Friday, February 6, 2009

Wile E. Coyote: The Things He Carried

products--equipment, merchandise, devises used by characters to advance story; material goods used by writers to denote living conditions, relative affluence, degrees of decadence, boredom inherent in characters; things people want or conspicuously do not want in stories.

Nowhere in stories are products given a more substantive and metaphoric treatment than the cartoon adventures of Wile E. Coyote. In these iconic dramatic ventures, Coyote lurches forth, a faithful replication of Mark Twain's description of the species from Roughing It. Coyote's hunger prods him to consider as prey The Roadrunner; the extensive number of Coyote-Roadrunner cartoons a monument to Coyote's abject failure. The rules surrounding the Wile E. Coyote landscape are myriad and inflexible, at once rendering the terrain a cross breed between Beckett and Krazy Kat. Coyote must not catch Roadrunner. Coyote's attempts at catching Roadrunner invariably end in his humiliation. Coyote may use devices such as explosive tennis balls, giant mouse traps, do-it-yourself tornado kits, and female Roadrunner costumes, but these and all others like them must come directly from the Acme Corporation. No other organization, neither Kafkan bureaucracies nor Orwellian imperialists, is so catholic in its offered menu of product; no government or manufacturer has such a smorgasbord of devices which, taken in totality, could be seen to represent the quintessential formula for curing all ails and supplying answers for all needs. In point of fact, some of the items on the Acme Corporation's list work, they simply do not work for Wile E. Coyote. But rules are rules, meaning Coyote has no recourse; if he is to use products, they must come from Acme.

Probably based on the ubiquity and comprehensiveness of the original Sears-Roebuck mail order catalogues, the Acme Corporation's arsenal of products and their built-in exclusivity for Wile E. Coyote become a metaphor for the writer who is setting forth, beginning with a particular landscape or locale, then basic rules of engagement between the major characters, then the source of materials the characters have at their disposal.

Wile E. Coyote's credit seems to be good so far as Acme Corporation is concerned; there don't seem to be any issues about accounts receivable. There are neither long, elaborate rationales about the Coyote-Roadrunner landscape nor the rules governing it. Neither, for that matter, are there distracting questions about the landscape within Beckett plays; Beckett stories hold up while being read, then become iron filings attracted to the magnet of the mind after the reading or witnessing ends. Similarly with Coyote and Roadrunner.

The message from Beckett ("Fail again, only next time, fail better.") inheres in the Wile E. Coyote cartoons; the after-the-fact paradigm of the cartoons with respect to story also becomes apparent with a personal deconstruction of the entire, precipitous southwestern mesa-butte landscape of the cartoon series.

Tim O'Brien has written a splendid account of American servicemen in Vietnam, The Things They Carried, a novel in which products play a major role in defining character and dramatic outcome. In the cartoons, Wile E. Coyote's frequent fate is having his hair singed off, falling to bottoms of steep declivities, being squashed by falling rocks or even the occasional debris from an Acme Corporation product; sometimes Coyote sustains all these fates simultaneously. O'Brien's characters inevitably reveal a distinct, moving relationship to a product, whether the product is a letter from a loved one (or a Dear John letter), a keepsake, a weapon. Coyote and O'Brien's "grunts" are set forth in an atmosphere and landscape that could not have suited Beckett better, thus is there a transcendent plateau reached and recognized when the writer brings characters with purpose and products to a locale, imbues them with constraints, restraints, and possibly even conscience.

1 comment:

Querulous Squirrel said...

I think of your examples as devices or symbolic objects. When I think of products in stories, I think of product placement in TV's and movies which is always subliminal and never has any meaning or relevance to the story. It is a distraction. I do remember however another use of products in fictions in the 1970's at the very least, most prominently in the New Yorker, where stories often seemed little more than a string of upper middle class/upper class brand names, most of which I was clueless making me hopelessly lower class. I don't know where this came from. I don't know where it went to. I had a pseudo-friend who wrote such stories for the New Yorker and now she writes screenplays. Probably with product placements.