Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sustained performance: Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON

No, I hadn't read this before. No, haven't seen the movie.

However, as soon as Sam Spade called someone "Sweetheart," I heard Bogart saying it, and something about the character—really, all the characters—fell into place. Everyone is performing.

You probably know the plot's essentials: Detective Sam Spade is tasked by a woman of questionable backstory to protect her from harm. Her tale is a ruse, and Spade is sucked into a quest for a centuries-old object of great value . . . and even more questionable backstory. There are murders, punches, and many guns drawn. (Oddly, though quite a few people are shot, every time we see a gun produced, it's quickly rendered useless; as in a Greek drama, the murders take place offstage. One man does drop dead at Spade's feet, but he's been shot (half a dozen times, supposedly) elsewhere.)

From the first scene, Spade is performing, not telling us what he truly thinks—either about the new case or about his soon-to-be-late partner. With every person he meets, he adopts a radically different tone. Much of Hammett's description focuses on Spade's changing face as he moves through responses and selects the one most useful for the moment at hand.

The other characters, as well, are performing. Some of this is the narrative's problem: everyone seems to be playing a scripted part, reciting speeches that announce who they are—though, in every case for the main players, who they are is concealed by these words. The leader of the gang in search of the Maltese falcon may be the most honest, but even he manages some late moments in which he alters the expectations of other characters in response to changing circumstances. It's fitting, because the falcon in question is, itself, a performer, a deceiver.

I expected storytelling more along the lines of Chandler, but the writing isn't nearly as good. Most of the time, it's direct and efficient, and when it isn't, it falters. Baroque metaphors and phrases leave the reader puzzled. Phrasing is sloppy, as when Spade checks his watch "on his wrist" (where else might it have gone?) or he rides down from a hotel's upper floors "in an elevator" (as if we hadn't considered that elevators provide rides). Hammett sometimes finds himself at a loss for a bit of interstitial description and usually reverts to the details of Spade's face once again.

It's easy to see why Hollywood thought this would make a great movie. The characters themselves behave cinematically, trying to persuade anyone who is watching, making wild gestures on the story's stage in the hopes that they aren't the next to be dispatched, permanently, to the wings.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Colorblind: Shirley Jackson's "Flower Garden"

The "horror" in any Shirley Jackson tale is less rooted in the standard sources of narrative horror (death or some other violation of the body's intactness) than in social fears. Regardless of what else takes place in a work of hers—or how successful the work is overall—Jackson is always most effective at conveying moments of social discomfort and disorientation. Even her most famous story, "The Lottery," is best seen, I think, as largely about the moment when a social insider suddenly finds herself on the outside. To anyone on the inside of a social construct or hierarchy (who has seen that structure as ultimately protective), the most existentially disturbing event would be when one sees the structure turn toward one as a foe.

"Flower Garden" takes its time in establishing the parameters of its conflict. The first half of the story is marvelously misleading. The younger Mrs. Winning, daughter-in-law of the elder Mrs. Winning, lives a narrowly circumscribed housewife's life, rigid in its regularity. For reasons not fully spelled out, but probably due to her husband's laziness, mentioned much later in the story by a secondary character, Mrs. Winning's expectations for a more aesthetically beautiful and satisfying life have been thwarted. Jackson presents us with a woman who is resentful but who has mastered ways to leave her resentments unaddressed or concealed. When a new neighbor finally moves into a nearby house Mrs. Winning has long wanted to live in (and about which she has meticulously fantasized painting and decorating), our protagonist largely suppresses her envy, taking pleasure in how well the neighbor's vision for the house matches her own. Of especial interest is the nascent garden. The Winning grounds don't get enough sun for a decent garden, but the modest cottage has enormous potential for beautiful gardens, and the new neighbor has brought a grand vision.

Though Mrs. Winning and her mother-in-law are both married, we only glimpse the spouses (and at first it seems they're both widows). The new neighbor, Mrs. MacLane, is actually a widow, and both women have six-year-old sons. (Mrs. Winning also has a baby of unidentified gender.) Though it appears that Mrs. Winning and Mrs. MacLane may not bond, in time they form a friendship built around daily market walks (clearly inspired by Jackson's actual walks in Bennington, Vermont, which also included a difficult hill), watching their children play, and having tea together.

Then comes an awkward encounter with a young black boy, Billy. Mrs. Winning's son uses the n-word—and Mrs. MacLane's son repeats it. Mrs. MacLane is ashamed and confused, whereas Mrs. Winning's focus is on her friend's reaction and the unfamiliar tone in her friend's voice as she reproves her son. To Mrs. Winning's dismay, Mrs. MacLane offers Billy a job helping tend her gardens; the next day, the boy's father shows up, and their agreement that this man—a widower whose wife was white—will work on the gardens finally establishes the story's crisis-bearing conflict for the third act.

There's no great drama to the tale in the end, and there's no revelation by our protagonist. But like "The Lottery," the story establishes both that there is a way the world is supposed to run and that the pressures to maintain that status quo are enormous even if unstated and unstatable. No one in the story ever addresses the source of the town's discomfort in the relationship between Mrs. MacLane and her hired man. Disapproval and social withdrawal are employed rather than anyone naming the source of the conflict.

In the end, Mrs. MacLane, who has moved from "the city" and may need to move back, is baffled by the people around her. Nothing truly horrifying happens, unless it is Mrs. MacLane's recognition that the ways of some people can never be changed.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Infinite spaces: Conrad's THE SHADOW-LINE

The Shadow-Line, a compact novel of compressed action, puts Conrad's unnamed young captain (who is himself, and thus the novel's subtitle: A Confession) through all the paces seen variously in other of Conrad's work. To breach the "shadow-line" between youth and whatever comes after youth, the protagonist must face more than one "double," the confusions of officialdom, a crew that doesn't know him, disease, and a ship becalmed in hell—and all this on his first outing as a captain.

The first act suggests we'll not be impressed by our "hero." His judgment of others is clouded by an unsourced petulance; he is quick to anger. And his career seems to have stopped before it has much begun, as he has sworn to leave the sea-going life behind for something more ordinary that he cannot even imagine. This serves as a long prelude to his adventure. Structurally, it's odd, a great deal of time spent returning our young man, much to his surprise, to the waters he's just left, having been awarded his first command without having gone through a long career of waiting. The opening confusions may be demonstrating that the protagonist's true place is the ocean, aboard ship; on land, he struggles to navigate the signs and speeches of people. We also see that he is not immediately empathetic with others, that he can't pierce their behaviors to grasp their personal circumstances.

Once aboard ship, he has, after the awe about his situation has lessened, more connection with the people who surround him: they have a mission, a set of tasks, and they are all men of the sea. The former captain haunts this posting. According to the first mate, the previous captain was a horror, playing violin rather than attending to the ship, growing more mad when the ship ran into trouble, and finally wishing doom on the vessel and all its men. How could such a person have ever led a crew? (I'm reminded of the frequency with which Star Trek's Kirk encountered starship captains who'd lost their minds or violated the Prime Directive; after a few episodes, one became convinced that the Enterprise was one of the few sanely managed ships in the Federation.)

On this haunted, cursed ship (for the first mate believes the late captain clings to it like a demonic anchor), the crew takes sick only a few days out, the vessel is trapped on an oppressively hot, utterly windless path of ocean for weeks, the medicine (likely sold ashore by the previous captain) is discovered to have been replaced by worthless powder, and the awaited winds, when they return, threaten to ruin the seriously undermanned ship. Sea and sky alike become an existential blank in which young Conrad looks to find meaning but is repeatedly confronted by an absolute and impersonal void. Our captain endures—and succeeds—through his noble yet messy bond with the men and his devotion to duty, bringing all hands safely home.

Though the novel takes place (given the autobiographical elements) in 1888, it was composed in 1915, at the start of the Great War, and dedicated to Borys, Conrad's eldest son, who had received a commission as a second lieutenant. The characters in the novel are not at war, but evidently Conrad intended to convey that, regardless of the circumstances, to be at sea is to be in some grand conflict. One's primary challenge is to live, and one can only do that with the support—and it is implied, in support—of others. Returned to shore, he is given some perspective by the captain who clued him in, initially, to the possibility of a command. This thoughtful mentor concludes that "a man should stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes, to his conscience, and all that sort of thing. Why—what else would you have to fight against?"

Friday, December 2, 2016

We Have Met the Enemy: Ionesco's RHINOCEROS

Teju Cole's recent New York Times essay ("A Time for Refusal") on Eugène Ionesco's 1958 play Rhinoceros connects the play to our present (American) moment; in such a moment, everyone around us is turning monstrous while we, flawed creatures, aim to remain human—even as we grow more deeply uncertain as to why we bother and whether we might, after all, be wrong.

The play is a wonderful reminder of all the ways in which people yield to a movement—any movement. Though Ionesco's target is European fascism, it might just as well be any undertow from an innocuous fad to cultural despair. The plot follows a somewhat weak-spined character, made weaker by drink, who looks to others for some direction. Meanwhile, people are turning into rhinoceroses. Berenger, our protagonist, dines with a friend who sort of hates him; goes to an office full of anxious and angry people; and waits at home in the company of office-mate Daisy while the end approaches, Berenger and Daisy going in ten minutes through a lifetime's worth of relationship highs and lows.

One element that makes the play so compelling is the way Ionesco makes every character's reasoning seem, for at least a moment, reasonable. One might become a rhinoceros for purely passive reasons, the way some of us get a cold every year in the proper season. One might simply be curious as to what being a giant beast feels like. Perhaps one likes the company. There's my friend! My spouse! Maybe they're happier than I am! One hates to be on the outside. What's so great, after all, about being human? Have my relationships really panned out? No? Then why do we persist?

A more devious element is Ionesco's teasing apart the various ways we accommodate the madness of our world. If we can just finish lunch, we can address the rhino problem later. Another drink might get me through. Really, it's not so bad out on the street; one just has to watch where one is walking.

The two elements work together, the desire to continue with normalcy and the desire to yield to a new normalcy really being two sides of the same coin. The temperature rises in the pot, yet we both distract ourselves with other matters and opt to remain in the increasingly inhumane (or lobster-unfriendly) circumstances.

Our Trumpish times are not really much different from all our other times. Only, it does seem that the situation has been made more stark, the circumstances more dire, the sounds from the street—like trumpeting, thundering beasts—more inhumane. Some people keep reminding themselves that they are in the voting majority, as more voted against Trump than for him. But all those who didn't vote have also joined the noisy parade of giant land animals; passively, they've become part of the incoherent crowd. It could happen to any of us. Those of us suspicious of these times must remain, even in our ragged humanity, vigilant, making sure our skin isn't turning tough, checking our foreheads against the emergence of horns.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tunneling in the dark: Whitehead's Underground Railroad

I often said to my literature students that they had to judge a novel on what it aimed to do, not on what they wished it to do. This doesn't mean one can't question a writer's choices, only that one should try to enter a novel by acknowledging the writer's guidance through an imaginary world and not by hoping to determine one's own path through that world.

Colson Whitehead's latest novel, The Underground Railroad, repeatedly reminded me of my own advice, and though I felt let down by the end, I think Whitehead accomplished what he set out to accomplish, leaving me to conclude that I wish he'd set out to accomplish something a little different (and to recognize that as my problem, not his).

I knew nothing about the novel when I began, so the turn that it takes (perhaps 50 pages in) from realism to a realism set in an alternate American history knocked me sideways and made me smile. "Ah, so it's not this kind of book, it's that kind of book." But that was wrong, too. Though Whitehead makes the underground railroad a literal (if modest) railway, and though Whitehead makes each American slave state its own imagery realm with its own rules, the fantastical nature of these elements remains restrained. The railroad is the one impossible element; the divergent histories of the states are, as presented, credible.

Much as Ellison's Invisible Man places each conflict experienced by its narrator in a different milieu, varying the level of satire and surrealism within each milieu, Whitehead gives us stories in each American state that somewhat reset the narrative terms for our protagonist, who now has some wholly different tale to navigate. But Whitehead also provides threads that bind Cora, the escaped slave, to a larger narrative, and characters carry over, so there's a sense of the past being buried and then resurfacing with each new "adventure," as in a picaresque novel with a pursuing villain who pushes us to the next tale-within-the-tale—or as in an America in which succeeding generations have found legislative and cultural ways to stifle black progress and re-devalue black lives.

Also echoing Ellison, we see the multitudinous ways black Americans have been afflicted by the culture that abducted and oppresses them. Had Whitehead stuck to a realistic historical framework, we'd have likely seen only the familiar forms of early-to-mid 19th century enslavement. Whitehead instead borrows images and ideas from later in black history, raising issues of education, objectification, white alliances, financial independence, sexuality, and enculturation.

While reading, I felt Whitehead spending more time than I wanted detailing scenes whose details didn't contribute to the book's themes and motifs. Given how the book turned aside from its strictly historical moorings, I felt the writing should have left behind a reliance on the necessities of historical fiction; I grew impatient. However, the resulting novel is a vivid creation, giving us alternate worlds that gain in heft by using details from our history while tweaking the when and where enough to make us question both past and present.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Coming soon!

If one defines "soon" as "within six months . . . maybe."

Next spring, Asimov's will publish a new story of mine, "Good Show," a tale of the unexpected dangers and massive responsibility associated with, yes, reviewing movies.

You'll see. It'll all make sense.

More as the time approaches.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Our place in the universe: Martin Amis's "The Janitor on Mars"

Blinded, betrayed, and bereft, King Lear's Duke of Gloucester cries out, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods./They kill us for their sport."

That pretty well encapsulates the theme of Martin Amis's short story "The Janitor on Mars," appearing in his collection Heavy Water. In the middle of the 21st century, Earth is contacted by an alien intelligence, a Martian "janitor"; the term's full implication is unclear until late in the story, but our point of view character back on Earth is an actual janitor, a largely chaste pederast who works at a facility for at-risk youth . . . if I've understood the organization properly. Things are morally muddy, as consensual relationships, no matter how imbalanced in terms of power, are encouraged and protected. Someone has assaulted one of our main character's charges, however, and he presses the nearly speechless, victimized boy to give him a name. Meanwhile, all of Earth is riveted to TV screens showing the arrival of the human delegation at the appointed meeting place on Mars. It's a juxtaposition that shouldn't work, in part because the science fiction aspect digs deeper and deeper—and for a sizable portion of the narrative—into certain "hard" SF premises having to do with the history and purposes of powerful sentient species. Just when you think the story can't get more grim, it takes another step down its dark path, unrelenting in the logic that governs its universe. Our Earth janitor, for his part, wants to protect one damaged boy from the terrible encounter the whole world is watching.

The story is rich with mordant humor as well as science fictional ideas, and it's deeply humane as well, despite the hopeless framework. What connects the narratives on Earth and in the heavens are the story's ideas about power. Perhaps there is something that makes us stand out against the dark infinitudes, and perhaps, Amis posits, if it's our frailty and weakness, then that may be a good thing.