The Saga of Misogyny Continues

In George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second book of A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones), several independent storylines assemble themselves, all initially anchored by a blood-red comet streaking the sky and the different groups’ interpretation of it, and, of course, by the ongoing war over who has claim to the throne of the Seven Kingdoms—Robb Stark, or the deceased Robert Barathian’s brothers Renley and Stanis. (Since he’s younger than Stanis, Renley shouldn’t have any claim, but Robert B took his throne by force, so all bets are off.) Arya’s on the road trying to get back to Winterfell after escaping King’s Landing. Sansa’s still stuck at King’s Landing betrothed to Joffrey, who’s about to go to war with her brother. Catelyn still wants peace, but Robb is determined to war. Tyrion is at King’s Landing working as the King’s Hand, trying to undermine and manipulate Queen Cersei and Joffrey. Daenarys is leading her retinue through a wasteland following the comet. Jon Snow has gone on a large-scale ranging mission outside the wall with other Watchmen to locate the wildlings and/or Others. Then we have two new POV characters: Davos, a former smuggler who’s a member of Stanis’s court, who’s watching him try to consolidate power via the questionable sorceress Melisandre, and Theon Greyjoy, a Stark ward we met in the first book who’s now gone home to the Iron Islands to find his family bent on using the current conflict to take the throne for themselves.

From there we proceed, with some, but not all, of the separate characters’ threads intersecting for the climactic Battle of the Blackwater between Stanis and Joffrey that takes place near King’s Landing.

Catelyn is sent by Robb as an envoy to Renly to see if they might join forces; at his camp she inadvertently witnesses Renley’s death by sorceress, his throat slit from out of nowhere. She returns to Riverrun with Renley’s closest female knight Brienne, where she eventually learns her sons Bran and Ricken have been killed when Winterfell was taken by Theon Greyjoy. She goes to confront Jaime where he’s being held captive in one of Riverrun’s cells (after being captured in battle by Robb at the end of the first book). Jaime tells how awful the original mad king Aerys was to potentially absolve himself of killing him, and when he insists that everything he’s ever done was honorable, and more honorable than Nedd, Catelyn calls for Brienne’s sword.

Davos winds up conflicted over his role in serving Stanis when Stanis becomes dependent on Melisandre the sorceress, whom Davos rows over to Storm’s End, where she births a shadow child that apparently unleashes great devastation. His ship is destroyed in the wildfire explosions of the Battle of Blackwater, leaving him drifting toward a mouth of fire.

Daenarys winds up in Qarth, under the protection of rich merchant Xaro Xhoan Daxos as she attempts to amass ships and an army to take back her rightful place on the throne as ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. She once again winds up tricked by sorcery, this time by some Warlocks who send her on a queer vision-laden journey through the House of the Undying, where she’s given a prophecy about a bunch of things that will happen to her in threes before the Undying try to devour her and she’s saved by one of her dragons–but then driven from town in response.

Arya’s group winds up ambushed on the road and she’s eventually captured by Lannister soldiers and brought to Harrenhal, held by Lord Tywin and rumored to be cursed by ghosts. Her life as a servant is difficult and she befriends Jaqen H’agar, who was on the road with her group as a prisoner and whose life she saved by giving him an ax to break his binds when there was a fire. Jaqen kills three men for her as repayment for this debt, but too late she realizes that she didn’t pick powerful enough men to make a difference. She winds up helping free some men the Lannisters have taken prisoner, who then take over the castle, at which point Arya slits a guard’s throat (by tricking him by giving him a fake coin Jaqen gave her) to escape with two friends. 

Sansa stays imprisoned at King’s Landing, mistreated by Joffrey, and has several near-rapey interactions with the Hound, Sandor Clegane. During the climactic Battle of the Blackwater when Stanis lays siege to King’s Landing (a siege delaying the battle with Robb), Cersei intimates Sansa will be killed if the castle is taken rather than allowed to escape. After Sir Tywin and the Tyrells save the day for the Lannisters and Stanis is defeated, Joffrey becomes betrothed to Lord Tyrell’s daughter instead of Sansa, much to her relief. Ser Dontos plans to help Sansa escape during Joffrey’s wedding and gives her what he claims is a magic hair net.

Theon Greyjoy, who lived for ten years as a ward of the Starks, finds himself alienated and isolated upon returning to his home, the Iron Islands. He’s greeted by a girl who seduces him and whom he reveals his grand plans of becoming monarch to only to find out he was tricked by his sister, whom their father’s grown to trust significantly more than Theon in his absence. When they strike out to conquer and Theon’s given a lesser role than his sister, he takes the initiative of seizing Winterfell. After Bran and Rickon escape and, unable to find them, he lies about recapturing them and having them killed, the realm turns on him, and neither his sister nor his father come to his aid. Reek, who was at Winterfell when Theon took it over, saves him from siege with an army that then turns around and sacks the castle, and appears to kill Theon.

Tyrion works as the King’s Hand at King’s Landing to undermine Cersei, who’s constantly trying to undermine him. At one point she mistakenly takes the wrong whore she thinks he loves as hostage so he’ll stop undermining her. During the Battle of the Blackwater Tyrion plants wildfire in one of Joffrey’s ships, a tactic that winds up potentially doing more harm than good. When the Hound Gregor Clegane balks at the green swirling flames, Tyrion heroically rides out and cuts down many men, but he’s then almost killed by one of Cersei’s men, but saved by his shy squire Pod. Gravely injured and vulnerable under Cersei’s close eye, Tyrion tries to get Pod to help him.  

Jon is out on a quest beyond the wall to chase down the wildlings and their leader by Mance Rayder, a defector from the Watch, rumored to be gathering his forces in the Frostfangs. Jon is chosen for a scouting party through Skirling Pass, where he makes his first kill when he’s sent ahead to kill some wildling scouts. They have a woman, Ygritte, with them he’s ordered to kill but releases instead. Their party is then hunted down by the wildlings, but before they’re taken Jon is ordered to yield and bide his time as a captive rather than die fighting. Jon also has “wolf dreams” and suspicions raised that he’s a shapeshifter. He winds up in a similar position to his father Nedd before his death, of doing something honorable that appears dishonorable to absolutely everybody else.

Bran struggles to be Winterfell’s young lord, and with his “wolf dreams” where he seems to be his direwolf Summer, and visions of Winterfell overtaken by the sea. When Winterfell is taken by Theon, we learn in the last chapter that Bran, Ricken, Hodor et al have been hiding down in the crypts of Winterfell all along. After they emerge into the empty sacked castle, Asha decides it’s best if Bran and Ricken travel in different directions, a plan that severs the last remaining connection of immediate proximity between the Starks here at the conclusion of the second book.

Theon’s the only POV character killed this time, and it’s a lot different from when Nedd died. You were rooting for it this time. Theon’s thread is one of the most satisfying of the book, largely because he gets what’s coming to him. His is a classic arc of be careful what you wish for. When he’s cornered, with 17 men against 2000, he manages to buy time with a hostage before the alleged servant Reek he sent off to find him more men return with 200, who are able to conquer the greater force by initially pretending to be their allies. This deception appears to save Theon, but then turns out to be his undoing as the same men who initially appeared to be his allies turn on him as well. Theon proves unlikable characters can be main ones, that the reader can actively dislike them, and Martin does a fantastic job of rendering him casually despicable:

He sent for Kyra, kicked shut the door, climbed on top of her, and fucked the wench with a fury he’d never known was in him. By the time he finished, she was sobbing, her neck and breasts covered with bruises and bite marks. Theon shoved her from the bed and threw her a blanket. “Get out.”

Yet even then, he could not sleep.

Misogynist, yes, but that’s Theon’s misogyny, not Martin’s. Theon’s thread also demonstrates something that Martin does very well, which is the way he conveys information by jumping between POVs. At the end of Theon’s chapter in which Bran and Rickon escape, someone suggests a place they might be hiding, and Theon decides to go, but we’re never shown what actually happens there. In the intervening chapters we learn from other characters (Catelyn) that Bran and Rickon are supposedly dead at Theon’s hand, that their heads have been mounted on Winterfell’s wall. It’s not until the very end of Theon’s next chapter that we learn these heads are in fact not indisputable evidence the boys are dead:

On their iron spikes atop the gatehouse, the heads waited.

Theon gazed at them silently while the wind tugged on his cloak with small ghostly hands. The miller’s boys had been of an age with Bran and Rickon, alike in size and coloring, and once Reek had flayed the skin from their faces and dipped their heads in tar, it was easy to see familiar features in those misshapen lumps of rotting flesh. People were such fools. If we’d said they were rams’ heads, they would have seen horns.

The chapter where he’s tricked into lusting after his sister nicely foreshadows how he’ll be tricked in the siege of Winterfell, and of course the subplot with his sister ties in directly when he takes Winterfell to try to one-up her but then she doesn’t provide him with any men to defend it with.

The other thread that seemed to have the most satisfying payoff this time around was Arya’s. The business with Jaqen manifests in her using the coin he gives her (a concrete symbol of how her thread plays out the theme of what’s owed) to kill the guard and escape, and in the midst of the business with Jaqen Arya also proves herself quite clever when Jaqen won’t help her free the Harenhall prisoners, saying he only owes her one more death, not multiple. After confirming that he has to kill whoever she names, she tells him his own name, prompting him to help her with the prisoners in exchange for picking a different third name. Further evidence that Martin is not the misogynist—he just writes some misogynist characters, and he’s certainly writing a misogynistic world. Which makes the women’s threads and their coping with it—further accentuated this time around by the introduction of the awkward female knight Brienne—all the more compelling. Game of Thrones may be medieval, but it’s got more modern parallels than probably more than a few are willing to acknowledge.


Literary v. Genre: The Passage Trilogy’s Epic Battle Concludes

Last month marked the release of The City of Mirrors, the final book in Justin Cronin’s The Passage Trilogy. Cronin likes to say that he kept the entirety of the trilogy in his head during the course of writing its 1500+ pages, that he did not refer to any spreadsheets or notes, but the 30-page battle plan he conceded to drawing up before writing it probably helped. It was an outline of the entire trilogy that landed him the multi-million dollar deal when only a fraction of the manuscript was written.

cronin vampire(Image of the author courtesy of Houstonia magazine.)

Outlines provided at the beginning of the trilogy’s second two books each summarize what happened in the previous one by presenting the events in succinct verses from its invented “Book of Twelves.” The final book of the trilogy will reveal the source of this Bible-like book, among other things. 

The Passage (2010) gives us the story of Amy, the Girl from Nowhere, and how she winds up abandoned and thus positioned to be abducted by the FBI for a government study (“Project Noah”) involving the engineering of super soldiers, for which Agent Brad Wolgast has thus far been obtaining prison convicts. These original twelve convicts (one of whom, Anthony Carter, is innocent) have been injected with a version of a virus discovered by Dr. Jonas Lear in the Bolivian jungle that infected another member of his expedition, Timothy Fanning (patient zero). The twelve subjects start taking mental control of their guards in the compound, eventually getting the guards to release them. Once they escape, the virus cannot be contained, causing the collapse of human civilization as we know it (though, thanks to the efforts of Sister Lacey, the nun in charge of Amy when she was abducted, Amy escapes with Agent Wolgast). We jump forward almost a hundred years to a surviving outpost of humans in the San Jacinto mountains known as First Colony, who have erected a wall and keep high-wattage spotlights on at night to repel the vampire-like creatures known as virals. Around the time their power source is about to run out, Amy, the Girl from Nowhere, shows up at the Colony, and a handful of Colonists strike out with her in search of a radio signal from Colorado. Amy helps keep them safe from the virals along the way because of her psychic bond with them. They stumble on what turns out to be the enclave of the most powerful viral, Babcock (the original convict test subject) in Las Vegas, where Peter, one of the main characters, rescues his kidnapped brother Theo and Theo’s pregnant lover Mausami. After a narrow escape on a speeding train, the Colonists head south and run into a large army in Texas known as the Expeditionary that helps them find the source of the radio signal, which turns out to be the military compound where Amy was infected in the first place. There they discover Sister Lacey, to whom Lear administered the same version of the virus as Amy. They lure Babcock to the compound and detonate a nuclear bomb, destroying him and thereby all the virals he’s taken up, thanks to their hive-mind connection. When one of their group, Alicia, is infected in the attack, they treat her with a modified serum they find, and she joins the Expeditionary to become the first actual super soldier the virus has produced. The group splits, part returning to First Colony only to find it abandoned, and the second staying with the Expeditionary, which is then mysteriously attacked in Roswell, New Mexico.

The Twelve (2012) loops back to the beginning of the plague, introducing us to new and familiar characters. An autistic bus driver named Danny starts picking up survivors; a former military sniper named Kittridge starts sniping at virals from his building; the janitor named Grey that released Babcock from the compound wakes up younger and thinner and starts traveling with Lila Kyle, Brad Wolgast’s delusional ex-wife, only to be captured by a government functionary named Guilder who takes them to a research center by a refugee camp where Danny and Kittridge and their charges have ended up. The government bombs the site when it’s attacked by virals. We jump ahead 75 years (about 15 years before the primary timeline of The Passage), to a bunch of new characters on a picnic; we get backstory about Curtis Vorhees having a beef against Tifty Lamont for causing his brother’s death when they were kids and tried to sneak out to see a legendary colonel’s camp but took an underground waterway at an unfortunate time. A solar eclipse leads to a massacre by the virals, who have been hiding in the very hardboxes that are supposed to be protection from them. We jump ahead 20 years (5 years after The Passage). Alicia and Peter are trying to find the lair of Martinez, another of the Twelve, but he’s gone and they haven’t been able to find the others either. Eventually Alicia discovers a big city in Iowa known as the Homeland, where Guilder and Lila have been living for a century off of Grey’s blood and where Sara is being held captive. Sara starts to work with a resistance group, who helps the other First Colonists that eventually arrive plot against Guilder, who’s preparing a site for all 11 remaining master virals to stay permanently (Alicia jumps the gun before the full force of the resistance is ready and ends up captured and raped before escaping again). The resistance surrenders Amy as their leader so that they can strike at her public execution. All 11 virals show up to this event, except that the one who’s supposed to be Anthony Carter is actually Brad Wolgast, who detonates a bomb and kills all the master virals and himself. Amy herself becomes a viral, and leaves with Carter to wait for Patient Zero Fanning to come for them. Alicia is mentally called to by Fanning.    

And so we get to The City of Mirrors…for which no future book will provide “Book of Twelves” verses about.

Most people in the Republic of Texas have gotten comfortable with the absence of virals and, believing themselves safe, start to leave the safety of its walls. A noticeable exception is Michael, who on his solitary sails through the Gulf of Mexico discovers a giant ship he starts to repair in case the virals come back. Which they do, when Patient Zero Timothy Fanning, who’s been biding his time in the bowels of New York City nursing century-old grievances, decides it’s time to launch his assault. The Republic of Texas is destroyed, with all but a few characters escaping to Michael’s ship (though it will be enough to restart mankind). Our main characters Alicia, Amy, Michael and Peter head to NYC to take on Fanning and end things once and for all, and after a climactic high-elevation confrontation, succeed in destroying him. Peter falls to the virus but gets to live with Amy in his dreams; in fact all the characters get happy endings in their dreams, including Fanning. But thanks to the virus Amy stays alive, waiting a millenium for the return of mankind, who finally do come back.  

A couple of months ago the YA and children’s book author Matt de la Peña spoke at the University of Houston and discussed what he saw as the two primary modes of generating a narrative: starting with characters v. starting with story. In the former, the plot emerges from the fears and desires of the characters, while in the latter the characters are made up to fit the needs of the pre-existing story. De la Peña discovered his narratives through getting to know his characters, an approach reminiscent of EL Doctorow’s advice on novel-writing (praised by Anne Lamott in her famous craft book Bird by Bird):

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

My teachers in grad school seemed equally split on this point, with some advocating outlining and others claiming they couldn’t know what was going to happen when they sat down to write or the writing would feel stale. With his thirty-page battle plan, Cronin is in now firmly a member of the outlining starting-with-story camp: 

“Other writers, they sit down, they say, ‘I let the characters talk to me.’ That sounds more like a séance to me than writing a book,” the author says. “I could never do that. I’d want to throw myself off a building.”

Though it seems less likely that he took the outlining approach with his first two pre-Passage “literary” novels Mary & O’Neil and The Summer Guestand for that reason, they probably took longer to write, their years of slow and painstaking literary composition perhaps motivating Cronin’s aforementioned claim.

Is it a defining element that “genre” fiction elevates action above character while “literary” fiction elevates character above action? It seems true that often in genre fiction characters are dealing with a situation imposed from the outside, one they have no control over, while in literary fiction the situation the character often deals with is one they directly caused. Obviously there are exceptions to this, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but with a cast a fraction of the size of Cronin’s, the characters become much more emotionally focalized. The Passage has been called a cross between The Road and Stephen King’s The Stand, a comparison that situates it right on the line between literary and genre. Cronin’s characters, particularly Amy’s twelve apostle-like followers who largely derive from First Colony, are innocents who feel a little cardboard dealing with the dire situation that’s been imposed on them, their emotions and reactions melodramatic, as with Sara’s in Part VIII after virals cause her daughter’s death:

“Husband, will you do something for me?”

“All right.”

She looked him in the eye. “Kill every last fucking one of them.”

Or in Part X when the Bergensfjord starts up just in the nick of time thanks to Michael’s angry pounding on the controls.

The only seeming exception to the character development issue in the whole trilogy’s narrative is Patient Zero, Timothy Fanning, who gets an entire part dedicated to unpacking his backstory, ostensibly presenting the reason for why Fanning would like to destroy all of humanity: he’s been jilted in love, sort of. On this front, the critical jury seems split; Fanning is everything from a “vampiric Miss Havisham” to “a hell of a hammy bad guy” whose backstory narrative drains the book of energy, with another reviewer conversely opining that “though it’s not the most original motivation, it is effective.” If nothing else, through the exploration of Fanning’s thread we see that it’s his own fault he wound up in the position of Patient Zero; he would never have gone to the Bolivian jungle and gotten infected if he weren’t trying to escape a murder rap, and he wouldn’t have been in the position of murdering that victim, however accidentally, if he’d had the balls to pursue what he actually wanted, i.e., his love Liz, in the first place. There is the issue that Fanning was not actually jilted by Liz, that he knows she did not abandon him on purpose but died en route to him. This could serve to potentially up the tragedy of his situation and make him hate life all the more, except for the lapses where he believes that Liz did abandon him of her own accord, making the actual source of his anger somewhat muddled. He’s angry at love in general, and it’s a nice twist that he doesn’t just want Amy to kill her, he wants to show her how she’s been enslaved by love by killing Peter in front of her.  

Whatever your opinion of Fanning or the good guys (whose problem really is that they’re too good, though they’ve all certainly had to suffer), Cronin has proven that writing a novel readymade for an action-movie adaptation does not have to eschew the literary, demarcated by the engagement of Cronin’s prose with the physical and sensory, the vividness and care with which the scenes are painted:

Decrepit piers jutted long fingers into the water. Across the river’s broad expanse, the lights of Hoboken made a diorama of the city and its lives. The air tasted of salt and stone.

They were in a coastal tableland of tangled scrub, the road pocked with potholes in places, in others rippled like a washboard.

Something soft and wet filled his palm; the baby’s chest expanded with a gulp of air.

A scene of someone painting a mental scene with sensory details:

She closed her eyes and willed herself to go there; gradually the scene arose in her thoughts. The cusp of night, and the first stars punching through a blue-black sky. The wall of shadow where tall pines, rich with fragrance [olfactory], stood regally [visual] along the rocky [tactile and visual] shore. The water itself, cold [tactile] and clear [visual] and sharp-tasting [gustatory], and the downy [tactile] duff of needles carpeting [tactile and visual] the bottom.

And moments where precise realistic physical details make you experience something that could not actually happen in real life:

Soaring leap after soaring leap, Carter made his way down the channel toward the isthmus. The mushroom shapes of chemical tanks. The rooftops of buildings. The great, forgotten debris fields of industrial America. He moved swiftly, his power inexhaustible, like a huge heaving engine.

Mine was the appetite not of a human being but of an animal. A hunger of claws and teeth, of burrowing in, of soft flesh beneath the jaws and hot juices exploding upon the palate.

And I can’t help being partial to the description of near-current Houston and Rice University:

Most of the city was quite ugly—a sea of low-rise retail, shabby apartment complexes, and enormous, overcrowded freeways piloted by maniacs—but the area around the university was rather posh, with large, well-kept houses and wide boulevards flanked by live oaks so perfectly manicured they looked less like trees than sculptures of trees.

The arguably draggy opening and epilogue pale in comparison to Part XI, “The City of Mirrors,” the climax, in which the most pivotal element of the narrative occurs: Fanning’s death. Yes, part of what makes this part so awesome is that it occurs amidst the collapse of the entire city, skyscrapers falling not quite like dominoes as rushing waters flood the subway tunnels, and Amy and Peter fleeing vertically from their predator, out onto a crane of course—the end of the line. A confrontation at high elevation is always good for suspense, as James Cameron knew in True Lies.

trutrue lies

What makes Cronin’s climax noteworthy from a craft perspective is how he splices together two simultaneous scenes to amp up the tension. And it’s done not just to amp up tension but in a way that’s organic to the plot. In NYC, Peter and Amy have gone one direction, while Alicia and Michael go another as part of their plan to take down Fanning—Peter and Amy bait him while Alicia and Michael set up dynamite. The narrative jumps back and forth between Peter and Amy with Fanning and Michael and Alicia with the dynamite, making the jumps at the point when tension is highest—when Alicia and Michael are about to get jumped by virals, when Fanning is about to sink his teeth into Peter’s neck. It appears Michael is at the end of the line facing a trio of virals at the very moment Amy succeeds in killing Fanning. These cuts enhance the Cameronian climax to make it one of the most riveting of the trilogy.

The City of Mirrors does its best to reconcile the commercial and literary, but by the end, its commercial elements have vanquished the literary, though the latter put up a good fight.

The City of Mirrors outline:

Pt I “The Daughter,” 98-100 AV; chs 1-13
Alicia’s just buried the stillborn daughter from when she was raped during her captivity in the Homeland, and heads for NYC, where she tries but, since she belongs to him, is unable to kill Fanning. Peter is living in the Republic of Texas raising his deceased brother Theo’s son Caleb, and has been asked by the president to help with relocation expansion outside the walls now that it’s been three years since any virals have been seen. Sara has been working as a doctor delivering babies while raising her own, and gives a couple her birthright when they have one too many kids for current government regulations. Michael has been out sailing in the Gulf alone and discovers a giant mysterious ship at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel that was going to a “refuge” of some sort; Lucius Greer has been feeding Carter and Amy, both virals, on boar’s blood in the hull of the Chevron Mariner in Houston, and tells Michael Amy told him the virals are coming back.

Pt II “The Lover,” 28-3 BV (1989-2014); chs 14-23
This is a first-person account of Tim Fanning’s (aka Zero’s) backstory; only Fanning ever gets first-person narration. Shortly after his escape from the Project Noah labs, Fanning is feeding on some human victims when he accidentally falls in a quarry, the water transforming him into something that resembles human much more than he did previously, but that has fangs. (He kills someone else to test if the water will transform them too, but it doesn’t.) He makes his way to Grand Central Station. We then get Fanning’s origin story: Coming from nowhere (aka Mercy, Ohio), Fanning’s father effectively severs ties with him when Fanning goes to Harvard, where his first day he meets a charming dude at a diner, then rooms the first year with a crazy named Lucessi who turns out to be in love with his adopted sister. After his dad tells Fanning his mom died of cancer that she didn’t want him to know about, he quits talking to his father. The second year he winds up rooming with the charming dude from the diner, Jonas Lear, whose girlfriend Liz he immediately falls in love with, but feels he can’t do anything with because he owes Jonas for getting him into a fancy Harvard social club. When the crazy roommate kills himself, Fanning winds up spending a day in NYC with Liz, and they tell each other intimate things they’ve never told anyone, then almost but don’t sleep together. Right before graduation Jonas asks Liz to marry him and Tim does nothing; he leaves abruptly, cutting ties with them for nine years. He becomes a famous scientist, as does Jonas, though Jonas starts to become a joke due to his work searching for immortality (a mission he’s had forever due to Liz’s likely terminal cancer). Jonas is overseas looking for immortality when Liz gets her final death sentence from the doctors, and so she calls Tim and they finally become lovers. They plan to run away together so he can take care of her while she dies (and kill himself to die with her), but the night they’re supposed to meet at Grand Central Station, she doesn’t show. Crushed, he proceeds to get drunk at a bar where he’s hit on by a former student whom he goes home with, but then she suddenly says she doesn’t want to do anything. He seems to start conflating her with Liz, asking why she didn’t come, and the girl pulls a knife on him but ends up getting stabbed with it herself in their struggle. After she’s dead Fanning realizes there’s a baby in the apartment. He gets a call the next day that Liz was taken off a train (on her way to the station to meet him) when she passed out and died in the hospital. At her funeral, Jonas tells him he’s close to the immortality thing and wants Fanning to come to the Bolivian jungle with him. Tim has no intention of going, but then the police finally put together enough evidence to suspect him in the girl’s murder, so he goes. He gets infected, and back in the States is held in captivity observed by Jonas, who tells him the police told him Tim and Liz were supposed to be on the same flight the night she died. Now, Tim waits with his descendants in Grand Central Station.

Pt III “The Son” March 122 AV; chs 24-33
Peter is president of the Texas Republic. Caleb, married to Pim, the deaf abused girl Sara met at the hospital in Pt I, moves outside the walls to settle a homestead. Michael is still working on the ship, with the help of Greer’s vision of an island with five stars; they kill the gang of men they’ve been working with (Dunk’s gang) to get funding for their project. Sara’s son-in-law Bill is a degenerate gambler in dangerous debt; he’s killed and his and Kate’s daughters are threatened. Sheriff Eustace in Iowa, formerly the Homeland, viciously beats an annoying prisoner on the anniversary of his wife and son’s death. Alicia hangs out in NYC with Fanning; she follows him to the apartment he visits (where he had a thing with Liz), and she puts on Liz’s glasses—ie, sees things from his perspective, then in a first-person chapter he explains he’s breaking their deal not to bother her friends and he sends her to bring Amy to him. (Ends: “Let it begin.”)

Part IV “The Heist” May 122 AV; chs 34-45
Michael’s men take a refinery, run by his ex Lore, to get fuel for their ship, and he explains the situation to Lore and convinces her to learn to drive the ship. Peter gets a delivery of a lot of ammo (that he doesn’t know is from Michael via what they took from Dunk’s murdered gang). Alicia travels toward Kerrville. Kate (Sara’s daughter) and her daughters are living out on the homestead with Caleb and Pim (and their baby Theo), where giant ant mounds have become a problem. Eustace in Iowa gets a lot of people reported missing. Peter gets word of the stolen oil and suspects Michael (he knows about the ship). Amy and Carter work in Miss Rachel’s garden and drink tea; we get some of Carter’s backstory as a viral, how he quit eating people, and how Amy’s voice directed him into the Chevron Mariner telling him the water would protect him from Fanning. One of Caleb’s horses dies weirdly. Eustace, hunting for missing people, gets attacked and killed by virals.

Part V “The Manifest” still May 122 AV, continuous from last; chs 46-48
Sara decides she misses the kids too much and that they’ll move out to Caleb’s homestead (“tomorrow”). Greer is dying from apparent cancer in the midst of ship preparations. In Peter’s homestead dream with Amy a man comes into the yard she says is Fanning, who wants to kill them. Michael breaks into Peter’s presidential compound and tells him the virals are coming back and that he can take 700 people on his ship. Rudy, the prisoner Eustace beat up earlier, is still in his cell. Virals are emerging from the ground. Caleb’s neighbors are attacked and one throws something that starts a fire. Amy starts shaking in Miss Wood’s garden as Caleb smells the smoke.

Part VI “Zero Hour” still May 122 AV continuous; chs 49-54
Caleb finds their neighbor Dory almost but not quite burned to death. Michael is imprisoned in the Texas Republic and Peter debates what to do; Alicia arrives, seeing a lot of mounds; Sara and Hollis head off to Caleb’s homestead. Greer lets Michael out of his cell and tells Peter the virals are already here. In Miss Wood’s garden Carter tells Amy to use water to get back to the way she was. None of the outer towns are answering the radio. Sara and Hollis run into someone virus-ravaged on the road, then shelter by the river. Dory, recuperating in Caleb’s house, transforms into a viral and he shoots her. They run to the hardbox but Kate gets bitten on the way, then shoots herself.

Part VII “The Awakening” still May 122 AV continuous; ch 55
Peter, Greer, and Michael arrive at the Chevron Mariner and free Amy, then dump her in the water. While she’s in the water, she visits the place Peter goes to with her in his dreams (nice overlapping segments here between that dream and the reality of them trying to resuscitate her once they’ve pulled her up on deck).

Part VIII “The Siege” still May 122 AV continuous; chs 56-68
Hollis and Sara show up at Caleb’s hardbox door the next morning after Kate dies. They go to try to find a vehicle in town and Caleb finds the drunken Dr. Elacqua, who comes with them (he has a truck). They get to Kerrville, where defenses are being set up along the perimeter wall. Sara delivers the baby of Grace, who’s the daughter of the family she gave her birthright to in the first section. Michael, Greer and Peter get back with Amy being chased by virals and barely make it in the gate. The virals mass into a horde that charges toward the gate but then stops; Alicia emerges from it, asking for Peter. She tries to talk him into giving Amy to Fanning. Peter locks her up. Fanning still talks to Alicia in her head. Pim seems to know Amy, has seen her in her dreams. A theory’s floated that virals are hypnotized when they see their own reflection because they start to remember their former selves. Michael leaves when he learns Peter’s plan is to stay and fight. Michael visits Alicia in the stockade and tells her he loves her. Jock, the kid who fell off the roof that Peter saved in the first section, shows up to fight (he’s the father of Grace’s baby). Lore’s trying to fix a last-second problem that came up with the Bergensfjord that’s delaying their departure. Amy lets Alicia out and they leave.

Part IX “The Trap” still May 122 AV continuous; chs 69-72
Michael tells Lore how the original Bergensfjord passengers killed themselves with its exhaust. Amy calls up Carter’s army, the dopeys, and they set up in front of the gate. They start hearing weird crashing noises and Alicia rides up to tell them it’s a trap and gets shot a bunch of times. Then the virals come up from the ground and kill most everybody (symmetrically, Jock saves Peter from falling off a catwalk at one point). All the main characters make it into a hatch and they keep the virals at bay by burning the building around them.

Part X “The Exodus” still May 122 AV continuous; chs 73-77
They emerge to few survivors (around 700, their numbers will conveniently now fit on Michael’s ship). Peter has to kill General Gunnar Apgar, who was bitten. Alicia and Amy are alive outside the gate and Peter almost strangles Alicia because he thinks she knew about the trap. They get on buses and head for Michael’s ship, but have to stop for some repairs. Carter, in his weird dream land (his dopeys are all gone), stops Rachel Wood in her Denali for the first time and gets her to go into her house to her daughters. The ship’s panel fails. Carter leaves his hatch and fly-jumps toward the channel where the ship is. The convoy arrives at the isthmus after dark with virals chasing them. Alicia gets Grace to untie her injury straps. Chaos as people try to get on the ship. The ship comes to life and then dies again. Carter lands in time to save a truck full of main characters heading for the ship from some virals. Michael beats on the ship’s panel in frustration and it comes to life in the nick of time, starting to move. Caleb and Greer jump and catch a gangway attached to it just in time, then Peter and Amy with a little girl they saved right before the virals pounced. Alicia jumps off soon after they’re clear and Michael jumps in after and saves her. Carter dies from his battle wounds.

Part XI “The City of Mirrors” still May 122 AV continuous; chs 78-82
Peter buries the hatchet with Lish as he prepares to go to NYC. Michael, Peter and Amy say their goodbyes and board the Nautilus. Alicia is also with them. We get Michael’s ship’s log of the journey. They talk about their plans. Peter tells Amy about his farmstead dreams; Alicia tells Michael about Rose. When they get to the city Amy and Peter go to Grand Central, taken by virals once they get there, and Alicia and Michael go to a subway tunnel. Amy wakes up in a room full of virals with Fanning whose blather is pathetic, not what she expected. Michael tries to set off the dynamite they’ve set up in the tunnel but the plunger doesn’t work. Fanning has the virals bring Peter in, then takes all his own clothes off and does a weird transformation. Michael picks a random wire out of a fuse box to set the plunger with as virals bear down. Fanning, looking half human, half viral, says he wants to teach Amy the lesson that love is a curse and bites Peter’s neck. Michael and Alicia’s tunnel is flooded with water and Michael is ejected on the current to the street, but Alicia isn’t. Water fills subway tunnels and buildings start to collapse. Michael runs from a dust cloud. Peter and Amy are washed to the street. Fanning stops Amy just as she’s going to kill Peter bc the virus is taking over him. A glass shard is driven through Michael’s leg when the cloud hits and he’s almost tracked by some virals. Fanning is delirious with rage and thinks Amy is Liz, but then remembers she’s not. He gives the transformed Peter a sword to kill Amy. (This thread is alternated with the virals coming after Michael in the store he’s taken refuge in.) Amy looks in his eyes and tells him he’s Peter, causing him to remember and attack Fanning instead. Peter runs with Amy up a half-constructed office tower (that Alicia told them about), trying to climb above the dust cloud, with Fanning chasing them out onto a very high-up crane. A beam of reflected sunlight hits him in the face (which was why Alicia told them to go to this building) and the crane falls into another glass building. Michael stops the virals by holding a skillet up to one so it sees its reflection, slowing them down enough that he can kill one, but then another bats the skillet away. In the building they landed in, Amy drags a severely injured Peter off the boom, and Fanning attacks her, but his eyes have exploded, so as he’s strangling her he can’t see her reaching for a chain that’s connected to the crane that is starting to fall out of that building; she loops it around his neck just in time for it to yank him out. The virals that were about to kill Michael die, as do all of them. Peter dies.

Part XII “The Wild Beyond” still May 122 AV continuous; chs 83-84
Amy and Michael camp in NYC for awhile, then he sails off on the Nautilus and she hikes to Utah (where her and Peter’s dream homestead is). Alicia, still alive, watches Michael leave from the top of the Empire State building. The virus is gone and her body is broken. She dreams of Rose and thinks she’ll rejoin her soon, then jumps. Amy dreams of Peter and tells him they’re going home. Michael sails off on his own instead of trying to find the Bergensfjord. Fanning winds up on the beach with Liz where they were the night Jonas proposed, and he cries on her shoulder.

Part XIII “The Mountain and the Stars” still May 122 AV continuous; chs 85-88
Lore has to stop the ship because they’re almost out of fuel and wonders what she’s going to tell people. Then a storm hits that lashes them for twelve hours and shortly after it’s over, they spot land; she brings Greer up to see it right before he dies (it’s his vision, of the island with the mountain and the stars). Lore opens a letter from Michael telling her to blow the ship up, which she does. Pim gives birth to twins. Lore is elected Mayor of their settlement. Pim, who has apparently written the whole story down (and so is presumably the “Book of Twelves” author) buries it in a cave where she discovers an original lifeboat from the Bergensfjord. Carter is in dreamland hanging out with Rachel and her kids (he never got to hang out with the kids before), and they go to bed together, finally happy.

Part XIV “The Garden by the Sea” 343 AV; ch 89
Amy is burying Peter, who has somehow only just now died (again). She goes to the old First Colony and chisels all the names of the Twelve into a rock. She goes a little farther, to a field of wildflowers, and knows she’s where she should make her garden and wait (for the rest of humankind to return).

Epilogue “The Millenialist” 1003 AV; chs 90-92
We get Logan Miles’ welcome address for a conference on “North American Research and Reclamation.” Having somehow been told not to go back to North America for 1000 years, humans have just now returned and figured out there were some survivors after the Great Catastrophe. A reporter named Nessa interviews Logan and he gives a cagey answer about whether his mother was religious. Logan meets his son, who tells him he’s leaving the air service to start a vineyard with his wife, which Logan thinks is crazy. After a phone convo with his wife (who now lives with a woman) he calls Nessa and invites her to his grandsons’ birthday party, where everyone has a grand old time and their relationship becomes officially romantic. They go on a trip that weekend to the property he owns that his son is going to use for the vineyard; there’s an old piano in it that prompts him to more thoroughly answer her original question about his religion—his mother was an “Ammalite,” someone who saw Amy in her dreams, and she painted the same scene over an over again, of a wildflower field by the ocean (they look at the canvases in the attic); he tells Nessa how the dreams eventually drove her crazy and she killed herself (with the note “Let her rest.”). The next day he gets a call from a guy on site in North America who faxes him an image of a site they’ve found—a house with a woman tending her garden—the first live being they’ve encountered in North America. She’s made a big message with rocks: Come to me. Logan then visits North America with Nessa and they approach Amy and figure out who she is, and Amy’s all like, You came back (referring to humankind in general). Logan asks Amy to tell her story.

Narrative Synchronicity in Ben Fountain and Bob’s Burgers

What could animated sit-com episodes and literary short stories possibly have in common? They’re both narratives. More specifically, what does the cartoon sit-com Bob’s Burgers episode “Hormone-iums” (2016) have in common with Ben Fountain’s short story “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera” (2002)? Both deploy a particular model of plot arc—a character put in the position of a dream backfiring, forcing him/her to choose between two competing desires.


“Horomone-iums,” written by Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux, opens with the adolescent Tina Belcher leading a vivacious musical number (complete with sparkly tuxedos) about pimples, the “new friends on your face.” This is quickly revealed to be just a dream, however, the source of which is Tina’s desire to be a soloist in her eponymous musical group. Tina’s other desire? To play Spin the Bottle at a much anticipated upcoming party. Her long-standing obsession with kissing, established in previous episodes as a defining character trait, is given a specific outlet in this episode when her friend is going to take advantage of a 45-minute interval of parental absence to play the kissing game that Tina has analyzed in depth:

“…the bottle’s rotation is pretty predictable if you can figure out the drag so you just…”

When the Hormone-iums’ soloist comes down with mono, Tina is promoted by default, just in time for the show that’s been facilitated directly by the original soloist’s absence: Tina will play Mona Nucleosis in a musical warning about the dangers of mono. Initially, Tina is thrilled to have the lead, her dream come true. But when the school halls start sprouting advertising banners with Tina’s picture on them sporting prominent warnings not to kiss her, Tina, much to her chagrin, starts to understand the consequences she’s gotten herself into as she becomes “the cover girl of No Kissing magazine” and is uninvited from the Spin-the-Bottle party.

tina warning

As rehearsals continue of dramatic scenes of kissing causing Mona’s death, Tina becomes ever more reticent, prompting Mr. Frond, the Hormone-iums’ headstrong director (for whom the show is an unprecedented opportunity), to promise Tina a permanent soloist position if she goes through with the performance. The night before curtain, Tina has a heart-to-heart with her father about her difficult choice, and Bob tells her, “You’re in charge of your own mouth.” During the show Tina improvises a new ending, rejecting the soloist offer to tell the truth about kissing’s harmlessness.

The episode includes a subplot in which Tina’s mother Linda has stumbled upon what she believes to be an ingenious idea, a “wine shoe” (a plus-sized woman’s high heel that becomes a handy bottle sleeve). This thread initially seems utterly disconnected from Tina’s, but intersects when Linda starts to refer to selling the shoe as her dream. Encountering immediate obstacles on the path to mass distribution, Linda opines, “Oh, well, what’s the use of having dreams if they can’t be crushed?” The intersection becomes more overt when Linda, again complaining of dashed dreams, prompts a tortured response from Tina that is itself a succinct description of the episode’s plot model:

Linda: I really thought I’d get my dream.

Tina: Dreams are dumb! They ruin your life!

In “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” our protagonist, Blair, is an impoverished ornithology graduate student who goes to Colombia to study birds and is abducted by a rebel cartel. His camera equipment arouses suspicions that he is a spy, but even once it becomes apparent he’s far from it, the rebels keep him on their compound with the distant and unrealistic hope that he might elicit a ransom. Eventually Blair’s nonthreatening nature becomes apparent enough, amidst his intermittent discussion with his captors on the principles of revolution, that they let him roam, albeit with a guard, to study the birds in the area; he discovers the Andean cordillera around the compound contains the eponymous species previously thought extinct, a “remnant colony of Crimson-capped parrots.”


Blair’s meticulous observations and documentation of his discovery keeps him sane during his lengthening captivity—though he knows his work is essentially useless without the camera they still won’t let him use—and he even bonds with Hernan, his young guard, whose dramatic tales of life as a revolutionary become mixed with Blair’s notes:

He wrote it all because it all seemed bound together in some screamingly obvious way that he couldn’t quite get.

But he’ll get it by the end. Hernan informs him of rumors of his potential release:

“Maybe I’ll stay,” Blair said, testing the idea on himself. “There isn’t an ornithologist in the world who’s doing the work I’m doing here.”

“No, Joan, I think you should go. You can come back after we’ve won the war.”

“What, when I’m eighty?” Blair chewed a blade of grass and reflected for a moment. “I still don’t have my photo. I’m not going anywhere until I get that.”

Miraculously, some Americans show up, but not for Blair, it turns out. The chairman of the New York Stock Exchange has come to test the prospects for foreign investment. The chairman’s aid is apologetic that, due to laws about interfering with kidnapping negotiations, they can’t help Blair, who is understandably crushed when he figures out that they’re not there to rescue him (“Much as we’d like to help, our hands are tied.”). Not long thereafter, the aid somewhat insensitively enlists Blair as a translator for a conversation in which Blair inadvertently learns the more specific prospect the foreigners have come for—to log the area around the compound. Aghast, Blair immediately points out that this will wipe out the endangered parrots, and refutes his captor Alberto’s hypocritical claims that they have to do this for the sake of funding the revolution.

 “We have to save the country, Joan Blair.”

“You think there’ll be something to save when they’re done with it?”

When the environmental issue seems to make the Americans reticent (seemingly more for the sake of their image and the red tape it could lead to than for the environment itself), Alberto insists the Americans take Blair when they leave as part of closing the deal. Blair insists he will stay, but is shuffled to the helicopter anyway, where Hernan slips a film capsule in his hand that presumably contains the only pictures of the Crimson-capped Parrot that will ever exist. When the NYSE chairman asks what freedom feels like, Blair thinks it feels like dying.

The two narratives both clearly set up two distinct desires for the protagonist that the narrative eventually reveals to be at odds; Tina’s desire to be soloist turns out to conflict with her desire to engage in kissing, while it turns out that the only way Blair can secure his desperately sought freedom is by condemning the rare birds he loves to death.

Like Tina’s, the thing that Blair is most attached to predates the start of the narrative (an element, then, of chronic tension):

Blair was twelve the first time it happened, on a trip to the zoo—he came on the aviary’s teeming mosh pit of cockatoos and macaws and Purple-naped Lories, and it was as if an electric arc had shot through him. And he’d felt it every time since, this jolt, the precision stab in the heart whenever he saw Psittacidae—he kept expecting it to stop but it never did, the impossibly vivid colors like some primal force that stoked the warm liquid center of your soul.

The narratives introduce the acute tension of a competing desire, with the climax of both being the choice between these desires. In both narratives this climactic choice is a triumph of integrity: Blair chooses the birds over his freedom; Tina chooses not to spread misinformation to her peers for the sake of her own small stardom. But Tina’s and Blair’s narratives diverge in a manner that marks the difference between literary and mass appeal when Tina’s choice actually has concrete consequences. She’s able to change the musical and its message, but Blair gets no such agency. He makes his choice when he declares that he will stay rather than have the land logged, but this is not an exchange he’s been offered. His priorities have been clarified, as have Tina’s, but his choice has no concrete consequence in terms of actually saving the birds. Fountain’s narrative goes a step further than Bob’s’ in terms of complexity in that once the character makes the choice, he actually gets the opposite. The moment you understand how important something is to you is the moment it’s taken away. On TV we get a happy ending, in literature tragic. No wonder so many of us eschew the latter for the former. One is an escape from real life while the other engages with its difficulties.


Cover image from here.