The Orphan Principle

The Orphan Principle

My mom is pretty candid with her opinions about my books. After she read The Fish Fox Boys she was really supportive. And then in that special way that mothers do, she hemmed a little bit and hawed the following: “… NOT A WHOLE LOT OF MOTHERS IN THE BOOK.”

And I shrugged and said, “Well, obviously.”

But it’s partially untrue as there are matronly characters present in my quaint little novelette– Franny, who takes her name from my IRL Grandmother to whom the piece is dedicated (OH STOP IT, ME! TOO CUTE! SHUCKS!) and of course the Mother Bearoon (the nuclear mutated conglomeration of a bear and a raccoon and aptly named to boot).

But there’s a trope in fiction, primarily in YA oriented genres, that the primary children in most stories are orphans. Harry Potter is the first example that leaps to mind. In thrillers, you have Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. Because this isn’t relegated to literature alone, Zelda: Ocarina of Time follows suit. Batman AND Superman. And Spiderman, now that I think about it. Fuck me, most super heroes, actually. Each character from the addictive goddamn shonen anime series One Piece? Orphans. Little orphan Annie, the Chronicles of Narnia, hell, even Game of Thrones by the end of the Red Wedding (too soon?). Oh yeah, and Luke fuckin’ Skywalker.

It’s an ongoing trope that seemingly verges on self-parody and there’s been discussion as to why the hell this storytelling format exists and why it’s so pervasive in children’s entertainment. There’s a Lithub article by Liz Moore called “Why Do We Write About Orphans So Much” that I found poking around this concept. Moore’s got some pretty good insight on why it matters in a character-driven sense:

…the pain of the orphan occupies a place of precedence among all other types of pain, feels instinctively true, and makes writing about orphans tempting for a novelist.

It’s hard to argue with that logic. After all, Harry “Big Slytherin” Potter (and you thought there wouldn’t be any dick jokes in a post that started with a charming story about my mother, shame on you) has to confront his parent’s death various times through his journey and his acceptance into a famial structure at Hogwarts and at the Weasleys completes his character’s needs. Skywalker’s shit gets all fucked up when he finds out that his dad’s the biggest bastard of all time, Batman flashes back to a fuckin’ rose or some pearls or whatever every time he pours a bowl of cereal in the morning and… you get it.

But I think there’s a more practical explanation (and I might even go as far as to say that all of that Freudian family psychology might have been found in writing exploration after the fact). In the recent episode of The Self Publishing Show, James Blatch offers that it might be a children’s power fantasy of being able to handle adult responsibilities, which is probably true, but Hutchinson lays down the neccessary pragmatism of the trope:

Get rid of the parents in chapter one. Find a way to get the parents out of it so the children can’t just get mum and dad to sort everything out. And then put them in a difficult situation. It’s the same thing writing any genre or any age group, you put your character in a difficult situation and you remove any kind of support for them. It’s exactly the same for children’s books, your characters just happen to be children, so you need to get the parents out of the way so they don’t fix everything.

To make these kind of stories work structurally, they need to start out from a place where traditional family consequences and safety nets are absent. I call it the Orphan Principle. Ron Weasely has a family and you know what? His magic power is that he’s NICE. Without the cursed orphan Godhead as his best friend and main character, the books would be called Ron Weasley: A Bumbling Academic of Little Consequence Who’s Good at Wizard’s Chess Which is Actually Just Kind of Chess, Fuck’s Sake. Batman would be called A Rich and Entitled Twerp Who Should Stop Doing Ninja Shit Outside and Do His Homework, Fuck’s Sake. If Superman came down with his whole family intact, his dad would be Superman who would take care of all the bullshit and he would be like that egg-sucking Superboy who wore a leather jacket despite obviously not being punk (Obviously the Invincibles is great and works in the subversion of the trope). 

Does this mean in order to write a story that you need to kill off the parents every time? Of course not. You just need to get them out of the way. Steven Spielberg accomplishes this in his latchkey kids classic, The Goonies, by having working-class parents simply go to work. Or they’re moving or something. It doesn’t matter, the movie’s not about them, it’s about the kids and they are fo-sho out of the way the entire film.

A better example might be how Stranger Things handles things. The writers cleverly split the Adults and Children protagonists into two parties (three, including the teens) with their own interesting plotlines. The adults are alive and kicking and holding down the B Plot, while the dork children helm the A Plot. The teenagers carry the C Plot, which is mostly about kissing or something gross like that (I wanna say that girl, uh, B…Bart… Banana went missing?). All plotlines intertwine by the season’s end and it never feels forced or hokey. The children characters get all of the adventurous independence that comes from their absent parents and the adults characters carry the emotional weight to a satisfying conclusion. And I guess the teenagers, also with absent parents who are involved with the scary shit, are like, “Hey, you ever hear about this sex thing? Ha! Wouldn’t it be crazy if sex was like, I don’t know, like just a funny thing we– huh? Barbara who?”

Point being it’s not always necessary to orphan your kids to establish a starting point of conflict– but it is damned convenient. What is necessary, parents or no, is that those characters are free from support so that they may overcome the conflicts they encounter.

 

If you’d like to read a YA book featuring orphans that ISN’T a bummer, The Fish Boys: Part One is a great place to start. It’s a post-nuclear fairytale following the adventures ore_cover_smallf three idiot-savant inventors as they traverse the wasteland and it is available to purchase in paperback and Kindle here.

 

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Pierre Manchot, Now on Patreon

Well hey there, gangsters.

Supposing you like my fiction and you’d like to get more of it (and help support me in the process) I’ve started a Patreon to distribute pieces of short fiction and audio narration. If this is something that interests you, please visit this page to learn more.

Words, love, and hugs

Pierre

Saving Humanity – Game of Thrones Speculation

Saving Humanity – Game of Thrones Speculation

Let’s do something fun. You like Game of Thrones, I like Game of Thrones. I wanna get some thoughts down on what I think the overall theme of the series is– and get some projections on how the whole thing’s gonna shake out for certain characters. But be warned: I’m gonna spoil shit. It’s gonna spoil up in here worse than a sack of rotten eggs. I’m gonna spoil harder than your fuckwit nephew whose videogame collection’s resale value is equivalent to a mortgage downpayment on a house in the Sylvan area of Portland metro.

The first two episodes of the eighth season have been light on advancing the plot, choosing instead to focus on the relationships between the thus surviving characters. It’s a good choice, I feel, to have them all be together before the shit storm hits the fan. In the “bottle episode” of A Knight of Seven Kingdoms, everyone gets on the same page as to what’s at stake: Humanity.

But on a more subtextual level, that’s been the overarching theme of each individual character, hasn’t it? Whether it’s the HBO series or A Song of Ice and Fire, the personal journeys of our favorite Westerossi stick to a format of losing/having lost humanity followed by the struggle to reclaim it. It pairs well with the macro narrative of fighting a legion of the undead.

Let’s focus on one undead guy first.

Beric Dondarrion gets slept on as a tragic hero. He’s been revived by Thoros 19 times by the Hound’s count and he’s said (more explicatively in Storm of Swords) that he’s lost more of who he once was every time he’s been revived. If memory, as Brann and Sam see it, is the defining feature of what it means to be human, Dondarrion has been long dead, despite his Lazarussian return to form. He’s lost himself and he’s lost the friend who could bring him back. The only thing he seems to regret is that he wasn’t able to dole out justice for Arya when they last met. Beric Dondarrion is the ace up the show’s sleeve, as his book counterpart fell dead one last time as he gave the kiss of life to Cathryn Stark’s corpse, giving rise to Lady Stoneheart. Since that’s been nixed from the show, Beric serves as the proverbial extra life to one very lucky player in the game. A lot of people are going to die in the next episode, including Beric. But he’s going to die by bestowing the kiss of life to someone who justly deserves it. The question is who?

My first impulse was to think that, given how Sandor Clegane and Beric have become something close to war buddies that he might revive the Hound. There’s some poeticism to that choice in giving the gift of living fire to the man who despises fire most. And there’s something in the way that he’s proud of telling Arya “I fought for you, didn’t I?” Because Sandor’s character arc was about letting the murderous dog in himself die so that he could become human. No longer the pet of a sociopath, Sandor has certainly proved himself worthy of resuscitation. But that theory fucks up the path that I think the showrunners have in mind for him, so I’ll just say that Sandor “The badass formerly known as the Hound” Clegane survives the White Walkers.

Jorah Mormont lost his humanity when he got involved in the slave trade– one of the “strange things men do for the women they love.” He lost his honor when he refused to take the black. This cost him a further penalty– his sword, Longclaw, which he had the decency to return to his father before absconding to Essos. Longclaw is given to Jon Snow, instead, by Jeor Mormont. More on that in a minute. In Essos, Jorah earned some of himself back (and his citizenship) by spying on/ aiding noted abolitionist Daenerys Stormborn. He once again lost his humanity when infected by greyscale and was brought back from the brink of death by Sam Tarly. Sam gifts his family’s Valerian steel sword to Jorah as a familial payment to Jeor– a moment that had your guy on the brink of tears, folks. You’ll remember Sam held Jeor Mormont in his hands as he died, “Tell Jorah. Forgive him. My son. Please.” (Storm of Swords, pg. a billion). The moment encapsulates Jorah’s full forgiveness– he’s been forgiven by the state of Westeros, by Daenerys, by medicine, and finally by his own house, receiving the steel that was his birthright. Jorah has finally regained all that he lost. Jeor Mormont also told Sam something in the HBO series: “Sam Tarly, I forbid you to die.” Which leads me to believe that Jorah is going to sacrifice himself for the sake of Sam Tarly, the unsung best friend to the house of bears.

Theon lost his humanity after he betrayed the Starks and was then captured by Ramsey Bolton. He lost his dick, too. Torture and psychological manipulation burned his identity down to Reek. But after being reduced to nothing, Theon climbed out of the well of depersonalisation and grasped for his humanity when he and Sansa suicide dove from the walls of the Flayed Man’s Winterfell. When he ultimately chooses fighting for the Starks over staying safe with Yara on the Iron Islands, Sansa’s tears are very well earned as they embrace. It’s also kind of nice that the two get to have a quasi-romantic dinner together and it’s kinda cool how scissoring exists in Westeros, just saying. But he’s probably going to die in Winterfell, which makes the most narrative sense, protecting the crippled boy he took advantage over to feel big. Theon’ll die in Winterfell, his true home, but he’ll die Theon, not Reek, and full of valor. This will break Yara’s heart.

Tormund’s great. He’s the fuckin’ best. He’s horny as shit, a strident feminist, and an ardent believer in giant titty milk. My bet’s that he’ll live through the White Walkers, for no other reason than there hasn’t been a Wildling in King’s Landing yet. And he’d make a great impression.

There’s a huge preoccupation with hands amongst the Lannister boys. Twyin served as the hand twice. So has Tyrion. Jaime, of course, lost his right hand. While Tyrion has always been seen as “half” a person, Jaime learns wisdom by losing his natural talent through an act of valor. The brothers exchange places, Tyrion, whose intellect is only matched by a few, is thrown on the battlefield where he actually kind of kicks ass. Jaime, on the other… hand (oh, the slapping upon my knee), learns to think and behave more and more rationally, instead of impulsively (although, one of those impulses saved Kings Landing from a horrible death by Wild Fire). Jaime, of course, ended the first episode with an impulsive shove of a child out a window to protect his sister’s virtue and social standing. Where one brother errs, another corrects– it was Tyrion who devised a way for Brann to ride a horse, the designs of which were put to use in making his wheelchair. Now that they’ve both leveled out, so to speak, it’s hard to say who’ll die in the next episode. I imagine it’s Tyrion, as Jaime always knew that he’d die with his sister. But not before Tyrion rides a dragon.

Speaking of hands, the irony that Davos, who’s right hand had been shortened to the mid-knuckle by Stannis (for justice) was given the honor of Hand to the King also rings ironic. He’s incapable of fighting, but always has a brusque sense of honor. He’s the most human and honorable character in the entire series and I hope, though he never lost his way, he survives. Fuck shit piss don’t kill Davos. He’ll be fine. In the show, he’s become the Drowned God and he’ll likely team up with Yara to fight Euron. ONION KNIGHT vs THE KRAKEN.

Brienne beat Loras Tyrell. Brienne beat a bound Kingslayer. Brienne beat the Hound. She killed Stannis. She’s been King’s Guard to Renly Baratheon and personal security detail to Cathryn and Sansa Stark. She had the shining moment of becoming the titular Knight of Seven Kingdoms when she was officially knighted by Jaime. In the world of Thrones, women are seen as subhuman. The Wildlings know better (even if their marriage proposals are iffy), but here comes a woman warrior, stronger than anyone this side of the Mountain, and has always either suffered humiliation by faux-suitors or disrespect by the patriarchal institutions of valor. To achieve the same level of “humanity” as her male counterparts, she has to kick the fucking Hound off a fucking mountain. It’s a great moment when she finally receives the knighthood and well celebrated. My take is that she’ll survive the White Walkers and make it back to King’s Landing. Further take: She kills Cersei after Cersei kills Jaime (via Bronn?). Cersei’s teenage frog woman fortune did say that she’ll be replaced by someone more beautiful than her. Cersei’s paranoia led her to believe that she’d be replaced as queen, hence her jealousy of Sansa, hence her domestic terrorism to wipe out Margery Tyrell and the hold she had on her remaining, only wholesome son… Whereas I think Cersei’s been replaced in Jaime’s heart by “the Beauty of Tarth.” Cersei’s only allowed to die when she sees Jaime choose the comfort of Brienne over hers.

Podrick’s fuckin’ chowder.

Varys is known as the spider. With his dongle ripped off and burned, it’s hard to see him fight for the Lord of Light. But that being said, Varys knows too much, probably including that Jon Snow was a Targaryan. This will be his undoing. Spiders get squished.

Gendry’s a dead man. He’s the last Baratheon. It was never that he lacked humanity, quite the opposite. He’s fun, he’s sexy, he’s a devout acolyte of the Smith–he’s a hell of a blacksmith. But narratively speaking, he’s already been back to King’s Landing. And he and Arya have already consummated their pre-adolescent feelings towards each other in what has to be, somehow, the most uncomfortable sex scene in Game of Thrones’s 8 season run. Which, unfortunately for him, no longer makes him the last Baratheon. Remember that the friendship between the Starks and the Baratheons kept Westeros together? That promise lives on within Arya now, as squicky as it feels. And Gendry will go out, hammer in hand, no doubt.

There’s also no doubt that the character most unfairly accosted with the concept of death is Arya Stark. After the Hound kills the baker boy, she witnesses her father’s death, kills a boy her age, then she’s carted off with criminals, only to witness the murder of her friends, atrocities from the hands of the Tickler and the Mountain. The Men without Banners (‘sup, Beric. Thoros.) find her, from which she’s taken and reluctantly fathered by the Hound. After notching a few more kills, she denies the Hound the gift of mercy and flees on a ship to Braavos and becomes an acolyte for the Faceless Men. She learns to worship death, the many faced god, and in the process loses her own sense of humanity and identity. She clings to it by measures of extreme compartmentalization, vowing to return to herself when the time is right. Still, by the time Arya rejoins her family in Winterfell, she’s afraid to show who she’s become to her siblings, fearing that they’d be horrified at what she’s become. It’s not so much the killing; it’s that she shirked off the Stark name to become anyone. (Sidenote: that the word stark is used to describe contrast and Arya might be the greyest, despite her time in the House of Black and White… oooh). Arya has become the accustomed to death. In Knight of The Seven Kingdoms, Gendry tells her that the White Walkers are simply death. She’s lowkey giddy to see this face of death. And she will. My take: Arya will be killed in the next episode. Beric Donndarrion, who not only owes an oath of service to Ned Stark, will succumb to Sandor Clegane’s pleas to give her the kiss of life. He’ll do it. And once Arya is revived, she’ll know the true face of The Stranger and what death really means and her allegiances thenceforth will probably align with that of the living for goodsies. Especially when she understands what Beric Dondarrion, the Coolest of His Name, did for her.

Sansa’s whole arc begins with an earnest trust that the songs of knighthood and virtue are true. She is cruelly denied that reality, over, and over again. It’s less that she’s robbed of humanity– although she’s passed around as a political chip more than once– and more that her faith in humanity has been rendered bankrupt. Everyone that she looked to for help eventually burned her. Which is why it’s satisfying to see her as the hard-eyed Lady of Winterfell that she’s become. A few things. First, the adage “there must always be a Stark in Winterfell” falls on her shoulders. Jon’s officially a Targaryen (and officially a Stark, but hey) and Arya contains multitudes. Second, she will believe in those songs once again. Whereas she once naively trusted that knights are always righteous, she’s since learned that war is a grisly, horrific affair… which is why it’s right to honor those who’ve acted virtuously despite their brutal nature. Again, if memory is mankind’s only tie to humanity, then how you wish to remember the dead becomes all the more valuable. Theon, I imagine, will get a verse, but the one she’ll sing for is the Hound.

Sandor Clegane, before he kidnapped Arya for his charge, rescued Sansa from Joffrey’s brutality, killed her would-be-rapists, and offered sympathy from humiliation when she was stripped in court. He was a wretch, a broken-man, and under the thumb of a sociopath, but even then he acted in virtue, despite his murderous tendencies and grotesque world-view, and hatred for knights. Jumping into the endgame, my take is that Sandor Clegane will become the quintessential knight that the songs spoke of. During the “Trial By Seven” Cersei will feint the Mountain in battle only to turn towards Sansa. Sandor Clegane will save her, suffering mortal wounds. Sansa will finally sing him the song that Sandor bragged about during the Battle of Blackwater and Arya will finally make good on the gift of mercy. “You remember where the heart is.”

Daenerys entered the ring as a token to the Dothraki and currently sits as Queen. Jon Snow was born a bastard, and rose through the ranks of the Night’s Watch to Commander, then King of the North(!!!), and then lover to his sexy aunt. While both have slogged through inhumane existences, they now are aware that they both have claim to the Iron Throne. Who gets it? My answer? Neither. They both bite it. In a plume of blue flame. Snow’s sworn to the Night’s Watch and it’s ultimate goal– to fend off the Night King. Daenerys’s values lean towards freeing people from oppressive regime. She might indulge some fascism before she gets there (prolly kill Varys) but should they make it through the next two episodes, I’m certain that neither Targaryan will sit on the throne. I imagine that Daenerys will lose Drogon and die mid embrace with Jon “Aegon-Whatever-TheFuck” Snow, leaving Rhaegal untamed, and Viserion, a puppet of the Knight King and the Targaryan line finally put to incestuous rest.

Brann’s lost more humanity than maybe anyone else, having accepted the charge the old gods. He doesn’t hate anyone, as he tells Jaime, the man responsible for crippling him. His powers of green sight allow him to replay history like a DVD with commentary– his commentary has been known to fuck with his dad, Hodor, and perhaps the Mad King Aegon himself. But he’s also a talented warg— someone who can control beasts. And Hodor. The Knight King is going to kill Brann, while Brann has warged into Rhaegal, encapsulating his soul into the dragon. Brann’s humanity is long gone– his story is about attaining something greater.

Which brings us to the Night King. I misspoke when I said than Brann had lost the most humanity– the Night King was once a man who was changed by the Children of the Forest with an obsidian dagger and some of that sweet blood magic that keeps the Weirwoods crying. While he commands an undead army of Wights, the Night King and his turned White Walkers remember where they come from and want to make it theirs. Their play is no different from any family dispute we’ve seen in Westeros– they’ve just been planning it longer. But short of creating the Endless Night, what the Night King really craves is a return to his human form, so that he can die. I expect Mellisandre, now that Thoros is gone, will do the honors there.

I expect that it’ll be a long night– not an endless one. Any many characters dead by the end of it. And I can’t judge how the events at King’s Landing will go down specifically. But how I see the whole thing wrapping up is a member from each house in the great hall before the Iron Throne: Sansa Stark, Arya (carrying the last Baratheon), Lyanna Mormont, Brienne of Tarth, Tormund, Jaime Lannister, and Brann the Targaryran dragon, Rhaegal,to burn the throne to the fucking ground– it took dragon fire to forge the throne, it’ll take dragon fire to melt it down.

And wouldn’t it be cute if Hot Pie married Arya or whatever? HOT PIE IS OFF LIMITS FOR KILLING, HEAR ME?

I just released my Fantasy-Dystopian trilogy of the Fish Fox Boys as a complete volume. Get the paperback or Kindle version here.

The Process of Empathy

The Process of Empathy

Steve Morris from the Cine-Files podcast made a really great observation during their discussion of the movie Psycho: for a while, you’re on Norman Bates’s side. It’s after the scene when he discovers Marion, dead, in the shower (“Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!“) and before the scene of the car sinking into the bog (while Bates chews candies, nervously, before expressing a smug satisfaction when the car’s fully swallowed). Both of those scenes show Bates’s arrested development (the candy, the way he cries “mother” over and again…) but what happens in between (and I couldn’t find a clip for this to my shame. DAMMIT PIERRE!) is the meticulous cleaning Norman Bates performs on the murder scene. Without knowing the ending (as I somehow didn’t on my first watch all those years ago, through some miracle), we assume Bates feels compelled to protect his mother. But it’s being alongside him as he washes away the blood and carries the body to the car that we actually root for the villain, ending reveal notwithstanding. As Morris puts it, “Whenever we watch somebody in a process, we end up on their side.”

I think there’s a lot to that.

Watching somebody work gives you a different, occasionally more insightful, look into their personality than simply talking to them. You ever hire somebody? Or be involved in the hiring process? You can talk to a person and get a performance highlighting all of their best attributes but the day they show up to work, they’re a shitshow. Watching someone wash their hands before handling food is ultimately more important than them saying “I’m a good cook.”

Which throws us back to the old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” With which, I’ll refry this down into two questions: why is it effective to show a process in narrative and why does that gain audience sympathy?

The immediate answer is that work is common. On the grand scale, few people have actually cleaned blood in any real sense (side note: I interviewed some folks who worked in some bath houses and found that cum, piss and vomit were no issue. Blood, however…) but they have had to deal with mess. Few people have actually carried a body and shoved it into a car but, most people have carried an awkward TV, couch, or bed frame and have tried to make it work spatially in a van. Not everyone cleans, but everyone works. That alone makes you empathize, on a dark level, with Norman Bates.

There’s an oft mentioned study about how reading fiction makes people more empathetic. The casual explanation is that by reading with someone else’s brain for 300 pages, one tends to carry that perspective along with them back into the real world– or at least, the learned ability to entertain notions that are not their own. I’d agree with that assessment, but I also think there’s something to be said about any and all media that challenges the audience to ask themselves, “what would I do in this situation?” or perhaps, “what would I ideally to do in this situation?”

See, if I was Lewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, I would probably spend the entire book not hunting and eating chips on the couch as a seedy world of intrigue and carnage obliviously passes me by. Luckily, for art’s sake, I’m not Lewellyn. Cormac McCarthy (and the Coen’s faithful film adaptation) does something simple and brilliant: we’re shown characters of few words and inner reflection simply work through solving problems step by step without us being told what the problem is.

Moss is carrying a bag filled with two million dollars. He rents a motel room and stashes the money in a vent. He suspects (correctly) that the cartel is waiting to murder him and reclaim the money. So he rents another motel room behind his current one. Then he buys tent poles, leaving the audience going “buh-why?” It’s only when he tapes a bunch of coat hangers to the end of it that we realize that he intends to snake the bag of money through the vent and reclaim it in the new, parallel room. Similarly, we see Anton Chigurh use a bag of gas station sundries to blow up a car, only to find that that it’s a ruse to steal anesthetic drugs so he can perform self-surgery.

Scenes like these build tension because you have to wonder “the hell does he need a lid to a box of cotton swabs for?” Once you’ve been shown the reason, or the problem solved, you like it for a different reason: the characters’ intelligence is fully illustrated. Whether it’s Moss blowing water out of the chamber of a gun so it’ll ignite a bullet when he shoots a dog in the face or Chigurh turning off the light in the hallway so his feet won’t shadow under the door, we see something being worked out during the action of the story and we double-down on our admiration/respect for these characters because we’re either thinking, “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Yes. That is what I would ideally have done in the same scenario.”

The reason why heist movies like Oceans 11 (or Hereditary, a heist movie) are so engaging is because it’s 90% process. We like seeing a plan come together even if we don’t know what the plan is. Ocean’s 11 is primarily about a bunch of criminals, doing crimes. Or, rather, a bunch of criminals executing a convoluted strategy to pull off one crime. The actors are charming, which helps, but robbery usually isn’t that sexy of a crime (see: Raising Arizona, Reservoir Dogs). But if you add a sequential series of fancy pranks, some glib banter shared between 13 Hollywood stars, and a grand revealing of a few red-herrings, you get a competent, satisfying story– but only because you watched the characters earn it step by step.

Ocean’s 11 is an oddly apt example because, just as you don’t know what the plan really looks like, you also don’t know what Danny Ocean’s true motivation is as it could be revenge against the man who’s dating his wife, an attempt to get back with his wife, or pure greed. Surprise! It’s all three! But that only comes together in the very end when the audience is led to believe that he would betray one motivation for another. It’s not high-cerebral storytelling here, but it does work, and it is clever in its own right (for a movie I watched with my mom while my brother was at a youth group superbowl party 18 years ago that I wasn’t invited to).

The obfuscation of motivation is important when showing a process. In Psycho, no matter what we’re led to believe, we want Bates to succeed in hiding that body. In No Country, we want Chigurh to heal his leg because we suffered through watching him tweeze buckshot from the meat of his thigh. What a character wants is an integral part of writing but it’s something that drives a character throughout an entire arc and is only understood in retrospect. In fiction and cinema, we’re only exposed to these characters scene by scene and those characters have very immediate needs despite their longterm desires. Hey, kinda like life, ya know?

Showing a process of action is not unlike showing a thought process, brought to you by this new-fangled technology of first person narrative, where the reader is up against the grain of a character’s decision making. It’s a more intimate relationship, to be sure, as the reader might stop thinking “that’s what I would do,” and instead entertain, “this is what I did,” but the story itself shouldn’t be too different. And the reason, with, you know, good fiction, is a certain with-holding of motivation.

It’s noir time.

Phillip Marlowe is a pretty damn good chess player. He strategizes, he thinks, he mulls, he makes decisions. Even still, he bumbles into situations making him a hapless sap that often leaves him bloody and bruised with yet another body laying in the next room. Homeboy once smoked a laced cigarette and spent three hours on a floor. Sometimes he has a theory about how everything shakes out only to find that all of his instincts were wrong. Then he makes some plays against the antagonist and the truth finally outs. There’s a disconnect there, yeah? Even though he’s telegraphing his story to you, he isn’t going to tell you how he brought everything together until the very end, because it’s very likely that Marlowe is flying without a map until all the pieces are aligned and even then you’re still taken aback that the bastard fit it all together. It’s a bit of a motherfucker to know the narrator’s opinion about a secretary’s dress and not know the plan. That’s part of how story works, sure, but it’s also an example of how the narration itself is a strategic process– the narrator decides what to tell you and when, despite the narrator living in your brain.

It’s the whole principle behind Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, wherein our Continental Op is dropped into a corrupt town, expected to pick sides between the corrupt cops and the criminals. The Op plays off of ALL of those expectations and nets so, so many bodies. Only it turns out, The Op’s motivation was to simply stir chaos on both sides, not necessarily knowing that they would murder each other– he had no plan, he’s just a drunk fucking psychopath. Still, he tells us every decision he makes as he systematically destroys the institutions and crooks, but he never tells us why, likely because he doesn’t know or doesn’t remember. He’s driven, in his own words, “blood simple.”

And we’re in their corner, despite them being monsters or virtuous, if occasionally inept, troublemakers. What people respond to are decisions, whether that’s shown through cleaning blood from a bathroom or scheduling a massacre of the police force with a phone call.

Still.

With the advent of reality television and video games, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that we find routine processes humanizing. We watch entire blocks of entertainment dedicated to showing us the machines that make taffy, step by step. We follow Alaskan fishermen into the waves, cops into the streets, chefs into the kitchens. We come home from work to watch someone else do their job. We’ve attached so much personality to an Italian plumber because of the personal satisfaction of bringing him from the left side of a screen to the right (and we’ve apparently made so much goddamn pornography from a blue hedgehog, simply because he had to go fast).

It’s not surprising, but it’s something that I consider often when writing. I utilize “showing the process” of a character regularly, for the reasons I’ve explained: it illustrates intelligence, it creates tension, and it can exist outside of the over-arching motivation and focus on the immediate’s scene’s needs. There’s a delicate balance at stake here, as a reader’s attention-span is only so thick, and I sometimes worry that I’m tugging the boat a little too far. Truth be told, sometimes I think tugging the boat is pretty funny. Sometimes you need to “yada-yada” the reader along. But in writing The Fish Fox Boys Part Three: Ballad of the Badger Knights (which is free for Kindle until 3/15), I found that exploring the process in how someone builds or grows things provides several opportunities to further explore setting (In FFBIII, we get a better sense of the geographical landscape when Anne puts her mind to mutating corn. We get inside the old dilapidated schools, twice, when Fred and Adam go scavenging for parts, once in a rural school and again in an inner city one and there should be a difference felt between the two). I found that there’s an opportunity for characterization when the process frustrates the hero and we get to see how they handle that frustration. And while I tried to keep the flow of information economical, hints of motivation are indeed present, although mostly through subtext. Anne’s obsession with winning the Corn Festival had less to do with her justification of philanthropy and more to do with vain ambition just as Adam’s willingness to scavenge has more to say about his need to please a new friend, instead of serving his old friend’s needs.

And then there’s the logic itself: the simple satisfaction one receives from solving a problem, even if the character was responsible for the problem in the first place. It doesn’t matter if the reader themselves never invented a Zamboodlator, they’ll still listen to how you made it. I know this, because every time I pop the hood of my 1984 Volvo, there’s suddenly six dudes from no-where, peering over my shoulder, examining something that they do not understand yet have advice anyway.

Makes me think if I ever discover a body in my shower, the same audience will appear and one would say, “Clean the bathroom.” Another, “Put it in the trunk of a car.”

And another would agree, saying, “That’s what I would do.”

I just officially released The Fish Fox Boys Part Three yesterday. If you catch this blog before 3/15/2019, you can get a free copy of the book here. If paperback’s your game, as is mine, get that shit here. It’s a fairy-tale about the end of the world, what’s not to like?

Game Theory (of Throne-Building)

Game Theory (of Throne-Building)

Now, you might be saying, “Buddy, two Thrones posts back to back? Wouldn’t it make more SEO sense to wait until the final season starts, instead of blowing your wad all up front?”

To which I reply, “Listen, buttnards, why don’t you keep your beak in your own pot of yogurt, you fuckin’ dumb door-holding fuckin’ oaf.”

…Because last time we talked about why Game of Thrones was so popular. We had a good time (we did. that is non-negotiable), although I didn’t talk about the actual series itself with any real depth. So what makes A Song of Ice and Fire so fuckin’ good when there are a bajillion similar fantasy novels shoveled out on the daily?

Make way for this post, everybody, get your your weird-ass-eerily-accurate-cosplaying persona on and let’s DIG… into our pockets and bring out our dodecal-sided die. That’s right, nerds, we’re gonna go into table-top RPGs and how they’ve shaped your favorite pervert-murder-dragon show on television.

There have been several unsung table-tops prior to Dungeons and Dragons but D&D is the one that stuck after its release in 1974– and much like its philosophical cousin, The Ouija Board, it ran a chill through the hardcore Christian, anti-satanist set. You know what D&D is. You’re hip.

As a goddamn king of nerds, it should come as no surprise that George RR Martin was (and apparently still is) an enthusiast. Apparently, several authors felt that Dungeons and Dragons served as a smelly basement boot camp for writing fiction. In the article previously linked, Ball University Assistant Professor Jennifer Grouling explains:

“D&D is completely in the imagination and the rules are flexible — you don’t have the same limitations” of fiction, or even of a programmed video game, she said. A novel is ultimately a finished thing, written, edited and published, its story set in stone. In D&D, the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.

I want you to pin that notion of story-fluidity behind your ear for a minute or two while we go into the fact that Martin himself ran a long, long campaign of a table-top RPG called Super World in the 80s. Beginning to realize that playing games was not a financially sustainable means of existing, Martin and his gang of hooligan-author friends did what anyone would do– they rewrote the rules of the game in such a way that their campaigns could be transcribed into novels and thereby published. It’s called Wild Cards and the whole story behind its origin is summed up pretty neatly here. Apparently, there’s a TV show in the works, offering hope to all us schlubby punks making art for our friends’ sake.

During this time, Martin went back and forth between trying to jumpstart a serious fiction career and writing for TV.  Suddenly, and forgive me if I’m wrong, he writes a scene he remembered from a dream he had. That’d be the Starks finding the Direwolves, the seed that’d become Ice and Fire. 

I say seed intentionally, because Martin sees himself as a gardener of stories. In his words:

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

I’ll tell ya, architect and gardner are way better names than what the writing community at large has claimed to distinguish themselves as: plotters (which is self-explanatory) and pantsers (ugh, because one writes at the seat of their pants). It’s essentially the difference between folk who chart out every scene ahead of time and those who explore the words they’re writing while writing. Most authors are a mix of both. And I think it’s important to demystify Martin as some evil curmudgeon whose hiding the blueprints to your favorite dragon-murder-porno and instead see him as a person and an author who’s working on a project that means a lot to him.

It’s not that he doesn’t outline either, but it’s more accurate to say that he strategizes. Apparently an early outline married Tyrion and Arya together and Jaime became king after simply murdering everyone else (kind of like a evil run in a Bethesda game). But that would’ve robbed the story of Tyrion’s integrity of his sudden chastity with Sansa and Jaime’s turn from selfish, impetuous murder machine to self-reflective, all-around good amputee guy (*cough* excludingtheweirdrapeofhissisteronhisson’scorpse *cough*). That’s where the fluidity of viewing an epic fantasy from a bird’s eye view becomes advantageous–  you can see missteps before you make them and then correct course.

It’s why I think Martin views his own work as a table-top RPG that he’s playing with himself (and his audience). It’s documented that he’s a creative type who enjoys transferring table-top antics to words. It’s also documented that he writes an average of 350 words a day. But he has a lot, I’m speculating, a lot of notes and spends a lot, I’m speculating again, a lot of time strategizing.

Several authors I’ve come into contact with, fantasy or otherwise, have a bible of character and world information. It’s full of details. It’ll tell you that x character has brown eyes and z forest is deciduous and Lady HatchetVagina got her moniker ironically. And no doubt Martin has one as well– in fact he writes that shit into his books. Fuckin’ Ned Detective runs through the Baratheon Genealogy to find the golden-haired discrepancy that gets his goddamn clock ticked. There’s a whole chapter (maybe more? Clash of Kings is so big) where Jaime just pages through the White Book, describing all of the feats the White Cloak knights accomplished (some of which is narratively-super important, some not). Martin has definitely put the work in here. But understand, the work built upon itself while it was being written. World building expands. The fog of war dissipates as one moves in a direction. Things change as we look at them. 

The way it still strikes relevant is the fact that the dude spent his fantasy life in the company of other human-beings. If you’ll permit me a stark (heh) deviation to Roberto Bolaño and his (arguably) worst book,  Third Reich. It’s still, ugh, the best fiction out there. At least philosophically. The best I can try to explain what the book is about: a man goes on vacation to a Spanish beach, stays after his vacation (long after his girlfriend leaves), plays a table-top game of WWII, becomes obsessed with a local vagabond, the vagabond beats him at the game, dude fears that the guy is going to kill him and then the vagabond doesn’t kill him. While I’m fairly sure it’s a coded message to express Bolańo’s bisexuality, the novel maintains a descriptive handle on the game’s movements throughout (tediously so), while the main character wraps himself in isolation and paranoia with the exception of his homeless friend. It’s essentially a story about strategizing alone which is ultimately futile. War– like books, games, and art– requires engagement. In isolation the narrator, a German, forgets his own values and plays the Axis. The homeless guy, who is crazy but ultimately virtuous, plays the Allies and, despite being an amateur at the game, wins. This decimates and ultimately liberates the narrator.

From that deviation, I’ll take away two things. The first, as suggested above, is that Martin strategizes in response to other people. He understands the expectations and he knows how to subvert them almost perfectly (read: the definition of irony) which is what makes him such a bastard sometimes. The game he’s playing is against us and to quote Grouling again, “anything can happen,” in a game where “the rules are flexible.”

The second thing I’ll take away is the notion of values. One of my first posts on this site was about how you could use D&D to determine a character for your novel and it would be 10 times more believable than jotting down notes on a profile. Values override details every single time. Because details should serve to express value.

The character of the Hound (the best character! Fuck you! HooooyooooUUUUND!) maintains a certain value set throughout the books and show even though our first introduction to him is his ironic and cynical slaughtering of a young boy (the Han shot first of GoT). But his values become clear, slowly, as Martin is keen to show and not tell us. Lil Clegane’s main value is that he, in nearly every other happenstance, protects children (which makes his boy-slaughtering that much more of a sin). Later we find out why. Still, he protects the Child King Joffrey, then saves Sansa, before becoming Arya’s drunk and chicken-filled father-replacement. He’s a murderer who hates knights, doesn’t go out of his way to hurt women (equivalent to Westeros feminism, I guess?), and keeps the kiddies safe (save the one).

That’s why for three quarters of A Feast For Crows you’re heartbroken to learn that The Hound is raping and killing women and looting towns in the salt pans. Your expectations combat your understanding of the man you’ve begrudgingly come to respect and admire. The “oh-shit” moment happens in a turn of dialogue between Brienne and some old religious fucker who explains that it was Rorge, the noseless douche that kept harassing Arya “with a stick”, that had donned the Hound helm and used that brand recognition to pillage with his brigands. The godly man explains that the Hound died while a man who 100% resembles Sandor Clegane digs graves in the background. In the show, Sandor assists the building of a temple. In both cases it’s assumed that the death of The Hound is a symbolic path to reach forgiveness and atone for his sins through labor (the dorkier among you will nod and solemnly agree that this is the work of the Smith). Through the humiliation of physical work, The Hound transforms into Sandor Clegane, culminating in the scene in the televised series where Sandor attempts to properly bury the farmers that he himself had doomed to death by robbing them a few seasons earlier. He doesn’t seem unquieted by his past, but he continues to make a good effort to support those around him who are trying to make things better.

Just. Like. A dog.

That might be one of the most satisfying character arcs ever written and it works because the characters values remained the same but it required a few hundred pages and six seasons to finally realize them.

I don’t think I’m blowing any minds by saying that Ice and Fire is one big table-top experience. The intro to GoT literally resembles a game-map, complete with ticky-tacky toy-like renderings of the regions involved (wiiiiiith a game-chip circling the construction of Old Town). But it works effectively once transcribed to a literary experience because games have rules and players have values. 

That sentence alone explains the bulk of conflict in the series. Each house has a motto which serves as a rule. They also have repeated sayings which express values.

The Lannister motto is “Hear Me Roar,” while their repeated saying is “A Lannister always pay their debts.” Martin throws us another saying said about the Lannisters: “Lannisters lie.” Tyrion and Tywin play the game by the value of paying off debts to obtain loyalty and assure their own safety/regard. Cersei and Jaime (initially) play the game by the second value of deceit. But they all show their ferocity when push comes to shove and we see what happens when one value clashes against another. [insert “twang” foley]

The Boltons’ motto/rule is “Our Knives Are Sharp,” while their saying/value is “A naked man has few secrets; a flayed man none.” Roose plays by the rule, which is more in line with shady treaties and backstabbing, while Ramsey plays by the value of demonstrating cruelty. Playing by the rule changes the political landscape, while the value ultimately sinks the Bolton house into the grave.

And yes, you have the ever-memed Stark motto of “Winter is Coming,” and the saying “A Stark must always be in Winterfell.” Eddard died because he violated both. By heading south to deal with the politics of King’s Landing, he (albeit reluctantly) forsook his charge as steward of the northern defense against the wights/wildlings and brought Arya and Sansa along with him, leaving Robb alone to the Bolton’s manipulations and Bran, still comatose and crippled, to be strong-armed out of control of the municipality by Theon. The saying and value “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell” is a regional one, essentially saying that without a sense of nobility present, the north will fall to the cruelty of the likes of those fuckface Boltons or taken advantage of by the likes of those goddamn pirate Greyjoys. Currently, HBO-wise, it’s Jon Snow and Sansa upholding the motto and verse of the Starks, hence their survival.

I could go on, but I’m getting interrupted by this sound in the air… Do you hear that? That’s the sound of my virginity re-crystalizing. I learned what fuckin’ GURPS was for a free article on the internet. And I even held myself back from applying stats to characters (Tyrion: INT-8, STR-3; Jaime: INT-3, STR-9 then 2; Robb: INT-5, Str-8; Arya: INT-6, STLTH-9; Sam: INT-7, STR-1, STLTH-0, MGC-0, VIT-0; Melisdandre: MGC-9, TT-10; The Mountain: 10 everything except PSN RSTNC) because there’s a goddamn table top for Game of Thrones now. Cracked.com (before they sold to Scripps and Facebook leveraged the value of video content, essentially fucking up earning projections for every website you used to enjoy) made a video satirizing the likelihood of GoT making the tabletop circuit, leading to madness, betrayal and insanity.

I’m not mad about the RGP (I’LL GET DOWN OFF THIS LEDGE WHEN I GODDAMN FEEL LIKE IT), if it means ushering in another generation of innovative storytellers, but it strikes me as redundant. Martin’s JOB right now is to tell you how the game goes. You can pull a Third Reich and test your own values to try to make it go differently, but what’s the point when you could change the rules and write your own  damn thing?

Again, I’ll quote Grouling: “the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.”

The closest thing Manchot has to a fantasy epic at this time is a genre-bending comedy between Science Fiction and Fantasy featuring a trio of siblings bumbling through a happy-go-lucky nuclear wasteland. It’s called The Fish Fox Boys and you can start reading it here. ffb2_small

A Game of Thrones: Genre Smashing

A Game of Thrones: Genre Smashing

How the fuck did George R.R. Martin fool the general public into a near crack-addictive obsession with his Song of Ice and Fire?

Fantasy had always been this niche enterprise, an interest in which could get your ass kicked around a schoolyard. Even with the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, your dedication to the series determined how big of an ugly nerd you’d be judged as: “Oh, you read the books? Us cool kids only saw the movies! And, yeah, and, and we were necking! Ask Gracie if I wasn’t ploughing that neck like some sex god!”

Fantasy was so niche that the other end of the spectrum held similar defense mechanisms if you weren’t into it enough: “Oh, you haven’t even read the Similarion? Nice try, n00b. Me and Gracie were necking while discussing Idril’s lineage, like, twenty minutes ago before you showed up with your Aragorn-loving ass.”

Yet everyone gets into Game of Thrones. My dad’s read the entire series and I’m pretty sure he has a religious allergy to chocolate milk. My friends are fiends for the latest episodes and they all have theories. The nicest, old, old, ladies that ride the bus with me are holding Fire & Blood.

I wanna know why this polarized genre has found such a universal audience. So let’s start with the aforementioned properties that brought fantasy into the mainstream, shall we?

Twenty two years ago, a down-on-her-luck gal named Joanne Murray (JK Rowling to most) published a little book known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (translated to the Sorcerer’s Stone for dumb American children). I myself read it in fifth grade and had a grand old talking-to with my teacher about the temptation of dark magic and its road to Satanism. Lutheran school. The book, and its subsequent six sequels, became a hit and a filmic phenomenon.

So why did Harry Potter break?

Well, Rowling was able to make the fantastical element of sorcery almost livable, enriching all of the daily elements of being a student, teacher, government employee, etcetera, with the pizazz of mysticism. Her tactic was to bring down magic to the ordinary, the familiar–  all of which would seem magical to the focal character who hadn’t experienced anything of the sort, just like the book’s readership. For young readers, going to school then became more exciting with a magical analogue, knowing that chemistry was potion making, soccer was Quidditch, and email was a bajillion electronic owls throwing messages back and forth.

She broke fantasy into a common tongue. While she didn’t invent Urban Fantasy as a genre, she made it accessible for young readers to grab onto in an empathetic way.

Aight.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, Tolkien managed the same feat. He followed up a fun, happy-go-lucky-go-wrong-go-lucky-again little romp called The Hobbit (ever heard of it?) and then followed it up with the masterwork earned from a life spent in academic research through mythology, Olde English, history, and the horrors he’d witnessed in World War One. And he needed to make it accessible.

Perhaps it’s his skill as an orator– much like the Velvet Underground leading to punk music, his reading of Beowulf apparently sparked a surge of interest into re-investigating the works in the olde tongue. Tolkien put his performative skills to the page knowing that his writing style needed to establish a mythos and lore similar to that of England’s storied history and mythology, while also remaining serviceable to the everyday reader. While he wrote in an archaic format, Tolkien would generally keep his prose fairly modern, allowing the uneducated masses (especially in America, which enabled his success) to finally access that sweet, sweet burgeoning Fantasy genre.

Which brings us back to George Rawr Rawr Martin. How’d he make Fantasy a universal genre? Martin, like Tolkien, was also guided by the possibilities of mythology, European history, and Catholicism (“lapsed” in Martin’s case) and brought the genre once again into the mainstream. Why so popular? Could it have been the more lenient censors? The blood? The violence? The big ole Red Witch titties? Igh…the incest? Sex and violence is nothing new, and while it certainly sells, it’s no guarantee of success. I think the motherfucker had the same instincts Rowling and Tolkien relied upon, updated with a life devoted to pop-cultural nerd shit.

He knew he needed to show us something familiar, whether we realized it or not. Instead of having us draw comparisons between the fantastical and the ordinary, Martin instead draws us into the fantasy by showing us a story we already find exciting:

Game of Thrones doesn’t start off in the Fantasy genre. It begins as Horror. A snowy glen, a doll-like corpse pinned to a tree comes back to life with blue fire in its eyes. It’s after the grisly aftermath of the White Walkers, when the deserter/survivor’s message gets cut short, doth the fantasy begin with a dark promise. The king visits, giving us a personae dramatis for the non-Stark players, and provides a launching pad for several story arcs, each with their own blurred genres. A political thriller foments when the alarming message that John Arryn has been murdered arrives. The forbidden romance between the Lannister twins is discovered. Jon Snow’s hero journey from Bastard to Badass begins by getting hammered. Sansa’s maturation story from a naïve believer in fairy-tales towards a well-versed decoder of deception is well set, as is Arya’s road from misfit to assassin. Tyrion gets his end wet.

All of these threads we are willing to follow. The bulk of the first book, however, is devoted to Ned Stark, who serves as the primary protagonist. And although his character is embroiled in political chaos and familial complexity, his narrative drive is identical to a hardboiled detective’s.

That’s right, bitches. I’m making this about noir. NED DETECTIVE.

Once he reaches King’s Landing, Ned’s arc falls into the classic structure of a steel-jawed man interviewing a sequence of people looking for the truth. His self-appointed charge is to prove that Cersei’s children ain’t his buddy Bobby Baratheon’s. Ned’s story is based in inquisition in search of the truth, for truth’s sake. Hence, he pokes around the government, he pokes around the common folk, pokes Gendry in the shoulder, he pokes around the ledgers. And he uncovers the scandal and confronts the Femme Fatale. Unlike your average noir thriller, the protagonist is beheaded in front of his daughters.

Which serves as the inciting incident for all of the other plot lines, each one a mishmash of genre regardless of the fantasy setting. A broken-man with a soft-spot for protecting naïve children? With a vendetta against his brother who injured him in their youth? Who finds the value of life through working with common, defenseless people? But still likes killing people? Without context, I’d say with 70% certainty, that I was describing a Kurosawa film. You know who I’m referring to.

Genre-smashing isn’t new.

The aforementioned Akira Kurosawa defined a generation of Japanese cinema by imbuing traditional samurai legends with the genre-specific elements of the western. You can follow this thread for awhile:  Blade Runner is pure noir slammed into a complete science-fiction setting. True Detective: Season One is noir, sure, but injected with the DNA of a buddy cop film, TV police procedural, and cosmic horror. Robert Brockway’s The Vicious Circuit series mixes punk-rock and some of the vilest horror I’ve ever put in my brain (and you should too). Evil Dead II mixes horror with slapstick comedy, while Slaughterhouse V mixes a horrifying account of World War II with quirky science fiction.

It comes down to the same science of making a good mixtape. The advice that my brother gave me on mixtape compilation: “You want to balance novelty with nostalgia.”

The reason is digestibility. You’re more willing to eat your first oyster if you spritz some lemon on it. The familiar makes the unknown easier to handle. The dark complexity of Blade Runner makes more sense if you’re slumming through the streets along with Rickard. True Detective: The turn from existential pessimism towards existential optimism would be way too heady and pedantic unless you had both Cohle and Hart find their Yellow King. The the reality of war in Slaughterhouse V would burden the reader with too much emotional weight unless it was delivered in a way that let the reader escape and put things in perspective just as the narrator describes the horrific events.

Taking one thing and smashing it into another thing is the basis of innovation. It’s the proverbial “you got my peanut butter in your chocolate.” It’s the reason pizzas are sold on bagels, the reason your fridge has a freezer attached to it. It needs to happen at a certain point and it happens on a near instinctual level– ask anyone who’s ever had to write music reviews of local artists: “They’re like Modest Mouse meets The Ramones– if Joey had range.” Science Fiction, at a certain point, was essentially a bunch of pulp drivel until pioneers such as Phillip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem came along and embedded a deep sense of meaning into it, reflecting our own lives, views, and the philosophies they were enchanted by. Hardboiled pulp detective fiction was wrangled by Hammet and Chandler until Ellroy elevated it to literary standards. Hell, you look at the progression of comic books, a medium nearly entirely written off because of its fringe appeal– and now those characters are currently dominating the box offices. The success and/or legacy of which comes down to the fact that the creators held the format of one thing in one hand and enmeshed it into the social topics of gender roles, race, sexuality, or insecurity– it stays relevant.

Game of Thrones is rooted in the fantasy world specific to Martin’s brain. What Martin has that other fantasy writers lack, is a cool understanding of the genres around him. He’s the über nerd who understands everything under the banner of geekdom, inside and out. It’s so complete that I’d wager you could remove the fantasy element entirely and you’d still be left with a competent and enjoyable series. Which gets close to answering my initial question:

Because there’s something that anyone could recognize as their favorite genre, everybody can get into it.

 

Pierre Manchot blends Fantasy with Science Fiction and Dystopia in his humorous series The Fish Fox Boys, the third book of which is soon to be published. Get caught up starting with the first novel here re_cover_small

 

Biographical details lifted from Wizard and the Bruiser episodes of JRR Tolkien and G.RR. Martin:

(https://soundcloud.com/wizbru/jrr-tolkiens-the-lord-of-the-rings-pt-i)

(https://soundcloud.com/wizbru/game-of-thrones)

Case For (and Against) True Detective Season 2

Case For (and Against) True Detective Season 2

Season 3 of True Detective is rolling out some premium episodes, oozing with mysterious juices while drawing up another intricate web of deceit and dark psychology. The third take in the miniseries is more grounded than it’s predecessors–  the set designs, shooting locations and wardrobe are more understated than ever before and feel worn and degraded or otherwise perfectly tacky in that chintzy 80s kind of way. They absolutely nail what it feels like to be inside a civic building in the south with the 1990 police interview shots– claustrophobic, ancient, with bare, tan brick walls. The season’s coming into its own, keeping the story as simple as possible but unraveling it in a convoluted way. Like the old mystery-writing adage goes, “Write the ending first, then work backwards,” or in Season 3’s case, “Write the ending first, then jump all over the place.”

Pizzolatto must have learned from the Sophomore season’s mistakes, which utilized the narrative strategy of “make a story as impossibly convoluted as possible, make all of the convolutions essentially worthless to the story, but make it look cool as hell.” Despite all that, I’m not a hater on Season 2. It looks cool as hell and delivered several wonderful TV moments and surprisingly subtle touches in a season otherwise over-rife with crying, moody staring, and balls-to-the-wall violence.

There many reasons people thought Season 2 didn’t work. In my estimate, about half of it fell on the production. Part of what made Season 1 so powerful was its directorial tone with Cary Fukunaga eking out harrowing shots from the Louisiana landscape. Whether or not that could’ve been replicated is besides the point, the first season felt complete. Season 2 had 5 directors for 8 episodes. They do a good job in making the LA landscape seem like a futile wasteland as well as transforming the woodland areas into something unspeakably sinister. Still, with that many directors, there’s gonna be some jank between episodes, and the stylistic flourishes of each director combat that of the others. And you can feel it.

A lot of people flared their anger towards the casting director and Vince Vaughn caught the brunt of the hate. I enjoyed Vince Vaughn as Frank Semyon. While some couldn’t get over his filmography of being a wedding crasher or the hippie dipshit that causes all the grief in Jurassic Park: Lost World, I’ll never disparage an actor for trying something different in their career– hell, travel back in time to the 1980’s and tell audiences Bill fucken’ Murray will have a resurgence as a dramatic actor in the early 2000’s and you’d be beaten to death with a Ghost-Busters lunchbox. I enjoyed the little flourishes that made Frank Semyon a subtle character: he was a low-class hood and now that he’s the boss of a casino, he only drinks Johnny Walker Blue which is a scotch that your annoying-as-hell whiskey nerd friend (Hi!) will tell you is basically Johnny Walker Green in a nicer bottle and a 250 dollar price disparity. It’s a perfect emblem of Semyon– a cheap thug in an expensive suit. That shit? Works. 

A finely-dressed thug who uses 20-dollar words like “apoplectic?” It… uh. Sounds awkward and comes off as shitty but it… works? Or at least, I get what Pizzolatto is trying to get across. That Semyon’s word-choice, just like his brand of whiskey, are examples of his overcompensation for his meager circumstances when he was younger.

But the awkward way that that the “apoplectic” line hits the screen gets to the heart of why Season 2 is the Schröedinger’s cat of True Detective– in that it works and yet doesn’t work at the same time. To figure out the paradox, let’s look at Pizzolatto’s writing method, his inspirations, temperament, and the politics of Hollywood.

First, let’s start with the writing method. Pizzolatto is a one man band (previous to Season 3) and whether or not that’s born from an impulse to protect your intellectual property (an impulse I wholeheartedly understand) or a self-serving genius-complex that “I’m the only one who understands this story,” (an impulse, I also, kinda, understand) the man demanded to write the season alone.

Here’s what an HBO exec has to say:

I’ll tell you something. Our biggest failures — and I don’t know if I would consider True Detective 2 — but when we tell somebody to hit an air date as opposed to allowing the writing to find its own natural resting place, when it’s ready, when it’s baked — we’ve failed. And I think in this particular case, the first season of True Detective was something that Nic Pizzolatto had been thinking about, gestating, for a long period of time. He’s a soulful writer. I think what we did was go, ‘Great.’ And I take the blame. I became too much of a network executive at that point. We had huge success. ‘Gee, I’d love to repeat that next year.’

More established writers have already pointed out that a yearly production schedule is generally necessary when writing a series. Hell, Game of Thrones has been flying without the captain hand of Martin’s novels for two seasons now and it still manages to be coherent, entertaining, and generally great (a few caveats, maybe) year after year. The difference is Thrones has a writing team instead of a one man show– just like every other show on television. The exec quoted above is certainly not wrong when he said that Pizzolatto had been cooking up Rust Cohle’s and Marty Hart’s existential trip into horror for a while. 

Anyone who’s read Pizzolatto’s virgin novel, Galveston, knows that he cannibalized several traits from the protagonist to bolster Cohle’s eccentric vibe. I don’t fault him for that, as it made Cohle a more magnetic character. Reading Galveston in its entirety, however, is a disappointment. Its written as if Cormac McCarthy wrote a Texan Modern Noir and then it just kind of falls apart after the first half. (I’ve tried my own hand at this exact genre with my free novelette, Crimson Stain. Reviews are mixed, to say the least, so I can’t fault the man.)

While taking full custody of the writing rights sounds like a good thing in a contract to protect your baby, know that a year ain’t quite a year in Hollywood’s calendar. Scripts have deadlines and 480+ minutes of entertainment must be written and shown to producers. With a room of writers, you have a spectrum of people telling you what does and doesn’t work with a story. Without that feedback, you might dig yourself into a hole. Hemingway said, “Develop a built-in bullshit detector.” If the writing sucks, someone will tell you. Hard to do when you’re penning a show yourself. It’s represented nearly perfectly in the “apoplectic” scene: Velcoro doesn’t foil Semyon in the way that would make that scene–that word– work, by telling him to shove his fancy language up his zoot-suit, the same way no one was there to edit Pizzolatto’s more fanciful dialogue. But hey, sometimes, you’re George Lucas. Sometimes you’re an English professor who impressed his way into Hollywood with a perfect show and was then forced under a gun to write another season.

Now, I’m going to take some time to discuss The Big Nowhere, a novel by James Ellroy and the second entry in his La Quartet. Nearly everyone can, on some level, remember LA Confidential (a pretty good film featuring Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe, and, igh, Kevin Spacey) and yet it is forgotten that it’s part of a four-part series. The reason being, other than the disaster of the 2006 film Black Dahlia, his other books have been in film production purgatory– especially The Big Nowhere, a project that George Clooney had tried to push through the pipes for 15 years. The problem is film copy-write law. And it’s as convoluted as a murder mystery, so keep with me, folks.

So. Names of characters in a movie where one film company holds the rights cannot be used by another film company who holds rights of a different entry in the series. Sounds like a small deal? Imagine if the film rights to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was purchased by Paramount while The Chamber of Secrets was purchased by TriStar. Tristar would be legally obligated to rename the seriesall of the main characters and potentially the main fucking conflict itself, since it corresponded to the first novel! And that’s what happened to the  LA Quartet (and thousands of stories, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry one of them.) Thus the script of The Big Nowhere had so many names replaced and its plot-points altered, that it no longer resembled the initial story, whatsoever. Hence, it died in Hollywood utero.

While we’re on this tear, let’s talk about how the film LA Confidential fucked up two major things. One, the gregarious and Irish Homicide Captain, Dudley Smith,  gets clipped at the end of the movie. Given that he’s the through-line villain of the entire fuckin’ series, making the sequel, White Jazz, an impossibility. Two, they re-write the character of Buzz Meeks to serve as a pathetic, fat, corrupt cop who gets shot in the first fucking act.

If you’ve read LA Confidential, you’ll recognize Buzz Meeks as the poor fucker whom Dudley shoots in the prologue. If you’ve read The Big Nowhere, you’ll recognize that he’s the baddest motherfucker in the entire Quartet. He’s ex-police, a romantic, white trash, serves the mob, and holds a heart of gold, as pure as it can be in the 50’s, who tries to pull a heist on the biggest corrupt cop of all time.

Pizzolatto wanted his Buzz and Meeks it too. Thus he split him into two characters: Ray Velcoro and Frank Semyon. Velcoro: the corrupt cop, boosting drugs and working with known criminals, doing extra-curricular brutality to provide for his son. Semyon: the low-class thug whose violence gave him a ticket to a higher societal standing, whose bid for a better standing signs his death warrant.

You might notice that having the same character talk to each other doesn’t exactly equal a dialectic foil like Marty Hart vs Rust Cohle. Velcoro talking to Semyon is interesting, but there’s less of a didactical back and forth in terms of personality and more of an ironic power exchange in that the mob boss is directing (and sometimes fathering) the cop. There’s some cool shit there, but it’s barely explored.

Taylor Kitsch’s character, Paul Woodrough, is almost damn near unnecessary. He’s interesting, despite the revelation that he’s gay was a decade late on social-progressivism. It’s my belief that he was inserted to mime the story of Danny Upshaw in The Big Nowhere, a detective who nearly solved a brutal psycho-sexual string of murders but was ultimately manipulated into committing suicide because the threat of revealing his homosexuality. Woodrough’s character has some redeeming qualities and serves to give the team tactical leverage when they get caught in a colossal fire-fight in Episode 4, but his personal hangups don’t lead to much thematically.

Rick Springfield plays a ghoul of a plastic surgeon and I’m sure that everyone watching was pretty satisfied when Colin Farrel knocked his teeth out. It’s the mirror image of yet another Ellroy character, one who performs plastic surgery on sex-workers to make them appear like celebrities (in Season 2, it’s “8 to 10s!”).

There’s more to corroborate my theory, but my take on True Detective Season 2, is that Nic Pizzolatto was attempting to finally bring to screen The Big Nowhere in a ham-fisted way that was set in his own world. And in that way, he kind of succeeded. Given that we’re never going to see The Big Nowhere hit the screen anytime soon, there is a part of me that champions Pizzolatto’s attempts as somewhat heroic. It’s agreeable to the namesake of the series in a philosophical sense– True Detective was once a magazine that offered a wide variety of pulp hard-boiled noir that served as inspiration for the noir film movement. Noir-God Raymond Chandler has gone on record saying that Phillip Marlowe was a product of “the pulps,” combining elements from other writers and characters to forge his own. It then makes sense to me that you’d want the television series to draw upon all sorts of influences and have direct nods to the works that defined the genre, old and new alike. The fact that Star Wars is Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress mashed up with Flash Gordon doesn’t diminish my love for A New Hope. 

So does True Detective Season 2 work?

Again, yes and no.

Narratively, I think it comes down to the fact that Pizzolatto was trying to tell one story while also trying to transcribe another in the same story. It destabilizes the bones. Not that you can’t tell two stories at once with the noir format– Chandler’s The Long Goodbye pulls this off and that’s generally accepted as the best Marlowe novel.

Perhaps then, it is a matter of focus. I can see that Pizzolatto and his co-writers are determined to deliver something we haven’t seen before. They aren’t going for razzle and dazzle spectacle, which I appreciate– they’re not simply trying to up the ante after last season’s bloodbath– but instead work on torquing personal relationships and complicated regional politics. So far, Season 3 makes the promise that this story is nothing but focused… even if the main protagonist isn’t.