Category Archives: Children’s literature

Of Course The World Needs an Analysis of Regular Show

Family Portrait

For the past week, my five year old daughter has only watched Regular Show. I can see why my older boys, 13 and 10, who introduced it to her, like it: it revolves around two best buds, a bluejay named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby, although their being animals has nothing to do with the show (the bird doesn’t even fly), even if I’m sure that’s a big part of its appeal for kids. This promo, featuring human actors decked out as Mordecai and Rigby, winds up emphasizing that point and gives a few examples of the show’s shenanigans:

Mordecai and Rigby are fluffy Bartlebys, always preferring Not To:  slacking off, playing videogames, watching TV, and eating pizza and tacos, even as they’re supposed to be working at a park managed by a talking gumball machine, Benson, along with an albino gorilla[i] groundskeeper, Skips, a macrocephalic manchild geezer named Pops who technically runs the park for his ancient moon-headed father, a pudgy green creep named Muscle Man (who I assumed was named “Musselman,” like the applesauce, but the name is a joke), and Muscle Man’s friend, the personality-less High Five Ghost, who looks just as his name suggests.

At first, the show looks like yet another example of  People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC,”  as I suggested two weeks ago of The Avengers. But the faux diversity is a façade—no one behaves any differently based on his species or whatever you want to call a talking gumball machine.  Notice the gender-specific “his” pronoun. The show is distinctly male, with the exception of occasional minor characters Margaret (a robin?) and Eileen (a mole? I consulted the expert, my daughter: “She’s half person, half beaver”) as female foils for M & R. 

While the menagerie suggests that the title “Regular Show,” like Muscle Man’s name, is meant to be ironic (Cartoon Network’s tagline: “Regular Show. It’s anything but,” in the sense of normal), it is regular in the word’s sense of “uniform procedure” or “periodic.”  Nearly every episode follows the same pattern: some prosaic game—Rock Paper Scissors, jinx, cards, stick hockey, bowling—yields some wacky supernatural non sequitur—a monster appearing in the sky to devour the game’s prize, a mirror-image Rigby monster conjured to break the jinx, a warlock who sucks the whole park into his fannypack, an underground Fight Club-like stick hockey den, a wager with Death, who, appropriately, looks and sounds like Lemmy from Motorhead, but better looking. 

Death

Death warmed over

Yet everything always works out: Mordecai and Rigby break the Rock Paper Scissors tie just in time; they break the jinx just in time; Benson turns out to be a stick hockey samurai just in time; Skips comes through in some way, usually solemnly intoning, “I’ve seen this before.”[ii]  You could easily play Regular Show Bingo, or maybe a Regular Show drinking game.  

So on second look, it feels like another genre: the Best Bros who are Both Dumb but One is Noticeably Dumber than the Other (“BBBDONDO” for short).  These duos spend most of the show screwing up and the last minute fixing it.  It’s a grand comic tradition emblemized by, of course, the movie Dumb and Dumber, but it includes laureates such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Ralph and Ed, Fred and Barney, Beavis and Butthead, SpongeBob and Patrick, and The Man with the Yellow Hat and Curious George.  Acceptable Variations: Three Stooges (all dumb, but Moe is slightly less dumb) and Bill and Ted or Jay and Silent Bob (you could make a case for either being dumber). 

But mostly, the real dynamic is a kind of fairy tale family—fairy tale not because of the talking animals or the show’s regular supernatural plot twists, but because of the lack of mothers.  Like Peter Pan, the characters on Regular Show are a band of lost boys; like the spiritual song, they feel like motherless children.  Yet although Mordecai and Rigby seem like teens in this parentless limbo, their size and maturity difference (Mordecai, for example, is interested in Margaret, but Rigby isn’t into Eileen, although that could be because he can’t identify her species) suggests something more like siblings. And despite Skips’s and Pops’s old age, it is Benson, the gumball machine, who turns out to be the show’s surrogate father.  Benson spends most of every episode threatening, and then exploding at, the duo—you can add “GET BACK TO WORK!,” “[anything]…OR YOU’RE FIRED!,” and “UNBELIEVABLE!” to the bingo card/drinking game.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that I find myself relating far more to hapless Benson than to punky M or R.  His behavior is typical Bad Dad, what we may think or feel but struggle against saying.  On the episode Broken Cart, Rigby finally asks, “Benson, why do you hate us so much?”  Surprised and chastened, Benson answers, “I don’t hate you guys. I just hate some of the things you do.” 

Benson loses his marbels

Sorry, not you, Mordechai

Of course, when the boys inevitably screw up, in this case, taking a videogame break when they’re desperate to return the cart before the warranty expires that day, Benson, as usual, totally loses it:  “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO LEARN THAT YOUR ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES?”  On Think Positive, he can’t lose it, under threat of being fired himself, and we get to see the helplessness, the impotence, behind his threats and anger.  Mordecai and Rigby will never, of course, learn that actions have consequences.  That would mean growing up, which would be the end of the show.  But ideally, talking gumball machines and park-eating vortexes to the contrary, this distinction is the biggest difference between Regular Show’s parental lessons and real life. 

Funnily enough, Regular Show seems to know its true audience.  That car seat safety public service announcement may have a quirky Portlandia feel to it, and the diaper rash ointment has the indie band sounding name Baby Anti-Monkey Butt.  But that doesn’t mean that these ads, like nearly all the ads on Regular Show, aren’t geared squarely toward parents.  

I thought I was watching along with my kids. It turns out that they were watching it along with me.

Time: 65 minutes.  I wasn’t really planning on writing about Regular Show, but it’s literally all my girl—and therefore, I—watched this week, so it’s burned into my brain.    Truth is, I feel a little funny going from Angels in America to Regular Show.


[i] After botching a few JFGI details of Adventure Time a few months (the creator’s name, a Jungian archetype), I figured I better look up Regular Show online first.  So: Wikipedia refers to Skips as a Yeti, but I much prefer to think of him as an albino gorilla. I didn’t bother the check what Eileen was.

[ii] Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker–does Skips’s voice.  Hamill is a brilliant voice actor, here and elsewhere. Future blog: people who are famous for the wrong thing. Suggestions welcome in Comments.

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Maurice Sendak, I’ll Eat You Up I Love You So

Even more than Dr Seuss’s verbal prestidigitations and Arnold Lobel’s elegies and ironies, I love Maurice Sendak’s simple words and striking pictures.  And so, the day after his death, I’d like to address what made so many of his stories so brilliant, effective, and scary: he understood and concretized every child’s worst fear. It is primal and simple.

It is being eaten.

And so the main motif of Where the Wild Things Are is food—the meal that Max would make of his mother (an idle threat), the meal the wild things would make of Max (highly plausible, given the reiteration of terrible teeth and claws), and the return to safety at the end, where the reward is supper–not the never-seen parent–waiting, still hot. And more importantly, supper is not Max.  My kids and I had many conversations about what was in that bowl, and the way the final image violates the first commandment of Children’s Lit: Thou shalt end with the main character going to sleep, not eating, or the parents will suffer another round of “I’m hungry.”

Max’s reward for returning? Food. Pierre’s punishment for not caring? Being food–eaten by the lion, a far more effective surrogate parent than Pierre’s real mother or father, who helplessly, impotently rail against Pierre’s apathy, whereas the lion provides what in today’s parenting jargon is known as natural consequences.  You don’t care if I eat you? Fine, I’ll eat you. And behold, suddenly, Pierre has a deathbed conversion!  Even with its allusions to early Christianity’s punishment, Daniel, and Jonah, the lion’s swallowing of Pierre seems more Greco-Roman, more Goya, and more Freud than Judeo-Christian.

Maurice Sendak

And who can forget Mickey, of In the Night Kitchen fame, put in the oven by triplicate cooks with matching Hitler mustaches?  The book raised eyebrows for its full frontal, um, Mickey, but its Holocaustic humor still seems beneath the radar.  A children’s book in the form of a comic decades before Diary of a Wimpy kid cashed in, In the Night Kitchen still strikes me as Sendak’s most dream-like and most nightmarish, the continued and sustained childhood fear that all of those seemingly loving culinary parental nicknames—Sugar, Honeycakes, Sweetie-pie, or, in the case of my daughter, Smooshy Cookie and, later, Pickles—are not metonyms at all but veiled threats.  I’ll eat you up I love you so. As Mickey’s parents slumber unknowingly, Mickey is, to switch from Jewish fear to Christian theology, being transfigured into food.  That he turns out to solve the mystery of why we have cake every morning, or that Pierre survives the lion’s belly, or that Max’s supper is waiting for him, still hot, are the feel-good endings that prolong the benevolent mysteries of childhood.

But the sustained conflict throughout—to eat, to be eaten, to escape, or abandon, the ovens, bellies, and faraway lands–encompasses the real, primordial wishes and fears of childhood. And while Sendak rendered the dread of being eaten by the ones you love literal, parents and adults can still understand and recognize  the possibility, even likelihood, of feeling consumed by those closest to you.

Time: 35 sad minutes.

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Bedtime Stories After the End of the World (Ages 12 and under)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Liposuction

The days of waiting for an owl on your eleventh birthday, revealing that you’re a wizard and inviting you to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, are over. Instead, children—young adults, or YA, in the publishing parlance, now fantasize about being entered into the Hunger Games’ tribute lottery at twelve.

Owl

Katniss, please don't shoot and eat me

The fall fascinates me.  Harry Potter’s wizarding world belongs to a genre I think of “Secret Worlds,” with predecessors JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, and CS Lewis’s Narnia, and successors in Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book and Lev Grossman’s Magicians.  There is our world as we know it—Muggles, or worse, Kansans—deadened by lack of magic real and metaphorical. But then the protagonist, who is somehow both special and ordinary at the same time, discovers, or is invited as part of an initiation or rite of passage into adulthood, into a closet kingdom, via some mundane threshold: a window, a hidden train, a magicked out car, fireplace, or, um, boot, or best yet, an actual  closet.  There, they discover that the world is full of possibilities, and that they are more special, more integral, to saving it then they had dared dream.  The books’ pages function as that wardrobe, opening and taking the young reader into its realm. While danger obviously must ensue, the books begin and remain inherently hopeful that the world will be saved, and that it is worth saving. The status quo is essentially an optimistic one—restoring order is a good thing, even if part of that restoration means sending the satisfied protagonist back home, to apply the valuable lessons of the adventure to what he or she comes to understand as real life.  Yes, Harry Potter complicates things, since you can argue that he belongs in the wizarding world and not in the Dursleys’ domestic nightmare. But by the end of the series [600 million books and the highest grossing film series of all time and I have to say spoiler?] Harry too has restored what we understand as the proper pillars of love, family, and society, The Voldemort Years an awful aberration rather than the way the world is or must be.    

In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, Patrick Ness’s Knife of Never Letting Go, Michael Grant’s Gone, and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, plus other books that I haven’t read yet but plan to—Ashes, Ashes; Bar Code Tattoo; Empty; Maze Runner; Feed, and more—the new YA lit genre is not Secret Worlds but World’s End.  Narnia, Harry Potter, Neverland, and Oz were always Utopian, if Utopias in peril.  Some of that threat even included a nicely, dramatically apocalyptic sensibility, especially Narnia, with its Christian inflected Last Battle, but also late series Harry Potter, with its sense of an impending End Times.  

Harry Potter and the Deathly Everybody's Dead

But the newer books are different.  They’re dystopian, not apocalyptic but post-apocalyptic, the filthy children of Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury, as these things always are, but also, for me, more indebted to the pessimism of 1970s and 1980s lit and film: Stephen King’s futuristic, non-supernatural run, Kurt Vonnegut, JG Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Planet of the Apes, Escape from New York, Omega Man,  Mad Max.  Who would have guessed that the most influential YA published in the 90s would not be Harry Potter but rather Lois Lowry’s The Giver?

But the previous dystopia authors and movies were not aiming for the mall, the ‘burbs, the multiplex, and the tweens.  (I apologize for the use of the word “tweens.”)  If all fantasy, as Freud suggested, operates on the contrasting yet simultaneous levels of wishes and fears—as I believe—Harry Potter is a lot of wish fulfillment (Magic! Friends! School is awesome! Flying! Etc!) tempered with fears (a powerful dark wizard wants to kill me!). The New Dystopia is awfully heavy on the fear: starving (Hunger Games; Gone’s sequel is called Hunger); loss of self, mind, and identity (Uglies, Knife); a seeming loss of freedom and the end of the current social order.  But where is the wish fulfillment? Other than the fact that the post-world world opens up the requisite narrative need for conflict, struggle, and adventure, what is the appeal?

I’m not going to wrap this up now, and the clock is ticking, but I think there are a few possibilities. First, I didn’t mention the one other book that these series remind me of: The Lord of the Flies.  It is, or was, a staple of highs school reading, in part because of its ratio of heavy-on-the-cautionary-tale with just enough wish fulfillment.  In it, high school students get to understand just what would happen if You Kids Stopped Listening to Us.  You want to do what you want?  You want freedom? You don’t like rules? OK, smart guys, take a look at this. It may seem as though it would be a blast to live in a world without adults, but it’s all fun and games until Simon loses an eye life.  

The nature of adults in the New Dystopia is very different. In Gone, the adults are just, um, gone.  And some Lord of the Flies-style mayhem ensues.  But mostly—in Hunger Games and Uglies as well—the reader gets to see how fragile, how flimsy, and how arbitrary the veneer of adult society really is.  There is the Lord of the Flies-style wish fulfillment of a world without grownups, but not the guilt, because in these worlds—taking place after the end of our world, rather than, like Harry Potter, Narnia and the others, parallel to it—the absence of supervision is generally the adults’ fault or poor decision.  No accident, no separation.  The adults either chose to do it or screwed it up.  And the kids are the only ones left to see the world for what it is, struggle to survive, and—maybe—clean it up. The true fear of the books goes beyond food or even death—it is that these dystopias represent some adult version of utopia.   It’s Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, not as shock or twist, but simply as the way the world is:

Or Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green:

And even for happy, well-adjusted teens, adult utopia=teen dystopia gets enacted and exaggerated.  In the end, that’s what the books do: exaggerate and make literal the metaphorical struggles and hungers that teens—and, it seems, plenty of adults—immediately recognize.  Isn’t high school  a version of the Hunger Games, with each kid competing for limited resources, hoping yet fearing that they’ll be catapulted into the spotlight, going back and forth between fashion show and death match, pushed by a hyper-competitive culture of achievement and selectivity to view their peers as rivals?   Any resemblance to free-market capitalism is surely unintentional. Uglies represents the tension between wanting to be yourself and wanting to fit in, that adolescent contradiction that says “Look at me! Look at me!  Look at me! WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?” In the novel, all teens get full body plastic surgery at age 16 to eliminate every flaw, but in doing so, who they really are becomes corrected as well.  Again, it’s a sci-fi version of how they feel, with adults, for the most part, absent, behind the scenes of the operations, or adversarial upholders of the crooked status quo.  The stakes are, remarkably, even higher than in HP and Narnia, and the books are more radical for it—the teen heroes are not struggling against usurpers but rather against the legitimate machinations of commerce and government themselves, the libertarian flipside to the books’ seeming anti-capitalism.  

It’s conventional wisdom that the Harry Potter books began as jolly fun before the series grew up and got dark.  But it’s worth remembering the scary three headed dog and two faced evil wizard(s?) who populated Sorcerer’s Stone.  Maybe in terms of darkness, The Hunger Games picks up where Harry Potter leaves off.  After all, The New York Times, discussing the problems and promises of the Hunger Games movie franchise, suggests as much:  “One possibility might have been to follow the “Harry Potter” model, which succeeded as perhaps the first middle-grade novel to bring in adults to both the reading experience and the movie theater. As Harry and his Hogwarts friends made their way into the upper grades, the stories themselves became darker and more sophisticated — decidedly young adult” (see article here).  

 And this image, condensing every frame of the whole HP series, certainly grows darker and darker. 

 

Huh. They really do get darker.

But as dark as the New Dystopias seem, like the Secret Worlds novels, they suggest, again and again, as Shakespeare once sang, that the children are our future.  Adults, not so much.  They’re the problem.

There’s your wish fulfillment.  And your fear.

 

Time: 90 minutes! What the hell?

 

Jesse Kavadlo

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Hunger Games are from Venus, Hunger Artists are from Mars

Some assembly required. Batteries not included.

Just in time for the movie, if two years behind the teens, I read The Hunger Games.  But even though he’s been dead for almost ninety years, Franz Kafka beat me to it.  In 1922, just a few years before he died, Kafka published the short story A Hunger Artist, a weirdly candid but unsurprisingly depressing mediation on a man who starves himself for the entertainment of others.  Although the story was published ninety years ago, it is already nostalgic, looking back on the golden era of starvation artists, a real-life phenomenon where men would live in cages, their wasting public for gawking spectacle. As the story opens, “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible.” 

As usual with Kafka, it’s nearly impossible to easily interpret, although at least no one wakes up as a cockroach.  Is the story autobiographical and symbolic, with emphasis on the word “artist”: starving artists as hunger artists, sacrificing themselves for their art?  Is the hunger artist a Christian martyr or Christ himself, sacrificing his body for the seeming benefit of others, even if those others don’t know it? Is the story sincere or ironic—does Kafka really think that slow starvation is a great performance?  Is the hunger artist a victim of a vicious society or the perpetuator of a con, making a living literally doing nothing?  Is he misunderstood, as he believes, or does he misunderstand himself?  Kafka seems to want to story to seem spiritual and existential, but in our contemporary culture of eating disorders and reality television, he now seems anorexic and narcissistic, equally food- and attention starved—psychiatrically disordered, rather than acetic, spiritual, or even alienated.    The hunger artist would have loved the present.   

So let’s cut to the present.  The Hunger Games, the first major post-Harry Potter young adult lit phenomenon, seems the titular heir to Kafka’s hungry hungry hero.  Yet I had some major qualms about the book—at least until I was more than halfway through it.  Like Hunger Artist, Hunger Games is also nostalgic, not because the days of starvation are behind them but because they are ahead. In this futuristic, totalitarian dystopia—like there’s any other kind?—America is now Panem, but not the friendly skies: a weird amalgam of technological advancement amidst an overall feudal, semi-agrarian society. 

Our futuristic dystopian overlords, apparently.

In order to keep the story’s twelve districts in line and circumvent rebellion, the government, such as it is, uses a lottery to select two contestants—Tributes, one boy and one girl—from each district, elevates them to celebrity status, has them model haute couture and eat haute cuisine, makes them appear on TMZ, then televises their gory fight to the death, with a single winner rewarded with food and other valuable prizes.    The good news is that this set up keeps ex-contestants from robbing convenience stores or starring in pornography once the show is over.  The bad news is that it doesn’t make much literal or political sense.  We like our ultimate fighting and our reality stars separate, not that I’d be surprised by Kickboxing with the Kardashians.  But time tested, old fashioned slaughter, secret prisons, pograms, public impalement, and killing fields are far more cost effective for the frugal, discerning despot.

The influences show everywhere: Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, obviously, Stephen King’s Running Man and The Long Walk, an episode of Justice League called War World, which itself borrowed from Spartacus, and every battle royale ever written, from Koushun Takami to Ralph Ellison. Plus, the writing seems equally prosaic. While it’s ostensibly the first person POV of Katniss Everdeen, our protagonist (and therefore, we quickly surmise, winner of the Games, a kind of built in spoiler), the language is often so clichéd and dry that it reads more like a book report about some other, better written novel that Katniss read and is telling us about secondhand.

Yet somehow, even with this ticker of criticism running through my head as I read, I found myself enjoying the book more and more, until by the end, none of the problems mattered, any more than the unlikelihood of talking bears or the existential crisis of wishes in a fairy tale. 

Even more than what turns out the be the novel’s narrative triumph—that is, somehow creating suspense even when the ending is predestined; somehow making interesting a violent snuff film of a bunch of kids killing each other—is what the novel does for gender.  It may seem, in our post-Aliens and Terminator world, that female heroes are at last the norm, but they’re not, not really.  Katniss is simply herself, and who she is is tough, but not particularly smart; self-preserving more than altruistic, even if, like Kafka’s hunger artist, she seems to sacrifice herself for her sister Prim and despite that she does rue Rue; skilled at traditionally masculine tasks like hunting; and lucky, but the kind of lucky that comes after the disaster of living in Panem and winding up in the hunger games.  In other words, she’s far more like Harry Potter than Hermione Granger, more Peter Pevensie than Susan, who does receive a bow and arrow from Father Christmas but is admonished to use it only “in great need…for I do not mean for you to fight in the battle.”  Girls are supposed to be the smart ones, the sisters, the girlfriends, the blank slates, the protected, the supporting characters. Katniss is not any of those things.  She’s better. Yet at the same time, the book never seems to have any gender agenda.

What’s more interesting, though, is her contrast with the male District 12 tribute, Peeta, whose name sounds feminine and reminiscent of bread (he’s the baker’s son), who protects himself in the hunger games by painting himself in camouflage and hiding, and whose sensitive romantic dumb love for Katniss could give Bella a run for her hanky.  This alone would be an interesting gender reversal. But the book does more.  After an improvised rule change forces Katniss and Peeta to team up, Peeta’s injuries make him more of a liability than an asset for Katniss. But not only does she have to protect him, she needs to protect his male ego, so that as she’s protecting him, she has to make him believe that he’s protecting her.  Edward, Jacob, and all those other guys just have to protect, without any self-consciousness and subterfuge.  And in the end, [yes, yes spoilers, although why you’re reading this if you haven’t read The Hunger Games is a mystery to me] when Peeta and Katniss both live, we discover that Peeta’s leg has been amputated.  He’s been saved by a girl like a hundred times, and then symbolically castrated.  And all he wants is looooove. 

I remember in my first year of college reading a super politically correct textbook called Racism and Sexism.  I no longer have it, so I can’t double check this (although I never sold books back so it must still be on my old bookshelf in my parents’ house).   But in it I remember a thought experiment for guys, imagining that every President, nearly every major world leader, nearly every famous scientist, nearly every writer until only a hundred years ago, etc etc etc, was a woman, and how women must feel about the real world.  I got it then, of course.  But I think I get it much better now, thanks to Katniss and The Hunger Games.  In the back of girls’ minds, there had to be a little nagging that the girl is always a Wendy but the boy gets to be the Peter Pan.  Yet when kids read Hunger Games today, they’re not going to think about Kafka, or Shirley Jackson, or the occasional clichéd language.  They’re not even going to notice that Katniss stands almost alone as a realized yet nonchalant female hero.  They’re just going to take the book as it is, and Katniss for herself. 

For a story in the dystopian future, it makes me very optimistic.  And the only Kafkaesque hunger the fans feel is for the next book. 

Time: a little over an hour

Jesse Kavadlo

Coming soon: from Wall-E to Hunger Games to Gone to Uglies: what’s with all the dystopia for kids?   

UPDATE: Here’s that post: https://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/bedtime-stories-after-the-end-of-the-world-ages-12-and-under/

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That’s Against My Alignment: Peter Pan, Legolas, Link, and Finn

 

I missed my chance to get into Legend of Zelda when it first appeared.  And—heresy!—I’m more a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies than books. I did have two big Dungeons & Dragons years, when I was 11 and 12, before discovering heavy metal, which in retrospect wasn’t that big a jump.  And I’ve reread Peter Pan again and again—JM Barrie’s, not Walt Disney’s, little egomaniac, the one who brags about all the pirates he’s killed and thinks that “to die would be an awfully big adventure”—notions that would be sociopathic coming from an adult but seem naive, even endearing from a child.  And I’m really enjoying Adventure Time. 

Finn’s name was Pen in the pilot. Too close to Pan?

The similarities in description and appearance between Zelda’s Link, LoTR’s  Legolas, Peter Pan, and Adventure Time’s Finn are plain enough, even down to recurring greenleaf jammies (with Finn alone feeling blue).  Real-life Orlando Bloom stands on one end of the realism spectrum, and Finn—whose head is pretty much a Have a Nice Day button in a pillowcase—seems barely more than a sketch (and his flowing golden locks appear only once, as far as I know, as a kind of punchline).  Yet I’m more interested in what they suggest about the intersection between coming of age and morality, to say nothing of coming of age and mortality.   

Missing Link? [groan]

As a videogame character, Link is the least ambiguous.  After watching my kids play Legend of Zelda:  Skyward Sword and asking them a battery of increasingly annoying questions, it seems a pretty standard quest narrative.  While it looks more interactive than good ol’ Super Mario Bros.—which is culturally where my familiarity with video games ends—the plot, as usual, boils down to: Save the Princess.  In fairness, it looks like 25 years of progress has revised the plot a little—Link and Zelda are now looking for each other, rather than the straightup damsel in distress scenario.  But there’s still the jumping, the shooting and slashing, the accumulation of life and money toward the possibility of advancing to the next stage.  So it’s interesting that for all the seeming fantasy, what the game—most games?—embodies are the very same strictures surrounding American school and work life.  Playing the game must be fun, too, I guess, but the real joy seems to be advancing to the next level—only to work toward surpassing that one, ad infinitum.  The kids are hooked, but this is surely someone’s version of hell.  Yes, the levels advance, but the methods of advancing seem limited to killing monsters.  This is not so different from Legolas, whose job in the film is also, it seems, to kill monsters, tally the points, and, like Link, look like a Pantene model in the process.

My hair wouldn’t look like that after weeks in the woods

On Adventure Time’s episode “What Have You Done,” Princess Bubblegum—whom Finn, needless to say, saved in the Pilot but with whom he has since had a more or less egalitarian relationship—tells Finn that he has to make the Ice King—a kind of cartoonish, buffoonish Saruman  voiced by SpongeBob—scream and cry.  Finn sees the request as cruel and uncharacteristic.  In what seems like a throwaway line, Finn says, “I can’t just beat up the Ice King for no reason.  That’s against my alignment!”  And with that, we see the sly, subversive morality at work that makes Adventure Time the true link—as opposed to Link—and legatee—as opposed to Legolas—to Peter Pan.

As geeks everywhere remember, in Dungeons & Dragons players chose their characters’ moral category, called alignment, as casually as they chose their accessories, another option of many, ethics as capricious option.  In the Basic version of the game, there were three alignments—Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic.  In retrospect, the choices are more interesting than I thought at the time, since they eschew the obvious binary of Good and Evil.  Alignment here seems more akin to how well and closely people hew to rules—which, given that D&D was, in fact, a game, seems fair enough. The Advanced version of the game, though, introduced more, and more complex, alignments, and thereby created more trouble.  You now had two categories, with one from column A and one from column B, Chinese menu morality.  The Category A remained Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic, but now you had to add the B of Good, Neutral, and Evil.  This creates the possibility, first, of the redundant Neutral Neutral category, which seems to encompass only Switzerland.  But it also creates seemingly contradictory categories like Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil.  

But anything was possible—a Chaotic Good character was Machiavellian, capable of breaking rules for the greater good, while a Lawful Evil character was law-abiding but in the service of dark forces.  As a kid, I never thought much about Alignment and just had the characters behave as I would, which was, obviously, Lawful Good. 

Yet the purpose of the game, as it borrowed from Lord of the Rings and as Legend of Zelda would eventually borrow from it, was to move the quest forward and advance to the next, escalating challenge.  And the only ways to do that, as it was for Legolas and would be for Link, were acquiring gold and killing everything in sight.  In D&D, nothing you fought could ever be innocent.  Only the characters—and the human players hiding behind those avatars—could be.  What Finn alone realized is that the world, and its concomitant quagmire of morality, is complex.  One obvious good, loyalty—here, following the orders of a trusted friend and Princess—directly contradicted another, equally obvious good, justice—not harming someone without known cause, even if that someone was a total creep like the Ice King.  Adventure Time, for all its often satirical, winking references to a post-Peter Jackson/George Lucas/Stephen Spielberg world of stories, nevertheless transcends its cartoon morality.

Carl Jung was pretty thorough in his archetypes, but he left out forest-dwelling towheaded swashbuckling perpetual-adolescents.  Taken together, they represent an interesting combination of Jung’s Hero and Innocent, a counterintuitive combination.  [UPDATE: see Comments section!] For Jung, the Innocent (or Child) must undergo an Initiation.  But unlike the folkloric tradition, these four blondes never move on; like their model Peter Pan, they remain youthful and ready to repeat neverending initiations—adventures.  By the end of “What Have You Done,” everything works out for Finn, and the moral universe makes sense again.  His Lawful Good remains untarnished.  Peter Pan is gleefully Chaotic, but against the unambiguous evil of the pirates, he is positioned as still Good.  But can Legolas or Link truly be called Lawful without any sense of legality’s labyrinths?  Morality, unlike games and archetypal plots, is rarely linear or sequential.  If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then its mortar is moral certainly. 

No wonder these characters, despite whatever age they may be, all personify youth.  No wonder they never age.  No wonder there is never a final level, last episode, concluding installment.   It was easy for me to be sure I was Lawful Good when I was eleven, too.

Time: 60 minutes. This was a tough one to write, maybe because I don’t know these topics as well as previous ones.

UPDATE 1/31/12: I wrote a followup to this entry, about Link, death, and video games, called Game Over: When Bad Things Happen to Good Video Game Characters.

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No Gym Lockers to Narnia

Lev Grossman during our Skype session. Forget the wizards of Hogwarts–he’s the Wizard of Oz.

High school gym had a lot of rules.  Mr. Arbuse, his apt name a neologism of roast beef and cruelty, began every term with his stump speech:

“Dis is gym. Yuh cut, yuh fail.”    

“If yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

“If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late; yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

“If yuh not wearing yuh yuniform, counts as yuh not in yuh spot.  If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late.  Yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

And so on.  Scary, but, in fact, manageable, a series of reductions and equivalencies.  And Mr. Arbuse had no rules about actual participation in sports.  So I passed, even though I spent all year sitting in the bleachers talking about Metallica with Tommy Cassidy.

Cut (no pun intended) for a moment to the end of one of my own classes, twenty-five years later and two weeks ago.  Titled “Secret Worlds: Fantasy Novels and their Fans,” the class reads Peter Pan, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Magicians by Lev Grossman, with watching the movies The Wizard of Oz, Coroline, and Pan’s Labyrinth.  The books and movies serve as springboards and metaphors for first-year students’ own entrance into a new, unfamiliar place.  There’s magic, of course, but the books mostly revolve around life as students understand it: new schools, powerful friendships, dealing with authority figures, and rites of passage.

This year, when I met him at a St. Louis reading for his new novel, The Magician King, Lev Grossman graciously and generously offered to have a Skype session with my class.  And my students—both last year and this year—had very strong reactions to The Magicians, especially reading it last in sequence.

If you haven’t read The Magicians, you should.  Critics frequently resort to Hollywood high concept mash-ups to describe it: Slate called it “Hogwarts-goes-to-Harvard”; the Village Voice called it “Less Than Zero plus Harry Potter.”  They’re right, but they also both acknowledge that novel is more than that.  Magic in Harry Potter doesn’t actually affect the world much: Mrs. Weasely has self-washing dishes, wands can kill by pointing and shooting, and newspapers have moving images, as though we Muggles have to do without such extravagancies (“You mean the dishes wash—BY THEMSELVES?”  “You mean you have the power to kill from a distance WITH A SMALL HANDHELD OBJECT?” etc).  But JK Rowling never really asks how magic—how the power for words to affect the world in immediate, literal, physical, palpable ways—would affect our inner and outer worlds and force us to ask hard questions in the absence of fairy-tale morality and the face of real-life ambiguity.  Grossman does.  I’d call it Magical Realism if that term didn’t already mean something else entirely. 

And in our session, Lev Grossman was terrific, explaining (for what couldn’t be for the first or even tenth time) his relationship to the Narnia books, his initial motives and even doubts about the novel, and his recent meeting with Neil Gaiman, giving the impression that our course authors must loll away the afternoons over parchment and butterbeer.    

For all his great and funny responses, though, two stand out.  First, when asked about how he felt about an upsetting and unexpected development late in the novel (no spoilers—this is the Internet, after all), Grossman reveled that he himself didn’t quite understand what he had written when he wrote it, and that unlike other parts of the book, that section came quickly and without immediate introspection.  At other points, Grossman similarly demurred, suggesting that his intentions weren’t entirely clear even to himself at the time, and that even now he’s still coming to understand exactly what he wrote .

This admission—which one student brought up later as a revelation—flies in the face of what many students are taught about books and their writers.  Authors are not watchmakers; they don’t work in precise, mechanical ways and therefore don’t always have definitive answers about their books, or even their own motivations. 

Yet the Mr. Arbuses of English have drilled into too many students that reading is a set of equivalences, a scavenger hunt for Symbols—or clues, keys, secrets, decoding the correct combination to open the gym locker of Authorial Truth.  All stories become a series of equal signs: yuh cut, yuh fail.  If yuh don’t see that duh green light in Duh Great Gatsby is hope fur duh American dream, it counts as a cut; yuh cut, yuh fail.  If yuh don’t see dat duh white whale is an unobtainable goal, counts as not seein’ duh green light, counts as a cut, yuh cut, yuh fail.

In response to his recent blog post about advice for college writers, I asked Grossman what he would tell college readers.  And his reply: he wants them to enjoy reading.  Reading for school can take the fun out of it.  And he’s right.  The two responses—authors don’t have all the answers; enjoy reading—are intertwined: students hunting for the right answers and author’s intentions will detract from the one thing I do think authors intend: for readers to take pleasure in the reading experience.  I worry that English classes instill Arbuse-ive values: that learning to read and write well and critically become versions of good behavior, sitting still, in uniform.  Despite the convention of including a map in the inside cover of these secret worlds novels (The Magicians is no exception), Lucy Pevensie and Harry Potter have no roadmaps, no keys, and no immediate agendas to save the new world.   Even Dorothy Gale doesn’t really understand where the Yellow Brick Road will take her until much later.  When Lucy emerges from the wardrobe, Harry from his closet, Dorothy from her transported house, and The Magicians’ Quentin from ,well, Brooklyn, their worlds are bigger, not reduced.  (OK, Alice [of Wonderland fame] does have a key, and Lyra does have a compass, but that’s for another entry).  Quentin keeps looking for his purpose, his destiny, his Quest.  But there isn’t one—not exactly, or at least not that he’s aware of as he’s experiencing it.  At these moments, he’s less a character in a story and more of a person—and an adult.

Overall, students loved the talk and loved The Magicians, which I say in agreement with Grossman is very important to me. I don’t teach books that I don’t also love.   Last year, one student was absolutely convinced that the Narnia-like books within The Magicians, called Fillory, and their imagined author, “Christopher Plover” (a quasi-JM Barrie more than CS Lewis), were real, declaring as evidence that she had, in fact, read them as a child. Googling (now acceptable as a gerund) only made matters worse, thanks to Viking/Penguin’s websites for the imaginary land and the equally imagined author.

It’s a testimony to how richly and deeply the Fillory lore runs through the books, and it made me appreciate that Grossman chose to write The Magicians INSTEAD of Fillory books.  Despite any waxing about timelessness, Peter Pan and the Narnia books—and, already, Harry Potter—are really products of their time. Part of the point of The Magicians seems to be that you can’t go home again—not to your parents, and even to your stories.  It’ something that college students learn too well, especially now, with their first winter break upon them.  Showing up, in the right uniform, in the right place, on time—good enough for Mr. Arbuse—is really only the beginning.  You also have to find your own answers—to your own questions.    Literature, like life, is better than that. 

Gym is not.

 

Time: Geez, I sat down and was interrupted at least six times for this one. I’m willing to call it an hour.

Coming soon: The only false note I detect in The Magicians is Quentin’s last name, “Coldwater.”  More on why.   

UPDATE 2/6/12: Here’s that blog on Quentin’s name: https://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/i-have-issues-with-fictional-characters-names/

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Con and Pro Wrestling

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Last Saturday, I saw wrestling.  Not in an arena, or a gymnasium.  In a run-down urban St. Louis building that reminded me of my 1970s-era Brooklyn elementary school cafeteria, or maybe a pre-latte and pilates YMCA, the kind of place that holds Bingo—and, between bouts, it does.  Yet inexplicably, incongruously, the old room holds a wrestling ring in the middle of the old slab flooring, surrounded by metal folding chairs that just cried out to be used as a bludgeon and oblong tables older than I am.  So no, not—fffphuh!—college wrestling.  The real kind, with eye gouging, spandex speedos with knee-high tights, and pre-politically correct racial stereotyping.  Call it amateur professional wrestling. 

Now, I’m no snob and no prude and no stranger to the squared circle.  My man Roland “The Body” Barthes was grappling with wrestling’s semiotics back in 1957. God help me, I saw Randy “Macho Man” Savage marry Miss Elizabeth in Madison Square Garden in 1988, wrestling’s late-Cretaceous when big, balding men hulked across the cultural landscape, endorsing Slim Jims and appearing in mainstream music videos until finally driven to near extinction by the collective comet of suicides and sex scandals and steroid hearings and movies starring Mickey Rourke.  Reptilian wrestling just couldn’t compete with the lithe and mammalian cunning of mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting.   

Yet its saurian vestiges live on in the margins.  It’s been decades since I’ve seen a wrestling match even on TV, so I was excited and interested.  And when the match started—a huge self-reported Texan against a flamboyantly dressed long-haired Latino (I shit you not)—I was surprised by how fake it looked.

Now, I realize that this is not exactly breaking news.  Jesse Ventura has crippled journalists for saying less.  Yet the fakery was faking indisputable.  The punches were inept and inches off their mark, accompanied by obvious footstomps to sweeten the sound.   The laws of physics prevent the men from reversing and running after bouncing off the ropes unless they were playing along, and a single booted kick from a man that size would hospitalize anyone, to say nothing of the dozen administered in as many seconds.  I laughed at its violent pantomime.  Barthes writes that “There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre,” and in a sense he’s right. I don’t mess with the Roland.  But this seemed more farce than falsehood.

Bear with me for a moment.  One of my favorite sequences in all of children’s literature is the scene in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” when “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”  It’s the imaginative transition, where one thing slowly but almost imperceptibly becomes another even as we watch it happen, becoming that which we wish, and fear, most.  Max’s punishment and loss of power in his child’s fantasy are transmogrified into a world without walls, and, soon, the Wild Things, looking more like grotesque Old World aunts and uncles than monsters proper, crown him king, the power as inverted as the room’s insides and outsides.  

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This transformation is the best comparison I can think of for what happened during the next wrestling match.  By the end, I was smiling not because it was imaginary, but because, like Max’s place where the wild things are, it had become real before my eyes, almost one panel at a time.  I was smiling now for real, too, with, not at, the match, seeing the spectacle, the sadistic ballet (unless all ballet is sadistic ballet) less as a bout than a fun, homoerotic, testosterone tango.  And in the Trash Can of my mind, one I long thought Emptied, language emerged intact, and I felt it on my lips: a summersault dual flip: suplex, I felt myself whisper.  Where did that come from?  Running directly into a Rockettes-style kick: big boot.  A theatrical slap across the chest: knife edge.  A rolled, squatted pin: small packageTurnbuckle.  LariatClothesline.  Who am I?

But of course, after a few more matches—the thing went on for hours—the magic wore off and the novelty wore out.  Like Max, I went to where the wild things are, but then it was enough, and I was more than ready to render the words dormant for another few decades, to return to the mundane walls of my former life, where my supper was still waiting for me.  And it was still hot.

Reader, I microwaved it.

Time:  50 minutes

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