Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)

In his short story "Werewolves in their Youth," Michael Chabon spins a tale of two outcast children and their imaginary worlds, and how escaping thusly becomes a link between them. Chabon believes heartily in escape, particularly via art and literature; most of his work thus far (early novels The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, a couple of story collections) is well-grounded in details of modern life: daily situations, decisions, imbroglios we all find familiar. He freely admits this in his 2003 introduction to McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, the anthology of genre fiction he edited. Chabon highlights a trend that has pervaded intentionally literary and "serious" writing for a while now: that it follows too closely what is already known by everyone -- the pains and tribulations of domesticity -- and ipso-facto loses potency as a means to entertain us. (He makes the case quite well, asking you to imagine a world where all forms of fiction become supplanted by the "Nurse Romance," then goes on to postulate this has essentially happened, with more adventurous and imaginative fiction usurped by what I've heard called "around the house and in the yard" fiction: domestic drama having, in other words, become more Domestic than Dramatic.)

So what should be done? For Chabon, the answer is to turn back to the stories that thrilled us when we were younger and rediscover the merits, both practical and artistic, of escapism -- jungle heroes swinging from vines, bowl-headed spacemen zapping aliens on the surface of far-away planets, bloodthirsty pirates, magicians, cavemen, female lion tamers, and et cetera. Oh, and crusaders for justice in the form of costumed comic book superheroes, naturally.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which netted Chabon the Pulitzer Prize) is a fun-house display of all the primary colors that go into illustrating imaginative fiction, a love letter to a glittering, romantic, bygone New York City of the 1930s -- home to the World's Fair, underground communities of eccentric artists, and that 8th Wonder of the World, the Empire State Building. The city Chabon describes crackles with a warm, nervy energy despite the ongoing Depression, providing the title characters the spark of life necessary for the birth of their "funny book" empire; the novel is ultimately a testimony to the power of inspiration, and how art, both high and low, can shape and redeem our lives.

Young Joe Kavalier, infatuated with short-wave radio and illusionist stage magic, is secreted from Prague just as the Nazis begin to roll in. This feat is accomplished by his hitching a ride in a pine box containing the Golem of Prague, early superhero fashioned of clay, from Jewish legend. What initially seems like a conceit of Magic Realism soon becomes a monumental matter of practical, not symbolic, significance as the novel unfolds. Though Joe successfully escapes to New York and the family of his cousin, Sam Clay, he remains haunted by the family he left behind -- and by the promises he made to deliver them, in his wake, from what quickly becomes war-torn Europe.

Thus met, the team of Kavalier (as the artist) and Clay (as the writer) soon weasel their way into the burgeoning comics industry and ride (not to mention help generate) a new wave of popular culture. With all the irresistible verve of an old Saturday-morning serial from Republic Studios, Chabon devotes whole chapters to the origin stories of the central superheroes in the Empire Comics stable, such as the Escapist (a former Houdini-like stage magician, now the lead member of the League of the Golden Key, a secret society devoted to the liberation of the oppressed and powerless) and Luna Moth (a phantasmagoric, dream-world version of Wonder Woman by way of Lord Dunsany). These episodes unapologetically interrupt the main narrative with all the force of a sucker punch, perfectly evoking the pulp pacing and atmosphere of comics -- readers can nearly visualize the lithographic dots, the frames separating the action scenes, the thought-balloons of dialogue floating above the pages of text.

As a guiding light, Kavalier and Clay have a senior editor, a crotchety and frustrated literary novelist named Deasey, who tells them what they create is utter trash -- and the trashier he thinks they are, the more successful their comics become. The superheroes eventually graduate to radio, to film, and to television. But as the story-telling mediums become more complicated and farther removed from Kavalier and Clay's original four-color palette, the same can be said of the direction of their lives, until the empire they have built together comes to danger.

Kavalier suffers doubt and dread regarding the fate of his family (not to mention millions of others) at the hands of the Nazis, back home. For him, drawing the Escapist single-handedly dispatching entire German armies and cold-cocking Hitler himself on the chin isn't enough; the money it brings him still cannot buy his family's freedom. Kavalier soon begins leading a double-life of his own, taking to the streets, looking for trouble, for fist-fights with Germans on wharves, in back alleys, even in broad daylight at baseball games. It is Kavalier's redemptive journey into understanding his creative output (the Golem he sets loose in the world) and how it can heal him, that what he does for a living might seem silly but retains meaning for others, that is the core of this novel.

Clay suffers the same angst, but from a few different angles. Throughout, he struggles with a desire to write stories with real literary substance, something people will take seriously (counterpointing Kavalier's desire to actually do something meaningful). "We're talking about a bunch of guys who run around in their long johns punching people, all right? It's not any Citizen Kane." Clay is told, "It's not comic books you think are inferior, it's you," revealing a key sublimation. Wherever you find superheroes, you find alter-egos. Sam Clay's struggle to exit his 1930s-era closet seems nearly a contrivance, despite being both keenly and structurally correct, in comparison to the emotional and psychological heft (not to mention the physical space in the narrative) Chabon gives Joe Kavalier's palpable internal struggles, feeling helpless despite being able to empower himself through an exterior means he cannot quite view as valid.

Eventually, as Joe's journey comes full circle, Kavalier and Clay becomes an argument against all those people who would dismiss "funny books" as a storytelling medium being two steps lower than the Dirty Joke. "The usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. He had escaped, in his life, from countries and regimes, from the arms of a woman who loved him, from crashed airplanes and an opiate addiction and from an entire frozen continent... The escape from reality was, he felt, a worthy challenge."

Novels by H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs -- originally published as pulp contrivances and dismissed as trash -- are now available from Random House's venerable Modern Library imprint and can be shelved alongside similar editions of Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights. The spine of Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers now wears a logo from Scribner, the same house that brings us Fitzgerald and Hemingway. And the academia-meets-cosmic-horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, viewed in his time as a hack writer, relegated to the genre pages of Weird Tales, and who died broke and bitter (just like Fitzgerald), are now published by Penguin Classics. So, if the canonization of Comics-as-Literature is to come sometime mid-21st Century (perhaps a collection of Walt Kelly's Pogo strips issued by the Library of America?) Michael Chabon will likely be leading the charge: "He loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lucubrations of aging boys dreaming as hard as they could, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art."

As Stan Lee would say, Excelsior!

Presented at the Fairhope Public Library Tuesday Book Review & Lecture Series, November 9 2004
Revised for publication in the Mobile Register as "Chabon's Golden Key," November 21 2004

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Dracula (1897)

I've been fascinated by monsters since childhood, suffering nightmares as a 9-year old after reading a brief description of Beowulf -- including how Grendel would tear the heads off noble Anglo-Saxon warriors to drink their blood. But my monster of choice (and every horror aficionado has one) is least of all the vampire. From all candidates -- the drooling werewolf, the snarling demon, the cackling witch -- I most readily and typically cast my vote for the zombie, in all forms ranging from re-animated Egyptian mummy to Doctor Frankenstein's stitched-up, blasphemous revenant. There's just something about a crew of Romero's living dead shambling across a fog-enshrouded field in search of tasty human brains that inspires in me the Grand Guignol dread (or the Halloween glee, however you like to phrase it) sought after by all horror fans.

But not the vampire, I'd say. I don't care for vampires.

When trying twice before to wade through Bram Stoker's elongated epistolary melodrama (including once for college credit), I never made it. Following that creepy and exciting episode with Jonathan Harker imprisoned in the wicked Count's Transylvanian castle, I would bog down when the story switched to England and the frantic musings of Mina and Lucy, pondering their respective beaus and wedding days. Even Doctor Seward's observations of his fly-eating sanitarium patient Renfield weren't enough to keep my interest. Well, I guess I just don't care for the vampires, I'd say. But perhaps I'd simply been dulled by too many inferior vampire adaptations, and, as a younger reader, came to Dracula with expectations of carnival-ride thrills that could not be met.

Few stories have been adapted more times, in more ways. The version we all know -- the Universal picture starring Bela Lugosi -- descends not directly from the novel but from Hamilton Deane's slow-moving, drawing-room stage play, popular at the time. Countless other film treatments, radio dramas, musicals, and television shows have emulated, imitated, and diluted the story. The eponymous character has gone on to threaten not just Jonathan Harker and Professor Van Helsing, but Abbot and Costello as well. Dracula's children, one way or the other, have proliferated in our modern literature and culture, from Kolchak the Night Stalker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All of which may well serve, for some, to blunt the bite of the antiquarian Count.

The novel has some built-in trouble as well. Dracula was the last great gothic Victorian horror novel, and as such is nearly a genre unto itself. But the world it so meticulously describes -- a world of carriages and telegrams and gaslight -- faded quickly into an age of motorcars and telephones and electricity. Just twenty-five years after first publication, the tale of Count Dracula from Transylvania was already creaky and quaint. (Consider The Exorcist, which had an impact upon moviegoing audiences in the 1970s similar to the impact of Dracula upon readers in 1897. Thirty years later, due at least in part to the essentially recognizable culture in which the story takes place, The Exorcist retains most of its shocks to first-time viewers, despite both advances in special-effects technology and a generally desensitized society.)
But even after a century, and all familiarity with the material, Dracula yet remains a masterstroke of horror, mainly due to Stoker's narrative technique. The tale is told through journals and letters and newspaper clippings, quilted into a linear timeframe. The horror builds first as the characters describe events and situations, the full implications of which are obvious only to the reading audience. The opening sequence is told through solicitor Jonathan Harker, summoned to Transylvania to aid the Count in shifting his estate from the Old Country to modern London. Harker soon finds himself a prisoner, and his forbidden exploration of Castle Dracula results in a near deadly, if quasi-erotic, encounter with a trio of fiendish vampire "brides." A case study in the amplification of narrative tension, these opening chapters set up the rest of the novel as a stress-relax exercise that undoubtedly made Freud proud.

The story then switches to England, introducing the clutch of associated characters who will take us the rest of the way, as they discover (by comparing notes, literally) among their recent but disparate experiences evidence that points to the existence of a bizarre and dangerous presence in their midst. There is Mina, betrothed to the missing Jonathan; there is her friend Lucy, and her fiancé Arthur Holmwood; American cowboy Quincy Morris; and psychiatrist John Seward, who eventually calls for aid in the form of his old professor, an expert in the occult, Abraham Van Helsing.

Van Helsing and his band of amateur sleuths are forced, via the corruption of Lucy, to accept the uncanny existence of the Count, and take steps to destroy him and his diabolical works. Their focus quickly turns from collecting and comparing information to a spirited chase of the Count across London, and eventually back to Transylvania. While the detective techniques employed aren't especially sophisticated (tracing shipping manifests and real estate documents, bribing low-level employees for information), the droll manner in which Stoker lays out the story and develops the characters, and his attention to seemingly unrelated, ordinary detail (so often excluded in adaptations, such as the Count's initial visitation to the grave of a suicide) in order to support far more unlikely elements, still delivers chills.

The Count, beyond the atmospheric opening scenes at his castle, makes only brief appearances, but powerfully creepy and disturbing ones:
Kneeling on the near edge of the bed facing outwards was the white-clad figure of [Mina]. By her side stood a tall, thin man, clad in black. His face was turned from us, but we all recognized the Count. With his left hand he held both Mrs. Harker's hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man's bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.
Dracula himself is barely described -- besides being generically tall, thin, typically garbed all in black and sporting a well-groomed white moustache or goatee, his physical aspect is left to the imagination of the reader. Otherwise, we know for certain only that Dracula has a vile yet powerfully magnetic charisma. And apparently he stinks: the Van Helsing bunch, upon gaining access to the Count's abode in Piccadilly, must light cigars to fend off the vile odor.

On the other hand, the Count is undeniably and specifically Satanic -- there is a deeply imbedded Christian subtext in the novel that cannot be ignored, even down to the silly alias (Mr. DeVille) the Count uses while in London. Much of the novel's horror stems from acts that symbolically pervert and desecrate Roman Catholic belief; after feasting upon the lovely Mina, the Count tells her, "You are now to me, flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin," an unholy echo of Genesis. Later poor Mina repeatedly refers to herself as "unclean" and marked until Judgment Day. Van Helsing, attempting to aid her following "the Vampire's baptism of blood," touches her on the forehead with a wafer, but she is burned and scarred by the sacrament. This is in contrast to so many modern, nearly secular vampire tales, where the creatures might be harmed either by any religious icon, so long as the wielder has stout faith... or by none at all.

Along the same lines, there have been a couple of recent and unfortunate attempts to recast Dracula as a love story, with the Count yearning for Mina, seeing in her some bizarre redemption or reclamation of mortal life. But you can't have the bone without the marrow. Dracula is by nature a corruption -- a lustful, autocratic contagion exhibiting no human weaknesses. Rightly the only love to be found is among the story's mortal characters as they seek to protect and save each other from his machinations. To turn the Count into a kind of anti-hero undermines every foundation stone of horror (not to mention narrative meaning) Stoker has laid. The Count is not some misunderstood nobleman gone bad, he is a dynamo of sheer mortal and moral destruction, reveling in his power. He taunts Van Helsing: "Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine -- my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed. Bah!"

Yeah, and your little dog, too.

Dracula still succeeds because, even one hundred years later, we are all essentially afraid of the same things that Stoker's contemporary audience was afraid of: Subversion, either of Love, or of Life itself, possibly both at once. For the Victorians, the Count was a symbol of unfettered lust, of desire allowed expression, and yet also the unseemly, ghastly consequences of a life lived in such a glut (Vice is death -- but what a way to go, many hear Stoker whispering between the lines, since the pull of such Freudian undertones is weakened these days -- even finding that Vampiric Style alluring, the ache of submission becoming equal to romantic yearning). Meanwhile, the Count remains a horrific elemental power, generating fear and dread.

H.P. Lovecraft asserted that the greatest fear extant in mankind, one that trumps all despite fad or fashion, is that of the unknown. Death, then, might easily be considered the Ultimate Unknown. Taking one step back, our most palpable fear would be of the possible pain leading into death (a stab wound, a shark bite, a heart attack). In Dracula, Stoker characterizes pain-into-death as the evil that might be brought against us, and that we might then become inspired to bear upon others. After Van Helsing scorches her forehead with the holy wafer, Mina believes she must carry the mark "until God sees fit" -- a kind of Scarlet O, perhaps; her redemption lies in choosing to proceed with as much grace as she can muster. It is either that, or… vampires begetting vampires, unto the ending of the world.

Odd then, that is exactly how Stoker's character maintains a hold in our culture. Dracula survives, continuing to spawn imitations and adaptations and revisions -- yet the bloodline doesn't weaken. Indeed, the Lugosi film, for all its flaws and shortcomings, is arguably the reason why Stoker's lone notable novel has remained in print for more than a century. Perhaps, just as the title character has always intended, he will be with us forever.

Originally published in the Mobile Register as "Of a Fond Ghoul," October 31 2004

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions (1998)

I was lightly accused of taking too little time, when I previously did one of these reviews. In March, I spent about 20 minutes or so talking about The Lord of the RingsSuzanne Barnhill came up afterwards and said, Well, that was short and sweet. So you can imagine, if I only spent 20 minutes on a thousand-page novel, I am nearly done talking about Big Fish already, and I haven't even started yet...

Yes, this book is itself also short and sweet. You can sit down and read it in just a slightly longer period of time than it will take you to watch Tim Burton's adaptation of it. So, because of the brevity and precision with which Daniel Wallace tells his tale, it's tricky to discuss Big Fish at much length. In a way, talking to you about this book is like telling you about a great joke, without actually telling you the joke itself. If I say too much, I'll ruin the punchline. So, simply enough--

Big Fish is the story of a man's life, Edward Bloom, told in retrospect by his son, William. It is a story told with a kind of resigned sigh. William never really knew his father, or at least not in the way he would have preferred to know his father. (And that can probably be said of most men, of their relationships with their fathers.) And so the story of his father's life is told in brief episodes, some no more than a page long. But this is not your run-of-the-mill biography. Edward Bloom's life is a collection of mythical convergences and bad jokes and familiar-feeling tall tales, all several strides beyond the territory walked by Walter Mitty and Brer Rabbit.

For starters, Edward is born on a miraculous day: the occasion of his birth apparently brings about the end of a withering drought, a drought so bad and so prolonged that people are putting their pets in stews and wringing out sweaty bandannas for drinking water and going mad and eating rocks. Edward is born, and it finally rains. Soon enough, he grows up and begins talking to animals and catching giant legendary catfish and running so fast he arrives in a place before setting out to get there, and befriending mermaids and saving his hometown of Ashland, Alabama, from a marauding giant named Karl.

This stuff has the same cadence as the stuff told to us by our fathers and grandfathers, stories angled to make us feel guilty for having it so good, essentially. You know the ones. Sonny boy, I had to walk twenty-five miles to school, uphill both ways, shoeless, through snowdrifts forty-feet deep, all the while fending off hungry wolves with just a pencil nub. Et ectera, and so on.

These stories are broken up by a series of longer chapters, each titled My Father's Death. These chapters describe a similar and archetypal deathbed scene, with William trying to eek from his father a final piece of real wisdom, a last glimpse into his father's personality, something that might guide him meaningfully and true through the rest of his own life. And each of these scenes differs slightly from the one preceding, with a progression towards urgency, on the part of William, who becomes increasingly (or at least more visibly) dissatisfied with the wild stories that surround Edward, none of which reveal his true personality, or at least no personality that William can perceive.

There's a bit more acceptance of the father, Edward, by the son, William, in the book than there is in the movie. At least, that's the way I read it. In the book, William has, even with misgivings, essentially embraced his father's self-mythologizing. It is William, from the first page, who is telling (or, more correctly, retelling) the wild stories of his father's life. The book, however, is more ambiguous than the movie (a concession the film necessarily makes in order to introduce narrative tension). In the book it is less clear whether Edward Bloom has told these stories about himself to his son, or if William the son has had to resort to making up these stories, in order to create for himself a proper, or at least acceptable, father-figure.

So maybe I should say there's a bit more acceptance of the practice of storytelling and mythmaking, than there is of his father, per se. The book is, after all, a kind of meditation and examination of how we weave our lives out of the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell others, and how we come to believe those stories, and freight them with meaning to the point that they become the memories that haunt our heads. You can get all creepy and philosophical about it, but it still comes down to the old chestnut Life Is What You Make Of It, and that includes the white lies and off-truths that get you through the day. And (although it hasn't been laboratory proven -- yet) here in the South, we have a special, if not exclusive, lock on the business of weaving tall tales into our everyday lives.
On one of our last car trips, near the end of my father's life as a man, we stopped by a river, and we took a walk to its banks, where we sat in the shade of an old oak tree....
My father became a myth.
I have always felt a special connection to this book. It was first published in the fall of 1998, when I was working in the backroom of a local bookstore. We got an early review copy, and I was attracted by the cover design, and by the brief description on the back, so I opened the book and I read that opening section, what I just read to you.

And I stopped. And I slapped the book closed and put it down, and I thought, Later.

Because, you see, my own father had died just a couple of months before. And something about Daniel's tone, and that scene, rung too loud and close a bell with me, even though that's not the way it happened for me. Absolutely no resemblance to me, or to my father, or anything we ever did together, or anything I even wished we'd done together. But that's just it. A good story reaches beyond your own experience, or the facts of your own experience, and touches a true, emotional core.

So then, as often happens with books you mean to read (and I know every reader has a stack and a wish-list of Books To Be Read One Of These Days), some time went by. Some years, actually. And then, by good luck, I happened to meet Daniel Wallace, on a brilliant spring day in 2001, in Monroeville, Alabama, at that literary confab they have there every year. And damned if he wasn't just a great and funny and affable guy, and it made me feel pretty guilty that I hadn't read his book yet. Especially after he took that Polaroid of my knee, but that's another story. (He was actually trying to take a picture of an interesting balustrade carving, and my leg got in the way). He was giddy with the news that his first book (he had two then out) had just been sold to the movies -- Steven Spielberg was attached to direct at that time, with Jack Nicholson signed to play the old man. (Personally, I'm glad it didn't turn out that way. Jack, being Jack, would have just been Jack all over the movie. So to speak.)

I hope you yourself will someday have the good luck to meet Daniel Wallace, but if you don't, I'll here insert here a few, brief words. Daniel is Birmingham born, Atlanta educated (Emory University), and currently lives in Chapel Hill NC. In addition to Big Fish, he's written Ray in Reverse (2000) and The Watermelon King (2003). Universal is juggling a screenplay of his, Timeless. His wit also takes shape in illustrations that can be seen not only on his website, but (to quote from that same website) "on refrigerator magnets, pins, T-shirts, and greeting cards, distributed through K. Floyd Designs." And he'll take a picture of your knee, if you happen to be a clod and you step in front of his camera.

So anyway, I went home and read the book immediately. Reading this book is like drinking an ice-cold bottle of Coke on an August afternoon -- it's quick and smooth and it's just what you need and it's gone before you know it. I actually tried to make myself stop reading, or at least slow down, but I couldn't. And during the read, I was kicking myself for not having read the book sooner. I was understandably feeling tender, of course, after the death of my own father, but this book was turning out to not necessarily be about dying, but about kooky tales and myths...

Wallace has written a story that is wryly sentimental, never maudlin -- a neat trick. Few modern writers attempt this kind of brevity teamed with such specificity, and succeed; many, in being brief, imitate Raymond Carver, and end up being unnecessarily obtuse, cloaking their message. But Wallace instead follows a precise pattern, more along the lines of Ray Bradbury -- his descriptions are clean and quick and they cut to the bone, and his timing is perfect. The characters are sparsely drawn, yet instantly recognizable, and the stories are punchy and funny and it all just rolls right along...

And then you get to the end.

I'm going to say right now, I'm glad Big Fish: the Movie, for all it necessarily changes about Big Fish: the Book, retains the very same ending. It is absolutely intact. If I were to outright ruin the punchline, and tell you how this story ends, you would get up and walk out now, thinking That's the silliest thing I ever heard. But you wait. Just you wait. It's incredibly apt, and fitting, and more than anything else, moving.

If you had read this book prior to seeing this film, you would think: "What a great book -- they would never be able to make a movie out of this." And you'd be right. They didn't make a movie out of this book. (If you don't believe me, read it and find out for yourself.) Daniel himself admitted so much last fall, when speaking to the Orange Beach library: "I have no qualms about telling people what a great movie this is," he said. "And there's no ego involved in my saying it, because it's really not a movie of my book!"

As I've said before, I'm a great believer in changing books when you re-imagine them for films. Translate is actually a better word to use. The written word is one form of language; the visual image is another form of language. The only way to get an idea purely from one form to another is a translation, and we all know that translations inherently change the properties of the original. So, best to go into the process of translation knowing and anticipating those changes, and using that change to your advantage. Otherwise you might end up with something like that old, famous rendering of the slogan Come Alive With Pepsi, which came out in Chinese as Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Dead.

Tim Burton has been known to take a film-wise liberty or two -- he's the guy responsible for the neurotic rendering of Batman in the late 1980s, and for exploding Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" into a Grand Guignol gothic extravaganza. And here what he and screenwriter John August (who also scripted Go and the remake of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) do is extrapolate from the novel, and rearrange events into a more structured, conventional narrative. It's as if they took a highlighter to a copy of the book and said "Here's an element we can use, and here, and here..." (In fact, they even used Daniel himself: look for his cameo as an Auburn economics professor, having a little trouble with his overhead projector.)

Wallace has an admitted interest in Greek myth, and Big Fish is peppered with classic, if distorted, references. In fact, you can make a sort of parlor game out of finding them. Just as the movie rearranges his book, so Daniel, in his book, rearranges all the old familiar Greek stories, weaving a kind of mythological crazy-quilt. These are not straight-ahead re-tellings of Hercules or the daughters of Poseidon, but they are warped and rearranged to suit his purposes. Which is the point, really.

In Part One of the book, as Edward Bloom is born, grows, and becomes a man, he makes a journey through an Underworld on his way to the larger world, to make his fortune, meeting a form of lotus-eaters and having to not only shrug them off, but to outwit a Cerberus-like dog, which bites the fingers off of folks who try to leave. Later, after he marries, Edward has to perform several Herculean tasks (three rather than twelve), sweeping out eternally filthy dog kennels, selling a girdle to an impossibly fat woman (Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, makes a cameo), and finally defeating yet another version of Cerberus the hellhound, this time saving the life of a little girl in the process. (Cerberus in the film becomes a werewolf, with Danny DeVito filling in for Lon Chaney -- this scene being Wallace's admitted favorite overall.)

But as the story progresses and Edward Bloom grows older and farther into his life as a traveling salesman (what other profession would a chronic joke-teller have?), eventually becoming a father, the myths lose their luster as supernatural tales, and become more like legends or folktales. His life is still outrageous, but just slightly more ordinary. And by the time William is cognizant, Edward is resorting to simple pranks -- like falling off the roof and pretending to be dead -- and telling elaborate jokes. Yet he still manages to have one of the strangest and most entertaining mid-life crises this side of Don Quixote. Even so, it is as if some of his power has dwindled. By turning into a father, Edward begins to recognize the inevitable pattern and scope of his own life, and the stories reflect that. He's somehow smaller, and yet remains no less mysterious, especially to William who is left, a bit literally at the end, holding the bag.

Recently I was having a conversation with my mother, about the time that has passed since my father died, back in 1998. And we talked about the grief you go through, and how you learn to live around the absence, when a family member dies. And my mother said, just sort of out of the blue, "Part of a person's spirit still lives, so long as someone remembers them."

I think almost everyone believes this, no matter what sort of faith you have, or if you believe in an afterlife or not. In the first of the chapters bearing the title My Father's Death, Edward asks William, who is trying to get somewhere beyond all the crazy tales that he's heard all his life, "Remembering a man's stories makes him immortal, did you know that?"

All story tellers of any ilk do is take an existing story kernel and try to grow a tree out of it. As Daniel Wallace himself puts it: History becomes what never happened. People mess things up, forget and remember all the wrong things. What's left is fiction. It doesn't matter. The story keeps changing, and it doesn't matter since none of them are true to begin with.

And that's all anyone wants, really -- no matter what pageantry we make of our lives, it all serves the goal to be remembered after we are gone. And since, by and large, most of us might admit to leading humdrum, patterned (if not downright dull, at times) lives, why not be remembered for something grand, or for being someone grand. Even if you never were. Quoting again from the book: We all have stories, just as you do. Lots of stories, big and small. They add up. Over a lifetime it all adds up.

Originally presented at the Fairhope Public Library "Consanguinity" Books-to-Movies Lecture Series, July 29 2004

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Lord of the Rings (1954)

First of all, thank you all for coming this morning. This is my third time doing this and the first two times, people ran out of here screaming. Particularly last time, when, for the books-to-movies series, I spoke of Washington Irving and then screened Tim Burton's film Sleepy Hollow, a good film, but which had far more gore than I remembered. People having their heads chopped off and whatnot. Just a lovely before-lunch treat.

But this morning I'm here to talk about Professor Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. I'd been threatening to stand up here, without a script, just to see what might fall out of my mouth. This, after all, is a book I first read when I was 11 years old, and have read several times since; any serious reader will understand when I say this is a book I care deeply about. So I had a couple friends who told me that would probably be all right, that I love the book enough, and know enough about it, that I could easily prattle on for an hour or more. But then again, there's always the chance that I might stand here, in front of forty souls, and think of absolutely nothing to say. Does anybody have any questions? Good. So as before, please pardon my script.

And it's a good thing I did sit down beforehand to arrange my thoughts. This is a well-regarded, thousand-page novel with (obviously) a long main narrative, a bunch of characters, and a complicated (to say the least) backstory. Where does one start? I'll start at the beginning, by describing the story.

The Lord of the Rings is set in Middle Earth, an imaginary world with an early-medieval feel. There are city-sized castles and caves, chainmail-clad warriors wielding swords, armies on horseback. There are great tracts of unspoiled plains, living (literally) forests, mountains. Everywhere the land is peppered with monuments and rubble from an even older time, and stories abound regarding that time. The inhabitants of Middle Earth are greatly varied, some fantastic, such as dwarves, hobbits, and the monstrous enemy orcs and trolls; others are more recognizably human -- there are men of varying tribes, carrying their own geopolitical issues, and then there are the mysterious elves and wizards.

Frodo Baggins, a hobbit (which is a sort of genteel gnome-like creature, invented by Tolkien), inherits from his cousin Bilbo a mysterious ring of power. Mainly, it turns the wearer invisible, but this is only a symptomatic effect of the ring. As it turns out, this ring is a Very Bad Thing, created at the dawn of the world by a demonic force named Sauron, and now Sauron, gathering his power again, wants it back so that he can enslave Middle Earth in darkness. His minions are already unleashed, hunting for the ring, and they have a pretty good clue that Frodo has it. So Frodo must take the ring and flee his comfortable home, not to any sanctuary but directly into the heart of danger, to the evil land of Mordor, where Sauron dwells, to the fires where the ring was forged, and the only place where it can be unmade, rendering Middle Earth safe again.

The book is a classic romance, a straight-line narrative quest novel. Its only surface complications are the number of characters: there are about twenty main characters, some of whom do not enter the story until halfway through. In the beginning, Frodo amasses several traveling companions, who safeguard him; this is the Fellowship of the Ring, a group formed during a secret council for the purpose of sneaking Sauron's ring across Middle Earth and into Mordor. There are three other hobbits, first and foremost his trustworthy protector, loyal servant (and former gardener) Sam; two others, Meriadoc (or Merry) and Peregrin (or Pippin) are old friends who basically just end up coming along for the adventure. Then there is Boromir, a captain of men from the last stronghold of the Western Lands, the region of Gondor, facing Mordor. There is Gimli, a dwarf lord of noble heritage, and there is Legolas, an elf prince from the wooded lands of the North. There is Strider, or Aragorn, a mysterious ranger who turns out to be the long-lost heir to the throne of Gondor. And finally there is Gandalf, a wise old wizard of sorts, more like a sort of supernatural back-room broker who does his best to guide everyone along the best possible path.

So this group tracks southward across Middle Earth and the hijinks ensue. But the Fellowship splinters about a third of the way through, and as the narrative trail forks in order to follow them all, so are more characters introduced. There is Galadriel and Elrond, both elf royalty, who guide the Fellowship. There is Theoden, king of the realm of Rohan, land of the horselords, and his kin, nephew Eomer and niece, the noble Eowyn (a precursor of sorts to Xena, Warrior Princess). There is Saruman, evil counterpart to the beneficent Gandalf, and would-be partner to Sauron. There is Faramir, erstwhile brother of Boromir, and their disturbed father Denethor, steward to the throne of Gondor. And finally there is the hapless, feckless Gollum, the previous owner of the Ring, corrupted and distorted nearly beyond recognition by centuries spent in the grip of the Ring's corrosive, absolute power. And to keep things from getting boring, there are myriad other characters as well, who usually pop in for a few pages and then disappear, sometimes for good, sometimes until later in the story when they are suddenly necessary to keep things from becoming disastrous for the principals.

Still with me? Mainly, the story concerns getting the ring to Mordor, and of rallying the troops of men and elves and dwarves against Saruman and Sauron, who are busy massing thousandfold armies of horrible monsters called orcs ... all of these intrigues are only the surface story, which takes Tolkien 1000 pages to wind through.

Beneath this layer of conventional plot lies a backstory, a history and culture for the characters and races, which was Tolkien's main concern. Like The House at Pooh Corner, The Lord of the Rings comes complete with a set of maps detailing every inch of Middle Earth, including numerous locales not explored or even mentioned by the characters. Yet despite every appearance of this being an overlong, complicated, out-of-control children's fable, it is not. There is also a long set of appendices that details the lines of kings dating back 3,000 years, a chronology of the ages of Middle Earth, family trees for the hobbits and, in addition to a well-divided index for characters, places, things, and songs, there is finally a long section devoted to the languages and supposed translation of those languages into the English edition published in our world.

So who was the nutty guy who thought all this stuff up? All right. Professor Tolkien was born in 1892 and died in 1973 and aside from some early and horrible experiences in World War I, spent the bulk of his life in academia, as a philologist. These days, you'd probably call him a linguistic anthropologist, with an uncanny interest in Old English. School was the only stable element in his life, following the early deaths of both his parents, when he was still only a child. He became Professor of English Language at Leeds in the early 1920s, then became Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, eventually retiring in 1959. In his day he was acknowledged as the world's leading expert on Beowulf, and on old Norse myth and language. In a letter to his publisher, now reprinted in the current paperback of The Silmarillion, he says "Many children make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write."

Genius takes many forms. Some men build rockets, some men write operas, some men clone sheep; Tolkien invented languages and, most importantly, cultural forms for those languages, and that is the true backbone for The Lord of the Rings. Ancient myths and legends being something of a hobby for Tolkien, he set out to create one of his own. More than one account has him lamenting the lack of an overriding mythology, like those enjoyed by Greek or Icelandic cultures, for the English, Anglo-Saxon heritage. Sure, there are the Arthurian legends, and some folktales, but Tolkien wanted to go a step (or a mile, some might say) farther than that. It's known that he was writing from an early age. Even during his service in the trenches in France during WWI, he was jotting in a notebook that bore the title The Book of Lost Tales. Most telling, perhaps, is Tolkien's 1947 short story (one of only a very few he wrote) "Leaf by Niggle." The titular artist paints "the only really beautiful picture in the world" and then gets to step inside it and walk around within it. "As you walked, new distances opened out; so that you now had double, treble and quadruple distances, doubly, trebly and quadruply enchanting. You could go on and on, and have a whole country in a garden." What better description is there of the joy of falling into and in love with a great piece of fiction?

So that was Tolkien's primary MO -- an obsession with language and with mythology. From his foreword: "I desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration, and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of 'history' for Elvish tongues." He charged himself with creating not just a world but also a comprehensive history for that world that could exist beyond the sheen of fiction. Indeed, the fiction was an afterthought. The Lord of the Rings thus has a superstructure allowing for literary self-containment to such an extent that it begins to seem strange, on close examination. It's almost more than a novel -- it's a world unto itself, with deep strata composed of shifting layers, working exactly as continents do, over time. It's a puzzle that comes with its own ciphers. It does not reference our world at all, though one might at certain points feel a kind of magnetic pull, as if it's coming close to something we recognize, this bizarre mishmash of Christian symbolism (almost), Arthurian and Norse legendary (almost) and Shakespearean melodrama (well, okay, that one is pretty much inevitable since Tolkien's tale is couched in English, after all).

And yet, Tolkien adamantly warned against readers looking for allegory and symbolism in his work -- at least those sorts of allegories and symbols that would connect his story directly to our modern world. The mythos of the ancient Greek and Norse cultures don't, after all, find direct interlocking parallel to the events of the 20th or 21st centuries. Tolkien wants you to pretend that the story and mythology of The Lord of the Rings is peculiar to itself. But that's hard for anyone to do. Interpretation is part of human nature.

The main case in point: just as it's easy to see the deep bonds of friendship forged by the possibility of crushing loss among his Lord of the Rings characters finding origin in Tolkien's own wartime experiences ("By 1918," he wrote, "all but one of my close friends were dead"), it's equally easy, and hard to resist, visualizing other 20th Century wartime parallels of the Lord of the Rings narrative. In the second-edition foreword, Tolkien gives a specific timeline for the stop-and-start composition process: 1936 to 1949. Again, admittedly, there are no direct parallels. One cannot correctly say that Sauron equals Hitler any more than one can now say that Aragorn equals Tony Blair. But anyone who writes about a great world-threatening war during the process of a real world-threatening war isn't going to avoid similarities, in tone and intention if not directly in plot and circumstance. And Tolkien, after spending several paragraphs debunking such endeavors, essentially gives in with a slight disclaimer: "Arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers." The telling phrases here being true or feigned, then varied applicability.

What Tolkien penned is a dramatic tragedy, exemplary in form and on a scale rivaling his predecessor in English literature, Shakespeare. Kings lose their bloodlines and fall prey to wicked advisers; salvation comes in an 11th-hour willingness to heed a call to arms. Greed for power and mastery motivates and corrupts, causing stewards to send their only sons blindly into hopeless battle. Deep friendships form and are honored during a treacherous quest, often providing the only bridge over peril. A wretched creature is torn between aiding a new master in hopes of overcoming the evil deeds of his past, or succumbing to his own dark desires. An heir to the throne, long in self-imposed exile, overcomes his own doubt to claim his legacy and his bride. In the end, as you might expect, Evil is overcome, but things will never be the same as before, as peace comes in an unexpected form.

So, as a singular work, why isn't this thing taken more seriously by critics, and by some potential readers, daunted not just by the size of the book but by its content? Despite its popularity, meaningful consideration of this book is frowned upon during discussions of English literature, just as in the annals of Southern literature, during evocation of Faulkner and O'Connor, Gone With the Wind is summarily dismissed. As if it's too popular to be taken seriously. Or perhaps for some other, gently misguided reasons. Roger Ebert, in his December 17 2003 review of the film The Return of the King, turns out this judgment, which easily applies to the source material as well: "That it falls just a little shy of greatness is perhaps inevitable. The story is just a little too silly to carry the emotional weight of a masterpiece."

Okay, I'll grant you a few things. Certainly the book has its problems. Women are relegated to minor roles. Some critics have cried racism, but Tolkien was after all striving to create an English/Anglo-Saxon mythology, not a global one. His poetry is pretty bad. And his prose, at times, runs purple and dense. For good or ill, the book is an achievement not possible by today's publishing and editing standards: there are too many characters, there are too many diversions from the matter-at-hand, with the plot wandering for chapters at a time. And there are all those long passages in Elvish, which Tolkien doesn't even bother to translate. There isn't much visible psychology in the narrative, maybe none at all. The characters at points seem like wind-up toys that go tottering in the directions of their fates. (Though it would be wrong to say that they don't grow and change.) But here again, Tolkien has given the drama an archaic structure, perfectly suitable to the subject matter. Mythical, legendary figures cannot, by nature, be scheming, ironic anti-heroes.

Largely though, the trepidation comes, I believe, from what I call The Problem of the Elves. How can you, after all, take seriously anything that has elves running around in it? Don't elves live in trees, baking cookies and wearing curly-toed shoes? It's not only elves, of course, but all the fantastic elements at play that challenge suspension of disbelief, beyond what we're used to in "serious" literature. But that belies a tendency to look only at the elements of the story, and not at how those elements function. That, after all, is how the real magic of The Lord of the Rings emerges. But Tolkien saddled himself, early on within the pages of The Hobbit, (before he'd conceived this particular story, though he'd already conceived Middle Earth itself) with traditional terms and creatures long familiar to fairy tales and children's literature, that create a bias against the book being taken seriously.

But as any new reader quickly discovers, Tolkien's elves are not fanciful, squeaky-voiced shoemaker elves or the cookie-making, tree-dwelling elves we normally imagine. The elves of Middle Earth are really sort of creepy, more like an alien race, set apart in the world by their grace and their potential immortality (elves can be killed, but they cannot die under normal conditions unless they choose to do so). Elves are the final remaining race from the First Age of Middle Earth, present at the creation; they bear witness and memory via their immortal lifespans; the elves are the main conduit into the pervasive undercurrent of history in the novel. As characters invoke ancient songs and legends to augment the narrative, as a sort of Greek Chorus, they do so in Elvish. Tolkien deliberately wiped Middle Earth clean of scheduled religious practices and icons. It was his intention that any religion practiced or observed by his characters would be embodied by their acknowledgement of history and their own place in honoring that history -- similar to the traditional beliefs of Native American Indians, which the elves truly more closely resemble. I can't think of a single children's book that contains such a social structure.

Likewise, other elements sublimate Tolkien's more pressing concerns, couched in phantasmagorical terms. There are talking tree-like creatures, the Ents, caretakers of the forests who embody Tolkien's love of the natural world, and hatred of "mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic." There are Dwarves, but the only one really featured in the novel, Gimli, never does anything truly dwarfish other than talk about glittering, jewel-encrusted caves every now and then; he spends most of his time behaving like any other guy. There is an army of ghosts, but this too is a symbol of ties to the past, of legacy and obligations that persist throughout, or despite, the passage of time.

Ebert goes on to lament how "the epic fantasy has displaced real contemporary concerns" without considering how malleable contemporary concerns really are. And this besides the most important thing: the best and most moving works of art and music and literature don't tell us how to feel -- they give us room to feel what we will. Tolkien's archetypal narrative and motivational construction allows for varying contemporary interpretations. There will always be wars, and as long as the book remains in print readers will see their current global situation mirrored in Middle Earth; elements (though never the whole) of Lord of the Rings can be applied in turn to World War II, the Cold War, the War on Terrorism. The struggle of the underdog, as seen in the hobbits striving to take an honored place among the other races and cultures, made the novel popular among the counterculture of the 1960s, but the small and oppressed rising triumphant against smothering powers-that-be is something we all can identify with, whether socially or personally in day-to-day life. And the Ring itself has been viewed as a symbol for everything from nuclear weaponry to cocaine addiction.

No one calls Fahrenheit 451 or Brave New World silly because they take place in imagined, sci-fi futures; they actually take place in worlds uncomfortably close to our own. No one dismisses To Kill a Mockingbird because Atticus Finch wasn't a real historical figure. If Mary Shelley is allowed to bring a homonculus to articulate life in Frankenstein, to preach the dangers of runaway science; if Dickens can spook Scrooge with three ghosts, to warn us of the dangers of ignoring the love of our fellow man; if Poe can invite the Reaper to a costume party, as a lesson against abdication of responsibility during crisis ... then why not elves? Why not sentient trees and phantom warriors? As fiction bearing at its heart real concerns, what makes The Lord of the Rings any less meaningful to us than Gone with the Wind, or Cold Mountain -- as no one alive now has any direct memory of the Civil War? Are not tales of the colonial times, such as The Scarlet Letter, or of the Inquisition, such as The Name of the Rose, also fables of a sort? There is no reason why the stories that move us be required to remain rooted in the world that we know and touch, or the world that can be researched and not imagined.

The first rule of successful fiction should be to tell a great story and to tell it well. That was pretty much Poe's edict. Tolkien admits, he only wanted to "try [my] hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving." It's a long story, and by the end, most people I know, myself included, still don't want the thing to come to an end. Even those that resist reading the book, at first. It captures everyone. And that's because it's a great story, greatly told, of honor and valor and difficult burdens, and the friendships that will see you through, if only you allow them to. And I'm hard pressed to find anything silly in that. Elves and all.

Originally presented at the Fairhope Public Library Tuesday Book Review and Lecture Series, March 16 2004
Tolkien & Gandalf artwork by Dena Kaye