Covering the Basics: “The English Novel–An Introduction.”

 

The English Novel- An Introduction” by Terry Eagleton

By British literary critic Terry Eagleton, The English Novel—an Introduction is much more than simply an introduction, though he does limit its scope to the canonical writers.

Eagleton is an eclectic and prolific scholar. He oeuvre contains works on post-modernism, Marxism, religion, and of course, literature. In The English Novel—An Introduction, he covers roughly two centuries: from the the periods known as Realism to High Modernism, which ended around WWI.

Eagleton does not shy away from psychological, political and social analyses of his subjects nor from noting some of the more opprobrious aspects of these revolutionary artists, not all of whom were liberal humanists. (A hundred years later, you would be hard pressed to find a Western writer that doesn’t subscribe to this particular philosophy, or who hasn’t been written off as a crack pot by his/her academic contemporaries.) 

Eagleton is also not afraid to reassess the works of these literary lions, soberly and somewhat free from the long shadows of their renown.

There is so much touched upon in the book.

In the next few posts, I will discuss some of the things that I learned reading this capacious work. Hopefully the reader will find it likewise enlightening. 

  1. The Novel Was the Voice of the Middle Class.

If it [the novel] is a form particularly associated with the middle class, it is partly because the ideology of that class centres on a dream of total freedom from restraint.

 

If the epic, the predominant form before the novel, celebrated the exploits of kings, heroes, and warrior-poets, the novel’s primary concern was the burgeoning European middle class, focussing on the individual in an increasingly atomized world.

This may seem self-evident, but we should remember that before the social upheavals that led to the emergence of the middle class, life in Medeival Europe was largely static in terms of class. There was little opportunity for upward mobility. 

The emergence towards the end of the 18th century of the middle class and its unimaginable freedom, (which is probably not all that impressive, by today’s standards) came with an increasing hostility towards the scaffolds of power. The middle class, as Eagleton writes, developed a whole slew of interests: “…its relish for the material world; its impatience with the formal, ceremonial and metaphysical; its insatiable curiosity about the individual self; its robust faith in historical progress.”

Yet, the same sensibilities that freed the middle class individual from the shackles of tradition also set her adrift, anchorless. Or perhaps more accurately, anchored solely in the self. 

The novel’s struggle and mission from the get-go was to articulate the experience of this new free-floating individual. If the epic had been concerned with the archetype and the past, the novel was concerned with the mundane multi-faceted individual and the present. It affirmed the commonplace rather than the supernatural or heroic (though overflow of the supernatural reared up in early Gothic novels, which one could interpret as a sort of bridge between epic literature and realism.)

At the time, the novel was a form that didn’t require a specialized education.

In doing so [depicting the world in its everyday, unregenerate state] art finally returned the world to the common people who had created it through their labour, and who could now contemplate their own faces in it for the first time. A form of fiction had been born in which one could be proficient without specialist erudition or an expensive classical education.

 

But one doesn’t see many people who are not educated reading these novels, which is proof of just how much the “face” of the middle class has changed in a hundred years.

In fact, could the explosion of genre writing (as wang-dang-doodle as it can often be) be interpreted as a similar disruption to the literary scene as that that occurred upon the emergence of the novel over two hundred years ago? (And is this number longer? Eagleton opens the book with a treatise on Don Quixote.) The response of the authorities would seem to bear this analogy out: then and now, the new literary form was largely dismissed as useless, puerile, mean, base, etc. 

I don’t think that this is an academic question: With a dwindling middle class and the rise of a new breed of 21st century people (cyborgs by the look of it, or Post-Humans, as they are called in the Universities), will the novel, with its focus on realism, humanism, and liberalism finally give up the ghost? 

Of course, Eagleton opens the book with a swift kick in the pants of the reader, reminding the reader that the novel is an extremely slippery beast, and one that by its mercurial nature defies categorization.

As adaptable as humanity itself, this is what has accounted for its longevity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why We Write III

Thus far, I’ve looked at two writers and their motivation for writing: Herta Müller and William Gass. On the surface they are quite different; besides race (they are both white) they really have nothing much in common. Gass grew up in the American Midwest, into middle class malaise and an isolation founded in his problematic relationship with his parents. Müller grew up in a totalitarian dictatorship, just one among many of the voiceless masses entreated to labor for and celebrate the Romanian regime which, in the course of “liberating”its people, had enslaved them.

Both ultimately put pen to paper to record their discontent.

In this post, I’d like to explore a bit more an idea that arrived while doing research the on Herta Müller. As I mentioned in the last post, Müller claims that as a youth she had to invent literature. Living on her now collectivized family land, she had no access to books and no notion that such a thing as a body of literature existed.

Within this vacuum, unfettered by an existing canon, she created her own form and foundation, developing an original voice that was the result of a type of ignorance.

What is of more interest, at least for the purpose of this post, is her struggle with language itself. What language would she write in? The German dialect that she grew up speaking was not appropriate: it had been used by reactionaries as a tool of nationalism.

The question of how to write in a language that has been subverted is by no means unique to Muller. It is probably no exaggeration to say that German of any modern language has most had to recreate itself after the turmoil of the twenty-first century.

Why We Write III—to Rebuild Language

One of the most salient features of fascism is the use of militaristic language in all facets of culture. In this Nazi propaganda poster aimed at enlisting German mothers in the Nazi camp, the caption reads "Mothers fight for their children!" Mothers as soldiers, or fighters, enlisted in the cause of the Fatherland was a popular propaganda piece.
The caption reads “Mothers fight for their children!” Mothers as soldiers, or fighters, enlisted in the cause of the Fatherland was a popular propaganda piece.

.The subversion of the German language to serve the Nazi agenda altered it incontrovertibly. After WWII, there was no going back. Words like blood and fatherland were sullied forever. Millions of ethnic Germans, whether located in the nation itself, or in satellite countries such as Poland, Romania, Austria, or Hungary, found their utterances suddenly gross with pejoratives, insidiously transformed. It had, after all, been used as an agent of violence.

As a serious language of literature, German was undone–at least for the moment. In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book, A Time of Gifts, in which the first part of his long journey by foot from Amsterdam to Constantinople is recounted, the author recalls his visit to the Rhineland at a time when Hitler’s hold on the country was still far from complete.

A Time of Gifts

At one point, as Fermor is sitting in a beer hall writing down his impressions of an S.A. march that he had observed, a trio of the young Nationalist Socialist men come in for a post-event drink. He describes them as they break into song, reflecting on the contradiction of these romantic folk tunes and the youths singing them.

Germany has a rich anthology of regional songs, and these, I think, were dreamy celebrations of the forests and plains of Westphalia, long sighs of homesickness musically transposed. It was charming. And the charm made it impossible, at that moment, to connect the singers with organized bullying and the smashing of Jewish shop windows and nocturnal bonfires of books.

 

The Dichotomy of the Dictator

In a dictatorship, Muller says, everything takes a side. Nothing is neutral. In her interview, she describes how some plants seem to serve the regime simply by virtue of their longevity, while others—frailer though perhaps prettier in their frailty—are indicators of resistance.

In a similar way, German history and art was made to play a part in Hitler’s nationalistic invention or relegated to obscurity. Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Jew, was deemed “undesirable”. Composer Richard Wagner and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, on the other hand, were celebrated as articulators of the Aryan ideal. After Hitler’s fall, Kafka became one of the world’s most celebrated writers. Nietzsche, for his part, has been submitted to extensive exegesis to clear his name of any affiliation with anti-Semitism. Wagner, for all his passion and genius, has never entirely recovered from his association with the regime.

So what of the common people who were raised during that time? What recourse did they have?

The Snail: or Gunter Grass as Dubious Witness

GunterGrass

 

In the introduction to Gunter Grass’ book of essays On Writing and Politics 1967-1983, Salman Rushdie writes:

…Grass has written often and eloquently—of the effect of the Nazi period on the German language, of the need for the language to be rebuilt, pebble by pebble, from the wreckage; because a language in which evil finds so expressive a voice is a dangerous tongue. The practitioners of ‘rubble literature’—Grass himself being one of the most prominent of these—these upon themselves the Herculean task of re-inventing the German language, of tearing it apart, ripping out the poisoned parts, and putting it back together.

 

Grass was the original whistle-blower, so-to-speak. His was one of the first and most honest accounts of a German youth living in Hitler’s Germany. Bereft of language, and like so many others, he told his stories in a new idiom.

History and the present collide. Like Faulkner, Grass is only too aware of how much our history informs our present. Medieval characters march through village streets in ghostly parades. The hulking ruins of battleships languish in the harbor on their side, a reminder of wars already past. Like Kafka and the Latin American magical surrealists, the veil between reality and fantasy is thin. Perhaps inconsequential. The childlike imagery of pre-war Gdansk, draped in events and rich in character, refutes Hitler’s reductionism of history: There isn’t just one homeland, there are many. Even within Germany itself.

This is how one responds when one’s language has been stolen, when the nuanced, tender terms that evoke the woodlands and rivers or that delegate one’s kin have been uprooted to serve a bankrupt ideology: by rebuilding it, by trimming the parts that have gone gangrenous and replanting the useful parts.

This, to rebuild a language that has been destroyed through political subversion, is another reason we write.

 

Why We Write II

I’d like to resume the subject introduced in last week’s post: Why We Write, which examines the question of what exactly drives a writer to take up the pen.

The subject of the first post, William Gass, attributed his beginnings as a writer to his need for escape from a dysfunctional home life. He writes of how his blustering, berating father showed him the power of language—negative though it was then. A diaphanous mother modeled the passivity of the meek. Sadly, she eventually succumbed entirely to alcoholism.

The power of words and a belief one’s inability to control circumstance—these two parental lessons, Gass claims, landed him in the comfortably distant chair of the narrator. Believing himself too weak to change the world, he changed himself.

…for me, the world became a page; that, I said, with Stoical acceptance, is the way I wanted it; it is what I would have chosen.

 

I don’t know really how commonplace Gass’ story is: Would a hyper virile writer like Hemingway ever admit they had turned to writing out of a personal weakness? It seems unlikely. Yet the next writer I will introduce in this thread, Herta Müller, shares a similar tale of crisis, alienation and disempowerment. Unlike Gass however, her childhood was not tainted from within.

Herta-Muller_portrait_L

Müller is Romanian born; her isolation and powerless were a direct result of living under the authoritarian regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Even a cursory reading of Romania’s history leaves one’s head spinning; perhaps more than any of the mysterious and dysfunctional states of the former Eastern Bloc, Romania epitomizes the political struggles and societal upheavals of Europe in the 20th century. With its Latinate roots and exotic nobility—it is the country in which the infamous region of Transylvania can be found—its silent orphans and brow-beaten citizens, Romania arouses in the imagination the same mixture of fascination and repulsion that a lunatic might arouse in a small town.

It was in this atmosphere of oppression and forced isolation that Muller grew up. The ethnic German community to which she belonged had been incorporated into Greater Romania at the end of WWI. Not soon after, her family was stripped of its land holdings under the Agrarian Act of 1921, and as a child, she tended cattle on the now collectivized farmland of her forebears.

In addition to this literal dispossession of place, she inherited historical dispossession as well. Though the German and Hungarian minority had lived in the region during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Communist Romania viewed them as outsiders, upstarts. During WWII Romania had bounced back and forth in allegiance, caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Initially sympathetic to the Allies, Romania balked when mainland Europe fell before the Blitzkrieg of the Germans and under duress, the Romanian king was encouraged by Hitler to join his cause.

After the war, Romania quickly switched allegiances again and the country, like most of Eastern Europe, came under the influence of Stalinist Russia. Müller’s most famous book, The Hunger Angel, tells the tale of the forced eviction of Romanian Germans into Stalinist gulags.

The Hunger Angel

In such times and in such privation, what is one to do? In a stirring and intimate interview recently published in the Paris Review, Müller talks much of her incredible sense of isolation. On one side were the prohibitions on speech and religion, on the other was the parochial nastiness of her small German community. Left to her own devices as a child, she grew up semi-feral, with no knowledge of the outside world; like others in such a situation, she invented her own  literature.

From the interview:

People often ask me what books I had at home, and I find the question strange. As if you couldn’t write unless you grew up in a home with a library, or parents with some degree of higher education. But really from a certain age on, our upbringing is up to each of us, we do it on our own.

None of this [higher intellectual life] was familiar, and I was so hungry. But first I had to discover it. And at one point I realized that literature was the continuation of what I’d done as a child—using my imagination. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but essentially I had been turning everything into literature, in my head, without knowing what literature was.

 

In a dictatorship, every word is weighted, every utterance, loaded with connotation. Silence is a necessary currency for self-preservation, but it also tells its story. Forced into an economy of speech, those she had left—in all the languages: Romanian, her native German dialect, Russian, Hungarian—took on nuances that we, in our grossly expressive society, would be hard pressed to imagine. This terribly powerful efficiency of language, laconic and poetic, infuses her work.

So what “portrait of the artist” are we left with then? Raised in a society of duplicity and betrayal, where language and even the plants of the land, became either tools for the authorities or pockets of resistance, Herta Müller, searched for a way to escape her loneliness.

At the end of the essay she tells of her origin as a writer.

…I wrote because I had to, as a matter of self-assurance, because all doors were closed. I didn’t know where to turn, didn’t know how things would go on, my father had died, I couldn’t go back to the village, I didn’t have any perspectives at all, and there was a lot of fear because the secret police were harassing me daily. It was an absurd situation—they’d kicked me out of my office but I still had to work. I couldn’t leave the factory, couldn’t give them a pretext to dismiss me. And so I started writing, and suddenly there was this rearview mirror, and everything started coming back about my life in the village. It wasn’t trying to write literature, I just put it down on paper to gain a foothold, to get a grip on my life.

Why We Write I

It is always a good idea at the beginning of the New Year to take stock of what you’ve accomplished in the last. I started this blog six months ago, and after waking in the early hours day after day to work on it, the most burning question I’ve arrived at is: Why the hell do I do it?

Six months!

…of waking early and still missing the sunrise; of navigating the blogosphere rabbit hole; of writing stories and my own insights on literature and the creative process; and finally, of attempting to catch up on the all books I’ve heard of but never had the time to read: both the established classics and more recent works.

This last, the study of the literature of the past and present, has been more than enlightening: it has provided sustenance.

But the volume of good literature out there is overwhelming; I sometimes feel like a man trying to tickle salmon from a river, the mouth of which is antiquity, the source the future. Each passing form hinted at beneath the rushing water is the spirit of a great writer, poet, or philosopher. One cannot possibly capture them all. Even those poached writhe and thrash in your hands so that beneath the sunlight and wrapped in nature’s armor, they glint and scintillate, becoming less a single referent creature whose features—hooked jaw, empty eye, fin and tail—are easily discernible and more an ineluctable spectrum, that is both less and more than its physical vessel.

Perfecting one’s craft and finding a form is both a lifelong journey and a fool’s errand.

Nevertheless, we are glad to throw ourselves in the river.

Water Ripples and Fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have come across a number of writers who tackle head-on the question of why one writes. After all, only infrequently does the writing bring us reward. George R. R. Martin (yes that one) said in a recent interview: “You can work on a book for two years and get it published, and it’s like you may as well have thrown it down a well.”

But reward depends on what you value. There is external reward: money, fame, power, and the respect and admiration of others, and internal: that through due diligence and honesty of observation, the writer can work out a greater understanding of human nature and  decipher the existence, whether supernal or those that reside in the mundane passage of events.

The next few posts will offer perspectives from different writers on the reasons they write.

I’ll begin with a writer that I discovered at about the same time as I began this blog: William Gass.

gass

Weakness and Power Through the Written Word

 

The essayist, novelist and philosopher William Gass is a tough nut to crack. His work is very often inaccessible. His ideas, as original as they may be, are sometimes obscured in a fog of wordplay and made murky by semantic association. John Gardner accused him of over-intellectualizing his fiction and not allowing the “fictional dream” to unfold of its own accord. But that was a long time ago. Since Gardner’s death in 1982, Gass has continued to write, putting out beautifully written—if not dense—prose. He is amply brilliant. His knowledge of writing and writers is profound and self-imposed, meaning he always has his own opinion about them.

Thus far, I have stuck mostly to his essays. Some suffer from over-stuffing (Ford’s Impressionisms). Some are withering in their derision (Ezra Pound) and take apart with surgical precision certain sacred cows of the literary establishment (Pulitzer: The People’s Prize). Others take new tack on old subjects (Nietzsche: The Polemical Philosopher). Still others are surprisingly sentimental, in the best sense of the word (Robert Walser, Finding a Form.)

It is in the latter two that we find a more sympathetic voice, as Gass’ sympathies lie with the intellectually adventurous writer and philosopher, even unto madness. And it is in the last, Finding a Form, that he mentions what made him become a writer.

From “Finding a Form

In the introduction, like the rest of us, he blames his upbringing.

“The writer, by choosing to write rather than ride Beckett’s bike or Don Quixote’s nag, is choosing to relate to the world through the word…. In my case, at least the choice was an illusory one, for early on in my life I felt overwhelmed by the world…. It was a world which was certainly no worse than average, not much better either, so it was not one inherently overwhelming, one which would do the strongest of characters in. No. It found in me a weak respondent, a poor player. I was the sort of actor who specialized in exits.

“Passivity, self-mortification, substitute gratification, impotent bitching, drink: these were the ways of life set before me. Now, when considering the insides of a writer, pondering the psychology of the occupation, I always look first for the weakness that led him to it; because, make no mistake, writing puts the writer in illusory command of the world, empowers someone otherwise powerless, but with a power no more pointed than a pencil.

….But for me the world became a page; that, I said, with Stoical acceptance, is the way I wanted it; it is what I would have chosen. It is natural to speak of your own weaknesses so winsomely they will seem strengths, as if everyone else is inadequate if they do not have your inadequacies. We also contemplate what we cannot control. I contemplate the world through words.”

 

The writer then, according to Gass, is someone in search of control over their circumstances. This assumes, therefore, that the writer was initially someone to some degree powerless.

I’d be interested in thoughts by other writers as to whether or not Gass’ interpretation rings true in their own experience.

Top Ten Ways to Drive Traffic to Your Speculative Fiction Blog

To find instant success overnight, there are ten things that you MUST do to drive viewers to your blog! Here are the:

Top Ten Ways To Drive Traffic to your Speculative Fiction Blog

  1. Write your story as a top ten list.
  2. Don’t make your paragraphs more than two lines long. The average reader cannot read more than that. Stop your paragraph at the end of the line even if
  3. Remember: STORY must be CHARACTER driven; the characters’ arcs should correspond with the THREE-ACT structure; the three-act structure is delimited by THEME; theme arises organically from STORY. If you follow this easily understood formula, your story will be successful beyond your wildest dreams.
  4. Come up with a catchy title like “A Billionaire Dinosaur forced me gay.” Who knows? If the title is captivating enough, you won’t even have to write the novel.
  5. One sure fire way to build interest in your ANTAGONIST is to introduce him or her while in the process of doing something out of character for a diabolical mastermind, like making a soup or cleaning a pool. Have them make some sort of vague analogy between their action and the running of a criminal empire. For example:

         “My father taught me how to clean pools,” Mr. Masterson said, as he swirled the net around in the clear blue water. “There’s a fine line between too acidic and too basal. If the Ph is too low, you scald your eyes. If it’s too high, the job doesn’t get done.” His right hand man, Shorty Tootall, swallowed nothing hard as Mr. Masterson turned his cool, blue eyes on him. “What do you think, Shorty? Is something out of balance here?”

  1. Because analogy, metaphor, and allegory is always used by the villain, make sure your PROTAGONIST speaks in the manner of the village explainer, down-home and without guile. String him (or her) up by his ankles and when the leering villain regales him with his plans for the future, have him (or her) blather with unblinking conviction: “I swear by all I hold holy, I will hunt you down and kill you.” To which the villain chortles breezily, clashing his long nailed hands together.
  2. Related to #6: Avoid irony, farce and satire. They belong to yesteryear. They do not transfer well to the Internet.
  3. Related to #7: Keep in mind that the blogosphere has more in common with the cocaine-fueled optimism of Hollywood than the hard-boiled, booze-soused, gloomy, tell-truth-to-power ethos of the traditional novelist. Write accordingly.
  4. Related to #8: Do not be overly critical of other writers even if their writing sucks. They are trying and they should be praised endlessly for trying. Writing is not a business, wherein if you lose money over and over again you are fired, or baseball, wherein after launching ball after ball into the stands behind home plate you are taken out of batting rotation. Writing is a subjective endeavor and the more you mollycoddle other people’s attempts, the more they will “like” you and “friend” you. This is known as the Paris Hilton effect: lowering the bar provides a scale upon which anyone’s mediocre attempts can be judged.
  5. If all else fails, change your blog to a blog about how to increase traffic to your blog.

 

*Disclaimer: this post is satire.

Happy Holidays from all of me here at “The Speculative Fiction of William Gosline”

Breaking News: Captain America Admits to Tasting Man-Flesh

Indisputably poor taste. I agree. A desperate attempt at drawing attention to my “content” meaning these words. I should be ashamed of myself.

But it worked.

What I am actually referring to is Chris Evan’s new movie Snowpiercer.

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*inhale*

wherein the man who warmed our hearts as good Captain America plays the de facto leader of a lower caste of reformed cannibals who have been stuck for seventeen long years in the rear of a locomotive that unceasingly circumnavigates an earth bonded by endless winter.

*exhale*

By all accounts, Evans is an intelligent man who attends to his career. Bright, educated, privileged, good-looking, kind-hearted, socially responsible: the laundry list of his merits goes on and on. So much so that he was a shoe-in for Steve Roger’s spandex.

Thus Snowpiercer. A great move to diversify his portfolio. An international production, in many ways it heralds the future of cinema. Our own entertainment machine, bless its heart, is now a maudlin centenarian and acts it, regularly rewarding its mostly white, mostly male actors and directors with awards that complete the back-rub circle. Hollywood might have made Snowpiercer in the 1970s or 80s but it has since learned its lesson: Truly experimental film in glorious surrealism and weirdiousity has been outsourced or relegated to the independent film sphere.

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Or both, Rian Johnson received considerable financial backing from Chinese investors for his edgy sci-fi thriller, Looper. Snowpiercer reverses the flow of talent from East to West. Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, helms the film which was jointly produced by American and Korean parties, one of whom, Park Chan-wook, was the director of the cult hit Old Boy (2003). With an international cast that includes Evans, Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell and William Hurt, it is an endeavor so ambitious in scope, so rich in talent…

…that it invariably fails.

Not a huge failure, but a small one: death by a thousand cuts.

Bong Joon-ho’s project is too self-aware, too earnest. He has proven himself capable of international success with the campy horror flick, The Host, and the film noir, Mother. No one would accuse him of suffering from lack of talent or ambition. In fact, the inverse happens with Snowpiercer it is too ambitious, too talented. Bong, standing on the international stage, seems more concerned with paying homage to his influencers’ vision than crafting his own.

The move is chock full of references, some tongue-in-cheek, others decisively over-the-top. Here are a few of the more obvious ones: a shoe hurled at a member of the oppressor class alludes to Muntadhar al-Zaidi’s podiatric attack on George Bush; the Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka combine to form the name of the train’s designer and leader of this twisted, mobile society, Wilford; lastly the murder by knife of a mute recalls the agonizingly slow killing of the battalion’s only obviously Jewish member in Saving Private Ryan.

The list goes on and on. This penchant for summoning up vignettes from other movies is at the core of Snowpiercer’s problem: With so many references, the brain begins to fill with associations. As a culture, we are now highly sensitized to visual imagery and its implications.

One of my favorite writers and teachers, John Gardner, talks about the associative effect of words on the fictional dream: 

Every word, even the dullest and most frivolous, makes waves, calls up dark, half-unconscious associations which poetic context can illuminate…. Ever metaphor conjures an inexpressible background, ties the imagined to the fully experienced. (On Moral Fiction p.67-68)

The same is true of images. Though the viewer may not be aware of the association between the image, the scene it resides in, and the theme expressed, unconsciously he or she makes a connection. When such references are made in form only, with no attention made to the theme residing in this “inexpressible background”, a collision can occur between the assembled images and the themes they bespeak.

Consider again, the example Private Stanley Mellish’s death in Saving Private Ryan and its reboot in Snowpiercer. The original scene is commentary on the decimation of European Jews by the Nazis. Slow, remorseless, methodical, a dagger stabbed straight into the heart of a people the Nazis had once lived side by side with. Mellish’s death is interior and intimate in stark contrast with the battle raging outside the walls: rockets flying, bullets whistle through the air, the shouts of men and the collision of tanks and artillery with the town’s buildings.

In Snowpiercer this scene lacks gravitas. The murderer has no prior relationship with his victim, a mute acrobat whose existence is never quite explained. Likewise, any implication about the cruelty of one group of people towards another, analogized by Mellish’s death, is rendered generically obsolete in Snowpiercer. 

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Terry Gilliam in 2014

 

Let’s go even deeper, riding Gardner’s wave all the way back to the preeminent source of inspiration for this movie: director Terry Gilliam. It is his work that is most responsible for the tone of Snowpiercer. Right away, any doubt that his presence is aboard the train can be dismissed in toto: John Hurt’s character, the original rebel, is called Gilliam.

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Expressionistic cityscape from Metropolis

Brazil is the Gilliam film Snowpiercer is most indebted to. This singular work is itself a slapdash recreation of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis. But, whereas Lang’s dystopia is done with Teutonic straightforwardness, Gilliam’s Brazil embraces the absurdist aesthetics he developed as a founding member of Monty Python. Brazil is quintessentially Kafkaesque, a treatise on the grotesque result of a hyper-bureaucratized world in which absolute order leads to absolute chaos.

This paradox, omitted in Metropolis, is central to Brazil. Gilliam draws upon the absurdity and farce in the works of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, George Orwell and Franz Kafka. With this consistency of tone and theme, Brazil is a work that has and will withstand the test of ages.

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One of the passengers is prepared for his punishment: an arm frozen in the arctic winds that surround the train.

When such scenes of absurdity are borrowed for use in Snowpiercer, on the other hand, they stick out… like a frozen arm.  For one thing, the central paradox is fundamentally different. In Brazil, it is that absolute order results in absolute chaos. In Snowpiercer, it is that through revolution, order is reestablished. For another thing, this paradox seems more like an afterthought than a guiding premise.

It is a brilliant oxymoron no doubt, but it gets lost lost in this tundra of high concept ideas, like a snowflake in a blizzard. After all, having too many themes is the same as having none: like the guy who chases too many girls at the club, invariably returning home alone, Snowpiercer, by aspiring to too many themes, ends up with none.

This lack of cohesive direction accounts for the irregular quality of the performances. Though not necessarily dialed in, they are befuddled and random. It’s as if in each scene the actor has a different motivation. Chris Evans is at once savior and villain, everyman and uberman, at times angry and spiteful, at others calm and calculating. Ed Harris’s Wilford is particularly egregious. With two models to draw from, Willy Wonka and the Wizard of Oz, he elects for the safety of non-expression rather than risk smashing the two together. The two might have some similarities: puerility, duplicity, etc. but at core they are quite different.

There are other things I could harp on and grumble about, but I ought to stop. The truth is I’m only spending so much time deconstructing this movie because I really wanted it to succeed. What a great premise! What a brilliant cast! What a creative director! How could any film buff worth his salt not want it to succeed?

In the end, however, Snowpiercer’s motives are suspect and thus, fail it. Director Bong Joon-ho seems hell-bent on making a cult classic. Very rarely are such projects planned in advance, however. Most of the time, like every other movie, a cult classic begins with the intention of being a Money-Maker, a Blockbuster, a cash cow. Often they flop or go unnoticed for years before finding their audience in a new era.

Snowpiercer may yet go on to become a cult classic, but I doubt it. Rather and unfortunately, I think it will be lost to memory, a snowflake in a blizzard, remembered as the little train that couldn’t. A near miss, an amazing convergence of international talent that in the end became a pile-up, a beautiful train wreck.

 

 

The Walking Dead on The Road to the Iron Throne

Like any true genius, Robert Kirkman steals.

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In his situation to not would be foolish.

And it’s not just because he needs food to survive, like his characters.

As the principal show-runner of one of the most popular programs on cable television, he has the considerable resources of the Entertainment industry at his disposal. Talent flocks to the Walking Dead in herds of ace character-actors, crack writers and auteur directors. Money is no doubt being flung around like confetti. The show’s popularity is only growing.

Under these circumstance, only an idiot would refrain from stealing the choicest morsels from the mostly untapped—at least in mainstream culture—body of word of dystopian fiction.

Happily standing astride the shoulders of giants, Robert Kirkman is no idiot.

His pièce de résistance, “The Walking Dead”, is both timeless and timely. In form and structure, it is similar to many recent episodics driven by strong characters whose elliptical story arcs begin with their introduction and often linger after their death. These smaller, individual dramas unfold atop the greater narrative of humanity’s struggle for survival. Most of these types of shows find their antecedents in conventions if not created, than perfected by Charles Dickens and Geoffrey Chaucer: the former, the master of scene and the serialized story; the latter, the medieval craftsman who had the vision to use individual subjective tale as threads  in a tapestry of story.

Of course, there are many story cosmoses founded on the meeting of different people from different places at a particular point in time. Likewise, Dickens was neither the first nor the last of his kind to write as he did—we already see evidence of the Return of the Serial in such Internet platforms as JukePop and Rooster. Kirkman’s pop culture phenomenon owes neither more nor less than anyone else to this long line in Western literary tradition, the proverbial remembered giants, standing on the horizon at daybreak.

These are not the writers he “steals” from; no more than any other writer nowadays. What I would argue is that his brilliance in part comes from his ability to refine the anxious Zeitgeist of our times articulated in the works of two far more contemporary creators: George R. R. Martin and Cormac McCarthy.

George R. R. Martin and the Game of Thrones.

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It would not be exaggeration to say that the patriarch of House Stark, Eddard Stark, had to die in order for Martin’s name to live. Stark’s sudden execution is undoubtedly one of the biggest shocks in contemporary literature. His Arthurian mien provides Martin’s ace-in-the-hole. Consider: in traditional high fantasy, the reader implicitly knew that there were always a few characters so central to the story as to be indispensable. When a major character died, it was cause for consternation in the reader and pause in the story arc. Boromir, of the Lord of the Rings, dies in epic fashion. Alive, he is beset by the classic conflicts of the hero. In death, he redeems himself, resuming the mantle of protector to his sworn charge, Frodo Baggins.

Eddard Stark’s death, on the other hand, is pathetic in the best sense of the word, the result of gross miscalculation of his enemy’s enormity. His executioner is a sociopathic child who orders it done on a whim. The point being of course that Eddard’s abrupt removal mirrors the random violence and eternal crisis of the modern State. Martin reminds the reader that in the twenty-first century no one is safe, not even in genre fiction.

*As an aside, what fluke of fate is it that the great Sean Bean plays both Boromir and Eddard Stark?*

Far from turning away in revulsion, the reader (or watcher) is drawn further into the tale of Westeros in the same way that a driver rubbernecks past a highway accident. Passing by the smoking ruin, we tell ourselves, secretly exhilarated: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Kirkman learns this lesson and learns it well. Lori Grimes’ death and subsequent devouring is a case in point: a major character that we have been led to believe is too important to be done away with suddenly departs, stage left. The selective “offing” of beloved characters is a large part of the show’s appeal. We watch, grim-faced this brilliantly orchestrated train wreck. Who will emerge from the twisted ties and crumpled railcars?

The second major contemporary writer that Kirkman owes a debt of gratitude to is the great American novelist, Cormac McCarthy. And this time, Kirkman owes more than just for analogy.

Of all the doomsday writers, none have gotten so close to the damnation and hopelessness of the Apocalypse as McCarthy does in The Road. One of the great American novels of the twenty-first century, The Road conjures through magical prose the stultifying hopelessness of the End.

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I can almost see Kirkman’s little brain-gears twisting after reading the book, recounting the four Cs of Marketing: “Cannibalism + Character = Cult Classic.”

How does Kirkman get away with such obvious lifting of scenes? The answer is character and subtlety. “The Walking Dead” has ample of the first and none of the second, the exact opposite of McCarthy’s masterpiece. McCarthy, whom some people consider a Christian writer, has written not a novel per se but rather an extended allegory of the Apocalypse. The characters and places are nameless, intentional omissions that reinforce the idea that survival is an anonymous preoccupation. It is McCarthy’s beautiful prose that sustains the book, a subtle, horrifying tale of the fragile will to persist in a dead world.

To give an idea of the power of McCarthy’s writing, here is an excerpt.

Upon entering a house and searching for supplies the man and his son discover a trapdoor. After wrestling it open, they descend the first steps in exploration:

He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the sumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

The one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.

Right? Creepy as all get out.

There is no need to even say that Terminus, with its veneer of civilization and charnel butcher’s quarters owes its sordid and sinister nature to this horrifying scenes and others like it.

 


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The Walking Dead will outlast us all. When the last human has been eaten and the zombies have populated the far corners of the earth in their mindless maundering, they will owe their dominion first and foremost to Robert Kirkman, but also—at least in part to the great American writers, George R. R. Martin and Cormac McCarthy.

On this Thanksgiving, please take time to give thanks for all you have. Savor your food, love your families and above all, cherish your civilization. A civilization which affords one the opportunity to do more than just dart from hovel to hovel, hoping the next is not already occupied by possibly cannibalistic fellow survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. As John Gardner wrote in his last major opus, On Moral Fiction:

…outside civilization (priviledge) we are nothing, mere battered brutes without choices, whereas inside, however unfair it may be, we have hope, including the hope that our good fortune may spread to others.

Writing Longhand in the Digital Age

 

Calvin typing

I’ve often wondered if my habit of starting a story or article in longhand is crazy. Who, after all, has the time anymore?

Those of you who also write by hand may be heartened to hear that we are not alone. I’ve read that Gunter Grass, a favorite of mine from childhood, writes his first drafts by hand. I have seen many manuscripts written by other famous authors. The script runs the gamut from flourishing and elegant to entirely unintelligible. Amended by redactions, abetted by additions, and with entire paragraphs scratched out or led, by arrow, to their new place on the page, these pages seem to possess a life beyond the abstract ideas expressed on them.

Further proof that such technique has validity comes in the latest edition of the Paris Review. The Israeli author, Aharon Appelfeld, expresses the aesthetic imperative of writing by hand.

Writing, like every art, is a sensual art. You have to touch it, you have to feel it, to correct, again to correct, always to correct.

Aharon Appelfeld manuscript
Aharon Appelfeld manuscript

But it turns out that there is something beyond just the aesthetic consideration of writing longhand.

In an article entitled “Cursive is an Endandered Species“, the correlation between neurological development and handwriting is given mention.

Neuroscientists have found that the act of writing by hand builds neural pathways that directly affect a wide range of development, including language fluency, memory, physical coordination, and socialization. Researchers such as Steve Peverly of Columbia University and Virginia W. Berninger of the University of Washington have discovered close connections between writing and cognitive development. Peverly, for example, has shown that students’ attention span improves significantly when they take notes by hand as opposed to clicking away on their keyboards. And those who can write more swiftly retain the information better. Since connecting letters increases the speed at which one writes, we can infer that cursive note taking would be most beneficial for academic success.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a similar phenomenon exists in the act of reading. Some even believe that the two types of reading: the old-fashioned linear reading demanded by a physical artifact versus the cursory multi-directional scramble most of us do online, is literally creating a bi-lateral brain.

Print versus plasma. Guess which type of reading helps us get into a deeper, more contemplative state, one in which our higher brain-functions are enabled?

[Disclaimer: This is the first post I’ve ever written that was done without a rough draft done first by hand. Go figure.]

Guest Blog

I’ve been too busy to post more of Jury Selection, so apologies to my devoted (albeit small) fan base. But I did want to mention a bit of good news.

Really good news.

A post of mine has been accepted for publication on Damien G. Walter‘s blog. This is my first attempt to branch out after one month of blogging and my first acceptance. Thanks very much to Mr. Walter, who, speaking of firsts, was also the first blogger I began following upon entry to the blogosphere.

Keep in mind that this guy has interviewed Harlan Ellison and Neal Stephenson and is an extremely experienced and talented writer himself.

Here is a link to the guest essay.