What’s Wrong with Perfection

My copy of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (2006) is missing a portion of its back cover and last few pages—like it’d been chow for roaches or pulled across asphalt, at a sharp and insensitive angle.
But I bought it at Goodwill—in a 10 books for $2 deal, where the lady tells me at the register that I’ll pay $2 regardless of how many books I have, so I rush around slow shoppers inspecting wooly sweaters to the back of the store and look under a stack of water-damaged Dave Barry books to find some works of fiction. And so it’s expected that this “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER,” which has sold something like five million copies, will have a bit of damage. I’m okay with it. All necessary pages are intact. And plus, it gives the book “character,” which some reviews will tell you this book is sorely lacking.
Oh, burn, snap, roasted, etc.
The initial premise is promising: an Ivy League vet-in-training walks right out of his exit exams (because he can’t think about anything but his recently deceased parents) and right into a traveling circus.
The structure is rigidly perfect. It has all of the things you’d expect from a well-crafted (read: well-edited) story. The complications mount throughout the book. The stakes rise. A deadline is introduced. Obstacles are episodically overcome.
Which brings me to my thoughts about the separateness of plot and character. Robert McKee, in his legendary Story, explains that the two are inextricable. They are the same thing, for plot comes out of character and character is developed through the action of the plot. And thus all arguments re the precedence of plot over character or vice versa are vacuous: because they begin from a false dichotomy.
My initial thoughts about the book were mostly technical—which I admit is one reason I read the book: to get better at plotting and structure, but also description and pacing. But the book didn’t hit me in the gut, didn’t make me care or feel. The blame rests on the characters, because I didn’t see humans in this book. I saw tropes, caricatures—depthless understudies who on the night before the big production got the call but hadn’t experienced the far reaches of their character through weeks of preparation.
A couple notes about our main character: (1) The plot device/delivery system of the story is a back-and-forth given by a dreaming, ornery, unsympathetic 90-year-old in an assisted living institution—he relives the main story through dreams while he lives a poor, static story (with a good, Hollywood ending); (2) The main character is flat; even the climax of the story is observation (inaction) by the main character, our hero, our protagonist; he doesn’t act but gets swept up by the crazy world around him—literally, and larger, this is what happens through the story proper.
So back to character v. plot: I wondered how the plot could be so good yet the characters so weak—which many people say about Michael Crichton, right? And for this book, WfE, the characters are as technically perfect as the plot.
They match. They’re congruent.
(Which, hello, the author’s name is in that word, so that’s something.)
But we don’t want perfect characters. We want imperfections, what we call humanity. That’s the source of conflict, real conflict—not what this book is littered with. A stock villain and a stock character cannot offer true conflict, because—it seems to me—true conflict develops off the page, in a reader’s consciousness, her expectation of what will occur. So if what’s expected is what occurs, then that’s the absence of conflict.
So does that mean that situational irony—the discrepancy between what the audience expects and what actually happens, like “The Boy who Cried Wolf”—is the framework of our current storytelling? Irony is central. That’s for sure. But I don’t think we necessarily need situational irony, at least not as brazenly as in the aforementioned fable.
We just need to meet real characters who get motivated by the little ironies that all humans do. And not the same retreaded ones, please. Like adulterous love affairs.


Make No Mistake, This is Mostly a Good Thing

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (2006) by David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

The book is an assortment of essays (10), which were written for different publications (e.g., Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Gourmet, etc.), the earliest published in 1992.

I know you’re wondering already—because my wife asked, and she never asks—about the title. It is the title of an essay that was written for Gourmet magazine in 2005, wherein DFW details his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival, an essay that eventually begins raising ethical and philosophical questions about animal cruelty and the relationship between morality and aesthetics.

Let that sink in for a moment and you’ll have a decent idea of the abilities of the author, who finds life and meaning everywhere through a simply stated but maddeningly demanding-to-practice formula: he pays attention. And this is generally regarded as his greatest, most transcendental skill. Past the surface, past the first meaning, deep into any given object that enters his comprehensive gaze, DFW perceives significance in it all. Cultural, relational, personal, emotional, spiritual, whatever—it’s all there.

The real joy and fortune for readers is his power to communicate. He applies the same attention he gives the world to his writing. And because of that, the voice and verve of each piece resonate. Something is built in even the shortest essay that compels you to continue as if you’re in a real conversation. DFW transfers the capacity to pay attention to the reader, which provokes the careful thinking about the topic at hand that accompanies all good writing.

The content of the collection ranges from John McCain’s candidacy campaign in 1999 to book reviews of a biography and dictionary of usage to the rise and impact of political radio to an elegant response to 9/11.

Editorially, I think it was a bad decision to begin the book with an essay about his reporting from the Adult Video News Awards, but I am admittedly a prude who lives in the South. Even still, I didn’t find much structurally or rhetorically appealing about the piece.

However, I routinely teach two of the essays from this collection: “A View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” DFW’s Midwestern coverage of 9/11, and “Consider the Lobster.” I also include passages from “Authority and American Usage,” the sixty page treatise on the importance of writing, which uses The Dictionary of Modern American Usage as its topical locus. (And this essay changed and constructed all sorts of conceptual approaches to and beliefs about composition for me.) All three pieces present the unlikely benefits of cynicism if it can be coupled with kindness, a kindness that manifests in really close attention. Maybe respect would be a better word, rather than kindness, and maybe skepticism, rather than cynicism, but when put together, they (whichever it is) equal the critical eye. DFW shows you how to respect something by demonstratively respecting the objects of his writing. A multitude can be learned here, but I’d like to point out more clearly two things:

1) To write about something well, we must look at it closely. And only considering something important enough to be looked at closely will enable us to write about it well. This is the respect. We must respect things to know them, which, if true, makes automatic respect a prerequisite to getting to know something (or someone), as if respect is the attractive impetus that calls young men to pay attention to young and pretty women. But it’s the idea that all young women are attractive, the operating under the assumption that all things demand respect already by virtue of their existence, their being a part of our world.

2) From the careful inspection of small and seemingly singular things comes really significant understandings of larger things. The first section of “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is titled Synecdoche, which means that the part is used (or can be substituted) for the whole, like DNA. It reminds me of a Pirsig quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower.” Whatever you think of as ultimate truth can be found in any object of this world. We must only look at it close enough to see. And writing, for some of us, can serve as our microscope or window, or even as our eyes.

Glengarry Glen Ross

OK, so it doesn’t take a salesman to say that Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) is a wonderful picture. It receives that exact kind of verbally old-school praise because it’s a classically good movie—based on a David Mamet play (1984), for which he won the Pulitzer and a Tony.

Salesmen are trying to peddle land deals. Yeah, they’re crooked, but it’s totally the chain of yelling with the true enemies offstage, only discussed with disdain or deference, like a little brother threatening to summon mom. The group desires leads for new clients. Overnight the office is burgled, and there’s a mystery. But I’m all 90s cynic, like “big whoop,” “plot schmot” and all that.

The movie is dialogue, spans about fifteen hours and only has men. (I mean, really, women say nothing in person, except for one Asian hostess making a throwaway comment about the paucity of diners in the restaurant). But two of the men, the most sympathetic (Jack Lemmon’s eyes!), are motivated by women, one a sick daughter, the other a smart wife.

Alec Baldwin gives one speech. Ed Harris does a decent job, with Alan Arkin playing off of him (in like a you think he [Arkin] is an idiot kind of way), until it is Arkin’s time to actually become a 3D character. Kevin Spacey was totally detestable: his character was snide, sure, but man I think anyone could do that role too, but it is Kevin Spacey, sharing the screen with 5 other A-listers. Maybe there just wasn’t the room, with Lemmon (my goodness, he’s really something!) and Pacino.

Thankfully, the force of Pacino was tempered. His character was seen early, but only referred to during the second act, not seen. Then he shows up with an absolutely wonderful monologue, which begins, “All train compartments smell vaguely of shit.” He gets the other sympathetic (practically mute because totally rapt with the Pac-man) character to sign a deal with the monologue; it’s really a mystifying and hypnotic piece of work, the dialogue and delivery.

GGR is short and filled with cursing—you just wish it were longer.

Two of the characters suffer so completely (the two men moved by the women in their families) in an office. Lemmon and Pacino were perfectly casted. And then there’s this terribly sad dude who shows up, the one to whom Pacino sold, playing this incredibly timid and self-conscious and worried husband who’s been tricked into making a purchase, and he cannot even trust himself (but doesn’t listen to himself about it, rather his wife [“my wife told me not to talk to you”]; he just wants to please—it is so sad!). But he was perfect, because hardly any man in Hollywood, especially now that PSH is gone, would open himself like Jonathan Pryce did. He just laid himself bare, but still, Lemmon eclipsed him.

There is something here though with movie stars. Spacey and Baldwin played assholes, and I cannot imagine them doing anything else. Arkin and Harris played sufficiently, bending themselves to the script, earning some credibility. Lemmon and Pacino stole their scenes—the best scene has them together. That’s all understandable and expected. And those are six actors whose careers have had incredible longevities, but Pryce, man that guy did well, because he’s a bit guy. He was able to open himself up because the audience didn’t need anything from him that was based on expectation. But also he’s a great actor. And I am tempted now to eulogize, to write some elegiac jeremiad about the loss of PSH, but we all feel it, I know.

Carrie – Stephen King

“Stephen King is marvelous.”

I said this sentence twice on Friday, unsolicited really. It just came out. And no sooner had I said it than I began believing it. Or, was it that it only then became consciously known to me? Yes, I am telling you that I just found out that I love Stephen King.

I hadn’t read really anything by him before, except his On Writing twice and a few short stories. I’ve seen some of the movies based off his work, and I have often ignorantly criticized him, saying he should’ve been a screenwriter, because I thought it unbelievable that someone could write that much fiction and the fiction still be good. But I am coming at this from a different point of view now: his fiction, all of it, based on my inductive reasoning, is good.

Carrie was King’s first published novel. That happened in 1974. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen the full movie, certainly not planned or in one sitting, but I’ve seen scenes on the TV. And both the first adaptation and the recent one were influential in my expectation. Plus, I knew the plot, because I’m pretty good at getting that from previews, etc. But also, King gives a synopsis in that other book I’d read.

I don’t really read this sort of stuff, because (simply) I am pretentious. By “this sort of stuff,” I mean horror or pop-fiction or whatever. But King writes well.

A teenage girl who is bullied has a telekinetic talent. She uses it to destroy a lot of stuff, virtually a whole town.

There’s the short of it. But even there, a rich conversation could develop. Was she vindicated because of the bullying? But also, the novel deals with religion’s effect on the way we treat people, the way we treat stories, the way we think about high school, and a bunch of other big ideas.

It’s good.

The book reveals Carrie’s special power on the first page, and the culminating event is uncovered early also, so while I was reading—with that annoying forward-looking part of my psyche guessing at future events—I expected the ending to surprise me with something else. But it didn’t.

Carrie, to my mind, is not about its eponymous character. The truth (or, I’m sorry, theme) of the novel has to do with the way we traffic truth. And I think this theme is motivated by the most apparent storytelling device—its use of other texts (interviews, memoirs, scientific, etc.) to tell the story. And because the novel is 40 years old, I revered King’s method, thinking it novel. (You read that last sentence correctly: novel was used as both a noun and an adjective [I am progressing: I previously would have edited the sentence to include, “novel novel.”])

Now normally when in a lit class the question of multiple perspectives comes up, the stock answer is that the author employs them to get closer to the truth. But that seems so easy that I disregard it initially. However, I thought about it again, and I think the various sources from which we receive the story do help to construct a real picture (King’s talent at characters’ voices is largely responsible). But this isn’t because of the method as a device; the story becomes true because it, again, is not about Carrie. It is about the telling of stories—which, apparently as King says in his On Writing, is one of his consistent themes.

And here, the narration confronts this theme head on, locating it (the theme/truth/story) in Carrie, the character—from the mind/mouth of another character, Susan Snell: “They’ve forgotten her, you know. They’ve made her into some kind of a symbol and forgotten that she was a human being, as real as you reading this, with hopes and dreams and blah, blah, blah.” So the irony here is that most of the characters around Carrie didn’t consider her a human being while she was alive either.

But the quote is true. We do that. People are used as symbols, regularly, especially after they’re dead. But being a symbol as a dead person is substantially better than the symbolic use of a real, live person. Right?

Play it as it Lays – Joan Didion

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion was published in 1970. I decided to read it based on its inclusion on a literature syllabus of DFW’s and Brett Easton Ellis’s claim that he wouldn’t be a writer without it.

The book begins in a mental hospital, after the action of the novel. We follow Maria through the hell of Hollywood. She is an actress who has been in two pictures, both directed by her husband, who is embarking on a successful career. Those two pictures were a couple of years ago though, and years are lifetimes when we’re talking about the silver screen.

Maria is the center of the book. She tells the story, and she is the story. She sleeps with people polite enough to ask. She is conflicted and base and sad. She has a daughter, with her husband Carter. And she aborts a pregnancy that did not involve Carter—the pregnancy didn’t. But the abortion did: it was Carter’s idea, even the doctor (used very loosely here—I mean, more accurately he’s a guy who performs abortions in hotel rooms) was recommended by Carter, because he was the “only man in Los Angeles County who did clean work.”

So from the mental hospital Maria recounts a short period of her life pretty closely, but she also gives her childhood, which she tries to argue as nondescript or unimportant. She has a problem with the past, calling it “as it was”: “I have trouble with as it was.” But all of the parts of her past were quite constructive of her character: her mother and father, his penchant for craps, and the desert she was raised in.

I don’t like anyone in this novel, but I feel for Kate (if I really have to choose), Maria and Carter’s daughter, who is also in some sort of mental hospital—you know, like daughter, like mother.

Something that most people talk about when they speak of this novel (or Didion) is language. It’s akin to Hemingway, which makes for an easy read (as does the fact that the novel is just over 40,000 words). The book just feels so base and despairing and sad and impenitent that I stopped caring about Maria and the other characters (some cardboard).

Didion seems to comment on language throughout the book with the following sentence, and variants of it: “Maria said nothing.” This seriously happens like forty times, in a short book. Characters respond by saying nothing, which certainly, as we know, still communicates. I like that.

I liked the language, and I liked Didion, but I do not like her book. However, again, it’s very short, and other people love it. So maybe you should try it.

Some representative quotes follow, uncommented upon:

First lines: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.

“He kept his eyes on the highway and his foot hard on the accelerator. She wanted to tell him she was sorry, but saying she was sorry did not seem entirely adequate, and in any case what she was sorry about seemed at once too deep and too evanescent for any words she knew, seemed so vastly more complicated than the immediate fact that it was perhaps better left unraveled. The late sun glazed the Pacific. The wind burned on her face. Once they were off the Coast Highway he pulled over to the curb and stopped the car.”

“Maria closed her eyes at the instant BZ’s hand hit Helene’s face. ‘Stop it,’ she screamed.

BZ looked at Maria and laughed. ‘You weren’t talking that way last night,’ he said.”

A final thought, which is reflective, and thus might not concern the unconcerned: This book is a lot like Brett Easton Ellis’s first book. And he says as much—that he was influenced by it, that Less than Zero wouldn’t exist without Play it as it Lays, etc. I read Ellis’s book around seven years ago, but man oh man, do I like it so much more than this book. Even flipping through LtZ today, I still read passages that move me, that I love. So his book could be better, but I think it ignorant to not consider that there may be some sexism within me, concerning my reading of characters. I do not like Didion’s Maria very much—I like her at the beginning, but that’s just conditioned behavior. I do like Ellis’s Clay. And they are not very different. So perhaps I wish to sympathize with female characters, however Maria prevents this. And perhaps I expect to condemn some male characters. This certainly rings true in my marriage.

The Character of the Confederacy

This may be timely or topical. The following is a semi-review–a collection of thoughts about a book:

A Confederacy of Dunces (pub. 1980) by John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969)

It’s difficult to discuss the novel without detailing its context: the author and his end. John Kennedy Toole committed suicide (coincidentally, the same as many of the authors whom I’ve been reading) by running a garden hose from his exhaust pipe to his car’s cabin on a rural road (coincidentally, the same way as a character early on in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I’m currently reading). Toole killed himself because—as the legend goes—he was depressed, doubly, by his Dunces failure to be published and his mother, for whom Toole’s feelings oscillated between adoration and abhorrence.

It’s also difficult to read the book as something other than largely autobiographical, though written by a mysterious author, of whom I know little else besides what I’ve already written.

I imagine this second difficulty originates from the way readers experience the struggle for the book’s literal and figurative space: between the HUGE Ignatius J. Reilly (the main character, our “hero”) and the language (as written by a real [and dead] author). Because of the struggle, and the fact that the best language actually comes from Ignatius’ mouth, these two things combine, thus authobiogra-feels.

ACoD is a picaresque novel, proven/supported by its main character’s social status, the characters’ language, and the plot. And I don’t know how I’ve gone this long without mentioning how severely funny this book is, largely (in so many ways) because of Ignatius. The book is full of pithy, perspicacious, cynical and enlightened statements from both his mouth and others’. The events in the book (i.e., plot) do move in some sort of order and are really funny (situations—like sitcoms) but the most humorous portions develop from the combination of the comic situation and the comic character—a truly titanic clown.

The thirty-year-old hyper-intellectual (or at least, hyper-studied) Ignatius, who thinks himself an anachronism and is totally discontented with contemporary society, must get a job. This serves as Toole’s excuse to put Reilly in a course (which includes searching for a job, working, sabotaging a company, searching again, etc.) that would be a lame plot, but having Ignatius makes the reading a real joy.

Ignatius spews his invective against each person, organization, and sect of society he confronts. The language and views are brilliant, new and fun(ny).

But I’m left wondering if it’s enough for a book. As long as I enjoyed the experience, can I review the novel favorably? I mean, I’d recommend the novel, but it isn’t necessarily “a good story.” So I am led to consider my favorite books, at which point I find that I do not read for plot. Books like Franny and Zooey, Infinite Jest, The Sound and the Fury, White Noise, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and The Great Gatsby are less about what happens than how these 3D characters see and experience their world (which is my world). So, sure, character > plot—which might as well be a platitude at this point. But I think I might have followed Ignatius J. Reilly (and Myrna Minkoff) for another 400 pp. Hell, I’d probably read his multivolume tome of a journal.

Maybe this is another way to get at or say that great books exist off the page. I mean, the book doesn’t really go anywhere (like, plot-wise) but the great Ignatius makes me view the world (and its inhabitants) differently, newly, really. So, “story” still exists somewhere between “plot” and “character” as the essence of art (I’d argue life), but it’s certainly closer to character, if the two are poles.

My brief thoughts on the book’s initial failure (which ostensibly led to Toole’s suicide): the book—and probably its author—is advanced. The copyright on the book is 1980, but the book was probably finished around 16 years before that. It’s tough for me to imagine diehard fans of Lassie and Bonanza and The Beverly Hillbillies and Red Skelton and Gomer and Gilligan and Gunsmoke, etc. to find this book anything other than perverse. In short, the world wasn’t ready. Had this book been written/published in 1970, we’d more than likely still have John Kennedy Toole with us—or at the very least, a few more dazzling works of his.

Versus Text

Text is inclusive. It cannot be without a reader. This separates books from movies and forms of music to which we unceasingly listen. Movies and music are two of my favorite things, by the way.

But books and text altogether contain truer art, in the way I think of the thing right now. Also, paintings and other static visual art forms (architecture, photography, etc.) share with text the beauty of the participant.

I live by pressing “play.” Well…In reality, I don’t even press “play” anymore; I only must turn the players “on.” I turn my truck on, and the stereo starts playing music. I turn my television on, and a movie or show plays onscreen. And my attention wanes. It wavers. I look at other cars or the road while the music is ignored. I look at my phone or I write on the computer while this movie gets played. In its presentation, I (the listener; the viewer) am given the power to ignore, to absent the art.

Books disallow this. A reader must be active; if he isn’t, the text doesn’t exist. Sure, you can listlessly leaf through a book and find yourself at the end, even with a sense of accomplishment. But that text didn’t speak to you if you didn’t engage.

Reading makes you engage. It makes you attentive. (And you don’t have to look too far down the postings to see what the word “attend” means to me.)

You cannot open a book and halfway pay attention or let it lay open while you receive some here and there. Books don’t play. With audiobooks, this is now somewhat possible. But text is text, and it isn’t made to miss.