Wednesday, December 25, 2013

In 2014, I resolve to be grateful.


When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free
.--Wendell Berry

Abundance awaits our notice each dawn. Its glory and wealth abides. It is ours for the taking if we but look up and outside ourselves. May we, as Wendell Berry advises, rest in the arms of this earth where the waters hold wood drakes, where the fish below feed the heron. Let us know the peace of still waters and hushed pastures as we lift our eyes to the mysterious stars.

Reading Challenge:

Read “The Peace of Wild Things” daily. Let his words teach you to see, hear, sniff, taste, and touch truth. Let his words teach you what to write.

May the new year be kind to you.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Holiday Hope

‘Tis the season for glowing, twinkling lights making rainbows across snowy banks as smooth as the finest fondant. ‘Tis the time to hear Mariah nail every note in all I want for Christmas is you and Bing croon I’ll be home where the lovelight gleams.

Fifth Avenue still dazzles and dizzies with satins and silks on display. At Rockefeller Center, children grow woozy trying to see the top of the mighty tree while below, ice skaters spin dreams of steaming cocoa to warm their core.

This is the inescapable season of joy and brotherhood, of Kwanzaa gratitude, Hanukkah miracles, and Christmas hope. ‘Tis the season to celebrate the promise of us, and authors have done so, offering fare to inspire the best in us.

One of the earliest tales that made me weep as a child is Han Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl,” a story about deprivation, hunger, loneliness, and the smallest spark of love to light the way. I warn you, the tale is bleak. Reading it again, I cried again. I confess I cry every time I think of any child so forlorn, just on the other side of plenty and joy, never to be welcomed home without having sold her matches, no stranger’s door open to her either. The only hope for her new year is in an afterlife, warmer and more loving than this one.

Scrooge faces a similar cold, but it is one of his own making. He stands outside the warm circle of family and love because he has made money his lover and god. Like Beatrice beatifically blessing Dante, Marley intervenes to save poor Ebenezer, and in doing so, saves Tiny Tim and all of Bob Cratchit’s family from despair, loss, and want. Old Scrooge’s unspoken prayers are answered, and he lives in and for love.

Photo of a Holiday Treasure at Our House 2013. Photo by Al Griffin

Hollywood’s Christmas fare often employs both characters: a child suffering and a man in need of redemption. George Seaton used them in Miracle on 34th Street. Though well cared for with a home to call her own, little Susan Walker and her mother, Doris Walker, stand outside the warm Christmas circle wherein Santa delivers every dream and wish never uttered aloud. Doris was bruised by love and teaches her daughter to hold illusion, fairy tales, and all things fanciful in contempt. Kris Kringle and John Walker take the part of Beatrice and Marley. Their perfect faith and love save the girls from themselves, teaching them to believe in goodness, mercy, and magic.

Would that the little match girl had an angel or a Santa to save her. May no child endure this inescapable, ubiquitous season of hope without rescue. May every child receive the gift of love and a little something to keep her warm every other night of the coming year.

Reading Challenge:

Read “The Little Match Girl.” Then when your eyes are clear again, read A Christmas Carol. Breathe deeply of redemption and love, then brew a strong cup of tea and settle in to watch Miracle on 34th Street. When your smiles fade, spend 130 minutes with It’s a Wonderful Life. Carry those minutes into action. Give to others freely and generously as the people of Bedford Falls gave to George Bailey.

Writing Challenge:

Write a journal entry about It’s a Wonderful Life. How does it meet the Christmas archetypal standards of a character both in need of and redeemed by love?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Writers Listen, Too!

A recent post described the wonderful experience of listening to books, especially those read by the author, and the value of listening in honing personal writing skills. Last week’s post reminded writers to read widely and much. This week’s post returns to listening, but this time, to lyrics, the poetic songs accompanied by melody and instrument.

One song has always touched me, perhaps because of the wistful notes made tangible by the artist, Bonnie Raitt, as she sings “Wounded Heart by Jude Johnstone. Below are the song's lyrics portraying a love that endures but cannot conquer:

Wounded heart I cannot save you from yourself
Though I wanted to be brave, it never helped.
'Cause your trouble's like a flood raging through your veins
No amount of love's enough to end the pain

Tenderness and time can heal a right gone wrong,
But the anger that you feel goes on and on.
And it's not enough to know that I love you still
So I'll take my heart and go for I've had my fill

If you listen you can hear the angel's wings
Up above our heads so near they are hovering
Waiting to reach out for love when it falls apart
When it cannot rise above a wounded heart.

Tweens and teens yearn for a love of their own, and most imagine that love, when found, will bring with it unimaginable happiness and fulfillment. But these lyrics describe a love that continues apart from the beloved because no amount of love will overcome a wounded heart, flowing and ebbing with trouble like a flood .

This is the love that Catherine Earnshaw knows. No amount of love or concern was enough to end Heathcliff’s pain.

It is also the love that Cordelia feels for her father, Lear. He was deaf to her tender, honest words of love and regard for him. His raging troubles led to betrayal, humiliation, despair and madness. 

It is the love felt by every lover inextricably tied to a tortured soul: the Gandhis who must rescue an entire nation but cannot simultaneously be intimate; the Winnie Mandelas who must abide while the future inspiration for a people endures imprisoned; the Lee Krasners who rest uneasily beside a driven, alcoholic Jackson Pollock; the fictional Esther Blodgetts who cannot rescue the Norman Maines of this world. None of these loves fulfills both parties equally. None of them ends with both parties living happily ever after.

Johnstone/Raitt’s collaboration is a song of heartbreak and heartache, their cause a wounded heart. It is a song writers should know if they wish to tell of the full human experience.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” Bonnie Raitt’s album, Silver Lining, a release that includes "Wounded Heart."

Writing Challenge:

Write a story about a wounded heart.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Good Reading for Writers: The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison

Writers read because they learn the beauty of expression by studying and enjoying diction and syntax. They also read to enhance their understanding of the human experience, especially those experiences that hide just around the corner, out of our view, down shadowy alleys.

A. S. A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife (2013) is a wonderful read for writers who wish to peek around that corner, into the heart of a murderess and woman scorned with none of the Betty Broderick madness. We readers also bear witness to the carelessness that leads a man to his death. We learn about the collateral damage inflicted upon best friends and unborn heirs.

One paragraph may help you see the fertile ground that bears the fruit of insight:

She never saw the point in fighting with a man who was not going to reform. Acceptance is supposed to be a good thing--‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ Also compromise, as every couples therapist will tell you. But the cost was high--the damping of expectation, the dwindling of spirit, the resignation that comes to replace enthusiasm, the cynicism that supplants hope. The moldering that goes unnoticed and unchecked.

How many of us have marveled at the changes wrought by a relationship. I recall opening my refrigerator once after a love ended and realizing that nothing inside was my taste. I had completely shifted my buying habits, menus, and preferences. I had lost my own tastes in favor of another’s.

Harrison addresses that phenomenon, describing it as a subtle transformation whereby we smother expectations, allow our spirits to wither, settle for less than we desire, forsake hope. We perform in a masquerade at the end of which we cannot remove our costumes without endangering our identity and security in a relationship.

Thanks to Harrison and The Silent Wife for showing me how to speak about a thread in the tapestry of the human experience. 

Reading Challenge:

Read The Silent Wife.

Writing Challenge:

Select a passage from The Silent Wife and write about its insights.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Thanks Teaches Us to Be Humble

Tomorrow, families gather to give thanks. They may remember the myth taught to them as elementary school-age children. They may now know, as adults, that the Pilgrims were much less kind to and far from grateful for the Native Americans.

Those at the table may simply be grateful for the bountiful feasts and for family members having gathered together once more. Or they may treat the day as a sacred one that begins and ends with their faith uppermost in their minds.

A Native American prayer seems fitting for all the reasons people gather and remember to give thanks. It is a Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving prayer, the full text of which can be found at a site titled First People.

The speaker expresses thanks to the People, Earth Mother, Waters, Fish, Plants, Food Plants, Medicine Herbs, Animals, Trees, Birds, Four Winds, Thunderers, Sun, Grandmother Moon, Stars, Enlightened Teachers, and the Creator. In other words, the prayer is comprehensive, universal, and nonsectarian. It teaches its hearers to be humble and grateful, to acknowledge the connections between all elements and people of the earth.

Some might call the prayer pantheistic. Some might try to diminish the prayer's focus upon our earth, its climate, and our role therein. But the truly grateful must grant that the very air we breathe, the water that nourishes us, the foods that strengthen us, and the brotherhood that sustains us are the timeless and borderless elements that unite us.

Let us give thanks for speakers and writers, for earth, wind, fire, and water, for all that was and is and will be.

Reading Challenge:

Read the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Prayer.

Writing Challenge:

Write your own comprehensive and universal prayer of thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

On This Date in History: Recorded Sound

On this date in history, one hundred and thirty-six years ago, Thomas Alva Edison announced the invention of a talking machine, later named the phonograph, a tool to record voices and the sound of birdsong, exquisite musical performances, and the noise that now makes up a day.

Right now, Diane Rehm and several guests urge me to support returning U. S. servicemen affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), unemployment, and strained personal relationships. The dryer thumps rhythmically as the sheets spin dry while the water softener hisses to treat our water so that it will not corrode our pipes. The coffee pot adds soprano notes when it signals that it will turn off its warmer just ahead of the dishwasher’s alert that it has done its work.

Outside, the world beyond is even noisier, especially during the summer season when big Merc motors growl a large cruiser into life and jet ski engines, like motorcycles on asphalt. reverberate across the cove. How much noise we’ve added with every generation and iteration of Edison!

But Edison’s original gift has also given us audio-books, unabridged and sometimes read by the author. I enjoyed Beloved this way, and now, when reading snippets, I hear Toni Morrison’s nuances and rhythms. I understand the syntax as melody, and language as lyrics.

From Khaled Hosseini’s reading of The Kite Runner, I learned how to say Baba and Kabul and to enjoy their softer, lovelier sounds. Now I translate in my mind when I hear newscasters speak of Kabul, and I mourn the loss of such beautiful places as those Hosseini describes, nostalgia imbued in every passage.

As their inventor, Jeffrey Eugenides understands his narrative choices, its shifts and turns, better than anyone, and thus, his reading of the award-winning novel, Middlesex, becomes a conversation between his narrators and readers. I felt as if he was seated in my living room telling me a long epic tale.

Even when others read an authors’ work, we enjoy special delights. Sissy Spacek as Scout, the narrator of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, does not manufacture a Southern drawl. Unlike some actresses who learned English in other regions of the world, Spacek, a native Texan, speaks naturally and drawls correctly the lines I love so much. 

Frank Muller performs Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses with respect and appreciation. He seems to ride the plains with the characters and ache as they suffer. His performance renders McCarthy’s language as poetry.

One could do worse than listen to the sounds of the words that authors choose so carefully and wisely. I recommend it without reservation. We hear the rhythms more clearly. We understand the power of words bouncing upon other words, their similarities strengthening them and their differences distinguishing them.

Reading Challenge:

Listen to language online, using YouTube or other sites, including Download and/or stream one free audio-book. Choose a favorite and experience it anew.

Writing Challenge:

Read aloud a passage from your own work. Let the sounds teach you about revision.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Roadmap to Grief

What if someone provided you with a detailed road map leading you from the place upon which you stand to unimaginable sorrow?

Doomed Oedipus had such a map, thanks to the Oracle at Delphi; still Oedipus rushes headlong and heedless into his own darkness.

Gifted Hamlet knows that the odds are heavy against his survival. His own mother dissembles, his stepfather commands traitors disguised as childhood friends, and assassins await opportunities to eliminate him. Nevertheless, he engages, telling his dear friend, Horatio, “If it be now, / 't is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be / now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the / readiness is all” (5.2). Thus prepared for what Fate will deliver, Hamlet enters the arena where he will die.

Clever Tom Stoppard re-imagines the play, Hamlet, from the point of view of Hamlet’s so-called childhood friends for a play-within-a-play known as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  In Stoppard’s account of Hamlet’s trials, the Players rehearse a play to prick the conscience of the King and tease truth into the light. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch the rehearsal, seeing two figures dressed exactly as they are, hang by their necks until dead, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to see their current course as one leading to the same sorrowful end. They sail on to England, and they die at the end of a rope.

Dystopia 1. Photo by Al Griffin

Cormac McCarthy explores the same dystopic path in the human experience through his original screenplay The Counselor. In another epic tale of Innocence dragged through the Desert of Depravity, an ambitious attorney sets a course for utter annihilation by conspiring to import drugs provided by a cartel. Two experienced importers warn him to walk away and describe horrific methods employed by the cartel to insure their own survival and power. One involves a high-tech, inescapable garrote that delivers terror as well as death for the victim knows there is no escape possible for him. The other describes a snuff film in which the pleasure derives from having a victim genuinely innocent and truly afraid for her life. Each horror story moves the Counselor, but he fails to believe that his own end might involve such brutality. He still signs his name in blood at the bottom of the Devil’s contract, protesting that he’s only interested in one shipment, one opportunity to become wealthy beyond any one person’s needs.

Dystopia 2. Photo by Al Griffin

Of course, his fate, as all fates really, turns upon a single random moment when he agrees to help an imprisoned client’s son get out of jail. The boy works for the cartel and is a target for opportunists. In fact, soon after the boy's release from jail, he's executed so that a poacher can seize the money he carries. The Counselor has nothing to do with the theft, but in a purely business decision, the cartel decides the Counselor must die. Someone ordered that boy's death, and circumstantial evidence, especially guilt by association, condemns the Counselor. 

Others guilty by association will also die: the two who warned the Counselor to walk away. One will fall after a bullet passes through his brain; the other will suffer the final, breathtaking moments inside a garrote.

But another, the Counselor's beloved, not guilty of association with anyone other than the Counselor will also die as a consequence. She will star as the innocent and terrified victim in a snuff film. The Counselor appeals, hoping to save her and rewrite the past, to create a different ending, but of course, that’s impossible. His exit was written the moment he embarked upon a dystopic path. He lived as if mercy and beauty could be partitioned off, as if illegality and greed were shadowy figures never to be brought into the light where justice and truth prevail. He was wrong.

Oedipus learns that the gods may have ginned up a trap for him, but his deeds tightened the ropes that bind him in the end. Hamlet learns that he is in fact cursed to have been charged with setting things right in Denmark, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern observe that there must have been a moment when they could have said “no,” but they missed it. Well, the Counselor had several moments when he could have said “no,” but he cried “yes” instead and rushed heedless into his own hell.

So too is this a motif stitched into the human experience. In spite of warnings from older, more experienced people, in spite of literature’s revelations, and in spite of our own guts warning us against tempting the unknown, we step into it today and tomorrow, every moment that we live. Some of us will escape dystopia; a few will not.

Dystopia 3. Photo by Al Griffin

Reading Challenge:

“Read” The Counselor, now playing in theaters. Observe its ties to classic archetypal themes. Note its existential warning: we shape our realities and pay the consequences for our choices.

Writing Challenge:

Respond to these words from Hamlet, Act 5, scene 2:  “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Read for Our Veterans

I admit to clamping my jaw and putting undue pressure on my molars every time I see a Support Our Troops magnet slapped on the butt of a car. What our troops do for us is far too unpleasant and much too important for us to be so facile, especially because the troops receive none of the profits from those magnets.

Let no one misunderstand me, however; I absolutely support supporting our troops--not because I am a Neocon, Hawk, Republican, warmonger, arms dealer, employee in the defense industry, or private contractor who may benefit from troop deployments around the world. In fact, other labels including Progressive, Independent, Dove, and retired public school teacher describe me much better. I simply believe we must support our troops because it is our duty to do so

If we call upon the patriots among us to stand and fight, then we must arm them with more than weapons. We must give them training in how to make peace when they return from war.

If we need men and women to perform unpleasant tasks such as making war, carrying out our dead, and quelling violence, then we must give them trauma-free days and nightmare-free nights. We must provide support groups and medical care and safe harbor when they return.

Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Photo by Al Griffin

If we ask boys and girls to disrupt their lives to serve their country, then we must insure that they must not also endure want. They should earn a wage far above one that would allow them to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Their families should not be in danger of losing their homes when one earner is overseas because of mortgage bubbles, Wall Street greed, or impending government shut-downs. We must grant them peace of mind with regard to basic needs such as food and shelter.

Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Photo by Al Griffin
Note: Al Griffin has a series featuring homeless people, and several of them are veterans.

Some officials do not seem to agree with my assertions. More money goes to making war than making peace, more to defense contractors than enlisted men and women, more to weapons than healing. I submit, therefore, that officials must read some of the award-winning and classic war literature available to them. Some of these titles include:

Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War wherein decision-makers may learn about collapsed economies and lost national prowess, both long-term, irrevocable consequences of the conquering spirit.

From Homer’s The Iliad, decision-makers may learn about the effect of war upon a civilization. Homer narrates the sorry reasons for which men put their honor and lives on the line. The Greeks devastate an entire city and all its citizens, even those in the womb and those long past the strength to fight. Collateral damage and soul-smothering deeds characterize a war fought for the purposes of loyalty and honor.

Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur may teach officials lessons about humility and hubris. Sir Gawain’s determination to recover lost family honor is an inciting cause that leads to the loss of Camelot and its king.

Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies chronicle the differences between those who seize and defend power and those who are at the mercy of powerful men. Macbeth, once a valiant soldier, grows thick calluses against sympathy and moral restraints. Othello, a valued general and strategist, cannot endure the loss of his honor, executing the perceived enemy as he might on a battlefield, thereby blurring the line between civilian and military codes. In addition, through the Roman plays and English King histories, Shakespeare reveals the political machinations that construct a belief which lead men to march …somewhere else, to grief (from W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles”).

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries chronicle a war of ideologies, in particular skirmishes and battles for human dignity and rights against monarchial, colonial, religious, and economic oppression. Hobbes and Locke both reacted to and shaped civil unrest that served revolutions undertaken in the name of justice and opportunity for all-- in theory. As the next three novels listed reveal, in practice, men proved to be less evolved than the intellectuals’ philosophical arguments.

In the nineteenth century, British author Charles Dickens used The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle to develop A Tale of Two Cities (, a compelling story about the human costs of social and economic change. In France, Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables, a long, impassioned tale of Jean Valjean’s struggles to escape a cruel, stratified world and live in one where more people do more than just endure, they thrive. Hugo sets this personal quest in a time and place on the verge of revolution, linking the macrocosm to Valjean’s microcosm wherein he must, once again, sacrifice and summon extraordinary bravery. From Russia, Tolstoy added the epic War and Peace, a novel that reveals the violent, bloody combat that accompanies both noble and ignoble ambitions leading to war.

The work of early twentieth-century poets lyrically portray the horrors of war. Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed,” Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and Siegfried Sassoon’s “ The Rear-Guard” reveal the terrible price that men who make war must also pay.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque is a must read for decision-makers who should be moved from the introduction through the last page. They will, we hope, heed, Remarque’s introductory cautionary remarks: This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and lest of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air is an account of one man trying to return whole to the civilian world after service in World War I. Decision-makers need Orwell’s insights; too many veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and too many, unable to cope, commit suicide

Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, a novel about the British Navy on the Atlantic during World War II informs us that any and all honor in war is wholly vested in the individual, and every reason or policy leading to war leads inexorably to unacceptable suffering.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a dark, sardonic portrait of war’s absurdities, including the machinations of men at headquarters absent any understanding of the human cost of their decisions.

More recent wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan have inspired prize winning literature from Tim O'Brien and poet Kevin Powers. The Things They Carried by O’Brien and The Yellow Birds by Powers prove how random are the losses in war, how inevitable the brutality, and how unrelenting the tension and tedium.

Oklahoma City, OK Cemetery. Photo by Al Griffin

None of the titles I’ve referenced celebrates war. All demonstrate that whatever leads a nation to war is insufficient. Causes shrivel when compared to the human costs that war delivers.

General and President Eisenhower agreed; he said, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Eisenhower was a soldier, the architect and contractor for D-Day. He was also a politician charged with making war and peace, and he labored for peace as president because he understood how brutal war truly is.

So, dear decision-makers, please read, then amend our policies. We must retire war in order to support our troops

Dear readers, please support our troops by making your understanding of war known, by informing policy-makers of the great costs of war.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one or all titles cited in this list of war literature, one that merely skips through time, one that skips over and past worthy titles.

Writing Challenge:

Write a pledge vowing to support our troops. Be sure to include reasonable actions to take in order to demonstrate support.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Something Wicked This Way Comes" (Shakespeare)

Something wicked this way comes is Macbeth, the title character of Shakespeare’s study in the seductive embrace of power and a man’s descent into the dark recesses of ambition. It also suits this day, Halloween.

"Autumn's Blush"
Fleeting Seasons as seen from the Hurricane Deck Bridge, Missouri. Al Griffin Photography

For Halloween, at least in the United States, people adopt personas; they shape-shift from modest CPAs by day into predatory vampires by night, providing a perfect paradigm for a motif woven throughout Macbeth, one given expression by the witches who, in the opening scene, say, Fair is foul, and foul is fair (1.1), a description echoed by Macbeth when audiences first meet him and he observes that So foul and fair a day I have not seen (1.3)The witches’ paradoxical claim that what is fair is truly foul while what is foul is actually fair describes the protagonist, Macbeth.

At first, Macbeth seems fair. He's just proven his loyalty and courage when he pushed to the center of the battle and executed the chief opponent, thereby saving Scotland from being overtaken. For his bloody skills and bravery, Macbeth earns a promotion and the King's gratitude.

The King, Duncan, and Banquo, Macbeth’s comrade on the battlefield, are unaware of Macbeth’s ambitions to be greater, to rise as high as Duncan himself. The witches and Lady Macbeth tease these ambitions into the light. First, the witches prophesy that Macbeth will become King, and second, Lady Macbeth dares Macbeth to seize the moment, to realize the prophecy by any means possible.

At first, Macbeth resists. He knows that evil deeds never remain hidden. They become known.

Macbeth also knows that evil deeds, like boomerangs, return to plague their inventors for wicked men “… but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips.” These words reveal that Macbeth understands he will set in motion the means of his own undoing, but he begins anyway.

This is a story line oft told and retold, most recently featuring Congressman Francis Underwood, protagonist of Netflix’s House of Cards, a 13-episode series available for streaming. Underwood’s ambition is to become Secretary of State, but the recently elected President, whom Underwood helped succeed, declines to appoint Underwood after all. Underwood vows to exact revenge, and to this end, Underwood, while appearing to be fair, acts foul while ruining another Congressman, undermining the Vice-President of the United States to create an opportunity, manipulating and dictating to colleagues, seducing a young reporter, and neglecting his wife’s personal and professional ambitions. Thus, Underwood stirs toxins that infect all his victims, inspiring them to invent revenge plots of their own.

Like Macbeth who sloughs off the coat of goodness in favor of evil, Underwood sheds the role of public servant in favor of privateer and tyrant. Both leaders refuse to yield to moral duty, and both are very much alone in their successes. Underwood and his wife have no children, a choice made to further their careers. They have no friends--except each other--for there is no one they are unwilling to use, no one they are willing to befriend selflessly.

Macbeth acknowledges that being alone is a consequence of choosing a self-serving course from fair to foul. As his life hastens to its end, he realizes he lacks anything that would allow it to thrive: neither honor, love, obedience from his aides or army nor friends:

my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

"Yellow Leaves" Al Griffin Photography

Such is the end to which Walter White came. Such an end is likely for Congressman Francis Underwood, and it is an end to tales we have told ourselves since stories were first invented. We know that the fairest among us may descend into evil and that those to whom evil is done do evil in return.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” House of Cards and/or Macbeth.

Writing Challenge:

Write a synopsis for a tale you’ve invented or one you’ve read featuring the paradox that fair is foul and foul is fair.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Persevere Ever, Writers!

… The writer has to have patience, the perseverance to just sit there alone and grind It out. And if it’s not worth doing that, then he doesn’t want to write. …” (1982)

Mr. Elmore Leonard, described by the New York Times as a man of few, yet perfect words, offered a few, perfect words of advice to would-be and working writers who worry that they spend too much time alone, too much time staring at a monitor or blank page. According to Leonard, worried writers should set aside those worries and accept the nature of the work: sitting alone, writing, crossing out, rewriting, revising, submitting work for critical examination, and persevering ever.

Writing is not a magical gift denied to the many, granted only to the few by a seductive Muse rarely glimpsed. Writing is earth and fire, water and stone. It is labor like that undertaken by swimmers and runners always trying to beat their own personal best. Writers dig for the right word; they destroy their beloved phrasing if it isn’t right for the character in that place. They drown in possibilities, and by slow drips and dredges, they alter the course of truths told.

Writers despair of finding the right word, but they do not forsake the quest. They doubt that they can nudge the idea of a character into a three-dimensional living, breathing figure. They suspect they will fail to weave together a tale that intrigues, but they must try and try again. The goal is desirable and possible if only they take pleasure in persevering ever.

Reading Challenge:

Read episodes of Justified, noting the few, perfect words inspired by Leonard’s original short story about Raylan or my personal favorite Leonard novel, Get Shorty.

Writing Challenge:

Define writing as you experience it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Shetland Islands, Scotland and Ann Cleeves' Blue Lightning

In late August, I posted a review praising Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, noting that a sense of place is part of the magic in each of his three books. I can say the same for Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Island series featuring the brooding Jimmy Perez as detective, Empath, and seeker. I’ve just finished the fourth book featuring Perez: Blue Lightning (2010), and I recommend it and the complete series to you.

First, I must admit to a certain bias in favor of all things Scottish. The entire country moved to My Bucket List after I saw photographs and film footage of windswept hillsides, rocky ledges, and seas that swell and explode.  Then I discovered the Hebrides through online video. They appeared to be untethered from everything except cold seas and fog, two natural phenomena that prickle the imagination and invite mystery.

Swelling seas mask sound, and fog tricks both the ear and eye, confusing mere mortals, requiring that they grow contemplative. They must study closely the almost imperceptible darker shapes emerging from ground-level clouds. They must arrest in order to identify sounds and their sources, and they must learn to abide as storms force them to gather round the hearth.

Jimmy Perez is a product of such a place, the Shetland Islands, Fair Isle in particular. His Spanish ancestors survived shipwreck to make a home upon the shore that saved them. They became the darker cousins among men and women fairer.

Unlike others in outward appearance, Jimmy developed as a man apart in his professional life. He serves as a police detective and understands that his work alters his relationships. Even law-abiding neighbors have their secrets and are thus nervous in Jimmy’s presence because of what he’s seen, what they suspect he may know, and what they might betray. Furthermore, Jimmy’s work demands that he penetrate the hearts of others to pluck from within the thread of darker motives.

In this fourth book, Jimmy seems closer to a loving family of his own. Fran, an artist whom he met while investigating a murder, has moved from the city to the provincial isles so that her six-year-old daughter can visit her father, Fran’s ex-husband. Something of an outsider herself, Fran and Jimmy become close, but Jimmy, ever introspective and reserved, cannot speak the marriage proposal he intends. Fran saves him from his own reticence and proposes. Soon they will find a home large enough for their family of three, and on their wedding night, Fran hopes to become pregnant with Jimmy’s child, adding a fourth to their blended family of three.

Fran and Jimmy travel to Jimmy’s home, Fair Isle, where he introduces Fran to his parents and where Jimmy’s mother, Mary, hosts a celebration for the her son and his fiancée, but fierce weather and murder alter the mood. Jimmy must go to work, and Fran must find ways to pass her time. Jimmy uncovers evidence that his own father may have been involved in the passions that culminated in murder, he must leave Fran in the knowledge that someone on the island is a killer, and he must strive to comprehend what motivates bird-watchers, puzzle-solvers, and prodigal sons.

Characteristically, Jimmy succeeds in making sense of disparate people, avocations new to him, and age-old motives for murder, but a successful conclusion brings no comfort or joy. In uncovering the truth, Jimmy loses far more than he could possibly gain. Justice itself must surely mourn as Jimmy withdraws, certain only that he cannot continue as a police detective or ever return to Fair Isle. He is now a man apart in appearance, by virtue of his excellence as a detective, and by his familiarity with grief. Circumstances have untied the mooring lines that held him fast to a place. He would forsake both place and work were it not for one serendipitous gift, one that will serve as a harbor in the emotional storm that Jimmy must weather.

Reading Challenge:

Read Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Island books featuring Jimmy Perez. They are Raven Black (2006), White Nights (2008), Red Bones (2009), and Blue Lightning (2010). As you read, enjoy the characters and setting. In addition, examine how place shapes the characters and events.

Writing Challenge:

Identify a place that has sculpted some part of you. Describe it. Then tell a story that reveals how is affects you.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Walter White's Ancestry

I’ve heard several critics declare that Walter White is a logical extension of Tony Soprano and other made men. I wonder if they’re right.

At their core, each man has good intentions. Both try to provide for their families even as they put them at great risk. In addition, both men grow increasingly cunning and callous as their misdeeds increase, and both calculate the lives of others using cost-benefit analysis. They learn that sentiment only costs them more than they are willing to pay so anyone’s life is expendable. Tony sacrifices Christopher, and Walter orders the execution of Jesse, relenting only when Walter has no time left. With a bullet in his gut, cancer in his lungs, and all will to win lost, Walter lets Jesse leave on his own terms.

However similar, Walter White and Tony Soprano have literary and cinematic ancestors. They may be two ends of a television-character continuum, but they are not unique to the American psyche. We love to dance with demons. We embrace the dark hearts within ourselves, often celebrating them.

Consider rogue cops. Bruce Willis’s John McClane and Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs are men with good intentions. They have chosen to abide by and enforce the law, but doing so puts their loved ones at great risk. Like Walter and Tony, they too grow increasingly cunning and more callous as they fight plots and villains. They also calculate the lives of others using cost-benefit analysis, and they discover that sentiment costs them more than they can pay. McClane misjudges the chief villain in Die Hard and nearly loses all opportunities to save himself and therefore, everyone else, especially his wife.  In Lethal Weapon, Riggs misjudges his enemies and loses his latest lover, an error he repeats in every Lethal movie thereafter.  

Both John and Martin bleed for mankind, and both enjoy a brief moment when they are seen as heroes and saviors. Viewers know, however, that they will go forth and save again. They will not lay down arms, and they will not forsake violent means when law-breakers put lives at stake. Like Tony and Walter, they don’t seem plagued by guilt. They are men. They do what needs doing.

So did Paladin from Have Gun Will Travel. He might have been a loner, scarred by the Civil War, but he is also an avenger who makes his living by delivering justice when justice seems hard to find. The Rifleman is another man who delivers justice when he must. Like The Lone Ranger and Batman in its 1966 campy form or its dystopian one, superheroes and ordinary cowboys live to serve. They all have good intentions, they all do harm when they must, and they all seem to rest untroubled.

So do those gumshoes brought to the screen. Raymond Chandler's Marlowe, Robert B. Parker's Spencer, and Agatha Christie's Poirot are cast in the same stone as Tony, Walter, John, Martin, Paladin, and Batman. Each and all calculate life using cost-benefit analyses as they search for truth, and each sits as judge and jury, sometimes even executioner. What makes them slightly different is the side on which they work. Theirs are the white hats.

My examples only reach back to the early decades of the twentieth-century, but I could reach back to much earlier days when men were as flawed and as complicated as they are today. Some lost their way, never to find it again. Most sought redemption, and most delivered justice according to the realities that defined their ways of life. Tony and Walter are just recent incarnations.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” any of the films, television series or books referenced.

Writing Challenge:

Write your own assessment of America’s fondness for the dark hearts within men.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Man Down, Heisenberg! Hats Off, Vince Gilligan

I broke bad when I broke faith with Vince Gilligan and the six other writers who sculpted each episode to bring us to the beautifully appointed piece known as the final episode. Where shall I find a crow for my dinner?

In spite of my fears, Walter White came to a just end. He stared at the man in the mirror and confessed. Like Sophocles’s Oedipus, Walter acknowledges his own volition in all the wretched deeds that defined him. He admits to Skyler that he descended into an inescapable crevasse because the darkness made him feel alive. Then he tries to alter destiny for Jesse Pinkman, the thugs that enslaved him, and the surviving members of the White family, Skyler, Junior and Holly.

Walter orchestrates an elaborate home invasion, using his victims to funnel money to his wife and children. Neither Skyler nor Junior wants any of Walter’s meth money, but Walter’s scheme will allow them to believe the money is their due, a gift from generous, compassionate people for three people tainted by Walter’s seed. None of the White lies attached to gifts of money went undiscovered, however. The source of Walter’s wealth was exposed, the cash gifts to pay for Hank’s rehabilitation became a weapon in a war between Walter and Hank, and even money laundered in a car wash didn’t come clean. It too fell into the hands of icy, greedy killers so I have to believe Walter’s scheme may not endure, but Walter dies believing his family has a good chance at a good start.

Next, Heisenberg re-enters the ring. He plants Ricin in Lydia’s Stevia supply, insuring her death. He then turns his attention to Jesse’s rescue and the execution of Todd, Jack and their minions, a plot less certain than Lydia's end. Still, Walter's good pal, Luck, appears, and he succeeds while sustaining a fatal wound, one that permits the ultimate escape from suffering associated with lung cancer and conscience.

Skyler persists, tobacco-addicted, but holding her own to protect Junior and Holly. By swearing off Walter’s money, she’s purged herself of some guilt, and she’s clearly suffering, a pariah, subject to IRS and FBI inquisitions for the rest of her days. Nevertheless, she allows Walter one last look at Holly before he leaves to hide and steal one last look at his son.

Jesse, true to his nature, cannot kill his nemesis. He tries, but he’s not a killer. He never was, and he’s not a Drug Kingpin either, capable 

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in the upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventors’ heads (5. 2 Hamlet)

Jesse is a ruined boy haunted by a dream in which he makes something people can use, of transforming warm wood into beautiful cases, producing objects that do not kill. I’d like to think he finds a place and a way to make his dream come true.

This fading rose is for you, Jesse. Photo by Al Griffin

Reading Challenge:

Read tales of “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts.” Read Macbeth, Hamlet or Breaking Bad.

Writing Challenge:

Write a eulogy for Walter White.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jesse Pinkman, the Killer with a Conscience, the Boy Searching for his Lost Innocence

Between ‘just desserts’ and ‘tragic irony’ we are given quite a lot of scope for our particular talent. Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have got about as bad as they reasonably get. (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Poor Jesse Pinkman. He began as a lost child cast out by parents practicing tough love upon him. They released him into the wild in order to protect their second son, one who dissembles enough to con his parents into believing he’d never stash a joint in their house. Jesse takes the blame, his own profligacy driving him to protect the boy from harsh parental judgements.

Too young to make good choices and friends with guys without a strong internalized moral code, Jesse operates in a opportunistic underground. He and his friends make money by selling meth and spending much of their income on meth or other illegal escapes.

Both wastrel and waif, Jesse drifts into a partnership with Walter White, his former Chemistry teacher, and soon, he’s disposing of his first body, an interloper felled when Mr. White’s clever use of chemicals cooks the crook's lungs. This event and the fallout forever seal the relationship. Mr. White, originally the Alpha by virtue of an education and his age, earns a permanent Alpha crown never to be challenged for it again. He outwits and mans up more than once to save Jesse and himself while growing their meth business into the best because together, Jesse and Mr. White produce the best, purest meth.

Jesse learns a work ethic and becomes an excellent meth cook, but he still likes to indulge, to get high. His is an addictive personality, and he cannot ignore what he’s done. He melts that first dead body using acid, an act that requires a strong stomach and a commitment that few of us possess. He must look upon the body formerly animated as a thing for the sewer, a glob of flesh, nothing more. 

Walter has his own body to deal with, a partner to the body Jesse liquidates, but Walter’s burden is alive, tied up in Jesse’s basement where he plots to kill Walter and save himself. Walter is too clever, however, and realizes the danger just in time. He kills the man, clumsily but finally. Now Walter has taken two lives, and Jesse has helped him dispose of the waste. Walter will go on to kill two more in order to save and protect Jesse, but thereafter, he prefers to order and orchestrate the deaths of enemies and threats, rarely doing his own blood work. Jesse, Mike, Todd, and Todd’s contacts are the killers.

Only Jesse feels sorrow. He’s horrified by what he’s done and grows more and more reckless. He seeks solace in drug-induced stupors and women in need, one of whom overdoses with Walter looking on, doing nothing to save her, instead letting her go so that Jesse’s loyalties and time will no longer be divided. Jesse never suspects.

"Esperanza Sky," A Photo by Al Griffin

Jesse also feels with the children. While in the home of meth derelicts, Jesse empathizes with the toddler and calls authorities in behalf of the child. Later, when he meets Andrea, Jesse lifts her and her son from jeopardy, poor neighborhoods, and want. What he cannot save her from is Mr. White who manipulates Jesse into trusting him once more by saving the boy. What Jesse does not know is that the boy nearly died as a result of Walter’s use of a chemical toxin in a plant that happens to grow in pots beside Mr. White's backyard pool. Worse, the boy survives only to become a waif like Jesse when Jesse's efforts to shed the skin of a criminal brings Andrea back into jeopardy. She's slaughtered, leaving the boy without his mother. 

Jesse could not anticipate that Todd would execute Andrea, but he knew how cold-blooded were Todd's kin, and he strove to leave them and their evil behind.  Unable to abide the barbarism that accompanies drug-making and dealing, Jesse must withdraw to survive; he loathes himself for his role, however tangentially, in any death accidental or undertaken with malice aforethought. He might have killed himself had Mike not shown him another way, befriending the boy even as he tests his loyalties and tries to salvage his meth-making talents for Gus Fring. For Jesse, Mike is a father-figure, capable of passing on life lessons and hard truths, not just a loyal Fring advisor.

Mr. White’s ambition ruins that temporary place Jesse finds safe. Walter executes Gus Fring, freeing himself to take over as Heisenberg and deliver pure meth to an international market. Mike and Jesse do not want to accompany Walter on his ascension to number-one meth provider. They want to take their money and live so they negotiate an exit even though Walter does not want to let them go.

"Chain," A Photo by Al Griffin

Then Mike disappears. Viewers know that Mr. White killed him, but Jesse can only suspect. Nevertheless, Jesse cannot go on without a Mike alive somewhere in this world. Afraid to answer the door if Mr. White is on the other side, ashamed of his ill-gotten gains, and unwilling to return to Andrea lest he endanger her, Jesse slides into another depression made worse by alcohol. He gives away his money in a foolish, public way, bringing him under scrutiny and ultimately into the clutches of Hank Schrader desperate to prove Walter’s guilt. And once again, Jesse falls under the spell of a father-figure. He agrees to help bring down Walter White, but finds he doesn’t--cannot feel clean again. Sullied and as lost as ever, Jesse tries to outwit Walter White, but Todd shows up and sees Jesse’s potential--not as a guy in need of second-chances, not as a young man in pain, but as an excellent meth cook.

So the hell that Jesse hoped to escape, the hell that has soured his soul and raised a stench from deep within him is the hell he must endure. He’s still part of making meth, of raw ambition, of greed. He dwells among dissemblers, murderers, and thieves. And his drive to escape only leads him to more sorrow: Andrea's execution as a lesson against escape.

Just desserts? I don’t think so. Jesse is flawed. He’s fallen, his belly in the dust, more than once. He’s suffered in the knowledge of his deeds. Like Lady Macbeth, he’s found that there is not enough perfume on earth to sweeten his filthy hands, soothe him to sleep, or cleanse his spirit. He even tried to redeem himself by bringing down Mr. White whom Jesse now knows is a devil, but he failed and fell into the muck once more.

"Evening Sky," A Photo by Al Griffin

But the end to which Jesse seems to have come is definitely tragic irony. Others may have stumbled upon good fortune here or there, but Fortune never graced poor Jesse. He tried to rise, to create his own good fortune, but was denied. Like Oedipus, Jesse has been cursed by his own hand. And irony imbues Jesse’s tragic end because what he most desires to escape is what he runs into headlong. For him, things have come to an end for they have gotten as bad as they can reasonably get.

Reading Challenge:

Read Breaking Bad from Episode 1 to the last.

Writing Challenge:

Jesse Pinkman is a foil, an antagonist, and a tragic figure. Choose just one of his roles and develop an analytical literary essay about it.

Post Script: Last week, Walter White seemed to care about his family. Their need--not for a moral center--but for money drives him into the snow in order to send a box of cash to them. When he calls to inform his son, Walter hears his son's disdain and appears to care. He even calls the DEA in order to confess, we guess, but when he sees a televised Charlie Rose interview with his former business partners, the ones who now belong in the world of Corporate Wealth, he departs, moved, it seems, by their dismissal of him as gone, dead in spirit, not the man that the wife once loved. Once more, it appears that money and power and vengeance are the sirens who sing to Walter, not family, but the final episode on Sunday will show us the ends to which this man brings himself. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Okay, Walter White, I'm Ready to Let You Go

A recent post declared that I will miss Walter White. Today I admit I’m over him. My Facebook feed warns me that mine is a minority opinion. Other viewers, at least those in my small circle on Facebook, seem thrilled, surprised, and eager for the next episode in the few remaining for the series, Breaking Bad. I’m not thrilled. I am, however, surprised. Still I’ll watch the two remaining episodes with dread, definitely not eager. Here’s why: Consistency is all I ask! (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead)

Inconsistency in character diminishes my pleasure. In fact, mystery writers who drag a minor character center-stage to star as the killer, as Agatha Christie occasionally did, seem to me to have defaulted on a contract between author and reader. If clues and hints, however subtle, were completely absent, if nothing in the character’s nature matches the nature of the crime, and if I must be told, as Poirot often told, why and how a crime took place, I’m not inclined to close the book satisfied and so far, I’m not satisfied with the inconsistencies in character in the final season of Breaking Bad.

Marie, Hank, and Saul all seem to have evolved along expected lines. Marie, the consummate enabler, is a tiny moon caught in the orbit of larger planets. She serves Skyler’s needs, cares for Skyler’s children, labors to make Hank whole, and lives as an upright citizen after that minor blip as a shoplifter. She’s become a clueless moral center with a healthy human slice of fair play. She wants bad guys dragged into the town square and shamed, especially because those bad guys threaten her husband, niece, and nephew.

Hank was an inept DEA agent from the first episodes. He proves he’s unprofessional when he discusses cases with his wife and brother-in-law. He proves he’s not the most astute observer of human nature when he fails to notice his wife’s kleptomania and falls for melodrama, believing Walter and Skyler’s fiction about gambling, marital strife, infidelity, and law-abiding convictions. In a final proof of his incompetence, he asks one other DEA agent to help him bring down Walter White, a man he knows to be a murderer, bomber, and blackmailer. He thinks two lone men, standard weapons at the ready, badges on display, are sufficient against a crime boss whom he acknowledges as the most intelligent man he knows, the same crime boss that assassinated ten witnesses. Hank simply didn’t deserve to survive so many errors in judgment.

Saul was and remains the consummate opportunist. He knows guys who know guys. He hires others to do the ugly, physical work sometimes required, and he’s practical, recognizing that appeasement is a necessary survival skill and that Jesse needs to be eliminated. Saul will take his thirty pieces of silver and live to slither another day.

But Skyler and Walter? Those two haven’t just turned a corner; they transmogrified, rendering me indifferent to the ends to which they come.

First, Skyler is a vessel into which writers poured the convoluted ways in which mere humans deal with catastrophic losses and humdrum challenges. Pregnant with a second child, mother to a special needs son, she learns that her husband, Walter, has advanced lung cancer. The White family lacks funds sufficient to save her husband’s life, even with health care, and she turns to old friends with money for help. She also enters into an affair with a former flame, in part because she lives with anticipatory grief, but viewers must recall that Skyler was never a noble gal. She aided and abetted illegality. She literally cooked the books to cover embezzlement. Later, in a series of gross misjudgments, she tried to save Ted the embezzler, then let him go to terrible ends, if necessary, to save herself.

She’s also shown the paralysis that sometimes grips us mortals when we cannot comprehend our own venal and mortal sins. She drank too much, lied easily, and staged a suicide attempt in full view of those who would save her in order to slough off her responsibilities as a mother and citizen confined by the laws of man and moral codes. Aware that her husband mutated into something unrecognizable, she indulged herself until she decided to become a participating co-conspirator. She, like Saul, recognized the need to eliminate Jesse, admitting that they, Mr. and Mrs. White, have already committed so many crimes, why not commit one more?

Perhaps more important, Skyler confirms her ignobility when, cornered by Hank, she waits to learn what he really knows, reasons that he must not be able to prove much or he would have arrested her, and advises Walter not to panic. She then helps Walter create a video that will force Hank to be silent, and she coughs up the words, “I’m sorry” only when confronted by Marie even though viewers know Skyler cares little for Marie or Hank. She was not coerced into making that video. She accepted risks and let Walter set the course, but now, the writers ask me to believe, she throws away all that composure, lays down all her cards, and bares her raw naked sin before her son. Foul, I cry.

Equally foul is the turn that Walter White has taken. He began as a man with absolutely nothing to lose if life itself is the only measure of worth. He looked into the deserts of … eternity (Marvell) and decided, none do there grow wealthy. He calculated loss against gain, deciding that his sole noble end was to leave his family wealthy enough to endure and enjoy. Thus, his ambition, borne in necessity, burns hot, and he sets out to use his education and skill to produce the purest, most desirably addictive methamphetamine. To this end, Walter transformed himself into a bad ass with street credibility sufficient to fight off competitors and anyone who would own his talent. He meets monsters, including men in snake-skin boots dragging themselves through the dust, men who decapitate other men and plant a severed head upon the back of a tortoise, men who slaughter a loyal servant in order to smother all impulse to flee or defy him.  And Walter becomes a monster himself, one capable of standing by as a drug addict drowns in her own vomit, of endangering a boy’s life, of orchestrating the assassination of ten men, of designing a second Great Train Robbery, and of ruining the soul of Jesse Pinkman, a misguided boy in need of a parent who will care for him and more important, forgive him for being lost.

Now writers ask me to believe that in spite of all his ruthless barbarism delivering dishes best served cold, Walter is little more than a needy, rash desperado. He who leaves no traces of his hand at work, he who anticipates the worst and redirects it, and he who wields power and wit like razor-sharp weapons can no longer think, reason, or abide. Walter spills all the truth over an open phone as he leaves a dusty trail racing to his money--as if money is all the treasure he requires in the days he has remaining, as if power and persona did not intoxicate and at last poison him. Writers ask me to accept that he could sacrifice a child, meth cooks, and crooks, but he refuses to sacrifice Hank, a man whom he’s mocked and manipulated. Writers expect me to believe that Heisenberg never really existed; he was just a mask that Walter donned. And worst of all, writers ask me to believe that Walter would snatch his baby daughter and leave her alone, sobbing, to make his escape with $11 million and teach Skyler a lesson, one that he preaches over the phone, believing her lie that she’s alone at home begging for her child rather than surrounded by police whom Junior summoned after a knife-fight between his heretofore caring parents.

I object! Neither Skyler nor Walter are characters who act foolishly in desperate times; their sense of self-preservation is too great. I also object to these confessions. Neither Skyler nor Walter have shown any real remorse and therefore, they are not now on a path to redemption. Skyler’s confession to Junior and Walter’s unwillingness to let Jack assassinate Hank are simply inconsistent, and therefore, the last episodes of the final season dissatisfy--unless, of course, some M. Night Shyamalan Sixth Sense ending awaits me and this has all been an elaborate ruse, but I digress.

To save themselves from joining the ranks of the Literary Damned, Skyler and Walter must uncover genuine remorse, a path that will require them to confront a truth. They must stare into the vast desert around Albuquerque and search for the moment when they said yes for there was a moment at the beginning, where ...[they] could have said no (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). Mr. and Mrs. White must wish to be transported to that moment and do everything quite differently. They should not rush headlong into the clichéd end of rioters, thieves, and killers, illustrating the equally clichéd truth that no honor exists within them. They should continue as opportunistic organisms until they die, the ruin anticipated for those who fail to uphold moral duties imposed by family, society, and religion.

Reading Challenge:

Read Breaking Bad from Episode 1 to the last.

Writing Challenge:

Select evidence from previous episodes to counter my theses and prove that the final episodes are indeed consistent for the characters noted.

Next Week:

Under my microscope and whether his end is just desserts or tragic irony (Stoppard): Jesse Pinkman

Thursday, September 12, 2013

New Twists in Narrators

Jeffrey Eugenides selected an unusual narrator for his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Middlesex; it is first a zygote, then a young girl, and later, a teenage boy. Although each of these is omniscient, gifted with insights unimaginable in ordinary people, the narrator is also very real, quite human, stumbling along from person to person, experience to experience, learning as she/he goes and guiding the reader through the recent history of Detroit in the twentieth century, of the immigrant experience, and of the struggle to know ourselves.

Nevertheless the story is also a first-person narrative, told from Calliope/Cal’s point of view, an omniscient one. Most editors and many LinkedIn writers’ forum participants would advise against such an unconventional approach, but it works. And it works to make a key point in the novel: genetic code or anomaly is insufficient to explain who and what we are.

Michael Chabon, in Telegraph Avenue, dares to use multiple narrators without separating them by section. A parrot and Barack Hussein Obama, before he became the nation’s forty-fourth president, speak as do fathers, women, sons, and street thugs. Each has a distinct voice that often arrives unannounced. The reader infers, gathers data and learns about the narrator through his words, conflicts, and actions.

Chabon’s narrative choices would most likely find critics among the LinkedIn writers’ forums, but his work receives acclaim because readers experience the novel as they might an immersion course in a foreign language. They enter the novel and must find their way, absorbing cultural understanding and insights as they do.

I caution writers not to imitate Eugenides or Chabon, however. These authors labored years to shape their novels, never settling for less than beautiful expression and the truth as they understand it. They did not choose unusual narrative techniques because they could or on a whim. The story required a new methodology, and as proven masters of the craft, each examined the necessary point of view, then created a structure that would best deliver.

Reading Challenge:

Read Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. Enjoy the story as you study the techniques.

Writing Challenge:

Experiment with point of view. Tell a very short tale from multiple points of view: the tree standing nearby, the adored pet, the ghost of a significant relative, the protagonist, and the antagonist. Learn what each brings to the tale.

A Beloved Pet. What tales would he tell? Snapshot by Al Griffin.

Beloved Pet with Attitude (One generation removed from feral, I suspect) What tales would she tell? My, how those tales might sting. Snapshot by Al Griffin