Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Three Worlds: Victor Hugo's LES MISERABLES

+Catharina Lindgren, whom you and everyone should follow on G+, recently shared a quote about Victor Hugo's LES MISERABLES:
  • The Oxford Companion to French Literature has this to say about Les Miserables: 'The book is made still more unwieldy by the continual insertion of long historical, political, or sociological dissertations. Interesting ones are the description of the battle of Waterloo, the study of the end of the Restoration period and the figure of Louis-Philippe, the famous description of the Paris sewers, and numerous pictures of Paris and Parisian underworld life.'

To readers expecting only a clear character-driven narrative, these diversions are indeed unorthodox left turns that "don't move the plot forward." Let's call that "plot" part, the part where we are meant to wonder what is going to happen to a major character, The Drama. There are a whole lot of digressions that seem independent from The Drama, and these digressions usually go on for a bit. In fact, they take up 25% of the book. What are we to make of them? Some possibilities follow.

I have my own theory about the diversions in LES MISERABLES: they are there for the patient, and they are there for a reason. The first time you read the novel, they do indeed make the book feel unwieldy. They throw you for a loop. To use an archaic, sexist saying, they separate the men from the boys within the reader base. Wimps may proceed to the abridged edition. The second time through, though, you pick up thematic connections that you couldn't possibly have picked up the first time. And the book draws you in deeper as a result.

For instance, the long bit about Waterloo culminates in some musings on destiny that are somehow more relevant once you have taken in the whole story. A lengthy lecture on the nature of human progress means more once you realize it really is there for a reason -- Hugo is about to introduce four vicious career criminals. And the extended tour of the Paris sewers connects to broad thematic sequences of corruption, concealment, and power politics. The second time through, you say to yourself, "Ah -- I see."

This "I get it now" response is a reward for rereading a book designed to be reread. One experiences it, not just in the dissertations, but also when one comes across certain exquisite plot foreshadowings. No reader could possibly identify or make sense of all of these foreshadowings on first reading. An example: Fantine, still a beautiful young girl unacquainted with tragedy, watches a horse being beaten to death on the streets of Paris. She herself, in time, will be beaten down by the city.

Conclusion: Even at half a million words or so, this book is designed to be read multiple times, and deserves multiple readings. Of course, this is a subjective conclusion. For me, the second reading was better than the first, and the third was better than the second. Only a writer, perhaps, can grasp the difficulty of creating such a book.

In particular, I found that the diversions were (amazing!) all manageable the second and third time through. They take the book out of conventional fiction mode and tie it to a much larger experience, a journey that reserves the right to make stops at countless minutiae of history, architecture, the progressive impulse, urban development, gender relations, sewer design and on and on -- the journey of LIFE. It's a little like having Jacob Bronowski serve as a collaborator and guest host on a month's episodes of ONE LIFE TO LIVE.

If ever a writer won the right to fold dissertations into his soap opera, it is Victor Hugo. 

So what do we have? A book that never ends, and more than that, a hybrid that never ends.

I believe this book is designed to operate on at least three levels, only one of which (the first) shows up in the popular musical adaptation or in any other adaptation I've seen. The levels are:

1. The Drama (discussed above)
2. The Diversions (discussed above)
3. The First-Person Essays (discussed below)

These three worlds intersect to create, for patient readers, a single world of seemingly endless complexity and resonance. It's an illusion -- a literary trick -- but it's an astonishing effect.

Easier to miss than the drama and the diversions, which I've already examined briefly, is Hugo's careful, conscious decision to weave his own personal experience into the book. Let's look at those next.

The "I" essays give the appearance of being tucked into one of the other two compartments, and despite what I have called them they do not involve the first-person-singular "I" voice. Hugo achieves his multi-layered effect with a canny second-person "we" that fuses, in complex ways, with the book's editorial "we" -- and guess what that means? It means LES MIS is a personal journal, as well.

It is Hugo himself who tours the silent battlefield of Waterloo decades after the battle, and Hugo who shares his own personal memories of the barricades of 1832 as the insurrection raged in Paris.
These "I" reference-points are easy to miss the first time through because the reader is still off balance, trying to taking in larger episodes and/or rants. They become clearer, and more essential, on the second read. The "I" episodes are sometimes are very short. although the two instances I have given are lengthy ones. But they seem to me to present another conscious device: Hugo goes out of his way to establish and re-establish his own identity as an individual, though not as a character in the drama involving Jean-Valjean et al. You are never allowed to forget the author's literal presence in the story, and that presence increases in visibility and importance with repeated readings.

I've never read anything remotely like LES MISERABLES. It's a radical book, structurally, and I'm still not sure how he pulled it off. But I know these three worlds do exist, and I do know they cross-pollenate to create a variety of literary magnetism that's distinctive to this work.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

And a shout-out to my collaborator Fiona Apple

I am lying. That Fiona Apple (our generation's Piaf, our Ella, our Fiona) is usually my first or second choice when it comes to background music while I'm writing Jihadi does not entitle her to any portion of my royalties. It does, however, earn her an acknowledgment here, for spurring me on, and for recording what has turned into Becky Firestone's unofficial theme song, GET HIM BACK.

There is a pun in the title phrase. I wonder how many people grasp it. I don't think Becky does, but then she's cagy about such things.

Above is a not-to-be-missed performance of GET HIM BACK and a straight-ahead interview with Fiona, back when EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE was first released. She is, as host Craig Ferguson points out, a "very complicated person," and I'm one of those too, and bless her for what she's done with it. I hope to meet her at a good party sometime and thank her for her uncompromising words, for her powerful personal example, for her courage, for not apologizing for her own identity, and for taking as much time as required to finish the damn record.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Point of No Return

Update from the front: My novel JIHADI -- on which I have been working for about six years -- is now about 30,000 words shy of its 100,000-word target. 22 chapters down. Nine to go. As of today, I am on schedule to complete the working draft December 10 of this year.

My goal is to use this year's #NaNoWriMo to create the 60,000 or so draft words needed to fill the 30,000-word gap (assuming a two-to-one crap-passage-to-viable-passage ratio), then leave the thing alone for a month or so, then give it one good pass before circulating it among literary agents in January.

Translation: This is where it gets real. This is the point of no return. It is time to wrap this thing.

I feel comfortable saying that now, if only because I now have a clear, confident answer to that question, "So what's your novel about?" (It's about an American citizen who is accused of terrorism.) I used to just sputter and drool a lot whenever people asked that.

The wonderful news is that the book does, in fact, feel like a novel, and (though I say it who perhaps shouldn't) a good one. Here's a link to the current Chapter One. Here's encouraging feedback from past beta readers. (The three who have gone above and beyond the call are +L. T. Dalin , +Richard Gibney , and +Adella Wright.) And then there's the video above.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I post more frequent updates on the novel's progress. And please do connect with me via Twitter or via email if you are interested in reading the manuscript in PDF form and providing a critique.

The moral of the story: I really am wrapping the thing up, Godwilling.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

GRAVITY: Six Reasons You Need to See This Movie Twice ... Especially if You're a Writer

The movie GRAVITY is now the #1 box office attraction in the United States, comforting evidence that my country hasn't yet completely lost its mind. (One wonders lately about the lucidity of the nation given, say, Congress's recent behavior, but that is another topic.)

Herewith six reasons to see this astonishing movie not once, but twice, in a movie theatre:

1) Its airtight script offers yet another compelling example of the power of what Martha Alderson calls the Universal Story. This endlessly resilient template for storytelling is outlined in Alderson's book THE PLOT WHISPERER WORKBOOK, which you should buy. Watch GRAVITY twice so you can see how closely the journey here matches up with her template: End of the Beginning (debris), Crisis (separation), Climax (I'm not going to spoil it for you, but it involves a discussion), Resolution (I'm not going to spoil it for you, but it involves transformation, renewal, and rebirth). If you are writing a screenplay, a novel, or a memoir, and you want to know how it is done, THIS IS HOW IT IS DONE, and the proof is that it triangulates perfectly with Alderson. I started working on my novel with renewed vigor after seeing what screenwriters Jonas and Alfonso Cuaron did with the Universal Story, which "is" Alderson's in the sense that the Collective Unconscious "is" Carl Jung's. So: If you want to see what good storytelling looks like, watch this movie, compare it to Alderson's template, and then watch it again (and read Alderson again).

2) It's directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who also directed the spellbinding CHILDREN OF MEN. If you saw that, you remember that it was one of the most important movies of that painful decade that ended in 2009, whatever we are calling that. Guess what? GRAVITY is even better, impossible as that seems.

3) You have, I promise, never seen anything like it. The cinematography here is so good that words do not to it justice. So I won't try.

4) The 3-D is not a gimmick but an integral part of the cinema experience. Don't miss that experience. The film would be incomplete without it, and you'll want two passes to get clear on just how well it works.

5) The lead performance in GRAVITY is not just the performance of Sandra Bullock's career, it's the performance of everybody's career. What I mean by that is: "Everyman is Actually a Woman" is a pretty impressive accomplishment, one we may have been working our way up to for several thousand years. It's what she and Cuaron pull off here. This is not (just) a space-disaster film, it's a movie about humanity and its response to adversity, and the performance that makes that possible is Bullock's. Her work here is something that people are going to be talking about for a long, long time to come. If this doesn't win Sandra Bullock an Oscar nomination, there is something wrong in Oscar-dom.

6) It's probably as close as you're going to get to the powerful, personal, transformative experience reported by astronauts. Too vague, I know. You'll know what experience I mean when you see this film, though, and whatever you choose to call that, you'll want to experience it again. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Revolution in the Head: Why the #Beatles' "Revolution 9" Doesn't Suck

"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." -- Albert Einstein

PALE FIRE. LES MISERABLES. 8 1/2. SYNECHDOCHE, NEW YORK. Here's to all that great, world-defining work out there that confounds, that confuses, that bores, that demands too much the first time through ... and rewards a second assessment (and a third and fourth and on and on). Add to that list John Lennon's landmark 1968 musique concrete collage REVOLUTION 9 :

Carefully leaving aside any insistence on the rightness or wrongness of personal aesthetic assessments, I offer to the skeptical some evidence in support of an unpopular idea. The idea is that purposeful structure, rich thematic resonance, and deep beauty are all to be found in  REVOLUTION 9, and that this track repays all those willing to grant it an open mind.

This composition has been described as the black hole near the end of the White Album, as a chaotic mess beyond analysis or defense, as evidence of what awful things can happen after you give drug-addled pop stars the keys to the recording studio. As, in short, the Beatles song that most clearly sucks.

I disagree. This complex piece is, as I hear it, a triumph, an open door to a place unsettling and worth visiting, a place that is anything, anything but random. 

It begins with a half-heard, half-abandoned conversation between two faraway people, and it ends with gunfire and the chants of a frenzied stadium crowd. In between, its careful, layered evocation of the liminal state -- the "halfway" experience between wakefulness and sleep -- offers uncountable, intriguing repetitions and progressions, many glimpses of a world descending into chaos and emerging from it and descending again. Listen for the endless, tortured variations on the words "all right," for the various comparisons of crowds and choirs, and for the running verbal themes of nakedness, clothing, and exposure.

Lennon used sound collage to build a world we occupy and recognize, but don't always want to explore, a dream world that unfolds whether we want it to or not, that might proceed at any moment into a nightmare. He used sound collage to summon dreams we might dislike having to come to terms with upon awakening.

As I hear it, REVOLUTION 9 is an experiential composition that challenges and strips away the supposed supremacy of the logical, intellectual, rationalizing aspect of the listener's mind and identity. If you are brave enough to engage with it on its own terms, you will find that you yourself enter a kind of dream state where your own rational armor slips away ... where "you become naked." Lennon used these eight unpredictable minutes as an open challenge to all the "rational" restrictions and interpretations that stand in the way of an authentic personal response to life. 

I am fifty-two now. So far, this seems to be the best age from which to approach the piece. A little more patience, a little more regret, a little more openness to new sources of discovery and renewal. A little more skepticism about external appearances. A little more receptiveness to the potential of dreams and accidents, and their role in shaping what comes next.  REVOLUTION 9 reminds me somehow of the first of that astonishing pair of couplets at the end of King Lear: 

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

REVOLUTION 9 is, for some of us at any rate, a mirror, in spots more troubling than we deserve, in spots more beautiful than we deserve, but at any rate more relevant to our jaded, bloodstained, channel-hopping, information-saturated era than any other track the Beatles recorded. The intricacy of its design continues to elude many, but that may have been part of Lennon's point.

See this link to Ian Hammond's masterful critique of the piece.

And this one to Carlton J. Wilkinson's paper, which acknowledges decades of skepticism about the track, but shows how it "exhibits a very definite musical structure and a clarity of intent" throughout. 

And this link to one persuasive attempt to pin down the lyrics.

And this link to another.

And the perceptive essay that appears in the late Ian McDonald's fine book REVOLUTION IN THE HEAD.

I consider this track the Fabs' masterpiece. Then again, if it ain't for you, it ain't for you... :)

Monday, October 7, 2013

OP, Original Pronunciation: Everything You Know About Shakespeare Is Wrong

Well, not everything. But everything about how Shakespeare SOUNDS. That's wrong.

If you're like me, you're used to hearing Shakespeare spoken in what's known as Received Pronunciation. Think of Derek Jacobi, whom I love above all current interpreters of the Bard, opening up HENRY V:

Beautiful, right? But guess what? That's not even close to the way it sounded in 1599. If you love that style of delivery, as I did for decades, more power to you -- but these days I am longing for a video of HENRY V (and everything else) in what's known as OP, or Original Pronunciation, because a) it sounds way, way, WAY cool and b) it reconnects the Bard's language to puns and rhymes that don't work otherwise.

Take a look and a listen -- and tell me, please, where I can find performances and videos of Shakespeare in OP: