Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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“Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat),” Bob Dylan
Street-Legal, 1978

The Office, series 2 episode 6

I haven’t written a Valentine’s Day post (that statement will obviously be false by the time you read this), simply because I forgot to. Maybe I could have had some fun with it, but it’s now or never so I thought I’d make a little list of what I thought were some of the most romantic moments in films and television shows that I love.

But, as always, I kept getting hung up on one of them…my absolute favorite of them: Tim taking off his microphone.

I love The Office. I can’t say that enough. (But I can say it exactly as often as I hasten to add “the UK version” to that statement.) And this moment, this one moment of a minute or two throughout the whole of its 12 standard episodes and two longform Christmas specials, is exactly why I love it. It’s everything about the show that resonated with me, and it’s everything I’ve always wanted television to be.

It’s the moment when an already-beaten character lets his guard down. It’s the moment when a man at the bottom realizes — brutally, and publicly — that he still had a ways left to fall. And it’s absolutely, profoundly heartbreaking.

Yet it’d probably be my pick for the single most romantic moment of anything I’ve ever seen. Why is that?

Well, romance takes many forms. There’s the standard falling in love, yes, but there’s more than that. There’s Edward G. Robinson lighting Fred MacMurray’s cigarette at the end of Double Indemnity. There’s Shaun and Ed playing video games after a near-apocalypse in Shaun of the Dead. There’s Scoutmaster Ward reaching out to compliment a distraught young Sam on his campsite in Moonrise Kingdom. There’s — as Thomas Pynchon observes in Vineland — the persistent romance of Sylvester and Tweety. And there’s Kermit and Miss Piggy fighting over whose acting is worse and realizing, somehow, as their tempers flare most violently that, at heart, they will always love each other.

Romance is not singular, and it wears a new face in every situation. And in this case, it’s the darkly necessary heartache of Tim taking off his microphone.

Tim’s is a life of regular disappointment (at least if we are to take the documentary crew’s editing choices as faithful to reality, but that’s a subject for a whooole other post). He doesn’t like his job, lives with his parents, wants to go back to school but can’t bring himself to do it, and, above all, yearns for a woman he can’t have: Dawn, the receptionist.

In the final episode of the second series, Tim takes action. It took him that long — until the final episode of the series proper — to do something. Everything up to that moment has been vague flirtation at best, and I mean that about everything he’s done, from pursuing Dawn to quitting his job. He gestures toward what he wants, but can’t bring himself to reach.

But with Dawn leaving for America with her fiance, he takes action. For the first time that we’ve seen him, Tim attempts to take command of his own life.

And the way he does it — or, rather, the way The Office has him do it — is darkly, perfectly beautiful. In the middle of a talking-head interview, during which he attempts to convince himself — as he always attempts to convince himself — that everything is okay, he begins to stumble over his words.

He loses track of his own thoughts. He begins to question his own explanation, and it unravels entirely, to the point that he stands up, excuses himself, and walks out of the room.

This is a unique moment for the character, and it’s enhanced by the fact that it’s a unique moment for the show. The talking heads are the most structured and artificial thing about The Office; they are shot separately from the action and later edited into the finished product. They are a structural necessity, but they aren’t quite as real.

Tim’s stumbling makes it real. His words fail him, and when they do, it’s as though a spell has been broken. Tim realizes that he doesn’t have to be sequestered in a little room in an office he hates while the woman he loves drifts away forever. So he stands up. He takes control. And the camera crew follows him down a corridor we’ve never seen before. He’s broken down the barricade, and walked us into a new and more honest world. It’s a jarring moment…because it has to be.

And it gets even more jarring when Tim commits a cardinal sin of broadcasting: he takes of his microphone.

I can’t repeat that short description enough. Tim takes off his microphone.

The implications of that moment are profound. He is controlling his own destiny at this point. The documentary crew, as long as we’ve known the characters here, have been giving The Office shape but now Tim’s done something that no amount of editing could change. He’s made everything go silent.

And he stands with Dawn in the meeting room, behind closed doors. And the camera struggles to see them through the blinds. Focus is lost. Lips can’t be read, but he’s saying something to her. And she hugs him. And they separate. And she says something to him, too.

And they leave.

And the camera is still there. And the office is still there. And his job is still there. And he’s right back where he started. He plugs his microphone in again, resigning himself to his earlier, self-constructed fate…abandoning his freedom when a moment of potential personal triumph has slipped through his fingers.

He leaves us with six words, and I break into tears every time: “She said no, by the way.”

And that is romance. Romance makes us do stupid things. It makes us behave in ways we normally wouldn’t because if we didn’t then how could we ever change? How can we ever move forward if we don’t let ourselves try to break out of the same circle now and again?

It won’t change anything, most of the time. And it can’t. Because life is circular. But, at some point, if you don’t make an effort to shift your orbit even slightly, then you have to wonder what you are doing.

And Tim made an effort to shift his orbit. Internally — though we can clearly see it in his eyes — he’s made a decision. He has to throw his weight, every ounce of it, into this. He has to try. He can’t let her go because if she goes then what will he have? If she goes, with as much as she means to him, and he lets it happen, then what hope could he have for anything? He has to do this.

And he fails. She said no, by the way.

And it’s all on camera. And it’s preserved in amber, for future generations to watch and wince through. And Tim knows that. He’s made himself into a fool. And that’s there forever.

But that’s romance. Because if he hadn’t tried, he wouldn’t have had anything. He did try, and he still has nothing. So what does that say? I don’t know, but I do know that that’s what made The Office The Office.

The show had the courage and the bravery to take even the smallest comfort away from its most likeable, relateable character. And then it had the courage and the bravery to kick him while he was down. And then it had the courage and the bravery to make it stick. Because that’s romance, too. You don’t get to turn back the clock. You don’t get to reset everything next week. You have to make these gambles…you have to throw your weight into things you know you can’t ever change…because what if, just once, you can?

Tim couldn’t, but that doesn’t make his gesture any less romantic. If anything, it gets more romantic for being doomed. After all, it doesn’t take love to move forward together…it takes love to stand up alone and make your declarations in the face of looming dissolution. It takes love to go down with a ship. It takes love to lay your feelings out in public so that they can be shattered on camera. After all, if it’s not love, then what is it?

Of course, things do work out for Tim and Dawn…at least in the sense that they get another chance in the Christmas specials. But Tim doesn’t know that now. And knowing that, however many times I watch it, doesn’t detract from that sense of devastated finality. Tim made the effort to stand up for himself, and the universe shoved him right back down in his chair.

I myself am in a relationship right now. And I myself had to watch her leave, years ago, while I was stuck in the same, regular, self-defeating circle. And I myself knew — knew — that I had to put my weight into it. That if this passed me by I could never forgive myself. I myself knew that I had to try. And I myself, metaphorically, clipped my microphone right back on after trying, so hard, and failing.

She said no, by the way.

But we had a second chance, too. And Tim’s grand gesture meant only that he was reminded of his place in the universe. That’s what I was reminded of, too.

But in both cases, something happened. A chance, a coincidence, and we got another shot.

Maybe throwing your weight against your orbit doesn’t seem to work. Maybe it even hurts. But when enough time has passed, you might find that your trajectory was changed after all. It might have taken years. It did for Tim. It did for me. But eventually you might realize that you have changed something. Some memory or dream that never quite went away when everything else did, some shadow of the future that took its time meeting up with reality. You never know the changes you’ve made in your own life…you never know, because there’s never an ending. You never “arrive” anywhere…another great theme that The Office handled so well…you just are.

And life goes on. And that can be a bad thing, or that can be the greatest, most reassuring thing imaginable.

Tim was shattered. So was I, and so were you…whoever you are. But life carries on. And what feels like an ending only feels like an ending. Because ultimately, it’s up to you to make that foolish decision. To walk into the burning house to save the one you love most. To step into the cockpit of a crashing plane because that’d be the only chance you have. To be, even on your own terms and within your own life, a hero.

That’s romance. That’s love. And it’s more painful than words have ever been able to express, which is why The Office expressed it in complete, literal silence.

But things can work out. You may always have farther to fall, but ultimately that only means that you’ve got that much more space above you that you can climb. Nobody said it would be easy. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be love.

I love you babe. Thank you for everything. I couldn’t be happier that we were able to circle back around. It’s what made this real, and I’m more grateful for that than I can even express.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

A Soul's Calling, by Scott BishopFTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for review. No money changed hands and all opinions presented here are my own.

When I was a boy, I used to go camping with my father. During one of these trips, my brother and I decided to take a little walk together. We didn’t think we walked very far, but trying to find our way back to the campsite was difficult. Everything looked the same and the return trip took at least five times as long as the journey out. Ultimately, though, we found our way back.

That which you have just read is true. But it is not, I absolutely hasten to add, a story. It might be an anecdote, but I doubt it’d be a very entertaining one. More likely it’s the sort of thing I might bring up with a group of friends, all of whom are exchanging brief, inconsequential narratives on the same theme (being lost, childhood memories, camping with kids…). But even in the right context, it doesn’t become a story. It’s just something that in some (but certainly not all) cases might be worth repeating.

I could drag it out, certainly. I could add reams of accurate detail that may well make the recitation more vivid for my listeners, but the compounding of unnecessary detail doesn’t turn it into a story either, and without a great deal of fictionalization, it never could be one.

There’s nothing wrong with fictionalization. At least, not within the context of fiction. (That’s kind of where the word comes from.) Fictionalization is a good thing for stories. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the single most important thing. Storytelling is an art, and art lives and dies by the talent of the artist. We might be fine listening to a close friend tell us about a personal experience, and in that case we might feel cheated if we later found out he was embellishing it excessively.

However when we pick up a novel, we don’t want to read a dry recitation of something that the author did. First of all, that’s not what a novel is. And secondly, the novelist needs to demonstrate, in some way, a mastery of his art. This can take many forms, of course; it can be the active and deliberate bafflement of Joyce or the intense simplicity of Hemingway. It can — even better — be one of numberless possibilities in between those two extremes.

But an artist has to do something, otherwise he isn’t creating art. He’s just saying things.

A Soul’s Calling, a novel based on author Scott Bishop’s experience of hiking to the base camp at Everest, just says things.

It’s admittedly difficult to issue this as a universal criticism, especially since the writing in A Soul’s Calling isn’t uniformly bad, but this is essentially a long, long first-draft that is in dire need of a more compelling rewrite. As it stands it reads no better than my camping anecdote, but takes around 1,700 times as long to finish saying nothing. And that’s the problem. Some of my favorite pieces of writing “say nothing,” but they say it in so moving, amusing, or thrilling a way that the act of saying nothing becomes a kind of art unto itself. It takes — or, rather, is sculpted into — a shape, a series of shapes, patterns within patterns that compose themselves into larger movements and statements. That’s what fiction is for.

A Soul’s Calling doesn’t do that. It presents copious details in the hopes that obsessive accuracy will eventually conjure up its own kind of interest in the reader. But it does not.

To be honest, I’m not even sure I should be judging this book as a novel. Its back cover refers to it as a novel, yes, but it also refers it as a memoir…and those two things are mutually exclusive. You can’t actually be both. You can be a Nabokov-esque memoir of a fictional character, or you can be a Vonnegut-like fictionalized memoir, but in each case you’re still writing a novel, and the format (or intention) of memoir becomes a utility…a filter through which that novel is read.

That is not what we have here, and though I’m making a bit of an executive decision by calling it a novel, I think the presence of spirits and talking mountains and a main character who receives visions of an apocalyptic future that he alone can avoid somehow by making this journey all seat the book firmly in the category of “fiction.”

If any of that seems to be out of place for a story about a journey to Everest, then you might be disappointed to learn that it’s also completely unnecessary, and — to be honest — nonsensically handled. When Kurt Vonnegut takes us away from the real-life horrors of World War II to make comical digressions to an extra-terrestrial zoo, or Thomas Pynchon sees it fit to insert a sentient mechanical duck into the surveying party of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, they do so in order to make colorful points about the things we think we’re familiar with…in order to slant our perspectives enough that we can view the familiar in a new and unexpected way.

However when Bishop employs these strange intrusions, they serve only to confuse his intentions. What’s more, they ring loudly as artificial and empty gestures. After all, when George Mallory was asked why he intended to climb Mount Everest, he famously (and maybe apocryphally) replied with three words that have been connected with the mountain ever since: “Because it’s there.”

Everest is, within our cultural landscape, a mountain whose conquering legendarily requires no justification. It is in itself a justification. If reaching its peak is understood universally as being entirely free from — and separate from — mere human reasoning, then I’m not sure why we need urgent entreaties from the Spirit Realm to justify the comparatively minor trek to its base camp.

The real problem, though, is that this unnecessary justification fails to even justify itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making the protagonist the “Chosen One” who alone can prevent massive calamity on a universal scale; this has been the backbone of everything from The Bible to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There are countless places you can go with the idea, which is what keeps it from feeling stale in the right hands. It may come across as somewhat trite, but it’s an acceptable triteness that we expect will pay off in some interesting flourishes along the way.

In A Soul’s Calling, however, the protagonist / narrator (who shares a name with the author) some emissaries from the spirit world turn up, tell “Scott” that he needs to journey to the base camp at Everest, and then essentially disappear from the novel entirely. We do hear from them again, but they never actually explain what the issue is, what exact function “Scott’s” journey will serve, or why “Scott” was chosen at all. In fact, every time the narrator describes these conversations or visions, he lapses into an evasive textual shrug, admitting that he can’t really explain what he saw or heard…so, I guess, we just have to trust him when he says that his ethereal Princess Leia assured him he was our only hope. Whether or not he was qualified to shoulder the burden of universal salvation I can’t say, but as a reader I’m absolutely positive he’s not qualified to narrate if he can’t tell us about the most interesting things in the book.

Part of me wants to see this as a deliberate evasion. It wants me to read these moments — and there are many of them — as evidence of unreliable narration. That would indeed go a long way toward turning A Soul’s Calling into a work of art, as opposed to a collection of pages. But that part of me easily loses the war against another part of me: the one that read the book. Bishop’s inexplicable and unexplained forays into a spiritual justification for the trip are simply a baffling obstacle lost in the midst of so many other baffling obstacles, and it becomes an unintentional running joke that the narrator preemptively defends himself against the logical faculties of his audience, assuring us openly that these spiritual visitations — which occur when he’s in bed with his eyes closed — are not dreams. Why are they not dreams? Because they’re not dreams. That’s why. Well, that’s me told I guess.

Even if I could accept that “Scott” were the only hope for both this world and the spiritual world, and that his trip to and back from the base camp at Everest would somehow avoid The Biggest Apocalypse Ever, I absolutely cannot accept that, as a writer, Bishop so eagerly buries the lede.

If you were personally visited by spirits who told you that you needed to perform some earthly task in order to prevent the Alleged Cosmic Implosion of All That Ever Was and Will Be, and you did that thing, you’d then be pretty eager to tell everyone about it. Right? I know I would. But I also know that I’d spend a lot of my time talking about the spirits and the apocalypse, and probably wouldn’t spend nearly all of 340 pages methodically documenting that earthly task instead. And I suspect your narration would have a similar bent. “Scott,” on the other hand, waives away interest in the spirits, and thinks we’re more interested in how many times he stops for Pringles along the way to base camp.

The story here is that “Scott” was visited by ambassadors from another realm — a realm most human beings don’t even know exist — and assigned an urgent task that alone can avoid total intergalactic destruction…but Bishop thinks the story is that he took a difficult walk through the Himalayas. And I simply cannot abide that oversight. After all, that’s what prevents this from being a story, and restricts it to being instead a sloppily-framed and long-winded anecdote.

There are lots of other issues at play here, as well, including a massively problematic relationship at the book’s core. “Scott” and his guide Tej feud constantly on their way to Everest. To his credit, the narrator understands that this relationship is strained. To his much larger debit, he never realizes that the reason it’s strained is that he keeps arguing with Tej, childishly overriding his experienced council, and insisting that they do things “Scott’s” way. After all, Tej has only spent a lifetime physically guiding people along this exact route…and “Scott” has done several nights’ worth of reading on the Internet, so clearly he should be stubbornly disregarding everything his guide is so emphatically trying to tell him.

I was absolutely astounded by the way this played out between the narrator and Tej. All along I was expecting “Scott” to learn his lesson, but no, A Soul’s Calling wants us to believe that the moody American was right all along, and Tej was out of line for questioning him.

I’ve never seen anything like this. I kept expecting “Scott” to receive his comeuppance in some way and realize that the rich and beautiful world he’s so desperately trying to make conform to his expectations is actually the world he should be opening himself to. I find it hard to imagine a version of The Darjeeling Limited in which the Whitman brothers learn that it was smart of them to cling to their possessions and petty grievances, and I find it impossible to imagine that that would work at all as a film. When you fight against accepting another’s culture, the audiences laugh at you because they know better. When you stop resisting, the audience is on your side because you learned your lesson. In A Soul’s Calling however the opposite happens, and the audience is meant to be glad that “Scott” had the willpower to resist the foolish guidance of his (ahem…) guide. And I’ve never seen anything like that before. It genuinely hurt to read.

There’s more I could talk about at this point — such as the narrator’s explanation that every person who’s ever disliked him in life was actually being manipulated by evil spirits (which must be pretty nice, as everyone who’s ever disliked me in my life has done so because I was a dick to them in some way…you know, something that I’m actually responsible for as a human being and therefore must learn a lesson from) — but I think I’ve said enough.

A Soul’s Calling could have had some value, at least potentially, as a dry yet meticulous travelogue, but it ultimately fails there as well because the travel comes across as dead and routine. The narrator arrives somewhere, Tej tells him to go one way, the narrator throws a tantrum and goes another, the narrator gets exhausted, the narrator leans on a rock, the narrator tells us about something he read on the internet, and the narrator goes to sleep in a lodge. It’s just a simple, cyclical repetition of the same few ideas, with no substance or character at all, making this magical and important journey feel more like a boring car ride during which nobody feels like looking out the windows.

I’d like to read a version of A Soul’s Calling that makes something of its own components. I want to know what the spirits are talking about, exactly, rather than getting a spill of vague gibberish about them every one hundred pages or so. I want to see the narrator grapple with the possibility that the spirits aren’t real, and that he might actually be losing his grip on reality, just as any human being would. And most importantly, I want to see the narrator face some consequences for his behavior toward other people, without simply being able to handwave their disgust as being due to the interference of some invisible boogey man.

Because what we have isn’t a story. It’s a recitation of things that happen, yes, but it’s not a story. And it’s not a novel, and it’s not a memoir, and it’s not a travelogue. It’s a numbered collection of pages, and it’s waiting for somebody to give it shape. I hope somebody does; it’ll undoubtedly be for the better.

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for review. No money changed hands and all opinions presented here are my own.

We’re closing out my birthday week, so enjoy my second favorite song of all time. (The first isn’t as uplifting.)


“O-o-h Child,” The Five Stairsteps
Stairsteps, 1970

Uncle Ruckus

I just wanted to draw your attention to what has to be the most intriguing Kickstarter campaign I’ve seen yet. (It’s certainly the only one I’ve even considered donating to.) Aaron McGruder wants you to support a live-action Uncle Ruckus movie. And you know what? You really should.

I haven’t written anything about The Boondocks here yet, but I will. I was a bit wary of the show before it premiered (and the comic strip never did anything for me) but from the moment I gave it a chance I realized that it was so much more than I expected it to be. It’s not the cheap humor of culture clash that I expected it to be…it’s a consistently strong and shockingly smart dissertation on race relations in America.

Similar ground has been covered more times than I could ever hope to count in the past, but McGruder’s is an articulate rage, and it’s one that very knowingly has three fingers pointing back at him. That’s more than part of its charm…that’s its identity. McGruder doesn’t focus entirely upon how blacks are perceived in a predominantly white region…he also looks inward at blacks themselves and asks, “What the fuck are we doing?” As often as he’s appalled by white privilege, he’s at least as enraged by black attitude, and The Boondocks emerges as a brilliantly confused, ethically complicated question of co-existence…both with each other, and with the conflicting aspects of ourselves.

The young Freeman brothers — radical idealist Huey and burgeoning thug Riley — reflect this duality quite well, and serve as our focal points for most episodes, but the most rewardingly complex creation of McGruder’s is Uncle Ruckus, a self-hating black man who has bought into the idea that whites are the superior race. The absolute worst of American hatred is filtered through this rotund, milky-eyed black man who curses his own race and wishes nothing more than to see the country purified into a sheet of uniform whiteness.

It’s terrible, and yet it’s tragic. Ruckus isn’t an inherently bad person — any more or less than any other character — but he serves as a brilliant prism that refracts the various approaches to race relations that have been taken elsewhere in pop culture. And now, with help, McGruder may create a live action film about him.

And I think you should help. Because if the show is anything to go by, this movie could be a massively affecting and disorienting comic masterpiece.

I won’t beg, and I won’t say any more — as I’m realizing now how poor I am at expressing my love of the show — but I hope you at least consider it.

If you haven’t seen the show, here’s a list of episodes to get you started: “Granddad’s Fight,” “A Huey Freeman Christmas,” “Return of the King,” “The Passion of Reverend Ruckus,” “Thank You For Not Snitching,” “Home Alone,” “It’s a Black President, Huey Freeman,” “The Fundraiser,” and “The Color Ruckus.” Or just all of them. They’re pretty fucking great.

Oh and Lego is gauging interest in a series of Mega Man-inspired sets. SO GO DO THAT TOO.

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