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