“Paradox City” is the next story I wrote—or completed, anyway—after I finished the first draft of “Mark Red.” I say “completed,” because I actually began writing “The Chasm and the Collision” months before I started “Mark Red,” in apparent contradiction to what I wrote in my previous author’s note. But I had only written what were then the first and second chapters of “CatC,” which were eventually consolidated into one chapter, and had then put them aside. I also didn’t have them with me while I was a guest of the Florida State Department of Corrections. My mother, thankfully, had a printout of the chapters, and my intention was to complete that book once I had finished “Mark Red,” when I had worked enough of the rust from my writing gears. However, the chapters hadn’t arrived yet by the time I finished “Mark Red.” While I waited, I wanted to be productive and to maintain my daily early-morning writing habits, so I decided to write a short story.
“Paradox City,” which is the title story of my brief collection, “Welcome to Paradox City,” is one of the first type of story I described in my previous author’s note, i.e., it was a story that was born directly from its title.
I call this a “short” story because it’s clearly not a novel, but at roughly sixty pages (typed or handwritten), and between 35 and 40 thousand words, it certainly isn’t a typical short story. Yet it doesn’t quite reach a level that I would consider a “novella,” so I have stuck with its description as a “long short story,” however cumbersome that is.
Be that as it may, “Paradox City” is, as I said, a story fully born of its title, and the source of that title is probably obvious. While I was in college, Guns ‘n’ Roses were at or near the peak of their fame, and the song “Paradise City” was a gigantic hit. I’ve never been a huge fan of the band, though I think they have some quite good songs. My college roommate—a skilled and talented guitarist—tended to denigrate their music, perhaps unjustly. He was also, in addition to being musically gifted, blessed with a dry and wry sense of humor, and he enjoyed making plays on words with another of our friends.
I don’t know which of them first made the joke, but they liked to toy with a line in the song which goes, “Take me down to Paradise City, where the grass is green, and the girls are pretty.” They would do a simple flip of the nouns and sing, “Take me down to Paradise City, where the girls are green, and the grass is pretty.” It’s a simple enough joke, and good fodder for young college students like us, who were inordinately pleased with our command of and ability to play with language, as well as being easy to amuse. But this joke was, perhaps, the seed of the notion that led to the short story more than twenty years later.
While I was at FSP West, and having just finished “Mark Red,” I played around with various story ideas. I don’t think it was the first time that twisting “Paradise City’s” title occurred to me, but I thought it amusing to change it to “Paradox City,” and then continue my friends’ joke-version of the line after that. It occurred to me as I did this that “Paradox City” sounded like the name of a hip, avant garde night club. But if it were a night club, what might its character be?
In the real world, of course, there’s only so much of interest that could happen in such a place, since actual paradoxes are excluded. But in the world of fiction, quite interesting things indeed might transpire. It probably wouldn’t be the safest of places for a person to visit casually, but at least it wouldn’t be boring.
One thing I’ve always loved about short stories—I’ve written about this on prior occasions—is that they don’t always have to turn out well in the end, which is not usually the case for a novel. Certainly, any story set in a place called “Paradox City” seems likely to end badly for the characters involved. I didn’t know exactly what exactly was going to happen when I started writing; I really just had an idea of the sort of place the club was going to be, though I also knew the its true nature, which is only revealed at the end of the story.
As with reality, though, once you put a character into an interesting situation, where the way events can play out is constrained by certain tendencies or rules, interesting things often happen, and that is the case with “Paradox City,” starting from when the bartender gives Proctor—the main character—his duplicate verbal disclaimer about the potential dangers of the place, which warning involves the apparent complete disappearance of Proctor’s first drink, and the bartender’s own apparent lack of realization that he’s spoken precisely the same words twice in a row.
Some of what happens in “Paradox City” is just playful, such as the fact that the featured band is “The Elvises.” These appear to be two incarnations of The King, one in his young form and the other in his older form, doing a dual act, and recognizing each other for what and who they are. Other things in the story are less light-hearted, and certainly less “fun,” including a cryptic warning given to Proctor by the more experienced club-goer David. Unfortunately, the warning is so cryptic and bizarre that it does nothing to guard Proctor against danger. Proctor is then immediately distracted by the arrival of the lovely Alexa, who becomes the focus of his subsequent misfortune, despite the fact that the two fall for each other honestly, and without any ill intent.
I wasn’t trying to deal with anything deep in this story. It’s just a form of dark escapism—the only form readily available when one is in prison, unless one plans on becoming a fugitive for the rest of one’s life. But there’s certainly a bit of playing around with a general notion, captured in the words of one of Elvis’s songs: “Wise men say only fools rush in.” That’s a caveat that Proctor would have done well to consider, preferably before even entering Paradox City.
I did enjoy the idea of Alexa’s “gigarettes,” which contain a kind of drug whose only effect is a powerful form of benign disinhibition. As someone who has always had difficulty expressing myself emotionally, and who has some degree of social anxiety, the notion of such a drug—without all the ill-effects intrinsic to real pharmaceuticals—seemed just a wonderful possibility. But of course, as Proctor learns, even thoroughly benign disinhibition, without any detrimental physiologic effects, can nevertheless bring about outcomes that are unpredictable, incomprehensibly terrible, and in any case, inescapable.
I don’t want to give away too much more about the story, lest you decide that there’s no need for you to read it. I’ll just share one last anecdote, which made me chuckle. A friend of mine at FSP (who is now, sadly, serving a life sentence for murder) read the first draft of the story, and liked it. Afterwards, he said to me, “At one point I kept thinking to myself, ‘Man, Proctor’s gotta stop beating himself up over this woman.’”
If you read the story, you’ll know what he meant.