Category Archives: course readings

On The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and why Peter Jackson needs an Emma Thompson

I started my Tolkien course last Thursday, and have been hip-deep in cobbling together my lectures for upcoming classes. I’m not sure how much lecture material will surface on this blog; some, certainly, but mostly what I’m thinking here is personal recollections of reading LotR and subjective reactions to my current re-reading. That being said, I’m doing a lecture this week on The Hobbit as preface to getting into LotR proper; and while I’ll spare you, gentle reader, my pedantry on how The Hobbit fits into the Tolkien mythos, I have been pecking away at a review of The Desolation of Smaug since I went to see it a few weeks ago. It is not, perhaps, how I wanted to kick off my Return to Middle-Earth posts, but it’s the one that I have done.

Also: spoilers.

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It possibly seems, if not counter-intuitive, then possibly a little pedantic to criticize fantasy for willfully ignoring the laws of physics. Come on, you might say: we’re talking about an alternative reality in which magic, dragons, goblins, wizards, immortal elves, and giant talking spiders exist. Surely in such a context, anything goes?

Well, no. Not at all, really … and when Thorin Oakenshield rides a wheelbarrow down a river of molten metal in the bowels of the Lonely Mountain, the fact that he was doing so to escape a fire-breathing dragon with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t prevent my hackles from going up. You see, Thorin was more or less prone in the wheelbarrow, lying on his belly, and did not seem to suffer at all from the raging heat a few inches on the other side of the vessel. Even granting the possibility that Middle-Earth’s dwarves have developed building materials with the heat-protection qualities of uber-asbestos, such close proximity to molten metal would certainly roast one’s lungs and eyeballs and raise a few blisters.

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I was similarly irked by Peter Jackson’s revision of the barrel-riding sequence, in which the dwarves and Bilbo escape from the wood-elves in empty wine barrels. In the novel, they are sealed inside. In the film, they ride them as if they were little boats, plunging over waterfalls and through surging rapids, and not only do none of them get swamped or flipped or simply sunk, but apparently the barrels are stable enough for our old friend Legolas to leap into the middle of the stream and balance with each of his feet on the head of a dwarf while he shoots arrows at pursuing orcs … and then jump straight up, turn around in mid-air, and land again on the annoyed dwarves so he can shoot in the other direction.

Granted, we’re familiar with Legolas’ acrobatics in The Lord of the Rings, whether he’s riding a shield down a set of stairs or sliding down a massive elephant’s trunk (again, shooting arrows all the while). But this film takes even his nimbleness to absurd levels.

legolasAs I watched The Desolation of Smaug, I had the same thought I had with An Unexpected Journey: that Peter Jackson really needs someone on his team to say “Um, perhaps that’s a little much?” Actually, I suspect he does have people like that … perhaps he just has to listen to them. It’s sort of like when Kenneth Branagh first started making films: Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing were both extremely well done, and while they approached the line between restraint and excess, they both held back … just barely, perhaps, but they held back. My theory is that Emma Thompson was his voice of reason, because after they split, he did not just cross that line but pole-vaulted it.

Peter Jackson needs an Emma Thompson.

Like Branagh, Jackson seems always to want to err on the side of excess, and he has an unfortunate tendency toward slapstick (poor Gimli). For whatever reason, he showed considerable restraint in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, I had no way of knowing he had showed restraint until I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a film in which all of his unfortunate tendencies were on display: the film was dilatory to the point of being tedious, frequently glib and silly, and … the slapstick. Oh, the slapstick. Whether it was the unfortunately expanded role of Radagast the Brown or the comic turn of the Great Goblin (voiced by Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna), there weren’t very many moments where Jackson resisted the temptation for physical humour.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEYNow, one protest that could be made here is that this is merely in keeping with the source material: The Hobbit is an eminently silly novel, and indeed slapstick plays a significant role in some of what might otherwise be terrifying scenes. The trolls’ working-class yob dialogue, for example, or the goblins’ hysterical reaction to Gandalf and Thorin’s swords, which ultimately reminds me of nothing other than a manic Benny Hill skit. Ditto for the encounter with the giant spiders, whose natural menace is mitigated by the fact that, like the trolls, they talk like bumbling and hapless Cockney comic villains. With this in mind, it raises the question: in making these films deliberately sillier, isn’t Peter Jackson simply being more faithful to the novel?

Well, yes and no … one of the shrewd things about the way in which J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series is the way in which the novels mature along with Harry (and, as Rowling has said, her ideal reader, who starts the series at age eleven). But in so doing she introduces comic elements in The Philosopher’s Stone—such as the wizarding world’s complete bafflement with Muggle science, technology, and fashion—that are entirely at home in a children’s novel but which become increasingly incongruous as the novels grown more expansive, more complex, and more serious. In The Philosopher’s Stone we laugh at wizards’ confusion about wearing polka dots with stripes, but by The Half-Blood Prince, it strains credulity that Arthur Weasley’s dearest wish is to learn how airplanes stay aloft (if he really is as obsessed with Muggle technology as the books make him out to be, it would not be a difficult thing to figure out—Ask Hermione! is what I always yell).

the-hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-landscapeThere is a similar shift in voice between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The former is a children’s novel through and through; the latter, entirely not. How does Tolkien manage this shift? Well, he cheats: as the old saying goes, The Lord of the Rings puts aside childish things (Tom Bombadil notwithstanding). The Cockney trolls of The Hobbit lose their comic accents, and indeed their voices entire, becoming little more than massive, fearsome beasts; the Benny Hill-esque goblins become terrifying orcs; and the hapless spiders of Mirkwood become Shelob, who remains one of the most terrifying creations I have encountered in fantasy fiction. The first five chapters are transitional, still evincing the general tone and voice of The Hobbit, but once they get to Bree and encounter Strider, the hobbits leave The Hobbit behind for good.

I had wondered how the Hobbit films were going to negotiate this shift in tone; two films in, the answer seems to be: unevenly. Though as I’ve hinted, this unevenness can be at least partially blamed on Jackson’s slapstick tendencies. There is nevertheless the occasional irruption of The Hobbit’s more childish nature—less on display in Smaug, but present nonetheless.

Am I perhaps being unfair? The Hobbit, you might protest, is in fact a children’s novel, and we should not be surprised when its original spirit shows though. Which, I suppose, poses the question: could a film of The Hobbit have in fact been made that was faithful to the tone and spirit of the novel? I’ve mulled this question over, and my answer has to be no—not now, not after Peter Jackson essentially defined Tolkien cinematically. The problem with these Hobbit films is precisely that they must needs provide continuity with The Lord of the Rings—which is to say, we cannot but watch The Hobbit retroactively, with all of the grand sweep of Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth in our minds. Tolkien’s novel, despite all of the distance traveled by Bilbo, provides a very narrow perspective on Middle-Earth: not just in terms of geography, but also history. The Lord of the Rings expands outwards in space and backwards in time almost exponentially. Tolkien did a lot to square up his epic with the substance of his children’s book, and vice versa: he produced a revised edition of The Hobbit in 1947 while he was midway through LotR. He also included material in his appendices to The Lord of the Rings and in Unfinished Tales that supplemented the story of The Hobbit in such a way as to fold it into the broader sweep of Middle-Earth’s history.

It was this supplementary narrative that initially made me cautiously optimistic about Jackson’s overt intention to transform the 350 page Hobbit into a cinematic epic on par with the 1000+ page Lord of the Rings—cautious optimism admittedly fueled by my Tolkien-geek desire to actually see the battle between the White Council and the Necromancer, and all the arguments leading up to it. And indeed, one of the scenes I enjoyed in Smaug was Gandalf’s “chance” meeting with Thorin in Bree, wherein he first proposes the plan to reclaim Erebor from the dragon.

But even so: there simply isn’t enough supplemental material in Tolkien’s paratexts to turn The Hobbit into three three-hour epics, and both films so far have felt excruciatingly long. Again, Jackson errs on the side of excess: the final forty-five minutes of Smaug is like every single overly-long chase scene in every movie you’ve ever seen stitched together and played end to end. Or perhaps I’m exaggerating … but honestly, that is what it felt like.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that these films could have been so good, had Jackson exhibited something resembling restraint. There are gem-like moments, many of them simply sublime shots of the New Zealand-cum-Middle Earth landscape. But the casting is also (mostly) lovely: Martin Freeman was an inspired choice for Bilbo, and he labours heroically; I will watch Ian McKellen in literally anything; and if the best part of the first film was the riddle in the dark sequence between Gollum and Bilbo, Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug is very nearly as good. Fans of Sherlock like myself will love the Cumberbatch/Freeman verbal jousting, and it was also a fantastic example of when CGI can work wonders: the entire film is practically worth the price of admission to see Smaug’s lip curl in a sneer.

dragon1Such a shame they ruined it with the protracted chase sequence.

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Filed under course readings, Return to Middle-Earth

Welcome 2014, or, My semester of geeking out

Happy New Year, everyone! This blog has been on a quasi-hiatus since mid-December, as I recovered from the term and enjoyed the holidays at my parents’ house in Uxbridge, Ontario—which miraculously escaped the ice-storm-induced power outages while providing such scenery as the ice-encrusted tree in the front yard:

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But then, as if in karmic retribution for my cozy sojourn while so many in Ontario went with power, we’ve been experiencing the double whammy of unseasonably cold temperatures, huge amounts of snow, and power outages here in Newfoundland since I got home. Harrumph. Oh well. So it goes.

But I’m back now and gearing up for the winter term. I’ll be teaching two classes. The first, a fourth-year seminar looking at the troika of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy. The concept for this course is cheerfully stolen from a graduate course I took during my PhD—same authors, (mostly) different novels. I’ll have more to say about that course in future posts.

For now, I want to talk about my other course, which I can quite honestly say I’ve been preparing to teach since I was eleven years old: English 3811, which will focus more or less exclusively on The Lord of the Rings. While my academic career has been principally focused on contemporary American literature, film and popular culture, and postmodernism, the reading experience that defined—and still defines—how I read and why was my first encounter with Tolkien. As I have mentioned at various points, fantasy as a genre has always loomed large in my imagination. Over the last year or so, I have migrated back towards it from a more scholarly perspective, looking closely at contemporary fantasists like George R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman and examining the ways in which a not-insignificant number of contemporary writers have been reinventing the genre. Gaiman, Martin, Terry Pratchett, Lev Grossman, and even her nibs Dame Rowling herself, have shifted fantasy’s basis from one grounded in an essentially mythopoeic outlook to a markedly humanist, secular one.

But however much I work on these authors, I keep coming back to Tolkien as if pulled by the gravitational force of a huge planet—he is to fantasy fiction what W.B. Yeats is to Irish poetry, or William Faulkner is to Southern Gothic, except even more so, because his work is as definitional as it is influential.

All of which makes teaching this course an extraordinary opportunity to return to the source, as it were, and to comb through the novel that first taught me that literature can have affect. I’ve been keeping a reading journal as I slowly re-read my favourite novel; over the next few months I’ll be posting on the journey. So have an eye for a Return to Middle-Earth.

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Coming soon: a recollection of my first copy of LotR, and a belated review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Stay tuned.

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Ich bin ein Narnian

jfk-assassination-1.pngYesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Given that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory and paranoia in postwar American literature and popular culture, it seemed appropriate that I should make some comment—I did, after all, devote a good many pages to discussing the key themes and tropes at work in various imaginative treatments of the assassination, especially Don DeLillo’s marvelous novel Libra and Oliver Stone’s less-than-marvelous film JFK (and a whole host of wackiness in between).

The more I thought about what I might write, however, the more it seemed like a futile endeavour—there is little or nothing I could say that would be enlightening about Kennedy at this point, and frankly, I think I’ve got conspiracy fatigue. Not just because I spent five years writing a three-hundred page thesis on the topic, but because of everything that has happened since. When I first conceived of the project, it was still the late 90s (1999, to be precise), a decade that, after some investigation, appeared to comprise a critical mass of conspiracism, from television and film (The X-Files, Enemy of the State, The Matrix) to rather terrifying real-world examples like Timothy McVeigh and the paramilitaries that spawned him. There were very few scholarly studies of conspiracy and paranoia when I sat down to work on my thesis; but as I struggled through it, more and more surfaced, until I began to dread scanning the lists of recently published scholarly books. I never published my thesis as a book, for several reasons: one was that I had the great good fortune to get hired at Memorial about eight months after defending my thesis, which took a lot of the pressure to get it published off; another was that I suffered from that common post-dissertation malaise, in which returning to the scene of the crime (as it were) and revising what you have just devoted (in my case) five years of your life to writing is not unlike probing the nerve of a tooth.

But there was a third factor (or a fourth, if we’re also including my congenital laziness), which was that by the time I defended in September 2004, conspiracism was at once everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere, because 9/11 had given us a brand new morass of paranoid thought (trutherism), and nowhere because the Bush administration—especially in the persons of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney—was so shameless in its prosecution of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, wearing the Patriot Act on its sleeve, that the entire concept of “conspiracy” came to seem somewhat trite. Surveillance? Of course. Torture? You bet your ass. Blatant misdirection? Well, as one unnamed Bush aide (whom we all assume to be Karl Rove) told a reporter, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” It was enough to make one nostalgic for the acknowledgement of transgression that the act of covering up covert operations like Watergate or Iran-Contra implied. The prospect of an enormous conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination is positively comforting by comparison.

I remember an important moment in the evolution of my thinking on conspiracy and paranoia: while going over a chapter in which JFK figured highly, my second reader said, “So tell me something. If someone were to produce absolute, ironclad proof about the truth of Kennedy’s assassination … would it matter?” I’m sure there have been many, many times in my life when I’ve gaped in consternation, and mercifully, I don’t remember most of them. I remember that time. Because of course, the answer is: No, in thunder. The sheer glut of details and information, much of it incongruous and conflicting, has made for a tar-pit that doesn’t just blunt Occam’s Razor but dissolves it to nothing. Don DeLillo captures this critical mass beautifully in Libra in the figure of Nicholas Branch, a CIA researcher tasked with writing the official “secret history” of the Kennedy assassination. After years of work, he has produced next to nothing: “He has extensive and overlapping notes—notes in three-foot drifts, all these years of notes. But of actual finished prose, there is precious little. It is impossible to stop assembling data.” The Warren Report itself, Branch speculates, is “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.” Included in its twenty-six volumes are

Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, cancelled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but it seems to me that the center of gravity of JFK theories has been slowly shifting toward grudging acceptance of the single-shooter theory … or perhaps I only think that because that’s where my mind has gone. Once upon a time, I assumed that the chaos of seemingly conflicting detail, with whole hosts of elements unaccounted for, pointed to a conspiracy; now, I tend to think the opposite. Now, I tend to think that everyday life is a muddle of random crap, most of which we forget when we construct the memory of a given time. If any of us had the misfortune of having a twelve-hour slice of our life, one in which only some of the details were available, pored over by thousands upon thousands of observers and analysts, all of them attempting to determine logical causation, how much of our behaviour wouldn’t add up? How many caprices of impulse, forgetfulness, irritation, weariness, euphoria, to say nothing of such caprices in the lives of all the people we interact with, would conspiratorially-minded observers have to deal with? Narrative is how we make meaning of events, but narrative involves leaving out far more than it leaves in, and when every detail becomes meaningful, everything becomes meaningless. And often the most baffling observations can be made comprehensible with the introduction of the smallest of details (you can skip to 2:56 for an alternative to the “magic bullet” theory):

I’m not naïve: I have no doubt that there will be Kennedy conspiracists until the end of time, in the same way there will be those who deny the moon landing. And there will probably always be truthers and birthers. So it goes.

But what made me sit down to write (a day late) my thoughts on the fiftieth anniversary of November 22, 1963, was the discovery yesterday of something I never knew: on the day of Kennedy’s death, C.S. Lewis died. There is something to be written about this serendipity, something about the resonance between two rather different utopian visions—Kennedy’s New Frontier versus Lewis’ pastoral Narnia, the faith in the possibilities of an American future versus the nostalgia for the romance of an English past—but the thoughts are too inchoate in my mind for me to attempt it at this moment. There is also the possibility of a new swarm of satirical conspiracy theories (is Kennedy sitting on one of the thrones at Cair Paravel? Was the White Witch behind the grassy knoll?), but again, same thing.

TheLionWitchWardrobe(1stEd)In an entirely other, and entirely self-absorbed fashion, however, it is weirdly appropriate that I should only discover this intersection now … given that conspiracy theory was my entre to academia, and I’m currently researching fantasy. C.S. Lewis might not be one of the authors on whom I am focusing, but he is a massive influence—both on them, and on me. My graduate seminar recently looked at The Magicians by Lev Grossman, a novel that is deeply indebted to the Narnia chronicles in a variety of ways—and one of my students did a presentation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe apropos of that fact. (For Grossman’s fifty-year tribute to Lewis, which doesn’t mention JFK at all, go here).

I have no real point to this post, unless it is this: something to do with the increasing comfort with life’s messiness and complexity that age bestows. If there is a single point of contact with Narnia and Camelot, it is the investment in reductive mythology. Conspiracism, for all its apparent fascination with vast and myriad seas of information and data, is dedicated to the creation of narratives whose ostensible complexities are really just a smokescreen for their simplistic natures. They are just as mythological in nature as either the hagiographies of Kennedy or the stories of his criminal malfeasance. I was thinking yesterday of the film Thirteen Days, a reasonably good dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis—and the fact that in it, Kennedy displays none of his less palatable qualities. There are no quickies with any of his many mistresses, none of the arrogance or cruelty we now know marked many of his interactions with others … Bruce Greenwood does an excellent job of portraying the president as conflicted and beset (though as much as I like Greenwood, fine upstanding Canadian that he is, Stephen Culp’s RFK steals the film), but there is little in the way of nuance. Perhaps even more than Oliver Stone’s JFK, this film settles into the category of Kennedy hagiography. All of which made me wonder: does the sheer scope of JFK’s complexities as a man make him impossible to depict?

TheMagiciansThe Magicians pretty much split my grad class down the middle in terms of students’ reactions: half loved it, half hated it, and for pretty much the same reasons: that it gives us a version of Harry Potter and Narnia that introduces the elements of ordinary angst, emotional caprice, and thoughtless cruelty on the part of characters who are also protagonists. Fantasy as a genre carries the connotations of unequivocal good and evil: Aslan versus the White Witch, Gandalf versus Sauron, Harry Potter versus Voldemort, and so on. What I love about a lot of recent works by George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Richard Morgan is that we’re leaving that simplistic mythos behind and finding a more nuanced narrative.

Now, if someone could do that with JFK …

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James Bond vs. Voldemort: A Thought Experiment

We did Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in my fantasy and humanism grad class this week, much to the delight of my students. As much as I love the Harry Potter series, there have always been elements of it that irk me—mostly, what we might characterize as its relation to the “muggle” world. In some ways, the cognitive dissonance of Rowlings’ novels play to comic and symbolic effect; in other ways, for fantasy novels meant to depict an interface with the “primary reality,” they start to stretch credulity.

I could go on about this in pedantic fashion, but for a long time now I’ve been toying with a little setpiece drama that articulates my critique. Having dwelt at length this morning on the main elements, here it is.

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SETTING: the summer between the end of The Half-Blood Prince and the start of The Deathly Hallows. James Bond, dressed impeccably as always in a Saville Row suit, sits at a long table in Malfoy Manor, his feet resting insouciantly on the well-polished dark wood, the most recent edition of The Daily Prophet open in front of his face. On the table beside him sits his Walther PPK, fitted with a silencer. In the shadows behind him we can glimpse the still, unconscious forms of Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy.

There is a noise from the manor’s front hall as the door opens, and the sounds of low voices and footsteps approaching the room in which Bond waits. Laughter, low and satisfied—whatever the people entering have been doing, they have been successful. Voldemort enters, Nagini sliding silently along at his feet, followed by Bellatrix LeStrange and about half a dozen Death Eaters.

They all stop in confusion when they see the man sitting at the table.

BOND: (flipping the corner of the paper aside so they can see his face) Ah, there you are. About bloody time.

(mutters of confusion and outrage from the Death Eaters, silenced by Voldemort)

VOLDEMORT: A muggle?

(he speaks the word with great distaste, but also with caution, cocking his head as he stares at Bond. He has seen the Malfoys on the ground beyond him; though he senses that Bond is no wizard, he simply cannot grasp how a muggle would have invaded this space)

BOND: A muggle? Yes, of course, that name you give us. (slowly and deliberately, he folds up the paper as he talks and places it on the table, but does not remove his feet) Yes, I fear I am a … “muggle.” And I am here to deliver—

BELLATRIX: (enraged, lurches past Voldemort and levels her wand) AVADA KEDAVARA!

(the bolt of green light streaks across the room and dissolves as it strikes something invisible about three feet away from Bond’s face. He smiles at them suavely as they stare in disbelief)

BOND: (finally swinging his legs off the table, he leans forward and steeples his fingers) As I was saying, I am here to deliver a message from Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (gestures at the chairs opposite) Perhaps you would all like to sit down? No reason we cannot be civilized.

BELLATRIX: AVADA KEDAVARA!

(again, the bolt of green falters and evaporates against some invisible barrier. Bond sighs)

BOND: (to Voldemort) Would you please tell her to stop that? She can keep on all night, and all it will serve to do is interrupt.

VOLDEMORT: (leans on the edge of the table) How?

BOND: Ah. (raises his hands to show them his jewelled cuff links) Something Q and the boffins worked up. Couldn’t tell you how it works, but it gives me an anti-magical field extending three feet out in all directions. I suppose I should thank you, Miss LeStrange, for field-testing them.

BELLATRIX: Bloody, filthy muggle! Who do you think you are, coming in here—

(Voldemort irritably waves her silent)

BOND: Thank you.

VOLDEMORT: (sitting) I don’t disagree with her. The only reason I’m not killing you is because you … have a message?

BOND: Also, my cuff links.

VOLDEMORT: Your message, scum?

BOND: You’d do well to learn some courtesy, Mr. Riddle. Yes, we know who you are—or who you were—we do have our resources, you know, dirty muggles that we are. But I suppose I cannot expect you to adapt to the unexpected all at once.

VOLDEMORT: (visibly angry) Your message?

BOND: On behalf of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I am here to inform you that all attacks on non-magical British citizens will cease immediately.

VOLDEMORT: (stares at Bond for a long moment incredulously and then bursts into a high-pitched laugh. His Death Eaters echo him) They will cease? And who, precisely, are you to demand anything of the Dark Lord? We will do as we wish, and all muggles will cower before us!

BOND: I’m not cowering. (to Bellatrix) Care to try your luck again? (for a moment it looks as though she will, but then he picks up his pistol) Be warned, this time, I’ll shoot back. Oh, and … (glancing down at the floor) if your snake comes any closer, I will in fact shoot it in the fucking head.

VOLDEMORT: (a little hastily) Nagini!

BOND: Let’s make a few things clear hear. For a very long time, the custom has been that, when we have a new prime minister, your Minister of Magic pays him a visit …

DEATH EATER: He’s not our minister.

BOND: (shrugging) From what I hear, he will be soon enough. Not that that matters a whit to us. But for generations now, your Minister of Magic pops into the office of the newly minted Prime Minister, and says something to the effect of “Hello, there are wizards in your country. Don’t worry your head about it. We’ll only ever need to speak if something goes wrong.” Is that about right? (he surveys the group opposite him, but no one answers) Sorry. Rhetorical question. But here’s another question: what, precisely, did you lot think would happen then? (again, silence, but a more confused one. Bond nods pityingly) I suspected as much. You lot thought we’d—what? Try desperately to forget? Think we’d just imagined it all? You’re very good at hiding yourselves from us, I’ll give you that. But let me tell you what happens every time a new prime minister gets a visit from your man: after a few minutes of bewilderment, he’s on the phone to the heads of MI-6 and MI-5, demanding—and pardon my French—“What the fuck just happened?”

(Bond smiles and leans forward)

And do you know what they say to him? “We’ll be right over to brief you, Prime Minister.” Because of course, having known we share a country with people of your particular … talents … we have been naturally a little uneasy. We have been looking into this … issue … for a very long time now. (there is a murmur of surprise from the Death Eaters. Bond shakes his head at them disdainfully) Honestly, you lot have been stupid. Underestimating your enemy is the first and last sin of warfare. Did you really think we’d discover there are wizards and witches among us and not prepare ourselves? (Bond has been getting slightly agitated. With an effort he calms himself and straightens his tie) Not that we’ve had cause for much concern. To be fair, your lot has been pretty quiescent for a long time. It was only about seventeen years ago that we started to get really worried. Care to guess why?

(again, silence from Voldemort and his cohort, except for a few embarrassed coughs)

Suddenly, you lot weren’t so quiescent. Deaths, violence … lots of dead “muggles.” Your minister was suddenly in contact with ours an awful lot, and we gathered that there was an unusually powerful wizard keen to conquer the rest of the magical world. Which would have mattered little to us, except that he and his people seemed pretty hostile to muggles.

(shakes his head)

Did you ever—ever—imagine that we were going to ignore a prospective threat in our nation? Well, of course you did. You can’t bring yourself to think that mudbloods are worth anything, much less muggles. In your eyes, we’re sheep. Am I wrong? (he stares challengingly at Voldemort)

VOLDEMORT: You are sheep. How dare you challenge us like this! How dare you even speak to me like this! AVADA KEDAVARA!

(he stands and flourishes his wand. The green bolt disperses just as Bellatrix’s did, and Bond does not even flinch. He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a tablet about half the size of an iPhone)

BOND: Impressive. I suppose you won’t be surprised to know your spell was twice as powerful as your friend’s. Not that it matters. (replaces the tablet in his pocket) This all is, frankly, getting tedious. If I can get to the bottom of the page: we have been developing countermeasures against your “magic” for decades now. And that’s just us here in Britain—I can’t even begin to tell you what the Americans are up to. This little meeting wouldn’t have been necessary, except that you lot seem to be getting a little ahead of yourselves. We don’t care, one way or another, who wins this war of yours … but it does seem that you have dreams beyond domination of the magical world, yes? You want the muggles to be your slaves?

VOLDEMORT: It is the right of the purebloods to rule over the tainted and the weak.

BOND: (scratching his chin ironically) Hm. Yes, that sounds familiar, somehow. You might do yourself a favour and study some muggle history and see how that attitude played out before. (shrugs) But really, that’s neither here nor there. You might want to revise your conception of muggles as somehow “weak.” Magic is an impressive thing, to be sure … and you have a talent for killing, Mr. Riddle. But … (Bond stands, and leans forward, his hands on the table) you might want to do some research and think about how many people you’re able to kill all at once … and how many we are able to kill all at once. (he straightens, and shrugs) It’s not something we’re necessarily proud of. But you should think twice about bringing your … (he gestures vaguely) hocus pocus into a fight where the other fellow has an atom bomb. (Voldemort and the Death Eaters stare at him blankly. Bond favours them with a cold smile) This is what I mean when I suggest you do some research.

VOLDEMORT: What are you telling us? What is your message?

BOND: I am telling you that you are free to wage your war as you see fit. Conquer your enemies. We muggles who know what’s what hope you will lose, of course, but we are not involved. But know this: the moment you decide dominion over the magical world isn’t enough, and you seek to subjugate the rest of us? (smiles frostily) That will spell the end of you.

(this causes the Death Eaters to erupt in a storm of outrage, the Dark Lord himself most of all. He levels his wand again at Bond)

VOLDEMORT: Crucio!

(this time, Bond holds up his right hand so his signet ring points directly at Voldemort. He presses the band on the inside of his finger and it emits a blinking light. Voldemort screams in agony as his spell rebounds on him)

BOND: (to himself) Well done, Q. You’ve outdone yourself. (to the Death Eaters, who stand in shocked silence, staring at Voldemort as he recovers from the effects of his own spell). One more thing: any and all killings of muggles will end now. Her Majesty’s Secret Service will remain neutral in your war, but we will respond with lethal force against the Death Eaters every time a non-magical citizen is murdered. To wit … (he picks up his pistol and glares, narrow-eyed, at the Death Eaters clustered around Voldemort) There was a shopkeeper found dead this evening in Bristol. No visible wounds. I imagine that was one of you?

(silence for a moment, and then a burly Death Eater steps belligerently forward)

DEATH EATER: That was me. I killed the dirty—

(he is cut off as Bond raises his gun and shoots him neatly twice in the head. There is a shocked silence)

BOND: Oh, yes. We’ve also developed ammunition that is impervious to your spells. (straightens his tie) I believe that is all, gentlemen … and lady. Your friends here behind me will recover in due time. I fear that your other friend there will not. Have yourselves a good evening.

(No one, not even Bellatrix, attempts to stop him as he circles the table and walks past where they’ve huddled around their fallen comrade. He is just past the threshold when Bellatrix breaks the silence)

BELLATRIX: Who are you?

(he pauses for a moment)

BOND: The name is Bond. James Bond.

(exit)

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Sir Terry’s Gospel of Pragmatism

“Bad spelling can be lethal. For example, the greedy Seriph of Al-Ybi was cursed by a badly-educated deity and for some days everything he touched turned to Glod, which happened to be the name of a small dwarf from a mountain community hundreds of miles away who found himself magically dragged to the kingdom and mercilessly duplicated. Some two thousand Glods later the spell wore off. These days, the people of Al-Ybi are renowned for being unusually short and bad-tempered.”
Witches Abroad

pratchett_portrait Last week we did Witches Abroad by Sir Terry Pratchett in my graduate seminar, which was both a joy and a frustration—a frustration because I only allotted one class for him. The true genius of the Discworld novels only starts to become apparent once you have read five or six or twelve of them. Which, perhaps, seems like a backhanded compliment—suggesting that a truly great author could demonstrate that greatness in a single novel. And that might be true enough, as far as it goes; but it is also representative of just one approach to fiction and, more importantly, fictional worlds. Trying to teach Pratchett is not unlike trying to teach television: a single episode of Breaking Bad might offer up interesting formal and thematic considerations, but if you only ever watch one episode you won’t come close to understanding Breaking Bad.

So it is with Discworld.

For those unfamiliar with Discworld: hie thee to the fantasy section of your closest bookstore, post haste! But if you’re reading this outside regular business hours, or have currently barricaded yourself against zombies, or can’t go out for some other reason (though really, zombie apocalypse is the only acceptable one in this instance), let me set the series up for you. The Discworld is … well, let’s let Sir Terry himself describe it for you:

Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on his back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld. A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.

Exactly why this should be may never be known. Possibly the Creator of the universe got bored with all the usual business of axial inclination, albedos and rotational velocity, and decided to have a bit of fun for once. (Wyrd Sisters)

Paul_Kidby_Discworld

I started reading Discworld three and a half years ago, and in that time have read thirty of the thirty-three Discworld novels proper (which is to distinguish them from the five young adult Discworld novels and the one illustrated adventure The Last Hero). Pratchett’s output is astounding: folding in the five young adult Discworld novels, The Last Hero, Good Omens (his collaboration with Neil Gaiman), The Long Earth and The Long War (his collaborations with Stephen Baxter), The Carpet People, Truckers, Diggers, Wings, Nation (non-Discworld young adult novels), and … well, honestly, there’s more, but at this point the count is forty-six novels since he published The Colour of Magic in 1983.

And he has a new Discworld novel, Raising Steam, coming out in a month. Ye gods.

This prolific output is one of the things that has made Sir Terry a less-than-attractive subject for scholarly and academic attention.1 Never mind the standard prejudice that obtains once an author writes this much (“If he’s written that many novels, how good can they be?”), there is also the simple difficulty in accounting for the sheer volume of his work. Again, not dissimilar to teaching television: how does one account for an entire season, never mind the entire run of a show?

Discworld is an example of what I have taken to calling an “iterative world”: a fantasy world or alternative reality whose laws, geography, science, mythology, and history are refined with each new narrative added to the collective. If you go back and read one of the earlier novels—The Colour of Magic, for example, or Equal Rites—after having read a handful of the later ones, you’ll find a familiar Discworld … though not entirely familiar, as it has somewhat more nebulous dimensions and outlines, a more embryonic version of a place that comes into increasingly sharp focus as it accrues detail and substance.2

I could talk endlessly about Discworld as an imaginative space and the theoretical implications of it when set alongside other such iterative worlds as Middle-Earth, Westeros, or collaborative worlds like Azeroth (and I will, oh yes my preciouss, in future posts I will), but what struck me yet again in returning to Witches Abroad is Terry Pratchett’s humanistic pragmatism. Like much else informing Pratchett’s fiction, the humour and occasional slapstick of the stories—to say nothing of the frequent, hilarious footnotes he offers—can obscure his broader ethical preoccupations. For the Discworld novels do comprise, among other things, an extended discourse on secular humanist ethics, rooted in the acknowledgement of human imperfection and a deep suspicion of ideological solutions.

The idea for a graduate seminar on fantasy and humanism—and the research that informs it—derived from several places, but it is fair to say that reading Sir Terry had a huge influence on it. Discworld boasts pretty much every fantasy convention imaginable: from magic and magical beings, to every imaginable fantasy species (trolls, dwarfs, orcs, goblins, vampires, golems, werewolves, dragons, and so forth), great heroes (albeit often in ironic form, such as the octogenarian Cohen the Barbarian), castles and peasantry, and enchanted forests galore. But always the stories, many of them recognizable riffs on classic fantasy (“Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards because a refusal often offends, I read somewhere”), or popular narratives (Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Phantom of the Opera in Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade, respectively), or real-world concerns (cinema and Hollywood in Moving Pictures, rock and roll in Soul Music, newspapers in The Truth, Christmas in Hogfather) … always the stories, whatever their focus, proceed from a sensibility that, even as it pays homage to the subject and/or source material, is at pains to frustrate generic expectations and draw attention to fantasy’s more regressive tendencies.

By way of example: in Men at Arms, we glean that the impressive Corporal Carrot of the City Watch is the prophesied King of Ankh-Morpork, and in fact possesses the sword that identifies him as such. But he does not take his “rightful” place, because Ankh-Morpork is much better off without a king, and he’s not really interested in the job anyway. In Jingo, the inevitable march to war against an identifiably Middle-Eastern enemy is halted by Samuel Vimes, who sees negotiation and compromise as preferable to bloodshed. In Monstrous Regiment, the familiar story of a girl from an impoverished family disguising herself as a man to join the army is given a comic twist as we slowly realize that every soldier in her regiment is actually an impoverished girl in disguise.

And in Witches Abroad, familiar stories and the expectations they evoke are the story:

Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.

This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up on all the vibrations of all of all the others workings of the story that have ever been.

This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.

So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.

Witches Abroad is about a demented fairy godmother who is absolutely determined to give people happy endings, and who has become the effective dictator of the Discworld city of Genua (a thinly veiled New Orleans), as she orchestrates her masterwork—bringing the Princess Emberella (whose true identity is secret, as she slaves in the home of her ostensible stepsisters) together with a nobleman (the “Duc”). The three witches of the title—Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrit Garlick—make their way to Genua to foil her. Along the way they encounter a series of other familiar stories, such as a Gollum-like creature in a subterranean river (Granny Weatherwax hits him with her paddle); a village terrorized by a vampire (Magrit smacks it with her window as it attempts to enter her room in bat form, and it gets eaten by Nanny Ogg’s cat as it lies, stunned, on the ground); they also encounter a confused wolf that feels compelled to eat a grandmother, a sleeping princess in an enchanted castle, hear tell of a trio of pigs in a neighbouring village with wolf issues, and Nanny Ogg—wearing her red boots—has a farmhouse suddenly fall on her head.

discworld-witches-abroad

Their journey to Genua is thus comically picaresque, and as they get closer they see the fairy godmother’s handiwork in the stories they stumble across (and into). But while the novel begins with the apparently benign assertion that stories are happening all the time and that the frequency of their repetition gives their outcomes a certain inevitability, this determinism takes on an increasingly pernicious character. The Red Riding Hood sequence is actually heartbreaking, as the wolf has literally become a tortured soul in being compelled to behave in singularly un-wolflike ways, and ultimately makes a plaintive appeal to Granny Weatherwax to make an end. The woodsman who does the deed reflects in surprise at how willingly the poor beast puts its head on the chopping block.

When they reach Genua, which is under the thrall of Lilith, the fairy godmother, they find a city that is bright, clean, smiling, and utterly terrified—for if the people do not step outside the boundaries of what is acceptable for their stories, they are severely punished (such as the toymaker, who is thrown in the dungeon because he does not tell charming stories to children. Protesting that he doesn’t know any stories and is, furthermore, very bad at telling them, doesn’t garner him any leniency). The previous tyrant, the Baron, was cruel and ruthless; Lilith’s rule, however, is the other end of the dystopian spectrum: the utopian vision taken to despotic extremes. As Granny Weatherwax asserts, “You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.” Or as Sam Vimes puts it in in Night Watch, “The moment you start measuring people, some people won’t measure up.”

What the texts I’m teaching in this seminar articulate—and which Sir Terry’s work pretty much exemplifies—is a tendency within some recent fantasy to reverse what we might characterize as traditional fantasy’s religious temperament, at least where power dynamics are concerned. Such transcendent imperatives as prophecy, fate, destiny, and the presence of deterministic higher powers—so crucial to authors like Tolkien and Lewis—find themselves (at the very least) complicated, challenged, critiqued, or quite simply ignored in the works of authors like Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Richard K. Morgan, or Patrick Rothfuss. In some of these works, this shift is subtle, perhaps even incidental; but what I love about Sir Terry is the way in which the Discworld novels function as specific critiques of what Jacques Derrida called “the transcendental signified,” i.e., discourse imagined as somehow innate, whose logic proceeds from something beyond the horizon of our understanding. Gods exist in Pratchett’s alternative world, but they are the product of human belief and thought rather than the other way around; magic exists, but is mostly avoided, as its use more often than not leads to more complications; and the greatest virtue practised (if not always espoused) is common sense and making allowances for human (and dwarf, and troll, etc.) failings and caprice. Indeed, the greatest conflicts in the Discworld novels arise when individuals or groups attempt to assert that this is the way things should be.

Those who have read a lot of Discworld novels will grasp what I mean when I say: there is a big, long essay to be written about Lord Vetinari in this respect.

Sir Terry makes his personal philosophy known in numerous interviews as well, in which he makes such humanistic statements as “in my religion, the building of a telescope is the building of a cathedral” or, more famously, “I would much rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.” For a sense of his wit and wisdom, this interview is one of my favourites:

I have three Discworld novels left to read, not counting the new one coming out in November. I have not yet been able to start any of them. I am reluctant to do so: a great part of me does not want to come to the end of these books, even though Sir Terry is still writing them.

NOTES

1. He suffers on this front from a quadruple-whammy—first, his output; second, his popularity (he was the highest-selling pre-Rowling author in the UK in the 1990s), for which authors are always treated with suspicion in English departments; thirdly, he writes fantasy; and lastly, he is absolutely, brilliantly, uproariously hilarious. Literary scholarship has difficulty dealing with genuinely funny texts, for it starts to feel as though our lectures and essays are just explaining the jokes (unless you’re teaching the likes of Shakespeare or Jonathan Swift, in which case explaining the jokes is a necessary preamble to your lecture).

2. Discworld has also been expanded and refined by fans and collaborators as well, with The Folklore of Discworld (written by Pratchett in collaboration with Jacqueline Simpson), four volumes of The Science of Discworld (with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen), and The Discworld Mapp, a definitive map of Discworld created by cartographer Stephen Briggs. There are other books as well, some authorized and some not, to say nothing of a Discworld Wiki page and numerous other fan sites.

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Confessions of a Narrative Pusher

While re-reading the novels for my upcoming grad course this past summer, I suddenly realized I might have inadvertently ruined some of my students’ lives.

Well, not ruined them … I had reread American Gods by Neil Gaiman and Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett, and that was all well and good. Then I moved onto The Winter King, which is the first novel in a trilogy by Bernard Cornwell that reimagines the Arthurian legends from a rigorously historical perspective. That is to say, Cornwell sat down and, starting with the supposition that Arthur actually existed and lived around A.D. 500—which is the generally accepted time frame for Arthur’s supposed existence—posed the question what would Arthur have really been like? And, what would life have been like in Britain? And, what kind of king would he have been?

winter king

The answers in his trio of novels—The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur—make for fascinating and engaging reading. I often recommend them: Cornwell, best known for his series of Sharpe novels, is a writer of military historical fiction of the same order as Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester. He has, at times, a distressing tendency to be formulaic—unsurprising, perhaps, seeing as how he’s written fifty-one novels in the last thirty-two years (of which the Sharpe series comprises twenty-four), but at his best, no one can write a battle scene or integrate a history lesson into fiction as deftly as he can. And I would say that the Arthur trilogy (which goes by the title “The Warlord Chronicles”) is easily his best work.

The point here is that when I reread The Winter King this summer, it was probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve done so. I know the story, and I know it well. And yet when I came to the end of the novel, there was absolutely nothing else for it but to pick up Enemy of God and carry on with the trilogy. Wait! my mind screamed at me. You’ve read these! You’re only teaching the first one! There is so much else you have to read, why are you doing this?

And that was when I realized I had a problem.

Well, two problems. The primary one is my own narrative addiction. This is a well-documented affliction, and one I have long, and cheerfully, resigned myself to. No NA (Narratives Anonymous) for me. But I worry that I risk passing my addiction on to the younger generation.

Because as I reviewed my reading list for my graduate course, I realized that American Gods and Witches Abroad are the only stand-alone novels I’ve assigned.1 All the rest are parts of series … and except for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, all the rest are the first installments of series: The Winter King, A Game of Thrones, The Magicians, The Steel Remains … The novels by Cornwell, Lev Grossman, and Richard K. Morgan are engaging enough, but they’re the gateway drugs. George R.R. Martin is the crack, the smack, the Heisenberg-quality meth … Like an unscrupulous pusher on a playground, I peddle these wares and it is almost certain I will get a handful of my students hooked.

 

NOTES

1. And even then, there are not mere one-offs. Gaiman followed up American Gods with the lesser but still lovely novel Anansi Boys, and Witches Abroad is but one of the nearly forty novels set in Pratchett’s Discworld.

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Thoughts on The Great Gatsby III; or, Directors’ Continuing Man-Crushes on Leo

great gatsby

I re-read The Great Gatsby before Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation hit the theaters, and the question I pondered in my journal was whether the film would grasp the nature of the novel’s tragedy. It was obvious from the trailers that Gatsby would be of a piece with Lurhmann’s other successes Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge (Strictly Ballroom is a charming film, but positively minimalist by Lurhmann standards, and the less said about the execrable Australia the better). And both of those films are tragic love stories—as, superficially at least, is The Great Gatsby. But where the first two are tragedies of circumstance, Gatsby is what we might call a systemic tragedy: the deaths of the titular character and Myrtle Wilson are not so much accidents of fortune as the end results of a culture of excess and, as Nick Carraway characterizes it, of carelessness. Would Lurhmann’s film capture that tragedy, the indictment of an age, rather than see it as another grand love story?

In a word: no.

Let me back up. My first thought on leaving the theater was that Lurhmann, or whoever markets his films, was premature as establishing Strictly Ballroom as the first film of his “Red Curtain” trilogy. Yes, that made for handy three-DVD sets to sell, but I’ve always felt that Lurhmann’s first film is something of the odd man out in that trio. For one thing, it’s a happy film; for another, in spite of all the glamorous dance sequences, it is aesthetically and thematically out of step with the other two. R+J and Moulin Rouge establish a certain Lurhmannian (Bazian?) preoccupation with the mixing of historical material and contemporary aesthetic, whether it’s Shakespearean characters duelling with 9mm handguns, or fin-de-siecle dandies belting out Nirvana. Finally, these two films center upon tragic love—the all-consuming love of the liebstod variety that effectively eclipses all other concerns.

For all intents and purposes, The Great Gatsby reshapes the Red Curtain Trilogy. Strictly Ballroom should go off into the world as its own entity, and R+J should be counted as the first film of three. I say this not just because Gatsby looks and sounds the same (the soundtrack, as usual, is amazing), but also because it follows a similar narrative pattern in the first act: in R+J and Moulin Rouge, our handsome if slightly naïve protagonist finds himself at a somewhat hallucinogenic pre-party, followed by a much grander party of bewildering proportions.

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Handsome, naive protagonists: Romeo, Christian, and Nick Carraway.

In Gatsby, Nick follows Tom Buchanan into New York, with an impromptu stop on the way to pick up Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson. There in the city, in Tom and Myrtle’s love nest, Nick gets drunk for the second time in his life, with much the same effect (cinematically) as when Romeo drops Mercutio’s acid and Christian tries absinthe for the first time. Though there is a small gap in Gatsby between the Nick’s New York debauch and his first party at Gatsby’s mansion, the sequences are very much of a piece. Gatsby’s party—with its music and vaguely choreographed dancing, the revelry that unfolds like a fever dream, and just the general loud, colourful excess of it all—strikingly resembles the Capulets’ masked ball and Christian’s first experience of the Moulin Rouge floor show.

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Mercutio rocking the staircase in Romeo + Juliet

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Moulin Rouge

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The Great Gatsby

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Top: Moulin Rouge
Bottom: The Great Gatsby

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Dude loves his fireworks. Top: Romeo+Juliet; bottom: The Great Gatsby

For the record, this is where the film is at its best: love Baz Lurhmann or hate him, you cannot deny his extraordinary talent for excess in his mise-en-scène. The extended party scene is always just this side of being too confusing, too jumbled … but somehow holds together.

But: Aha! you say. In R+J and Moulin Rouge, the handsome young protagonist then espies at the party the woman with whom he falls madly, hopelessly in love. Not so with The Great Gatsby. Yes, Nick runs into Jordan Baker, the friend of Daisy’s with whom he carries on a casual love affair over the summer, but that hardly counts as a grand love on par with Romeo and Juliet and Christian and Satine. The true tragic love of this story is Gatsby and Daisy—and that does not happen until later.

Well, imaginary interlocutor, you have a good point there. Except that you’re wrong. Structurally speaking—which is to say, looking at Gatsby in the context of the other two films of the reshaped trilogy—the film figures Nick as the young lover. And the beloved? Gatsby, of course. And unfortunately, it is in this subtle thematic shift that the wheels come off.

Let me back up again. Lurhmann’s film makes obsequious obeisance to the novel … or at least to the quality of Fitzgerald’s prose. It does so by having Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire) narrate much of the exposition in voiceover, mostly quoting verbatim from the novel. While I am (1) not the standard cinephile hater of voiceover, and (2) theoretically in favour of preserving a novel’s text as much as possible in adaptations, Nick’s VOs really, really grated on me … in part because more often than not the actual text of what he’s saying appears on the screen. Though the film is superficially faithful to the novel (i.e. very little happens in the film that is not in the novel—which, as I’ll emphasize below, isn’t the same thing as getting the novel right), the one major departure is that Lurhmann frames the story within Nick’s retelling several years later, as he recuperates in a well-heeled mental hospice. As part of his “therapy,” his doctor encourages him to write down the story of his summer with Gatsby—which, as quickly becomes clear, is the site and source of his trauma.

In this respect, Nick is strongly reminiscent of Christian (Ewan McGregor) in Moulin Rouge, whom we also initially meet as a man devastated by the death of his beloved and who can only take solace in the writing of his story.

moulin rouge 1

The writing in both cases is an act of catharsis and tribute—though with Nick and Gatsby, there is the added element of recuperation, in which he essentially defends Gatsby’s character against the popular perceptions of media gawkers. In Lurhmann’s hands, the story loses its critical edge. Two small moments serve to illustrate what I mean by this, and highlight the way in which the film turns Nick from a jaded, detached observer into a Gatsby partisan.

First, toward the end of the film, after Myrtle’s death, Nick worriedly leaves Gatsby—unlike the novel, Gatsby is waiting in pathetic anticipation for a call from Daisy in which, he assumes, she will tell him she’s ready to leave Tom for him. In the novel, it is left far more ambivalent: when Nick attempts to call from work later, he is told that the line is being kept open for a call from Philadelphia; in the film, Gatsby wants the line kept free for a call from Daisy. As he leaves Gatsby, Nick calls back “They’re a rotten crowd … You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” This line is taken verbatim from the novel, as is the voice-over that follows: “I’ve always been glad I said that,” he says. “It was the only compliment I ever gave him.”

The problem here, as those who’ve read the novel will grasp, is that the film leaves out the crucial caveat that follows: “because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.” The novel frames the fact that Nick only ever complimented Gatsby once as perfectly understandable, and ultimately generous for having done so at all; the film frames it as a woeful failing.

Second, the film ends with the completion of Nick’s manuscript. He has placed it in a handsome box, and looks down for several long, soulful moments at the simple title GATSBY. After a moment of consideration he uncaps his fountain pen and writes in “The Great.”

Fitzgerald struggled with the title for his most famous novel oscillating between the ludicrous (The High-Bouncing Lover) and the obscure (Trimalchio in West Egg), until he was finally convinced by his wife and his publisher to settle (reluctantly) on The Great Gatsby. He was never entirely satisfied with his final choice, and I like to imagine it’s because he worried some readers might not catch the irony.

One way or another, Lurhmann’s film does not. Emphatically does not. On one level, the film is a magnificent example of how cinema can bring the vision of a novel to life; on another (and, I would argue, more crucial) level, it’s exemplary of how the visualization of text can brutally obscure or elide its necessary subtleties. As I hope I managed to say in my first Gatsby post, there is a pretty massive dissonance in the novel between the tone and quality of Nick Carraway’s narration—his talent for understatement—and the excess and spectacle of Gatsby’s wealth. Superficially, Gatsby is ideal source material for Baz Lurhmann, insofar as opulence and excess are his principal métier. But where he falls down is in the lack of anything resembling critique: even given his historical perch, not just post-1929, but post-2008, the film cannot quite bring itself to be critical of Gatsby. It has no problem being critical of Tom and Daisy and their old money, any more than Moulin Rouge had difficulty vilifying the Duke. But Gatsby himself—bafflingly, when you really think about it—comes across as a paragon of innocent love, even when it’s made clear that he got to where he is by nefarious means. There is a faux-B&W newsreel montage about Prohibition and bootlegging, as well as commentary on the new culture of greed infesting the early 1920s—which, very obviously, is meant as critique of contemporary Wall Street. Well and good … but the film does not follow through.

For Lurhmann-lovers, this film is a beautiful example of what he can do; but as an interpretation of The Great Gatsby (and I say this to students who might toy with the idea of watching the film instead of reading the novel), for all of its technical narrative fidelity, it misses the point entirely.

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Thoughts on The Great Gatsby II; or, Spectacular Excess

eyes

The thing that struck me most on re-reading Gatsby was how much it felt like a novel written not long after 1929. The scathing indictment of excess and acquisitiveness—and the use of Gatsby as a dark parody of Horatio Alger—seems prescient in light of the stock market crash that came four years after it was published. Gatsby would work well taught alongside The Big Money, the third novel in John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy. Except that where Dos Passos published his novel in 1936 and wrote with the benefit of hindsight, Fitzgerald’s critique was aimed at the culture of excess and hedonism while it was at its apogee. With our benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to see Gatsby’s violent end as prophetic.

As I suggested in my last post, Gatsby’s principal figure of speech is understatement—but not even Nick Carraway’s tendency to be laconic (albeit elegantly and sometimes baroquely so, which is quite the needle to thread when you think about it) obviates the splendor and mind-numbing displays of wealth at Gatsby’s mansion. In many ways, Fitzgerald gives us a familiar contrast, between new money and old. The property and possessions of the Buchanans are impressive, but Fitzgerald’s description of the house articulates the comfort and complacency of inherited, dynastic wealth:

Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sundials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.

hotel de ville

An example of an Hotel de Ville.

The first description of Gatsby’s mansion, by contrast, calls it “colossal affair by any standard” which was “a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy.” Fitzgerald never calls Gatsby’s mansion gauche or tacky in so many words; but the evocation of a palatial French manse, still so new that the “raw ivy” can’t hide its youth,” is in stark contrast with the easy elegance of the Buchanan home—whose ivy is so venerable that it is of a piece with the manicured lawn.

Beyond this initial description, however, Fitzgerald does not devote much time to the objective appearance of the house. Rather, the lion’s share of his descriptions of Gatsby’s home, over the course of the novel, is devoted to Gatsby’s stuff—most startlingly later on when Gatsby starts pulling his tailored, imported shirts giddily off his shelves where they’re piled dozens deep and throwing them to Daisy (I’ll have more to say about that later)—but the first party Nick attends begins not with the festivities but the goodies brought in to stock them:

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d’oeurve, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.

And it goes on … The reason I belabor this point is to emphasize the subtitle of this post: that Gatsby’s displays of wealth and excess are, quite literally, spectacular: that is to say, the very point of them is as spectacle, an answering beacon to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, in the hopes that she’ll see his display and eventually make her way over to one of his parties.

I’ll talk about that symbolic gesture in a moment—and more when I talk about the recent film version of Gatsby in my next post—but for now I’m interested in what Fitzgerald leaves unspoken. I concluded my previous post with a favourable comparison of Fitzgerald’s technique to Hemingway’s, namely, the calculated elision of detail. Gatsby, is, after all, a pretty economically written novel: my edition runs to 180 pages. I’d argue that it’s as much what Fitzgerald leaves out as what he puts in that fascinates so many readers. What exactly did he do to make his money? Who’s on the end of all those phone calls he takes? How did he manage to accumulate such vast wealth in a mere three years? At the very beginning of the novel Fitzgerald signals Gatsby’s “mysteriousness” by having so many random party-goers spin increasingly elaborate stories about him. And even though we do eventually get his backstory, we’re still only privy to a fraction of the story proper: namely, Gatsby’s obsessive, childlike, and ultimately doomed love for Daisy.

The untold account of his meteoric rise, however, is the foundation for the novel’s critique. Wealth in Fitzgerald’s novel—huge wealth, at any rate—is consonant with moral and spiritual carelessness. That is, in the end, Carraway’s verdict on Tom and Daisy: “It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness.” And while these damning words are directed at Tom and Daisy, they resonate with the memory of Gatsby too—for he is in his own way careless, reckless in his pursuit of enough wealth that Daisy will notice him there across the sound and see him as worthy of her love.

His parties are symbolic expenditure, and are symbolically wasteful; the aforementioned “pyramid of pulpless halves” leaving his house after every weekend is as apt a metaphor for his expenditures as any. But given the ephemeral nature of his spending, it begs readers to speculate on just how solid his wealth is. On reading the novel this time around, I kept coming back around to how literally unbelievable his riches are—for we know, once we have his backstory, that he came out of the war penniless. So if he was demobbed in early 1919, and then spent five months at Oxford, he had less than three years to accumulate the money he spends in the summer of 1922. In a recent New York Magazine article, Kevin Roose crunches the numbers, tallying up the likely costs of Galsby’s mansion and possessions and the amount he would have had to spend on his parties. His conclusion is that, even allowing for Gatsby to earn far more than was likely for a bootlegger to earn in the early years of Prohibition, he would have been experiencing significance shortfalls, and would most likely have gone into debt.

How much of this Fitzgerald worked out for himself is largely beside the point—and nor is it strictly necessary to apply the relevant numbers to the novel in a “how many children did Lady Macbeth have?” fashion. While there is more than enough there in the novel to suggest that Gatsby was living well beyond his means, he was manifestly living metaphorically well beyond his means. As already mentioned, Gatsby plays out the old chestnut of old money’s solidity versus new money’s upstart tactlessness; Gatsby himself is a paragon of hyperactive, conspicuous consumption. One of his most striking characteristics is his childishness, and his childlikeness: he has throughout the vaguely pathetic faith that his “success”—or perhaps more significantly, the outward signs of his success—will ultimately dazzle and woo Daisy.

If Gatsby is prescient in its vilification of the mindless drive toward wealth and accumulation that resulted in the stock market crash of 1929, it is more subtly prescient of the rise of a popular film genre during the Great Depression: the mobster film. Indeed, even if one didn’t know that Gatsby was written in the mid-twenties rather than in the midst of the Depression, one big clue lies in the person of Gatsby’s partner in crime. Modelled loosely on the Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Wolfsheim is about as ugly an anti-Semitic caricature as one is likely to find, a figure right out of fevered late-19th century paranoia—and indeed right out of Tom Buchanan’s “scientific” books about the coming “colored empire.” At first glance, Tom’s enthusiasm for geopolitical race theory reflects back on his jealously guarded privileges of race and class, but the depiction of Wolfsheim goes a long way toward giving credence to what Carraway calls his “impassioned gibberish.” Gatsby, it becomes clear toward the end, is not the sole architect of his own doom—Wolfsheim is the puppeteer, playing the role of the scheming Jew as he preys vampirically on Gatsby’s whiteness.

(I’ll have more to say about Wolfsheim in my next post, vis à vis Baz Lurhmann’s casting versus the Wolfsheim of the Redford version).

This dynamic between Gatsby and Wolfsheim, as I say, is more a product of late-19th century thoughts and fears than what we see in the mobster genre of the 1930s—in which the (anti-)hero is more in the Horatio Alger mode, a scrappy young(ish) immigrant—usually Italian—who makes his way in the world of organized crime through his native intelligence and audacity. The mobster was a popular figure in Depression-era film specifically because he effected a critique of “legitimate” capitalism—he was the dark mirror to the robber barons, while at the same time offering the fantasy of wealth and excess.

Gatsby thus straddles a significant cultural line—the novel is a reflection of unease and anxiety about affluence and ready wealth, while anticipating its glaring absence. When I say the novel is prescient about the coming rise of the mobster film, it is because I can too well imagine a dramatization of the flip side of Gatsby’s story: the chronicle of his meteoric rise under Meyer Wolfsheim’s tutelage, his ruthless and single-minded dealings, and the other lives he ruined in his pursuit of wealth enough to impress Daisy. Consider this exchange between Tom and Gatsby, after Tom has done some research:

“I found out what your ‘drug-stores’ were.” He turned to us and spoke rapidly. “He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That’s one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t far wrong.”

“What about it?” said Gatsby politely. “I guess your friend Walter Chase wasn’t too proud to come in on it.”

“And you left him in the lurch, didn’t you? You let him go to jail for a month over in New Jersey. God! You ought to hear Walter on the subject of you.”

“He came to us dead broke. He was very glad to pick up some money, old sport.”

“Don’t you call me ‘old sport’!” cried Tom. Gatsby said nothing. “Walter could have you up on the betting laws too, but Wolfsheim scared him into shutting his mouth.”

That unfamiliar yet recognizable look was back again on Gatsby’s face.

“That drug-store business was just small change,” continued Tom slowly, “but you’ve got something on now that Walter’s afraid to tell me about.”

This is about as explicit as the novel gets about Gatsby’s business, but it’s enough to cast a pall over what has been tactfully glossed before as phone calls from Chicago or Philadelphia. We come at this point to see Gatsby in vaguely schizophrenic terms: he must be a ruthless bastard to have done as well as he obviously has in the world of organized crime, but we only get hints of it. Even here, confronted by Tom, Gatsby is mild and unruffled. It is only in his struggle to get Daisy to admit she never loved Tom that the veneer starts to crack—which is arguably the biggest insight we get into his character. There is something almost sociopathic about that need, like a child who has never been properly socialized, who on the cusp of getting most of what he desires will only be satisfied with total victory.

In my penultimate post on my last blog, I wrote at length about how HBO has ruined me: how I have become addicted to its long-form, complex narratives and character studies that unfold over hours and hours. With Gatsby I imagine a series that begins with him being demobbed, returning to the U.S. and setting his sights on Daisy … the three-year slog in the trenches of Wolfsheim’s cabal, and all of the ruthless decisions and lives he destroys, all of the parcels of his soul he ransoms for the wealth he imagines will win Daisy for him. The series (which only need run a season) could end with him meeting Nick Carraway at that party and his words “I’m Gatsby.”

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Thoughts on The Great Gatsby I; or, the Art of Understatement

One of the features of my new blog will be discussions of the course texts I’m teaching, though not necessarily as I’m teaching them. The first novel I’ll be doing in English 2213: Twentieth-Century U.S. Fiction is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I reread it just recently, apropos of the new film adaptation, and so am posting about it now. This post is the first of three.

This will be the first of three posts on The Great Gatsby, and will consider the novel’s stylistic elements, and Fitzgerald’s ostensible place amongst his fellow American modernists. The second post, which will hopefully be up in a few days, looks at the themes of excess and expenditure in Gatsby, and speculates on the nature of Gatsby’s apparently inexhaustible wealth. And finally, the third post will look at the recent film version directed by Baz Lurhmann, and consider what he got right and wrong, and how it reflects on our understanding of the novel

A caveat: these posts are not meant to be scholarly essays, nor are they prettied-up lecture notes. I’m more interested in approaching the texts from a slightly more personal and subjective perspective, and ideally starting a conversation. Undoubtedly some of what I write here will get recycled in lecture, but if you’re a student who has found your way to this blog, you absolutely should not treat these posts as me putting my lecture notes online. You have been warned.

eyes

Before picking up the novel at the beginning of May, it had been twenty-three years since I’d last read The Great Gatsby. Like many people, I read it in high school—in my case, for OAC English (OAC = Ontario Academic Credit, the now-defunct year five of high school for those planning on going to university). That was the first and only time I read it, and I realized that with the exception of two short stories it was the only fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald I’d ever read.

This really should be an embarrassing admission for someone whose avowed specialty is twentieth-century U.S. fiction (and to a certain extent it is), but the truth of the matter is that Fitzgerald never loomed large, or really at all, in the firmament of my studies. No one I knew, professors or grad students, worked on him in any scholarly way; he did not show up on courses during my undergrad or grad years; and I have never felt much compulsion to include him in the courses I have taught. Part of this absence proceeded from that fact that most everyone I knew had read The Great Gatsby in high school, and it had taken on that stigma of being a “high school book.” When Fitzgerald got mentioned, it was usually in the context of his wife Zelda, who was and has been in the process of undergoing scholarly recuperation, or in terms of his friendships within the 1920s Paris scene.

I confess that, until picking up Gatsby again, his place amidst his Paris peers has largely been how I have thought of him these long years. I did not read him again after high school, but I read those peers voraciously in undergrad and glutted myself on the expat Parisian scene: Joyce, Pound, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, and so forth. In addition to reading their works, I also read a slew of memoirs and biographies of the period, which is mostly where Fitzgerald made his appearances. He has thus been, in my mental map of modernism, the dipsomaniac butt of Hemingway’s jokes whose wife was either crazy or more talented than him or both (depending on whom you spoke to).

Reading him again today, his prose still feels oddly out of step with his fellow moderns: the writing is lush and elevated, almost Edwardian in its manners. And his subjects—the wealthy and feckless scions of the jazz age—are effectively an alien species when held up to Hemingway’s brittle, damaged men and women, Faulkner’s haunted vestiges of the Old South, Woolf’s complex and psychologically daunting character studies … At first glance (and indeed, in my vague memory before picking the book up again), Gatsby seems obsessed with surfaces: the characters are described in pungent detail, and the descriptions of their behaviour slots them into a set of types. Only Jay Gatsby appears to have much of an inner life, and that is only because he comes with a ready-made air of mystery fostered and furthered by everyone else’s rampant speculations.

On second and third glance however, it becomes apparent that the novel is preoccupied with surfaces—which I italicize to emphasize a fine distinction between superficial writing and writing about superficiality, which may itself take the guise of shallowness. One of the criticisms often leveled against the novel is that the prose is beautiful but empty—that Fitzgerald is quite brilliant at writing exquisite sentences that do not, ultimately, mean much of anything. Certainly, that was Jared Bland’s assertion in his May 3rd column in The Globe and Mail, where he writes:

Consider the following passage from the novel’s closing pages: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.” This isn’t simply a question of taste. It’s a question of emptiness. Amorphous trees? Ghosts breathing dreams like air? Scarcely created grass? None of these things actually means anything, just as there’s really no such thing as “riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart,” just as “the full bellows of the earth” don’t really blow “frogs full of life.” This is all lyricism, all metaphor, yes. But it is void lyricism, hollow metaphor.

I don’t know that I agree with his argument—“amorphous trees” seems a perfectly crumulent image to me, and the figuration of ghosts that breathe dreams like air is one I could spend a long time unpacking, both in the context of the novel and out. But let’s provisionally grant Bland’s premise, because, truth be told, there are a lot of moments in the novel when it feels like Fitzgerald is performing a charlatan’s magic trick, or offering a fireworks display, all in the name of dressing up emptiness and vacuity as something spectacular; he does seem, to paraphrase an obscure Irish poet, to spend the novel sliding across the surface of things. But I differ with Jared Bland’s assessment of “void lyricism”—the metaphors are not themselves hollow, not when Fitzgerald employs them as he does in the passage Bland quotes. Rather, it feels as though he spends his precious prose on objects and characters not worth his skill.

But this dissonance between his prose and its objects, of course, is the novel’s ironic center. And for all the occasional flourishes Fitzgerald employs (his occasional “spectroscopic gayety,” to use an appropriate example), I’d argue that the novel’s most marked figure of speech is understatement. Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive at first glance, considering the frequent descriptions of excess and frivolity, but what struck me most consistently as I re-read the novel was how often Fitzgerald blandly drops comments or observations that beg to be unpacked and expanded on.

For example: right at the beginning, as he briefly tells the story of his own background, Nick Carraway says: “I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a century after my father, and a little later I participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless.” Take a moment to reread those two sentences. He dispenses with the traumatic experience of the First World War so casually, it barely seems worth mentioning—except that the culture of the 1920s, in America and in Europe, was fundamentally shaped by the memory of war. (And yes: this will be something I belabour in class, considering that our second novel will be A Farewell to Arms). Though Fitzgerald himself did not fight in the war—he enlisted and was stationed in Alabama, but the war ended before he was shipped overseas—he was friends with Hemingway, and moreover spent a lot of his time in France, where memory of the war was somewhat more acute than in the U.S. It would be easy to dismiss his dismissive characterization of the war, except that the war is a subtle presence in the novel. He met Gatsby overseas, and whatever other lies Gatsby tells himself and others, his experiences in the trenches (and ostensible heroism) appear in the novel with the burnish of truth. Couple that with the fact that the near-hysterical partying at Gatsby’s mansion functions almost as an apotheosis of the “Jazz Age” hedonism that was itself a desperate attempt to forget the war’s trauma (potential students: at this point in class, expect an extended riff on Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory, and possibly Modris Ekstein’s The Rites of Spring).

But in Carraway’s economical retelling, the war was an exhilarating “counter-raid.” That Carraway comes back “restless” begs speculation. Restless how? He says it moved him to “go East and learn the bond business.” There is such a careful detachment in Carraway’s narration—of which his tendency toward understatement is a big part—disaffection from all those with whom he interacts (including and especially Gatsby) that it is not hard to infer emotional damage. In the end, Carraway describes Gatsby and the Buchanans—and everyone else he meets in their orbits—with the disconnected distaste of an alien, at first slightly (but only slightly) enamoured of their beauty and manners, but in the end completely disgusted with them all.

I find it rather amusing and perhaps a little ironic that, in the end, what I admire most about The Great Gatsby’s style is a trait most often attributed to Hemingway: the tendency to leave the vast majority of the material and substance of the story unsaid. Hemingway’s reputation was that of the great leaver-outer of things (it’s a literary expression. Look it up). He’d write a story that was two thousand words and then pare it down, pare it down, until it was half the length, or less. To give Scott Fitzgerald his due, however, where his buddy’s prose was so self-consciously spare—you can’t really read Hemingway without being aware of what he’s not telling you—The Great Gatsby manages to be exactly that pared down and spare, while seeming baroque and excessive. That`s a pretty impressive line to navigate, I must say.

We’ll be revisiting this comparison when I post on A Farewell to Arms. But for now, advantage: Fitzgerald.

Next up: leaving behind this whole question of understatement and considering Gatsby’s (literally) spectacular wealth!

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Fall Readings

One of the things I want to do with this blog is post about what I’m teaching. The plan, more generally, is to offer commentary on whatever I’m reading of interest anyway, but I intend to post more extended thoughts on those texts I’m covering in class. Which is not, I hasten to say, that I will just be posting tidied-up lecture notes—rather, I hope to inspire discussion about those texts I’m covering in the classroom.

I’m looking forward to teaching this fall, even though it will be pretty insanely busy. I have three classes: English 2213: Twentieth Century U.S. Fiction; English 2815: Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism; and a graduate seminar titled The Banality of Magic: Fantasy, Myth, and Humanism.

It probably seems premature to talk about this now, but I don’t intend to post my thoughts just when I’m covering the books in class. Rather, I’ll post as I read the texts … and at this point, the first of those posts will probably go up in a few days. I’m also not sure what I hope to accomplish by talking about this now, unless people reading this blog feel inclined to read what I’m covering and talk back to my thoughts in the comment sections. For the record: that would be awesome. As I said in my opening post, I’m all about narrative … but I’m also all about conversation. Philosophically speaking, that is what I love most about the humanities, about the arts and about literature: it’s all about taking part in a big conversation. Think of it like a MOOC—a Massive Open Online Course—except, you know, not massive. And not evil. And you won’t be graded.

I should at this point offer a caveat for my (actual) students: some of you will almost certainly find your way to this blog (hallo!) and if you do, you need to know that my posts on course material are not the equivalent of me posting lecture notes online. There will certainly be overlap. But these meditations here are not definitive, and will not cover everything covered in class.

That being said, please feel free to respond and comment. It will not count toward class participation, and you’re welcome to post anonymously if you’re shy (please refrain from character assassination and trolling). But please: join the conversation.

I won’t say anything for now about the theory and crit course—I’ll speak to it when I’ve settled on the theorists we’re covering. But here are the reading lists for the other two courses.


Twentieth-Century U.S. Fiction

The reading list is (in the order we’ll do it):

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Julia Alverez, In the Time of the Butterflies

2213 is a course I have taught every year since I started at Memorial, and one I have had an awful lot of fun with. The main problem it poses is in trying to cover a century of fiction in thirteen weeks. Which of course cannot be done: as I tell my students, survey courses like this one are like a greatest hits album. They give you a sense of the material, but a very shallow and un-nuanced one. I have figured out that six novels is about the optimum number of texts to cover in a semester—five if one or more is really chunky, seven if one or more is really short, but the average is about six.

Knowing you can’t cover all the bases, and that it’s futile to try, is liberating … but it still poses a few organizational difficulties in terms of coverage and representation. As tempting as it would be to scrunch the entire course into six post-1980 novels, that would be cheating (I save that sort of thing for my fourth-year seminars). So you want to get an even spread (more or less) across the century, and you want to aim for balance in terms of men vs. women writers, white versus writers of colour, and so on.

This year, apropos of Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation, it occurred to me that I’ve never taught The Great Gatsby—until recently I had not, in fact, even read it since high school. The thought prompted me to add other classic novels I have not read in years and years, and before long I’d settled on The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (nope, never taught The Sound and the Fury—my go-to text there is As I Lay Dying, and I once taught Light in August).

gatsby-2

Of course, now half the course was very white, very canonical, and very dead. So to balance things, the second half of the course will be a trio of extraordinary women writers: Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, and Julia Alvarez.

violent bear it away

One of the issues one deals with in teaching survey courses is coverage—six novels doesn’t really give you a lot of room for movement, and in trying for a representative selection of twentieth-century fiction, you really want to try to be actually representative of American voices. And alas, with only six novels to work with, there is absolutely no way under heaven to cover all your bases. It simply cannot be done. So you try for symbolic victories.

It’s always a balancing act, and in my opening lecture I always give a long list of the novelists we won’t be covering … in the hopes that my students understand that a thirteen-week course makes them about as much of an expert on twentieth-century American fiction as someone who likes “Hey Jude” is a Beatles expert.


The Banality of Magic: Fantasy, Myth, and Humanism

I really, really hope some people reading this saw the title of this course and had a moment of either confusion, anger, or just a general “WTF?” Hopefully, someone thought “The banality of magic? Isn’t magic by definition the opposite of banal?”

If anyone thought anything along those lines, that makes me happy. The title is of course a nod to Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil,” the main trope of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. My topic is far less significant, but the rhetorical gesture is the same. The course looks at contemporary fantasy’s tendency to articulate a markedly secular, humanist perspective—which is somewhat counter-intuitive for a genre that has traditionally been preoccupied with supernaturally-infused neo-medieval stories and settings. But when one reads Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin—or even J.K. Rowling—one finds an inversion of the relationship between the supernatural and the mortal, the magical and the mundane, than was typical in the defining texts of the genre.

I won’t belabor the course’s overarching thesis here. Suffice to say, I foresee many posts to come in which I work through these questions, given that this course is representative of my current research … there is an awful lot I have to say on the topic. So without further ado, here is the reading list, again in the order we’ll likely cover it in class:

Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad
Bernard Cornwell, The Winter King
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Lev Grossman, The Magicians
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Richard K. Morgan, The Steel Remains

There’s a lot I could say about this right now, but I’ll refrain. As I said before, there will be an awful lot of posts on fantasy and how we define in it in the coming weeks.

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