Sunday, August 30, 2009
Now, this particular summary in Wired online leaves a few questions unanswered. Mainly I am wondering if the model applies to the new-style fast zombies (as in the movie 28 Days Later), or the old-school slow ones. Let's assume it's the latter, since I think we can all agree that the fast ones would pose a problem. But one would think that all but the extremely slow and frail could outrun or even outwalk the slow zombies. They are indeed so slow, that one has to come up with creative ways of passing the time--say, theatrically cowering in a corner--while they make their approach. How could these guys take over the human race?
According to an analysis of this article by my beloved husband, in an epidemic there is always a period of time during which people don't understand what's going on. A few dead guys staggering around in the mall--so what? That's normal, right? And meanwhile these guys are gorging themselves on a handful of unwary shoppers over by the Mervyns side-entrance. During this phase, the "oh, those can't be zombies" phase, they multiply, and before we know it, they have sufficient numbers to overwhelm the living. Volume trumps speed in the end.
Further discussion raised the following additional points. Zombies lurk. Like the Spanish Inquisition, they are, by definition, unexpected, and their lurking skills make them even more so. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, zombies are relentless. As we know from the workplace, it is the relentless who succeed most often, far more than the wise, the charming, or even the powerful. In fact, extreme relentlessness may be a sign that someone is a zombie.
I'm not saying we have to drop everything and obsess about zombies. Indeed, that kind of fear can be paralyzing, which is exactly what slow zombies want. But neither should we be complacement. I would just keep an eye out for those slow, lurking, relentless types, and sound the alarm if you start seeing more of them.
Friday, August 28, 2009
This is not to say that the comedy allows us to take the friendship lightly. On the contrary, the relationship is highly nuanced, and grows more so. The friendship is founded on delight, and that is what makes the nuance possible. Delight leads to curiosity; curiosity leads to further information; information leads to more layers of complexity in the characters, who in turn become even more curious about each other. A friendship that develops this way is the opposite of a flighty one. It's as firm as they get.
Melville sets it up the delight from the very beginning. Here, Ishmael is trying to find out from the innkeeper about the stranger with whom he'll be forced to share a bed later that night:
"Landlord! said I, "what sort of a chap is he--does he always keep such late hours?" It was now hard upon twelve o'clock.
The landlord chuckled again with his lean chuckle, and seemed to be mightily tickled at something beyond my comprehension. "No," he answered, "generally he's an early bird--airley to bed and airley to rise--yea, he's the bird what catches the worm. But to-night he went out a peddling, you see, and I don't see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, may be, he can't sell his head."
"Can't sell his head?--What sort of a bamboozingly story is this you are telling me?" getting into a towering rage. "Do you pretend to say, landlord, that this harpooneer is actually engaged this blessed Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, in peddling his head around this town?"
"That's precisely it," said the landlord, "and I told him he couldn't sell it here, the market's overstocked."
"With what?" shouted I.
"With heads to be sure; ain't there too many heads in the world?"
"I tell you what it is, landlord," said I quite calmly, "you'd better stop spinning that yarn to me--I'm not green."
"May be not," taking out a stick and whittling a toothpick, "but I rayther guess you'll be done brown if that ere harpooneer hears you a slanderin' his head."
"I'll break it for him," said I, now flying into a passion again at this unaccountable farrago of the landlord's.
"It's broke a'ready," said he.
"Broke," said I--"broke, do you mean?"
"Sartain, and that's the very reason he can't sell it, I guess."
"Landlord," said I, going up to him as cool as Mt. Hecla in a snowstorm--"landlord, stop whittling. You and I must understand one another, and that too without delay. I come to your house and want a bed; you tell me you can only give me half a one; that the other half belongs to a certain harpooneer. And about this harpooneer, whom I have not yet seen, you persist in telling me the most mystifying and exasperating stories tending to beget in me an uncomfortable feeling towards the man whom you design for my bedfellow--a sort of connexion, landlord, which is an intimate and confidential one in the highest degree. I now demand of you to speak out and tell me who and what this harpooneer is, and whether I shall be in all respects safe to spend the night with him. And in the first place, you will be so good as to unsay that story about selling his head, which if true I take to be good evidence that this harpooneer is stark mad, and I've no idea of sleeping with a madman; and you, sir, you I mean, landlord, you, sir, by trying to induce me to do so knowingly would thereby render yourself liable to a criminal prosecution."
"Wall," said the landlord, fetching a long breath, "that's a purty long sarmon for a chap that rips a little now and then. But be easy, be easy, this here harpooneer I have been tellin' you of has just arrived from the south seas, where he bought up a lot of 'balmed New Zealand heads (great curios, you know), and he's sold all on 'em but one, and that one he's trying to sell to-night, cause to-morrow's Sunday, and it would not do to be sellin' human heads about the streets when folks is goin' to churches. He wanted to last Sunday, but I stopped him just as he was goin' out of the door with four heads strung on a string, for all the airth like a string of inions."
Now, I'm too lazy to research this adequately (again: grad school => clinical depression). However, I'm guessing the fact that this sounds like a precursor of an Abbott and Costello routine is no accident. I'm guessing it echoes routines from the precursors of vaudeville, which were variety and minstrel shows. The word "bamboozlingly" suggests the latter. My cursory search on the Internet (and in my dusty old OED) says the word "bamboozle" is of unknown origin, but the fact that Spike Lee used "Bamboozled" as the title of a movie about a modern-day minstrel show--an extremely good, underrated movie, btw--is a strong hint. (If anyone knows anything about this for real, feel free to comment!) Mind, this is not to say that in this day and age we would find minstrel shows themselves delightful. But there is a great deal of pure humor to be found in MD. The humor is theatrical, almost like a set piece. (We will get actual theater later on, in several chapters that are presented as plays, stage directions included.) Ishmael clearly enjoys humor for its own sake, even when the joke is on him. Of course, since he doesn't know Queequeg's language, and Queequeg only knows a little English, much of their relationship is non-verbal. But it is still, in these opening chapters, both comic and sweet.
But shouldn't Melville just get to the point, get us on the damn ship already and give us a glimpse of Ahab and the title whale? What does all this banter and charm do for us, and the novel? It seems to me that the comedy is a powerful method of characterization. In the passage above, it's important that Ishmael presents himself as the butt of the joke. He pretends to be enraged by the innkeeper's obstinate insistence on an impossible prospect--that Queequeg is out selling his head--but really he's amused at his own reaction. The story is too delightful to keep to himself, even though he looks like a fool. He makes a fool of himself again, when he first gets a load of Queequeg in the flesh and screams for the innkeeper to save him--only to have Queequeg politely reassure him, making Ishmael look like the crazy one. Again, Ishmael doesn't mind looking stupid, and Queequeg's decency wins his almost immediate devotion. Over and over, we're shown that for all their differences, Ishmael and Queequeg have an important quality in common: they both like to laugh at themselves.
So next time you're wondering how to get readers to really love your characters, have them tell stories with themselves as the butt of the joke. Then have them laugh along with us. It's a great way for characters to build strong relationships with each other, too.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Saturday, August 22, 2009
So, to begin. Call me Ishmael. Or call me crazy. I'd like first to put in a word for pedantry--of a certain kind. As we know, we must not have pedantry in the contemporary novel, unless perhaps it is deeply ironic, hyperbolic, and / or confined to the spoutings of a minor character--or to some dessicated professor, who gets one last shot at really living, courtesy of a twenty-year old free-spirited student.... You sure as hell don't want a long philosophical disquisition in your opening pages. Your potential reader, browsing in Barnes and Noble, will surely set the book down after making a raspberry noise and wander off to the cafe. But we don't want this reader anyway, do we--this middlebrow patsy, this lazybones? We want someone willing to take on the big questions. (Yes, I realize I harp on this. Go big, I say! Big thoughts! Big canvas!)
On page one, before he even comes near the Pequod, Ishmael treats us to a lengthy meditation on human beings' (well, men's anyway) attraction to water.
[...] Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries--stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd's head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd's eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him. Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger-lilies--what is the one charm wanting?-- Water there is not a drop of water there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
Rather than driving me away, this passage fascinates me. I want even more. How does Melville manage it? First, of course the ideas are interesting. Just the scope alone, the leaps from Rockaway Beach to the ancient Persians to Narcissus; the meadows, the dale, the hermit, the crucifix...we're learning this is going to be a book about the whole world, past and present, real and imagined. And water is what will bring that world to us.
But the key, I think, is the urgency of these musings. Melville / Ishmael draws us in by using the second person, imperative mode. Say you are in the country...try this experiment...Go visit the Prairies in June...The reader is an active participant, a voyager like Ishmael, if only in his (it probably is "his") imagination. We're all travelers, and we, like Ishmael, want not only to see but to make sense of the world. Plus, the imperative mode is also an enthusiastic one. We're not being bullied here, but buttonholed. Our exuberant--if recently suicidal, possibly slightly insane--tour guide is grabbing us by the sleeve, pointing out the intellectual sights. This is far from plodding academic discourse.
Finally, this section draws us in because ultimately it's not about answers, but questions. As much as Ishmael seems to know about history, geography, and philosophy, he doesn't really know what the essence of water is. He keeps asking "why," and the question ultimately isn't rhetorical. He says, rather plaintively, "Surely this is not all without meaning." Of course, that will be the great lament, the horror, of the novel--pursuing "the ungraspable phantom of life...the key to it all"--and not succeeding.
So the writing lesson for today is: go ahead and bloviate on vast, cosmogonal themes (in Thoreau's words). Just 1) make it smart and interesting 2) make it more about questions than answers and 3) draw the reader in with urgency, enthusiasm, the second person (use with caution), and perhaps a drop of madness.
Monday, August 17, 2009
Friday, August 14, 2009
The soldiers and the officers crossed themselves and looked away at the waves. It was strange that a man should be sewn up in sailcloth and should soon be flying into the sea. Was it possible that such a thing might happen to anyone?
The priest strewed earth upon Gusev and bowed down. They sang "Eternal Memory."
The man on watch duty tilted up the end of the plank, Gusev slid off and flew head foremost, turned a somersault in the air and splashed into the sea. He was covered with foam and for a moment looked as though he were wrapped in lace, but the minute passed and he disappeared in the waves.
He went rapidly towards the bottom. Did he reach it? It was said to be three miles to the bottom. After sinking sixty or seventy feet, he began moving more and more slowly, swaying rhythmically, as though he were hesitating and, carried along by the current, moved more rapidly sideways than downwards.
Then he was met by a shoal of the fish called harbour pilots. Seeing the dark body the fish stopped as though petrified, and suddenly turned round and disappeared. In less than a minute they flew back swift as an arrow to Gusev, and began zig-zagging round him in the water.
After that another dark body appeared. It was a shark. It swam under Gusev with dignity and no show of interest, as though it did not notice him, and sank down upon its back, then it turned belly upwards, basking in the warm, transparent water and languidly opened its jaws with two rows of teeth. The harbour pilots are delighted, they stop to see what will come next. After playing a little with the body the shark nonchalantly puts its jaws under it, cautiously touches it with its teeth, and the sailcloth is rent its full length from head to foot; one of the weights falls out and frightens the harbour pilots, and striking the shark on the ribs goes rapidly to the bottom.
Overhead at this time the clouds are massed together on the side where the sun is setting; one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors.... From behind the clouds a broad, green shaft of light pierces through and stretches to the middle of the sky; a little later another, violet-coloured, lies beside it; next that, one of gold, then one rose-coloured.... The sky turns a soft lilac. Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender, joyous, passionate colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech.
This is one of those occasions when I agree with students who complain about having to do literary analysis. Why do we have to tear this beautiful whole into little pieces? Why can't we just enjoy it as it is? What do you mean, what is the author doing? He is doing this.
Right. But if we're going to improve as writers, we might as well aim for the stars. So, without "murdering to dissect," let's see what we can learn from this glorious passage. And though we'll likely fall very, very short of this mark, we'll still land in a better place than we were before.For me, the key point here is scope. How many short stories have you read recently that end with a nonverbal dialog between the sky and the ocean? The dialog, particularly the ocean's scowling, then relenting to express joy and passion in its own visual language, answers one question the story asked at the beginning--who's right about the way the world works, Gusev or Pavel Ivanitch? Gusev's vision, the fanciful one in which forces of nature can be anthropomorphized, gets the last word. Of course, that does Gusev himself no good. That's because the story was always bigger than Gusev, bigger than any human. Our speech is inadequate to tell the story; the ocean and its colors ultimately do a better job.
It's also stunning that such a grim, pathetic tale of death in a ship's hold inspires the ocean to express tenderness, joy, and passion. Earlier, we were told that "the sea has no sense and no pity." The sea is, or was, a monster, relentless as the steamer crashing through its waves. Now it seems to be celebrating, and not in the mocking, triumphal way you'd expect of a monster; it seems compassionate, almost grateful, and thrilled to be a part of this very large world. What has caused the sea to change? Now that Gusev's body's in the ocean, has his vision somehow spread through the water? Does the water give him a voice he never had as a person, in life? Have his inadequate words been translated into the ocean's more expressive colors? Or does the aquatic aurora have nothing to do with Gusev at all? I'm not sure. But one reason this ending works is that it allows the pathos that might adhere to Gusev's death to be voiced by this non-verbal, and overwhelmingly powerful, spokes-being. None of the other humans, nor the author himself, is up to the task. In the end, it's a profoundly life-affirming story, though the affirmation comes from something that is not, literally speaking, alive.
I've written before about ways to sequester pathos to prevent stories from becoming sentimental. The cri de coeur by the narrator of "The Overcoat" is one way to contain the powerful emotions that the author hopes to generate in the reader. Here, the ocean is a different type of container: where Gogol's narrator is one small but hyper-articulate voice of protest, the ocean is gigantic, astonishingly beautiful, and silent. So: you can go small with big emotions, distilling them in tiny moments like Gogol's yelps. Or you can expand them well past human scale--as long as there's a non-verbal aspect to that scale, so that any potential maudliness has nowhere to go. (Words are containers for maudliness.) The ocean is telling us to stop talking, stop crying, and just look at the world.
Saturday, August 08, 2009
Gusev's is the third death we witness. The first two establish the pattern: in this story, the actual moment of death will be missed, or misunderstood.
Suddenly something strange happened to one of the soldiers playing cards.... He called hearts diamonds, got muddled in his score, and dropped his cards, then with a frightened, foolish smile looked round at all of them.
"I shan't be a minute, mates, I'll..." he said, and lay down on the floor.
Everybody was amazed. They called to him, he did not answer.
"Stephan, maybe you are feeling bad, eh?" the soldier with his arm in a sling asked him. "Perhaps we had better bring the priest, eh?"
"Have a drink of water, Stepan..." said the sailor. "Here, lad, drink."
"Why are you knocking the jug against his teeth?" said Gusev angrily. "Don't you see, turnip head?"
"What?" Gusev repeated, mimicking him. "There is no breath in him, he is dead! That's what! What nonsensical people, Lord have mercy on us...!"
Pavel Ivanitch half opened one eye, looked at Gusev with it, and asked softly:
"Gusev, did your commanding officer steal?"
"Who can tell, Pavel Ivanitch! We can't say, it didn't reach us."
And after that a long time passed in silence. Gusev brooded, muttered something in delirium, and kept drinking water; it was hard for him to talk and hard to listen, and he was afraid of being talked to. An hour passed, a second, a third; evening came on, then night, but he did not notice it. He still sat dreaming of the frost.
There was a sound as though someone came into the hospital, and voices were audible, but a few minutes passed and all was still again.
"The Kingdom of Heaven and eternal peace," said the soldier with his arm in a sling. "He was an uncomfortable man."
"What?" asked Gusev. "Who?"
"He is dead, they have just carried him up."
"Oh, well," muttered Gusev, yawning, "the Kingdom of Heaven be his."
It's not that death isn't a big deal in the story. It's more that the line separating life and death is very thin for everyone here, so crossing that line can't involve a lot of dramatic build-up. The "big moment" slips by, amid misunderstandings and botched reverence. (From my single experience witnessing a death, by the way, this strikes me as realistic.) Also, the social circumstances prevent a conventional death-drama--these men have just been thrown together. They are not close; they don't even really like each other. Besides, they've all pretty much given up on surviving. So there's no wailing or rending of garments. Yet they do try to understand each other, to an exent, and connect:
"I haven't written home..." Gusev sighed. "I shall die and they won't know."
"They'll hear of it," the sick sailor brought out in a bass voice. "When you die they will put it down in the Gazette, at Odessa they will send in a report to the commanding officer there and he will send it to the parish or somewhere...."
Gusev began to be uneasy after such a conversation and to feel a vague yearning. He drank water—it was not that; he dragged himself to the window and breathed the hot, moist air—it was not that; he tried to think of home, of the frost—it was not that.... At last it seemed to him one minute longer in the ward and he would certainly expire.
"It's stifling, mates..." he said. "I'll go on deck. Help me up, for Christ's sake."
"All right," assented the soldier with the sling. "I'll carry you, you can't walk, hold on to my neck."
Gusev put his arm round the soldier's neck, the latter put his unhurt arm round him and carried him up. On the deck sailors and time-expired soldiers were lying asleep side by side; there were so many of them it was difficult to pass.
"Stand down," the soldier with the sling said softly. "Follow me quietly, hold on to my shirt...."
This act of kindness is really touching, given how separate the men are from each other. The adverb "softly" in the last line above shows that kindness, both its genuineness and its limitations. The soldier seems to direct the "softness" both at Gusev, whom he wishes to comfort, even though Gusev (it seems) does not even know his name; he also does not want to wake the sleeping soldiers. This moment receives far more authorial attention that Gusev's actual death. Just as people in the story miss others' deaths, we, as readers, seem to miss Gusev's passing:
Gusev went back to the ward and got into his hammock. He was again tormented by a vague craving, and he could not make out what he wanted. There was an oppression on his chest, a throbbing in his head, his mouth was so dry that it was difficult for him to move his tongue. He dozed, and murmured in his sleep, and, worn out with nightmares, his cough, and the stifling heat, towards morning he fell into a sound sleep. He dreamed that they were just taking the bread out of the oven in the barracks and he climbed into the stove and had a steam bath in it, lashing himself with a bunch of birch twigs. He slept for two days, and at midday on the third two sailors came down and carried him out.
He was sewn up in sailcloth and to make him heavier they put with him two iron weights. Sewn up in the sailcloth he looked like a carrot or a radish: broad at the head and narrow at the feet.... Before sunset they brought him up to the deck and put him on a plank; one end of the plank lay on the side of the ship, the other on a box, placed on a stool. Round him stood the soldiers and the officers with their caps off.
When, exactly, did Gusev die? At midday on the third day, the point in the sentence where the point of view changes from Gusev to the omniscient? Probably sometime before that. Why can't, or won't, the narrator tell us exactly? I think it's because the story is driven by forces far outside him. As the narrator has just explained,
The sea has no sense and no pity. If the steamer had been smaller and not made of thick iron, the waves would have crushed it to pieces without the slightest compunction, and would have devoured all the people in it with no distinction of saints or sinners. The steamer had the same cruel and meaningless expression. This monster with its huge beak was dashing onwards, cutting millions of waves in its path; it had no fear of the darkness nor the wind, nor of space, nor of solitude, caring for nothing, and if the ocean had its people, this monster would have crushed them, too, without distinction of saints or sinners.
The "monster"--be it the sea, or the steamer--is the real storyteller. It dashes onwards through death, caring for nothing, even as the men left in its wake try, in their broken ways, to care. No longer possessing Gusev, its temporary mouthpiece, the story moves on. I suppose one could say that any author who kills off his characters is this kind of pitiless monster (a de-personified God)--except the author almost seems to claim that the force is beyond him, too. The story does not serve the characters, or even the author, but only itself. And it's still hungry. Where can it go next?
I think I'll save that answer for next time, partly because I want to savor the marvelous, brilliant ending of "Gusev" (in contrast to the prosaic ending of the character).
So what is our take-away this week? Well, we have that workshop rule about not shifting point of view, especially in a short story, and especially, especially, not mid-sentence. But if you make it clear that the source of your story is an all-powerful force, like the steamer with its "huge beak," it can steamroll all the rules. In the process, your characters' small acts of resistance to being crushed become very poignant.