Avengers: Age of Ultron! It is a moving picture thing that happened in theaters this weekend in the States!
I wish I had time for a full breakdown of the film; I don’t, really. Oh, and I’m flipping on the Spoiler Warning for this post, beyond this paragraph, so I can do some Actual Analysis without having to hide behind the usual movie review rhetorical fancy footwork (“when one pivotal event happens, certain main characters were sad!”). That said, you may well have seen the film already, and have probably read a bunch of other breakdowns of it on your various lunchbreaks, so perhaps my top-level thoughts will be of interest. Spoiler free version: AoU was a fun couple of hours of watching superfolks, some of whom were robots, punch other robots until they (the robots who were at least nominally not superfolks) could not robot any more. Then, surprise Castle in the Sky reference! Overall, though, AoU left me a little cold. Some of that cold-leaving was probably the fault of a not-great 3-D conversion that felt dim and flickery to this viewer. Some, though…
For my money, The Avengers, the first film, worked despite its enormous cast by hanging a dog-simple plot (BAD GUY SPEAR ALIENS AAAAAAAH) on a construction grade steel frame of character. The characters don’t arc per se—there’s not enough room for people to do much Growing or Changing—but each player has a white hot emotional core running through the entire film. Tony has a Problem with Authority. Cap is a Man out of Time. Bruce has Bruce Problems. Thor has My Brother, God What Am I Supposed to Do with my Goddamn Brother Problems. Natasha has La Femme Nikita Problems. Hawkeye is a Plot Device. Basically everyone has PTSD of some sort, except for Thor, who’s too awesome for PTSD. All these people have developed strengths in conversation with and response to their problems. The Avengers told the story of all this motley crew directing their weird strengths toward a common challenge in spite of their various issues.
(Side point: this storytelling technique interests me because it flies in the face of the received vision of “character growth” storytelling, where, you know, Broseph or Damemageddon [is bad at thing] in Act I, then [develops as character] and [succeeds at thing] by the end of Act V. Many myths don’t work this way at all—mythic characters tend to be revealed as the right man, woman, etc. for the job over the course of their adventure. The Hero Twins in the Popul Voh don’t need an Act I to establish them as nitwits so they can be awesome later; they’re awesome from appearance one. Arthur isn’t some schmuck who pulls his act together to be king. He’s king all along! The sword just, you know, points it out to everyone else. Odysseus doesn’t go through an arc where he learns that he really needs to be the man of twists and turns—he *is*. Many and myriad are the movies that show us a character who’s not in her proper place, or whose inner qualities aren’t appreciated by society until she uses them to save that society. This is Jackie Chan in Project A. This is the Joan of Arc story. This is Aerin in The Hero and the Crown. This is Chris Pratt in basically everything, but specifically Guardians of the Galaxy and The LEGO Movie. This is most of the Disney Princesses. This is everyone in Oceans 11.)
(Continuing side point: it’s actually really hard for me to think of a movie that’s not a comedy that doesn’t handle heroism this way. I’m not saying that characters don’t grow, or shouldn’t—just that there’s this other thing happening too in great myth, and if you spend all your time trying to make characters grow, you can fail into characters who seem flat and uninteresting at the beginning of your story, which is all sorts of squiggly strangley reader death.)
Age of Ultron, by contrast… doesn’t do that thing, at least not nearly so well, in my opinion. Natasha is Interested in Bruce Banner, Bruce Banner is Interested back—that’s the best of it. Captain America is… American? Captain-y? Hawkeye is… hm. Thor is, once again, fine—but in being fine he doesn’t quite stand out so much in this slightly more well-adjusted team. Tony wants “a suit of armor to protect the world,” which would be compelling if this wasn’t the same psychological baggage he wrestled with to much better effect in Iron Man 3. We buy that these people all work together quite well! That’s great! But where are the cracks?
The conflict in this team should come from fundamental differences of approach, but unfortunately, it ends up coming from Scarlet Witch’s mind-control.
Tony gets mind-controlled into creating Ultron—there’s some dialogue handwaving in Act IV to the effect that no, Tony wasn’t actually mind controlled, he would have built Ultron anyway because he was afraid, but he didn’t seem afraid before we sawScarlet Witch wave her hands, give Tony a Pieta vision in which he kneels mournfully and manfully over Steve (audience: “NOW KEEESS!”), followed by Tony going all “yep, evil robots, that’s what we need, army of ’em.” I’d be really surprised if the audience walked away thinking Tony would have built Ultron without the Scarlet Witch’s intervention.
So, Tony didn’t make a bad decision really. He’s not actually responsible for destroying the world, or close enough. He doesn’t need absolution for anything. But of course that Act IV exculpatory dialogue also tries to establish that Scarlet Witch didn’t know screwing with Tony’s mind would cause Tony to create Ultron. She just Witched at his head for… reasons? So Ultron isn’t her fault either. He’s no one’s fault! He’s just the weather!
And now we have Superheroes vs. the Weather, my least favorite superhero plot. Will Superman stop the tidal wave? Thrilling! Tune in next week!
Mind control rears its ugly head again in Act III, where Natasha, Thor, and Cap all face visions of their darkest fears. Hooray! Except, see, those visions? They’re artificial. Scarlet Witch causes them to help Her Team win a fight. When that happens, I expect to see My Heroes fight off the manipulation of their minds—that’s the typical old school Marvel “get out of my head” thing, in which My Heroes demonstrate their inner wisdom and self-therapy their way out of mind control—but they never do.
Instead, Act Four seems to treat mind control hallucinations like just another form of character development. Natasha, Thor, and Cap reel from traumatic pasts that did not seem to be bother them in this movie before they got Witched! These emotional beats lack any cause beyond “magic.” Nor do any of Our Heroes, or their script, seem to understand that they’re emotionally shaken because they were mentally violated, rather than due to past traumas they all seem to have made their peace with to various degrees. Natasha never says, “Well, yes, in fact I did have a deeply screwed up childhood, I’m in therapy, I take meds sometimes to sleep, but my usual coping mechanisms JUST AREN’T WORKING RIGHT NOW BECAUSE SOMEONE FUCKED WITH MY HEAD,” which would then give Bruce, you know, for example, an opening to go “Look, um, I’ve got some experience with coping mechanisms not working, maybe we can work through this together?” That would be cause-and-effect storytelling! Natasha’s “I’m a monster” moment feels so weird IMO because we know, but the script never admits, that her feelings of monstrosity are baseless so far as this movie is concerned—the same reason Tony’s anxiety in this film seems so shallow, in spite of working so well in Iron Man 3.
And Bruce Banner. God. Talk about Mind Control problems. So, Bruce seems to have a decent handle on the Hulk for the first two acts of this film. He drinks, he flirts, he jokes, he’s a normal geeky supergenius. Even when the Hulk Hulks out in Act I, he doesn’t seem particularly bestial. He only becomes a threat when he gets, again, Witched, in Act III, and rampages through Jo-Berg, miraculously never killing anyone so far as we see on-screen, even though there’s no way that rampage is actually Body Count Zero. At which point Bruce spends the last chunk of the film in full on Incredible Hulk TV Show mode: I can’t be around anyone, I’m a threat to the world, etc. Except he wasn’t a threat, not until he was, say it with me now, mind controlled. Oy.
(Also sidebar, it felt weird watching a skyscraper collapse in Jo-berg on an IMAX in New York City as part of a Giant Action Setpiece, knowing the whole time that the previous Avengers film, which was set in NYC, didn’t dare do anything like collapse a skyscraper, especially not with that particularly, um, realistic and characteristic dust bloom special effect. This may be my inner conspiracy theorist coming out. I can get sensitive about weird stuff sometimes.)
So, basically every conflict in this film can be traced, directly or indirectly, to a vaguely-defined mind control power, yet the mind controller is never held responsible for anything. No one goes up to Wanda Maximoff, Scarlet Witch extraordinaire, to say, “Hmmmm, maybe this thing you do with the screwing around with people’s minds to make them annihilate cities, maybe this is not so great? Maybe you have something to atone for here? Maybe you should feel a little bad about this whole Ultron situation? Perhaps you should face the consequences of your actions in a direct way, not via karmic scapegoat sacrifice? Doesn’t it feel a little weird for you to join the Avengers at this juncture, given everything you’re responsible for, without even a second’s soul-searching?” As a result, most of the moral reasoning and character conflict in the film felt, to me, like it took place in a vacuum. Of course Tony makes the same decision in Act IV with the Vision that he made in Act I with proto-Ultron; nothing has happened to him as a character in the meantime.
Having said all that, I enjoyed a lot of this movie. The actors clearly live in their characters. The party scene at Tony’s at the beginning of Act II, that’s fantastic cinema. The Avengers hanging out, joshing each other, trying to lift Thor’s hammer—brilliant. The movie reaches for a beautiful argument about monstrosity, though it doesn’t quite land in my opinion in part due to the film’s reluctance to engage with Mind Control Problems. I’d vote Paul Bettany for President. James Spader was fantastic; I couldn’t place his voice at first until a friend pointed out that he was the male lead in Secretary, which made the whole movie more interesting in retrospect! (Wish they could have sprung for a Maggie Gyllenhall cameo.) The script’s intuition that the Avengers movies (as opposed to the other MCU entries) should focus their character development on Avengers-specific characters (The Hulk, Natasha, and Hawkeye) is spot-on IMO, and I love the idea, not-quite-sold either in my opinion, that Hawkeye is supposed to step up as father figure for a troubled team. (The Hawkeye stuff never quite landed for me because it was so disconnected from the rest of the moral universe of the film—a storyteller trying to hide the story, a dangerous move if you’re not Gene Wolfe and even then.)
And the fights! I mean, yes, faceless interchangeable robots, fine. But I love how the formal logic of Avengers fights progresses through the films. I wrote back when Winter Soldier hit theaters about Captain America and Commodity Fetishism in the MCU, basically about how the Marvel core characters are beings who project their individuality into totems, and become encapsulated by those totems. Thor’s the most literal—Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall posses the power of Thor—but Cap is the Shield in a very real way. The Hulk might seem not to fit this rubric, but actually he’s its apotheosis, Banner commodified: being as pure kinetic energy, all work with the worker submerged or flensed away. The Avengers revolved around claiming tools and names (the Tesseract, the spear, the shield, that great scene of Thor trying to grab his hammer as he falls). Each character owned his or her own style to such an extent I proposed an operatic adaptation, complete with voice casting. The Phase 2 Marvel movies, by contrast, tended to show characters renegotiating their relationships with totems, trying to re-establish their identities as breathing humans outside of their superheroic tools. (This is especially true of Captain America: Winter Soldier, with its action scenes spinning around the capture, loss, and recovery of the Shield, not to mention of SHIELD itself, and of IM3, where Tony has to reclaim his Iron Man self from the suit of armor. Even Thor 2 contained an awful lot of Thor being deprived of his hammer—by teleporter, by literal disarmament, by his own will.)
AoU completes & expands on this process of divestiture and identity reclamation. Characters regard and use one another’s totems without fear or jealousy—and this totem-play becomes a signal of intimacy and even love. In one early action sequence Thor strikes Cap’s shield with his hammer because he wants to cause a shockwave—an echo of the climactic conflict between their characters in the first film, reclaimed and restated here as a weapon two friends use against a common foe. Seconds later, Cap throws his (mighty) shield so Thor can strike it with his hammer baseball style (America’s pasttime!) to knock out Hydra goons. Natasha touches the Hulk, and rides him—the only non-violent physical contact to which the Hulk’s ever exposed. The scene where everyone tries to lift Thor’s hammer exemplifies this theme; Thor’s arrogance is part of the joke (“I have a simpler explanation: you’re not worthy”) but this hammer is, in some very real sense, him—he’s trusting his friends with his identity. After the wrenching moments of shield-loss and divestiture in Winter Soldier, it’s a joy to see those same beats re-capitulated for laughs when Natasha grabs the shield off the road in Seoul. (“Always picking up after you boys.”) I know there are other moments; I’ll catch more on rewatch. And, of course, the point’s made most profoundly by the Vision’s close-paren on the Thor joke from Act II, first for dramatic effect and then for laughs.
There’s a lot more to say about Age of Ultron. Lots of folk are saying it. I had a good time in the theater; it’s an impressive achievement in terms of its place in the larger system of Marvel movies. The team managed to make a fantastic filler episode that’s set to clear $2 billion in box office and queues up a bunch of movies about which I’m very excited. Go read what other smarter people are writing elsewhere. For now, I may not be out of thoughts, but I am out of fingers, and time.
OH! And: I’m on Anton Strout’s Once and Future Podcast this week. Check it out!
It’s been a long week and it’s only Tuesday! This thanks in part to the cool crazy serial project I’ve been writing behind the scenes, and to the new book, which burned past the 50k mark on Monday. It’s different from anything I’ve written—I’m pushing into cool new territory, and beyond that I don’t want to say more.
Unfortunately that leaves me in an All Work and No Play situation in re: blogs, interesting ideas, and the having thereof. I’m waiting for Tor.com to post my Mega Super Crazy Othello essay, which should go live sometime this week, so watch the skies—I’ll drop a link here when the time is right.
In movie news, I saw vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows on Friday, which means I may be the last person on the planet to have done so. If I’m not, and you haven’t seen it yet, and you have ever (a) loved a vampire movie or (b) lived with roommates / flatmates / housemates / whatevermates, give this film a shot. It’s one of those comedies where you start wondering before the opening credits roll whether you can actually stand to laugh this much for the next eighty minutes. Rewatches shall ensue if only so I can quote it properly. Check it out for sure if you can find a nearby showing.
Also ran in a good friend’s D&D5 game this weekend. Right now my personal table preference is more Fate-oriented, and I want to try out Dungeon World sometime soon, time and tides and copious spare time permitting, but damn if D&D5 doesn’t feel like my childhood—like someone took AD&D2E and made it function. Every time I sit down, I marvel that such a trick was possible.
Aside from that, I have a Vienna Teng concert tonight (which is to say, last night, since I’m writing to the grim darkness of your far future from my shining and idyllic past, or vice versa), so I’m off to skitter about my pre-show preparations.
Gladstone’s gift for vivid storytelling, his deep empathy for his characters, his sly satire of current socioeconomic issues, and the rich, diverse world of his novels have become reliable pleasures, always enthralling and somehow consistently improving with every book.
Bam. Last First Snow drops on July 14th, Bastille Day, which amuses me for Reasons. This book is about protest, and communities trying to change themselves. I described some of the key themes on Tor.com a while back. You can pre-order it now wherever fine books are sold! For example: Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. Pre-orders are golden: they help bookstores identify interest in a forthcoming title, which leads to more orders and excitement around the book. Do what you can for the cause!
Second: FULL FATHOM FIVE is out in paperback this week!
Paperback release is a beautiful time in a book’s lifecycle. I say this every time my books make paperback, but—when I was a kid, I never bought hardcover. One hardcover book cost a night’s wages at the pizza joint! Paperbacks won my heart on price efficiency; I could wait, albeit with great difficulty, for the softcover edition. So, teenage Max, wherever you are, you can afford this one now. Locus and the Lambda Award jury liked the book. You probably will too! Same link parade: Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.
Third: I’m writing a PATHFINDER novel!
This is long range news—like, I won’t break ground on this book until 2016—but I thought you might like to know! I’m really excited about this project. I’ve been tabletop gaming since I was a kid; it’s how I learned to talk, like in a group with people, and how I formed my closest and earliest bonds with friends. I’m itching to do something fun with the Pathfinder world’s almost but not quite medieval modes of production, murder hobos, planar travel, elves, and sideways transhumanism, with mystically reified morality axes, Vance-adjacent magic, chance-dependent physics—god, consider the sheer potential for shenanigans, and that’s just talking about the ruleset! Then we get into dead gods, kingdoms ruled by demonic contracts, undead stuff, yes yes yes. This gnarled conceptual space has so much storytelling potential—so many dark corners and intriguing tangles to explore, Planetary style. I’ve played with and pondered these concepts in my own tabletop games since Time Immemorial, as veterans of the Faerun Insurance and Recovery Corporation well know, and now I get to share the fruits of those ponderings with y’all, Dear Readers. We’ve all been playing in the same woods since we were kids, but follow me and I’ll show you what I found there. This will be a fun ride. Don’t buckle your seatbelts. It’s more entertaining for me that way.
*buckles his own seatbelt surreptitiously*
I’m grateful to James Sutter and the rest of the team at Paizo for loaning me their toys. I promise when I return them all of the heads will be on the proper bodies. Probably. Wherever they’ve spent the meantime.
Oh, and if your reaction to this news is but Max what about your other books, first, thank you for your support, and second, have no fear, Dear Reader. Tor already has a manuscript for Craft Sequence Book 5, which, because I so dearly love making my editor’s life easier, is numbered Four, tentative publication date 2016 sometime. Even with my tight schedule and overlapping Seekret Projekts for the rest of the year, I don’t anticipate breaking pace on the Sequence. More news on that front as soon as I have anything firm to report, of course.
Okay, that’s all for now! Enjoy your days. Vote in the Locus Awards. Find someone cool and give them a high-five. Peace.
A few weeks back I watched John Wick for the first time. In this movie, Keanu Reeves plays the titular Wick, a former hit man gone straight, who comes out of retirement after the local Russian mob boss’ son invades his (Wick’s) home, steals his car, and kills his puppy.
I swear all this relates to writing. Just give me time.
So the Russian mob boss discovers his son has made a mortal enemy of the implacable, nigh-invincible Wick, who was so good at his job in his heydey that he was regarded as a supernatural force—Baba Yaga. He tries to patch things up with Wick, but fails. Now, the only thing our mob boss can do is order a pre-emptive strike on Wick’s house by twelve ski-mask-wearing goons, and hope it works.
The following occurs:
Just… ponder that beautiful scene for a second. John Wick did well with general audiences, but from action fans I heard a collective scream of joy for, among the film’s other virtues, its return to legible fight scenes, and rejection of the Bourne Consensus of Shakey-Cam Combat. The choreography in John Wick is clear and sharp, the cuts minimal and explicative rather than meant to mystify. There is a point to the Bourne style fight—it mimics pretty well what it’s like to be in an actual grappling match with intent to kill or maim or at least defend oneself, which is to say deeply confusing and unpleasant. This camerawork, by contrast, shows us the battlefield as John Wick sees it: composed of clean angles and short, sharp stops. The fight scene is ballet and the camera one more dancer, intended to highlight rather than obscure the performance. Nor does the choreography stint from displays of sheer strength and determination, highlighting this important element of the character. While we begin (from 0:17 to 0:35) with angle, rotation, speed, and precision, we end (as the movie itself ends) with an uncomfortable forty seconds of flailing over a knife.
After the credits rolled, I stood and paced the house thinking, how on earth could I accomplish that same effect in prose? How could I write scenes that felt like those?
Now, for most of my life my instinct has been: well, you just describe what happened! So, first he shoots the one guy, then spins and shoots the other guy twice, then changes angle to shoot the third guy. But that doesn’t capture the information coded in the elegance of Wick’s motion, or even the tiny details that make the first four-shot sequence stick, like blood spray or the spatter on the photograph on the back wall. (Let alone the music’s heightening of tension and discomfort, or the cinematography’s coding of shadow as threat and moonlight as exposure and the way that plays with the bad guys’ darker wardrobes and balaclavas, the gunshot flares as revelatory instrument.) Capturing all of that would require a denser, fuller prose approach that would conflict with the speed of the scene, unless we wanted to embrace the Proust.
It gets even worse when interactions grow more complicated than “shoot the dude / dude falls down.” Toward the end of that three minute clip we segue into strikes and locks, and most readers don’t have the technical vocabulary to read a description of that fight and extract meaning. Consider, say, the brief exchange of blows from 1:44 up to the flip at 1:50—guy goes for gun, Wick kicks gun away, guy goes for a hammerfist with his right which Wick blocks & redirects down, goes for a chop or a haymaker with the left which Wick strike-blocks Bruce Lee style, then it looks like Wick goes for a stomach hit to distract the guy while he transitions into the wrist lock then pirouettes for an over the shoulder throw so the guy lands on his (guy’s, not Wick’s) back. I bet it took you longer than six seconds to read that description—and that’s having just watched the video.
If you only read my description and did not watch the video, maybe you could piece together what actually happened on a blow-for-blow level, but it would probably involve reading the above paragraph with a tolerant friend and some free time. Certainly, if I tried to convey that choreography, not to mention the overall feel of the event, I would almost certainly bore my reader—or at least take several pages to describe a handful of seconds’ interaction.
The more I thought about this problem, the more convinced I became that John Wick’s charm is due to the fact that it sets itself challenges at which movies excel. I’m no cinema scholar—someone who was could probably give you a better summary—but here are a few points: movies show movement, and humans are really good at parsing movement—especially at parsing the movement of other humans! We know how bodies bend, the ways they’re supposed to move and the ways they aren’t. Soon as we see someone’s arm broken on camera, we know what that means. Movies can convey multiple streams of visual information at once, guiding our attention with focus and camerawork. As the Plinkett Reviews repeat again and again, ‘you didn’t notice [this tiny cinematic detail], but yer brain did.’
Prose fiction does not excel at any of the above. Before you break out the pitchforks and torches, note: I’m not saying prose fiction can’t have awesome fights, or action, or anything like that! What I’m saying is, the qualities that go into making a book as exciting for a reader as John Wick was for me as an action movie buff are different. That book would have to make use of its form, of the particular constraints and opportunities of prose fiction, the way John Wick—or any other action film—uses its own cinematic toolbox.
This should go without saying, but I’m not sure it does any more. For one thing, constant repetition and misuse of advice like “show don’t tell” can lead writers to use the cursor like a camera lens, and only like a camera lens, which seems to me like using a Shun chef’s knife to open your mail. For another, modern imaginations have been shaped to a great degree by film and television and video games—and have shaped them in turn, of course. Most people likely to be writing a fight scene in 2015 have probably seen many more fights on television or in movies than they’ve ever seen or been a part of in real life, likely several orders of magnitude more. David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram goes into this notion in greater detail, though his vision of a voyeuristic writership has been altered a bit by the two-way fisheye internet world, in which we all have cameras pointed at us as we sit at our computers watching video feeds from cameras other people have pointed at themselves, while the government watches us watching, etc. People repeat what they’ve seen—so writers tend to pick up storytelling tricks and beats they like, even (as in the case of the cinematic fight) they’re not terribly well-suited to prose.
So, what can prose do well?
Man, isn’t that a question with deep roots. I’ve been pondering it for a while, and damn if I’ve come up with a solid answer, but I have a few ideas.
Prose can convey an immense amount of narrative in a terrifyingly brief time. For my money, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather—the book, I mean, not the film—does an amazing job of establishing the Corleone family enforcer Luca Brasi as a Man With Whom You Do Not Fuck, even though we never see him in action. If you’ve only seen the film, Luca is the guy who wanders around the wedding stammering and practicing how to pay his respects to Don Corleone, who’s then killed at the beginning of the feud. (The “sleeps with the fishes” scene.) He’s a tough operator, but he doesn’t stand out from the Don’s other soldiers.
In the book, Luca’s a demon. The last time someone tried to kill Don Vito, Luca went on a non-stop murderous rampage through the New York underworld, the kind of stuff that would fill a whole grindhouse movie. We don’t see any of this. We receive second-hand descriptions, stories of him tying people to chairs and attacking them with axes, all in others’ mouths. If I remember correctly—I don’t have my copy of the book to hand, and it’s been years—this material totals up to a page, maybe two, but it’s enough for us to be absolutely certain that as long as Luca’s alive, no one will dare touch Don Corleone. (So, of course, when Luca gets assassinated, we all of a sudden fear for Don Corelone’s life.)
We never see Luca Brasi fight in The Godfather. We know the danger he presents. That’s enough.
Prose also has the power to convey information and focus through ambiguity. Here are the opening lines of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon:
The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock. Two days before the event was to take place, he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house:
At 3:00 PM on Wednesday, the 18th of February, 1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings. Please forgive me. I loved you all.
(signed) Robert Smith, Ins. agent.
Think about how much we get from these few words, without any feeling of forced “info-dumping”: tragedy, setting, time, fault. But Morrison also introduces signifiers with unresolved meanings. What does Smith or the book mean, exactly, by ‘fly’? Or, for that matter, by ‘his own wings’? And Mercy, what’s that? Of course, the whole book’s about working out the answers to these questions—Morrison hasn’t just introduced ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. But by introducing a few terms without easily decidable meaning, she forces us to ask the questions she wants.
Film’s attempts to accomplish these same effects feel more forced, to me. Datelines and time stamps are artificial, and textual ambiguity is much harder to achieve, since we don’t have a text to ponder; in film, we see whatever stands before the camera lens (though there are great moments of inversion, misdirection, and visual or sensory confusion in cinema too—c.f. Rian Johnson’s Brick, or the scene in Sneakers where Robert Redford claims to have been driven, blindfolded, through a cocktail party).
Storytelling—by which I mean, moments when characters tell stories—works brilliantly in books, because when we’re reading a book we are reading a story—when I read, say, Smiley’s monologue about Karla in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am engaged in the same sort of mental work as I am when I read Smiley going about his day in third-person narrative. When a character monologues in a film, I am watching that character tell a story, and imagining the events that character describes—which is a different mental activity than normal moviegoing. (Of course, filmmakers can address this issue by transforming monologues into staged moments in their own right—the 2013 Tinker, Tailor turns Karla’s monologue into such a dramatic moment that I at least was riveted.) Absalom, Absalom lives and breathes this technique—we read tales nested within tales nested within tales, the same story told time and again with different emphasis in different characters’ mouths as interlocking truths come clear.
(And then of course we have questions of unreliable narration, c.f. Eco, Wolfe, etc.)
Much as prose can layer realities, it can also extend or compress time to ludicrous degrees. I’m not talking about slow-motion work, though some of the ship-to-ship battles in Peter F. Hamilton’s gloriously mad Nightsdawn Trilogy—dancing from microscopic particle interactions on a timeframe of nanoseconds to supernova blasts—would put any Wachowski-inspired bullet-time fantasia to shame. For example, here’s an early passage from A Wizard of Earthsea:
This was Duny’s first step on the way he was to follow all his life, the way of magery, the way that led him at last to hunt a shadow over land and sea to the lightless coasts of death’s kingdom. But in those first steps along the way, it seemed a long, bright road.
When he found that the wild falcons stooped down to him from the wind when he summoned them by name, lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist like the hunting-birds of a prince, then he hungered to know more such names and came to his aunt begging to learn the name of the sparrowhawk and the osprey and the eagle. To earn the words of power he did all the witch asked of him and learned of her all she taught, though not all of it was pleasant to do or know.
Talk about telescoping! The first sentence covers Ged’s (who at this point is called Duny) entire life, all the way to the end of this book if not the entire series. Then we swoop back to the child’s point of view. Next graf, we get a single brilliantly observed image, “lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist” (and note the slight lighting-thunder / lightning-thunder wordplay, and the delicious honeysweetness of doubled “wings” and “wrist”, because LeGuin, goddammit, LEGUIN!), one of those sharp word-pictures that seems to last forever—yet within the same sentence we jump through what would have to be, in cinema, a scene—little Ged runs to his aunt, “aunt teach me the names of sparrowhawk osprey and eagle”, aunt grins evilly, “well, you must do exactly what I tell you,” “yes I’ll do it,” cue then us having to see what unpleasant things she asks him to do and know, which would certainly be more pleasant than the things we invent in our mind when we read that final sentence. And after this we zoom back out in a different direction to discuss Gontish culture and the business of wizards.
Prose can also convey immense amounts of information by focus. Noir fight scenes like this one from The Big Sleep do this well:
Agnes turned the gun away from me and swung it at Carmen. I shot my hand out and closed my fingers down hard over her hand and jammed my thumb on the safety catch. It was already on. I kept it on. There was a short silent tussle, to which neither Brody nor Carmen paid any attention whatever. I had the gun.
And this is one of Chandler’s wordier fights! I don’t have a copy of Hammett’s The Thin Man to hand, my own personal failing I’m sure, but I am positive I remember a fight between Nick and some mook that goes down like this:
He had a gun.
I took it from him.
Both scenes establish Marlowe’s and Nick’s competence with violence by not describing that violence—because it’s so routine for these characters that they need not focus on it, any more than White need focus on Lancelot’s unhorsing of knights at tourney, or Shakespeare need establish Othello’s military competence beyond that one brilliant line:
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
Wrestling for a gun is routine enough, for Marlowe and Nick, that they need only relate the pertinent information about the event: its outcome. (And, in the case of The Big Sleep, the disposition of the safety catch, which captures Agnes’ character in a nutshell.)
Alternatively, some depictions of violence capture its aesthetics through the tools of rhetoric rather than dance. The great Ming Dynasty novels deploy this effect particularly well—especially in the poetry fights of Journey to the West. Opening vol 2 of Anthony C. Yu’s translation to a random page, in this case 47, I find:
[The monster, wielding a scimitar, and Zhu Bajie, wielding his muckrake], summoning their magic powers, mounted the clouds to fight in midair. Sha Monk abandoned the luggage and the white horse; wielding his precious staff, he joined the fray also. At this time, two fierce monks and one brazen monster began a savage battle on the edge of the clouds. Thus it was that:
The staff rose high, met by the scimitar
The muckrake came, blocked by the scimitar
One demon warrior used his power;
Two divine monks displayed their might.
The nine-pronged rake, how truly heroic!
The fiend-routing staff, ferocious indeed!
Their blows fell left and right, in front and in back,
But squire Yellow Robe showed no fear at all. [That’s the monster -ed.]
See his steel scimitar shining like silver!
And, in truth, his magic power was great.
They fought till all the sky
Was fogbound and beclouded;
And in midmountain
Stones cracked and cliffsides collapsed.
This one, for the sake of fame,
How could he give up?
That one, for the sake of his master,
Would surely show no fear.
That stampeding sound, I hope, is all of you going to buy copies of Journey to the West right now. Poetry emerges to signal a change in the style of the text—much as fight scenes are shot and formalized differently from dialogue in action cinema. And, by moving to poetry, the writer gains the freedom to play weird language games—rhythm and rhyme, aggressive parallelism, alliteration—conveying the excitement, pulse, and power of staged combat in a manner paragraphic prose finds hard to imitate.
In fact, with its frenetic pace, and the fact that Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are both fundamentally comic characters (one is the Sancho Panza of divine shapeshifting pig monsters, the other God’s own straight man), the poem comes off in context as something like the following scene from Project A:
… Okay, you got me, I just wanted to include a Sammo Hung clip with this post.
Of course these techniques (compression, expansion, ambiguity, focus manipulation, storytelling, unreliability) are the tiniest fraction of the prose fiction toolkit. Metaphor! God, I could write for days on metaphor and simile. Especially as they apply to action! Think about all the awesome comparisons of the Iliad. If I tried to make this comprehensive, I’d kill myself on this one essay, and I have books to write.
So, why did I spend so much time on this essay? For one thing, it amused me to do so. For another: in online discussions of style, I tend to see prose work analyzed on a single axis, from “purple” to “invisible,” neither term well-defined—a tendency that in my opinion ignores the beating heart of prose—what it does well, what it does poorly, what separates a book from a film, and what makes books teleologically better, that is, better at being books.
Because look at that Project A fight scene again—we get Sammo Hung’s sense of humor, and Jackie Chan’s, we get the joy these people have in one another’s presence, we get that they’re unstoppable side by side, that they know one another well enough to anticipate each other’s reactions. If we were to be writing the book that was Project A, that’s the information we’d have to convey—breathless joyful partnership against all odds at a fast tempo. The precise choreography of the fight seems incidental to that purpose. The John Wick scene back at the top of the essay (you remember the top of the essay?) conveys despair, fury, method, and cold cold logic—in John Wick, the book, our job would be to convey those, not to describe step by step the death ballet.
See? I told you this would be about writing sooner or later.
This week, in the interest of protecting my own fragile psyche (and fingers) I’m changing tack from Enormous Essays and Deep Thoughts to talk about tools. I spend a lot of time thinking about the writing process, and a lot of time writing, and it seems to me that the internet does as well, especially if the occasional explosion of interest around products like the Hemingwrite is any indication. I’ve tried a lot of input methods in my time, and I’ve never summed up my feelings about them in one place. So let this be that place!
I wrote my first stories on a typewriter a lot like this, back in the kindergarten days—I seriously doubt it was a vintage Royal, but so much about the machine pictured above sings in my memory that the model I used can’t have been much different. (The Royal turns out to have been Hemingway’s typewriter!) It was a manual, black with glass keys, that came in a fat black suitcase with latch and handle, much like this one. Manual typewriters have a powerful tactility I’ve never found with any other writing method. You write slow this way, because each key press is the swing of a hammer. Of course, once you have written, you then reread and scream when you notice a typo or misspelling that will force you to redo everything. I miss the typewriter, but I love on-screen editing. Then again, I’ve retyped each sentence you just read at least three times in the course of finishing this paragraph. Maybe there’s something to be said for hammering your words into the world.
Of course, if I used a manual typewriter I’d just have to retype everything digitally. (Unless I got one of these beauties, or scanned the typescript with OCR software.) And there’s no way to take a typewriter to a coffee shop without being That Guy. Let’s face it, I already wear flannel, own a Chemex, and write novels in coffee shops. I don’t need any more help to be That Guy. Though maybe I should just embrace That Guyness and the suitcase typewriter at once? I’m sure lugging one of these fine pieces of engineering around would do wonders for my shoulder.
When I was a kid in school I had to write everything out longhand in #2 pencil, with spaces between the lines. That’s how I learned penmanship, or something like it. I almost never write with pencils any more, but damn if I don’t love the idea. Especially the idea for these pencils, which my friend Scott gave me as a present. Any Woody Guthrie reference is the right Woody Guthrie reference, but his Woody Guthrie reference is more right than most.
Honestly I can’t say much for or against pencil that I won’t cover later talking about longhand work. John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in pencil, and if it worked for him it might work for you. Of course, Steinbeck also had someone else to type up his manuscripts.
The Pilot v5
I don’t use these guys much any more, but they were my drug back in high school. The miracle of the v5, and of the Gel-Ink G2s which came along later, is that the ink stays wet for a second or two after it’s laid down. It lies on the page thick and opaque, and it sparkles like a star in that second before it dries. I wrote hundreds of pages chasing those stars, barely thinking about the words I produced, trapped in a sort of autohypnotic state. Send help!
These aren’t actually all that snooty: the Lamy Safari and the Yingxiong are both relatively cheap converter-fill fountain pens that last forever, and I love them the way I love swordfighting or any other impractical problem solving method. There’s a ritual to filling the pen, covering myself with ink, cleaning up, apologizing profusely to my wife, discovering that the ink bleeds straight through half my notebooks, finding new notebooks, etc. that recaptures some of the fun of being an old-days being of letters, minus the likelihood of imprisonment and execution as a reward for my work . Joking aside, there’s a great smooth feeling to writing with a fountain pen, and, as with handwriting more broadly construed, I find it works more at the speed of my brain. I can type very quickly. I can reach the end of a sentence before I know what the end of that sentence should be. Even at my most chicken-scratch, when I write by hand I have plenty of time to consider ten or so different approaches to the remainder of the sentence—sometimes I’ll even frame the next one in mind before I start writing!
The Alphasmart Neo
Pictured here with three books I’ve written using the device, which tells you something. The Alphasmart is basically a graphing calculator brain with a QWERTY keyboard attached. It weighs a couple pounds, is sturdy enough that you could beat a man to death with the thin bit, and gets 800 hours of use on a single charge, and by a single charge I mean “three AA batteries.” No networking capabilities, no fancy froofarah, just a keyboard (a solid one, too, recalling the old and I mean old Dell laptop keyboards), and a screen that holds six to eight lines of text at once. Back when laptops were serious spine-distortion engines, I’d chuck this guy in my shoulder bag without a case and just go for a weekend. I’ve written with him everywhere. The Alphasmart company went out of business for a number of reasons, among them, as I understand it, that their machines never break. They’re perfect at their assigned task, and no one who bought one ever needed a replacement.
This is the writing method I’ve used closest to the Hemingwrite, minus the Dropbox sync and e-ink screen of the modern device. The Hemingwrite’s very interesting to me, though it preserves two parts of the Alphasmart experience I did not love, for all the wonder and liberation my Alphasmart supplied. First, the Alphasmart is not that ergonomical. I ended up curled over that little LCD screen like a brine shrimp. Looks like that’s a serious risk with the Hemingwrite too, though perhaps the e-ink screen reduces that likelihood. Second, the screen was so small that I’d end up writing in circles. This may be a me thing, but—editing work I wrote on the Alphasmart involved a lot of repetition removal. I’d write a chapter and move it to the computer to edit, only to discover I’d described the same landscape feature three times, or I’d looped through all the core points of a conversation twice. (Or more, if I was unlucky!) Since moving primary composition to the laptop, where I can see almost an entire page at once, I’ve never had this problem.
Though I’ve had different problems! Like Twitter. So, your milage may vary.
At this point the laptop is my default writing tool. I’ve gone through a few, with an average refresh rate of four years each, and my 2013 Air still takes the prize. It’s light, its battery life might as well be infinite for my purposes (though it’s still two orders of magnitude lower than the Alphasmart’s), and it has all the processing power I need for what I want to do most of the time, which is write while listening to music. I’ve gone through many laptops over the years; the only respect in which the Air lags at all for my purposes is in keyboard—and even there it’s fine, so long as you understand that the keys lack travel and resistance because of physics. What else could you expect from a tool you could throw out with the morning newspaper?
This was my big “you’re being paid to write!!!1one” present: a Leopold Tenkeyless with Cherry MX Blue switches. Mechanical keyboard switches feel cleaner and more precise than dome switches to me, though some of that’s no doubt my imagination. At the very least I find myself bottoming out with full force less often than I do on the laptop keyboard—my usual typing strength is a bit, let’s say, insistent, which came, I’m sure, from learning to type on a manual typewriter, followed by an Apple II+.
A Special Note on Tablets
In theory the tablet is the perfect device for someone like me: it’s light, it works in portrait mode, it has good battery life, and it will Receive my Words. However! For me, typing on screen feels like death. I touch type. I touch type fast. Absent a good keyboard, and none of the keyboards I’ve tried so far have been good enough (requirements: full-sized or close to it, and portable enough to keep the keyboard/tablet combo preferable to the laptop), the tablet enforces a furious concision that has more to do with my wrists and patience than it does with depth of thought. Maybe the Textblade will resolve this issue; I’ll report back when and if mine ever arrives.
What, we need takeaways now? Well, here are a few: write with what you have to hand. If that doesn’t work, ask someone else if you can borrow what they have to hand. The tool doesn’t matter, but tools are fun; romanticizing the writing process can be a trap, but then, writing is hard, and if something fills it with romance to you—if that’s what you need to write, to work—embrace it. Then, at some point, try writing without it, and see if what you write, or how, changes.
Or don’t. I mean, honestly, this isn’t so much advice as “here are some things I’ve tried.” The way the words get down doesn’t matter so much, but it’s a lot easier to discuss than why the words get down, and sometimes it’s fun to talk shop.
Because everything happens at once, the year is 2006 and 2015; I’m simultaneously descending stone stairs overgrown with trailing ivy in the southern Anhui province countryside, walking to the dining hall for lunch, and lounging on my Somerville futon fixing to watch Agent Carter, which friends have kvelled about for months while I’ve been too buried in work to watch television.
But let’s focus on China in ’06 for now.
Two thirteen-year-old boys skip down the steps ahead of me, hand in hand. Descent complete, the taller boy drapes himself over the smaller one’s shoulders like a cloak, and, laughing, they stumble on toward lunch.
Later, in class, two other boys with the local equivalent of punk haircuts and louche bored-with-life expressions tangle their arms around one another and press flank to flank as they puzzle over a composition exercise.
Boys whisper, boys joke, boys touch each other softly with open hands and laugh. I remember the sort of body language passed between my male friends when I was young: handshakes, shoulder punches, slap on the back, hug with closed fists, surprise wrestling moves applied from behind on unsuspecting dudes at their computers. Every touch contained a strike.
I saw shoves and tackles and competitive handshaking among my Anhui students too. But they also patted, stroked, and leaned.
My first summer in Beijing years before, I’d marveled at girls and women walking hand in hand around Bayi Lake in Yuyuantan Park, twirling parasols beneath the Blade Runner sky. At first I assumed they were couples. How wonderful, how accepting! A friend told me, later, that norms of touch were different here: handholding was just something girls and women did with friends.
I didn’t know whether the same form was at play between my Anhui province students, but I suspected it might be, so I asked friends and teachers about homosexuality, and the reactions they confessed to me in Southern Anhui in 2006 reminded me a great deal of those I saw and heard growing up in middle Tennessee in 1996, ranging from educated but uneasy acceptance to a facial contortion and a slur.
So much for my intimations of higher consciousness. But the fact remained: my students touched their friends.
Obviously men like men, and women like women, and men like women, under any cultural conditions—biology in action. I would be surprised if there weren’t women walking hand in hand around Bayi Lake who were deeply, physically attracted to the women by their sides; I would be shocked if none of my male students felt a physical attraction to one another. But gentle touch, in public, seemed not to be sexually marked in this time and place. Some of these people were, presumably, queer. The rest were friends.
CUT TO, as they say in movies: INT GLADSTONE HOUSE, 2015 – DAY. (Except in movies they don’t have a period at the end of the scene establishment line, but this is the internet and if I left off that period you’d all be on top of me in the comment section at once, never mind anything I wrote here.)
At this point my attorney advises me to warn you all: the rest of this essay discusses and analyzes the plot and structure of Agent Carter in detail. Cool? Cool.
I have no idea what to expect from Agent Carter. At risk of nerd excoriation here, the first Captain America movie was, let’s say, not my favorite part of Marvel Phase One. It checked off what boxes needed checking competently and in good time. I was, I confess, a bit disappointed with Peggy’s plotline—meet-cute and body worship, with much of her screen time hinging on romantic tension between her and Steve. Atwell’s an amazing actress and Evans isn’t half bad himself, so they carry it just fine, but I’d read this script before. That final plunge into the water, the date, the swelling music, yes it brought a tear to my eye, but I could trace the etiology of that tear.
But the prospect of eight hours starring Atwell as Peggy, without Steve? Getting to know this fantastic, exceptional person when she wasn’t being movied into girlfriend mode? Without the usual romantic prop to fall back upon, what would the showrunners do?
Let’s take a shot-by-shot walk through the first few minutes of Agent Carter.
We begin with Steve crashing into the ocean, Peggy tearful, Steve stoic, rain check on that dance. This is a show about surviving heartbreak and reassembling your life. The crash ends in a beautiful dissolve to a teakettle: it’s morning in New York. Cue: big band montage of Peggy’s adventures in the war, highlighting action, adventure, competence crosscut with Peggy armoring herself for the day with makeup, stockings, skirt. Spy stuff, awesome. Peggy’s roommate introduced: Peg, you need to get out there and meet someone. Message received, Show. Peggy has to get her professional life together, and her personal life as well—she has to move on, in an explicitly romantic sense. I’ll start dutifully watching for potential pairs, just like I do in every other show. A bit tired, but you’ve shown me so much pure style already that I’m still psyched, because Atwell’s awesome and the clothes! And the New York! And the big band music! And the teakettle dissolve! And my friends say this is great, so, let’s roll.
I’m being unfair to Peggy’s Roommate, because she also introduces the other major theme: that with men returning from the war, workplace gender norms destabilized by World War 2 get reasserted with a vengeance. Rosie the Riveter’s driven to retire. And in case we missed it, when Peggy reaches the headquarters of the SSR, the spy agency for which she works, the show hammers the theme: Peggy’s wartime experience has been completely discounted. In her (male) superiors’ and colleagues eyes she’s most suited for answering phones (like the women who mind the phone lines outside the SSR HQ) and filing. Her heroism has been eclipsed by her rep as Captain America’s romantic partner. (And here’s where I perk up, because between this and the Captain America radio serial featured within the show itself, it seems like the writers had the same problem I did with CA: The First Avenger.)
We meet Daniel Sousa, played by Enver Gjokaj, and once again I am forced to thank Dollhouse because in spite of my deep and abiding frustration with that show it introduced me to a slate of actors and actresses I’ll follow to the ends of the earth. Gjokaj, as Sousa, is the One Nice Guy in the office, a war hero who service left without his leg; he white knights a bit on Peggy’s behalf against office sexism, and she asks him to stop, but it’s clear he cares for her. Potential romantic interest number one!
Howard Stark’s in trouble, in a classic Damsel in Distress “you gotta believe me, Mister Spade” situation given an elegant McCarthy spin. We know him from the Captain America movie, and he’s an interesting temperamental complement to Peggy, in an odd couple sort of way. Potential romantic interest number two!
Okay, cool, if we’re doing a love triangle, neat, I mean, seen it before, but still. Sousa and Howard are also formal opposites (struggling / loyal / patriotic vs. comfortable / adventurous / selfish), makes a nice contrast.
But then Howard leaves, after a suggestive exchange about “I never thought you would have trouble finding a man” that causes me another eyeroll, fine, Show, I get it, this is “who does Peggy end up with adventure hour,” but Atwell’s still amazing, as is most of the cast, and the clothes! And the music! And the cars! And the feminism!
And then—just then because the people who write and run this show are good at their jobs—we meet Jarvis, and my eyes stop rolling.
Because Jarvis is tall, elegant, gorgeous, impeccably tailored, well-spoken, not a fighter (in yet another contrast with Peggy and with all the other men in the show), he’s in bed by nine, he likes band music and soufflés. He’s to be Peggy’s partner in this investigation, the Scully to her Mulder.
First thought: this is our guy.
With respect to Kerouac and Ginsberg, first thought ain’t necessarily best thought. Second thought: wait, no. Sousa and Stark are also positioned as potential love interests. And the show’s told us several times it’s interested in romance.
Hold up. Am I watching a shoujo harem anime? On American live-action television? (For those of you not familiar, this is a style of relationship-centric show in which one woman becomes the center of a complex group of radically different men, all or most of whom crush on her, and the question is which one is the one?) I haven’t seen that before. It’s still a bit done, as a flowering of the love triangle trope, but, hm, neat—
Except, no. Because Jarvis is married.
I doubt we’ll go with a poly story on American network TV, and Marvel probably won’t let straight up Ashley Madison extramarital affairs fly either. Maybe they’ll shuffle his wife out of the way with some contrived plotwork. She has to be a secret agent or something, right? Or maybe we’ll end up in one of the (horrible) narratives where she’s a ‘bad woman’ who ‘doesn’t deserve’ him. God, let’s go down the misogynistic list: maybe she’s shrewish, maybe she wears him down, maybe—
Nope. He’s devoted to her. He loves her deeply. He’s committed treason for her.
What the hell is going on here?
It doesn’t hit me until episode three, and then mostly because a conversation with a friend who said she didn’t feel any particular romantic tension between Jarvis and Peggy made me realize that I wasn’t feeling any romantic tension there either—just the ghost of romantic tension Typical Show Structure was telling me had to be there.
What were these people, if they weren’t romantic interests?
That’s when the present of this show opened. The wrapping paper of style and music and outfits and pace and fight scenes and just incredible acting unfolded, and I saw the structure. Peggy’s Roommate was a double blind.
Peggy and Jarvis and Howard and Sousa aren’t romantically involved. They’re friends.
Peggy and Jarvis form the closest bond in the show. They care about one another, deeply. They trust one another. They depend on one another. They make cutting, terrifying sacrifices for one another. (Jarvis’ fake confession; Peggy’s ‘slip’ with the stolen car report.) They confess. They fight. They cooperate. They betray. They make up.
And they are both, and I cannot stress this enough, so goddamn attractive that it makes my eyes hurt to see them together on screen. Atwell has a kind of charisma I didn’t think was possible in this fallen age. She moves and I can’t help but watch her move. She’s still and I stare in awe. She’s competent and fast and strong and brilliant and witty and did I mention beautiful? And James D’Arcy, who plays Jarvis—cultured, impeccably tailored, dry, wry, insanely handsome, passionate, devoted, reserved except when fury at injustice, or boyish glee, breaks through that perfect shell. I would watch him read digits of Pi just to see his mouth move.
Nor are Sousa and Stark slouches either—excellent actors, attractive dudes, and fantastic, infuriating persons in their own right. Both Jarvis and Stark are canonically, demonstrably interested in women, and Peggy is canonically, demonstrably interested in men. Sousa has no textual history of relationships with women so far as I remember, but his reaction to seeing Peggy in her underwear in e05 suggests he’s at least interested.
(Note phrasing—we have no proof these people aren’t bi, I just mean that we have seen them demonstrate romantic or physical attraction with or toward opposite-gendered folks.)
Sidebar, here, though it’s tangential to this particular point, to note that Peggy has wonderful and strong female friendships too, most notably with Angie, the diner waitress who becomes her roommate, but also, in a lighter in-passing sort of way, with the SSR security guard / phone operator, with Dottie, and with the other women at the Griffith. (My grandmother lived in a situation similar to the Griffith in NYC about half a decade after Agent Carter’s set. The Griffith scenes felt like staring into an up-tempo version of her history.)
So we have these stunning people on screen together, their physical or romantic relationship is demonstrably possible, in fact we’d have to assume they were blind if they weren’t aware of one another as profoundly attractive physical beings, and yet what matters turns out to be not romance, but—trust. Compassion. Betrayal. Commonalities of vision. Differences of opinion. Trauma, and memory.
I’m sorry, it looks understated in mixed case. Let me try again.
And this is where I need to talk about sex. This might get personal. I know it feels personal to me. I’m about to say stuff you may or may not agree with, in public. Please understand that I don’t mean this as an attack on anyone. I’ve been trying to figure out my thoughts on this stuff for the better part of two decades, and this is where that thought has left me.
Humans have been having sex since way back when our ancestors were mice hiding from dinosaurs, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to negotiate our sex drives as long as we’ve been able to figure anything out at all. Sexual attraction in Western medieval romances tends to be seen as a socially destructive force (Lancelot and Guinevere), and sometimes even spiritually destructive (Paolo and Francesca). Sex brings down empires in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and in standard dynastic narratives of the An Lushan rebellion. Sex is celebrated sometimes for its destructive power, or (in Dionysian cults) for its revelatory power—which are of course different sides of the same thing. Sex becomes sacred practice in some tantric and Daoist ritual, in May Day revels, and the Song of Songs.
Modern Western culture, after the sexual revolution, seems to have said to itself, Sex is totally awesome. This old Jekyll/Hyde narrative is stupid. Let’s celebrate sex! Let’s celebrate sexiness! Let’s liberate ourselves from hidebound purity narratives! Sex everywhere! Sex all the time!
Which is great! I mean, I love sex. One of my favorite activities. It sucks to be suspicious of one’s own body and desire.
But when we abandoned the old Jekyll/Hyde story, I think something scary happened as a result. Sex began to colonize all forms of intimacy, like mold colonizes bread.
Cut back to China, 2006. Why could my students behave so gently to one another?
Any definitive answer here falls straight into the kind of cultural reductionism and critique I find deeply flawed. But I can’t help but think that, in the presence of serious homophobia, this sort of gentleness relied on an assumption that physical contact between men could not be interpreted as sexual. In metropolitan centers, where there was more of an awareness of male gay culture as a thing, I saw less casual contact between boys; in the countryside, where thought of queerness was repressed to the point of erasure, I saw a lot more casual contact.
Contrast growing up in Tennessee—no one in, say, my Scout troop, was aggressively homophobic, but ‘gay’ was a more-or-less common expression of scorn that always felt weird to me on a deep level but which I wasn’t conscious enough to talk out. We were aware of the possibility of queerness, and because of homophobia that possibility became a risk. People need to touch people, so we did—but we touched one another with our fists, with our arms and knees in no-pads tackle football, with cuffs to the back of the head, with wrist locks or choke holds or handshakes to crush one another’s fingers, greeting become a kind of war, and looking back I feel in those moments a sort of subtle handshake protocol: “This is not tenderness. It can’t be tenderness, because I am not weak, and neither are you. Because if we were weak, they would spear us through the gap in our scales, they would pull out our hearts and watch us bleed.”
I was weak, or I read as weak, when I first moved south. Those first years I learned to fight. I learned well. I’ve been unlearning ever since. Others must have had it worse than I did back there, back then. But the fear was real.
So, to me, my students’ fearlessness seemed to rely on an absence of possible threat—erasure of the queer possibilities of that touch, problematic of course in its own right, but that erasure could not and did not remove the fact of touch.
Obviously homophobia and misogyny and sexual repression are horrible. Obviously these patterns warp people. But maybe we could have the tenderness, maybe we could have the trust that allows a touch that isn’t war, without the institutionalized repression and erasure. What would a world look like where the possibility of sexual interest didn’t lead to the presumption of sexual intent?
It seems to me that in such a world the first and most proper bond between people—the bond we cared, as a culture, about building and preserving—would not be a bond of sex at all. It would be the bond of friendship. This world would not lie subject to the narrative of sexual primacy.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
A young man and a young woman meet, and grow close for any of the reasons people grow close to people: they like the same books, they laugh at one another’s jokes, they enjoy long walks or rock climbing or Marilyn Manson or gingerbread or whiskey, or even gingerbread whiskey. But in the background hovers this narrative—particularly for the young man, who’s been sold it again and again by mates and movies—that sex is good, sex is desirable, sex is wonderful, sex is the highest form of intimacy so intimacy necessarily leads to sex, we should want to have sex in any and all circumstances in which we can, if sex is possible sex must occur. It turns my stomach to type this, but here we go, “naturally,” in this narrative, once two people grow close and know one another’s secret minds, sex is required. If sex does not ensue, something is wrong. The “friendzone” threatens, jesus god, as if friendship were this horrible barren failure state no one would want to occupy if they could be having sex, rather than a rich and sunlit territory we discover long before our loins first twinge, and which shelters and sustains us long after they cease.
Sometimes there’s no problem, because the timing synchs—both people are single at once, or they’re poly and seeking new partners, they find one another mutually sexually interesting, etc. But often that’s not the case. Timing is tricky.
And when timing slips, life can get ugly.
People break. They sour inside. They assume they’re owed something that was never promised. They spiral down. They hunt. In the most benign scenario, they abandon old committed partners to chase new ones. The presumption that all intimacy must be sexual births horrors. And this isn’t just true of straight narratives! The assumption that any intimacy naturally results in sex leads to suspicion and scorn of contact and intimacy in same-gender groups as well—which I doubt makes life any easier for queer people. This narrative is related, I think, to the one where after your friend learns you’re gay he never hugs you again, where rumor you’re a lesbian titters through your girls’ school and suddenly some friends no longer speak with you.
I’ve seen my friends’ lives broken by these narratives of sexual presumption and sexual primacy, again and again, in small ways and large, and I’m fucking sick of it.
I’ve wanted for a while, though I didn’t know how to articulate it, a story that accepted sexual contact was just one more form of intimacy—an interesting and entertaining one to be sure, but not necessarily the most enduring, and perhaps not even the most intimate.
And that’s what I found in Agent Carter.
Peggy loved Steve Rogers, Captain America, romantically. But she also fought beside him. She believed in his principles, in his country, in his duty to his men and his self-sacrifice. Now he’s gone, and he won’t return. That physical relationship, the sexual relationship, can’t continue. But the moral relationship—her desire to serve the country they served together, to carry forward the ideals they shaped and pursued—remains. She, like Utena, met a prince—and decided princes were excellent, so she should become one, right down to the red-white-and-blue wardrobe. She’s shaken to the core by the discovery of a vial of Steve’s blood, the man’s physical presence returned. She hides it. She shelters it. And in the end, she decides to let it go, because her love for the man endures and does not depend on physical intimacy.
Jarvis loves his wife, Anna. He committed treason to save her. He makes her soufflés. He respects her after-hours requirements. She’s off-screen for the entire season, but that almost makes it better—her offscreen presence allows us to see her as a constant support and anchor for Jarvis, rather than a character in conflict with other characters, which is a risky choice but, I think, the correct one here, since the show never gives us an excuse to think, “god, if not for that lousy Anna, then maybe Peggy and Jarvis…” But Jarvis obviously cares, deeply, about Peggy. He stitches her wounds. They save each other’s lives. They work together to solve the mystery. They pick one another up when they fall. And she stops girls from slapping him in the face for Howard Stark’s nonsense.
Peggy is attracted to men. Jarvis is attracted to women. They’re both so insanely good-looking that the whole weight of narrative history seems to force them into a relationship—Jarvis stitches up Peggy’s leg in direct inversion of the famous “pain don’t hurt” scene from Road House, he’s even kneeling in front of her with his hand on her thigh. But, confounding all expectation and their own evident and nearly supernatural charms, their relationship centers around trust, mutual support, self-sacrifice, and good humor—not sexyfuntimes. By the end of the show, their tension isn’t the tension between lovers-in-waiting, but between friends who find their life paths taking them apart—and who want, desperately, to keep walking together.
On the other hand, consider Daniel Sousa, a hero who’s sick of people looking at him like one. He’s frustrated when Peggy’s passed over, but he’s also attracted to her and feels he can’t be with her, which aggravates feelings of inadequacy connected with his war wound. (Speaking of inadequacy, Sousa’s leg being shot off shades toward Jake’s injury in The Sun Also Rises. I wonder if Peggy and Brett Ashley would get along. Probably not.) He tries to stick up for Peggy, but he’s so swimming in the sexual primacy narrative he doesn’t realize there’s another one. He stays a good guy, but we see him sour. When Peggy slips up, when he discovers a difference between the story he’s telling himself about her and the truth of her situation, he turns bitter and in a way far more vicious than a confirmed all-around asshole like his colleague Thompson—Sousa jumps straight to accusing Peggy of being a sexual dupe of Stark’s. (“He’s really got you wrapped around his finger, doesn’t he? I’ve got to give it to him! He’s as good as they say. He got in so deep he scrambled your brain.”) Their relationship is on some level about sex, so her betrayal must be a sexual betrayal! (It’s no accident that Sousa gets a face full of Reaver gas in the final episode—the show externalizes that inner aggression to confront him with it.) He recovers and trusts her. But he could have been the plain and simple woobie, the nice guy everyone wants to win out in the end. The show does something far more complicated by revealing his sharp edges.
But the show doesn’t code sex as evil, either. Consider Howard Stark.
Stark seems to love no one so much as Howard Stark. He enjoys being with many women; he’s painted as a cad for it, but he’s treated with neither suspicion nor censure, nor does the show seem to scorn his romantic partners. In fact, we get a chorus of their fury when Peggy and Jarvis try to trace one of Stark’s previous hookups. They’re angry at Howard’s cavalier treatment of their relationship, but the frustration tends to hinge not on perceived romantic betrayal (“he said he loved me,” that sort of thing), but on his clumsy attempt to buy them off rather than confronting them directly. It’s jokingly sex-positive, and even relatively kink-positive. But Howard is sleeping around at least in part because of his own deep unresolved issues in the war, especially around Steve’s death.
In this context, while I understand and respect the readings of Howard Stark as bisexual based on the “I know you loved him; I loved him too” exchange with Peggy about Steve Rogers in the final episode, I think the show’s doing something more radical, in terms of resisting sexual primacy, than merely establishing Stark is bi. Peggy, we know, had a romantic relationship with Steve. When Peggy equates Howard’s love for Steve with her love for Steve, all we know is, whatever the form of Howard’s and Steve’s connection, for Peggy, it’s as strong and valid and real as her romantic and moral bond. Perhaps Howard was sexually attracted to Steve. Perhaps they were simply deep, good friends who disagreed and shaped one another and saved each other’s lives for years. Either way, the term ‘love’ applies as far as Peggy is concerned.
And either way, I don’t think Howard recognizes his love as love before Peggy acknowledges it. If Howard recognizes his love for Steve as love, why would Peggy’s description of it—and recognition of its identity with her own obviously romantic love—cause him to wake up out of the trance? No new information has been exchanged. No revelations have been made. It seems to me that Peggy’s shocking Howard out of the trance with a revelation about himself: that he did love Steve as deeply as Peggy, that his love is valid, whether or not that love was sexually expressed.
The series’ twofold climax, then, rests on Peggy’s recognition of Howard’s feelings toward Steve as love (after her rejection of them earlier in the season), and on Sousa’s refusal to listen to the evil psychotherapist’s argument that all forms of relationship hinge on sex. (“[The other agents] see you as broken, half a man,” remembering here the Jake-leg wound-impotence association, “and Agent Carter, I see how you look at her, but she will never value you for the man that you are, how can she? She feels only pity. But we can change all that. If you just focus.”) Peggy extends the vision of love beyond a narrow boundary; Sousa rejects the narrow view of human relationship into whose grip he has fallen, by refusing to listen.
Even when Sousa invites Peggy out for a drink after work at the series’ end, I think it’s easy to read that not as a date, but in juxtaposition to Krzeminski asking Peggy for a drink earlier—that is, Krzeminski asked his colleagues to join him for a drink, then asked Peggy, but with an edge of proposition toward her he didn’t direct toward, say, Thompson. I think we’re supposed to feel that when Sousa asks, she agrees (tentatively) because she feels he’s asking her as a colleague, not a potential sexual partner.
And it’s in that spirit, too, that Peggy and Jarvis resolve: “But should you again find yourself in need of my services, I would be honored to assist you at a moment’s notice, Ms. Carter.”
“Thank you, Mister Jarvis.”
And then, when he gives her the vial of Steve’s blood: “I owe Howard Stark a great deal. But he does not own my integrity. I am quite certain there is only one person in the world who knows what to do with this. You, Ms. Carter.”
He trusts her to make this final, grand, moral decision. It’s the act of a true friend.
I’ve spent ten pages and the better part of a day writing this essay. I won’t be paid for it; there’s too much personal here to burden any paying venue I could easily approach. And Agent Carter is by no means a perfect show; criticisms of (among other things) its racial balance are good and just and have been made more eloquently elsewhere.
Over the years I’ve known many brilliant, beautiful, powerful, elegant, scrappy, joyous, passionate people. I’m married to one, by some miracle. I love her deeply. I’m blessed that she returns the affection.
And we both have friends ourselves—who are brilliant, and beautiful, and powerful, and elegant, and scrappy, and joyous, and passionate, and wise, and also foolish and limited and blunt and silly and weird. We love them. We bear them with us. We build worlds together. Because we’re human, and because we seek out other amazing humans, there have been moments when the old pre-conscious bits twinge. But we are subject to our own will, not to the inner mouse, and friendship is glorious, and true, and anyway the inner mouse can be tended well and joyfully without being allowed into the driver’s seat.
That’s not the kind of life we see all that often on television, or in books for that matter.
Finding a world like that, here, on this show, on network TV—a world where people are beautiful and strong and smart yet the primary axis is not who ends up straddling whom—a world of friends—it feels like coming home.
He did amazing work. Hilarious work. Laugh until you weep work. Cutting, kind, vicious, proud, brutal, humble, horrifying, ugly, beautiful, sad, joyous work.
Without his books I would be a worse writer, and a worse man.
He leaves memories and stories that will last, I think, as long as humans read or speak. But his passing also leaves me scared, and challenged. While he lived, I could always say, “well, my work has its flaws, but at least Terry Pratchett’s out there doing it right.” Now that’s gone. Lancelot’s gone. We need to do it all for ourselves, now.
Hi friends! Deadlines march along, but I wanted to share something really cool with you. Tumblr user (do we capitalize tumblr at the beginning of a sentence? I imagine we must) wichago made a God Wars playlist on 8track. Some great music on there—good lyrical references, too. I really need to listen to more Metric.
Also! A number of book blogs are assembling to do a Read-along virtual book club sort of thing on Three Parts Dead this month. Check it out! Join in! This seems like a really fun way to read things.
I’ve been thinking a bit in the last couple days about storytelling toolboxes, because I’m one of those unconscionably lucky bastards who ended up with an advance reader copy of Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. This isn’t a review, because I’m still reading, but I can tell you already that you should pre-order it if you’ve ever been excited by a book in which one individual swings a sword at another.
I’ve written at great length elsewhere about wellsprings of fantasy tradition outside the Western mythological canon. In these essays I tended to focus on the stories themselves—who does what within them, what kinds of situations and worlds are portrayed, etc. For example: the Mahabharata is an immense philosophical epic in which warriors with psychic weapons that can break the planet in half fly around in diamond chariots piloted by gods and end up in sorta-poly romances, occasionally with other gods. WHY WOULD YOU NOT WANT TO READ THAT?
This style of geeking out about myth is great, but it obscures the forms of the original texts—as, to be fair, do many translations. (There are many prose renderings of the Mahabharata, which is a work of epic poetry; the Genji Monogatari was originally heavily illustrated IIRC, or at least historical editions of it were.) Obscuring textual form encourages people to sort of project the content of these stories into familiar forms—like, say, the epic fantasy novel. (I kinda did that in my retelling of Drona’s Death, recasting a key Mahabharata tale in the form of a Zelazny-esque SF short story.)
So this is fine! But it ignores a whole different way to use these sources. The way the story’s told can be as cool as its content! (I mean, of course, but I usually think about this sort of thing in reference to more intentionally pomo stuff, rather than historical and literary sources. The more fool I!)
In The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu’s telling a version of the fall of the Qin dynasty, and the Chu-Han contention, in an alt-Hawaii-ish setting with gods and zeppelins and it’s totally great. But more to the point (for this essay, anyway), he’s using storytelling tricks which remind me a great deal of Ming Dynasty classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and it’s these techniques as much as (or even more than!) the setting that make the book feel so fun and deep at once.
Here’s the thing about Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It’s this vast sprawling 100-chapter epic that swings from battlefield to boudoir to roadside village, zooming in and out through time without breaking a sweat. We’re not following a main character, exactly—we’re following a huge historical event. We can glom onto central characters now and again, maybe even for most of the chapters, but all our heroes will die sooner or later, even if only from old age.
Because of its scope, and because it was presented by traveling literate storytellers to an eager illiterate listening public, Rot3K doesn’t let itself bog down in angst and soliloquizing. A character plans a grand betrayal? It’s generally executed within three chapters. If she feels bad about it afterward, she commits suicide or confesses or commits a counterbetrayal or something with due haste. Peasants rebel, gather thousands of followers, and overthrow major governments during a chapter break.
One interesting side effect of this approach is that, while Rot3K is brutal—people get butchered alive and subjected to all sorts of torture—it doesn’t fetishize brutality. Someone’s eviscerated in the public square? It happens and we move on without needing to linger on the knife tugging on abdominal skin, or the particular cadence of the scream. Which, if you think about it, is even more horrifying, since it speaks of the readers’, and storytellers’, casual familiarity with acts the witnessing of which would cause modern folk who think of themselves as hard men to lose bowel control. Rot3K establishes its viciousness the way Hammet establishes his characters are good brawlers—by not describing events that seem utterly routine to their participants (like disarming a guy who’s broken into your bedroom).
And the story takes a similar approach to fighting. When Rot3K really wants to highlight a fight scene, it uses actual honest-to-god poetry to describe the combat. Some day I’ll do this in a book and my editor will try to kill me. But when we’re not watching something spectacular, the fights boil down to “And then Lü Bu entered the fray and killed several hundred men,” which tells you just about all you need to know about Lü Bu. The style leaves blow-by-blow choreography to actors and acrobats, and lets the reader’s mind do most of the heavy lifting (outside of the occasional flights of poetry). And it’s glorious lifting.
All this allows the story to swing back to characters faster—so that, even though we face a cast of thousands, we really know those thousands, from common folk to true heroes. (At the same time, we grow to understand that the line between the two is very thin.) But even as we grow to love these people, we must accept that the narrative structure allows any of them to die at any time for no reason whatsoever.
I don’t know if this was Ken Liu’s plan, but The Grace of Kings uses all these techniques masterfully. The first couple hundred pages have covered at a gallop territory standard epic fantasy (and let’s reflect on how silly we are as human beings, that such a phrase makes sense to say) would linger over for an entire book. And while all the above may sound as if the book skimps on the smaller moments, in fact these techniques lead to the exact opposite effect. Whenever the pace slows to describe a single event—say, to show a character blow on a dandelion—it lands. Many books would drown such key thematic moments in oceans of descriptive text, all those clothes, parades, and meaningless meals; here, they snap into sharp relief.
It’s a bracing and exciting approach. Epic fantasy, in failure mode, feels like swimming in a pool filled with lukewarm Mrs. Butterworth’s. The Grace of Kings is a dart through a crisp clear stream at dawn.
If I had a time machine and perfect language skills and were bound by some geas to use them only to answer weird literary questions, one of the first things I’d do would be go back to the Tang dynasty and ask Li Bai’s opinion about pronouns.
Here’s a great Li Bai poem, called 静夜思, which renders as “Silent Night Thoughts,” but the poem’s so iconic that if you ask Google to translate a page with that poem title, it’ll just read “Nostalgia”—the poem stands in for the whole experience. Anyway, here goes.
For those of you who don’t do Chinese, here’s a simple, bad translation, courtesy of me:
Bright moon shines beside the bed
Like frost on soil
I raise my head and watch the moon
I lower my head and think of home.
Now, to continue this essay I’m about to do the thing you should never do, which is offer a character-by-character reading of a Chinese poem—thereby falling into the old Ezra Pound “Chinese is a language free of grammar, it consists of beautiful pure images!” trap. I’m doing this because anyone reading my blog at least speaks English, and while most English-speaking readers can look at, say, a Spanish poem and extract a little meaning, since the languages share common roots, they can’t often do the same with Chinese poetry. So, understand that there is grammar at work here, even though my character-by-character rendering will obscure that. Okay? Okay.
As you can see, my super-lightweight translation falls short. For example, to preserve English syntax I switched the image-order in the first two lines; I haven’t come up with a way to land the lines on “moonlight” and “frost-shimmer” respectively that doesn’t make the English read stilted. (That’s not to say such a rendering doesn’t exist.)
But I did greater violence to Li Bai’s original—or did I?—when I inserted ‘I’ and ‘my’ into the second couplet. The original poem does not, so far as I can tell, indicate that the speaker is the person raising his or her head. Nor, of course, does the original language indicate the gender of the speaker. (Fun fax: spoken Chinese doesn’t gender the third-person pronoun, and written Chinese didn’t gender the third person pronoun until IIRC the Westernization and modernization pushes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hooray! Wait. [Though to be ‘fair’ you could read this as erasure, too.] ) To create an English version of Silent Night Thoughts, the writer has to decide: is the poet speaking? Is the poet describing someone else? If so, what’s that person’s gender? (He raises his head? She raises her head?) Is the poet addressing the reader? (“You raise your head”?)
And this is where I want my time machine. In English, this indeterminacy seems deliberate. You’ll rarely write a person-indeterminate English sentence without meaning to. But in Chinese poetry, that’s a straightforward task. In fact, formal restrictions can require it. So: would Li Bai’s readers have read an ‘I’ into the poem? A ‘he’? A ‘she’? A ‘you’? Would the indeterminacy operate for them the way it seems to operate in English, allowing the reader to flow freely through the poem, choosing to see it from the subject’s point of view or from an outsider’s, or from the point of view of a person in the Old Country thinking of his exiled lover? Or is this an artifact of differences in language construction? Would a contemporary reader even have recognized this indeterminacy?
And yes, the author is dead, and yes, Sapir-Whorf doesn’t work, but—how dead is the author really? Translating from a language I learned far too late to experience natively, I find myself asking all the time: is this what the author wanted to say? (Or, is this what the author’s intended audience would have read, which seems like the same question seen from the other angle…) And how false is Sapir-Whorf, when the translation process is nothing but wrestling with thoughts that are trivial to frame in certain languages, and nigh-impossible in others?
I am all but certain monographs exist on this subject. I haven’t read them; I don’t know what they would say. But whatever they do record, all the people to whom this poem was first delivered are over a thousand years dead—any experience of the poem they didn’t write down, we’re at a loss to reconstruct. And, depending on their linguistic background, it may not have even occurred to them to think about this issue.