Perhaps the title came to me because I have spent the past several days reading graduate theses and final projects. An equal perhaps is the way current events, like mosquitoes looking for supper on a summer evening, are buzzing about with thematic elan.
At any rate, the concept of the protagonist is undergoing a shift in story as well as real life. Used to be, the naif, the picaro, the innocent were the real heroes of story. Whether they were Dorothy Gale, wanting to get herself and Toto back to Kansas; Scout Finch, reflecting the remarkable man who was her father, Atticus; Tom Sawyer, spoiling for adventure; Tom Jones out to seek his fortune--what a lovely term that is--or Pirrip aka Pip, coming to terms with his great expectations, the protagonists of story were inherently likable.
The tail end of the Great Depression in the U.S. saw the protagonist as still likable but with more of an edge and indeed, Tom Joad's edge had bought him some jail time and as The Grapes of Wrath ended, Tom was once more on the run. Even before the Depression got underway, the train robber and bank robber began to build up steam to the point where not only Jessie James but, later on, John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and yes, even Bonnie and Clyde began to pick up a following. As the years cranked on, the Mafioso became added to the cadre of protagonists, and now we even include the CEO with the multi-million dollar buy-out, the lobbyist, the corrupt politician.
Used to be the definition of a protagonist implied that the individual did things that caused the story to take place or had a goal that caused behavior the reader could empathize with. You didn't have to like Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, but you couldn't help admiring his determination to be the best.
Used to be.
Now we admire men and women who have the power to forget about The Social Contract, to trade it in for a lease on self-interest, arrogance, and an ever widening sense of entitlement.
We used to call these persons protagonists, now we call them Republicans.
Monday, April 30, 2007
Perhaps the title came to me because I have spent the past several days reading graduate theses and final projects. An equal perhaps is the way current events, like mosquitoes looking for supper on a summer evening, are buzzing about with thematic elan.
Sunday, April 29, 2007
1. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's blog. Sure, everyone else's blog appears to have nicer type faces, amazing graphic inventions, and an imaginative set of divisions. Their desk is probably neater than yours. People will read your blog for the content.
2. Thou shalt not raise hell nor rant. Blogs are marketplaces for ideas, museum walls for verbal or graphic images of the interior reaches of your creative process. You want to rant, flame, and bash--go listen to Rush Whatsisname.
3. Thou shalt not post entries defending or castigating yourself for not having blogged. Bloggers have enough issues with their own posting performance without wanting to read about your ennui, anomie, or hectic life; they look to you as you should look to you, in good faith and interest. You want self pity--go watch streaming videos of George W. Bush's press conferences.
4. Thou shalt give credit to whom credit is due. It is legitimate and instructive to quote, attribute, ratify, or take issue with an idea expressed on another site, provided you give credit to the author. Internet technology makes it possible for artists to be ripped off; the blogging world can be a source of the culture of morality in which the artist gets credit for the work. Plagiarism sucks
5. Thou shalt not ask another blog site to link to you. It is lovely to be popular; the whirring sound of clicks on the counter you have installed on your web site can be hypnotic, but do not ask. You can link; you can even tell the linkee that you have done so. Period. It stops there.
6. Thou shalt keep relevant thy responses and comments posted on other blogs . Even one- or two-word responses are Kosher, so long as they remain clearly identifiable as an expression of agreement, support, and/or disagreement. Opaqueness doesn't get it. Cuteness doesn't get it. Trashing commentary is of a piece with tagging the Mona Lisa; it is an advertisement for Rush Whatsisname, and you don't want to do that, do you?
7. Thou shalt not make anonymous comments/responses on other sites. That speaketh for itself. You want people to think you're a nut case or a coward? If it's worth posting, it's worth owning.
8. Thou shalt spell check thy blog before posting. Language changes, sometimes even spelling and punctuation conventions change; sometimes the heat of enthusiasm gets one typing fast, but a spell check speaks to the dignity and integrity of the intent.
9. Thou shall avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm and its first cousin, irony, are complex emotions, requiring the kinds of revisiting and revision to bring off with success that are not inherent in the spontaneity and improvisational freedoms of the blog.
10. Thou shalt not celebrate numbers. No welcoming the hundred thousandth visitor to your blog, no opening the champagne over the hundredth or five hundredth or thousandth posting. Let the celebration come from content of the blog post rather than from mere numbers. Indulge and enjoy the miracle of having a site, posting to it, and giving it your best thoughts and feelings about tangible things.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
It could come from a sudden receipt of devastating news or as an end game to a longer, more foreseeable train of events. The need may be simple in nature or as sophisticated and complex as the inside of a dog's ear. Simply put, there is no telling when the need for it will come upon you.
I refer, of course, to comfort food, the nourishment and sustenance we crave when all hell appears to descend onto the landing site of our shoulders.
Comfort food--the thing mother made when things went aft aglay and left us nought but grief and pain for promised joy. The cookies and milk grandma (paternal) offered when Reality chose an agenda that was too painful to contemplate, the Jell-o grandma (maternal) provided when disappointment scrolled across the horizon like an electronic news sign. The things we turn to when nothing else seems to help.
Comfort food is the polar opposite of Not-That-Again food, things like the Kraft Dinner some client of your father, who was then into selling health and accident insurance, gave your father one terrible week during the Great Depression in lieu of his weekly premium payment. To this day, the thought of Kraft Dinner macaroni is enough to boggle the mind and bowel. The same client, desperate to keep his policy from lapsing, also came up with a case of dented cans of Campbell's Cream of Asparagus soup, and for the longest time, your mother enhanced her sauces with this unworldly concoction, severely damaging your respect for anything green.
To show your budding populism and a willingness to forgive, the real comfort food for you had as its base Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup which, mixed with a can of green peas, another can of mushroom stems and pieces, and a large tin of Chicken of the Sea flaked albacore tune, then slathered over two pieces of toasted Wonder bread became your comfort food par excellence. Creamed tuna on toast lifted your spirits, raised your sense that the world was not the scary place you might have suspected. Creamed tuna on toast, made to those exacting stanrards, was your Prozac, your transportation to a shift in mood. Once your father suggested the addition of a splash or two of Worcester Sauce, but that spoiled the chemistry. Your sister, who seemed to favor ketchup on everything, tried to induce you to consider this bit of creativity, but you knew perfection when you saw it; you held the line.
Over the years, your sister came at you with a large Kaiser roll, sliced horizontally, each half given a slab of cheddar cheese and a slice of tomato before being put under the broiler for exactly ten minutes. This, too, became comfort food. So did Camp Fire marshmallows, impailed on a wire coat hanger and extended gingerly over the flame from the gas oven
No matter how filled you were from more conventional fare, these comfort foods always worked, always made you feel a thumping, vibrant optimism, the sense that the world would soon improve and whisk you along with it.
For a time you flirted with Jello-into which were floated cross-sections of banana. Your mother's from-scratch chocolate pudding and the lesser but effective Jello butterscotch pudding. There was also a time when your mother's banana cake with chocolate icing was on the A-list, followed by her lemon pudding and whipped cream cake. Good as these were as individual efforts, they were merely the tail of a passing comet.
The true comfort food was and is creamed tuna on toast.
You have had some occasion in recent years to revisit this dish, to see if it worked, the last time shortly after you were diagnosed as having an aggressive tumor of IIIa rating on your bladder and the possibility that cells from that tumor could be abroad in your circulatory system. It took some doing, securing the two pieces of white bread, a concept and construct long since alien to you. After some fancy talking, you were able to secure the bread from the Xanadu Bakery, directly across the mall aisle from the supermarket where you bought the tinned tuna, the stems and pieces of mushroom, and the Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup. Bad enough the white bread, no way in the now cancerous world were you going to buy a can of green peas. A bag of frozen Bird's Eye, left to defrost, and no one would be the wiser.
Spooning the mixture onto the toast, I recalled another ingredient from my original comfort food days--coarse ground pepper.
The mere thought of comfort food is comforting. It worked then and it works now, creamed tuna on toast for all time to come. It needs no further explanation, no defense, no religion to support it. Creamed tuna on toast evolved from the primordial ooze as Darwinian in its purpose as a comfort food can be.
Eat up. Help is on the way.
Friday, April 27, 2007
The Vital Lie is the stretcher, the bender, the twister that cultures organizations, and institutions often inscribe in some conspicuous place as a justification for questionable if not reprehensible behavior. It is the mythic anthem used to justify existence. It is the lie cultures, organizations, and institutions least want to hear brought to account. It is truth rendered in such degree that those who hear it are irrevocably struck uncomfortable.
The men, women, and children who tread across the pages of fiction are informed by such lies and will fight to keep them from being revealed. The men, women, and children who tread across the pages of Reality are no less informed by lies, either those they willingly accept or those they manufacture.
Put it down as defensiveness. What are They defensive about? What am I defensive about? What lie(s) will I tell about myself to keep you from intuiting the dreadful secret about me? What secret does your character nourish? Is she like the recently discovered dean at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who invented a cover story of a degree commensurate with the qualifications needed to perform a job she performed with distinction for thirty years?
The Vital Lie is in many ways the secret dream writ large, our secret image of our self for which we must concoct a bogus resume, invent bogus references.
The Vital Lie is the imaginary banquet we each provide for our self, sans rubber chicken, which is yet another kind of lie.
I believe we all have them, hidden away somewhere.
Does this make me a pessimist about the human condition?
Although animals sometimes lie, they do not have vital lies, only occasional lies to save face, which says more about wired-in sense of self than it does about morality.
Is it a Vital Lie to insist to our self that we will never act out the thing we fer the most.
I am reminded of these questions and answers by a book I have just read, and sent forth my review for my weekly appearance in the Montecito Journal review. I know the answers to the questions in relationship to the book, which happens to be The Sea Lady by Margaret Drabble, where I have seen that the lies characters tell themselves is a major step on the way to the satisfying payoff of the long form fiction, change.
In the stunning National Book Award winner, The Echo Maker, Richard Powers takes the Vital Lie to a more remote extreme than I have seen before: Is it a Vital Lie to say that I am a truthful representation of myself?
We have to do some remarkable scurrying in our art and our personal life to get the Vital Lies out into the light, where we can examine them
Thursday, April 26, 2007
My mother was by no means tall or large-boned; perhaps five feet four inches on a slender frame. As it happens with so many persons, things, and events held over from the past, the memory of her is of a large presence, a comfortable and comforting presence, a person to whom stranger and friend alike confided amazing secrets from within the heart’s remotest cache.
The desk she left me—a Queen Anne secretary, to be precise—is of a physical size and design infinitely more suited to her size and neatness than my six-foot-three-inch tendency to sprawl and to leave things unfiled. I keep the desk as part of an on-going souvenir of the turmoil and celebration of a mother-son relationship.
From time to time, my attempts to restore order to said Queen Anne secretary—a euphemism if ever there was one for trying in despair to find some misplaced thing—produce an avalanche. From one of the nooks or slots or drawers, there cascades a tumble of business cards—some mine from the many detours of my working life—and small envelopes such as the moisturized napkins given by barbecue and fast-food restaurants. There are artifacts from my passion for fountain pens, a pencil sharpener in the shape of a typewriter, given me as a birthday present by a group of students at least twenty years ago; reminders to call two doctors, one a client, the other a man who yanked me out of the seas of cancer some years back, several containers of saline solution with which to ease the passage of contact lenses in and out of my eyes, a pair of mini-speakers which, when the mood strikes them, enhance my laptop sound system, a photo of a dear old pal with long, floppy ears (a Blue-tick hound named Edward), and the now scrunched envelope containing the grade sheet for the past semester at the University, which has cleverly contrived to hide a post card with two remarkable photos of houses, taken by Gregory
Spaid, the originals now residing in the
With some regularity, the avalanche of envelopes contains a white packet about the size of a credit card, its label printed in Spanish, its contents advertised as having the miraculous properties of power. Power to what? You ask. Ah, there is the simple wonder of the packet. Power to do things. Power to ward off things such as sloth, procrastination, and stuff. Sight of the envelope always comes as a surprise; I have to think for a moment, wondering how I came by this miraculous envelope. Then I remember: fifteen years or so ago in the large downtown marketplace in
The vendor, a small, well-dressed man with a cynical bearing, shook his head. “
“What they didn’t teach you,” the vendor said, “was to look inside.” He shook his head. “They teach you mirar, to look at, but they don’t teach you buscar, to look for.”
In the years since I have purchased the envelope, the closest I have come to examining the powder inside the envelope is to poke at its sides, trying to guess by feel if the powder is sand, sugar, powdered milk. At various times I have suspected all three, concluding it is probably sand, the least expensive and, thus, at whatever price the envelope is sold, the greatest ROI, return on investment.
That, of course, is the mirar, to look at approach.
With the buscar, the look for approach, I don’t have to sift the envelope through my fingers. I know what’s inside. I know what the contents of the envelope of the great power are.
It is imagination.
Once again, I return the envelope to the archaeological dig site of my mother’s desk, where it becomes lost under the layers of other artifacts, waiting to be discovered once again as I look for instead of merely looking at.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Leave it to that persistently pompous but nevertheless well-meaning Samuel Taylor Coleridge to have circled the wagons around the critical concept of willing suspension of disbelief.
He did so nearly two hundred years ago in Biographia Literaria, the Gordian knot inflicted on English majors by their instructors, accepted at first by said English majors as some kind of hazing ritual, then grudgingly recognized as vast in wisdom but in great need of pruning shears. The fact that people talked and thought that way in the early 1800s boggles the modern mind, but we modernists are afforded revenge at the picture of what such contemporary ventures as rap, ska, and hip-hop would have had on them.
Willing suspension of disbelief was supposed to be the deliberate setting aside of cynicism toward any fanciful leap of imagination inherent in a work of art by the viewer/reader.
A splendid example of an author, asking the viewer to suspend disbelief and, indeed, to contribute imagination to the venture, is seen in the Prolog to Henry V, where, in the original performances, there was not only disbelief to overcome but considerable effort needed to participate because there was no scenery. None. You wanted moonlight, you had some kid holding a pole with a lantern at its end, and one of the characters in the play could point to it and say, “Ah, yon moon riseth.”
“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention,” the prolog begins:
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, And monarchs to behold the swelling scene! Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, Assume the
; and at his heels, Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all, The flat unraised spirits that hath dar'd On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth So great an object. Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of portof Mars ? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at France Agincourt? O, pardon! since a crooked figure may Attest in little place a million; And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, On your imaginary forces work. Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies, Whose high upreared and abutting fronts The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder; Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts: Into a thousand parts divide one man, And make imaginary puissance; Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth. For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, Admit me Chorus to this history; Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray, Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
Thus does Mr. Big invite us to join the conspiracy against reality by thinking, when he talks of horses, “that you see them, printing their proud hoofs I’ the receiving earth…” It does not hurt that his use of imagery invites suspension of disbelief.
Fast forward four hundred plus years to radio drama. Instead of invitations from a chorus to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts,” you get a sound-effects man, an individual who made you hear horse hooves (coconut shells) on The Lone Ranger, and the unthinkable disarray of the interior of Fibber McGee’s closet.
We have become so used to suspending artistic disbelief that the distortions of a Modigliani portrait are not only acceptable, they expand our sense of beauty. We know there is no such place as
In a real sense, artists of the past and present have given us a passport with which to suspend or alter time, space, and causation. We aren’t positive, but we have some basis to speculate on the intention of those early artists who incised or drew illustrations on cave walls and rocks, making their work even more of a creative shimmer.
But alas: We have also become so used to suspending disbelief that we have in rapid succession elected to office a man who is so stunningly effective in his own chaos theory that he has brought a country to the same disarray as Fibber McGee’s closet, then not only blamed us for the mess, but has authorized Halilburton to clean it up for us.
We live in a world where our suspension of disbelief has collided with the awful reality of a madness so severe that it brings to question our own sense of reality being twisted into a mobius strip.
In my early love affair with
Close your eyes and think of it. The two of them, moving about
Go ahead, suspend your disbelief. Close your eyes and think of it.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
For starters, consider: Providing a character with too many traits or attributes might undercut rather than enhance that individual’s dramatic and thematic presence. Accordingly, I’ve chosen three traits found to some degree in every person. If orchestrated with thoughtfulness, these traits can be instrumental in conveying a plausible sense of that character to the reader, an evocation for the reader of the depth and complexity of a character. These three traits are:
Conscience is the moral compass by which the individual measures his behavior and the behavior of others. Conscience is the voice that sits in judgment on every human transaction, saying, “Go,” or “Do it,” or “No go,” or “Don’t do it.” Some individuals have in effect turned the volume down on this inner voice.
Ego is the manifestation and agenda of the self; how the individual sees itself, feels about itself. It may also reflect what the individual fears, specifically what may be missing or seen as missing. Ego is a sense of how the individual believes he ought to be treated by other individuals and by the Cosmos. “I deserved that,” is just effective when an individual is responding to a reward or triumph as to a punishment or failure.
Needs are the moral, physical, spiritual, and creative elements the individual feels he must have in order to maintain survival. An individual’s set of needs does not have to be rational; and frequently isn’t. The person may wish to be loved by everyone or one person in particular, may need a constant diet of flattery, may need certain possessions or relationships, without which the individual feels threatened, inadequate, impotent in one or more ways.
E Represents a normal, balanced, uninteresting individual
N in whom all three of these key aspects are of equal presence, and in healthy dialog with one another.
E Represents an individual driven by conscience at the expense
N of self-awareness (ego)
E Represents an individual in whom conscience (the moral
N restraint) has taken a hit at the expense of self-import-
ance and needs.
Not to forget:
E Represents a person whose needs are great enough to over-
N ride conscience and ego in order to pave the way for acquisitive behavior.
There are numerous variations on this C/E/N ratio. Visualize any person in public life, contemporary or based on your historical knowledge, apply this C/E/N ratio to them in proportions you think appropriate. Does this help you get a better handle on a public figure? Can you see how this will help you with characters you have created out of whole cloth or constructed as a patchwork quilt from more than one person you’ve observed in Reality?
Monday, April 23, 2007
Always with the puns in the titles, right? Sort of a giveaway that you might not be coming at the subject with full-on seriousness.
Okay, this just in from Digby Wolfe, doing a Summer School gig in Canberra, Australia.
I have one very promising young novelist who has found an excellent comic voice--stemming from much sadness and suppressed anger. I want to recommend some seriously funny examples in the long and short form. Your wisdom, as always, would be much appreciated.What this comes down to is the man who originated and was the head writer for all 140 episodes of Laugh-In, not to mention other comedic specials, is asking me, in a friendly-but-serious way, what's so funny?
The first scene that came to my mind was in the wonderful film in which Orson Welles and Graham Greene more or less collaborated, in which, during a tense moment in what was shaping up to be a suspenseful tale of corruption, Orson Welles gives his famous cuckoo-clock speech:
You know what the fellow said: In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love--they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The (long pause) cuckoo clock.
There is also the memorable scene from the film, Five Easy Pieces, where the character portrayed by Jack Nicholson is trying against insurmountable odds to get some toast with his breakfast:
"I'd like a plain omelet, no potatoes, tomatoes instead. A cup of coffee and toast."
Waitress, pointing to menu. "No substitutions."
Nicholson tries to get around the no-substitution policy and get a side order of whole wheat toast.
Increasingly annoyed, the waitress says, "I don't make the rules."
"O.K. I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like an omelet, plain. And a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee."
"A number two, chicken sal sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce, and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee. Anything else?"
"Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules."
"You want me to hold the chicken, huh?"
"I want you to hold it between your knees."
There is a collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore, Birds of America, in which a woman becomes involved in a live-in relationship with a man, but when it becomes apparent to her that the boy friend is less than enthusiastic about her two cats, she makes a choice, and you don't have to guess who gets shown the door.
There is a short story by Annie Proulx, appearing in her collection Open Range, told from the point of view of a tractor. Funny enough, but Ms. Proulx is not considered great for no reason, she pushes the point of view to combustion by having the tractor complain that it is not used to having its innards worked on by a woman mechanic.
Michael Chabon's uproarious Wonder Boys has among other elements a protagonist who drives about with his rear trunk bearing the corpse of a boa constrictor whom he unintentionally ran over. The same protagonist is the only Caucasian present at a Passover seder who does not read or speak Hebrew, noting with some irony that all those present of a Korean background can and do speak and read Hebrew.
"The Miller's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales relates a marvelous moment when a cranky, elderly husband, unknowingly being cuckolded while he sleeps, is awakened suddenly in the belief that the countryside is being flooded.
Family dinners often make lovely venues for humor, as witness these two, one from Philip Roth in Goodbye, Columbus, in which Neil, the protagonist, recognizes the social boundaries between himself and the family of his girlfriend, Brenda. Herman Wouk, not often thought of in connection with humor, demonstrates his keen eye when the eponymous protagonist of Marjorie Morningstar, brings to the family dinner her remarkable catch, Noel Airman, a trendy director. Marjorie is a wannabe actor, her stage name anglicized to Morningstar from its Germanic Morgenstern. Under careful family prodding, the amazing and remarkable Noel Airman is soon found to be the aka for Neil Ehrman.
Peter Ho Davies deeply poignant novel, The Welsh Girl, is set amid the uncertainty and moral uproar of World War II. The ending is beyond belief funny, involving a German Jew, who'd been assigned to interrogate the run-away Nazi, Rudolph Hess, is ordered out of a pub in a small village in Wales because "we don't want your kind in here." Instead of taking umbrage, the character begins to laugh, only serving to enrage those in the pub to a greater degree. He happens to be wearing the uniform of the British Army; his laughter comes from the awareness that there would be no objection to his presence were he merely a German or merely a Jew, or even the combination of the two, which might, in fact, be cause for him being offered a drink on the house. The "your kind" that is not wanted is anyone in a British uniform.
These examples I've thought to email to Canberra by no means exhaust the potential varieties known as humor or simply funny. Wolfe, himself a Brit, was insistent on two occasions that a character in different ventures we were collaborating on be an Australian, trying to pass as an English snob, a twofer in the way it skewers both the pretensions of the Aussie and the self-importance of the Brit character.
It is not that I have difficulty recalling things that are funny to me, more that anyone, particularly a person such as Digby, who has made some sort of a life from humor, would want examples of it, would need examples of it, would not have his mind overflowing with the ingredients that so readily bring it down to paper. Now that's funny.
Life reaches its funniest for me when someone shakes a warning finger at me, admonishing me, "That's not funny." This observation invariably causes me to laugh even louder, get a clearer view of a target I might not have ordinarily noticed.
Life as a concept becomes funny in direct proportion to make sense of it in a meaningful, serious way. Thus our own purpose leads us down the garden path. Life is, among other things, a delightful series of targets of opportunity. Life is the bird that does a Jackson Pollock on our newly washed car, the baby who reprises dinner on our coat sleeve, the dog who views the living room rug as a splendid latrine, the cat who uses one of our closeted shoes as a place to deposit fresh rodent corpses. Life is the natural order of defiance in the face of our intent to neaten things up.
It is, of course, the one challenge we cannot avoid, and somehow, humorously, the motivation for our approach to all the other challenges that await us.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Writers, whether they intend it or not, are judges; they judge history, they judge the present, they judge the individuals in these places and the places of their imagination, and yes, they judge each other. Writers are simultaneously juries, prosecutors, attorneys for the defense; they are the defendant and the accused, all rolled up into one and expected by their craft to render a considered verdict on every matter that comes before them.
In the legal profession, an amicus brief is a considered opinion, a gloss, on a matter before the court. Writers do have friends. Some of these friends are:
2. other writers
Writers have a reference shelf and a to-read shelf, things to be consulted, search engines, as it were. At the very minimum, the ten friends listed above should be considered a part of the writers' reference shelf.
Among my favorite books are The Canterbury Tales, because its characters and language still stand after six hundred years; the collected poetry of William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Marianne Moore, all of whom I have increasing hopes of understanding, if everything continues on schedule; Macbeth because of the way it introduced me to politics and point of view; The Trial by Franz Kafka, for showing the way to get past the reader's defenses and into the heart of his complaint; Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi, which were the only text books on writing I return to at every stage of my life; Tales of the Jazz Age by Fitzgerald because they awakened me to the immensity of the short story; ditto The Long Valley by John Steinbeck, The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury, and the Knopf Collected Stories by John Cheever. The opening paragraphs of All the Kings' Men by Robert Penn Warren, and the stunning humor of "Spotted Horses" by William Faulkner, and The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler turn my heart to instant oatmeal.
Numbers 2 through 6 on the list serve as a constant reminder that we are all preoccupied with time and how it affects the work we do, whether it is capturing an image or pacing a performance or judging an event. By looking at and listening to these worthies, we understand how to transmit, say, the photographic equivalent of shutter speed to a short story or a novel, how to PhotoShop point of view. We listen to the monologues of George Burns and Jack Benny and we learn all the better how to withhold information until the right moment, strengthening the tie of these two performers to Mark Twain. We learn how an exaggerated pair of eyebrows, a shambling gait, and an eye for the absurd transforms Julius Marx into an integral archetype struggling to break free within every male.
Number 7 is vital; we must be on good terms with at least one first rate food preparer. Not to disparage peanut butter and jam sandwiches, eaten for fuel when the creative flame has us at our work; not to raise an eyebrow at a can of Franco-American spaghetti, eaten cold out of a can under similar work-intensive or financially burdensome times; rather to remind us that a splendid meal and a glass or six of a fruity pinot noir reminds us that the inner man is sensual, too.
Dogs and cats are quintessential extensions of ourselves. When I was living in a one-bedroom apartment within hearing distance of the Hollywood Freeway, writing a pulp novel a month for a ridiculously small advance, a cat came into my life, a cat the likes of which I have only approximated, a cat who opened for me the doors to growth, understanding, and a sense of what true companionship was all about. Sam, the cat, opened my eyes to Blue, the Blue-tick hound, and from that point on, I knew that fountain pens, typewriters, and, now, laptops are only one part of the tool kit--the other essential ingredient is a proper writers' dog.
Every now and then an editor will ask me a question about something I have written, my answer to which makes me realize that if I have a blind spot for accuracy, the editor does not. I am frequently reminded of an interview I listened to on radio in which Somerset Maugham told of making it a point to send an enormous bouquet of flowers to his copyeditor and to arrange a lavish dinner for his content editor, each of whom, he argued, had contributed considerably to saving him from an embarrassment.
If we as writers are to be friends of the court in which we practice the laws of humanity, observing fully the rigors of our craft, we need all the friends we can get.
Readers? Listeners? Viewers? They are not friends, they are clients. To them we owe at least as much if not more than we can ever hope to know.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
At the moment, the most famous American invention is intransigence. There was a time when we were known for positive things: jazz, bourbon whiskey, baseball, basketball, and, some would say, the short story.
There can be no question about our intransigence as it relates to such painful subjects as Iraq, foreign policy, womens' reproductive rights, the right to privacy, guns, and so-called faith-based initiatives. Such intransigence comes from distrust, which is generally used by those in power to manipulate those who wish to be in power.
On a happier scale of measurement, there is little question about jazz, which also extends to bebop; bourbon, baseball, and basketball. Arguments about the origin of the short story, even if they become acrimonious, are still lively and instructive, as opposed to our intransigent position at the table, which is not only acrimonious, it is frustrating and frightening.
My take on the origins of the short story sets its birthplace in the early tales of Washington Irving, relishing in its infancy and gaining coordination in the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose early collection of stories, Twice-Told Tales, were reviewed by Edgar Allen Poe in an iconic moment where Poe, as though he were taking dictation from Aristotle, fresh off his Poetics, set forth a standard for what the short story could and should accomplish.
While Poe was writing some of his own ventures into the short form of fiction, a young man in the Midwest was busily listening to tales, some of them fanciful in origin, others as rooted in heritage as jazz was rooted in the blues. In time this young man extended his range of interests and activities to the West, where he lived and worked among miners, cowhands, and the vast undifferentiated audience of unlettered men, waiting for the beginnings of The Industrial Revolution.
Do I need to tell you that the young man took on the name Mark Twain?
In one way or another, Twain helped spread the allure and effect of the short tale from its oral tradition to the printed page, influencing writers throughout Europe and stirring up additional interest here. In what I shall claim as my own invention, the blog leap, a convenient compression of time, the American version of the short story was off and running, championed by the likes of Jack London and not to forget the short story writer we are always too quick to forget, Rheingold "Ring" Lardner.
Like Twain, Lardner used regional dialect and attitudes, a true sociologist as well as a ranking humorist. Before Lardner, our baseball heroes were all good-natured man, perhaps under read but by no means lacking in acuity. After Lardner, we began to see them for all their humanity and bigotry and superstition, at once making them more real and more heroic.
Meanwhile, in Europe, a famous mentor was working with a famous student. Gustave Flaubert was willing to mentor Guy de Maupassant, provided de Maupassant followed Flaubert's instructions to the letter. One such letter was that de Maupassant was not to even consider sending his stories to potential publishers until he had one hundred of which Flaubert approved. De Maupassant quickly provided the hundred stories and Flaubert, after making editorial suggestions , ultimately gave his approval. Within ten years of that approval, de Maupassant had become synonymous with the short story, a sky rocket in the literary heavens.
The modern short story--the twenty-first-century short story--is no longer American; it has a world view and an international pedigree although many argue that another short story writer, Ernest Miller Hemingway, gave the form a considerable boost. Well, maybe so, but you'd also have to factor in John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, Annie Proulx, Raymond Carver, Bernard Malamud.
Not to forget those two estimable Canadian writers, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood, also keeping in mind the Brit, Somerset Maugham, and from Ireland, James Joyce, Frank O'Connor, and arguably the most emotionally and technically deft writer at work today, William Trevor. The Russians have added to it, and we also get the Wasabi bite of Haruki Murikami from Japan, as well as, ah, she is splendid, Jhumpa Lahiri, from beautiful downtown Cambridge (Mass., not England), but with a Bengali flavor.
In spite of protestations from literary agents and publishers, new collections not only appear sporadically, they appear in ever increasing numbers, attesting to the bottom-line mentality in which demand creates supply.
Having invented the blog leap of time to make a point, the point I'm after is the way the short story in addition to its already solid dramatic structure, has begun shaping the long form, the novel. At the forefront is a collection of short stories that began to take on their final form in The Lion's Den, the Saturday morning workshop I co-hosted with Leonard Tourney before he moved off to take a post at BYU. Jean Harfenist's A Brief History of the Flood (Knopf, 2003) appeared as neither fish no fowl; it is not a novel, but they more or less let the browser think it is. Every one of the chapters was placed as a short story in a literary journal. Arranged in a more or less chronological order, A Brief History can, indeed, add up to a novel. Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine becomes another example, taking us away from the more or less conventional novel format of a single narrator or a select group of narrators to a kind of ensemble cast effect.
Because of its length, a novel has the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to portray change. A short story simply doesn't have the room, and so it doesn't deal with change so much as it takes us up to a point of awareness which the protagonist may or may not experience (see , for instance, "The Peacock," or "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver). Thus the short story is a living, breathing example of opaqueness and ambiguity; the modern novel, although unlikely to tie up all relevant loose ends, has the space to be more attentive to resolving a theme. For convenience sake, you might consider the short story as a concerto to the novel as a symphony. In dramatic terms, the short story is more like the one-act play, the modern novel more of a piece with the modern two-act play.
Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood get past conventional and editorial discomfort with a short story having more than a single point-of-view; William Trevor writes so well in omniscient point of view that he is effective with it in short fiction as well as the novel.
If you were to look at the point of origin of stories appearing in the three major best-of-the-year collections of short stories, you'd be sure to discover that the great majority first appeared in The New Yorker, with the likes of Granta, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Paris Review as also-rans. The Gettysburg Review would be more likely to place candidates were it not for the fact of its editor producing a continuing stream of editorials best described as self-indulgent.
Many of the short stories of Annie Proulx that appeared in Open Range rank among my favorites, and because of my long association with universities and because of my politics, and because of the author's ability to evoke complex feelings I have a special fondness for Tobias Wolfe's "In the Garden of the American Martyrs."
The 2006 edition of The Best Mystery Stories contains at least four short stories that demonstrate how the demands of the mystery genre are not necessarily a lead weight, holding the short story down.
Many of today's younger--under forty--short story writers are bringing the energy of their discovery to the form, using it as a building block for learning to write in the longer form, but investigating the dramatic potential as a step-ladder to their own voice.
Ever have the experience of blowing a paper bag full of air, twisting off the top, then using that air-filled bag as a weapon to scare someone by popping it unexpectedly behind them?
The many times I did that as a kid, I never thought I'd be using the memory of the experience as a metaphor for the short story. A finite container, filled with one's own breath, suddenly brought to a surprising explosion. What a lovely metaphor for an art form that may help America earn back a reputation that has been too long in the unemployment line.
Friday, April 20, 2007
As our interest and sophistication in reading and writing grow, our curiosity about motivation in the participants in nonfiction and fiction grows.
Early in my reading career, it would not have occurred to me to question, much less think about agendas and motives in the work I read, wishing instead to immerse myself in the now-ness, the immediacy of the narrative in which I sought to immerse myself. Although I had distinct loyalties in narratives well outside my contemporary horizons, I seldom spent the time to think through the longer-term implications of why characters behaved as they did. It was enough to root for Ivanhoe and against Sir Reginald Front d'Boeuf in Scott's rousing epic, and although I was more culturally attuned to Rebecca, I saw no reason why Ivanhoe should not pursue the Lady Rowena instead of Rebecca. Hey, now I think it could be a masterly romp to have had Ivanhoe drawn by the force of his gonads to Rebecca, even though in time the question would have come up, "So what about it, Willie (for that is what she would have called Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe), we gonna raise the kid Anglican or, you know?" Actually, she'd have been after him much sooner, quoting Leviticus at him within a few days of the birth of their first son. As in circumcision. As indeed, Rebecca would have been on Willie's case to have the deed done on himself. As in: "You mean--"?
"Yes," she said, "I mean--"
"Unh, can I have some time to think it over?"
Not until I reached high school, having been yanked about the country by forces beyond my control to such arcane places as New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Florida, did the agenda of the narrator become important to me. When it did, the result was momentous. The authors of a text on U.S. History which covered, among other things, a long-term battle variously referred to as The Civil War, The War Between the States, and The War of Northern Aggression, depending on which part of the country I happened to live in at the time, were all affiliated with universities in the South. Did this have anything to do, I wondered aloud, with the fact that the text was snarky about Federalism and more openly favoring the self-determination of the states?
Later at that same high school, I was introduced to the concept of journalism being objective. This was at a time when the elder Hearst, William Randolph, of Citizen Kane fame was alive and kicking. The clock began ticking, which is to say I began keeping score.
Another watermark moment came when, at the appropriate age of eighteen, I read Thomas Wolfe (not the one with the funky white suits) and, of all people, Ayn Rand. Mr. Wolfe had a lovely way with words but not such a lovely way with racism and sexism, nor did he reveal a significant sense of humor. Ms. Rand, especially in The Fountainhead, was clearly in better control but still leaning toward propaganda, which erupted into full view with Atlas Shrugged. She, too, it appeared, was left home when the rest of the writing class was taken on a field trip to view humor.
By now, a sense of the agenda--hidden or otherwise--of the narrator came down on my head as though I were out walking in a rainstorm without hat or umbrella, which leads me a fork in the road an author and a reader must take. Is the unreliable narrator deviously unreliable? (See Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?) Does the narrator have some hidden agenda? Or perhaps the narrator is lacking a clue, which is to say he or she is naive?
Becky Sharp, who narrates Thackeray's Vanity Fair is the quintessential pragmatist, her self-interest apparent from the get-go. Don Quixote of the eponymous saga is naive bordering on deluded; the protagonist of Jaroslav Hasek's lovely send-up of war and army life, The Good Soldier Schweik, is either a bumpkin, a shrewd master of his fate, or, as at least one other character calls him, a lunatic. Another novel with a nearly similar title, The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford, allows us to experience--don't worry, I won't spoil it for you--a remarkable irony, perpetrated on a seemingly reliable narrator.
The list of narrators with ambiguous agendas is seemingly endless, but none more splendidly illustrates such a powerful dramatic force in recent times as Mr. Stevens, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro's memorable novel, The Remains of the Day. Loaded throughout with the technical pazazz of irony, ambiguity, humor, aching tragedy, and acutely realized characters, The Remains of the Day allows us the delicious luxury of seeing the tragedy of what might have been for Mr. Stevens, the sum total of what he got for what he gave, the opportunity to admire and like the man while still rendering harsh judgments about him.
It is no small thing to keep the narrator in mind as we read whatever it is we happen to be reading at the moment. This is oversight at its most important. What are the motives of those who present our news to us, our descriptions of scientific discovery, our entertainments, our representations of history.
Generations of Spaniards of a particular social class speak their language with a lisp because of the speech impediment and/or affectation of a member of the royal class, centuries ago. Foot fetishists may slather at the lore of foot binding in China, and some historians--undoubtedly male historians--may argue that the smaller the woman's foot, the greater was her beauty considered to be, but try telling that to the women who could scarcely get away. Don Imus says he was only trying to make a joke, William Randolph Hearst believed war sold newspapers, Jerry Springer says everyone loves a good verbal squabble, and Pat Robertson thinks AIDS is a celestial punishment rendered against the gay community.
In a real sense, we are all unreliable narrators. As writers, our reliability works in direct ratio to our vision of the worlds we attempt to depict and the persons we chose to populate the world. Nick Caraway, another naive narrator, says Gatsby was a romantic. I love the book, but take issue with Nick; I think Gatsby was a victim of the very system he bought into in order to win Daisy.
From time to time, in a classroom, I'll ask what I consider to be two significant questions: Who's telling your story? Why? Very often the answer is a row of bright, attractive faces, looking at me in wonderment. Why would anyone, they seem to be saying, ask such questions?
Somethings to consider: What did Virgil have in mind when he wrote The Aneid?
What did the incumbent President of the United States have in mind when, on April 19, 2007, he offered his complete confidence in the Attorney General of the United States?
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Whenever we see or hear these words, A likely story, set forth as a response to a narrative, we are coming face to face with audience reaction writ large.
Stories, tales, narratives, and yes, even accounts are all very much like notes in a bottle, set lose in some river or ocean by someone hopeful of a response from someone else. By its very nature, a story is a crafted plea for a response, the worst of which is complete indifference.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a protean and often pompous literary force, set in motion a concept quite relevant to the designation, A likely story. Coleridge introduced for out consideration the willingful suspension of disbelief, which is to say a deliberate setting aside by the reader of a narrative that its characters, their motivations, and the resolution of these motivations are anything less than plausible. Willingful suspension of disbelief is often challenged in the courtroom of the reader's sensitivity. I don't believe that character would do or say such a thing, comes the indictment. To which the author replies, But it really happened that way. To which the critic replies, Doesn't matter; it wasn't rendered in a way that convinced me.
The great divide, wider than the Continental Divide--what the writer of the tale observes, either from reality or imagination or a combination of the two, and what the reader believes.
Just check some of the Internet sites relative to Urban Myth for a sampling of things readers believe, things often stranger and with more tenuous logic than events found in reality. My favorite example of urban myth comes from the so-called choking Doberman story, invented by my pal, Digby Wolfe, as an exercise in producing intriguing dramatic beginnings for some of his writing classes. In brief apercu, the choking Doberman story involves a woman rushing her dog to a vet because the dog has difficulty breathing, being told the dog must be left for an intensive examination, and ending with a police cordon and a swat team apprehending an escaped killer. What began as a classroom exercise worked its way onto urban myth sites, having been reported and regarded as real.
It comes down to this: plausibility. How plausible is it that the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "The Minister's Black Veil," actually wore a facial covering? Only as plausible and believable as Hawthorne made it. We believe what we are led to believe, at which point the belief becomes what we want to believe. For me, it is second nature to bring politics into this equation, both as an explanation for what other people--notice the introduction of elitism there with the concept of other people, persons other than me, to which I could also add My Kind. Me and my kind--believe or can be induced to believe. The elitism continues to include my kind of truth and other people's, a not so subtle variation on the equation that the only real truths are those such as chemical and mathematical formulae. Sorry, Jane Austen, but a truth universally acknowledged doesn't cut it; truths universally acknowledged often end up on urban myth websites.
Listening to a narrative--any narrative--then deeming it a likely story is a frontal attack on the narrative's intent of veracity. It is the equivalent of asking, Are you serious? Are you kidding? You expect me to believe that?
Saying or thinking A likely story! is taking a step toward cynical sanity, a form of questioning that may cause me a great sense of isolation and loneliness, not merely from people of my kind but from all people, but in the end it causes me to look at my own unreliability as a narrator, to avoid the pitfall of making a holy grail of the abstract concept of truth, and recognizing the kinship of brother and sister pursuers of comfort with the written and spoken word.
It can be instructive at times, when exposed to the blustery rhetoric of the Republicans in the hot tub at the Y, or the impassioned rhetoric of such teachers as me on a roll of enthusiasm, or after reading some work that strives for importance to say, internally, or externally, A likely story, then try it one more time, punctuated with an exclamation point. A likely story! Just thinking about it imparts a mischievous sense of freedom.
Some religious philosophies introduce the concept of a mantra, a series of mystically charged words to be repeated and contemplated until the individual begins to take on the very qualities embodied in the formula. Hindu mantras involve bija words, words crafted from Sanskrit that have no other purpose than to convey aspects of the ineffable. Our own secular mantra could very well be, A likely story, a lovely combination that will keep us on the writers' path of working at our craft and not taking anything, particularly ourselves, too seriously. It will also work wonders to keeping us out of the urban myth casualty lists.
My review of Matsuo Kirino's (1951-) new novel Grotesque, has just appeared and I link to it herewith.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
A tall story has two aspects, both having to do with plausibility. In the first case, there is enough plausibility present to introduce the worm of ambiguity into the apple; the story does not on its face seem preposterous and, indeed, contains just enough substance to see the reader/hearer through the border of cynicism. The second aspect of the tall story introduces the concept of the surreal, a literary red flag indicating the vast hyperbole of the information.
Each version has a long tradition of use, the latter seeming more appropriate for the fable (See Aesop, but also George Orwell's Animal Farm, and that abomination from Richard Adams, Watership Down.) The former seems the more literary of the two; ambiguity is a major tool in the fiction writer's tool kit, allowing the author the greater opportunity to cause the reader to step into the story and take sides.
Once again I call upon Mark Twain to represent a taxonomic outcropping in the rich lode that comprises story. His venture, "The Cardiff Giant," originally appearing in the Virginia City (NV) Territorial-Enterpriseis a splendid example of devious intent, offering itself as an intriguing news story at first blush, then doing a quick change into the costume of a joke perpetrated on the reader. In the simplest of terms, Twain wrote of the discovery of a petrified body having been discovered in some mining excavations at the Comstock Lode. While speculating on the age of the petrified remains and describing it, Twain casually mentioned the fingers of the left hand of the discovery being splayed. Then he went on to speculate on the overall height, casually dropping the information that the right hand of the body was similarly splayed. After another paragraph or so, Twain reported that the extended thumb of the left hand was joined to the decedent's nose, followed by a bit more speculation before dropping the bombshell that the thumb of the right hand had been discovered joined to the little finger of the left hand. Voila! Twain had just delivered a one-two punch of a tall story, in which a petrified relic human of the distant past was preserved in stone, thumbing his nose at us.
My own favorite version of a tall story takes place in my favorite coffee-drinking venue, Peet's, on upper State Street in Santa Barbara. Because of the crush of early morning customers, eager for their first coffee fix of the day, a man and woman, known to each other by the regularity of their visits to Peet's each day, are forced to share a table. In an attempt at conversation, the man asks the woman why she appears to be shaking her head. "Just getting a start on the day," the woman said. "In my job, I see an extraordinary number of assholes every day."
The man nods soberly. "Me, too," he confesses.
Pleased at the possibility of shared pain, the woman enthuses, "Really? I'm in sales at Saks Fifth Avenue. What do you do?"
"I," the man confesses, "am a proctologist."
A tall tale is the favorite tool in many a writer's kit, furnishing a chance to make fresh inroads in the understanding of the self and, accordingly, of the entire human condition. If a scene is the basic unit of drama--it is!--then it should be clear to the observer that the individual is the basic unit of the scene and, further, that an individual, either with a quest for understanding some aspect of what it all means or, conversely, with the utter conviction of already understanding all of the human condition that needs to be known, is the basic target for the teller of the tall story.
My lifetime experience with horses is limited to a period in my early teens when I rode them with some persistence, and a time in my later teens and early twenties when I became interested in the relative speed of horses to the point where I was willing to put my money up as a defining venture. Nevertheless, Mr. Twain's essay within Roughing It, "I decide to buy a horse," puts me squarely into the recall of every time I've bought a car, and of every salesman from whom I bought said car. Twain's used-horse salesman has become an archetype,and the story, which was probably based on a real incident, has been bumped up into tallness to just the right degree to keep it orbiting around the planet of immortality.
Some tall tales, mostly from politicians, remind us to be on the eternal vigil lest we discover, in the final analysis, that the information presented as facts are really the hands of The Petrified Man, thumbing their nose at us.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
All stories have some kind of end-game goal, some intended effect on the hearer/reader. Is it laughter? Perhaps the author's intent is education, or irony, or reversal. Perhaps the narrative is offered in self-defense, or the adjunct of self-defense, excuse. As long as we're dwelling on the conditional perhaps, might be the intent of a story is to make the teller sound modest--moi?--or resourceful.
Surely one of the more plentiful among dramatic narratives is the hard-luck story or its close relative, the sob story. The purpose is to evoke or elicit sympathy for the teller, both in the nature of troubles piled on and in the way the load is borne by the forces of Nature and natural disaster.
You could say--and probably will, once you think about it--that The Book of Job is the classic hard-luck story, not only because of the trials visited upon Job but as well because of the capricious nature of the way the visitation was set in motion. Job happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when those polar representations of The Cosmic Forces got into a bragging and betting mood.
In more modern times, you could argue that an archetypal hard-luck story is found in a heavy contributor to Republican politics, being given a chance to go hunting with the Vice President of the United States. We all know how that turned out. That poor man will be known throughout history as the man who went bird hunting with the Veep. In Texas, where the incident took place, Republican school children will be allowed to stay home from school on the anniversary of that day, and boys with aggressive cases of facial zits will be able to say, "I went dove hunting with Dick Cheyney."
You could also, if you wanted, put the majority of Americans of voting age as players in a hard-luck story because it is our hard luck to have at the helm of the ship of state a man more like Captain Ahab than the President of the United States, although there are those who would disagree with my literary analogy, reminding me of Mary Shelley's archetypal Frankensteinas the more appropriate fit. Dr. Frankenstein represents the force behind the Vice President of the United States, a man who once was more benign than he now is, having created a monster who has attached some seven hundred fifty signing statements to bills acted into law by the Congress. Mrs. Shelley's point was a moral one, in which hubris could create a monster.
It's our hard luck story that the President of the United States, with graduate work in hubris, is in over his head and the best we can think to do in the name of conventional wisdom is to wait his term of office out.
We will nationally remain at the wrong end of a hard-luck story as long as we continue to accept our status as victim.
Monday, April 16, 2007
It is a truth universally recognized--sound familiar?--that anything labeled a cock and bull story is something to be regarded as untrustworthy, fanciful at best, or a deliberate attempt at deception.
My opening observation, borrowing the first six words of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, is a lovely case in point because Ms. Austen goes on to formulate from this universal truth that a young man in possession of a fortune must perforce be in search of a wife. Thus does Ms. Austen present her credentials as an ambassador plenipotentiary of irony, the reason being that it is not at all a certainty that a wealthy young man wants to get married; the greater certainty is that he wants to get laid.
Another truth universally recognized,at least within the book trade in the United States, in this case by the estimable CMOS, The Chicago Manual of Style, is the use of the serial comma. This is no cock and bull story. Oops, the very mention of CMOS has me recalling another convention, and thus cock-and-bull story (because it is neither a cock story or a bull story; it is a compound adjective now, made to service a noun--story.)
Although the origins of the expression are at odds (and don't tell me to Google and Wikipedia it because I did) and inconclusive, twentieth- and now twenty-first century convention pretty well establishes it, a cock-and-bull story is accepted for truth at one's risk.
George W. Bush, for instance, listened to Paul Wolfowitz's theories about the outcome of our intervention in Iraq, taking in as established wisdom a notorious cock-and-bull story.
Not willing to be regarded historically as one who listened to a cock-and-bull story, and risked the reputation of the forty-third (another CMOS convention--you spell out numbers) President of the United States on his subsequent behavior, George W. Bush has shown he can initiate cock-and-bull stories as well, the most recent example given barely hours before these vagrant lines are written: The Democratic-controlled Congress is refusing to fund our troops. Pure C & B. The Congress is willing to write a hundred billion-dollar check to support our troops.
Well, enough--literally and figuratively--of our forty-third president and his vice president, although it is fun to wonder, when they discuss things, which is the cock and which is the bull.
Talking animals have held a significant place in the literature of the ages, seemingly well suited to illustrate fables, satires, and tales. Grendel comes quickly to mind, she of Beowulf and the eponymous novel by John Gardener. Aesop put words into the mouths of animals; so did George Orwell, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Dragons, wolves, unicorns all have had their say, some prescient and others hysterical (see Henny-Penny).
A cock-and-bull story is built in the first place to deceive, divert, or delay. A cock-and-bull story is the dog ate my homework writ large. If the deception has as its purpose an amusing payoff and/or a moral purpose, such as those told by Mark Twain, we are often the better for it, refreshed, our critical senses laundered and hung out to dry in the sunshine of reason and self-examination. If the deception is to tighten the grip of fear and control, the believer becomes in time as much at fault as the perpetrator.
For those of us who are book oriented, it becomes pleasing to think of an anthology, perhaps even a lofty Oxford Companion to the Cock and Bull Story. Imagine the fun and clamor. The anthology is to be divided into two parts; no not Cock and Bull, but rather For Fun and For Real.
The aforementioned Mr. Twain would be a welcomed addition to the fun side, as well as one of his modern embodiments, Kurt Vonnegut.
Imagine the mischief and consternation and competition for inclusion in the For Real side, those men and women who promulgate C & B as though they had come down from the mountain top, bearing an engraved slab of granite:
The Rev. Falwell
The Rev. Robertson
Number Forty-three and his Vice-president
Jean Schmidt (the GOP wingnut rep from Ohio)
and, as the late, lamented Mr. Vonnegut would have said, so it goes.
The cock-and-bull story can be a lovely learning experience, or a one-way ticket to the worst kind of convention of all. My personal belief of it is that it is the forerunner of the tall tale in the grand tradition of the American West. One place to look for its origins is in that remarkable novel about origins and reality, Tristram Shandy,
in which a character says, "It is a story about a Cock and a Bull--and the best of its kind that I have ever heard."
Sunday, April 15, 2007
The term shaggy-dog story has come to be associated with a long, meandering narrative, replete with irrelevant or distracting details, ending with an outrageous, groan-producing play on words--my homework ate the dog--or on a totally irrelevant note. In either case, the dramatic point of the shaggy-dog story resides in the unexpected, leading the reader or hearer--because shaggy-dog stories may be oral--in the lurch, at the mercy of the teller.
One of the great glosses on the shaggy-dog story comes from one of the great written and oral story tellers, the man known as Mark Twain. Check out "The Grandfather's Ram" story in Twain's splendid, autobiographical tour of Nevada and California, Roughing It, one of at least four Twain must reads (the others including Life on the Mississippi, The Innocents Abroad, and Huckleberry Finn.
Ernest Hemingway said all of American literature began with Huck Finn; I'll trump that by saying most of what one needs to know about story telling can be found in these five books.
In "The Grandfather's Ram," Twain writes of his days as a reporter for the Territorial-Enterprise,the free-wheeling Virginia City, Nevada newspaper for which Twain wrote during the early bonanza years of the Comstock Lode. A group of locals had sold Twain on the remarkable tale a certain old gent who loved to tipple was wont to tell of a ram once owned by his grandfather. Trouble was, the locals assured Twain, the teller of the tale had to have reached just the right, reflective state of tipsiness before he would begin to reminisce.
After a number of false starts, the boys assured Twain that the time was now; if he wanted to hear the story, he'd best drop everything and hurry on over to where the teller was holding forth, before a growing audience.
"My grandfather's ram," the old boy recalled with a smile at the memory. "I don't reckon them times will ever come again." And he is off, his brain cells, lubricated with spiritus fermenti, firmly focused. And Twain was hooked.
Trouble was, the old man never referred to the ram again, ranging from gossip in his home town to politics, religious preferences, and a remarkable story of a rug weaver who'd fallen into a machine-driven weaving machine and was woven into a six-ply broadloom carpet, making it necessary to bury him rolled up in long, narrow bundle. The story went on from there until the teller began to nod, then drop off to an early nap. Twain realized this was always the scenario, that the details of the grandfather's ram were largely unknowable, and that he'd been "had" by his friends.
This is not to propose that Twain invented the shaggy-dog story, but he expertly demonstrated it in all its living potential. By this time in his career, he already had an instinctive if not well articulated sense of story, which he later set down in another keeper, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," a critical diatribe against a writer who was the Tom Clancy of his day, embedded in a useful re-embodiment of Aristotle's Poetics.
Life is a shaggy-dog story, a series of often contradictory events or events competing for our attention, ending with some awful howler of a conclusion, or worse, ending with no proper conclusive inertia.
When we turn to memoir or biography or fiction, we look for travel writing--writing that takes us somewhere, a place where the laws of causality and determinism have greater effect than they do in real life. This is a place where justice is done, virtue is often rewarded, patience pays off, the good people get laid on occasion, and women are not reduced to having to marry just to get away from home (only to find themselves transported from one dreadful situation to another).
The message here is not that there is more satisfaction in literature than in everyday life but that the two can and should engage in a dialog, exchange notes, develop a rapport.
One good place to bring this metaphorical pairing of Israel and Palestine together is in the expectations we bring to our lives and to our reading.
All too often when discussing a particular story,we hear the disclaimer: That could never happen in real life. Just as often, when discussing the effect of a story and hearing an observation of disbelief about an element, the author will fiercely defend with the observation, "But it really happened that way." And increasingly, looking at the advertisements for films and TV shows, we see the inducement, "Based on a real story."
One of the Oscars--Wilde or Levant--once observed that in order for history to be effective, it must be rewritten. This observation sets the worm of cynicism into the apple of reality, leaving us with another potent observation. What is worse than finding a worm in an apple? Answer: Finding half a worm in half an apple.
Particularly since 2000 and the advent of the Bush administration (if it can be called an administrative function) we have lived in the midst of a shaggy-dog story, with distractions, myths, and ignorant armies clashing by night. We have found a half-eaten worm in our apple.
We must hasten to rewrite the more egregious histories we have allowed to befall us, using our understanding of story and the need to transport ourselves to a kinder, more civil place.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
One of my many reasons for favoring the mystery novel resides in the opportunity to identify with an individual working within the constraints of a bureaucracy as he or she pursues the truth regardless of outcome.
The pursuit is multifarious, simultaneously in spite of and against established order, frequently under some time constraint, just as frequently making some discovery that will damage the intent or reputation of someone in power.
Private investigators also intrigue me because they frequently have become private, as, say, Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer became private out of a contempt for the limitations and corruption inherent in bureaucracy.
And of course the man or woman on the street, the innocent victim who is wrongly accused and must in his or her own self-interest, solve the crime, becomes another grand source of identification for me.
Although a fan of justice being done, both in the abstract and the specific, I don't care if the murderer is actually caught as much as I care that the murderer is identified and given some literary equivalent of the scarlet letter to wear. Seeing justice represented in drama satisfied me by reminding me of what could happen in real life, what very well might happen in real life.
Mystery fiction draws me into its labyrinthine and devious pages because of its focus on discovery--discovery of motive, of fact, or information. I read on for the flare-up of awareness that a character is not all he or she seems, that a relationship has some hidden common denominator, that some social or ethical more has been breached and someone is trying to cover it up. I read for the delicious moments in which the suspects of a crime are set scurrying in the fear that the investigation will reveal some misadventure of their own, completely collateral to the investigation in progress.
As I hope you will see of me, I relish this genre not for the sense of dramatic revenge in which the miscreant is punished, because, in fact, I am in addition to being naive, optimistic, and given to think well of my fellow humans, also a bit conflicted in my cynicism, my occasions of bigotry, and my willingness to suspect what I do not understand. I neither sit on nor aspire to the moral high ground, if for no other reason than that position would occlude my greater vision of myself and the humanity of which I am a part.
I relish the mystery because the truly good ones lead me to ask of myself:
What new miracle have you seen today? Where have you looked? What small miracle have you missed in search of the colossal, effulgent beauty? What story might you have missed? What opportunity did you allow to go uninvestigated? What equivalent of the purloined letter has been sitting on your desk all this while? What small pleasure have you missed because you were too busy to look? What question have you left unasked? What sincerely felt complement have you failed to convey to someone who evoked it within you? What crime have you committed upon another today? What crime have you committed upon yourself? What thing did you fear today that you took no step to understand or overcome? What,if anything, has made you feel happy today? What have you done to exercise and hone your craft today? What line did you step over today in the reach of accomplishment? What line held you back? Who are you? What is your motive? What is your opportunity?
Means, motive, and opportunity, are the factors that identify the major suspects in a mystery novel. What do yours say of you at any time?
Where is the mystery in you?
What will you do about it?