Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Freaks and Geeks and mining your childhood

We just watched Episode Fifteen of the eighteen total episodes of Freaks and Geeks. As we near the end, it's all starting to seem darker and sadder, because we know there will never be any more episodes, ever, and also because the later episodes explore darker themes (addiction, accidental pet death, accidental/deliberate human almost-death).

Still, it's a beautiful show, possibly the best TV show ever made. And one reason for that is mentioned in one of the commentaries. For months before they actually wrote the scripts, the writers sat in a room and dredged up all their most painful/embarrassing/astonishing high school experiences and shared them with each other. They then used these in the scripts, as they actually happened, or seemed to have happened in memory.

Now, sitting in a room and trading high school horror stories sounds like something I would gladly forgo in favor of a two-hour visit to the dentist. I also have a problem with fiction that sounds too much like someone reliving his or her personal victimization. (The Missouri Review has a blog post on the related matter of defining characters by their traumas.) However, F and G avoids such maudlin pitfalls, and instead just feels perfectly real and honest.

How did they do that? My guess is that it came about precisely because the writers refused to protect themselves when telling their stories to each other, and thus refused to protect the characters. Of course we are not talking hideous tragedies here, only the ordinary but highly significant failures of adolescence. Yet, speaking for myself, I can well imagine wanting to somehow "spin" these excruciating memories either to make myself look better, or to punish my youthful self more severely (which is another form of self-protection). But what happens if you just tell the story without trying to steer the reader's or viewer's reaction one way or the other? The F and G writers, as they mention in other commentaries, often didn't set out ahead of time to write comedy or tragedy; they just let the stories play out. Some turned out to be funny, some were sad, and most of the time they were both.

I'm not sure what it would take for me to be able to tell such stories honestly in fiction or--god forbid--memoir. Perhaps the group process the writers used helped: they all must have realized that everyone had experiences that still gouged their insides out when they thought of them. Their personal disaster wasn't so bad in the great scheme of things. In the same way, when we see the stories on TV, as viewers, we find them funny, forgivable, and ordinary in the most redeeming sense. Maybe that's the best kind of group therapy (mass group therapy) of all.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Pwned by Holmes

So, three weeks ago precisely, I wrote a terribly excited post about how Holmes and Watson had accidentally allowed their client, Henry Baskerville, to be killed! And it was really cool, because, see, Conan Doyle had introduced this really troubling moral dimension to the whole sleuthing business, and...

Well, so I was so excited about this development that I stopped reading and fired off the post, and then I got busy with other stuff, and only got back to the novel yesterday, at which point I discovered that the dead guy wasn't Henry at all, but the escaped convict, Selden:

"We must send for help, Holmes! We cannot carry him all the way to the Hall. Good heavens, are you mad?"
He had uttered a cry and bent over the body. Now he was dancing and laughing and wringing my hand. Could this be my stern, self-contained friend? These were hidden fires, indeed!

"A beard! A beard! The man has a beard!"

"A beard?"

"It is not the baronet—it is—why, it is my neighbour, the convict!"

With feverish haste we had turned the body over, and that dripping beard was pointing up to the cold, clear moon. There could be no doubt about the beetling forehead, the sunken animal eyes. It was indeed the same face which had glared upon me in the light of the candle from over the rock—the face of Selden, the criminal.
Then in an instant it was all clear to me. I remembered how the baronet had told me that he had handed his old wardrobe to Barrymore. Barrymore had passed it on in order to help Selden in his escape. Boots, shirt, cap—it was all Sir Henry's. The tragedy was still black enough, but this man had at least deserved death by the laws of his country. I told Holmes how the matter stood, my heart bubbling over with thankfulness and joy.
The troubling dimension to Holmes's rational zeal is still kinda there--the scene is "black enough," as it were. In fact the issue comes up again a few pages later, when Holmes uses Henry as bait to catch the hound, and the experience is traumatic enough that Henry has to take a trip around the world with his doctor to recover. Clearly, Holmes's primary concern is not with his clients' well-being, except as it represents his success in solving the case. Nevertheless, the ironic edge is considerably dulled. And I have to admit to having been pwned by Conan Doyle, whose main interest is not in Holmes's moral complexity, but in keeping the reader off balance till the end. I was an easy mark because of my literary training; I'm always going to leap into multilayered considerations of Theme whenever the slightest opening is given to me.

Ah, well. Of course, Conan Doyle and his characters also did a good job in selling the false identification, with lots of hand-wringing and self-berating. All of this goes to show us--and them--that nothing, nothing, is as it seems in a Holmes story, not until the last period has landed at the end of the last sentence. That is, looking at a piece of evidence once is not enough. Looking twice may not be, either. And one's emotions, even for Holmes, can get in the way of remembering this basic fact. In this instance, Conan Doyle used his detectives' overwrought emotions, which were especially surprising in Holmes's case, as a sleight of hand to distract the reader. We all forgot to look at the dead man's face.

I think that's a good and impressive technique that mystery (and literary mystery) writers can use. But probably only once in a novel.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

For the love of the flawed novel

From Emily St. John Mandel's review of Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker on The Millions:

[I]t seems to me that there’s something magnificent about sprawling and ever-so-slightly flawed novels.

It seems so to me, as well. Part of what I love about The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, is the sense that its author, genius as he is, is just barely in control of his material. His writing often has the feel of a man trying to wrap his arms around a large bag of demonically possessed squirrels. The source of his novels' grandeur is struggle, reflected in his characters' existential anguish. His greatest success, like theirs, is not in overcoming anguish but in giving it voice--sometimes seemingly by accident, as in convoluted prose, rushed scenes, and characters who appear and disappear for no evident reason. I suppose if the whole novel was nothing but these kinds of accidents, we'd call it a promising first draft, or simply a mess. But these flaws coexist with clearly defined conflicts with stakes even larger than life and death, masterful set pieces, and characters whose flesh and blood we come very close to actually touching. The flaws, in fact, make these successful parts even better: they roughen the edges of the masterpiece, making it a visceral experience.

In contrast, I love Marilynne Robinson's Gilead in a very different way. As my previous commentary on it shows, I experienced it as a Work of Art that more or less drove me to my knees. It inspired awe, and had the heft of cathedral tunes. As an artistic achievement, I think it deserves mention in the same breath as Brothers Karamazov, but on an emotional level I'm less drawn to it, because it is not flawed. There is no badly worded sentence, no misstep in the (admittedly much simpler) plot. The artist is in complete control, and there is something vaguely off-putting about that. Maybe because I suspect I can never achieve that level of mastery myself. Or maybe it's because consciousness itself is messy and surprising. As Annie Murphy Paul explains in Sunday's NYT editorial, a recent analysis of MRI data

concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers. 

With its irruptions, dead ends, and coffee and blood stains, the map of Dostoevsky's mind looks far more like mine than Robinson's does. Hard to believe, since her work is set in twentieth-century Iowa and Dostoevsky's in tsarist Russia. But there you go.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A brief but passionate rant about education

I break my usual Monday silence to share some thoughts that came to me after reading this article. Its overall point is that homeschooling must be more closely regulated. While the author, Kristin Rawls, acknowledges that few formal studies have been done on the matter, anecdotal evidence suggests many homeschooled kids, particularly in fundamentalist movements like Quiverfull, are not achieving even basic levels of literacy. The reasons this may be happening look compelling: overwhelmed mothers with large numbers of children to educate, along with full responsibility for household chores and an ideology that holds "moral" (i.e. religious) education far above the factual and intellectual kind.

Fair enough. But it's also true that public (and probably even private) schools across the country are also turning out illiterate kids at an embarrassingly high rate. The fact is, this country has always had a ferociously conflicted attitude about education: parents' aspirations for their children to better their circumstances crash head-on into the old frontier suspicion of "book learning" (you don't want some weakling with his nose in a book next to you when a bear, or an Indian, is charging). Although I have no evidence for this myself, I suspect our ongoing debates about education policy, and the current fad for threatening and punishing educators, speak directly to this ambivalence. American individualists (and I'm one, in my own way) hate that we need education and educators. We hate that someone else knows more than we do about something, and that we have to subordinate ourselves, or our kids, to that person's expertise. Hence the appeal of homeschooling: it says that no one knows what's better for kids than their own parents do--no matter what the subject. The rugged individual merges with the expert.

But it's not just homeschoolers who feel this way. The recent decision by the New York City Public Schools to publish their highly problematic rankings of teachers gives non-experts another weapon to attack those who think they're so damn smart. Look, I get that there are bad teachers who are hard to root out of the system. I get the need for some objective (or close to objective) measure of students' success, and for accountability to both the school system and parents. I was lucky enough to attend excellent suburban public schools, and I still had a handful of teachers who were out-and-out lunatics, who traumatized me. But in this country there's a deep suspicion and even loathing of anyone who dares to educate others. And while I lack expertise in education policy, let me suggest these two culturally based efforts, which all of us can apply this very moment and into the future:

1. Encourage the aspirations of children and adults who seek education. Do not mock them.

2. Encourage the aspirations and work of educators. Do not humiliate them.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Justice and the satisfying ending

Today's writing lesson is nominally about Hound of the Baskervilles. But since I haven't read any further from last week, I will have to speak about Larger Issues as opposed to specific literary techniques. For example, the matter of justice: What does fiction have to do with it? Can it bring about justice literally, as Uncle Tom's Cabin supposedly did? Or does its real power lie in creating a sense of justice, which we experience rarely in real life? As I suspected, I have written about this before. You may wish to review that post, particularly if the term "altruistic punishment" strikes your fancy.

Today I'll go a little further and suggest that justice in fiction can also be an aesthetic experience. Writing workshops tell us that the ending of a story must be both surprising and inevitable to be satisfying. That's a paradox, certainly, and it raises the possibility that paradox itself is aesthetically pleasing. Now, it might not be ethically pleasing, not in real life anyway, where we want our good folks rewarded and our evildoers punished unambiguously. Yet, that hardly ever happens. In life, the ironies--e.g. the embezzler who spends a month in jail, and then gets a book deal and his own reality show--are often maddening. However, in literature, possibly because we know we can't do anything about it, and aren't expected to, a certain kind of success-in-failure (or vice versa) feels just right. Moral ambiguity can be safely viewed as an aesthetic problem.

That in itself isn't bad; it might allow a more nuanced and less heated consideration of the issues at hand. For example, in Hound, Holmes and Watson, in their zeal to solve the case, allow their client to get killed.* In real life, that would be shocking and galling; in the novel, it creates a sort of frisson, an uncanny halo around the supposedly good work of solving crimes. Part of the reader's satisfaction with the surprising/inevitable ending is that it feels real, while being explicitly unreal. Awareness of that aesthetic/ontological balance, I think, is one of the great pleasures of fiction. (There, I worked in the Hound reference.)

Which is also to say: one must resist the temptation to impose the aesthetic tenets of storytelling on real life. At that, our culture is failing miserably.

*UPDATE: Ah, the dangers of commenting on a Sherlock Holmes novel before finishing it. Wasn't Henry Baskerville after all. More on this later.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Staying in touch with your writing

Over the last few weeks I've been fairly consumed with editing work. Which is good! Very, very good! But it has left me a tad depleted on the verbal front, not to mention reluctant to spend any more time in front of a computer screen than necessary. So I didn't work on my novel that much.

However, this wasn't the same kind of hiatus that I've allowed to happen in the past, because I recalled some advice I read years ago. I really wish I could remember who wrote this, but the gist was, even if you can't actually write, find a way to "stay in touch with your writing." So I decided to do that. At least once a day, for maybe fifteen minutes, I thought about my novel--specifically, the point where I'd left off on my revisions. I did this while making dinner, or just before going to sleep. I tried to fully inhabit that place in my novel, without rushing off to take notes or open the file on the computer. So as not to overload the experience with layers of worry, I told myself I'd recall what I'd imagined when the time came, and that the important thing was to be in that place, if only for a few minutes every day.

That seems to have worked. Later in the week, and yesterday, I found an hour here or there to actually open the file and work. And unlike in the past, when I just shoved my own work completely aside in favor of the paid stuff, I was able to dive right back in. I did remember what I'd thought of (and expanded on it). Also, I suspect that setting aside the anxiety about not writing actually helped me find time to work. I accepted that I might only have an hour, or less, but that I could still do something with that time. I didn't spend time lamenting the time I didn't have.

In short, I think worrying about not writing is worse than simply not writing. This doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing enterprise, i.e. either you have four hours a day to work, or you have nothing. Writing can happen in the interstices. So find a way to stay in touch. That's my advice for today.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

A small accomplishment, overblown

I'm short on time and brainpower this week, so I'll just show you this picture--

--which is of me at Pt. Reyes, just before I free-climbed that rock wall in the background.

Yes, well. I didn't climb the part that's over the water. Also, the same feat was achieved by many others, including women notably older than me, children, and at least one small, fluffy dog.


Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Holmes and the uncanny

Well, Hound gets very exciting in the section I read this week. A murderous convict loose on the moor! An encounter with a fallen woman! Horrid, blood-chilling screams and/or baying in the night! Another mysterious man loose on the moor, who appears silhouetted atop a tor in the moonlight, and when Watson traces him to his hiding place, he turns out to be...

...OK, you probably knew this before I did, but I admit, I was surprised to find out it was...

Sherlock Holmes! He has been out on the moor the whole time Watson has been conducting his investigations and proudly sending reports back to Holmes.

I stooped under the rude lintel, and there he sat upon a stone outside, his gray eyes dancing with amusement as they fell upon my astonished features. He was thin and worn, but clear and alert, his keen face bronzed by the sun and roughened by the wind. In his tweed suit and cloth cap he looked like any other tourist upon the moor, and he had contrived, with that cat-like love of personal cleanliness which was one of his characteristics, that his chin should be as smooth and his linen as perfect as if he were in Baker Street.

While glad to see his partner, Watson is understandably pissed that Holmes has been doing his own detective work while making him believe he was actually contributing something. Holmes reassures him that his reports, which he's had forwarded to him at the hut, were indeed valuable, because they allow the two of them to compare their observations. Watson is persuaded, and ends up, as usual, admiring Holmes's cunning.

What interests me in this section is how closely Holmes is tied to the spookiness--the uncanniness--of the moors. Before he knows the identity of the man on the tor, here's how Watson describes him:

And it was at this moment that there occurred a most strange and unexpected thing. We had risen from our rocks and were turning to go home, having abandoned the hopeless chase. The moon was low upon the right, and the jagged pinnacle of a granite tor stood up against the lower curve of its silver disc. There, outlined as black as an ebony statue on that shining back-ground, I saw the figure of a man upon the tor. Do not think that it was a delusion, Holmes. I assure you that I have never in my life seen anything more clearly. As far as I could judge, the figure was that of a tall, thin man. He stood with his legs a little separated, his arms folded, his head bowed, as if he were brooding over that enormous wilderness of peat and granite which lay before him. He might have been the very spirit of that terrible place. It was not the convict. This man was far from the place where the latter had disappeared. Besides, he was a much taller man. With a cry of surprise I pointed him out to the baronet, but in the instant during which I had turned to grasp his arm the man was gone. There was the sharp pinnacle of granite still cutting the lower edge of the moon, but its peak bore no trace of that silent and motionless figure.

This, combined with Holmes's odd, "cat-like" cleanliness while living in a hut on the moor, suggest that he's not exactly super-human, but maybe extra-human. Anyway, not human in the way Watson is. I wrote a few weeks ago about Holmes as an enchanter whose magic is reason. In these passages, Holmes appears as a spirit or specter, and perhaps some kind of sprite with dancing gray eyes. He may represent reason, but he's otherworldly all the same.

All this suggests that for all Holmes's brilliance, there is something not quite right about his enterprise. That notion is reinforced pronto, when, as he and Watson are comparing their discoveries of the past few weeks, they hear a terrible cry. Rushing to investigate, they find their client, Henry Baskerville,* dead.

A low moan had fallen upon our ears. There it was again upon our left! On that side a ridge of rocks ended in a sheer cliff which overlooked a stone-strewn slope. On its jagged face was spread-eagled some dark, irregular object. As we ran towards it the vague outline hardened into a definite shape. It was a prostrate man face downward upon the ground, the head doubled under him at a horrible angle, the shoulders rounded and the body hunched together as if in the act of throwing a somersault. So grotesque was the attitude that I could not for the instant realize that that moan had been the passing of his soul. Not a whisper, not a rustle, rose now from the dark figure over which we stooped. Holmes laid his hand upon him, and held it up again, with an exclamation of horror. The gleam of the match which he struck shone upon his clotted fingers and upon the ghastly pool which widened slowly from the crushed skull of the victim. And it shone upon something else which turned our hearts sick and faint within us—the body of Sir Henry Baskerville!

There was no chance of either of us forgetting that peculiar ruddy tweed suit—the very one which he had worn on the first morning that we had seen him in Baker Street. We caught the one clear glimpse of it, and then the match flickered and went out, even as the hope had gone out of our souls. Holmes groaned, and his face glimmered white through the darkness.

"The brute! the brute!" I cried with clenched hands. "Oh Holmes, I shall never forgive myself for having left him to his fate."

"I am more to blame than you, Watson. In order to have my case well rounded and complete, I have thrown away the life of my client. It is the greatest blow which has befallen me in my career. But how could I know—how could l know—that he would risk his life alone upon the moor in the face of all my warnings?"

That last self-accusation by Holmes sums it up: he has sacrificed his client for the case itself. (Notice how he says it's the "greatest blow which has befallen me...": it's still all about him, isn't it?) One suspects, despite his expression of regret here, that he'd do the same thing again in a minute.

Conan Doyle seems keen on showing us that there are consequences to Holmes's single-minded brilliance. He is not a simple hero, a seeker and defender of justice. He is driven by ratiocination for its own sake, and anyone who hires him for protection risks meeting the same fate as Baskerville.

The character of the flawed detective is itself a cliche by now. But a detective whose very brilliance is a danger to his clients is compelling. Holmes himself is the "hound" of the Baskervilles--a spectral and seemingly supernatural hunter.**

*UPDATE: Except it isn't Henry Baskerville. This is the second time I've been foiled by a plot twist in this novel. Note to self: in a Holmes story, there is no resolution until the end.

**I still think the overall point stands: Holmes's concern is with the facts, rather than with people. And he's uncanny, all right. More about these twists and turns in a subsequent post.