Selections from the Gimmick Books of Alfred Bester

Edited by Eric Solstein


They were sitting next to Joe on the bar when I arrived. I didn't notice them immediately but they were all I could think about once we finished taping the interview.

Joe had spotted me the instant I walked in. It was 10 am, and he was at the bar, talking with the bunch of regulars unwinding at Jumping Joe's. (Its been too cold to break earth for the last couple of months and in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the construction trades has always been seasonal work). Joe used to own the tavern and Alfred Bester would visit it each morning on the way to pick up his mail. "Alfie" would have a double shot of vodka, no ice, glass of water on the side, no ice. He would only have one or two – two at the most said Joe – then he would leave.

Bartenders are friendly for a living but Joe was no longer serving drinks when I called him, a stranger with nothing to offer him except the vaguest possibility of enhancing the value of the literary properties left to him by Bester. He was warm and gracious and seemed to enjoy the company. "I brought you two of his Gimmick Books, the third one is somewhere back at the house." Though one was roughly the shape of a legal pad and the other more like a phone book, they both were actually accountant's ledgers. I was unfamiliar with the term "Gimmick Book," but still it clicked. I was intrigued but busy hanging lights in the rear of the little roadside cabin.

We placed Joe on a stool, out-of-focus bar action in the background. He was a bit self-conscious at the beginning but answered all my questions... honestly, I think. We traced Bester's life in Bucks County from '78 or '79 to his death in 1987. If you are familiar with Charles Platt's later writings on Bester, Platt got it pretty close. Joe's interview fills out the picture… and there are the Gimmick Books.

We would leave the bar and go to Joe's house, forty acres left to him by Bester, to view them in a better light, also to see "Alfie's" library, now the temporary bedroom of one of Joe's grandsons. (Joe Jr. was recently divorced and back with his mom and dad). I had a sense of moment when I first thumbed through their browning pages, as if some unanswered questions was about to be answered, though I already knew it depends on one's own ability to read between lines.


-Eric Solstein



Notes:

We have tried to faithfully trancribe the text. All of my notes are italicized.

I was not allowed to remove the books to duplicate them and so I hurriedly set up a digital still camera to capture as many pages as the storage I had brought would allow. (I hadn't anticipated the existence of the Gimmick Books). Joe permitted me to copy whatever I could, but with limited time an additional concern, I captured about 150 pages.

I did this in a less than orderly fashion, photographing a continuous sequence of pages from the beginnings of each of the two books I had access to, and random pages towards the end of the fatter book. It is still unclear to me whether the fat book, which is mostly typed pages glued into a ledger, might not be an edited and amended transcription of the taller, thinner, mostly handwritten book.

In my selection of material, I purposely chose nearly all of the very rare diaristic entries from the material I had. I also tried to provide a representative cross-section of the gimmicks, notes and such, and sequence things chronologically.

Thanks to Polina Skibinskaya, Mari Soto, Greg Moosnick, Barry Malzberg and Hee Jeon Choi.



[title page, all text centered, typed]

COMMONPLACE BOOK
Consisting of gimmicks, situations, characters, incidents, and assorted oddments

Begun in New York in 1941

Continued, copied, edited, and revised in
Surrey, Rome, London and New York
This version begun in 1963




Click on above for a full page scan.


[p0, typewritten]

Sooner or later almost everyone wants to write a story. This may show you the constant preparation and work which writing demands. Learning how to write is about the same as learning how to drive; a little training and practice can do it. Ah, but becoming a finished driver or writer; that requires long, hard experience on the road.

I’ve been a working writer and editor since my early twenties zealously acquiring experience. One aspect is that I’ve been a sort of pack rat constantly collecting odds and ends which might produce or contribute to a story. I do this both consciously and unconsciously --- I’m happily driven twenty-four hours a day --- and have dreamed many a story and gimmick.

A gimmick is described by Mr. Random and Mr. House in their American College Dictionary as: U. S. Slang. 1: a device by which a magician or carnival pitchman works a trick. 2: Any tricky device or means. That’s me. I never had any yearning to write “The Great American Novel.” All I ever wanted was to be a great storytelling pitchman, which is why I collected the tricky devices and means which are entered in this Gimmick Book.

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries literati would have called it a Commonplace Book, “a book in which noteworthy passages, poems, comments, etc. are written.” Literature was a diversion for them. For me it’s a livelihood and this Gimmick Book is my toolbox.

Yet, strangely, it’s also almost a diary, something which I’ve never been able to keep in one of those cutesy books with lock & key which appear every Xmas. And it’s quite naked, with comments on and reactions to myself and events in my private life, some curious, others catastrophic.

I remember Mark Twain stating somewhere or other that it’s impossible for anyone to write the truth about himself. He said you could put a man in a locked room with pen and paper and a fire burning in the grate, tell him to write the truth about himself and then burn it, and he wouldn’t be able to do it.

He was quite right in his Prepsychiatric Age. Today we’re accustomed to dissecting ourselves privately and publicly which may or may not be wise. At any rate here is the exposed anatomy of a professional writer.

[p6, typed]

The Book of Lives: Under odd circumstances a protagonist obtains a book which, he is warned, is fatal to read. Everyone before him who has read it has disappeared. Our hero reads it anyway, expecting the occult and the outre. He finds he is being bored by a very dull series of uninteresting biographies of unknown men. Then, in the very last chapter, he discovers that he’s reading his own biography. He has fallen into the book.

Write a story from the first person POV about a man who does the same things over and over again. He discovers that he’s really only a character in a book.

The three wise monkeys: Three grease monkeys are partial witnesses to a murder. One saw it but heard nothing; one heard everything but saw nothing; the third saw and heard everything but can’t speak.
Code gimmick: Information can be passed out of a sealed office if a typist taps the keys of her machine in Morse code when someone who wants the information telephones in from outside on a pretext.

A bored child prodigy persuades thieves who have come to steal his Stradivarius violin to steal him as well. This is a cross between “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse.”

Hero is a mama’s boy. She ran his life. When she died she left a long letter of advice to guide his future life, and she attempted to anticipate every possible problem. The start of this story is when a situation arises which mama did not and could not anticipate.

Counterfeiting expensive labels is a racket.

There is a new knockout revolver that shoots a blast of compressed air.

There is a burglar alarm triggered by the heat radiated from the burglar’s body.

In Berlin there is a ghost factory which manufactures apparatus for mediums.

Ice does not float in alcohol.

Many persons have fractured their skulls by falling heavily on their feet.

The wireless horselaugh is: _ _ . . _ _

Jail breaking is not a crime in Texas if the perpetrator does not use a gun.

A big international racket is gun-running.

An outstanding European hobby is collecting toy soldiers.


[p ? handwritten]

Two crooked partners do not trust each other. They have a safe with a six number combination. One of them learns the first three numbers, but not the rest, the other knows the last three numbers, but not the first.

Characters suggested for Street & Smith:
1. A young math professor who is obsessed with laws of probability and chance. For excitement visits New York each night and mingles with gangsters and underworld characters. Gets into adventures as a result. When he needs physical aid he calls on various undergraduates in his college.
2. Boy who inherits a pawn shop and decides to give all the pawned articles back. Each object provides him with a new adventure.
3. African Explorer suffering from strange tropical disease that keeps him from sleeping. Spends his nights hunting crooks like a big game hunter.
4. Consulate for underworld liaison.
5. Employment agency to provide men for jobs that are outside the law.

[p 27-28, typed]

Injection of prolactine, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland, arouses the maternal instinct.

Death by electrocution is not due to heart stoppage but to its uncoordinated twitching. The sensitivity of the heart to shock depends on where the shock comes in the heartbeat cycle. The relaxed phase at the end of the beat is the most susceptable [sic]. Counter-shock can stop this twitching if it’s caught in time.

Blood detection on furniture, walls, or wood after several weeks is now possible even when the surfaces have been wiped clean or exposed to rain. A derivative of pthalic acid reacts to the hemin in the blood and creates a blue luminescence in the dark. Hemin is more prominent in old than in fresh blood, and the reaction is so powerful that it is possible to distinguish between human and animal blood, and even between different blood types. The test is so critical that it can detect five drops of blood dissolved in six quarts of water.

The colorblind, in an effort to conceal or overcome their defect, have worked out many devices. Motorists, of course, know which color is uppermost in traffic signals. A man working with red and black inks differentiated the colors by smell. A painted [sic] who was a copyist could not recognize green, although he could distinguish blue and yellow. He mixed the blue and yellow, hoping to be able to tell if he had the right green by the intensity of the tone. Usually he did. A teacher used to break crayon sticks at certain spots to identify their colors. An engineer beat colorblindness by accepting as matches the colors which looked dead wrong to him.




Click on above for a full page scan.



[p43, these titles are centered at the top and midway of the page respectively, with the following passages below them. They are all handwritten on a left page facing a typewritten page]

the Demolished Man [sic]

who He? [sic]

Anima: In current psychiatry the term anima is almost invariably associated with the analytical psychology of Jung. Jung distinguishes between the anima [soul] and the psyche. “By the psyche I understand the totality of all the psychic processes, both conscious as well as unconscious; whereas by soul I understand a definitely demarcated function – complex that is best characterized as a ‘personality.’”
Jung postulates an inner and an outer personality. “I term the outer attitude, or outer character, the persona, the inner attitude I term the anima or soul.”
Jung makes a further distinction when he maintains that “a very feminine woman has a masculine soul [that is, an animus] and a very manly man a feminine soul [or an anima.]”
I don’t think I quite understand this last point.

[p58, typed]

Benzol produces dangerous anemia; which is probably the most useless gimmick in this book, although there are other strong contenders.

[p57, typed]

The Man With the Mortgaged Mind- We mortgage our potential future and life in perpetuity to maintain a neurotic pattern of existance [sic].
The only criterion for the detection of the neurotic is the discrepancy between potentialities and actual achievement. We must not live below our potential. This would seem to answer the perplexing problem of whether artistic creation is a by-product of neurotic misery. Can the happy artist create?
The answer is that there’s a vast difference between compulsion and neurosis. The artist must be compulsive because creation is compulsion, but compulsion is not necessarily neurotic. If the artist lives up to the peak of his potential he can’t be called a neurotic, no matter how powerful the compulsion that drives him, and no matter how miserable it may make him. Nor, on the other hand, can happiness make a man any less compulsive. It’s one of the fallacies to confuse existance [sic] in Eden with existance [sic] in coma.
When, in difficult life situations, a neurotic’s delicately balanced compromise between compulsive and incompatible elements which make up the pattern of his living fails to operate, he feels that everything is going to pieces, and he struggles frantically, trying to shore his life up. Actually, the neurotic’s world is going to pieces, but the tragedy is that he never realizes that it’s a world not worth saving. It would be far better to let it fall apart and build a sounder one in its place.
(This last is Bergler’s, and damned good. The first two paragraphs were my own, and weren’t worth transcribing.)

[p ? handwritten]

Story about a town that builds a new church out of a spirit of vanity and conspicuous display. After the church is completed it’s discovered that no one can speak from the pulpit. This is God’s punishment. And no one will ever speak from the pulpit unless he understands God. Final twist: idiot girl, as amoral as an animal, is found one night in the empty church babbling exstatically [sic] from the pulpit.

What would be the effect on the world of absolute proof that there was no life after death? Would it destroy religion?

There are sporadic outbursts of cannibalism on chicken farms. The chickens peck at each others’ combs. The blood drives them wild.

No silver dollars were minted between 1910 and 1920.

The lucky man who never is disappointed in anything. Would be a thoroughly miserable man because good fortune is a seasoning not a food. You can’t have it for a steady diet.

[p62, typed]

Last night I dreamed I heard a simple sound --- something like a coin or ring dropped into a metal pail --- and I awoke with a start of terror. I wonder what the real sound of terror was, which my mind masked by substituting this? I wonder how much of the sounds, words, and sentences we hear in our dreams is camouflage, and would it be dangerous for us to compile a dictionary of our imagery of concealment?

Ruth Straus’ story about her mother throwing a glass of milk at her in her sleep in the middle of the night.

The weird world of women – In the past we could possess women without entering their alien worlds. Now that we have permitted them to enter ours, we’ve discovered that they’ve brought theirs along with them and, like it or not, they substitute theirs for ours and turn us into resident aliens.

Once you have made love to a woman she considers the act of intimacy to oblige you, ipso facto, to give her total intimacy; she will never suffer you to have any privacy of your own. Perhaps this is because women are basically simpler creatures than men, with no need for personal privacy. I don’t know. All I do know is that a woman would far rather you spent a night with another woman whom she knows than with a part of yourself that she doesn’t.

[p63, typed]

It’s always the most competitive, destructive, ball-busting woman who is the first to express her longing for a “real” man who will make her feel more like a woman. This is the kind of woman who wants a man to be manly in everything except masculinity. She doesn’t want to eat her cake and have it; she wants to eat her cake and lose weight.

I find within myself (and I think every man does) an entire recapitulation of the history of superstition, somewhat similar to the rule of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny; beliefs in portents, signs, magic rituals and charms, good luck and bad luck. Only education prevents me from actually believing, because it’s the nature of the animal to believe. Fear can always extinguish rationality. I’m not one to feel superior to the man of the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages persist within me.

A man gets tired of being good and put upon. He decides to become a shit and enjoy life. But the point is this; we’re all shits already, only we never recognise [sic] this. We just want to be another kind of shit.

[p ? typed, the bracketed last line is handwritten]

I thought, the other night, of writing a story called “The Last Star” or “The Final Star.” It’s about the universe in the far future in which there are no longer inhabited planets, but an incredibly vast manufactured megalopolis, galactic in size, a rabbit warren, a maize, a Möbius complex light years across, in which all the inhabitants of the known universe live.
In order to solve their energy problems they have consumed the planets and stars of the universe, relentlessly destroying the world in which they live. Now there is only one star left, and conservationists are fighting desperately to preserve it. Our contemporary conservation conflict is being repeated in that future: Which is more important, nature or man?
Stars or jobs?
I don’t know how to resolve the story. This afternoon I thought that it might be ended at the peak of the conflict by the abrupt disappearance of the star. It has been consumed by another megalopolis in space, hitherto unknown. [Through a White Hole from a contra-universe?]

[p ? handwritten at the end of a typed page]

Here, in February, 1967, this version of the Commonplace Book was at last brought up to date, and the earlier versions burned.

[p148, handwritten]

January 3rd 1972. So ends the worst year of my life. I think of it as the year of the Nightmare. I’ve tried very hard to endure it with patience and dignity, and I hope I’ve succeeded. At the very least I have not lost my faith and belief in the cool inevitability of nature. Nature is always right, even for those unfortunates like myself who wind up on the wrong side of the statistical curve. One despairs, of course, but we hold on. One dreams of ending it, of course but we hold on. One is tempted to appeal to Almighty God for help, but there is no god, there is only the natural order of things which is impervious to prayer. So I’ve kept faith with what I’ve always believed. I’m grateful that when put to the test I haven’t failed.
I must keep my notes in longhand again. Reading and typewriting are extremely difficult for me [a disaster for an author] but I have hopes for the future. Perhaps there will come a happy time when I’ll be able to think and create at a keyboard once more. So I hang on and hope and try to work. If there are any prayers of thanksgiving due they go first to science which has perfected the cataract operation, but above all else to my wife for her loving care and unflagging support.

[p150, handwritten]

Dear Diary: Today I ironed my Commonplace Book. I’ve heard of ironing money and newspapers but never of ironing a gimmick book. Have I invented a new vice?
I’ve been reading the new definitive edition of Pepys diary and what confuses me is that he took every measure to keep it secret, yet had it carefully bound and bequeathed it with his collection of books, prints and Mss [sic] to the Oxford library. Why? There’s only one way to keep a secret, destroy it. I have the feeling that Pepys was very much like Boswell.
And while we’re on the subject of journals, diaries, gimmick books and the like; I have no intention of keeping a diary [I know how to keep my secrets] but I’m wondering whether these story ideas and gimmicks may not prove to be a revelatory diary of my life afterall. Memo: be sure to burn this Commonplace Book before I blow my brains out.

[p152, title centered, typed]

November 1st, 1974

Well, here we are, back at the same old cigar stand, and business as usual. Here are some entries from old pocket notebooks that I’ve found. Some I can understand.

There’s one basic rule for Americans (said a restaurant prop.) don’t cheat them on meat and martinis.

[p157, typed]

A NASA engineer builds a stock car. How much? (John Glenn)
Are We lousy in Bed? The South American view. Or is this a myth? The mechanics of sex.
Princess Radziwell (Antic Arts)
We’ll Cut ‘Em Off at the Pass – The classic Hollywood sheriffs. (Gabby Hayes)
Election Predictions (John Scarne) How do gamblers make book on everything? Why not have Scarne take a look at Lloyd’s?
The Possessed. A takeout on gambling. Four points of view:
A gambler civilian
A professional gambler
A minister
A psychiatrist
(Paul Getty)
The Vanishing Servant
The Hair Mystique. Is it about time to face up to a bald society? Hair and virility.
Table Settings and Flatware
20th Century Druids – The Scientific Community. (C. P. Snow)
The Finks: all defectors; Americans, Russians, etc. (Goldberg) What’s life like for a defector? (Mrs. Oswald)
Have Files Replaced Religion? (What a demented idea!)
European ex-patriots in the States.
The American Establishment and its Jargon. (McCluhan [sic]. Bergen Evans.)
American Currency. Should we change it to duodecimal? Let’s question all the things we take for granted as fixed; Home, Children, Print, Alphabet, Democracy, Friendship, the 24 hour day.
Factory Life Today (Walter Reuther)
A Cop Looks at Morality
Xenophobia – The Peoples America Hates Today (Goldberg)
New York’s Broadway – Discovery? Follow it all the way to Albany. (Alan Coren)
The Charity Racket (Bob Cummings)
Status Symbols
Race Tracks and betting around the world ---

[p286, typed, 1982]

Parawitch
Megamagician
Megawitch
Astrowitch
Stratoteric
Synthetonicteric
Syntheteric

Exoteric + Esoteric = Sontheteric

Esoteric – (also “secret”) understood by and/or meant for a select few.
Exoteric – suitable for or communicated to the general public.
Syntheteric – combination of parts into a complex whole. (My own invention.)

Now what about that love scene?
Do we go all the way?
Which way?
Use the ads from that magazine?

Should we pinch:
Last Night of Don Juan?
The Spook Sonata?
The Deceivers?
Pygmalion?
Cyrano? (The moon schtik into sex using the magazine ads?)

HEY! WAIT! WAIT! We need a mystery figure all through, in black robes with a lemon head – kind of like in “Hoffman.”

“I pronounce you man and woman.” (Devil’s antlers)
“I pronounce you lovers.” (Jester’s coxcomb)
“I pronounce you bestial sinners.” (Bishop’s mitre)
“I pronounce you condemned.” (English judge’s wig)

…cranking a hurdygurdy which emitted the soundtracks of demented electronic games.

[p287, handwritten with trimmed paper reading “JANUARY ‘83” glued above the text]

New Year’s Plea:
Dear God, why do I seem to frighten, fluster, put people ill at ease? I’m just me. I have my own lifestyle which I never dream of imposing on others. I don’t even think it’s the right style; it’s just right for me. I mind my own business. I keep my mouth shut and protect secrets. I try to give dignity to all others and try to amuse. I never judge. I never [or hardly ever] put down. To quote Mike Todd, I never blow the whistle on another man’s act.
But they all say I’m a “gentleman” as though I’m a race apart, and that seems to put them on their best behaviour and into a strain.
I’m no gentleman; I just mind my manners. What am I to do? Help!

Most are blessed with a convenient memory [La Rouge] but I’m cursed with iron recall.

[p304, apparently a headline cut out from a magazine and glued lengthwise to an 8.5” x 11” sheet of whitepaper, then glued into the rightmost page]





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A FINAL NOTE TO
ALFRED BESTER

[the next two lines are hand written below the title in marking pen]

This was one of the worst years in your life.

There will be more, even worse.

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