With the arrival of both my first novel and my firstborn this year, my available time for reading evaporated right alongside time for other basic human requirements such as sleeping and breathing. When my nose found its way between pages, it was likely to be advice about how to raise the Happiest Bébé in my Arrondissement so that I might someday again do something other than swaddle, swoop, and shush my son. Research for my next novel (out in 2015!) took top priority, so I dove deep into both Everybody Was So Young, Amanda Vaill’s moving biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, and re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrait of them in Tender is the Night. But what novel about Lost Generation types would be complete without some theoretical physics? So I’ve been going back over Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe and Fabric of the Cosmos and, on somewhat of the other end of the spectrum, my Robert Fagles translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Because one central character is an artist, and most art from Warhol to present leaves me eye rolling and/or giggling, an artist friend of mine recommended his favorite book on contemporary art, David Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy – which has finally helped me to understand the contents of the Whitney Museum as more than bad practical jokes. Outside of book research, the rest of my yearly reading has been mostly focused on my students at SUNY Purchase College. In addition to their (often) impressive work in class, I’ve been pushing myself to expose them to the kinds of great books and stories that they wouldn’t normally see in a classroom. Last Spring in a course on The Art of the Novella, we read classics like The Dead and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but also mind & form-bending works like Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03. (If that sounds exciting, I apologize - registration for Spring 2014 was last month and the class is now full). This fall, my Advanced Fiction students have been knocking me out, and I’m doing my best to keep up with them as we work our way through James Wood’s How Fiction Works. (Wood came to campus in September to deliver an incredible lecture on the question of “Why?” in Fiction, which we’ve been grappling with ever since.) We’ve now been focusing on short fiction, from classic masterpieces like Chekov’s “Rothschild’s Fiddle” and Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” to contemporary writers like David Foster Wallace, Ben Loory, Karen Russell, Jessica Francis Kane, George Saunders, and Wells Tower. Most of the time I can’t tell who is learning more, me or the students, but I’m glad to be there either way. When the semester winds to a close, I’ve got a huge pile waiting for me. If all goes well I might get to the first two on the pile – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending – before January, when I have to start reading for my Creative Nonfiction seminar in the spring. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
How far would you go to learn the truth? In AMC’s detective drama, The Killing, “the truth” is the identity of 15-year-old Rosie Larsen’s killer in a perpetually-overcast Seattle. Would you risk losing your teenaged son, like Detective Sarah Linden? Ditch your fiancé? Would you work fifty hours straight, like her partner, Detective Stephen Holder? Endanger your sobriety by stepping into the den of your old meth dealer? Would you wrench your family even further apart, like Rosie’s father, Stan Larsen? Would you fight City Hall? Would you give up your badge and your gun? Would you watch 13 hours of television? 26? 39? This is, essentially, the question asked of us by The Killing, which just ended its controversial second season. The show began as one of the most critically acclaimed new shows of 2011, nominated for three Critic’s Choice awards and six Emmys. Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter declared it “excellent, absorbing and addictive. When each episode ends, you long for the next – a hallmark of great dramas.” But a few months later, that same reviewer was singing a different tune. “Did The Killing Just Kill Itself?” his review of the first season finale asked. For those who have not become as addicted to this show as I have, all you really need to know is that, after thirteen incredibly tense episodes, all the evidence began to point toward the charismatic Mayoral candidate, Darren Richmond. Most damningly, a photo from a toll booth showed Richmond driving away from the scene of Rosie’s abduction in the car where her body was later bound inside the trunk. But then, seconds before the credits rolled, Detective Linden discovered the photo was a fake. Meanwhile the innocent Richmond was shot by a friend of the Larsen family. The season ended, and the show’s fans rioted. When I first began to watch The Killing two months ago, I told a friend who’d been watching since day one. His reaction was vehement. “Goddamn FUCK THE KILLING. I keep watching it and it keeps NOT GOING ANYWHERE. I keep thinking “OK, THIS is it” and theeennn… nope. And yet I cannot stop watching.” This same friend directed me to the website, fuckthekilling.com, which is essentially a short, explicit open letter to the show from its fans. Most critics were just as outraged. Many cited the fact that The Killing is based on a Danish TV drama Forbrydelsen, or “The Crime”, and the pilot episodes were nearly identical, shot-for-shot. They argue that while the first season of Forbrydelsen ended satisfyingly, by disclosing the true identity of the murderer, The Killing broke that unspoken pact between itself and its audience: watch this show for 13 weeks and you will be rewarded with the truth. Subverting our expectations has brought great acclaim to other AMC shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but with The Killing, the move appears to have backfired. As the second season began, Goodman issued the show a stern warning. “By not revealing who killed Rosie Larsen in season one, this season could implode.” But in this same breath he complained that Veena Sud was compounding the problem by speaking out and directly assuring fans that the Larsen case would be solved by the end of season two. This creates a major suspense problem. “In the first 12 episodes, viewers will never believe a suspect is about to be revealed or that detectives closing in on a suspect in, say, episode seven, has any real relevancy. It certainly doesn’t make that storytelling immediately essential. Secondly, it’s telling viewers that they will be rewarded with a resolved mystery after 26 hours of television. If you see the appeal in any of this, please fire off a flare.” Well, Tim, consider this my flare. Think about it. How can we be upset when the truth is withheld just when we most expect it, and when someone promises that it will be delivered, right on time? But we in the audience always want to have it both ways: we want to have our expectations met, and at the same time, confounded. Novelist Elizabeth Bowen observed that “Story involves action[…] towards an end not to be forseen (by the reader) but also towards an end which, having been reached, must be seen to have been from the start inevitable.” Figuring how to get out of this double-bind has been the failing of many a writer. In all mediums, we reserve a large segment of our judgment until we see how well an entertainment ends. A great ending sends reverberations back through everything that transpired to reach it. In the second season finale on Sunday night, The Killing achieved one of these great endings for the Larsen case. Sud kept her promise and revealed the truth about Rosie’s murder. The conclusion was satisfying, in that it did not satisfy. Rosie’s killing turned out to be caused by two different villains, one somewhat expected and the other utterly unexpected. In the end, these truths bring neither clarity nor comfort. Not to the Larsens or to the detectives. The truth behind Rosie’s killing turn out to be so meaningless and darkly ironic that we almost wish we didn’t know it. We know how Detective Holder feels as he shakes his head in his dark office. “Just the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes it just comes down to that I guess. Just randomness.” He comes to understand, as we must, that the truth is never as holy a grail as the quest we took to find it. “Sounds like LOST,” another friend of mine scoffed, when I described my love of The Killing, “Never making that mistake again. LOST took away my ability to trust other people.” Like The Killing, LOST steadily alienated its huge initial audience when writers decided to take the show in unexpected directions and then readily admitted to viewers that they did not have the truth about the mysterious island quite worked out, but that they’d figure it out as they went. The result was seven seasons filled with great drama and action, but also dead-end plots, quickly forgotten clues, and pointless characters. All of this stalling produced one loose end after the next, and there was simply no way to tie them all together in the end. Tim Goodman likewise criticized the first season of The Killing for introducing too many “red herrings.” A red herring is a staple in most mystery stories. It is a misleading clue planted to distract us from the eventual truth. It is a kind of intended misdirection, which keeps an audience on their toes. The term originates in the training of dogs. A red herring would be run along the ground away from the scent that the dog was meant to follow. The idea was to train the dogs to eventually recognize when they were being fooled. But while LOST dropped misleading clues haphazardly here and there to buy more time, The Killing has thus far used red herrings intentionally to lead both viewers and detectives in the wrong direction, not simply to kill time, but to make us interrogate our own assumptions about these dead-ends. Did candidate Richmond really fit the bill? Wouldn’t it have been pretty lame for the oh-so-charming politician to wind up being a sociopathic killer? And why would he have been stupid enough to arbitrarily snuff out a call girl, two weeks before his election? And did it ever make sense that sweet, sheltered Rosie Larsen would work part-time as a high-priced underage hooker? Sud turned Richmond into yet another red herring, and this should have made us, like the detectives, wonder why we were so desperate for the truth that we’d have preferred that patently ridiculous answer. The innocent Richmond was shot and crippled for our eagerness, just as the previous nonsensical suspect, Rosie’s teacher Bennett Ahmed, was beaten nearly to death. Did anyone really think they’d make him into a secret terrorist? Now that we know the truth, it is easier to see how red those herrings really were. It is telling that Veena Sud’s upcoming film project is a remake of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion. Hitchcock was the rare artist who managed to entertain audiences and subvert their expectations at the same time. Hitchcock achieved this most often by using a “MacGuffin,” allowing the initial mystery itself to become the red herring. Use a MacGuffin right and you can accomplish almost anything; do it wrong and your audience will never trust you again. Just ask M. Night Shyamalan. The Killing is often compared to the Hitchcockian TV drama, Twin Peaks, which captivated America in 1990. Director David Lynch brought us Detective Dale Cooper, who was also searching for the killer of a young girl deep in the woods of Washington State. Twin Peaks used Laura Palmer’s murder as a MacGuffin to lead its viewers closer to the bizarre townsfolk, through surreal dreams, and chasing after a one-armed man. It became the most popular show on American television, but when Lynch ended his first season without delivering answers, audiences were rabid. Lynch gave in and revealed early in the second season that grieving father Leland Palmer had killed his own daughter. And after this reveal, Twin Peaks lost its audience anyway. Soon the show ranked 85th out of 89 shows on the air. Now that Veena Sud has kept her word and revealed the killer, she runs the risk of finding her audience evaporating just like Lynch’s. Fans and critics might well be outraged at The Killing’s anticlimax. Some might even wish Sud had decided to just leave us all in suspense for another year. But hopefully this ending will encourage viewers to stop trying so hard to see The Killing as a typical police drama and wake up to the fact that it long-ago metamorphosed into something much more fascinating. It has been, from the start, a show that makes us question – like Detectives Linden and Holder – the value of the truth, and what we will invest of ourselves in order to know it. Last year, in an interview with Alan Sepinwall, Veena Sud defended the integrity of the show. “We said from the very beginning this is the anti-cop cop show. It's a show where nothing is what it seems, so throw out expectations. We will not tie up this show in a bow. There are plenty of shows that do that, in 45 minutes or whatever amount of time, where that is expected and the audience can rest assured that at the end of blank, they will be happy and they can walk away from their TV satisfied. This is not that show.” Veena Sud worked for four years as a writer and producer for the CBS cop show Cold Case, a cop show which follows a tight formula: a long-forgotten case somehow surfaces and eventually is solved through the use of “modern techniques” of DNA processing and microfiber analysis. In truth, cold cases are rarely solved, and lawyers today cite The CSI Effect to explain how juries accustomed to TV crime dramas have come to expect an unrealistic level of certainty in evidence. An FBI study done in 2010 showed that since 1980 only 63% of murders have been solved, nationwide. This ranges from highs of 82% in North Las Vegas and lows of only 21% in Detroit. Perhaps this explains why we are so buoyed by the prospect that a single hair follicle might lead detectives to a killer within hours of a murder. No one ever said red herrings didn’t smell good. Perhaps Sud asked herself what it says about audiences that we will watch essentially the same unrealistic episode of Cold Case, again and again? That show ran for seven years. CSI has run for thirteen years so far and has spun off two other series, both still running. Law & Order ended after twenty-years, after spinning of four new series. There’s NCIS, times two. Bones. Criminal Minds, times two. Hawaii Five-O all over again. Each show, in its own way, comfortingly repeats the formula, delivering the truth right on time, usually with an arched eyebrow and a wry quip. Perhaps The Killing isn’t breaking a pact with us, but staging an intervention. It’s suggestive that Detective Holder is a former meth addict, and some of the dialogue between him and Linden revolves around the nature of addiction: what you’ll give up for your high and what rock-bottom looks like. Linden too, is depicted as an addict, not to drugs but to the case. She is, like us, addicted to the truth. Years earlier, Linden had a similar case which was never solved, and it landed her in a psychiatric institution. Then, facing the impossibility of knowing the truth drove Linden crazy. But at the end of the second season, she sees that knowing the truth is almost as unnerving. When Holder insists, for the second time that day, “We got the bad guy,” Linden’s only response is a chilly, “Yeah, who’s that?” Because The Killing began as an adaptation of the Danish TV drama Forbrydelsen, many compare it to Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books. But while it has some of that same icy edge and atmosphere, I think a better comparison is to the novels of another introverted writer from a gloomy European locale, whose work also went on to great acclaim only after his death: Franz Kafka. Kafka’s most famous story, The Metamorphosis, is about a man who wakes up one day mysteriously transformed into a bug. But this strange mutation is a MacGuffin. We want to find out how poor Gregor turned into a bug, and so we delve deeper into Gregor’s sad predicament. Like Hitchcock’s The Birds, Kafka gives no explanation in the end, by which time we are so moved and awestruck that we’ve forgotten what we came for. Another classic tale, "In the Penal Colony," involves a man journeying to a remote prison to see a machine of elegant torture. An Officer there explains that it painfully tattoos a criminal with the phrase “Be Just” until they eventually receive a mystical revelation and die in ecstasy. The Officer is so excited by this magnificent torture that he jumps into the machine – only it breaks and kills him before he can find out truth the criminals received. The Killing would fit right in with Kafka’s two best-known novels, The Trial and The Castle, which each feature a protagonist known as “K”. Both novels stretch on for hundreds of pages as K attempts to learn some sort of unobtainable truth. In this absurd pursuit K loses everything, breaks down utterly, and gets nowhere. And because neither novel was even finished at the time of Kafka’s death in 1924, even K’s total ruination is never quite completed. Both novels show K toiling futilely against the systems of the law. In The Killing the inverse proposition is examined: two lawmen attempt to bring justice and to uncover an important truth. Their truth becomes just as elusive as the one sought by poor K. The deeper they dig, the further away it somehow gets. Modern detective work, despite microfibers and DNA, is still rooted in the rational principles of the 16th century scientific revolution, when thinkers began to re-embrace the Classical idea that logical inquiry could lead us to the truth. The scientific method makes a kind of pact with us: collect evidence and probe it until the rational world gives up its secrets. Develop a logical hypothesis and test it out. If it fails, then you have at least eliminated something that is untrue. Start over. Try again. Keep looking. You’ve almost got it. Four centuries later, we live in a world in which astronomers have discovered incredible things about the nature of matter, right down to the tiniest subatomic particle, and charted the expanses of the universe for light-years in all directions. And yet each answer has given us a hundred new mysteries to solve. We’ve interrogated the human body down to the smallest acellular organisms, and for each truth we have learned, ten more questions have popped out from behind it. We’ve learned much, but for all that we understand, perhaps the greatest thing we’ve learned is how much more there is to learn. In the case of killings, there will are always unsolved cases, wrongful convictions, and unreliable witnesses. But even when we do know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that one person killed a second person, and we arrest and punish that first person, there’s still so much we don’t know. The Killing makes this uncertainty its very heart. Is imprisoning the killer any justice. Is killing them? Can we ever understand how the killer did what they did? What is the measure of that lost life? What is the measure of the killer’s? Don’t get me wrong. The pursuit of truth is a noble ambition. Asking if this pursuit is futile is itself but one more truth we should keep pursuing. People often mistake Kafka for a nihilist, but his books can be very uplifting. In echoing the human struggling we often feel, we can feel less alone in that struggle – we may even laugh at it. Novelist David Foster Wallace explained how he would get his students to see the humor in Kafka. “You can ask them to imagine his stories as a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is, but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward – we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.” (Roughly translated, this means, “That’s pretty funny.”) The Killing does not want to tell us an easy truth, but a difficult one. Hollywood Reporter Tim Goodman has himself argued that difficult shows can be worth the effort it takes to understand them. “You know what else is difficult? The first chapters of War and Peace. Also, great gobs of Remembrance of Things Past. Did you also know that diving in to William Faulkner can leave you wondering what the hell is going on?” Plenty of us, of course, don’t have the patience to read the classics, or to even watch The Killing, but this does not mean that we wouldn’t be rewarded if we developed some. By embracing the entertainments of difficulty, we can learn, like Detectives Linden and Holder, to become more aware in our pursuit of the truth. We can begin to see that we are the ones who are forever tattooing that fervent Kafkaesque wish upon the world, “Be Just.”
Recently, I took a train to Princeton University in search of two lost J.D. Salinger stories about Holden Caulfield’s family. “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” and “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” have never been published in the nearly sixty years since Salinger wrote them. Princeton’s Firestone Library now protects the only known copies. The librarian at the front desk had me pegged as a Salinger fan before I even opened my mouth. I suspect it is a meek and eternal frustration in my eyes, one otherwise known only by members of the Green Party and Mets fans. My colleagues have been known to laugh out loud when I say that Salinger is my favorite author. The literary criticisms I’ve brought into my classroom are almost universally negative and thirty years out-of-date. Only my students ever seem to love Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye half as much as I do. Yes, they see Holden as superior, obnoxious, and immature – but they respect that he holds nothing back. He does not simply wear his heart on his sleeve, Holden’s heart is his sleeve. His whole self is enveloped in this bloody but still beating muscle. But, perhaps like Holden, I fear they will soon grow out of it. They will soon hear the same dismissive slights as I have – that Salinger is overly precious, terribly smug, and above all, not serious. Just a minor, young adult writer. For fifteen years, I dreamed of the discovery of a massive treasure trove of brilliant novels upon Salinger’s death. But months after his obituary had been printed, I’d gotten tired of waiting for something to appear. I’d come to Princeton to find proof of Salinger’s early genius and write some essays that would settle the matter for good. The Princeton librarian had my photograph taken for an ID badge and I signed a form promising not to damage the rarities. I was instructed to lock up my bag and wash my hands. Off-handedly, the librarian added, “You can bring your laptop in if you want.” I could hardly believe my ears but I did not stop to ask questions. Inside, I was given a sharpened pencil and three sheets of bright orange paper. Another librarian pulled Box 14 out of a cabinet. Inside was Folder 26. All that distinguished Salinger’s folder from the others was a red label along the edge, reading: NO PHOTOCOPYING. Anxiously I flipped through dozens of old issues of Story and Collier’s. These were hard to find online but most I had read before. Then, at last, I found what I’d come for: two typewritten manuscripts, complete with typos and smudges. “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans”, the earliest known Caulfield story, features Vincent (Holden’s brother “DB” in Catcher) and his mother arguing after he discovers she has childishly hidden his Army draft survey in a silverware drawer. At one point, Vincent yells that it is as if she is trying to stop a child from falling off a cliff by asking a man without legs to catch him, a line which, for any Catcher fan, is a delight. Vincent soon realizes that his mother can’t help the way that she is - like Peter Pan, she cannot grow up, and so he finally forgives her. The title of the second story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” refers to a short story written by Vincent and read aloud to his brother Kenneth (Allie), who dislikes the unnecessary meanness of his ending: a bowling ball is thrown through a window by an angry, cuckolded wife. Kenneth reminds Vincent that he can write stories where good things happen, so why not? Vincent rips up the story and takes Kenneth out for steamers. The little brother goes swimming in the ocean, but the waves batter the boy like so many bowling balls. The next part is beautiful but I can’t do it justice in paraphrase. I will confess that I found myself tearing up, hoping the other researchers wouldn’t notice. Inspired, I cracked my laptop open, intending to begin writing a brilliant defense of my favorite writer. It took a moment before I realized that no alarm bells had sounded. What if I began to retype just a few scattered lines from “Peter Pans”? If anyone came to yell at me, couldn’t I easily claim to just be taking down a few quotes? Could I copy whole paragraphs, then pages? If I swallowed my thumb drive, would the files survive a little internal digestion? I envisioned angry librarians smashing my laptop to pieces. I’d have to hit “save” every ten seconds. Some time passed before a new librarian arrived and made a beeline for me. “You’re not allowed to use your laptop with the Salinger,” she informed me. Heart pounding, I closed it up. How much, I wondered, could I manage by hand? By the time I lost my nerve and fled, I was checking over my shoulder all the way to the train for trailing Princeton Security. On the way home I stared unhappily at the gaping holes in my notes. I called Salinger’s literary agents and asked them what sort of permissions I would need to write some essays about the unpublished stories. “I have to say no,” said the man on the other end of the phone, “to anything involving the Salinger estate.” No matter what I asked, this was all he would say. Then, just to be sure I’d gotten the point, the man apparently called Princeton, got my contact information from the forms I’d signed, and e-mailed me again, just to be sure I knew that he had to say no to anything involving J.D. Salinger. That night, my wife asked me what old J.D. would think about my adventures. How would he feel about a fan travelling across state lines to get ahold of his work? He’d be on my side, I insisted. I have been a lifelong defender of his name and a studier of his craft. I’ve read and reread, notated and underlined, interpreted and reinterpreted. But I was not some joyless, phony, unpleasable critic! I’d always stuck up for Salinger – a man who had hardly ever stuck up for himself. She didn’t buy it and, really, neither did I. Salinger wouldn’t have given me a pass just because I knew the name of the short story collection that Vincent/DB wrote (The Secret Goldfish), or what Ginnie Maddox kept in her pocket for three days (a dead Easter chick), or what Esmé sent Sergeant X in the mail (a broken wristwatch). Salinger never wanted or needed me to stick up for him. Still I wished I could show my colleagues what I’d seen. If they could just read those stories, I thought, they would understand why Salinger will always be a major writer to me. In the Princeton folder I’d also found a letter from Salinger to an editor, explaining that he was tired of writing stories where his characters lay broken apart at the end. He wished he could write stories that put their pieces back together again. It is the same urging that Kenneth delivered to Vincent in the story. It is one I would make to my fellow writers. We can write anything, so why write that which delights only in misery? Yes, maybe pretending that this world is anything other than miserable is futile, but like hiding your son’s draft card in a silverware drawer, this pretending is an act of love. It is impossible to save children from falling out of the rye, but that doesn’t keep Holden from wishing that he could. You have to dive into the ocean, Salinger tells us, precisely because it is full of bowling balls. It is having hope which requires real guts. So wear your heart on your sleeve and if it bleeds, let it, so long as it still beats. A week later I was back on a Princeton-bound train. Again, the librarian needed no indication of what I’d come for. My compromise with old J.D. has been this: as much as I’d love to prove his genius, I haven’t written any of the essays about the stories that I’d hoped to. Only this, which contains no information which is not already available in Salinger’s few biographies. The stories are there for whoever wants to go and read them. Whatever I did or did not save on my laptop, I’ve shown to no one. Not my colleagues or my students. Those stories are my Secret Goldfish, my dead Easter Chick, my busted wristwatch… and they are safe with me. Bonus Links: J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010, Salinger in Vienna (Image: D.B. was here from sevenhungrybadgers's photostream)