Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Baz Luhrmann’s final paper

Baz Luhrmann substitutes a high-school English paper for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel in scripting his film version of The Great Gatsby, released earlier this year and now available on DVD from Warner Home Video. The conflict between “old money” and “new money” and the symbolism of T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes as the “eyes of God,” those English-class favorites, are carefully enunciated and repeated by the actors just in case an unwary moviegoer might be under the illusion that Luhrmann’s purpose in remaking Gatsby is to scrape off the critical clichés and restore a classic to its original condition. The phrases appear nowhere in Fitzgerald’s text. They are, however, fixed as securely to the popular consciousness as Hamlet’s indecisiveness, which belongs not to Shakespeare’s play but to A. C. Bradley’s 1904 lectures on Shakespearean tragedy. No one who knows the commonplaces needs to read the texts with any attentiveness, because they have already been “read” for him—by general agreement.

The mistakes pile up. As the film opens, Nick Carraway is in a sanitarium, years after the events about to be shown, diagnosed as “morbidly alcoholic.” (In the novel, Nick says, “I have been drunk just twice in my life,” and Tobey Maguire, who plays Nick with demonstrative broadness, even repeats the line—as if oblivious to the nonsense the rest of the film makes of it.) Muttering aloud, Luhrmann’s Nick says, “Back then, we all drank too much. The more in tune with the times we were, the more we drank.” Fitzgerald’s Nick drinks too little, and tunes himself to the times in other ways, but Luhrmann’s mind is on finishing his English paper. He requires explanations, not subtleties. The movie’s Nick talks and talks in a voiceover that goes quickly from being intrusive to annoying. Why is he talking so much? He is addressing the psychiatrist who is treating him. “You see, Doctor,” he says at one point, dying to himself and being reborn as Alexander Portnoy.

The geography of the film is intentionally cartoonish. The Valley of Ashes, instead of being a narrow ash dump about the size of Flushing Meadow Park, is a monstrous waste land that has swallowed Queens whole. In an overhead shot reminiscent of Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue, the lush green of Long Island ends abruptly in black-and-white, stretching from one edge of the frame to the other, with Manhattan glittering beyond it in the distance. Despite being a waste land, though, it is crawling with people. There are so many people milling around Wilson’s garage, in fact, that Gatsby is lucky he doesn’t hit someone long before his car runs over Myrtle Wilson.

Perhaps the worst thing about the film are Gatsby’s parties. Luhrmann has himself confused with Flo Ziegfeld. The parties are theatrical extravaganzas with chorus girls dancing in unison, dueling orchestras, announcers bellowing into microphones, streamers and confetti falling from the ceiling as if at a political convention, explosions of fireworks that must have kept the neighbors awake every night, and hundreds upon hundreds of guests packed so tightly in Gatsby’s rooms that they look like squirming maggots when viewed from above.

In the novel, when Nick attends one of Gatsby’s parties for the first time, he finds himself in conversation with “two girls in twin yellow dresses” and “three Mr. Mumbles,” all of them guessing at the truth about Gatsby. They lean forward confidentially and whisper to one another: “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once,” “he was a German spy during the war.” Nick reflects knowingly: “It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.” At Luhrmann’s parties, the guests find it necessary to shout. Anyone who whispered a romantic speculation would not have been heard even by himself.

In researching his final paper, Luhrmann must have learned that Fitzgerald planned originally to call his novel Trimalchio after the character in Petronius’ Satyricon who is famous for his immoderate dinner parties. Not that Luhrmann knows anything about Petronius. As a filmmaker with ambitions to greatness, though, he surely knows Fellini’s Satyricon. The parties in his film owe a deeper and more obvious debt to Fellini than to anything in Fitzgerald. The riots of sight and sound are proof merely that Luhrmann can do Fellini in the twenty-first century. They are the Folies Luhrmann, fantasies of pure excessive spectacle that have nothing whatever to do with the plot of Gatsby. In the novel, Gatsby throws his parties in the hope that Daisy will wander in one night. In the film, Gatsby would not be able to pick Daisy out of the swarm, even if she did happen to wander in.

But, really, I have been saving the worst for last. The worst is Luhrmann’s decision to make Nick Carraway into a writer. The “text” of his film is a large blank book that Nick’s psychiatrist gives him as part of his cure. “Write about it,” his doctor says. “You said yourself that writing brought you solace.” Nick has already admitted that he wanted to be a writer when he was at Yale. He picks up a green hardback copy of Ulysses to drive the point home, even though Ulysses was not published until 1922, the same year as the events in Gatsby. But why let an anachronism stand in the way of reconceiving Nick Carraway as a modernist genius?

I can think of two reasons. First, if Nick is a writer with visions of Joyce dancing in his head then he is that most tedious of creatures—the unreliable narrator. Maybe that’s why he can be “morbidly alcoholic” and also “drunk just twice in [his] life.” Whatever he says about himself is not entirely to be trusted. In the novel, Nick says at one point: “Reading over what I have written so far I see I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me”—that is, he has given a false impression. If he is unreliable, though, is the impression false or is the claim about its falsity false? In Luhrmann’s script, this line becomes: “Looking over my story so far, I’m reminded that, for the second time that summer, I was guarding other people’s secrets.” The shift to the word story is unconscious, I would wager, because Luhrmann and his co-author Craig Pearce never for a moment imagined Gatsby as anything else than make believe. The line about guarding other people’s secrets, which appears nowhere in the book, is also a reminder never to invite comparison with a better writer’s prose.

The second reason is the more important. A few days ago I argued that Nick is not a writer, at least not in the modernist sense, but a kind of confessor who is “privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men” like Jay Gatsby. If he is what Elias Canetti called an earwitness to the “intimate revelations” by and about Gatsby—not composing, merely listening—then the splendor of the book’s prose belongs, not to him, but to Gatsby and his dreams. To take the “creative passion” of the style away from Gatsby and bestow it upon Nick, a “normal person” who can only wonder at “what a man will store up in his ghostly heart,” is to inflate Nick into something he is not, rob Gatsby of his greatness, and get The Great Gatsby wrong at the most fundamental level. I grant you this is what high-school English students are routinely assigned to do, but that doesn’t make it right.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Nick Carraway’s fiction

The discussion of The Great Gatsby begins today in my course on it—an entire course devoted to a 180-page book—and in rereading it, I was struck for the first time by the apparent irrelevance of the opening paragraphs. You’ll remember them. Nick Carraway, who has not yet divulged his name, quotes advice from this father, warning him, in much the same way the Los Angeles Review of Books warns reviewers of first-time authors, not to say anything if he can’t say something nice. Nick reflects:

[My father] didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought—frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of fundamental decencies in parcelled out unequally at birth.What exactly is this passage doing in the novel? On the first page, to boot? What function (if any) does it perform?

Fitzgerald himself, according to Matthew J. Bruccoli’s biography, received eight votes in a poll of Princeton’s class of 1917 for Thinks He Is Biggest Politician (he also received seven votes for Wittiest, and fifteen for Thinks He Is Wittiest).[1] In at least one respect, then, the passage is grounded in autobiography. And perhaps this accounts for the pseudo-intellectual tone of the general observations: “The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person,” “the intimate revelations of young men . . . are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.” These sound like the grand pronouncements of a recent undergraduate, although Carraway (as we learn later) is just about to turn thirty.

Fitzgerald’s social and academic position at Princeton was anxious and unsettled. Unlike Carraway, his family was not “prominent” nor “well-to-do”: his father was a failure in business. He was one of the few Catholics at Princeton—the only Catholic whom Edmund Wilson knew there—and though he did not flunk out, he never took a degree. Because he was never in good academic standing, he was never able to hold office in the Triangle Club, the undergraduate dramatic guild (he coveted the presidency).[2] Fitzgerald must have been exquisitely sensitive to accusations of “being a politician”—a suck up, as we might now say, a brown noser.

What he has done in this early paragraph is to transfigure the social anxiety into the plausible explanation for his narrative—the fiction of the fiction of Gatsby. Few critics have bothered to answer the question that the Amateur Reader recently asked about the novel: “Why is Carraway writing?” How does he account for his 180-page manuscript?

The answer is that Nick Carraway has the “habit” of listening to the “secret griefs of wild, unknown men”—men like Gatsby, for instance. His “inclination” to reserve judgment has repeatedly cast him in the role of onlooker narrator, although perhaps third-party narrator or confessor narrator is more apt in his case. An “intimate revelation” like Gatsby’s is nothing new to him. Why, even the sensation he reports later upon listening to Gatsby’s war stories (“like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines”) is nothing new. Gatsby too offers up revelations that are “plagiaristic” and “marred by suppressions.”

It has generally been recognized that, at least as far as Nick Carraway understands what he is doing, The Great Gatsby is not a novel. “[O]n Gatsby’s side, and alone,” he is “responsible, because no one else was interested.” As far as he knows, he is telling a true story—as true as he can make it. But if he is not writing a novel, then, what is his writing? He is transcribing an intimate revelation as confessed to a “normal person,” an unremarkable person, who is accustomed to reserving judgment even for the unsought monologues of “curious natures” and “veteran bores.” The fiction behind The Great Gatsby, the device that plausibly explains its place in the world, has rarely been remarked upon, because Fitzgerald has been as masterful in concealing it as in devising it.

[1] Matthew J. Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2nd rev.ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), p. 72.

[2] Bruccoli, p. 57.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

J. F. Powers and Elmore Leonard

My review of Katherine A. Powers’s edition of her father’s letters, Suitable Accommodations, appeared yesterday—publication day for the book—in the Daily Beast. The book’s publication was overshadowed by the death, earlier in the day, of the crime novelist Elmore Leonard. The Beast itself carried no fewer than three stories relating to Leonard.

Overshadowed by other writers so often during his lifetime, Powers would have had something ironic and painful to say on the subject. Maybe there was a historical lesson in the coincidence, though. Leonard was convinced that at least some of his fiction would last. How long, he didn’t say. But as for Powers: “His style is superb and his characterization sublime,” the novelist Mary Gordon, an admirer, told Portland magazine, “but it’s sad because I don’t think he’ll be remembered.”

Predictions of literary immortality are a fool’s game. Let’s assume, though, that Leonard and Gordon are both right—Leonard will be remembered, while Powers will be forgotten. The former is customarily (and lazily) described as a “genre” writer; the latter is a “literary” writer. In other words, they differed mainly in their subject matter. Leonard wrote about criminals; Powers, about Catholic priests. It’s a safe bet, then, that readers of the future will prefer criminals to priests? Or is Powers’s handicap, as Joseph Bottum said in First Things, that the “catastrophic collapse of religious vocations through the 1970s” robbed Powers’s subject of its immediacy? Priests will no longer interest readers in the future, because readers will no longer be interested in the religious problems of priests—or religious problems of any kind, for that matter. But the criminals you always have with you.

To a critical eye, however, the most obvious difference between them lies elsewhere. Leonard was eight years younger, and Powers got a six-year head start, but Leonard soon outdistanced him, publishing forty-three novels in his lifetime, plus many short stories, while Powers was lucky, as I said in my review of Suitable Accommodations, to average 6,000 words a year. Although Leonard is much admired for the quality of his writing (especially his dialogue), the raw truth is that his prose is much rougher, far less careful, far less polished, than Powers’s. Leonard depends upon narrative effects, which is why so many of his novels and stories have been turned quickly and painlessly into films, while Powers depends upon the barely audible clicking of sentences.

Here, for example, is a passage, conveniently reproduced by NPR, from Leonard’s novel Road Dogs. Notice, first, how three of the first four paragraphs begin with the third-person plural personal pronoun. While the first two refer to a hidden “they,” however (the authorities, presumably), the third refers to the inmates. The shift is handled awkwardly. (The defect mars the fifth paragraph too, which is otherwise a sharp descriptive paragraph.)

The eleventh paragraph, which violates Leonard’s own rule against using patois, is free indirect discourse or even stream of consciousness, attempting to reproduce Foley’s thoughts as he eats. At the same time, Leonard tries to use the paragraph to fill in Foley’s backstory. The result is clumsy and unconvincing. After he finishes eating, Foley is confronted by the Cuban whom he had defended against the white supremicists. Foley takes his measure: “This little bit of a guy acting tough.” There is nothing about the sentence that isn’t the recitation of a formula.

Here, by contrast, selected more or less at random, is a passage from Wheat That Springeth Green, Powers’s last novel:       Joe ran back to the stand, holding the saucers and spoons so they wouldn’t rattle. Father Stock unwrapped them, stuck the napkin in his hip pocket, motioned Sister Agatha and Sister Margaret up to the stand, and said to one of the women behind the counter, “Double dips for the Sisters. No charge.”
       Joe moved away from the stand, away from an old smelly man who looked like a tramp and said to the woman who’d handed him a cone, “No charge.” A joke?
       “Pay, Father,” the woman said.
       The old man licked the cone.
       “Father,” the woman said.
       Father Stock said, “Five cents, mister.”
       The old man licked the cone. “Try and git it.”
       Joe was astonished to see Father Stock lie across the counter and, like a swimmer doing the breast stroke, swat the cone to the ground, the ice cream, only one dip, coming out of the cone and settling in the grass.
What should immediately strike you is the greater specificity, the heightened exactness, of Powers’s prose. While Leonard relies primarily upon nouns to do his stylistic work, Powers is ambidextrous with nouns and verbs. Although Leonard has the reputation for fiction with plenty of action, it is Powers’s scene in which, less menacing as it might be, the action is tightly focused: rattle, unwrap, stick, motion, lick, swat, settle. Both writers characterize an entire history of human relationships in a few paragraphs, but Powers does so with greater economy and precision.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that his perfectionism (his own word) makes Powers the better writer. Quite the opposite. I am beginning to wonder if the obsession with specificity and exactness, with perfecting a verbal surface, was not simply a fashion which has passed from the literary scene, and not an article of artistic faith at all. If Powers will not be remembered perhaps the reason is that his principle of style, like a green felt hat trimmed with sequins and gold braid and covered with a black lace veil, belongs to a past that is irrecoverably past. Call it the Age of Finish, a closed chapter of literary history. And Leonard, if he is remembered, will be remembered by an age that is not so fussy with its words.

Update, 8/22/13: After writing the above, I received a warm note from Katherine A. Powers. She includes, as usual for her, some striking literary observations, which she has kindly given me permission to quote. She writes: “JFP had a genius for the mot juste and for causing the words he chose to resonate ineffably with a mood or character or situation that I think goes beyond perfecting a verbal surface, that exactness and specificity, though it most certainly includes them. I read my mother’s attempts to write exactly like that passage, to capture every little move and find a simile that adds something slightly comic—and she does, sort of, but the result lacks a sense of ease (and I feel bad saying it). You could date her work almost precisely as belonging to 1940s and 50s, even though her novel was finally published in 1969—I mean belonging in the sense that that is when her literary sensibility and ambition were formed in all its Pride.”

Betty Wahl’s novel Rafferty & Co. was issued by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In her Afterword to Suitable Accommodations, Katherine A. Powers describes the novel as being “based in a gentle way, far too gentle, I would say, on life in Ireland with a man something like [J. F. Powers].” Betty Wahl died in 1988, eleven years before her husband.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Casual slander and reckless clichés

A “warped ex-faculty member of Texas A&M that enables Johnny Manziel”—according to the Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise, that’s what I deserve to be called for crying foul when he says in a column that Manziel, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for the Texas Aggies, is “about a trailer park away from Tonya Harding.” (To be fair, I called Wise a moron for making the comparison.)

Those who are new to the Manziel story may wince at the snobbery of Wise’s “trailer park” crack. All it really proves is that Wise, a graduate of Cal State Fresno, is anxious to shed his class origins and join the East Coast élite. Reading the comparison to Tonya Harding, though, uninformed readers are going to assume that, like her, Manziel must have done something criminal. After all, Harding arranged an assault on Nancy Kerrigan, her skating opponent. Harding acted less like an athlete, seeking to defeat her competition, than like a gangster who wanted to maim a gangland rival.

Although Harding avoided prison through a plea bargain, Manziel may not be so lucky. Or so at least you would be right to assume after reading Wise’s column on him. And what exactly did Manziel do wrong, then? Hire thugs to break the legs of A. J. McCarron, the quarterback for Alabama? What else could be comparable to criminal assault? Here is what Manziel stands accused of: apparently he sold his autograph. For filthy lucre. ESPN has the incriminating photo of him signing his name. Signing his name? The monster!

For a college athlete to profit from his possibly short-lived fame is a violation of regulations set down by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). If he sold his autograph then Manziel admittedly “broke the rules.” What few in the sportswriting world are prepared to do, however, is to step back and look hard at the NCAA rule that prohibits athletes from trading on their own identity. Yet how is it even legal for an organization to prohibit someone from selling his own autograph? Doesn’t it belong by rights to him?

The truth is that the NCAA rule is an unenforceable contract seeking to restrain trade. It is an illegal and unethical maneuver to prevent competition from athletes, who might cut into the NCAA’s own profits—and the profits of its member schools—if they were allowed to trade freely in memorabilia. In economic terms, the NCAA is a cartel not unlike OPEC, which colludes to set prices and squeeze out competitors. Why else do college football coaches, middle-aged men, overwhelmingly white, earn seven-figure salaries while the players, who actually win and lose the games on the field, risk career-ending injury for a “scholarship” (tuition waiver, room and board, school supplies) that is “worth” less than the median household income in the U.S.?

Wise explains why the system is fair and why Manziel is as rotten as Tonya Harding:

Prominent athletes who stand to reap great rewards from their considerable physical talent and personal appeal have to understand, even at 20, that they are held to a higher standard of decency and behavior than other kids hitting the kegger in the back of the dorm room. Signing a scholarship with a school of Texas A&M’s caliber means you literally sign up for that double standard.You’ve got to love the language. Manziel “stands to reap great rewards” someday. So he should shut up and accept the “double standard” by which he earns 1.3% of what Kevin Sumlin, his coach, is paid for inserting Manziel into the lineup. Because, you know, Johnny Football (as he is called) stands to reap the rewards later. Unless he gets injured, of course. Or unless sportswriting hacks like Mike Wise succeed in ruining his reputation.

You will read Wise’s column and not learn any of this, because despite the fact that Wise is paid to be a journalist, he is less interested in facts than in casual slander and reckless clichés.

Monday, August 12, 2013

No one left to whack

Just recently, in homage to the late James Gandolfini, I watched all six seasons of HBO’s crime drama The Sopranos for the first time. Originally running from 1999 to 2007, The Sopranos was the first television production conceived as a season-long “narrative arc” rather than a bona-fide “series” of self-contained episodes connected to one another only by the recurring characters of a regular cast—the model of the sit-com. (Ed.: Levi Asher insists that David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was first, and warns that any readers who mistake my claim for the truth might get their asses kicked in a bar if they repeat it. Although I can’t imagine Twin Peaks fans kicking the asses of Commonplace Blog fans, I think it’s only fair to record Asher’s dissent here.)

The police procedurals Hill Street Blues (1981–’87), NYPD Blue (1993–2005), and Homicide: Life of the Street (1993–’99) combined both methods, telling complete-in-themselves 40- to 45-minute stories while also incorporating a larger “narrative arc” that clamped some or all of the episodes together. And of course even sit-coms depend upon running gags or character quirks, which the viewers were expected to know ahead of time.

The Sopranos was the first, however, to use the “arc” as its principle of structure. Or, to say it otherwise, if David Chase had never persuaded HBO officials to introduce Tony Soprano to the American television public, there would never have been the later (and, frankly, better) dramas The Wire (2002-’08) and Deadwood (2004–’06).

It has been little remarked upon that the dramatic model behind The Sopranos is the soap opera. For six seasons Chase, Gandolfini, and company struggled against the soap-operish qualities of the Soprano family saga. Will Carmela sleep with Furio? Will Tony and Carmela divorce? Will Christopher make a honest woman of Adriana? Will Meadow and A. J. ever grow up and start acting like adults? It wouldn’t be too wide of the mark, in fact, to describe The Sopranos as a foul-mouthed soap opera with murders—sixty-five of them over the show’s eighty-six episodes.

In the end, though, The Sopranos is about Tony Soprano, the boss of a New Jersey crime organization. As Jeff Halperin says in the best thing I’ve read about it, The Sopranos is “about a single mind,” with ambitions to lay bare “the inner workings of a single person’s mind.” (In Halperin’s opinion, this ambition raises it above The Wire, which aims to “demonstrate the inner workings of society.” He could have added that Deadwood has an even grander ambition—to chronicle the rise of a civilization.)

Halperin’s account also has the advantage of explaining the controversial ending of The Sopranos. A smiling and relaxed Tony is meeting his family at a New Jersey diner when the screen abruptly goes black. What has happened is that Tony has been whacked. He never saw the hit coming, never noticed the hitman enter the restaurant and shoot glances at him, never noticed him go to the bathroom just like Michael Corleone in The Godfather as a prelude to a hit.

Chase was scrupulous (even overly scrupulous) in planting the clues. In the episode called “Soprano Home Movies,” Tony’s brother-in-law Bobby Baccalieri had reflected on getting whacked: “You probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?” (Bobby himself is noisily whacked in the next-to-last episode, flopping around a model-train store before finally expiring in the middle of a store display with trains crashing off bridges and bystanders clutching their ears and screaming.)

To make sure the viewer gets the point, Chase included a flashback of Bobby’s remark (untrue in his case) early in the last episode. The screen goes black because Tony has been shot in the back of the head; he didn’t even hear it when it happened. The Sopranos ends when Tony dies, when there is no one left to whack. (Only Paulie Walnuts, of the original Soprano “crew,” remains alive at the end of the show.) As the anonymous author of the “Definitive Explanation of ‘The End’ ” says, “Once Tony is dead, there is no show. If Tony was to die it had to be the last moment of the series. The show ends where Tony’s consciousness ends.”

In an amusing effort to review all six seasons in twenty-five epigrammatic nuggets, Edwin Turner wrote a couple of years ago that he views The Sopranos as a “study in existential nihilism”:

To put it in the series’ own terms, life is “all a big nothing.” In the series’ final scene in a diner, we’re reminded that the best we can hope for is to enjoy the “good times,” to focus on those moments of peace and happiness with our families. But ultimately, the series suggests nihilism, the “big nothing,” a void signaled in its famous closing shot of extended, abyssal blackness.What Turner overlooks is how neatly Chase, who wrote and directed both the pilot episode and its finale, completes the circle of the show’s six-year run.

The Sopranos starts off by borrowing the storytelling device of Portnoy’s Complaint. Tony begins his own “narrative arc” by addressing Dr. Jennifer Melfi in psychotherapy. He tells her about a pair of ducks, “from Canada or someplace,” which took up residence in his pool. They gave birth to ducklings and taught them to fly. “It was amazing,” he says happily. The scene shifts to the interior of his house where his family is having breakfast on his son Anthony Jr.’s thirteenth birthday. Tony comes in, chuffs his son, pats his wife on the backside, picks up an oversized bird encyclopedia. There is nothing to suggest that Tony is anything other than an ordinary family man until scenes of violence and meetings with “associates,” narrated less than candidly to Dr Melfi, identify him as a Mafioso.

“Do you feel depressed?” she asks without warning. “Since the ducks left,” Tony confesses. “What is it about those ducks that meant so much to you?” she asks in another session late in the episode. He begins crying. “When the ducks gave birth to those babies,” she points out, “they became a family.” Tony has a moment of insight:You’re right. That’s the link. The connection. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my family like I lost the ducks. That’s what I’m full of dread about. It’s always with me.For eight years it is with him. Finally, though, after all the murders and suicides and attempted suicides, the adultery and the drugs and the meaningless violence, after the longstanding feud with the New York-based Lupertazzi crime organization that claimed so many lives, Tony has his family around him again, intact and healthy. He is listening to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” on the jukebox. And then it ends. Just like that.

Tony Soprano is not a tragic figure. His death, presumably, is violent, but the violence is not dramatized. A man’s death, as Roman Tsivkin has quipped, does not happen in his lifetime. For the tragic pleasure, though, it must occur in the drama. In the terms of The Sopranos, Tony may be a great man, but his fate and flaw and fall are not what The Sopranos is ultimately about.

As trivial as it may sound, The Sopranos is about the completion of its own design. Tony’s dread, enunciated in the first episode, is dissipated in the finale. Tony’s other family, the DiMeo crime organization, has largely been destroyed. Dr Melfi has terminated their therapy, saying, “I don’t think I can help you.” There is nothing more to tell. The “narrative arc” has been closed.

And to me, this accounts for both the dramatic success and dramatic failure of The Sopranos. On the one hand, its clear focus on a “single mind” and its strong narrative design are what keep you watching—they make, as the phrase goes, for good television. On the other hand, Tony Soprano is a miserable human being. He is a murderer and an adulterer without a conscience, the textbook definition of a sociopath. (That’s the reason, by the way, Dr Melfi finally concedes she can do nothing for him “therapeutically.”)

He has one moment when he appears to be on the path to something like redemption. Reconciled with Carmela after a nearly year-and-a-half-long separation, he rejects the sexual advances of a drug-addicted commercial realtor who is aroused by the deal they have consummated together. But the moment passes. Tony regrets his self-restraint and returns to his customary ways. The most horrifying moment in the series occurs just one month later, in the fourth-to-last episode, when he murders Christopher Moltisanti, the younger cousin whom he once loved like a son, smothering him after a car accident. Christopher’s death, he tells Dr Melfi, leaves him feeling relieved.

There is nothing, in short, to identify with in Tony Soprano. What keeps you watching is the narrative force, the technical expertise of eye-catching storytelling. After a while, though, The Sopranos begins to feel like a dependency, if not an addiction. Like Dr Melfi, you feel a growing uneasiness and hostility toward Tony Soprano. As good a filmmaker as David Chase is, he is unable to turn your moral sense until you begin to pull for the murderer, as you do, say, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

The result is a dramatic spectacle. That it isn’t ninety minutes of explosions and fit young men defying gravity by leaping impossible lengths is a cinematic advance, I suppose, when compared to what Hollywood has been bringing to theaters in the years since The Sopranos first debuted. But the appeal is, in its genes, much the same. When the screen goes black in the final episode, you feel neither fear nor pity. Nor do you sit back and contemplate the meaning of existential nihilism.

No, you look for something else to watch.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The babble of literary gossip

Over at Gawker this morning J. K. Trotter dishes the dirt on Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Or, rather, its dust jacket. Trotter reports that the sliver of the anonymous letter pictured on the cover, which Delphine Roux sends to Coleman Silk in the novel—

Everyone knows you’re
sexually exploiting an
abused, illiterate
woman half your
—is the reproduction of an actual letter that Philip Roth himself received. From the rival novelist Francine du Plessix Gray (pictured below), a neighbor to Roth’s ex-wife Claire Bloom, if the former FBI agent hired by Roth to track down the anonymous letter’s sender is to be believed.

Gray denies sending any such letter, of course. And it never occurs to Trotter to ask the obvious question. If Roth actually received an anonymous note like Coleman Silk’s then who was his Faunia Farley, the “abused, illiterate woman” he was supposed to be sexually exploiting?

There is an even more obvious question. What difference, for an understanding and appreciation of the novel, could it possibly make? Like so many of those who hang around the fringes of literature, Trotter is more interested in gossip, the easy externals, than in the working machinery of fiction.

This isn’t the first time Roth has been obliged to defend The Human Stain from “the babble of literary gossip.” Last year he wrote an open letter to Wikipedia in which he patiently explained that the late Anatole Broyard, a critic for the New York Times who “passed” as white despite black parentage, was not the original of Coleman Silk. Like Mickey Sabbath and Swede Levov, his main character was “invented from scratch.” Roth explained how fiction works:Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend. Like most every other novelist I know, once I had what Henry James called “the germ” [which was indeed an actual event] I proceeded to pretend and to invent Faunia Farley; Les Farley; Coleman Silk; Coleman’s family background; the girlfriends of his youth; his brief professional career as a boxer; the college where he rises to be a dean. . . [etc.].I get cramps when I repeat myself, but for the benefit of those who would like me to blog more frequently I will: the only question in fiction is how consistently and well the writer adheres to the self-determined rules of his own game. Or, as J. V. Cunningham put it with rather more elegance, his “one theme is his allegiance to his scheme.”

Thus it may be the fact that John Williams was “inspired” to write his brilliant novel Stoner by a “real-life feud” in the English department at the University of Missouri, as two journalists claim in a recent article in Vox, or it may be the fact that J. V. Cunningham was the original for William Stoner, as the late Donald E. Stanford told me when I visited him in Baton Rouge (and as I told Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times twenty years later). But the actual facts are irrelevant to the fiction, which depends on how Williams transmuted them into a coherent world of new and interdependent facts.

Dust jackets and the originals of fictional characters are what we babble about when we don’t know how to talk about fiction. Sportswriters do much the same, yammering away about Johnny Manziel’s partying or Tim Tebow’s praying to avoid the effort of understanding difficult games from the inside. The gossip is harmless except when it masquerades as knowledge. In literature, it threatens to reduce every novel ever written to a roman à clef. When that happens, the only thing readers will need is a key.