Monday, October 3, 2016

The Close Shave: When Your Algorithm Catches You between Razors

In the past, which, to avoid the appearance of being arbitrary, could be as recent as twenty years ago, you could stroll forth into Reality with a certain anonymity that is now denied you. Because of algorithms, which, again to avoid appearances of being arbitrary, are reflections of your known tastes, preferences, and other associated digital fingerprints, your choices, made and unmade, follow you about like yipping, hungry puppies.

Given the choice (which you are not), you'd prefer being followed by the puppies, but even that preference becomes a part of you as algorithm. Thus you are well known to complete strangers for your political affiliations (well left of center), your choices in music (from straight ahead jazz through baroque and classical into impressionism,) your choices in reading, clothing, electronic devices, and such recondite information as your preferences in shaving gear.

The take-away from this awareness of how your own tastes and preferences have in effect become your cultural doppelganger reveals to you the need to capture the algorithm of your characters with all deliberate speed, the sooner to get your story away from those early-draft storyboard and outline appearances and into as vivid a simulacrum as possible of the reality in which your story takes place.

In your reality as a writer of fiction, an editor of the fiction of other writers, the teacher of fiction-writing techniques, and a teacher of the fictional products of certain writers, a single detail has a value inasmuch as it reflects the reality of one or more characters within the story at hand. 

The detail is of as much value as a beat, that dramatic notation of time of which all stories are composed. A beat is one or more characters in action, doing something. Mary raised an eyebrow. John took a covert look at his watch. Millicent giggled. Fred shook his head.

Details are the things characters notice, use, purposefully avoid or, with some deliberation, seek. Character use up beats in their pathway through a story. Even in so cerebral a story as James Joyce's remarkable "The Dead," characters are employing beats and details, all of which lead to that stunning awareness at the ending, which most readers filter into the awareness of what the main character, Gabriel Conroy, realizes about his wife.

In what at first blush will appear to be a digression, which is to say a detail that diverts attention from the story and its theme, you present your shaving ritual algorithm.  Over time, you'd had one or more single-blade safety razors, at least two cartridge-style injector razors, at least two straight-edge razors and one semi-straight-edge razor that used a replaceable blade, at least one safety razor with a single-edge blade, at least three razors with more than two cutting surfaces, a razor with replaceable six-cutting surface blades, and your current razor, a Gillette Fusion five-cutting-surface razor.

The cause of this apparent digression and these apparently vagrant paragraphs was the appearance on your Face Book stream of what has been billed as the last razor you (I) will ever own. Thus your shaving algorithm doppelganger has come to haunt and tempt you.  The attendant advertisement was well illustrated, offering you an instrument likened in its gleaming simplicity to the philosophical instrument of a Franciscan monk, William of Occam, and in the final analysis, reminding you of the Schick Injector (Push-pull; click, click) razor of your mid-to-late twenties.

This putative Last Razor I Will ever need is stainless steel to provide heft and durability. It can be had for a mere seventy-five dollars, in mitigation of which it arrives with twenty single-edge, stainless steel blades which, figuring two blades a month, means a potential of ten months, which costs out at seven-fifty a month, which compares favorably with the seventeen or so dollars for a group of four of the current blades, each of which works well for about a month.  

Here's where we go full circle on the algorithm of the shaving beat as related to one or more characters. Still fresh in your memory is an experience with a service that provided you not only with a double-edge-blade razor "of the right, professional heft," but as well a shaving mug (you already have two) a bar of shaving soap (you had at the time seven), a shaving brush (you had two), but as well what should have been a warning--a stick of alumni or styptic pencil looking much like a Shiva lignam.

What the hell, you thought, lathered up, secured the blade into place, let the weight of the heft of the razor determine the pressure of the blade as it moved over the planes and speed bumps of your lantern jaw. What the hell, was right. You ended a period of five or six years in which you had not required anything resembling a styptic pencil. You in fact emerged from the experience looking, as one writer friend put it later that afternoon, "like a man who was seriously trying to change his appearance."

Thus, of some characters, the writer will wish to know his shaving experience that particular day as a contributing factor to that character's frame of mind. On your last day with the double-edged razor, your inner politician may still have been left of center, but your outer misanthrope leaned toward hawkish, which reminded you of a relevant detail, a discussion with your late cousin. "You're a dove?" he said, to which you nodded.  "Well, I'm a hawk. I think we should bomb them." To which you replied, "How is it that you are my dentist?"

Details must be relevant to the state of mind and spirit of the character. Beats must be in service of providing the equivalent of the seventy-five-dollar last razor you will ever need. "So we beat on," Nick Carraway tells us at the tail end of Gatsby, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

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