Category Archives: Contemporary Fiction

Game of Thrones and Plot Lines

As an avid Game of Thrones watcher, I enjoy reading what other people have to say. R and I talk about the show a lot and we have interesting reactions. I’ve followed the reactions to the “wedding” violence, the “rape” violence, and the unexpected “snuffing” of a variety of characters, from Ned to Shireen.

A lot of this has resulted in a loss of interest in whatever story is developing on my part. I have favorite characters: Jon Snow, Arya, and Tyrion. I have minor likes, sure, but to eliminate a character is to eliminate a path or narrative line. One of the more interesting developments in the final episode of the 5th was Cersei’s humiliation walk (this may or may not prompt a change in character) through King Landing, where one of the great ones is “finally” yanked down beneath the level of stones. But the psychology would tend to add up to a reliance on retribution narrative: even though Cersei became or has always been an unlikeable, but interesting character, the audience will want some measure of justice in the form of revenge against her tormentors, in this case, the Sparrows. But is this a persistence or pattern that can be sustained as a “totality.”

This is where my interest is starting to lag. It would appear that the driving elements of plot have a lot to do with this “affect” toward “someone getting theirs” after a long list of doings, plotting, or interest seeking. Who doesn’t want to see Ramsay Bolton “get his,” for example, for the laundry list of evils he’s committed. But even Raskolnikov does not stay Raskolnikov.

The problem is if Ramsay does “get his” then what and so what? I’m starting to wonder at this type of strange narrative entropy of retribution goads (a goad can provoke or annoy). First we have a significant jaw-dropper in whatever developing arc (Jamie rapes, for instance) or event that would serve or suggest to serve that something is causation. A case in point in terms of event is the hapless Stannis. The audience must wonder why we went through all this meander only to end with a form of narrative throttle.

Does the raping Jamie serve his character either in terms of cause or lateral implication? I seriously wonder about this, as this would seem to only suggest someone else’s “vision” and not his, a “statement” about relationships in the Thrones world rather than a careful study of Jaime’s potential, given who he’s become or who he’s becoming.

Whether Jon Snow lives or dies doesn’t matter, but his story should matter, whether he lives or dies. Of course, we don’t know the “grand narrative,” though I suspect it will become a fight between the Zombies and the “not” Zombies. But there’s a reason why Sam and Gilly are interesting as characters. There was a reason why Cersei was interesting, though unlikable. Arya has yet to teach us something. One reason for sustained interest goes back to ideas about character in fiction: we expect the unexpected not the expected, the unpredictable not the predictable. In this idea about character, genre doesn’t matter.

Marketing versus Storytelling

I’ve been doing a lot of work on a website, engineering for multiple media types, doing a little javascript, and digging deeper into the possibilities of WordPress and Bootstrap. It would have been a great Rails project but that move might have been a little much. In any event, my job isn’t content or “design.” But the talk today did stray into areas that I would lodge into the category of social media and digital ecosystem storytelling and getting the word out or spreading the news.

Hypothetically, if a writer wanted to create a world of multiple, interconnected novels, and wanted to ride the line between characters who use Twitter and YouTube, how would this be done to encourage metafictional and real-world parallels. The characters, say Marvin and Luisa, Tweet a backchannel to their main storyline or plot. The writer pays a few friends to play these roles on Twitter. In the novel, Marvin and Luisa go to Germany. They rent a car. They have a fight at the counter. After the fight, Marvin gives one version of events in a few Tweets and Luisa returns her version with Tweets of her own. Twitter is mentioned briefly in the novel.

Does the use of Twitter in this regard provide an extension to the story? Is it something that might stand alone, especially if the fictional characters who tweet accumulate real followers, who either expect something more or come to the novel later. If the novel is told from one point of view, what happens when the other characters who tweet provide their own. Does this expand the POV of the novel, invite, for example, a new consideration of the reliability of the teller?

This is not just a question about fiction writing. It’s also interesting in the sense that “marketing” is even more influenced by the thinking of the storyteller. It’s NOT Marketing vs Storytelling; they become one in the same.

Role Playing and Nostalgia

John Mutchek has a nice roundup of our first Dungeons and Dragons gathering on the 29th of December, where I practiced with two dwarves. He’ll be posting regularly on our encounters–and our beer drinking also, as we’re all sharing favorites. Luckily my good friend Dave is a brewer. John’s also into the making as are a few other colleagues of the game.

Sure, this is partly nostalgia, as I played DnD many years ago in high school when things were simpler but it took hours and lots of math to drum up characters. Now we can work with Wizards’s character builder and get down and dirty quickly. I remember loads of graph paper, multiple rolls, and reading through lists of capabilities or character and culture variables. Not a computer in sight as none were to be had.

As a digital person, the first night of play was refreshing. At the heart of Dungeon and Dragons is story first and foremost. The Dungeon Master, in this case, John, preps encounters for fighting and spell casting, but he also has to be a weaver, working those encounters into a larger story frame, and we as the players play into and grow as the narrative builds in character. Our crew is a group of excellent and smart fellows, and I’m really looking forward to sitting together and acting out the parts.

A second critical element of the game is emergence, that self-organizing quality of complex systems to form perhaps unintended or unforeseen patterns out of elements, actions, decisions, turns, and other subjacencies. We’re all waiting for what’s to come in the game. It’l e interesting to gather again and either make things emerge or get the crap kicked out of us as Level 1s.

Text Message Novel

John Timmons sends along this notice on text message novels

His messages, and the replies — roughly 1,000 altogether — are listed in chronological order in the 332-page novel written by Finnish author Hannu Luntiala. The texts are rife with grammatical errors and abbreviations commonly used in regular SMS traffic.

Writing out to in

Katherine Min’s story The Liberation of a Face begins like this:

One day I stopped looking in the mirror. I was tired of my face, tired of finding fault with it, of wishing it looked a different way or trying to make it look a certain way. It was always just my face. So I stopped looking. And an odd thing happened. My face went away. It disappeared. Or at least the reflection of my face went away, the only means I had of regarding it.

This first paragraph is a tight jerk, and it ends with a simple knot, although the nature of the diappearance is questionable. The story is tight throughout, one of those stories you’d like to see continue because of the control the author has over the language and the way this control generates a sense of expectation sentence to sentence.

But what’s the idea here: what would happen if a woman did as this protagonist does? How would the image of the self be affected by such an intimate friend as the mirror and such a powerful metaphor? Min explores the question. “Once my face became unavailable to me, two things happened:I cared more about it; and caring for it became more difficult.” It’s not just the makeup and washing that become a problem absent the mirror, but the habitual recognitions we make of ourselves “through” the body, which, we know, we “feel” in the space around us.

It was torturous not to be able to confirm a clean appearance, a tidiness of one’s own features like a room well-swept. I did not like the idea that other people could look at me while I could not; that I could see their faces but not my own. I realized that to recognize oneself each morning anew was a kind of exercise in existence. You get up and see yourself in the mirror and you think, “Here I am.” It was reassuring, this ritual, the familiarity of self, conjured and reconjured like an auto-hypnotic spell. Without my face, I felt off-balance, tentative. I became obsessed by what I could not see.

Without the mirror–the face as one facet of self–do we lose a sense of being “in place” or one means of self-definition? Do we lose anchor? Without reflected “image,” are we potentially lost “in place,” in other words, become “out of place.”

Gradually I stopped caring what I looked like. What did it matter, if I had no one to tell me? I didn’t wash for days. I threw my cosmetics out. I barely brushed my hair. On the occasions when I did go out, to run an errand or to buy food, I noticed people shying away from me. Their own faces looked startled by mine, as though they were looking at a ghost. I did not bother to smile or frown, or to evidence any facial expression at all. If I could not see, why should they?

In this way I began to reinhabit the world. I presented myself to it as I saw myself in it, a blank, a cipher, a nonentity. A faceless woman. I no longer expected any sort of reaction at all when people happened to look upon me; I began no longer to require one. And the strange thing was that I became happy. I saw the faces of others, their looks of suffering and boredom, of longing and displeasure. I saw also–mostly on children–looks of delight and curiosity, of sadness and rebellion. And I knew that their faces were my own, that I had access to all of these ways of looking by means of what I saw.

The story ends with the woman witnessing her image, which she’s carried “like a relic” in a shop window for the first time after many years and her “delusion” is, as she says, “shattered.”

Unfortunatly, this discontinuity breaks the story. How, in other words, after so many years of going about, does the woman avoid her image for so long? In the story, Min writes, “And then one day, as I was hurrying down the street, I passed a shop window and caught a glimpse of my reflection.” In the window, she sees a “ruin.” Nevertheless, this “revealing” doesn’t square with the control the writer displays throughout. Again, how is it possible that the woman hadn’t happened to see herself in any other shop window, in passing, just by turning her head? This isn’t a nitpick; the story has relies on a steady loss/gain structure–she loses herself, steadies, then loses herself again. But how does she maintain the “delusion” for so long, years, without some measure of near miss: did she approach the store with her eyes shut?

The question of the self is an important idea in fiction because character sustains this kind of story. I enjoy Min’s writing but I find this little break in her story disappointing. I leave the story not buying it, after I bought it nearly all the way through.


Susan Gibb writes in a comment:

Never wanted so much to discuss a book. It is endless in its questions and yet is satisfying in its story. I think you have it nailed with your estimation of Suttree as so completely human, and think that valuation answers the question of monsters within. Don’t we all harbor them? Don’t we daily forget them unless they rattle at the gates, and we check the lock to make sure it is secure. Or sometimes, let them loose.

We know that characters in fiction aren’t human, yet the genius of fiction is to focus the reader onto the populations of a fiction “as if” they were. We agree that Sherlock Holmes is a fiction. But he seems real, so real that most everyone knowns who he is, even if they haven’t read the stories.

In life, we have to act. But we also have no way of verifying whether our choices are the “right” ones, regardless of external influence or position. For example, in the letter section of the morning paper, a comment is made about the UCC’s stance on same-sex marriage as an “endorcement of sin,” referring to Leviticus’ “abomination” section as “proof.” The writer writes, “If you are going to believe that the Bible is the word of God, as many of us do, then you must follow it to the letter.” In this writer’s world, human “choice” is an alien concept, since all he must do to live correctly is to “follow” the letters, without any doubt as hindrance to “right.” Whenever a thing is to be done, consult the book. This is not, however, “proof” of right, as Sophocles teaches in Antigone. It’s a paradigm. This is far from saying that anything goes or that ethical models are “wrong.” The paradox is that we “must” choose; we can’t however cast off reason and replace it with “thoughtlessness,” which is not what Augustine argues in the rigorous City of God as a measure of the good of faith. Suttree chooses to depart Noxville in the novel (is this the right or wrong decision?). He moves just ahead of the “hunstman” who “lies all wheres” and whose hounds tire not.” Suttree will always be dogged. And this huntsman will reapear in another aspect in Blood Meridian as the “judge.” But both the huntsman and the judge are shadows and deceivers, working behind the “coldforger” who will construct his image in the eyes of other witnesses, just as the reader constructs the fiction from “letters” on the page or screen with that most valuable of things human: the thinking mind.

Going to town with reading

Susan Gibb is going to town with McCarthy and Parker at Spinning. It’s interesting to get the impressions of her experience with these writers. I’m not familiar with Parker but have read all of McCarthy’s work. Suttree, the novel she’s currently reading, is one of McCarthy’s best novels, and deals with one his most complex characters in Cornelius Suttree. Interestingly enough, I’ve had my own relationship with the novel for a long time, reading through the novel for its bits and pieces of excellence and enjoying what amounts to a novel whose plot is less important than its moments in time. What’s the story here is a fairly broad question.

Suttree walks a fine line. He has given up his born life for another, beyond expectation. In a way the novel is about choice, following choice to its character-driven conclusion. A character figures he’ll make money by killing bats. What happens next? A man returns to his old hunting grounds and is run out of town for irreconcilable things he’s done. But so what about “choice.” Alcoholism is a major issue in the novel, but the novel isn’t about drink. Black and white is also an issue, but the novel isn’t about race. These things are “the environment” that Suttree walks through; they are a part of the nartural order as it is at this moment in time. Old age, poverty, cultural blight. Youth and morality. All these elements of life find their way into the novel, and like rocks, they hurt when you kick them. In addition, the novel is intensely moral, but there is no moral center. The conditions simply won’t allow it. Ultimately, religion doesn’t save anyone in the novel. Faith, belief, and prayer are only a part of the backdrop. In the novel, the churches are broken, and the other institutions, such as justice, are a foggy mess.

Suttree asks whether there are monsters in him, and the answer is “of course.” But does he make the monsters? What does he mean by “in”?

Entropy and choice. Suttree is a powerful character. Powerful, powerless, deserving, undeserving. Wholesome, unwholesome. He’s one of the most humen characters I’ve ever read.