly realized that she would not let Daniel fly off into space; but if she began to love him, Daniel would not be able to help returning her love, from a beginning of friendship and gratitude. So the story, which had been planned to illustrate the point that there was no change at Jamaica, ended up showing the opposite.

White Courtesy Telephone, like Change at Jamaica, grew out of a moment of terrible boredom: I was stranded for an entire day in the Houston airport a few months ago, listening to incessant pages. I made up a story about a man who hears the name of a woman he loved and lost years ago, and pages her himself. She answers, but he does not know where she is in the airport, and must persuade her to come and see him. Again, I knew the ending before writing the story: she would not show up. However, as I wrote, the story took a different direction, not because of what I knew about a character as with Change at Jamaica, but because of what I didn't know. Why didn't Deirdre Tanaka show up? I wasn't sure if it was because she didn't care about Paul Banner, or cared too much. I wasn't comfortable with the ambiguity; I knew very little about her except for some aggressive mannerisms I had given her in their phone conversation. When I put myself in her shoes, I realized that she would at least have gone to take a look at him for old times' sake. And a second story ended differently than I had planned.

I wanted several more stories to fill out the issue. The next one I decided to write was based on a hypothetical. I work in a company that employs almost 100 recruiters, and their method of operation led me one day to ask the question why a recruiter couldn't locate an ideal spouse by making a series of phone calls describing her until a receptionist somewhere acknowledged that an employee existed who fit the description. I had had for some time the conception of a senior recruiter looking for a really smart blonde stockbroker, then meeting her and proposing marriage. Once I knew this much, I had the ending. Proust said, "It is rare that a fulfillment comes and perches exactly on the desire that called for it." The woman the world manifested would turn out to be different in some important respect than the woman that Ken imagined. I called this story The Fallout--a recruiting term for a deal that falls apart unexpectedly.

At this point, I saw how the stories could all be linked together. For an unwritten coda to a series of five novels I completed in the '80's and which sit in my desk drawer, I had planned a sixth in which one of the characters by age 40 became a libertine, sleeping with as many women as possible. I had envisioned this character forming a rectangle with three women who wanted his company, and sex without commitment, for their own reasons. But sooner or later each of them would seek something else, and the rectangle would crumple. The novel would end with the death of the protagonist via a lymphoma; for his death I borrowed my father's, which began with a lump on the eye.

This was an interesting story in itself, but didn't work grafted onto the five novel series, as the protagonist would have to undergo too significant a personality shift to become the libertine. So, when I wrote The Fall-Out, I saw that Ken Copeland was the character I had conceived for the unwritten novel. I appropriated for him the story I had imagined for that book, which appeared in The Fall-Out only as background.

After beginning The Fall-Out, I went away for a weekend with my wife and forgot to put the laptop in the car. I hand-wrote Something You Don't Know, which I saw as the first story in the group. I introduced Ken, created the rectangle of Ken, Keri, Deirdre and Samantha, and traced the deterioration of Ken's stable structure as Deirdre and Samantha left.

In order to write this story, I first had to solve a problem. I now knew I wanted all of the stories, including Change at Jamaica and White Courtesy Telephone, to connect in some way. What had begun as a simple fiction issue of the Spectacle now became a real hyperfiction. At first, I thought I would tie everything together through the character of Samantha by the device of making her and Deirdre friends. At this point, I had only written about Deirdre in White Courtesy Telephone, but I knew enough about her to know that she and Samantha would like each other. However, a dramatic device to tie everything together was still lacking; though Samantha was my mediator--the character who sees and understands everything, who in a first person story would stand in for the narrator--Ken Copeland was my protagonist, because three of the five stories concerned him. Using the friendship between Samantha and Deirdre as the hyperfiction's architecture threw the story off balance unless Samantha and Deirdre also had some connection with Ken. First I understood that Samantha and Ken had been lovers; then I knew that Deirdre and Ken had also been lovers. The rectangle was now fully populated and the entire series of interlocking stories fell into place.

It seems remarkable to me that Samantha, who was an afterthought inserted into Change at Jamaica, so captivated me that she became the moral force of the entire series.

The Phaistos Disk was the easiest story to write, because I had mapped the whole thing out at least six years before writing it. Unlike the other stories, it didn't change very much between the imagining and the writing, perhaps because I had rehearsed it in my mind so many times. I used the narrative of my father's lymphoma--the lump on the eyelid, the radiation and chemo, the fevers and loss of clarity. A year or two after he died, I returned to Crete with my wife. In a book someone loaned me was an image of the Phaistos disk. It is not actually in the museum in Heraklion, but in Germany somewhere. I do not remember just when I made the connection between the disk and the lump on my father's eyelid, but it formed an integral part of the libertine story from the beginning.

As I write, it occurs to me I may have imagined the libertine story as much as ten years earlier, then grafted my father's death and the Phaistos disk onto it later. I am not certain. The archaeology of one's own mind is a very uncertain science.

At a very late point in the writing of these stories, my intention was still to write five, with some links between them, and then lay them out in a table of contents in the following chronological order: Something You Don't Know; Change at Jamaica; The Fall-Out; White Courtesy Telephone; The Phaistos Disk. I saw I could make a better use of hypertext by linking some shorter fragments to the minor characters and bystanders mentioned in the five stories. I have always been interested in the minor character, who is hustled on and off stage with no time to reveal his own story, but about whom the author gives just enough information to make him interesting in his own right. Orson Welles performed a kind of archaeology of a subsidiary character when he united all Shakespeare's Falstaff material in Chimes at Midnight, and Tom Stoppard took two very minor personages from Hamlet and invented a play about them in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In White Courtesy Telephone, for example, I had described a bookstore clerk, with bland English beauty and a little too much make-up, who was suddenly interested when Paul Banner came into the store. What was her story? Thinking about her for just a few minutes, based on these extremely minimal details, I knew she was a recovering alcoholic. Again and again, I selected characters I had described in a few words and suddenly "knew" the balance of their stories--a phenomenon similar to clicking on a hypertext link and seeing the responding page come up.

Most of the time, these fragments bounced off the stories to which they were attached. Many of the characters turned out to be quite different than I had expected; Sinead Gregory, the vapid, vain young waitress, "grew up" to be a novelist; Susan Rosenbaum, the shallow young woman interested in horseback riding and romance, never married; Donna Ray, disappointing Ken by setting out to become a social worker, circled around back to the business world in the end.

As I wrote the fragments, I understood I must eliminate the table of contents. It was no longer necessary, and would force the reader into a chronological and narrative frame. If I simply provided a link from the Spectacle's top page to the "first" story, Something you Don't Know, the reader could explore the Kazoo Concerto like a "narrative space", by following the links. There were a large number of pathways through the Kazoo Concerto, each of which would give the reader a somewhat different experience. Some pathways would surprise the reader when Ken falls ill; others would foreshadow it, for example, by leading him through the Keri or Donna fragments before The Phaistos Disk; in still other pathways, the reader might reach Ken's death before reading about his romance with Donna Ray.

Fiction-writing begins with a story I want to tell, not with an idea that I want to communicate. After I finish writing, I reread my work to discover what I meant by it. One can analyze one's own writing both for literary and psychological insights into one's self.

The first thing I notice in reading over the Kazoo Concerto is the completely unconsious recurrence of several images and techniques from story to story.

For example, several of the stories end with people walking away: at the end of Something you Don't Know, Samantha walks away from Ken; White Courtesy Telephone concludes with Deirdre on the walkway escaping from Paul; the fragment on Katerina Hagen ends with her going back up "to her room, and her life." When I was in my twenties, most of the short fiction I wrote ended with a punchline (Hemingway's "Isn't it pretty to think so" was the model). The only story in Kazoo Concerto which follows this approach is Change at Jamaica, which ends with Samantha's retort, "Luckily for us both, I did."

Even more interesting to me were the ideas I did not set out to express. It was no surprise that a major theme of the stories was life not working out quite the way you expect, as this is significant in everything I have written. However, my concern with the sharing and withholding of information was news to me, and I still do not know why I was thinking about this just now in my life. Nonetheless, it became quickly clear that each of the stories dealt with "information inequality" in some way. Ken's mastery of his world is revealed in Something You Don't Know to involve knowing more about the situation at hand than his date or his applicant; in Change at Jamaica, Samantha conceals some important information from Daniel, namely, the existence of Ken, although you have to have read Something You Don't Know to know this; in The Fall-Out, Ken plays a particularly desperate and over-reaching information game with Donna; in White Courtesy Telephone, Deirdre doles out information to Paul, while concealing her whereabouts; and in The Phaistos Disk, death reveals itself to Ken in the form of an inscription in an unknown form of writing, which he cannot at first interpret. The fragment Katerina Hagen adds an ironic gloss; Ken sleeps with a woman who has committed murder without ever knowing.

The title "Kazoo Concerto" was derived from an old thought of mine, that life frequently starts out with a grand overture, like the opening notes of a Mozart concerto; but when the solo instrument begins to play, it is a kazoo instead of a clarinet or flute. This is an idea I had at least twenty years ago; since the stories were an opportunity to use many old ideas, I first embedded the kazoo concerto in the fragment about George Moore, then selected it as an appropriate title for the collection. It was a conscious decision to make it part of the story instead of a line of dialog; only much later did I remember having a character say, in a novel I wrote around 1981, that life was like a kazoo concerto.

After I finished writing the stories and fragments, it occurred to me that I had left certain subtle suggestions that Samantha was actually the author of the stories. I suppose all this means is that she is the character with whom I identify the most, my moral stand-in in the narrative. But it occurred to me that she is the only one who would have access to most of the information: only Samantha would know her own story, Ken's, Deirdre's, Keri's and Donna's. She would not, of course, know about Katerina Hagen's murder, nor the life of Sharlene Johnson the bookstore clerk-- but I had already imagined that Samantha met Sharlene in the bookstore and wrote something about her. Thus, we know Samantha has tried writing fiction but been told her work is "too didactic", as mine can be ("stirring with lecture lumps" was a comment science fiction editor George Scithers made when I sent him a story about the practice of law in the 25th century). Samantha is twice seen reading Italo Calvino, and quotes from Invisible Cities frame Kazoo Concerto.

My last comment: the source of all storytelling is the child's desire, as noted by Freud, to know what is going on behind the grownups' door. The child cannot understand what is really happening, so must concoct a story to make the information manageable. Stories are woven the same way dreams are, to catch the ideas that are plaguing us and render them less frightening.