Monday, July 22, 2013

Spiral. Star Trek Fan Fiction. I Don't Know.

Did like nothing this weekend but watch Spiral. Well, also went to Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, which was so much fun, and which I walked out of feeling just... happy. Helped by the fact that I went with Loren who loves Firefly. There were like maybe eight other people in the theater and we definitely laughed the most/loudest which I was like proud of? I don't know why because a lot of our laughing was just at like... the sight of Nathan Fillion. (And Nathan Fillion's performance, which was hilarious.)


I think I'm going again tonight and taking Mum. Is this a Much Ado About Nothing post now? What do I have to say about it other than that, as I already said, I walked out feeling... purely happy, which is kind of a change from how I feel when I watch Spiral, which like I already said is what I've spent like the past three days doing, and which makes me feel mostly stressed. And when it makes me happy it's like... the end of season two when they find Samy alive in the trunk of the car and I start like uncontrollably crying with relief. Spiral makes me happy pretty often, too, but a lot of the time that's just because—see also Nathan Fillion, above—of Judge Roban making faces like this


 and Prosecutor Machard who doesn't need to make ANY face 

"What, are you still here?"
and Pierre who doesn't either.

"I'm here to give you back my card."
These aren't even good lines but lemme tell ya. It's not about the lines with these two.
I mean come on.


These may not even be the best screenshots of Pierre because if I started pausing the show to take screenshots of Pierre I might literally never stop. I don't even care about Pierre as a character that much, it's just. Grégory Fitoussi's face. Personally, I'm more attracted to like. Judge Roban. I'm serious. And Commissioner Bremont, which also serious, but less embarrassedly so. (Kind of embarrassed about the fact that the scene in Episode 9 in which he is smoking a cigarette while talking to Laure led to me sitting in my car at 9:30 last night smoking. And again in the car on the way to work this morning. I smoke often enough to always have a pack handy but infrequently enough to take like four months to get through said pack. Aka not twice in less than twelve hours. Guess that just tells you how attracted I am to Commissioner Bremont? Or something? Good God.) But in terms of like. Pure handsomeness. Which as I explained to Mum just the other day (in reference to, you guessed it, Grégory Fitoussi) for me is just like a type, one of many, and not necessarily the one I'm most attracted to...

I mean look at him. He's too handsome to be attracted to. He is not of this earth. Okay.

First, I definitely watch Spiral from the first of Film Crit HULK's four levels, or maybe the second. If, on the first level, we watch movies and shows in a naïve, childlike state, with what he calls an "easy state of emotional transference" (in other words, we experience them as if they're real)—and if the second level is inhabited by people who've watched enough movies to "grow up" and move beyond the first level and yet, like an addict, continue to chase its emotional highs... I flatter myself that I'm in the third level, people who—to paraphrase—not only approach entertainment analytically, but understand that this can be as "powerful, stimulating, and emotionally affecting" as a level one experience. In other words, as I put it in a half-finished piece of Kirk/Spock Star Trek (meant to be TOS, but they kind of act more AOS*) fan fiction that I wrote, "Spock took notes most of the time, and when Kirk grumbled that why couldn't he just enjoy things without analyzing them said 'Analyzing things is how I enjoy them.'"** 

In other words, I'm (my) Spock. I may not be like an ~expert at it~ yet but I do want to understand how things work—largely because I want to learn how to make them. But I also, not gonna lie, love that level one experience, and that's what I have when I watch Spiral. Maybe because it's French, maybe because I haven't seen the actors in anything else, maybe because it's just so well made, but I have absolutely no sense of it as a made thing. At the same time, I'm trying to move to level three with it, because I want to understand how it's so good that its goodness prevents me from wanting to understand how it's so good

And I'm getting there. Sort of. Part of the almost unbearable tension of the third season—which is about, among like five million other things, a serial killer who mutilates his victims with a scalpel—is that in the first few episodes Laure and her team apprehend two possible suspects, both of whom turn out to have alibis, so by the time they arrest the third, Ronaldo Fuentes, you're already predisposed to think they're wrong again. And they have no evidence against him. Basically their only "proof" that he did this (sorry, ugh, I'm sorry)

Episode 1
is this

Episode 3
which he had in his apartment, and which is a poster of "Blooming Roses" (1930) by Salvador Dalí. By episode six (of 12) they're forced to release him. By like episode eight it's clear that he's guilty, but what I'm trying to say is that for like more than half the season neither the police nor the viewer know this for sure. And here's the thing. "Who's the killer" is as much a literary analytical question as it is a literal one—that is to say, it exists on two separate "planes," Laure's and the viewer's—and the occupants of those planes arrive at an answer in different ways. Laure is absolutely convinced that Fuentes is guilty, saying she "saw it in his eyes" and pursuing him even after she's taken off the case. Eventually, she finds a garage full of breasts floating in formaldehyde belonging to Ronaldo, which establishes his guilt. However. I—I have to resist saying "we," because I could just be unusually thick—as a viewer, unlike Laure, thought he might be innocent for like 6 episodes, and was convinced otherwise not by the garage, but by the amount of screen time given Ronaldo (and his sister/mother, and her husband, and a guy who saw him like cutting off a dog's balls or something with a scalpel) by the show. If Laure was wrong, that time would be wasted, so she had to be right.

My point, I guess, is that Laure experiences the events of the show on HULK's first level—on something even lower than the first level!—because for her they're real. I was experiencing the show on the first level, and, not knowing whether Fuentes was guilty, the primary emotion being transferred was stress, and the stress basically forced me into the third level, or at least out of the first. Laure could spend weeks of her life pursuing Ronaldo and be wrong. Spiral couldn't spend six episodes "watching" her do this if she wasn't right.

I have this half-developed theory that detective work = literary analysis (and that literature majors would make good lawyers, but that's mostly because I want to be like a non-corrupt version of Josephine Karlsson). Both the law and literary analysis involve evidence, and arguments, and sometimes both are about not verifiable truth (a confession? A cell phone video? An author's letters?) but the better of two (or more) arguments. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, like a literature student, has read about uncountable numbers of cases to help him solve his own. He's done his homework. HULK says that to get to level three, you just have to watch more movies, aka do yours. I've allotted like the next three years of my life to "watch more movies"—although in my case it's technically "read more books," because I want to be a writer—but I kinda want to be a screenwriter, don't know. You can also, it seems, allow the intensity of your level one experience to push you, almost self-protectively, into level three. My uncle Steve said recently that this very intensity is why he doesn't like watching movies, and that he reads summaries so that he knows what's going to happen—so that he knows, for instance, that Ronaldo Fuentes is in fact the killer. Which is, instead of escaping level one by transcending it, diluting its emotional effects so that you can stay there more comfortably.

*

I had more I wanted to say about this show. I wanted to make a list of just—like, especially compared to a show like The Killing, in which just ugh, 1/3 of a thing happened per season—how perhaps on paper excessively much is happening in this third season, because like. Ronaldo Fuentes. Niko's prostitution ring. Vlad, whoever he is. Gilou wanting to leave Laure's team. Gilou accidentally shooting that drug dealer in the lung. Laure basically having a breakdown. Laure protecting Gilou. Laure sabotaging Gilou. Laure/Bremont. Laure vs. Bremont. Judge Roban's mother. Judge Roban and Villedieu. Judge Roban and his ~~~gf. Arnaud, the intern de merde. Machard vs. Pierre. Pierre and Josephine. Pierre/Josephine? Josephine's money problems. Pierre and Danny. Pierre/Danny? (There was a ~reason he smelled Pierre's shirt like that, right?) And like you can break it down into three storylines—Pierre and Josephine's new firm, Judge Roban and Villedieu, Laure's team and Ronaldo—but you don't realize that every seemingly far-ranging thing falls into one or more of those fairly narrow categories, or even falls across them—Josephine defends Ronaldo, Arnaud is blackmailed by the mayor of Villedieu—until it's already fallen. I wanted to write about how, especially in season two, everything bad that could possibly happen, happens. I wanted to link to this video of Matt Stone and Trey Parker explaining "but/so" vs. "and then" storytelling to an NYU scriptwriting class and talk about how brilliantly "but/so" Spiral is. But that's another post. As is my like "Reasons Why I Love Laure Berthaud" post. As are like 600 more pictures of Grégory Fitoussi's face.



*Because, in all honesty, my entire... and oh my god this is going to ruin it, but my entire Star Trek fan fic writing style is, um, heavily influenced by Your First Time Should Be Special, which is AOS and which a) I've read like fifteen times and b) is the only Star Trek fan fic I've ever read. 

*and one of Spock's favorite things to do was point out inaccuracies in the holomercials about science that Kirk sometimes watched to try to understand what in the hell Spock was talking about and one time he found Spock sitting at his computer with the dictionary cartridge inserted and Spock got called to the bridge before he could remove it and when Kirk next turned on his computer there, right on the screen, was the word "empathy" and its definition and Kirk imagined Spock sitting there, forehead wrinkling almost imperceptibly, lips maybe moving as he read the words—"the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of others"—and was forcibly reminded of the times, early on, when they'd fight and Kirk would say something about how that made him feel and Spock would just look at him like he was waiting for Kirk to continue, like what he'd just said had been a prelude to what he was actually going to say and then all of a sudden Spock had started saying, enunciating carefully, "I understand how you feel," which had freaked Kirk out way more than the blank/expectant stares, and he'd ignored it the first few times but then once when he'd been really mad had yelled "No you DON'T" and Spock opened his mouth to argue but then just closed it again like he knew Kirk was right. 

A few days later Kirk was in Spock's quarters looking for a copy of a journal he wanted to borrow and found a pamphlet entitled "I Feel You: A Field Guide to Successful Communication" on Spock's desk, under a stack of heavily annotated science journals and sure enough, there was "I understand how you feel" under the Listening section and seeing it there—with a little pink flag marking the page—made Kirk feel guilty and protective and something else all at once. Spock stops saying he understands how Kirk feels. And then the next time they fight Kirk yells something like "Why are you standing there staring at me like that it makes me feel like you can't even hear me" and Spock looks at him and says gravely "When I stare at you it makes you feel like I cannot hear you" and Kirk goes "YES, thank you, that's exactly what I—" and then he goes "WAIT."

Spock just stands there, waiting. Kirk narrows his eyes at him. 

"You got that from that communication pamphlet, didn't you," he says accusatorially. 

"How do you know about that pamphlet," Spock says.

"I saw it on your desk when I was looking for that Vulcan Science Academy Quarterly that you were telling me about last week," Kirk says, a little abashed, and then, defensively, "Where did you get that thing anyway?"

"Dr. McCoy's office," Spock says.

"What!" Kirk yells. "What did you—you didn't tell him it was because of—you know? Did you?"

Spock rolls his eyes. (It makes Kirk want to point gleefully at him and say HA, you do do that, but he's pretty sure if he calls too much attention to it Spock will stop doing it and he definitely doesn't want that.) "No," Spock says, speaking in the rapid and very precise way that means he's pissed. "I did not tell him that it was because I am in a secret romantic relationship with you and given that this is my first such relationship with a human I have no standard against which to compare it and given that the relationship is secret there is no one I can ask. I did not tell Dr. McCoy this because it is not the reason I took the pamphlet from his office. I did so because the above statement, minus its "secret" and "romantic" components, is applicable to every single member of this crew who is not Vulcan, which is approximately 423 people. And furthermore I would like to inform you that repeating what they have just said back to them to demonstrate that I am listening has worked on several members of the crew so far and if it is not effective on you that only serves to strengthen my hypothesis that you are the most confusing person I have ever met."

"I'm confusing?" Kirk says. "And who exactly have you been practicing this on?"

"That warp core engineer from Deltron V," Spock says without hesitating. "Dr. McCoy's assistant, the one with the hair that I like. Yeoman—"

"Oh my god, stop, STOP," Kirk says. "You were supposed to say no one, Jim, no one but you, it's only ever all been for you—"

"It has only ever all been for—" Spock says, like he's testing out the words.

"Well now you're only saying that because I told you to say it," Kirk says. "You have to do it spontaneously."

"I can be spontaneous," Spock says. "In fact, might I suggest—"

"NO," Kirk says. "That may have worked last week, but it is NOT going to work again. I know what you're up to, and frankly I am very surprised that Dr. McCoy keeps instructional pamphlets in his office that tell you how to do that."

"I did not learn that from an instructional pamphlet," Spock says with dignity. "As you may well remember, there was a certain amount of trial and error involved."

That's it. This is a Star Trek fan fiction blog.

I would say I'm embarrassed to have posted that publicly but truth be told I've been looking for an excuse to do so since I started this blog. If you thought that was the reason I wrote this whole post you'd be wrong. But not that wrong.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Death and David Foster Wallace's "Danger" in Game of Thrones

This is a post about Game of Thrones, a show I have a hard time ~analyzing. I always just end up with extensive character studies of Jaime* or like half-finished Jaime-centric fan fiction** when I try. The first part of this post is sort of about why I can't analyze the show; the second part is analysis of it. Part 1 is how deaths are presented, and Part 2 is the fact that they're presented at all. There might be a Part 3 that's just like... predictions about Jaime's storyline in Winds of Winter. Pictures of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Who knows. ~Anything could happen.


* "He understands how hard his world makes it to be a good person" etc.

** "I killed him," Jaime said flatly. "Make no mistake. I stabbed him in the back. Rossart, too—not in the back, in the belly—but nobody seems to remember Rossart. Why the back? Aerys was standing at the foot of the Throne when I approached him, blade bared. He knew what I intended, I'm sure. He turned, grasping for the arms of the Throne to pull himself up, and the malevolent thing sliced the fingers of his right hand half off. Do you know, I rather think it was helping me?" Pod's face was pale. Good. Jaime gave him a twisted smile. "Not that I needed it. My sword slid in easily. When I gave it a twist I could feel it grating against his spine." 


Part 1


Game of Thrones is violent. I like this. Why do I like it? Why was I ~gladdened by the sight of Jaime's half-healed stump? (Just Googled "Jaime Lannister stump" looking for a picture of Qyburn tending to it in Episode 7 so you could be gladdened too but couldn't find one and I'm p sure I won't take the time to look for the scene in the episode itself so yeah thank me for that) Why was I was hoping they'd show Grey Wind's head sewn to Robb Stark's body; and why, when they did, did I watch the scene at least three times? Why am I not bothered by how how bloodthirsty the show makes me? Is "why" even the right question to ask?

I wondered how far they'd go with the Red Wedding, but in terms of what from the books we would and wouldn't get to see—Catelyn's throat getting cut, for instance. I couldn't have wondered "Will they show Talisa's pregnant belly being stabbed with a dagger sixteen times" because I couldn't have imagined the show would surpass itself like that, both in invention and execution—and I'm not sure I don't mean "surpass" in a good way. Emotionally, I experience this show on the first of the Film Crit HULK's four levels—which he wrote about in response to the Red Wedding episode!—in that when it comes to GoT I have what he calls "an easy sense of transference"; I watch it and "can't help but feel like it's real." I don't, though, dislike things that make me feel bad, as he says level one consumers tend to do. On the contrary. Talisa's death sickened me (it, at least, I didn't watch more than once). I sobbed. I was far more shocked and drained by that scene than I expected to be, but I... admired, even commended them for going there, and for taking me, emotionally, so wholly along with them.

In the same vein, have a whole paragraph I could write about how I not only like the (female) nudity but experience it as if I'm its target audience—as a straight ~guy might, whatever that means? I think, though, I'll just leave it at: I feel like not only do I watch the show from the HULK's first level, but I think I experience it as intended, in that both the way it presents its "explicit content" and the way I consume it are completely unabashed. Which is also what makes it hard to step back and say wait—what is intended here? Is it anything more than an essentially pornographic experience? Will trying to answer that question make my basically reveling in violence and misogyny more or less okay? And if I want to avoid pronouncing it "okay" or "not," what kind of questions should I ask instead?


Part 2


The above was about the explicitness of GoT's deaths, and how I sort of revel in them, and how if I'm bothered by anything, it's not that, but the fact that I'm not bothered by that. And I'm not even bothered by that! I don't know. But my real reason for writing this post isn't the deaths' goriness; it's the fact that they take place at all. 

I'm fascinated by how suspense is created—by why when Kirk, in "The Galileo Seven," strands Spock and co. on Taurus II, even though I know that the nature of the show absolutely guarantees their survival, I am literally SCREAMING "TURN AROUND, TURN AROUND, TURN AROUND" at the screen. And by why—even though Raleigh's fate at the end of Pacific Rim was technically uncertain—as his escape pod shot toward the breach, then as Mako swam toward it, I felt no tension whatsoever. That tension, it would seem, has absolutely nothing to do with what you know or don't know is going to happen. It's all craft. (And figuring out what the craft is is a whole other post/lifetime entirely.)

In "The Galileo Seven," there's tension, but, as David Foster Wallace might argue, no true danger. In his 1988 essay "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," he writes about what I would argue Pacific Rim (as opposed to, say, TOS) could have had: a feeling of danger created by the (technical) possibility of death.
Try to recall the last time you saw the "hero" die within his drama's narrative frame. It's very rarely done anymore. Entertainment professionals have apparently done research: audiences find the deaths of those with whom they identify a downer, and are less apt to watch dramas in which danger is creatively connected to the death that makes danger dangerous. The natural consequence is that today's dramatic heroes tend to be "immortal" within the frame that makes them heroes and objects of identification... I claim that the fact that we are strongly encouraged to identify with characters for whom death is not a significant creative possibility has real costs. We the audience, and individual you over there and me right here, lose any sense of eschatology, thus of teleology, and live in a moment that is, paradoxically, both emptied of intrinsic meaning or end and quite literally eternal. If we're the only animals who know in advance that we're going to die, we're also probably the only animals who would submit so cheerfully to the sustained denial of this undeniable truth. The danger is that, as entertainment's denials of the truth get even more seductive, we will eventually forget what they're denials of. This is scary. Because it seems transparent to me that, if we forget how to die, we're going to forget how to live.
If there's one thing you can't accuse GoT/ASOIAF of, it's helping us forget how to die. Martin is great at creating a sense of danger. It's because of the relentless brutality of the world—people being maimed, skinned, emasculated, anally gang raped, having their faces chewed off, etc. everywhere you turn (and this is a brutality that the show actually amps up****)—but it's also because, with Ned's decapitation, he connected all that danger with the ever-present possibility of what makes it dangerous, AKA death.

Now, the Film Crit HULK argues that Ned's death is pretty much all the books have going for them:
HULK THINK THE FIRST BOOK = A GREAT STORY AND THE SECOND HALF OF THE THIRD = THE PERFECT KIND OF NUTS. BUT HULK THINK THE GOODWILL OF ENTIRE SERIES TRULY INDEBTED TO BRUTAL, DEEPLY RESONANT MOMENT WHERE THEY KILLED OFF NED STARK. HULK TALKED ABOUT THE SHOCK OF THAT INITIAL READ AND HOW ELECTRIFYING IT FELT. SO FROM THAT POINT ON, READING THE BOOKS = TRYING RECAPTURE WHAT MAKE THAT SINGULAR MOMENT SO GOOD. ONLY THIS A FALSE AIM. THE REASON FOR THIS TWO-FOLD: 1) BECAUSE WE SUBCONSCIOUSLY CRAVE “THE SHOCK” THE READER CAN NO LONGER EXPERIENCE IT IN SAME WAY AS ONCE DID. THIS AMPLIFIED BY 2) MARTIN NOT REALLY HAVING MUCH ELSE TO DRAW BACK ON WHICH CAN ACHIEVE SAME LEVEL OF RESONANCE. HE NO WRITE BEAUTIFUL MOMENTS. HE NO WRITE CATHARTIC MOMENTS. TIME AND TIME AGAIN, MARTIN COME AT YOU WITH THE SAME EXACT TACTICS OF DOURNESS, DEATH, AND SHOCK. ONLY NOW THEY LESS AND LESS EFFECTIVE . HECK, IN NEXT BOOK, ANY CHARACTER COULD DIE FOR ANY REASON AND IT NO SURPRISE HULK WHATSOEVER. FUCK, DANY COULD GET HIT BY A BUS.
For me, these same exact tactics... still work. Sort of. At this point, after abandoning Feast for Crows about 3/4 of the way through, the only characters I'm invested in are—well, sort of Cersei, but primarily Jaime and Brienne, even after Brienne's (and Jaime's!) practically unforgivable FFC chapters, and I won't get into why because the investment is partly about loving them (again: extensive character studies of Jaime, Jaime-centric fan fiction). Not only are two characters I love now in a situation where the both entrenched and evolving ideas about honor that are so central to both their characters are finally going to be put to the test (!!!!) but. When this happens, one of them may have to kill the other, and knowing Martin—and the credibility he earned, way back when, with that one shocking, electrifying death—it's perfectly possible that they will. The thing is, though—that wouldn't matter if I didn't care about them. Martin may be good at danger, but Jaime proves that he can be (even if he isn't consistently) good at character too. And that's just as essential to danger as the possibility of death.
*

"Real" danger, aka danger "creatively connected" to death. Tension, or the feeling of danger with no possibility of death. The possibility of death, but no feeling of danger. It seems to come down to craft (in TOS' case), the stones to kill major characters (in Martin's) and the skills to make you care about them first (in both). This was, in the vein of "How to Write Sci Fi According to Star Trek," supposed to be "How To Write Fantasy According to GoT"—and now I've a list of three things to have, but not how to get them. Well, as far as #3 goes, an Extensive Character Analysis of Jaime is clearly in order. But that's a separate post. For now...

*** Talisa; Ros; Theon's almost-rape (both times?); Selyse's fetus collection; Varys' castrator with his mouth sewn shut—I was constantly amazed this season by how much farther than Martin they felt they needed to go

Part 3







Told you anything could happen.

Live Well In Front of You

I felt better after I wrote that post about Bumby. Not like I had "solved" anything, which I didn't expect to, but relieved/happy/lighter, sort of like what I'd been... chewing over didn't matter, but more like, regardless, I could lay it to rest. And then funnily enough we went to Bar Harbor for a week—which was supposed to be "screen free" b/c I (we?) kind of think that my brothers are "addicted to screens" (and Wynn spent 5 1/2 hours of the drive back playing Clash of Clans on my dad's iPhone so maybe my fears aren't entirely unjustified) and which didn't turn out to be, not 100%, which was fine but I didn't bring my laptop so I couldn't blog and I kinda spent a lot of the time fantasizing about blogging, which... Okay. Definitely not unjustified. The point is that, partly because of Screen Free Week I read like 5 1/2 books, at least four of which were read by at least one other person, either Loren or Dad. I was sort of Bumby, and they were sort of me, but doing what Bumby and I never did. Basically it breaks down to: Black Swan Green (Dad, me, Loren); Tenth of December (me, Loren, Dad soon); The Devil and Sherlock Holmes (Loren, me, maybe Dad soon); Caring is Creepy (Dad, me); City of Thieves (Dad, me soon). Also The Devil in the White City and Joyland (me).

The point being that. Well. First of all I have such a hard time recommending books to people. Partly because of the over-identification I talked about in my last post which basically means that if someone doesn't like it they don't like me; partly because I'm extremely hesitant to like influence the way someone spends hours (and like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of my favorite books ever. That's hours) of their life. It feels intimate. Like for those hours, I'm there with them. Plus I don't want anyone to feel obligated to read a book I recommended, ever, because that would be being there with them in a ~bad way. My preferred method would be something like make a "Books I've Read" Tumblr (which I did) and tag the ones I like "liked" or something (which I haven't done yet) and direct people there. (Even though the only person who asks me for book recommendations is my 80-year-old grandmother—and I did direct her to my "Books I've Read" Tumblr recently, but she definitely doesn't know what Tumblr is and probably didn't understand what she was seeing. If she even saw it; she never replied to my email.)

The thing is, my dad heard I was going to the library to get books for Bar Harbor and asked me to pick up five or six for him. Mum had already asked me to look for Loren, who's 14, too. And normally I would totally try to avoid this for all the reasons above, but it was a slow day at Puritan and I ended up doing like two hours of research online, then going to the library after work and taking out 13 books. (A lot of them I found via the Young Adult Library Services Association, which is a division of the American Library Association or ALA and gives ten Alex Awards per year to adult books they deem of "special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18," because I was looking for stuff a 14-, a 22-, and a 50-year-old would all like.) I took out all the above, plus: Skellig. People Who Eat Darkness. Anansi Boys. Everything Matters! The Snowman. Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans who Discovered Hitler's Lost Sub.

I had SO much fun researching and checking out and reading these books with Loren and Dad this week, and it was because I wasn't really recommending as in prescribing them. I wanted to read them too. But there's more to it than that.

I've been reading since I was 2 1/2. (There's still so much I haven't read. Anything by Ernest Hemingway, for example. I sometimes fantasize about being a famous writer so I can get the hashtag #NeverHaveIEverRead or something to trend and we can all see... how well-read we all aren't. Or maybe I'll just get my Master's. I don't know.) The point is, though, that I've read a hell of a lot and like, theoretically, when people ask me for recommendations I should be able to do something other than deflect them by describing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in as unappealing a way as possible to prove how inaccessible my taste is and how unreliable my recommendations are (which is what I did to my grandmother recently). (Although "a 1000-page alternative history of England if England had magic, written in this kind of adapted 19th century voice with almost 200 footnotes some of which span three pages" sounds pretty durn appealing to me. Appealing enough to have read three times. Seriously, there's going to be a post soon that's just like pictures of the Reasons I Love John Childermass So Much page(s) from my journal

(This is from Bar Harbor last year!)
and Tilda Swinton Should Play the Gentleman With the Thistledown Hair Because

of This
and THIS)
So the point is: I found a way to not recommend, exactly, but to be a resource, and to put those 20 years of reading nonstop to good use. (What is "good use"? Going back to my Bumby post, is it use that connects, rather than isolates you? Use that benefits others, not just yourself?) But the point also is—and this goes back to why we instituted Screen Free Week in the first place—I'm afraid of influencing people, but I want to influence Loren and Wynn, because I'm afraid they're addicted to computer/iPhone/video games and that they Don't Read. 

First of all, as Byron Katie would say, "Is that true?"

(As seen above, it so isn't.)

Second of all, two things I think about often:
  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted (when he was still on Twitter) that when people ask him how to get their kids to read he always asks whether they do
  2. On the January 11th, 2013 Charlie Rose Show, Lena Dunham, said of Nora Ephron that "One of the most generous things someone can give you is to live well in front of you."
I do think reading a lot is living well. I'm trying not to believe that, conversely, reading less—or not reading at all—is living badly. At the very least, if reading is living well, then I can get over my fear of book recommendation rejection and help people do that. Even if "people" is just Loren, Wynn, and Dad. For now.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bumby and Books

Genuinely torn about whether or not I should pay another $2.99 to rent 28 Days Later again so that I can take screenshots of the four black and white horses that Jim and Frank see/the herd of white horses swarming on the green field in Jim's dream/the white HELL against the green hill in the second-to-last and the white-and-red HELLO in the last scene. I am NOT going to do that. Okay.

What I am going to do is write about my grandpa Bumby, who passed away almost 3 months ago, and what I can learn from his death. I've been thinking about this since he died and I'm still not sure. I don't care that he's dead. This fact is... frustrating. Angry-making. Like walking repeatedly into a wall but... not feeling anything. The reason I'm putting this on a "public" (in name only, nobody reads this) blog is that when I write about it in my journal I just go around and around in circles and there's nobody I can talk to about it and I just want to, if not come to understand my apathy better, at least articulate it with as much clarity as I can and hopefully, in doing so, put it to rest.

My grandfather's is the first "real" death I've experienced. A girl from the grade below me in high school died in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel. The man who designed the jacket of my mom's second CD had a heart attack. But no one I've loved or even known well has ever died—all three of my other grandparents are still alive—so it feels like this should, then, register. But it hasn't.

It's probably because Bumby and I weren't close. We saw each other regularly, but I was shy around him, and he didn't talk much to anyone. His presence felt incidental; it didn't make my life any better or worse. In one of our lasts visits to the nursing home, Wynn said "They should have a glass elevator in the middle of this building so they can take the people nobody wants anymore up to the roof in their wheelchairs and push them off." I said "Wynn, that's not okay," but I think I felt obligated to admonish him because that that's how I felt, too. I didn't "want" Bumby, I never had, and it didn't seem like anybody did. But then: doesn't that make me a horrible person? Shouldn't I value human life intrinsically, no matter how "useful" it is? Who can judge someone's "usefulness," anyway? And it's not like Bumby didn't mean anything to anyone. He was a high school French and English teacher at Dedham Country Day School, and, when he retired, tutored adults who were studying for their GEDs in almost every subject at the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences, or SCALE, in Cambridge for twenty years. But even when I say that it feels hollow, a string of empty "credentials" trotted out in a fruitless attempt to justify a life. Why? It's true that he made an impact on people. It's just that I never really saw it happen—and more than that, it's that he didn't make an impact on me. In my journal, around the time of his death, at the end of an entry about how I wasn't feeling anything, I wrote "I imagine this will be an early, contextualizing paragraph of an essay about the first death in my life that did matter."

From 2007-2010, I think.
The reason this frustrates me so much right now is that he could have. He's one of the only people I've ever seen read as much as me. My grandfather LOVED books. When I picture him, it's lying on his back reading. The librarians had memorized his account number, he came so often, checked out so many—hundreds a year. He sent out a Christmas letter with about twenty recommended titles on it, but also kept—as I found out one of the last times I saw him—spiral-bound notebooks in which he wrote down every book he ever read, with a rating system of checks, X's, filled-in circles.

For Bumby—at least it seemed this way to me—reading was something solitary, inward-directed, even insular; not something to be shared. This wasn't entirely true. He kept lists, in his notebooks, of books to give us each for Christmas—as he was reading, he was thinking of us. He gave me, over the years: a photocopy of "Who's On First?"; Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle; The Collected Dorothy ParkerThe Children's Book by A.S. Byatt; Memoirs of my Windmill; by Antoine Daudet; War and Peace; The Hunger Games. And I didn't read them; I'm not sure why. Because I wasn't interested, maybe; because I resisted recommended and required reading by default—but also because I knew he wouldn't ask me if I had, wouldn't try to talk to me about this thing we literally both loved most in the world, more than anybody else I know, even now. I'd skim Bumby's books until I'd ruined the experience of actually reading them, then sell them on sellbackyourbook.com for like 79 cents each. On visits to their apartment, when I was reading, he'd usually reach out his hand, indicating that he wanted to see my book; I'd hand it to him, he'd take it, turn it over, grunt, maybe ask whether I liked it, I'd say yes or no, then he'd hand it back.

I have my version of Bumby's notebooks in tumblr where I post the books I've read that uses the same theme as Book Pickings which I think is just so galvanizingly and soul-refreshingly BEAUTIFUL
The thing is, I might understand where he was coming from. I find talking to people, especially those I don't think will understand, about the books I love painfully intimate. (See the Rookie article from June 2012 re: this.) I basically can't do it. It makes me feel exposed and vulnerable, and if they don't react in exactly the right way I immediately regret sharing and feel angry, defensive, judgmental, they're so stupid, they just don't get it. This is an awful and isolating feeling. The thing that basically gives your life both pleasure and deep meaning, the thing that's been your calling literally since the age of three and that you both feel that you've always been really and at the same time are just beginning to be good at, isn't something that connects you with people. It's something that ends up alienating you from them, like you're somehow better/smarter than—aka separate from—everyone else, which is no fun to feel. Bumby was sort of a stranger to me (maybe because of this) but, again, he didn't have to be. He could have been someone with whom I used books to connect. He not only would have "gotten" how I felt about them—he would have gotten, I think, though I can't know for sure, how difficult it is to find someone who gets it. 

Did he feel isolated? Did he worry that his love of books was isolating him? Were his Christmas gifts an effort to connect? I don't know. But I want books to connect me with people. And they do. I've read almost all fifty-six Sherlock Holmes stories aloud to my brothers. We're about to start "The Hound of the Baskervilles," but right now our bedtime story is The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. (They're 12 and 14. My dad listens too.) I recommended Welcome to the Monkey House to Loren recently. He liked it. My dad and I have shared David Foster Wallace, Hell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, James Herriot. Loren, Wynn, and I: The Adventures of Tintin. All of us: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. His Dark Materials (which they didn't really like, but oh well). My college boyfriend and I took like three of the same literature classes (Russian Literary Criticism, Comp Lit Three, Milton). We shared Notes from the Underground, by Dostoevsky. Maldoror by Lautréamont. We argued over whether or not you could "tell" that Mrs. Dalloway was written by a woman. He introduced me to Emerson. My mom gave him the entire Prydain Chronicles; he didn't read them. Oh well.

I don't want to reduce Bumby's life to a "lesson," especially not "don't be like him." Maybe the lesson is "don't be like me": he gave me books. I didn't read them. Maybe it's "be more like him"; I don't know. I didn't start writing this with a "thesis" in mind—I wrote it because I've been writing about this subject for months and I've never felt like I found one. But maybe it's actually simple. Many of the above are things that feel like part of my soul. I'm fiercely protective of them. But I'm realizing that I've shared them anyway, and I've always been glad I did.