Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bad Cop, Bad Cop

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was a big fan of noir movies when I was growing up, from classics like Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity to neo-pictures like LA Confidential, which came out when I was in the eighth grade, and which, like an entire bag of Halloween candy consumed in one sitting, left me sick and dizzy with bliss. To me at the time, noir wasn't simply an occasion for snappy dialogue and great retro fashion -- though I loved those elements too. It represented a deeply subversive way of seeing the world, a way that reflected my own discontent with unthinkingly obeyed authority figures and the rote proprieties of organized religion. The world of noir was a funhouse, a labyrinth, a hall of mirrors, a paranoiac's dream, intricately designed for the hero but without his best interests at heart. It was a constructed place. As a pretentious freshman in high school, I wrote an essay comparing The Usual Suspects' Keyser Soze to a book's author inserting himself into the text, or to God. Yet the world of noir was also inhabited by characters who insisted on tearing apart this creation, who partook of damning knowledge and dirtied their hands to get it. If crime bosses, corrupt police departments, and crooked government officials are the gods of noir, then the gumshoes and amateur sleuths are its original sinners.

As I got older, of course, I began to see that, like anything else, noir can be blighted by cliches -- that for all its emphasis on seeking and questioning, this genre can be just as beholden to audience expectations as those pathetic rom-coms that always seem to include an unexpected pregnancy or a slobbery dog. Look, there's the hooker with the heart of gold, the obligatory ominous limo/"you're in over your head" scene. Yet I still find myself drawn to noir, sometimes despite myself, and for that reason, in the last week, I've seen not one but two recent noir movies: Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me. Both of these films focus on corrupt detectives who use their badges as permission slips for a whole range of scandalous behaviors; both films include grisly murders, elaborate cover-ups, and true love with a noble prostie. But my reactions to the two films couldn't have been more diametrically opposed.

Bad Lieutenant is like a cross between Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Richard Loncraine's Richard III, and a session of Grand Theft Auto played by a particularly testosterone-flooded fourteen-year-old boy. Which is to say it fuckin rocks. In one scene that I think represents the brilliance of the whole, Nicholas Cage emerges from behind a door, inexplicably shaving with an electric razor, to strongarm two grandmas into giving up information. He pulls the oxygen tubes from one old lady's nose, threatens the other with his pistol, and snarls, "You're what's wrong with this country!" The film is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, but whatever political subtext can be gleaned from this exchange is only discoverable once the viewer has stopped laughing, which is not for a long, long time.

Bad Lieutenant takes a necessary risk with its material, which is that it's not afraid to be outrageous. Over the course of the film, as Cage's character goes from bad to worse, he hallucinates iguanas and breakdancers, does drugs in front of a kid in his care, threatens to kill a whole carload of gangsters "till the break of dawn," and offers a crime lord use of his "lucky crack pipe." By embracing and exploring its own absurdity, the film doesn't just avoid becoming unintentionally hilarious; it achieves something much more impressive. In my earlier post, I wrote about how violent movies can make their viewers feel complicit by placing them, physically, within the characters' bodies. But by making us laugh along with Cage's character -- by making us see what he sees -- Bad Lieutenant places us inside his mind.

Sex, drugs, and well -- you know.

Not so with The Killer Inside Me. Despite its title, this movie does not spend much time inside any of its characters, least of all its protagonist, a murderous small-town cop named Ford (played by Casey Affleck, who seems to have a knack for murderous small-town Fords). Although we're privy to Ford's private memories, these flashbacks confuse more than they clarify. One of the film's creepiest scenes shows us Ford as a tween, confronted with a woman who reveals her bruises to him, seemingly as erotic enticement: "This is what your father did to me; I liked it," she tells him. Edgy stuff -- only no one in the group I saw the picture with could figure out who the hell she was. I assumed it was his mom, perhaps just before her untimely death; another viewer thought it was his sister; a third person (the only one who had read the Jim Thompson novel on which this film is based) seemed to remember she was supposed to be a housekeeper, or maybe a stepmom. Yet surely Ford himself knows -- surely these scenarios are not all equivalent to him. By showing us this scene without the context we need to render it meaningful on a specific, personal level, the filmmakers satisfy our curiosity about Ford in a rote way (bad childhood) while still holding him at an artificial distance.

Mystery, both in noir and in other genres, is one of the central engines of suspense, and the best mysteries pose questions that are maddening in their specificity (Who killed Laura Palmer?), weighting a single piece of information with so much value that we will spend hours or days working to discover it. A good mystery, in my opinion, is not, "Why the hell did any of that just happen?" posed with indignation as the credits roll. Yet the latter was the question I found myself asking about The Killer Inside Me. BIG SPOILER ALERT, but let me submit for your consideration the following puzzle, first pointed out by one of my fellow viewers. Early in the film, Ford beats his prostitute girlfriend Joyce nearly to death, for some complicated reasons that sort of make sense. He's told by other policemen that she died in the hospital, and he's not treated as a suspect; in fact, another young man is arrested in the crime. For most of the picture, the other police seem to trust Ford; at one point, when Ford is chasing an unarmed man down the street with a butcher knife, another cop even shoots the guy for him (thanks, dude). Then, at the end of the film, several police officers escort the prostitute girlfriend to Ford's home -- she's still alive, just a little scarred up is all. "I didn't tell them anything," she claims. Aww. Ford stabs her anyway, then blows up his house.

Now, here's the problem. If the other cops didn't suspect Ford, why did they tell him his prostie g.f. was dead when she wasn't? And if the other cops did suspect Ford, why did they help him kill that guy? Jeepers, I don't know! It's a twist!

The Killer Inside Me is boring and illogical, sure, but that's not really what bothers me about it. In the end, I'm much more bummed that a movie this unafraid of explicit violence and sexuality doesn't harness their power in service of story. What makes great noir films truly subversive isn't just that they depict crime and perversion: it's their ability to make criminals and perverts intensely interesting to us -- sometimes even as mirrors of ourselves. It may take guts to put this stuff on screen, but it takes talent to make it awesome.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart, Joan Rivers

An older woman I know, a lifelong feminist, is very fond of the famous quote about Fred Astaire: "Sure he was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards . . . and in high heels!" On the surface, this quip looks like a rallying cry for women trying to succeed in male-dominated industries: it suggests that although the bar may be set higher for a woman, it's possible for her to excel without sacrificing her femininity, or even changing her shoes. Yet, to me, there's something troubling about the image this sentence presents, something a little grotesque. It seems to me that a career spent dancing backwards is a career fundamentally out of one's own control.

Let me back up a little: last night, I saw the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, and if you go to the theater where I watched it, you will probably find fragments of my broken heart scattered amid the popcorn kernels and Skittles on the floor. It isn't a perfect film -- more on that in a bit -- but it's an undeniably powerful one, as jaw-dropping, maudlin, hilarious, tacky, tragic, merciless, and completely badass as its protagonist.

Before seeing this movie, I remembered Joan Rivers only vaguely, as the skeletal creature who prowled red carpets during the awards seasons of my youth like a vulture searching for roadkill along a desert expressway. To be honest, I hadn't thought about her for years. Back when I was a teenager, I probably would have added that she looked like she'd had a bunch of plastic surgery, a practice of which I vaguely disapproved; her naked hostility also seemed to make celebrities uncomfortable, which was odd, considering that it was her job to chat them up. But to me, Joan Rivers -- along with People magazine, Anna Nicole Smith, VH1, and the poetry of Suzanne Somers -- was not a person, but a single tiny cog in the Great Mass Media Dream Machine, a device as annoying but as essentially harmless as whatever made all those bubbles on the Lawrence Welk show. I saw no reason to care. I got my information from the New Yorker.

Dear Joan Rivers: I'm sorry for being a pretentious asshole. I've learned my lesson now.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work follows a year in the life of this comedian/actress, who during shooting celebrates (although that's hardly the right word) her seventy-fifth birthday. In terms of flat-out bizarreness, the Joan Rivers of this film is up there with the R. Crumb of Terry Zwigoff's unforgettable documentary. She lives in a townhouse that she describes as "how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money"; it's one part Versailles, two parts the Bellagio Hotel. In a heartfelt Thanksgiving toast, she says she thanks God every time she steps into a limousine. She asks if a joke where she refers to stylish first lady Michelle Obama as "Blackie O" would be in bad taste. On hold with a network exec for less than ten seconds, she has time to mutter, "Would've gotten through faster if I were Kathy Griffin." With no visible irony, she explains how making a TV movie about her husband's suicide helped her and her daughter work through their grief. She snarls at her Pekingese, "It's bacon, you idiot," as he reluctantly accepts a treat. On more than one occasion, she refers to herself as "the Queen."

And then, of course, there's her face -- a face that was disturbing in 1996 but now brings to mind Laura Dern's distorted clown visage at the end of Inland Empire. (I know what Plinkett would ask her.) Joan Rivers may have started out trying to look young, but at this point, it's almost like she's just trying to get a rise out of people. More than almost: her face is an accusation, acid tossed in the eyes of the male gaze. In one scene, she shows up to a play rehearsal so bloated with collagen her speech is affected. She talks about how terrifying it is to catch a glimpse of herself without makeup. And in perhaps the most shattering sequence of a film that's filled with them, she sits in a chair at her Comedy Central Roast as comedian after comedian razzes her for the surgeries, that face (and the smile on it) an impenetrable shield against whatever's going on within.

All of these things make Rivers a fascinating character, but what captivated me, what bound everything together, was her inextinguishable rage. Joan Rivers is the human equivalent of Centralia, PA, where a fire burned underground for 40+ years. Several times in the film, Rivers makes a point of saying she's willing to do anything, anything, for her audience, sometimes joking but mostly not. She says she'll knock out her teeth for a denture commercial, that she'll wear a diaper. And in fact she does agree to some equally far out things. She competes with her own daughter on a reality TV show, she allows herself to be subject to the aforementioned roast, she performs stand-up in a podunk Wisconsin casino, where she claims the slot machines dispense not coins but raw fish. But the two things that ultimately define Joan Rivers are the two things she refuses to do: she refuses to desexualize herself, and she refuses to go away. "There will be claw marks down that red carpet before they take it from her," says her longtime manager, and he's right.

What is it about Joan Rivers that's so unsettling, that even now, in this era of Sarah Silverman and Lady Gaga, makes us squirm? Some people might say that it's her obvious insecurity -- her desperation, her need. This is a woman who tells the camera that no man has ever called her beautiful; during a radio interview about plastic surgery, another woman asks her, "But don't you want to be loved for your intelligence, your sense of humor?" and Rivers replies, "I just want to be loved." In the documentary, Rivers reveals that she sends the children of her friends to private school -- "I'm a small industry," she says, signing a stack of checks -- and her reactions to fans, even awkward ones, are uncharacteristically warm. She is the empress of a dying world. I think it's tough to watch this movie without seeing hints of Sunset Boulevard. Like Gloria Swanson's character, Joan Rivers is forever plotting an unlikely comeback, vamping for the camera with her monster movie face, and reveling in long-ago glories ("Johnny Carson said to me, 'You're going to be a big star'").

Yet what I think is most shocking here is that, unlike Swanson's character, Joan Rivers is in on the joke. She knows exactly how she fits into the comedy food chain. One hilarious moment comes when she's going through a line-up of comedians she'll be performing with, sizing up each as competition ("Bill Mahr, brilliant. Jon Stewart, very smart. Ben Stiller, eh."). She's realistic, a businesswoman to a fault. When she finally wins on Celebrity Apprentice, she bitchily dismisses it ("It's not an Academy Award"), and after a performance of her play in London, she's unable to celebrate or even relax until she sees the reviews (they're not good). Sure, she sells jewelry on QVC and wears sequins, but with her razor-sharp intelligence, her self-awareness, Joan Rivers defies our ability to hold her at a distance. She is a funhouse mirror of our celebrity-obsessed culture, and like a mirror, she forces us to see ourselves in her. And that identification is the thing that makes Rivers now, if anything, even edgier than she was at the beginning of her career. If a comedian like Patton Oswalt is able to look at pop culture as if at an alien civilization, Joan Rivers is that alien. And she's asking, "Can we talk?"

I loved this movie; at times I found it absolutely devastating. Little scenes, as when Rivers and her grandson share a tender moment in her limousine ("I love your hands," she tells him), or when she lays bare her fears of failure in the wake of her play's flop, made me feel as though I was seeing her from the inside out. That said, there's a lot that's glossed over here. We don't get anyone else's side of the story re: the NBC debacle that tore a rift between Rivers and her then-mentor Johnny Carson, for example, and I get the sense that there may be others in the industry who would also cast her in a less-than-rosy light. But I don't think this film needs to cross-examine its subject a la The Fog of War to reveal some essential truths about her character. If Rivers has spent her entire career dancing backwards in heels, it's hardly surprising that she's stepped on a few toes.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Joshua Ferris's Day Off, pt. 2

As I wrote in my previous post, Joshua Ferris's first novel Then We Came to the End was a book publicist's dream: funny, timely, people-pleasing, and, like a good PowerPoint presentation, characterized by the smooth elision of anything truly unsettling. After that debut, it was difficult to guess what he'd do next. Then We Came to the End did not wear Ferris's obsessions on its sleeve: there was the sense of humor, probably its greatest strength (I did laugh aloud during the "buckshelves" scene), the interest in characters (like Karen Woo, with her off-the-cuff invention of "lastive acid"), even the workplace itself, that cathedral to the ordinary, with its banks of elevators, its encoded chairs, its "take-ones and tchotchkes." But it was tough to figure which – if any – of these elements Ferris would carry with him to Book 2.

Even so, The Unnamed is still a far cry from anything I would've expected. The Unnamed tells the story of Tim Farnsworth, an attorney afflicted with a condition that sends him inexplicably walking, in no particular direction and in all kinds of weather. It's also about his wife Jane, who succumbs first to alcoholism under the strain of her husband's affliction and then, eventually, to cancer. (No shoe shopping this time, thank god.) And it's about his daughter Becka, a rocker chick whose unwelcome obesity is the cause of much hand-wringing both for her and for her significantly more fucked-up parents.

The Unnamed is the kind of book that cries out for interpretation. Is Farnsworth's undiagnosable disease a metaphor for spiritual malaise in the face of worldly success? For that dark unknown at the heart of every marriage? For death? With its main character's sudden transformation – an ordinary life utterly dismantled by an unexplained affliction – it recalls philosophical hand grenades like The Metamorphosis and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, but its scope in terms of both the time the story covers, its emphasis on the protagonist's strained relationships with his family, and the length of the book itself, The Unnamed is reaching for something more panoramic. But what?

Let me be decadently honest: The Unnamed reminded me, more than anything else, of a book I'm half-ashamed of enjoying, the improbably named Audrey Niffenegger's breakout literary beach read, The Time Traveler's Wife. Now, before you begin lobbing time-traveling fetuses at me like so many overripe tomatoes, hear me out. Both books tell the story of a wildly, some might even say irritatingly affectionate marriage (in Ferris's novel, the long-married spouses call each other "banana" and screw in the bathroom of their favorite restaurant; in Niffenegger's, our heroine worries aloud, "Henry – do other people have sex as much as we do?"), periodically interrupted by the man's wandering, one through space, the other through time. In both books, the men leave home involuntarily, often sans adequate protection from the elements. In both books, the men lose lower extremities to the cold (in Ferris's novel, Tim's mummified toe drops off in his sock; in Niffenegger's, poor Henry's feet are amputated after frost bites). In both books, the couple has an only child, a daughter, who serves as the mother's consolation in the father's absence. And in both books, the man's disappearing act is pathologized by nearly all of the characters: the quest to find a diagnosis, a doctor who understands, is in both cases central to the characters' coming to terms with the plight.

The major difference between the two novels, of course, is the diagnosis. Henry is able to get one: his time-traveling is in his genes; it's even passed on to his similarly day-tripping spawn. The Time Traveler's Wife thus succeeds as a classic tear-jerker, heartbreaking but also heartwarming – don't blame him, he's just built this way. (Like a Delorean.) In The Unnamed, though, as the title would suggest, Tim doesn't get off so easy. Is he crazy? Is his behavior really outside of his control? It's this question that torments not just our hero, but that drives a wedge between him and those he loves and respects. Even his daughter wonders if he fakes it. A key detail in the narrative, for me, is that Tim tells his colleagues at the law firm that his wife is dying of cancer in hopes of eliciting their sympathy – and it works. When the reality of his situation is revealed, though, he loses his partnership in the firm. What's in a name? When it's the name of a disease, quite a lot, apparently.

All three of the main character in The Unnamed suffer from predicaments that straddle this line between straight-up medical condition and lifestyle choice. Tim's daughter Becka is obese*, increasingly so as she ages; his wife becomes an alcoholic, briefly lost in a Bermuda triangle between her hotel and a small town Bennigan's where she gets snockered. To me, it seems that Ferris is zeroing in on a question that, in a society where self-destructive behavior is increasingly pathologized, is at some point an inevitable one: what exactly constitutes an autonomous decision?

Don't we all want to leave Bennigan's?

Yet, although I find this idea compelling, I'm not sure it makes for compelling fiction. The characters here, especially Becka, start out promisingly: I adore the description of her singing "coffeehouse ballads cryptic with yearning" alone in her bedroom as a teenager. But, if character is action, an entire novel that focuses on involuntary (or at least little-understood and unconsciously adopted) compulsions doesn't lead to the most fascinating development of those characters. As other critics have pointed out, too, the passages about Tim's walks could be livelier and less pretentious stylistically. If this book had come first, I doubt it would have made Joshua Ferris famous; it's certainly not as superficially entertaining as his last. What I do respect, though, is that he didn't simply write Then We Came to the End all over again; he tried to do something riskier and weirder. And for that reason alone, it's worth going on this walk with him.

*I don't mean to imply that all obese people "suffer from" their obesity – I'm aware of the Fat Acceptance movement, Health at Any Size, etc. I just mean that the character Becka's weight is treated as a predicament within the context of this novel.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Joshua Ferris's Day Off, pt. 1

Reading Joshua Ferris feels a lot like watching premium cable. There's a sharpness, a cleanness to the images, the sort of deft editing that suggests real time and effort and money went into the enterprise; the work gestures toward the great recent auteurs of the medium knowingly, but without heavy-handed homage; there's drama, even melodrama, but it's reigned in, never devolving to sweeps-week absurdity. The sex is tasteful, the portrayals of characters beg to be labeled "funny and wise." And yet in both cases, the aesthetic often seems to be determined not by a single, obsessed human mind, but rather by a sort of highbrow corporate sensibility, a "The-Way-We-Live-Now" checklist complete with defanged satire and cutesy asides. It's not dumb, but it's not unsettling. "It's not TV," as those surreal HBO ads insist -- but it's not quite anything else, either.

Or at least that was true of Ferris's first novel, the widely acclaimed Then We Came to the End. I think I'm the only person in America who thought that debut was a bone-crunching flop, the chalk outline reminder of what happens when a brilliant premise (and mind-blowing opening chapter) plummets to its grisly doom. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Like some sort of Manchurian Candidate brainwashee, I viewed its famous book trailer online one morning and seconds later, found myself half-jogging down the block to my local independent bookstore, my Hello Kitty pajama top tucked into the pockets of my jeans, thinking something to the effect, "The Virgin Suicides meets 'The 300 Pound CEO' meets Revolutionary Road meets Office Space meets, oh kill me now, this will be a fucking masterpiece!" And then it had the gall not to be.

Then We Came to the End betrayed me in two major ways. First, and perhaps most unforgivably, it abandons its own weird and twisted first-person-plural narration midway through in favor of a close-third-person section I described at the time as "a Cathy cartoon about cancer," a yucky, pandering subplot in which a strong, career-driven woman finds herself filled to the brim with regret about neglecting her personal life in the face of her breast tumor. The night before her surgery, she takes solace in a local Nordstrom's, I kid you not, and Ferris actually, unforgivably, writes the words, "And all of it soured by the lack of the one thing she wants: not likely to find Martin here in the women's shoe department, is she?" (Just once before I die, I want to read a story where a chick's true passion is her work -- where an unrepentant female CEO shouts into a conference call from her hospital bed: "Julian, Edna, they're shaving me down -- I'm going to have to put you on speaker.")

Whatever happened to dying with dignity?

But, sexual politics aside, I hated this section with a blinding passion simply because of its aesthetic laziness. For me, part of the thrill of stunt narration -- you know the oddball kind I mean: second person, weird dialect, rotating firsts, a parody of another form (academic annotations, epistolary, diary, kids' books) and of course first-person-plural -- is that "how's he gonna get out of this one?" moment that comes when it occurs to the reader that the story is going somewhere the speaker can't easily follow. You see stunt narration a lot in short fiction (Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl," Rick Moody's "Boys") at least partly, I think, because its authors tend to paint themselves into corners at the first stroke of the brush. That's not intended as criticism -- there's something extraordinarily satisfying about a perfect miniature -- but there's something to be said for the tour de force that takes that and raises it one, that insists on letting the crazy voice determine the shape of an entire book. As much as I admire the craft of screenwriting, I also love when the idea for a story could only be a novel -- when a seeming gimmick of POV in time reveals itself to be inseparable from the meaning of the book's events. The aforementioned Virgin Suicides, as well as recent novels like The Cardboard Universe, The Boy Detective Fails, Letters to Wendy's, and Cloud Atlas all rely on techniques of narration that seem shallowly attention-grabbing, even silly, on the surface. But in committing to the limitations or "rules" of this narration, these authors create fictive realities that then seem to overspill their containers -- that, like the best photographs, leave us craning our necks to look beyond the edges of the frame. I think the reason for this is that these authors bothered to ask themselves "why." Why am I fascinated by this form of narration? What is it about a plural narrator, an encyclopedia, a boy's adventure novel, a restaurant comment card, a story-within-a-story, that makes my heart pound? What is it about this form that irritates me, that foils me at every turn? What is it that this form can never do or say, and what is the shape of that absence? Great writers, I think, work in both positive and negative space: the questions they leave us with are just as specific, as decided-upon, as the answers they provide.

Not so with Joshua Ferris. Here's a real quote from his interview with Powells Books, discussing Then We Came to the End: "It was first person plural, but basically when that got tiresome to me as a writer, I figured it had gotten tiresome for the reader about two sentences back, so I stopped and entered into a third person... It was a kind of fantasia of all the different ways that I had thought about point of view, being a student and just being an admirer of nifty craft decisions." Writers, even the best ones, tend to damn themselves when speaking about their work (with some notable exceptions), so I won't rake Ferris over the coals too much here. But I do think there's something extremely telling about his observation, "when that [narration] got tiresome to me... I figured it had gotten tiresome for the reader about two sentences back." I know next to nothing about etymology, but I've always thought the connection between the word "author" and the word "authority" is a meaningful one: in my opinion, the author should be, after all, not just the creator, but also the resident authority, the expert in the field of his own book. And this expertise is what qualifies the writer, rather than the reader, to dictate the narrative's path.

Much of the best fiction, at least at moments, takes the reader places she does not want to go: it annoys, it confuses, it frustrates, it exhausts. It challenges. And then, ideally, it rewards. Yet Ferris seems unwilling to challenge the reader, because, I suspect, he's not quite willing to challenge himself. He abandons the second person before the reader gets tired of it not simply because he wants to entertain, but also because, if the reader gets tired of a technique, she might begin asking why it was employed in the first place, and that's a question he hasn't concretely posed to himself. He doesn't see himself as an author(ity), but as a "student"; not as a craftsman, but as "an admirer of nifty craft decisions." And that lack of confidence makes him second guess the fundamental brilliance, the audacity, of his own damn premise.

The other thing that bugged me about Then We Came to the End is tougher to couch as a criticism, but I'll try. There's a long tradition in American storytelling of depicting the "little guy" fighting against the forces of corporate authority -- watch any Frank Capra movie or pick up any novel by John Steinbeck and you'll see what I'm talking about. There's also a strong anti-authority strain, in which characters see the homogenizing forces of capitalism and conformity in a struggle not just for their time but for their very souls (see also, Film Career, Jack Nicholson's). Even in Then We Came to the End there's a character who's trying to write a book along these very lines: "a small angry book," he calls it, "about work." What's different about Then We Came to the End, of course (and what ends up being different about this character's book, too) is that it chooses instead to reveal an unexamined truth: these wage slaves like their cage; they love it, actually, and the novel's major threat is the possibility it will be taken away.

To me, that's terrifically accurate and potentially heartbreaking. (There's a reason I adore Kazuo Ishiguro.) Yet -- and here's the problem -- is that, in showing this love of employees for employer, Ferris never goes so far as to suggest that it's truly unrequited, that the folks in power do, in a matter-of-fact and perhaps inevitable but nevertheless profound way, see their employees as expendable. The bosses' greatest fault here is that they hold themselves apart from the warm camaraderie of the speaker "we," but their reasons for this are personal, painful: Lynn, on her cancer deathbed, speaks of how, "All these other people have so much going on in their lives. Vacations, activities. I've never been able to do that"; as a teenager, Joe Pope once stood by and watched a group of his friends beat someone up, and now fears the licensing intimacy of any community: "Joining the club, losing control... That's what I'm guilty of, Genevieve."

But the reason employers hold their employees at a distance isn't just because of private pain and insecurity. It's also because of the inherent power structure of a company, which is dictated by the necessities of capitalism. To put it bluntly, it's because, in order to do their jobs successfully, bosses do have to see their employees in terms of the bottom line. This doesn't make those bosses monstrous, but it's also not a facet of their characters that can be entirely ignored -- especially not in a novel about work, which, as one character points out, is where people spend most of their adult lives. Yet, just as Jonathan Safran Foer wrote an entire novel about 9/11 without having a single character motivated by anger, so has Joshua Ferris written an entire novel about the advertising industry without having a single character motivated by money. For serious, dudes?

Glib, funny, warm, and charming, Then We Came to the End totally enraged me. Yet when Ferris's new novel came out, I found myself intrigued. And I have to say that, though I'm not exactly a fan of The Unnamed, it definitely wasn't what I was expecting. I'll be back in the next few days with my thoughts. Until then, don't touch that dial.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Writing in a Material World, or: When Wishing Makes It So

At the end of the children's novel The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, the kingdom of Fantasia has been destroyed by the Nothing, an all-consuming force that literally obliterates everything in its path. But a scrap of hope remains in the protagonist Bastian, a confused kid who got sucked into this magical land by reading about it in a dusty old book. Moon Child, Fantasia's empress, appears before him and explains that the future of her kingdom is in his hands: "Fantasia will be born again through your wishes, my Bastian. Through me they become reality." Bastian asks how many wishes he gets. Moon Child replies, "As many as you want -- the more, the better. Fantasia will be all the more rich and varied." In the face of this unlimited freedom, Bastian chokes, his mind suddenly blank, and Moon Child grows concerned. If he can't think of anything, she warns him, "there won't be any more Fantasia."

I will use any excuse to put pictures of cute dogs on this blog.
You do not have to be Gilbert Sorrentino to detect some metafictional hijinks going on in this passage. Back when I read it, circa 1993, I still licked "scratch-and-sniff" stickers to see if they tasted as good as they smelled and considered non-matching socks a couture fashion statement. Yet even I could see a glimmer of something self-conscious here, a statement about the make-believe aspect of the book's own fictive universe. This was the first, and perhaps truest, lesson I absorbed about the nature of the writer's task: that the more wishes you make -- the more images and characters and scenarios you articulate in language -- the richer your fantasy grows.

Around the same time, I remember thinking hard about the lyrics of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," a chart-topper during our Advent-season chapel services in my Christian school. In one of the later verses, there's a line that goes, "veiled in flesh the God-head see/hail incarnate deity," referring, of course, to baby Jesus's grand entrance through the fabled virginal meat curtains. There was something I found particularly entrancing about the words "veiled in flesh," the same kind of twisted logic I associated with another favorite at the time, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. After all, in reality, a veil hides something visible -- usually flesh, in fact. But if the flesh itself is a veil, what does it conceal? Isn't the bare flesh, by definition, naked? If you stripped the flesh (and blood and bone) from a person, what would be revealed? Wouldn't you just be left with nothing? Or at the very least, nothing you could sing about?

Religious folks would no doubt have a smart answer to this question, but I'm not religious and I never claimed to be smart. And I'm not trying to make a religious point here, but an aesthetic one, which is this: in a piece of writing, there are two forces, the force of Something and the force of Nothing. Something is just what it sounds like: it's the stuff of the world and the imagination, falling out onto the page. Something is made of images, characters, names -- it's flesh. You can claim there's a god* under there somewhere, but you'd be hard pressed to see him if there wasn't skin on top. Then there's the force of Nothing. Nothing doesn't have to be a bad thing, and in fact, it's essential at the beginning of a project. Nothing is the whole roaring universe of possibility. In a way, I could just as easily call it the force of Anything, since the beauty of Nothing is that it doesn't preclude any choice the author can make. The problem comes when, like Bastian, the author freezes in the face of this dizzying array and finds himself unable to choose -- unable to veil his god in anything the reader can see.

I'm saying all this before returning to the subject of my last post because, to me, these ideas are all connected with the act of naming, not just characters, but the stuff of a character's world. One way that the Nothing can win is obvious: it's writer's block, when the author finds himself unable or unwilling to choose a single path from amid the myriad that present themselves. Thomas Mann once said, "A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people," and while that sounds like a pretentious bullshit excuse for drinking during the day, there is a grain of truth to it. The more a person reads and writes, the more possibilities and approaches appear, and the larger the Nothing becomes. But the second way the Nothing can win is more insidious, occurring within the work itself.

When I was in a writing workshop during college, we read a couple of student stories where the gender of the first person narrator went unspecified. The class was somewhat divided about whether to regard this as a problem or not, and rightly so. There are certainly times when ambiguity -- about gender, race, etc. -- can itself be a distinct and provocative choice. But I remember being bothered at the time not just by the fact the genders were going unstated, but by the attitudes of some of the students, including the author of one of the stories, who said it "didn't matter."

On one hand, of course, this is inarguably true: it's not as though fictional characters are real people who will eventually be faced with, for example, having to choose the men's or women's restroom in a crowded movie theater whether the author likes it or not. But the author's willingness to relinquish such a basic aspect of her own creation, not out of hopes of making a statement but simply out of apathy, needled me deeply. One might suggest, of course, that I'm misreading the statement, "It doesn't matter." Perhaps the author herself believes gender shouldn't matter, and wants that attitude to be reflected in her fiction, by creating a world where it doesn't. Even if this is case, though, the author still has to sketch in that world for us, because it's a place no one currently living on earth has ever visited. Alternately, one might suggest that the narrator's gender doesn't matter to the narrator. Yet if the narrator's gender does not matter to the narrator, the fact of regarding oneself as genderless in a gendered world is an interesting enough character trait to merit the story's attention.
Again, I'm not arguing that there aren't times when ambiguity isn't the most powerful choice. But a writer can't use that as an excuse to avoid making a choice at all. The problem here, I think, is that when writers see an opportunity not to make a decision, not to pin something down, they often seize it. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, if they see a fork in the road, they take it. And this goes not just for student writers, but a lot of published ones too. A favorite teacher of mine once sadly observed, "In contemporary fiction, nobody has a last name or a job." It's worth wondering why not.

*I use "god" here as a stand-in for any intangible quality of fiction — its "heart," its "soul," etc.