Thursday, August 29, 2013

I'm Going to Miss You, Walter White

Breaking Bad is coming to an end, and I know, whatever happens, I’m going to miss Mike, Jesse, Gus, and Walter White. I dread the last episode and hope it’s more satisfying than that last one from The Sopranos, the one that allowed us to write our own ending according to our desires. Did the family survive that dinner together, or was that restaurant their last moment together?

The Wire ended with less ambiguity. The good, the bad, the broken, and the saved simply continued to carve a life from the vendettas, necessities, and petty self-interests that are the human race in a place called Baltimore, its saga a very American story. In Baltimore and places beyond, the media continues to downsize and ignore complexity even if dishonesty becomes its chief, recognizable trait. Education continues to test and unravel. Cops continue to tease their own hearts of darkness into the light as they confront the dark hearts of those whom they pursue, and politicians still trade favors and funds even if human beings suffer as a result.

These are the threads that make every character in The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad compelling. They are the threads that tie us to episode after episode. Furthermore, Tony and Christopher from The Sopranos; Jimmy McNulty, Bubbles, Omar, Bodie, and Proposition Joe in The Wire; and Walter and Jesse, stars of Breaking Bad, are all afflicted with the same temptations. Each descends into his heart of darkness without losing every trace of the good that once inspired them to strive, labor, and dream. Each has a cause that propels, and a code that confines.

Their descent into the uglier side of human nature leads viewers to ask: Could I kill in order to avoid being killed? Poor Bobby chose to kill in order to prove himself and protect his family, but viewers see how senseless and cruel the act was.

How might I fare if I was born into a Baltimore of want? Would I retain high moral convictions that would prevent me from breaking the rules, defying the law, and seducing others into moral corruption, or would I find a corner and stand there? Am I strong enough to shake off doubts and addictions in order to accept love and friendship when offered, or would I self-destruct as Jimmy did?

Walter White wants to leave his wife and children financially secure, and this sets him on a path of illegal, ignoble deeds. He loses all traces of the former meek servant toiling in a classroom while he tests and proves his talents as a quick thinker, risk-taker, a man both intelligent and resolute, conniving and cruel. Walter breaks badly in his circumstances.

We witness the transformation and cheer when Walter beats an enemy more remorseless than himself. But surely we also wonder if Walter chose to make money at all costs for purely altruistic reasons, or does he also wish to make up for a foolish decision to sell his share of what became a billion-dollar business? Does providing for one’s family justify the ruthless face he carves? The coming episodes promise to answer that question.

Walter’s ruthless, cruel deeds persuade us to believe that Walter is indeed a monster, but we continue to watch, asking if he will awaken to his own depravity and end it? Will he, like Kurtz, say “the horror, the horror” when he feels the weight of his deeds upon his conscience? Or will Walter never relent and repent?

This Jekyll and Hyde that resides within us all, the one that Bryan Cranston has brought to life through the magic of his talent, is what calls to us because Dr. Jekyll has troubled our thoughts more than once. We pushed him away and will again. We choose the light and refuse to descend into our own heart of darkness. For that, we have no regrets. We let the ties of family and civilization bind us, and we’re all safer as a result. Still, that other path, dim and murky, fascinates.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or more of the following series:

The Sopranos
The Wire
Breaking Bad

Pay attention to the yin and yang within the protagonists, their Jekylls and Hydes, the angels and demons that push and pull them.

You may prefer to read one of the classic novels about characters descending into their hearts of darkness:

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Writing Challenge:

After you, the writer, have researched characters who yield to the worst in us and deny the best in others by reading prime examples, create such a character.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Power of Place

In my new home, little overwhelms the songs of birds. I come alive to a new day according to their rhythms and notes.

Seagull, St. Mary's, Georgia

In my new home, I lift my eyes to the trees towering above me on the bluff. I wonder what fierce wind might arrive to push them over and down upon those of us who dwell below.

In my new home, I scan the rock cut and hewn to make way for me and the others who’ve chosen this place as home. Then, I feel the loss of green lawns planted, nourished, and sprayed into obedience because some days, I feel the need to lie down upon the soft blades.

In my new home, I often search the skies for the clouds that promise rain, the eagles that grace the blue, and the lights by which I find my way. When those skies are heavy and overcast, I feel their weight upon my shoulders, a weight that lifts with the rains’ release. And when those skies burn brightly, triggering sweat upon my brow, I look forward to the twilight for in it is the promise of relief--a breeze to dry my brow.

"Esperanza Sky," Photo by Al Griffin

The place shapes me, directs my movements, and reveals my nature. As city-dwellers may manifest impatience in the face of crowds, lines, and delays, we who live outside cities manifest patience for Nature is in charge, not timetables and certainly not my will.

Authors understand the power of place. Khaled Hosseini’s latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed, makes wise use of place to explain his characters, to make us aware of the terrible deeds about to occur, and to call his characters home again.

Making Wise Use of Place to Reveal Character:

Every day, he labored from dawn to sundown, plowing his field and turning the soil and tending to his meager pistachio trees. At any given moment you could spot him in his field, bent at the waist, back as curved as the scythe he swung all day. His hands were always callused, and they often bled, and every night sleep stole him away no sooner than his cheek met the pillow. (Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed, “One: Fall 1952”) 

Making Readers Aware of Terrible Deeds to Come (Setting Mood and Establishing Atmosphere):

Uncle Nabi pulled up to a crowded curbside. Across the street, next to a mosque with soaring minarets, was the bazaar, composed of congested labyrinths of both vaulted and open alleyways….Mrs. Wahdati wore a pair of dark glasses that made her face look oddly catlike….
Abdullah saw a pair of soldiers in dusty boots and dark brown greatcoats, sharing a cigarette, eyeing everyone with bored indifference….
Down the alleyway, an old man with a ragged beard and two clubfeet begged passersby. (Hosseini, Khaled. And the Mountains Echoed. New York: Riverhead, 2013. Electronic. 617-618

The crowds that allow isolated behaviors to go unnoticed, the labyrinths that prevent clear lines of sight, dark glasses to mask motives and emotions, soldiers that do not guard against what will happen, and desperation personified by the old beggar establish foreboding. We know what happens next will bring pain to someone, even us.

Making Use of Place to Call Characters Home Again:

She gazes out the window in the direction of the brasserie, but what she sees in not the skinny waiter beneath the awning, black apron tied at the waist and shaking a cloth over a table, but a little red wagon with a squeaky wheel bounding along beneath a sky of unfurling clouds, rolling over ridges and down dried-up gullies, up and down ocher hills that loom and then fall away. She sees tangles of fruit trees standing in groves, the breeze catching their leaves, and rows of grapevines connecting little flat-roofed houses. She sees washing lines and women squatting by a stream, and the creaking ropes of a swing beneath a big tree, and a big dog, cowering from the taunts of village boys, and a hawk-nosed man digging a ditch, shirt plastered to his back with sweat, and a veiled woman bent over a cooking fire. (Hosseini, Khaled. And the Mountains Echoed. New York: Riverhead, 2013. Electronic.  3261-3262) 

As Pari memory returns, her mind travels to place for its sights, sounds, smells imprinted upon her, shaped her and her experience in this world.

"Go Down to the Sea"

Reading Challenge:

Read the wonderful third book by Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed.

Writing Challenge:

Write of a place that has shaped you and your experience in this world.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Third-Person Narrators

First-person narrators, either one or several, and epistolary narratives have been the subject of the last three posts, but today, we turn attention to the most common point of view : third-person, someone with only limited knowledge or with omniscient powers to see and know all, even the minds, motives, and histories of the characters and places.

The Great Gatsby illustrates third-person limited narration.  Nick Carraway, the narrator, is new to Long Island, a recent college graduate, and a distant cousin of the Buchanans. He leases a home next door to Jay Gatsby’s nouveau riche palace, attends parties there, and becomes Gatsby’s confidante. From these vantage points as distant relative, party-goer, and confidante, Nick recounts the tale of Gatsby’s mystique, Tom’s callous disregard for the needs and feelings of others, and Daisy’s betrayal. But Nick does not know the minds or even the hearts of these people except as they show them through their actions; thus, Nick’s insights are limited, and he discovers the truth as we do. "Orchid"

The omniscient narrator, on the other hand, understands everything about everyone from the first page to the last. F. Scott Fitzgerald used such a narrator in a short story, “Winter Dreams,” one of my favorite Fitzgerald stories written while the author planned a third novel, The Great Gatsby (Bruccoli, Matthew J. "Winter Dreams." The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection. New York: Scribner's, 1989. 217-36. Print.) According to the Bruccoli, Fitzgerald removed a section of the story and published it as part of Gatsby’s story (217). "Clouds and Rust"

Tell-tale signs of the omniscient narrator include the use of third-person pronouns such as he and she, him and her.  For example, as the story opens, we read:

…Dexter’s skis moved over the snow that hid the fairways of the golf course. At these times the country gave him a feeling of profound melancholy--it offended him that the links should lie in enforced fallowness, haunted by ragged sparrows for the long season (217).

Here, the narrator reveals another characteristic of the omniscient narrator: the ability to read the character’s mind. This narrator knows how the winter landscape affects Dexter Green; the narrator knows the exact emotions that Dexter experiences. 

Omniscient narrators also move back and forth in time as humans are unable to do. The narrator is aware of what will happen, what will matter. Although he does not necessarily share his prescience with readers, he remains able to organize events without relying exclusively upon chronology and to select significant people and events in order to advance the tale. Fitzgerald’s narrator does so with this brief statement:

As so frequently would be the case in the future, Dexter was unconsciously dictated to by his winter dreams (220).

Here the narrator underscores the story’s title and links it to the character as well as to his actions and motivations. Near the end of the story, the omniscient narrator’s talents to read minds and see the future are in evidence as the narrator informs us about Dexter Green’s losses and the fleeting nature of experience:

For the first time in years the tears were streaming down his face. But they were for himself now. He did not care about mouth and eyes and moving hands. He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished (236).

"Tree in Snow"

Reading Challenge:

Read “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Writing Challenge:

From your own work, select a passage written in first person. Rewrite it using the third person, either limited or omniscient.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Dear Daughter . . . Love, Dad

Little Princess. Snapshot by Al Griffin

Dear Cinderella,

Tomorrow I leave for business. The timing could not be worse for you. Watching your dear mother grow weak and die should have been the only sorrow you bear. If only I could protect you from all loss and sorrow. I cannot. Life is unrelenting. It drives us onward in directions we may never have imagined. My second marriage is such a direction and a trial for you, especially because I must now leave you in your stepmother's care while I am away. I wish you did not have to spend a single day without me by your side, but you life will not permit it.

Marrying your stepmother was a good business decision for our family. By combining her estate and mine, I will secure the futures for three young girls, you and her daughters. Our combined fortunes will provide for all of you even if you fail to attract a wealthy husband, but you will, my child, you certainly will. You are lovely and blessed with a giving heart. Your stepmother has also promised to provide you with the guidance that a young girl needs in order to marry well, guidance that only a woman of gentility can offer. Thus, I married to strengthen our family, not betray your mother or your memory of her.

The second trial: adjusting to our home without me in it, with your stepmother in charge, I take no less seriously. I know that you have cared for me well and that you have grown accustomed to setting forth tasks for the staff, but you are young, too young to have so much responsibility. I leave you to read and dream and walk and live while your stepmother leads the staff. This, I believe, is a gift to you until you have your own home to manage.

Know that I would not leave you if I could conduct this business from our home. Know that I will miss you and look forward to seeing you upon my return. Know that I neither wish to replace your mother or you with our new family members. I only desire to enhance our lives, especially your own.

Your father cares for you and carries you in his heart always.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or more versions of Cinderella. Disney also has a filmed version that is dear to many of us, young and old.

Writing Challenge:

Pick up last week’s Writing Challenge: Tell Cinderella’s story through letters written by her father (before his passing, of course), Cinderella, her stepmother and stepsisters, the Prince, and the magical creature that works to bring happiness to Cinderella. I think you’ll have great fun with this.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Epistolary Novels: Another Narrative Choice

Chaucer invented a raison d’etre for his short stories in a somewhat dispassionate but never objective narrator, one among several pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.  His device, as I noted last week, is similar to the one employed by Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights.

Robert Browning and Barbara Kingsolver used multiple narrators instead of just one, a choice similar to an early novel narrative technique: epistolary novels. Instead of providing detailed settings and seques between places and people, authors tell the story in a series of letters (hence, the name: epistotle, epistolary), each penned by a different significant character. Sometimes the form is diary entries or a combination of documents such as news articles, letters, and diary entries.

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) is an epistolary novel as is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). In each, letters between characters reveal the conflicts and complications, but each character has a unique perspective and vested interest. Thus, readers must weigh the reliability of each letter-writer. What is not on the pages of his or her letter may be as important as what is on the page.

For example, the sea captain who plucks Viktor Frankenstein from the icy north and listens to his story is predisposed to sympathize with Frankenstein. First, Frankenstein is an educated nobleman who, by accident of birth into a socio-economic class, receives respect and trust whether or not he has ever acted to earn either one.  Consequently, the Captain endows Frankenstein with good character and judgment without knowing anything about the man.

Frankenstein's Castle © Lcro77 |

Second, the Captain and Frankenstein are both men of daring. Letters to the Captain and from Frankenstein’s family prove that each man eschewed the advice of those who love them in favor of a desire to be extraordinary and remembered. The Captain, against the advice of his family, seeks a shorter sailing passage over the North Pole and abides alienating his family while risking the lives of his crew in pursuit of an ideal, one that readers recognize as foolhardy. Frankenstein, of course, dared to become a god by creating life. In pursuit of his goal, he abandons his family and scholarship in favor of frenzied, sleepless research and desecration of human bodies.

Frankenstein succeeds, of course, but then Shelley shows him to be reprehensible. He is guilty of giving life to a creature that he deems ugly, unworthy, primitive and ill-conceived, but he refuses his responsibility to nurture and parent his creation. He rejects the child, leaving it to struggle alone in an unkind world, and this rejection, by slow degrees, transforms the creature into a monster, bitter, cruel, and vengeful.

The Captain recognizes how petulant and irresponsible Frankenstein was, and in that recognition, the Captain turns back to take his crew safely home. He wants to prevent needless suffering, realizing that failing to uphold moral duties to family and friends leads to ruin. He recovers humility and agrees to be responsible for those in his care.

Letters in Frankenstein let us hear the voices of perpetrators and victims. Similarly, Alice Walker lets the voices of her letter writers reveal themselves and the limited information each has. Only the reader has all the information and can judge the relative guilt or innocence of each character.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or both epistolary novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Consider also other works that make prominent use of letters or diary entries: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Africa Sunset © Drflash | A setting suggestion from The Color Purple

Writing Challenge:

Tell Cinderella’s story through letters written by her father (before his passing, of course), Cinderella, her stepmother and stepsisters, the Prince, and the magical creature that works to bring happiness to Cinderella. I think you’ll have great fun with this.