“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, July 29, 2011

I am Jack’s Raging Insomnia: The Tragically Overlooked Moral Dilemma at the Heart of Fight Club

If you were to ask one of the millions of guys who love the movie Fight Club what the story is about, his answer would most likely emphasize the violence. He might say something like, “It’s about men returning to their primal nature and getting carried away when they find out how good it feels.” Actually, this is an answer I would expect from a guy with exceptional insight. A majority would probably just say it’s about a bunch of guys who get together to beat the crap out of each other and pull a bunch pranks. Some might remember all the talk about IKEA and other consumerist products. Our insightful guy may even connect the dots and explain that consumerism somehow made the characters in the movie feel emasculated, and so they had to resort to fighting and vandalism to reassert their manhood. But, aside from ensuring they would know what a duvet is—“It’s a fucking blanket”—what is it exactly about shopping for household décor and modern conveniences that makes men less manly?

Maybe Fight Club is just supposed to be fun, with all the violence and the weird sex scene with Marla and all the crazy mischief the guys get in, but also with a few interesting monologues and voiceovers to hint at deeper meanings. And of course there’s Tyler Durden—fearless, clever, charismatic, and did you see those shredded abs? Not only does he not take shit from anyone, he gets a whole army to follow his lead, loyal to the death. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of characters like this in movies, and if that’s all men liked about Fight Club they wouldn’t sit through all the plane flights, support groups, and soap-making. It just may be that, despite the rarity of fans who can articulate what they are, the movie actually does have profound and important resonances.

And guys who can’t put their finger on what’s so good about the movie shouldn’t feel too bad. I recommend anyone interested in film or literary criticism go to the Wikipedia site devoted to academic interpretations of Fight Club because it’s a good indication of just how far critics have gotten up the asses of the handful of ascendant naked emperors in the field. This pseudo-scholarship is so stupid and yet so common in humanities departments that it’s past the time when we should’ve started holding these so-called theorists accountable. It takes a certain kind of person, though, to confront people who are behaving improperly or acting to the detriment of others, in this case of trusting undergraduates in departments under the sway of poststructuralism or new historicism. It’s safer and more comfortable just to accept what your teachers say. And why should we care what other people are being taught? It’s none of our business, right? If we think it sounds like hogswoggle then we can simply look the other way.

If you recall, the Edward Norton character, whom I’ll call Jack (following the convention of the script), decides that his story should begin with the advent of his insomnia. He goes to the doctor but is told nothing is wrong with him. His first night’s sleep comes only after he goes to a support group and meets Bob, he of the “bitch tits,” and cries a smiley face onto his t-shirt. But along comes Marla who like Jack is visiting support groups but is not in fact recovering, sick, or dying. She is another tourist. As long as she's around, he can’t cry and so can’t sleep. Soon after Jack and Marla make a deal to divide the group meetings and avoid each other, Tyler Durden shows up and we’re on our way to Fight Clubs and Project Mayhem. Now, why the hell would we accept these bizarre premises and continue watching the movie unless at some level Jack’s difficulties, as well as their solutions, make sense to us?

So why exactly was it that Jack couldn’t sleep at night? The simple answer, the one that Tyler gives later in the movie, is that he’s unhappy with his life. He hates his job. Something about his “filing cabinet” apartment rankles him. And he’s alone. Jack’s job is to fly all over the country to investigate accidents involving his company’s vehicles and to apply “the formula.” I’m going to quote from Chuck Palahniuk’s book so I don’t have to dick around with the DVD player:
“You take the population of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), then multiply the result by the average cost of an out-of-court settlement (C).
"A times B times C equals X. This is what it will cost if we don’t initiate a recall.
“If X is greater than the cost of a recall, we recall the cars and no one gets hurt.
“If X is less than the cost of a recall, then we don’t recall” (30).
Palahniuk's inspiration for Jack's job was an actual case involving the Ford Pinto.
What this means is that Jack goes around trying to protect his company's bottom line to the detriment of people who drive his company's cars. You can imagine the husband or wife or child or parent of one of these accident victims hearing about this job and asking Jack, "How do you sleep at night?"

Going to support groups makes life seem pointless, short, and horrible. Ultimately, we all have little control over our fates, so there's no good reason to take responsibility for anything. When Jack burst into tears as Bob pulls his face into his enlarged breasts, he's relinquishing all accountability; he's, in a sense, becoming a child again. Accordingly, he's able to sleep like a baby. When Marla shows up, not only is he forced to confront the fact that he's healthy and perfectly able to behave responsibly, but he is also provided with an incentive to grow up because, as his fatuous grin informs us, he likes her. And, even though the support groups eventually fail to assuage his guilt, they do inspire him with the idea of hitting bottom, losing all control, losing all hope.

If Jack didn't have to worry about losing his apartment, or losing all his IKEA products, or losing his job, or falling out of favor with his boss, well, then he would be free to confront that same boss and tell him what he really thinks of the operation that has supported and enriched them both. Enter Tyler Durden, who systematically turns all these conditionals into realities. In game theory terms, Jack is both a 1st order and a 2nd order free rider because he both gains at the expense of others and knowingly allows others to gain in the same way. He carries on like this because he's more motivated by comfort and safety than he is by any assurance that he's doing right by other people.

This is where Jack being of "a generation of men raised by women" becomes important (50). Fathers and mothers tend to treat children differently. (It should go without saying--but feminist critics tend to be agenda- as opposed to truth-driven--this research is descriptive and not prescriptive; no one is interested in enforcing these statistical differences.) A study that functions well symbolically in this context examined the ways moms and dads tend to hold their babies in pools. Moms hold them facing themselves. Dads hold them facing away. Think of the way Bob's embrace of Jack changes between the support group and the fight club. When picked up by moms, babies breathing and heart-rates slow. Just the opposite happens when dads pick them up--they get excited. And if you inventory the types of interactions that go on between the two parents it's easy to see why.

Not only do dads engage children in more rough-and-tumble play; they are also far more likely to encourage children to take risks. In one study, fathers told they'd have to observe their child climbing a slope from a distance making any kind of rescue impossible in the event of a fall set the slopes at a much steeper angle than mothers in the same setup. Contrary to theory-addled critics, Fight Club isn't about dominance or triumphalism or white males' reaction to losing control; it's about men learning that they can't really live if they're always playing it safe. Jack actually says at one point that winning or losing doesn't much matter. Indeed, one of homework assignments Tyler gives everyone is to start a fight and lose. The point is to be willing to risk a fight when it's necessary--i.e. when someone attempts to exploit or seduce you based on the assumption that you'll always act according to your rational self-interest.

And the disturbing truth is that we are all lulled into hypocrisy and moral complacency by the allures of consumerism. We may not be "recall campaign coordinators" like Jack. But do we know or care where our food comes from? Do we know or care how our soap is made? Do we bother to ask why Disney movies are so devoid of the gross mechanics of life? We would do just about anything for comfort and safety. And that is precisely how material goods and material security have emasculated us. It's easy to imagine Jack's mother soothing him to sleep some night, saying, "Now, the best thing to do, dear, is to sit down and talk this out with your boss."

There are two scenes in Fight Club that I can't think of any other word to describe but sublime. The first is when Jack finally confronts his boss, threatening to expose the company's practices if he is not allowed to leave with full salary. At first, his boss reasons that Jack's threat is not credible, because bringing his crimes to light would hurt Jack just as much. But the key element to altruistic punishment is that the punisher is willing to incur risks or costs to mete it out. Jack, having been well-fathered, as it were, by Tyler, proceeds to engage in costly signaling of his willingness to harm himself by beating himself up, literally. In game theory terms, he's being rationally irrational, making his threat credible by demonstrating he can't be counted on to pursue his own rational self-interest. The money he gets through this maneuver goes, of course, not into anything for Jack, but into Fight Club and Project Mayhem.

The second sublime scene, and for me the best in the movie, is the one in which Jack is himself punished for his complicity in the crimes of his company. How can a guy with stitches in his face and broken teeth, a guy with a chemical burn on his hand, be punished? Fittingly, he lets Tyler get them both in a car accident. At this point, Jack is in control of his life, he's no longer emasculated. And Tyler flees.

One of the confusing things about the movie is that it has two overlapping plots. The first, which I've been exploring up to this point, centers on Jack's struggle to man up and become an altruistic punisher. The second is about the danger of violent reactions to the murder machine of consumerism. The male ethic of justice through violence can all too easily morph into fascism. And so once Jack has created this father figure and been initiated into manhood by him he then has to reign him in--specifically, he has to keep him from killing Marla. This second plot entails what anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls a "domination episode," in which an otherwise egalitarian group gets taken over by a despot who must then be defeated. Interestingly, only Jack knows for sure how much authority Tyler has, because Tyler seemingly undermines that authority by giving contradictory orders. But by now Jack is well schooled on how to beat Tyler--pretty much the same way he beat his boss.

It's interesting to think about possible parallels between the way Fight Club ends and what happened a couple years later on 9/11. The violent reaction to the criminal excesses of consumerism and capitalism wasn't, as it actually occurred, homegrown. And it wasn't inspired by any primal notion of manhood but by religious fanaticism. Still, in the minds of the terrorists, the attacks were certainly a punishment, and there's no denying the cost to the punishers.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Beliefs that Make You Feel Good Make You Look Good Too—But You’re a Total Asshole if You Let That Influence You

Imagine you are among a group of around thirty people on an island and over the past few weeks you’ve learned of the presence of another group living on the same island, one which has been showing signs of hostility toward your own group. Because of your wisdom, your group has appointed you the task of convening a selective gathering to devise a strategy for dealing with the looming threat. Among your group there happen to be several people with military training as well as some with experience in diplomacy. There are also individuals claiming psychic powers and religious authority. You understand that the composition of the gathering will be among the most important factors determining the consensus strategy it will arrive at. Who do you invite to participate? Who do you exclude?

(Full disclosure: the first strategy that occurs to me is to find a way to get the rival group’s attention and then execute the psychics and religious authorities for them to witness, letting them know afterward this treatment is what they can expect from us should they decide to continue their hostility.)

Beliefs have consequences. A psychic in our hypothetical group may be convinced that he’s seen the future and in it the home group stands victorious, having suffered no casualties, over the rival group. This vision allows an otherwise outvoted military aggressor to persuade everyone else a violent raid is the best course of action. A religious leader may feel it incumbent on her to serve as a missionary to the savages. This may lead to an attempt at diplomacy which backfires by offending the rival group’s own religious sensibilities. The fate of the home group is at stake. Whose opinions do you seek?

This imaginary scenario is meant to illustrate the point that an individual’s beliefs inevitably contribute to the culture and ultimately influence the fate of societies. While it is true that the larger the society the smaller the impact of any one person’s ideas, it is likewise the case that through a mechanism called social proof the stated ideas of individuals have multiplier effects far beyond what any one person believes. Social norms are a major determiner of what people accept as true. And many people may not question pieces of conventional wisdom simply because it has never occurred to them to do so—at least not until they encounter someone who espouses wisdom of an unconventional strain.

This point may seem obvious enough, and yet it represents a major departure from the dominant approach to considering beliefs in American culture. When confronted with a new idea Americans automatically and unconsciously apply a rigid formula to assessing its merits: they ask, first, how would believing this idea make me feel, and, second, how would believing this idea make me look to others? The order of these questions may be reversed, but no other questions ever enter the equation. The foundation of our culture is an ethic of consumerism, and so people decide what to believe exactly the same way they decide what music they want to claim as their favorite, and the same way they decide what type of t-shirt they’ll wear to advertise their personal style.

Savvy marketers, public relations experts, and profiteering charlatan shitbags are well aware of the extent to which consumerism determines our beliefs and behaviors. There’s no shortage of people in this country who will have nothing to do with politics because the topic is just not sexy at all; they know politicians are considered dishonest, petty, and even corrupt. Who would want to associate themselves with that? This general distaste for government and its policy disputes derives much of its fuel from each party’s attempts to brand the other in as off-putting a way as possible. I haven’t seen a survey that establishes the link, but I’d wager where people fall on the political spectrum is largely determined by whether they'd find it less acceptable to be thought of as naïve and effete or to be thought of as callous and lacking in compassion.

I try, as much as possible, to adhere to the Enlightenment values of devotion to science and championing of universal human rights. When people of the consumerist mindset discuss their beliefs with me, they are often baffled as to why I would insist on scientific skepticism with regard to supernatural ideas and pop culture myths. Science is so dry and mechanical. So, when I tell people what I believe, I usually get one of three responses: the first is to assume that my knowledge about research on some issue must be completely independent of my beliefs, because beliefs are personal and science is not. “Okay, you’ve told me what you know about the results of some experiments. But what do you really believe?”

The second response, equally in keeping with the consumerist ethic, is to assume that anyone so devoted to science must be a dry and mechanical person, the type who is incapable of tapping into his intuition, who insists on cold hard facts and bloodless statistics. After all, the reasoning goes, this guy chose his beliefs based on how he wanted to represent himself, so if he’s spouting off stats and experimental results he must have a pretty limited and robotic personality. It should go without saying—but unfortunately it doesn’t—that this reasoning is based on a gross misunderstanding of science and statistics alike. But the other mistake implicit in this response is that people can only decide what to believe according to how they want to represent themselves to others.

And yet it’s the third response that’s the most troubling. When you listen to someone’s beliefs about, say, supply-side economics, or religion, or alternative medicine and then start going into detail about why those beliefs are almost certainly wrong, many people will immediately conclude that there’s an ulterior motive behind your scientific skepticism. Because you have such a strong tendency to reject other people’s beliefs, they reason, you must simply be the type of person who enjoys making other people feel and look stupid. It’s not enough to wear your own favorite brand of t-shirt; you have to ridicule other people’s fashion sense. People who respond this way—you know who you are—can be counted on to violently assert themselves when you challenge them. They take your arguments very personally.

The true reason I’m devoted to science, though, is that I take responsibility for the consequences of my beliefs. What you believe has a direct impact on the culture around you, and an indirect impact on the course of society at large. If you like the fit of supply-economics, if you explain to anyone who’ll listen how wealth at the top trickles down, and if you vote for conservative politicians, then you’re responsible for the results, positive or negative, of the implementation of those policies. In point of fact, the most reliable outcome of these policies is greater income inequality, which is associated with a host of societal ills from increased violent crime to higher infant mortality. I would argue that those signing on to the conservative agenda after these facts were established are complicit in the perpetuation of these social problems.

The position you take on any issue with broader social implications inevitably becomes more than a personal choice. And it’s more difficult than you may assume to come up with issues that don’t have broader social implications. Where, for instance, was your t-shirt made? What were the conditions the people who made it were working under? What effects did its manufacture have on the surrounding ecosystems? The plain fact is that any pure application of the consumerist ethic, whether to your choice of clothing or to what religion or political party you support, is profoundly irresponsible.

In my first novel, which I just recently completed, the characters address issues concerning recovered memories of child abuse. This is a topic I began researching as an undergrad studying psychology. It turns out the best research rules out the theory of repressed trauma with a high degree of certainty. Now, it shouldn’t require any great deal of trust on your part to believe I have no desire to associate myself in any way with the issue of child abuse, especially in any way that entails a risk of being perceived as wanting to defend or advocate it. But there are men in prison today convicted solely on the basis of evidence from recovered memories. If I simply towed the conventional line and neglected to thoroughly research the issue, or worse, if I ignored the products of that research, I would be complicit in the imprisonment of innocent men. This complicity extends to the seemingly innocent act of remaining silent when others around me are expressing views I know to be in error.

The tendency to rely on pure consumerism to assess ideas and to fail to take responsibility for their consequences is a trap all too easy to fall into. I can almost guarantee the shirt on your back right now was made in a third world country under conditions you’d literally kill to keep your own children safe from. But most Americans are blithely ignorant of this. And I can attest it is exceedingly difficult and prohibitively expensive to limit your purchases to products made under more humane conditions. Manufacturers depend on American consumers being ignorant and irresponsible. And yet, under some circumstances, people’s reasoning becomes eminently more practical. When your child gets sick, the sexiness of holistic medicine doesn’t lure you away from doctors trained in scientific medicine—though you may backslide if that first visit fails to cure them.

But how, you may ask, do you express your individuality if you are so committed to science? Alternatively, how can others assess your personality through your beliefs if they’re all based on some scientist’s research? Well, even if research were to prove somehow that it’s better to be extroverted than introverted, people have little control over such things. So it is with most personality traits. Science may also offer some hints about characteristics I ought to look for in a romantic partner, but ultimately which woman I pair up with will be determined by factors beyond the scope of any research project. Not every personal decision you make has wider societal consequences. Anyway, there’s plenty of room for individuality even for those of us thoroughly committed to taking responsibility for our actions and beliefs.

Friday, July 22, 2011

True Love with a Bloody Twist: the Uses and Abuses of the Sympathetic Vampire

             Two strangers lock eyes from across a crowded bar. She is a small-town waitress, living with her grandmother, he a veteran returning home. They look at each other and experience a mutual frisson of seeming recognition. First they’re intrigued with each other, then, within moments, they’re enthralled. With their long, guileless stares, involuntary shifting of their bodies to bring themselves helplessly forward, leaning toward one another then back in an unconscious conscious dance—as if it didn’t matter that they’ve been aware of each other’s existence for only a few minutes—their eyes begin to dart away from that requited gaze toward each other's lips; she tilts back her head, actually closes her eyes until she remembers where she is; any second he will heed the cues and pull her to him for the first kiss. But then they’re interrupted by rowdy patrons in the next booth over.

            There’s something not right about the following scene, which has our war-weary lover lying supine as those rowdy restaurant patrons rob him outside in the parking lot. And there’s something not right about how the waitress manages to fight them off, rescuing the helpless veteran. By the end of the first episode of True Blood, though, we see the waitress, Sookie Stackhouse, playing the more familiar role of damsel in distress—just in time for the credits to role, as if the cliffhanger left any doubt about whether the veteran, Bill Compton, would play the role of knight. And yet the familiarity of the romantic plot at the heart of the series is well subsumed within the supernatural subject matter and countless other plotlines. Bill, it turns out, is a veteran not of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, but of the Civil War. He is a 170-plus-year-old vampire. Those patrons were robbing him not of his wallet but of his blood, which can be sold to humans as a potent aphrodisiac, having subdued him with silver chains and inserted needles into his veins.

            In terms of pure entertainment, True Blood is the best show I’ve seen in a long time. It aspires to seriousness by allegorizing the plight of homosexuals (LGBT) in modern America, while featuring a cast of characters transparently designed to explode stereotypes. Tara, an angry young black woman, is constantly reading, knows legal and medical jargon, and just wants to be loved. Lafayette, Tara’s cousin, a black flamboyantly gay cook who moonlights as a drug dealer and prostitute, is a Machiavellian mastermind who can whoop some ass. Jason, Sookie’s brother, a narcissistic horn-dog jock, has a heart of gold, and can’t bear to see anyone hurt who doesn’t deserve it. Sookie herself, at first blush an innocent and dizzy blonde, all smiles, quick nervous laughs, and friendly manners, is telepathic, strong-willed, and possesses boundless courage, as she displays in her rescue of Bill. But most of the show’s appeal comes from traditional—you might even say conservative—storytelling.

            Bill is played by Stephen Moyers, who was forty when the first season of True Blood was filmed, and Sookie by Anna Paquin, who was 27. (The actors, who began dating the first season, are now married.) Sookie likes her men older, as one of the central plotlines in season one is the love triangle she and Bill make up with Sam Merlotte, the owner of the bar where she works, who has neat tufts of gray hair and is played by Sam Trammell, 39 at the time. In season two, despite herself, Sookie takes a shine to Eric Northman, a thousand-year-old vampire played by Alexander Skarsgard, then 31.

            If the May December pairings seem insignificant, there’s also the throwback that Sookie, a woman in her mid-twenties, is a virgin when she meets Bill. Her telepathy supposedly explains her sexual reticence, as hearing the raunchy thoughts of men her own age inevitably precludes the budding of any intimacy—neat little plot device that. But there’s no doubt what the writers are really up to in the episode that has Sookie donning a billowy white dress and running bare-foot just after sunset to offer herself to Bill for the first time. The encounter takes place on a velvet blanket before a fireplace with candles on the mantle. Lest we get bored with this old-fashioned scene—or embarrassed by how much we’re enjoying it—Bill’s fangs emerge. “Do it. I want you to,” Sookie says. Sure enough, he plunges them into her neck, and lovingly licks up the gusher he’s caused. But the blood drinking is merely an interlude—in fact, it’s used as another cliffhanger—and the scene ends with Sookie’s orgasm. The sixteen-year-old boy in me exulted.

            What happens next is emblematic of the show’s worst vices. Sitting in the bathtub with Bill, Sookie reveals that she was once inappropriately touched by her great uncle when she was a young girl. What actually happened is obscured by her recollection of the man’s thoughts. The only offense actually depicted is him having her sit on his lap as he helps with her math homework. “It was just touching,” she says. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as what happens to some girls.” This storyline is superfluous, even gratuitous, meant simply to signal that Sookie is deep and complex. When Bill confronts the man, wheelchair-bound and in his eighties, the encounter is disturbing for all the wrong reasons. Bill is supposed to be struggling with his vampiric urge to kill, and the writers saw this subplot as an opportunity to let him backslide in a way that would, if anything, make him more sympathetic. But in a show so proud of its own sexual openness the unceremonious execution of a helpless old man for an unvoiced and opaquely acted out attraction he had no control over is unsettlingly hypocritical and unenlightened. (For punishment to qualify as altruistic, it needs to entail a cost or a risk to the punisher.)

            True Blood relies far too heavily on the trope of the haunted past for characterization. Watching the show, I keep imagining a Family Guy-style cutaway to Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers saying in a mock-tragic tone, “We lost a lot of good men out there.” This is bad psychology and lazy storytelling. The idea that personality is reducible to background lends itself to the very urge toward stereotyping the show delights in frustrating. And yet the show has the redeeming quality of being snarkily aware of its own reliance on pulp fiction conventions. In a scene from season one that has Sam and Tara somewhat begrudgingly allowing themselves to fall into a courtship of sorts, he asks her why she likes Sookie’s brother Jason and why she doesn’t do anything about it. She responds in her endearing-annoying rhotic twang, “It’s part of my whole fucked-up thing: low self-esteem, childhood trauma, blah, blah, snore.”

            In season two of Mad Men, Don Draper responds to an idea for a TV show, “It’s derivative with a twist, which is what they’re looking for.” Shows like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Twilight certainly fall into the derivative-with-a-twist category. They’re all traditional romances jazzed up with supposed monsters who turn out to be nice guys with tragic pasts. And they all center on prototypes Anne Rice deserves credit for, even though her stories weren’t romances at all. Bill, Stefan, and Edward are really all Louis. Eric, Damon, and—sorry, Twilight is just too awful to watch—are Lestat. What makes the HBO version so much better is certainly not that it has anything like the substance of Rice’s early installments of The Vampire Chronicles, which owe much of their profundity to her abandonment—unfortunately short-lived—of Catholicism and her wrestling with existentialism; True Blood is fun because unlike the other shows in the paranormal romance genre it doesn’t take itself so damn seriously.

            Not all of the comedy comes from the characters’ snarky remarks about the ridiculous plots they find themselves in. The hectic pacing does wonders to keep the tone light, an effect that harks back to a much earlier HBO series dealing in supernatural fare, Tales from the Crypt. Watching the episodes, I almost want to pull out a stopwatch and see if the editors are allotting each subplot its portion of the show according to some preset pattern. Indeed, the intricate workings of the multiple plots suggest nothing so much as the inner mechanics of a watch. And the writers are savvy enough never to answer a question without replacing it with three others.

            Ultimately, True Blood fails to be anywhere near as progressive as it seems to want to be. For all the collective wincing among the audience every time someone speaks of favoring his or her own kind, any show that pits good guys against bad guys both panders to and promotes tribalism, however it’s defined in the narrative context. Some of the characters who appear bad at first show signs of redeemability. In fact, the writers, in making Eric so much worse than Bill before having him break down in tears at the death of the vampire who made him and becoming inexplicably protective of Sookie, are at risk of letting him steal the show. But there are plenty of other characters—that uncle, Maryanne, Loraine—who are simply beyond sympathy.

            The show does, however, have moments when it transcends its mere functionality as pure entertainment. There’s a scene in season one, for instance, in which Bill is sitting at a table in the kitchen of a church, his hand on a bottle of synthetic blood—ironically called true blood—awaiting the arrival of all the townspeople so he can give a speech about his memories of the Civil War, and all the while listening in, with his keen vampire hearing, as everyone remarks on the potential dangers in hosting a blood-thirsty monster. Just as you find yourself desperate for him to prove them all wrong and win them over, Sookie arrives on the arm of Sam Merlotte. Meanwhile, the gears of the watch are turning: Jason is tripping on vampire blood; his friend Hoyt is tempted to taste some true blood; the cops are keeping their ears open for clues about some murders, for which both Bill and Jason are suspects; and a group of miscreants is gearing up to ruin to the lecture. For all its busy distractibility, the scene is masterful. As Bill walks out, takes the American flag from where it’s been draped over a cross for his benefit, hangs it on its pole, and continues winning over the crowd, just as you'd hoped, you know that’s character, in both senses of the term.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bad Men


Though I had mixed feelings about the first season of Mad Men, which I picked up at Half Price Books for a steal, I still found enormous appeal in the more drawn out experience of the series unfolding. Movies lately have been leaving me tragically unmoved, with those in the action category being far too noisy and preposterous and those in the drama one too brief to establish any significant emotional investment in the characters. In a series, though, especially those in the new style pioneered by The Sopranos which eschew efforts to wrap up their plots by the end of each episode, viewers get a chance to follow characters as they develop, and the resultant investment in them makes even the most underplayed and realistic violence among them excruciatingly riveting. So, even though I found Pete Campbell, an account executive at the ad agency Sterling Cooper, the main setting for Mad Men, annoying instead of despicable, and the treatment of what we would today call sexual harassment in the office crude, self-congratulatory, and overdone, by the time I had finished watching the first season I was eager to get my hands on the second. I’ve now seen the first four seasons.

Reading up on the show on Wikipedia, I came across a few quotes from Daniel Mendelsohn’s screed against the series, “The Mad Men Account” in the New York Review of Books, and since Mendelsohn is always fascinating even when you disagree with him I made a point of reading his review after I’d finished the fourth season. His response was similar to mine in that he found himself engrossed in the show despite himself. There’s so much hoopla. But there’s so much wrong with the show. Allow me a longish quote:

“The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.
Worst of all—in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical ‘issues’—the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.”

I have to say Mendelsohn is right on the mark here—though I will take issue with his categorical claims about the acting—leaving us with the question of why so many of us, me and Mendelsohn included, find the show so fascinating. Reading the review I found myself wanting to applaud at several points as it captures so precisely, and even artistically, the show’s failings. And yet these failings seem to me mild annoyances marring the otherwise profound gratification I get from watching. Mendelsohn lights on an answer for how it can be good while being so bad, one that squares the circle by turning the shortcomings into strengths.

If the characters are bland, stereotypical sixties people instead of individuals, if the issues are advertised rather than dramatized, if everyone depicted is hopelessly venal while evincing a smug, smiling commitment to decorum, well it’s because the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, was born in 1965, and he’s trying to recreate the world of his parents. Mendelsohn quotes Weiner:

“part of the show is trying to figure out—this sounds really ineloquent—trying to figure out what is the deal with my parents. Am I them? Because you know you are…. The truth is it’s such a trope to sit around and bash your parents. I don’t want it to be like that. They are my inspiration, let’s not pretend.”

Mendelsohn’s clever solution to the Mad Men puzzle is that its appeal derives from its child’s-eye view of the period during which its enthusiasts’ parents were in their ascendancy. The characters aren’t deep because children wouldn’t have the wherewithal to appreciate their depth. The issues aren’t explored in all their complexity because children are only ever vaguely aware of them. For Mendelsohn, the most important characters are the Drapers’ daughter, Sally, and the neighbor kid, Glen, who first has a crush on Don’s wife, Betty, and then falls for Sally herself. And it turns out Glen is played by Weiner’s own son.

I admit the episodes that portrayed the Draper’s divorce struck me as poignant to the point of being slightly painful, resonating as they did with my memories of my own parents’ divorce. But that was in the ‘80’s not the 60’s. And Glen is, at least for me, one of the show’s annoyances, not by any means its main appeal. His long, unblinking stares at Betty, which Mendelsohn sees as so fraught with meaning, I can’t help finding creepy. The kid makes my skin crawl, much the way Pete Campbell does. I’m forced to consider that Mendelsohn, as astute as he is about a lot of the scenes and characters, is missing something, or getting something really wrong.

In trying to account for the show’s overwhelming appeal, I think Mendelsohn is a bit too clever. I haven’t done a survey but I’d wager the results would be pretty simple: it’s Don Draper stupid. While I agree that much of the characterization and background of the central character is overwrought and unsubtle (“meretricious,” “literally,” the reviewer jokes, assuming we all know the etymology of the word), I would suggest this only makes the question of his overwhelming attractiveness all the more fascinating. Mendelsohn finds him flat. But, at least in his review, he overlooks all the crucial scenes and instead, understandably, focuses on the lame flashbacks that supposedly explain his bad behavior.

All the characters are racist, Mendelsohn charges. But in the first scene of the first episode Don notices that the black busser clearing his table is smoking a rival brand of cigarettes—that he’s a potential new customer for his clients—and casually asks him what it would take for him to switch brands. When the manager arrives at the table to chide the busser for being so talkative, Don is as shocked as we are. I can’t recall a single scene in which Don is overtly racist.

Then there’s the relationship between Don and Peggy, which, as difficult as it is to believe for all the other characters, is never sexual. Everyone is sexist, yet in the first scene bringing together Don, Peggy, and Pete, our protagonist ends up chiding the younger man, who has been giving Peggy a fashion lesson, for being disrespectful. In season two, we see Don in an elevator with two men, one of whom is giving the raunchy details of his previous night’s conquest and doesn’t bother to pause the recounting when a woman enters. Her face registers something like terror, Don’s unmistakable disgust. “Take your hat off,” he says to the offender, and for a brief moment you wonder if the two men are going to tear into him. Then Don reaches over, unchecked, removes the man’s hat, and shoves it into his chest, rendering both men silent for the duration of the elevator ride. I hate to be one of those critics who reflexively resort to their pet theory, but my enjoyment of the scene long preceded my realization that it entailed an act of altruistic punishment.

The opening credits say it all, as we see a silhouetted man, obviously Don, walking into an office which begins to collapse, and cuts to him falling through the sky against the backdrop of skyscrapers with billboards and snappy slogans. How far will Don fall? For that matter, how far will Peggy? Their experiences oddly mirror each other, and it becomes clear that while Don barks denunciations at the other members of his creative team, he often goes out of his way to mentor Peggy. He’s the one, in fact, who recognizes her potential and promotes her from a secretary to a copywriter, a move which so confounds all the other men that they conclude he must have knocked her up.

Mendelsohn is especially disappointed in Mad Men’s portrayal, or rather its failure to portray, the plight of closeted gays. He complains that when Don witnesses Sal Romano kissing a male bellhop in a hotel on a business trip, the revelation “weirdly” “has no repercussions.” But it’s not weird at all because we experience some of Sal’s anxiety about how Don will react. On the plain home, Sal is terrified, but Don rather subtly lets him know he has nothing to worry about. Don can sympathize about having secrets. We can just imagine if one of the characters other than Don had been the one to discover Sal’s homosexuality—actually we don’t have to imagine it because it happens later.

Unlike the other characters, Don’s vices, chief among them his philandering, are timeless (except his chain-smoking) and universal. And though we can’t forgive him for what he does to Betty (another annoying character, who, like some women I’ve dated, uses the strategy of being constantly aggrieved to trick you into being nice to her, which backfires because the suggestion that your proclivities aren’t nice actually provokes you), we can’t help hoping that he’ll find a way to redeem himself. As cheesy as they are, the scenes that have Don furrowing his brow and extemporizing on what people want and how he can turn it into a marketing strategy, along with the similar ones in which he feels the weight of his crimes against others, are my favorites. His voice has the amazing quality of being authoritative and yet at the same time signaling vulnerability. This guy should be able to get it. But he’s surrounded by vipers. His job is to lie. His identity is a lie he can’t escape. How will he preserve his humanity, his soul? Or will he? These questions, and similar ones about Peggy, are what keep me watching.

Don Draper, then, is a character from a long tradition of bad boys who give contradictory signals of their moral worth. Milton inadvertently discovered how powerful these characters are when Satan turned out to be by far the most compelling character in Paradise Lost. (Byron understood why immediately.) George Lucas made a similar discovery when Han Solo stole the show from Luke Skywalker. From Tom Sawyer to Jack Sparrow and Tony Soprano (Weiner was also a writer on that show), the fascination with these guys savvy enough to get away with being bad but sensitive and compassionate enough to feel bad about it has been taking a firm grip on audiences sympathies since long before Don Draper put on his hat.


A couple final notes on the show's personal appeal for me: given my interests and education, marketing and advertising would be a natural fit for me, absent my moral compunctions about deceiving people to their detriment to enrich myself. Still, it's nice to see a show focusing on the processes behind creativity. Then there's the scene in season four in which Don realizes he's in love with his secretary because she doesn't freak out when his daughter spills her milkshake. Having spent too much of my adult life around women with short fuses, and so much of my time watching Mad Men being annoyed with Betty, I laughed until I teared up.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review of "Building Great Sentences," a "Great Courses" Lecture Series by Brooks Landon

            You’ve probably received catalogues in the mail advertising “Great Courses.” I’ve been flipping through them for years thinking I should try a couple but have always been turned off by the price. Recently, I saw that they were on sale, and one in particular struck me as potentially worthwhile. “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft” is taught by Brooks Landon, who is listed as part of the faculty at the University of Iowa. It turns out, however, he’s not in any way affiliated with the august Creative Writing Workshop, and though he uses several example sentences from literature I’d say his primary audience is people interested in Rhetoric and Composition—and that makes the following criticisms a bit unfair. So let me first say that I enjoyed the lectures and think it well worth the money (about thirty bucks) and time (twenty-four half-hour-long lectures).

            Landon is obviously reading from a teleprompter, and he’s standing behind a lectern in what looks like Mr. Roger’s living room decked out to look scholarly. But he manages nonetheless to be animated, enthusiastic, and engaging. He gives plenty of examples of the principles he discusses, all of which appear in text form and are easy to follow—though they do at times veer toward the eye-glazingly excessive.

            The star of the show is what Landon calls “cumulative sentences,” those long developments from initial capitalized word through a series of phrases serving as free modifiers, each building on its predecessor, focusing in, panning out, or taking it as a point of departure as the writer moves forward into unexplored territory. After watching several lectures, I went to the novel I’m working on and indeed discovered more than a few instances where I’d seen fit to let my phrases accumulate into a stylistic flourish. The catch is that these instances were distantly placed from one another. Moving from my own work to some stories in the Summer Fiction Issue of The New Yorker, I found the same trend. The vast majority of sentences follow Strunk and White’s dictum to be simple and direct, a point Landon acknowledges. Still, for style and rhetorical impact, the long sentences Landon describes are certainly effective.

            Landon and I part ways, though, when it comes to “acrobatic” sentences which “draw attention to themselves.” Giving William Gass a high seat in his pantheon of literary luminaries, Landon explains that “Gass always sees language as a subject every bit as interesting and important as is the referential world his language points to, invokes, or stands for.” While this poststructuralist sentiment seems hard to object to, it misses the point of what language does and how it works. Sentences can call attention to themselves for performing their functions well, but calling attention to themselves should never be one of their functions.

            Writers like Gass and Pynchon and Wallace fail in their quixotic undertakings precisely because they perform too many acrobatics. While it is true that many readers, particularly those who appreciate literary as opposed to popular fiction—yes, there is a difference—are attuned to the pleasures of language, luxuriating in precise and lyrical writing, there’s something perverse about fixating on sentences to the exclusion of things like character. Great words in great sentences incorporating great images and suggestive comparisons can make the world in which a story takes place come alive—so much so that the life of the story escapes the page and transforms the way readers see the world beyond it. But the prompt for us to keep reading is not the promise of more transformative language; it’s the anticipation of transforming characters. Great sentences in literature owe their greatness to the moments of inspiration, from tiny observation to earth-shattering epiphany, experienced by the people at the heart of the story. Their transformations become our transformations. And literary language may seem to derive whatever greatness it achieves from precision and lyricism, but at a more fundamental level of analysis it must be recognized that writing must be precise and lyrical in its detailing of the thoughts and observations of the characters readers seek to connect with. This takes us to a set of considerations that transcend the workings of any given sentence.

            Landon devotes an entire lecture to the rhythm of prose, acknowledging it must be thought of differently from meter in poetry, but failing to arrive at an adequate, objective definition. I wondered all the while why we speak about rhythm at all when we’re discussing passages that don’t follow one. Maybe the rhythm is variable. Maybe it’s somehow progressive and evolving. Or maybe we should simply find a better word to describe this inscrutable quality of impactful and engaging sentences. I propose grace. Indeed, a singer demonstrates grace by adhering to a precisely measured series of vocal steps. Noting a similar type of grace in writing, we’re tempted to hear it as rhythmical, even though its steps are in no way measured. Grace is that quality of action that leaves audiences with an overwhelming sense of its having been well-planned and deftly executed, well-planned because its deft execution appeared so effortless—but with an element of surprise just salient enough to suggest spontaneity. Grace is a delicate balance between the choreographed and the extemporized.

            Grace in writing is achieved insofar as the sequential parts—words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters—meet the demands of their surroundings, following one another seamlessly and coherently, performing the function of conveying meaning, in this case of connecting the narrator’s thoughts and experiences to the reader. A passage will strike us as particularly graceful when it conveys a great deal of meaning in a seemingly short chain of words, a feat frequently accomplished with analogies (a point on which Landon is eloquent), or when it conveys a complex idea or set of impressions in a way that’s easily comprehended. I suspect Landon would agree with my definition of grace. But his focus on lyrical or graceful sentences, as opposed to sympathetic or engaging characters—or any of the other aspects of literary writing—precludes him from lighting on the idea that grace can be strategically lain aside for the sake of more immediate connections with the people and events of the story, connections functioning in real-time as the reader’s eyes take in the page.

            Sentences in literature like to function mimetically, though this observation goes unmentioned in the lectures. Landon cites the beautifully graceful line from Gatsby,

“Slenderly, languidly, their hands set lightly on their hips the two young women preceded us out onto a rosy-colored porch open toward the sunset where four candles flickered on the table in the diminished wind” (16).

The multiple L’s roll out at a slow pace, mimicking the women and the scene being described. This is indeed a great sentence. But so too is the later sentence in which Nick Carraway recalls being chagrined upon discovering the man he’s been talking to about Gatsby is in fact Gatsby himself. Nick describes how Gatsby tried to reassure him: “He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly.” The first notable thing about this sentence is that it stutters. Even though Nick is remembering the scene at a more comfortable future time, he re-experiences his embarrassment, and readers can’t help but sympathize. The second thing to note is that this one sentence, despite serving as a crucial step in the development of Nick’s response to meeting Gatsby and forming an impression of him, is just that, a step. The rest of the remarkable passage comes in the following sentences:

“It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care” (52-3).

            Beginning with a solecism (“reassurance in it, that…”) that suggests Nick’s struggle to settle on the right description, moving onto another stutter (or seemed to face) which indicates his skepticism creeping in beside his appreciation of the regard, the passage then moves into one of those cumulative passages Landon so appreciates. But then there’s the jarring incongruity of the smile’s vanishing. This is, as far as I can remember, the line that sold me on the book when I first read it. You can really feel Nick’s confusion and astonishment. And the effect is brought about by sentences, an irreducible sequence of them, that are markedly ungraceful. (Dashes are wonderful for those break-ins so suggestive of spontaneity and advance in real-time.)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Kayaking on a Wormhole

            We’d been on the water for quite a while, neither of us at all sure just how much longer we’d be on it before reaching the Hursh Road Bridge, cattycorner to which, in a poorly tended gravel parking lot marking the head of a trail through a nature preserve, I’d parked Kevin's work truck before transferring vehicles to ride with him in his wife’s truck, kayaks strapped to the roof, to Cook’s Landing, another park situated in the shadow of a bridge, this one for Coldwater Road just north of Shoaf on the way to Garret. After maybe an hour of paddling and floating, it occurred to me to start attending to our banter and assessing how faithfully some of the dialogue between friends in my stories mimicked it.

            “What the hell kind of bird is that?”
            “Probably an early bird.”
            “Probably a dirty bird.”
            “Oh yeah, it’s filthy.”

            At one point, after posing a series of questions about what I’d rather have fall on me from the trees—a cricket or a spider?; a spider or a centipede?; a spider or a snake?—followed by the question of what I’d do if I saw a giant snake someone had let loose slither into the water after me, he began a story about a herpetologist in Brazil: “Did you hear what happened?” Of course, I hadn’t heard; the story was from a show on cable about anacondas. This hundred and fifty pound woman was walking through the marshes, tracking a snake, which turned out to be about twenty-eight feet long and five hundred pounds, to study it.

            “She’s following the track it left in the tall grass, and then she senses that there’s something watching her. When she turns around, she sees that it’s reared up”—he held up his arm with his fist bent forward—“so it’s just looking at her at eye level.”
            “Did it say, ‘Who da fuck is you?’”
            “Snakes don’t generally creep me out, but I don’t like the idea of it, like, following her and rearing up like that.”
            “Yeah, I’ve never heard of an anaconda doing that. You hear of cobras doing it. Did she say, ‘Dere’s snakes out here dis big!?’”—my impression of Ice Cube in the movie Anaconda.
            When I asked what she did, he said he didn’t remember. The snake had attacked her, lunging at her face, but she must’ve escaped somehow because she was being interviewed for the show. At a couple points in his recounting of the story, I thought how silly it was. For one thing, it’s impossible to sense something watching you. For another, her being a herpetologist doesn’t rule out the possibility that she was embellishing. And yet I couldn’t help picturing the encounter, vividly, as I paddled my kayak.

            The story was oddly appropriate. Every time we put in on Cedar Creek and make it some distance from the roads, we get the sense that we’re closer to the jungle than we are to civilization. Kevin knows snakes are my fear totem. At times, scenes from the Paul Bowles collection A Delicate Prey, or from Heart of Darkness, or even from Huckleberry Finn would drift into my mind. We did briefly discuss some paleoanthropology—recent discoveries in Dmanisi, Georgia suggesting a possible origin of modern humans in Western Asia rather than Africa—but, for the most part, for the duration of our sojourn on the river, we may as well have been two prepubescent boys. Compared to the way we were talking, the dialogue between friends in my stories is far too sophisticated.

            But that’s really not how we normally talk. As our time on the water accrued long past our upper estimates, and as the fallen-tree-strewn stretches got more and more tricky to traverse, that sense of being far from civilization, far from our lives, our adult lives, became ever more profound. The gnats and mosquitoes and splendidly black dragonflies, their wings tipped with blue, swarmed us whenever we lolled in the shade, getting more bold as more of our bug spray got washed away. We talked about all the ways we’d heard of that Native Americans and other indigenous peoples avoided bug bites and poison plants. The shores were lousy with poison ivy. It was easy to lose your identity. We could’ve been any two guys in the world, at any time in history. The phones were locked away in a waterproof box. The kayaks could’ve been made of anything; the plastic was adventitious. Out here, with the old-growth trees and the ghostly shadows of quickly glimpsed fish, it was the big concrete bridges and the exiguous houses and yards backing up to the creek that seemed impermanent, unreal. Even the human trash washing into the leafy and wooden detritus gathering against the smoothed-over bark of collapsed trees was being dulled and stripped of all signs of cleverness.

            “Do you ever have déjà vu?” Kevin asked after we’d passed all the expected landmarks and gotten over our astonishment at how drastically we’d underestimated the length of the journey down the creek. “Because the first time we kayaked here, I was completely sure I’d had a dream about it—but I had the dream before I’d ever been here.”

            “I think it’s something about the river,” I said, recalling several instances that day when I had experienced an emptying of mind, something I’ve often strived for while meditating but seldom even come to close to achieving. You find yourself being carried downstream, lulled, quieted, your gaze focused on the busy motion of countless tiny bugs on a swatch of surface gilt with sunlight. Their coordinated pattern dazzles you. It’s the only thing remotely resembling a thought. “There’s something about the motion of the water and the way it has you slowly moving along. I keep laying back and watching the undersides of the leaves move over me. It puts you in a trance. It’s hypnotic.”

            “You’re right. It is, like, mesmerizing.” He knew what I was talking about, but we kept shuffling through our stock of words because none of them seemed to get it quite right.

            So there we were, a couple of nameless, ageless guys floating down the river, leaning back to watch the trees slide away upstream, soft white clouds in a soft blue sky, riotous distant stars shattering the immense dark of some timeless night.

            “I forgive you river for making me drag my boat through all those nettles.”
            “I’ll reserve my forgiveness until I find out if I have poison ivy.”