18. Inspired By Real Events

When he got back to the table, Sally and Corey were talking about the floods.

"Oh God, not the weather," said Mike, flipping the record on the player. Jangling guitars and dopey vocals came from several transmission-points throughout the apartment. It was old music but Drew did not like it. His skin was crawling, as if from allergies, when he sat down.

"This isn't just 'the weather,'" Corey said, offended on behalf of the flood and hurricane victims. "This is straight-how unheard-of end of the world stuff."

"Is very big shit," Sally confirmed.

"Feeling alright?" asked Bruce in a confidential mutter.

Drew grinned, abashed. "Just my earbugs acting up ... Surprised me, is all."

"Long Island," Corey said, holding up an index finger, and showing everyone her cards. Bruce and Drew silently folded. "Atlantic City." Another finger. "Rhode Island ..."

"There has always been floods and hurricanes and there will always be floods and hurricanes," Mike said, raising five dollars. "All this weather shit, it's just to distract people from the real problems in this country. Like the news in general. Drew will back me up on this."

Drew shrugged.

"The real problems in this country don't make the news. That would just lead to unrest and dissatisfaction. Why upset people? The news isn't about information. It's about entertainment."

"Oh my God," said Corey.

"You don't think the flooding of Long Island upsets people?" asked Bruce in his mediator's voice.

"Are you fucking me? That's a perfect example of entertainment. Waves crashing, children in boats in flooded streets, helicopters: it's straight out of Hollywood."

"The difference is this is for real," said Corey.

"This is very scary things," said Sally.

"That only makes it more effective entertainment," said Mike. "Does anyone at this table know anybody personally in Atlantic City or Long Island? Or in Colombia or the Philippines or any of the places that Hurricane Terence devastated? No. So in fact these 'tragedies'—and I'm not denying that they're tragedies for the people involved, but that's a very small number of people, when you consider the millions or even billions of people watching these events on TV and tearing their hair out in sympathy. These so-called tragedies have in fact no impact on 99.99 percent of the population, and on one hundred percent of the TV audience. If the billions watching this handful of people suffer are not themselves suffering, how can you say it isn't entertainment?"

"Because, Mike, it isn't fun," spluttered Corey. "Not even to watch."

"But entertainment isn't always fun. Entertainment provokes emotion in an audience. It might be happiness, it might be laughter, it might be a sense of fun, or it might be sadness, pity, disgust, fear, unhappiness. How else explain the appeal of tragedies? I mean dramatic tragedies now: Shakespeare, Sophocles, Hardy, that stuff. People just want to live, to experience, to feel; and if they can't get romance and adventure and comedy and tragedy in their day-to-day existence, then they'll take it by proxy, enjoy it vicariously. If their own town isn't going to get flooded or wiped out by a tornado, then godfuckit, they'll watch someone else's town get flooded. It's almost as exciting, and it's a lot safer."

He turned over a card. "It's better than a movie, because those are real people! That's what makes it all the more poignant, makes the empathy all the sweeter, the identification with the victims or the heroes all the more powerful. The movies can't compete with the excitement of genuine reality. They try to, with all their 'based on a true story' and 'inspired by real events'—as if there ever was a story told that wasn't inspired by a real event! But try as they might, a piece of dramatic fiction, however realistically presented, will never get you as emotionally invested as the most clumsy, grainy, hand-held footage of some actual event. That's why people watch the news. Excitement. Entertainment."

"I don't call having my house blown away by a hurricane exciting," said Corey.

"No, but I bet it is. It might be terrible, but it would be exciting too. Sure it would. Anyway," he said, peering at the cards on the table, "that's not my point. My point is that these natural disasters are inevitable and outside our control. That's why they're such surefire hits on TV: we don't have to feel bad about watching them, enjoying them, getting our thrills from them, because they're inevitable. There's nothing we can do about it, so we don't have to feel bad, I mean personally bad, guilty or uneasy, for sitting back on our asses and just watching. But! Present the public with some of the real problems in this country and in this world, some of the man-made disasters, the outrages and atrocities that something can actually be done about, and people turn the television off, put the newspaper away. Whose bet?"


After betting, he continued, "That's why we never see things like the systematic dismantling of the Senate on the news; that's why we don't see anything about election irregularities or voter fraud; it's why we never hear anything about the long-term health effects of earbug implants or the studies linking throat-patches to throat cancer. It's why we never heard anything more about those doctored photos from the Kauai detention camps or the supposedly staged videos from Wuqiu Island. It's why nobody in this country seems to know that the reason we can't get anything but synthetic honey is because honeybees have become extinct. It's why nobody is unduly worried about microwave weapons: because nobody even knows they're being developed! Shitchrist!" He slapped his cards down on the table and picked them up again. "Drew could fill his newspaper five times over every day with the horrific things we're doing to this planet in the name of 'reversing' global warming, and to other human beings in the name of 'peace missions,' 'humanitarian aid,' 'neutralization of regional instability,' the 'war on neo-fascism,' and all the other euphemisms for murder and ethnic warfare."

Corey groaned, in a tentative way that could have been exasperation or agreement. Bruce ran his hands through his hair. Drew retrieved his folded cards, looked at them, threw them away again without understanding. Sally blinked rapidly at Mike with loyal attentiveness.

"It would turn your stomach, sweetie," Mike said. "Which is why real news doesn't sell. Bad news like that requires more of you than just feeling bad. News like that doesn't make good entertainment, in other words. It's not a really good movie based on true events, but true events themselves. Yuck."

"Yuck," Sally agreed.

"That's why if you talk about the Attorney General scandal in this country, where it actually happened, people just stare at you blankly. But mention it anywhere else on the planet—where it's just entertainment and nothing can be done about it—and they'll agree, with a smile, that it's a disgrace and an outrage and a crime against justice. It's why nobody in this country can see that our President is a classifiable schizoid—whereas that fact is common knowledge in China. The news is always greener on the other side."

There was a moment of silence. Their poker nights rarely passed without Mike haranguing them like this, and accusing them all of criminal incuriosity and complacence. It was tiresome, and yet Drew felt that Mike probably had a point. He certainly had no illusions about the adequacy, accuracy, or importance of the news reported by the Post-Times, let alone any of the more eminent media outlets. But of course, knowing that Mike was probably right only made his lectures more depressing.

"Well," said Corey at last, stubbornly, "I don't know about all that." She shook her empty glass with burgeoning optimism and said, "I do know I could use another one of these little nippers. And I fold."

"I too could like to wet a whistle," said Sally.

Mike said, "And they prove my point."

They pshawed and went into the kitchen for refills.

Bruce and Drew spoke at the same time.

"You first," Drew said.

"What's this about doctored photos?" asked Bruce.

Mike told him.

Several minutes later, Bruce turned to Drew: "What were you going to say?"

"I forget," he lied.

Later, alone in the kitchen with Bruce, he dug a Ser Humano and his cutter out of his pocket.

"Tell me something," he said. He hesitated, caught himself hesitating, and blurted out, "What do you know about schizophrenia?"

It was not in Bruce's bedside manner to belittle his patients' concerns. He took everything seriously, so that they did not have to. Drew normally liked this about him; but the grave, contemplative, unprejudiced look that now crossed his face only starched Drew.

"It's not me. It's someone I know."

"Well, what do you know about it? What makes you think this person ...?"

He put the cigar between his teeth and lit it. "She was diagnosed," he said.

"By a psychiatrist?"

"Sure. Yeah. Of course a psychiatrist."

Bruce rubbed his face meditatively. "It's not exactly my bailiwick."

Drew eyed him suspiciously. Someone else had used that word recently. Who? When?

"I don't know all that much. Maybe less than you. I can tell you what I see, the sort of people who come in whom I refer to a shrink?"

Drew nodded.

"Let it be said, first of all, that I don't see that many. I don't know what the figures are anymore, they seem to keep changing, one or two percent last I heard, but I can tell you it's less than that that comes through my office because I don't think the ones who have it, the ones who are really schizoid, visit doctors. Nor shrinks for that matter. They don't think there's anything wrong with them. Anyway, what I do see from time to time is somebody with a ... let's call it a weird complaint. A woman who for example comes to me and says she believes she has a worm in her heart. True story. I ask her what makes her say that and she says, well, she can feel it. She wants to know if it's safe to remove it. Notice she's not looking for confirmation, doesn't come to tell me what an odd sensation she has in her chest and what could it be. She tells me straight that she has a worm in her heart. No doubt whatsoever."

"A hallucination," Drew said with some impatience.

"I believe they'd call it a delusion in this case. A strange, in fact impossible belief that you can't shake them of. Though you may be right, it may have originated in some sort of hallucination, visual or bodily or what have you. Anyway, assuming your friend is not suffering from a hallucination or a delusion that she has a worm in her heart ...?"

"I don't think so." He wished he had asked her, just once, if she was feeling alright.

They carried fresh drinks back out to the table.

"I'll be honest with you, I don't even know what a typical case is supposed to look like anymore. Every latest edition of the psychiatrists' manuals contradict the old ones. Originally you had dementia praecox—premature dementia; that is to say, craziness while you were still more or less young, rather than when you were old and it was to be expected. Fine catch-all term, that. Then another guy wanted it to be called schizophrenia instead because in his opinion—I forget why."

"Oh, Drew honey," Corey said, looking up at him with melancholy tenderness. "Darling, you're fine. You don't have that—trust us."

"Corey," said Bruce mildly, "mind your own business. We're not talking about him." He took a swallow of his drink and went on. "Well, call it chicken-fried rice for all it really matters, it's just a name. But now they've got all these bloody sub-types and categories: schizotypal personality, schizophreniform something-or-other, schizoid shammalammadingdong. The names alone are an insult to medical nomenclature. This thing here is sort of like a type of schizophrenia, this other thing has kind of got the form but not the content of schizophrenia, this guy over here is sort of schizophrenish ..."

Something about the way Mike left the room made Bruce and Drew look up.

"What's the matter with him?" asked Corey.

"Oh," said Sally delicately. "I guess he is a little bit starched-off."

"What for?" said Bruce.

Mike came back into the room. "You have got to be fucking me," he said. When no one replied, he went out again.

It occurred to Drew that Mike had, during his rant, sounded rather schizoid himself. But you couldn't talk passionately about the government, or the Chinese, or the neo-fascists, or the weather without sounding a little crazy, a little paranoid. Certainly the President, who talked about all these things, often sound a little schizo. Yet one couldn't call the President schizoid without sounding schizoid oneself.

Mike came back into the room holding a black gadget that looked a little like an old DV5 player. He sat down next to Drew with grim purpose and held it under his nose.

"Say the phrase."

Drew said the phrase.

Mike showed him the screen. "See? Compare that to the original. They're not even the same. It's saying your core waveprint has changed!" He laughed incredulously, looking around the table for some echo of his disbelief. "This fucking thing is fucked," he said, and again stalked out of the room.

"Anyway," said Bruce. "Aside from hallucinations and delusions and strange bodily sensations, some things to look out for would be paranoia—you know, an irrational conviction that everyone is out to get you. You personally. This often gets tied in with delusions of grandeur: Why is everyone so intent on persecuting me, why is everyone trying to kill me? It must be that I'm someone pretty special, maybe Jesus, or Satan, or Hitler, or Pok Bo. Or I must be destined to save the world. Or to destroy it. Does any of this sound like your friend?"

"Sort of." He took a puff of his cigar. It tasted like medication, like embalming fluid. He dropped it into his glass. "Not really," he admitted.

"I don't believe this," Mike said audibly from the other room. He came and stood in the doorway and surveyed them with heavy disappointment.

Drew asked Sally, "What's his problem?"

Mike went away, shaking his head.

"He is a little bit starched because no one asks him about this topic, I think," Sally said quietly.

"Why?" said Bruce.

"Because he's a know-it-all," said Corey loudly.

Sally ducked her head, and said, "Because he wrote a novel about this topic."

Mike flung himself back into the room, his arms and legs moving at odds. "You guys don't even read my books," he said. "My friends don't even read my books!"

"We can't read all of them," Corey protested.

"Maybe I did read it," Bruce said. "A long time ago."

"It only came out two years ago."

"Three," said Sally.

"Well, what's it called?"

Mike threw up his arms and collapsed in his chair. He said precisely, "It is called Mass Congephrenia."

"Oh yes," said Bruce.

"Doesn't ring a bell," said Drew.

"In the book," Mike explained, his grudge forgotten, "it's not called schizophrenia but 'congephrenia,' which is my own coinage. In the future, you see, they've changed the name to something more accurate. Instead of 'divided mind,' which is what schizophrenia means, congephrenia means 'joined mind.' Because a lot of the symptoms are better explained by the idea that various parts of the brain, which operate more or less independently in a normal person, become in the so-called schizophrenic person mixed up, overlapped, all jumbled together. Brain functions start to bleed into other brain functions. What should be unconscious becomes conscious, and vice versa. Hence the confusion, the inexplicable emotions, the strange dreamlike ideas and trains of thought, and of course the various kinds of hallucinations. I got the idea," he admitted modestly, "from Ehrenwald, who postulated that the voices schizophrenics hear are actually due to unwanted, unconscious telepathy. Brilliant, eh? They're not hallucinations but actually other people's thoughts! Well, I'd done a couple of books on telepathy already, so I didn't want to use it. But I had wanted to do a book on schizophrenia for a long time. I mean, let's face it, ever since Dick it's been practically a sub-genre: Is this person mad or are their paranoid fantasies really the truth? Well, it wasn't a big leap from the telepathy idea to the idea of auto-telepathy, or that it's your own subconscious thoughts breaking in on you. So I decided to make that the accepted version, the official explanation of the phenomenon, even to the point of changing the name. And besides, the word 'schizophrenia' is not only vague and imprecise as our esteemed medico here pointed out but is in fact highly misleading. All this is in the book, by the way. The doctor's speech in chapter, I don't know, three or four."

He glanced at Sally, who tilted her head and looked for the memory in a corner of the ceiling.

"When Doctor Trilling talks to Joe Funk?" she said. "The long talk? Chapter four, I think."

"Anyway, because of the name it's often been confused, especially in popular culture, with the split mind thing—you know: multiple personalities, fugue states, all that stuff. But it's not like that at all. And from that misconception it wasn't a big step for it to become almost completely figurative, so that in half the books you read, especially from the twentieth century, when they say some character was feeling schizophrenic they really just mean he was feeling ambivalent, couldn't make up his mind. Ridiculous, huh? Hey, are you guys leaving?"

"Some people have to work in the morning," Corey said.

"Well, shit. What about the game?"

"We already took our hundred bucks back," said Bruce.

"Well, shit. And where are you going?"

"To wish them off," said Sally.

"To see them off. Wait. 'To wish them off'? 'To see them off'? Shit, I don't even know anymore."

When they were gone, Mike said, "Let me give you some books."