Monday, November 26, 2007

Self-Promotion 16

My review of the Battlestar Galactica TV movie "Razor" appears in today's Strange Horizons. If you've clicked through from there, you might be interested in some of my other posts about the show, or at least in the odd effect of the reverse chronological order they're presented in--you can watch me get less and less bitter, and finally enthusiastic, about the series.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Dexter

Last fall, I watched the pilot for Showtime's new series, Dexter, pronounced it impeccably well-made and impressively acted, and promptly decided not to keep watching the series. Based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay*, Dexter is the tale of Dexter Morgan, adopted son of legendary Miami police detective Harry Morgan. As a young boy, Dexter began exhibiting the classic signs of sociopathic behavior, and Harry, instead of carting the boy off to psychiatrists and institutions, started training him instead--first, to avoid detection and incarceration, and later to channel his murderous urges in socially beneficial ways. In the present day, Dexter is a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami police department, where he works alongside his sister Deb, Harry's biological daughter. By night, he stalks and kills victims carefully selected according to a by-now deceased Harry's criteria--serial killers like Dexter himself, whom the law is either unaware of or helpless to stop.

I gave Dexter a pass last year because I've gotten very tired of the popular culture fascination with 'dark' or transgressive characters, or more precisely, with the generally thoughtless, sensationalistic treatment of these characters. Most of what passes for moral ambiguity in popular culture is really moral depravity going unremarked or unpunished**. Sometimes this can make for interesting viewing, when the character in question in someone we've come to care about, whose moral compass has gone temporarily off true (the early scenes of Serenity, the second season of Angel), or in a show like The Sopranos, whose writing is so nuanced that it really seems to be touching on some basic truths of the human condition. Tony Soprano's combination of charisma and a complete lack of conscience rings so true that for David Chase and his writers to have sullied it with moralizing would have seemed shrill and uncouth. Instead, they produced a portrait of a complex, multifaceted human being, and in so doing commented on our near-endless capacity for hypocrisy, as demonstrated by Tony, his fellow mobsters, and their friends and families, who profess to hold certain ideals dear but sacrifice them daily for wealth and comfort--a tendency which, according to Chase, is near-universal, regardless of one's mob affiliation or lack thereof.

Most of the time, however, depictions of 'dark' characters don't achieve this sophistication. They seem to begin and end with the thrill of transgressiveness. Viewers enjoy rooting for a character who breaks the rules they don't dare to break, so long as that character is depicted in a certain manner. I've frequently come across reactions to Dexter whose authors express surprise that the show has somehow manipulated them into rooting for a serial killer. I'm only surprised at their surprise. We root for Dexter for the same reason that Buffy fans responded so positively to Spike, an unrepentant mass murderer--because he's cool. If you want a character to be appealing, make them funny and attractive. If you want them to be unappealing, make them disgusting and creepy (or make them hurt characters the audience likes). Morality--the characters' or the audience's--doesn't enter into it. I dismissed Dexter because I believed that, like so many other shows, it would attempt to coast on the by-now stale novelty of making a cool, funny, and attractive character do morally reprehensible things and pretending not to notice.

Some exuberant critical reactions, however, and the absence of anything else worth watching this summer, persuaded me to give the show another look. What I found was a show that was, if not quite as brilliant as the reviews had led me to believe, a great deal more thoughtful, when it came to issues of morality, than I had expected. And in its second season, now more than halfway into its 12-episode run, Dexter may very well have become the most morally coherent show on television.

Dexter's first season begins with the emergence of a rival serial killer, dubbed the Ice Truck Killer for his habit of transporting his victims' drained and chopped-up bodies in a refrigerated truck, who seems to be challenging Dexter to a game of cat and mouse. As the season draws on, it becomes clear that the Ice Truck Killer is trying to break Harry's posthumous hold on Dexter, to persuade Dexter to become the pure, unrepentant monster that Harry's training so successfully domesticated. "You can't be a monster and a hero," the Ice Truck Killer angrily tells Dexter in the season finale, but the entire thrust of the series is that Dexter both can and is--not in the cartoonish, thoughtless manner of so many vigilante fantasies, but through agonizing choice.

Over the course of the first season we come to see the Dexter understands himself a great deal less than he believes. Though he repeatedly tells us (through copious voiceovers that give this secretive, closed-off character a weighty narrative presence) that he doesn't feel, that he has no normal human reactions, and that he can't love, the fact remains that Dexter does love. He loves his sister, he loves his girlfriend Rita (the always-excellent Julie Benz) and her children, and he clearly loved his father or he wouldn't have worked so hard to please him when he was alive, and certainly wouldn't be following the code Harry laid out for him many years after the man's death. Though he isn't capable of understanding that love or recognizing it for what it is, when the Ice Truck Killer offers Dexter understanding, the opportunity to be himself, unencumbered by the morality imposed on him, and though by that point he's he's exposed Harry as manipulative, revealed the lies he told and the secrets he kept, Dexter chooses that love over complete freedom. And that, in a nutshell, is Dexter's moral outlook. We may not be able to choose whether we're monsters or normal people. The circumstances of our life may have twisted us into something that barely even resembles a human being and there may be nothing we can do about that, but we still have to choose where to go from that point. Being a monster, in the Dexter universe, is no justification for acting like one, just as being a human being is no guarantee that one won't behave monstrously. All of the characters, monsters and humans alike, have to come up with, and commit to, their own moral code.

To be sure, there's a certain degree of having-their-cake-and-eating-it-too in the Dexter writers' construction of their main character. He's at just the right midpoint between monstrousness and normalcy to both suit the moral of their story and capture the audience's heart. He can commit atrocities with impunity, but he's still a good boyfriend (a certain amount of fine-tuning was involved in getting Dexter to just this perfect balance. In the pilot, he tells us that his sexual responses are aberrant, and later he become sexually aroused by the Ice Truck Killer's handiwork. Later in the season, however, he and Rita embark on a normal sexual relationship, hindered only by Dexter's fear of intimacy and losing control). Most importantly, he's motivated to be a good person, as opposed to the Ice Truck Killer, who is so far gone, so damaged, that he can't even comprehend Dexter's feelings for his adopted family. I don't know much about the actual facts of serial killers and sociopaths, as opposed to the fantasy versions that litter films and TV, but I somehow suspect that this particular blend of apathy and empathy is unlikely.

That Dexter is believable (or, more accurately, that we're willing to overlook how unbelievable he is) is due to the show's strong, witty writing, and to Michael C. Hall's fantastic turn as Dexter, a mixture of irreverence and vulnerability that manages to be winning without ever letting us forget how dangerous the character can be. More importantly, the struggle between morality and expediency is also a vital question for the show's normal characters, mainly Dexter's co-workers: from the aptly named Angel Batista, the homicide department's moral center, through James Doakes, the only detective who senses that something is off about Dexter, and who at one point murders a Haitian war criminal, to department head Maria Laguerta. Laguerta is in many ways the show's most inconsistently drawn character. In the pilot and for several episodes after it, she's portrayed as incompetent and publicity-hungry, and is also pursuing Dexter in an unpleasantly relentless manner that borders on sexual harassment. Towards the middle of the first season, she become a competent policewoman who also happens to be a political animal struggling to survive in an atmosphere hostile to both her gender and her ethnicity. By the second season, however, Laguerta has stabilized as a good cop who is willing to go to extreme lengths to get what she wants--such as, in the first part of the second season, seducing her new superior's fiancé in order to distract the other woman from her work***. What makes the character work is her own obvious ambivalence towards her actions, the embarrassment she feels when those who know her discover them, and it certainly helps that Lauren Vélez has chosen to play the character as the antithesis of the Alexis Carrington stereotype--she's soft-spoken, almost gentle, in most of her interactions, while conveying a profound, but never overbearing, strength.

(I haven't said anything about the two most important people in Dexter's life, Deb and Rita. Though both have important character arcs, these are mostly concerned with empowerment and growth, rather than morality. At the beginning of the series, Deb is an overgrown adolescent--an impression that is powerfully brought home by Jennifer Carpenter's masterful physical work, all gawky limbs and exaggerated facial expressions--eager for validation, still trying to win over her father from the sibling he seemed to prefer, and incapable of dealing with criticism. Before she formulates her own moral code--which I suspect will happen by the end of the second season--she has to grow up. Rita was abused by her husband, a heroin addict who, according to the pilot at least, raped her, though the later episodes in the first season don't repeat this claim. Dexter chooses her because she's damaged and won't require the normal, intimate relationship he can't provide, but over the course of the series she has been healing, and demanding more of him both romantically and otherwise.)

With a first season so carefully constructed around a single investigation, I was doubtful about the Dexter writers' ability to extend the series into a second season. What they've done is take the step that so many other serial shows don't or are not allowed to take, and shifted the series's self-definition. The second season once again revolves around the hunt for a serial killer, but this time it's Dexter, nicknamed the Bay Harbor Butcher by the Miami papers, who is being hunted, when the remains of his victims are discovered on the sea floor. The FBI, led by super-profiler Frank Lundy (Keith Carradine, giving a delightfully smart and charismatic performance), are brought in, and soon Dexter is being pursued by his friends and coworkers, including Deb. In spite of this development, in its second season Dexter is not so much a procedural or a thriller as a character drama. Through a confluence of events, Dexter is forced to deflect Rita's suspicions by telling her that he's a drug addict. When she demands that he attend NA meetings, he discovers that the terms in which addicts describe their problem also suit his compulsion, and begins to believe that he can be cured of it. The season is primarily concerned with the rather tangled question of whether Dexter can stop killing and whether he can stop hiding his true nature as Harry taught him to do, and the result has been nothing short of fascinating, finally making the leap from very good to great, and fast becoming one of the few must-see shows of the current season****.

In NA, Dexter meets Lila (Jaime Murray and her breasts, who at this point should be getting equal billing), the platonic ideal of the Free Spirit archetype--the one who shows up in romantic comedies to teach the male lead to cut loose and follow his heart. She dresses outrageously, lives in attractively bohemian squalor, makes art of some variety, and breaks minor laws in charming, amusing ways--stealing a lawn gnome to use in one of her installations, defacing a soulless motel room painting, making up an elaborate story to get her and Dexter a seat at a fancy restaurant. Dexter is drawn to Lila because he thinks she can handle the darkness within him without recoiling, and initially she does seem to be telling Dexter some important truths. After viewing the Bay Harbor Butcher's handiwork, Lila tells Dexter that the person who committed these crimes is a person just like herself, a mixture of good and evil. By rejecting Harry's stark distinction between monsters and human beings, Lila takes away Dexter's justification for his actions. By insisting that he think of himself not as a monster but as a flawed human being, Lila encourages Dexter to behave like one.

Before long, however, it becomes clear that Lila's moral outlook is only half-formed. While it's obviously true that all of us have good and evil within us, that fact doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to distinguish between them, and to choose to act according to one set of impulses and to ignore another. Lila doesn't seem to believe this. When Dexter discovers yet more secrets Harry kept from him, Lila tells him that everyone comes to a point where they reject their parents' values. What she doesn't say, probably because she never reached that stage herself, is that following a period of teenage self-involvement and hedonism, most people settle on their own value system--sometimes the very values they rejected. By encouraging Dexter to reject received morality and the people who impose it on him (represented mainly by Harry, but also by Rita, who in the middle episodes of the season is made to look like a 60s housewife, in stark opposition to Rita's bohemian sophistication--kudos to the hair and wardrobe department for managing to make Julie Benz look cheap and trashy), and to accept himself as he is, Lila creates a monster. Following her example, Dexter takes a more active role in subverting both the Bay Harbor Butcher investigation and Doakes's pursuit of him, taking dangerous risks and hurting innocent people, such as a murder victim's stepfather whom Doakes brutally interrogates for hours on end after Dexter gives him a false blood spatter analysis as a way of discrediting the detective.

What's most impressive about this character arc is that the writers make it clear that the unquestioning acceptance of oneself, without reference to morality or social conventions, is a bad idea not only when it comes to someone like Dexter, but for everyone. They do this through Lila, who quickly turns manipulative and dangerous, going so far as to break into Rita's house when she fears Dexter might be growing close to her again, or orchestrating an assault on Dexter in order that she can soothe and take care of him. Though Lila herself has become an unpleasantly over the top character (and one of the show's rare forays into misogynistic stereotypes), her character's purpose is to show Dexter just how destructive he can be without a code to guide him, and by the end of the season I suspect we'll see Dexter recommitting to Harry's teachings, or at least to some version of them.

At the same time that it holds out the possibility of his salvation, the series is working hard to stress the magnitude of the crimes Dexter has already committed. There's a tendency to fetishize serial killers, vigilantes in particular, in popular culture, and Dexter's second season can be read as a commentary on this tendency--and as a meta-commentary on itself. When the Bay Harbor Butcher investigation reveals that Dexter's victims were all killers themselves, the Miami population, and a portion of the investigative team, rallies behind him. A local comics creator invents a Batman-esque character called the Dark Defender, based on the Butcher's exploits. A copycat killer emerges. Dexter's response is a mixture of bemusement ("Miami's too hot for all that leather," he thinks when he sees the Dark Defender's portrait, though later he dreams of himself in that costume, suggesting that the lure of uncomplicated, four-color heroism is too powerful to completely resist) and outright rejection--when he confronts his imitator and discovers that he's killed before for reasons more selfish than meting out justice, Dexter classes him with the kind of killer he's allowed to dispose of.

Dexter frequently indulges in the kind of moral forced perspective that often characterizes stories with immoral protagonists--by any objective standard, Dexter is far worse than Rita's abusive husband, Paul, but we hate Paul with a fiery passion, and root for Dexter, because we care about Rita and don't know the people who love Dexter's victims, and because Paul is a bully. Which is why it's important that the investigation of Dexter's crimes confronts us with the visceral reality of, well, viscera, as well as blood, guts, and bones. The sight of Dexter's chopped-and-bagged victims spread out along the sea floor is sickening, and lest we take too much comfort in the sentimental fantasy of Dexter as the white-hatted protector, the writers have Deb baldly state the simple truth that no one does the things Dexter has done without taking pleasure in them.

The second season has only four episodes left in it, and as of the most recent episode, Lundy and Doakes have tightened the noose around Dexter's throat. Clearly the show is not going to send Dexter to prison, and speculation is rampant among fans that either Lila or Doakes will end up taking the fall for the Bay Harbor Butcher's crimes. I'm more interested, however, in where the season takes Dexter emotionally, and though I'm utterly baffled by the question of how the writers can advance the show's plot in the third season, what interests me more is the question I asked when Tony Soprano first walked into Jennifer Melfi's office. Do we want Dexter to be cured? And what would that even mean? Can Dexter live openly with the people he cares about, or would that be straining disbelief too far? Thus far, what Dexter's writers have produced is an ode to moral complexity, to actual shades of grey and not the dressed up black that usually passes for them. They've created a show that depicts the compromises we all make with the principles we were raised with, and hold out the possibility and the necessity of living a moral life in spite of these compromises. It's easy and somewhat tautological to say that we're all monsters. Dexter is that rare show that dares to ask, what comes next?



* I haven't read the novel, but as I understand it the first season follows its plot in broad strokes but deviates from it in several crucial respects. Though Lindsay has written two other novels starring Dexter, the show's second season no longer adheres to his plots.

** I once came across a reaction to my His Dark Materials condensation whose author argued that his choice to murder a child in order to achieve his ends makes the character of Lord Asriel 'morally grey'.

*** Though, in general, Dexter's misogyny index is quite low (nothing on the level of what Heroes has been delivering lately, for example), the show has its occasional lapses, and this storyline is one of them. I'm actually less bothered by Laguerta's Melrose Place-esque shenanigans than by the fact that they are successful--that an experienced professional woman in her thirties would fall apart as completely as Laguerta's rival does, going so far as to divert department resources to determine who her boyfriend is cheating with and having a tantrum in the middle of the department bullpen.

**** The other is Pushing Daisies, which oddly enough can also be described as a series about darkness and horror underlying normalcy and pleasantness.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Brad Pitt's hell-bride emerges from the bog..."

Slate reviews Beowulf in verse:
Far had he fallen with Polar Express,
An animated washout whose technique
Obscured its content, thanks to CGI.
The Z-man's new technique, performance capture,
Looked creepy in those days. The critics snarled.

But brave Zemeckis takes them on again
With Beowulf, a 3-D spectacle
Like none before. The Anglo-Saxon poem,
Dreaded by school kids since the world was young,
His manly grip reshapes to graphic novel.
It's a good review, but no matter how many of them this film garners, and in spite of Neil Gaiman's presence as adapter, which at the very least means that someone in the vicinity of the production gets what the poem is about, I have absolutely no desire to see it. It looks like the unholy love child of The Polar Express and 300, and my lack of desire to see it is equal or greater than the sum total of my lack of desire to see either of these films.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Recent Reading Roundup 14

The pile o'books I brought back with me from the States is getting steadily smaller, and thus far performing quite well. As per recent discussion, this list includes several short story collections.
  1. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner - Warner's slim 1925 feminist fable was a lucky find in the Strand's $1 rack. The novel's first half describes the title character's early life in the late Victorian period. With brisk, efficient prose, Warner takes us through Lolly's remote family history and her relationships with her more immediate family, particularly her doting father, in an enjoyable narrative flow that is never less than wry and often quite funny. Upon her father's death, a compliant Lolly goes to live with her brother's family, where she acts in the capacity of unpaid nurse, companion, and governess. With near-Austenish coolness, Warner describes the mindset that leads an intelligent, strong young woman of independent means to immure herself in a dull, unsatisfying life for nearly two decades. It's not that Lolly doesn't want more from life, or that her relatives are cruel, but all of them have bought into the notion that a woman without a family of her own can want nothing more from life than to take care of the families of others.

    In the novel's second half, a middle-aged Lolly has finally had enough of taking care of others and rents a small cottage in the country. When her affectionate but oblivious nephew follows her there and immediately begins to treat her like a caretaker again, Lolly ends up making a deal with the devil to get rid of him. I mean that literally. It's here that the novel makes a rather unfortunate turn into fantasy, which in Warner's hands is nothing more than a rather broad allegory. She's clearly riffing off the maiden/mother/crone division, with Lolly, who doesn't fit into the first two categories, joyfully embracing the latter one and subverting its most negative associations. But whereas in the naturalistic segments of the novel Warner was careful never to overstate her point or to surrender to the rage and bitterness that Lolly's situation naturally elicit, once she starts telling a fantasy story, her tone becomes unbearably earnest, even hectoring. The novel abandons the wryness that had previously kept it afloat, and even ends with Lolly lecturing the devil himself about women's limited choices. The impression is of an author uncomfortable with the fantastic elements in her story, and eager to assure her audience that these are in service of a higher goal. Nevertheless, for its first half, Lolly Willowes is certainly worth a read, and even the second half is very well-written.

  2. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke - Like Michel Faber's The Apple, this collection feels like B-sides and deleted scenes from Clarke's gargantuan, sprawling historical novel. The comparison is slightly unfair in that, as I understand it, Faber's collection really is made up of deleted scenes and afterthoughts, whereas Ladies collects stories from over a decade, long before the publication of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Nevertheless, there's an obvious unifying characteristic to these stories. All of them--even the ones like "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse," which takes place in another author's invented universe--are either overtly or implicitly part of the Strange & Norrell universe, concerned with the tension between the rigid morality and unflinching belief in reason that govern her 19th century characters' actions, and the uncontrollable chaos of magic and the fairy world. Another way of looking at it is that these are Strange & Norrell's excised girly bits--women feature far more prominently in these stories than they did in the novel, and in the title story the ladies in question lecture Jonathan Strange, then still under Mr. Norrell's thrall, about the danger inherent in the forces he claims to control. Some of the stories feel like exercises in tone in voice--which ultimately came to fruition with Strange & Norrell's masterful pastiche of the regency novel--and others stand on their own, and are quite fun. My favorite piece was "Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower," in which a vicar arriving at a new living becomes a reluctant hero when a local fairy takes a shine to the village maidens. The main character is a lot of fun, particularly his struggle between the strict moral code he was raised in and his more mischievous inclinations. I wouldn't mind reading more stories about him.

  3. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley - Hartley's most famous novel, about a boy in early 20th century England who is manipulated by his wealthy, upper class best friend's sister into carrying letters between her and a local farmer, is an odd fit for me. I enjoyed it in spite of the fact that it is one of those novels, like Brideshead Revisited, which seem to be lamenting a way of life that I never experienced and which I think, on the whole, we're all better off without. Still, there's no denying that this is as pitch-perfect a recreation of childhood as one is likely to find. I remarked recently that adult novels with pre-adolescent protagonists are rare, and Hartley really captures the dissonance between the narrator and the adults surrounding him. For all of his and their best intentions, they are speaking different languages, have different value systems, and want different things--they are very nearly different species. The tragedy of the novel is driven at least in part by their failure to understand this--by the narrator's unthinking assumption that adults operate by the same rules as schoolboys, and by the adults' belief that children are simply small, easily controlled adults.

    My edition includes Hartley's introduction to the novel, written after its initial publication and widespread success, as well as an introduction by Colm Tóibín. I was tickled to see both of them note Hartley's surprise at the discvoery that the star-crossed lovers, Marian and Ted, in the novel elicited not the censure he had expected--for stepping out of their respective social roles, for betraying Marian's fiancé, and mostly for manipulating and damaging the narrator, Leo--but sympathy. I find myself somewhere in the middle. I can't help but feel for Marian and Ted's shitty situation, but Marian's actions in particular are so self-centered and destructive that I can't wish good things for her, especially when the epilogue makes it clear that she hasn't changed a bit, and still expects others to do her bidding and put themselves out for her no matter how much pain she's caused them. As Tóibín's introduction notes, however, Hartley himself seems to have had conflicted feelings about Marian, as the novel ends with a grown-up Leo yet again acting on her behalf and justifying her destructive actions. I think the power of the novel derives at least in part from this ambivalence--both Leo's and Hartley's.

  4. Making Money by Terry Pratchett - It's getting to the point where I'm not really sure why I'm reading Pratchett anymore. The best I can come up with is that he's familiar and comforting, but those are really not the adjectives I'd like to attach to the novels of a man who used to make me roar with laughter, and who could clearly still do so if he put his mind to it. Instead, Making Money is yet another iteration of what's become Pratchett's standard plot--introduce some modern-day innovation to his fantasy setting, pepper it with a bit of magic or metaphors-made-flesh, and add a couple of side-plots about deranged villains and wacky good guys. Let it all mix together for as long as it takes to make your point, and then have Vetinari show up like the proverbial god from the machine to tie up all loose ends. In this case, Pratchett is aping Neal Stepheson when he discusses paper money, and more generally the notion that monetary value is a societal convention, and that rather than attach it to physical valuables we attach it to something worthless or even nonexistent--pieces of paper, pieces of plastic, even numbers in a computer--in order to sustain our economy and keep it vibrant.

    The main character is Moist von Lipwig, previously seen in Going Postal, which is basically Making Money with telecoms. He's a good character--more morally flexible than Sam Vimes, and more of an outsider to Ankh-Morpork. Both qualities give him a unique perspective on the city and on Pratchett's topic du jour. His shtick is that he's a former con man forcibly reformed by Vetinari, who wants him for his intelligence, initiative and organizational skills, and in Making Money he's struggling to stay on the straight and narrow while still craving the excitement of a life of crime. It's an obvious character arc, but skillfully carried out. I'm also fond of Moist's girlfriend, Adora Belle Dearheart, and of their relationship, which is simultaneously romantic and unsentimental, and many of the novel's one-off characters are also quite enjoyable. I do, however, wish Pratchett would shake things up a bit in Ankh Morpork--kill off Vetinari, make Carrot king, or just move his world in a direction that isn't overwhelmingly positive. As things stand there's just no tension to the Discworld novels anymore, and not too many laughs either seeing as after thirty novels most of the jokes are recycled, or obvious, or both. I'm obviously not going to stop buying Pratchett's novels--at this point it's practically a Pavlovian reaction--but I'm more than a little depressed by how diminished my expectations of them have become.

  5. Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx - I think I like Proulx better as a short story writer than as a novelist. I was underwhelmed by her Pulitzer-winning novel The Shipping News, but this follow-up to her 2000 collection, Close Range (about which more here), is a more impressive use of her talents. The shorter format is a better fit for her beautiful, distinctive prose, which in longer stretches can come to seem mannered and overripe. As the title suggests and like Close Range, the stories in Bad Dirt take place in Wyoming, among ranchers, farm hands, and odd jobbers overwhelmed by the landscape they live in and the rigid, unforgiving mindset it engenders. Though Proulx's ability to convey both Wyoming's beauty and bleakness remains undiminished, the stories in this collection aren't as strong as the ones in Close Range (I think Proulx may have peaked with "Brokeback Mountain"--nothing else of hers that I've read has approached that story's precision and directed force). Most of them are either too lean--slices of life with a bit of humor or folk tales thrown in--or too flabby, delving into the character's history onto the tenth generation before getting back to the actual story (the best piece in the collection, "The Indian Wars Refought," is a perfect example. Before it gets to its point--a young native American woman faced with the full magnitude of the atrocities committed against her people--it spends pages upon pages describing three generation in a family only tangentially related to the main character). Proulx is a good enough writer that such digressions are never less than enjoyable, but the cumulative effect of the collection, and the impression of Wyoming that it is so clearly trying to evoke, are diminished.

  6. Whites by Norman Rush - In sharp contrast to Proulx's underdone stories, this thin collection of only six stories by Rush is polished and near-seamless. I wouldn't have expected Rush--author of the undeniably brilliant but also sprawling and digressive novels Mating and Mortals--to have this much control of the short story form, but he acquits himself beautifully. Like the two novels, the stories in Whites take place in post-colonial Botswana, and as the title suggests their focus is interracial relations in that setting, and the attempts of whites--well-meaning, unthinking, or just plain cruel--to make a place for themselves in a nation that has so many reasons to hate them. The stories are nothing less than jewels. Rush is a beautiful writer, and he hops effortlessly from one narrative voice to another--the wry, detached anthropologist who relates the disastrous events of "Bruns" with obvious relish (the narrator, and the story itself, feel like a test run for Mating), the broken English of a young Batswana boy in "Thieving," the plaintive voice of the harassed, well-meaning wife of a European mining engineer in "Near Pala."

    Best of all, Rush is an excellent and concise storyteller (which is truly a surprise given how meandering Mortals and Mating were) whose depictions of life in Botswana are nothing short of devastating, while never falling into the traps of pity or condescension. Though all of the stories in Whites have a definite point to make, they make it through plot, not in spite or instead of it. In "Thieving," for example, the narrator's simple moral code and religious beliefs are a window through which we can examine the hopelessly tangled question of property and wealth in a post-colonial setting--is it right to demand that Africans, from which so much has been taken, accept the holiness with which we view personal property, or is the wholesale appropriation of white property even more damaging in the long term?--but the story is about his struggle to survive on the streets of Gaborone. It's our pity for this vulnerable boy that keeps us reading, and which makes Rush's point for him. The only negative comment I can make about Whites is that, having finished it, I have now exhausted Rush's bibliography, and that given his glacial rate of output (Mortals was twelve years in the writing) this exceptional, masterful collection might have to last me a long time.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Slightly Belated Observation

Like everyone else, I read Entertainment Weekly's Nov. 7th interview with Heroes creator Tim Kring, in which he winningly owns up to the show's vertiginous drop in quality since the beginning of its second season, and vows to do better in the future. A week ago, my only reaction to statements like
We assumed the audience wanted season 1 — a buildup of intrigue about these characters and the discovery of their powers. We taught [them] to expect a certain kind of storytelling. They wanted adrenaline. We made a mistake.
was 'no shit, Sherlock,' but today, perhaps in the wake of this week's good-but-not-yet-great flashback episode, I got to thinking about this quote, and I just had to ask: why? Why would Kring assume that retreading season 1 would have good results? Heroes is a show that lives and dies with its plot progression, and it slows down the relentless pace of events and revelations at its own peril. Who in their right mind would think that stalling, and even reversing, that pace would be a winning strategy? For crying out loud, when you finish a chapter in a book, no matter how enjoyable, do you want to read another chapter just like it, or do you want the story to move forward?

To quote Guy Fleegman: did you guys ever watch the show?

It's this observation that's finally got me worried about Heroes's future. I've been rather sanguine about the show's obvious drop in quality, partly because, as it turns out, I'm not nearly as invested in it as I thought I was, but mostly because I still had faith in Kring and his writers. Interviews like this one from the end of the first season, in which he promises not to be tied down by the first season's structure, convinced me that Kring had at least a sense of the direction he needed to move in. Now it seems that Heroes has hit the same pitfall that sank Lost (and, ultimately, Veronica Mars, though in that case against the producer's better judgement)--the belief that arc-driven television can be reduced to formula, and that a well-told story need only be repeated ad infinitum to satisfy its audience.

It remains to be seen whether the failure of volume II (which, if the WGA strikes goes on as it seems set to do, may very well be the entire second season) has truly taught Kring the lesson he needed to learn. It's not enough to give the audience adrenalin (though impeccable pacing did a great deal to hide the show's myriad flaws and mediocrities in the first season). We don't need the illusion of motion--we need to know we're going somewhere.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Best American Short Stories 2007, edited by Stephen King

Short stories are hot right now. Or rather, talking about short stories, specifically their commercial and artistic viability, is hot. For SF/F fans, this is a familiar discussion. Perhaps because of the greater importance that short fiction enjoys within these genres, discussions of the future, or lack thereof, the the print SF magazines and the form they peddle are a semi-annual tradition within the community. The most recent iteration (sparked by Warren Ellis noting that the circulation figures of the 'big three' SF/F magazines have once again dropped, though as usual the debate has ranged all over the SF litblogosphere), however, came shortly after a analogous debate was sparked in literary fiction circles. Lighting the fuse on the powder keg was Stephen King, guest editor of this year's entry in the Best American Short Stories series. In his introduction to the collection (reprinted in the New York Times in a somewhat reduced form on September 30th), King lamented that literary magazines were increasingly being relegated to 'the bottom shelf' of most bookstores' magazine racks (that's if they're even in the store to being with) wondered what effect short fiction's loss of popularity has had on the final product:
What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. ... Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. If the stories felt airless, why not? When circulation falters, the air in the room gets stale.
King's diatribe made the plight of short fiction front page news (for those of us who follow the litblogosphere, that is. The rest of the internet, and the world at large, remain, I suspect, blissfully ignorant), and spawned numerous responses. Most of them are either variations on 'but I still like short fiction, so there!', which, given that their authors are usually writers, publishers, or reviewers, seems to be making King's point for him, or the more sensible comment that things are not so different, if perhaps less dire, for novel-length literary fiction, both in terms of sales and cultural importance. The next highlight of the debate came on October 16th, when Jeff VanderMeer, who along with wife Ann guest-edited the first volume in a new series, Best American Fantasy (though the series's title is obviously meant to recall the Houghton Mifflin Best American books, the Fantasy series is not affiliated with it and is published by Prime), posted an entry to his blog titled 'The Triumph of Competence,' in which he offered his response to a year's worth of slogging through dross to find a bit of gold:
the more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel that my general apathy when reading a lot of fantasy short fiction today comes from finding in it a profoundly disturbing, if sturdy, middle class professionalism. The magazines and anthologies are dominated by what I’d call centrist fiction that simply drowns in competence. It’s good–it’s just not great. It’s clever–it’s just not trying to do more, or it does reach for more, but in familiar ways.

As I thought about this further, I visualized an endless churning sound as thousands of writers typed and handwrote the first drafts of stories destined from conception to be good enough. Good enough for publication. Good enough to pass muster. Good enough to earn an appreciative nod. It was a depressing thought.
VanderMeer's post, as can be imagined, has churned the waters even further and elicited even more responses, some supportive and some critical, and at this point the sheer volume of 'whither the short story' blog posts is prohibitive. Which may be the reason why, in spite of a good hour and a half's work this morning, I was unable to track down the two responses to King's introduction which I found the most interesting and illuminating (or possibly my Google-fu is just weak, and I will of course be eternally grateful to any AtWQ reader who can provide me with actual links). The first discussed the history of the short story, and tried to track the economic reasons for its artistic stagnation. The author's argument is that short stories used to be popular entertainment, with authors like Arthur Conan Doyle becoming extraordinarily wealthy and even more famous based solely on their short fiction. Even some way into the 20th century it was possible for a writer to earn a living wage--a very good one, at times--writing stories for magazines. Then the audiences were lured away by movies and later television, causing the market to shrink and turn inwards, and the stories became self-referential, consciously artistic, and downright hostile to the notion of entertainment (a comparison was made, if memory serves, to the similar effect that the popularization of photography had on the graphic arts).

The second essay, a response to the first one, argues that the events described happened in the opposite order--the stories didn't change because the audience went away; the audience went away because the stories had changed. The reason, the author argued, was modernism, and more specifically, James Joyce's Dubliners, which has exerted something of a choke-hold on literary short fiction since its publication, mandating an emphasis on character and psychological realism over plot and event.

Even within literary fiction circles, the discussion of art versus entertainment, and of the importance or lack thereof of commercial viability, as they pertain to short fiction, is a habitual occurrence. The last iteration I remember, though I'm sure there have been several in the interim, is Michael Chabon's experiment with short fiction for McSweeney's, which resulted in two anthologies, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. The concept for both of these anthologies was that Chabon had commissioned mainstream literary authors--people like Rick Moody, Roddy Doyle, and Joyce Carol Oates--as well as some genre authors and others whose work straddled the divide, to write genre shorts that would harken back to the Saturday Evening Post and pulp novel era. In his introduction to the first volume, Chabon unsurprisingly gets into the plight of the American short story:
Imagine that, sometime about 1950, it had been decided, collectively, informally, a little at a time, but with finality, to proscribe every kind of novel from the canon of the future but the nurse romance. Not merely from the critical canon, but from the store racks and library shelves as well. Nobody could be paid, published, lionized, or cherished among the gods of literature for writing any kind of fiction other than nurse romances. Now, because of my faith and pride in the diverse and rigorous brilliance of American writers of the last half-century, I do believe that from this bizarre decision, in this theoretical America, a dozen or more authentic masterpieces wold have emerged. Thomas Pynchon's Blitz Nurse, for example, and Cynthia Ozick's Ruth Puttermesser, R.N. One imagines, however, that this particular genre--that any genre, even one far less circumscribed in its elements and possibilities than the nurse romance--would have paled somewhat by 2002. Over the last year in that oddly diminished world, somebody, somewhere, would be laying down Michael Chabon's Dr. Kavalier and Nurse Clay with a weary sigh and crying out, "Surely, oh, surely there must be more to the novel than this!'

Instead of the "the novel" and "the nurse romance," try this little Gedankenexperiment with "jazz" and "the bossa nova," or with "cinema" and "fish-out-of-water comedies." Now, go ahead and try it with "short fiction" and "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story."

Suddenly you find yourself sitting right back in your very own universe.
Chabon's prescription for the short story's ailment was to bring genre back into play, hence his assignment for the authors he commissioned stories from. But even ignoring the at-best marginal success of his experiment--the first volume is not so great; the second, pretty strong, but, tellingly, almost all of the really good stories in both collections come from genre authors, whereas the mainstream authors mostly seem to have sprinkled a bit of genre trappings on their story and otherwise produced just the kind of plotless, competent-yet-familiar stories Chabon was militating against--this seems like a reductive approach. Unlike King, VanderMeer, and almost all of the people who responded to them, however, Chabon is willing to say the word that almost no one will utter when it comes to literary fiction of any length--plot. Though he makes the mistake of equating plot with genre, which both mainstream and genre readers will tell you is entirely untrue, Chabon correctly diagnoses the core problem of most modern short stories, the reason that they don't appeal to wide audiences, and that those audiences have been taught to disdain them as something intended only for a rarefied, joyless in-group--they have no plot.

In seventh grade, we were taught that the short story unfolded in a straightforward sequence: exposition, crisis, complication, resolution. The stories we read--stuff like O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi", Maupassant's "The Necklace", or Isaac Asimov's MultiVac stories--did indeed follow this simple progression. Looking back, I can see how restrictive this structure is, how many excellent stories it leaves by the wayside, but it also strikes me that most of my favorite short stories do feature these four elements. They may not appear in the precise order laid out above, and the ratio of one to the other may be very different than the one my teacher would have considered appropriate (or at least appropriate for twelve-year-olds), but the steps are all there.

Dorothy Parker's "The Standard of Living," for example, which I first read in tenth grade and which continues to resonate with me more than a decade later, is almost all exposition. Most of the story is taken up with a description of a game the two vain, air-headed office girls, Annabel and Midge, have invented--they each have to decide how they would spend a million dollars on no one but themselves--and the deep importance that it has come to hold for them. It's only in the last page that Parker introduces a crisis--the pearl necklace the girls spy in a store window would set them back a cool quarter million--a complication--the girls, knocked out of their fantasy, are suddenly forced to acknowledge the dreariness of their life and the hopelessness of their prospects--and a resolution--Midge changes the game so that now the girls' fantasy bank account contains ten million dollars--but introduce them she does. In many of the more modern short stories I've read, however, not only have these steps been absent, not only has there been no plot, but there has been no event. Nothing happens, and these stories amount to nothing more than a description of a state. Sometimes this can work--many SF shorts are essentially a plotless introduction to a neat alien or future culture the author has invented--but most of the time it doesn't, and the story is meaningless.

All of this has been an incredibly long-winded way of getting around to talking about the actual stories King selected for Best American Short Stories, which very few people seem to be interested in doing (thus far I've seen only one review of the collection). I like short fiction very much--aside from Best American, I came back from the States with six other short story collections--but as a rule I tend to prefer single-author collections over magazines, themed anthologies, or best-of-year collections. When I read a single-author collection, it's usually because I've read and enjoyed the author's novels, or have come across an example of their short fiction and enjoyed it, or because people whose taste I trust have spoken highly about either the author of the collection. In other words, it's not unreasonable for me to believe that I will enjoy a significant portion of the collection.

With edited collections, however, I'm placing myself entirely in the editor's hands, relying on the existence of some overlap, however small, between my taste and theirs (and with best-of-year collections, the odds of satisfaction are even lower since, as Dan Hartland so perfectly put it, the year's best is the decade's mostly-forgettable). In King's introduction, he writes that "There isn’t a single [story] in this book that didn’t delight me, that didn’t make me want to crow, “Oh, man, you gotta read this!”" Given the above-mentioned, inevitable gap between King's taste and mine, and his by-now famous penchant for hyperbole (he is, after all, one of the most prolific and least reliable blurbers out there), I steeled myself for some degree of disappointment. Sadly, this was not sufficient.

There are good pieces in Best American Short Stories. Some of them, like Alice Munro's "Dimension" or Richard Russo's "Horseman", are well-written. Others, like Stellar Kim's "Findings & Impressions" and T.C. Boyle's "Balto", are well-plotted. Others still, like William Gay's "Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You" or John Barth's "Toga Party", are innovative (for a very restricted value of that word, really more along the lines of 'not as familiar as expected'). Very few of them--only one, in fact--are all three. Which, perhaps, is asking too much. I've often said that it's unfair to expect a novel to do too many things--to ask Tolkien to write psychologically realistic characters or George Eliot to write exciting battle scenes--and the same holds for short stories. The Munro story, for example, is yet another abuse survival story, but it is remarkable for the delicacy with which Munro describes her heroine and the deftness with which she makes us care for her. When Doree, defeated and joyless, begins drifting back into the orbit of her abusive husband, the horror we feel is visceral. We want to shake some sense into her, a miracle to stop her from throwing her life away a second time--and are then gratified and relieved when Munro delivers exactly this. "Dimension" is a perfect example of a story that does nothing new, but some things exceptionally well.

The same can be said of several other stories in the collection. "Toga Party" is an example of that rare bird, successful political fiction (unlike Kate Walbert's "Do Something", which closes the collection). Its protagonists are a couple in their seventies (it's interesting to note how many stories in the collection feature or revolve around aging baby-boomers and their struggle to grow old gracefully) whose constant obsession with their looming decrepitude is interrupted by an invitation to the titular party. Once there, Barth draws painfully sharp comparisons between the looming senescence of the characters and the one faced by the modern-day equivalent of the empire the party is in homage to. The story takes place as hurricane Katrina pounds New Orleans (hence the obligatory "why didn't they get the hell out instead of hanging around and looting stores?" from one of the party guests), and soon the party goers are not so much eating, drinking, and being merry in case they die tomorrow as fiddling while their empire burns, or floods. This is a mean story, with genuine bite. On the other hand, Barth's prose is only passable, and the delicacy of his political satire is belied by the over-the-top, entirely implausible suicide attempt of a minor character which rushes in the story's ending.

Like Barth's and Munro's pieces, most of the stories in the collection do something well and everything else passably. Quite a few, however, are entirely forgettable or actively bad. Louis Auchincloss's "Pa's Darling" and Ann Beattie's "Solid Wood" are precisely the kind of plotless mood piece Chabon rants about in his McSweeney's introduction, with very little to recommend themselves otherwise in terms of prose, emotional tone, well-drawn characters, or intriguing setting. There are not one but two pieces of the 'stereotypically broad New York Jews talking funny and having issues' variety (admittedly, in one case the Jew in question is from Chicago, but the cliché is boldly maintained), a genre which I had hoped had been buried in a crossroads with a stake through its heart. Roy Kesey's "Wait" is a piece of surrealist fiction--a commercial flight is delayed for days by a mysterious fog, during which time the stranded passengers form impromptu communities, forge relationships, embark on romances, and start wars--which might have worked at half the page count (or, alternatively, if Kelly Link were writing it). On average, the stories in Best American Short Stories are not much more than passable, and when good, only by one yardstick out of several.

All of this has been an incredibly long-winded way of getting around to talking about the sole exception, Karen Russell's "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves." I'd heard about Russell's story before the brouhaha about King's introduction had even started, and this in itself was remarkable--how often does a short story, singular, gain sufficient momentum to be mentioned on its own?--but what I'd heard was nothing less than ebullient. My expectations, in other words, had been thoroughly built up, and then bolstered by my lukewarm reaction to the stories preceding it, so that by the time I started reading Russell's story I was nice and neurotic about it, terrified that it could never live up to its reputation.

Well, it does. How good is "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves"? Good enough to justify the ten bucks I dropped on Best American Short Stories all by itself, and the similar amount I spent on Russell's collection of the same title. Good enough to make every other story in the collection seem paltry and uncouth. Good enough that I'm now too nervous to read Russell's collection for fear that the other stories in it won't stack up. Good enough that the idea I've been toying with, of supplementing my year's best and worst novels posts with one about the year's best short stories, is now going to become a reality because there can't be too many opportunities to praise this story. Remember how batshit insane I went over Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" last year? That's how crazy I'm going to be over "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves."

Coming as it does from a literary fiction author and a literary venue (it was originally published in Granta), I expected the story's title to be a symbol or a metaphor of some sort. Imagine my surprise when Russell started delivering exactly what she'd put on the tin:
At first, our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy. We forgot the barked cautions of our mothers and fathers, all the promises we'd made to be civilized and ladylike, couth and kempt. We tore through the austere rooms, overturning dressers drawers, pawing through the neat piles of the stage 3 girls' starched underwear, smashing light bulbs with our bare fists. Things felt less foreign in the dark. The dim bedroom was windowless and odorless. We remedied this by spraying exuberant yellow streams all over the bunks. We jumped from bunk to bunk, spraying. We nosed each other midair, our bodies buckling in kinetic laughter. The nuns watched us from the corner of the bedroom, their tiny faces pinched with displeasure.
The girls are the children of werewolves (the condition skips a generation) and their parents have sent them to the nuns in order to give them a chance at a better life. The story tracks the early stages of their socialization, in the days when they're still more likely to growl than speak, and have to be taught to sleep in beds rather than under them. One of the things I was curious about when I picked up Best American Short Stories was whether King's presence as guest editor would make it easier for genre fiction, SF/F and horror in particular, to make it onto the table of contents (though to be fair, having never read a previous entry in the series, I have no baseline for comparison). The twenty stories King picked out include "The Boy in Zaquitos" by Bruce McAllister (whose short story "Kin" was on this year's Hugo ballot), originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, and a horror short by Randy DeVita called "Riding the Doghouse". Both are good but unexceptional--the kind of genre fiction that usually makes it under the wire in mainstream collections (though the list of one hundred also-rans includes several other stories published in F&SF--for some reason, Asimov's was not included in the list of magazines from which King and series editor Heidi Pitlor drew candidates, which is a shame as 2006 was a strong year for that magazine--as well as stories from other venues by Kelly Link and Matthew Cheney).

When I realized that Russell's story was a fantasy, I expected her to deliver the same kind of mainstream-friendly product that outsider authors generally deliver when they dabble in genre--in this case, an allegory. What I got instead was a fully realized alternate reality. Russell's worldbuilding is exquisite but never flashy. She utilizes known qualities of wolf and human behavior--"The main commandment of wolf life is Know Your Place, and that translated perfectly. Being around other humans had awakened a slavish-dog affection in us. An abasing, belly-to-the-ground desire to please."--and ties them together in ways unique to her world, such as when she tells us that the phrase 'goody two-shoes' originates in wolf-child rehabilitation facilities because the only the good girls aren't constantly having to fight off the urge to chew on their shoes.

"I know it's a fantastical premise, but something about [the girls'] plight felt very true and very serious to me," Russell writes in the contributors' notes to Best American Short Stories. Genre readers have come to dread this kind of naivety on the part of mainstream writers writing genre stories--it usually heralds an obvious, broad allegory whose author is constantly nudging aside the curtain, fearful that their readers won't Get the Point. It's possible to read "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" as an allegory--the girls are immigrants being immersed in their new culture, which will inevitably cause them to lose the old one and become disconnected from their families; the girls' socialization focuses on gender roles (late in the story they meet their brothers for a dance, in which they are graded on their ability to make small talk about the weather), so the allegory could refer to the role that education can take in enforcing those roles; the pack's behavior mirrors the group dynamics in a school, with a queen bee and a perennial screw-up whom no one wants to be friends with (Russell's imaginative take on this dynamic stands in stark contrast to another story in the collection, Aryn Kyle's "Allegiance", which describes a girl's experiences in a new school perfectly without ever trying to do anything that hundreds of other authors haven't already done with the same premise)--but none of these readings sum the story up. In the end, this is simply a story about feral wolf-girls trying to be human, and though it mirrors our reality in certain respects, Russell never loses her faith in the story's reality, and neither do we.

I think "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" is the kind of story Michael Chabon was hoping for when he first envisioned the McSweeney's anthologies. It's also probably the kind of story Jeff VanderMeer would characterize as triumphing over mediocrity (I think it would have had pride of place in Best American Fantasy, and in fact I'm now wondering whether it shouldn't be considered for genre awards). It's certainly the kind of story I was hoping for when I bought Best American Short Stories. Is it disappointing that stories like this aren't more common? Certainly, but it's not necessarily an indication that the short story is ailing. Ultimately, the bell curve asserts itself, and I simply can't imagine any reasonable person expecting to come across more than one or two stories of this caliber in a single year. More disappointing is the thought that so few people will read Russell's story, but the most I can do about that is to tell them otherwise. "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" really is the kind of story that makes you want to grab complete strangers and say “Oh, man, you gotta read this!”, which is precisely what I've just done.

Monday, November 05, 2007

And So It Begins

Publishers Weekly's best books of 2007.

It's November the bloody fifth.

I don't know about you, but I've got two whole months left in this year, and I damn well plan on reading some good books between now and its end. AtWQ's best (and worst) reads of the year will be posted at the end of December as God intended.

So there.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

This is a funny thing for a science fiction fan to say, but I don't read a lot of novels about scientists. Then again, I suspect that neither does anybody else. In any genre, depictions of science and scientific research are rare, and in SF in particular one more often comes across science in its processed form, technology. The popular SFnal depiction of scientists falls somewhere between Rodney McKay and Gaius Baltar--glorified engineers coming up with off-the-cuff solutions to immediate problems. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one novel, Gregory Benford's Timescape, which tries to depict the reality of the scientific process--painstaking, meticulous, and above all slow. As one of the characters in Allegra Goodman's novel Intuition says: "Can I tell you about the research that goes on here? People are saving lives every day in theory, in the future."

It was mainly curiosity, therefore, that caused me to pick up Goodman's novel, but within a few pages I was hopelessly hooked. This is a fantastic, exceptionally well-written and compulsively readable novel. Intuition is a character study, a detective story, and a philosophical meditation all wrapped up into one supremely enjoyable, devastatingly smart package. This is a novel about science as a rarefied pursuit, detached from human frailty and pettiness and concerned solely with shining, incontrovertible truth. It's also a novel about science as something inextricably bound with human foibles, with politics, passion, envy and love, whose truths are so distorted by the act of observation that they can mean completely different things to different people. What's remarkable about Goodman's accomplishment in Intuition is that she makes us see how science can be both of these things--chilly and precise; messy and emotional--to the same characters, and at the same time. Like David Auburn's Proof, Intuition insists on treating research as a form of self-expression that is just as meaningful and just as personal to the people who are drawn to it as painting and literature are to artists and writers, but Goodman does Auburn one better by refusing to romanticize the process of scientific research, as he does with his shut-in mathematical genius of a protagonist. Intuition's plot hinges, in fact, on the primal importance of precision and attention to detail in the experimental process, and on the catastrophic consequences that can ensue when scientists surrender their detachment and skepticism in the face of potentially good results.

Intuition takes place in Boston in the mid-80s. In the small, chronically under-funded Mendelssohn-Glass lab, post-doctoral fellow Cliff makes a discovery that seems to have been lifted wholesale out of the most unrealistic popular-culture depiction of science. His heretofore unsuccessful attempts to attack breast cancer cells with a genetically modified virus, which he had been ordered to stop by the lab's directors, Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass, appear to be bearing fruit. Several of his experimental mice, deliberately given cancer and then exposed to the virus, have gone into remission. For Cliff, this promising result marks a dramatic turnaround in his prospects at the lab. Overnight, he is transformed from a golden boy who never lived up to his potential to one who has made good. Cautious Marion and exuberant Sandy sanction another round of experiments, and when these show dramatic results--a 60% rate of remission--they dedicate the entire lab to Cliff's research, scrambling to draw attention to themselves within the scientific community, through journal publications, and in the general media, through puff pieces in People and Time.

The general atmosphere of excitement in the lab does not infect Robin, Cliff's fellow postdoc and former girlfriend. Frustrated by the failure of her own research, and vaguely resentful of having been reassigned to Cliff's project, Robin is initially thrown, and later suspicious, when her attempts to recreate Cliff's results are unsuccessful. These suspicions are bolstered by her realization that Cliff has not always followed lab procedure, and by the discovery of preliminary notes that paint a very different picture of Cliff's experimental results. Though Cliff insists that he is, at most, guilty of the occasional sloppy record-keeping, Robin is increasingly persuaded that he doctored his results. She takes her suspicions to Marion and Sandy, and later to an internal review board of the Boston scientific community. When these fail to support her, she turns to the NIH (from which the lab has, by this point, received a grant) and its oversight body, and from here her accusations snowball into a media circus. A congressman who has made the demand for greater accountability and oversight in publicly-funded science his pet issue latches on to Robin's accusations, and before long the entire cast is testifying before congress, and the results of an official investigation into Cliff's methods are plastered on the front pages on national newspapers.

Goodman describes these events in a narrative tone that manages to be simultaneously detached and emotional. Her style is reminiscent of Jane Austen, and even more so of Norman Rush. Like them, she has the knack of writing dispassionately about passion. Her descriptions are precise and stripped-down, but also exhaustive:
The room had no windows. A large freezer and four refrigerators stood shoulder-to-shoulder against two walls. Thousands of dollars' worth of ingredients were kept in the refrigerators: liters of fetal calf serum the color of maple syrup; pen-strep (a solution of penicillin and streptomycin); Fungizone; and other antibiotics that the researches mixed into media to fight off bugs and mold. A desk topped by a bookcase, the laminar flow hood, and two large carts on wheels took up the rest of the space. The room was packed to the ceiling with supplies: plastic funnels; cardboard cases of filters, test tubes with orange and white caps; dozens of foil-topped beakers standing up in rows, waiting to be filled. There were rolls of labeling tape--white, yellow, pale green, robin's egg blue--jars of powdered chemicals, and scores of books; fantasy and quilt-making books were shelved together with scientific catalogs: GIBCO BRL 1986, The Quilter's Guide to Rotary Cutting, VWR Scientific Products. The space was cluttered but entirely organized. This suited Nanette Klein, who ran the place.
The same mixture of precision and exhaustiveness is extended to the novel's characters. Above the four already mentioned, these include the other post-doctoral fellows in the Mendelssohn-Glass lab, the lab technicians, Marion and Sandy's families, and many others. Goodman inhabits each of their points of view in turn. The result is not so dramatic as a Rashomon-ian reinterpretation of events from each character's viewpoint, but it does create a richly textured reality.

None of the novel's characters are permitted to be uncomplicated. Sandy is a mediocre scientist and a publicity hound. A renowned oncologist, his reputation rests primarily on a devastating combination of charm and tenacity--he can't do much more for his patients than any other doctor, but he can make them feel as if a pitched battle is being fought on their behalf, and even more importantly, as if they were key players in that campaign. His is the sort of domineering charm that most of us have come across once or twice--the guy who is smarter, more driven and more energetic than anyone else in the room, and who uses these advantages as a justification to run roughshod over the desires and opinions of anyone who disagrees with him, especially if they happen to be his relatives--and it is precisely because we've met him before that Sandy isn't a thoroughly objectionable person. We can sympathize with his wife and daughters' exasperated yet fierce love for him (if Sandy were a more substantial thinker, and less focused on public opinion, he'd be a lot like Jed Bartlet), and we're touched when Goodman makes it clear that in spite of his intellectual shortcomings, Sandy needs to think of himself as a researcher. He has a deep admiration, which borders on courtly love, for Marion's intelligence, and his actions are frequently motivated by a desire to make the multitude aware of her brilliance.

The other characters are similarly complex. Marion is staunch and unforgiving of fault, but it's ambition, as much as scientific curiosity, that drives her. It is through her ambition that Sandy manages to persuade her to publish Cliff's results prematurely, a failure of rigor of which her husband, Jacob, is deeply critical. Jacob is the closest Goodman comes to an out-and-out villain. A former child prodigy who has dropped out of science, and shares Sandy's admiration for Marion's intelligence (and nothing else), it's Jacob who initially, and quite deliberately, encourages Robin's doubts about Cliff's results, and thus sets the novel's entire chain of events--a grueling, humiliating experience for his wife--in motion. One might say that Intuition is driven by a covert struggle between Jacob and Sandy, not for something as prosaic as Marion's body or even her love, but for her soul as a scientist. Nevertheless, Jacob loves Marion and is loved by her. He genuinely believes that he's doing the right thing for her, and Goodman never stoops to making that belief seem deranged or irrational. In the end, Jacob is as fully human as the rest of the novel's characters.

In spite of the increasingly strained tones in which the debate over Cliff's results is conducted, Intuition is rarely a dramatic novel. On several occasions, Goodman playfully sidles up to dramatic plot twists, tantalizing the readers with the possibility of disaster overturning the characters' existence and radically altering the course of the novel's plot--several characters decide to swim across Walden Pond, Cliff climbs a snow-slicked public statue--but always pulls back at the last moment. As the investigation progresses, however, the novel becomes increasingly tense, the readers more and more invested in its results. At the same time, we don't really want to find out that either Cliff or Robin are right. This is not because either one of them is a particularly appealing person. Cliff is callow and insubstantial. One senses that, if it weren't for his success, there would be nothing to him as a person. Robin's scientific rigor is inextricable from her bitterness, and it's impossible to tell where her jealousy of Cliff's accomplishments ends and her genuine convictions begin. Still, as the novel approaches its end it becomes increasingly clear that if either of these characters were to lose their struggle--if Cliff were exposed as a liar or Robin were proven wrong--they would be utterly destroyed, not just as scientists but as people. At the same time, we can't help but be aware of the fact that there is an ultimate truth--either Cliff's virus works or it doesn't--and as Goodman works hard to draw parallels between scientific research and criminal investigation (both are, paradoxically, pursuits of objective truths and subjective uncertainties), we need to know what the answer is.

It's only at this point that Intuition falters, ever so slightly. Goodman draws the novel's final chapters out, certainly when one considers the slightly anti-climactic way in which she finally reveals what really happened in the lab (though, given her aversion to drama throughout the novel, this similar aversion at its end shouldn't come as a surprise). It's a minor failing, however, and Goodman soon rights herself. Intuition ends more satisfyingly than a novel so focused on uncertainty and the murkiness of the scientific process has any business doing. Cliff realizes that he truly loves research, not as a way of achieving fame and recognition, but in its own right. Robin steps out from under Marion's shadow, and Marion from under Sandy's. In the novel's final scene, Marion and Robin meet for the first time since Robin made her accusations public, at a conference in which Marion is presenting a paper. At first, the two women are understandably awkward and reluctant to acknowledge one another, but as Marion's talk progresses past its slow introductory phase, as she begins to explore the actual science of her argument, they find themselves capable of overcoming their differences. Through pure, unemotional science, these former enemies find a way of having a conversation, and through that conversation, perhaps a path towards repairing their relationship and making it better.

This ending is particularly satisfying because, though it is rarely acknowledged outright, the issue of women in the sciences is a very large elephant in the room throughout the novel. Once again, Goodman is delightfully subtle. Robin's problems don't stem from the fact that she is a woman, but they are clearly informed by it. Though brilliant, she's a worker bee in the Mendelssohn-Glass lab. Her project, assigned to her by Sandy, is basically catalog work--looking for a common marker in blood samples from cancer patients--and yields no results. When she comes up with a more aggressive avenue of research, she's turned down (later on, after Robin leaves the lab, one of the male postdocs takes over her work and has promising results) and asked to support Cliff's work. It would be reductive to argue that Robin's career woes are strictly the result of her femininity--Sandy genuinely believes in the work her assigns her; when Cliff has good results, it makes sense for the rest of the lab to rally behind him--but the picture that Goodman forms of Robin is of someone who is always being asked to wait her turn, a common problem for women in science or business. There are also indications that Marion's career has been stunted by her gender--the very fact that she needs Sandy to act as her representative, to be the lab's public face, to goad her into submitting publications and deal with the press, suggests an awareness, perhaps only subconscious, of how much harder women have to work to be taken seriously as scientists.

These are all, however, undertones, and at no point does Goodman allow us to seriously contemplate the possibility that Intuition's events are driven solely by sexism. No one, for example, argues that Robin is merely a jilted woman (though there is the tiniest grain of truth in this interpretation). When Robin plaintively says that she expected Marion to support her "as a woman scientist," she sounds whiny and uncouth. This is, I think, all to the good. It's important to remember that sexism isn't as clear-cut as old white men in smoke-filled rooms chuckling over how women should be barefoot and pregnant. Goodman's version of sexism is a watered-down form, which so thoroughly permeates out culture that it informs the actions of both men and women without their being aware of it. This makes the novel's ending, in which two women finally see each other as equals, and speak to each other without male intermediaries, all the more powerful.