An All Hallow’s Read

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Allhallowtide, Night of the Dead, whatever you call it and however you think it came into being one thing’s for sure, it’s become a majorly lucrative chocolate-selling and movie-renting business. This year why not save your consumerist fervour for Christmas and instead stay home for a quiet evening read, with a flickering candle and a glass of brandy or something. What to read, you ask? We have just the thing.

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thus, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act i, Scene 2.

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Thus begins one of the oldest, strangest and oft-referenced works of speculative fiction to grace our shelves, as mysterious today as it was when first published in 1895. The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, and if you’re nodding your head now it’s because you recognise the title from the first season of True Detective, where the themes and symbolism were referenced as a kind of otherworldly red herring to the mystery pursued by Rust and Marty.

The intertextuality doesn’t end there. Chambers’ collection itself is hung on the influence of a play about the titular King, which is continually referenced throughout the stories but never fully presented. The play is said to bring insanity or a grim fate upon those who read it. Besides Chambers’ stories themselves being a great read, this elusive structural gimmick is pure squirmy genius.

And its heritage is vast. Chambers’ Yellow King was influenced by the classic works of Ambrose Bierce, Théophile Gautier and even Poe, and went on to be a foundational inspiration for most of the significant genre players of the  twentieth century, including H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Robert A. Heinlein and even Stephen King.

All this over a creepy fictional play that never actually existed.

The best news is that it’s now public domain so you can read the entire text online. Enjoy.

Because of Marty McFly

If you were born in or around the 80s chances are Marty McFly featured large in your childhood. Something about the combination of his wide-eyed wonder and teenage recklessness made Marty the kind of guy you’d want to hang around. The many harrowing experiences he endured simply endeared him to us further, as he saved himself from oblivion several times and repeatedly outwit the many iterations of Biff Tannen via the assistance of a handy hoverboard or some mad guitar skills, or the inevitable pile of manure.

In fact many of you would still count the Back to the Future trilogy among the best movies ever made. I know I do, not simply for the sheer entertainment value, which is significant even thirty years on, but because the films spoke intimately and intelligently to the sense of adventure and personal triumph that we all crave, making them truly timeless in their appeal and also their relevance.

Back-to-the-Future-2

The movies had a vast impact on popular culture, with the crazy inventiveness of the narrative spawning references wide and varied from hiphop tunes, to presidential addresses, to the emergence of 80s skateboard culture. And the mild DeLorean was never the same again.

In honour of this very great of days, 21 October 2015, I’d like to acknowledge the linguistic contribution of Back to the Future to our modern vernacular. Here are fifteen things you now say because of Dr. Emmett Brown and his silver DeLorean.

Great Scott!

Manure! I hate manure!

Nobody calls me chicken.

Whoa. This is heavy.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 mph…you’re gonna see some serious shit.

Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?

The time-travelling is just too dangerous. Better that I devote myself to study the other great mystery of the universe: women.

You’re the doc, Doc.

What happens to us in the future? Do we become assholes or something?

I foresee two possibilities. One, coming face to face with herself 30 years older would put her into shock and she’d simply pass out. Or two, the encounter could create a time paradox, the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space time continuum, and destroy the entire universe!

I’m your density.

Well, that is your name, isn’t it? Calvin Klein? It’s written all over your underwear.

It means your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.

If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

Happy Back to the Future Day, everyone.

Elise Janes

Marlon James Wins the Booker Prize

Snaps for Marlon James, the first Caribbean to win the Booker Prize since V. S. Naipaul won in 1971 with In a Free State, and the third in a row of winners who have not been Irish, English or Indian.

James’ win should put a smile on many a rebellious face, much like the subject matter of his book A History of Seven Killings, which covers the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in the 1970s and traces the cultural fallout through the following decades, employing a surprisingly diverse array of narrative voices.

Jamaica’s history is rich in music and poetry, and James’ novel was inspired by this legacy, however he is notable for being one of the first truly successful Jamaican novelists.

Wayne Brown, a Trinidadian author who taught creative writing in Jamaica, wondered why all good Caribbean poetry came out of Jamaica, but all the good novels were from Trinidad. He observed this interesting difference between the two cultures:

If you put up a statue in Jamaica, the next day everyone pass that statue in silence. With a kinda solemnity about it. Because, you know, it’s a serious thing. That’s how I find you Jamaicans. You take things so goddamn serious. But if you put that same statue up in Trinidad, the next morning people deface it. Or they throw garbage at it. That’s how we are. You can’t put anything up on a pedestal in Trinidad.

from The Guardian

Now doesn’t that sound culturally familiar, fellow Australians? Apparently our natural bent toward toppling pedestals makes us prime novel-writing pasture.

Another encouraging fact that may appeal to those emerging authors out there: James’ first book was rejected by 78 publishers and agents. Hooray for number 79.

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2015 Booker Shortlist:

  • Marlon James (Jamaica), A Brief History of Seven Killings
  • Tom McCarthy (UK), Satin Island
  • Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), The Fishermen
  • Sunjeev Sahota (UK), The Year of the Runaways
  • Anne Tyler (US), A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Hanya Yanagihara (US), A Little Life

Previous Winners:

  • 2010: Howard Jacobson (UK), The Finkler Question
  • 2011: Julian Barnes (UK), The Sense of an Ending
  • 2012: Hilary Mantel (UK), Bring Up the Bodies
  • 2013: Eleanor Catton (NZ), The Luminaries
  • 2014: Richard Flanagan (AUS), The Narrow Road to the Deep North

 

 

Museums far from the madding crowd

Few cities in the world do museums in quite the way London does. Its most famous examples – The British Museum, the Natural History Museum and so on – are among the city’s major tourist attractions. But it is possible to enjoy a different flavour of London by visiting its legion minor museums, which seem to exist solely as a means of expressing how peculiar Britons and their interests can be.

Many of these museums require, shall we say, a very keen interest in the subject matter; while others are, as Samuel Johnson said of the Giant’s Causeway, ‘worth seeing … but not worth going to see’.

However, the following five are among the few that are worth a visit.

Foundling Museum                                                      

Located in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, the Foundling Museum (foundlingmuseum.org.uk) is built on the site of the Foundling Hospital – the world’s first children’s charity and its first public art gallery.

The Hospital was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment. It had taken him 17 years to raise the funds.

The artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel helped Coram by making the Hospital one of London’s most fashionable venues. Handel held annual benefit concerts there while Hogarth encouraged the leading artists of the day to donate work. These paintings are still on display in the Museum’s charming 18th-century interiors reconstructed from the original building.

Poverty, widowhood, desertion by the child’s father and the shame of illegitimacy were common reasons why women faced the Sophie’s choice of keeping their babies and subjecting them to a life of poverty, or leaving them with the Hospital, which offered the child a better life. On opening, the Hospital was overwhelmed by demand and, to cope with the numbers, was forced to use a simple lottery system.

On admission, names were changed to protect mother and child, but it was possible for a mother to reclaim her child using a token that matched the one she’d already provided. Some of these are on heart-breaking display in the Museum’s small but fascinating permanent exhibition. They include personalised fabric, coins, playing cards, jewellery and medals.

By the time the Foundling Hospital closed in 1954, about 25,000 babies and children had passed through its doors.

Dickens Museum

Dickens writing Desk

A short walk from the Foundling Hospital, is the Dickens Museum (dickensmuseum.com), located in a Georgian townhouse at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury. Then in his mid-twenties, Dickens moved there with his wife Catherine, Charles Jr (the first of their ten children) and Catherine’s sister Mary Hogarth who died in the house a few weeks later. Her death affected Dickens deeply and had a morbid influence on his subsequent writing.

Dickens rented the house from 1837 to 1839, just as his fame was peaking. It was at 48 Doughty Street that he finished the Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

The museum is exquisitely curated and very evocative. Many of the objects were owned by Dickens himself (such as his desk and chair, and shaving gear).

Whether you’re interested in Dickens or not you would have to be among the living dead not to find the museum captivating, and it is within striking distance of the British Museum and the rest of what has been dubbed Museum Mile (museum-mile.org.uk).

Guards Museum

Much smaller than the Army Museum in Chelsea and certainly the Imperial War Museum in Southwark, the Guards Museum (theguardsmuseum.com) is ideal for someone whose interest in military matters is low to moderate and who happens to be in the area – that is, Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace. There is no faulting its location.

The museum is devoted solely to the British Army’s five Guards regiments – the Coldstream, Grenadier, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards – who form most of the Queen’s Household Division. When you watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, it is these guys who are doing the changing.

This compact museum is well laid out and consistently interesting, covering as it does all 360 years of the Guards’ existence. As such it provides a pocket history of the British Army. Objects that captured my attention included a packet of now crumbling chocolate distributed by Queen Victoria to all British soldiers during the Boer War, and an assault rifle smashed to pieces by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

Old Operating Theatre

There are dozens of medicine-related museums in London (see www.medicalmuseums.org) but probably the best example is the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, which more than any other museum I’ve been to, benefits from its unique setting.

The museum is housed at the top of a spiral stone staircase in the garret of a deconsecrated church near London Bridge. The church was built in 1703, its garret specifically intended to store herbs for the apothecary of St Thomas’s Hospital.

In 1822, an operating theatre was installed in one half of the garret. The theatre is the oldest surviving in Europe, and was built in the attic because it adjoined the hospital’s women’s ward, and because it was possible to create a large overhead skylight to aid the surgeons in their work.

For the 40 years it was in use, none of the operations performed there involved anaesthetic beyond alcohol or maybe opium, which is why it was separated from the ward by a soundproof wall. Tragically, antiseptic was not used either – Sir Joseph Lister introduced such procedures to the medical world in 1865, three years after the operating theatre closed. The mortality rate was horrendous.

The operating table, which remains in situ, is made of wood. The majority of cases were amputations, and in the absence of anaesthetics surgeons focused on speed. A skilled surgeon could remove a limb in less than a minute.

The other half of the garret contains a fascinating if macabre display including surgical instruments such as amputation saws, as well as leech jars and scarification equipment. The place smells pleasantly of carbolic, which is on display but was never used at the time. The illustrations of people being held down while their limbs are sawn off adds to the atmosphere and the immense gratitude you feel for having been born 150 years after the theatre was closed.

Staff talks bring the innocuous wood-panelled space of the operating theatre to gruesome life so it’s worth timing your visit to coincide with one – check the website (thegarret.org.uk) for details.

Anaesthesia Museum

In a similar vein, so to speak, is the Anaesthesia Museum, which is housed in the basement of the Association of Anaesthetists (www.aagbi.org) in Marylebone. Though the size of a modest kitchen, it has more than 4000 objects, some of them dating from 1774, and many of them available for inspection in drawers with labels such as ‘Endotracheal tubes’, ‘Laryngeal masks’, ‘mouthgags’, and ‘tongue forceps’.

It is a well-curated museum permeated with what might be the faint smell of anaesthetic. That said, it is more the story of anaesthesia than the museum itself that captured my imagination. For instance, the first anaesthetics were ether (1846), chloroform (1847) and nitrous oxide (1868). None of them were ideal. Ether is highly flammable, chloroform’s possible side effects include death, and nitrous oxide wears off too quickly.

Other obscure London museums …

The following museums might also tempt you, though bear in mind their opening hours can be as eccentric as their contents – check their websites for details.

  • The Optical Museum near Trafalgar Square has a collection of 18,000 spectacles and vision aids including 18th- and 19th-century spy glasses and telescopes, eye baths, and models of diseased eyes.
  • The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill offers 12,000 items, mostly comprising food packets from the last century or so.
  • The Twinings Museum, opposite the Old Bailey on the Strand, is more a small shop than a museum, though it was on these premises in 1706 that the tea company was founded.
  • The Dental Museum in Marylebone is about the size of a dental surgery, and provides a disturbing insight into life before dentists were properly trained and equipped.
  • Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich is necessarily large given the sometimes enormous exhibits on display. An interest in artillery is a prerequisite.
  • If you enjoyed the Dickens Museum, you might also want to visit Dr Johnson’s House near Fleet Street, or Benjamin Franklin’s House near Charing Cross, or Keats’s House in Hampstead.
  • The Garden Museum in Lambeth has a small collection of old gardening tools, including eccentricities such as a glass cucumber-straightener and a walking stick with inbuilt pruning saw for gentlemen gardeners.
  • The Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell offers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.
  • The Musical Museum in Brentford is devoted purely to self-playing instruments. An excellent place to learn the difference between the orchestrion and the orchestrelle.
  • The Chartered Insurance Institute Museum in the City of London is concerned mainly with fire insurance and firefighting.
  • The Wimbledon Windmill Museum details the history of the Wimbledon Windmill (in which it is located) and windmills generally. Ideal for windmill enthusiasts.
  • The London Sewing Machine Museum in Balham covers the history of both domestic and industrial sewing machines.
  • Greenwich’s Fan Museum claims to be the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to handheld fans, which comes as absolutely no surprise. If you find yourself there trying to admire its 3500 antique fans, it is possible that you’ve become bored with London, and therefore with life.

 

Conan Elphicke

 

Before Sunset

Few movies have the boldness to be both utterly romantic and painstakingly realistic, holding our emotional response in some sort of excruciating stasis between hope and despair, made all the more raw by the immensely empathetic nature of the lives and thoughts and feelings of the two central characters. This movie came out in 2004, a year before I first visited Paris, and now the two are inextricably linked in my mind. I cannot visit Shakespeare & Co without imagining that heartbreakingly casual reconnection between Jesse and Celine, nine years in the making.

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In an age when it is all to easy to give audiences exactly what they want, Richard Linklater has become a master at the slow burn, engaging us whole-heartedly in bare-faced dialogue that is at the same time both lyrical and recognisable, carrying us along an ebb and flow of intimacy and smokescreen that seems, if possible, to be even more genuine than our own personal experiences.

Before Sunset is the central movie in a trilogy of exceptional films, each made exactly nine years apart and each one a continuation of a conversation between two characters who seem at the same time made for each other while also unreachably different. In 1995’s Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine first meet by chance on a train to Vienna and spend a night walking its cobblestone streets talking life, love and art.

There is no hidden agenda in this movie. There will be no betrayals, melodrama, phony violence, or fancy choreography in sex scenes. It’s mostly conversation, as they wander the city of Vienna from mid-afternoon until the following dawn. Nobody hassles them.

– Roger Ebert on ‘Before Sunrise’

After promising to meet again in six months’ time, we as an audience are left hanging for nine years until we rediscover them as they rediscover each other over a day in Paris, gently edging toward revelations about the questions we desperately want to know: are they married, are they happy, are they meant to be together? The third iteration came another nine years later, in 2013’s Before Midnight, where we discover what has become of them since that fateful reconnection on the banks of the Seine.

Will there be a fourth film in 2022? We both hope and fear it to be so. Such is Linklater’s remarkably uncontrived effect on his audience.

Filmed in long uninterrupted takes that trick us into the feeling of real-time, these movies are dialogue journeys that take us on a winding path through all the beautiful and tragic ideas we have always wondered but rarely voiced.

All three movies make grand use of their European city backdrops, incorporating history and geo-social landmarks into the narrative, making the trilogy that much more beautiful and entrancing. After the first movie, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy joined the production team as writers, adding an indispensable layer of realism to their onscreen relationship.

The movies have consistently scored exceptionally high on IMDB, Meteoritic, Rotten Tomatoes and even Roger Ebert. They are timeless, beautiful, deep and entangling, and you will find yourself revisiting them again and again.

If ever there was a fitting narrative tribute to the phases of the sun as paralleled in the waxing and waning seasons of life, it exists in these three films.

 

Elise Janes

The Exuberant Existence of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist

Henry_Savery_memorial_stone,_Isle_of_the_Dead,_TasmaniaHenry Savery’s life reads like an exercise in over-imagination. From the beginning, it seems, Henry was going to be one of those guys who couldn’t content himself with the confines of a modest existence. In other words, the man who penned Australia’s first novel seemed simply to be born for the task.

Many of you have probably never heard of him, and it would have remained that way had it not been for the minds behind if:book Australia, rather out-of-the-box bibliophiles themselves, who have incorporated Henry Savery into one of their current projects, ‘Rumours of My Death’. In the recent Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Henry himself engaged with festivalgoers through the conveyance of an anonymous author on twitter, one of the many exceptional experiences on offer in this year’s program.

Thanks to these two Queensland institutions, the bizarre world of Henry Savery has been illuminated for us once again.

And a strange man he was. Not one to trouble himself with good business decisions, Henry failed first at sugar-refining and then at newspaper-mongering and turned instead to forging credit. Sounds like any good Wall Street origin story, right? When his business partner turned him in (classic), he tried to flee to America but jumped off the boat and was quickly apprehended. His jailhouse antics served to postpone his court hearing, which was lucky in the end because he was sentenced to hang and was only saved at the very last moment by friends in high places. If there was one key to success Henry mastered, it was having the right guys on speed dial.

After arriving as a convict in Tasmania he managed to secure a position in the Treasury, despite having well proven his inability to manage finance of any kind. Once again, he knew exactly which hands to shake. Here his narrative takes a turn for the political drama, when his wife and son join him in Tasmania and rumours of her affair with the Attorney General lead to bickering between the two. Being the drama-queen he was, Henry threatened suicide. After he was imprisoned for money troubles yet again, the wife took off back to England, and that was the end of that.

Quintus ServintonNot one to pass up an opportunity Henry used his prison days to kickstart a writing career, another activity that was expressly against the law for convicts. His unfavourable portraits of local personages sparked a libel suit, of course, which was soon dismissed and the articles were later collected and published by the early Australian man of letters, Henry Melville. Here’s where Savery pioneers the ethos of the Lost Generation, a whole century before Hemingway was born.

Somehow, he managed to get released into the care of Major Hugh Macintosh, one of the founders of Cascade Brewery of all people, and spent his days writing peacefully on the banks of the Derwent River. Even though he was forbidden to carry on any kind of business, he managed the farm for Macintosh and wrote the manuscript that would eventually be Australia’s first novel: the fantastically entitled Quintus Servinton, published anonymously in 1831.

After a several further brushes with the law and various local VIPs, Henry again descended into debt and resorted to forgery to support his increasing alcoholism. In a fitting, albeit sad end to his dramatic existence, he found himself imprisoned in Port Arthur where he died and was buried on the infamous Isle of the Dead, passing into colonial legend

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And there you have it. What better man to assume the mantel of Australia’s first author than one Henry Savery? It could be argued that he embodied the quintessential author archetype: emotional, irresponsible, impulsive and bold, possessing influential friends, an unstable character, and a knack for obtaining a lot of free time in close proximity to a brewery and a beautiful river valley.

His great contribution to our literary oeuvre may not be any Les Miserables or Huckleberry Finn, but it is no less worthy of our respect, even if only for the remarkable life that brought it forth. Someone should really make a movie out of it, but in the meantime the full text of Quintus can be found here, well worth a look. It is, after all, a national treasure, almost two centuries old and an indelible part of our cultural and artistic heritage.

Thank you, Henry Savery, for your financial incompetence, which bestowed upon us this unique slice of literary history.

 

Further Reading:

 

Elise Janes

 

Five Fathers: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of fictional dads that doesn’t lead with Atticus Finch, so here he gets a category all of his own. This guy had it all. A lawyer raising two kids, teaching them to be real humans (the audacious character of Scout alone is testament to his fathering abilities) and defending the indefensible from the vilest aspects of human nature, all the while dispensing ageless advice to his children on the front porch of their Alabama home.

In tribute to Father’s Day (and the reality that some will find it a mixed affair), here are a few of the best, the worst and the strangest dads in literature.

 

The Good

  1. Jean Valjean

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

“Because things are not agreeable,” said Jean Valjean, “that is no reason for being unjust towards God.”

At the bequest of a dying Fantine he rescued Cosette from the despicable Thernadiers and despite being a fugitive, remained a steadfast adoptive father and all-round good guy until his death, never once losing faith despite all he endured. That takes some guts.

 

  1. Mr Bennet

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters.”

Some deride him for his sarcasm and his ambivalence toward his wife, but considering what he had to work with these are shown to be quite endearing qualities. It is his relationship with Elizabeth, the knowing-ness that passes between them, which makes him one of the best fathers in literature.

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  1. The Man/The Father

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

Leads his son through a wilderness of post-apocalyptic destruction and teaches him indispensable survival skills, navigating the ambiguous morality that arises from such desperation. His tenacity alone is enough to garner him father-of-the-year.

 

  1. Arthur Weasley

The Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling

“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?”

His light-hearted perspective on life and unflinching defense of his children and the marginalised Muggles makes him almost a lovably clownish Atticus Finch. And without exception his seven children are among the greatest humans (?) on the planet.

 

  1. Thomas Schell

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

“Honey! I got to go! Other people need to use the phone! I’m gonna be fine, you’re gonna be fine! You listen to me! You made my life better and I want you to know that absolutely love you. I’m going to call you back in a few minutes.”

Proof that even in absence a father can be fundamentally influential in his child’s life. Oskar goes in search of a perceived secret message from his father who was killed in 9/11, and finds himself again.

 

The Bad

  1. Pap Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

“I’ll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You’re educated, too, they say—can read and write. You think you’re better’n your father, now, don’t you, because he can’t?”

Drunk, abusive and sadistic, he is everything a father shouldn’t be. The only thing we are grateful for is that he produced such a son as Huck and spawned one of the most famously epic tales of childhood adventure known to literature. We are not sorry to learn of his death at the end of the book.

Lolita with Jeremy Irons

  1. Humbert Humbert

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

“You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine.”

Marries Charlotte Haze to get close to her daughter, Lolita, which makes him her stepfather and legal guardian when Charlotte dies, leaving her at his mercy. Enough said.

 

  1. Michael Henchard

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

“MICHAEL HENCHARD’S WILL
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.”

An alcoholic who auctions off his wife and child, never bothering to find them until they return eighteen years later while he is in the middle of courting another woman whom he has already disgraced. Lovely.

 

  1. Mr Wormwood

Matilda, Roald Dahl

“A book?! What d’you wanna flaming book for? …we’ve got a lovely telly with a 12-inch screen and now ya wanna book!”

This quote alone places Mr Wormwood into the lowest percentile of humans. A used-car salesman who deceives his customers, alienates his genius daughter and terrorizes her lovely teacher Miss Honey, he is the definition of terrible-dadness.

 

  1. Archibald Craven

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

“My mother died when I was born and it makes him wretched to look at me. He thinks I don’t know, but I’ve heard people talking. He almost hates me.”

Yes, we feel sorry for him because his wife died but, no, that does not give him any right to abandon his sick son in a dingy room, especially when all his son needs is a bit of love and natural beauty in order to make a miraculous recovery.

 

The Ugly

  1. King Lear

King Lear, Shakespeare

“…he that makes his generation messes to gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved, as thou my sometime daughter.”

Definitely not the only terrible father in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, but certainly one of the most memorable. He makes the ugly list because he tests his three daughters to see who loves him most in order to decide who should inherit his estate, all the while completely blind to their true natures. He deserves to succumb to madness, and does so with spectacular pomp.

 

  1. Don Vito Corleone

The Godfather, Mario Puzo

“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

You could argue that as a father figure, the Don is actually a great family man. Everything he did was for his ‘family’ after all, including making people offers they couldn’t refuse. Yet his actions lead to the death of two of his sons and the corruption of another. So, yeah, ugly.

 

  1. Jack Torrance

The Shining, Stephen King

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Another alcoholic dad, Jack adds to the mix by trying to kill his family with an axe. You could argue it’s not all his fault. But that doesn’t make him a better dad.

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  1. Heathcliff

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

“Linton can play the little tyrant well. He’ll undertake to torture any number of cats, if their teeth be drawn and their claws pared.”

Thus is Heathcliff’s view of his son, another sickly boy confined to a dingy house and his father’s intense disregard. Though it’s hard to really stay angry at Heathcliff because he is so damn brooding and so passionately in love with dead Cathy.

 

  1. Nick Dunne

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

“We weren’t ourselves when we fell in love, and when we became ourselves – surprise! – we were poison. We complete each other in the nastiest, ugliest possible way.”

Though he stays with the crazy wife because of his unborn child, we can all see the direction Nick Dunne is taking by the close of this book, foreshadowed by the misogynistic outbursts of his aging father. You could say it’s all her fault, but then again, is it?

 

Elise Janes

 

A Writer. Who, Me?

I have a writer friend who’s email signature is ‘Artist | Writer’. Each time I get am email from them and see it, I get a funny, uncertain feeling in my stomach.

Let’s get this straight right here – this is my uneasiness. Nothing to do with them.  It’s the same feeling I get every time I’m around someone who goes somewhere I can’t or won’t or don’t know how. Read as, I’m not brave or bold enough too.

So, yes, a sensitive spot for me. Seeing someone who just puts it out there fills me with joy (yes, you can just be a writer) and fear (be wary of the judgement of others).

I recently read Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan. In the introduction he said something that felt like a sucker punch to me:black swan

An amateur writes for themselves. A professional writes for others.

I’d begun my latest manuscript in January this year with one clear aim in mind – to write a book I would want to read. Running concurrent to this was the idea that I was not someone who wants to be a writer or even an emerging writer. I was just a writer. Why? Because I write all the time. I have a dedicated and disciplined practice which nourishes my appetite for creative self-expression.

And yet, I let this statement needle me. The word ‘amateur’ rankled, made me feel small and lacking in character.

My insecurity. My hang-up.

It’s been weighing on my mind for a while and yesterday, I worked out why. As I am writing a novel for my own pleasure and readership, I’ve been unable to reconcile the idea that I am a writer. I was equating the title of writer with being a professional.

jeromeNew York writer Jerome Charyn put it like this: being a writer means you’re an ‘apprentice for life’.

On the podcast The Moment with Brian Koppelman, Charyn expanded:

Each book has its own problem and you’ve got to solve that all over again…each book demands its own melody.

Something clicked. This idea cut deep. I began to mentally uncouple the links in my head. Being a ‘writer’ and being a ‘professional’ are not bound to each other.

Being a writer just means I write and am committed to my practice. Being a professional just means I’m getting paid for the work I’m producing. I can be both, or at least one – the one I want to be.the moment

‘I get it, now,’ I say to myself, self-deprecatingly.

A writer. That’s me. Why? Because tonight, without fail, you’ll find me at my keyboard. I’ll be working away, getting my manuscript completed, one scene at a time. I’ll be there tomorrow and the day after too if you miss me tonight.

The Ubiquitous Three Acts: A Marriage of Chaos and Construct

So in our previous two discussions (here and here) we have seen that form is an immensely complex and fluid concept, but at its core may simply be a multifaceted way of telling the same story over and over again.

A scan of popular and historical forms reveals certain trends in the way we construct narratives, not only within discrete societal frameworks and but across all cultures and eras. But is that the whole story of story?

Of course not.

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Deconstructionism

Following on from Frye’s and Campbell’s notions of literary structure based on cyclical mythic forms we see the inevitable counter-movement developing in the French philosophers of the 60s and 70s. Jacques Derrida is often attributed as the instigator of Deconstructionism, which started out as a philosophical and literary exercise and went on to influence many forms of art and social sciences.

Derrida delivered a lecture at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 entitled Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences which is often cited as spreading post-structuralist thinking outside of France. He elaborated on those central ideas in his seminal work Of Grammatology in 1967.

Thus Post-Structuralism evolved out of deconstructionist thinking to become the umbrella term for it and other associated theories. Michel Foucault is often referred to as a central post-structuralist, though he himself denied the classification.

Unsurprisingly, deconstructionism evolved into metaphysics and existential philosophies, which themselves emphasise the great unknowability of life, and therefore art.

In a nutshell:

  • People are too infinitely variable to subscribe to any central notion of how a text is received or how the central message is conveyed.
  • The interpretation of a text is influenced by far more than simply the content and form of the text.
  • The message and meaning of a text can be undermined by or run counter-intuitive to the author’s intended ideas shaped by content, form and structure.
  • Pursuing meaning in a text ultimately exposes its contradictions and internal oppositions.
  • Texts and stories are irreducibly complex and unstable.
  • By definition, no text’s meaning can ever be completely known.
  • Fundamentally, humans are too unstable to ever be studied or understood in a complete way, and as it is never possible to escape the structures we find ourselves in, it is therefore not possible to examine them from an external perspective.

In summary, Derrida’s theories propose that the labyrinth can never be fully known because humans are infinitely variable, and as long as we are inside the labyrinth itself we will never be able to critically examine it from an external perspective.

On the surface it may seem that deconstructionism contradicts structuralist thinking, but in reality these two schools of thought form two opposite perspectives from which to view textual meaning and human interpretation. Indeed it quickly becomes clear that both concepts bring to the table essential ways of examining art. So we come to see that while the labyrinth is thoroughly known, it is also thoroughly unknowable.

The three-act journey

Post-structuralism, while immensely fun, does not help us much in our thoughts about form and narrative structure. And through the 80s and 90s, when movie blockbusters became a central part of social culture and the telling of global stories spread far beyond literary texts, we see the emergence of a trend in story-telling based on the twin successes of cultural popularity and audience understanding: the good ol’ three-act structure.

Most people are familiar with the notion of beginning, middle and end. There is a set-up, a development and a conclusion. This notion is basic, if not universal. Why? Well, it seems at its most fundamental to parallel life itself, and that’s a philosophical question for another day. It is so inescapable that you will find even the most non-linear and abstract of narratives will inevitably follow this three-act formation in some way.

This is where applications of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth become incredibly useful in defining structure. Essentially, the three-act structure is approximately twenty-five percent set-up (Act 1), fifty percent development (Act 2) and a final twenty-five percent of climax and resolution. Of course these ratios can be stretched and modified, but this division forms a stable basis for a well-structured story. The second act is then often broken into two halves, the first establishing the decline of the hero’s former state and the second accelerating the transformation by increasing risk and upping conflict, building into the inevitable climax. The resultant four quarters are broken up by three turning points, which often work as a palindrome in terms of character agency, with the second turning point (the mid-point) serving as a reversal of the first turning point decision, and so on.

When compared with the cyclical graphs of the monomyth, it becomes very clear how the two are intrinsically similar. And this basic idea has been elaborated upon by some of the greatest modernthinkers about story structure and narrative design, from professors such as Michael Hauge, to writers like Blake Snyder, to entire theories of work such as Dramatica, and so on and so forth.

Now of course such a broad-stroke approach brings forth a barrage of anti-conformist dialogue about how three-act structures are a construct of society and an over-simplification of truly ‘good’ writing, or further evidence of the film industry dumbing-down what once was a great art form. These arguments may be partially true, but there is little point in being reactionary simply for the sake of it, especially when both sides of the argument may in fact be equally correct.

Interestingly, the three-act concept can itself be interpreted through both the lens of structuralism and deconstructionism. The hero’s journey can be applied to almost any narrative, no matter how abstract or anti-heroic the story may appear at first. Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men: while these characters may at first seem to be the antithesis of self-sacrifice and maturity, even they subscribe, somewhat convexly, to the hero’s journey in a world-specific interpretation of initiation and renewal. Denial of call and movement away from ‘heroism’ can be interpreted themselves as acts of transformation, even salvation of an idea or concept, however hideous and antiheroic that idea may be.

Similarly even narratives that at first seem to thwart the three-act structure because of overly complex or meta subject matter, non-linear chronology or pastiche style exposition can still be defined in a three-act manner, right from Hamlet to Catch-22 to Pulp Fiction. Even other act delineations, such as the two-act, four-act, five-, six- and seven-act formulations can all be interpreted as a play on the basic three-act trajectory.

This all leads us to consider the old chicken and egg conundrum. Do we see three-acts because we want to or because they really are the basis of all well-told stories? Is it simply a futile exercise in applying structure to a vast chaos of widely different interpretations, or is it actually the foundation of the way we perceive, live and retell our stories?

Again, these questions are both fun and important to consider, and again it all comes down to how we can apply these theories to make our stories better, both for critics and audiences alike.

For my part, the three-act structure applied post-composition has been incredibly valuable in helping me to see why certain elements don’t work and how to effectively shift them structurally to make room for a greater development of character or story. It doesn’t mean that I have reworked my entire novel in order to fit a shallow, culture-specific mold, but instead that I have learned to examine my narrative through an age-old framework and use these fundamental ideas of story-telling, both ancient and modern, to help me tell my story in the most effective way.

Yes, sometimes it’s as much fun to break the rules as it is to follow them. But even then, the ‘rules’ are still rules, right?

Or are they?

Therein lies the great mystery at the heart of all artistic endeavour.

 

 

Elise Janes