Nov 22, 2016

Working Ski Patrol

In 2010 I was surprised by a freak storm in Chamonix. I was also skiing with my five year old son. That story and how I ended up on ski patrol is now available on Amazon: Working Ski Patrol.

May 28, 2016

The Night Manager

The Night Manager is one of three John le Carré novels that I return to often. Tinker Tailor and A Murder of Quality are the other two.

I've written about the difficulty of turning le Carré novels into films and watched A Most Wanted Man with a sense of dread that would not allow me to finish the film.

Recently the BBC and AMC teamed up to make The Night Manager into a six-part miniseries and I approached it with the exact same dread. But the writers, David Farr and John le Carré himself, did a very odd thing. They exposed some of le Carré's weaknesses as a writer:

- Le Carré consistently steers a reader into deep bouts of characterization and can make a scene last longer than a marathon without boring the readers.

- In sticking with these two strength, le Carré consistently neglects plot and allows cynicism about institutions (read here: paternal roles) to leave a reader hopeless about the state of the world.

All of that was corrected in The Night Manager series. The bad guys get what's coming to them. The good guy is not left helplessly beaten. The fuckers in government are slapped. And the various pieces of plot are woven together to keep the story moving. It is the most cheerful and dramatically rewarding changing of a story I've ever seen.

Feb 20, 2016

Reading a John le Carré biography

Literary biography should be a guilty pleasure. A good reader can guess the origins of beautifully written novels, but a good reader inevitably wants to know the person who wrote such powerful work.

What we repeatedly find out is that the great artist performs a kind of alchemy, turning an often shitty life into deeply absorbing and moving art.

The literary biographer's task can be tricky. How do you examine the artistic process when the writer is not necessarily the thing of dreams while his work clearly is? It takes great subtlety and a powerful sense of scope.

There are some excellent examples of such biographers. Frances Donaldson's P. G. Wodehouse: A Biography. Joseph Blotner's Faulkner: A Biography. Ron Chernow is one of my favorite biographers and approaches his subjects as lively and interesting people who must be approached with intelligence.

Adam Sisman's John le Carré: The Biography is not one of those sympathetic biographies. After reading the first third of the book, I started to wonder if Sisman liked his subject at all. In the Introduction, Sisman records that le Carré said, "I know it's supposed to be warts and all, but so far as I can gather it's going to be all warts and no all."

Le Carré has repeatedly said that writers are liars, but Sisman seems to have taken him at his word. Extremely at his word.

It's a mistake to publish a biography of a living subject. It's even more a mistake to get so close to your subject that you cannot see the magic of misery. I sometimes read Sisman's book as a reference and have many of my working assumptions about le Carré confirmed, but it is not a biography that I can read all the way through. It's just too brutal.

Add this to my le Carré wishlist. One day someone will work on a biography about the symbols and archetypes that steer him in his work, adding as carefully as le Carré the details that hook you into his stories. Another wish is that le Carré himself would go back to his pre- Naive and Sentimental Lover mindset and find a rebirth in pure literary fiction. He's been using the espionage cover for his literary self for a very long time.

Feb 10, 2016

Notes on A Celtic Temperament

I had often wondered why the diaries of Robertson Davies had not been published. By all accounts he was a relentless journal writer and some surprising tidbits would come out of excerpts for his other writings. I can remember one journal entry in a collection of his essays where the day was so hot that he sat down at his desk shirtless, old and fat.

The first collection of Davies' diaries, A Celtic Temperament, was published last October. Davies had requested that his diaries not be published for a full twenty years after his death, which explains the timing.

I was once so absorbed in Davies' writing that I lost ten years of reading to being focused solely on him. This made me hesitant about jumping into his diaries, especially after reading Val Ross's Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic. That well-meant biographical sketch made Davies look like a pompous windbag at times.

But read A Celtic Temperament I did in less than three days and here's a glimpse:
  • Davies not only had sex but marked each occasion in his diary as H.T.D. Quill and Quire speculates that it stands for "High Tempo Debauchery" or "hic tempus delectat." At the end of the year Davies would tally the number of times he and his wife, Brenda, had H.T.D. He used some interesting adjectives to describe sex, the two most frequent were "admirable" and "surprising." They threw down on the bedroom floor, in a bay window, next to the Christmas tree. These are very odd images if you tend to think of Davies as an Edwardian gent who used to walk with a cane wearing a bowler.
  • The diary entries begin just after his play General Confession was ditched and end just as he's getting Massey College underway. I thought the selections odd. As I read, I began to see Davies' character change as he left his provincial and comfortable life in Peterborough and had to fight like hell to get Massey College launched. The transformation was remarkable.
  • There are some very endearing views of vices. He's disappointed that someone got drunk at a party while everybody else was there for two drinks. He notes his hangovers. He doesn't understand people who fuck without loving the fucked. By the time Massey launches he's so worn down that he just wants people to have good manners. I'm pretty sure that Davies would have joined Jennifer Lawrence in scolding people for living through their smartphones.
Davies complete diaries of more than three million words will supposedly be available in digital format sometime in 2017. I'm really looking forward to that.

Sep 10, 2015

Donald Trump: Loved Wolf Among The Sheep

In May we were facing the inevitable Hillary Clinton vs the guaranteed Jeb Bush and the collective yawn was so debilitating that royal childbirth was more interesting.

The two things that we learned from the 2008 election were: 1) Hillary Clinton is a terrible campaigner and 2) money does not guarantee an election win. We learned that last one again in 2012.

Donald Trump entered the race on June 16th and everything changed. It's becoming the funnest election that I can remember. Anyone who has read Mark Leibovich's This Town will have a pretty good idea of Hillary Clinton's character. What I haven't seen explicitly spelled out is why she is not a good fit for our current political environment.

Hillary Clinton is an introvert. We've had fifteen years of introverts and they just run out of steam in their second term (although Obama looked very happy in the Alaskan wilderness). My prediction is that we're having a national craving for an extrovert, someone like her husband, Bill Clinton. No matter what you think of Bill, he has tremendous affection for other people and when he walks into a room, he fills it. You're not getting Bill with Hillary, not the way you might want him. Uncle Joe Biden is the beloved extrovert in the Democrat field.

Step in Donald Trump, who probably hasn't had an introspective thought in his life. He's the rich guy who is notorious for bedding good looking women, has his own giant plane with his name on the side and does whatever he wants. He's a Super Bro, a sort of Archetype of the species. He's also a product of a loving father, who stepped aside so that his son could become whatever it is he's become.

Most people don't necessarily want to behave the way Trump does, but they sure as hell would like to do whatever they wanted.

Trump stood up and put the chilly finger on what's wrong with Jeb Bush. Jeb's a low energy guy. With the most simple clarity, Trump has pointed out why Jeb is so unpopular. He, too, is an introvert and seems completely taken aback by the most predictable questions.

Jeb Bush, faced with the long shadow of WMD and Tora Bora, flubs the most easily anticipated question of his political career. (Dana Milbank of The Washington Post had an excellent column about Jeb Bush's Foot In Mouth Problem.)

Now we've got Bernie Sanders challenging Hillary on the left, Ben Carson (Best Dressed Award at the first debate) quietly challenging Trump on the right, and idiots offering to go to jail for the ignorant who don't understand why we separate church and state.

Thank you, Donald Trump, for saving us from a very boring election.

Mar 25, 2015

Narrative Explored: Dexter, Season Five

Season Five of Dexter opens exactly where Season Four ended. Dexter has tried to reconcile his domestic and serial killer selves and he ends up getting his wife, Rita, killed. Domesticity is now off the table, although he's stuck with three kids, a house and lots of time off work. Through some fairly simple plot manipulations, Dexter ends up with his son, Harrison, and a very good nanny. The two step-children, Astor and Cody, go live with their grandparents.

The question of completion begins to reassert itself and Dexter believes that going back to stalking and killing serial killers is the answer. The writing in these episodes continues the trend of Season Four. It is excellent.

By the second episode Dexter is in pursuit of Boyd Fowler, whose day job is Dead Animal Pickup Officer. Dexter believes that he is a serial killer in his free time. There is a physicality, a slapstick quality to these episodes. Someone's sense of humor is coming out, much like the earlier seasons. Dexter losing Little Chino in Season Two is a perfect example of when they had fun.

The messy pursuit and final moment of Boyd Fowler unfolds the real seasonal arc, when Dexter finds that Boyd is killing women (and stuffing them into barrels of formaldehyde) not because Boyd is a killer. Boyd's killing is incidental and necessary. Boyd is part of a group of friends who ritually abduct, torture and rape women.

Boyd's latest victim watches Dexter off Boyd and Dexter does not know it until it is too late.

There are two revelations here. The first is that people kill as a necessity not as a ritual and that a group would do things so horrible that the victim simply could not continue to live. In a way this makes Dexter seem even more virtuous in his quest to kill the killers.

The second revelation for Dexter is that he suddenly has someone else's victim, alive but broken, and he chooses not to kill her for the sake of convenience. After what he's learned in Seasons One and Four, he is now making the final transition from empty serial killer to human.

The surviving victim is Lumen Pierce, played by Julia Stiles, who takes her character from a pitiful battered animal to a woman who has not only gotten her revenge, but who has taken back control of her life. Stiles is absolutely brilliant in managing this transformation from episode to episode.

And finally we have the perfect companion for Dexter. In Lumen Pierce Dexter has a guide for becoming human. She has done what Dexter has not been able to do. She deals with her trauma and is then ready to move on. Dexter has been trying to do this for his entire life.

It is a mistake for Lumen to want to sleep with Dexter. Their relationship is far more interesting while they keep a physical distance and Lumen, not just a rape survivor but also the victim of some truly horrible torture, is not believable wanting physical intimacy. Her intimacy comes from sharing her goal of revenge with Dexter. They should have danced around the topic the entire season.

Jordan Chase emerges as one of the better psychopaths of the series. He is a motivational speaker whose theme, "Take It," is a perfect description of the self-service society. He truly understands human nature, but has no sympathy for humanity, only raw destructive ambition. He's also developed late in the season, although his shadow begins to cast itself in episode two.

There is a wonderful subtlety to Season Five, a kind of full moral spectrum that contrasts with the black-and-white nature of Dexter's earlier life. At the end, Dexter's Dark Passenger appears satisfied and it would be a natural place for the two to part.

But Showtime at this point has a money-maker and the endless pressing of this button dooms the series going forward.

Jul 27, 2014

Narrative Explored: Dexter, Season Four

The fourth season of Dexter forms the middle of a triumvirate of perfect seasons. It is bookended by Seasons One and Five.

By now the show is settling into a season template where a single Miami serial killer provides the seasonal arc. While each episode develops that arc, there are many side plots or one-episode plots to keep the story moving. At this point the writers have clearly found their stride and they take their time developing this season's serial killer.

And he's possibly the best, the scariest and the most charming of them all. It is John Lithgow playing Arthur Mitchell, the Trinity Killer, known as such because he kills in three set pieces on an annual basis. (If you want to pick this season apart, you could easily make the case that the current crop of criminal databases, supercomputers and sophisticated data mining algorithms would pick his pattern up in a heartbeat, but then you'd deprive the viewer of the return of Special Agent Frank Lundy, who redeems himself and Debra from the absurdity of Season Two).

Season Four is carefully constructed and has a masterful pace. The dialogue is just right, occasionally witty but with an emphasis on that blend of reality, plot development and characterization that really marks excellent writing. You could teach a course on writing just by analyzing this season.

Here's where the plot is perfect. Dexter is now married and with a newborn. He has moved in with Rita and her kids. He is as domesticated as it becomes. Except that other thing, the serial killer lifestyle. Reconciling the domesticated husband and the serial killer is his biggest problem, and the Family Man side of himself is winning when the season opens. The serial killer in him is literally on the verge of killing him. He needs to go home and get some sleep. New parents don't get enough as it is. And he certainly cannot get advice on how to do this from Harry, who has been telling him all along that the family life is not for him. More than one bachelor has gone down this path of trying to reconcile his old lifestyle with his newly married, newly father reality, although without all the bloodshed.

Dexter finds an unlikely role model in Lithgow's Arthur Mitchell: family man, pillar of church and community, long time serial killer. So he lingers around Mitchell, trying to figure out how he does it.

It is perfect because Dexter believes that by reconciling these two sides of himself, he will become whole, and becoming whole and complete is the goal of life, great art and generally anything that interests us. And it is not a simple exercise of adding the right tattoo or wife.

Very quickly Dexter finds Arthur's flaws. He also loses control of the situation, making the last three episodes gripping.

When Jerry Seinfeld walked away from his sitcom, he was asked why he did it. The show was at its peak. The network wanted more and was willing to pay. But he said his years of doing standup had taught him how to walk off the stage just as the wave was about to crest. Season Four was the crest of Dexter. With a few modifications, Season Five could have been the perfect ending for the series.