“Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” Write Up by Ty Gates

Part I (you already know we’re summarizing)

Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” by Haruki Murakami begins when Mr. Katagiri, a bank loan collector, walks into his small apartment and is confronted by a large anthropomorphic frog. While sharing a cup of tea, Frog describes in detail why he has come to Katagiri’s apartment; Worm, a creature that absorbs kinetic energy through the earth and turns it into pure rage, is going to cause a devastating earthquake beneath Tokyo at 8:30 AM on February 18, and Frog needs Katagiri’s courage to assist him in doing mortal combat with Worm.

Katagiri struggles to accept even the fact that there is a giant anthropomorphic Frog in his apartment that insists he call it ‘Frog’ and not ‘Mr. Frog.’ It is even more difficult to accept the fact that he is needed to save Tokyo. So, Frog promises he’ll get a group of mobsters to repay a loan that Katagiri wasn’t sure he’d be able to himself.

Frog gets the mobsters to repay the loan by the next morning, and convinces Katagiri that he’s real. He then tells Katagiri the bare bones of the plan (how they’ll get to Worm and when). However, the day before they intended to do battle, Katagiri is shot in the shoulder by a man on the street. He wakes up in a hospital forty minutes after Worm was supposed to cause an earthquake. After asking the nurse, Katagiri discovers there had been no earthquake, and he had not been shot at all.

Frog comes to Katagiri’s hospital bed, and tells him that he had defeated Worm. Frog thanks Katagiri for his help, and tells him that even while he was unconscious in the hospital, he helped Frog in his imagination. Then, Frog returns to the murk, and maggots and centipedes crawl out of his body and cover the hospital room. When they start burrowing into Katagiri, he screams, and the nurse returns, and Katagiri confesses that he was more fond of Frog than of any other.

Part II (you already know we’re talking about the craft elements)

The thing about this story that I find most interesting is Katagiri’s character. He’s a lonely man with v e r y little purpose in his life. He has no friends, no lovers, his parents are dead and his siblings don’t appreciate everything he did for them. It seems to me that Katagiri’s strongest desire, though he may not be aware of it, is to be appreciated or credited for something, anything, by anyone. He finds no fulfilment in his work because, while he is respected by other loan collectors, he is disliked and the rest of his coworkers have no respect for loan collecting. Even though he put his siblings through college and arranged marriages for them at his own expense, they show no kind of appreciation for him. All of this is why I think that Frog is an entity that Katagiri created to fulfill that part of himself that absolutely needs some kind of recognition. Even when Frog tells him that no one will know that they stopped worm, there is a plural first person involved. He will be a part of something, with another (I hesitate to say person) Frog.

That brings me to my second point, the fact that Frog is humanized, maybe even more than Katagiri. Not only does he reference classics like he has several masters degrees, he speaks with a much more casual and human tone than Katagiri. He even makes a balls joke. I mean, come on. It’s also important to note that he insists Katagiri calls him Frog instead of Mr. Frog, which is a very personal thing. Katgiri refuses to simply call him Frog until the last few pages of the story, lending a sort of emotional distance that, even though it’s not really unhuman, is lacking in human connection.

Part III (you already know we’re discussing discussion questions)

  1. What’s up with the whole “returning to the murk” bit? What is the purpose or meaning of the centipedes and maggots?
  2. Did Frog Exist? It’s obvious I think he didn’t, but I’m interested what y’all thought.
  3. What’s up with the whole “you were unconscious for no reason” thing?
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The Princess Bride of the Future (with a slightly less happy ending)

*A Presentation on Leah Cypess’ “BLU3RD” by Melissa Alter

Have Fun Storming the Castle: You Guys Ready for Some Summarizin’?

This story takes place in the distant future, focusing on one woman’s relationship with her robotic husband, BLU3RD. Things seem to be going pretty well for them until she asks if he will love her for the rest of his life. While he says that he loves her at that moment, he knows that he is incapable of loving her forever, as he is immortal and will eventually move on since his programming requires him to love.

The woman has to report to the College, which ensures that the BLU3RD unit remains fully functional and will not decide to turn on the humans, as had happened before during the Robotic Wars. BLU3RD is summoned for his yearly exam, and his wife occupies herself with looking into his past memories, where she is confronted by the knowledge that he has loved several women before her, and will continue to love others long after she is gone. When the woman is questioned about BLU3RD’s love for her, she replies that she knows he loves her; however, the scans say that she is lying, so he is deactivated.

This all happened in the past; in the present, the woman is undergoing therapy, claiming to still be guilt-ridden over her role in causing BLU3RD’s deactivation, but also wanting to relive memories of their time together in the memory-hypnosis chamber. During one of her sessions, the therapist claims that BLU3RD never loved her, as he is a robot and incapable of love; the woman protests, saying that he knew what love was better than she ever could. She breaks off the therapy sessions and goes to see the public terminal in which BLU3RD’s memories are on display, but ultimately chooses to focus on her own memories of their time together and walks away.

The Cliffs of Insanity: How’d She Pull This Off? Let’s Talk Craft and What You Can Steal

Leah Cypess isn’t afraid to tackle the big questions, discussing the meaning of life and the nature of love. There are no unsympathetic characters in the story; rather, the main conflict is that of confronting the inevitable. This year, we have talked a lot about characters’ driving forces. In making the narrator’s primary goal something unattainable – for BLU3RD to love her forever – conflict is generated from the conditions of the world itself.

Fact: The narrator loves BLU3RD, and BLU3RD thinks he loves her.

Fact: The narrator will die, and BLU3RD will not.

Fact: BLU3RD will move on.

From the initial mention of BLU3RD’s immortality, the reader knows not to expect a happy ending. We are led to believe that it is impossible for the narrator’s main wish to be fulfilled, because something designed to love forever must eventually move on. Yet Cypess does an excellent job of subverting expectations, because in the end, the narrator’s wish is granted – BLU3RD does love her until the end of his days. The only problem is that ‘the end of his days’ is exponentially shorter than it was at the beginning of this novel. This would be an interesting tool to steal: the character gets what he/she wants, yet must give up more than that goal was worth. Reminiscent of the ‘be careful what you wish for’ adage, this technique works well to provide an unhappy ending for the characters, yet similarly satisfying for the readers.

On a similar thread, Cypess’ handling of irony is particularly pleasing. His ability to love is what saved BLU3RD from being destroyed after the Robot Wars; yet his need to love was also what ultimately got him deactivated. Having the very thing that enables a character to survive be the same thing that kills him would make for both a meaningful commentary on human (or robot) nature and an impactful death scene.

Speaking of humans and robots and the inherent nature of each, let’s discuss the humanizing and dehumanizing factors in the story (the humanizing ones are highlighted in yellow, while the dehumanizing ones are highlighted in gray). By placing the elements so closely together, Cypess blurs the distinction, as she gives traits of man and machine alike to BLU3RD; he has both “sad and tender eyes”, seemingly exhibiting human emotion, yet he also was “not created with the ability to lie”, another subtle reminder of his differences from humankind.

Cypess takes themes such as love and loneliness and places them in a futuristic context, reminding the reader of their timelessness. She raises unanswerable questions and fosters interesting relationships, expanding beyond the scope of human nature and questioning the essence of all things. 

The Pit of Despair: Your Turn to Answer Some Questions! 

  1. The narrator claims that BLU3RD “knew more about love than I ever did.” Do you agree? Did BLU3RD love her? Could he?
  2. To answer the therapist’s question: What is the difference between mattering and being loved?
  3. Is it more ‘human’ to love forever, or to have the ability to move on? Is love temporary? Is it permanent? Does it always have to be one or the other?

Safety Man? More Like Save Me, Fam!

  • A write up by Celeste Schmidt, Lauren Sternenberg, and Eva Trakhtman

Summary:

“Safety Man” by Dan Chaon begins in describing an inflatable doll in the shape of a man, one which Sandi carries around in her bag and inflates on the go for protection. Safety Man is used as a substitute for her dead husband, Allen, and Sandi reveals that she and her two daughters are very fond of him.

Sandi goes on to tell about her family’s history of mental illness, but assures the reader that she feels fully functional—even holds a job—and is completely normal except for Safety Man. She tells about when she’d realized Allen had died, their family stopped thinking of Safety Man as a joke. They take comfort in his presence, but Sandi wishes that she could still feel a bit of Allen in her life.

Sandi positions Safety Man like a human, with a book, and in the time after Allen’s death feels detached from the pain of loss. She says that when her mother calls, since she’s super philosophical, that is the hardest part. When her mother asks if there is an afterlife, she goes off on a tangent until Sandi stops her at the religious part and begins to think about her job at the IRS instead.

There, she tells how one of her co-workers is often threatened, but she thinks nothing of it, which is odd to Sandi who becomes paranoid. Upon leaving the office that day, she sees a tooth on the ground and wishes to tell the story to Allen, but he isn’t here, so she substitutes him with Safety Man, even going as far as to place him in bed next to her.

Sandi says that she is still normal, although the grief strikes every now and then. She’s there for her daughters and mother.  She thinks she sees Safety Man glow in the corner of the room.

Sandi’s coworker asks about the guy Sandi is with, Safety Man, and tells her that she looks up to Sandi. Sandi doesn’t know how to respond, so she thanks her.

Sandi then meets another slightly crooked person in the park, and she tells about the tooth she saw, but the other woman eyes her suspiciously and walks away. At this, Sandi feels odd.

She begins to spiral out of control—in her own mind—in being paranoid and more and more negative in thought. Safety Man tells her she is doing fine, and then Sandi says that she is insane.

When Sandi picks up the girls, and has to deflate Safety Man, she feels upset and when one of her daughters says something about it, she goes to comfort him. Finally, she begins to stroke Safety Man like a real person, saying everything will be fine, but recognizing the fact that that is a lie.

Chronic tension:

The chronic tension for this story is Allen’s death. Allen’s death and the mention of Allen’s death is a constant in this short story because of the impact it had on Sandi. Sandi is in grief, and is spiraling out of control because there is no one there to keep her steady.

Acute tension:

The acute tension is Sandi seeing Safety Man as more than an inflatable doll. Specifically the more recent events where she starts replacing Allen with Safety Man. 

What interested Lauren:

This story was interesting to read due to the way Chaon navigates between normalcy and outlandish—or in this case, moderately insane. Safety Man as a character was interesting to read because, by himself, he isn’t even a character at all. He gets his power through Sandi, whose view of him allows him—as an inanimate object—to hold an abnormal type of sway inside of their family’s lives. This inter-character relationship was so strong, and its oddity was mind-catching since it was basically all carried on by Sandi and her family.

What interested Eva:

I personally, just enjoy any stories about people with insanity issues. It seems weird, but it’s actually really interesting seeing how an author develops their character and brings out their insanity factor. I think that Chaon did a great job in creating a very realistic example of everyday insanity, the main character was really easy to sympathize towards, and was so relatable, that you’d even forget that she is insane after a while. Safety Man, that was an unexpected and bizarre part of the story, but nonetheless anytime he was mentioned, I instantly became more interested.

What interested Celeste:

“Safety Man” ­by Dan Chaon was interesting to me because it told the story of Sandi’s descent into insanity through how she thinks and interacts with the people around her (especially Safety Man). These relationships outwardly change very little—instead they hold their weight in how Sandi interprets them.

What Lauren would imitate:

There was a lot about this story that I want to try and imitate. The main element is how the narrator, in Sandi’s point of view, gave an inanimate object so much power. Safety Man never actually spoke, but somehow it was as if he was manipulating Sandi in a way that is unseen unless you’re in Sandi’s mind. The power dynamic between them is incredibly unique.

Lastly, I’d like to imitate the process of having an insane character be fully conscious while falling into insanity. The concept in itself is very interesting and hard to pull off—especially in a short story versus a two-hundred-page novel.

What Eva would imitate:

I personally, am extremely impressed by Dan Choan’s ultra-realistic world building, so I’d like to imitate that. I like his creepy, “you’d see this type of thing in real life” narrative, I think it’s very unique and could be fun to work with. I like how although Allen has been dead for a  while, he is still a crucial part of the story even after his death. It’s interesting working with the impact one person might have on another.

What Celeste would imitate:

In my own writing, I’d like to try out some of the strange/slightly random observations that Sandi has. They fit in perfectly with the story, while still being just unexpected enough to stand out. I’d also like to possibly try out the use of an object (like Safety Man) to sort of reflect and explain the main character’s emotions—or just something about them—subconsciously, or at least without straight up offering more information.

Techniques Lauren tracked:

The two techniques I tracked were the narrator slipping into Sandi’s perspective and the slight ques certain sentences give to a darker atmosphere. I chose these two elements because they can better showcase the unique way Chaon grew this story, and better highlights the odd feelings this story carries when I looked deeper.

When the narrator switches into Sandi’s thoughts, it provides insight to how she is actually perceiving everything that is happening. These moments also reveal much about her psyche, and the line about her knowing that she is insane really caught my attention because do insane people really know that they are insane?

This quote:

I am an insane person, Sandi thinks. They will all recognize it, eventually. She can’t go on like this much longer. Sooner or later, they’ll begin to realize that she is not really one of them; that she is in a different place entirely…

I chose this quote to properly highlight what was so interesting about Sandi as a character. My being attracted to this quote was mainly due to the knowledge I already have about people with insanity. The phrase I’ve heard so much about is, ‘An insane person doesn’t realize that they are, in fact, insane,’ and, the literal definition of insanity: someone repeating the same actions over and over again, expecting a different result.

Sandi conforms to only one of these, being the second. She clings onto Safety Man, telling herself that even though he isn’t Allen, he is Allen’s ‘replacement.’ She inflates him repeatedly, telling herself she will not become weird like her family, yet she does anyway upon becoming close to Safety Man.

My second technique is the light showing of the darker tones in this story.

She maneuvers through her day, despite the cannibal letter-writers, despite teeth in ashtrays, despite Safety Man janitors steering their wheeled mop buckets past her workstation…

I picked this quote to really showcase the more morbid route this story seemed to be taking. The fact that Sandi doesn’t pay attention anymore to things such as cannibal letter-writers is really unnerving to me. It can also show how Sandi is slowly blocking out how weird everything that is going on is, she is ignoring her own descent into insanity, while somehow being fully aware of the changes simultaneously.

Once, as she leaned over Molly’s bed, the child stirred.

This line just creeped me out. I chose it because this is when—while I was reading the story for the first time—this is where the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. AT first it was just because, ‘Why is she leaning over her kid’s bed?’ but as I began thinking, there just wasn’t any way this could’ve made sense in a normal household. It reflected the disjointed grip Sandi has surrounding Allen’s death, and her children are helpless to think otherwise. It was just super freaky…standing over someone while they’re sleeping is creepy. 

Techniques Eva tracked:

The first technique that I tracked was Sandi referring to/mentioning her insanity. I wanted to track this technique in order to show her gradual character progression, or in this case regression to insanity.

Throughout the whole story, Sandi talks about how she is “functional” or how she knows that she is insane. There are in betweens where she mentions her family members’ insanity and then refers to herself, stating that there is a chance she might end up like them. This story is written in the third-person-omniscient P.O.V., meaning that it focuses on Sandi but isn’t told from her exact perspective. It does give us the insight to what Sandi is thinking, though. And most of the time Sandi’s thoughts are wrapped up by conclusions, whether she concludes that she is in fact insane, or that she isn’t and will be alright.

My favorite quote from this technique that I tracked was the last line:

“It’s all right,” Sandi says again. As if she means it.

I thought this quote perfectly showed the technique I was trying to track. It summed up the whole story with Sandi’s contradictory look on herself and her insanity.

The second technique that I tracked were Sandi’s flashbacks. Most of the flashbacks in this story were about Allen or about Sandi’s mother. All of the flashbacks showed Sandi but through the eyes of the people that are close to her. The flashbacks were randomly put in after or before confusing parts of the story to help make sense of the situation and to give more personal background on Sandi.

Sandi used to have a normal life. Didn’t she? She remembers thinking so, when they first moved to Chicago. She’d loved the big north suburban house they’d bought—so old, so much history! She loved that there was a little park right around the corner, and not far beyond was a row of small quaint shops, and beyond that was the girls’ school, everything comfortably arranged. She was away from her crazy family at last, away from the small-town restrictions of her former life.

I think this flashback perfectly showed Sandi’s life progressing into a kind of uncertainty, neutral chaos. The first sentence “used to have a normal life” already informs us that something is now wrong, and the rest shows the “normal life” that Sandi used to have.

Techniques Celeste tracked:

The two techniques I tracked throughout the story were Safety Man as a symbol and Sandi’s observations/coincidences, because both reoccur throughout the story and contribute to Sandi’s collapse into insanity through how she thinks about them.

First Technique: Safety Man as a symbol

Safety Man starts out as something to fill the void that Allen left behind with his death, as a sort of safety blanket for Sandi (but in the shape of an inflatable, posable man). As we move on, since Sandi has been relying on Safety Man for some time, he quickly begins to symbolize, or embody, Sandi’s stability. Two quotes:

Besides Safety Man, there is nothing abnormal about her life.

and

She is no different from them, despite the inflatable man in her totebag.

show how Safety Man allows her to be like everyone else, keeping her ‘sane’ for the time being…. They also showcase the impression she has of herself—an undercover insane person living as an imposter in the ‘normal world’— (much earlier than she actually admits this to herself) in reassuring terms, like she’s letting herself know that she’s pretty much normal, and that Safety Man is the one, tiny, difference between her and everyone else.

Later, the loneliness sets in from not having been with Allen for a long time. Sandi finds herself wishing that he was still with her somehow, as a ghost, a smudge in a photo, an orb, anything she could possibly imagine. Yet again, Safety man comes to symbolize that loneliness Sandi feels in herself, without her even knowing it.

Alone beside the standing lamp, Safety Man considers the passage as Sandi sleeps…He reads and reads, a lonely figure.

At the very end of the story, Sandi lets the air out of Safety Man with a sort of finality, assuring herself that ‘it’s okay,’ and in that moment, Safety Man becomes a symbol of Sandi moving on, accepting the fact that Allen’s gone and that she has to keep going, keep living her life and taking care of her kids. Safety Man is used as a symbol to reflect Sandi’s emotions as she deals with Allen’s death and comes to terms with it as well.

Second Technique: Sandi’s observations/coincidences

The second technique I tracked were Sandi’s observations/some coincidences she noticed. She begins with two people’s behaviors: the old religious lady praying where she eats her lunch, and the man who follows her down the street, mistaking her for ‘Kelly.’ These two serve as a premonition for Sandi’s future, even though she doesn’t notice at first.

The old woman is nicely dressed, about Sandi’s mother’s age, speaking calmly, good posture, her gloved hands clasped in front of her chef’s salad.

This quote in particular shows how similar to these ‘desperate’ people Sandi becomes, because the old woman has so many aspects of a perfectly functional person—she speaks calmly, has good posture, ordered a chef’s salad—but Sandi still recognizes her as a crazy person, much like her later on, when she’s living a pretty normal, functional life, but still thinks that someone’s going to call her out for being insane.

Sandi later finds a human tooth at the ashtray at work.

There, among the slender, lipstick-stained cigarette butts, which stood up in the gravel like dead trees, she saw a tooth—a human tooth, lying there. She stood staring at it. What’s happening to the world? she thought.

This experience sticks with her, and Sandi later mentions this to the mom at the park pestering her about hormones in food, but what really sticks out about this line is how strange it is. Just…a tooth hanging out with some cigarettes in an ashtray. Her final thought of ‘What’s happening to the world?’ mirrors the ‘Something is happening to her’ she had said much earlier. Like with Safety Man, it’s almost as if Sandi projects her feelings and how she’s thinking to the world around her.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did the author keep the POV as third person? Why not shift it completely to Sandi in first person?
  2. How/what do the other characters’ perspectives add to the story?
  3. Why did the author choose to have Allen be dead before the story even began? What if the story was told while Allen was still alive?
  4. How does the author use coincidences to foreshadow Sandi’s own mental decline?
  5. How does the author create the elements of insanity throughout the story?
  6. How does the rising action show throughout the story?

The Situation’s Gravity

T.C. Boyle’s “Chicxulub” begins with the first-person narrator describing his daughter walking down a street in the rain, then describing a woman leaving a restaurant drunk. The narrator interrupts himself to bring up the last time there was a “large-body impact on the Earth’s surface” and describe the damage it did. He points out that our planet regularly intersects the paths of much bigger asteroids than this most recent one. His daughter has gone to the mall to have sushi with friends, and he’s about to have sex with his wife when they’re interrupted by a phone call that their daughter was in an accident. At this point the narrator introduces the titular Chicxulub, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. He interweaves passages describing its destruction with scenes of him and his wife at the hospital, where they have to wait while their daughter is in surgery, before she’s eventually pronounced dead. But when they’re called to ID the body, it’s a different girl. It turns out their daughter had lent her ID to a friend to see a movie, and it was her friend that got killed. The narrator reflects that he was spared, but that Chicxulub, the force that will “remake our fate,” has already arrived for the family of their daughter’s friend.

One of the interesting things about this story is that it has no chronic tension in the traditional sense to interact with the acute-tension event of the accident and case of mistaken identity. There’s no ongoing conflict between the narrator and his daughter that this event of her pseudo-death with push to the surface, or between the narrator and his wife, for that matter–Boyle seems to go out of his way on the latter front to assure us all is well there. What we get in place of this localized chronic tension–that is, tension between the characters–is what could be interpreted as a much larger-scale chronic tension: the planet’s chronic tension, the fact that our general existence is so tenuous. This tenuous existence works on the level of planet and individual, which is part of what makes this metaphorical thread effective. As the chronic and acute tension ideally do, the asteroid thread intersects with the hospital thread in the descriptions at the climax, when the narrator has to pull the sheet off the body:

The gurney is the focal point in a room of gurneys, people laid out as if there’d been a war, the beaked noses of the victims poking up out of the maze of sheets like a series of topographic blips on a glaciated plain. [emphasis mine]

and

Can I tell you how hard it is to lift this sheet? Thin percale, and it might as well be made of lead, iron, iridium, might as well be the repository of all the dark matter in the universe. [emphasis mine]

These descriptions of the acute event are invoking broad-scale cosmic imagery that would likely feel overblown without the setup of the ongoing asteroid thread. 

In addition to standing in for a more immediate chronic tension, or perhaps via standing in for it, the asteroid thread also carries much of the story’s emotional weight in the places where it could definitely tend toward melodrama in rendering scenes of distraught parents facing the death of a child. Only something as momentous as the destruction of an entire species could capture the emotional significance of such a loss for an individual. After the death of a child, life for the parents would cease to exist on any meaningful level. It may seem like a bit of slapstick that the momentous phone call in which they learn of it interrupts an intimate interlude, but there’s also irony here that the act that created their daughter is interrupted by a call about the potential death of that daughter.

The story’s opening is a virtuosic sentence that twists and turns, and which will also turn out to in certain respects be fairly misleading:

My daughter is walking along the roadside late at night—too late, really, for a seventeen-year-old to be out alone, even in a town as safe as this—and it is raining, the first rain of the season, the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals, so that even a driver in full possession of her faculties, a driver who hadn’t consumed two apple Martinis and three glasses of Hitching Post pinot noir before she got behind the wheel of her car, would have trouble keeping the thing out of the gutters and the shrubbery, off the sidewalk and the highway median, for Christ’s sake. . . . But that’s not really what I want to talk about, or not yet, anyway.

It will turn out it’s not his daughter at all, and the story’s point of view seems to technically be retrospective from a point after he knows his daughter wasn’t really killed–otherwise how would he know about such details as the brand of pinot noir?–so this has the potential to make the reader feel tricked. He subtly defuses this by adding shortly:

Maddy has a cell phone and theoretically she could have called us, but she didn’t—or that’s how it appears. And so she’s walking. In the rain.

But it also seems a commentary on our perception of reality and how tenuous it really is. Boyle renders images he wasn’t there to see–“the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals,”  but this image turns out to actually be crucial to the narrative, helping explain how the woman lost control of the car. In hindsight it’s actually a great description–one heavily mediated by the narrator’s particular POV and the frustrations of what he’s been through. Defamiliarization via the narrator’s voice is another tactic Boyle uses to convey the gravity of the situation (so to speak):

…she just had to see her friends and gossip and giggle and balance slick multicolored clumps of raw sh and pickled ginger on conjoined chopsticks at the mall…

Here Boyle is using defamiliarization to accentuate the narrator’s perspective, in this particular case, his incredulousness. We’ve gotten hints that his daughter was in a horrible accident, and so here he’s essentially laying out the reason that she might have died: for the sake of eating sushi at the mall. Many of us probably like sushi (though maybe not mall sushi); few of us probably think it’s worth dying for (especially mall sushi). While the passage is somewhat derisive of teenage girls, it is entirely in keeping with the perspective of a man who thinks his daughter might have died–or rather, as it will turn out, who was put through the ringer of believing his daughter was dead when she wasn’t.

 This is a very existential story, one big cosmic metaphor that literally invokes a cosmic metaphor, or something:

The room seems to tick and buzz with the fading energy of the larger edifice, and I can’t help thinking of the congeries of wires strung inside the walls, the cables bringing power to the X-ray lab, the EKG and EEG machines, the life-support systems, and of the myriad pipes and the fluids that they drain.

This is a nice objective correlative description wherein describing the literal clinical and medical technological mechanisms of life, Boyle is describing the larger biological and existential mechanics of it. He seems to be saying in part that we can only appreciate someone else’s pain if we’ve experienced it ourselves, while pointing out that it’s inevitable we eventually will. 

-SCR

 

 

 

Plot, Character, Power, Candy

With all your power, what would you do?

-The Flaming Lips, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”

The two-part novel that consists of Daemon and Freedom is marketed as a “techno-thriller,” and its author Daniel Suarez as the heir to Michael Crichton. It is an interesting example to examine what differentiates the thriller from “literary” fiction, since its themes encompass social commentary that might well be considered more than just pure entertainment, despite its heavy dose of action sequences that seem designed for the silver screen.

The first book begins with the news story of the death of Matthew Sobol, head of the online gaming company CyberStorm Entertainment. The same day his death is announced, two prominent CyberStorm programmers die violent deaths, and Detective Sergeant Pete Sebeck is sent to investigate. After Sebeck receives a video from Matthew Sobol saying he killed the programmers, Sebeck starts working with Jon Ross, a suspect in the dissemination of a strange computer virus known as a daemon, who explains that the daemon is triggered to do things in response to the occurrence of other pre-programmed events, and so could be behind the murders. Meanwhile, Brian Gragg, a hacker who steals and sells identities, discovers an unusual game map when playing CyberStorm Entertainment’s Over the Rhine that leads him, in real life, to an abandoned warehouse, where he’s interrogated by a computerized voice. When the feds try to search Sobol’s estate, an automated Hummer kills several of them but stops short of killing Sebeck. At Sobol’s funeral, Sebeck and Ross meet NSA steganalyst Natalie Philips and her handler, a Department of Defense liaison known only as the Major. While there, Sebeck gets a call from Sobol’s voice telling him he must invoke the Daemon before he dies. On another attempt to enter Sobol’s estate, Roy Merritt’s team is burned to death, while Merritt miraculously manages to blow up the server room and survive. The computerized Sobol voice also enlists Anji Anderson, a disgraced news anchor, to cover the Daemon’s events. Sebeck is arrested for creating a Daemon hoax and murdering federal agents; Ross is with him but they let him go before Philips shows up and says they figured out Jon Ross was a fake identity. The heads of government agencies confront evidence that Sebeck was framed, but conclude that the public needs to believe the Daemon is a hoax.

In Part 2, “Eight Months Later,” the Daemon frees Charles Mosely from prison and directs him to an fMRI office, where he’s forcibly subjected to extreme video footage while his brain is scanned, and eventually he’s welcomed as part of the Daemon team. Jon Ross approaches Roy Merritt to get him to contact Natalie Philips to tell her the Daemon is not a hoax (he also confesses he’s actually Russian). Philips shows her higher-ups when Ross shows her a portal to the Daemon’s darknet in Sobol’s computer game. A group of random young men follow instructions to create a self-driving Town Car. An equity group corporation is sent a video informing it of being under the Daemon’s control; it can no longer access its own network. Sebeck triggers a new Daemon event by invoking it before he’s executed.

In Part 3, the CEO of the hijacked equity group is finally forced to acknowledge the Daemon is real. Philips wants to tell the public about all the networks that have been hijacked, but her higher-ups fear this will cause financial panic. She tells them about an IP beacon they’ve discovered the Daemon putting out with its own destroy function. The government heads decide they’ll use it to keep a few companies afloat that the global economy is dependent on, and destroy the rest. After the Major tells the equity group CEO which companies they’re saving so he can reallocate his investments, Brian Gragg shows up to kill the CEO with an automated Town Car. The same crew who made the automated Town Cars gets orders to make something they undeniably recognize to be a killing machine. Different Daemon operatives are directed by a computerized voice to meet up with others to pass off parts to connect to other parts, making a gun that’s eventually handed off to Charles Mosely, who is directed to kill several people in a particular room in what turns out to be a global coordinated attack on spammers. Sebeck is put to death. Philips and Ross have been working together, and Ross discovers the Daemon’s darknet.

At Building Twenty-Nine, a former Navy facility that’s now the headquarters of the Daemon Task Force, Roy Merritt drops off a package of computerized glasses he somehow managed to acquire that Philips is able to use to access the Daemon’s darknet; once they’re logged on, they see that there’s another Daemon operative in the building. It’s Brian Gragg, who is able to easily kill a strike team and escape from a locked room because the Daemon has hijacked the building’s security system. He destroys all the Daemon technology they’ve been able to gather as evidence and sends in an army of Autom8s to escort him out. Roy Merritt pursues him and his pack on a motorcycle but then is shot and killed by the Major from a helicopter, since he doesn’t want the public to find out about the Daemon and Merritt is drawing too much attention to the situation. Philips and Ross manage to escape the automated Razorback motorcycles and Autom8s before Gragg blows up the building remotely, but Ross flees the scene before rescuers arrive. Finally, Pete Sebeck is brought back to consciousness by a Daemon operative at the morgue. He speaks to an avatar of Matthew Sobol asking him to accept a mission to justify the freedom of humanity; Sebeck does because the Daemon is supporting his family.

The second book, Freedom, begins with a hedge fund CEO’s compound being breached by automated Razorbacks, which manage to infiltrate his panic room and kill him as part of a coordinated global attack on financial titans (similar to that on spammers in the first book). Government heads continue to discuss how to cover up the Daemon’s existence to protect the economy, with the private sector exerting increasing pressure. At Roy Merritt’s funeral, Brian Gragg shows Natalie Philips footage of the Major killing Merritt and tells her Jon Ross joined the Daemon’s darknet, while a lot of Daemon operatives show up and launch an aerial attack against Korr Security people. Pete Sebeck and Laney Price follow the thread in Sebeck’s HUD glasses leading him on his quest to the Cloud Gate to a demonstration about Anasazi civilization collapsing due to refusing to change their ways, and then Price demonstrates to Sebeck how easily people can be controlled by their data. The thread then leads them to a shaman on an Indian reservation, where they’re building efficient solar-powered structures and generators for long-term sustainability, and the shaman Riley teaches him how to use the darknet’s shamanic interface. The Major gets a business report on unprecedented drops in the growing of traditional crops.

 In Part 2, Hank Fossen is accosted on his farm in Iowa by representatives of the corporation Halperin Organix for using their patented seeds. Hank’s daughter Jenna is a darknet member and brings him into the fold after she manages to stop Halperin’s lawsuit. The Major is attacked by Razorbacks while on a resort but manages to evade them. Jon Ross meets up with darknet members in Hong Kong from the Order of (Roy) Merritt to forge some magical rings (the Rings of Aggys). The Major continues to evade Loki, and Ross is dragged to a meeting he actually rigged (to tell about the Daemon) with a former Chinese coworker whose company wants him brought in, but he evades them by using the magic rings to make himself invisible to cameras. Natalie Philips is called in to try to identify him on camera to kill him. Loki meets up with Boerner’s avatar, who asks him to bring him into the real world, and Loki agrees. Loki then uses an elaborate Razorback entourage to attack the hotel where the Major’s used his alias, but it’s a trap and the Major catches him. Ross sends Philips an invitation to play The Gate and they meet up in the game. The government spreads stories that immigrant gangs are responsible for the rising violence in the Midwest, when really the government is responsible for it. The Major cuts off Loki’s fingers and tongue and eyes. Eventually some soldiers show up in the facility where Loki’s being held and Boerner kills the guy guarding Loki.

 In Part 3, the private sector fully takes over the government. Ross meets Hank Fossen in Iowa and tours his sustainable farm. That night a military group attacks, and Ross helps save them before Sebeck shows up. One of the captured private soldiers is so impressed by the machine that interrogates him that he defects. Ross tells Sebeck of his fears that the Major and the “financial system behind the scenes” are trying to hack into the Daemon to take control of it. Natalie Philips is loaned to the private Weyburn labs and is sent to their outpost, the enormous Sky Ranch compound at an undisclosed location for Project Exorcist; private sector guys interrogate her about what she thinks about the “Daemon blocker” they’ve come up with that they think will allow them to take control of its Destroy function. The Major meets up with an old covert-war-buddy colonel as he, the Major, is unloading pallets of cash. They meet up with the CEO of Halperin Organix, who’s upset that paramilitary operations have been carried out in the name of protecting Halperin’s patents; when he’s rude to the Major, the Major has him killed with the cover story that “domestic insurgent” darknet members did it. They’re mounting an operation against Greeley, Iowa. Ross gets the news from their security drones that they’re being surrounded, and when he tells Sebeck, Sebeck’s quest thread appears again and directs him out through enemy lines into what turns out to be a trap; the enemy was able to gain darknet access by cutting off a darknet operative’s head and manipulate his thread. The Major’s faction disseminates the news that the private security forces are containing looting and anarchy in the Midwest. Ross helps fight the massive attack launched in Greeley, in which Hank Fossen is killed and which is finally stopped when Roy Merritt’s powerful avatar calls in laser-shooting mirror balls until the soldiers retreat. After Sebeck won’t lead the Major on his quest, Loki, now with mechanized fingers and eyes, rescues Sebeck and Laney as they’re about to be tossed in a wood chipper. Sebeck joins him and Taylor (Charles Mosely) on their mission to stop the Major and Operation Exorcist. Jon Ross breaks into Philip’s room at the ranch compound and she explains how they’ve figured out a way to subvert the Daemon’s Destroy function and that she thinks something bigger is about to happen based on how many forces they’re gathering. They use the darknet to search the ranch’s surveillance and find a studio they’re broadcasting the fake news reports from using Anji Anderson, then figure out they’re planning to invoke the Destroy function against everyone else and seize control in the chaos. Philips is upset that she’s the one who gave them the code to the function, while people on the darknet are upset Loki has as much power as he does to summon all the Autom8s to use against the Major. He uses them to violently breach the gates at the ranch. The darknet factions attack the ranch from all sides, but the darknet is knocked out when the Destroy function is invoked and most of the world loses power (literally–electricity–and figuratively) from a “psyops action” they launch simultaneously. But when the private mercenary soldiers they’ve sent to Sobol’s data centers get there, they find a video of Sobol saying that the flaw they took advantage of to take over the Daemon was planted and that he now knows who tried to take over the world, and has destroyed all their money. The power (and darknet) comes back on. The ranch forces surrender to the darknet factions but Loki keeps slaughtering until so many people disapprove that they summon the Roy Merritt avatar, who strips Loki of his powers. Sebeck’s quest thread reappears and leads to a port on the Houston shipping channel, where he talks to an apparition of a younger, healthier Sobol, who asks him if he should have done what he did, and if he should destroy the Daemon. Sebeck says no, and then receives a message from his son over the darknet, forgiving him. After hiding out in the ranch for a couple of days, the Major tries to escape, but is caught and cut down by Heinrich Boerner. The End.

Together, the two novels trace an unexpected arc when what originally seems to be the evil entity–Sobol’s Daemon–turns out to be the good guy. This concept of the good guy initially appearing as the bad is replicated in the text when Sebeck, the one in charge of investigating the Daemon, is framed and publicly executed for creating it. Encountering the framing of Sebeck in the first book, the reader likely still thinks the Daemon is evil for doing so, and by the end of that book Sebeck himself still considers Sobol evil and only goes along on the quest that propels his narrative in the second book because the Daemon coerces him into it by threatening his family–again something that likely has the reader thinking the Daemon is evil at the end of book 1. The second book introduces the concept of the darknet factions, and thus the positive effects of the Daemon’s influence, as well as the motives of the private sector, which, while revealed in book 1, then emerge as the dominant evil force.

Even at this point, though, when the good and bad guys have switched places, the plot is still more complex than good versus evil. Brian Gragg is clearly established as beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt evil in the chapter that first introduces us to him, in which he coordinates a rave and drugs a girl into publicly stripping and blowing him on camera; Gragg’s conscription by and alignment with the Daemon seems intended to reinforce the reader’s initial perception of the Daemon itself as evil. But then Gragg’s first act after the Daemon transforms him by imbuing him with power is to kill the CEO that the Major is colluding with, in the same act which reveals that the Major, who’s on the side fighting the evil Daemon, to be evil himself. Then there’s Roy Merritt, whose fighting against Sobol ironically turns him into a hero to the factions Sobol’s Daemon has generated, and who is killed by the Major, someone from same the side he’s supposed to be on himself. Merritt’s fighting for the Daemon as an avatar in the second book reinforces that we are now supposed to perceive the Daemon and its ultimate motives as good. The fact that Sobol’s and Sebeck’s names are so similar (something writers are generally advised against) further evidences Suarez’s smearing conceptions of protagonist and antagonist. But our modern corporatocracy emerges as the unequivocal enemy here. 

The overall concept is morally complex, that true social change can only come at a significant cost, likely bloodshed. Though many of the book’s elements may seem far-fetched (like the laser-shooting mirror balls), many don’t (like the private sector infiltrating the government), and if anything, it makes one consider the vulnerabilities inherent in our interconnectedness and in the consolidation of corporate power that shows no signs of slowing. By the end, the novels seem to be a full-blown critique of the New World Order concept:

They could finally unify the world under a single all-encompassing economic power.

What was the alternative, after all? Surrendering control of the civilized world to an uneducated mob?

Indeed, some of the scenes, like the one that opens Freedom with the greedy hedge-fund CEO being stalked by razorbacks, start to feel like revenge porn against the top .01%. Which is not necessarily not enjoyable, it’s just enjoyable in the way a candy bar might be–it tastes good and provides a momentary sugar high, but then there’s a hard crash caused by a lack of any meaningful nutrients. Suarez’s vivid sensory details bring a suspenseful world to life, but it’s one primarily focused on action rather than character development, and it is this that differentiates the thriller from the literary: the subversion of character to plot. In the thriller, the characters are pawns of the plot, getting swept up in it without having any control over it, while in literary fiction, the plot most often originates from something the characters themselves did. In other words, in the thriller, the plot is in charge; in the literary, the character is in charge.

Plenty of characters are explored over the course of these two books, but this is precisely the issue–there are too many of them, too many to focus on one long enough to reach a level of depth that feels more meaningfully human than plot device. Every chapter jumps to a different point of view, and though many of these points of view recur, they’re furthering the story rather than the story furthering them. The most significant character arc we get is probably Gragg’s/Loki’s, who gets the emotional catharsis of not being rejected by the group he tried to forcibly exert control over and subvert the spirit of–but in the end, he still feels largely like a pawn being used to demonstrate how any social system is susceptible to the will to power inherent in human nature, his mechanized fingers and eyes by the end a symbol more apt than perhaps intended. 

Then there’s the romance that develops between Philips and Jon Ross. This has potential because of their characters’ circumstances, Philips isolated because of her genius and Jon Ross a refugee with a dark history who’s had to keep himself isolated out of necessity–but by the end it deflated into stereotypical Hollywood cheesiness. There’s also the case of Charles Mosely, who gets a lot of detailed attention, with an extended description of how he’s conscripted into the Daemon’s network and then another extended description of how his long-lost son is extracted from by force from a drug dealer’s hive and installed in a posh school. The most Mosely ends up figuring in the plot is we see he’s the one who actually kills people for particular operations, but his role did not feel integral enough to warrant the page and scene time dedicated to him, more like a way to show us how things were generally done–but ideally you’d show us that while simultaneously showing something that was specifically necessary. Not to mention that Mosely has nothing approaching a character arc aside from being initially skeptical of the Daemon–somewhat. 

But a helpful lesson could derive from the intertextual materials Suarez presents at the beginning of chapters to help navigate his narrative–in the first book, news stories that are triggering new Daemon events, and in the second book, darknet posts and figures showing the tanking economy, like the value of darknet credits and the price of gas. The numbers are good for giving a sense of passing time between chapters, while the rest is generally satisfying because it comes into play in the plot directly, as when we get a darknet post complaining about Loki’s abuse of power at the beginning of the chapter in which joint darknet complaints will summon the power of the Merritt avatar to disable him. 

At any rate, the story is about the evils of private corporate influence penetrating our public government–this is the parasite running our system. The Daemon becomes the parasite on that parasite, as explored in an extensive metaphor in the “Red Queen Hypothesis” chapter and elsewhere, in an early discussion of exactly what the Daemon is:

‘Now combine an application like that – a widely distributed entity that never dies – with tens of millions of dollars and the ability to purchase goods and services. It’s answerable to no one and has no fear of punishment.’

‘My God. It’s a corporation.’

Suarez seems to posit that the only thing capable of wiping out a corporate system is a corporate-like entity. At the end of the day the story’s over the top, but that doesn’t make its potential warnings any less salient. So it’s more nutritious than a candy bar, but not as nutritious as it could or perhaps purports to be…so maybe it’s a Power Bar. 

-SCR

The Perks of Patchett, Part 2: Bel Canto

Techniques tracked:
-use of omniscience in space AND time
-borrowing from real-life events

Curtis Sittenfeld has pointed out that both Patchett’s classic Bel Canto, considered her breakthrough, and her newest novel Commonwealthstart[] with an unexpected kiss at a party”–but while in Commonwealth this kiss comes near the end of the first chapter, in Bel Canto it’s in the very first line:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.

It’s as good a time as any to revisit this classic, the film adaptation of which is slated for release next year, with Julianne Moore starring as opera singer Roxane Coss (she’s only 20 years older than Roxane is in the book…).

One
The accompanist of Roxane Coss, “lyric soprano,” kisses her after she’s just finished singing for a private party in “the host country,” somewhere in South America. The lights go out. Everyone is gathered here for the birthday party of Mr. Hosokawa, a prominent Japanese CEO who the country’s government hopes will build a factory there, but who has in fact only come because he is an ardent fan of Roxane Coss. The country’s president was supposed to be at the party, but backed out at the last minute to watch his favorite soap opera. When the lights come back on, a group of eighteen terrorists storms the room. Since many of the party’s guests are foreigners, a language barrier presents itself that will be aided by Mr. Hosokawa’s versatile translator Gen, whom he met in Greece several years prior. The terrorists demand the president, and pistol-whip the vice president, Ruben (whose house is where the party is, and who is a common man), when he tells them the president isn’t there, which undoes all of the terrorists’ plans. Sirens approach.

Two
The police set up outside. Some hostages sleep and everyone is eventually escorted to the bathroom the next morning. Mr. Hosokawa feels guilty, since he was the reason for the party and thus the reason everyone’s there. Joachim Messner knocks on the door–their mediator from the Red Cross. Gen translates for him; he wants them to let the women go in exchange for provisions. Ruben’s governess, Esmerelda, sews up Ruben’s cut face after Messner tries and fails, then leaves. There is a selfish old priest and a compassionate young priest present. Messner returns and the generals say they will give up the women and the workers and separate them from the men; Mr. Hosokawa helps with Roxane’s increasingly ill accompanist. The young priest, Father Arguedas, opts to stay after they try to send him away. Then the women and others exit the house.

Three
Roxane Coss is pulled from the line of exiting women, which almost causes a moment of insurrection. The accompanist, who left with the ill, returns for Roxane and insists on staying. Father Arguedas gives him last rites. Roxane has been irritated with the accompanist because he confessed his love to her on the plane ride over and has been relentless about it ever since. She looks in his pockets, figuring out he’s diabetic and out of insulin right before he dies. The generals debate shooting the corpse so it will look like they killed him, which Roxane vehemently opposes, so they don’t. The hostages admire the accompanist’s love for Roxane. Messner and a helper pick up the body and drop off sandwiches. Gen offers Roxane Mr. Hosokawa’s condolences, and she goes over to him and they talk (while Gen translates) about how he thinks this is his fault; she says it isn’t. The men are interrogated to see who’s important enough to keep. Provisions are sent for, and the more important and less important men are separated.   

Four
After a week, things get more lax, and people do things as they need to. They figure out how young the terrorists actually are (many are teenagers) and the terrorists find out all the different places people are from. There’s conversation about a possible overthrow, but the language barrier between everyone makes it even more unlikely. The terrorists explore the house, and the Frenchman Simon Thibault causes an uproar among them when he turns on the television, which none of them has seen before (imitating Roxane, Cesar sings to his reflection in it before Simon turns it on). Two of the soldiers turn out to be girls, Beatriz and Carmen, the one who’s most attached to Roxane. Oscar Mendoza and Ruben (who’s given Roxane his wife’s clothes) talk about telling Roxane they love her. Roxane says she needs to start singing soon and Gen looks for someone who can play the piano and finally finds Tetsuya Kato, who came with him and Mr. Hosokowa, though neither had any idea he could play. All 58 people there come to hear him when he starts to play, beautifully.

Five
Gen is kept busy translating for everyone, and translates for Kato and Roxane. Messner comes in to talk to the generals; the only requests they honor are Roxane’s, and so now she also asks for stuff for other people. Her request this time is music from her manager; Father Arguedas gets wind of this conversation, says he can get the music, and gets permission to call his friend Manuel for it (and also gets Roxane to say a few words on the line). Simon sneaks a call to his wife but only gets the answering machine. Gen wants to talk to Carmen but struggles to speak when he’s not translating for others; fortunately Messner wants to talk to her to make sure she’s okay, so Gen gets to. When Messner comes back at a time he’s not supposed to with the box of music, General Alfredo tries to turn him away in a show of authority, but Roxane starts to sing and then says she’ll never sing again there if she doesn’t get the music right then, and Alfredo goes to Benjamin, who caves. Roxane looks through the music and Kato plays some. Carmen goes to look at Gen sleeping while she’s keeping watch, and wakes him up and asks him to teach her to read in Spanish.

Six
The box arriving is the pivotal point of everyone’s captivity, terrorist and hostage alike–Roxane’s singing makes each of their situations more bearable. Now Roxane Coss is in charge and the day is divided according to her singing routine. This is the happiest time in Mr. Hosokowa’s life. Gen gives Beatriz his watch so she can know when to watch the Maria soap opera. The Russian Victor Fyodorov tells Gen (who’s watching for Carmen) that he’d like to speak to Roxane Coss. They’re now past the second week, and, through the increasingly unprepared food sent to the house, Ruben recognizes the world outside getting bored with their situation. Gen manages to convince General Benjamin to have some of the soldiers help them cook so they can use the knives. Gen confirms he will teach Carmen Spanish.  

Seven
Father Arguedas starts saying Mass, which even the non-religious enjoy thanks to Roxane Coss’s singing. The rains end as the seasons change. Carmen suggests to Gen that Roxane is in love with Mr. Hosokowa. Gen is in love with Carmen, whom he’s been teaching in secret at night, and they finally kiss in the bathroom while Victor Fyodorov is pestering Gen to come help him talk to Roxane. Fyodorov tells her a long story about how his appreciation for art originated with a book of paintings his grandmother showed him, and claims this makes him qualified to love her; Gen is embarrassed to translate these feelings of love that he’s never expressed himself. Fyodorov says he does not expect Roxane to return his love and that she doesn’t have to do anything. Roxane tells Gen it’s better if someone loves you for who you are instead of what you can do. Cesar the boy soldier gets hard listening to Roxane sing in the mornings, not for her, but for the music.

Eight
Mr. Hosokowa sometimes plays chess with General Benjamin. Messner comes in during a game after Ishmael gets permission to play the winner (he’s only learned how to play by watching) and exchanges the usual list of demands; the terrorists’ are getting more extreme in response to their having gotten nothing so far. When Roxane asks Messner how long he thinks they’ll be there, he says a long time. Roxane asks Gen to have Carmen bring Mr. Hosokowa to her room in the night. Ruben gives Benjamin some old antibiotics for his eye infected from shingles. Father Arguedas hears confessions from Oscar Mendoza and Beatriz. Gen works out a plan with Carmen, then tells Mr. Hosokowa Roxane wants him to come to her in the night. That night when they go, they wake up Beatriz asleep on watch, but Carmen convinces her not to tell. Carmen then takes Gen outside and they make love in the grass (later Gen will wish he’d used the opportunity to escape with her).

Nine
When Roxane Coss doesn’t come down the next morning to sing, Cesar sings instead, impressively imitating her. Roxane comes down and interrupts him, and, thinking she’s angry, he flees to a tree. Carmen tries and fails to convince him to come down, and when Roxane wants to go outside to try, Benjamin decides to let everyone go outside for the first time since they’ve been in captivity. Roxane tells Cesar she’ll give him singing lessons. Some of the Germans run for exercise, and Ruben starts pulling weeds in the overgrown garden; he promises Ishmael he can come live with him when the ordeal is over.

Ten
Thanks to Carmen, Mr. Hosokowa becomes good at sneaking up to Roxane’s room. Lovemaking regularly disrupts Gen’s and Carmen’s Spanish lessons. They go outside frequently now, enjoy soccer games, exercise, and gardening. Everyone’s happier except Messner, who looks noticeably worse when he comes. He tries to tell Gen they need to convince the generals to surrender, but Gen doesn’t pick up on his urgency. They hear Cesar singing in his lessons with Roxane. Messner tells the generals that the government is going to stop letting him come soon, but they still refuse to give in. The hostages live now as if they have forgotten their lives from before, and can’t think about the future. Gen manages to forget Messner’s warning; he suggests trying to escape to Carmen but they quickly get distracted. Roxane Coss has fallen in love with Cesar’s singing on the heels of falling in love with Mr. Hosokowa. Cesar sings for his lesson in the mornings and then they all go outside. One morning Roxane screams when she sees a man she doesn’t recognize heading towards them. He shoots Cesar, and she covers his dying body with hers. Then there are many men who spread out and methodically shoot all the terrorists, clearly knowing who the hostages are. Gen looks for Carmen, but she’s already dead, having been shot right after Cesar was, with Roxane witnessing it. Mr. Hosokowa, throwing himself in front of Carmen, was killed by the same bullet.

Epilogue
Gen and Roxane have just gotten married in Lucca, with Simon and his wife as witnesses. Simon and Gen go to look for an open bar and discuss how Gen, who translates books now, will live in Milan with Roxane. Gen brings up that the news he’s seen about what happened to them never mentioned Beatriz or Carmen, but said there were fifty-nine men and one woman. Simon says the coverage in France was the same, but realizes that Gen and Carmen were together. Gen says Roxane’s singing is the only thing that reminds him there’s good in the world. They return to the open arms of their waiting wives. The End.

One of the most prominent features of this novel, far and away Patchett’s most popular, is her use of omniscience. She establishes in the novel’s second sentence that this omniscience has limits, seeming to acknowledge that there are some things that simply cannot be known for certain:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands.

Patchett uses this omniscience to manage a large cast, giving herself the freedom to tell the reader about the general state of things as well as dive directly into any character’s head, offering what the critic James Wood in his treatise How Fiction Works has labeled “free indirect style,” where there is no mediation between the reader and the character’s thoughts. One can get an idea of how Patchett transitions from external observations to character’s thoughts (in which pronouns are altogether dispensed with) in passages like:

“This is certainly fine for me,” Roxane said. She sipped her glass of water. The sight of it made Fyodorov tremble, the water, her lips. He had to look away. What was it he wanted to say? He could write a letter instead, wouldn’t that be proper? The translator could translate. A word was a word if you spoke it or wrote it down.

The way she seamlessly roves among the thoughts of the characters seems inspired by Tolstoy, but Patchett reveals it’s not as seamless as it seems:

“The biggest achievement of this book for me, the thing that I am most proud of, is the narrative structure — that kind of third person narrative that I think of as Russian, wherein the point of view just seamlessly moves among the characters. That was the hardest part of writing the book. It was what took me so long. It’s the thing I’ve wanted to do since I started writing fiction.”

Patchett also uses omniscience in time, telling us about things that will happen in the future. Before the terrorists storm the party, we’re told:

It had been a beautiful party, though no one would remember that.

This builds tension, letting us know something significant is about to happen. In the first chapter we’re also told that:

It was the unspoken belief of everyone who was familiar with this organization and with the host country that they were all as good as dead, when in fact it was the terrorists who would not survive the ordeal.

This is a classic example of giving away the ending increasing tension rather than mitigating it. If we know the terrorists are going to die, what’s the point of reading any further? To witness the meaningful relationships they form with their hostages and vice versa. When one reads this line initially, one assumes that the hostages would be relieved and/or happy from this prospect, but the surprise of the narrative is that by the time the deaths actually happen, it will be a tragedy, a sad (indeed horrible) ending, far from a happy one. The tension of the narrative resides in finding out how terrorists dying took on the opposite emotional import than we’d expect.

The novel was published in May of 2001; Patchett was not rendering sympathetic terrorists as a conscious response to Sept. 11, but it almost seems prescient, since one might argue that it was an American lack of understanding of Islamic extremism as a product of American hypocrisy and misdeeds that made our response to that event so inept, a cause of, rather than an impediment to, further damage. In Bel Canto, the terrorists get nearly the same amount of development as the hostages; their humanity is on full display. She makes the Generals Alfredo and Benjamin sympathetic through their injuries–missing fingers and an ongoing raging case of shingles. It’s also apparent that their motives are ultimately not to do harm but good, such as releasing the wrongfully imprisoned. It’s disappointing that the book’s success doesn’t seem to have much impacted the national consciousness at the time.  

Though it was not 9/11, Patchett was inspired by a real-life terrorist incident, the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru in 1996. It’s narratively useful to see what she took from reality and what she adjusted. The fundamentals of the real-life event we can get from the Wikipedia article about it:

The Japanese embassy hostage crisis began on 17 December 1996 in Lima, Peru, when 14 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hostage hundreds of high-level diplomats, government and military officials and business executives who were attending a party at the official residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru, Morihisa Aoki, in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday.

Notably, the detailed article mentions nothing about the relationship between the terrorists and the hostages.

We can see that Patchett took a lot of the basics–roughly the same number of terrorists, likely the same country, though she leaves it unnamed, and the originating event being a birthday party for a Japanese man. She also seems to have kept the release of the women after the first night, the four-month time frame that the standoff lasted, and the way it ended in a military raid with all the terrorists being killed while only one hostage was. (Interestingly, the president of Peru at the time, Alberto Fujimori, who oversaw the perceived-as-successful military operation freeing the hostages, was a Peruvian of Japanese ancestry who eventually fled to Japan; he also apparently had such a penchant for soap operas that meetings were not allowed to be scheduled during them.) The military raid was achieved in the book and in real life by digging a tunnel, but in real life the insurgents heard noises that made them suspect the tunnel was being dug, while in the book they seem to be taken completely by surprise. The raid took place during a game of soccer in both, though in real life this happened because the military had been spying and knew this was the optimal time the terrorists let their guard down (it was also an indoor game, not outdoor as in Patchett). In the real Peruvian crisis, women were known to be among the militants in the terrorist group, as opposed to Patchett’s account, where there were females but nobody outside the house knew about them. Patchett’s also changed who the house belongs to from a non-native (the Japanese ambassador) of the host country to one of its highest ranking politicians (the vice-president). Perhaps most prominently, she’s added a famous opera singer.

Probably on first read a lot of people forget that early line warning that the terrorists will not survive, but Patchett does occasionally remind us that there will be some survivors:

Years later when this period of internment was remembered by the people who were actually there, they saw it in two distinct periods: before the box and after the box.

The box contains the music that Roxane Coss will use to sing. Part of her inclusion in this narrative seems to emphasize that art can make any circumstances bearable–even enjoyable. It was also the basis for the structure, as Patchett revealed in an interview shortly before the book was published:

“I wanted somehow to get all of those elements that I love about opera into a novel. I wanted to write a book that would be like an opera in its structure, its grandeur, its musicality, its melodrama.”

As the Guardian’s review of the novel points out, the book pulls off a unique coup:

The trick is ingenious: a hijack in which the captors have nowhere to go and the hostages have no desire for release.

After the box of music, the captives start to be happier as hostages than they were in their former lives–with the possible exception of Simon, who desperately misses his wife. This exception emphasizes the other aspect that the novel dramatizes as making life bearable–love.

The two primary love stories in the narrative arise against all odds, and could only have ever happened due to the particular circumstances of the hostage situation: Mr. Hosokowa and Roxane getting together despite a language barrier, and Gen and Carmen getting together despite his being a hostage from Japan and her a terrorist from the mountains of South America. According to Wikipedia, these relationships are the “backdrop” for the rest of the story.

As Patchett’s use of omniscience-in-time indicates, time works in something of a nontraditional way in this narrative; many parts of the novel are describing periods of time rather than a specific moment in time. Thus, some of the scenes we do get, such as Father Arguedas hearing Beatriz’s confession, are not furthering a linear plot–though some scenes, such as Father Arguedas talking on the phone to his friend Manuel about the music to be sent, are furthering something more akin to a linear plot–but rather showing how the terrorists and hostages have become interchangeable, have all become people. But we do see chains of events unfolding here that primarily center on establishing objects of love, so that in the climax we feel a significant impact of loss. With Carmen’s help, Gen facilitates Mr. Hosokowa’s rendezvous with Roxane. The first night this happens, Roxane doesn’t come down to sing the next morning, prompting Cesar to sing instead; without her having met up with her lover, she might never have discovered Cesar’s singing, her second great love. That Cesar has a prodigal operatic voice might seem convenient (and some critics have remarked as much), might seem to be stretching reality, but the conception of the novel as an operatic melodrama makes this appropriate. 

The fact that Mr. Hosokowa is the only hostage who dies is narratively appropriate, since he, as was emphasized by his guilt in the early chapters, is the reason everyone was there to be taken hostage. With the reason for them being there removed, the hostages are narratively free to go. The epilogue, with Gen and Roxane marrying, is also narratively fitting, in that the two people who have both had their loves taken away from them take solace in each other. Of course, there’s also been the emphasis on how Gen is a kind of extension of Mr. Hosokowa, and Mr. Hosokowa’s own considerations of what would change if they ever got their old lives back, which is actually impossible:

He tried not to give himself over to fantasies: he would get a divorce; he would follow her from city to city, sitting in the front row of every opera house in the world. Happily, he would have done this, given up everything for her. But he understood that these were extraordinary times, and if their old life was ever restored to them, nothing would be the same.

It’s also fitting that Simon and his wife would be the wedding witnesses, as Simon’s love for his wife made him the only one who seemed to not completely enjoy their captive circumstances by the end. One suspects that even if Mr. Hosokowa knew he would ultimately die, he would have considered his period in captivity, and the intimacy with the beloved opera singer it enabled him, worth it, that he still would have gone to the party even if he knew how it would end.

The omniscience-in-time is also used for a particularly emotional effect when Gen and Carmen first sleep together, when we’re told about how Gen will remember this moment later:

First, he will imagine what he did not do:

In this version, he takes Carmen’s hand and leads her out the gate at the end of the front walkway. There are military guards on the other side of the wall but they, too, are young and asleep, and together they pass them and simply walk out into the capital city of the host country. Nobody knows to stop them. They are not famous and nobody cares. They go to an airport and find a flight back to Japan and they live there, together, happily and forever.

Gen’s tragedy is re-emphasized right before the military storm the house at the end, when Messner tries to communicate that things have gotten urgent:

“It is a standoff,” Gen said. “Maybe a permanent one. If they keep us here forever, we’ll manage.”

“Are you insane?” Messner said. “You were the brightest one here once, and now you’re as crazy as the rest of them.”

This very much echoes a conversation that Gen had with Carmen earlier:

“What do you mean, this is where we live now?”

Carmen sighed. “You know I can’t say. But ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?” This room was a third of the size of the china closet. Her knees touched his legs. If he took even a half step back he would be on the commode. She wished she could take his hand. Why would he want to leave her, leave this place?

“This has to end sooner or later,” he said. “These sorts of things never just go on indefinitely, somebody stops them.”

So the ending was foretold in the beginning (and foreshadowed at several points along the way), and we have a character–not just the omniscient narrator–who has more insight into this ending than the rest of the characters: the intermediary, Messner. In chapter 8, as Messner is starting to show his exhaustion, we get his internal thoughts:

More than any other negotiation Messner had ever been involved with, he found that he didn’t really care who won this one. But that wasn’t it exactly, because the governments always won. It was that he wouldn’t mind seeing these people get away, the whole lot of them. He wished they could use the tunnel the military was digging, wished they could crawl back into the air vents and down into that tunnel and go back into whatever leafy quarters they came from (emphasis added).

Here, we’ve inadvertently been told more specifically how the terrorists are all going to die in the end: the military will infiltrate the house through a tunnel that they’ve ostensibly been digging for months. The careful reader would connect this to a seemingly passing reference that we got in chapter 7:

While General Benjamin continued to cut out every mention of their circumstances from the newspaper, they had caught a snippet of talk on the television that a tunnel was being dug, that the police were planning on digging their way up into the house, and so the crisis would end much the way it had started, with strangers crashing into the room and redirecting the course of their lives, but no one believed this.

There’s a lot of foreboding surrounding Messner’s final extended appearance:

“It is not my intention to put my soldiers down in those caves. I would sooner see them dead and buried.”

You might see them dead, Messner thought, but you won’t have the chance to see them buried.

One might actually expect Messner to have a bit more of an internal debate about whether he should tell the group what’s going to happen, but if he had, then it might give away the ending too much. Patchett also addresses this pretty directly when she has him think:

Members of the Red Cross brought food and medicine, sometimes they would ferry papers for arbitration, but they were not moles. They did not spy. Joachim Messner would have no more told the terrorists what the military had planned than he would tell the military what was happening on the other side of the wall.

By incorporating references to the future, Patchett almost counterintuitively emphasizes the present. She’s telling us the things the characters cannot know at the time. It seems to be the characters’ lack of knowledge about their fate, and their consideration of the possibility of their imminent deaths, that allows for a heightened appreciation of the present moment. The extremity of these circumstances allows Patchett to wax more poetic than she might otherwise be able to get away with (it seems to also contribute to the mood of operatic melodrama). She is certainly a master of simile and metaphor, and so I will leave you with a mere few gems from a jewelry emporium:

He was the first to understand. He felt like he had been startled from a deep sleep, drunk from liquor and pork and Dvořák.

By now the bodyguards napped inside limousines like great, overfed dogs.

The house seemed to rise up like a boat caught inside the wide arm of a wave and flip onto its side.

They were considerably less likely to be accused of doing something they did not do. They were like small dogs trying to avoid a fight, their necks and bellies turned willfully towards sharp teeth, take me.

There were a series of loud clicks and then an artificial blue-white light spilled through the living-room window like cold milk and made everyone squint.

The Slavic language was pear brandy on his tongue.

To tell something to Carmen was to have it sewn forever into the silky folds of her brain.

He could see right inside her mouth, a damp, pink cave.

-SCR

“Found Objects” Write Up by Pieper Grantham

Jennifer Egan’s “Found Objects” starts with Sasha talking to her therapist, Coz, about her recent date and theft incident. During her date, she was in the bathroom fixing her makeup when she saw someone’s purse that was left by the sink, and assumed it to be the woman who was in the stall. She saw the woman’s wallet inside the bag, and decided to take it, because anyone who left there stuff lying around in a public bathroom deserved to be taught a lesson by having their stuff taken. At least, that’s how she defended it to herself. Coz corrected her, saying that she stole it, which was something he kept trying to get her to say. Lately, her and Coz had talked about the reason for Sasha’s stealing was that it was a personal challenge, but they wanted to make the challenge leaving the items. But that tactic hadn’t worked so far, so Sasha continued on with the wallet story. She talked about how before taking the wallet, her date had felt boring, and her date had just watched the Jets game while she told her story about her boss, but after taking the wallet, she felt dangerous and excited, suddenly much more interested in the date. She tells Coz about how touching the wallet afterwards made her feels exhilarated, and he asked her about how the theft would emotionally affect the person she stole from. Coz knows that Sasha doesn’t lack empathy because of the time she stole from her plumber. After taking his screwdriver, it didn’t feel so much like a special object, and Coz asked her how she had felt after taking it, but Sasha changed the subject to deprive Coz of the answer. She didn’t like how Coz compared the plumber to her absentee father that she didn’t care about, so she continued with her story. As her and her date, Alex, were leaving the hotel, the woman who owned the wallet cut them off, asking them if they had seen her missing wallet. Alex got with the hotel security, trying to help the woman locate the wallet, and Sasha realized he was not from New York, shown by his desire to do the right thing. Sasha went in to the restroom to pretend to look for the wallet, but really she was going to put it back. Then the woman came in, and Sasha handed the wallet back to her and apologized. The woman agreed to keep it between them since Sasha was getting help for her problem. Her and Alex went back to Sasha’s apartment, where Alex showed interest in her kitchen tub. Alex looked around the apartment, and found Sasha’s collection of found objects. As Alex looked at the little table of them, Sasha replayed all the excuses she’d made when taking them, the conversations she’d had with Coz. Coz asked her how she felt looking at Alex with her stuff, and she said it was like having her entire existence laid out. Something in her was stirred, watching Alex, and she and Alex had their moment on the living room carpet. Afterwards, Alex decided to take a bath in the kitchen tub. He had seen a bag of bath salts on the found object table, and asked Sasha if he could use them. She said it was fine. She and Coz had talked much before about why she never used the things she took, so letting Alex use the salts was a step in her journey. As Alex went into the bathroom to get towels, Sasha pulled out his wallet from his abandoned pants. She looked through it and found a piece of paper that said “I believe in you.” As she heard Alex finishing up in the bathroom, she decided to keep the paper. After the bath, Alex left and they didn’t ever talk after that. She wanted to be able to tell Coz what he wanted to hear, that she’d changed, but instead she said she didn’t want to talk about feelings. The story ends with Sasha staring at Coz’s ceiling, laying on his blue couch, feeling the minutes passing.

The two techniques I tracked in the story were the justifications that Sasha gave herself for stealing, and the moments when she felt guilt and admitted she has a stealing problem. I liked the contrast between these two techniques in the story, and how they built the complexity of Sasha’s character.

Throughout the story, Sasha kept coming up with reasons of why it was fine for her to be taking things. In fact, the way we are first introduced to Sasha in the story is by one of her excuses:

It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson.

Although this seems very harsh, Sasha later has much kinder excuses for herself, Like when she was remembering the scarf she had taken:

…winter is almost over; children grow so fast; kids hate scarves; it’s too late, they’re out the door; I’m embarrassed to return it; I could easily not have seen it fall—in fact I didn’t, I’m just noticing it now: Look, a scarf! A kid’s bright yellow scarf with pink stripes—too bad, who could it belong to? Well, I’ll just pick it up and hold it for a minute….

Using these excuses were a way for Sasha to rectify what she had done, and it was a way for Jennifer Egan to show the reader that Sasha was a kleptomaniac, and not some heartless criminal. Though these quotes show the darker, dangerous side of Sasha, they are only one facet of her personality around stealing.

That leads me into my second device, Sasha’s guilt and her admittance to her problem. Though the story starts off with the negative side of Sasha, the entire story is a framed narrative in which she is speaking to her therapist about her problems. I think the fact that she had the strength to admit she had a big enough problem to seek help is one of her most defining characteristics. It really does show when someone is more powerful than their mental illness that they have the capacity to change for the better. I think that is very important to mention that there are many more examples or her admittance than there are her excuses.

She and Coz were collaborators, writing a story whose end had already been determined: she would get well. She would stop stealing from people and start caring again about the things that had once guided her…

Redemption, transformation—God how she wanted these things. Every day, every minute. Didn’t everyone?

She has set goals for herself in life that she wants to reach, she knows that this wasn’t the life she had wanted for herself and she’s willing to drive herself into bankruptcy to get to the state of mind she needs.

These two facets of Sasha’s personality and life given to the reader make her very complex. From one angle, you can look at her as a kleptomaniac who can’t stop themselves from making excuses to justify themselves, and from the other angle she can be seen as someone making a very real attempt to better themselves after seeing a problem in themselves. This complexity is something that I want to achieve in my own writing. I want my characters to be seen by one person differently than by another, because that’s just how real people are.

Another thing I would like to try is the style of this story, with two different moments laid on top of each other that intertwine and interject each other, because I think that it’s a unique and interesting way of writing. It feels like you’re reading two stories at once, and that intrigues me. Especially how It feels like the main story, in this instance, is the wallet theft story, but in reality, it’s Sasha talking to Coz about the wallet theft story. The plot arc takes place in the past while a character from the present talks about the story from the past but at the same time references moments from the past during their present mind state that occur even farther back than the story containing the plot arc. And it all comes together so nicely that the reader probably doesn’t think about it in such a complicated way because it works so well. And the way present-Sasha references moments that are from a past even farther back from her wallet story feels so human and adds to the complexity of her character through backstory. Gosh, it’s so interesting to me. There’s a million things going on in Sasha’s head, and all of it is so interesting and all so human, and I love it.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the mental reversal in this story, if there was one at all?
  2. Why does Jennifer Egan choose to have Sasha’s harshest excuse be the first thing the reader sees?
  3. Why did Sasha return the wallet even though she had a table full of things that she never returned?