Friday, October 9, 2009

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.

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