Ted Kaczynski bombs again, in fiction

A short story by the imprisoned Unabomber leaves a lot to be desired

August 29, 1999|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,Sun Staff

Four years ago, a man known only as the Unabomber demanded that two major newspapers print his 35,000-word manifesto -- or he'd strike again. After much agonizing over ethics and journalistic responsibility, both papers acquiesced.

Today, Ted Kaczynski is locked away for life. But he hasn't stopped writing.

Next month, another publication -- an obscure student-run magazine at the State University of New York at Binghamton -- will serve up Kaczynski's latest creative ramblings, penned in his Colorado prison cell.

OFF! magazine's 21-year-old editor solicited the short story, entitled "Ship of Fools," because he felt Kaczynski didn't get a fair trial. "I wanted to hear what he had to say, ... kind of on fair ground," says editor Tim La Paige.

La Paige called the piece a "good critique of the left in our society," and said he didn't change a word of the author's submission.

But we decided to put Kaczynski's foray into fiction -- which can be found on the Web site of Context Books, www.contextbooks.com -- to the ultimate test: rules developed by editors of the New Yorker, the holy grail of fiction for aspiring writers. The rules were outlined in Writer's Digest magazine in June 1997. Here's how he fared:

Rule 1: Be an original

Editors like unpredictability. "What characterizes a good work of fiction is the same thing that characterizes a good work of humor. ... They hit you by surprise and trip you up," according to one literary editor.

But it was clear after just a few paragraphs how Kaczynski's parable, which mocks the concerns of liberal groups, would end.

It takes place on a ship steered by an insane crew, but the squabbling passengers don't notice they're heading for icebergs. Each character -- including a Mexican, an American Indian, an animal-lover, a gay man and a woman passenger -- is too busy complaining about his or her unequal treatment.

Inevitably, the ship crashes.

Rule 2: Character development

Cardboard cutouts have more personality than Kaczynski's characters. None is awarded even a cursory physical description, and though the dialogue presumably intentionally plays into stereotypes, that doesn't make it compelling.

* "I'm only getting half the wages of the Anglo seamen," the Mexican complains.

* "If the palefaces hadn't robbed me of my ancestral lands, ... I would just be paddling a canoe on a nice, placid lake," the American Indian chimes in.

* "Shiver me timbers," says an "able seaman," "if this ain't the worst voyage I've ever been on. ... When I'm on lookout the wind cuts through me jacket like a knife; every time I reef the foresail I blamed-near freeze me fingers."

No one listens to the lowly cabin boy, the only one aware of the biggest threat, when he advocates throwing the crew overboard and sailing to safety.

Rule 3: Be an entertainer

According to one New Yorker editor, most submissions that leap out of the slush pile don't try to be overly serious.

Kaczynski's parable hardly meets that requirement. Given his history, the remedy he advocates -- killing the ship's crew -- is all the more chilling. His whining characters don't agree:

"I'm terrified of violence," says the lady passenger.

"It's unethical ever to use violence," adds another.

The ship's captain doles out incremental incentives, such as slight raises and better living conditions, that keep the passengers distracted until the last paragraph:

"And all of the passengers and crew chimed in one after another, calling the cabin boy a fascist and a counterrevolutionary. They pushed him away and went back to grumbling about wages, and about blankets for women, and about the right to [engage in homosexual acts], and about how the dog was treated. The ship kept sailing north, and after a while it was crushed between two icebergs and everyone drowned."

Perhaps Kaczynski will have better luck in another literary genre: His 368-page memoir, "Truth Versus Lies," is due out in October.

Excerpts from 'Ship of Fools'

Colorful ethnic language:

* "Shiver me timbers," said an able seaman, "if this ain't the worst voyage I've ever been on."

* A Mexican sailor chimed in: "I'm only getting half the wages of the Anglo seamen."

* Said an American Indian sailor: "If the palefaces hadn't robbed me of my ancestral lands, I wouldn't even be on this ship, here among the icebergs and arctic winds."

The voice of reason:

* "You damn fools!" [the cabin boy] shouted. "Don't you see what the captain and the mates are doing? They're keeping you occupied with your trivial grievances about blankets and wages and the dog being kicked so that you won't think about what is really wrong with this ship -- that it's getting farther and farther to the north and we're all going to be drowned. If just a few of you would come to your senses, get together, and charge the poop deck, we could turn this ship around and save ourselves."

A climactic conclusion:

* All of the passengers and the crew chimed in one after another, calling the cabin boy a fascist and a counterrevolutionary. They pushed him away and went back to grumbling. ... The ship kept sailing north, and after a while it was crushed between two icebergs and everyone drowned.

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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