A Minor Obsession With the Nature of Obsession, Composing, 30/11/2013

Just a short note for this weekend, as there’s a Chanukah in Toronto to take care of later today. I’ve been looking into working on some short stories again in my fiction writing, as I’m still not sure about the publication status of my longer works. Under the Trees, Eaten should be out if not later this month then in January. But I’m still waiting to hear back about the status of my older novel A Small Man’s Town. I don’t want to commit myself to working on another major piece when, like that older novel manuscript, it will simply be homeless for years. 

Ben Kingsley starred as David Kepesh in Elegy, the 2008
film version of Philip Roth's book The Dying Animal, his
best book featuring that character.
Rather fitting that I’m writing today about some of my story ideas revolving around obsession. These are also stories that have professors as the central characters, but not for the usual reasons of skewering the schizophrenic culture, politics, and economics of contemporary academia. I mean, it’s not that it doesn’t deserve skewering. There are a lot of serious problems the modern university system has to face. I just mean that when it comes to satirizing or critiquing the university system and professoriat in literature, Phillip Roth already did that much better than I ever could. Go read the David Kepesh novels. 

I thought of one story idea just the other day, a classic case of fixation. That’s even its working title, “The Fixation.” It’s literally about a professor who is composing a masterwork almost entirely in his head. He’s constantly researching and incorporating new ideas into his plan, whether to agree or to respond or to critique. He’s neglected his personal life: friends haven’t seen him for days, his live-in partner moved out months ago. He’s neglecting his other teaching work, either giving lacklustre lectures or ducking out of teaching obligations altogether. 

The department head, wary of stoking conflict of any kind, sends the central character to drag the fixated professor back to work. The structure of the story would be similar to the original Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with the character of Gabriel Utterson being our protagonist much of the time, slowly uncovering the mystery. But instead of a horrifying resurgence of ancient alchemy, he simply finds a man in the midst of a nervous breakdown. 

This basic theme is, I think, becoming common to my fiction work. It’s the idea that the reasons behind epic events are less otherworldly than we may first think, and often have their roots in the petty concerns of self-absorbed people.

I developed another story about a scholar’s mental collapse as well, though I haven’t written anything beyond a basic outline. I’m not even sure how I’d approach constructing the narrative. The central character is a professor of moral philosophy who is a strict utilitarian: he believes that politics and economics should operate along the most egalitarian rules possible, so the possibility for emotional and material happiness is spread among the largest possible amount of people. This motivates him to become a tireless anti-poverty activist. 

Nonetheless, he lives in a large, comfortable house, drives a van that uses a lot of gas, and is paid a salary that can pay for all of this without trouble. He feels tremendously guilty that he seems to be taking a far greater share of the planet’s resources than he deserves. But he does it to provide a good upbringing for his family, knowing that in our current system, to leave the position he has would risk plunging them into poverty. His own obsession is his feeling of hypocrisy for living a lifestyle antithetical to his philosophies, but unable to abandon it because he would cause direct physical harm to his wife and children.

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