Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Noh Man's Land

For some time now, I have been obsessed with the effect Wile E. Coyote has had on fiction. Tomorrow, I'm going to turn that scraggly, scruffy, obsessive fellow loose on my class in genre fiction, where I will invoke Wile E. as the epitome of front rank character, by which I mean someone at the upper level of hierarchy, someone whose story it is because, scruffy, obsessive or merely a nebbish, the sympathies of the reader are ultimately with him.

It is a leap from The Roadrunner Cartoons and the Coyote to The Iliad and Hector, but the root-for quality holds in both places: We want the Coyote to win, which my possibly mean we hope he gets The Road Runner, but more to the point, we want Wile E. Coyote not to be humiliated, because we know in advance that he will indeed be humiliated; once again he will be had. We wish Hector didn't have to die in battle because he is not only the sanest of all characters in the throes of that dumb war, incited by his dumb brother Paris, he is the most human and the most humane; he is one of the more evolved, self-realizing characters in the entire epic.

Wile E. Coyote is driven, no, obsessed, making him goal oriented to a faretheewell. He has no choice but to scheme, connive, and conspire against--beep beep--the Roadrunner. Hector pretty well suspects he will be killed in battle, his young son Andromache killed, his wife put into slavery, and yet we understand the social and ethical constraints that force him into battle so that he can die a brave death and be remembered all these years after the fact as a man who had and rejected a sane choice because the society of which he was a prominent part was in so many ways insane.

We know that there are more practical if less dramatic ways of making a living than being a pool hustler, but in The Hustler, Fast Eddie Felson wants to be the best pool hustler in America and because of what he goes through to be the best, once again we are pulled along in the slipstream of his career obsession.

Even though we may not like the person, we like the notion of someone wanting something to the exclusion of other, more rational things. There are a number of reasons why we like this notion, only one of which may be tied to our own sense of having no such goal of which to obsess ourselves.

Wile E. Coyote is not a splendid fellow. Look him up. Doing so, you will see the extent to which his creators went to set forth the rules which he and his opposing force, The Road Runner, must observe, making The Looney Tunes Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote as ritualized and mannered as a Noh play. These rules are as mannered and formal as, say, the martial art of Akido, and they produce the genius of the cartoon series by having etched in our memory the frequent sight of Wile E. Coyote so perfervid in his chase of The Road Runner that he overruns the boundary of a mesa or escarpment and finds himself launched in the air, paws flailing at the absolute airless nothingness underneath him. This is the very emotional place for a character to be, boundaries overrun, no safety net in sight, helplessly vulnerable because of his obsession.

Wile E. Coyote, the Patron Saint of characters.

Wile E. Coyote. My man.

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