StoryThoughts: “USA” — “42nd Parallel”/”1919″/”The Big Money” (novel trilogy) by John Dos Passos

U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel/1919/The Big Money

A Must-Read, Both as Fiction and as History

With the USA trilogy, John Dos Passos attempted to paint a comprehensive portrait of the United States through the entire first three decades of the 20th century, by means of an extremely creative range of techniques. This trilogy can very rightfully be compared beside other extremely ambitious works like The Grapes of Wrath or Atlas Shrugged–and in fact, in sheer ambition and scope, and especially in even-handedness, it surpasses both by a wide margin. Though his name has slipped into relative obscurity, in storytelling power, Dos Passos is very much in the league of his contemporaries Steinbeck, Hemingway, or Fitzgerald.

Norman Mailer once called this trilogy the most important American work of the 20th century (though the century was still far from over when he said this). A piece of work this huge and this ambitious is bound to be uneven in some ways, and any given reader is likely to connect with certain storylines more than others; as far as pure enjoyment goes, I’d probably rate the USA trilogy four stars, a little below The Grapes of Wrath (but vastly above Atlas Shrugged). I think, though, that Dos Passos’ ambition and stunning synthesis of storytelling techniques have to be given their due: in these books he tried to capture the entire American experience, using the full range of techniques available to him and some uniquely his own–and he largely succeeded at this seemingly impossible task. Amazing, amazing work.

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StoryThoughts: “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (novel) by James Joyce (1916)

Turns out Wings Made of Wax Can’t Actually Fly

High points: little Stephen of the beginning, with the moocow and the “apologize/pull out his eyes” riffs. The lengthy sermons about Hell at least kept me awake. The villanelle was a nice, affecting piece of work (about a girl we never actually get to meet, though, unfortunately). And that’s all. Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners is a towering literary accomplishment, with “The Dead” as its pinnacle; A Portrait of the Artist is a stunt, Joyce plummeting artistically from the top of that tower into a pool full of formless muck. There’s no question that Portrait of the Artist, with its stream-of-consciousness narrative, was original when it appeared, but it’s dull, dull, dull. Portrait reminds me of exactly why I stopped keeping a journal as a teenager–it drove me to the sort of nauseatingly tedious navel-gazing that, far from being therapeutic, proved in and of itself to be a source of depression. In fact, at least my own teenage diary had, between bursts of ill-informed philosophy, the occasional over-the-top lust-filled, enraged, or vaguely suicidal rant. From budding artiste Stephen Dedalus we don’t even get this.

If you want to be an artist, if you want to write, Stephen Dedalus, then write. Write as your instincts and intuition demand. Don’t waste your time weaving an elaborate philosophical position on what art ought to be–especially not a position that art must, to be truly worthy, be desireless, sexless, inert. When Joyce pivoted from Dubliners to Portrait, it was as though the Wright Brothers, after conquering heavier-than-air flight, had next set themselves to the task of creating the world’s most intricately complex wallpaper pattern.

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StoryThoughts: “Batman: The Long Halloween” (graphic novel) by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale (1999)

A Mystery for All Seasons

A serial killer who, on holiday after holiday over more than a year’s span, kills one member after another of a prominent mafia family. A Gotham law enforcement establishment and a Caped Crusader anxious to stop this killer. A confounding mystery.

The distinction between literary and genre fiction could be compared to the distinction between sculpture and architecture. A literary story (whether eight or 800 pages in length) is intended to be a work of art, like sculpture. Sculpture need only provoke some reaction, intellectual or emotional, and it’s done its job—and of course, sometimes that reaction can be profound or even life-changing. Architecture, however, doesn’t get off so easy. A house–whether modular and identical to its twenty closest neighbors, or custom designed by Frank Lloyd Wright–first and foremost has to keep out the rain. It needs to have working toilets. The stove must generate heat to set pots a-boil. The same point could be made about genre storytelling, in whatever medium: it is expected to be functional. A Spider-man comic should excite and amuse. Horror must horrify. A mystery must mystify. It makes no sense to criticize a Gothic cathedral as less “artistic” than, say, Michelangelo’s “David” simply because of its functionality, because the cathedral has a roof, supporting pillars, and, “predictably,” doors and pews and stained-glass windows. The same could be said of calling a mystery “formulaic” because it involves a perplexing murder(s) and the solving of same. It’s in how the story’s done, in the inventiveness of plot, character, and setting, as well as language, that the artistry comes in.

All of which brings me to The Long Halloween. In structure, this story is a mystery, rife with clues and red herrings, rather than a superhero story, and a well-told mystery at that. The Long Halloween defies the television- or parlor-mystery convention of what Aristotle called “unity of place and time”; this story stretches out over the course of more than a year. Its one-murder-per-holiday structure, though, gives The Long Halloween a variety of flavor, of season, of mood, that keeps chapter after chapter fresh, with some great twists and turns along the way. Each chapter, of course (since The Long Halloween was originally released serially) has to have its own plot, its own internal tension and suspense, all of which play into the overall story arc—no simple feat, but Loeb makes it look easy here.

In superhero stories, there’s sometimes a temptation to throw too much of our hero’s rogues’ gallery at him/her all at once—second and subsequent movies in superhero franchises are most guilty of this, usually resulting in the crashing and burning of said franchise. (I’m still dumbfounded that someone felt the Joker in The Dark Knight, especially as Heath Ledger played him, just wasn’t villain enough to carry a movie, and that tacking on a two-bit Two-Face plot would somehow improve the story.) The Long Halloween plays this game too, but because of the scope of the story, and because it’s a mystery, where having numerous suspects is essential, there isn’t that too-many-villains-crammed-into-the-bus feeling that sometimes happens. The Joker here, for example, may not be the scariest of all Jokers, and Calendar Man isn’t particularly frightening in his Hannibal Lector role, but that’s not the point; they play their parts perfectly as functionaries in building the suspense and the momentum of an engaging and memorable mystery. On top of this, the combination of Tim Sale’s artwork and Gregory Wright’s coloring evoke both character and mood more potently than any other Batman story I could name. Well worth the read, and for a writer, The Long Halloween is an object lesson in the right way to do it.

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StoryThoughts: “Planetary” (graphic novel) by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday (1999 – 2009)

Archaeologists of our Collective Cultural Imagination

It’s often said that one measure of literature (and something similar can be said of other art forms) is whether it rewards re-reading or not. After finishing the graphic novel series Planetary, I immediately went back to the beginning and re-read the entire story. This re-read was a matter of both desire and necessity: Planetary is that kind of a story, loaded with puzzle pieces whose juxtapositions aren’t fully clear until the end. I’m happy to report that the second reading was more rewarding and more rousing than the first, which in and of itself is a hell of a compliment.

Planetary follows the adventures of a super-team of persons with uncanny powers who, rather than fighting villainy day after day, direct their efforts toward unearthing the rare, or even the impossible. As the story progresses, though, villainy does rear its villainous head, in forms that invoke wry double-takes of realization for fans of culture of every sort. In its homages to pop-cultural and literary characters, Planetary owes a lot to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series (StoryThoughts on the League coming soon), but Ellis and Cassaday undeniably claim their own ground here, especially in the story’s tone: though Planetary hits more than its share of funny notes and wry realizations, it doesn’t shy away from the heavier, more serious end of the keyboard either. As the team’s seemingly random series of explorations and excavations go on, patterns begin to form, cause and effect begin to come clear, and we realize that, in fact, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

In its borrowing of literary and comics artifacts, Planetary performs the double trick of both rooting these co-opted stories and characters more deeply in reality and making them even more fantastical. The team’s sojourn on a disputed island north of Japan, for instance, gives simultaneous nods to beloved childhood popcorn movies and to Yukio Mishima, among the most controversial, provocative, and mentally unstable writers of the 20th century (the last of which is saying a lot). In learning the fine art of investigation, protagonist Elijah Snow encounters [NON-SPOILER RESULTING IN MADDENING OBSCURITY ALERT] a personage of very recognizable name in the field,  who’s now in league with a well-known figure from another literary genre – a very odd couple, but once we’ve begun to feel at home in Planetary’s world the pairing seems almost inevitable.

Comics often have an on-again off-again relationship with science, and especially physics. To paraphrase The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, when Superman swoops in to catch Lois Lane after she’s already plummeted 30 stories, his Arms of Steel suddenly arresting her fall would do even deadlier work than pavement, slicing her neatly into three pieces on impact. Planetary has no pretensions of being so-called “hard” sci-fi – it’s a superhero story with ghosts in it, all right? – but Ellis and Cassaday earn considerable scientific cred in their approach to many-dimensional space-time, at least to the degree that this particular creative writing major understands such things.

As the Planetary archeologists unearth not-so-ancient relic after relic, story after story, we also have the pleasure of seeing the archeologists themselves unearthed; in some cases, we learn surprising truths about who they are and where their roots are buried at the same time as they’re learning these things. What’s more, we have the pleasure of recognizing that our own selves and our own understanding of the world grow, at least in part, from the same roots, the same stories.

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Thoughts on Revision: Part I

I’m not sure I’ve ever suffered from what’s usually called “writer’s block”: the sight of a blank page doesn’t fill me with any particular fear or dread. But “REWRITER’S block”? That I know something about.

A real challenge for me, and I think for most writers, is my relationship with comments and feedback. Author Neil Gaiman has been quoted as saying, sagely I think, that when someone tells you something’s wrong with your story they’re usually right, but when they tell you how to fix it they’re usually wrong. The thing is that writing isn’t mathematics; sentences, characters, and plot threads can’t cleanly be judged as “correct” or “incorrect.” For every person who finds Joyce’s Ulysses brilliant, for example, another will find it loathsome, and the same could be said of any book ever written (though the proportions of like to dislike might vary). In getting feedback and using it to inform rewrites, how to judge whether a comment is “right” or “wrong,” helpful or to be disregarded?

It’s entirely natural, maybe even inevitable, to bristle to some degree at criticism. But I think, if we’re to get better at navigating feedback, the crucial skill isn’t separating the worthy feedback from the unworthy, but rather learning to pick apart one’s own mind, and more specifically scrutinizing the very hazy line between ego and taste. It’s easy to disagree with feedback and put that disagreement down to differences of taste: “This commenter just has different tastes from me, and what he/she doesn’t like about my work, I actually think makes it stronger/more unique/spicier.” In some cases this is an entirely valid response — taste does differ from reader to reader, without question. In more cases than we care to admit, though, this is the mind lying to itself, throwing up walls to keep that precious, fragile prima donna the ego safe in its padded room.

And how to distinguish between the ego-reaction and the taste-reaction? I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that. It may be that making the effort to do so is in itself the goal and the answer.

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Don’t Stop When You’re Stuck

The principle of not stopping when you’re stuck (writing, in my case) is hella important. Get unstuck first, or in the very worst case, work out a list of possible ways to get through the sticking point, before stopping for the day. When you’re stuck, your unconscious knows you’re stuck, and it’ll find an excuse to spend more time tomorrow watching TV, reading, playing around on Facebook until…oops! No time to write today!… instead of wading back into the deep mud. I may be talking about writing, but I’d posit that this is true of any creative process, any subject being studied, or any complex project that requires creativity.

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StoryThoughts: “Howards End” (novel) by E.M. Forster (1910)

[Contains one minor spoiler; originally posted on Goodreads May 17, 2012]

Aside from his nonfiction book “Aspects of the Novel,” “Howards End” is the first Forster I’ve read. This is by no means a bad book, and I can see why it might be considered a classic, and why a film made from it made for perfect Oscar-bait: the novel is well laden with English country houses, Victorian and Edwardian social mores, and good old fashioned English salt-of-the-earth, stiff-upper-lip characters with deep feelings deeply suppressed.

My lukewarm response to Howards End is, I confess, cultural in nature: the moral dilemmas and kvetching of the Victorian and Edwardian upper classes almost always fail to hold my interest. Even when they’re making a moral point, as Forster here is striving to do, about the dehumanization of the working classes by the upper crust, so many authors make the fundamental mistake of treating those working-class characters as some combination of comic relief and opportunity for the important characters, i.e. the upper-middle-class or High Society heroines, to learn something about What Really Matters. All of which is well and good, but when in “Howards End,” for instance, Helen is faced with the scandalous prospect of single motherhood, any drama or moral crisis inherent in this situation is, to my mind, fatally weakened by the fact of her familial wealth–whatever the social opprobrium, neither mother nor child is in any danger of going hungry, and Helen has an easy option of popping off to Germany to live with what seems to be a lesbian lover. Had she been a person of the working classes with the same crisis, the same sexual proclivities, the stakes would have been much higher, the solutions much less easy, the ending much less pretty and pat.

This isn’t a weakness unique to Forster; I have consistently had the same reaction in trying to read, say, Virginia Woolf or Henry James (whom I can only count as an author of Victorian England, wherever he may have resided at parts of his life). It’s not that wealthy or comfortable characters never suffer; we all do, in our own ways. But all these safe little characters with their safe little moral and social dilemmas are tiny goldfish in tiny goldfish bowls when set against the genuine dramas spun by the stronger writers of the time. Dickens is the towering example in the realm of (mostly) realism, while the ones who manage to pull genuine drama out of the wealthier English classes are those who pandered to the masses with fantasy or potboilers: Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Robt. Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde. And at risk of sounding extremely jingoistic, I might add that for my money, no English “literary” writer of the Victorian/Edwardian era–even Conrad, whom so many writers are taught to worship–even deserves mention in the same sentence as the creative giants working on the American side of the pond in the 19th century, namely Melville, Twain, and Poe. “Howards End” is a safe book which for its conclusion takes tragedy and, rather than leave the stage blood-spattered and the audience in shock, as Shakespeare or Poe or Melville might, pulls the reader’s attention away from any unpleasantness and back to a pretty family, a pretty yard, and a pretty house.

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