“Upon this Rock”: The Insider-Outsider Parallel

(Nonfictional) Techniques tracked:
-Positioning yourself-as-narrator as inside vs. outside the group you’re reporting on
-Using objects to communicate the above inside vs. outside status (the RV, guitars, mountain lion)
-Piquing reader’s interest in the subject with your own personal experience of it (and deferring this)
-Using immediate present-day journey (acute tension) to communicate magnitude of a (parallel) past journey (chronic tension)
-Creating a parallel structure that’s disrupted to demonstrate narrator/character’s change


In “Upon This Rock,” the opening essay of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection Pulphead, the narrator does not reveal that he himself was once a member of the group he’s purporting to describe until roughly midway through, a revelation that makes the reader recalibrate the narrator’s interest in the subject matter: it’s a turning point where we realize all of this stuff is a lot more personal and emotional for him than he’s been letting on.

He begins by describing his assignment like it was just another job he’d taken on according to the will of someone else: “…stir in statistics, paycheck.” The job happens to be writing about a Christian rock festival, and he describes how, wanting to get more of an insider perspective (contrary to the blasé tone of the opening paragraph), he attempts to solicit fans into joining him for the trip by posting a request on a web forum. But all the responses are basically that his request is creepy, until eventually his post is removed altogether. He winds up going to a different Christian festival (called “Creation”) than originally planned, alone, in a gigantic RV that is the only available vehicle left to rent in the area, and which comes close to killing many people at Creation when someone tries to direct him up a too-steep hill and it starts to slide backward. He’s saved by a group of Christian men that get him to the hilltop and then tell him there’s an empty field down below that the guides have been too stupid to let people camp in. The narrator requests to join their group:

“Why don’t you guys stop by my trailer and get me on your way?” I said. “I’ll be in that totally empty field.”

Note how the narrator is simultaneously trying to infiltrate while isolating himself physically. He winds up spending most of the remainder of the fest with this group, but before they come get him, we get an aside describing the plot of the novel Silenced from the Left Behind series: in the absence of Christianity, a “death cult” is taking over the U.S. population, a group that sounds, to the narrator, very much itself like Evangelical Christianity. When the guys do come get him, he asks how many non-Christians they think are at the fest, and they say that in a hundred thousand, there must be a few. The narrator observes there is absolutely no animosity among these hordes, which, as a veteran of large public events, he finds surprising and impressive.

Then, they reach the stage:

As we came around the corner, I saw the stage, from off to the side. And the crowd on the hill that faced the stage. Their bodies rose till they merged with the dark. “Holy crap,” I said.

Ritter waved his arm like an impresario. He said, “This, my friend, is Creation.”

The narrator then briefly describes why he will not describe the music itself, since its sole uncomplicated purpose is “to play something proven to please … while praising Jesus Christ.” Thematically, this piece is much more about the journey than the destination.

That night, one of narrator’s new friends’ party brings over a pair of “Jews for Jesus” to their site, who inform one of them that he’s going to hell for having tattoos. The narrator winds up having a long discussion with the group about their beliefs:

…they gradually got the sense that I found them exotic (though it was more than that). Slowly, their talk became an ecstasy of self-definition.

We’re approaching the turning point of the essay here: we don’t yet know what the “more than that” is that the narrator is parenthetically referring to here; we, too, thus far, have thought that his fascination with the group stems from exactly what he said outside of the parentheses—they are exotic, unfamiliar to him, because he is an outsider to their group. That is what he’s led us to believe, at least.

He describes more of their conversation, aspects of which reveal very divergent sides to the men:

“And anyway,” he added, “I gave all that to God—all that anger and stuff. He took it away.”

God in His wisdom had left him enough to get by on. Earlier in the evening, the guys had roughed up Pee Wee a little and tied him to a tree with ratchet straps.

An official comes to investigate the screams, and the men tease him.

I admit that these tales of the West Virginia guys’ occasional truculence might appear to gainsay what I claimed earlier about “not one word spoken in anger,” et cetera. But it was playful.

After that the group operates with “impunity,” and the narrator describes how some of them play instruments before he says:

We passed around the acoustic.

It happens so swiftly you might not have even noticed it: the narrator has just been subsumed into the group. It turns out he knows some songs that could pass for Christian, like Bob Marley:

When I finished, Bub said, “Man, that’s really Christian. It really is.” Darius made me teach it to him; he said he would take it home and “do it at worship.”

Here, very close to the turning point, it still seems like the narrator’s knowledge of something that could be interpreted as Christian and included in a Christian community is just a coincidence.

The narrator is alone when the turning point comes:

I got my drink and drifted slowly toward where I thought they’d be standing.

And let’s not forget the rich sensory rendering of this important moment:

Lack of food, my filthiness, impending sunstroke: these were ganging up on me. Plus the air down here smelled faintly of poo. There were a lot of blazing-hot portable toilets wafting miasma whenever the doors were opened.

Note the word choice here: things are “ganging up on me”—language that reinforces his isolation. He sees a band playing that it turns out he knows:

The straw slipped from my mouth. “Oh, shit, it’s Petra.”

Then, we jump cut to 1988. We get the whole story of how the narrator, for a period as a teen, came to embrace Evangelical Christianity and then abandon it. This is a turning point because it’s a revelation that changes everything. The narrator has worked hard to establish himself as an outsider to the group thus far, while being pushed incrementally closer to insider status as we’ve gone along. Now, at the center of the essay, we get an account of when he was all the way on the inside. We don’t feel it’s too sneaky that he hasn’t revealed his Christian past yet (at least this reader doesn’t) because this, seeing Petra in the present day, feels like a natural place for him to remember this period of his past, since, as we’ll learn as the story of it unfolds, getting an opportunity to meet this particular band when he was a teenager is what led him to realize he had doubts about the church and to ultimately leave it. The fact that the narrator doesn’t declare his Christian past at the essay’s outset feels a natural manifestation of his shame and emotional turmoil surrounding it. Looking back, you can feel that he knows the trip will bring up difficult things for him, but it’s like he avoids dealing with them until he’s confronted with them directly, which is something a lot of us readers will be able to identify with. So we forgive him for not revealing this up front, and the fact that he hasn’t revealed it until now itself reveals his vulnerability, making us sympathize with him.

Once his Christian past is revealed, all his past actions are thrown into a different light. Take his aforementioned reading of Silenced, during which he notes:

Adherents meet in “cell groups” (nice touch: a bit of old commie lingo); they enlist the young and hunger for global hegemony while striving to hasten the end of the world.

When we get to the turning point flashback unfolding the story of his Christian past, we learn that he, too, met in “cell groups.” His reading of the Silenced death cults that are supposed to be a product of the absence of Christianity as themselves Christian demonstrates the extent of his own conflicted attitude about the religion, which is, in fact, what it turns out this whole essay is about.

The narrator ends up leaving the church when he’s supposed to talk with the members of Petra about Jesus after their show, and in the room where he’s supposed to meet them, he finds two mute boys who won’t respond to him:

This was my opening. They were either rapt or mentally damaged in some way, and whichever it was, Christ called on me now to lay down my testimony.

The sentences wouldn’t form. I flipped though the list of dogmas, searching for one I didn’t essentially think was crap, and came up with nothing.

There could have ensued a nauseating silence, but I acted with an odd decisiveness to end the whole experience. I asked them if they wanted to leave—it was an all but rhetorical question—and said I did, too. We walked out together.

He uses concretely located physical gestures—walking out of the room—to show us he’s leaving the abstract institution of the church. Now, he’s an outsider again.

Like stories in fiction, pieces in nonfiction often operate on the interplay between chronic (past) and acute (present) tension. The chronic tension for this narrator is that he was once in the church and left it. The acute tension is his trip to Creation, which will cause him to confront this past. His past with Christianity follows the trajectory of outsider-insider-outsider, and he presents his present journey to Creation in the same way, beginning with himself as an outsider, then being inside Creation, then being included in a group inside Creation, and then, as we’ll see, moving far enough out again to provide us an expansive view of himself as an outsider looking in for the essay’s conclusion.

Interestingly, even when the narrator is “in” Creation and closer to being part of the group, he’s still reinforced as an outsider—he notes all the looks he gets coming in with the gigantic, obtrusive RV:

They had a disconcerting way of stepping aside for the RV only when its front fender was just about to graze their backs. From my elevated vantage, it looked as if they were waiting just a tenth of a second too long, and that I was gently, forcibly parting them in slow motion.

There’s an outsider on the inside if ever there was one. This insider-as-outsider in the present narrative of his Creation trip mirrors the way he was an insider-as-outsider in his Christian past—even when he was a Christian, he never really felt part of the group, which is eventually why he had to leave.

The narrator concludes the flashback about his Christian past with:

Once you’ve known Him as a god, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won’t slacken.

And one has doubts about one’s doubts.

This is what Creation is bringing to the surface for him: the question of whether he really should have left the Church.

Returning to the present at Creation after the extended flashback, there are rumors of a mountain lion. The Jews for Jesus girls return and inform the group they’ll go to hell for eating cooked frog legs. Note the essay’s parallel structure here: these girls appeared right before and again right after the turning point flashback. They show that members of the group the narrator potentially feels condemned by are also themselves condemned and outsiders to other groups.

The narrator then has an emotional reaction to a man having a heart attack and dying at his feet in the crowd, hears Stephen Baldwin saying crazy things on a stage from his trailer, and rereads Silenced. Then he meets up with the guys, who show him a newspaper headline telling him the mountain lion is not believed to be a threat. It starts to rain and they all go in the narrator’s giant unused RV. The narrator has avoided showering so he wouldn’t have to use any of its complex systems (reinforcing it as a symbol of his isolation), but now it comes into cathartic use, enabling him to repay some of the hospitality the group has shown him. They play guitars together again (parallel structure, remember).

The narrator goes with the guys to Creation’s culminating ceremony—an enormous candlelight vigil—but, after one’s parting request that when he writes about them, he can say they’re crazy as long as he says that they love God, splits off for a lookout point where he can see the entire massive crowd. He recalls being part of such candle-lighting ceremonies when he was a Christian, and now thinks about his recent acquaintances (the candlelight recalling how their faces were illuminated by the campfire during their talks), and how they have the strength to believe in what he never could. He has returned, at the end here, to a firmly established outsider position relative to the group, but it’s a more connected, sympathetic outsider-ness than what he began with: this is the change that takes place in him in the present. Even though he’s an outsider, he’s gained a more meaningful perspective on, and thus admiration for, those on the inside. He seems to be at peace at the end, signified by the final line: “I left at dawn, while creation slept.” For the parallel structure, we might expect a description of the journey back to match the rather elaborate one we got on the way in (Prefaced by “What do I tell you about my voyage to Creation?”) and the breaking of that parallel here reinforces his peace: there was a struggle to get in, but there’s not one to get out.


A Quick Word on The Quiet American

Techniques tracked:
-narrative arc: it all builds to a (difficult) choice
-the misdirection of tension: presenting the outcome of the climactic choice up front


And the word is: choice.

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) begins with the narrator finding out that Pyle, the eponymous character and a (much younger) acquaintance of his, is dead. He’s greeted right after receiving this news by the woman who left him for Pyle, whom he has to tell about Pyle’s death. We then go into flashback, getting the story of how the narrator, a British war correspondent who makes it his goal to take no sides in the imperialist conflict he’s covering, gets to know Pyle, an American from Boston (Harvard grad) who works for the U.S. Embassy in Indochina (this is around 1952, when the French are trying to control the region). The narrator, Fowler, who is living (and ostensibly in love) with Phuong, a local Vietnamese woman, finds Pyle’s ideas about the native population and spreading democracy naive and ill-informed. Shortly after meeting Fowler’s lover Phuong at a dance, Pyle professes his love for her to Fowler, and his intent to try to marry her. (Fowler is unable to offer Phuong the security of marriage, because he’s married to a strict Catholic woman who won’t divorce him, though they’ve been estranged for years.) But when Pyle actually declares his intentions to Phuong herself–with Fowler as translator, since Pyle can’t speak French or Vietnamese–Phuong turns him down, remaining with Fowler.

After this, Pyle and Fowler wind up on an expedition to the outskirts of town together (during which Pyle demonstrates more of his trademark naivety). They run out of gas on the road back in after locals siphon the tank, and, with night falling, have to take refuge in a tower with a couple of scared guards who don’t speak their language. Fowler and Pyle have a deep philosophical and political conversation to pass the time, during which Pyle declares Phuong the most important thing in the world, more so even than the fate of countries. Their conversation is interrupted when the tower is attacked, and Fowler breaks his leg trying to escape. Pyle drags him across a rice field, out of harm’s way, Fowler, in excruciating pain, protesting all the while that he didn’t ask to be saved.

Fowler has requested a divorce again from his wife, but she turns him down. Fowler lies about this and tells Phuong there’s still a chance they can marry, a lie that Phuong and Pyle find out about and that eventually pushes Phuong into Pyle’s arms.

Fowler then finds out Pyle’s been involved in some local bombings, and that, based on the ideas in a textbook (by York Harding), he’s formed a force that will try to take action to spread democracy.

Intermittently we flash back to the present, in which the police interrogate Fowler about what he was doing the night of Pyle’s death. The scene of where Fowler is the moment Pyle dies is the climactic point we’re building to over the course of the the extended flashback, which is itself really the meat of the book, its main narrative arc. After a bomb of Pyle’s kills several dozen people, some locals offer Fowler the chance to put Pyle in harm’s way and help get rid of him. That is, he’s offered the chance to kill the man who’s killed several dozen and has the potential to kill many more, the man who’s also taken the woman he loves, and the man who’s saved his life. It’s a difficult decision, to say the least, and Fowler bitterly acknowledges that now he’s been forced to take sides in the conflict. He’s been forced to choose to let Pyle live or die, to be on his side or against him.

As we already know, Pyle is killed. The tension is not in whether the narrator’s decision in the climactic moment to go through with killing him leads to his actual death or not. Rather, the truly climactic scene is when we’re with the narrator in a restaurant the moment he knows Pyle must be being killed, though he still holds out the slimmest hope that he’s not in fact being killed, that he won’t have to be responsible for what he’s chosen to be responsible for.

In the present moment, the tension after finding out that a character, Pyle, is dead, seems to arise from a whodunit type scenario; it seems we will get to be with the narrator as he uncovers the story behind Pyle’s death. What we don’t realize is that the narrator already knows the story. It would be a dramatic twist if the narrator had killed Pyle himself, and in the present he presents the police with an alibi that seems airtight, at first, at least. But the twist is really that this first-person narrator is indirectly (and thus somehow ironically directly) responsible for Pyle’s death, and he knows it all along. We don’t feel tricked with this reveal, as we might with a first-person narrator, because it makes organic sense that the narrator is suppressing it. He doesn’t want to admit responsibility, and the narrative is also one of his coming to terms with his own role and guilt. He eventually seems to…

In that climactic scene, then, while Pyle is offstage being murdered, Fowler is in a restaurant eating alone, while a professional acquaintance who dislikes him glares at him from across the room. This acquaintance, Grainger, eventually demands they talk outside, and Fowler, morally exhausted at this point, easily acquiesces. He thinks Grainger wants to fight him, but it turns out it’s Grainger’s son’s birthday, and he’s been overwhelmed with the need to tell someone about this son’s potentially life-threatening polio and that there’s no possibility he can get leave to go home. He can’t tell anyone he was in the restaurant with, because they were all French and couldn’t understand him. Fowler genuinely sympathizes here with a man he once disliked, offering an unexpected moment of catharsis.

In the present the police don’t bother Fowler anymore, and his wife unexpectedly grants permission for a divorce, so he can marry Phuong, and he gets a sort of happy ending.


Jennifer Aniston and Narrative Spandrels


Those employed teaching fiction-writing and literature usually have more strenuous criteria for what “works” than the mass populace, as generating such criteria is pretty much what we’re paid to do (varied as compensation might be). We read to engage, whereas the masses, more often than not—not to generalize too much—read to escape. In “Narrative Spandrels,” one of his craft essays on fiction-writing in The Half-Known World, Robert Boswell offers an explanation for how objects in narratives can be used to provide emotional closure in a way that “works”:

 …a story’s narrative is typically structured by scenes. The construction of any scene will generate by-products—a lamp that flickers, a passing stranger who comments on a main character’s shoes, an incontinent dog, a green light at the end of a dock, a stutter, a tattoo of a spider’s web, a pattern in the snow that makes the character think of pitted cheeks. These by-products come into existence to make the scene more vivid and complete, but they may ultimately determine the design of the narrative mosaic to such an extent that they will appear to be the primary units of structure.

Boswell first goes through two somewhat belabored metaphors before he gets to this explanation. The first metaphor involves how evolution used to be misunderstood, with people thinking animals survived by adapting over the course of their individual lifetimes rather than the surviving animals already possessing an adaptation that enabled them to survive and that thus got passed on to future generations—so giraffes didn’t get long necks by stretching to eat leaves in tall trees and actually making their necks grow; the giraffes that didn’t die out were the ones whose necks were already longer, so all the giraffes with shorter necks died out and future generations all selected for the long-neck adaptation. The second metaphor, involving architecture, is where the essay’s title comes from. A “spandrel” is an architectural feature of cathedrals that “is a by-product of placing rounded arches side by side.”


Boswell says the spandrels seem like such a natural and integrated part of the design that some people could think the archways are the the by-products of trying to make the spandrel, but really it’s the other way around. The spandrels are something that happened incidentally; they were not planned or intended or contrived.

He then goes on to describe Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” in which the cat the grandmother is hiding causes a car accident that leads to her and her family’s death at the hands of the Misfit. Boswell believes the cat entered the story, like the architectural spandrel, as a by-product: “in the course of inventing the character and the initiating action, O’Connor stumbled upon this feline detail,” which winds up being the critical element that guides the story to its conclusion.

That is, an object that shows up early in the story comes back at the end, but the writer put it in early in the story without necessarily intending it to come back. Then, when they were trying to figure out how to end the story, they realized they could use this object they’d already put in the story for a different reason. This makes stories feel more natural than if you knew at the beginning you needed something for the ending so you planted it in the beginning; such intention and planning would feel heavy-handed and unnatural.

In his discussion of spandrels Boswell identifies the difference between scenes that “work” versus those that don’t—meaning those that are, to his mind, contrived. He uses, among other examples, a scene from the movie Picture Perfect (1997) as an example of the latter:

While he’s lying on her couch, she tells him about a watch she used to own that she had loved, a Cinderella watch. Much later in the film, she discovers that he has sent her a present—a Cinderella watch. This gift encourages her to realize that she really does love him. The watch is meant to function as a spandrel: something introduced early on in the context of a scene recurs in a manner that propels the outcome. The Cinderella watch, however, is very clearly NOT a spandrel; it is an obviously planted symbol. The watch does not initially come up as a by-product; rather, the scene has no purpose but to supply an opportunity for the conversation, which, in turn, has no purpose but to plant the idea of the watch in the viewer’s head. Any discriminating viewer recognizes this as a phony moment, and the watch’s return comes across as a ridiculous contrivance to forcibly compel closure.

One cannot believe the Cinderella watch is a by-product of the scene because the scene does nothing but introduce (and thereby POINT AT) the fact of the lost Cinderella watch.

Boswell may or may not be insulting the intelligence of rom-com viewers; at any rate, the Cinderella watch has been helpful for me to wrap my mind around this concept.

I will now attempt to redeem some of Jennifer Aniston’s literary panache (while providing another example to elucidate narrative spandrels) via her more recent and dramatic movie Cake (2014). Is its eponymous symbol a spandrel? Aniston’s character, Claire, suffers from chronic pain after surviving a car accident that killed her son, and the movie begins shortly after the suicide of Nina, a woman from Claire’s support group. Claire starts seeing visions of Nina, who encourages Claire to kill herself. Late in the film, Claire has a vision of Nina bringing her a cake, which we learn in this scene is what Nina told the support group she wished she was capable of doing for her son—bake him a birthday cake. Claire later ends up taking in a runaway whom she asks to bake her a cake (which the girl does before absconding with everything valuable she can get her hands on), and Claire gives the cake to Nina’s son for his birthday, along with a kite the kid mentioned to her in a previous scene, when Claire was riding in a car with him and the kid’s father, Nina’s husband. This offering is supposed to be cathartic for Claire, whose meanness and anger in the wake of the car accident has driven away so many people in her life. And yet, it has problems similar to the watch in Picture Perfect: the cake and the kite don’t really come up all that organically. It seems like the writers knew Claire needed to give Nina’s son something to close the arc of Claire’s emotional transition and worked backwards to put in the scenes planting what would be meaningful things to give the son. In the scene where Claire has the vision that introduces the cake, she’s in the hospital after trying to kill herself, a natural enough place to have a potentially redemptive vision, I suppose. But in the scene where the kid asks for the kite, they’re in the car driving to…nowhere that actually matters to the story. They’re just driving so the kid can ask for the kite. The scene is, as Boswell would say, a “phony moment.”


But despite these shortcomings, and its being “a redemptive arc you could trace with your eyes shut,” Cake does at least one thing better than Picture Perfect: it makes use of a real spandrel in addition to its planted eponymous symbol.

In scenes throughout the movie (including but not limited to the one where the kid asks for the kite), Claire rides in vehicles’ passenger seats that are reclined all the way back so she can lie flat—otherwise the pain is too much for her to ride in a moving vehicle. The fact that there are many of these scenes prove that none of them exist for the sole purpose of showing her riding in this posture—they exist for other reasons, to show, say, how much her nanny is willing to do for her by taking her to Tijuana for pain pills, or for Nina’s kid to be able to tell her what he wants for his birthday. The character is in chronic pain, so it makes total, organic sense that she would need to lie down like that, while at the same time it provides a visceral visual demonstration of how her pain has sunk her below the levels of others’ normal lives. She can’t drive herself: she’s not in control of her own life anymore. At the very end, when Claire finally visits her son’s grave, she gets back into the car, her seat preset in the reclined position, as usual. She lies down, and her hand hovers over the handle that will raise it. For a second it looks like she’s not going to do it…but then she flips the switch and the seat jerks her upward, toward the camera, and then the shot cuts to the credits. Perhaps it sounds heavy-handed, but in the moment it’s perfectly natural and believable, and was, I think, the main reason this film managed to move me despite the much clumsier use of objects like the cake and a gigantic photo of the dead son her husband mounts on Claire’s living room wall.

Perhaps one way to think about symbols v. spandrels is that the former is trying to make a cake so you can have it and eat it too, while the latter is simply eating cake when cake it’s available. The ultimate point is, canvassing your story for objects you’ve put in earlier without thinking too much about why, just to make the scene feel more real, can help you generate an ending that feels organic. Something you put in early on might seem like a minor detail, but by pulling it back in at the end, and the recurrence of that object will make the story feel more coherent. That object can show you something about how the story should end.


Addendum: As a followup example, I had a student write a story about a man who frequented a bar in a small town, and early in the story it mentioned that he tried to leave the bar at a certain time so he didn’t get stuck by a long train that always passed at the same time:

He liked to know information about people and he always left Benita’s by 1 A.M., because if he waited any later he would have to stop for the night train to pass through town.

Then later in the story the man ends up getting stabbed outside the bar and is left bleeding, possibly to death. He starts hallucinating that the people nearby are people from his past, the revisiting of which causes him to realize some of the mistakes he’s made (an epiphany). The writer does not say explicitly whether the character will die, but ends the story with a line indicating he probably will:

He distantly heard the night train, which meant it was past 1 A.M., and he wouldn’t be getting home any time soon.

The writer did not mention the train early in the story with the intention of using it in the last line. When looking for a way to end the story that was not too “cheesy,” as she put it, she remembered the detail about the train she had used in rendering the character and the setting early on, and pulled it back in, creating an effect that was not cheesy at all, but emotionally powerful.


Edward P. Jones’ “The First Day”: Looking at Looking

Techniques tracked:
-appealing to the senses
-turning sense appeal into plot
-looking at looking
-conflict, crisis, resolution


Edward P. Jones’ “The First Day” is a deceptively simple story that provides us with the rich sensory experience of a little girl’s first day of school, or that which immediately precedes it. The arc of the story actually consists of her wardrobe preparations, then the registration process, and ends with the girl entering her classroom to officially start the school day. Of course, if the story consisted of her breezing through these preparations, it would merely be anecdote; we must hit some hitches for it to qualify as a “story.”

There’s already some tension injected between past and present in the very first line:

On an otherwise unremarkable September morning, long before I learned to be ashamed of my mother, she takes my hand and we set off down New Jersey Avenue to begin my very first day of school.

Though we might not realize it yet, the story has basically proclaimed itself in the first line: this will be the beginning of the narrator learning to be ashamed of her mother. The hitches that occur will somehow influence this shame, and after we go through the sensory experience of preparing for school—the smell of hair grease, the pinch of plaited hair, the look and feel of the special shoes and socks and underwear, the details richly observed as this is a special occasion and so they are all unusual, noteworthy—the hitches begin during the registration process. The first hitch is when they’re told the narrator can’t go to school at the one her mother always pointed out and declared her daughter would go to. The past enters the narrative here as the little girl recalls her mother pointing out the school:

For as many Sundays as I can remember, perhaps even Sundays when I was in her womb, my mother has pointed across I Street to Seaton as we come and go to Mt. Carmel. “You gonna go there and learn about the whole world.”

This memory shows not only that this particular location is important to the mother, but that the daughter has observed this importance. The mother has had a vision for her daughter’s future, and the daughter is aware that that vision is being challenged. The second hitch comes when the mother has to ask for help filling out the forms:

“This form. Would you mind helpin me fill it out?”

The woman still seems not to understand.

“I can’t read it. I don’t know how to read or write, and I’m askin you to help me.” My mother looks at me, then looks away. I know almost all of her looks, but this one is brand new to me. “Would you help me, then?”

Jones doesn’t explicitly tell us outright how the little girl’s view of her mother has changed, which would read something along the lines of, “Now I knew my mother couldn’t read.” Instead, the physical details the character observes, the new look, do this work. This character is very observant of looks; just a few sentences later we get:

My mother is now diseased, accord­ing to the girl’s eyes…

The story is about how the mother changes in the daughter’s eyes, and the daughter’s eyes change based on the other eyes she sees: the way she sees changes based on how she sees others seeing things (welcome to the world of peer pressure). Looks continue to be noted as the mother reprimands the daughter for staring at the girl who is staring at the mother who’s asked for help:

“Don’t stare,” my mother says to me. “You know better than that.”

But then, upon the mother’s being introduced to another woman:

She’s to be my teacher, she tells my mother. My mother stares.

Her violating her own dictum so shortly after uttering it shows us that her daughter can’t take everything her mother says at face value, which is exactly the lesson the daughter is learning here. As her child is about to be taken away, this mother’s either losing her self-possession or a hypocrite or both.

As they’re about to part ways, the daughter presses her mother’s lips together, part of a game they have, but the mother doesn’t play along like she usually does, signaling their impending separation: things will no longer be the way they used to. Then, the observation of a couple of critical sensory details occurs at the very end when the narrator’s finally left in the classroom:

I see where she has darned one of her socks the night before. Her shoes make loud sounds in the hall. She passes through the doors and I can still hear the loud sounds of her shoes. And even when the teacher turns me toward the classrooms and I hear what must be the singing and talking of all the children in the world, I can still hear my mother’s footsteps above it all.

At the end, simple physical description has evolved into a description of so much more. When the narrator observes that her mother’s socks are darned, she’s observing a literal seam that stands in for a figurative one: she sees the seams in her mother’s character, the weaknesses—i.e., her inability to read, which opens the door to the question of her other inabilities—that she was not aware of before. She’s specifically observing her mother’s flaws. “The first day” of the title on the surface refers to the first day of school, but is really the first day of something else as well, the first day of having a new understanding of her mother. But while the seeds for the shame from the opening line have been planted, they haven’t bloomed quite yet. That the sound of her mother’s steps is louder than the surrounding children’s voices demonstrates that the mother’s presence is still more powerful to the daughter than the impressions and opinions of her peers (that, or she’s embarrassed by how loud the shoes are). This conclusion doesn’t leave the daughter feeling sorry for her mother after learning her mother can’t read, but rather the opposite—it seems you could read it that she’s implicitly proud her mother has endured the embarrassment of having her weakness exposed for her sake. She’s learned plenty before the school day’s even started.

So, to sum up, the conflict that sets the story in motion is that the daughter needs to go to school. The crisis is that in the course of attempting to do so, the daughter learns her mother can’t read. The resolution is that she’ll go to school, with the implication being that she’ll learn to do what her mother couldn’t, and become ashamed of her mother for it.


The Tales of Two Adams pt 3: The True Orphan Master’s Son

Techniques tracked:
-structure: division into Parts
-point of view: braiding the narrative threads of different perspectives
-plot model: snowball


As with his mentor Robert Olen Butler’s 1993 Pulitzer-winning Vietnamese-community-centered collection A Good Scent from A Strange Mountain, you might be tempted, based on The Orphan Master’s Son’s shockingly well-observed details and descriptions of North Korean life, to make assumptions about Adam Johnson’s ethnicity. Well, he’s white. So let’s examine another piece of fiction by a white guy. (Though if we piece together some apparently biographical info from his new collection–out today!–specifically “Interesting Facts,” Adam Johnson might have some Native American blood.)

Jun Do is the eponymous orphan master’s son; though we visit this orphanage at the novel’s opening, the narrative swiftly moves past this early time in Jun Do’s life and leaves the rest of the info we get about it to be recounted in memories. Jun Do enters the army and is trained as a “tunnel rat,” able to perform combat in the pitch blackness. The book’s first sequence that lingers in scene arrives when he is ordered to help kidnap Japanese people, with the first targets being practice for an opera singer the Dear Leader wants. During the course of this mission, Gil, an ambassador’s son, tries to defect, and Jun Do stops him. Eventually he’s reposted to a fishing boat, where he picks up foreign radio signals, which he believes is his reward. The fishing crew, at first wary, warms up to him when he lets them listen to the transmissions of a pair of women rowing around the world. Then, some Americans board their boat and take portraits of the Dear Leader. In what’s probably the book’s most prevalent theme, the captain says of the North Korean government:

“They only care about the story we’re going to tell, and that story will be useful to them or it won’t.”

They decide to exaggerate the Americans’ aggression to transform what they see as their disgrace into heroism. They succeed in fooling the officials, and the next time they go out, the crew makes Jun Do an official member, since earlier he almost gave himself away as a spy to the Americans. All fishermen have their wives tattooed on their chest, and so they ink Sun Moon, the national actress, on Jun Do’s; even though she’s married to the high-ranking Commander Ga, other countries won’t know who she is. This time out, the second mate defects, and Jun Do does not try to stop him. The story they have to come up with this time is that they were again attacked by the Americans and the second mate was tossed to the sharks; Jun Do sustains a bite to corroborate the story that he tried to save him, which the government, after a brutal interrogation, buys. He lives with the second mate’s wife until he recovers enough to be swept off to a delegation going to Texas to tell the story of what the Americans did to his crew. On the way back, they have to come up with a story about why the Americans refused to give back the “Dead Leader’s toy,” which will turn out to be a uranium detector, and so tell the interrogating government officials tales of the Americans treating them like garbage. Following the interrogation, Jun Do is taken to a prison mine, “and from this point forward nothing further is known of the citizen named Pak Jun Do.” End Part I.

Part II begins one year later, and alternates between three points of view. We begin with the first-person perspective of an interrogator at Division 42, where Commander Ga’s being brought in for murdering Sun Moon and her children. The narrator’s unit’s job is to write “biographies” of the subjects who come in to get their full story, while their rival unit’s method is to torture mercilessly. The interrogator is convinced Ga is an impersonator, and that his story will be more important than any they’ve gotten. He asks Ga how he met Sun Moon, at which point we switch into the third-person perspective of “Commander Ga,” who, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is Jun Do. After moving back and forth between the first person and the third person that’s filling in the things the first-person narrator wants but doesn’t get to know, we eventually braid in a third narrative thread in the voice of the loudspeaker that North Korean citizens are legally obliged to keep on in their homes. A prologue that subtly presents many of the elements that will appear in Part I (Sun Moon’s movies, rumors Sun Moon and Commander Ga aren’t in love, allegations of kidnapping the Japanese, and American sneak attacks on fishing boats, and a new opera singer) has been given in the speaker’s voice:

“CITIZENS, gather ’round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors—wherever your loudspeaker is located, turn up the volume!”

In Part II, the loudspeaker gives us the propagandized explanation of what happened to Sun Moon at the hands of Commander Ga, a different version running parallel to what we’re getting in Ga’s sections. The loudspeaker and Ga’s narrative at first act like stepping stones, one picking up where the other left off, but as we move along they start to overlap more, and we experience two different versions of the same events.

What the first-person narrator is obsessed with getting, in addition to the info of what ultimately happened to Sun Moon, is the biography of the person he’s convinced is impersonating Ga, since the real Ga’s personal history is public knowledge. That is, what he wants is everything the readers got access to in Part I, as well as what continues in “Ga”’s threads in Part II. Were he to succeed in constructing Ga’s biography (he won’t), it would look exactly like what the reader gets access to that he doesn’t. Part II is dedicated to revealing how Jun Do got from the prison to the interrogation bay, how he became Ga, and what happened to Sun Moon. Skipping over the period immediately following where we leave off in Part I is a nice strategy to create suspense. We want to know how Jun Do became Commander Ga as badly as the interrogator does.

We find out he escapes the prison when Commander Ga visits and tries his patented “man attack” (raping a guy to test whether he’s strong enough to resist) on Jun Do at the bottom of a mine at the prison. Ga is a tae kwon do champion, but when Jun Do, the trained tunnel rat, knocks the one lightbulb out, it’s over. Sun Moon initially thinks it’s a loyalty test when Jun Do turns up at her door telling her her husband is dead, but when the Dear Leader acknowledges Jun Do as being Ga (his impetus to do so being that Ga was one of the only people who ever disrespected him), Sun Moon has little choice but to accept him. They gradually become intimate initially not physically, but by sharing their stories. When Sun Moon sees Casablanca, a gift Jun Do returned with from Texas, she realizes what she’s been doing is not real acting, and vows to escape. Jun Do’s closeness to the Dear Leader provides the perfect opportunity to do so, as he helps him plan a welcome for the American delegation coming for one of the rowers from Part I, whom the Dear Leader has kidnapped. Jun Do succeeds in getting Sun Moon and her children on the American plane only by not going with them, by staying behind to both distract the Dear Leader and then bear the brunt of his punishment. Thus does “Commander Ga” wind up in Division 42.

Jun Do never divulges his story in full to the interrogator, who comes to believe that “Ga” killed Sun Moon and her kids out of love for her as the only way he could get them out of the pain of this tyrannical state. He’s so moved by this love, and by the emptiness in his own life it’s revealed, that he kills “Ga” and then himself by hooking them up to one of the torture machines, saving “Ga” from being killed publicly in the stadium by a giant branding iron that was originally designed as a mocking gift for the Americans.

Johson’s leap in time between Parts I and II allows him to get away with what is a fairly outlandish plot: a lowly prisoner kills and takes the place of a high-ranking official in an extremely repressive country and no one bats an eye. If Johnson had proceeded through Part II chronologically from Part I, Ga’s coming to the prison mine when he does could seem too much of a coincidence. Deferring the revelation of this episode makes us implicitly less likely to think this, since it seems like more time has passed than actually has. Not that this is all the groundwork Johnson does to pull off Jun Do becoming Ga. How Jun Do does this is our first-person interrogator’s second-most burning question. The most burning question is how did he get Sun Moon to love him. The answer to the second-most: Jun Do’s been prepared for this, brutally interrogated twice by now–he knows how to give people the story that they want, the one that’s useful to them, as the captain advised. The answer to the most: Sun Moon is the one person he doesn’t make up a story for, but is honest with. Eventually in reciprocation she tells him the story of how she was discovered and became the national actress. The only other person who knows this story is the Dear Leader. By sharing it with Jun Do, Sun Moon is putting them on equal footing.

When we ask, how did we get here, to Jun Do becoming Ga, and trace events back, as the structure of Part II inherently forces us to do, we see that the repression (and greed) of the state is basically what started all of this. How did Jun Do wind up in the prison mine in a position to kill Ga? Ga is there because he’s obsessed with finding uranium for nuclear arms, but Jun Do is there because he went to America and can’t be allowed to tell others what he’s seen, which would conflict with the official North Korean portrayal of Americans. He went to America because he was supposed to share the horrifying story of what the Americans did to him in order to shame and manipulate them into giving up something North Korea wanted (related to nuclear arms). He had a story to tell because he made one up, and he had to make one up because the second mate defected, and the second mate defected because the state is so repressive. The decisions Jun Do is forced to make under the state’s repression lead the state to lash out at him ever more aggressively. But the state’s repression is also exactly what enables Jun Do to defeat it—even if the state kills him in the end, he defeats it in successfully smuggling out Sun Moon, its national symbol of alleged purity. This is a happy ending in literary, not Hollywood terms. He manages to take from the Dear Leader at the same time what the Dear Leader has taken from him: the possibility of a life with Sun Moon. The Dear Leader has gotten a taste of his own medicine, and he opened up the door for himself to get it by the vengeful spectacle he felt the need to produce for the Americans; had he not fetl the need to humiliate them, had he not kidnapped an American in the first place, there would have been no opportunity for Sun Moon to escape. Most importantly, he’s seen that things can happen outside his control:

The Dear Leader stood alone, confused. He’d been halfway through a long book inscription. Even though he stared at the bloody spectacle, he seemed not to recognize an event that occurred without his authorization.

No coincidence he’s in the middle of a “book inscription” at this climactic moment when Jun Do sicks a dog on the official trying to get at the crate that’s about to shuttle Sun Moon and her children to their escape. The Dear Leader keeps control of the country by keeping control of its narrative (like claiming retirement consists of glamorous beach communities instead of prison mines), but thanks to Jun Do it slips from his grasp. The one in power is the one who controls the narrative, which is something else Jun Do wrests from the Dear Leader in the course of the book, via its structure. It doesn’t matter that the loudspeaker gets the last word, just like it doesn’t matter that Jun Do dies—this is what had to be sacrificed for the original source of power to be undermined. At the end of the day, Johnson’s theme is the power of story, and how story constitutes identity—both individual and national.

Johnson has said of Jun Do:

In fiction, a character like this is a blank slate, one without advocates or champions, a person for whom even the basic notions of love and bonding come as big discoveries. And, of course, in North Korea your primary relationship is with the state. Your loyalties must lie with the regime first and your family second, which makes an orphan of everyone to some degree, and the Kim regime the true orphan master.

And in Johnson’s narrative, the true orphan master gives birth to the seeds of its own destruction.


Brightness Falls: When Failure is a Happy Ending

Techniques tracked:
-Using historical events to shape your narrative
-Using multiple points of view to paint a fuller picture and induce more sympathy
-Using objects to divert melodrama

b falls

There’s something about Jay McInerney’s 1993 novel Brightness Falls (a sequel to his Bright Lights, Big City in spirit only) that feels like a trashy beach read despite the elegance of the prose. This may be my reluctant way of admitting I enjoyed it despite my conflicting feelings surrounding reading (yet again) about the struggles of privileged New Yorkers. But there’s more to this book than its shiny surface: scenes of flighty dinner and beach parties are part of a much more purposeful structure than they initially seem.

If you lived in NYC in the 1980s, your life was more than likely affected by one of two things: the stock market or HIV. Brightness Falls traces the fortunes of a couple affected by both, taking place over the course of the year culminating in the 1987 stock market crash. The plot centers on Russell and Corrine, married five years, as Russell attempts an ambitious hostile takeover of the publishing company he works for. Initially, Russell’s takeover attempt and the marriage look overwhelmingly promising, much like the market, until all three simultaneously dive bomb and crash. The marriage and Russell’s career having low points that so neatly coincide with each other is not a coincidence: it is precisely Russell’s focus on his career that has created the toxic distance in his marriage. McInerney uses a roving third person perspective that, as is often the case in thrillers, can jump into anyone’s thoughts with the beginning of a new chapter or scene, a choice that enables him to present the marriage from both Russell’s and Corrine’s (and third party/wheel old bff Jeff’s) perspectives, giving the reader a fully fleshed out portrait of all the misunderstandings that lead the marriage to its near-demise.

Before we get into this omniscience, the novel begins with a brief first-person prologue from the perspective of Jeff, good friend of both Russell and Corrine from college, presenting an episode we won’t actually get to until late in the novel. The novel’s first line is thus “The last time I saw Russell and Corrine together…” cluing us in that the novel’s structure is dictated by tracking when this couple is together versus apart. The structure is depicting the events leading up to a trial separation of their marriage (this is the climax, concurrent with the market crash), following which they will tentatively reunite and then ultimately recover (as will the market). At the beginning we see Russell at work at his publishing firm, discontent with his boss-mentor who started him there in an already strained relationship further pressed by Russell witnessing the married boss-mentor canoodling with his secretary (merely a foreshadowing to infidelity to come). His job in danger, he decides to take a risk, take advantage of the bull market, and take on seventy million dollars in debt in order to try to buy the publishing firm outright and run it himself. Meanwhile, his wife Corrine, a smalltime stockbroker who peddles junk bonds, quits drinking and withdraws from social life just as Russell gets sucked up to higher rungs.

As per Jeff’s outsider perspective of them as “America’s sweethearts,” in the beginning their marriage is depicted as stellar and standard, “a safe haven in a city that murdered marriages.” But the rift that forms in it is clear and simple: Corrine believes Russell’s hostile takeover is excessively ambitious and doesn’t really want him to go through with the deal. Though they both know this is true, neither says it outright and proceed as if it isn’t, tensions building. Over the months the deal is being worked out, Russell grows closer to his investment banker Trina, eventually giving in and sleeping with her (that Russell is seduced carnally by the embodiment of what’s seducing him financially is no coincidence). Corrine kicks him out just before he learns the financing on his side of the deal is falling through. Then his best friend Jeff, proving he’s more functional role than just providing an outside perspective and portrait of the wild single life Russell didn’t get to live, calls from the rehab they’ve stuck him in for heroin detox and confesses as part of his twelve steps that he’s, uh, slept with Corrine a few times.

Having failed in New York and with little hope for the marriage, Russell moves to L.A. to work in the movies. Jeff visits to ask forgiveness for his former antagonistic apology and further confesses that he’s always been in love with Corrine, prompting us to calculate that Corrine and Russell’s marriage is thus to some extent at the heart of Jeff’s heroin addiction. Russell is eventually reunited with Corrine at Jeff’s funeral after he dies of HIV, presumably contracted through needle use. Russell stays and they get back together.

On the surface this plot might sound soap-opera cheesy, beach-read trashy. Aside from the energy of the prose, McInerney redeems it through the shared points of view, which enables him to make both Russell and Corrine sympathetic (often this sympathy often comes from the other one being annoying). The sequence of Russell’s giving into cheating when Trina gets stuck having to share his hotel room is especially satisfying: “For months he’d imagined and rehearsed this encounter; now he drew back and looked for a reprieve from his desire at the very moment that its consummation had become inevitable.” One notices that this is a similar patter to the one Russell has followed in his career, madly pursuing the takeover and then becoming fearful once it looked like it might actually go through. He’s so drunk by the time they finally consummate, he has no memory of the actual transgression. Oh the irony: when he finally gives in to cheating he doesn’t even get to enjoy it (another thing that makes us sympathize with him even if we don’t want to admit it).

Corrine calls the hotel and there’s a Mrs. Calloway registered to the room in addition to Mr. Russell Calloway. Drawing conclusions, she winds up livid about Russell’s cheating with Trina before the cheating has actually taken place. Trina has shown up and registered herself as Mrs. Calloway without Russell’s knowledge: “Russell hadn’t asked Trina how she talked her way into the room; she was nothing if not resourceful.” Russell never knows how Corrine knows about the cheating. Shortly thereafter Russell (and the readers) learn of Corrinne’s past indiscretions, leveling the playing field: no one is blameless here. Corrine even defends Russell at one point:

Corrine had told her [mother] about calling Frankfurt and discovering another Mrs. Calloway registered to Russell’s room. Since arriving home she hadn’t divulged much, and she had yet to tell her mother about her recently revealed history with Jeff. Deeply remorseful and ashamed, she wanted only sympathy at the time. Jessie said, “I never pegged Russell as the type.”

“I wouldn’t say he was the type,” Corrine said, a note of defensiveness creeping into her voice as she straddled separate loyalties. “It just happened.”

That both are culpable in this marital collapse might indicate that the privileged are culpable in the market’s, which is occurring simultaneously.

At the nicely satisfying climax, Russell takes three calls in one afternoon, one from Trina informing him the financing for his deal has fallen through, one from his broker informing him of the massive losses he’s taken thanks to the stock market crash (further exacerbated by the heavy debt he’s carrying to buy the publishing company he’s failed to procure, meaning he’s taken “an eighty-percent loss on borrowed money”), and the third from a lawyer informing him Corrine has had all his assets frozen. The shit has hit the fan; the brightness has fallen—though not quite as far as it’s going to.

After Russell and Corrine are separated, Corrine’s mink coat is returned to Russell as per usual from its annual summertime storage, triggering a memory of when they got it shortly after they were married and couldn’t afford it (and “that was why they were going to”). Then Russell has his first conversation with Corrine after he’s learned she slept with Jeff, an event they briefly discuss directly before McInerney wisely slips into summary:

They talked for an hour. Frigid with scorn at first, Russell became angry; later, he cried. Corrine cried, too, and for a time they seemed to be trying to console each other, as if they were old friends who had suffered separate, unrelated tragedies.

“I have your mink,” he said at one point, when he couldn’t think of anything else.

“Keep it. Maybe you can sell it.”

“It’s yours.”

“I don’t want it. It suddenly seems like a ridiculous thing to have.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“I’m sorry. I just mean almost everything about my life has been so frivolous and stupid. A mink coat. Jesus. I don’t know, it’s like, what were we thinking of?”

By rejecting the mink coat Corrine is rejecting the marriage, a fact that is not lost on Russell. When they do rebuild their marriage, it will be from a foundation with different values.

What’s great about McInerney is that so many tidbits that seem to be rambling and drunk on their own prosaic elegance are, for the most part, serving a greater function. Even JD Salinger’s cameo—Corrine had lunch with him as an undergraduate, accepting the invitation to do so before realizing who he was—highlights how others read more into our stories than is there: both Russell and Jeff think something more happened at the lunch than did, and Corrine’s revelation of Salinger’s obsession with vitamins and the concrete bunker where he writes serves as the antithesis to the writer in Jeff’s mode of clichéd self-destruction.

Near the end, when Corrine is on her own and working at the mission one night, she is witness to the brutal police takedown of a shantytown; getting closer to the scene believing that it will get less ugly “if people like herself were on hand,” she herself becomes lumped with the group, is targeted by the cops and must run from them, helped by Ace, a homeless man who’s appeared throughout the book, first at the Calloways’ dinner party—the starting point serving as our it’s-all-downhill-from-here—as a hired doorman for the (he winds up trying to steal from them), then in scenes witnessing Jeff score heroin from the shantytown. Corrine is so trusting of Ace after he protects her during the near-riot that she lets him up to her apartment, where eventually he tries to force himself on her. She gets him to leave and doesn’t see him again, except once when he hovers outside her building, prompting her to call Jeff, but by the time he gets there Ace is gone, and Corrine never sees him again, hearing that “‘It was the AIDS got him,’” foreshadowing Jeff’s imminent death from the same disease. That someone from their privileged circle will die from the same disease as a homeless man shows that they are not outside the bubble of the city’s indifferent violence, that their privilege will not insulate them. Corrine and Russell’s marriage being implicated in Jeff’s heroin use perhaps implicates privilege itself as causing the violence in addition to demonstrating susceptibility to it.

Another good moment of recurring object use to remind us of how much has been lost over the course of this particular year, and of how Corrine and Russell’s failing marriage is merely a microcosm of the market/world at large, is the image we’re left with near the very end, when Russell and Corrine revisit their vacation spot in St. Barts. We saw them visit earlier in the novel, with the plot-functional purpose not just to show us how their striving for a privileged lifestyle, but to have Russell run into a woman he’s given his phone number to in the closest dalliance with cheating he’s had up to that point, all part of the narrative arc’s steady chipping away at his marital integrity. While they’re there, they also see the yacht of one of the richest men in the world, who’s rumored to live on board. When they return, the yacht resurfaces—almost:

Looking down at the water, she saw a ghostly shape against the dark green background of a reef, a huge blue lozenge on the sea floor, which appeared to be the hull of a large boat. Several buoys on the surface marked the location of the wreck. She tried to point it out to Russell, on the aisle seat, but by the time he looked out the tiny window they were over the ridge above the airstrip.

Later they heard the wreck Corrine had seen was J. P. Haddad’s yacht, lost in a big storm earlier in the winter, now eighty feet down. It had taken eight hours for it to sink. The crew had successfully reached shore, but some claimed that Haddad himself had gone down with the ship. Certainly no one knew his whereabouts. A voluble American told them, one night in a bar, that all the sea cocks had been opened, the intake tubes slashed. “You know,” the man confided, “he lost everything in the crash.” The blue hull was still out there under the water when they flew back to New York, and sometimes in later years the image would bob up into Corrine’s consciousness—when she first heard, more than a year later, about the collapse of Melman’s empire, for instance—an enigma somehow associated with the time of their lives, just as men in yellow ties conjured the preceding period.

McInerney excels at these little anecdotes that encapsulate the larger arc of some tragically ironic movement, as when Russell and Corrine visit Jeff in rehab and Russell chases down a patient who makes a dash for the road during a softball game and Jeff, the person Russell will not be able to save, mutters, “Another save for Calloway.” The fact that Corrine tries to point out the wreckage to Russell but doesn’t in time for him to see it replicates her earlier reticence and warnings about his publishing takeover, which will lead to the wreckage of their marriage. It’s also worth noting that Corrine quit her stockbroking job right before the crash hit, while the crash exacerbates Russell’s already heavy losses. At any rate, the point is McInerney understands how are mind latches on to images, how it can project one as emblematic of a period of time or that captures one critical moment, as with Corrine’s later recasting of the whale that winds up beached at a party at Melman’s summer house as the moment she understood everything would go wrong.

The title of the book comes from a Thomas Nashe poem (it was either from that or a Shakespeare monologue) read at Jeff’s funeral:

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

The meaning of the titular line, which Corrine remembers Russell once told her to “just think about” when she asked what it meant, suddenly comes to her upon hearing it in this context: everything beautiful fades. It is something she cannot be expected to understand without having experienced it herself. Her realization recalls her returning to her mother’s after leaving Russell:

The homing instinct that drew her here was accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction that made her resent the intended source of comfort.

Hearing the poem, she’s understanding that there is an “equal and opposite” reaction for everything that happens. What goes up must come down. One cannot help but think of financier Bernie Melman’s joke the morning after the crash: “Watch out for falling stockbrokers.” This image eerily foreshadows bodies falling from New York buildings in a different context…as we’ve seen in the above passage, though he remains on top through this particular skirmish, Melman’s own demise is also foretold.

The fact that Jeff’s funeral is what reunites Russell and Corrine literally—Russell returns to the city for it, stays with Corrine during it, and then just keeps staying with her—further underscores the need for Jeff to die for their marriage to continue: the man that was a threat to Russell, the man Corrine transgressed with whose transgression was worse for it being this particular man, as their connection was not just sexual but also emotional, is now out of the picture. Jeff’s death is the embodiment of the consequences of poor choices, and through his death Russell and Corrine narrowly escape total destruction by consequence of their choices. Their marriage is now, ironically, stronger as a consequence of their poor choices, for the trial it has undergone. Thus are they chastened and made more aware; they get a second chance.

In the end, this is a story of the privileged encountering failure and thus realizing how flimsy the veil of their privilege really is. Under this new shared knowledge, they’re able to start their marriage fresh. McInerney provides an ironic portrait of how a marriage becomes stronger by virtue of breaking. It is a metaphor we could only hope would hold for our country as well…


The Tales of Two Adams pt 2: Haslett’s “Notes to My Biographer”

Techniques tracked:
narrator’s unreliability revealed through:
-external characters’ reactions
-evolution of narrator’s idea/obsession


Adam Haslett’s “Notes to My Biographer” from his 2002 collection You Are Not A Stranger Here provides a prime specimen of an unreliable narrator. The story’s chronic tension is that the narrator has a mental illness that has driven him away from his family, particularly his son Graham, who has inherited his disease. We know none of this at the beginning, however, as the narrator is on his way to see Graham (the acute tension) for the first time in four years. Haslett builds some credibility for his narrator as an important, forceful, and intelligent man of influence by his intermittently listing the eponymous biographer’s notes (though perhaps those reading closely will pick up on something a little off about him). Haslett then undermines this credibility with the persistence and obsession with a new idea the narrator has immediately before he reunites with Graham:

…for a bicycle capable of storing the energy generated on the downward slope in a small battery and releasing it through a handlebar control when needed on the uphill —a potential gold mine…

The details of the idea initially further the credibility of the narrator’s intelligence; this new idea is also part of the acute tension that will put pressure on the reunion with Graham:

“I’ve invented a new bicycle,” I say but this seems to reach him like news of some fresh death.

The bicycle is nicely selected as the object that will eventually expose the extent of the narrator’s mania to us: it’s all downhill from here (though, as per the narrator’s invention, we hope this downhill energy might generate something useful). We get other hints that something is off with the narrator when he mentions he won’t be returning the SAAB he borrowed from a relative, and when he orders champagne with a credit card the delivery guy is “naïve enough to accept,” clues that seem to point to him being some kind of scam artist, though we might revise this theory when we read his summary of Graham’s discussion with him re: the bike idea:


The chronic tension has officially reared its ugly head.

At dinner, we get more cues that things with the narrator are awry, and that the bicycle is somehow manifesting this:

“You’ll be riding my bicycle in three years,” I tell her. She draws back as though I had thrown a rat on the carpet.

The narrator meticulously notes (as has been the case with his imaginary biographer) how long the food takes to arrive, his volubility with the wait staff upsetting Graham:

“Stop that!” Graham says. I’ve reached the end of my tether with his passivity and freely ignore him.

They are ostensibly talking about his behavior in the restaurant, but we get a sense that it is all of the behavior this one incident is indicative of that Graham wants his father to stop. The narrator’s “reaching the end of his tether” with Graham (and vice versa), but he still declares he wants Graham to go in with him on the bicycle idea.

At this point, the narrator begins to note that other people are watching him, which he attributes to their spying on him, trying to steal his idea.

As I speak, I notice that others in the restaurant are turning to listen as well. It’s usually out of the corner of my eye that I see it, and the people disguise it well, returning to their conversations in what they probably think is convincing pantomime. The Westinghouse reindeer pops to mind. How ingenious they were to plant him there in the diner I ate at each Friday morning, knowing my affection for the Christmas myth, determined to steal my intellectual property.

This is the point it becomes clear to the reader that people are really staring because the narrator sounds crazy. The specificity of the details here reveals that he pretty much is. The details in his descriptions of the bike idea so far have seemed those of a competent if cocky engineer, who has now taken a sharp turn into paranoia. That he’s fully convinced someone planted a “Westinghouse reindeer” in a diner to mess with him shows us unequivocally he’s unstable (even though this Westinghouse reindeer is mentioned in passing in the list of biographer’s notes near the beginning of the story, it doesn’t yet raise such a red flag–the narrator isn’t totally agitated at the beginning, and doesn’t sound crazy). That he has the same conviction about this that he has about the bike idea undermines our faith in the bike idea and the mind that created it. It still might sound like a good idea, but we understand now he’s delusional:

I know the restaurant’s lousy with mountain bike executives.

This turning point occurs roughly a third of the way through the story—the unequivocal revelation of his instability is hardly the climax.

When they leave the restaurant, the narrator is still trying to convince Graham to go in on his bike idea, while Graham shakes his head. Telling Graham he needs to use the bathroom, the narrator ducks into a luxury hotel and procures an expensive suite. Finding out what he’s done, Graham says he’s out of control and has to start taking his meds for the sake of the family, trying to explain to him that his being off them is why no relatives wants to see him anymore. At this point we’re getting a clearer picture of the problems the narrator’s mania and his refusal to manage it have caused in the past.

From Graham’s haggard tear-stained appearance after this speech, the narrator imagines him as a corpse (seeming to symbolize in some way that his son is dead to him now) and cajoles him into the suite, Graham insisting, “’We can’t stay here,’” a symbolic declaration that applies in the larger sense to where they are as father and son, with the father alienating everyone by taking no responsibility for his own mental health. Amid Graham’s insistence, the narrator lets what we now understand to be a rare slice of reality in, as he thinks of “the eviction notices in Baltimore, the collection agencies, the smell of the apartment.” He also has memories of Graham as a child asking him not to leave for his business trips—becoming symbolic of what Graham is asking him now, the crisis of the acute tension: not to take leave of his senses, to take his medication. Through this memory of a request not to leave, we understand that the narrator implicitly understands what Graham is asking of him in the present.

The narrator then asks his son what it’s like to be gay, which Graham responds to with a rant about thinking his father was dead. The narrator tries to cheer him up with promises of all the glory the bike invention will bring, but for the first time actually seems to hear how crazy he sounds:

All of a sudden I don’t believe it myself and I can hear my own voice in the room, hear its dry pitch, and I’ve lost my train of thought…

Which then devolves into memories of Graham, how Graham would watch him make designs and imitate them, how Graham was the only one who understood him in his “world of possible objects.” He thinks how he doesn’t know how to say goodbye, which we intuit now is why he’s made this trip in the first place. Graham reveals that he’s worried his lover will leave him like his mother left his father and so he always takes his own medication. Now we understand that the chronic tension isn’t just that the narrator isn’t taking care of himself, but that he’s passed the issue onto his son. The narrator asks:

“But the fire, Graham? What about the fire?”

With this question he pretty much lays bare his priorities, that the fire of inspiration is more important to him than his family. He then shows Graham a diagram for another new invention: a door with multiple knobs. The space previously filled by a bicycle—that of a new invention that expresses his mania—turns into a door, symbolizing that the path of the narrator’s life, his fire, is now at an end, and he’s ready for the exit. It seems safe to presume no one will be cramming any meds down this throat, no matter how much Graham pleas.

After Graham falls asleep, the narrator scrawls a last note to his biographer:

Though some may accuse me of neglect, I have been consistent with the advice I always gave my children: never finish anything that bores you. Unfortunately, some of my children bored me. Graham never did. Please confirm this with him. He is the only one that meant anything to me.

He leaves the note for Graham so he will see “the truth,” then leaves, and the last sight he sees is “the shimmering pier jut[ting] into the vast darkness of the ocean like a burning ship launched into the night.” He’s been making notes to his biographer specifically because he’s ready to leave. We understand now that the purpose of the story’s inciting incident and acute tension, his meeting with Graham, was to say goodbye to the only child he cared about, the only one who shared his affliction and therefore understood him. The notes to his biographer may be exaggerated, but through them, by the end, the narrator has managed to communicate the truth. The notes don’t just serve to construct and deconstruct the narrator’s credibility, but come to figure critically in the plot. Haslett has managed to make a narrator who at first seems like a cocky jerk into someone utterly sympathetic by the end through the tragedy of his love for his son originating from the very thing that ensures their separation (that is, his illness).

The restaurant scene with the narrator being rude to the wait staff and trying to send things back recalls John Cheever’s “Reunion,” in which a young narrator is excited to be reunited with his estranged father for an afternoon. Throughout the story his excitement wanes as his father’s rudeness increases and they have to keep switching restaurants. By the end, the father’s revealed as a complete jerk; the story is one of how his son comes to understand who his father really is. Here, Haslett seems to have appropriated that jerk-father and attempted to explain why he’s such a jerk, but goes even further, facilitating some underlying connection between the father and son, despite the fact that present circumstances dictate an inevitable separation. If Cheever’s story is about the day I realized my father was a jerk, then Haslett’s might be the story about the father himself coming to understand he’s a jerk. “Reunion”’s line “as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom” could be the epigraph for Haslett’s piece, were it from Graham’s point of view.


The Tales of Two Adams pt 1: Johnson’s “Teen Sniper”

Techniques tracked:
-how chronic and acute tension dictate plot structure
-the use of an object to convey a character’s emotional state
-theme: empathy


While we wait six more days for Fortune Smiles, Pulitzer-Prize winner Adam Johnson’s first book of stories in twelve years, let’s take a look at a story from 2003’s Emporium. “Teen Sniper” is the story I always like to read first in my fiction classes. It’s about (surprise surprise) a teen sniper who, as a crack shot who’s the best in his profession, is isolated from his older colleagues and his own peers. This isolation is the story’s chronic tension, the situation already in place when we begin. In the first scene, our teen sniper takes out a guy at Hewlett Packard (apparently in this brave new world software guys are causing problems and the state is escalating its response). I always ask: why does the story begin here, with this scene? And the answer I usually get is: because it shows us what his life is like. That is, it shows us the chronic tension, which is true. We see that he has trouble shooting this guy because he thinks about what it must be like to be him, a “problem” he’s been working on in therapy, where he’s told empathy is not real. But while a story’s opening should make clear the chronic situation, the particular starting point depends on the acute tension. To establish chronic tension, the first scene could have shown him struggling to shoot any target on any day. But why this guy on this day?

We’ll find out, though it will take a couple more scenes. Our teen sniper returns to police headquarters, then has lunch with a bomb-defusing robot, ROMS, who, demonstrating the extent of the narrator’s isolation, is his only friend. After work he goes with a colleague to do some martial arts at a dojo and meets the guy’s daughter, whom he instantly develops a crush on. Meeting this girl, Seema, is the acute tension, what will cause the problem beneath the surface—that the violence of his job makes him unhappy and disconnects him from the rest of humanity—to rise to the surface and thus somehow resolve itself.

The next day, Seema is at the station visiting her father, and while talking to her, the narrator denies his friendship with ROMS out of embarrassment. After work, he gets drunk for the first time on top of a satellite, where he has a view of Seema’s house and spies on her through his rifle scope. Once drunk enough to calm his nerves, he goes to her door, but is too drunk to make any sense, and she asks him to leave. The next day, the narrator reconciles with ROMS and asks his advice about Seema; ROMS tells him to give her something with no strings attached and to open the lines of communication, but then seems to be talking about dealing with hostages. That week, ROMS dies in an explosion, making the narrator even more depressed. A new ROMS arrives, sounding much like the old one and making the narrator question if the first ROMS was ever really capable of being his friend. He decides to test ROMS’ advice to see, and gives Seema his rifle scope as his no-strings gesture of goodwill and tells her he is willing to listen. He imagines Seema watching him through the scope as he walks away, how he’ll appear like a thermal signature, and thinks that if she calls him (the scope also has a phone), it will prove that empathy is real.

The chronic and acute tension intersect at the story’s climax with this gesture of the narrator giving Seema his scope. The scope, more than the rifle itself, is what he uses to kill people, as he wouldn’t be able to shoot them without seeing them. What constitutes a big part of his problem is that he sees his victims as real people (making the scope an even more powerful symbol and emblem of his chronic tension), which means performing the basic function of his job is making him very depressed. The acute tension, meeting Seema, causes the narrator to look at himself through an outsider’s eyes, to consider what he looks like to other people, particularly ones he wants to like him—intensifying his problem, as he didn’t look good to himself in the first place. She causes him to question what he’s been told, to find out if empathy is real, and in this climactic gesture he takes a necessary step to find out. If he finds out it is real, we at least suspect he will stop sniping. It seems highly likely that he will, given that he’s abdicated the scope.

The object of the scope itself is used to tie the acute and chronic tension into a neat little bow at the end here. We of course first see the scope being used in its official capacity, sighting a victim. It appears, in fact, in the very first line:

When I reach the rooftop, I pull the dustcovers off my rifle scope and head for a folding chair leaned up against an air-conditioning unit—right where I left it the last time I was up here.

He doesn’t just mention the rifle, but specifically mentions the scope. Its capabilities are further elaborated in the first scene:

…the scope is state of the art, a fully digital Raytheon with cellular live feed, so that it’s a camera, phone, and radio all in one. That means Lt. Kim can see and hear everything….

The scope in this scene is also a window to empathy:

Sometimes, when I look through my scope, I am overwhelmed by the illusion that I know this stranger in the crosshairs in an essential way, like we’re old friends, like you can see his soul.

Then, he climbs on the satellite to watch Seema, and empathizes with her as he does his victims:

I’m doing what Twan says, really looking at her through my scope–the way the splashing water makes her feet glimmer, how she squinches her face when she works a gross spot on the grill–when I get this sense that she’s…

And it goes on from there. After he gets drunk and humiliates himself with Seema, he wakes up the next morning to find his rifle in a dumpster:

My poor Kruger. I shake a banana peel off the scope and try to clean coffee grounds out of the breech with a wet sock.

His sight has been momentarily clouded by drunkenness and being generally misguided.

Then, at the end, in his climactic gesture the scope takes center stage:

“A rifle scope. Just what I’ve been needing.”

“Well, it’s also a telephone and a radio, so you can reach me anytime, at work or home. If you ever want to talk. Or maybe if you just need someone to listen.”

“Here’s the range finder,” I say. “And this switches it to thermal. Thermal’s so sensitive you can see the heat signature of a pumping heart. If someone looks normal but you can’t see the strobe of their heart, then you know they’re concealing body armor.”

The scope is an offered gift, as per ROMS’ second piece of advice, a gift that itself literally facilitates communication—ROMS’ third piece of advice. The scope has become a powerful symbol for empathy, that which the narrator is seeking:

…if you’re looking at someone through a scope they become large, filling the whole field of view, and there’s nothing in the world but them.

The view in the scope here has shifted from one of deathly intent to one of love, and because of this shift we have hope for the narrator at the end. I would posit that Johnson did not make any such grand plans for the scope when he was first starting out. I imagine he began imagining a teen sniper, and the scope was a necessary physical detail that emerged when he imagined what it was like to be a sniper, what a sniper would do. Then, he was able to use the scope to facilitate the intersection of the acute and chronic tensions for the climax.

Robert Olen Butler likes to emphasize how a story should emphasize, and be driven by, a character’s yearning. Here, the character yearns for a human connection, as is apparent in the way he desperately tries to connect with his sniper squad mates, and then with Seema. It’s precisely his job that prevents him from making a human connection; there seems to be, in fact, a direct inverse correlation between how good he is at his job and how able he is to connect with others:

Flowers, I think. Flowers, flowers.

I’m a zombie, I’m so sad…

The funny thing is, my shooting just gets sharper and sharper. It’s like I’ve got my heart working on remote control, my accuracy is that good. I go where Lt. Kim tells me, fire at a dot on the horizon, and a kilometer away a neck goes pop.

All the “positive imagery” is to dehumanize his victims. You can tell he’s succeeding at dehumanizing the targets from his language: they’re not people, but a “dot” and a “neck” (the latter of which is at least a human body part but not a human). When he’s looking through the scope he’s specifically supposed to see his targets as non-human, to envision their blood like flower petals, etc. The more he’s able to do that, the better he is at his job, but the worse time he’ll have connecting with others when he’s not sniping, that is, on an emotional level. When he’s doing his job, he literally has to stop his heart! No wonder he’s so unhappy…

Part of the reason I like beginning my creative writing classes with this story is its theme of empathy and the question of whether it’s real—a question the story apparently leaves unanswered, as we don’t know if Seema will call him or not. But by giving her the scope, he is literally giving her the way he sees other people, his identity, his self (and he is giving her the opportunity to see him). That he then imagines her looking through it at him demonstrates empathy on his part: he is imagining what it is like to be her, just as he’s done with his victims, and we’re reminded that he has proven empathy is real through his actions. He leaves the question open-ended to himself, but it’s confirmed for the reader.

I like to show empathy is real as a starting point for the teaching of fiction, the whole point of which to me is that yes, empathy is real, and fiction is exactly how we access it, how we feel what it’s like to be other people. That is to say, fiction is a universal rifle scope. And if anyone is equipped to show us that, it’s the guy who’s rendered himself a character in a story written from his own wife’s perspective, as well as, among others, from the point of view of a pedophile (one imagines possibly inspired by the fact that his footballer doppelganger has been brought up on charges?). Both stories are out in the new collection.


Stiller v. Thurber: The Feeling of Real

Technique tracked:
plot arc–short story v. film


Film adaptations of fiction can provide interesting insight into plot structure. What scenes have been added, left out, or reordered, and why? But Ben Stiller’s 2013 adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is one of the most divergent “adaptations” of a work I think I’ve ever seen. Stiller was inspired by the short story to create a character who escapes real life through occasional fantasies of heroism; that and the character’s name are pretty much the only similarities.

In the original, we do not even know Walter Mitty’s occupation. The entire story takes place over the course of one day that he’s running errands with his nagging wife, and is composed in almost equal parts of his fantasies and real life. In the sections of “real” life interspersed, he is being belittled, having memories of being belittled, or struggling to remember the mundane details life has called him to, like the fact that his wife asked him to pick up puppy biscuits. In the literal world of the story, Mitty and their wife are on their way to running errands, then they diverge for separate ones, briefly reunite and then separate again. We both enter and leave the story, though, through Walter’s fantasies. The story opens with “‘We’re going through!’ The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”), a fantasy of Walter in war, and then end with him facing the firing squad for execution, “inscrutable to the last.” The war offers an astute entry point that makes the reader’s subsequent entrance into the “real” world as jarring as Mitty’s, while the firing-squad fantasy provides a sense of closure despite the fact that the fantasies have no coherent throughline, only the common theme of his heroism and/or participation in action.

The fantasies are often connected to physical gestures from Mitty’s real life: when his wife orders him to don a pair of driving gloves, the next fantasy begins with him removing gloves as a famous surgeon. We see how the fantasies are a direct product of his interactions with “real” life, reinforcing how they are, in the larger sense, an indirect product of tedious circumstance. The climax is a declaration to his wife, again nagging him about something he hasn’t done: “I was thinking,” said Walter Mitty. “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” She continues to dominate him, however, telling him to wait for her while she runs into a store for just “a minute,” at which point he returns to fantasy, letting us know that this state of affairs will continue. But we’ve learned that the only time Mitty will really defend himself, the circumstance under which he will come closest to resembling his fantastical doppelganger, is when the fantasies themselves are threatened.

While Mitty’s psychological landscape is plenty rich enough to propel this compact story, the subdued narrative—this glimpse of a day in the life of—does not, on first glance, seem like it would make the most riveting movie. The plot is there is no plot, this non-plot revealing precisely why Walter Mitty needs to depend on fantasy, which becomes a kind of plot. But, someone trying to make a full-length feature might need to add some more material. The story was written several decades ago, so it makes sense that a retelling would be modernized. But Stiller’s version I would venture to call corrupted, as he spins an elaborate plotline barely anchored to the kernel he took from the original.

First major difference: we do not enter the movie in a fantasy of Walter’s. We see him in “real” life, tentatively checking out a dating site on his computer. Second difference: he does not have a wife, but is on the prowl (though he might be too timid for such a phrase, and Stiller’s acting as such is enjoyable enough to watch if you like that sort of thing). The first fantasy doesn’t occur until he’s waiting for a train, on the phone with an eHarmony rep about an issue with his dating account. Walter can’t send someone a “wink.” Instead of helping him with the problem, however, the technician starts to try to help him fill out his profile’s empty fields, forcing Walter to admit that he’s never been anywhere or done anything interesting—at which point, a fantasy finally intercedes. The problem for me is that this world feels utterly false before we break from it for the fantasy. The world became Hollywood false the second the eHarmony rep started talking to Ben Stiller like he was an actual person instead of a customer. The “real” world of the movie is itself a feel-good Hollywood fantasy. So the fantasies are left to assert themselves as any good Hollywood blockbuster should, through a big special-effects budget. Narratives in whatever medium require a suspension of disbelief and all that, but this film is not asking me to believe this is a separate world with its own parameters, where people can fly or whatever it is—for this story it’s especially important that it’s our world, that spinning bowl of drudgery from which Walter Mitty so needs his escape.

Third big difference: we know Walter’s job. He works in “negative assets” for Life magazine, “negative” referring to photos. (Having him work for Life is admittedly a clever touch.) As soon as Walter gets to work this day he’s got a problem: they’re shutting down the print issues of the magazine, and the negative of the image they want to put on the final cover—Walter’s department—is missing. The photographer has traveled all over capturing extreme images, and this missing one is supposed to be the quintessence of life itself. Walter, bursting into random fantasy here and there, usually around his office love interest (Kristen Wiig), must eventually go track down the photographer out in Iceland to try to get another copy of the image. Now Walter’s “real” life begins to resemble the fantasies, as he navigates rugged obstacles to track the photographer, always on his heels but never catching him. He gets fired from Life for being unable to recover the negative and in frustration throws away the wallet the photographer sent him as a birthday present, engraved with inspirational life-living messages about “looking inside.” Eventually Walter finds out the negative was in the wallet, that the photographer meant “look inside” literally. Luckily his mother rescued the wallet from the garbage. The cover image is Walter himself, sitting outside a building, examining negatives: this is the “quintessence of life.”

Full disclosure: I only watched the first twenty minutes, and then I read the Wikipedia summary, because I could already tell what the problem was: in this version Walter Mitty gets the opportunity to live his fantasies. It seems a logical enough leap, that such fantasies might eventually galvanize the person having them into being the person he or she fantasizes he or she is. But it’s pure Hollywood fantasy—even though Walter doesn’t catch the photographer and gets fired, this is just a momentary setback—while Thurber’s remains true to the human condition. Thurber’s story is about the fact that the fantasies are all Walter Mitty has. They’re not about helping him engage with the “real” world, but about helping him escape it. He is offered no opportunity to better the circumstances that drive him to fantasize. They allow him just enough freedom to be able to continue fantasizing. Stiller’s narrative sugar coats the love story by resetting it to the character’s pursuit of a love interest: things might not look so rosy for Wiig and Stiller after twenty years. Thurber’s Mitty probably loved his wife when he first met her too, but things have gone downhill, as things will do. Except in Hollywood, unless it’s the initial part of the character’s arc before the upswing. The ending, with the photo of pre-real-adventure Mitty symbolizing life’s quintessence, is true to Thurber’s concept, but Thurber actually depicts this quintessence while Stiller violates it, then pays it lip-service.

The people who live and work in Hollywood might be under the impression that dreams come true, but for the rest of us, this is just a carrot stick Hollywood’s dangling for the rest of us to chase through another day.


Long Live the King, Pt. II: Until DeLillo Deposes Him

Techniques tracked:
-Humanizing villains by taking up their perspective
-Eliciting sympathy for (potentially villainous) characters through descriptions of their external environment


An earlier post touched on why Stephen King holds such appeal for mass audiences, hinting that a text’s mass appeal and depiction and/or induction of existential suffering are inversely correlated: more suffering, less appeal and vice versa. Another work of King’s I will use to discuss what qualifies as “good” fiction, just in time for the series adaptation, is 11/22/63 (2011), specifically in the context of Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988).

11/22/63’s protagonist, Jake Epping, travels back in time in an attempt to stop Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President Kennedy, which he believes will significantly impact history as we know it for the better. The portal he does this through, for some reason, always takes its users to 1958, and in the years leading up to the assassination, Jake witnesses much domestic squabbling between Lee and his wife, Marina, and his mother, Marguerite (both real-life figures). Jake is there when the Oswalds’ plane first lands from Russia, to which Lee has defected but now returned with his Russian wife. The first time Jake sees Lee he observes:

Lee’s expression was . . . amused? Knowing? Maybe both. The tiniest suggestion of a smile dimpled the corners of his mouth. His nondescript hair was neatly combed. He was, in fact, the perfect A. J. Squared Away in his pressed white shirt, khakis, and shined shoes. He didn’t look like a man who had just completed a journey halfway around the world; there wasn’t a wrinkle on him and not a trace of beard-shadow on his cheeks. He was just twenty-two years old, and looked younger—like one of the teenagers in my last American Lit class.

For the most part here, Jake observes Lee as he would any other human being, comparing him to his own students, though in this passage Jake’s already reading too much into Lee based on future actions. Jake also observes:

Lee took the baby. Marina smiled her gratitude, and when her lips parted, I saw that one of her teeth was missing. The others were discolored, one of them almost black. The contrast with her creamy skin and gorgeous eyes was jarring.

This passage seems to be on the one hand implying Lee has rescued Marina from worse circumstances—or is it her present circumstances of being with Lee that’s such a contrast to her natural beauty? Future observations hint it’s the latter, as Jake watches them move into their house:

During the moving-in process, Marina stood on the crabgrassy lawn with June in her arms, looking at her new home with an expression of dismay that needed no translation. …

I thought Marina might point at the house and say no like, I no like—she had that much English down—but she only handed Lee the baby and climbed to the porch, tottering for a moment on the loose step, then catching her balance.

And not long after:

Marina approached Lee, holding the baby like a shield. They talked. Then they shouted. Family solidarity was gone with the wind; Marguerite had seen to that. Lee took the baby, rocked her in the crook of one arm, then—with absolutely no warning—punched his wife in the face. Marina went down, bleeding from the mouth and nose and crying loudly. Lee looked at her. The baby was also crying. Lee stroked June’s fine hair, kissed her cheek, rocked her some more. Marina came back into view, struggling to her feet. Lee kicked her in the side and down she went again. I could see nothing but the cloud of her hair.

Leave him, I thought, even though I knew she wouldn’t. Take the baby and leave him. Go to George Bouhe. Warm his bed if you have to, but get away from that skinny, mother-ridden monster posthaste.

Emphasis on Marina’s poor English, use of the word “monster,” and antagonism toward Lee’s mother, Marguerite. Jake actually sees Marguerite before he sees Lee, talking to her other son:

“He’s a damn Commie, Ma, and he’s not coming home. Get used to it.”

You call me!” she shrilled. Her grim little face was set. She stood with her feet planted apart, like a boxer ready to absorb a blow. Any blow. Every blow. Her eyes glared from behind black-rimmed harlequin glasses. Her kerchief was double-knotted beneath her chin. The rain had begun to fall now, but she paid it no mind. She drew in breath and raised her voice to something just short of a scream. “I need to hear from my good boy, you hear?

The passage begins with respect for a woman who’s been through some hard times, but by the concluding almost-scream has devolved into a caricature that prompts Jake to think:

I wouldn’t see Lee Oswald for another year and a half, and I remained determined to stop him, but I already felt more sympathy for him than I ever had for Frank Dunning.

Frank Dunning being another murderer Jake will try to prevent from murdering by murdering. So we’ve got a portrait of Lee as monstrous, though not incapable of incurring Jake’s sympathy—thanks to the fact that his mother is a monster. Though Jake is reluctant to kill Lee without proof he acted alone, seeming to give fair consideration to the idea that there might be more to this whole JFK assassination than history’s told us, personal circumstances interfere: as Jake’s about to see whether it’s true Lee actually tries to assassinate a general in the weeks before Kennedy’s killing, Jake’s girlfriend Sadie’s psycho ex takes her hostage, and, choosing his love over his mission for the moment, Jake abandons his spying on Lee. Ultimately, Jake decides to carry out his mission without confirmation of Lee’s (sole) guilt; hey, he can always go back and reset the timeline if he needs to, though eventually it will be revealed that there are far graver consequences for doing so than originally thought (every time you time travel you create another reality, and the more realities there are floating around, the more likely all of them are to implode). In order to succeed in the mission he’s invested so much in and on which the fate of the free world is riding, Jake must sacrifice the love he’s acquired in the course of doing so: he kills Oswald, but not before Oswald kills Sadie.

Here is how Lee appears to Jake in Lee’s final moments, as he’s being shot multiple times by police:

He danced like a doll in the hazy, sawdusty light, and that terrible snarl never left his face. He wasn’t a man at the end, I tell you; he was something else. Whatever gets into us when we listen to our worst angels.

King refrains from using the word “monster” again, but still. Pretty damn close. That use of “us” there almost redeems it, like this could have happened to anyone, but to me this feels forced, an afterthought. Lee feels far more excluded from humanity here at the conclusion than included.

Jake, of course, is in a position to see Lee as evil, observing him from the context of someone who’s specifically trying to stop him from killing the leader of the free world. Still, one would hope a fair portrayal would humanize Lee to some extent. Does seeing him stroke his daughter’s hair as he kicks his wife achieve this? For me, not quite. Neither does this rendition of Marina, when she comes knocking on Jake’s door:

Marina either ignored my surprised expression or didn’t notice it. She had problems of her own. “Please excuse, have you seen my hubka?” She bit her lips and shook her head a little. “Hubs-bun.” She attempted to smile, and she had those nicely refurbished teeth to smile with, but it still wasn’t very successful. “Sorry, sir, don’t speak good Eenglish. Am Byelorussia.”

“Goodbye, mister sir. Many thanks. You say nutting?”

“Okay,” I said. “Mum’s the word.” She didn’t get that, but nodded and looked relieved when I put my finger across my lips.

Jake, if not the author, is just a wee bit condescending, with the excessive amount of focus on Marina’s poor English (“You say nutting?” could read “You say nothing?” and we’d still get the gist of the Russian accent). In any case, where all these characters land on the moral compass is unequivocally clear. Lee is the villain; Marina is the victim; it’s all very black-and-white, cut and dry, except perhaps for Marguerite’s being a villain turning Lee into one with her “pernicious brand of smotherlove.”

Marguerite Oswald was out on the passenger side almost before it stopped rolling. Today the red kerchief had been replaced by a white one with black polka dots, but the nurse’s shoes were the same, and so was the look of dissatisfied pugnacity. She had found them, just as Robert had said she would.

Hound of heaven
, I thought. Hound of heaven.

I was looking out through the crack between the drapes, but saw no point in powering up the mike. This was a story that needed no soundtrack.

Of course it doesn’t, because Jake’s presumptions have already filled it all in.

Marguerite gives the impression of a shrieking psychopath pretty much the moment she hits the page, offering little insight into what made her that way or at the least some softening instant of vulnerability in which you feel you (might) understand her. Though it’s possible I’m overlooking some such moment somewhere, as it is a large book, the feeling I came away with after reading it was that the Oswalds here were distinctly two-dimensional. For more passages that sound much like others already provided:

Marguerite came puffing down the street from the Winscott Road bus stop. This evening she was wearing blue slacks that were unfortunate, considering the generous spread of her butt. … She walked up the porch steps (once more deftly avoiding the bad one) and marched in without knocking.

The spread of Marguerite’s butt is surely more generous than Jake’s capacity for compassion. Though the characterizations themselves could ultimately use more dimension, King does use a nice device of characterizing via reactions to the faulty porch step: Marina stumbles but regains her balance, Marguerite avoids it altogether (without the familiarity of actually living there) and Lee repeatedly trips hard on it and gets pissed.

On the heels of another time Lee up and punches Marina in the face (this time for having let his mother in):

Marina went to them and Lee gave her the baby. Then, before she could walk away, he hugged her. She stood silently inside his arms for a moment, then shifted the baby so she could hug him back with one arm. His mouth was buried in her hair, and I was pretty sure I knew what he was saying: the Russian words for I’m sorry. I had no doubt that he was. He would be sorry next time, too. And the time after that.

Marina took June back into what had been Rosette’s bedroom. Lee stood where he was for a moment, then went to the fridge, took something out, and began to eat it.

Here we see Lee doing something human and other than beating someone…but it’s to demonstrate his indifference to beating someone. King, in providing a portrait of Lee, has relied on what ultimately amounts to–in this rendition at least–a reductive theory to explain Lee’s violence and aggression: that Marina bears the brunt of his rage from his mother consistently emasculating him. This theory could have more facets than the note that gets hit in the text over and over, kind of like you-know-who beating his wife:

Marina added her two cents’ worth: “Mamochka, Lee say no.”

Marguerite laughed merrily. “‘Lee say no, Lee say no.’ Honey, Lee always say no, this little man been doin it all his life and it doesn’t mean a thing. Ma takes care of him.” She pinched his cheek, the way a mother would pinch the cheek of a six-year-old after he has done something naughty but undeniably cute. If Marina had tried that, I’m sure Lee would have knocked her block off.

Don DeLillo, on the other hand, implicitly reinforces sympathy for Lee from the moment he’s introduced, both by depicting aspects of his life that are far removed from the public dialog about him, and by the physical details he includes about Lee’s surroundings. Granted, Lee is introduced much earlier in Libra, being one of its central characters instead of just a critical one relegated to the periphery—which is precisely why I think Libra is more ambitious, challenging and rewarding than 11/22/63. In the latter, one of the last century’s most infamous villains remains a villain, while in the former he becomes a human being, and even more than that, as the much larger forces he’s at the mercy of are fleshed out: he is both human being and cog at the end of an intricate political machine. DeLillo takes up Lee’s perspective rather than just gazing at him from the outside, as King does, as we’ve done ever since Lee was swept up in the detritus-choked stream of history. Though Libra’s plot is supposedly as fictional as 11/22’s time-traveling—Lee being in Libra simply the triggerman at the front end of a complex CIA conspiracy to incite war with an assassination attempt—it’s certainly nowhere near as far-fetched, and reinforces, along with the astrological title, that even though these might not be the exact forces the real-life Lee found himself at the mercy of, he was inevitably at the mercy of some we haven’t considered and would not personally, in the context of our 21st century lives, be able to comprehend.

This is what good fiction does: reveals the humanity in those whom we would ordinarily consider the most inhumane. 11/22’s plot would be more interesting to me if Jake Epping accidentally became friends with Lee and wound up trying to help him, rather than the bulk of the plot consisting of Jake dealing with obstacles from “the obdurate past” trying to stop his interference, obstacles that are sometimes connected to Jake’s personal choices, but that are often completely random.

In Libra’s first chapter we meet Lee as a child, who, riding at the very front of a subway, is presented to us “smashing through the dark,” as tragic a circumstance for a person or description of life in general as I’ve ever heard. The chapter is bookended by Lee’s subway-riding, which in being repeatedly referenced gains the substance of metaphor:

It did not seem odd to him that the subway held more compelling things than the famous city above. There was nothing important out there, in the broad afternoon, that he could not find in purer form in these tunnels beneath the streets.

This passage reinforces the idea that the real truth lies beneath the surface of things—because there’s always more to something than just its surface. King’s Lee is all surface; DeLillo’s burrows inside.

In the first chapter, we see Lee being a person, humanized by simple facts and actions other than wife-beating: “He rode the subways. He spent serious time at the zoo.” And “Nobody knew how hard it was for him to read.” We also meet Marguerite, whom Lee is living with by himself at this juncture:

”I love my United States but I don’t look forward to a courtroom situation, which is what happened with Mr. Ekdahl, accusing me of uncontrollable rages. They will point out that they have cautioned us officially. I will tell them I’m a person with no formal education who holds her own in good company and keeps a neat house. We are a military family. This is my defense.”

Here Marguerite is defending herself to a truancy officer for Lee’s skipping school, a situation that offers her precisely the defense she’s denied in 11/22. You can hear her Russian accent through the rhythm of her words rather than from the individual words’ misspellings. We’ve also learned that she’s gone through a divorce with a man who claims she “rages,” which she claims is a made-up accusation, and we are left unable to believe completely either Marguerite’s or Mr. Ekdahl’s version of events, knowing the truth lies somewhere in the middle. DeLillo manages to make Marguerite overbearing and sympathetic, rendering vividly their close-knit environment, the smells in the bathroom they share. You feel Marguerite’s desperation as her life is summed up as moves to successively smaller apartments, and understand why she might be so overbearing. She also defends Lee, downplaying the importance of his pulling a knife on his brother’s bride—a potentially monstrous aspect of Lee introduced early on that’s really a vulnerability higher powers will use to exploit him when they need an unstable front man to be the fall guy.

Let’s meet Libra’s Marina:

She wore shorts like any housewife in America. She thought she was in a dream at first, walking on the street in bare legs, with her hair cut short, looking in shopwindows. She saw things you could not buy in Russia if you had unlimited wealth, if you had money spilling out of your closets. She knew she hadn’t lived in the world long enough to make comparisons, and Russia suffered terribly in the war, but it was impossible to see all this furniture, these racks and racks of clothing without being struck by amazement.

They had very little money, practically no money. But Marina was happy just to walk the aisles of the Safeway near Robert’s house. The packages of frozen food. The colors and abundance.

Lee got angry one night, coming back from a day of looking for work. He told her she was becoming an American in record-breaking time.

They were like people anywhere, people starting life a second time. If they quarreled it was only because he had a different nature in America and that was the only way he could love.

Neon was a revelation, those gay lights in windows and over movie marquees.

Marina is happy here, for one thing (as reinforced by the description of the environment in the final sentence). Her natural adjustment to an unfamiliar country is shown by her amazed reaction to the clothes and goods rather than her poor English. And, without predominantly laying the blame at Marguerite’s doorstep, this passage also provides us some insight into the motives for Lee’s domestic abuse, which doesn’t rear it’s ugly head with a punch in the face every time Marina turns around, but slowly builds from the frustrations that anyone could identify with—difficulty finding work, a wife being seduced toward the opposition of your principles. We also get access to Marina’s justifications for staying: she understands Lee’s violence as a form of love, which would mean the more violent he is, the less likely she is to leave—ah, love!

Wikipedia’s description of Libra summarizes its presentation of Lee nicely:

Oswald is portrayed as an odd outcast of a man, whose overtly communist political views cause him difficulties fitting into American society. He is not portrayed sympathetically, nor is he castigated; he is treated fairly in the novel, yet is not a character easy to attach to. He loves his wife, yet beats her; he dotes on his children yet he mistreats his mother. He is not shown to be a madman with absurd ideologies, but well-read and intelligent. However, the book also indicates that he is dyslexic and has great difficulty both in writing letters and reading books (he is described reading the works of Karl Marx slowly). He could be described as a pawn easily manipulated by others. But there is also continually a tendency to use this dyslexia as a wider theme in the issue of ‘reading’ situations, and more widely still the human difficulty in understanding themselves and the human situation.

Compare this to Wikipedia’s description of 11/22‘s portrayal of Lee:

Oswald, who is vocal about his support for Communist causes, is depicted as an ill-tempered loner who acts out of a self-absorbed desire for fame.

To go back to the description of Libra‘s Lee, I suppose I don’t make much of a distinction between a character being treated “sympathetically” and “fairly”; Wikipedia must equate “sympathetic” with treating a character as all good, angelic, without flaws, but to me “sympathetic” means human, which means flaws, mixed in with the good stuff. DeLillo was criticized for being a “bad citizen” after writing this novel, for “blaming America for Oswald’s act of derangement.” This particular critic believes novelists should be “constrained by concern for truthfulness,” i.e., faithful to historical fact, as if we were academic historians. But our jobs are something else. As DeLillo puts it,

Being called a “bad citizen” is a compliment to a novelist, at least to my mind. That’s exactly what we ought to do. We ought to be bad citizens. We ought to, in the sense that we’re writing against what power represents, and often what government represents, and what the corporation dictates, and what consumer consciousness has come to mean. In that sense, if we’re bad citizens, we’re doing our job.