Thursday, October 29, 2009

Night Music for Robots

If it rains, it pours, or so they say.  For some reason, it seems to me that I tend to happen upon good books in twos or threes or fours, then, like an unlucky bowler or a gambler too long at the slots, exhaust my streak and find myself without a new text for days or weeks following.  So far I'm two for two in my current book binge: I just read Nocturnes, the new story collection by Kazuo Ishiguro, and am now deep inside the wondrous labyrinth of Lethem's Chronic City, which, if it keeps up its current pace, might actually top my personal list for best characters of all time.  But I'll talk more about that in another post. 

For the time being, I'd like to reflect a bit on Nocturnes, a book that I greatly enjoyed, but that somehow seemed to evaporate even as I was reading it, a diffuse cloud of disappearing ink.  Don't get me wrong: I am not one of those asshats who thinks story collections are "minor," that the most substantial work of a writer can always be found in his longest pieces.  I am a huge fan of Steven Millhauser's short stories and novellas, for example, and the fact that James Thurber at times professed to feeling inferior to his novelist contemporaries seems to me his only regrettable joke. 

But Nocturnes has a quality of being dashed-off -- doodled, maybe, rather than finely drawn.  Perhaps it's partly Ishiguro's prose: he's always struck me as an author for whom the writing itself was the easy part, or at least the part to be dispensed with as quickly as possible.  I saw an interview with him once wherein he described how he painstakingly maps out each detail of the action and narrative before a "crash," in which he drafts the entire book in a matter of days or at most weeks.  And at times it shows, in forgettable sentences that start with impatiently blurted exposition ("Back home, back in the communist days...") or tie in lazy "why imply what you can state" emotional shorthand ("Maybe I did feel a little stab of pain").  But usually, this matters not at all.

More than any other contemporary writer, Ishiguro is an artist of plot, that much-maligned yet irresistable force that animates fictional characters as electricity does a movie Frankenstein.  Every book of his is driven by two near-hack conceits: our hero really really wants something that's difficult to obtain (external conflict), a quest made even more difficult by a terrible secret that he can't bear to confront (internal conflict).  Like a silent filmmaker with a penchant for tying leading ladies to the train tracks, Ishiguro plies these engines of suspense mercilessly (will he get the girl and what's he hiding?), till we're sick at heart and pissed at him (fess up you stupid shit, she almost loves you!) and still reading (thanks a lot, douchebag, now I'm crying on the bus).  The summaries sound grabby but, frankly, dumb: the clone really really wants to grow old with the other clone, but she won't admit they'll both die young from untimely organ harvesting.  The detective really really wants to run off with the socialite, but he won't admit he'll never track down his missing parents.  The butler really really wants to bang the housekeeper, but he won't admit his boss is a Nazi. 

Yet somehow these books are not just un-put-downable in the bestseller sense; they're genuinely affecting, deep, and weird.  Because Ishiguro is not just a plotter, a la Syd Field or James Patterson: he is an artist of plot.  He understands it so deeply he knows what he can distort, and these distortions, though minor when they're visible at all, tilt the floors and doorframes of his stately mansions into the askew dimensions of a funhouse.  His masterpiece, The Unconsoled, drove this technique to its limits.  Rather than complicating his fictiverse with multiple narrators, varied levels of prose complexity, experimental formatting (drawings, footnotes), jumbled chronology, pastiche/parody, or any of the other jangling tools in the
(post)modern novelist's bag of tricks, Ishiguro simply tweaked the laws of cause and effect a little more than usual.  Our hero still really really wanted something, namely, to play piano brilliantly at the concert and thus win (back?) the family he loved -- but the various external obstacles preventing him somehow seemed to be extensions of himself.  And there was clearly something he wasn't admitting, to the reader or to himself -- but that secret was, in the story's world, unsayable: the meaning, revealed upon waking, of the fictive dream.

The complexity of this work is only comprehensible qua novel, of course, because the complexity doesn't emerge at the level of the sentence, but from the rules of the world.  In this sense, Ishiguro is more truly reminiscent of sci-fi or fantasy writers (Tolkien, Asimov, Orson Scott Card) than many other more overt genre-benders*, who adopt the trappings of these genres to broaden their metaphorical reach (Andrew Sean Greer's Max Tivoli) or sharpen the bite of their satire (the Saunders of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline).  Though these books use, say, the downloading of memories or the idea of aging backwards lyrically, they don't use them as a controlling force behind the plot, a determining factor behind evey thought the characters have and every decision they are capable of making.  Ishiguro, on the other hand, wants to come up with a sort of Three Laws of Robotics even when setting out to write about a butler in a recognizable, historically grounded England.  His characters do not define their own roles in the plot; they are defined by those roles, constrained by them, incapable of imagining themselves or their lives outside of the system their author has set up. 

But back to Nocturnes.  Though these stories don't fail to alarm and delight (my favorite features plastic surgery and an ill-fated roast turkey), their length keeps them from revealing the accretionary power of Ishiguro's plotting.  These characters' fates are sad, or at least melancholy -- but we do not have time to dread them.  They do not bear down on us with the force of their inescapability.  Where his earlier novels may depict the woman tied to the track, the schedule of trains, the lowering of the guard rails, in these stories we glimpse only the freight cars rattling by.

*Of course, one could argue that Ishiguro has done his own bit of overt genre-bending, with his detective and clone novels respectively -- but in my opinion, the use of genre in these books still figures more into the construction of rules for the world than what that genre as an existant genre evokes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Some Kind of Monster

When I was a freshman in college, several older girls lived in my dorm building who wore velvet Ren Fair costumes, braided their hair like Princess Leia, and periodically went out to the otherwise unused soccer field next to the parking lot to hit each other with foam swords.  Unlike most of the other students at my college, these girls were not drunk, on drugs, having a nervous breakdown, or attempting to make "performance art."  They were LARPers, which I quickly learned meant "Live Action Role Players."  I have never LARPed myself, but over the next four years I learned to diagnose the tendency, in the same way that a soldier in World War I would learn the signs of shell-shock.  At my school, LARPers tended to have a certain nasal pitch to their voices, a certain Middle Earth quality to their style.  The men wore shirts with lacy cuffs, the women corsets and hooded capes.  For some reason unknown to me, their fingernails tended to be unusually long, but unpainted, talony.  One LARPer wrote a purportedly nonfiction essay for class about a young girl discovering she was a werewolf, in the same coming-of-age way that another young woman might discover she was a lesbian ("'Why am I different?' the girl would ask herself, roaming beneath the light of the harvest moon"); the essay concluded with the line, "And that little girl was me."  Another LARPer wrote and performed in a full-length theatrical production about Eleanor of the Aquitaine, which involved a fully articulated Pope puppet and musical compositions by several students who opted to keep their names out of the program. 

Like the Rastas, New Agers, vegans, and nihilists I knew throughout my college years, some of the LARPers were nice, some were insane, and some were nice and insane.  Though I couldn't bring myself to feign interest in any activities involving their magic staffs or pendulous owl-shaped medallions, I considered them harmless, even charming in their imaginative enthusiasm, and it didn't seem outside the realm of possibility that, at some point in the future, they might write a poem, put on a play, or design a costume that I would unironically love.  I don't doubt that if I were to get back in touch with them, this would likely be the case.

So when I say the film Monster Camp was one of the most horrifically depressing documentaries I have ever seen, beating out by a long shot films like American Movie and even the Thin Blue Line (after all, in that one at least they CATCH THE GUY), I want to preface this remark by saying that, as truly weird as the behavior of LARPers can be, I do not find that behavior in and of itself depressing, or even unfamiliar.

Monster Camp is a film about the Seattle-area chapter of NERO, a role-playing organization that arranges LARPing weekends in what appears to be some sort of nature preserve.  (A scene where two hikers are interviewed about the foam-sword melee they just glimpsed amid the trees provides one of the film's few breaths of reality.)  Although we are repeatedly assured that the rules of the game are dictated by a handbook that outweighs most debut story collections, what is captured on video more closely resembles a horde of frizzy-haired nine year olds pretending to be pirates.  The filmmaker follows the game-players home from NERO weekends to their everyday lives, where fluorescent-lit programming jobs or big box stockboy positions give the lie to their alternate lives as warriors or the undead.

I mentioned the film American Movie earlier.  I loved that picture, and felt strongly that, despite the presence of Christopher Guest hovering over scenes of stunts gone wrong and repeated mispronounciations of "coven," the filmmaker managed to locate something very real and very meaningful in his central character's attempts to make art.  Perhaps one reason that movie succeeded was because Chris Smith, the maker of the documentary, couldn't help but see something of himself reflected in another filmmaker.  But, for whatever reason, real emotion did creep into the final cut.  In his relationships with friends and family, with his community, with his art, our protagonist didn't become heroic, exactly, but he was revealed as a whole person whose interior life couldn't easily be summed up or dismissed out of hand.

But, although Cullen Hoback, the auteur behind Monster Camp, is clearly reaching for some similar revelations, I for the life of me couldn't find them here.  Yes, these characters long to escape, and they sometimes acknowledge that (one of the most powerful moments is when a disabled player points out that, in a fantasy world, she doesn't have to have a wheelchair).  But you don't have to see a movie to know that people who put on face paint and pretend to be monsters are trying to escape. 

For me, the big surprise of Monster Camp is how little these folks surprised me.  It's as though they read a handbook on how to behave exactly how we'd expect: if in-game they act and dress like characters we've seen from a dozen lame fantasy flicks, out-of-game they could be extracts from a flatfooted high school movie about nerds.  Where are the details here?  Besides an ice cream cone-shaped model rocket and an underexplained Coke can collection, they're MIA.  There's nothing bizarre, nothing twisted, lurking here, nothing to love or hate -- nothing glimmering in those eyes except for the reflected images of a World of Warcraft screen.  In the sections focusing on their real lives, these characters appear almost interchangable, their steering switched to cruise control.  We see no passion, no anger, no grief.  We see only gamers.  Have the souls of these people crept out of their bodies, into a realm of utter fantasy?  Are their lives simply empty houses with the lights still on? 

I found this obliteratingly sad, worse than a movie shot outside a methadone clinic at the end of the world.  But as I continue to think about it, I also seriously doubt it's true.  I think Hoback simply failed to capture the footage that would lift this story from pathetic (in the modern, derogatory sense of the term) to "full of pathos."  Maybe the problem was his strategy.  After all, in American Movie, Chris Smith didn't set out to make a movie about the phenomenon of loser Midwestern filmmakers.  He set out to make a movie about Mark Borchardt, director of "Coven."  Instead of trying to capture the phenomenon of LARPing and what it means to LARPers in general, maybe Hoback should have tried to capture what LARPing means within the context of a particular life.  Or, even better, just captured the images of that life, without trying to explain them.  I think again of the werewolf I once knew, how she would emerge from her dorm building topless during fire drills, the way she stood up once and howled during philosophy class, the Harry Potter sorting hat she wore to our graduation and how she moved the tassel across the brim after she received her diploma.  She didn't symbolize a subculture: she was simply, unavoidably, herself.  And as such, she never failed to surprise.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"The imagination is a dying animal."

In my first post on this blog, I admitted that I do not entirely understand my own taste -- that sometimes I am moved beyond reason by writing or films or television or even advertisements that do not satisfy my own stringent criteria for greatness.  And I promised that, from time to time at least, rather than pretending to be a stainless priestess of high art, I would acknowledge and even try to articulate why I love the things I do.

I'm going to come right out and say it: I love the Kids in the Hall.  I love them beyond sense or reason.  I laugh every time I watch them, despite the fact that they're sometimes not funny.  Sometimes I laugh because they're not funny.  The summer before I left for college, Comedy Central played two episodes of Kids in the Hall every day in the afternoon.  I watched these episodes every day.  I also tape recorded them and have watched them repeatedly since then.  There are many TV series that I find sporadically entertaining, that I'll watch when they're on: South Park, the Wire, who the hell knows.  Fundamentally, though, it would make zero difference to me if these shows had never existed.  Not so with Kids in the Hall.  Kids in the Hall is my show.  Something in it speaks to me.

I once had a professor who told us that, when asked to name his influences, Borges listed a very strange assortment of authors, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who was considered something of a hack writer at the time (and is still regarded that way by many, despite the patina of age that has transformed several of his books into "classics").  This professor told us that our own work would benefit if we followed Borges's example.  Instead of copying the writers we saw as the most accomplished or influential, we should take our inspiration from the writers who excited us the most, regardless of what they actually had achieved.  In fact, if they were second-rate, so much the better.  That way, we'd be mining uncharted territory, rather than picking over the dust and nuggets left in a ghost town after the rush.

Obviously, this professor wasn't saying we should be inspired by the flawed techniques or sloppiness of these mediocrities.  He was saying, though, that respecting, say, the craft of Raymond Carver doesn't mean you have to write about realist characters getting divorces in laundromats.  This is a sentiment echoed by George Saunders in an interview.  After naming a handful of writers -- Gogol, Hemingway, Kafka -- whose influence he still feels, he goes on to say, "But I think also, lately, I'm starting to be more honest about the fact that there are a lot of TV influences and pop culture stuff in there too. You know, in a funny way I'm starting to rethink the whole influences thing. It feels to me like you're born with certain neurological tendencies or affinities, and then you just kind of walk through the world picking out the things that feed that."

As a writer, I understand this perfectly: in my own art anything goes.  If Kids in the Hall, or for that matter, the New Kids on the Block, inspire me, it doesn't matter; the only thing that counts is the end product of what I create.  But as someone who wants to write critically about narrative art, this troubles me.  How much of my experience of, say, Kids in the Hall, is a result of my "neurological tendencies or affinities," and how much is a result of my considered judgment?  And, if I admit that most of my experience is a result of these affinities, then what does that say about my opinion of a film or novel I regard as a masterpiece? 

Wittgenstein, to rope him into my arguments again, once wrote, "When I read over a poem or narrative with feeling, surely something goes on in me which does not go on when I merely skim the lines for information.  What process am I alluding to?  The sentences have a different ring."  When I first started dating my partner, I couldn't believe he didn't love Kids in the Hall.  I "told" him many of their jokes and sketches, which I had memorized, or nearly, and he generally thought they were funny.  When we watched the aforementioned videotapes together, though, back in my childhood home, he still didn't love it the way I did.  "They draw every joke out for way too long," he argued.  "And a lot of it just isn't that funny."

A teenager tells his uncaring parents, "You have carpet on your hearts."  A young man rhapsodizes about the legs of his lover as she stands in the water: "Like God's own barge poles."  A blues guitarist sings, "You can't use your tongue to stop a fan," and his back-up drummer sticks out his tongue to reveal a prominent band-aid.  A pyromaniac French woman pouts when her boss puts out a fire: "Monsieur!  Mon feu!"  A bearded lady declares, "We're freaks!  We can drink as much as we want!" and a confused waiter replies, "But don't you get drunk?"  "Of course," replies her companion, the Chicken Lady.  "My brain is only the size of a waaaalnut."  After writing this paragraph, I went to the Kids in the Hall Wikipedia site to look for more examples and laughed so hard I literally started crying.  But my partner has watched these episodes, and though he saw the same show I saw, he didn't see in it what I saw.  It didn't have the same ring.

I'd argue that, with a truly accomplished piece of art, it doesn't all just come down to the randomness of taste.  There are things we can point to, structurally and at the level of the sentence, that clearly denote a rigorous craftsmanship in the piece's design and execution.  But as much as I admire these qualities, and as fascinating as I think they are to talk and think about, they're not necessarily the reason I love the piece in question -- or at least not the reason I fell in love with it in the first place.

Who says a blog post has to have an ending?

Friday, October 23, 2009

On isolation

The writer hates our world.  The writer wants to escape.  The writer builds a time machine, a magic door, a tunnel through the center of the earth.  The writer puts on the skin of a cat, a horse, a Frenchman, a woman, and plays pretend alone, always alone.  The writer daydreams.  The writer does not have time for you.  The writer will not accept what's given to him.  The writer builds his own world instead.

But the writer also loves our world.  The writer wants to know the names of all the trees.  The writer wants to know how the glovemaker makes gloves, how the hotelier designs hotels, what's really in a sausage.  The writer eavesdrops on the cab driver, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the ladies who lunch.  The writer observes.  The writer cannot go home alone, not tonight -- stay for another drink.  The writer takes what he gets.  The writer wants to communicate.

This paradox doesn't just apply to writers, of course.  The act of making art, real art, is both fundementally public and deeply private, both a form of communication and an obsessive, anti-social behavior.  There's something unhealthy about it.  We long to be discovered and, like criminals, fear discovery.  When Henry Darger was dying in the hospital, his landlord came by to see him.  "We found your paintings when we were cleaning out your room.  They're beautiful," he told the artist.  He knew Darger had never shared his work with anyone and feared he might be upset.  Henry Darger smiled, then shook his head.  "Too late, too late."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Riddle Me This

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Banana who?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Banana who?
Knock knock.
Who's there?
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn't say banana again?

Unfortunately for the adults in my life, the above is the first joke I learned as a small child, and for awhile, it was the only one I told.  I still remember the satisfaction it gave me.  There's a power in the structure of a joke: the set up (knock knock), the complication (which is this case is drawn out for an extra two beats: banana, banana, orange), and then the resolution ("Orange you glad I didn't say banana again?").  In this most basic sense, this is the structure of a conventional story.

In the mid-60's, a young man was dating a girl named Lorraine that his parents hoped he would marry.  However, he was in love with a hippy chick who played folk guitar and called herself "Clearly."  Despite his feelings he allowed himself to be pushed into an engagement with Lorraine.  Fortunately for him, on the day before their wedding, Lorraine unthinkingly stepped in front of a bus and was killed instantly.  Upon hearing the news, the young man declared, "I can see Clearly now, Lorraine is gone!"

The similarity between jokes and fables or parables is, to me, obvious.  Both "explain away" weird imagery or bizarre events with a punchline that all at once reveals the organizing force behind the narrative, a force that, up until that point, has gone unnoticed.  The moral of, say, the ant and the grasshopper ("Be prepared for lean times") may not be funny, but it reduces these characters and their situation as a tool we can apply to our own lives, in the same way that "I can see Clearly now, Lorraine is gone," reduces the proto-characters in the love triangle to the homophonious sounds of their names.  The last line releases us from our emotional investment in the dear departed Lorraine in the same way the moral releases us from our investment in the dear departed grasshopper.

Immediately the fairy gave a stroke with her wand, and in a moment all that were in the hall were transported into the prince's dominions. His subjects received him with joy. He married Beauty, and lived with her many years, and their happiness -- as it was founded on virtue -- was complete.

We expect a similar kind of release in the endings of longer stories.  The fairy tale's "happily ever after" is the most obvious example.  An ending of "happily ever after" moves the characters back from the specificity of a human situation unfolding in space and time into an abstract, purely fictive zone.  In the Disney film version of Beauty and the Beast, this is visually literalized: at the end the animated characters we've been watching for nearly the whole film freeze for all time into a still image made of stained glass.  But this is also true in many stories intended for adults.  Jane Austen's novels retreat into stasis: at the end of Sense and Sensibility, we are told in the last line that the two sisters, fundementally opposed throughout the novel, "live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands."  And modern novels too: Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails concludes with the (up till now) solitary, nostalgic, and clinically depressed title character declaring, "It's all over now.  I'm not young anymore.  No more adventures, no more mysteries, no more secrets," to which his lady love gives the suitably vague response, "We'll make our own secrets now, maybe."  After endings like these, further action isn't just omitted; it's actually impossible under the terms of the story we've just witnessed.

I'm not categorically dismissing endings of this punchline- or "happily ever after"-variety, because I think they can be remarkably effective.  But they do bear more resemblance to the structure of a joke than to the structure (or rather non-structure) of "real life."  So why is it that some readers assume that the "meaning" of a story comes entirely at the end, in the same way the "meaning" of a riddle comes from its solution?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Je Ne Sais Quoi

In my first-ever writing workshop, the teacher had one rule for our discussions: you were not allowed to lift your eyes from the story's pages.  Any comment you made had to be a comment about something that was literally printed in the text.  A story is made up of words, and he felt that any criticism or praise of the story had to be criticism or praise of those actual words.  This seems obvious, but at least to me at the time, it was a revelation.

The craft of writing is not mysterious, or at least it is not inherently mysterious.  Words have definitions.  Sentences have grammar.  Paragraphs are long or short, have sentence variation or they don't.  And, at least in conventional fiction, story structures have a kind of grammar too (see my posts on the film A Serious Man).  Yet somehow, many readers feel that something in fiction is indefinable, that it can't be pinpointed, that it somehow exists beyond the words on the page, and that to look at it too closely can cause it to vanish. 

I am of two minds about all this.  A workshop professor who espouses such a view makes me about as nervous as a surgeon who's worried about cutting into a patient's soul.  But at the same time, I think we've all had moments when we scribbled something down, and though it wasn't yet ready for another reader's eyes, we knew we had found It, that spark that brings a piece of prose to life.  What's the deal with that?

Friday, October 16, 2009

That's Gotta Hurt: Some Thoughts on Violent Movies

When I was a kid, I watched gangster movies with my dad. My mother has never liked violent films, so I think he was pleased that he finally had someone he could share pistol whippings, broken glass, car chases, shoot-outs, and double-crosses with, even if it was his eleven-year-old daughter. To my credit, though I sometimes covered my eyes, even at that age I loved these movies, which I will generally call "film noir," despite the fact that some people use that term only to refer to the films of the 1940's and 50's. One of the main things that intrigued me about them were the characters, who were not like any characters I'd seen before.

A lot of movies intended for children actually do have intense violence, or at least intensely disturbing action. Parents die, siblings die, a kid has to KILL HIS OWN DOG OR BE KILLED WTF (Old Yeller). However, two things are notable about the role this violence plays in the story. First, it almost always takes place off-screen. There are a handful of exceptions to this, but even when the violence is glimpsed, it is not visually articulated -- there's not an interest in distilling it, stylizing it, extending it, exploring it, for maximum intensity. Second, the violence in kids' movies is always entirely justified or entirely evil, and accordingly, the characters themselves are either good or bad.

Side note: I am using "kids' movies" here as the name of a genre. There are certainly some movies intended for children that do not meet the criteria I'm describing here -- Time Bandits and Tideland by Terry Gilliam, the films of Tim Burton, the Dark Crystal, and Babe Pig in the City, for example, all use violence and shading in a way that is notably unusual for their intended audience. I'm also not slamming "kids' movies" as a genre: Disney's best animated films are masterful, decadent romps, as pleasurable to watch as the Beatles are to listen to. But I'm seeking here to contrast the logic of their fictive worlds with the logic of noir -- a very different animal indeed.

When I began watching noir, I was struck with the knowledge that the characters I saw were real, in a way that the inhabitants of Sleeping Beauty's castle were not. At the time, I couldn't articulate why this was. Considering my sheltered and privileged suburban existence, my reality was probably actually closer to that of a princess in a tower, and it would have been easy to dismiss my reaction to the films of Scorsese et al as a knee-jerk response to their appearance of grittiness, in the same way that a beggar's subway pitch might engage us with its pitiful details ("I'm thirty-two years old, an Iraq war veteran, and my cat and I are both HIV positive") while still being a lie. However, now that I'm older, I can see what it is that I was responding to.

When violence is played out on screen, when it is a significant part of the action in a movie or novel, the literal tangibility of the characters is revealed to us. When a character like Jack Nicholson's in Chinatown walks around for the whole movie with a bandage on the side of his face, or Leonardo DiCaprio's arm is broken completely and with enthusiasm in The Departed, we are placed not outside of those characters, using their story to learn a moral lesson, but inside of their bodies: "That's gotta hurt." (Sex in movies functions the same way. In the truly erotic, we also -- and more happily -- project ourselves literally into the skin of another character.)

Moreover, a well-done scene of violence, like any well-done scene, is not reducible to a simple, "And then that happened." When violence is played out in scene, the importance is shifted from the fact that the violence happened to the way it happened. I remember the first time I saw the film LA Confidential, a movie I became obsessed with for most of junior high. At the beginning of the movie, there is a terrible scene of police brutality: wrongly believing that several Hispanic prisoners in custody sent their colleagues to the hospital, a bunch of drunken cops go down to the holding pen and beat them within an inch of their lives. The scene is horrifying, but the moment I remember is when Jack Vincennes, the character played by Kevin Spacey, steps into the fray to break things up. He's a nice guy, but arrogant, a dandy, and one of the prisoners knocks into him, getting blood on his white jacket and tie. Vincennes promptly punches him in the face. Does this excuse his actions, even in the context of the story? No. Does it explain them? Unfortunately, yes. Though we may still condemn him, seeing the violence as it actually plays out forces us to understand him -- which leads to the disturbing feeling of complicity many people complain about in violent films.

Again, this is not to say that violent films for adults cannot be just as empty and stupid and disappointing as hideous children's shit like Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. But I do think that, often, violence in a movie can serve a purpose nothing else can.

That's right, kids: sometimes violence is the answer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On social awkwardness

Writers don't like to talk because of what they might say. Writers don't have peripheral vision. Writers see one word at a time, a little planet, sometimes orbited by punctuation. Writers have a flashlight in the cave, no map. Writers want a rewind/erase button. Writers want a lawyer present at all times -- a lawyer and an absolving priest. Writers want an auto-complete function for social niceties.

Writers who like to talk like to tell stories, which isn't talking at all: it's recitation. Writers strew words in all directions like a child digging through a toybox, looking for something at the bottom. Writers close their eyes to hide themselves. Writers talk too fast.

Writers like a drink to hold when they're talking -- coffee or preferably a beer. Even better, someone's hand. It's easy to get lost in the forest of language, in the branches, in the dark.

Writers like to talk in the car with the radio on, with raindrops coming down and wipers squeegeeing the glass. Writers shouldn't know they're being taped, being filmed, being photographed. Writers don't know how to pronounce words they've written a million times. Writers aren't really here -- they're in their books.

This writer, anyway.

The Road, or Dad You Suck

Did God create man, or did man create God? This question has been pondered by great thinkers (Nietzsche) and not-so-great thinkers (the Kids in the Hall, stoned philosophy majors) since the mid-morning of human history, when things with the sabertoothed hyenas had cooled off enough for the pondering to commence. And it's been the subject for no small amount of literature since then, from po-mo shindigs like The Dead Father to the grotesque stylins of Flannery O'Connor.

Although The Road by Cormac McCarthy is, like most masterpieces, about a lot of things -- nuclear winter, cannibalism, suicide, and canned pears also top the list -- I would argue that it is also in large part about this question, and that its answer is a strange one. To me, The Road emphatically takes the position that our universe is Godless and seriously fucked up, but that paradoxically, it is for that very reason that our idea of God is so precious and important.

In The Road, a man and his son -- both unnamed -- travel across an America transformed by nuclear winter into a wasteland of swirling ash. Each is "the other's world entire." The father is no hero. Over the course of the novel, he kills (or effectively kills) two men; he cannot dissuade his wife from committing suicide; he does not help the sick and starving they pass along the way. His only goal is survival for himself and his boy.

But -- and here is the interesting part -- the father, who could tell his son anything and be believed, who could easily paint himself as utterly justified in all his actions, has instead chosen to teach the boy to believe in ideals that he himself doesn't live up to, ideals that have no real place in a world of cannibal gangs and scorched human skeletons: ideals like generosity and heroism and morality, and yes, even God.

Like any parent trying to do the right thing, of course, he finds this comes back to haunt him. As the son gets older, rather than becoming more realistic and pragmatic, he becomes more intensely idealistic, beginning to see how they fall short of the "good guys" featured in his father's lessons: "The boy looked at him and looked away. Those stories are not true... in the stories we're always helping people and we dont help people." The son is so utterly convinced of the truth of the father's philosophy that it in fact distances him from the very man who taught the philosophy to him. Yet, in the world of the novel, we never see any evidence (until the very end) that the type of goodness the father describes still even exists. The "fire" the father refers to is not one placed in him by God; it is one kindled in his son through the power of his words.

Raised on his father's stories, the boy is "an alien," "a creature from a planet that no longer existed." Despite the fact he has never known anything else, he is still shocked to see cooked human flesh; he is concerned with the morality of looting, even though it is their livelihood and is unsuspicious of strangers. At times, the boy's naivete and dogmatism is almost annoying to the reader. But the father is never annoyed by it. He reinforces it, encourages it. And, at the end of the story, in a final, unheroic act, the father cannot bring himself to sacrifice it: even though he promised he would never leave the boy, and even though the boy has no obvious way of surviving on his own, when the father is dying he cannot bring himself to kill his child. "I cant hold my dead son in my arms. I thought I could but I cant," he says, describing even this final act of love in terms of his own frailty, his own shortcomings. He is like a Biblical Abraham in reverse: when tested to prove his faith, he chooses the life of his son over his ideals. Yet those ideals live on, in the boy.

There is a moment in the novel when the father is going through the wreckage on board a beached ship and he finds a beautiful brass sextant still in its case. "It was the first thing he'd seen in a long time that stirred him," McCarthy writes. A sextant, a nautical navigation device, allows human beings to chart their course in the path of the stars. The father himself is like that sextant. He is like a tool who allows the boy to chart his course by something far loftier and more eternal than himself.

I think what I love so much about The Road is what it suggests about parenthood: that a truly good parent is humble enough to teach his kid to look beyond his own example, toward something greater; that a truly good parent trains his children to be disappointed in him. Maybe he's not a hero, but he's a damn sight better than some white guy in the sky.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reading David Foster Wallace in an Airport

Walking through an airport is like walking through the subconscious of America. On my way to the gate this weekend, carrying my shoes, I passed Cinnabon, McDonald's, Panda Express, Chili's To Go, and continued past TV screens of Barack Obama cut like dumbed-down drugs with cell phone commercials, past bookstores that shone with glossy ghostwritten books decorated with the names of celebrities. On the walls, posters made an elaborate, strained analogy between Tiger Woods and some under-explained business service; they showed the same image of an apple three times, under the words "Organic," "Imported," "Engineered." This is not an apple. This is a PC. Bing goes the internet. So easy a cave man could do it. Businessmen hunched over laptops like turtles half in the shell, children hunched over portable games that looked like smaller laptops in their tiny hands. The air smelled like nothing, then like fast food, then like nothing again. The floor shined and squeaked. Our bags could be searched at any time. And then I sat down at the gate, my back to as many TVs as possible, to read A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN.

I feel as though I have a tortured relationship with David Foster Wallace, although I've never met the guy. Let me do the requisite idiotic blogger thing of comparing myself, point by point, to someone infinitely more talented and famous: we both grew up in central Illinois. We're both afraid of the rides in Happy Hollow. We've both been hide-the-knives depressed (hell, who hasn't). We both love Thomas Pynchon. We both overthink the obvious, then overthink our thinking. We both hate irony and cynicism while being compulsively ironic and cynical. I do not know, but I suspect, that we would both call the essays in his book A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN far more frightening and lonesome than "hilarious," as so many blurbers chose to label them. Screams of laughter, in this case, are nonetheless still real screams.

The reason I call my relationship with David Foster Wallace "tortured" is that, while I love his work (or at least his nonfiction -- shamefully I've yet to read INFINITE JEST, and haven't reread THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM in years), I at the same time find it so disturbing, so hopelessly, anxiety-inducingly true, that it kind of devastates me and makes me want to lunge immediately in the direction of the nearest Marilynne Robinson novel, to retreat to a world where young girls press flowers into books instead of donning T-shirts silkscreened with advertisements depicting images from ironic beer commercials in order to audition for a televised DO YOU REALLY KNOW THE 80's pop culture trivia game show.

There's a natural attraction for writers (at least for me) to the world of "real things" -- observable, nameable things, things like butter churns and the translucent ears of kittens glowing pink with sunlight, as opposed to the fleeting visions flashing by in pop-up windows or stock tickers or television screens, or the complex systems and theories behind such visions. Working as we do in the already abstracted medium of language, we are told, "Writers write with nouns and verbs" -- "End on an image and don't explain it." David Foster Wallace is all explanation, all "making sense of" -- only even then, the complexity boggles him, and though his theses and postulates and conclusions are numerous, by the end of most essays he's left himself and the reader reeling. But, sitting in the airport, surrounded by screens that twinkled all around like cities glimpsed from the air, I had to wonder if there was any other way to write.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Serious Man, pt. 2

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a gay homophobic anti-Semitic Jew who spent his entire career writing philosophy books about why language could not say anything meaningful about philosophy. In his early work, he wrote, "What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence." By this he meant that the Big Questions that philosophers and, later, Woody Allen would try to answer with language could not in fact be answered with language. Language, according to him in his early writings, was a "picture of the world." Like a camera, it could only record what was in front of it. You could no more speak meaningfully about God than you could take a picture of him.

Though many have noted it was filmed on location in their home state of Minnesota, the real truth of the matter is no doubt more extreme: I suspect the Cohen Bros actually wrote, shot, and edited A Serious Man while confined to an underground bunker beneath their childhood backyard. Their supplies were restricted to a bushel of weed, Wittgenstein's Tractatus, a case of gefilte fish, and a single CD of Jefferson Airplane that they realized to their despair skipped on every track except for "Someone to Love" and "My Best Friend." Despite these limitations, which put the Mumblecore and Dogma filmmakers to shame, they managed to make one of the best movies of their careers, one that's still waking me up in the middle of the night more than a week after seeing it.

Wittgenstein's one exception to his "must-remain-silent" rule applied to the arts, especially poetry. Though he doesn't write about this in the Tractatus, at least not to my recollection, he did say elsewhere that a piece of writing could "gesture toward" truths that were otherwise literally impossible to articulate. This is the way the stories function in A Serious Man: they feel saturated with a kind of meaning that resists squeezing out.

A Serious Man tells three stories: the main story of our protagonist Larry Gopnik, a beleagured college professor in 1967, and two others: a short, fable-like tale in Yiddish at the beginning of the film, and the story of "The Goy's Teeth," related to Larry by a very unhelpful rabbi. SPOILER ALERT, but though each of these stories behaves throughout like a traditional, conventional narrative -- premise, rising action, character development, all that jazz -- none of the three ultimately resolve. They end on what in middle school they taught us to call "the climax," the turning point, when the action has peaked and there's no going back. Each story functions like a question: is the visitor to the cow-seller's home dead or alive, a dybbuk or a kindly old man? What is the meaning of the message written in Hebrew on the goy's teeth? And what on earth is God trying to tell Larry Gopnik?

At one point, Larry Gopnik plaintively asks, "Why does God make us feel the questions if he's not going to give us the answers?" In their film, the Cohens also make us feel those questions, not through any metaphysical means, but through simple use of craft. Unlike, say, David Lynch at his weirdest, whom the viewer has to chase like a child through a crowded airport, the Cohens lead us by the hand right up to the lip of the abyss. This movie reminds me of Strunk and White's exhortation in The Elements of Style: "Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!" The Cohens shoot this film in frames almost like still photography: a radio, an envelope of money, a suntanning vixen are framed on the screen iconically, unmistakably. And each image thus presented is attached to an arc that is almost kitschily familiar to us. The characters here are nearly sitcom types: the crazy brother, the sexy neighbor lady; the story of Larry's son's radio could have been stolen from a stoner episode of the "Wonder Years." Like sitcom types, these characters are not defined by their rich interiority but by their function in the plot, the way they up the tension for Larry, the way they raise the stakes. The fact characters literally repeat themselves, for comic and dramatic effect, is no accident. "Give me that fucker," the son's stoner friend intones; "Out in a minute!" Larry's brother yells from the bathroom. Because we can predict the behavior of these people -- because we know them -- the Cohens trick us into thinking that we understand the logic of the fictive world they inhabit. But we do not understand their world any more than we understand our own. When we realize this, the contrast between the known and the unknown is heightened, almost unbearably, and the Cohens' opaquacity, their refusal to explain "what it's all about," shocks, maybe even enrages the viewer. "They didn't set me up for that kind of ending," I found myself thinking. Yet in fact, the feeling of being unprepared, speechless, at the end of the film does something even greater than showing us some truth that Larry learns. It shows us the truth of his situation by placing us in it ourselves.

A Serious Man, pt. 1

One thing you're going to see me return to again and again on this blog is the idea of "experimentation" or "innovation" in narrative. Probably more than anything else, this is the thing I struggle with and fixate on when I read and when I write.

When I first started thinking seriously about fiction, I fell head over heels in love with its conventions. I was amazed and delighted that someone had found words for all the things that made a story WORK. I'm talking here about suspense, character development, stakes, arc, climax, resolution. (Full disclosure: Maybe this is my inner conquistador talking, but I don't think that someone can really want to be a writer and at the same time say, "I'm just afraid that if I learn too much about it, it'll ruin the mystery." I would ask that person, "Is it writing you love? Or is just the feeling of being confused? Because if it's the latter, you'd probably make a better drug addict." Perhaps this is why I am not a career counselor.)

However, from the very beginning, I knew that many of the books, plays, and movies that I loved were deeply mysterious, and that their mysteries resisted the straightforward explanations of conventional fiction. I was sweet on Thomas Pynchon and Italo Calvino and Eraserhead, and though I also loved the hell out of Raymond Carver and Richard Yates I resented the fact that the explanations I had for why something worked only seemed to apply to writers (by which I also mean playwrights and screenwriters) like them. For a while I told myself that certain stories were simply exceptions to Derr Rulen and left it at that, but then I realized that there were a lot of pieces of experimental fiction or filmmaking that I hated with a blinding passion, and that in order to utterly destroy them with the withering power of my judgement, I had to first understand what made the good ones work.

This is all a long way of leading into some thoughts I had about the Cohen Bros. most recent movie, A Serious Man. Because I think this movie is a terrific example of experimental storytelling, but also that it's about the limits of storytelling, the inadequacy of it, and the weird power it exerts over the way we understand our lives.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tearing It Up and Starting All Over Again

I tried to have a blog before. I failed. Now I'm trying again. But this time, with humility.

I had an idea before that I would use this space to write a kind of extended literary manifesto, something like Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House or John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. Fiction writing, fiction reading, is and has always been the most important thing in my life, and if I was going to say anything about it, I wanted my thoughts to be measured, precise, timeless, true. This would be fine if my thoughts were measured, precise, timeless, and true, but unfortunately they're not. They're jumbled and confused and internally contradictory, much to my chagrin, and beyond that, they are all mixed up in the stuff of my life, which is also fucked-up: I am an obsessive, neurotic, pathologically cranky person; I cry often; I am moved at times beyond reason by low art and I'm not talking about hipster low art I am talking, quite specifically, about Kids in the Hall and Fraggle Rock and MOVIE PREVIEWS, for God's sake; I live in New York City down the street from a halfway house nicknamed "the hotel" by residents and sometimes, staggering home after a long night out, I suspect I am mistaken for one of them; I read the news, including the tabloid news, and I am not immune to its hypnotic powers; and perhaps worst of all, I work in the publishing industry, which perfumes all my thoughts with the smell of money.

Who am I? I'm twenty-five, a failed novelist already, graduate of an MFA program that was very like Valhalla, except for the fact that after our coursework ended we were forced to return to the land of the living. I had the embarrassing misconception that all my life had led up to those two blissful years of artistic integrity, and since then -- well. In the film Patton, there's a scene after the war has ended, when George C. Scott sits atop an enormous horse, turning circles in a narrow barn while reporters ask him questions. He is like a ferocious creature who's been caged, a machine in storage. I feel like that sometimes, as pretentious as that sounds.

I've decided not to worry about sounding pretentious anymore, though, at least not here. I know at least one other person will probably read this, but this space isn't primarily meant for public consumption; it's where I'm going to put down my own thoughts and ideas and questions, about fiction but also about other kinds of art, and all the other junk that clutters up my mind. I'm going to try not to sound stupid, but I often will, and none of this is the final word on anything even for me. But I'm going to write here every day I can -- a message in a bottle from me to you, from the American cultural wasteland of the early 21st century.