April 15 Margaret Atwood: the Blind Assassin – the Art of Belle Lettres

Yes, this is Margaret Atwood’s other book. Oh, my, aren’t I sassy today! This was written in the ’90s after A Handmaid’s Tale and it even won the Booker Prize and yet still the lesser known. It is certainly more sedate than Handmaid’s, at least by comparison. We aren’t thrown head first into a terrible dystopia (unless you consider 1990s Canada a dystopia).

It is a portrait of a regal family that rose to power at the fin de siecle, the main character’s grandfather in the 1880s takes over a button company (takes it off somebody’s hand) as something to do business-wise and is able to turn it into a multi-million dollar corporation. (With the help of international conflict and World War I, so more out of luck – or bad luck – just someone else’s bad luck.)

The interesting feature about this novel is that it is written entirely in a form called Belles Lettres, meaning that there is no third person about viewing upon the story, it’s all told within the story, but from someone who is witnessing the story as it occurs.

Let me back up, Belle Lettres is a special Point Of View. You might call it First Person Objective. It’s a story told not as if a person is sitting with you telling you their story, but instead it’s told through newspaper articles, journals, diaries, post cards, memoirs, and so on. Anything, any object, that the audience could pick up and read accounts of this or these people.

I recently came across someone who wanted to tell a speculative fiction story through scientific documents and electronic “help pages”. This person was under the impression that this was a brand new form of story telling, but, sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. The method in delivering the telling is new, but the thing itself still falls under the category of Belles Lettres, or beautiful letters – as in the things that you write on pieces of paper to tell people the latest news in your life. I’m certain he’d be disappointed, but everybody likes to think they’ve found the brand new thing.

Dracula was written as Belle Lettres through correspondence with Jonathan Harker and his betrothed Mina for the first part, then newspaper articles, journals (the spookiest being Doctor Seward taking account of his patient Renfield) and then Mina’s personal journal entries. Some of the entries are disorienting, especially if the characters don’t understand what is happening to them. And if you are reading this without any knowledge of Dracula, you find it not only disorienting, but very frightening. You can’t explain what is happening to Lucy who keeps getting sicker and sicker. And why did a wolf jump off of a dead ship filled with bodies? And why is Renfield so fascinated with eating flies and spiders? You have to be very mindful of all of the little details that the authors themselves are missing and you have to step outside of their point of view (become objective) in order to gain any incite into what’s going on. Luckily, we can cheat and watch the films beforehand.

But I’m not able to do that with the Blind Assassin. I don’t know this story at all. This is a story that’s even more unique, it’s told through newspaper articles (throughout the decades of the last of the 19th and all of the Twentieth Century), the Main Character, Iris Chase Griffen, memoir and her sister Laura’s science fiction book.

At first glance, nothing seems to be amiss. The papers repeatedly tell of the accidental deaths of the various members of the Chase family over the years, but they seem to be nothing more than bad luck. And then there’s this strange science fiction novel that is being told to the main character (of the novel who is unnamed – but a woman reminiscent of Laura herself). It’s of a strange world far away straight out of a pulp fiction magazine with blue (albeit painted) people, green eight legged cat beasts of burden. A brutal world where the planet’s most powerful city sacrifices a virgin every year and most of their caste system are doomed to slave labor, the children forced to work looms until they go blind.

Little things start to cross over from the memoir to the novel. In Iris’s memoir she talks about their maid making them little dough people out of bread dough scraps and in the novel little clay women are made to destroy during the time of the virgin sacrifice.

Then there’s the tale of the planet’s god, a bright young warrior god, who goes into the underworld to do battle with the dark army lying in wait there. They tear him apart, then the goddess picks up his remains and re-assembles him but not quite the same as before. This reflects Iris and Laura’s father’s story of going to World War I, a bright young soldier, but on the battlefield they metaphorically tear him apart and his wife has to re-assemble the broken man who comes back, but he isn’t re-assembled quite the same.

The planet erects a statue dedicated to the broken god, just as the small town that Laura lives in erects a statue dedicated to the broken soldier who came back from World War I. The “Laura character” in the novel has an affair with a fiction writer and Laura’s father has an affair (after their mother’s death) with a sculptor. These are stretches of comparisons, but I’m only a third of the way through. I have a feeling that those cross references will become more frequent and more closely associated as I go.

I fully expect that the accidental deaths will turn out to be not so accidental, but how is the big question. The writers of the articles won’t reveal it. The science fiction novel within this novel will be willing to expose it (author Laura is quite the rebel), but only symbolically. No, I feel that somehow, Iris will finally reveal everything and she may turn out to not be the sweet little old lady that she seems to be in the beginning.

The memoir within the novel is the most interesting of the types of Belle Lettres (if I’m honest), because it doesn’t simply become the act of giving the audience facts as the newspaper articles do, or unraveling the point of view character’s experiences as they happen as the journal entries do, but are an act of revealing, a showing that which has not yet been seen by those who know this character – a very, special and privileged view into the character’s inner world.

I think Iris will reveal these dangerous things because she’s in her nineties and has no heirs, no family legacy, it’s all gone away just as the planet’s finest, most powerful city has been destroyed and long sunk into dust. Iris has nothing left to lose. But since we’re reading her memoirs we have to wonder, will she want to destroy the one thing she does have: her image. Will she want to tarnish herself and her family’s good name? Or is the moral of the tale that evil deeds will out in the end, so it’s better to be remembered as honest even if flawed?

I guess I’ll see….

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February 18 Katherine Arden: The Bear and The Nightingale

I’ve been reading a lot of fairy tale influenced books. It seems that right now it’s important to show who are what you are influenced by as opposed to telling what your personal emotional journey is. That’s okay, fiction is always one or the other (many times both). Katherine Arden’s first novel The Bear and The Nightingale is influenced not only by Russian fairy tales but by Russia herself.

I enjoyed the book even though it seemed to slow down many times in the middle (it often stopped to take side trips to places that seemed necessary to character development, but not to the story) and then went way too quickly in the end with a battle that is a little too easily resolved (in many respects). But the book still stands as a really nice tale to read.

The reason for that is its strengths: the influences on the story which were carefully researched. Arden even points out in her biography that she spent a year in Russia and has an intimate knowledge of the Russian language. The details of the story make it come alive and feel real. Even the Russian tales that are told within the story feel fleshed out when they turn out to be true, just in a way that disappointing way that reality tends to let us all down.

But the way in which she describes the difficulty of the Russian winters, the way in which the family gathers for meals, the social political order of medieval Russia, the food that they were able to procure even the manner in which they speak their dialogue sells the reality of a fantasy tale.

It’s difficult to say how much of Arden’s real life experience created the authenticity and how much her imagination filled in the blanks. She’s writing a fantasy novel about medieval Russia, a place that no longer exists and probably never did. Historians often spend time filling in the missing details that ended up buried (e.g. Marie Antoinette never said, “let them eat cake”) and memory is often much more problematic than we give it credit, so even personal experience can be fraught with inaccuracies.

Would a similar novel be written by someone who grew up in Russia? Or would the characters be wildly different? Would the translation even bear that out?

I read David Mitchell’s novel Dream Number 9 and some of Haruki Murakami’s 19Q4, both literary fantasies that take place in Japan and told from the perspective of Japanese culture. Mitchell is English, an outside observer, whereas Murakami is Japanese. Mitchell had obviously been to Japan and learned a lot about the culture, the details are that specific and the characters don’t resemble any European’s stereotype for them (well, certainly not any American’s – I’m sure exactly how European’s view Japanese culture), but I felt as if Mitchell’s depiction of the characters was more three dimensional and therefore more realistic.

Mitchell is an outsider observing their culture and aware that he is – and aware of the traps that his own perspectives might trap him in. Therefore when Mitchell depicted the women in his story, they felt more autonomous, but Murakami’s felt more flat and, for me, less realistic. Could it be that Mitchell comes from a culture that is so highly critical of outsiders depictions of the other (i.e. a man’s view of a woman) that that awareness influenced him to depict the Japanese women as more three-dimensional? Or do I even know what I’m talking about? Perhaps Murakami just isn’t able to sell the reality of a Japanese woman to an American.

When Americans write about their own culture, even their home towns, are they as accurate as those who come there to observe the town and learn it as an observer? It depends on how good they are at observation and how aware they are that their own lens from which they are viewing the situation affects what they are seeing.

This begs the question, how realistically would a Russian believe Arden’s characters are?

I suppose in the end it’s not entirely possible to be one hundred percent accurate and, given that Arden’s characters were supposed to be in a fairy tale and therefore not as complex as those that someone writing a historical fiction tale would describe them, she partially missed the mark. But the pleasure doesn’t come from one hundred percent accuracy, but instead from the many details (some even a bit though logically contradictory) and that in the end is the substitute for real life in fiction.

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February 11 Ruth Rendell – “The Dreadful Day of Judgement”: When Place and Character Intersect

Ruth Rendell always sees the dark side of humanity. I guess she thinks that people are just up to no good. Perhaps she naturally cautious, or there’s something in the English air that prevents her or any of the English from viewing humanity with rose colored glasses. (Or perhaps centuries of wars and turmoil – could be that too.) But don’t expect happy or kind people in any of her stories. Do expect very human characters. No one is evil, twisting his mustache and wringing his hands while cackling to himself about the downfall of all of humanity.

A good example of this is the characters in her short story “The Dreadful Day of Judgement”.

In it the characters are rough, but a mix of flaws and rationality. They might not be good people, but they do their best to understand the world around them (as well as their limited perspective will permit) and get along with it.

“The Dreadful Day of Judgement” focuses on the three construction workers toiling away to clean up the trenches of the semi-retired and abandoned cemetery doing as they are told as Fall quietly descends into Winter. (Three characters like in a Greek tragedy – there are other overseers in the background like a hidden Greek chorus who don’t affect the action just hover in the background as an influence.) Each of the three have a different take on the cemetery: what it is, what it means to them and how it affects them. In essence, their individual description of the cemetery is who they are and in some way that description sort of becomes the cemetery’s character.

For the main character John the cemetery is simply a place filled with bric-a-brac, wilderness oblivious to humanity and moldering edifices. “For his part, he had at first seen the cemetery as no more than a wooded knoll and the stones no more than granite outcroppings.” It, not the people in it, is dead and John exists in much the same way. He feels ineffective in this environment as if he too falling to ruin or at least letting his education lapse, even if He doesn’t feel that it amounted to much. At one point he hops into a pit and quotes Hamlet (the obvious scene) among the gravestones as an act of bragging (to make certain that he finds a way to make himself stand apart from his co-workers), finds it means nothing to him and he wishes that he’d kept his mouth shut. For him the grave yard is also the world outside of the world, well, outside of the world where things are happening and people are accomplishing things and living real lives. For him the cemetery is a dead place and nothing more, much how John feels. There isn’t any internal dialog where he waxes on about who he could have been (though he does say that he could have been a teacher) or how depressed he is, he simply doesn’t react very strongly to anything that happens to him or about anything that anyone says to him. Gilly, his co-worker who is impressed with his education, compliments him and he merely cringes. Marlon, his very dim co-worker, cries out when Gilly teases him and John quietly tells him that that isn’t a good idea. But he wanders through the story simply acting on what he supposed to do. Everything for him is matter-of-fact. Go home, make dinner, brush teeth, get in pajamas, go to bed, get up, go to work. His lack of existence is what the cemetery is to him, just utilitarian – and even that much isn’t much use.

Gilly’s take on the cemetery is the most ludicrous, but given that “he had one topic of conversation, but that one was inexhaustible and everything recalled him to it….’Bit of all right, that one,’ he would say, stroking stone flesh of a weeping muse, his hands so coarse and calloused that John wondered how any real woman could bear the touch of them”, it makes sense that it is the comical view for the story. Gilly remorselessly anthropomorphizes the cemetery as an all eons bordello where even chaste Victorian corpse slipped one to the gardener. He is a man without borders. He sees everything through lascivious glasses therefore the cemetery is just an extension of everything else in the world. So, Gilly, the cemetery is just another part of the world. One bleeds into the other and all is fair game for his crassness. And, yet there’s a dark side to the comedy, because it lacks any sense of humanity.  “[Gilly] found everything about the cemetery funny, even the soldiers’ graves, the only well-tended ones… Nothing stayed with him. Not the engraved sorrow of parents mourning a daughter dead at seventeen, not the stone evocations of the sufferings of those dead in childbirth.”  We are reminded that death is the ultimate joke on the human race (we struggle to achieve great things only to die and become dust) with John’s quote from Hamlet, but here it a comedy without any sympathy for the tragic loss. Even Gilly’s hopeful suggestion is one that steps aside from the reverence for those died. “If I had my way they’d level it all over, the center bit, and put grass down, make the whole place a park. …Somewhere a young kid could take his girl. Lover’s Lane Park.”

But the one character who has definite ideas of what the cemetery is or is not is Marlon. He seems like the least likely soul to be dark. He’s extremely dim-witted, so much so, he seems oblivious to the outside world. “Cigarettes were all he had, a tenuous hold on the real world…The smoke flowed from his lips. In a way, but for the cigarette, he might have been an actor in a Miracle play perhaps or in a chorus of madmen.”  Only the imaginary one exists for him, for instance he touches gravestones and whispers to them. He believes in the world his fervently religious mother has sketched for him (along with the fire and brimstone church they attend). For him, the cemetery is a sacred place, a place that belongs to ethereal. It’s filled with angels and demons and ghosts. When John hops into a pit to quote Hamlet it frightens Marlon as so sacrilegious as to be incomprehensible to him. He can’t go into one of the chapel, which has long ago been deconsecrated, because he fears to disturb it. It’s now simply a storage area for the debris the men clear, but he can’t be convinced. Gilly torments him as only a bully can and plays tricks on him to make him think that there are spirits in the graveyard talking to him, but this turns out to be his undoing as it only strengthens Marlon’s convictions that the place alive with spirits – spirits that don’t wish to be disturbed.

Gilly helps John to see it as a living place as he, Gilly, starts reading off tombstones and making up rhymes and stories about the names. He makes it a living place for him. But Marlon does the opposite. Because he sees the cemetery as a place filled with ghosts, he’s speaks out against Gilly’s plan of turning into a park – if the dead are moved how will they rise up on Judgement Day? He shares his strange and morose view that the dead will judge the living when they rise with the other two and it fills John with a sense of dread and makes the cemetery feel like an uneasy place, especially with the dark of Winter closing in and allowing the imagination to take over. Gilly will have none of Marlon’s talk of “the dreadful day” and makes it into a joke. “he…ran up to the pillared monument….stood inside, a satyr, John thought, in a temple defiled by northern rains. He threw up his arms….[shouted] ‘Come out, all the lot of you, if you want, only you can’t because you’re bloody dead!’” This causes terror in Marlon who hides in the truck. But when Gilly is found dead in the chapel – his head bashed in by the statue he came in the middle of the night to steal – Marlon claims that the dead had judged him. Obviously, it was Marlon that had done the judging, but in claiming that the dead had, in his mind he stands as their proxy or perhaps even more precisely their conduit. In this way, Marlon is symbolically one of the living dead. His view of the graveyard as a place where the inanimate can animate is also a reflection of who he sees himself as.

It turns out that in this story the ghouls to fear aren’t the dead ones, but the living. And in a sense all three of them are ghouls. Gilly with his inability to find sympathy for the plight of those around him, or his inability to show kindness the weaker Marlon; John who is simply dead of spirit and of will and Marlon who judges mercilessly with the vengeance of an Old Testament god. In a way, they become the three aspects of the cemetery and the three aspects of the story (Act 1, John, Act 2 Gilly, and gruesome Act 3 Marlon). Our three ghouls give us a tour of the Underworld that is the abandoned cemetery and a guide through their troubled minds as well.


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January 28 Shirley Jackson – “The Summer People” : Subtext or what the text isn’t saying

This is the other Shirley Jackson short story – you know, besides “the Lottery”. I kid. She has MANY great short stories and novels. It’s simply the one everyone thinks of when they think of her work (and the surprise ending that really isn’t a surprise if you’re reading it carefully). Though they do have much in common. Both are about how humanity can let you down (particularly Country Folk who are set in their ways – or any folk who are set in their ways). Both are written in that deceptively simple 1960s no-nonsense fashion where every word has an impact and can be read in more than one way. On the surface of both not much is happening and the audience is lulled into a sense of mundane comfort, not realizing that something terrible is happening…until it’s too late!

I often have to go back and re-read a Shirley Jackson story after I have finished it, because I always get to last sentence with a sense of doom, but can’t figure out why. (Which is what makes her work so magical.) Subtext is the key to her work.

So, with that, let’s exam “the Summer People”. On the surface of it, it’s a simple story. A retired couple, the Allisons, decide to stay a little longer – one more month – at their summer cottage at a lake somewhere in New England instead of packing up and leaving on Labor Day for their home in New York City like all they’ve always done, like all the rest of the New Yorkers who have cabins on the lake have done. The Summer People. The Allisons agree that this seems like a simple thing – they decide this a few days before Labor Day. What could go wrong?

It turns out that the natives, the country folk who call them the Summer People and who have to share their lake with them, are none too plussed to hear that two of “them” are staying on. But they don’t say this, instead their irritation is implied. It’s so subtle that even Mrs. Allison having the conversation with one of them doesn’t catch it.

She brags to her local grocer about staying on. “‘It isn’t as though we had anything to take us back to the city,’ she said to Mr. Babcock, her grocer. ‘We might as well enjoy the country while we can.'”

Now, I want to stop here and dissect this scene a bit, and also tackle the subject of subtext while I’m at it.

Miriam Webster defines subtext as, “the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text).” Miriam goes on to explain, “a literary text often has more than one meaning, the literal meaning of the words on the page, and their hidden meaning, what exists ‘between the lines’.” In literature, there’s the text (the literal meaning) or rather the actual words and the subtext, what the words are saying beyond their literal definition (between the lines), or rather what they really mean. Sometimes what is on the page is what is being said, so when you read a news report about a car crash, there’s nothing to interpret. It’s a story about a car crash. But if you read a short story about a car crash, the crash could be symbolic for a crashing of two different worlds, a culture crash, perhaps it’s interpreting the modern world as violent. There are many different interpretations of the words on the page. You can read more deeply into the words that are on the page to understand what the author is implying. The words can have more than one meaning (cars crashing versus cultures crashing), can have a different tone (sarcastic, joking, sardonic) or a different tone based on the emotion underlying the telling. Emotional tone can also change the meaning of the words. If you realize that the character is joyful when a sentence is spoken – “I’ve just crashed my car” – the same sentence is going to mean something completely different if the character speaks it angrily.

In the quoted example Mrs. Allison means what she says, but because “the city doesn’t have anything to take them back to,” she’s implying that she’s starting to no longer be a Summer Person, meaning she realizes that she is getting older and that her personal Autumn is arriving.

But to me, what is more interesting is Mr. Babcock’s reaction to what she says. I doubt that he is hearing her statement as matter-of-fact as we the audience do. We don’t see anything wrong with what she’s just said. “We might as well enjoy the country while we can.” Sounds to me like she likes it there and is treating it as a paradise. But it occurred to me as I re-read it that it might irritate Mr. Babcock who doesn’t get to chose whether he lives in the country or not. He might also read her statement of “enjoying the country” as her treating his home as if it’s something as trivial as a golf course or an amusement park – not important like big and glamorous New York City.

He responds with “Nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day before.” He looks at reflectively into her bag of cookies and says, “Nobody.” It sounds like the solid statement of someone set in his ways – he’s certain that this is how the world is and it cannot change. Perhaps repeating “nobody” is a firmer statement than Mrs. Allison realizes. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but it won’t. He won’t allow it. The second “nobody” could mean “not even you, Mrs. Allison – oh, no, you don’t!” Perhaps some can hear shock in his voice, but I can hear the unstated anger.

He later berates her after she says, “‘But the city!’ Mrs. Allison always spoke of the city to Mr. Babcock as though it were Mr. Babcock’s dream to go there. ‘It’s so hot – you’ve really no idea. [Ed: Oh, doesn’t he?] We’re always sorry when we leave [the country].”

I can hear how Mr. Babcock might read her statement as demeaning. Why is she assuming that he couldn’t possibly know what the city is like? She’s assuming that he’s never been, or even worse, that he is so simple-minded that he couldn’t possibly understand her point of view.

His response tells it all. “’Hate to leave,’ Mr. Babcock said.” And here the text goes into Mrs. Allison’s point of view and this is where you realize the strangeness in the way he said it to her. “One of the most irritating native tricks Mrs. Allison had noticed was that of taking a trivial statement and rephrasing it downwards, into an even more trite statement.”

After that bit of text, you go back to that quote and you can hear it spoken in monotone as if he were holding back his anger. Perhaps you can even hear that tiny bit of sarcasm in his voice mimicking hers in a demeaning way. You can, can’t you? Yes, it’s there, just not in the written words. Instead she hears it and it takes on new meaning. He’s calling her fake and insincere without barely saying anything at all. Instead of telling her this, he repeats, “Nobody stays after Labor Day.”

The first time he says this, it’s shock, the second is to tell her how it is (explaining the rules to her), but the third time is a threat. Leave or else.

She doesn’t catch it, she just leaves irritated that he doesn’t appreciate that she is staying, or that he is so rude with her. She goes onto a different shop where the clerk there is a kindly old man – who has already heard the news (because news spreads that fast in small towns). He also repeats the phrase, but he’s probably feeling sorry for the Allisons.

He says, “Don’t know about staying on up there to the lake. Not after Labor Day.” This could well be a warning, turn away while you still can. He also repeats the phrase three times, but the last time he deliberately counts back her change as he says it. Perhaps this is his way of subtly telling her to pay attention to what he is saying, “I’m telling you something important.”

So, why don’t they just say, “don’t stay.” That’s a good question. I suppose the speculation is what keeps the reader coming back to the story again and again to dig into why they didn’t just say. Perhaps they believe that it’s rude to say it out right? Perhaps they know better than to tell New Yorkers who believe they know everything what to do? Perhaps to them the rule is that no one stays past Labor Day and that is that – nothing more needs to be said. Perhaps they feel they don’t have to say anything more? Even though that’s exactly what they’re doing just without being direct.

Ironically, Mrs. Allison quips as she leaves the store about how simple and honest country folk are. But they aren’t – not at all. In fact, the brand new dishes that the kindly clerk sold her have a chip in them. They go back to their cabin that has no electricity or running water, they are dependent on kerosene lamps, stoves and a cistern of water (as well as an outhouse). The man who sells them their summer supply won’t sell them any more after Labor Day. He sites reasons that she is able to explain away. Every reason he gives aren’t actually very valid (he somehow isn’t able to sell any more kerosene until November – and he somehow doesn’t barely have enough for one couple for one month even after he admits he has some). In other words, he won’t sell her any. She calls Mr. Babcock at the store to order some, but somehow delivery of kerosene is impossible. His reasons aren’t terribly valid either.

They then discover that their car’s lines have been cut. The phone calls that they had trouble getting through, because no one picked up, now don’t go at all. The phone lines have been cut. The batteries in their radio are dying and a winter storm is approaching.

They get a strange letter from their son in Chicago who they haven’t heard from in months – not a phone call, not even a post card. He congratulates them on staying past Labor Day. A decision that they didn’t make until a few days ago. But the most chilling part of the letter is when it echoes exactly what Mrs. Allison said to Mr. Babcock.

“You ought to get what fun while you can.” (Remember her statement about “enjoying the country while we can.”) It also echoes her statement to Mr. Babcock about the city demanding less of her time. Later it mentions that someone in their son’s office about their age passing away (hint, hint) and finishes with, “and don’t bother hurrying back.”

This statement on its surface seems affectionate to Mrs. Allison when she thinks it’s from her son – even though she mentions that the voice seems a little off, not quite like him, but she can’t place it. But if we the audience consider that it’s been written by someone who has read all of their children’s letters, can mimic their son’s handwriting and actually does know (I mean, how can he) that they’re staying past Labor Day – like they shouldn’t – suddenly the letter sounds less affectionate and more threatening.

Read it, “Dear Mother and Dad…Am glad this goes to the lake as usual, we always thought you came back too soon and ought to stay up there as long as you could. Alice says that now that you’re not as young as you used to be and have no demands on your time, fewer friends, etc., in the city, you ought to get what fun you can while you can. Since you two are both happy up there, it’s a good idea for you to stay… [the text talks about how Mrs. Allison isn’t sure about whether this letter is from her son or not and then continues] “ – and of course if they get measles, etc., now they will be better of later. Alice is well, of course, me too. Been playing a lot of bridge lately with some people you don’t know, named Carruthers. Nice young couple, about our age. Well, will close now as I guess it bores you to hear about things so far away. Tell Dad Old Dickson, in our Chicago office, died. He used to ask about Dad a lot. Have a good time at the lake, and don’t bother about hurrying back.”

The subtext of the letter (it’s underlying meaning) changes when the audience considers that it couldn’t be written by their son. He couldn’t possibly know that they were staying past Labor Day.  Perhaps there are other hints – measles isn’t curable, and young couples in the 1960s didn’t play Bridge. But it is easy to imagine that it has been written by someone who knows they’re staying, who still has to deal with measles (certainly not someone in Chicago) and someone old fashioned enough to still play Bridge (like a kindly old store keeper?). The most menacing part of the letter is the last sentence, “Don’t bother about hurrying back.” In the end, they aren’t able to hurry back – ever.


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January 21: Edna O’Brien “Number 10” (also Jeff Vandemeer Annihilation) : the inner world of the character

Last week, I commented on Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation. I did so to comment on my interest in film adaptations of novels and short stories. I think it’s interesting how the visual medium changes the story and how a different artist interprets it. It often makes me wonder what drew that director in the first place. Something in the story may have a sympathetic hum to what he or she thinks, or perhaps he or she sees something in the story that he or she wants to say.

Anyhow, this week I wanted to talk about the content of the story, because I was interested in speaking on the topic of the character’s inner world. Annihilation is a good one to use. It is told mainly in first person and written as a journal, therefore the story is very personal. We only see the events unfold through the protagonist’s point of view. What she thinks about the world that she is experiencing, how she experiences it. Because she finds all of it confusing, we really never know what exactly she is seeing. She’ll authoritatively give what she thinks is happening and then she’ll take it back (“Or I could be wrong about it all,” she’ll state). She describes everything else often using the word “perhaps” (“perhaps there are hidden presences in the shambled houses watching me as I pass. Maybe that is what I am feeling, eyes staring out from the darkness out at me”). But we as an audience are helpless to interpret this scene as nothing more than the character wandering through a deserted village past blackened doorways. We might in our mind’s eye see a slight movement, or just a jittery paranoid character walking carefully along. Perhaps both? The thing that we do see is her interior world as she moves through the strange landscape that is classified as Area X, a landscape that has been transformed by some unknown force.

Sometimes things in Area X remind her of her field work assignments as a biologist. She remembers having discovered strange things growing in tide pools. She reminds us that humanity is often blind to the actual strangeness of Nature, something that she sees. She remembers the peace and serenity of spending hours observing life and melding into the background of the environment. As we read on, these interior observations form a picture of what she looks like. Not physically, but emotionally. A person who is withdrawn, who prefers work to being social, though I often pictured a woman plainly dressed and not made up (how easy it is to attach the physical to the emotional). We’re not surprised to learn that her marriage was on the rocks or that she doesn’t really know her husband very well. She only observed him, never learned anything about his interior life. She later learns that she doesn’t know herself very well at all either. This trip becomes more of an observation for her of her own life than anything else.

But a story need not be in first person or done in journal style to learn who a character is. In Edna O’Brien’s “Number 10” we see the world entirely through Mrs. Reinhardt’s eyes, but it’s told through third person limited. (Limited by what she sees, hears, and understands.) I like that this story starts with “Everything began to be better for Mrs. Reinhardt the moment she started sleepwalking.” Apparently, the waking world is not for her though she never complains. The narrator just tells us that it’s filled with patterns whereas the dream world contains the unexpected and is exciting for her. I’m thinking that the lack of any emotional emphasis on the waking world means that she is detached from it as if the dreams are the only ones she has any emotional reaction to. This is how painful the waking world is to her, she’s turned them into a dream world that she only observes and walks through blankly.

Her husband tells her that she looks frazzled and she claims that she’s never felt better. Is he unaware of how she really feels, or is she the one who is unaware of her truth? She says that she makes tender love to him in the early hours, but when he wakes he is angry with her. Perhaps she only dreamed it? Perhaps he didn’t want her to touch him? Either way she can’t figure out why.

She dreams that she takes a cab to Number 10, the house she’s always wanted and everything exactly where she wanted to be. She dreams that she has an affair with a man who meets her there and she’s young and desired. But during the day it’s back to her old routine, back to getting her hair done to make herself look young again.

She learns later that her husband is having an affair at Number 10. Who knows how she knew. A bit of clairvoyance I’m certain, but she’s also sensing that he’s lost interest in her, but because she is so numb to the waking world, she can’t say why. It’s clear that her subconscious is running the show and therefore logic is beyond her. This makes sense when she gains access to Number 10 at a time her husband’s diary says he’ll be there, but she doesn’t enter the bedroom. Instead, “she tiptoed down the stairs and was pleased that she had not acted rashly that she had not broken the spell.”

Is it a happy story? Well, she’s happy as long as she convinces herself that she is. Her world is her little bubble that she doesn’t let reality burst. She won’t even let her second sight let her see it. It’s as if she’s casting a magical spell on herself. In a sense, only her interior world exists in this story, but even so I can see her clearly, the way she neatly folds everything, tidies and smiles through her day. Her eyes must be constantly be blank as she looks through the world instead of at it.

Sometimes, what a character doesn’t see, instead what she feels, tells us just as much about what her mind looks like. The interior world even for a fictional character is quite tricky, but this is what makes it endlessly fascinating.

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January 14 Jeff Vandermeer, Annilation: the difficulty of translating from page to stage

I admit that I am a bit of a video-phile. They (whoever the esteemed and opinionated they might be) say that if you want to be an author that you should not be wasting your time on watching films, videos, dvds, television, or streaming content or however you get your visual entertainment. (Do note, that the esteemed and snobby “they” always leave out live entertainment. Somehow going to the theater, symphony, ballet, doesn’t count. Okay, I like to go to those as well.) For those people I like to share this anecdote.

I saw a Charley Rose interview with both Elmore Leonard and a literature critic (whose name has left me – all I know was that he was from New York and extremely well read). Keep in mind, the critic was hailing Leonard as a genius whose writing was an indelible contribution to late 20th Century/early 21st Century literature. He compared Leonard with authors who are already acknowledged literary greats (I believe at one point Hemingway came up). He then turned to Leonard and asked what his literary influences were. Leonard said, “None. I watch t.v.” The shock on the critic’s face seemed to be also a question that was never spoken, so Leonard answered it. “I watch nature shows, they tell me all I need to know about human nature.” And that was that.

And why can’t filmed content be educational? And why can’t visual entertainment, even if it’s pop cultural, be good? Yes, I’ll admit most commercial entertainment is junk (especially Reality Television which is no where near reality). I feel perfectly justified in reading a book because I liked the movie or vice versa. I’m not as interested in seeing the book created into film as I am curious about what the director will choose to leave in and leave out or how to translate what is on the page to the very visual medium of film.

There are times when directors make poor choices or don’t really understand what actually works in the book – the magic that makes the book so wonderful – and does a poor translation of the page, and then there are books that just don’t translate very well. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House simply can’t be filmed (and there are two not very good films and one somewhat adequate one to prove it). All of the action in the prose is implied. The ghosts haunting the mansion that the characters are trapped in move in such an ephemeral manner that their action can only be implied. They can be felt, but not measured in any physical manner, physical descriptions won’t work (would make them feel fake and contrived). You have a scene where the characters feel the “famous cold spot” of the mansion, but when they put thermometers out (one in the cold spot and one at the room temperature end of the hall) they don’t measure anything but room temperature. I pity the poor director who has to find a way to film that. Film depends on physical action to tell its story. Drama, after all, does translate to conflict – which on the stage is shown (not told) as physical action – mostly.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, a book that is going to come out on film this year, looks to be almost as challenging. It the first book in a trilogy and is not quite 200 pages. Not a whole lot happens action-wise, so I’m hard pressed to figure out where most of the film’s action will take place.

Due to the magic of the internet, it has already been leak to be one of the weirdest films of 2018. Motivation enough for me to read it. But when I read it, I realized that not only does very little happen, but the strangeness is…not quite easy to explain.

It’s a story of an expedition team that go to the mysterious Area X that nobody knows how to explain – only that weird stuff happens there. The main character (a woman with no name only a job title: biologist) speaks of feeling different while knowing that the people who have been to Area X come back different. Sometimes we the audience know that she is changing, but she doesn’t, because the voice of the prose changes. She goes from halting, apologizing and describing her surroundings objectively and without emotion to brave, confident and describing her surroundings with strong emotions and feeling as if she has become a part of them or as if she is no different from the place that she is in, whatever it feels she feels too. How do you show that? Any visual device the director chooses has to ultimately feel contrived and clunky. Show her transforming? That doesn’t tell us how she feels. Voice over? How does that work if she doesn’t know it’s happening? Acting? Yeah, that should cover some of it, but even Meryl Streep has her limits.

This is not to say that I’m not excited to see this film. I am. Very much. The way in which the landscape is described will lend itself really well to film, in fact more so. All the book gives is some physical descriptions and implies that things are weird. Here the author is limited to only words and at the mercy of the reader’s imagination. The biologist does her best, but since she’s a scientist and only prone to describe things coldly and objectively Vandermeer is limited in his ability to bring the beauty of the scenery to life in the reader’s imagination. All he can do is have his point of view character give the insufficient description of a simple adjective: beautiful. This is where the film will be a better experience the director has all of his skill as a visual story teller, the skill of his cinematographer and the power Hollywood CGI to make the beauty and strangeness of the scenery come to life. We’ll see the “tower” made of plaster and ground up sea shells, the bizarrely transformed plant life and the devastated little towns being subsumed by the landscape.

So, will the film be better than the book? I predict that whether it is good or bad, it will be new. I guess that really why we go to films or read books to experience that new. My greatest hope is that it is as well translated as the director can make it – or at the very least a great adventure.

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January 10 Stephen King: Home Delivery: guess he’s not so perfect after all

I like Stephen King, but I definitely don’t fit in the category of the Stephen King superfan. I dare to point out that some of his stories have flaws. The SK superfans are devoted and have been around longer than the Fanboy has been a thing (King has been publishing since the ’70s after all). But, and some won’t admit it, there are some things he does as a writer that is, well, less than wonderful storywise.

For instance…

You ever notice the length of his books? There’s nary a one under a thousand pages. In fact, in the early ’80s, doorstop jokes were synonymous with Stephen King novels. Stephen King gets away with big long tomes, because people buy them, but most novelists hit 900 pages and their publishers usually tell them to start nixing their word count. But they let Stephen King go crazy – and apparently the editors back off from chopping anything off for fear of wrath from the King (or so the rumors go). But this means that Stephen King does not do short – in particular, the short story. Most fanboys will hem and haw when it comes to Skeleton Closet, Stephen King’s short story anthology. “Well, some of them are good,” they’ll mumble, but most people agree that King just can’t do short stories.

Heck, the short I just read, Home Delivery, I gave a try with a wide open mind, but it was longer than the average short story. (The anthology that it was in – stories by other horror writers – averaged around 20 pages, even the long-winded Victorian stories clocked out at 30 pages – even the novel excerpts were shorter!)

I’ll admit that it did keep my interest. I was halfway through before I knew it. The problem was that I could tell that it wanted to be longer. It kept jumping from scene to scene and character to character. Some scenes summarized the action and some scenes simply felt cut short. Stephen King was struggling to keep the word count down – what???

The story is about a zombie apocalypse and, yeah, it’s somewhere in New England (that’s where a lot of King stories take place, or at the very least start, but I won’t fault him for writing what he knows). The first part (yes, a short story with parts – dare I say volumes?) takes place on one New England island, but then switches to the more remote island with weird, yet lovable, small town folk. It’s supposed to have a wild west, good ol’ fashioned, small town-y feel, but it’s a little generalized. I kept thinking, “gosh, haven’t I met that character before?” “Gee, haven’t I been in this scene before?” The Main Character is a woman who can’t do anything without having a man to tell her what her to do. (Sigh! I know that King isn’t sexists, but couldn’t he pick a less cliched wimpy woman?) Her father dies and she falls apart, then she meets her husband, a guy who’s always in charge, and her life suddenly has meaning again. It’s the zombie apocalypse, so you know where this is going. She has to face her zombie husband and assert herself.

Now, that’s a pretty good, concise short story plotline….and if that were the only plotline, then the story would be entertaining and fully rounded (he could even take a little extra word count to round it out – why not, it’s Stephen King), but no. We’ve also got to have the plot about the town coping with the rest of the world outside of the island falling apart. It is an interesting question to contemplate: how would a small island actually cope with being cut off from the Mainland? Then there’s the plot about the town having to rid itself of the corpses rising from the small graveyard on the island. There’s the old grumpus who thinks that the Bible is coming true and everybody is darn crazy to try to save themselves and who eventually sacrifices himself for the good of the town. Then various half-hatched side plots of other town’s peoples. And let us not forget the side plot with the Main Character’s mother – no, we couldn’t possibly cut out a character from a short story (one would think that the purpose of the short was to tell one concise tale, silly one!).

Anyhow, as you’ve already guessed the story is pretty messy and everything feels kind of abbreviated. The weirdest part is that every plotline tied up a little too neatly. I actually finished the story (the ending that also felt a little too neat) and shouted at the pages, “Really! That’s it! Damn it, Stephen King!” The story wasn’t terrible, but I could tell that a part of him really wanted to add a few hundred(s) of pages. All of these side plots could have been expanded (maybe not as neatly summed up – but I think that that’s harder to do with more detail added).

Was this an experiment on King’s part? Did he think, “Well, I don’t know what to do with this story, I just can’t figure out how to expand on it.” Really??? Wh-what? How is that possible, Stephen King? I don’t know. But I think he probably lacked perspective when trying to hone in on a good and concise short story. It’s hard to go with less, go with simple (simple is actually hard to do) when you don’t do it very often.

I’ve been told that there are a two types of authors (well, tons of types of writers, in fact, for every writer there is a different method – it’s why they actually can’t teach fiction writing): the ones who have a hard time bringing their word count up, who struggle to fill in detail to get their stuff up to short story status; and the ones who can’t keep their word count down, and they have to go through the agonizing process of figuring out what to chop. Guess what type Stephen King is? Me too. Yeah, I admit it.

Oh, and “home delivery” refers to the Main Character giving birth at home – her worry about where she’s going to have it was… another side plot.

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