Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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“49 Bye-Byes,” Crosby, Stills & Nash
Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969

Family Guy, 12 and a Half Angry MenI don’t like Family Guy. You know that already. But it does, at times, manage to make me laugh. Other times it manages to insult me as a writer. With the episode “12 and a Half Angry Men,” it managed to upset me as a human being.

Now this isn’t a matter of taking offense at an off-color joke. That happens too (seriously, Family Guy, I know you find sexual assault and domestic violence to be inherently hilarious, but is it too much for you to at least try to make a joke about these things instead of just putting them on display and assuming I find them inherently hilarious too?) but in this case it was more an example of problematic cynicism, and one that’s potentially damaging to our cultural mindset.

The episode is about Mayor West being on trial for murder. The jurors all see it as an open and shut case, apart from Brian who holds out for a not guilty verdict. As might be expected he gradually sways the other jurors to his viewpoint and Mayor West goes free. Family Guy certainly wouldn’t be above suggesting that Mayor West actually did commit the crime, but I think it’s safe to say that, within the reality of the episode, he didn’t, and Brian and the others rendered a fair verdict.

However at the end of the episode, the following exchange occurs:

BRIAN: It was a pretty intense experience, but the important thing is that, in the end, justice was served.
STEWIE: All you did was let a guy go. There’s still a murderer out there.
BRIAN: Yeah but we saved an innocent man today. That’s something to feel good about.
STEWIE: Feel good about? They found eight more bodies last night. One of them was on this block. There’s a maniac out there. He’s cutting people’s power off, breaking into their homes, and slitting their throats.

Stewie continues his rant, and the episode illustrates, ultimately, that Stewie is correct. There is a murderer on the loose, and Brian shouldn’t be proud of what he accomplished. And here’s the thing: that mindset of Stewie’s, which is clearly endorsed by the episode, is a vastly destructive one.

It’s important to note the context of this exchange, which is just the latest in a long line of “let us spell out a ridiculous thing about that genre convention…” gags. Family Guy likes to poke fun at form…playing it straight (relatively) for a time, before stepping back and saying, “But wait a minute…why did that happen?”

In this case, “Why did that happen?” refers to the deliberations being seen as a success, when, ultimately, the crime remained unsolved. See what’s wrong with that? Just typing it out gives it away: those are two different things. Related, sure, but separate. The deliberations are not the criminal investigation. The jurors do not and cannot catch the bad guy. That’s not their job. That’s not what they should be doing.

Okay, fine. A mindless gag at the end of the episode that thinks it’s being clever but is actually just irrelevant. Except that I then began to see reviewers being convinced of Stewie’s viewpoint, such as in this example from The A.V. Club:

“And Stewie points out what never seems to get highlighted in all these stories: if Adam West didn’t do it, there’s a murderer still on the loose. There are more bodies. And taking too much pride in swinging a jury takes a lot of credit for what amounts to simply letting a guy go.”

No. No.

Ten trillion times…no.

It’s not “simply letting a guy go.” Conflating the role of a jury with the responsibility of cleaning up the streets is a bad thing. It’s not a clever insight, and it’s not a problem that someone takes pride in preventing an innocent man from going to jail.

In cases like this — both real and fictional — there are two things at play. (I’m assuming here that a crime was actually committed, which isn’t always the case and can therefore complicate things even futher.) One: Someone committed a crime. Two: Someone is on trial for committing that crime.

Those two things cannot be seen as the same thing. If you don’t understand the separation there, then you’re playing the wrong game. And that’s a problem.

The jurors are responsible for item two…and not at all for item one. They don’t go searching for the criminal…they assess the testimony of the defendant. That’s all they do.

Granted, I have some personal feelings on this subject. And maybe that’s why this felt so bothersome to me. But pull those out and you’re still left with a pretty clear logical conclusion: each group of people involved in this case has a job to do, and it’s the jury’s job to do theirs, only theirs, and to do it the right way.

There should be a sense of pride associated with finding someone not guilty when there is not sufficient evidence of their guilt. Because that’s doing the right thing. That’s being human. That’s taking another man’s fate into your hands, and being responsible with it.

Yes, if you find the man not guilty then that means there is still a criminal out there. But that’s not the issue the jury was assembled to address. We have a police force for that. The fact that you found a man not guilty does not mean you’ve let the world down and failed to do something constructive. You’ve prevented a potentially innocent man’s life from being ruined, or ended. Isn’t that about as constructive as one can get?

Take Stewie’s concern to its (tellingly) unspoken conclusion. He harps on Brian because Brian did nothing but “let a guy go.” So it would have been better for Brian to not let him go?

What then? Mayor West still didn’t commit the crime, which means the criminal would still be out there, racking up bodies. But it would somehow be seen as more constructive for a man to be imprisoned than not? Just so we’d have something to show for it?

Stewie often serves as a voice-box for the writing staff. Part of his role as a character now is to point out these logical inconsistencies. But that’s a role that’s far too prone to cynicism, and it’s important to not let that drift too far along, lest you lose your humanity along the way.

This isn’t an “inconsistency.” Brian didn’t “just let a guy go.” And nobody should feel unproductive for doing the right thing…even if that one right thing leaves another wrong thing unaddressed.

I guess it’s easy to play with fate as long as it’s somebody else’s. But something tells me if a member of the show’s writing staff were on trial for a crime he didn’t commit, and he was found not guilty, he wouldn’t see that as a problematic inconsistency. More likely he’d be grateful that somebody did see to it that justice was served, and I truly doubt he’d be saying with his own voice what he already said here with Stewie’s.

Because he’s one man, and the criminal is another. Their fates are not, and should never be, tethered together. If your cynicism is causing you to bind them up…then I think you’re long overdue for some serious soul searching. That’s not the world you live in. And you should be very happy about that.

I, PartridgeAs you know, I’ve been reviewing self-published books on this blog recently. As you also know, I’m currently writing a novel of my own. So allow me to pass down something that’s done me a great deal of creative good.

Here’s the single hardest lesson I had to learn as a writer. Are you ready? It’s a pretty brutal one:

I sound ridiculous.

And guess what? So do you.

We all sound ridiculous…at least by default. That’s why literature, in all of its forms, has evolved a set of conventions. Romance, comedy, tragedy, mystery, memoir…anything you read will have associated with it a whole host of expectations. Conventions exist for a reason, and that reason is this: they double as the contract between author and audience.

When you read a piece of literature, it’s often fun to point out the tropes and conventions as you go. If you’re especially well-read in a particular genre you might even be able to map out what’s likely to happen next. The big mistake we all make is to surrender to a sort of cynicism that implies this to be a bad thing. It isn’t.*

Conventions exist because people like to know what they are reading. It’s similar to ordering meals in a restaurant…you like to have some sense of what it contains. You don’t necessarily need to know exactly how much of what is in it, or how it was brought together, or how it’s going to taste…but it’s not out of line to want some knowledge of what you’re about to eat. After all…you’ve been eating for your whole life. You know that there are certain things you simply don’t enjoy, and other things you enjoy very much.

When writing, those unspoken conventions serve the same purpose. We should be able to know if mysteries, on the whole, appeal to us without having to read every single one of them. Some will be better than others, sure, but that’s a given. We know that, and conventions don’t at all suggest anything in a qualitative sense. What they do tell us is a list of the ingredients the work is likely to contain. For instance, maybe you read Raymond Chandler and didn’t like the terseness of his writing. In that case, you may simply not be a Chandler fan. However if you read some Raymond Chandler and didn’t like the violence, the red herrings, the alternating seduction and cruelty, or the seemingly silly pursuit of some relatively minor object, then you can pretty much count on the fact that you don’t enjoy detective fiction.

That’s fine. That’s why those conventions exist. Those of us who like it know where to find it, and those who don’t know to look elsewhere.

They also exist in order to give writers direction. The greatest literary artists know how to elasticize them, distort them, give them new and interesting ways to work, but, ultimately, they are there, and they function as signposts. The author may then choose to pull toward those sign posts, to loop mischievously around them, or to deliberately drift as far from them as possible. In any case, they are still there…and if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate what the artist is doing.

You — yes, you, if you intend to write — need to understand this, because it’s what’s going to keep you from sounding ridiculous. These structures and conventions and signposts exist, all of them, explicitly so that you won’t sound like a fool. Because if you just allow yourself to write, without being well-versed in the conventions and expectations of your genre of choice…that’s exactly what you will sound like.

I, Partridge is the rarest of all possible comedy tie-in books: it’s the comedy tie-in book that is also, front to back, a work of art.

It’s the ostensible memoir of Alan Partridge, a fictional character who has appeared in multiple British television and radio programs, as well as stage shows, specials, and pretty much everything else. I, Partridge is that character, recounting his life experiences. And it’s a brilliant work of incredible unreliability.

Granted, if you’ve seen and heard Partridge’s earlier misadventures then I, Partridge doesn’t have to work quite as hard. You’ve seen him shove a piece of cheese into a BBC superior’s face and use the hand of a dead man to sign a contract that would put him back on television, so when Alan narrates these events differently, you understand very clearly the humorous disconnect.

However I don’t think you have to have seen any of that in order to enjoy — and as a writer learn from — the book. It functions within its own reality brilliantly, with Alan’s suspiciously too-careful recitation of details giving away the fact that something is being clearly fabricated.

Throughout the book he misunderstands social cues and signals that the readers pick up on, leaving his narration and the reader’s experience of that narration to diverge wonderfully. Alan continues down a road of doubled self-delusion (as he certainly believes that his readers are taking his lies as gospel) while we are able to parse and inspect the text in order to determine just how far from reality his narration really is.

It’s every bit as fascinating as anything Nabokov — the unrivaled master of unreliable narration — has ever done, but is infinitely more accessible. And for that reason, I think I, Partridge should be required reading for anyone who believes themselves to be a writer.

Alan’s ridiculousness is palpable, and it’s palpable simply because he believes he’s being anything but ridiculous. He couldn’t begin to entertain the fact that anything he’s saying would be suspect…and that’s exactly why it’s so suspicious. His readers stop paying attention to what he says, and start paying attention to how he says it.

Your readers will do the same thing. Because you sound ridiculous.

When reading A Soul’s Calling, there was a similar disconnect. Scott Bishop — or his textual avatar — fancied himself an educated, spiritual humanitarian…but he came across on the page as a foolish, selfish weirdo. When he says that demonic spirits interfere with his life and make people dislike him, he believes it…yet the narration diverges from the experience of the reader, who sees instead that people dislike him because he’s an actively insufferable human being. And when he — in an act of paramount dickishness — finds a prayer note left at base camp by a woman before him, he burns it instead of leaving it under the rock where she left it. Why? Because he knows how this prayer needs to be handled, and she obviously didn’t. In his mind, he did her a favor. Any reader in their right mind, however, would see this as a tremendously rude gesture, and the anonymous woman would be no less hurt by it than Scott himself would be if someone came along and kicked over his pyre because they personally didn’t think that was the right way to pray either.

Similarly, when Lawrence Fisher positions himself as an unfortunate misfit wrestling with the game of love, we as readers see clearly that he’s not alone…literally every woman he dates, whether or not that date goes well, is in the exact same situation, meaning it’s a bit harsh for him to expect us to both feel bad for him and laugh at them when he says they’re annoying, not pretty enough, or just plain undateable. Lawrence wants us on his side as narrator, but he spends so much time pushing away those who are already on his side that we end up distanced as well.

What’s more, he keeps distracting himself from his ostensible topic to quote irreverently from films and television shows, or discuss historical intricacies of his religion, or wonder how people can be rude enough to speak through BlueTooth headsets in a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the book is only around 130 pages and he’s spent so much time on tangents that he’s left himself no room to getting around to his actual topic.

What writers need to learn, whether they intend to employ the method or not, is how unreliable narration works. And they need to learn that lest they start narrating unreliably against their will.

I, Partridge features exactly the same failings as the two self-published books I mention above, but with a difference: here, they are failings by design.

Alan assumes the applause for a crippled veteran are directed at himself, a low-level radio personality. He gets lost discussing technical details about headsets and cars and radio frequencies when he’s meant to be relaying interesting anecdotes about important people in his life. His “big breaks” for other up-and-coming performers typically leave them embarrassed, disgraced, and broke.

But Alan doesn’t realize any of this. He is the central comic figure in his own farce, but sees himself as a hero, overcoming tragedy after trial. He uses his complete command over his own memoir to rewrite history, and to paint himself in colors he could never achieve in real life.

Writers do that all the time. And that’s okay.

But they need to do it deliberately, and they need to do it well.

Because if they don’t, they’re just writing their own unintentional comedies.

It doesn’t take much to turn your heart-warming tale of spiritual awakening into a showcase for self-importance and silliness. It’s just a shift in perspective…and it’s the shift in perspective that comes automatically from giving yourself an audience.

I honestly would recommend I, Partridge to anyone who wants to be taken seriously, because the absolute best first step on that road is to see, first-hand, why nobody would.

—–
* At least, it isn’t automatically a bad thing. If that’s all an author is doing, then that’s bad. But an author who uses convention as a framework upon which to build his or her unique story around it is simply doing his or her job as a writer. Railing against convention for the sake of railing against convention is something else many writers find it difficult to grow out of. But mark my words: the longer you spend fighting the form, the more you’re postponing the moment when you learn how to make the form work for you. In short, you’re delaying your own creative growth. So don’t do that.


“Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” George Harrison
Extra Texture (Read All About It), 1975

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

Writing about World War II, in a fictional sense anyway, is tricky. Its real life horror is well documented, for one, so it’s hard to find much new to say. It’s also a difficult subject within which to inject fictional characters and events without cheapening the tragedy. It should be a writer’s dream: a looming, charismatic villain…the large-scale restructuring of an empire…a world populated with victims, bystanders and heroes…classic battles…and the ultimate, incredible triumph of the good guys. But, instead, it’s a minefield. After all, when the real-life version of events appears to adhere so strongly to classical form, what can a writer do but oversimplify?

It’s easy to write war wrong, and with the possible exception of Vietnam there’s no war more clearly ingrained in the social consciousness than World War II. The bar has been set, but — oddly enough — it’s been set by the way things actually played out in the world we currently inhabit, and not by the artists who have sought to set their stories there.

Cheapening tragedy is something we do all the time, whether it’s a school shooting trivialized by the media so that we don’t wonder if, maybe, unhinged American citizens don’t need to be carrying assault weapons everywhere they go, or the mass extermination of six million Jews being used as the backdrop for some saccharine love story. We do it easily.

Effective war writing is much harder. We already know the main players, the key events, and the general chronology. We know where it takes place, we know the major moves made by each side, and we know who won. There’s not much room to play with the formula, and if you don’t play with the formula then what’s the point of setting your story there?

Yet three of my all-time favorite novels utilize World War II as their backdrop: Gravity’s Rainbow, Catch-22 and Mother Night. And each of them, not coincidentally, tell stories that really do use World War II as a backdrop. All three novels feature active participants on both sides of the conflict, but their own conflicts are internal: struggles over their understanding of self, over their identity, over their place in a world that could allow this largely unseen tragedy to unfold. They all also, interestingly, all take place at the height of the war. It’s already come too far by the time we meet any of these characters, and they’re already scrambled. We watch them piece themselves back together again…or not. World War II is not cheapened. It’s there, unfolding, seething, devouring in the background. The characters that we follow in these novels are too small to deserve our attention…but that doesn’t mean they cease to exist. They’re beyond insignificance in a world with greater problems than they’ll ever have…and yet their personal problems are everything. Some of them come out the other side stronger for the conflict. The rest come out ruined and undone.

That’s how you write a World War II story that works. Don’t set it in a concentration camp, because there’s nothing you can say that won’t cheapen the reality. Don’t set it in Hitler’s bunker, because those aren’t characters you’d be able to handle. And don’t inject some American superhero into the conflict to help turn the tide in favor of the Allies, because there are real-life heroes who lived and died to do exactly that themselves, and they don’t deserve to be replaced by your self-serving cartoons.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying I was nervous about reviewing 28 Bunkers by Elizabeth Braun. Especially after both of the previous books I reviewed by self-published authors were total garbage. Braun had an uphill struggle ahead of her, but I liked 28 Bunkers. In fact, there are a lot of things about it that I really liked.

It’s not without its issues, but don’t worry, we’ll dwell on the positive aspects as well, if only because it’s a relief to finally have some.

28 Bunkers is a story, according to its back cover matter, about an American fighter pilot named Ray who flees to Canada so that he can enlist with the RAF and do his part for good. It’s actually, however, about Erich and Gerda Müller, a German couple who live in Ludwigshafen, which receives particular attention from Allied bombers due to the presence of high-priority target IG Farben.

It’s impossible for me to review this book intelligently without giving away at least one large spoiler, and that’s this: around a third of the way through the book, Ray dies. His plane is shot up by enemy fire, and while he makes an emergency landing in a farmer’s field his plane flips over and he dies of his injuries. Just like that, the character who has been set up as both protagonist and audience surrogate is gone. Dead. No longer alive.

He is replaced in the narrative by a second American flier, named Tom. Ray was a bit green and so eager to do the right thing that he took to the skies before his country even wanted him to. Tom, on the other hand, is a family man, with a loving wife and children waiting for him at home. Shortly after we meet Tom he receives mail similar to that which Ray received…a crayon drawing of himself from a younger relative. We also find out that he sent home similar Christmas gifts to his loved ones. It feels here as though Braun is doing something very brave in a narrative sense, setting up these pilots as individuals, but ultimately allowing their details to blur so that we, as readers, can see them as unwittingly interchangeable. After all, if one pilot dies, the Allies simply send up another. As a writer, if one protagonist dies Braun simply sends in another.

Unfortunately this isn’t a pattern she sustains throughout the book, which makes it feel like a grand stroke of metatextual bravery that is toyed with but never quite comes to pass. For that reason it’s difficult to see her roster of Allied pilots as much more than personifications of the good-heartedness and loyalty that may have been misguided in particular cases but ultimately won the war. That’s a disappointment because with just a small tweak, the stakes could have been raised substantially, and the moral could have been a bit more complex.

Instead the best writing is reserved for the Müllers, who find their simple lives dismantled, piece by piece, by their coincidental proximity to an important target. Erich and Gerda raise their children Emilie and Lukas amidst the ongoing destruction, and though their optimism wavers they never lose sight of the fact that though this isn’t the world they’d choose to live in, it’s the only one they have. Their chapters, which alternate with those centered upon the American fliers, are interesting little character studies, with wrinkles added with appropriate pacing…just as they adjust to their latest setback, something else makes a great impact on their lives, and it’s not always a bomb. It’s Uncle Matthias returning home from the war, one-armed and gangrenous. It’s Irene and Michael, two children with nowhere to go, being added to the family by bureaucratic oversight. It’s Lukas being drafted to shoot down Allied planes. It’s — in short — always something.

And it’s also the best writing in the book, because it manages to use the real-world horror of World War II as an effective backdrop for some very personal stories. We hear about Hitler on the radio, just as the characters do. We see German Jews shut down their places of business and flee the country, but the reason is too horrific to spell out. And we’re privy to the gallows humor that gets them by. The war is real, but life must go on…and whatever that might entail today is different from what it might entail tomorrow.

The title refers to the 28 bunkers that still stand in Ludwigshafen, but not all of them play a role in the story. Instead the book contains 28 chapters, and I’d like to think of the title as referring to these 28 pockets of humanity amidst the chaos, where life goes on even when it doesn’t. With some tweaking, 28 Bunkers had the potential to be great. The American flier chapters are good, but suffer from unnecessarily lowered stakes. The German family chapters are far better, but characters sometimes end up speaking like news bulletins in order to remind the reader of where in the war we are at any given time.

None of these criticisms are particularly important ones, but I do think they represent the difference between effective writing and great writing.

Braun makes a special note of the fact that the three main American fliers are all based on family members and their actual stories, while the Müller family is of her own invention. Let that stand as further evidence that the best World War II writing comes with inventing conflicts on the sidelines. Braun may have wanted to pay tribute to the actual heroes in her lineage, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the real tribute comes where it’s least expected, with two parents terrified of what every new day will bring, who nevertheless have to hold their world together for the children who will inherit it.

It’s worth reading. But it always seems to be reaching for an even higher standard, and I do wish it managed to get there.

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.

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