Monthly Archives: October 2012

Cupholders that Do Not Fit Any Cups; Practice, Preach, Etc; and Assigning Chitra Divakaruni’s “One Amazing Thing”

Until a few months ago, I drove a 1995 Honda Odyssey.  It wasn’t the age (17 years), color (maroon), noises (an intermittent donkeylike braying that no mechanic could positively identify), or rust (yes) that bothered me, or that fact that the gas pedal didn’t really make it go, or that, near the end, the brake pedal didn’t really make it stop. It was the cupholders.  They did not fit any cups.  And the part that bothered me wasn’t my inability to imbibe and operate.[i]  It was philosophical: Honda had rolled out a line of vehicles WITHOUT EVER SEEING IF THE CUPHOLDERS COULD HOLD A CUP FIRST.

***

I teach writing.   Therefore, I create writing assignments for my students.  Therefore therefore, I try out the writing assignments myself before I assign them.  Just to make sure there aren’t any problems that become obvious only after the writer begins.  And not necessarily to change the assignment, but at least so that I can anticipate complaints.  Sometimes, I like what I’ve written.  This blog entry began life as a test drive on an assignment.  But I don’t really think of them as test drives.  I really think of them as trying to put a cup in the cupholder first.  If nothing fits, I can’t distribute the cupholder.

***

Occasionally, there is a snag.  In this case, it’s that I distributed an assignment that I co-authored as part of a college-wide essay contest in conjunction with the shared campus read book. You may remember the difficulty I had in choosing it, indeed with the whole selection process and perhaps even the emerging genre of “campus reads” books.   No matter.  The book selected is One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Divakaruni.  I’ll write about the book itself some other time.  For now, I thought it would make a good shared read because of its potential for thought and discussion, centered on the title concept.  To avoid accusations of spoilers, I’ll just quote the back of the book itself[ii] :

Late afternoon sun sneaks through the windows of a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city. Most customers and even most office workers have come and gone, but nine people remain. A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11. A graduate student haunted by a question about love. An African-American ex-soldier searching for redemption. A Chinese grandmother with a secret past. And two visa office workers on the verge of an adulterous affair.[iii]

When an earthquake rips through the afternoon lull, trapping these nine characters together, their focus first jolts to their collective struggle to survive. There’s little food. The office begins to flood. Then, at a moment when the psychological and emotional stress seems nearly too much for them to bear, the young graduate student suggests that each tell a personal tale, “one amazing thing” from their lives, which they have never told anyone before. And as their surprising stories of romance, marriage, family, political upheaval, and self-discovery unfold against the urgency of their life-or-death circumstances, the novel proves the transcendent power of stories and the meaningfulness of human expression itself.

 It wasn’t much of a stretch, then, to ask students this:

As you have been reading One Amazing Thing, you may have been wondering what “one amazing thing” in your own life might be. What makes an experience stand out, be “amazing,” “sublime,” and how can it change a person and influence his or her future life, for better or worse? Reflect on and write about one such “amazing thing” in your life and compare it in some way with at least one of the stories told in One Amazing Thing. Your essay should be no more than 500 words.

It’s a perfect assignment for the book.  There is just one problem.  I have not tried it out.  And upon inspection, the assignment is surprisingly difficult.  Do I—and by extension, does anyone—have a story like the ones the characters share in the novel?  I mean, yes, of course—but can a person distill it and tell it as easily and intricately as these characters causally spout, when in reality it’s clear that the author herself labored and revised to get the stories just so?  I’m on the Hourman clock, and nothing is coming to mind at all for me.  Too many stories, and too few.[iv]  If the cup does not fit, you must remit.[v]

[Sips coffee, ponders for a few minutes, which totally count in the time]

OK.

***

Seven years ago, in the pre-Cambrian before Facebook made it easy, Angela contacted me to find out what happened to me and her other peers from Public School 208. I had not heard from her in over twenty years.  I heard from her first, I inferred, not because we were friends, but because she simply found me, since I’m the only person in the world with my name.  I replied, cramming high school, college, grad school, marriage, two (at the time) kids, two cross-country moves, and my book (a gratuitous, narcissistic, and necessary inclusion) into a short paragraph.  The first sentence began with “I…”; all subsequent sentences began with “And then I….”  Angela put me on an alumni email list.  Then I forgot about her.

A week later, Angela emailed again.  This time the letter was longer.  She was putting together a website.  She needed detailed biographies, she needed pictures, she needed contact information, she needed phone numbers of lost friends.  But my semester was starting, and I casually ignored her.

The next week, the demands grew: where were the pictures, the updates?  She had started the website and sent subsequent blog invitations.  But where were her bloggers?  (I will never blog, I harrumphed.)  She threatened to call.  Then she did call and left a voicemail.  Her message sounded vaguely menacing.  She was getting harder to ignore.

So I checked the website and saw that the enticements—or possibly the threats— of nostalgia had worked: there were pictures of P–, a lawyer; of A–, widowed at a decade earlier with two toddlers;  J–, a dentist living in Florida;  I–, a bearded accountant who had just married a Panamanian; S–, an elementary school teacher in Queens.  Many of our former teachers were dead.  Angela wrote by far the most, varying tragedy and conceit: her father had died of emphysema, she was a published poet, her partner had brain cancer, she lived happily in Connecticut.  Many of their parents were dead, mostly of cancer.  The bad news was upsetting.  But so was the good news.  Worst were the pictures.  No one looked anything the way I remembered.  They looked like their parents.

The emails continued, abuse and contrition: more threats, more pleas, more updates.  Two months after I had received that first email, I had collected over a dozen more. Reading them together, they seemed a strange collage of obsession.  Their goal, their longing, their desire to piece together a lost childhood, failed utterly: the retreat into the past, into the urban idylls of 1970s Brooklyn, was a futile talisman against the death all around her.  Instead, it became a reminder that, at best, we were all twenty years—and now, today, twenty-seven years—closer to death than we were when we last saw each other; and at worst, any one of our loved ones, any one of us, could be taken at any time.  A part of me wishes that I didn’t know what happened to Angela, P–, A–, J–, I–, S–, and the rest of them—a litany of names  that  grew exponentially when  I joined Facebook a year or so later.  If I didn’t know anything, in my mind they could stay children forever.  If they had grown up, then so had I.

I received one more email a month later, from J–, another former classmate.  Angela had died of an aneurysm.  It’s a twist that, had I read it in a novel, I would have found cheap and tawdry, the boneheaded hack irony of a 13 year old who had discovered O’Henry.  But it was real.   And in the worst senses of the word—“causing great surprise or sudden wonder; awful”— her sudden discovery, and abrupt loss, was amazing.

 

FIN   

***

OK, I didn’t actually compare what I wrote with one of the stories in the book, and I didn’t do a word count, so I guess I have to be docked a few points.  And the word “amazing” is inelegantly shoehorned in at the end.

But it does look like the assignment can hold a lot of cups.  And each cup will hold something different, and amazing, for each writer as well.

Time: 90 minutes

This image is intended as comic relief after a heart-wrenching piece of writing.


[i] Awful phrase, but I can’t write “drink and drive.”

[ii] Does a blurb on a book cover or on Amazon.com count as a “spoiler”? Short answer: No. Long answer: it depends.   Read more about my take on spoilers.

[iii] Since today I’m all about linking to previous blogs, and footnotes, let me add that this book is another entry in what I previously described in “Avengers Resemble” as “a story of People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or ‘PDCTUSRALC.’”

[iv] That’s deep, man.*

*Nobody likes a sarcastic endnote.

[v] By which I mean “refrain from inflicting or enforcing.”  Not pay.

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Puns of Anarchy; or, Sons of Anarchy Also Rises; or, Sons of Innocence and Experience; or, Serial Narrative Killers

Back for Season 5

Like Weeds and Mad Men—like Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and the Godfather of the cable antiheroes, The Sopranos—Sons of Anarchy is another long running series about a morally dubious subculture, in this case, bikers, as opposed to noncable TV’s continued fixation on morally salubrious subcultures, like doctors, lawyers, and twenty-year-old white people living in NYC apartments they shouldn’t afford.[i]

Sons of Anarchy began five years ago as a Hamlet on wheels. The Prince is Jax, short for Jackson, since being a Son is a big literal and metaphorical deal on the show. Last name Teller.  And tell he does: his hopes and dreams, wishes and fears, loves and hates.  Played by devilishly handsome Brit Charlie Hunnam, he’s a perfect female fantasy—the sensitive tough guy who just needs the right girl.

~sigh~

The Right Girl is Dr. Tara Knowles, a bad girl gone good gone bad, who seems to knowle everything about the human heart, but not her own.  Her medical specialty is Anything That Anyone Needs a Doctor For.  HamJax’s Claudius is Clay Morrow, whose clay morals take the motorcycle club deeper and deeper into harder and harder crimes: running guns, running coke, murder, and sporting a soul patch.  Gertrude is Gemma; with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage, Jax’s mother has jumped from mourning John Teller, Jax’s father, into marriage with Clay, John’s spiritual brother.  But Jax has unearthed a cache of his father’s journals, much to Clay and Jemma’s chagrin, and through the magic of reading and voiceovers, his father’s ghost speaks from the grave to warn Jax to rebel against Clay.

This all made for excellent TV.  We got to see Jax struggle, even falter, against his doubts, conscience, relationship with Tara, and American accent.  And over the seasons, the backup bikers in the Sons have gone from sidemen and comic relief, a gang of jackbooted Rosencrantzs and Gildensterns, to round characters in their own rights.  The flawed but honorable Bobby Elvis, the scarred and unintelligible Chibs, loose cannon with a good heart Tig, and especially perpetually incarcerated, self-sacrificing Otto (played by Sons creator Kurt Sutter): each developed backstories and pathos beneath their tattooed skins, lives and motivations beyond how well they serve or don’t serve the Melancholy Mane.

This journey is in keeping with contemporary notions of TV in the age of DVDs and On Demand.  Thomas Doherty writes this in “Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel”:

Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.

In 2005, Stephen Johnson suggested much the same in his book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, literally charting the way in which multiple plot threads have grown exponentially from 70s series Starsky and Hutch (one single, linear plot per episode) to Hill Street Blues (multiple threads in each episode) to the Sopranos.  This last series, for Johnson and many other critics the most effective complex show to date, works like Hill Street Blues, but more so:

Each thread is more substantial. The show doesn’t offer a clear distinction between dominant and minor plots; each storyline carries its weight in the mix…. A single scene from The Sopranos will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot on another.  And every single thread in this Sopranos episode builds on events from previous episodes, and continues on through the rest of the season and beyond. (69)

And yet, neither Doherty nor Johnson mentions that another TV genre has always used serial narrative, or employed multiple threads to “build on events from previous episodes, and continue on through the rest of the season and beyond,” or arc TV, to use Doherty’s phrase.

It’s the humble Soap Opera.

This tension, then, between creating a highbrow televisual novel—complexities! Nuances! Craft! Characterization!—and rehashing the lowbrow soap—with its cheap, tawdry thrills and ludicrous plot twists—is not mutually exclusive, but comes into sharp relief in Sons of Anarchy , especially in the ways in which the show has ratcheted up and escalated its requite quota of threats, sex, and violence each season.  In the beginning, the big menaces were a rival biker gang, the Mayans, with their nefarious mustaches, and perhaps a stealth enemy in Clay, himself no slouch in badguy facial hair.  But each season, the arc has gotten wider, and the dangers to our lovable bikers have dug in deeper.  Over the past five years, the Feds, a county takeover of the local police department, Irish gun runners, a drug cartel, secret after unearthed secret, Jax’s near death on almost every episode, and most recently the threat of Damon Pope, a huge, rich, connected Cali crimelord, who, paraphrasing Jax and Bobby (from memory, sorry) “isn’t anything like anyone we’ve ever dealt with before. He could kill us with a snap of his fingers.”

Similarly, with the stakes raised, the sex and body parts have rivaled what we see on HBO, the recipient of an imaginary Nudie Award; and similarly, the level of violence has reached a new level of graphic in its own depictions of bodies (dismembered, etc.), with [SPOILER] Tig’s daughter shrieking as she’s burned to death in front of her father, who later cradles the charred corpse in his arms.  Most importantly, we’ve bared witness to the brutal beating to death of a main character himself (revealed below), as the other Sons impotently look on.

Yes, other characters have died before. But at the risk of sounding callous, it wasn’t anyone we really cared about.  This escalation becomes the downside to the serial narrative.  SoA, each season, in true soap opera style, has to outdo the last, creating, as I suggested of Weeds a few weeks ago, a glut of both trauma and narrative from which the characters and the show itself cannot recover.    I fear this season marks the beginning of the end. Not in the Jump the Shark way, which is still a great phrase to mark the precise moment when a show passes its prime.  Maybe we can call it [SPOILER ALERT] “Killing Opie,” for the moment when a show becomes willing to sacrifice a major character on the alter of Higher Stakes (or higher ratings), as opposed to an essential narrative reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still enjoying SoA plenty.  But how long can this arms race of sex and violence continue for Sons of Anarchy? Hamlet may seem interminable to high school students, but it doesn’t take five years to tell its story.  The threats escalate, the thick plottens, [spoiler?] and it’s curtains, for the characters, of course, but also for the play itself, and for the audience.  Ideally, life goes on for decades. Ideally, stories do not.

Time: 60 minutes

Comments: what other shows have killed a major character just, it seemed, to up the ante?


[i] Actually, cable loves them, too.

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