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Monday, June 25, 2012

The stories we tell

I've been wondering over the last couple of months about the stories we tell, why they're important to us, and about the stories we don't tell and why we're avoiding them. This has been prompted in part by the fact that I can't work on Soul Weather; yet I suspect that I can make the hiatus useful by thinking about the larger structure of what I'm trying to do with my characters and ideas and about how I'm trying to frame the present moment.  I've come to the conclusion that in the twitterverse there are no trends, just opportunities, so I'm trying to find the framework that will let me reveal what I think is happening in our culture now.  As well, a handful of events I've gone to and articles I've read over the last couple of months, most of which puzzled me, have implicitly or explicitly posed this question, almost suggesting that this is a question many creative people are asking.

The first two prompts reveal the range of ways this question can be explored.  In May, I went to a  session at the CCWWP conference on the spate of Canadian books about people from Eastern Europe and Russia; one of the presenters, Antanas Sileika, the author of Underground (named by the Globe and Mail as one of the 100 best books of 2011),  suggested that this has become an important sub-genre of Canadian fiction. The part of me that spent my my evening walking on the Lake Ontario shores thinks about such a suggestion and wonders why.  I'm with the postmodern historians who suggest that history is never about simply getting the facts right, partly because there's nothing simple or transparent about "facts."  Rather, history is an act of self reflection, a way of examining who we are now in light of who we think we have been.  Certainly the same could be said of the historical novel, no matter how far away or long ago the work is set.  So what is it about who we are now that is hungry for narratives set in Russia and Eastern Europe?  But the part of me who is writing a novel set rather aggressively in the present moment posed an embarrassed question.  What is so appealing about other places and other times, when we live here, in the present (one hopes).

The second prompt came when I read an older post in the OnFiction blog which quoted both Ruskin and Proust's comment that books are our friends.  I just stuck that one in my pocket to think about from time to time.  They were suggesting a comforting, cozy relationship that I sometimes sought in a book and sometimes found falling flat in a kind of faux intimacy.

Then Bill and I went to see The Avengers.  Clueless alert here.  When I was returning from the CCWWP Conference in Toronto, listening to the all-day TV that blabs on and on in airports (and trying to write about art instead of listening), I'll admit I overheard an announcement that told how well the movie was still doing, even in its second weekend.  'Cool,' I thought.  'I had no idea that sixties po-mo TV would still cut ice.'  I thought nostalgically about Steed's bowler hat and the moment when Mrs Peel turns Steed over to Purdy with the advice "He likes his tea stirred counter-clockwise."  So when Bill wanted to see The Avengers I readily agreed.  You're already laughing at me--rightly so.  I found the violence very difficult, the special effects cool when they weren't being used just to be used.  The two, when fiercely combined, were even worse:  I mean, what does the fight between Thor and Iron Man contribute to the plot?  (More about this later.)  I loved Iron Man's irony.  I left the movie theatre exhausted, though.  So I asked Bill that night whether movies like The Avengers were friends and he sleepily replied no, but that they were sometimes allies.  He was so sleepy he doesn't remember his illuminating answer, but he talked later about some of the scenes I wondered about, suggesting they were kind of a guy thing, important rituals in creating a partnership between a  crew of superheroes.  Away from the speed, violence, and special effects, I could see how we sometimes need stories where good is nearly exhausted but sometimes wins anyway, where egotists like Iron Man (self-described as a billionnaire playboy who likes his lovers dressed like children on the beach) are willing to sacrifice themselves.  This is an extremely egotistical moment in our own history, one where market meltdowns and layoffs and high unemployment rates challenge that egotism even while FB nurtures it.  Okay, I get it--kind of.  My cluelessness aside, I'm not the only one who questioned The Avengers.  Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Adam Sternbergh notes that American action movies have descended into self-parody.  He notes that these movies are characterized by "Explosions.  Big, Blossoming, Ecstatic, pointless explosions....These cathartic money shots serve no purpose plotwise, which is precisely what marks them as the philosophical earmark of the action film [sic; that's not a great sentence].  It's a genre dedicated unreservedly to carnage as a source of aesthetic delight" (April 1, 2012; 42).

Then we watched Iron Lady.  Since The French Lieutenant's Woman and Out of Africa, I've thought Meryl Streep walked on water, and her acting in Iron Lady proves it.  The movie is a kind of biography of Margaret Thatcher told from the perspective of her older self, after her husband dies and when she seems to be sliding into dementia (though I don't think her conversations with her dead husband should be used as evidence of this:  they make complete sense to me).  Streep does a brilliant job evoking the body language of the very elderly; I would swear she spent several weeks with a group of old women watching for the way their hands bespeak their anxiety.  One of my favourite moments occurs when Thatcher's daughter is undressing Margaret after a formal dinner and finds an eyelash on her cheek, offering her mother the chance to make a wish and blow the eyelash away.  This may be one of the most intimate, transcendent moments I've ever seen captured on film; Streep's face lights up with playfulness, hope, gratitude, and love all in about two seconds.

I know that the film has been criticized for using the perspective of the elderly, frail Thatcher, but this seems to me to be its brilliance.  Regardless of what you think about her politics, you are compelled to see her humanity.  If history is about creating a relationship with the past, this film certainly does it.  While we can see the lunacy of the Falklands war, particularly in a time when the government's budget is very very tight, while we see Thatcher has become almost a parody of a nationalistic patriarch, we're nevertheless compelled to place her choices in the context of the idealistic young girl who entered politics and the old woman who profoundly misses her wonderful husband.  

At one of our weekly breakfasts, I talked with my friend Katherine about my sense that fiction these days focuses on history.  She suggests this is a distraction from the enormous challenges that face us this minute. Rick Groen, writing in The Globe and Mail in an article entitled "Any time but the present," agrees in part.  He explores the fact that the 'here and now' is avoided in fiction and movies; rather, they allow viewers and readers to live in the past or explore the future.  In the last three years, he notes, 29 movies have won Oscars.  Of those, only 2 occur at the present moment--"Up in the Air" and "The Descendants."  He suggests that part of the motive is the time lag between conception and realization that certainly can't match the immediacy of Twitter.  The latest trend the movie maker or writer of fiction might have noticed may be long gone.  But here's his more substantial analysis:  "We are getting the fiction we crave.  The flood of information in the present is overwhelming, undiscriminating, and confusing:  even the so-called analysis is immediate, the spotting of trends as evanescent as the trends themselves.  So we turn to the fictionalized past, or the imagined future, not just for escape but for clarity.  (TGAM May 31, 2012, Arts).

I can understand the need for clarity in the face of the cacophany of immediacy, but I'm not sure I'd turn to art for such clarity.  Quite the reverse.  I turn to art to get things stirred up, to muddy the waters, to force me to see what I think in the face of the writer's generous imaginative vision. I can understand that one thing we might do in the face of a sense of confusion and crisis is to ask ourselves the kinds of stories we're creating and yearning for, and to examine the whole concept of story in the face of the brief tweet.  Here are a handful of people weighing in over the last month or so on this issue, as if the question has indeed been posed:

Richard Ford, contemplating the title of his latest novel, Canada, wrote "I myself can't paraphrase what I think, and what I've made my novel to be about, any better than to say this:  those up-to-now unphrased feelings of adult life, and the purely, non-cognitive magnetism of the world itself, together compose a call to language.  Works of art, such as novels are, are vessels made precisely for those important things we can't paraphrase well enough to be fully true as we know life to be" (TGAM May 19, 2012).

Talking about his latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey muses to Johanna Schneller who asks him "what he goes for" in a novel,  "For me...it's to go well beyond and above who I am, to find out things I don't know, to make things in beautiful new shapes that have never existed in the world, that people can read again and again and find new things from, and new nourishment, that will, in the midst of confronting darkness, have the insane laughter of hope" (June 9, 2012).

Sarah Nicole Prickett, talking with Aaron Sorkin about his latest series, The Newsroom, felt the need to quote both Nietzsche and Joan Didion about the importance of art and stories.  Here's the Didion: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."  Nietzsche is more pessimistic:  "We have art in order not to die of the truth"  (TGAM June 23, 2012).


Summer for me is the time to read.  I love going up to my bedroom at around 8 to catch the day's last light and be in the midst of the trees and breezes to read, occasionally pausing to look out and consider what I'm reading.  Sheba, who melts into my supine body while I'm reading, occasionally demands attention by standing on my chest and rubbing her face on mine, forcing me to stop.  "Cat's cuddly; time to think," I say to myself about these enforced breaks.  So my blogs for a while will in part be book reviews, always coming back to this question about the stories we need and crave at this moment.  And perhaps you'll help me consider this question by weighing in.

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