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Finishing my first novel (borderline novella) Vague Pains was one of the best feelings of my life. Being an avid reader made me painfully aware of my shortcomings as a writer, but after about a decade of muddling I was proud of the 120ish pages in the book.

The writing is coming easier now. The self-criticism when I’m reading my work has evolved from the paralyzing this sucks to the useful this sucks because…

I’ve mentioned it before but many of my favorite books are long ones. Melville, Eliot, Dostoevsky, and many others wrote monster novels you could get lost inside. This is even true in the nonfiction realm, like Stephen Kotkin‘s forest-decimating Stalin biographies (each of the first two fascinating volumes were about a thousand pages, with more on the way). As a reader you have to swim out so deep that your feet can’t touch the bottom of your familiar life.

As much as I would love to do it, I don’t know if I have it in me to write a thousand page beast of a book, much less make it worth reading. Although, as a side note I will take a moment to appreciate even those gargantuan books so mind numbing as to make them nearly unreadable, the book version of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. After all, you are talking to one of those rare weirdos who made it through all 976 pages of The Exegesis of Philip K Dick.

All of this to say I’m trying to write a long book, a book, as Laurie Anderson put it, “thick enough to stun an ox.”

I am still on the rough draft of my new project, with many of the chapters still in a sketched out form, and at this point it’s about 60,000 words. Initially I was fixated on the idea of the story cracking 1,000 pages, but of course that’s a stupid goal- more in the interest of my ego than telling a good story. I really love what is taking shape, so I’ll let the story be whatever length it wants to be.

Besides, even at this length I bet a hardcover edition could stun an ox.

8th Grade, time and storytelling

It’s fascinating how the use of time in a story can have so much impact. Watching Memento for the first time you are just as confused as the protagonist, because the film moves backward in time. It’s more than a gimmick because it connects the viewer to the character. A fan-made re-edit with the scenes in chronological order apparently transforms it into a standard, forgettable thriller. The magic was in the use of time.

Arrival takes this a step further, with time not just being shuffled, but always present. Not to spoil much, but there is an early poignant scene, which you later realize occurs later in the character’s timeline, only to later realize that it is somehow always happening… Insert exploding head emoji here. It is powerful because Amy Adams’s character chooses to take an action, knowing it’s consequences, confident because in some sense she has already been through it. For the viewer, the structure of the film, with that early out of sequence scene, gave the realization extra impact.

The play Stop Kiss uses time to take a story —which could have ended on a tragic note— and instead insist on a happy ending (at least in the chronology of the scenes).

The use of time in storytelling was on my mind after watching the excellent movie Eighth Grade. By focusing in a very specific period of time, it reveals so much of the main character and her world. You don’t get to see what the earlier version of Kayla (the one who made the optimistic time capsule) was like, but the Eighth-Grade Kayla’s life is not what she was hoping. By the end of the movie, she has a more guarded, but still optimistic view of the future. Based on her dad’s pep talk and the signs of personal growth the viewer can’t help but feel optimistic about her future too.

It’s interesting to me because it seems like the movie is using time in another, more subtle way. Most viewers will be well past their own Eighth Grade experiences, and will be thinking on some level, I’m sure she’ll turn out ok. After all I made it. There is a similar kind of reassuring open endedness in Ladybird and to a lesser extent Boyhood. 

It’s a compelling technique to use not just the character’s or the story’s sense of time, but the audience’s own sense of time/experience to send a message.

Castle Rock is great and they should stop now.

 

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When episodes of Castle Rock started streaming on Hulu, the timing was perfect for me. I had been catching up on the sprawling world of Stephen King audiobooks, and some of the less egregious movies. If an audiobook really impacts me, I’ll usually buy a paperback so I can underline and dogear the good parts. King’s novels are a fun way to spend an afternoon, but it doesn’t bother me if they don’t make it into long term memory.

Castle Rock is a little different. It’s got a complicated mythology, and J.J. Abrams is involved, so the comparisons to Lost are inevitable. Also like Lost, as the season’s 10 episodes pass by, two more questions are opened up for every one that is answered. Early on it is exhilarating, but by the end you can’t help but wonder if they are ever going to be able to tie up all these unresolved plot threads.

I liked Hulu’s method of parsing out one episode a week. Being at work on Wednesdays and anticipating getting home to watch the latest episode with my wife really did make it more enjoyable. We’ve had a lot more conversation about the show than we would have if the whole season was released at once. There’s no way we could have had the self control to resist plowing through the whole thing in a weekend if we had the option.

Overall I think the show is well acted, and has a way with cliffhangers just satisfying enough to keep you from feeling cheated. Great show. Liked it a lot. But I think they should stop now and not make a second season. To get into why I’ll have to get into the plot so fair warning: Spoiler Alert.

They have opened up so many plot rabbit trails now that it feels like the show is at risk of losing any clear direction. Lost kept doing this to the point that it really didn’t matter if there were answers to all the questions or not. I say this as a fan of Lost, who actually didn’t mind the ending. In a bonus scene from the series Ben shows up at a warehouse and has a conversation with two Dharma Initiative employees who serve as stand ins for the audience to ask about all the unresolved questions from the show. I finished watching the scene, shrugged and thought, oh, ok. It made me wonder why they opened all these doors when they didn’t have any bearing on the main story, so much so that they didn’t even need to be addressed in an episode of the show.

Right now Castle Rock has enough unanswered questions that I think a viewer can guess at how it all could tie together. Here’s my best effort. The show has made it clear that Castle Rock is a place where bad things happen, and it seems to be related to “The Kid.” For some reason, when he was hidden away in the bowels of the jail, the evil of the town was kept in check. When he is released things start to hit the fan again. My impression is that the way the kid seems withdrawn/lost in thought means that it is more complicated than he is evil personified (“the devil” as he is referred to by some in the show). To me this is backed up when he says something to the effect that he should be locked back up. Sure he has a creepy stare, and kills people and causes psychotic delusions, but it seems more like he is a guy who is possessed rather than entirely evil.

Meanwhile, I suppose the explanation about the voice of God in the woods is more or less what Odin Branch says- something like a connection point in all possible worlds.

How this ties into “The Kid” and the evil influence on the town, here’s my best guess… It doesn’t seem like the idea of a connection spot between possible worlds should be inherently evil. So maybe some evil spirit/force/whatever is using it as a passageway between these timelines. Somehow this force took possesion of “The Kid.” When he was locked away, the town was no longer under it’s influence.

Also I guess in this world psychic powers are real, because of Henry and Molly’s connection. That’s not a plot point, but just an observation. Maybe Ruth’s movement in time is related to a psychic-type sensitivity that she has living close to the “voice of God.”

I doubt this explains every single unanswered question, but enough of them. I’m not 100% that this is what the show writer’s had in mind, but most of what I’m inferring seems to be a short leap from what’s been revealed.

Regarding the final episode: “The Kid” tells a story of being an alternate-timeline Henry Deaver and tells this whole backstory. At the end he asks the listener/audience if they believe him. It actually is a pretty cool way to end the story, because it is ambiguous. My thought: it is a lie. Please Oh Please J.J. Abrams do not do another stupid “Flash Sideways” plot device like in Lost! This would only exponentially open up loose rabbit trails in the plot that could never be resolved in a satisfying way.

(Here, in a plot twist worthy of Castle Rock, is where I realize that there are actually ten episodes in Season One, not nine. I haven’t seen episode ten yet).

To Be Continued…

 

 

 

“Mandy”Review: 3 out of 5 Hallucinogenic Wasps

7A53E88F-D1F6-4417-A092-6C444BF5EE69“You have got to see this,” my wife said, handing me her phone with the trailer to Mandy cued up. So I did…and here we go. Fair warning: spoilers ahead.

What I liked

First I love the concept behind Legion M, and thought Colossal was pretty cool.

Also, the visuals in this movie were incredible. That alone made it worth watching for me. Whole scenes were illuminated in pulsing reds and blues which really worked well. After reaching the climax under blinking red radio tower it makes you reconsider the earlier scenes in red. Is it foreshadowing? Is the director saying it was fate for the story to unfold as it did? Is it a statement about the nature of time itself? I dunno, but it’s cool. Given the themes of high emotion, dreams, imagination and various hallucinogens, the trippy visuals work- like the alien sky, and the slowing of time when the cult leader sees Mandy for first time.

I also really enjoyed the nods to classic 80’s moviemaking. This extended from little touches like the shot of the psycho biker clearly “riding” stationary in front of a green screen, apparently down to the camera and shooting format itself. It’s a great idea for a movie set in the 80’s and works well. Even the style of gore feels imported out of the 80’s- think melting heads from Raiders of the Lost Ark and voluminous movie blood. Compared to the forced nostalgia of Summer of ‘84 this really nailed the feel of the decade.

What I didn’t like

There’s this great part in Big Trouble in Little China where the bad guys (with a damsel in distress in the trunk) attempt to run over Kurt Russell and his sidekick. They dive out of the way just in time. Russell rises and with an icy stare says, “Son of a b*tch must pay.” It’s simultaneously hilarious and and exciting at the same time. It works because it is true to the character in the story: a macho dude who is a little ridiculous.

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In Mandy there are some lines like this that feel natural and earned, like, when Cage is warned that he is almost certainly going to die taking on the bikers and replies, “Don’t be negative.” Others feel so forced and out of place because they just don’t fit the character. When Rad (a.k.a. Nicolas Cage) calls one of the demon bikers a snowflake before tripping him into an abyss it just comes off weird (wait, did they have Twitter in the 80’s?). It feels too self aware, bordering on Sharknado territory. Believe me, I hate it when people nitpick movies, especially when it’s assumed that there will be major suspension of disbelief in a movie this nuts. Still, it might be a quotable line, but when Nicolas Cage gets slashed across the chest and he shouts that they just ruined his favorite shirt, it undermines the stakes that they set up. Wasn’t that the point of the extended scene of him crying when Mandy was burned?

Consider the backstory of the crazy bikers, which works great. They’re killer psychos because of bad batch of LSD. For the rest of the movie they are comprehensible by this logic. If one gets shot by a crossbow, he may just stand there like he doesn’t care. On the other hand, early on Red is presented as a pretty unremarkable guy. He just lays there when the bikers break into the cabin and gets knocked out. He has no super strength to get him out of his barbed wire when he sees Mandy killed. Then a few scenes later he’s forging a weapon, a crossbow sniper and skilled at chainsaw fencing. Buy the time he catches up with the cult there is ZERO tension because apparently he’s got no human limitations.

Final Thoughts

I’ll leave aside a discussion of “fridging” of Mandy. I’m not sure if this is an intentional nod to another 80’s trope or lazy writing. The movie was certainly more tasteful when it came to leering at the female victims. I’m including the non-complicit cult member along with Mandy here. Considering how every other aspect is so over-the-top, this feels intentional, and contrasts with entire scene with Jeremiah’s junk in full view.

Overall the movie is packed with fascinating visuals, and overflowing with ideas. It is certainly flawed, but worth checking out if you have a strong stomach.

Review: “Someone Like Me” by John W. Quinn

Every now and then I come across a really special book. There’s nothing like the exhilaration of being pulled into a gifted author’s world. Usually when this happens it’s with books that are already rightfully famous. You’re not going to blow too many minds if you tell someone that you just finished To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s a masterpiece…yeah…maybe that’s why everyone has heard of it…

So it feels especially exciting to find a special book that isn’t already in the canon of Great Works. That’s how I felt reading Someone Like Me by John W. Quinn. It is one of those rare memoirs with a great story and told well- a man born with cerebral palsy, who against all odds (with the help of seemingly endless determination) hid his diagnosis to make a 20 year, highly successful career in the U.S. Navy.  Honestly, the less you know going into it going in the better, so I won’t reveal much more. I will tell you that I read it in one day, and that it is among the best books I have ever read.

Early on the author writes, “I didn’t even know where to put the commas or the quotation marks when I began [writing the book].” He may well be a naturally gifted story teller, but I think a big part of how Someone Like Me came out so engaging and well crafted is that the author was an avid reader. There’s something about spending time in the company of great writers that just rubs off. Knowing where to put the commas and quatotion marks is pretty minor stuff compared to the magic of a great story. The pacing is excellent, keeping you engaged through his formative years and early struggles. He shares small details that keep you invested, and insights into family members’ emotional lives that make you care without ever getting bogged down. As we pass into adulthood he is careful to never give the reader what they have been trained to expect from a lifetime of “uplifting” stories: an easy solution. As an 80’s kid I learned that The Karate Kid won his big fight and everything was ok, The Goonies found the treasure so the neighborhood was saved, and with enough bullets John McClaine can not only take out the terrorists but also save his marriage. In Someone Like Me you see the more complicated truth: heroism doesn’t make you perfect, or fix all of life’s problems.

The author closes the book with two simple thoughts, but by following the course of his life they have become invested with the weight of truth. I can’t just help you skip to the end of the book and tell you what they are. You have to get there yourself. I promise you this- it’s worth the journey!

The Tao of Boyhood

I have no idea what Tao is. I’ve read the Tao te Ching, which says “the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” I suppose that means my confusion must make me an expert. After finishing the short, strange book my best guess that Tao is something like the mystery of life, which is harder to grasp the more you try to do just that.

This came to mind last night when I watched the utterly unique movie Boyhood.  Filmed over 12 years, the viewer watches a boy and his sister (played by the director’s daughter) grow into adulthood. The story itself I think was good, and well acted. Trying to compress so many years into 2 hours and 45 minutes necessarily meant that in some scenes characters needed to unload quite a bit of exposition, which was sometimes awkward. Still, I was totally along for the ride, even with the long running time.

It was a completely mind blowing watching the kids age year after year, completely unlike anything I have ever seen. I am a fan of the Up series, which starting at age 7 interviewed a group of kids every 7 years, with 56 Up, released in 2012, being the latest addition. However, there is something reassuring about the jarring 7 year gaps between interviews. It seems to break time into a series of steps, instead of the steady, incessant march of time in Boyhood. The thing about traveling on stairs is that you choose when to take a step and can linger on a stair as long as you want. In Boyhood…the “slippery slope” cliché, and all of the loss of control that implies, comes to mind.

That’s where Tao comes in, at least in my limited (and therefore perfect) understanding of it. What could possibly be more banal than the observation that kids grow up? Yet watching it in this condensed form felt profound. I can’t possibly explain it, but it felt like bearing witness to the mystery of life itself.

 

The MUTT

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On June 16 I ran The Mutt (Mid-Michigan Ultra Team Trail) Race in Clare, Michigan. Our team had a 5 mile runner (Chris), 10 mile runner (Josh), 20 mile runner (Tom) and I ran the 50k leg. I don’t normally run with other people, so doing the first 10 miles with other team members was special. It was fun getting to know the other guys better and encourage each other along. I hadn’t heard of another race that was done this way instead of consecutive relay-style legs, and I loved it. It was a small event, with only 20-some teams. The night before I stayed at a bed and breakfast called The Sweetfern Inn, which I would highly recommend. The course was relatively flat, with some decent (for Michigan) hills near the end. Since the 50k leg is an “out and back,” that meant I hit them around mile 10-15ish, and then again on the way back 16-20ish. The aid stations were well stocked and seemed to be spaced out well. We ran almost entirely through woods, so even though it was a hot day we were spared the worst of the heat and sun. While I appreciated the breathing room on the course, more runners should be coming out to enjoy the MUTT. This was only my third 50k, but I would absolutely do this one again next year.

On a personal level, this was one of the few runs I’ve done where I kept the earbuds out then entire time. Usually I’ll give in and listen to music at some point our of boredom or needing an energy boost. Whenever I can manage to do a long run without music/audiobook/podcast distractions I feel much more at peace at the end. It was a great day.

The sins of the fathers

“Who can avoid the sins of the fathers? but you go ahead kid, it’s your turn to walk on water” Daniel Amos

I think if I were to ever get a tattoo, it would be this image (drawn by Robin Clarijs):

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I recently read Moby Dick for the second time.  It is such a profound work, with some of the best lines I have ever read.  The most memorable passage is in Chapter 60, which talks about the way the whaling line is wrapped around the rowers in the small boats that chase the whales during a hunt; in time people get used to being surrounded by the life-threatening danger these ropes can pose.  You can read the entire chapter here.

There are some understandable beefs you can have with Moby Dick.   The lengthy section proposing a new way of organizing all the whale species is admittedly pretty boring.  More significant would be the horrific racism, which would appear to be a valid tattoo veto.

If you’ve read the book, your know what I’m talking about.  If not, here’s a 12th grade book report that will give you an idea.  Basically any racial stereotype you can imagine is presented at some point in the book.  I mean, in chapter 34 he uses the phrase “noble savage” verbatim.  Prior to my beloved passage in chapter 60, there is an appalling line about how the golden-colored rope is better than the dark colored line…you know…just like people…

Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X Kendi (which I am currently reading) describes the insidious way racism has shaped crept into every aspect of American culture, and Moby Dick certainly was a influenced by its time.

If you are feeling charitable towards Melville though (admittedly easier for a white dude to do), you can find some extenuating circumstances too.  All of the characters are heightened, and he seems to describe all cultures in broad strokes, such as the mention of “the all-grasping western world” in chapter 87.  When these caricatures of cultures collide, Melville often sides with the non-western one, such as in the end of chapter 65 and the early chapters where Queequeg is introduced.  Of course, these same chapters also include plenty of cringe-worthy stereotypes.  My goal here is not to absolve Melville, but to add a little nuance.  Also, there is some reason to believe that Ishmael is an unreliable narrator.  For example the supposed statement of the Spanish Don Pedro from chapter 54, “‘Nay, Senor; hereabouts in this dull, warm, mostly lazy, and hereditary land, we know but little of your vigorous North.'” As a reader far removed from the 1851 writing of the novel it’s hard to say for certain, but to me it seems too over-the-top to be read as serious dialogue.

For all of its profundity (and the explanations/excuses one can make), it is just plain disturbing to read lines such as, “the white man[‘s] ideal mastership over every dusky tribe” in chapter 42.  The vast majority of this 800+ page book is beautifully written, but the ugliness is there, and it matters.  I frankly don’t know what to do with this.

Perhaps that’s why the illustration above appeals to me.  It shows a scene from Moby Dick, but with paper boats instead of actual ones.  It seems to be saying that you can take what is valuable from the story but are free to cast off the rest.  I guess that is a decision for each reader to make for themselves.

Time’s Tell

It is every artists’ hope that their work stands the test of time.  And yet, every creation is a product of its time, and it is hard to anticipate what future-audiences will perceive as “dated.”

I recently read The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror for the first time.  Both are good spooky stories.  Still, they both clearly feel like a product of the 1970’s.  For example, both involve lengthy passages where clergy debate if the freaky goings on could be the result of ESP or telekinesis- concepts  much more in the culture of the time it was written.  Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  As they often point out in The Next Picture Show (one of my favorite podcasts)- the idea of a work being “dated” isn’t really a fair criticism.  How can a work not be a product of its time?  Still, for authors, who are notoriously protective of their work, this is just one more disturbing thing outside of your control.

A good story is a good story.  As a modern reader, reaching these passages just caused a momentary, Huh. That’s weird, then back into the flow.  In setting my book in 2009, I have the luxury of a slight remove to frame the story from a bit of a safe distance.  And yet, it is interesting to wonder which aspects of the writing, invisible to me now,  might give a future-reader pause.