Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Golden Rule of Storytelling (as exemplified by Breaking Bad)

Here is the only necessary law of successful narrative fiction, the Golden Rule of Storytelling: The only law is the law of unintended consequences. This is how good stories proceed: from the unexpected through the unforeseen to the utterly unpredictable. Good narratives move through a series of major actions and the ramifying unintended consequences of those actions. It's the unexpectedness of the consequences that sustains a reader's interest, keeps readers reading and wondering what the hell will happen next. A story in which actions have only their expected consequences is a dull, unimaginative thing.

I could exemplify this rule with any good narrative from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to Chabon's Wonder Boys, but because I'm of the opinion that the most cogent criticism of contemporary American literary fiction is the inarguable fact that no American novel of the past 13 years has captured the insanity of contemporary life in this country as effectively as two cable series, Breaking Bad and The Wire, I'm going to make my argument with reference to the tale of Walter Hartwell White. The overall five-season arc of Breaking Bad can perhaps best be described as a study in increasingly severe unintended consequences. White's initial decision to cook meth has the almost immediate consequence of forcing him to turn his RV into an improvised mobile gas chamber for the defensive killing of two drug dealers. (This detail from the pilot dovetails perfectly with Walter's final incarnation, five seasons later, as an inadvertent fundraiser for neo-Nazis. His first Nazified killing foreshadows the man he will become.) This act has the unintended consequence of failing to kill Krazy 8, which leads to him being treated like an Abu Ghraib prisoner in Jesse's basement and plotting to kill Walter with a pottery shard. His theft of the shard has the consequence of convincing Walter, who had decided to free Krazy 8, to instead murder him, slowly and brutally. And so the series continues, through unintended consequences large and small, the most apocalyptic of these being the Wayfarer 515 disaster at the end of season two. This was the ultimate unintended consequence of Walter's attempt to rouse Jesse, which accidentally knocked Jane onto her back, a position in which she choked to death, a death which impaired her air traffic controller father (memorably played by John de Lancie, a character actor almost as ubiquitous as Bryan Cranston) and caused the disastrous midair collision that was the Breaking Bad world's September 11. Only in the series' very last episode, dedicated to fan-pleasing and loose-end tying, do the characters' actions have always and only the predictable consequences. This was of course a structural exigency--unintended consequences would have kept in motion a narrative machine the finale was required to shut down--but it produced a final hour that (for me, anyway) swerved away from the unpredictable spirit of the series and left me feeling rather unsatisfied.

A Thought on Sade, after reading Justine and Philosophy in the Bedroom

Like many thinkers who mistakenly think themselves 'radical,' the Marquis de Sade possesses a worldview stalled in the first moment of a deconstructive dialectic. He is stuck in the rut of moral inversion, revaluing evil as good and then moving on to revalue evil as good in another anecdote. This is his only trick, and like a mentally-challenged magician he performs it again and again and again... Sade simply inverts the traditional good/evil moral binary and then prematurely arrests the dialectic at this point, failing to appreciate the instability of the inversion and further failing to conclude that both the binary and its inversion depend upon and perpetuate an ideology that they serve to conceal, patriarchy. (In this way, Sade is very much like a fatuous academic feminist trapped in an intellectually moronic "women good, men bad" worldview. Lest you think this is a caricature, I can assure you that I have known more than one academic feminist who actually thinks this way.) Sade's texts can be easily deconstructed, but they fail to deconstruct themselves (in the way, for a contrasting example, that Paul de Man argued Rousseau's texts deconstruct themselves, obviating the need for Derrida). The Undivine Marquis's thought, in short, is facile and immature, his prose is mediocre, his artistry deficient. Finally, I can read him only as a silly satirist with a nastily misogynistic streak.

On Foreign Fiction and Ours

American literary journalism (to the extent that such a beast still exists in our decidedly post-Edmund-Wilsonian America) continues to follow its bizarre ungraven commandment about non-English language fiction: Thou Shalt Admire Only One Foreign Writer at a Time. In recent years this single slot in our national literary consciousness has been filled by W. G. Sebald, then Roberto Bolano, then Javier Marias, then a quartet of Hungarians who slid past faster than bad goulash through a colon (Marai, Esterhazy, Nadas, Krasznahorkai--I ask admirers of these four apocalyptic horsemen (estimable writers all) to pardon my excremental simile), and now the overrated critic James Wood is easing Norway's Karl Ove Knausgaard into the slot. (I haven't read him yet, but his stuff looks potentially interesting, and I've already mis-Englished his funny name to "Charlie Oily Noseguard.") So despite the fact that our intubated, respirator-attached, heart monitor-beeping literary establishment only notices one etranger at a time, this phenomenon still evinces a hunger for foreign fiction. The outlanders give us something that our domestic product fails to provide.

In the case of Sebald, the powerful attraction many American readers and writers feel toward his fiction may be directly comparable to the attraction British writers of a century ago felt for the nineteenth-century Russian novel. Against the comforting, overstuffed palisade of our safe, middle-class literature, these foreign works hurl existential cannonballs. As Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did when read by the Bloomsburyites against the background of Trollope and Bennett, Sebald and Bolano insist upon the importance of the "big questions" in an age when our fiction has become narrow and domesticated. Foreign writers somehow haven't learned to fear the huge themes that invigorated the best American literature of the 19th and 20th centuries: the fundamental matters of existence and its opposite, meaning and meaninglessness, good and/as evil, the absence of the supernatural, the presence of death--themes that can perhaps be encompassed in a single, packed phrase: the terror of nothingness and the wonder of being. In a word (or two), existential anxiety is the quantity missing from our academicized fiction. While American literary fiction focuses on issues and identities (the family, feminism, the environment, minority rights, racism, identity politics), foreign writers such as Sebald, David Grossman, Peter Nadas, Laszlo Krasznahorkai insist upon that Melvillean "little lower layer" that obstinately refuses to be dissolved in the ironic acids of so-called postmodernism. (That last word fires off an extended parenthetical digression: Postmodernism is less 'post' than 'posthaste;' at its most dogmatic, it's a frenzied, hysterical flight from the concerns of Modernism that becomes, in our ivy-covered halls of mirrors, a monstrous parody of Modernist narcissism. Who among writers, after all, was or is more tormentedly self-imprisoned than David Foster Wallace? In an amusing but too-influential essay, he nicknamed Updike, Roth and Mailer--three phallic pillars of American late Modernism--"the Great Male Narcissists." One might reply that Wallace, the So-So Suicidal Solipsist, wasn't much of an improvement upon his elders. My current view of Wallace is that while he wrote some very good stuff (most of it hidden deep inside Infinite Jest), as a writer--that is, as an artist in prose--he rarely approaches the level at which William Vollmann and Annie Proulx comfortably cruise. Nor, it must be said, does his prose compare well with that of Updike, Styron, Roth, Gass, or most of the other Old White Narcs. And now I slam down the closing parenthesis:) After half a century of postmodern American novels, of prurient parody and paranoid pastiche, of mutating metafictions and mutilated meditations, we find ourselves gazing abroad for signs of writers still concerned with those archetypal "modern themes" that the coiner of the word 'metafiction,' Big Bad Billy Gass, carefully listed in his early essay on E. M. Cioran, a set of bullet points sharp enough to make any corporate Powerpointer proud:
  • alienation
  • absurdity
  • boredom
  • futility
  • decay
  • the tyranny of history
  • the vulgarities of change
  • awareness as agony
  • reason as disease
We could doubtless find all of these themes in Infinite Jest (and certainly in Gravity's Rainbow) if we looked hard enough, and finding them there would support my old contention that postmodernism is neither more nor less than late Modernism, the Modernist movement's later phase rather than its dialectical antithesis. Nonetheless, this list reads like the beginning of a litany of the 'missing pieces' we seek in Sebald and his international contemporaries.

Don DeLillo and those he has influenced (about two generations of MFA writers, by now) try to sound these themes, but their playing is too deliberate, too academic, too terribly technical and not nearly musical enough. The reader (this reader, anyway) suspects that these mostly middle-class American writers are concerned with these themes not because they've felt the claws of these realities digging into their flesh, but because they read a list of these themes in an essay by Gass and learned that this was the proper stuff of serious fiction. (In a very similar way, young Dave Wallace learned his MFA lessons well and became a postmodernist in the postmodern era, a highly conventional act of unconventionality.) What the Americans mostly lack is what some foreign writers still possess, the authenticity of lived experience. Over the past 50 years, Europeans have experienced everything from totalitarian terror to revolutionary ecstasy (the political experience, not the club drug--although that can be an experience too) while Americans sat on their couches and watched these events on TV ("Ooooh, the Berlin Wall's coming down!... Pass the picante sauce.") An old argument states that U. S. 'serious' fiction tends toward suburban realism as a function of America's economic and geopolitical position as an isolated, affluent, secure, imperial superpower in which every citizen from Bill Gates to the housekeeper who mops the pee stains off Bill Gates's bathroom floors considers himself 'middle class.' We Americans have been terribly overdetermined to produce bourgeois fiction in the manner of Anne Tyler and Joyce Carol Oates.

But that situation is, tragically, changing before our eyes. Now that the United States is in undeniable economic decline, now that we have become a site of terrorism both domestic and foreign, now that the existential fear of violent death and the paranoid psychosis of the far right have become central elements in our nation's political discourse, now that grinding poverty exists a street away from spectacular wealth and the formerly comfortable middle class feels itself sinking faster than the Titanic, the former social determinants no longer apply. By all rights, 21st-century Americans should produce a 19th-century Russian literature. The America of our time is finally, terribly, a Dostoevskyan place. We are all foreigners now.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Proustian Simile

Proust provides the best introduction to any Proustian topic, so let's begin this brief note on the Proustian simile with three increasingly complex examples from A la recherche du temps perdu:

As the spectrum makes visible to us the composition of light, so the harmony of a Wagner, the colour of an Elstir, enable us to know that essential quality of another person's sensations into which love for another person does not allow us to penetrate. -- The Captive

Faced with the thoughts, the actions of a woman whom we love, we are as completely at a loss as the world's first natural philosophers must have been, face to face with the phenomena of nature, before their science had been elaborated and had cast a ray of light over the unknown. Or, worse still, we are like a person in whose mind the law of causality barely exists, a person who would be incapable, therefore, of establishing a connexion between one phenomenon and another and to whose eyes the spectacle of the world would appear as unstable as a dream. -- Within A Budding Grove

As, from a long way off, the sight of the jutting crag from which it dives into the pool thrills with joy the children who know that they are going to see the seal, so, long before I reached the acacias, their fragrance which, radiating all around, made one aware of the approach and the singularity of a vegetable personality at once powerful and soft, then, as I drew near, the glimpsed summit of their lightly tossing foliage, in its easy grace, its coquettish outline, its delicate fabric, on which hundreds of flowers had swooped, like winged and throbbing colonies of precious insects, and finally their name itself, feminine, indolent, dulcet, made my heart beat, but with a social longing, like those waltzes which remind us only of the names of the fair dancers, called aloud as they enter the ballroom. -- Swann's Way

The Proustian simile is a perfect example of how Modernism "makes it new" by taking its methods from the oldest archaeological layers of the Western tradition. For Proust's trademark similes are merely modernizations of the epic simile, a stylistic hallmark that descends from Homer through Virgil to Dante and onward to the Renaissance epicists and their Romantic descendants. As 19th-century archaeologists dug through the Turkish dirt to bring before modern eyes the ruins of a city Andromache knew and Agamemnon burned, so Proust descended to the birthing place of Western literature and from that hillside still stinking of putrefying python pulled forth such similes as this classic comparison of young girls to flowers from Within A Budding Grove:

...these young flowers that at this moment were breaking the line of the sea with their slender hedge, like a bower of Pennsylvania roses adorning a cliffside garden, between whose blooms is contained the whole tract of ocean crossed by some steamer, so slow in gliding along the blue, horizontal line that stretches from one stem to the next that an idle butterfly, dawdling in the cup of a flower which the ship's hull has long since passed, can wait, before flying off in time to arrive before it, until nothing but the tiniest chink of blue still separates the prow from the first petal of the flower towards which it is steering.

This is an especially complex example, beginning with a metaphor that likens the band of girls strolling along the shore to "young flowers" before modulating, at "like," into the epic simile that consumes the rest of the passage. Proust (or should we say Moncrieff?) departs here from the classic "" form he uses elsewhere, but conceptually there is little difference between Proust's comparison of Albertine's "little band" to a bouquet and Homer's comparison of doomed warriors to falling leaves. The major, specifically Modernist difference lies in the way the vehicle subsumes the tenor. The roses all but erase our readerly vision of the group of seaside girls. Albertine and her friends are lost behind an image of flowers that reads very much like a close description of a canvas by Monet or Cezanne. (Proust's painter Elstir, whom the narrator meets in this volume, seems a composite of Monet, Whistler and Cezanne.) The radical flattening of space in Proust's image--the vastness of the sea contained in a flower garden and a tiny insect placed in parallel with an ocean-going steamship--is as much a stylistic signature of Cezanne as the epic simile is of Proust. It fairly screams Modernism. But the writer is not content to relax into the echoes of this exclamation. He pushes things further and animates the image, showing us the moving tanker, the flying Nabokovian blue (for what else could it be?), and in so doing he trades the brush of Monet for the camera of Lumiere. Perhaps unintentionally, the way genius often follows its muse, Proust brings his text of memory (both personal and literary) forward into the cinematic century of its composition.

More could be said about this passage. Most obviously, one might comment upon the butterfly as an image of the narrator's erotic desire, floating promiscuously over the group as a whole before coming to rest on Albertine--a desire that might feel subjectively like the 'buzzing blooming confusion' of an insect but look to an outside observer more like the lumbering progress of an oil tanker... And even more could be said. More can always be said about great art. That's why any acceptable commentary on the entire Recherche would surely run to at least 14 volumes. Better to just read Proust and puzzle it out for ourselves.

List No More : Ten Reasons Why I Will Post No More Lists On This Blog

  1. Every lame-ass blog in the imaginary electronic universe is cluttered with nonsensical lists.
  2. The decontextualized data imparted by lists exemplifies the valorization of information and the parallel devaluation of knowledge that are two of the most salient intellectual consequences of our current technological revolution. (The ongoing transformation of formal education into vocational training is a much more important manifestation of this phenomenon.) 
  3. Justin Bieber.
  4. I asked myself, "What would Faulkner do?" (and a Snopes replied, "No more a yer goldarn lists, ya carpetbaggin' varmint!")
  5. I need more time to work on my arrangement of Tristan und Isolde for single banjo.
  6. If Norman Mailer were here, he'd be head-butting me right now.
  7. Emily Deschanel's eyes.
  8. I've spent far too much time at the downward-spiraling Huffington Post paging through all those useless "literary" lists that exist solely to amplify HuffPo's hit count and thus increase corporate ad revenue.
  9. Will Shakespeare told me to stop.
  10. Vita brevis.