For these and other thoughts about how mash-ups are taking over our society, visit my external page here
Leafing through the first pages of The Rook it’s astonishing how many reviews describe it as a “mix of _______ and ______”. Downton Abby and Harry Potter, The Office and Doctor Who, Ghostbusters and Niel Gaiman: it’s a positive bouillabaisse of all things Nerdily British or Britishly Nerdy. And though I wanted to avoid that trap, as I read one thought popped up in my mind again and again: “It’s as if the X-Men ran a government agency entirely devoted to X-Files.”
That mash-up covers the central conceit of the book, but misses the core of Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel (in part because he’s actually Australian and not British [though the book is set there] or American [though he did attend school here]). The core of The Rook is about finding out who you are by coping with the absurdity of adulthood. And, not coincidentally, he gives us a main character who has lost her memory just before we cracked the cover. As our heroine gradually learns her own name (Myfawny Alice Thomas), her job (administering a squad of supernatural troubleshooters within the British isles) and her own special gifts (manipulating other people’s biological process to her will), we learn them too. And when foreign cadre of supernatural Belgians threaten to bring down her office from within, we as readers bounce along on the trail of clues, looking for answers and thrilling at the intrigue of “Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service”.
As a writer O’Malley’s wit crackles along the page, littering the plots’ surreal situations with knowing winks and quirky one-liners. Even if you normally eschew sci-fi silliness, or espionage-laden intrigue, if you appreciate clearly written, clever characters, you’ll find something to admire in The Rook. The mash-up of all our nerdy pet-passions creates both a wonderfully unique hybrid and a delicious stew with a little something to satisfy everyone.
This is the final part of an extra long post on my personal website (The Scruffy Rube) that deals with how we are adapting and reusing classical stories in modern literature.
Few things have struck me as thoroughly this year as this line from the book The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt: There are moments, rare and powerful, in which a writer long vanished from the face of the earth, seems to stand in your presence and speak to you directly, as if he bore a message meant for you above all others (p. 247).
Greenblatt is right of course, and in telling the story of Roman poet Titus Lucretius’ classic De rerum natura (On the Nature Things) he spins the tale of a long dead writer who seemed to have that effect on an entire generation of minds. From Montaigne to Shakespeare and all manner of other Renaissance intellects, this Latin poem captures a new way to see the world: where seeking pleasure is a virtue, the Gods are irrelevant, and mankind charts their own course through the world. Naturally, this challenge to the established order of the middle ages (and the church that dominated it) led to conflict–even though it was an agent of the church who brought the book back into prominence.
Throughout his writing, Greenblatt guides readers into this conflict by encapsulating a horde of complex ideas, philosophies and historical factoids. My father and father-in-law were both captivated by the men who found the book and re-introduced it to the world. Unfortunately, since I had taken a two-year long college course chronicling the connections between Lucretius’ philosophy, the Catholic church’s obstinacy, Shakespeare’s poetry and all the other writers from generations long gone, I couldn’t get past the feeling that I had already read the book’s spoilers. While the book might be more engrossing for those who are new to the lineage of great literature, there’s still something appealing for everyone.
The context that helped Lucretius’ ideas to thrive are here again now: a corrupt church bureaucracy, accusations that self-seeking pleasure has loosened morals around the world, an increasingly secular society. But the real power of ideas isn’t what they are, the real power is that the ideas can matter to anyone and everyone. Reading the ideas of Lucretius, or Greenblatt, or any religious prophet can benefit you and your society. Encountering ideas on your own offers the opportunity to improve your life and the lives of others. It’s all a matter of how you use those ideas.
In amongst all these reimaginings, rebootings, continuations and adaptations that modern authors use to achieve “success” are the original stories themselves. How do the originals hold up when there’s when so many people are eagerly seeking a way to tell it in a new way?
For a merrily nerdy book club that my wife put together we recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a book that I had already read twice. I went into it, happy that we had a book I knew so well and glad that I could just trot out some old ideas and call it a contribution. But on my way back over the book I had to stop and look at the pages again.
Surely I had more to say than the few phrases that were already circling the drain in my head. Surely, I could make better points than my half-formed conjectures from my senior year of high school and sophomore year of college. Surely, I had noticed how the creature, the doctor and the captain of the ship all exhibit the same human doubts and fears, how they each crave community to give their individuality meaning, how they tell stories as their primary mode of communication.
But no, I had missed it all. And so, there I sat, reading it through for a third time, and what should have taken five minutes of refreshing took five hours. I couldn’t help but sit, amazed at the depth that I had missed twice before. Suddenly things that were old seemed new again. Proof that the classics can do just as well at inspiring us, as the retellings.
Not long ago I sang the praises of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder which reimaginied one classic fairy tale into a sci-fi setting. Last month, Meyer continued her rebooting process with Scarlet. If one classic fairy tale heroine was intriguing, two should be down right exhilarating. But, as often happens in these situations, adding another character to the mix requires splitting attention between two different story lines, unless both stories are equally compelling you’re bound for a let down.
Meyer’s stand in for Cinderella (the Chinese cyborg mechanic Linh Cinder) continues to be an intriguing heroine: complex, conflicted, and curious about how to make her way through the world. Now aware of her true parentage (a spoiler from the first book I won’t divulge here) she teams up with a renegade pilot named Carswell Thorne, a literary equivalent of Firefly‘s Mal Reynolds or Star Wars’ Han Solo, who easily rates as the best addition to the plot. But Cinder drifts through most of the story without purpose, splitting pages with a French farmer, Scarlet Benoit, who has packed up her red hoodie (get it?) to find her kidnapped grandmother in Paris. Scarlet’s interesting enough, but she’s saddled with a partner named Wolf who seems neither that heroic, villainous or even all that interesting. Their chemistry is underwhelming, dousing whatever thrill you might find in an underground rebellion about the French country side.
The triumph of Cinder allowed Meyer to set the stage for a much larger series. One that pits Cinder against a wicked queen (reimaginings have to keep those original elements after all). In that sense Scarlet merely puts some more pieces in place to set up for greater drama in the (already announced) third and fourth books. One can only hope that as more pieces appear on Meyer’s board, that she finds ways to make them all as compelling as our main heroine.
This is part of a longer post chronicling how classic stories are being made new again (available at my main blog: The Scruffy Rube)
The easiest way to gain attention and become a “success”, is to continue a long running story people already know. Few genres can match the level of familiarity and depth that you can find in a common comic book, but innovations in style and publishing have pushed traditional panels into new levels of depth and detail. 2007’s Captain America Omnibus from Eisner award winning comic author Ed Brubaker (and a staff of excellent illustrators) uses all those stylistic flourishes to build a marvelous and detailed world for the Marvel Universe’s first hero.
Over 25 issues and 744 pages, Brubaker breathes life back into the frozen form of Captain Steve Rogers, pitting him against an international conspiracy, nefarious terrorists, fellow superheroes and a hyper-focused assassin. In the process he turns the square-jawed, star-spangled king of the comics into a more human figure confronting the complex questions of just how to be heroic in an unheroic time.
There are (unsurprisingly) points of repetition in a story this long, not to mention moments of action so hyper-kinetic that even the most modern eyes strain to make sense of all the frenzy. But when characters are this compelling and art is this attractive, it’s a small price to pay for a successful story.
When it comes to conflict, we crave simplicity, directness. We want grudge matches to come to fruition, and hope desperately for someone (or someones) to don the black hat, twirl their mustache and cackle maniacally–if only to see them get their comeuppance.
It’s a natural inclination, and its the one that drives many of my students to promise: “I’ll get you back”. I see that same glint in their eye as they read the most popular book in school right now: 13 Reasons Why.
With a rather daring and innovative style, 13 Reasons Why recaps the fall of an average teenage girl from arriving at a new school, to taking her own life. Through a set of audio tapes passed among 13 people who caused her suicide, she retells her story and the reader follows the night one recipient spends listening to her catalogue of injustices.
The dueling story lines (one in the past and one in the present) make for a complex read, but it’s the kind of daring gamble that grabs attention and insists on holding it. The characters are realistic, true-blue teenagers with emotional scars, idiosyncratic speech, and personalities that are all too believable. That in turn makes the slow-motion train wreck of a young girls death, and her even slower-motion psychological revenge on the people who made it happen, equally-frighteningly believable too.
While that plotting concept is masterful, the final execution gets a little sloppy. At a certain point we’re so invested in both of our main characters that we can’t imagine either one of them harming the other. Sure enough, when the climactic tape revealing our protagonists’ role in the unraveling of the girl’s life arrives, it elicits more of an “oh” than an “ohhhhhhhh!”From there the story repeats, contradicts, convolutes and confuses both plot lines until the emotional impact is softened (though by no means eliminated).
Suddenly shifting from a direct enumeration of all the awful vicissitudes of high school that wiped away a young life to a complex (and underdone) analysis of shared responsibilities jars even the most practiced reader. And while it’s important to appreciate the complexity of why things happen, jumping into it so suddenly often alienates rather than educates your audience.
But revenge isn’t really the point of 13 Reasons Why, no matter how much my students think it is at first. The real point is what we owe to everyone in our community, be they friend or foe or total stranger. We don’t need to give them a piece of our mind or a serious slice of ice-cold revenge, we need to give them our attention, if only to avoid such tragic consequences again.
My students seem at times to be wholly obsessed with “getting back” at people who have done them wrong. I try to calm them down, to refocus them on positive things, but the truth is: when you want to get revenge you are completely and absolutely immersed in that feeling. You can’t help but fixate on those who have wronged you and those who must now pay the price. It is an obsession, a complete fixation that overwhelms mind, body and soul. That heightened emotional state breeds a greater emotional investment by the reader.
And it has done for centuries, hence the ongoing appeal of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo with all its swashbuckling through stage (9 separate scripts in the 21st century) and screen (most notably in 2002) and into prime time television (in ABC’s Revenge). But perhaps the most compelling version of the story comes from British actor/game show host/scholar/author/wit Stephen Fry whose 2000 novel Revenge can happily be found in most bargain bins of your local second hand book store.
Fry retells the classic tale of betrayal and deception far from the tumultuous France of the early 18th century. Instead he opts for the seemingly bland era of early 80s/late 90s England. The long forgotten (often historically obscured threats) of a militant IRA & chaotic Tory party mean little to an American audience, but they perfectly support this story and become intimately familiar in the context of a wrong man seeking justice.
For Fry, young Ned Maddstone–all-around likable private-school prodigy–is the unfortunate protagonist. Witless to the machinations of his malevolent “friends”, Ned’s privileged place in society is crushed in the course of a single afternoon. A prank, a package and a family secret combine to exile him to a psychiatric hospital in Scandinavia where distance and uncertainty wipe away his memories of what h really is. With the help of a curmudgeonly mentor, Ned regains his memory and seeks a return to his old life by revisiting cruelty upon cruelty on the heads of those who wronged him first.
A public figure who prides himself on love of language, Fry is a reader’s writer: the kind of writer who will gleefully use anagrams as an homage (Ned Maddstone = Edmond Dantes–Dumas’ original protagonist), incorporate a plethora of references to antiquity along with a healthy dollop of good-old-fashioned vulgarity. (My favorite quote: “Where were you when [someone got their comeuppance] on live television? I was watching television, shit-for-brains…where were you?”) But best of all he understands the truth of revenge.
Fry makes sure that it’s terribly fun to watch Maddstone (styling himself as Simon Cotter, tech gazillionaire) undo the treacherous louts who ruined his life. And I mean that in the truest sense of “terribly”. As the story unfolds you are both completely, totally and horrifyingly captivated. The destruction of a human life to satisfy personal animus is awful…and awfully entertaining. For that alone this is a phenomenal book
Lately, it seems like every time I go out to eat, or head to a concert I’m out of my depth. Sure I know more about interest rates and federal tax codes and might even sound adult, but I still feel like I should sit at the kids’ table while my grandparents (or at least people who look like my grandparents) run the place.
That’s how I felt reading Albert Brooks’ 2030, the 2010 book from the Academy award nominated wit who chose to make his first ever novel into a light-hearted dystopia where the boomers are the single greatest problem facing America.
To be sure there’s a lot of potential for Brooks’ perceived dystopia. A world where the eradication of cancer leads to an overwhelming surfeit of baby boomers, clogging the social security system and burdening the younger generation for decades on end. While there’s a good chance that such an event would actually occur, it doesn’t exactly engender amusement. While I freely admit that not every dystopian novel needs to be funny (most great ones–including Fahrenheit 451 and 1984–aren’t), it’s a little disappointing that such a humorous author could not find a greater array of comedy to present in his debut novel.
Unfortunately, that’s not the biggest challenge with 2030. The bigger issue is that Brooks is clearly still finding his stride as a novelist. 2030 is littered with the kinds of heavy handed exposition orgies that anyone in a creative writing class knows to avoid (I can practically hear my professors in Ghana shouting show don’t tell!!) But there’s also a degree of awkwardness that surrounds Brooks’ moralizing on behalf of a younger generation. He abhors the entitlement and self-importance of the baby-boomers and writes passionately about how younger people (Gen Xers and Millenials in particular) respond to that. And yet, Brooks is a baby boomer, so why should his voice stand in for my own? Why should he create a clarion call to the newly mature generation of Americans who will foot the bill for his?
While the concept behind Brooks’ novel is compelling, the execution fails to convert the concept into an excellent novel. In the process, he sounds every bit as self-important as the generation he dismisses, leaving the Xers/Millenials reading to feel like they’re sitting at the kids table, yet again.
For thoughts on how this book relates to teaching erratic student writers, juicy cheeseburgers and the cello sonatas of Samuel Barber click here
Almost every story you read has some root in a story that was already told. The familiar notes of mythology and fairy tales appear again and again in literature, but in those books that start with a familiar structure and then leap into unexpected there’s something special to be found.
That’s what I thought as I sped my way through Dealing With Dragons a local favorite here in Minnesota, and one that my wife Kristina loved when she was young. But this is not simply a childhood favorite, it’s a genuinely pleasurable read–especially when it takes something familiar and fills it with something unique.
The feminist princess is a newer invention, but in Patricia Wrede’s hands it feels fresh (perhaps because, in the ’80s it was). The story of Princess Cimorene’s flight from her family and happy apprenticeship to the dragon Kazul is as familiar as any Disney-fied coming of age story. But there’s an earnestness to Cimorene that feels truly genuine (rather than market-tested as the House of Mouse might make it). Add to this a unique world full of political intrigue, magic, sorcery, battles, true love and even femi-drago-nism and you have a story that surprises you with something new, even as it satisfies you with the story-time magic you loved as a child.
Too often these days what was once unexpected becomes bland and repetitive. Committing yourself to shocking people all the time can’t work. You need the familiarity of classic tropes and standard structures to actually achieve genuine surprise. It is fun to find something different where you expected something familiar. And the wry feminist critiques inside a rip-roaring fairy tale, make this book one of the best examples of that skill that I’ve read in quite some time
When I try to write I borrow far more than my fair share from writers I love, and my only consolation is that, throughout time, the writers I love have done the same. That thought was thick in my mind as I reread The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, a story I first heard in 5th grade from an enthusiastic teacher who loved reading as much as I do. Now, years later, I realize that my enthusiasm, and my teacher’s enthusiasm was nothing compared to Tolkien’s enthusiasm for all things related to medieval literature.
That’s the number one thing I noticed in rereading the story: not the epic adventure or the fantastical setting–the fact that Tolkien embedded his love for warriors, monsters and noble purpose in his work much as the bards of old did. Rather than appreciating this modern-classic of legendary myth-making for the plots and characters I admired as a boy, I kept noticing how Tolkien spun his story out of the tricks and traits of classic stories that he loved and that I studied in college.
Therein lies both the pleasure and the problem. When I was a kid–when I couldn’t tell a difference between Sir Gawain from Sir Cumfrence–I could simply relax and appreciate all the pleasures of medieval mythology that Tolkien wove into his work. Now that I’ve analyzed the daylights out of Chaucer, Cademon, Beowulf and Co. I feel trapped inside Tolkien’s authorial intent rather than my own interests and impressions.
I’m sure that novices and sincere fantasy fans can connect with The Hobbit no matter what else they’ve read, because the author’s giddy love of his genre incites a desire to join him on the journey. I bet non-obsessive readers can do the same. But, personally, I could never move beyond the feeling that I was hearing a literature professor’s invented bed time story.
Please know, that’s not a condemnation of the book; it’s not even a complaint; it’s just a reflection. I’d much rather read an author who loved their subject than one who just wrote for the paycheck. I simply wish that I could return to that time in my life when I simply consumed and appreciated an author’s passion rather than overanalyzing it for authorial intent and allusions to ancient works.
(Like all posts, this is available in its nerdy entirety–with connections to my life as a teacher at http://mrmackabroad.blogspot.com)