Your Mid-Week Excuse for a Roundup

Business Secrets of the Pharaohs

So! Did you all know that I like the show Breaking Bad? Well, I like other things too! And I’ve been writing about them.

Not here of course. That would be silly.

So I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of things that I wrote for other sites. Both of which I quite like and I kind of wish they were here instead but OH WELL.

The big one is The Dangerous Allure of Self-Publishing: 5 Real Lessons from a Fictional Character. It’s a piece for the excellent Emily Suess, and though her blog goes through periods of inactivity (I’m absolutely one to judge…) it’s worth bookmarking. She posts some great stuff. Anyway, this is a piece about self-publishing…filtered through the “Business Secrets of the Pharaohs” episode of Peep Show. Why that episode? Because it reminded me so much of my own stupidity in the past with self-publishing that I couldn’t help but write this up.

Seriously. Self-publishing is garbage. Don’t do it. Read the piece. It’s pretty much as honest as I’ve ever been about what a fool I was. It’s not something I like to talk about often, but if it helps anyone understand just what a racket that business is, and consequently avoid the embarrassment that I was unable to, it’s worth it.

The other has actually been up for a while, but I think I forgot to link to it: 5 Classic Children’s Movies That Won’t Drive Parents Crazy. This was written for a blogger who at the time was taking pregnancy leave. I forgot to tell you about it. I think the kid is like 16 now. But this is a fun post about movies and I put jokes in it and you like those so go read it, too.

And as long as I’m posting external links, this arrived in my inbox today. It’s an infographic put together by a storage unit company. Yay?

Well…yeah, yay, because it’s actually pretty cool. Seriously, I wouldn’t have posted it, except it’s an extremely nerdy look at the contents of Walt’s storage locker, with an eye for lapses in continuity and some absolutely pointless consideration of the size of the unit and its location. And I mean that in a good way; this was a fun read. I’d actually like to see the prices of certain pieces of background dressing more often…and though I mean that sincerely I know it’s bound to come off as sarcastic so I’ll just stop.

Anyway! Three things to read. Quiz on Friday. Then Sunday night I’ll review the episode where Badger and Skinny Pete RESCUE JESSE IMMEDIATELY BECAUSE I CANNOT BEAR TO SEE HIM LIKE THAT AGAIN SERIOUSLY GUYS

Review: “To’hajiilee,” Breaking Bad season 5, episode 13

To'hajiilee, Breaking Bad

One of the things I loved about the British version of The Office was its willingness to admit that however realistic it would have liked to appear — and however “actually real” it was within the show’s own universe — every episode was, necessarily, a fabrication. It’s all summed up in a great speech by Tim, in which he invites the camera crew to come back in a few years and check on him then. An ending isn’t an ending unless you choose to see it that way. The cameras stop rolling, the credits come up…but these people still go on with their lives.

That was Tim’s point. Maybe it looks tragic now, but come back later and things might look great. Sure enough, the cameras came back later and things looked great…but that wasn’t an ending either.

An “ending” is just a dividing line. A boundary. It’s a structural necessity because nothing can go on forever. We can drop it at a moment of triumph, or we can drop it at a moment of sadness. But whatever we do, wherever we put it, it’s a choice. And it’s a choice that informs our reading of everything that came before.

When we end on a downbeat, we feel as though everything we’ve just seen was the prelude to a fall. When we end on an upbeat, we know we’ve been building toward a crowning moment of glory.

The ending is important. Not to the characters, who will continue with their fictional lives long after we’ve stopped paying attention, but to us, as an audience. Because we want what we’ve experienced to have meaning. And, for better or for worse, we turn to the ending to help us find it. We also, unfortunately, end up oversimplifying the work as a whole. The ending matters…but it shouldn’t be all that matters.

I’ve always been fascinated by this. Hypothetically, if we had a story that followed, say 50 years of prosperity in a man’s life followed by a shorter time frame, a final two years or so, in which he was broke, unloved, and homeless…if he went from riding high to dying in the streets…we’d read that as a tragedy. On the other hand, if we had a story that followed 50 years of a man living as a bum, without a penny to his name, and he suddenly found himself flush with cash and living a life of luxury for the final couple of years of his life, we’d see that as triumph.

Why? Because of the ending.

In neither case does the bulk of the story matter*…it’s the ending. It doesn’t matter that 50 years were spent high on the hog and only two in the gutter…we focus on the gutter, because that’s where it ended. We view stories in terms of trajectory, rather than in terms of “time spent in any given situation.” We don’t measure…we follow. We want the characters we like to end high and the characters we dislike to fall low. How much time, energy or effort it takes to get them there is secondary; we want to know where they end up.

Endings have always been a strong point of Breaking Bad, with just about every one of them falling perfectly to serve as dividing lines on both sides: as an endcap to one chapter, and as an equally effective starting point for the next. When handled correctly — as this show almost unfailingly has handled them — they illustrate Tim’s point: you can break this off whenever you like, but things keep going. Things keep happening. Maybe you’ll tune in next week and maybe there won’t be a next week…but an ending isn’t really an ending.

At least twice during “To’hajiilee,” the idea of endings weighed heavily on my mind…and that’s not counting the episode’s actual ending, which is unquestionably seductive enough to attract all of our focus away from whatever machinations and manipulations it took to get us there. If I were to ask you right now to tell me the first thing that comes to mind about this episode, would you have any answer other than the gunfight?

I doubt it. Even though “Rabid Dog” left us smacking our lips for a week wondering what Jesse’s plan was, that’s not what we remember most when we finally see it fulfilled. Because suddenly that ending, which was so important to us, means a lot less when compared against a newer ending.

Jesse’s plan? Who gives a shit. This is where we are now.

Throughout “To’hajiilee” I kept expecting those credits to hit like a gunshot. Back of the head. No pain. But, as Uncle Jack knows, and Winston Smith before him, it doesn’t work if you’re expecting it. The time has to be right. And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt speeding away to save his money.

And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt cowering behind a boulder.

And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt in handcuffs.

And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt frantically trying to call off a hit.

That’s why the episode ended with a gunfight. A gunfight that at this very moment — this moment, frozen in time — can go either way. But the next episode’s in the can…it already has gone one way. It’s already happened. We’re behind. There’s an answer, but for another week we’re left only with a question.

And it’s a question that informs everything that came before it. Will we re-watch “To’hajiilee” through the filter of Jesse’s plan, or through the filter of screaming gunfire? Will we hear Hank’s phone conversation with Marie as the relief that his investigation is over, or as the last thing he says to her before an undoubtedly fatal shootout?

There’s a kind of cheapness involved when you break an episode at the peak of its action. It feels unfair…but I’m not sure “To’hajiilee” is unfair. I’m sure it feels that way…but it does seem also like the best possible ending; it says a lot about what came before, and it gives us a hell of a starting point for the next chapter.

What does it say about the episode? Well, I’d love to hear what you think…but for me, the way the entire hour unfolded felt a lot like what Kurt Vonnegut described in Walter Jr.’s favorite book, Breakfast of Champions. There Vonnegut discusses what it’s like to control characters as you write for them…you don’t just force them to do things; you guide their movements. You can “control” them in the sense that you are pulling their strings…but they’re long strings, elastic, with a lot of slack, and while you can ultimately get them wherever they need to be, there’s a lot that they can do on their own along the way…and they might be things you don’t expect.

That’s what “To’hajiilee” was about. Both Walt and Hank are at odds, but they’re not at direct odds. They’re both acting through intermediaries. Jessie, Andrea, Brock, Gomez, Huell, Uncle Jack…to some extent Skyler and Marie. Saul. These are people trapped in a game much larger than them, being played by two opponents who don’t care how many pawns they lose if it can inch them closer to victory.

But it’s not quite that direct. They can only guide their pieces. They can only suggest courses of action, and hope that they follow. Because when Walt tugs on that string, something happens. And there might be too much slack to get it to stop. The same thing happened to poor Hank when he pulled his own string by having Gomez cuff Walter.

Uncle Jack to the rescue.

I think Breaking Bad earned this ending, as much as I’d actually like to say that it didn’t. I’d like to say that it was a cheap way to get us to tune in next week. I’d like to say that it was manipulative and artificial.

But in reality, it wasn’t. The ending is earned, because the story could actually end here.

It doesn’t, and we know that, but it could.

We wouldn’t have to know who wins. It wouldn’t matter. What would matter is how it informed the story that came before. And it would have to be a story of long-term manipulation and the impossibility of total control, of how innocent lives are used in the greater service of a reward that ends up unclaimed and under ground, of how the smallest decisions add up to the largest, most devastating consequence.

In short, it’d have to be the story that Breaking Bad has already been telling for five seasons.

It works. And we’re going to focus on the ending, as we should.

But we shouldn’t focus on it as the question of who wins…we should focus on it as the answer: it doesn’t actually matter.

* At least, not unless the artist makes it matter. I’m discussing writing here in a very general sense, and certainly you (and I) would be able to provide countless counter-examples. But I think it’s still worth thinking about. When we reach the end of The Great Gatsby, do we think “Well, the guy at least got to have those awesome parties for so long”? When we reach the end of Of Mice and Men, do we think “At least for all those years, they had each other”? Or, in the context of this show…what do we remember about Old Yeller? Just about everything we read or watch or listen to gets filtered through its own ending. We award the final moments with a sense of paramount importance by default…and I’ve always found that interesting.

What is Detective Fiction?

Detective Fiction, Philip J Reed

Here’s something some of you don’t know about me: a few years ago, I finished a novel. It was called Afterbirth: The Comedy of Miscarriage, and it was around seven years in the making. That was a long time to spend with one project, and, as you might expect, I was substantially invested in it. I still am.

It was — and I guess is — the autobiography of a sperm. Our single-celled hero narrates the circumstances around him, the generations of couplings and false-starts and abandonments that culminate in his fertilizing off an egg…and eventual miscarriage. Needless to say he’s rather bitter, and much of the fun of writing this book had to do with the narrative perspective. What would have been, on its own, a story of a young man who does something foolish with a younger girl, suddenly became this massive, epic sprawl…simply because that moment, that night, that one bad decision — and the bad decisions that led up to it, and the bad decisions that followed from it — formed, for this narrator, his entire experience of life. The smallest thing was now the only thing. Everything was reconfigured and filtered through a unique and cynical perspective.

It was literary, it was jarring, it was dark. It was also unmarketable.

Because here’s something you do know about me: I’m a nobody.

Getting agents and publishers interested in this deliberately shifty, chronological scramble of loss and dissolution — hinging (though not explicitly so) on an act of statutory rape — was a tough sell. If I had a name…a name that people recognized…a name that people cared about or wanted to care about…it would have been another story. At least potentially. As it stood, it wasn’t the kind of gamble any agent or publisher in their right mind would have made.

I believe in the book. I’ve spent enough time with it and gotten enough glowing feedback on it that I know it’s very good, and that a certain type of reader would absolutely love it. But I don’t begrude anyone for not wanting to publish it. Why would they?

So I decided about three years ago on a course of action: I would write something that was marketable.

Why? So that I could market it. And hopefully get it published. And even more helpfully develop myself as a name people recognized, cared about, or wanted to care about. I’m not surprised at all that a literary mindscrew by a literal nobody faced nothing but rejection. But what if that literary mindscrew had some pedigree behind it?

I decided to write a pastiche of the detective fiction genre. This wasn’t for any particular reason except that “pastiche of the detective fiction genre,” as vague as that description is, still lights up some very clear expectations. It’s more marketable simply because there’s so much I don’t have to market. You hear that description and you immediately know the kinds of things to expect. You may not know the particular melody, but you sure as hell know the key it’ll be played in. And you, phantom agent, phantom publisher, will know from that alone whether it’s something that would interest you at all.

I felt a little cheap when I started writing it, because I wasn’t writing from the heart. I was writing something to sell…I wasn’t writing to express myself. I was writing something good, or at least I hoped I was, but it was a very different feeling from Afterbirth, which came from the heart in all kinds of ways. Afterbirth was born of my love of deep and confounding literature, of my darkest social and romantic and emotional fears, of my fascination with fate and circularity and patterning. Detective Fiction was born of my desire to be a published author. It was a very different thing.

And so I wrote, and I read. I researched the genre enough — just enough — to become familiar with how this type of story had to work. I read James M. Cain. I read Dashiell Hammet. I read Raymond Chandler. And I was amazed at just how good these books were. As much as we look back on hard-boiled detective fiction as a sort of ropey escapism, there’s actually a good amount of poetry in there…particularly in the case of Chandler, whose conflicted love for his own hero Philip Marlowe bleeds through the characterization in such unexpected and beautiful ways. I was impressed…but I was just writing a parody. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want it to get too good…that’s what ruined Afterbirth.

Detective Fiction was the story of Billy Passwater, who in the summer of his 29th year decides to become a private detective. Billy has no certification, no training, and no desire to take any of this seriously. But he has a pretty sweet fedora, and that’s a good enough start.

It was fun to write that much. I set it in south Florida, because I was familiar with the area and I thought the overtly tourist-friendly facade would make for a nice contrast to the noir-inspired elements of the book. It was a fun and immediate contrast that, I think, ended up informing the book in lots of ways I didn’t expect.

But at about the halfway point, something happened. A chapter more or less wrote itself without me. I had slid the pieces into place — as the author I kind of had to, but beyond that I can’t take any conscious credit — and the next thing I knew, we were off in a whole other direction. This happened at what is now the midpoint of the book…central in so many senses of that word.

And that’s when I realized who Billy was. Or, rather, when he showed me who he was. That, yes, he may have started as a sort of blank character I could force through the meat-grinder of familiar tropes and hallmarks so that we could all have a good laugh…but once I saw who he was I had an entirely different book on my hands, and most of the time I’ve spent writing Detective Fiction has been re-writing Detective Fiction. Because from that moment on, I knew things about him that I didn’t know before. He was an ugly character. These elements of the genre that I carried over shaped a very different type of hero in this new context. I was writing for a clown…but the moment I saw him without his makeup on, I recognized him as a criminal. It would still be a comedy, but with a different kind of punchline.

Despite my resistance, I had written a good book after all.

What I have now is a 258 page novel that’s still a pastiche of the detective fiction genre. However it’s also the story of delusion, of stubborn refusal, of accountability and passive cruelty and make believe and the refusal to grow up.

And I love it.

And it’s still — dare I speak so soon? — marketable.

It’s in the hands of my trusty group of proofreaders now. They’ll read it and they’ll give me feedback and I’ll take that into account and I’ll give it another rewrite bearing their comments in mind.

And after that I’m going to solicit agents again…and this time I’ll have something of much greater interest to them.

It’s a straight-forward narrative. It’s full of clues and cues and red-herrings. It starts in one place, and ends up somewhere else. It has a single protagonist with a clear objective.

It’s also got blackmail. And comedy. And murder. And sex. And palm trees. And a baseball bat covered in blood and fur. And some more sex. And karaoke.

Oh, and he solves a mystery at some point. Doesn’t he? He tries to anyway. And I sure hope he does, because otherwise I don’t know who will…

It’s something I can sell. And while I’m still ashamed of the fact that that was my primary objective in writing it, creating a great work of straight-forward genre fiction was my objective in re-writing it.

I hope I’ve succeeded. Because I really like it. And I think you will too.

With any luck, you’ll get to read it one day.

Keep your fingers crossed. Even the best manuscript needs a lot of luck.

And after my proofreaders get through with it, I will have the best manuscript.

We can do this.

Music For Air Hostesses

Music For Air Hostesses

Just a little something in celebration of my completing Detective Fiction. It’s currently in the hands of a small army of very capable proofreaders / critics / curmudgeons, and if all goes well I’ll be soliciting agents before very long.

Download Music For Air Hostesses.

It’s as good as reading the book. Or maybe better.

…but hopefully not too much better.

Anyway, grab it now. It might be gone when you wish you had it.

1) I’ll Come Running — Brian Eno
2) I Can Help — Billy Swan
3) Reminiscing — Little River Band
4) Hold On, I’m Comin’ — Sam & Dave
5) Tighter, Tighter — Alive ‘N Kickin’
6) Lemon Tree — Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass
7) I Second That Emotion — Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
8) The Same Love That Made Me Laugh — Bill Withers
9) Expressway to Your Heart — Soul Survivors
10) Tusk — Fleetwood Mac
11) Save It For Later — The Beat
12) Rubberband Man — The Spinners
13) Fire — The Pointer Sisters
14) Time Passes Slowly — Bob Dylan
15) Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) — The Temptations

16) San Franciscan Nights — Eric Burden & The Animals
17) Tempted — Squeeze
18) Drive-In Saturday — David Bowie
19) A Million Miles Away — David Byrne
20) Bring It On Home to Me — Billy Preston
21) Sloop John B — The Beach Boys
22) No No Song — Ringo Starr
23) The Moonbeam Song — Harry Nilsson
24) It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal — Frank Zappa
25) When the Night — Paul McCartney & Wings
26) Moonlight Mile — The Rolling Stones
27) Someday We’ll Be Together — Diana Ross & The Supremes
28) Someday Never Comes — Creedence Clearwater Revival
29) Everything Merges With the Night — Brian Eno
30) The Only Living Boy in New York — Simon and Garfunkel

Review: “Buried,” Breaking Bad season 5, episode 10

Breaking Bad, Buried
I can review this episode using only five words: “Now that’s more like it.”

Or, wait. Maybe I’ll go with “I fucking love you, Marie.”

Either of those I think would say it all…but, for old time’s sake, let’s pretend I have more to say BECAUSE OF COURSE I DO.

My issue with “Blood Money” was mainly down to pacing…but really the problem was that I didn’t put enough trust in Vince Gilligan and his writing staff. I’m sure I can count on one hand how many times a perceived flaw in a television episode was actually down to me watching it completely and totally wrong but…I confess…that’s exactly what happened here.

It’s not entirely my fault…Gilligan set the trap. I was just dumb enough to walk into it.

The first half of season five ended with Hank finding Walt’s incriminating copy of Leaves of Grass, which seemed like it would set the mad scramble toward the finish line into motion. I expected, more or less, that the first episode of the back half would be the metaphorical starter’s pistol. Then it didn’t come. As I felt unfulfilled.

My bad, y’all.

Because it came. I was just listening for the wrong sound.

When “Blood Money” ended with Walt’s “tread lightly” admonition to Hank, I felt almost cheated. It seemed like such an artificial move by the writers…a desperate attempt to give us one memorable late-game play in the style of “I am the one who knocks,” or even “I’m in the empire business.” It was a hollow gesture, and I sensed that.

…but I sensed that it was hollow on the part of the writing staff. No no…it was hollow on the part of Walter White.

It was indeed a desperate attempt to mimic more powerful times. It was Walter’s desperate attempt. He remembers his glory days as well as we do. He emptily tried to stir up some of that old mojo…but it didn’t quite get there. Yes, as I mentioned in my review of that episode, it felt like a lot of work to shift us back into neutral. But it wasn’t the writing staff shifting back. It was the character.

And that’s, pardon my French, effing brilliant.

“Buried” sees Walter leaving the garage right after that clumsy attempt at bad-assery…and he falls apart instantly. He peels out in his car only to pull over still in sight of Hank’s house, and place a panicked — and unsuccessful — call to his wife. Walter’s made his power play, and already the wheels have come off. He’s a deeply idiotic man.

This episode works a lot better in isolation, I feel, than its predecessor…right down to its breaking point, which won’t rely on a post-episode tonal shift the way “Blood Money” did. Nope. Hank has Jesse. And Jesse…well, Jesse’s broken. Things can go either way. Skyler might have chosen not to turn on Walt — more on that to come, of course — but Jesse just might.

Which is something that…well, I can’t put it into words very easily, so I’ll just have to say that it’s showing me something I’ve been appreciating about Breaking Bad without even realizing it: it’s made me, gradually, want Walter dead.

When the show started, it was easy to be on his side. Yes, of course, he was doing something very stupid. But was there anybody out there who didn’t want him to triumph in some way? Even if that triumph was something as small as realizing the idiocy of his plan and getting out alive?

There was an initial humanity to Walter White, which we could see even as he did terrible things. But, slowly, the balance shifted, and it was the terribleness we were seeing primarily, with the humanity only rarely glimpsed. I don’t know exactly when it “turned” completely for me, but I’ve gone from rooting for the man to rooting for his death. And that’s the fruit of fantastic storytelling.

Getting back to the episode, Hank’s case — as many have suspected — still hinges on conjecture. He knows it was Walt…and that’s great. But he still can’t prove it. Skyler, Hank correctly supposes, can fill in the blanks he needs, and that scene between the two of them in the diner is a fucking masterpiece of selfish tension. Each of them has so much invested in the outcome of this case, and each of them even has the same end goal in mind (that the rest of the family is kept safe). Yet they are each driven by their pride to not help the other. Skyler won’t fill in the blanks…Hank won’t let her get a lawyer. Two people want the same thing for the same reason…but are each madly protective about it in conflicting ways. It’s moments like that that I’m going to miss most of all, because I can’t think of any other shows on the air that could pull that off believably.

I also loved the mirrored moment of Marie slapping Skyler, because hot damn Marie!

Sorry, I’ll try that again.

I also loved the mirrored moment of Marie slapping Skyler, which dovetails nicely with her husband slugging Skyler’s husband in the previous episode. The difference, I think, is that in “Blood Money” I was all but screaming for Hank to hit him…which he then did. Here, the slap was totally unexpected…but not at all unearned. Poor Marie having to recount the events of the past year in reverse to figure out how long Skyler’s known…getting as far as Hank getting shot…it was heartbreaking, and while I wouldn’t have said it before that scene I’m absolutely able to say it now: Skyler deserved that crack every bit as much as Walt did.

Oh, and I just thought of a joke:
Breaking Bad, Buried
Looks like Walt’s got a case of Schrader-Brow.

Wocka wocka.

Anyway, I like that moment, mainly because Marie’s obliviousness has always been played for comedy, whereas Hank’s has largely been played for drama and suspense. This isn’t a problem…this is A Good Thing. Because it gives the audience a moment like this…when the rug is pulled out, and you realize that all of this so-called comedy was really, through the clever switching-out of a lens, the slow-motion dismantling of this woman’s life. Marie had and has every bit as much invested in this tragedy as anybody else. She might have come off as a TV ditz…but beneath it she was a real person, with a real husband, and came really close to losing the man she loved most.

Retroactive character-work ahoy.

Elsewhere Lydia and Todd and Todd’s Nazi uncle go apeshit. I’m not quite sure what to make of this scene yet — though I have my suspicions — but I would absolutely hold it up as evidence of just how richly composed this world is. Even when we don’t quite know what’s going on, we have the sense that we’re in capable hands. And I can’t say enough good about what Laura Fraser does with this late-coming character.

Seriously, rewatch that scene. Every little gesture and detail and line reading suggests more about Lydia than we’ve actually yet seen. The way she fixes her hair in the rear view mirror after her blindfold is removed. The way she arrives over-dressed to a bloodbath. The way her heels sink into the sand but she doesn’t take off her shoes. This is great stuff.

I don’t know. Details like that are probably what I’m going to remember when all’s said and done. For good reason most will think back on Gus’s demise, on Mike’s “half-measures” speech, on Skyler in the pool.

But I’m going to remember things like Lydia’s heels sinking in the sand.

Because any show can do the big moments.

Not every show can make you look for the little ones.

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