Showing posts with label Catch-22. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Catch-22. Show all posts

Monday, April 27, 2009

I'll See Your Happy Ending and Raise You a Downer

happy ending, the--an outcome of a story or novel in which one of more of the lead characters is successful in achieving a goal; a payoff or result of a narrative in which the behavior of the protagonist leads the reader to feel optimistic; characters getting what they want without having to overpay.

One could almost paraphrase Tolstoy with the observation that happy endings are all alike, then qualify that observation with the added observation that the happy ending is the one where most of the characters achieve some measure of success after having competed for it. One could also consider the number of such endings that were dictated by publishers after having read the original endings produced first by their authors. Charles Dickens, who knew his way around endings, comes to mind with his original ending to arguably his most superbly realized novel, Great Expectations. Dickens's publisher was not happy with the ending, asked for, and got an alternate where things produced a greater glow of home, but at what cost?

In some noteworthy cases, publication seems to depend on the trope of the greater good rather that what works for a single character. The ending, which is to say the payoff of Lolita had to have a justice-is-served ending because the stakes were--and still are--so high. Conventional morality wants Humbert Humbert to have suffered more than he already has. Conventional morality wants to forget that Dolores-Dolly-Lolita might have been sophisticated and aware enough to have read Humbert and his intentions and, accordingly, to have "been there" for him.

Two notably happy endings that bear heavy irony are found in Huckleberry Finn and Catch-22; each novel ending with the protagonist fleeing from a decidedly impossible situation. Both these happy endings deserve consideration and study. Each one has the protagonist faced with an untenable fate. As readers, we join them in that escape and consequently experience the happiness of the ending. Humbert Humbert is in a no-win situation. Even if he'd been able to ride off into the sunset with Dolores, we know she'd probably have grown tired of him soon enough and, indeed, he would have grown tired of her because she was already on the verge of outgrowing his range of interest.

As in other relevant matters, the writer must be the arbiter of what constitutes the happiness part of the happy ending trope. The better way to look at the happy ending is to see it as a "justice served" moment, when the time has come to cash in the characters' and the author's chips for dramatic currency.

Annie Proulx's short story, "Brokeback Mountain," written to expose what she felt was the resident homophobia of most rural areas, can hardly be said to have a happy ending, but given the characters and the author's stake in it, the payoff of the story speaks to the issue of justice and the double standard in its service.

Happy endings and sad endings are opening hands in the metaphoric poker game of the contemporary story; the true ending, the literary ending, comes with the reflection on the fate of the characters involved as it is measured against justice, served or not served.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cheek Lit

chick lit--a literary form intended for women and young girl readers; novels and short stories intended to appeal to feminine tastes and issues; a separate genre from romance, with the ultimate goal specifically not focusing on marriage.

Relatively speaking, chick lit is a new kid on the block, an equivalent for feminine readers of the adventure stories aimed at male readers. As adventure stories run the gamut in voice from a drill-sergeant gruffness to a knowledgeable attention to the details of engines, motors, calibers of bullets, and the specific terrains of bull rings, chick lit reflects a full-bore enjoyment of professionalism, fashions, dating, sexuality, and relationships in general. The chick lit voice strives for and often achieves a tone of humor, with all the edge and potential for pain and sad understanding that implies. In other cases, the chick lit protagonist tends to be self-effacing, but by no means embracing victimhood.

It is not so much a case of men being barred from writing chick lit as it is a case of the potential for a male writer of chick lit sounding a few degrees too ironic, which becomes sarcasm, which is no fun for anyone to read. Nor is it a case of chick lit being the emergence of revenge fantasy writ large for women writers; chick lit is an emerged attitude about the conditions and problems of life that follow women about as though they were stalkers.

The works of Candace Bushnell are apt targets for studiers of chick lit, and although it is nonfiction, the works of Maureen Dowd are excellent study guides for what not to do when writing chick lit.

On balance, chick lit may be thought of as serious literature for readers and writers, which means its endings are of a piece with Thelma and Louise and, to mix the gender metaphor, of Huck Finn taking off for the territory ahead, fleeing from civilization. Some endings of chick lit novels are happy in the plausible sense. Others are reminiscent of Yossarian in Catch-22, taking off in a small boat for Sweden, hoping to flee the consummate madness that is war.

As with all emerging genera, chick lit is pushing envelopes of convention. To write it, the writer must remain abreast of the tide.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Attitudes along the Margins

attitude--an emotional presence often coupled with a state of mind, resident in a writer and, subsequently, in characters, serving as a pole star for the writer and actor; the resident timbre of a story or portion of a story; the prevalent trait or personality in a story or character.

Attitude is like style; it happens as a result of choices made by the writer and, subsequently, by characters, reflecting an overall view of the circumstances in which characters find themselves, their approaches to coping with these circumstances, their regard for one another, and ultimately for themselves. Writers such as Jane Austen (1775-1817) and William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63) showed their attitudes toward individual characters and the classes they represented through a narrative voice that was openly admiring, critical, or patronizing, yet each was able to engage readers without making the readers feel they were a target. In more recent years, W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) seemed to follow this path, using his narrative skills to take the reader into his confidence, the better to reveal the spectrum of human foibles to them through the prisms of his short stories and novels.

Attitude emerges from the writer's feelings and beliefs about a subject, whether the topic is political, sexual, or philosophy. One of the first things the reader notices in discovering attitude is the overall tone of presentation, followed by the behavior and relative flexibility or lack thereof among the characters. In some of his work, D. H. Lawrence emerges as if a schoolboy seated in the front row, waving his hand to get the teacher's eye because he, Lawrence, is so enthused by the information he wishes to present. Particularly in his short stories, Lawrence was so assured of his technique that his voice was more restrained, allowing the characters to step closer to the front of the stage.

A writer's preparation for executing a story could well begin with the writer checking in on the resident emotions that push the events of the story to the surface of the imagination. Begin with the notion that the story, however long or short, is like the toothpaste in a tube. The strength of the squeeze is directly related to the amount of toothpaste that comes forth. Attitude resides in the writer's grip: I'll show them, or This will amuse you, or I can't believe people still think this way, or I didn't realize what a good thing I had until I lost it, or...

marginal--a fictional or critical condition resident in a character or concept; a necessary condition of a person or idea to convey the distance from mainstream; the distance from the statistical mean occupied by a character or concept.

Marginal characters are highly provocative of story; they may take on agendas that will further remove them from the mainstream or nurse some desire to move closer to it; they may provoke envy or discomfort among those in the mainstream. Marginal ideas are equally fecund; ideas seen as conventional wisdom become threats or shibboleths to be accordingly shunned or promulgated. Many of the characters of literary and genre fiction began as marginal; some gravitated to the ironic conclusion of mainstream, others continued to enhance their marginality. A diverse array of historical and contemporary fiction address the existential condition of marginality, The Swiss Family Robinson, for instance or Robinson Crusoe serving to represent enforced separations from the mainstream, The Lord of the Flies represents quite another result as mainstream characters shift away from their societal armature. The political satire Catch-22 could be seen as an ironic triumph of the marginal man, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit could be seen as another commentary altogether on marginality.

Start with a character who is out of the mainstream, say a high school student whose parents have moved her to a new city where she has to start making new friends. There is a group of students who attract her, but they are tight-knit, jealous of their status. Add to the calculus a member of the in-group who is drawn to the outsider. Result: story under way.

One of the more productive dramatic clashes is the formula of the marginal wanting to become mainstream and the mainstream envying the constraint-free status of the marginal.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Dance Card: Safe Choices and Rejection Letters

Whether we're dealing with the no-nonsense demands of genre fiction or the more concept- or theme-oriented strands of literary story, a significant element clamors for attention with more energy than a school kid wanting the teacher's attention because said kid knows the answer. 

 The significant element, the denominator of this particular dramatic fraction is risk. Whether we're dealing with Rebeca of Sunnybrook Farm or The Sorrows of Young Werther, be it Huck Finn or Yossorian, we want and expect our front-line characters to be at risk from the get go so that the risk can enhance as though we were tracking an impending tropical storm.

We hold risk up to the light, heft it, kick the tires, all the while wondering if the story we have in hand (either as readers or as a writer) brings someone we care about into the path of the approaching storm. I need a small favor someone will ask of a character. Oh, and while you're there (wherever there happens to be), will you be so kind as to look in on...? Whenever we see this, we sigh with relief and settle in, comfortable in the knowledge that the request for some slight favor will become the literary equivalent of a huge pit, drawing within its depths someone with whom we have been made to feel some connection.

Some of the very reasons we favor certain of the genres is because it puts into accelerated risk individuals with whom we identify, individuals who, by the way, are stuck in circumstances that may be contrived in the imagination of a talented writer but which impress nevertheless as all to similar to our own current sense of entanglement. 

 We worry about making the risk seem specific instead of generic, about putting our characters through a poignant experience or, if the situation is humor, a properly embarrassing or potentially humiliating one.

But what about the risk to our self when we get caught in the slipstream pull of story telling? The risk remains that we will discover something perhaps a tad beyond our ability to absorb, perhaps a revelation that we are somehow less than the image of self we walk about with all day, flaunting in the face of someone: family, Fates, friends. And then again, perhaps we will come away with the fleeting suspicion that we are something more than we had originally thought.

Until we take those risks, we run the danger of being the sort of writer our friends may admire. Has, for instance, a writer friend envied your vocabulary or perhaps your sense of humor, possibly even your talent with metaphor, and not to forget your ability to describe the commonplace as extraordinary and the remarkable as commonplace? All nice tools to have clinking about in your toolkit, no question about it, but what good are tools if they do not produce a sense of risky participation in a situation?

When someone envies my memory for characters and stories, for authors and their titles, for dazzling pyrotechnics, I am hit in the solar plexus with the suspicion that I need to go back and plumb the lines for emotional depth or response, for a greater empathy with one or more characters. I am aware of having run a three-card monte or a dazzle of a distraction to cut away from facing some encounter that is not only painful to me, it is so without my being aware of the encounter.

Risk is leaving out sparkling dialog or description; risk is shearing away from the glib figure of speech or the smart-ass riposte. Risk is me the dancer as opposed to Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. I am better at stepping on your foot and apologizing than I am at an elaborate dip and swirl. If I were to ask you to dance a second time, you'd return the request by suggesting we sit the next one out and talk. It is not that I would forbear to ask you to dance I'd take that risk, but my better risk is the one I take when trying to coordinate the give-and-take of story or of mere conversation, where there is more at risk than the coordination of fox trot or bossa nova.

We work to bring techniques into the familiarity of muscle memory, all the while ignoring risk as something not worth asking to dance.

Monday, April 2, 2007


It was love at first sight.

Second sight, too, for that matter.

And a few years later, third sight.

I not only don't expect things to change, I have a fresh copy of Joe Heller's archetypal novel, Catch-22, at bedside and had indeed begun my fourth venture inside its labyrinthine and mischievous pages. This was to have been the week, the Golden Oldies week in my review series for the Montecito Journal.(See link below)

Then the package came. I'd actually forgotten making the order and so, when I saw on the label, from The New York Review of Books, I openly wondered what they were sending me and why.

They were sending me The Horse's Mouth, that delightful romp by Joyce Carey, and an all-but forgotten classic by a woefully undervalued author, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, by Angus Wilson. Thus had I resolved Golden Oldies through the cruelty of April. (BTW, I have never found April to be even mean spirited much less cruel, and I like to think of it as some personal flaw in Eliot for having rendered April with such distaste.)

I made the mistake of browsing the first page of The Horse's Mouth.

Love you like a brother, Yossarian. Identify with you all over the place, and I willget back to you. Promise. If I had a cell phone, I'd make your number--1-800-catch-22--the first on my automatic dial. In a lovely, catch-22 of its own that you'd appreciate, Gulley Jimson, the fine artist of such epic proportions in The Horse's Mouth, so got hold of me that I'm even checking to see if he nicked my money clip.

Jimson may or may not be a great artist; such things are always difficult to tell, even more so when they appear as characters in books, plays, films. A writer giving the mantle of greatness to a fictional artist runs the immediate risk of undermining our credibility. Somerset Maugham saw this in his character, Charles Strickland, whom we are to assume was a fictional rendition of Paul Gauguin. In his novel, The Moon and Six Pence,Maugham expertly skirted the issue of calling Strickland great by having another character realize, when seeing Strickland's nude portrait of his wife, that Strickland had done more to his wife than paint her. Roiling with jealousy and betrayal, the cuckolded husband is about to destroy the canvas but, at the last moment, relents because even he can see its inherent greatness as art.

I do know Jimson's on-going vision, which seems a plausible rendition of the way that kind of artist would look at the world about him. Also known to me is the way Jimson's art has him in thrall to the point where he thinks only of it. His survival techniques center on how to come by paints, brushes, canvases, or other surfaces on which to render his massive visions. Gulley Jimson will lie, cheat, steal to get the money to buy the tools that will allow him to catch his vision, to trap that lightning in the bottle of his imagination.

He is accordingly gritty, not to be trusted, probably not one to be down wind from for too long. He is a reminder to all of us who have visions that we must check in frequently with an assessment of our own progress. Have we seen any of the on-going miracle before us? Have we looked hard enough, leaped high enough, bent low enough? Have we trod the boundaries of sanity, hoping to get closer to our subject, to send back a message of what it was like inside that insanity? Have we made the connection that insanity is as much a part of the human condition as sanity? Gulley Jimson's great influence was William Blake, arguably a squatter in the wretched buildings of insanity.

As a kind of parting gift, one of my two mentors gave me the exercise of imagining I were a Mars probe, sent off to a remote locale to collect artifact and data, then send those back to Earth so that those here could understand and make use of the information to be gleaned from them.

Don't get me wrong about Yossarian. He surely saw the insanity and duplicity of war. the enormous bureaucracy of deceit and self-interest that moves the young as though they were pawns on a chess board of political gain. Joe Heller, his creator, was gone before Mad King George came to power and established his own catch-22, his version of the Tar Baby. Yossarian has become nothing less than Jungian archetype, and so I set him aside with a wrench in my gut. But Gulley calls as the Sirens called.