Carter Scholz belongs to the small minority of writers who find the larger world more fascinating than their own mundane obsessions. His stories aren't polished fictions of his experiences; they're efforts at the impossible. Scholz wants to stop time.
"I'm trying to draw more awareness to the present moment. Where that moment comes from and where it might be going to," says the author of the novel Radiance and a new collection of short stories, The Amount to Carry, in which Marco Polo converses with a computer, Charles Ives meets Franz Kafka at an insurance agents' convention, and an astronaut is cuckolded after walking on the moon. Josef Mengele makes an appearance as well, pondering quantum mechanics. "People go in a hurry from place to place without paying sufficient attention to how things got the way they are," says Scholz, who lives in Berkeley, "but the past and the future are immanent in every moment."
Published in 2002, Radiance is about a sinister nuclear lab that bears a striking resemblance to Lawrence Livermore. Its protagonist is a physicist forced away from pure science to work on Ronald Reagan's Star Wars initiative -- named after the movie and aimed at developing weapons that could destroy missiles from outer space. Reading Scholz, you'd be forgiven for surmising that he has spent his whole adult life in the assiduous and methodical study of science and philosophy, but it's not true. He has an avid interest in science, but no formal training. What he knows about physics he learned on his own, from popular journals and Web research. He says of philosophy that he has read only a few surveys and a handful of primary texts. His influences are all literary: Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Gilbert Sorrentino, William Gaddis, Samuel Beckett.
In homage to one of his idols, Scholz teamed up with ex-Berkeleyite novelist Jonathan Lethem five years ago to produce Kafka Americana, a short-story collection offering "alternate Kafkas" in which, among other capers, Franz Kafka changes his name and becomes a Hollywood screenwriter named Jack Dawson, and Batman is reconfigured such as to still be a superhero, but a superhero created by Kafka.
Scholz began writing science-fiction stories more than thirty years ago because, back then, the genre appeared to be the only one addressing what he calls the "extreme and irreversible" changes technology was making in human social structure. "These were important stories to tell, but you certainly weren't getting that in Updike, for instance." A foreword Scholz wrote for The Amount to Carry but didn't include says that science fiction was "able to tell the kinds of truth that only class traitors can tell." But in 1977, George Lucas' Star Wars brought science fiction into the mainstream. It was suddenly all marketing, not the least bit subversive.
"Writers outside the genre started taking up the topics I thought were important," Scholz remembers. "There's now barely any meaningful distinction between science fiction and regular literature."
But Scholz wasn't content to join the mainstream. He figured his ideas required a unique approach to the short story. He was "looking for a narrative mode other than strict naturalism."
The result was a series of stories in which nothing is certain and almost nothing can even be said to be real. "It's a theme you find in a lot of nonnaturalist fiction," he says. "You are constructing a reality so it's an arbitrary set of constraints and you imply that the world itself is mutable."
So in stories such as "Altamira," in which an art scholar travels back in time to study under Jan van Eyck, and "The Nine Billion Names of God," in which a writer plagiarizes a famous old story and tries to persuade a magazine editor that it's a new story because he has given its words new meanings, Scholz works hard to undermine his own influence.
After all, even the constants of hard science drift, its laws incomplete. Newtonian physics break down at the speed of light; quantum mechanics has found holes in Einstein's theories. But Scholz sees a paradox in all of this. In his unpublished foreword, he writes that his stories "show a fascination, if not obsession, with oddballs and mavericks, people who mistrust their received culture and look for some other way. Of course in the end there is no other way, because the world is the world. It is more than enough and it is not enough. That is the paradox. That's the amount we have to carry."
The "amount to carry" in the book's title story is a paper Charles Ives delivers at an insurance convention in Prague. The story is about the "subterranean lives" of three of Scholz' favorite early-20th-century artists: Ives, Kafka, and Wallace Stevens, all of whom happened to work in the insurance industry.
"The story gave me the chance to meditate on artists coming to terms with not making a living doing what was most important to them."
The dominance in Scholz' fiction of actual historical figures and their ideas betrays the influence of short-story writer Guy Davenport.
"The resonance [Davenport] has for me is that a lot of what we think we know about the present can be thrown in a different light if the past we think we understood is revealed to be different after closer inspection," Scholz says. "By slightly revising the official history, we reveal something more interesting."
But it's hard to say exactly what we're meant to take away from these reevaluations.
"I never know what it is I'm going to discover," Scholz says. "Sometimes I don't know after I finish. If I could wrap it up in a sound bite, I wouldn't need to write the story."
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