Spatial Symbolism: The House

Spatial Symbolism: The House

Because I have friends and friends talk sometimes, it came to be that a friend and I were talking about laundromats. I like laundromats. I like the soothing, repetitive noises of clothing soup getting sloshed around in a centrifuge and the rhythmic metallic clinking of “poor ovens.”

A theory as to why we love laundromats so much comes from Shawn Coyne’s analysis of Silence of the Lambs (mentioned several times in the Story Grid podcast),  wherein he points out a scene right before Starling decides to go investigate the first victim’s house. The scene is simple and quiet. Starling does some laundry. Coyne’s point is that this is a “return to the womb” so that Starling can be reborn into her decision to defy her orders. Specifically, he points out that the rhythm of the machines and the sloshing of the water resembles a mother’s heartbeat and the rushing noise of amniotic fluid that we, as babies, attach to as sensory reminders of the safety we felt while in utero. It works as a solid symbol.

I tried to recreate a similar scenario in The Least of 99 Evils with a scene where the main character, Riley, takes a shower and changes clothes before adopting the most pivotal role in the novel. I was trying to suggest to the reader’s subconscious that a baptism of sorts had occurred. That changes have registered.  I think it works, but we have a much more sinister association with bathrooms that I had previously thought.

There’s this episode of Cracked.com’s “Looking the Part,” that examines what makes the bathroom so harrowing in pop culture and media (shower death scenes are plentiful after the quintessential Psycho, Vincent dies while leaving the bathroom in Pulp Fiction, that guy in the first season of The Sopranos gets shot in the tub, The Dude in The Big Lebowski is attacked while getting far-out in his bathtub, that scene in the X-Files when that leach falls out of that dude, medicine cabinet mirror jump scares… etc). Their suggestion is that because grooming habits have become a solitary activity for human beings since the middle ages, the bathroom is the one place where someone is the most vulnerable and that naturally creates an opportunity for a thrilling scene that will directly register with an audiences’ familiarity of being totally alone.

So I got to thinking that maybe there other broad symbols we associate with the anatomy of a house and by identifying what symbols we associate with what rooms, a writer could benefit from accurately setting certain scenes in these spaces.

The first one that leapt out to is the basement. The basement is where the secret is stored. A true crime example of this would be how John Wayne Gacy buried 33 bodies in his basement as a way of dissociating himself from his crimes, essentially keeping it separate from his primary personality. Likewise, the zombies are stored in the basement in Dead Alive, the shameful burial of the archaeologist’s wife occurs in the basement of Evil Dead II (with great payoff), and Breaking Bad‘s Walter White keeps his first drug-world rival and first murder victim in, wait for it, the basement. The Burbs even brings us into that space by the film’s culmination, justifying Tom Hanks’s paranoia by revealing hundreds of skeletons present in his neighbors’ furnace. Perhaps because we associate that space with darkness, we also attach fear. This is a common enough attachment– we fear what we can’t see, and we see this part of the house the least often– on top of it being, generally, poorly lit. Just to indulge another example: A B-plotline that registered with me as a kid was Home Alone‘s sequencing of getting over the fear of the basement furnace. It personified perfectly the fear a child experiences when encountering a space that they don’t know very well as well as machinery that they don’t understand.

If the basement is where you place scenes of fear and horror then what of the basement’s maligned sibling the attic? The attic’s symbolism revolves around the mind. You know that old phrase, “toys in the attic?” That’s a folksy way of saying that someone is insane. If the top of the cranium is where the brain resides, then so to must the “mind” of the house. Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea utilize this by restraining the crazy woman in the attic. So does The Yellow Wallpaper. Even if we’re not talking about mental unwellness, the attic serves as a venue for cerebral exploration. The entire plot of The Goonies starts by finding a map in the attic, but the better example here is The Never Ending Story– the entire thing is the imaginative exercise of a child reading a book in the attic. Goddamn Beetlejuice spends over half the movie in the attic, most of which is spent, not ghosting the shit out of the inhabitants, but rather, wrapping the characters’ heads around the concept that they are dead. It’s the mental space.

The bedroom is usually reserved for sex. In adult-themed media. You rarely get a glimpse of what an adult’s bedroom actually looks like. It’s the punctuation of sexual achievement– a dude carries a lady into a bedroom. Cut to pillow-talk followed by a source of unnecessary conflict. Right? Except in more juvenile-aged marketed media where the bedroom is a refuge. You think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Three Ninjas, Gleaming the Cube… the prepubescent bedroom becomes a space of personal expression and safety. Which makes sense in the human experience– that’s the only place where a teenager has any control over their own lives, even if that control is over which posters go up on the walls. But whether it’s for sex or personal rejuvenation (and general character building), the bedroom is almost never used as a primary stage for for plot. Exceptions to this are, of course, Toy Story (wherein the bedroom is represented as a town of sorts, and doesn’t really count) and Nightmare on Elm Street (wherein the bedroom, a vulnerable time, becomes a door for a broader stage. Johnny Depp getting absolutely eviscerated, though, remains one of my favorite film moments).

The staircase has stood reliably as an opportunity for one character to spy upon another character. And this is consistent from H.P. Lovecraft to J.K. Rowling: when a piece of information needs to be discussed and then overheard by the protagonist, the protagonist will linger on the staircase. That might divide the house into two distinct levels of trustworthiness to match its literal stories– the lower level is untrustworthy, whereas the hero always sneaks down from the upper stories. While it serves as a bridge in its architectural purpose, it’s not redundant to point out that it serves as a metaphorical bridge between two parties and the vehicle conveyed between them is generally unintentional information.

Kitchens are an interesting beast. The idea is always to portray family in a day in the life. How that family is portrayed with the kitchen is up to the author. In The Godfather Part II, a family is shown falling away from the uninterested Michael Corleone around a dinner table. Likewise, you have family comedies like The Simpsons or Malcom in the Middle where, despite the chaotics antics of the individual characters, they still come together for meals and create the status quo of the familial unit. From those two examples, we always come back to the status quo of dysfunctional, quirky families that support each other in dysfunctional, quirky ways. The status quo of the family in American Beauty is established with a similar scene, although any semblance of casual or warm acknowledgement is replaced with cold, forced and even scripted dialogue. Harkening back to Home Alone, the initial kitchen scene is one of immense chaos with a broad range of characters. Which sets up the essential conflict of the film and justifies it with a few, short scenes– there’s a lot of kids. One of them could get overlooked. (There’s also my favourite line, “You’re what the French call ‘les incompetent’.”)

Living rooms are for Christmas and people getting murdered. I’ve literally got nothing else on that.

The End of the World as We Nevermind

The End of the World as We Nevermind

A joke I’ve seen circulating social media quite often is this: “Stop writing dystopian fiction, you’re only giving the government ideas.”

The joke, I guess, is that because dystopias are often written to underline specific and problematic societal and political norms by satirically torquing those values to their ridiculous breaking point, that it eventually and unintentionally normalizes the extreme examples that the author used to point out the absurdities of modern living.

Ha. Ha.

And to that point I’ll challenge the notion that George Orwell was some kind of prophet. 1984 stands as the quintessential dystopian novel, portraying a harrowing world of an omni-present yet ambiguous authority and panopticonical surveillance. And one leaps to think that Orwell is describing the future that we now live in, given how many things line up with our modern experiences with totalitarianism and the invasive practices of the NSA. I don’t want to diminish the modern relevance of the work. It’s currently significant, but what I want to make clear is that it was as significant when Orwell wrote it. He wasn’t a prophet so much as he was a scholar of how fascism operates through the arms of bureaucracy. Nazis rewarded those who provided information about their Jewish neighbors; spy networks have almost always been a tactic of every militarily-minded society; population surveillance has been the wet dream of dictatorships everywhere (it used to look like intercepting written letters, now it’s tapping into Smart TVs and that goddamn Alexa as well as examining piles of metadata); fascists have a tendency to make their face ubiquitous with pithy catchphrases underneath; populations, as a whole, have a tendency to react to things emotionally instead of rationally (compare the 2 Minute Hate to Tweet Storms about anything). I could go on, but the point I’m making here is this: George Orwell wasn’t trying to depict the future, he was describing his present using allegorical science fiction.

Let’s back up. All the way up. We wouldn’t have dystopias without utopias. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, a fictional travelogue that came out in the early 1500’s, describes an outsider’s perspective of an ethical, puritanical island that operates under a strict set of benevolent rules that serves everybody’s best interests.

Everybody’s best guess is that Utopia is a satire, aping medieval Europe’s more liberal tendencies. It is, in fact, it’s own dystopia. If it was considered satire by More’s contemporaries, modern thought would look at it as a fucked up 4th world country. Slavery, pre-marital bonin’ punished by a lifetime of celibacy, women strictly relegated to the role of home-making, etcetera. Utopias don’t purely exist in fiction (and don’t give me Paradiso as an example, that shit is boring as… well, not hell, because Inferno was ultimately more satisfying to read.) because there is no under-riding conflict. If that sound familiar, then GOOD. That means you read my dumb musings on conflict months ago. Have a chocolate.

And so we’re back to dystopias. How come we love them so much? And does that reason vary from culture to culture?

The most recent episode of Wizard and the Bruiser brought up an excellent point about Akira: that a dystopic representation of Tokyo (re-imagined as Neo-Tokyo, 30 years after the Akira fallout, written in the 1980’s, 30ish some years after the Atomic fallout) where parentless gangs run the streets at night while the military tries to maintain order, is reminiscent of 1950’s Japan when the country was recovering from a devastating war and the victim of two Atomic bombs dropped on two of their civilian cities. In the same way that Gojira served to sublimate the horrors of the bomb in a way audiences could emotionally process, Akira is a digestion of the chaos the country experienced while rebuilding.

In America, I believe the shared fascination with dystopias digs at two things.

The first we are often hesitant to address– this country has been devastated. The genocide of Native Americans has been traditionally shoehorned into Cowboy vs. Indians John Wayne narratives, wherein the natives are either savage murderers or aides for Manifest Destiny. There’s a collective guilt there that’s been pushed down for centuries now but no matter how many times America tries to push a traditional western through, it sings the same old story. Dystopias, if you haven’t noticed, tend to put the atrocities mankind is capable of front and center. And there’s a reason why most post-apocalyptic fiction sets back technology and infrastructure  back to a familiar, nearly western setting. Various reasons, probably, but the one I’m poking at is the coping mechanism for the blood spilled on the frontier.

The second thing to address, is the culminate fear of where society is heading. A lot of that is moralistic hand-wringing, to be sure, but many of those fears are not unprecedented. Nuclear holocaust is an anxiety we currently bear day-to-day, and have since the bomb’s inception. Again, here we have a means to digest that fear in narrative form that ultimately cherishes optimism. The Road ends on an optimistic note, despite all of the horrific and tragic build-up. The Mad Max series, while exploring survivalistic depravities, tends to end its chapters on a victory. You see the gore, you still get a (hard earned) happy(ish) ending and piece by piece, a little bit of that fear of the future is smoothed out just enough so you can get out of bed in the morning.

But whether the social consciousness feels regret about the past, or anxiety about the future, the sharpest gear in the mechanics of dystopias is set in the human brain’s inability to process reality. The world’s got some beautiful shit. The rest is kind of just… shit? And it’s not hard to understand why people willingly ignore the evil in the world. We get nauseated at the sight of blood. And yet, reality persists. For mental health reasons, everyone gives the news a break and doubles down on what is truly important to them because a day feels like a year if you keep up with everything. And that’s fine. To paraphrase Camus, you can’t live in the desert your entire life, otherwise you’ll go insane. Or, to quote A Tribe Called Quest, “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with. Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality and for a salary I’d probably do that shit sporadically.” [punctuation mine]

Reality is hard to swallow. There’s a limit of what a person can emotionally process before they turn off and numb out. While directly reporting the distressing information about how the world turns is a necessary journalistic imperative, fiction isn’t bound to the same precedent while still remaining just as relevant. Dystopian fiction offers a method of telegraphing modern and relevant social pain and institutional betrayals within the world using the element of just enough fantastical devices to keep it distant enough to process with an indirect emotional stake. Example given: as someone who studied genocide for a semester in college, more people are comfortable discussing how despicable Death Eaters are than the brutal actions of the Khmer Rouge. Dystopias sublimate the horror of reality into an easily digestible parable.

And really, where the fuck else are you going to have the delicious opportunity to have a bedraggled Ronald Reagan fight a woman in football shoulder-pads, brandishing a sword made out of knee-caps or some bullshit?

That shit doesn’t happen in westerns.

 

Pierre’s most recent dystopian odyssey is available on Amazon. It’s called The Least of 99 Evils and you aren’t ready. 

Literary Lessons in Punk Rock: Fractals and Emergence

Literary Lessons in Punk Rock: Fractals and Emergence

Let’s get something straight: I love punk rock.

Concerned friends and family often ask me, “How come? It’s just the same three chords in every song! It all sounds the same!”

And in a lot of regards they have a point there. A lot of punk rock is indeed the same three chords over and over again and I can see, for the uninitiated, why that might appear to be overly-simple and repetitive.

But hold on there, cowboy, before we get into the complexities of Punk Rock, let’s take a look at the theory of Emergence. In my simplest terms, Emergence is how chaos organizes when confronted with entropy. Here’s how economist Jeff Goldstein describes it:

“…the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.”

It’s why our solar system looks the way that it does (9 different planets, coherently formed depending on the weight and density of it’s material in relation to it’s proximity to the sun’s gravity). Radiolab has a neat episode explaining how cities evolve due to this principle and there have been many theories put forward that Emergence is also the driving principle behind biological evolution as well– that novel divergences occur within the fractal genetic code.

Ahem. A fractal is a self-repeating sequence. Now you know that, nerd. 

Let’s get back to punk rock for a moment. You have this basic three chord song structure (self-replicated within the genre, just like a fractal) that is seemingly played ad nauseam throughout the genre’s history. But divergence and novelty will out. Bands like Jawbreaker or Nerfherder will take those three chainsawin’ buzz chords and arrange them in such a way that it becomes operatic. Screeching Weasel’s Edge of the World is perhaps the perfect example of this: it’s a pop-punk song with a standard verse and chorus structure (complete with whoa-oh harmonies) but after a certain point (when the distortion cuts in) Ben Weasel simply repeats the refrain (“I’m falling… off the edge… of the world”) over and over and over until the phrase is reduced to a primal howl, while still being vaguely understandable. The meaning of the phrase emerges. The effect is not dissimilar to the Romantic Poets’ notion of Sublimity.

Indulgent Punk Rock Tangent: That could be why adding punk sensibilities has preserved certain traditional music– by introducing the variable of vocal aggression, classic Irish music has a modern place with The Pogues, country has a more northernly American appeal with groups like The Cowmen and political folk has more emotional resonance with Mischief Brew (RIP, Erik Petersen). 

How does all this, in any coherent way, relate back to writing? Broadly, I’m referring to a larger creative anxiety but let’s stick with what I know. There’s a lot of fear of redundancy in the creative world. Phrases like “It’s been done,” or “The Simpsons did it,” keep a lot of people from experimenting with the ideas that they’ve come up with. While a certain level of awareness of common tropes and clichés is probably a beneficial thing to keep in mind, succumbing to creative paralysis because you want to be purely original is ultimately fatalistic to the creative process. That’s the secret that punk understands: “It’s been all done before… but not by me.”

There’s the repetitive format to look at first. A friend told me that a study was done between two groups of design students. One group was told to focus on quantity, the other on quality. In this anecdote, the quantity-focused group turned in much better projects because they had reduced the process to muscle-memory, with which they could then innovate upon, while the quality group largely failed, having spent all term trying to craft ingenuity from the bottom up. Keeping things simple and learning those simple things first is paramount before moving onto more ambitious projects.

And then there’s the individual level, the writer has a lot to inject into a story. Your understanding of human relationships, conflict, and character psychologies is going to be unique to your own experience as a person. Literally, you can’t recreate what somebody else has done. Back to Punk: famously, Smells like Teen Spirit was Cobain’s attempt to rip off The Pixies. In turn, Blur’s Song 2 was their attempt to make fun of America’s grunge scene that Nirvana encapsulated. And yet the differences between the three are actually pretty staggering. Because you can’t help but put yourself, for better or worse, into the projects that you want to succeed.

It’s not that I’m saying you should plagiarize wholesale and produce cookie-cutter knockoffs for a cash grab. Don’t do that. That’s killing the world intellectually. I’m saying, in the realm of art, and especially in the realm of punk’s DIY mentality, you are inevitably going to imitate that which you are most interested in. In that process you are going to learn a certain language. In Punk’s case, the language is three chords, a sense of youthful world-weariness and whoa-ohs. In Noir’s case, the language is a dead body, a femme fatale and a sense of earned world-weariness. Or what have you with your preferred genre.

Once you’ve learned the language, that fractal of the same ever-repeating story, go ahead and write the story that you want to. Do it yourself. It might fall into the same categories that came before you– Futurama ripped off Star Trek which ripped off Shakespeare’s greatest works which ripped of the Greeks which ripped off what all of our ancestors shared huddled together in a cave… but this one will be yours and it’ll reflect the times that you live in. Even if it feels the same to something you’ve read recently, remember that Screeching Weasel and The Queers shared (stole?) songs freely and, despite their similarities, persist as completely different, currently-touring entities to this day.

Don’t be afraid to try something that’s been done. You’ll find in the process that novelty and structure, will, uh, uh, emerge*.

So long as you do the work. 

*Jeff Goldblum reference.

 

Lolita: The Power of Narrative Voice

Lolita: The Power of Narrative Voice

Reading Lolita is an interesting experience. It’s supremely uncomfortable for the obvious reasons. A more subtle reason for the discomfort, is that Humbert Humbert is an eloquent, even funny, narrator that is seemingly fully aware of how reprehensible his behavior and thoughts are. He uses beautiful language to slow down moments and twists them into scenes. It’s not the language of a monster. That irony serves a dual purpose– it unwittingly ensnares a reader into sympathizing (possibly more accurately, pitying) or simply engaging with Humbert which then discomfits the reader further when Humbert’s monstrosities come to light.

It’s to Nobokov’s credit that he was able to do this in the voice of the narrator. In an interview with the Paris Review, he dismissed the notion that Humbert “retains a touching and insistent quality,” by saying outright, “Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching.”

It’s an incredible feat, then, for Nobokov to have written a character in which he despised from the perspective of the despicable who affects an elevated language in order to garner the reader’s sympathy (the whole thing is essentially Humbert pleading not to be put to death).

What you have to remember is that Humbert is the quintessential unreliable narrator. Because he’s very forthcoming with the crimes that he’s committed and of his own repulsive desires, it’s tempting to call Humbert an honest, if not utterly damaged, man. And the objective events of the book I took pretty much at face value. He probably is relating the story the way that it happened.

Kind of. I trust that he reports the objective events of the following: Humbert moved into the house, he married Charlotte, Charlotte died, he kidnapped Dolores, raped her for two years, Dolores escaped, Humbert murdered Quilty.

Where Humbert’s account gets dubious is his own interior thoughts. He takes every opportunity to state how disgusted he is with himself as much as he does to place himself on the moralistic high ground (AKA justification). He takes great pains to discuss what a good father figure he was to Dolores, teaching her tennis and French. He refuses to say the F word, or any curse word higher than “bitch”-caliber. (Don’t trust people who don’t swear, kids.)

Meanwhile he does what he can to slander, ever so subtly, the other characters in the book. He describes a dopey villain of the other pedophile, Quilty, distancing himself from the badder guy (and describes their “final battle” with such lethargic energy and grace that it seems that he’s almost trying to make the whole thing seem mutually dignified)Charlotte’s described as desperate and embarrassingly clingy (which doesn’t quite add up to her refusal to trust Humbert before her death or the fact that her confessional love note was mysteriously ripped to pieces and flushed down the toilet, a flourish in the letter itself that Humbert admits to adding himself in its recreation). And then there’s the infamous through-line of Dolores being a contemptible, promiscuous little brat. All of that is meant to make Humbert seem more like the reasonable, albeit troubled, fellow that he presents himself to be amidst a cast of rather “crazy” characters.

Because his trip is about love, right? He waxes poetic about Dolores and unravels long-winded soliloquies about her beauty and her more benevolent qualities. You might believe him and critics definitely did (it says on the cover of my copy that it is “the only convincing love story of the century.”). But that too might be pure horse shit. Humbert’s interior journey ends when he claims that he is finally capable of loving Dolores now that her good looks have been ruined at the ripe old age of 17. That’s a pretty solid hint that what he sees as redemption is still mired in the psyche of his disease.

His elevated style breaks down when confronted by violence, at which point he becomes what he truly is– crass. As much as he expounds on the quality of the stitching on Dolores’s blouse, he uncharacteristically sums up the scene of Charlotte’s death rather abruptly and crudely: “the top of her head a porridge of bone, brains, bronze hair and blood” (p. 98).

Sidenote: It’s unclear in Humbert’s confession whether or not he killed Charlotte. I’m nearly convinced that he did given that the only other (flimsy) explanation for Charlotte being struck by a car is a  mysterious puddle of ice that flung her into traffic, the softer way that Humbert recalls Charlotte’s memory after this point, and the fact that he’s a total fuckin’ liar– this is when he claims that poets cannot be murderers (I believe, apropos of nothing) while later admitting that he is a murderer later in the novel.

The way that he dismisses the scene in such a short, blunt manner indicates that Humbert Humbert cannot extravagantly explore the brutal reality of what he is or the consequences of his actions– but he also can’t deny them. It’s in this moment (and a few others) where Nobokov cuts the flowery bullshit and we see a hint of Humbert’s actual character: a pathetic, insane, murderous pedophile that wishes to delude the audience (as well as himself) as to the severity of his crimes. Humbert’s a man that wears a mask of intelligence to hide his barbarism.

In that Paris Review, Nobokov refers to his non-Humbert characters as “eidolons,” which the nerdier Final Fantasy set of you already understand as “a conjured spirit.” It’s a peculiar, metaliterary phrase for Nobokov to use, but one that distills a proper vision of the whole novel: while Lolita is Nobokov’s brainchild, every character described in the novel is 90% a feature of Humbert’s imagining of the events. Remember, Humbert is a novelist himself. And his story is a coward’s fantasy to appeal to the sympathies of his jury.

This book speaks to the power of voice as a literary instrument. It’s definitely in the Aikido Writing School  of thought in which the narrator is able to use his own lyrical flow against the reader and fling them, in this case, into the vulnerable territory of sympathy. And for for the investigative reader, distrust and ultimately the very basic shadow story underlying the entire thing. (Perhaps Nobokov is Ninja.)

If nothing else, Lolita endures as a novel that confuses many, angers some, and still stands as a nigh perfect execution of utilizing narrative craft.

It’s also the worst book to read on the bus, bar none.

 

 

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.

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.