Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

First of all, here’s this.

Second of all, I spoil the grossest thing in The Road.

Whether you like it or not, violence is a part of our daily media intake. It’s always been controversial, from Quentin Tarantino to Marilyn Manson, Doom and Grand Theft Auto, but now, I feel, we’ve reached a saturation point where portrayed violence inhibits every corner of our entertainment– how many award winning television series are there on Netflix that don’t shed a drop of blood? Okay, a couple, sure, but those have tits in spades, releasing our other primal reflexes.

I think it’s worth examining the language of violence in media, because violence itself, is a language. In narrative, it’s a cathartic language. Similar to humor and sex, portrayed violence carries out modern anxieties out to a sublimated pasture of fantasy where it can die peacefully: instead of the primal urge to kill getting on top of you and you wake up next to the head of your neighbor because he wouldn’t stop blasting J Beib’s latest single, you watch an episode of Fargo and go to bed understanding the complexities of murder without actually committing any.

In America, portrayals of violence are more common than portrayals of sex. Bruce Campbell has a legendary quote about Hollywood: “You can cut off a breast, you just can’t kiss it.”  A huge part of that is the sex-negative mentality of the USA, but it almost stands at odds with the hyper-sexualization of women in media. Sex sells, after all. Which is true, but when you look at how sex is generally portrayed in Television and Film it’s almost always associated with a point of conflict, trauma, or the highest goal of a sustained relationship instead of something that just happens naturally. Anyway you cut it, sex is the end of something in media. It’s a punctuation.

Whereas violence exists as a means to an end. It’s a driving force that threads the hero along. You think of Obi Wan slicing off that guys arm in the cantina and your inner cave-dweller goes “FUCK YEAH.” And the scene progresses because of it. Our action narratives thrive on the promise of fucking somebody up. No one really cares when John McClain reunites with his wife, that was a given from the start, but serves mostly as a happy bonus– the money shot of the movie is the cruel schadenfreude of watching Hans fall to his death.

But everyone knows that books are more fucked up than films when it comes to violence, or really, anything. We all know that American Psycho was a much more depraved novel than its silver screen counterpart, but why is that? Is dropping a chainsaw on a woman objectively less terrifying than turning a woman into a human rat-maze? Perhaps. Perhaps the written violence disturbs us deeper because of the more explicit sexual component the novel adds to its morbidity. But I think, at least in a large part, it’s something else entirely:

You’re forced to imagine it yourself. You become culpable for the detestable creation in your mind. You, as the reader, are now a co-conspirator in this depravity and are now, in some capacity, responsible.

But what about the writer’s responsibility in portraying violence? In the forward for A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess bemoans that the original US release (and Kubrick’s film adaptation) refused to see the main protagonist as anything other than a violent delinquent, both having excised the final chapter of suggested redemption via free will. Yet, Burgess admits the following:

It seems priggish or pollyanniaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the writer’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.

That second bit I’ll take issue with, as I don’t believe the people who write fucked up stuff are necessarily fucked up people (some, surely) so much as I believe that they are using a certain language to cathartically expunge a host of emotions in singular gestures. To Burgess’s point, I will say that there’s a lot of dark psychology that is also expunged from the writer’s mind when writing horrific flourishes– I’m of the school of thought that believes Horror and Dark Fantasy writers are probably the happiest people on earth– which happens to resonate, cathartically, with the reader who will inevitably share a similar shade of a dark mind. In that way, the creative yoke of violence is shared between author and reader such that everyone benefits.

The first part of that quote is about the glee one feels having written something truly disturbing. While drafting The Least of 99 Evils, I wrote perhaps the most gruesome scene in my entire writing career. I immediately went downstairs and told my roommate what I’d just done, laughter spilling out of my mouth. He was disgusted which only elevated my elation higher. You can’t deny that pushing the boundaries of discomfort is a satisfying experience. I call it the discomfort zone.

But let’s talk about how violence gets telegraphed in written narratives, shall we? The overarching principle of writing violence is a gentle touch, followed by a perusal of the aftermath. Everything else is all style.

You have writers who use short, and blunt language to drive home the punches of the scene. James Ellroy excels at this. The most heartbreaking death scene in LA Confidential is a sentence that can’t be longer than half a tweet. You’re left with the sudden realization that this character is dead and you don’t have time to follow up on any details because the rest of the action is moving way too fast. It puts you in the perspective of the other characters and is retrospectively very realistic. Real-world events happen fast. You fill in the details while you color in your memory.

Using medical terminology distances the reader from the grisly details. At first. The realization of the cruelty bestowed becomes clear as the reader translates the terms in their mind and finds (or feels) that spot on their own body. It’s an outside-in strategy that works like a grenade: it takes a couple of seconds, but once it sinks in it’s a repulsion-explosion.

Likewise, you can use metaphor in a similar way. “He held his heart like a rotten apple,” is effective because it forces the reader to imagine holding an apple, bringing the violence (abhorrent behavior) closer to home by suggesting a common, shared experience. And then the wave crashes back when the reader realizes they know what it’s like to hold a human heart.

These two are examples of implicative violence. The reader has to fill in the blank to fully flesh out the scene. In comic writing, implicative violence is frowned upon because it lacks a dynamic image to carry the scene through. Panel one will have a character about to punch another. Panel two is a sunburst that says “POW.” Panel three is the other character with a dent in their forehead. It doesn’t work visually… but in written narrative you have the readership doing your dirt for you and a sequence that portrays a before and after moment can capitalize on the reader’s repulsion reflex in a powerful way. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example. In the most grotesque chapter you have a scene that portrays some travelers progressing through the wasteland and one of them is a pregnant woman. The protagonists hole in for the night, wary of these people. In the morning they inspect the travelers’ fire pit and find [UGH]. All of the abhorrent behavior is out of sight, but the resounding image of the aftermath haunts you long after you put the book down.

Which I suppose brings us to explicative violence. I’ve already talked about American Psycho. I’ve already talked about the gleeful plunge into unthinkable acts. It’s fun. Who doesn’t love a zombie’s head exploding with the thunderous clap of a Desert Eagle? But explicative violence can get lost in its own purpose and circularly justifiable in its own narrative presence that I feel the stories that go whole-hog generally read a little flat. An exception is (because I’m on something of a kick) Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian which ups the ante further and further in it’s depravity with every chapter. There’s a lot to be said about that book, but the portrayal of violence never ceased to, quite frankly, amaze me with how low the characters go and how absent their conscience is throughout. McCarthy uses a conglomeration of techniques to get this across. He utilizes metaphor quite a bunch, but isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what’s occurring. He doesn’t use medical terminology so much as he does archaic phrases (in and of themselves in modernity, a metaphorical language). To wit: when a significant player in this madness finally meets his end, his death with an axe is described as “split […] to the thrapple.” It’s obscure, but you know exactly what it means.

Which lands us in a place where we have to merge the two. How can you be explicative and implicit at the same time? Noir authors know. Harkening back to the cold, surgical language above, a body that has sustained terrible damage until death (and usually some more afterwards) is a device that is used to at once remove and include the reader to the shock. And there are interesting ways the author can format this. James Ellroy (again) puts the body front and center in the beginning of the novel and includes details that nearly made me barf. Raymond Chandler uses a body, in shocking, ironic terms to the casual breeze of Marlowe’s verbiage, as a way of connecting the story to real-life stakes: grisly death.

But it’s Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 that capitalized on this technique to an effect that still haunts me. He wrote all of the implicative violence it in police reports which, by nature, tend to be cold and surgically accurate. Around 200 pages of police reports about the serial femicide are written in stoic fashion. Just one after the other. It centers around the fictional city of Santa Teresa, recalling a calamity of real, unfortunate events that actually happened in Ciudad Juárez. Knowing that only makes the book harder to digest.

For knowing all that I know about the world, and having read a pile of fucked up books, I’ll say this: we’re just animals who learned how to write…

Animals with a good appreciation for not actually killing each other. The reality of which stings in our nostrils.

And so we write fucked up shit sometimes.

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Characterization: Relatable = Insecure

Characterization: Relatable = Insecure

The task of characterization is multi-faceted. The classic advice says to make your protagonist “likable.” Enough literary evidence exists to negate that claim. I’m reading Lolita right now and I hate Humbert Humbert.

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I think you can shuck “likable” and instead focus on “relatable.”

I’m going to focus on Lolita in a future post, but for now I’ll raise the question: is Humbert Humbert relatable? Despite being a monster, he seems aware of his own monstrosity– which is why we hate him. He knows better and he continues to act in his deplorable self-interest. While Humbert lays down a lot of unreliable justifications for his behavior, there is a steady thrum of self-loathing under-riding his confession. Humbert hates himself as much as the reader, and that’s what makes that book, ultimately, readable.

I’ll focus on the question: how do you affect relatability in fiction?

The classic advice is to give your character’s an Achille’s heel. No one wants to read about invincible characters. Superman is the classic example of a character so strong, the writers had to contrive a series of convolutions to make him vulnerable, which usually made him seem more improbable and cartoonish. The Watchmen had a clever take on the Superman surrogate, the god-like Dr. Manhattan, by rooting his story in his depersonalization– he distances himself to the point that he no longer can empathize with the human beings he protects and sees their struggle as merely a problem with cold and precise solutions.

It’s in that psychological development that the reader can, ironically, relate to Manhattan. Everyone’s gotten so sick of all of the terrible things that human beings inflict on each other that they retreat from society for a while– there’s a reason people vacation on solitary beaches and stare at nothing for hours on end, the same way Manhattan disappears to Mars and creates intricate statues (for lack of a better term) that have been unfouled by man.

But to the point I’m driving at, relatability becomes more intriguing when you expose the character’s psychological insecurities, instead of their physical limitations. In Sin City, the badass Marv takes a moment of pause, crying along a bridge when he realizes the scope of the evil he’s dealing with. In David Wong’s John Dies at the End, the character of David Wong takes a moment to reflect on his own fragile masculinity in a moment of weakness only hinted at previously. Silence of the Lambs takes this notion and applies a meta-literary tactic of Dr. Lector specifically needling Starling’s insecurities out of her. Think about Harry Potter and how the fifth book underlined Harry’s hormonal dickishness to round out what had previously been a squeaky clean character.

It’s an effective device because while everyone desires the fantasy of being powerful and in control of their own world, everyone has a shadowy valley that cuts through their ego. It’s in that acknowledgement of common fear, doubt, anger, jealousy and self-detrimental habit that the reader can attach their struggle to the hero’s. And that makes the victory that much more rewarding when the hero is finally victorious.

The other major benefit of diving into psychological insecurities is that it builds the internal conflict. While not always necessary, effective pieces utilize the inner turmoil of the protagonist concurrently with the external.

Think about Fight Club which demonstrates this in a very literal sense– the protagonist has become depersonalized and spiritually vacant to the point to which he creates an alternative personality that is capable of achieving everything that the narrator cannot. Superficially, it’s a realization of one’s own potential. Cynically, it might come off as “the magic was inside you the entire time.” In a slightly deeper read, however, one remembers that everything has to do with a girl named Marla Singer. Other passages/scenes (I’m borrowing a lot from Fincher’s film adaptation) indicate a fear of forming a family– specifically the bathtub scene in which the mutual resentment of the narrator’s/Tyler’s father is redirected towards a rejection of women (finding a wife, settling down, “setting up franchises,” “I can’t get married, I’m a 30 year old boy.”); the chemical burn scene that redirects the paternal resentment into a resentment towards God (which should indicate that this resentment and fear of cyclically becoming what you resent literally rules over the narrator’s internal conflict).

Of course, there are undeniable homoerotic undertones to the story, but as far as I can tell from interviews and essays with Chuck Palahniuk, the driving motivation of the narrator is attempting to find a reconnection to the familial world. Also, because the story ends like this: once the narrator accepts his responsibility for the actions (and desires) of his shadow-self and violently cleaves him from existence (indicating the climax of a maturation plot), the narrator and Marla Singer come together, stunned at the destruction of the city scape, seemingly with the narrator finally coming to terms with his adulthood and no longer allowing his fear of his own masculinity to keep him from entering an actual relationship with a girl he fancies.

That’s the film version which, as Palahniuk admits, is thematically more complete. I haven’t read the graphic novelization that serves as the sequel, so I can’t say how that all shakes out. The point is the reason that the narrator, who’s kind of despicable and pathetic in a lot of ways, is able to maintain an effective through-line that engages the audience is that there is an internal conflict that is subtly suggested throughout the novel/film that resonates with nearly everybody in the audience. Most people, I think, harbor anxieties about the reality of becoming an adult and making the same mistakes that their parents imprinted onto them. Fight Club is able to take that and make it into a pretty radical story about punching the Christ out of your buddies and blowing up coffee shops.

And if you can find a way to sublimate your character’s deep-seated intentions in such a way to drive the external plot along? Without the reader necessarily realizing it?

Nobel prize, here you come.