Nov 30, 2009

Film Adaptations - Fight Club

Car recalls always remind me of Fight Club, in which Jack outlines the basic formula for issuing a recall:

"You take the number of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement (C). A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one."

This is the reduction of death and suffering to a dollar equation. By a corporation. It is a basic theme, the dehumanizing effects of Corporate America, of the book Fight Club (by Chuck Palahniuk - tough name to spell from memory) and the excellent film adapation by Jim Uhls (screenwriter) and David Fincher (director). I am a big fan of Fincher, who combines the medium, the message and a story so very well.

The Toyota Recall reminded me not only of the Fight Club equation but the gruesome car inspection scene where a group is inspecting a fire-gutted car, the result of a differential locking up at 60 mph. One of the technicians says,"The father must've been obese. See how the fat burned into the driver's seat, mixed with the dye of his shirt? Kind like modern art."

Here's a similar bit from the Toyota story:

"On August 28, near San Diego, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer couldn't stop the car. His wife called 911. There was a call that lasted less than a minute. They said they were going 120 miles an hour. They started to pray. The car went off an embankment, burst into flames, and four people were killed, including a young child."

If you want a more technical view of how Corporate America chips away at our souls, check out Joel Bakan's The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.

But Fight Club explores the subject extremely well, along with various other subjects, including men's reactions (or lack of) to feminism, the curious phenomenon of Corporate orphans (specifically men who grow up with an absent father), and the early search for meaning.

Fincher (along with The Dust Brothers) captures the rhythm of corporate travel madness. "You wake up at O'Hare." At SeaTac. "Pacific, Mountain, Central. You lose an hour, you gain an hour. This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time." Or the Tom Waits Go'in Out West intro to the first organized fight. There is the brilliant consumerism-in-us-all Ikea scene. "What kind of dining room set *defines* me as a person?"

It is all so brilliantly done. Fight Club is one of my favorite films.

Nov 21, 2009

Describing Around Plimpton

I've just finished an oral history of George Plimpton (George, Being George edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.). I had always wondered why Plimpton was so famous, believing that literary magazines make no one famous, a belief which I still hold.

His distinguishing traits were his great gifts as a host, an apparently endless and varied store of stories, and an ability to make anything into an adventure.

This is the second such oral history I've read. The other was Val Ross's Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic. It is a strange and curiously enlightening way to see a person. The books are composed of bite-sized quotes from numerous interviews of people around the subject. The quotes are arranged by theme and chronology.

Here's an example from the section BASIC EXPECTATIONS (a.k.a. parental baggage) from Remar Sutton:

"George loved to tell the story about how his mother once saved his life. It was the time he and Freddy went rafting with Bobby Kennedy on the Colorado River, and he fell overboard. The water was rough and running fast, and George seemed to be making no headway swimming toward shore. In fact he went under - twice, as he told it - but then, as he was going under for the third time, he had this vision of his mother collecting his things after his death, poking around the apartment, and finding a few reels of a movie called The Nun's Delight that he'd stashed away in a wooden box. Instantly he found the strength to struggle to the surface and swim to shore."

It is a strange way for Plimpton to declare his overiding problem. He apparently never shared his personal issues with anyone. But there it is, the idea that his mother would find his porn gave him the strength to save himself.

He had to be browbeaten into both of his marriages, once by Bobby Kennedy and once by A. E. Hotchner (partner with Paul Newman for Newman's Own). Both of his wives said that they were the only people in George's life - and there were a lot of people in his life - whom he didn't support. His first wife, Freddy, said that he was wonderful as long as there was no legal obligation to her.

He was an eternal youth, one of those men who delighted everyone and who was impossible to harness.

Nov 18, 2009

Following Every Impulse

Monica Hess wrote an article in the Washington Post last week on how people are watching porn in public places. I checked my Emily Post. And my Debrett's. No mention of porn in public places.

That's because people know better. Or at least they did when those etiquette books were written.

Who is raising these people? And if they are being raised correctly, why are they still behaving so badly?

Yesterday Douglas Quenqua wrote a piece in the New York Times about how badly behaved people are and the reaction from those who are not. In his words, "the scolds have gotten scoldier."

This is a very old question. Is it appropriate to be rude to someone who is being rude? Or can you sail with dignity above rudeness?

One of my favorite books about this and other etiquette questions is Mark Caldwell's A Short History of Rudeness. Caldwell introduces us to the rudest man of the 20th century: Colonel William d'Alton Mann. He tried to blackmail Emily Post's husband for having a mistress and it backfired on him very badly.

I tried one of the hypothetical questions on a psychologist. If a young man wants all of McDonald's customers to hear Body Count at top volume, is it right? It seems obvious that the answer is no, but in this world gone strange, I've actually read opinions say, well, maybe. The psychologist cut to the crux. "Behavior that enrages will not be tolerated by society for very long."

This is an active version of what Miss Manners wrote:

"In civilization there have to be some restraints. If we followed every impulse, we'd be killing each other." (Quoted at the beginning of Greg Stump's Groove Requiem in the Key of Ski, where Stump juxtaposes Operation Desert Storm with a winter of killer skiing).

I think if these questions are being raised in the Washington Post and the New York Times, maybe people are getting really tired of hearing morons shout down their mobile phones, running into people who are heads down on their iPhones, and having to watch other people's porn.

One of my favorite short stories is Jack Ritchie's For All The Rude People. In it a man walks out of his doctor's office with a fatal prognosis. In his shock, his knowing that he is about to lose his life and his love of that life, he begins to notice the rudeness of other people. In one case, a father and son are denied admittance at a circus because their discount coupon has expired. The man kills the circus ticket taker and leaves a note explaining that the man was killed because he was rude. The good samaritan/killer does this time and time again and by the end a taxicab driver, about to be rude, straightens himself out to be polite, saying you never know to whom you're talking.

Nov 17, 2009

Packed London

This is St Bride's church just off Fleet Street in London as I saw it last Wednesday evening, maybe not as blurry around the edges. What struck me was how everything has been built all around the church.

That building to the left is really that close to the church. There are buildings like that on three sides. On the fourth side is a road so small that an American would never think it serviceable and then more buildings, giving the impression that the church is hemmed in on all four sides.

Here's the satellite view, although it does not give nearly as good an impression of the crammed-in nature of London.

Peter Ackroyd, in his book London: The Biography, gives the definitive account of how packed London is and how every two feet you can find something of historical importance if you are looking.

He is also the author of the novel Chatterton, which contains the funniest depiction of an elderly novelist, Harriet Scrope. Her opening line, spoken to her cat Mr. Gaskell, is, "Mother would like to piss on all this and then she would like to burn it." She is speaking of her life.

Nov 4, 2009

Slurpee du Jour

Yesterday Marketplace used some Depeche Mode after an interview with smart guy Andrew Ross, who wrote a book (Too Big to Fail) about the gory mess that was The Great Recession.

(Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart have recently placed our mess into historical context, like 800 years of context).

The Depeche Mode song was Never Let Me Down Again. (It sounded so good that I had a morning of Depeche Mode). Someone at Marketplace has both excellent music recall and wit to follow up a story about those at the helm of a crisis with the imperative to not let us down.

Now here's the Slurpee bit because there's a kind of chain reaction that swirls in Nanney Land and when I pull the handle, splat onto the blog it goes.

The song's lyrics include:

We're flying high
We're watching the world pass us by
Never want to come down
Never want to put my feet back down


Which, I believe, is a narrative about either tripping with his friend or the emotional arc of some friendships, especially young ones. Still relevant to the dim witted response of the regulators when The Mighty Bear went down? Maybe not.

I love the description of flying high. Because I am on my way to a Jung event tonight, I found myself mulling over the lyrics and especially a passage by Marie Louise von Franz about youth's search for euphoria, the flying high:

"What children are offered today in the way of religion is often insufficient and does not reach the emotional depths any longer. So, naturally, they have a longing to be ecstatically gripped and to experience moments in life where one is lifted out of one's miserable existence. Because they do not get the wine of the Holy Ghost, they drink the dirty water of the street instead." (from von Franz's The Golden Ass of Apuleius)

She goes on to catalogue the dirty water (e.g. drugs). But I have to wonder if those who financially engineered our way into the global mess are the same people who in college maybe found ecstasy in Depeche Mode. Probably not.

Nov 3, 2009

Writers & Booze, again

I tweeted awhile ago about Writers & Booze, what an old story it is. Think of Faulkner and Dashiell Hammet appearing at a black tie party in tweeds and eventually sliding off onto each other from a sofa to pass out.

William Styron is a writer who openly spoke and wrote about his forty years of boozing. I've been re-reading his excellent book on his own depression, Darkness Visible, and came across his explanation for why he and quite possibly so many other writers have adored booze so much:

"The storm [his depression] which swept me into a hospital in December began as a cloud no bigger than a wine goblet the previous June. And the cloud - the manifest crisis - involved alcohol, a substance I had been abusing for forty years. Like a great many American writers, whose sometimes lethal addiction to alcohol has become so legendary as to provide in itself a stream of studies and books, I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination. There is no need to either rue or apologize for my use of this soothing, often sublime agent, which had contributed greatly to my writing; although I never set down a line while under its influence, I did use it - often in conjunction with music - as a means to let my mind conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to. Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily - sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit."

Styron called his daily booze sessions Mood Baths. I read Darkness Visible during a prolonged visit of the Black Dog, but I kept meaning to go back to it because of Styron's exquisite use of language (just as I'm about to revisit Bill Buford's Heat for the exact same reason). But I've never heard of writers getting together to shoot heroin or shroom. They just want to drink.

Nov 2, 2009

Back to the City

Stewart Brand was the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogue and was recently interviewed on Marketplace about his new book. Here’s the bit that jumped out at me:

“I was part of the back to the land thing. In fact, I guess I encouraged a fair amount of it with the Whole Earth Catalogue in the '60s and '70s. And most of us went back to the land then and bounced pretty hard, and came back to town within two or three years having learned all sorts of important things.”

This is Walden again.

A girl once howled at me that Walden was a beautiful ode to the naturalist’s life, an environmental manifesto ahead of its time, a call for people to move back into the woods! She was one of those girls who was extremely attractive when she was angry.

My position was (and still is, 19 years later) that Thoreau only wrote about one of his two years on Walden Pond for a reason. The second year was the same as the first. It is his way of saying he learned the lesson easily.

What was the lesson, that raving gorgeous girl demanded. She was practically demented with anger and the party was avoiding us. I was getting stares from friends as if to say whatever I was doing was not going well.

Thoreau kept a journal, which you can buy from Princeton University Press in a handy sixteen volume set. Reading the journals of his Walden period will reveal that Thoreau would often sneak off to have tea and other things with friends in the city. Very often. He liked the woods and solitude, but he liked the city and friends a lot more. Walden is an admission of a failed experiment.

(That girl never left my side that night and we eventually closed down the argument - it was a draw - but that winter whenever she saw me, she clenched her teeth at me, like I had ruined the 60s for her.)

Oct 28, 2009

Kindle Version Out

I was at the St. Bride Library last night where a group gathered to admire and hear about the work of Desmond Jeffery, a typesetter and designer who worked in hot metal and letterpress until his death in 1974.

Under the guidance of several of Jeffery's contemporaries, we saw how Jeffery worked. James Mosley, one of Jeffery's contemporaries, ended his speech with a simple example of an address being set in type. You could see an artist's instinct in typesetting.

This morning I awoke to the news that my first novel, A Particular Obedience, is now available for the Kindle. Apparently Kindle owners buy three times as many books as those who buy the printed word. In some ways this is good news. On the other hand, how can you look at the work of letterpress books and the exceptional work of new book designers and not think that e-ink is a step backwards?

Oct 24, 2009

Black Thursday

Happy Black Thursday, which was the official kickoff for The Great Depression, a time when everyone could play the stock market with ten percent down. You have a dollar, the brokerage gives you nine with an invitation to invest.

A mere 69 years later, Long Term Capital Management took a spiral into insolvency having been given 25 dollars for every dollar they invested. The Mighty Bear (Sterns) went down with 33 dollars lent to them for every dollar invested. Lehman would borrow as much as 60 dollars for every dollar invested.

History repeats itself, just never exactly and precisely.

I was looking around for literary notes about The Great Depression. P. G. Wodehouse moved to Hollywood in 1930 and cheerfully pocketed $1700 a week from a studio. Faulkner was able to buy Rowan Oak for a discount because of the bad times. Hal Smith, Faulkner's publisher, originally refused to publish Sanctuary, which included a rape by corncob. Smith thought the novel would land them in jail. But with the onset of The Great Depression, Smith re-evaluated his position and decided the novel was just the thing to help them out of their financial trouble.

How times have changed, sort of.

Oct 23, 2009

Those Polite British

British roads appear to be laid out in quarter mile strips connected by roundabouts, also known in Americanese as Traffic Circles. The roundabout is surely a hangover from the days when a horse-drawn carriages could not make a perfect 90 degree right turn. Or left turn. The British change slowly, very slowly. No need to simplify things for the motor car, not just yet.

Cannonballing down quarter mile stretches of road forces quick decisions. Your two lanes suddenly become three. Three lanes squeeze into the roundabout, where traffic is whizzing around it. The roundabout has No Lanes. Technically most roundabouts have two lanes, but no one draws lines and most drivers in a roundabout move through them in single file. Sometimes there is guidance. The signs tell you which lane you should be in. Sometimes not. But you can sure as hell bet that most of the locals are either complacent or as equally confused as you are. We all take the safe way out and stay in the left lane.

How could traffic be so fucked up in a modern country? How could two lanes become a swerving single lane on a modern road?

My only explanation is that there are not nearly enough guns nor litigation in the United Kingdom. (Here's a quote from Justin Webb's BBC piece: "A British man I met in Colorado recently told me he used to live in Kent but he moved to the American state of New Jersey and will not go home because it is, as he put it, 'a gentler environment for bringing the kids up.'" Thank you Howard Walker.)

In the United States there would be no such thing as the colossally fucked up roundabout known as Sadlers Farm on the A13, pictured below. Look closely at the satellite photo. That would be one giant roundabout which contains five, yes, five smaller roundabouts on it.


In the U.S., someone would have sued the governing body responsible for building that roundabout or there would have been so many shootings out of frustration and anger that the locals would have changed it.

Oct 11, 2009

Guardian Introduces Kindle

Yesterday The Guardian ran a piece by Nicholas Baker. He introduces the UK to the Kindle. Here's a slice of his excellent writing:

"This was what they were calling e-paper? This four-by-five window on to an overcast afternoon? Where was paper white, or paper cream? Where were sharp black letters laid out like lacquered chopsticks on a clean tablecloth?"

A longer version was originally printed in The New Yorker on 3 August 2009. He ultimately moves beyond the compromise of technology to lose himself to The Lincoln Lawyer, but how can you not look at e-readers and remember the days when you waited and waited for web pages to load or video took a step back into jerky and murky? This is the real conundrum of advancing technology. Hope carries us to the imperfect machines and buggy code. I'm still a fan of letterpress and believe that a well designed book is like a window onto the writing. If the window is clean, you do not notice it.

Oct 9, 2009

ePub vs. Kindle

The latest religious technology war is over format.

There are so many memorable technology wars, especially around format, that you have to wonder if the publishing industry has paid attention to history. There was VHS against Betamax and a very similar Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD. (While these people were duking it out, streaming video sneaked right by with a guerilla attack, slow but effective).

Publishing is looking at the abyss of another format war: ePub versus Kindle’s proprietary AZW format.

I spent many painful years in Information Technology and can give you a geek’s view of ePub and Kindle from the trench. Here are the basics.

ePub is an open standard and has the ability to present well designed books. That means an ePub book can be transferred to any device that reads ePub and there are a growing number, including the iPhone. The ability to format a book well is supported by ePub, which uses nearly complete CSS and XML functionality, but reflowable text – the very engine of eBooks – is no competition for a well designed book.

The Kindle format is roughly at the level of Netscape Navigator, that browser we all used to use. I’m talking about the 1.1 version. The Kindle only supports very rough HTML. They might say XML, but everything you can do with the Kindle format, you could do with HTML in 1995. And only a Kindle can read it.

The crux for publishers is that right now Amazon is completely dominate in this space and to not follow (actually bow to) the leader is to leave money on the table.

And Sony and the other ePub (hardware) supporters do not make it easy for small publishers and interested authors to publish to their platforms. Disregard the recent Smashwords and Author Solutions agreement with Sony. Smashwords uses a “grinder” to create ePub, which is not very attractive if you’ve invested in a carefully crafted ePub document. Author Solutions appears not to be returning emails.

Amazon on the other hand makes it very easy for small publishers to offer books on the Kindle.

The great unknown is Google, which supports ePub. They will soon be offering to sell ePub books.

The ePub vs. Kindle fight really comes down to who you think will win, Amazon or Google. It is a tough fight to handicap because Amazon is naturally dominate in books, but those Google people are very smart and competitive. Discount the hardware makers. These battles will never be about hardware, which will soon enough be cheap and readily available and in some cases irrelevant (back to the iPhone and whatever tablet Apple will offer). If you are in publishing, you know the fighters already, because in one way or another, Google and Amazon dominate you.

Sep 28, 2009

Film Adaptations – Silence of the Lambs

One of the blurbs on the cover of Thomas Harris’ splatterpunk novel, The Silence of the Lambs, came from The Washington Post: “A virtual textbook on the craft of suspense.” I have not found the review that this might have come from, but the quotation is forcefully true.

The Silence of the Lambs is not only a textbook on the genre, but practically ready-made for the screen. If you compare the novel with Ted Tally’s second draft script and finally with the finished movie, you will find nearly perfect fidelity to the novel.

Here and there the director, Jonathan Demme, or Ted Tally made changes. In the script, the opening scene was a hostage training situation at the FBI academy. In the movie, the opening scene is Clarice Starling on a run, giving time for credits and orientation and setting up the metaphor that would persist through the film: Starling in solitary pursuit. (One of the devices used in the story is that Clarice’s solitary work is most successfully supplemented by Lector – she is fed by the kind of darkness which she is trying to eradicate). The novel’s opening scene is much quicker; Starling is already in Crawford’s office. Starling and the reader are thrown into the hellish world of Buffalo Bill and Lector immediately.

The film is another one of those mixtures where known quantities come together at their most potent. Anthony Hopkins is truly terrifying as Hannibal. I was in Boulder, Colorado in 1990 when a killer was on the loose. A lot of people left town. If I had known that Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal was out there, I would have left the country. Add to Mr. Harris’ story Jody Foster, Jonathan Demme, Ted Tally, Scott Glenn and Ted Levine (the poor guy who played Jame Gumb – apparently the role did not help his career), and you have a movie that matches the novel in its power. It was simply not repeated.

Sep 24, 2009

Contest Entry Redux

Today is National Punctuation Day, which strikes me as bizarre. Even more bizarre is that I entered Grammar Girl's National Punctuation Day Contest, which I neither won nor placed. Such is the democratic nature of the Internet that you may still read my entry below. This is the literary equivalent of wasting not even a single ingredient in the kitchen, even using the potato peelings.

THE PARENTHESIS - TOOL OF THE MULTIPLE-MINDED

If your morning cup of coffee is at war with last night’s wine, if you find yourself torn between Emily Post and Fight Club, if your id and superego have literary battles, then the parenthesis is for you.

The official pigeon hole of the parenthesis is to set off explanatory or qualifying remarks.

An example might help. Here is a snippet of my recent email to a friend. I was complaining about the lousy vocabulary of social networking. "Even the terms are crap: Blog (sounds like something I dislodge from my nose), Twitter (what old ladies do at a tea), Facebook (a hair shy of pornographic)…"

You can tell from his first three entries about the parenthesis that H. W. Fowler (a God in my grammatical world) hates the parenthetical statement. He admonishes on the appropriate length, relevance and identification of parenthetical statements. He hasn’t a kind word for it.

It is true that the parenthesis has its place, usually in short informal missives, where the mind can wander as it pleases. It is the kind of punctuation that does not belong in a novel. (I'll pay you a dollar if you find one in my first novel).

But I see something much more deviant in a parenthesis. It is the counterweight to the main line of thought. It is Mr. Hyde’s snide comment to the polite house call of Dr. Jekyll. “As I was trying to point out to my (dumbass) colleague yesterday over coffee…”

The parenthetical statement is the dose of comedy in a tragically serious line of thought. “As I was trying to console a Steve Irwin mourner (he was asking for it!)…”

It allows manic-depressives to conveniently pursue both mania and gloom in a single sentence. “Hope you enjoyed my entry (if you bothered to read it).”

The parenthesis is the Swiss Army Knife, the duct tape and the WD-40 of the multiple-minded writer.

Sep 22, 2009

Typescript Stolen. Carry On.

If you want a good example of a writer’s persistence, check out Anthony Burgess’s account of having a typescript stolen.

"I wrote a book on the language of James Joyce, I carried it in its Gucci case towards a Xerox shop to be copied, but it was scippato on the way. The typescript was presumably fluttered into the Tiber or Tevere and the case sold for a few thousand lire."

His response to losing his only copy of a typescript: "I had to write the book again, not with too much resentment: it was probably better the second time."

This incident incites a kind of anxiety in me that only finds acquiescence if I make three or four different backups of all my files each week and hide them in various places. It would make me paranoid to explain where, but trust me, there are backups everywhere.

This is the same Anthony Burgess who begins his two volume autobiography by writing that a writer’s life does not go beyond a picture of the writer at a desk. He simply could not be stopped.

I have complained to friends about the mammoth effort of writing a novel. For the last one, I pecked out 600,000 words in five drafts. It started as my Jazz novel, transited to a complete history of one family’s long ugly battle to stay rich and powerful, and finally settled into a story about two powerful Southern women at about 80,000 words. Whenever a pity-party started in my own head – usually at the beginning of a writing day – I had only to think of Anthony Burgess weighing the loss of his Gucci case and his typescript and turning around to go back home and rewrite it from scratch. It sent me back to work.

Sep 19, 2009

Actually Induced Hallucinations

There seems to be a lot of excitement on Twitter about Jung’s The Red Book. There was an article in the New York Times Magazine about the release of The Red Book by Norton. The release date is 7 October 2009 and the price is $195.00 (Amazon is listing it for $117.00).

Jung’s method for creating The Red Book was called Active Imagination, which the NYTimes described as “actually induced hallucinations.” The contents of such an exercise are often a mixture of personal and collective unconscious materials, a sort of dumping out of the unconscious.

I thought I’d weigh in with some supplementary reading suggestions for those who are unfamiliar with Active Imagination.

You can read what Jung himself has said about the method in a book that collects his “key readings” on the subject. The book is entitled C. G. Jung on Active Imagination and is edited by Joan Chodorow. There is a great elaboration on active imagination by Barbara Hannah, who used case studies to further illustrate and explore the method. Ms. Hannah’s book is entitled Encounters with the Soul. And, if you want more, try Marie Louise von Franz’s Alchemical Active Imagination, a heavy duty look at an alchemist’s use of the method before it was called Active Imagination. I’m a huge fan of Marie Louise von Franz’s work, but this is not a zippily read book.

Dr. Sonu Shamdasani is one of the translators of The Red Book and provided the scholarly apparatus. He has studied Jungian psychology for more than 15 years and is the Big Brain who spent 5 years working intensively on The Red Book.

In the NYTimes article, Dr. Shamdasani injects the right note of wariness about people wanting to rush right into The Red Book: “Already there are Jungians planning conferences and lectures devoted to the Red Book, something that Shamdasani finds amusing. Recalling that it took him years to feel as if he understood anything about the book, he’s curious to know what people will be saying about it just months after it is published.”

(A couple of endnotes. Not all Jungians, as described in the NYTimes article, will strangely, immediately and sometimes inappropriately ask you about your dreams. A plug: My first novel, A Particular Obedience, flirts with Analytical Psychology. My second novel, to be released in the summer of 2010, uses a Jungian analysis as part of the narrative. It is entitled How Jung Fluffed My Cotton Candy Powder Dreams).

Sep 15, 2009

Appreciation of David Cornwell

John le Carré is the pen name of David Cornwell, a writer who is often not given his due. His genre is the spy or espionage novel. The Guardian actually labelled him Graham Greene-Light. I have read a lot of Graham Greene and all of David Cornwell’s novels (he uses the word “lugubrious” exactly once in each of his twenty-one novels). Mr. Cornwell’s novels stack up at least as well as Greene’s, if not better. If you want to see the difference, compare le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Both are beautifully written examples of the genre, but there is a deftness to Cornwell’s narrative, to his characterization, to how he unfolds the story that Graham is lacking. To be fair, Graham’s weary self-confident style of writing suits his protagonist perfectly.

Cornwell is like Hitchcock in that he is often dismissed as not serious because of the genre in which he works. In his one non-spy novel, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, you can see how the absence of an espionage backdrop loosens his writing. I heard an interview in which Cornwell said he realized after The Naïve and Sentimental Lover that readers did not want those kinds of novels from him. The implication is that he turned back to genre for money. Who can blame him?

It took François Truffaut to isolate Hitchcock’s technique and make the world see that Hitchcock was a master filmmaker not just a circus performer. I wonder when the literati will discover the depth of David Cornwell. He is an exquisite writer.

Sep 13, 2009

Projection in Paris, Texas

If you want an exceptional example of (Jungian) projection in film - and a killer soundtrack by Ry Cooder - take a look at Wim Wender’s 1984 film, Paris, Texas. It is another psychological powerhouse of a film and another film in which a triumvirate (i.e. Sam Shepard, Wim Wenders and Harry Dean Staunton) play off each other for exceptional performances.

Travis, played by Harry Dean Staunton, is the drifter who has been rescued by his brother. He finds that his wife has disappeared and left his son in the care of his brother and brother’s wife. His family is broken and scattered. In unravelling how this happened, Travis comes face-to-face with the great tragedy of his life. He’s trying to explain it to his son by way of describing how his father saw his mother:

“He looked at her,
but he didn't see her.
He, he saw this idea.”

It is a scene that explains the title of the movie. It explains why Travis’ brother married a French woman. And finally it explains why Travis can never return to his wife. He has figured out his problem and the tragedy that unfolds is that he knows he cannot solve it. The implication is that he has to chose who will raise his son: his wife or he.

It is a carefully constructed scene and shows the destructive side of projection, in this case how Travis has projected his own idealized version of a woman onto his wife. All men carry this idealization with them. She has remarkable power. She can open the gateway to the unconscious or mess you about in a whirlwind of indecision. She can torture the women in your life or help you settle into the world. It all depends on the details of that idealized woman and the relationship a man has with her.

Sep 11, 2009

Best Sellers - Follow Up

Very amusing tweet from RonCharles at the Washington Post:

Just came from LOST SYMBOL planning mtg: 6 editors & 3 writers plotting Dan Brown coverage. Serious novelists must be slitting their wrists.

Nice addendum to my earlier post. (Need to get one of those breathalyzer thingys rigged to the keyboard).

Best Sellers

The news in publishing is all about Best Sellers right now because Dan Brown is due to release his next novel.

It is very easy to dismiss the literary merit of such best sellers. A friend of mine once wrote, “[Wilton Barnhardt’s] Gospel made me want to use The Da Vinci Code for hamster-cage litter.” Some best sellers carry great literary weight, but they are the exceptions, like Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which reportedly has sold 200 million copies. (How do people know this?)

Here are some pulp numbers. Jackie Collins has sold more than 400 million books. Nora Roberts, 280 million. Danielle Steel, 550 million. The Da Vinci Code, 80 million.

What is it that drives so many people to these books? Because certainly these books are offering something that a lot of people want.

A best seller doesn’t have to be especially well written. It has to be predictable but not too predictable. Familiar might be a better word. It has to engage the brain, but not tax it. Like a drivers license in the U.S., it has to be accessible to a large number of people. But above all else, best sellers have to tell a good story.

Sep 9, 2009

One Part Suffering

Writers have been forever talking and writing about how painful and difficult it is to write a novel. “It is like walking to China on your knees.” Even Gabriel Garicia Marquez complains about the difficulty of writing.

I think good literary novels are one part technique and one part suffering. Technique can be learned. The suffering is different. It is the slow maturation of the soul. The Ancient Greeks believed that “we must suffer into truth” or, to put it another way, suffering is knowledge. Jungians describe the perfect cooking of the soul. The good reader can see the author cooking his own soul on the page and the thrill, if the technique is good, is being a witness to it.

Sep 7, 2009

Southern Women - First Blush

I grew up in the American South and was surrounded by women who were beautifully described by Florence King in Southern Ladies and Gentlemen as “required to be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy and scatterbrained – all at the same time. Her problems spring from the fact that she succeeds.” As I was born in the late 1960s and began to see how people acted in the 1970s (Goodbye 70s), I was aware that this Old South ideal of women was clashing very hard with reality, especially the raging Feminism all around me. I knew Old South men who dismissed Feminism as “ugly women ganging up to snatch what is not theirs.” What I saw was something very different.

While I knew that I would be writing about strong Southern women in my first two novels, the issues those characters faced were far different from what I expected. Stockard Griffin, one of two main characters in A Particular Obedience, explores morality through sex and eventually finds that morality, which governs power, love, everything, is a very individual thing and certainly not dictated by church nor society. This was not consciously planned.

Sep 5, 2009

Film Adaptations - David Mamet

David Mamet adapted Barry Reed’s 1980 The Verdict for the 1982 movie. I’m not one of those blind worshippers of Mamet, but you can begin to understand Mamet’s brilliance in his adaptation. There was very little of the novel left unchanged.

One example of the changes Mamet made is the defense’s spy, Laura Fischer, played by Charlotte Rampling. In the book, the same character is named Donna St. Laurent and she is only deceitful for a small portion of the novel, very early on. In terms of literary tension, the novel character is almost a throwaway. Mamet stretches Donna’s deceit out for almost the entire film and makes it the final obstacle to the redemption of Frank Galvin (played by Paul Newman). When Galvin, a drunkard lawyer who is continually pummelled by powerful adversaries (e.g. the Church, the courts, the prince-of-darkness attorney, and even his own clients) learns that his newfound love is betraying him, the build up is already so complete that the characters' own mental pressures makes the audience's heads buzz. You almost want to offer Galvin a drink yourself.

(You might have recently recognized one of Galvin’s trademark lines cribbed by a few politicians. The line: “If not now, then when?”)

The director of the film, Sydney Lumet, delves into how brilliantly Mamet has written the script on the DVD commentary. He rhapsodizes about how Mamet never wastes dialogue or scene for just plot, but how both are continually used to characterize, how Mamet leads us up and down, hinting, pulling, registering details, and delivering a resolution to an almost impossible situation. All this and the movie is on the surface only a courtroom drama. The Mamet-Lumet-Newman tour de force is worth a long essay in itself, but Lumet recognizes the subtlety and power of the script. By my count, Lumet only deviated from the Mamet script three times.

It was said that Picasso could look at another’s painting, figure out what the painter was trying to do and then go home and do it better, which is why when Picasso came to Paris, everyone locked up their paintings. Mamet has performed the same trick on The Verdict.

Sep 3, 2009

Chasing A Little Ball

This is a splendiferous time of the year. The summer heat is making a retreat. The leaves are changing. It rained all night and we awoke to crisper almost autumnal air. And, of course, (American) football season begins tonight!

I have been revisiting Marie Louise von Franz’s books for a quote about why men get so excited about other men chasing a little ball all over a field. I think she boils it down to the struggle we all face, the opposing forces that tear us apart. Those forces are supposed to tear us apart and push us towards that maturation which Jungians call Individuation. Jungian terms can be awkward, to say the least, but this is a refreshing view of life. Life’s struggles have a point, to draw out and grow what is essential in us. This is completely at odds with the bizarre modern dictum that happiness is the goal of life.

I’ll find that von Franz quote and post a follow up but am too busy making sure the correct sports packages are lined up with my satellite provider and making other preparations for watching all those men chase that little ball around the field. Go Vols!

Sep 1, 2009

The Literary Mind

If you write books, you might be pessimistic about your dwindling audience. The Internet and video games take most of the blame for dying newspapers, less watched television and a slumping publishing industry. There are plenty of reasons for hope, including the 400+ million Harry Potter books which have been sold. There is an entire generation growing up reading J. K. Rowling’s lengthy novels. The path to serious reading includes all kinds of books: Curious George, Judy Blume, Conan The Barbarian, and The Destroyer series. And now J. K. Rowling has helped create a generation of readers and they will be looking for more good things to read.

The other cause for hope? People are starting to recognize that the Internet might be doing funny things to the way we think. I first heard of Nicholas Carr on NPR’s On The Media. Carr said , “My fear is that we're substituting [sic] kind of the literary mind, which was a mind that was patient, could concentrate on a single line of reading for an extended period of time; we're replacing that mind with [sic] kind of the mind that the Internet is encouraging in us, which is a mind that wants to seek out as much information as quickly as possible.” The good news is that Carr is not alone in recognizing the problem and there are a lot of readers suffering from Link Fatigue and will find solace in returning to their Literary Minds.

Aug 30, 2009

Film Adaptations – Donald Stewart

One of my diversions is comparing good stories as they are told in books versus on film. There are loads of examples of books making very successful transitions to the screen. My list of favorites includes Donald Stewart’s adaptations of three of Tom Clancy’s novels: The Hunt For Red October; Patriot Games; and Clear And Present Danger. Other people were credited with those screenplays alongside Stewart, but he is the common thread. And since Stewart stopped working on Clancy’s adaptations (he died in 1999), the film adaptations are forgettable. Think of The Sum of All Fears. Coincidence?

If you read the novels and dissect how Stewart distilled and structured the stories, how he cleaned up the narratives, you realize what an art form screenwriting can be. In Patriot Games, for example, the red wigged crack shot Annette was created for the film. Played by the painfully beautiful Polly Walker - picture of her above left after she had just knocked off a bothersome IRA brigade leader - she was also the thread that linked the various stories together and the vital clue that pushed towards the denouement. If she was in the novel at all, she was a passing mention as an arrested red headed “assassin”, but certainly not a fully developed character and a vital thread to the story.

There are hundreds of such details in Stewart’s film adaptations. He helped make the films carefully crafted works. I have read that Tom Clancy was very upset at the film adaptations of his books, but Stewart’s adaptations are tighter than the novels.

Aug 28, 2009

Jung & von Franz

C. G. Jung is my North Star, although I find it has taken me years to learn how to read him. Jung writes in a roundabout style, often dense with concepts and sparse with razor clarity. This is not an accurate reflection of his psychology, which I find to be incisive and profound, the revelations crisp. After wading into analytical psychology I eventually found Marie Louise von Franz, who worked closely with Jung. Her explanations of Jung’s concepts are clear and profound and while I was writing A PARTICULAR OBEDIENCE, I found myself reading and rereading many of her books, including THE FEMININE IN FAIRY TALES (Shambhala, 1993).

Miss von Franz writes about the passing of emotional disposition and oppressive ancestral baggage from one generation to the next. She uses as an example a man who was bullied by his mother and then married a bullying wife. “The only way out is to take the responsibility for what one is, and to make an enormous effort to interrupt the curse or the chain” (p119). In her example, the man realized that his father had been bullied in much the same way and that he had to stop the cycle or pass it on to his son, which he did not want to do. Having become aware of the problem, the man had to solve it.

I read this two years into writing A PARTICULAR OBEDIENCE and was stopped in my tracks because this is the core of the novel. Ancestral baggage that is not confronted will continue to curse families.

Aug 26, 2009

Release

My first novel, A PARTICULAR OBEDIENCE, has been released. It was not launched like a rocket into outer space. The release was more like a fish plopping into a stream, me hoping that it makes its way upstream past the green waders and hooked lines, past the pawing grizzlies and finally to a place where it can make lots of books just like it.

This explains why I suddenly have a blog and my name can at last be Googled. I have carefully avoided these things, but authors, especially New Authors, must promote promote promote their work, else their work disappears into the tsunami of 100,000+ books published each year. I hold my nose and pick up Self-Promotion with tongs.