Exploring the Novel

Exploring the Novel

I hear it all the time: “Pierre, you’re such an interesting-looking creature, why don’t you pursue an acting career as a bent-faced, chain-smoking gambler in the upcoming Gun Shooty Bang Robot Boom reboot?”

And I always say, “Naw, babe. I love novels too much.”

And I do. A lot of people do. You ask people who don’t even read what their favorite book is and they’ll still tell you a couple of novels that have stuck with them over the years. So let’s talk about novels. More importantly why novels are, specifically, so important to the human experience? Maybe how.

By and large, people will read a novel once and only once. There are exceptions to the rule, but it’s different from, say, re-watching your favorite films or rediscovering an album from high school that friggin’ Jocelyn burned for you. Songs and scenes might get stuck in your head but it’s hard to capture in any directly relatable way what exactly got you with your favorite book, isn’t it? It’s less about the isolated moments that are so easily defined in music and film and more about the experience itself. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

What sets novels apart from anything else is the participation of the audience to help create what’s being seen, said, smelled… it’s a sensory illusion that the reader, on some level, hypnotizes themselves to believe is a felt, interior reality– if the writer did their job right. It’s a collusion between the two to create the suspension of disbelief. And unlike other art forms, it requires active participation.

(Which isn’t to say that film and music are solely passive experiences– it’s just that reading cannot be so.)

That intermingling of minds has always fascinated me. There’s a strange intimacy there between the author and reader that isn’t experienced elsewhere. Films have a lot of hands that touch the project– and while that is a remarkable thing of itself, that a collaboration of people came together to create something potentially beautiful– it only takes a producer’s (or an actor’s, or a budget’s) soiled fingers to spoil the whole pot of soup. When it’s a singular vision (editors notwithstanding) conveyed directly to the reader, the experience becomes thinking with another person’s brain. This is likely why reading novels makes you a more empathetic person.

That author-reader relationship is only possible through the design of the novel. It’s strange to think about novels as technology, but in the historical context of formatting of stories, novels are sleeker and more easily digestible in its modern form than epic poems or the travelogues that birthed them. There’s no baby fat of repetition for repetition’s sake (like you see in fairy tales) or the loose skin of extraneous oration that bogs down Greek narratives.

While the rule of threes has been commonplace for centuries, the novel perfected the three act structure by shaving it down to its base components. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the novel was developed concurrently with the re-popularization of the triptych in western culture during the 1500’s. The Japanese invented the novel at least a good 300 years prior— and, not coincidentally, had been enjoying cohesive scroll ink paintings for at least a 100 years before that. Classical painting is emotionally and intellectually stimulating but is still more sensed through the lens of the viewer. Even with the triptych’s cohesive storytelling ability, a direct means of story remains elusive. That’s where the novel comes in as a continuation of that tradition– able to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and then able to explain the painting.

Speaking of the 1500’s, it’s also not a coincidence that the novel technology is also concurrent with the spread of literacy. Once a privilege held only by clergy and bards, the ability to read leaked out from the clouds above and pissed on all us sinners in a baptism of critical thinking. Without an interpreter, individuals were given the means of direct processing of written content. The result, of course, was an explosion of experimental writing (aaaand institutional upheaval), as well as a certain power regained by the common person: the ability to read and write your own stories. As much as the newborn readers found a sense of individualism with this new privilege, so did the authors– and it’s on that mental platform on which this medium was able to speak from the perspective of an individual and reach people on a personally affecting level, despite that thousands of people were reading the exact same content.

Now you might think I’ve forgotten about poetry. So what about poetry? Didn’t it have the same bloom along with the democratization of literacy? Sure did. I’m not talking shit. It’s just a different, more ancient, technology. My understanding is that poetry is the perfect distillation of emotion and moments into words. If the poet has done their job right. Poetry can be wonderful. But to me it often feels voyeuristic into the mind of the poet and the poet alone. The audience didn’t get there themselves. A journey’s missing. The crystalized truth within the poem often feels like an ill-gotten treasure.

So why obscure the feeling with arcane logic when you could just tell the reader what’s actually happening?

Some of the most powerful fiction I’ve ever read has been a short story. Still, I struggle to engage with a lot of it. Ideally, a short story identifies the moment before a life-changing event in a character’s life, not the moment itself. One of my all-time favorites is Jodi Angel’s A Good Deuce (Tin House Summer Reading 2011, issue #48) which takes place after the narrator’s mother has died from an overdose and ends right before the narrator has sex with an older woman in a car in an overtly oedipal exorcism of the tragedy. This is damn near as perfect of a short story as you can get– but it might’ve been untenable as a part of a full novel. The whole story has already been implied and would feel lopsided in the frame of a different story.

But more often, there’s the opposite problem. Short stories have the general policy of “you get what you get,” and often have the shortcoming of ending just a little too soon. In “Trouble Is My Business,” by Raymond Chandler, everything gets wrapped up just as the characters are beginning to flesh out. I didn’t feel cheated, necessarily, as I felt like the payoff was rushed and, as a reader, that I didn’t earn it. (It’s not unlike that Rick and Morty true crime spoof.)

Like a good (or bad) psychedelic experience, the books you read change you. Feel free to disagree, but I’ll forever maintain that novels are the most effective devices for changing you for the better.

Tale as Old as Time

Tale as Old as Time

I haven’t seen the remake of Beauty and the Beast. Not for any moralistic reasons (although if there was one, it’d be that it’s not gay enough) but because movies are expensive until they settle into the more financially accessible venues of second-run theaters.

But I will say that Beauty and the Beast is my favorite non-The Great Mouse Detective animated film Disney has produced. While The Little Mermaid has perhaps the most perfectly paced story of the 90’s Disney Renaissance (because I guess we just throw that word now like rice at a wedding), it was Beauty that fully captured a full spectrum of perspectives– think how many songs are actually sung by Belle? Or the Beast? The animated film is fully fleshed out emotionally by outsiders examining the simple love plot at the heart of the story.

That’s the immediate reason why I’d say Beauty is superior to a lot of other Disney films, but there’s some folkloric magic inside that movie that isn’t so apparent– and it’s an element that connects it to Disney’s earlier ventures of animating established fairy tales:

Beauty and the Beast is Blue Beard.

For all you cultureless heathens out there, Blue Beard is the fairy tale of a young woman who marries a count or whatever. He’s a rich dude with a blue beard who’s had many wives over the years, all of whom have disappeared under rather dubious circumstances.

Fun fact: while blue beards existed in the way-way back, red flags did not.

Anywhatsit, this gal is given everything she desires– nice clothes, good food, bitchin’ jewelry, radical skateboarding half-pipes, you name it– with the one exception that she couldn’t enter this one door. After some filler, you better know that she opens that door. Inside is all of the dismembered corpses of Blue Beard’s former spouses. Blue Beard catches her in the act and draws his sword, about to slice his young wife into skirt steak– but oh! She protests! And depending on the version either her brother or some strapping young knight hears her screaming and comes along and stabs Blue Beard until he’s nothing but pudding. It’s a happy, gruesome ending.

The Disney version is arguably a little different.

The basic buildings blocks are all still there though: a pretty, possibly naïve, young girl is imprisoned in a castle (I’m not even going to make the grim comparison with marriage here), she’s given every comfort personified furniture can give her (“Be… our… GUEST…”), but she’s forbidden to enter a particular room (and when she does, Big Bad Beastie Boy flies into a rage. Just not a decapitation-happy one).

The deviations from the fairy tale are actually pretty clever: the forbidden room doesn’t contain a bunch of corpses, but a wilting magical rose symbolic of Beast Bro’s incapability to love. And there’s some overlap there with the rudimentary tale– a room full of dead wives sends a pretty direct message that Blue Beard has the wrong idea of what it’s like to commit. But the greater idea is that this is about control– both Blue Beard and Beasty Bitty Boom Boom are angry because a woman went against their wishes. The former reacts violently, whereas the latter learns how to let go– ultimately letting Belle leave the castle.

Aww.

The shining knight in armor also turns out to be a huge piece of douche-gristle who assumes the maiden needs saving and attempts to kill the monster despite the lady’s protestations. It’s just a great piece of contextual fairy tale irony. Gaston dies a fairly gruesome death (for a kid’s movie) while the monster gets the girl. That’d be like if Grendel killed Beowulf and hooked up with a Scandinavian princess on Beowulf’s grave.

It’s also a good study of how to take basic storytelling principles and turn them on their head. Fairytales have rules to them– they had to, because they were a spoken tradition sang drunkenly at parties. Rules are a lot easier to remember than details (which you can just make up on the spot) and Beauty‘s an excellent example of changing around a few details to better suit the story for a modern audience, while keeping the primary code intact.

And you might be saying, “The Little Mermaid was a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale and they changed a lot of stuff!”

To which I would say, “While that is true, Anderson was more of a Victorian-aged author of short-stories that resembled fairy tales, but didn’t have quite the spoken traditionalism behind his work– which isn’t a bad thing. He did what Disney did. I would also like to mention that Anderson’s The Little Mermaid culminates in the mermaid committing suicide and, while that’s totally metal for a story about fish-women, there wasn’t any room for Anderson’s knack for sadism during Bush’s America. Now please leave, Straw Man, I’m sure you have to go startle some birds off a cornfield.”

Beauty and the Beast is just a solid example of spinning an old story in a way that’s easily digestible. It’s able to sublimate Blue Beard‘s more gruesome details with romantic flourishes such that it becomes something almost unrecognizable from it’s predecessor. And that’s essentially the goal of writing fiction, isn’t it? Finding opportunities for novelty in a story that’s been told a million times over? In that way, despite being a story about some hot nerd nursing a burning loin for a bear-demon, Beauty and the Beast succeeds creatively.

Could be gayer, though.

 

S-Town and Tangential Storytelling

S-Town and Tangential Storytelling

Spoiler alert for the podcast S-Town. I ruin it.

So if you party like I do then you’ve already binged the entirety of NPR’s S-Town podcast on a Saturday night while sharing a fifth of cheap Scotch with your best friend, a crayon drawing of a sad woman on a napkin.

Anyway.

S-Town is a fantastic journey revolving around the troubled redneck genius John B. McClemore– and during those revolutions, a layer from the small town in rural Alabama is shaved off and inspected thoroughly, revealing that every inch of this place has John’s DNA somehow embedded into it, even well after his suicide. It’s a mind-blowing piece of investigative, empathetic journalism.

And there’s a popular theory that John himself “authored” the narrative of this story from the very beginning and there’s a lot of tempting evidence that this is the case. Too many metaphors make too much sense. You have the “null set” of the maze which not only summarizes John’s philosophy on his own life (there’s no solution and yet you’re trapped in an experience of convoluted twists and turns and frustrations) but also that of his thoughts on climate change (no solution to the biggest problems that plague us)– the pessimism is almost redundant. There’s never any solution, just problems, of which John bitches about constantly. Brian Reed even suspects that John had set up the “null-set” on purpose early on in the series. And that carries an implicative weight to the other puzzles John has proposed: namely, the murder that wasn’t a murder and his hidden stashes of gold that might not actually be buried. Problems without solutions. Wild goose chases. Geese chases? Never mind.

There are other metaphors, of course. One of the most striking is how John gilds a dime to give to Brian using potassium cyanide. He ingests the same chemical later to kill himself. The beautifully grim metaphor, if there is one, is that John was symbolically turned to gold on the inside. (Sidebar: it could very well be that this is the metaphorical gold that John has sent Travis to look for– not material wealth, but the appreciation of their friendship once he’s departed. But that rings a little too smug and cold, even for John. It sounds too much like every high-schooler’s threat “you’ll miss me when I’m gone.”) The gold metaphor comes full circle when it’s revealed that John’s other preferred gilding practices likely incurred gradually detrimental brain damage similar to the Mad Hatter’s disease.

So did John just use Brian Reed to enact a dramatic suicide note? My take? Not really. You’d have to discount the tireless work Brian and his team did to find this extremely personal narrative, slogging through hundreds of hours of audio. S-Town is a testament to how important editing is– how essential scene selection can be for an emotional payoff. John was a man who rambled, rambled coherently maybe, but shot off from one subject to the next until it inevitably spiraled into climate change and the doom of his shit town, Woodstock.

John also thought in metaphorical concepts. He’s a clock-fixer-upper, it makes sense that he could create complicated stories with people acting like the cogs that turn against each other… but again I feel like that’s a disservice to the amount of work put into this thing and the narrative constraint they put upon it. S-Town could have been many things, if based on John’s metaphors alone. But everyone involved in production was smart about it and they made it into a journalistic novel not unlike Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

And I salute them for a storytelling strategy that often goes unappreciated– that of constant deviation and tangential leaps. I think, because John was who he was, this was almost inevitable. Well, that and the fact that the first story (the non-murder) would have rang kind of flat if not for Reed’s post-mortem investigation into the intrigues of Woodstock.

If you think about it, the narrative goes from hanging out with John (noting his pierced nipples), to the murder investigation, to the suicide, to the familial troubles of John’s family which branches off into two distinct parallel perspectives (Travis and Rita, the former of which is now searching for gold, the latter of which tried to get those nipple rings as a keepsake from the coroner), both of which leading towards contacting the lawyer and town clerk (Faye), which opens a lot of questions which leads towards John’s perhaps most intimate friend and the explanation of the “flagellation” ritual of piercing his nipples repeatedly.  It could be that I’m bad at summarizing things, but I think I got the basic story down.

I’m using the nipple ring motif because it’s something that first appears as a random, almost unnecessary detail that keeps returning as a slightly more relevant (even contentious) detail before the symbolic weight of the piercings are finally revealed. It’s also the perfect example of a little quirk that binds two disparate narratives together. Of all the legal conflicts between Travis and Rita, it’s the nipple rings that apparently affect both on a solely emotional level. And for Travis, the explanation brought us back to John’s workshop, practicing their “Church” service, one of the last images we have of John in S-Town‘s narrative. It initially came off as thematically forced to thread the story along before Reed and his team finally let the last Tetris block fall into place.

The art of tangential storytelling is that if you take enough left turns, you’ll eventually end up where you started, but, like all stories, you’ll have gained perspective. By the end of S-Town we’ve gained the perspectives of many people who’ve interacted with John, but in a sad way, once the series is over, we’re back to a world where John doesn’t exist and are forced to ask the question, am I the better for knowing this man? S-Town (or Woodstock), too, like the gloomy protagonist always insists, is more or less the same town it always was, minus an eccentric that many of the townsfolk preferred not to know. Are they the better for having this series released?

The latter is the kind of question I can’t answer definitively. I think exploitation was avoided as much as it could’ve been. Not that it might matter to the people of Woodstock. “Fuck it,” is the motto for telling everything upfront, after all. In that, I feel, there is some elemental truth of honesty. The tattoo artist is upfront about his racism and Reed, while hiding the fact that he’s married to a black woman and is Jewish, accepts that and moves on to other topics of discussion. He does it without necessarily demonizing the guy. That was a lateral move of empathy, uncomfortable though it may have been, on Reed’s part to keep on digging for the story– and he found it (summarily: John would get a tattoo every time the shop was in the red to give them enough business to get ’em back to black). Effectively Reed piloted a narrative into a crash-landing in shark-infested waters and made the story about the sharks and where they swim. But they’re not as scary as you’ve come to believe. That’s the kind of opportunity that this kind of story mechanic allows for.

The structure of tangential storytelling is more intuitive than you might think. After all, the recipe for the second act of a hardboiled detective novel or police procedural TV show is rooted in the act of interviewing people. This is what translates so elegantly to the podcast format of S-Town– Reed acts as detective running down leads on his deceased friend and picking up common threads between seemingly unrelated perspectives. We see those interactions recorded as they happen and we love it. It’s why you’ll remember scenes from All the President’s Men if not the actual newspaper article that broke Watergate. Just like John’s riddle of where he left his gold, it’s the journey that’s more important than the outcome.

Which might be trite but nonetheless true.

I suppose it’s because that journey uses every tangent as a discursive opportunity to explore an element of John’s life or otherwise his impact of the people he left behind– and their lives in S-Town. To bring up my favorite book on earth,  The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño employs the extreme method of using 52 narrators to account for the actions and whereabouts of two scummy poets over the course of several years. The plot of the novel is entirely implicative, obscured by the dozens of stories people tell, not only about the poets, but about their own secrets, troubles, impulses, mental illnesses, historical fascinations and racial biases. It tells of the evasive duo, but not without letting in the reader about their own life. Likewise, John B. McClemore is sort of a magnet thrown into a mine. He’s always at the center of things, but everything/one that sticks to him is also fascinating.

Which nullifies the “null-set” paradigm of reading S-Town. At least on a cynical level– I doubt that John’s dream of a suicide note would include intimate details about his rhinoceros-skinned nipples. It includes everybody he’s known, and while he’s had his own time to devise his time on earth, it’s the people that he’s interacted with that get to spin his legend. And everyone’s got a different outlook on the guy. He’s been many things. But there are common threads of kindness, pettiness, embarrassment, cowardice, success and failure…

And through these many lenses we get the character of John from the outside looking inward.

 

Object Permanence and Logical Sequencing

Object Permanence and Logical Sequencing

Once upon a time my super happy, super pregnant Intro to Creative Writing Fiction teacher had a baby fall out of her and had to take some time off. We finished off the year with a super sardonic, grim-faced teaching fellow named Jen.

Jen brought something to our attention that I’d never considered before. You know the phenomena of how once you learn a new word, you can’t help but notice it everywhere? Or like how I always see the ghost of Mary Tyler Moore trying to untie a knot in a yo-yo in the corner of my eyes? Everywhere I fucking go? The point is this concept is a universal plague.

It’s the lack of object permanence in writing.

Simple concept, right? It’s one of the first “skills” you come to learn as a pathetic little baby through the repetitive game of peek-a-boo. During that period of development, one comes to understand that a person or thing still exists despite the object being out of view. It’s a thing we take for granted until we have to create a written narrative that guides a reader as smoothly as possible through a sequence of events.

I’m talking about how a character will, say, fill a glass of water from the faucet early in a scene and then, shortly after, punches somebody in the face without ever mentioning the water again. Did the character drink it? Did he put the glass down? Or did he punch someone in the face with the glass of water in his hand? Another example: “Kelly lit her pipe. Kelly took a bite of cereal.” Did she eat the cereal with the pipe in her mouth? Stop laughing in the back, this is serious. If she did, how? These are the kinds of questions you don’t want your reader to be asking.

So just go ahead and answer the questions before they’re questions, dig?

Ground the scene in action. Have the character take a sip– or, have him deliberately not take a sip of water, before clearly stating that the glass goes back on the table, or smashes to the ground or whatever. It doesn’t matter just as long as you’re telling the reader what’s happening with the inventory you’ve introduced on the page. This creates a wide variety of opportunities to do a bit of characterization because it forces you– and the reader– to understand why the character made a choice and what values are inherent in that choice. Is Kelly the kind of slob who’s figured out a way to eat cereal while smoking a pipe? Is Beef McSweat the kind of guy who puts his glass down before throwing ‘bows? Or does he smash it on the floor?

It’s also part of logically sequencing a scene so as to build tension and demonstrate a rising conflict. If you were to study the amazing opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, you’ll notice that meticulous attention is paid to the objects on set. In the linked scene above, it’s primarily LaPadite’s pipe and Landa’s glass of milk that get the primary focus. You’ll notice how when the characters handle those items, it speaks to their values– LaPadite nervously chews on the pipe while Landa joyfully sips his milk while discussing social Darwinistic metaphors. Even how LaPadite passes the glass of milk slowly over to Landa suggests that he is hesitant to give Landa what he wants, but he will.

And that kind of descriptive, implicit action is only effective when attention is paid to the treatment of those objects– there isn’t a single shot in which LaPadite’s pipe is out of place. You see him put the pipe in his mouth. It doesn’t go back on the table or out of his mouth without you seeing him remove his pipe. You don’t see him light the match, but you do hear the sound design of a match being lit before it cuts to him lighting his pipe. Likewise, you don’t see Landa shift in his chair at first, but you do hear the noise his chair makes. This level of detail is why movies have script supervisors: consistency, context and logic that seamlessly flows through dozens of shots and probably hundreds of takes.

When you don’t have that kind of anal retentive attention to detail, you’ll find that objects will disappear out of characters’ hands like electrons dipping in and out of existence like in the Heisenberg Principle. Even if it’s on a subconscious level, this’ll force the reader out of the story. I see a lot of lists of actions that are not correlated to each other, divided by dialogue. And making it a linear sequence is too simple: choose a single object and a single action responding to that object. There will be a reaction.

Paying close attention to this will also show you what’s unnecessary through sheer tyranny of effort. Did your character really need to hold a dodge ball at that moment in time? No? Can you make it fit? No? Ditch it. A lot of writers will fill in blank space with what they just did/ are doing/ will do/ shit they like. Some of the time it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. How many times have you written a character smoking a cigarette because that’s what you would do? Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. But make sure if a habit hasn’t been established, make it a big deal by paying attention to where the butt goes after it’s spent.

The zealous approach to object permanence in writing is to ground the surroundings to such a fine detail that it becomes boring minutiae. That isn’t what I’m suggesting you do. Writing a paragraph about folding laundry, followed by another paragraph on washing dishes, followed by another paragraph on alphabetizing the sections of the newspapers before dropping them into the recycling bin is a waste of studious talent. (Unless, I guess, you’re doing something like Murakami.)

Point is, you’re not supposed to notice the movements of the object in hand at first– which only happens if you complete the interaction with said object. We might know on an instinctual level what LaPadite passing the milk across the table means when we see it, but not on an intellectual level until after the scene and whole movie is over. You’re supposed to take it for granted– which is why it’s so easy to overlook the absence of object consistency in the editing passes.

So before you become a lice-ridden, self-conscious creature, here are some situations when you don’t really need to keep follow-through in mind, while still maintaining consistency: when you are summarily describing events (“Dude ate breakfast. Dude left for work.” We don’t need to see him eat breakfast in a play by play.); if it’s habitual (“Dude lit the 21st cigarette of the day.” We assume he does something with the butts.); if actions are actually implied between the action and context (“Dude cracked a beer and talked my ear off for twenty minutes about steel beams and grays stealing his skin. Dude cracked another beer…” It’s implied that he finished the first one.)

It might sound like a cynical perspective to say that all human beings are materialistic– but we’d be simple monkeys without the tools we learned to make in way-way-back. We attach meaning to the things we hold through the actions we make with them. A hammer hammers nails. It only makes sense that a hammer needs to be in the hands of a carpenter while he’s a-nailing, instead of his lunch pail.

Unless you’re being ironic.