Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The end of The Brothers Karamazov vs. the last episode of Lost

Two momentous events occurred this week. The much loved and hated series Lost came to an end, and I finished reading The Brothers Karamazov. As a certified comparative literature specialist, I will now compare these two endings for the benefit of fiction writers everywhere.

First, I will say that Trev and I gave up on Lost early this season. We had finally had enough of the characters' endless tramping through the greenery to visit some portentous person or architectural feature, only to be set upon by yet another gun-toting gang of hippie mystics. However, we did watch the final episode, surmising correctly that whatever we had missed was not going to matter. The fact that we did choose to watch it after having given up on the story itself is interesting. Maybe we still had that supposedly irresistible human need for closure. I think we were also wondering just what species of bullshit the writers were going to pull, since they had sunk themselves so deep into the narrative swamp that nothing but bullshit could rescue them.

Now then. Lost and BK are similar in that both are long and convoluted and interweave religious / metaphysical themes into mystery plots. What is the best way to end stories with so many loose ends? Well, the writers of Lost simply snuffed out all the loose ends in a blast of white light. Once it's revealed that the island is some sort of quasi-Christian--but ecumenical!--Purgatory, we are forced to file all the tramping and digging and shooting and bombing and introducing of hundreds of additional characters every week under the category of "tribulations"--or whatever you want to call the ordeals in Purgatory. The Others, and the Other Others, and the No-Not-Those-But-Those-Others are--I guess--the sort of second-tier demons that carry out the Lord's work of helping humans purge their sins, while never getting any credit for it. It's not like the story didn't prepare us all along for some kind of metaphysical ending; it's just that the metaphysical was used to cancel out the physical story, rather than incorporating it. Your petty concerns, such as what was that hydrogen bomb all about, or what actually happened to Walt (who, like Michael, does not seem to have made it to Heaven), don't matter. In the same way, this world, according to some particularly rotten theologies, does not matter. Maybe the rationale is the same in both cases: this world doesn't make any sense, so, uh, let's just forget all about it! Walk toward the light!

Part of the problem is that Lost's metaphysics were never terribly interesting to begin with. The questions boiled down to basically this:

Jack: Everything can be explained by science.
John: No it can't.

So perhaps that set the writers up (probably to their relief) for an either-or type ending. Mysticism beat out science, as usual for broadcast TV, and mysticism by definition can't be explained. White light, music, menorah, Buddha, stained glass, done! Thank God!

In contrast (notice the comparative transition, an oldie but a goodie), Dostoevsky is steeped in a very specific Christian tradition, which he employs to ask very specific questions about human nature, ethics, and the existence and nature of God. Equally important, the different positions are not embodied by separate characters, but present to greater or lesser degrees in every main character. Yes, Ivan is "the intellectual," but I'd argue he's the most spiritual of the bunch, because he really wrestles with the questions of faith, to the point of giving himself brain fever. So while there is no shortage of metaphysical debate in BK--in fact, that's what this book is, a dramatized debate--the different positions tend to overlap, often even entailing rather than negating each other.

So how does Dostoevsky end BK? I mentioned last time how impressed I was (if a tiny bit impatient) with Dmitri's trial. This strategy lets Dostoevsky tie up the threads of the story, but at the same time--and this is really important for a successful novel, I believe--pull some of them loose again. The debate between the prosecution and the defense--you're misusing psychology! No, you are! You're writing a romance! No, you are!--is an argument about the coherence and plausibility of the novel itself. Like I said, Dostoevsky has a ton of confidence in his novel, otherwise he wouldn't dare do this. But we should all have such confidence, and / or fake it if we don't. Too bad the Lost writers didn't seem to have that confidence in themselves or us. I know trials are a cliche of movies and television by now, so maybe an ending with a trial would not have worked. Still, what about putting Jack on trial with John as the prosecutor? Jack is the one who's always trying to save people, and beating himself up when he fails--so the trial would be about his own tormented psyche, and the limits of his loyalty to science. Just for instance.

Anyway (that is an advanced transition, by the way, not recommended for beginning comparatists), since Dostoevsky really wants us all to believe in a just God, and in an afterlife where we'll see all the people we love again (a la Lost), wouldn't it make sense to have God beam the brothers up at the very end? Wouldn't that answer all our questions once and for all? Actually, Dostoevsky stays close to the ground, and does not provide an unambiguously happy ending. Dmitri is condemned to hard labor in Siberia, despite the fact that we know he's innocent. He and his brothers plan his escape, but we don't see that escape happen. And then young Ilusha dies and is buried. His parents are crazed with grief. His schoolmates, including the cocky Kolya, are devastated. At the very end, Alyosha tells them that they must transform Ilusha's death into an inspiration for their own lives:

"Let us be, first and above all, kind, then honest and then let us never forget each other! I say that again. I give you my word for my part that I'll never forget one of you. Every face looking at me now I shall remember even for thirty years. Just now Kolya said to Kartashov that we did not care to know whether he exists or not. But I cannot forget that Kartashov exists and that he is not blushing now as he did when he discovered the founders of Troy, but is looking at me with his jolly, kind, dear little eyes. Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys, from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”

“Yes, yes, for ever, for ever!” the boys cried in their ringing voices, with softened faces.

“Let us remember his face and his clothes and his poor little boots, his coffin and his unhappy, sinful father, and how boldly he stood up for him alone against the whole school.”

“We will remember, we will remember,” cried the boys. “He was brave, he was good!”

“Ah, how I loved him!” exclaimed Kolya.

“Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don't be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!”

“Yes, yes,” the boys repeated enthusiastically.

“Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, probably Kartashov's, cried impulsively.

“We love you, we love you!” they all caught it up. There were tears in the eyes of many of them.

“Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya shouted ecstatically.

“And may the dead boy's memory live for ever!” Alyosha added again with feeling.

“For ever!” the boys chimed in again.

“Karamazov,” cried Kolya, “can it be true what's taught us in religion, that we shall all rise again from the dead and shall live and see each other again, all, Ilusha too?”

“Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened!” Alyosha answered, half laughing, half enthusiastic.

“Ah, how splendid it will be!” broke from Kolya.

“Well, now we will finish talking and go to his funeral dinner. Don't be put out at our eating pancakes—it's a very old custom and there's something nice in that!” laughed Alyosha. “Well, let us go! And now we go hand in hand.”

“And always so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya cried once more rapturously, and once more the boys took up his exclamation: “Hurrah for Karamazov!”

OK, so it's a little maudlin. But despite the fact that Alyosha is a devout Christian, and despite his promise to the boys that they will meet in heaven, this ending is most concerned with this world. Alyosha asks the boys to examine how they feel at this moment and remember it as a source of ethical behavior throughout the rest of their lives. Then, off they go to eat pancakes. The pancakes, Alyosha points out, are important.

So, what's the lesson for writers in these two endings? Well, if you're going to do metaphysics, which I highly recommend you try, remember the "physics" is just as important as the "meta." It's fine to leave some plot lines untied, especially if you address that untied state somehow at the end (a trial where the arguments are persuasive on both sides is just one way to do that sort of thing). But it is not fine to simply dismiss the reader's interest in those plot lines by claiming they should not have cared about them--that was "just" worldly stuff that doesn't matter in the end. Stories, even fabulist ones, are made of worldly concerns. Lost just told us that we were watching all those years for no good reason.

UPDATE: I should point out that my thinking on Lost was influenced by this piece in the NYT by Mike Hale. As Hale mentions, in the last episode, Desmond actually says "None of this matters," which may be a way for the writers to get us used to that possibility.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A concert from the heart of cheeseball-land

Foreigner and Styx with Special Guest Kansas, at the Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord.
The whole thing is a kind of self-canceling conglomerate of oh, my god, really?
Anyway, it's tonight. You can still go.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Borrowed Fire: On going for it, really going for it, in your novel

As I contemplate the distinct possibility that, like Louise, or Thelma, I have now stomped on the accelerator of my novel, and it is now zooming toward the cliff of Not Fixable and into the abyss of I Wasted Six Years on This...I pause again to admire Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov. Today I will admire just the sheer goddamn authorial commitment here. I mean, apart from this being a really long, intricate beast with dozens of characters and profound philosophical and religious implications. That would be plenty for anyone to pull off.

But the home stretch of the book is Dmitri's trial. And here, Dostoevsky pretty much retells the whole story, twice, first from the point of view of the prosecutor, then from that of the defense. This is extremely daring. OK, I will say this: the rehash made me a tad impatient; I may have skimmed a bit. And I am not through the defense part yet. But the point is, Dostoevsky lets the prosecutor go on at great length to poke holes in the novel itself. The prosecutor points out really strange, illogical aspects of Dmitri's character, which Dostoevsky himself has previously--I think--asked us to accept. He dwells on the preposterousness of Dmitri's supposedly exculpating claim that he kept a small bag of money around his neck, telling no one about it--a weird impulse in the first place, for which Dmitri can offer no evidence. This is risky because having a character announce that something in the story doesn't make sense invites the reader to agree. In lesser hands, this could be an attempt to cover the author's failure to make the story plausible, by acknowledging the failure and trying to make it a plot point. Such an attempt is obviously destined to fail. So Dostoevsky's going all in here. He has given himself some leeway by portraying Dmitri all along as a man of vast contradictions. But the prosecutor addresses those contradictions--in fact he describes Dmitri exactly as Dostoevsky himself has--and still says the bag of money is absurd.

It's been a long time since I first read this book, but the previous chapters made it pretty clear that Smerdyakov murdered Fyodor. In fact, I was thinking Dostoevsky had been a little heavy handed about Smerdyakov's villainy; the mystery was not as murky as I had remembered. The prosecutor's speech, though, made me doubt that belief, and my own memory. It's really only because Alyosha and Ivan believe that Smerdyakov did it that I mostly retain my original conviction. I am relying on characters I have come to trust to tell me the truth--which is a pretty amazing feat on Dostoevsky's part. He certainly makes it clear why a reasonable person would see Dmitri as a murderer.

After the prosecutor's speech, Dostoevsky ups the ante even further. He gives us an extended discussion among various anonymous members of the audience as to how well the prosecutor's arguments hold up, in their opinions. So not only does Dostoevsky invite us to comment on the construction of the novel via the prosecutor, we now get to rethink that commentary as well. And we still have not gotten to the defense's argument yet.

So what I'm seeing here in the trial, above all, is Dostoevsky's total commitment to the story. He does not try to gloss over problems the reader might have with the plot and the characters. Instead, he retells the story, again and again, putting its apparent contradictions on display for all to see. He has that much confidence in it--or to say it in terms more like his, he's put his faith in it. As a writer he's decided he'll live or die by this story. I suppose that's what we all have to do, every time.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hopefully temporary sense of doom about my novel

For the first half of the composition of each of my novels I have been consumed by a sense of not knowing what I'm doing, and for the second half I have been consumed by the certainty that I know exactly what I am doing and should not be doing it.--Alice McDermott
Well, I hope I come out on the other side of this looking like Alice McDermott. Because two days ago, as I was quite happily editing my novel, it occurred to me: this is a disaster. The whole concept of the thing is broken; I am forcing perfectly decent characters into a totally implausible situation, which has the effect of making the characters themselves implausible. There is no ground. It's like the Wizard of Oz, when the cyclone comes and picks up the house and Dorothy and Toto and a whole bunch of fragments of their former lives--only in my book, they never land again. The whirlwind just keeps going, picking up more and more stuff, and making everyone, including me, dizzy.

The odd thing is, I am sure that during most of the writing process, this is the effect that I wanted. But why the hell did I want that? Does anyone want that? Maybe I have just been reading too many slow and stately novels lately, and too many realistic ones. Maybe this is simply the horror of commitment, of realizing that the framework of the novel is finally locked in and can't fundamentally be changed. could just be bad.

This is normal, right? This panic?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Who is your devil?

And now back to The Brothers Karamazov. When last we left poor Ivan, he was down with an attack of "brain fever." I highly recommend this as an ailment with which to afflict your characters, since it gives you license to do pretty much anything with the narrative. In BK, it lets Ivan have a long philosophical conversation with the devil himself.

Ivan's devil is quite an interesting figure. He's not scary, at least not at first glance, so much as persistently annoying. That's because he's a kind of "leftover" of history, which the nation, and Ivan, would very much like to bury:

This was a person or, more accurately speaking, a Russian gentleman of a particular kind, no longer young, qui faisait la cinquantaine, as the French say, with rather long, still thick, dark hair, slightly streaked with gray and a small pointed beard. He was wearing a brownish reefer jacket, rather shabby, evidently made by a good tailor though, and of a fashion at least three years old, that had been discarded by smart and well-to-do people for the last two years. His linen and his long scarf-like neck-tie were all such as are worn by people who aim at being stylish, but on closer inspection his linen was not over-clean and his wide scarf was very threadbare. The visitor's check trousers were of excellent cut, but were too light in color and too tight for the present fashion. His soft fluffy white hat was out of keeping with the season.

In brief there was every appearance of gentility on straitened means. It looked as though the gentleman belonged to that class of idle landowners who used to flourish in the times of serfdom. He had unmistakably been, at some time, in good and fashionable society, had once had good connections, had possibly preserved them indeed, but, after a gay youth, becoming gradually impoverished on the abolition of serfdom, he had sunk into the position of a poor relation of the best class, wandering from one good old friend to another and received by them for his companionable and accommodating disposition and as being, after all, a gentleman who could be asked to sit down with any one, though, of course, not in a place of honor. Such gentlemen of accommodating temper and dependent position, who can tell a story, take a hand at cards, and who have a distinct aversion for any duties that may be forced upon them, are usually solitary creatures, either bachelors or widowers. Sometimes they have children, but if so, the children are always being brought up at a distance, at some aunt's, to whom these gentlemen never allude in good society, seeming ashamed of the relationship. They gradually lose sight of their children altogether, though at intervals they receive a birthday or Christmas letter from them and sometimes even answer it.

The countenance of the unexpected visitor was not so much good-natured, as accommodating and ready to assume any amiable expression as occasion might arise. He had no watch, but he had a tortoise-shell lorgnette on a black ribbon. On the middle finger of his right hand was a massive gold ring with a cheap opal stone in it.

In the course of his conversation with Ivan, we find out that the devil's musings on the existence of God, the problem of evil, and so forth are all Ivan's own ideas, which he explored earlier and discarded. He even brings up "The Grand Inquisitor." So he's very much a writer's devil--imagine having all your old short stories read back to you by a smarmy guy in too-tight pants, sitting on your sofa.

In other words, this devil is memory itself: a blend of national memory and Ivan's own rejected past. Now we can start to see why this guy really is scary, his lorgnette much worse than leathery wings. Like a certain kind of relative, you simply can't get rid of him. The harder you try, the more insistently present he becomes. And he pushes every button you have: the guilt, the responsibility, the sense that he and you are really the same deep down. What on earth can you do with a guy like this? What can you do with the past?

So the writing exercise I propose for this week is to come up with an original devil. Let's not go for the obvious ones, like Sarah Palin or Dick Cheney or James Dobson et al. Who can get so deeply into your system that he or she is literally impossible to dismiss?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The relief of the uncrafted sentence

I just finished up a freelance job writing a grant proposal to the Department of Education. I am now in the process of turning my mind, which is about as nimble as an aircraft carrier at this point, back to my novel. Not that grant proposals aren't a form of fiction themselves.

Writing bureaucracy-inflected prose for weeks on end is probably not good for one's fiction. On the other hand, while attempting to explain complex ideas under considerable time pressure, I did make a discovery: you do not need to craft the shit out of every single sentence. Sometimes you just need to say the thing and get on with it. We request five million dollars. It is snowing. There was a sign in the front yard. No need for flakes of white down settling in the branches like a distracted flock of birds; no need to banish "to be" or "there was" constructions altogether. Of course if all of your sentences are like this, you will sound either like a children's author, or a bad imitator of Hemingway. But every so often--and probably far more often than I think--just throwing down a sentence is fine. It's even good. It feels like such a relief to just say what I mean, I suspect it's a relief for readers too. They get the information they need, everyone's on the same page, and now we can move on together.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Bronte action!

The best action figures ever.

Thanks, TCW!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Smart people write for n+1

I am way too swamped with grant-writing to say anything intelligent about The Brothers Karamazov for probably another week...which means we have to wait to have our conversation with the devil himself!

In the meantime, via 3QuarksDaily, I offer you this wonderful article in n+1 by Mark McGurl. It weaves together all my interests: monsters, genre vs. literary fiction, and characterization. If I were this smart, I would not have had to teach my course, "Imitation of Life"--I would have already known all the answers.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Reading my novel

Having waited the requisite 6+ weeks,* I spent the last day and a half reading a printout of the first draft of my novel, and taking notes. First, I will say it is gratifying to hold that heavy pile of paper in my hands. The thing has heft--physically, if not yet in other ways. Second, this was an exhausting task. I did not expect to be so exhausted. I was hoping more for exhilaration, but that seems to be in short supply.

I now limp into the light to pass along a few discoveries, which may be applicable for fellow writers.
  • I have heard other novelists say this, and now I know it's true. The first fifty pages are the worst. I can literally feel the novel picking up at almost that very boundary. Sadly, those are the pages I've sent out to a few people who could have had some influence over my literary career. Advice to those who follow me: don't send out your first fifty pages until your novel is really, truly done. These may be the pages you love the most, but this is especially why you shouldn't send them out (see third bullet point, below).

  • There is way too much staring in my novel. Anytime a character is surprised or upset, she or he "stares" at whoever or whatever. I recently noticed this same phenomenon in a published and very popular novel, which just won a big award (no, not that one)--a whole ton of staring, or looking at. I think this is a way of creating "beats" in dialog, though it's almost as egregious as saying, "He paused a beat." I also think it's drawn from real life--we really do stare when we're surprised. But I think it's better just to describe what the person sees when she is staring. Or have them do something else.

  • The parts I thought were the best when I was writing them are now the ones I like least. The reverse is also true. The stuff I was "just jotting down to fix later" actually jogs along quite nicely. This has to be the result of a lack of pressure and self-consciousness. The stuff I loved, I over-crafted.

  • I over-explain in first drafts. As Richard Russo (also a former academic) once said, I write the novel, and then I write the Cliff Notes. I suppose that's part of trying to understand, myself, what's going on. But the Cliff Notes must now go.
My overall impression: the novel is both better and worse than I remembered. On the plus side, some stuff I had no idea how to fix now seems relatively simple. Some changes I thought were too big to make are not that big. But...will it be enough to make people care?

*Per Stephen King's instructions, in On Writing.