Friday, September 29, 2006

Dear Aaron Sorkin: One Tiny Studio 60 Response

Welcome back to television, Aaron Sorkin--we've missed you! It's been a lonely three years without you, watching The West Wing teeter and topple (and then right itself, a little, towards the end). I've got quite a few things to say about your new show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip--most of them, just to be clear, quite complementary. But I'm going to hold off on any serious discussion for a while, let the show find its voice before I start taking it apart to see what makes it tick. Right now, however, I have one teeny-tiny complaint.

We all laughed, some of us less comfortably than others, at the subplot on The West Wing a few years back. Sure, you were sticking it to your fans for being so uppity as to have an opinion about your work, but you had the presence of mind to latch on to the caricature of the bossy, tyrannical forum moderator--a stereotype rooted in an all-too painful reality, which most internet users had probably encountered and lampooned themselves long before you thought to do so. Plus, only a cold, black heart could fail to find humor in the sight of C.J. Cregg threatening to shove a motherboard "so far up [Josh Lyman's] ass!" So you got a pass from internet fandom for that one.

Which might have inspired you to go back to that well in "The Cold Open," Studio 60's second and most recent episode, in a scene in which comedians Simon and Tom belittle a blogger for criticizing their show (or, more precisely, for having nothing better to do than blog critically about their show). And I'm sorry, but this time around the joke isn't quite so funny.

For future reference, here's how the world works:

You can make the premise of your show the argument that television should be taken seriously as an artform by the people who make and distribute it, or you can deride the people who do take it seriously enough to criticize it. You can't do both.

You can extol the value of professionalism, as exemplified in this instance by the credential system, or you can make the week's villain an evangelical magazine with a high circulation and then boggle at the notion that said magazine might get a credential to a major network press conference. You can't do both.

You can harangue television in a five-minute speech that has had the internet abuzz since June, calling for a commitment to quality and integrity, or you can have a blogger express the same thoughts only to be called a loser. You can't do both.

But most importantly, you can call bloggers and internet fans hacks and ridicule the notion that they have anything of meaning to contribute to the conversation, or you can have your characters decide that their cutting-edge, high-concept, razzle-dazzle-knock-'em-on-their ass cold open is going to be a Gilbert & Sullivan filk.

You can't do both.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Old New York, New Wyoming: Two Short Story Collections

It seems impossible to credit, but after more than a year of blogging, I have yet to talk about Edith Wharton, whose two most famous works, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, are, in my opinion, two of the finest novels in the English language*. Since reading and falling in love with the latter some two years ago, I've been meaning to make further inroads into Wharton's bibliography. Last week, I finally got around to doing so, first with the novella Ethan Frome--bane of American high school students--and then with The Muse's Tragedy and Other Stories, which selects twenty of the 83 short stories published by Wharton over a career that spanned four decades.

Ethan Frome is a famously atypical story for Wharton--it is set, not in the opulent New York drawing rooms and sun-drenched meadows of country retreats which make up the scenery of most of her writing, but in rural Massachusetts, and among poor, hardworking farmers. The stories in The Muse's Tragedy, however, return to Wharton's more familiar setting, and to her more familiar topics--a panoramic view of old New York's high society, its cliques and customs, and the way in which they frustrate and confine individual passion. While The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth were tragedies, the stories in this collection run the gamut of emotional modes. There are tragedies here, to be sure, but also comedies, satires, and even ghost stories, all reflecting the underlying theme of Wharton's entire writing career--the relationship between the individual and their community.

There are some stunning pieces in The Muse's Tragedy, which rival Wharton's novels for complexity and emotional effect. In "Autres Temps...," a middle-aged divorcée returns from her self-imposed Florentine exile when her daughter leaves her own husband for another man. Fearing the same ostracism for her child that she had been forced to endure years earlier, the heroine instead discovers a more relaxed moral standard, and allows herself to believe that she too might be able to resume a life in society. At the end of the story, however, it becomes clear that "My case has been passed on and classified: I'm the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half-forgotten why, and the younger ones have never truly known: it's simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meanings are the hardest of all to destroy." In "Souls Belated," a woman who has run away with her lover is granted a divorce, and must decide whether to remarry. Over her lover's uncomprehending objections, she exclaims
"don't you see what a cheap compromise it is? We neither of us believe in the abstract 'sacredness' of marriage; we both know that no ceremony is needed to consecrate our love for each other; what object can we have in marrying, except for the secret fear of each that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back gradually--oh, very gradually--into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated? And the very fact that, after a decent interval, these same people would come and dine with us--the women who talk about the indissolubility of marriage, and who would let me die in a gutter today because I am 'leading a life of sin'--doesn't that disgust you more than their turning their backs on us now?"
Upon this declaration of principles, Wharton constructs a moral and emotional dilemma--in spite of her own better impulses, the heroine allows herself to 'pass' as her lover's wife, only to be brought face to face with her own hypocrisy when another woman in the same situation enters her newfound social circle. Among its many fine qualities is the fact that "Souls Belated" manages to convey to a modern reader, for whom divorce and remarriage have long since lost the taint of sin, the crushing vice in which the main characters are trapped--forced to sacrifice either their life together or their personal integrity.

Taken cumulatively, however, the collection has a rather wearying effect. This is partly the fault of the comedic and satirical stories. A few months ago, I was browsing through a bookstore while the owner listened to a radio show about 50s stand-up comic Lenny Bruce. A recording of one of Bruce's performances was played, in which he repeatedly, and with some exaggeration, used profanity (well, what passed for profanity in the 50s). I was mildly amused; the audience was in stitches. Nothing ages quite so badly as humor, especially the satirical kind, and most especially a satire intended to poke fun at a society that doesn't really exist anymore. In spite of the fact that the social conventions they lampoon have, in most cases, merely metamorphosed into contemporary equivalents in our society--in "The Descent of Man," an exasperated scientist writes a parody of inspirational religious fiction which is then taken seriously, becoming a massive bestseller; in "Xingu," a self-important reading group and their officious visiting author are taken in by their most uneducated member when she dares them to admit their ignorance of the titular subject--the passage of time has rendered most of the comedic stories in The Muse's Tragedy brittle and not a little bit obvious. The sole exception is "The Mission of Jane," in which a neglectful husband agrees to adopt a child for the sake of his simple, unloved wife and in the hopes that the infant might strengthen his marriage. The child turns out to be domineering prig, and unites her parents in their exhausted terror of her moral rectitude and unrealistic expectations.

Even ignoring the unsuccessful comedies, however, the collection is problematic, not because of any flaw in the individual stories but because, taken together, the world-view they present is so obviously one-sided and untrue that it begins to dull our appreciation of Wharton's gifts of observation. After the publication of her second short story collection, Crucial Instances, Wharton received what she termed "surely one of the tersest and most vigorous letters ever penned by an amateur critic. 'Dear madam,' my unknown correspondent wrote, 'have you never known a respectable woman? If you have, in the name of decency write about her!'" I can't tell you how tickled I was to come across this quotation in the introduction to The Muse's Tragedy, as it so succinctly sums up a problem I often have with literary fiction (I might not have bothered to write 2,000 words about the novels of M. John Harrison if I'd known that a 19th century reader had expressed the source of my dissatisfaction in a svelte two sentences). Unalloyed misery and complete moral bankruptcy are no more believable as a portrait of society than candy-colored happy endings and tales of virtue triumphant. I suspect that taken individually, Wharton's stories might pack a greater punch, but there are only so many unhappy marriages, so many reluctant elopements, so many disaffected lovers one can take. Halfway through the collection, I was longing for a palate cleanser--some indication that there were still decent, honorable, loving people in old New York, not because Wharton's jaundiced view of her society was depressing me, but because her unrelenting pessimism was starting to take on the patina of self-parody, making it impossible for me to care about her characters.

I followed The Muse's Tragedy with Annie Proulx's collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories (or, as my version has been retitled, Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories). Proulx's writing is no less dense than Wharton's, but with its powerful cadences and deceptively folksy tone it made for quite a stylistic departure from the quietly detached, wry but (to my modern sensibilities) slightly overwritten prose in The Muse's Tragedy. And, of course, there's the sharp change of scene between the two collections--from Wharton's wealthy, privileged upper class to Proulx's dirt-poor and uneducated farmers, ranchers, and farm-hands; from Wharton's close interiors to Proulx's wide open spaces; from Wharton's urban society, carefully regulated by manners and conventions to Proulx's loosely distributed individualists, living alone or with a few relatives and governed only by self-interest and sometimes a loosely defined code of propriety.

Nevertheless, it strikes me that there are huge similarities between these two collections and their underlying themes. Both collections are in many ways travelouges--introductions to societies separated from us by space and time, whose customs, conventions and attitudes we are likely to find entirely foreign. Proulx's stories are reactionary in a way that is very similar to Wharton's. Just as Wharton sought to undermine the myth of gentility and manners in high society, Proulx is also working to overturn a cliché--in her case, the calm and gentlemanly West, the peacefulness of the countryside, the kindness of country people. As Proulx describes it, Wyoming is a harsh and unforgiving landscape, and life on the land is both bleak and hard:
Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads with their bare populations of three or seventeen, or in the reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refineries, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, graffiti'd celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crust of blood on the Wal-Mart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You being to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.
More importantly, like Wharton, Proulx's underlying theme seems to be the question of how an individual is shaped, restricted, and governed by their surroundings. Proulx focuses more on physical surroundings whereas Wharton concentrates on social ones, but the difference strikes me as largely semantic. Both writers talk about individuals trapped in landscape.

It is therefore not at all surprising that, by the time I reached Close Range's final stretch, I was feeling the same fatigue I had felt at the end of The Muse's Tragedy, the same sense of disbelief. Again, there are some stunning pieces in this collection (although I think that Proulx's construction work leaves something to be desired, especially when compared with Wharton's--several of the pieces in the collection veer off in too many subplots and have unsatisfying endings)--"The Mud Below," about a young bullrider, which manages to make compelling the utter insanity of a punishing and ultimately unrewarding lifestyle; "Pair a Spurs," a portrait of the dissolution of a rural community through the stories of several of its members; "Brokeback Mountain," of course--but their cumulative effect is, once again, wearying. Missing amongst these portraits of poverty, defeat and despair--impoverished farmers and ranchers, abused wives**, unloved children--is a lining of triumph--something to cut the bitterness and provide a hook for our empathy.

It is for this reason that I believe "Brokeback Mountain" is the finest story in the collection (although obviously it is entirely possible that I'm biased, having seen the movie and read the story several times before picking up Close Range). Almost alone among the pieces here, it gives the impression of wanting to tell us about its characters first and its setting second. As I wrote a few months ago when discussing Ang Lee's beautiful adaptation, both the story and the film work hard to make it clear that the love between shepherds Ennis and Jack falters not because of society but because of Ennis and Jack. Their prejudices are, obviously, shaped by society, and their choices are limited by economic hardship, but ultimately it is the individual, not the landscape, that is at the heart of "Brokeback Mountain," and the story's bleakness is undercut by the almost palpable love between the two main characters. And it is precisely that glimpse of love and the possibility of happiness that make "Brokeback Mountain" as powerful and as heartbreaking as it is--far more powerful than a story about hopeless characters proceeding apace to their doom could ever have been.

Similarly, the finest stories in The Muse's Tragedy are the ones in which the black and white absolutes in which Wharton cloaks old New York society are shown to conceal a myriad shades of gray. When the protagonist of Wharton's "Souls Belated" refuses to marry her lover in the scene from which I quoted above, he simply responds "You judge things too theoretically. Life is made up of compromises." The fact that he loves this woman and that that love might--or might not--be enough to support them in social isolation is what lends immediacy to their moral quandary, and along the same lines, "Autres Temps..." is heartbreaking because we genuinely like its protagonist and because even in her isolation, she has just enough contact with society--through her daughter and through a potential lover--to impress upon us the fullness of the life being denied to her. When Wharton holds society in complete disdain, when she mocks it and belittles its gifts, our sympathy for characters who desperately try to avoid being cast out of it can only be limited. When she suggests that society is worth being a part of, because there are among the phonies and hypocrites also good people and art and music and love, we ache for her characters.

It is a hallmark of the human condition that we are capable of holding on to and believing in mutually exclusive notions. Stealing is wrong but I'm still going to download this movie. Marriage is sacred but I'm still going to have a one-night-stand. The best stories in both The Muse's Tragedy and Close Range are the ones in which the characters personify this fundamental truth, and in which the authors embrace compromise and reject their theoretical excoriation of a society in favor of a more human subject. It is through these fully human stories, combining decency and depravity, happiness and despair, that we gain a truly believable view of old New York and new Wyoming, and it is because of this humanity that we fully appreciate the tragedy of the restrictions that these two very different cultures place upon their members.

* They also share the distinction of belonging to that tiny and rarefied group of genuinely fine, meaty novels whose adaptations to the screen have been both artistically satisfying and faithful to their source material.

** It goes without saying that, in a society in which life is hard for the men, the women are going to have it even harder, and if there's one meaningful strike against Close Range it is that the stories within it rarely engage with the plight of women in these tiny Wyoming settlements. Out of eleven stories in the collection, only one has a female protagonist. In another story, the protagonist unthinkingly, almost mechanically rapes the wife of a friend. He is later criticized for this crime, but only, we are told, because it is symptomatic of his refusal to fully engage with life, to choose love over cheap gratification. In a third story, a woman is harassed by her husband's friend, who threatens her with rape. She turns to her husband for help, but he ignores her. I don't doubt that Proulx is accurately describing women's inferior status in the societies in which her stories take place, but I'm troubled by the fact that she is clearly uninterested in exploring this prejudice or commenting on it in any but the most perfunctory of ways.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Self-Promotion 10

Today's Strange Horizons features my review of Theodora Goss's debut short story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't I?

Well, by everyone I mean Martin and Alison. At any rate, it's been rather quiet here recently, for which I apologize--September is turning out to be a cultural wasteland. There's some nice stuff lined up for October, though--Neil Gaiman is this year's guest of honor and ICon and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain is the Haifa Film Festival's opening film--but for now you'll have to do with my top ten unread books, listed in descending order of the amount of time I've put off reading them:
  1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov - has been sitting on my bedside table for several years now. No idea what the block is about, as it is supposedly crazy good.

  2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy - see above, although I've found myself strangely reluctant to read classic tragic romances these last few years. I think there might have been a very brief period in which I was old enough to appreciate the complexity of the writing but not too old to be exasperated by authors who clearly believe that a moral point can't be made unless someone ODs on laudanum or throws themselves in front of a train. I think the Karenina window may have already closed.

  3. Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III - a friend gave me this book a few years ago (as well as City of Saints and Madmen and The Tooth Fairy) when a post office mix-up landed him with two Amazon packages containing the same books. I read and loved the other two, but have put off the Mellick. The front cover picture creeps me out.

  4. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem - I read 70 pages of this more than a year ago and got bored. Given that Girl in Landscape and Motherless Brooklyn are two books that I've loved, I imagine I'll end up going back to this one.

  5. Climbers by M. John Harrison - one of the books I brought back with me from England a few months ago, and one of only three I haven't read yet.

  6. Silverlock by John Myers Myers - another book I brought back from England and haven't read yet.

  7. The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter - the third English book. I'm putting this one off because, at this point, Carter scares me.

  8. The Accidental by Ali Smith - I actually tried to read this one twice, only to be so thoroughly put off by the child narrator's voice that I threw the book aside after ten pages each time. Niall Harrison has been calling it the greatest thing since sliced bread so I may end up giving it another try.

  9. The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea - I... honestly don't know why I bought this book. Or when.

  10. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - This one is actually partially read--about 250 pages out of 10,000. I enjoyed it while reading it, but didn't feel a desperate need to go back to it once I'd put it aside. After more than a week of this, I started to miss the experience of finishing a novel and picked up Ethan Frome instead. Again, this is one I plan to finish. At some point.

Feel free to talk me into/out of reading any of these in the comments.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Curse You, Michel Faber

From Amazon UK's description of The Apple:
Enjoy more sugar...Take a saunter down Silver Street once more for an early Christmas encounter with the determined heroine of "The Crimson Petal and the White", and find out more of what became of her. In this collection, Michel Faber revisits the world of his bestselling novel, briefly opening doors onto the lives of its characters to give us tantalising glimpses of where they sprang from and what happened to them.
I don't even know why I'm so excited. I happen to be one of only eight people on the planet who didn't find the ending of The Crimson Petal and the White rushed and unsatisfactory (I guess once you've got a couple of Neal Stephensons under your belt, Faber's hurriedness doesn't even register). Not to mention that the entire concept puts my back up--going back to the universe of a mega-bestseller to tie up loose ends and tell additional stories? It was a bad idea when Neil Gaiman did it in Sandman: Endless Nights, and probably there are half a dozen other examples I can't think of right now.

But I still want it.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Heads Up

Today sees the premiere of Battlestar Galactica: The Resistance, a ten part webseries that bridges the gap between the second season finale and the upcoming third season premiere. New episodes will go up on the official Sci-Fi site every tuesday and thursday, but here's a torrent for the first ep if, like myself, you keep getting shitty quality off Sci-Fi's streaming video app.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Attention TV Producers: How to Turn Me Off Your New Show In One Easy Step

The fall TV season is upon us, and first up for a test ride is 24/Prison Break clone Vanished. The show revolves around the kidnapping of a senator's wife and the ensuing investigation, which is already turning up deep dark secrets, with hints of vast conspiracies and cryptic puzzles to follow. At the end of the pilot episode, the action shifts away from the story's setting in Atlanta and moves to Boston, where a well-dressed, well-coifed man joins his friend at an upscale club (complaining of being held up at work by "the Lawrence account"), only to catch word of the kidnapping on the news and realize that he knew the kidnapped woman under a different name.

In the second episode, we rejoin this character, but we might be forgiven for feeling a little confused. The club has transformed into a working-class bar. The character wears jeans and flannel and, as we later discover, captains a fishing boat.

It's by no means uncommon for some fine-tuning to take place between a show's pilot episode and its regular run, but in the case of Vanished the obvious lack of attention given to an important character (and the obvious lack of respect for the viewers) is suggestive of a general lack of forethought on the part of the writers. Not that this is a surprising discovery--for all that they crow about the novelty of telling a single story in 22 chapters, it's very rare for 24 clones to have their story laid out from day one (24's writers certainly never bothered to do so). Thus far, Vanished has done little or nothing to distinguish its characters and make us like, or even care, about them. Which means that the only quality left for the show to sustain itself with is ratcheting tension, and that, inevitably, one of two things will happen--the show will descend into boredom as the writers slow the plot's pace in order to stretch their story to 22 episodes, or it'll descend into absurdity as the writers throw increasingly unlikely obstacles in their characters' paths in an attempt to do the same. There's a reason why true television novels--like Veronica Mars--always start out with some idea of how the story is going to end, and for that matter, why they work to establish interesting, compelling characters, without which no meaningful storytelling is possible.

So, what's next on the menu?