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 fiancĂ©e, 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.