Count weather among the forces that I move through life without fully understanding. On a recent frigid Saturday, a sharp chill hunted my joints through worn thermals and cheap gloves. Forget grocery shopping, not with the stroller, not in this cold. My 16-month-old son and I retreated to the library. More than basmati rice or cauliflower, we needed open space, the familiar thick carpet where he could squat and squeal freely. We needed the warm light of enormous lampshades embossed with ants, birds, and humpback whales. We needed more books.
Maybe that should read “wanted.” My son hadn’t tired of Good Dog, Carl or My Friends. He’d started requesting Tickle, Tickle by name. His mother invoked Knuffle Bunny while he handed her laundry, and Brush Your Teeth, Please had helped me transform a grim chore into something like dessert. (Grape-flavored toothpaste deserves some credit here). For weeks, maybe months, books had reliably engaged him, exciting or calming him depending on the title, the time of day, and what could be called his nascent taste. A rotation of Goodnight, Moon, Good Night, Gorilla, and Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site guided him to sleep most nights. Our afternoons sometimes focused on books of a certain theme: bunnies, oceans, dogs, primates. Reading was becoming a force that shaped his world, but unlike a polar vortex or a hurricane, it felt like a force within parental control. Three weeks later, our borrowed books due, I am less sure. I can control the presence or absence of books. I can curate his library. I can open the book and ask him “Where is the bird?” After that, mystery follows. Once the words leave my mouth for his ears and brain, they enter a universe where nothing is fixed.
This particular trip to the library marked the end of an eventful week in his early literacy. At bedtime the previous Sunday, he had restacked his books to recover a strategically buried title, Trains Go. My son sat in his typical way, circling once and bracing with both hands before thudding down. (“I learned to sit from my friend the dog…”) He laughed, looking like a tiny John Belushi. In this moment, I saw a flash of what I’ve heard other parents call the Boy-Boy, a term I understand but dislike. He raised the book, which we had read dozens of times, above his head.
In that moment I thought about another force in the world, the force behind the very idea of a Boy-Boy: I thought about gender. My son leaned forward, arms raised and extended. A smile strained his cheeks, seven tiny teeth bared. His whole body twisted into an absurd, miniature shrine to the ultimate Boy-Boy book, which he loves with an intensity that surprises me, though I bought it for him. How little control I have over what gender information he learns! Male adults he has barely met teach him “High five!” and call him “Buddy.” His favorite YouTube videos feature John Lee Hooker wanly performing “Boom, Boom, Boom,” and Ray Charles teaching The Blues Brothers to “Shake a Tail Feather.” The two-year-old boy at the Houston Children’s Museum shows him that cars go “rrrrrr,” and by that evening, my son imitates him precisely. At a playground’s toy house, a trio of four-year-old girls cold shoulders him; at daycare, where his favorite place to play is the toy kitchen, his three tias teach him that la cocina is for boys, too. This thrills his mother and me, even if we still haven’t been able to stop calling him, affectionately, “Mister, Mister.” That night, my son held Trains Go over his head and I thought, Gender is weather: it’s a force you can’t do much to change, the changes of which are are over time unpredictable and not entirely benign.
The horizontal outline of Trains Go settled in my hands, and the contours of its worn cardboard pages dragged me out of abstraction. “Junebug, we read that already,” I said. He grunted, then opened it in his own lap. “Wooo woooo wooooooo,” he said, reading words not on that page, but the next one. I shook my head, astonished. The next storytime, he opened The House in the Night, flapping his lips and saying “bah-bah, baah-baaah,” as he must think I do. He learns, as toddlers do, through mimicry. On the shelf above Harold and the Purple Crayon and the one below What to Expect: The Second Year rests my neglected copy of Poetics, in which Aristotle says: “Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation.” Reading this, after he went to bed that night, I wondered even more intensely, what does he learn about gender from me? Does he learn the next claim in Poetics, that “it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation.” All feels impossible, because I know I cannot delight in the countless imitations of violence and chauvinism and privilege I witness in too many fathers and sons and brothers and husbands. So if I can’t delight, can he? Of course he can. I start to worry that I should be more vigilant in my observations. What exactly does he imitate? What does he ignore?
I am probably more typically masculine now, as a father and husband, than I have been since age seven, when I left behind construction trucks and dinosaurs for a Cabbage Patch doll in a Boston Red Sox uniform. I named the doll Ellis Burks, after the actual center fielder, and I thought I treated him with the tenderness any of the Girl-Girls in the playhouse. I referred to him formally, using only his complete name. Ellis Burks, drink your milk. Ellis Burks, go to sleep. Ellis Burks, why are you crying? Ellis Burks, let’s play catch.
Later in elementary school, after I memorized the presidents in order using flashcards my father had bought me, my cousins and I filled summers with games of “White House” on piles of seaside driftwood. “White House” cribbed its structure from your typical “House” played by aspiring princesses everywhere. I adapted it, persuading my younger siblings and cousins to assume the identities of actual figures: Aaron Burr, my shifty vice president, James Madison, my trusted secretary of state. My cousin Kate, of course, was Mrs. Jefferson. As a parent, my younger self’s lack of imagination for the female roles troubles me. Nerd that I was, fidelity to fact did not keep me from asking Kate’s older sister to play Queen Victoria (not yet crowned) or Catherine the Great (dead). No: a hole in my own concept of the world, a lack of schema for powerful women in that world, is what kept my sister from playing Sacajawea, reporting back with Lewis and Clark, her twin boy cousins. I hadn’t learned to expect to see women in the White House as anything other than first ladies, despite having read through countless books providing stories of men to populate a constructed world. I’d read these books, of course, at the place I had taken my son on that freezing Saturday — my local library.
Leaving the library, I pushed my son north on St. Nicholas Avenue. My voice described what we passed — “There’s a streetlamp, and a WALK signal. This street is 1-7-9, which is one more than 1-7-8 and one less than 1-8-0. Look there’s a yellow light, it means slow down. That car has its hazards on, those lights are for parking illegally.” My mind sorted through the way each incident in his young life left a trace of information, a tiny dot. Even in its flawed form, “White House” was only possible because I’d connected dots between texts. A few days before he read Trains Go to me, I had noticed my son apparently doing the same thing. Sorting his library before bedtime, he double-fisted Sandra Boynton books, opening The Going to Bed Book, then Opposites. Like most Boynton books, these two shared an ensemble of cartoonish animals: a moose, a hippopotamus, a rabbit, a cat. He opened both books and compared them, turning a page in one, then looking at the other, turning a page in that one, then looking at the first book. This moment returned to me on the cold walk home, and I did a quick census. Only the hippopotamus had a clearly stated gender. This is a problem, I thought.
It could only be fixed by camel.
“Fixed by Camel,” was a phrase my father, a one-time carpenter, had used after reassembling my son’s crib in our new apartment. At Christmas, to clarify, he gave my son Jacquelyn Reinach’s Sweet Pickles book Fixed by Camel, a gift as much for me — and for him — as it was for my son. With the book in my hands, I immediately remembered Clever Camel and her brick-orange, long-sleeved coverall jumpsuit. How she outsmarts Kidding Kangaroo when he strands her on a roof, traps her under a manhole cover, and defaces the park benches she paints. How she captures him in a jungle gym snare, lured by an irresistible sign reading “DANGER DO NOT RING DOORBELL UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.” How she also leaves a glass of milk and two peanut butter sandwiches, which she tells him he should eat while he waits for her sidewalk to dry. I always loved that Camel — calm, solutions-oriented, quick-witted, and compassionate — was female. The writer’s choice to explicitly gender her felt radical to me, risky, rare. It added depth and surprise, two qualities Aimee Bender calls universal pleasures in a close read of her infant twins’ favorite book, Good Night, Moon.
After our trip to the library, I sat down with my son and Fixed by Camel. As with A is for Activist and A Rule is to Break: The Child’s Guide to Anarchy, as with Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth and Press Here, the first read felt more for my pleasure than for his. Clever Camel might have been a revelation for me as a child, a fixed point from which I could explore the idea — gender — that I still don’t understand. But my guidepost can’t be my son’s. He’ll find his own, in time, and I can hope that he does that because I help him ask better questions, no matter what those questions, or their answers, might be. This thought chased my disappointment with his reaction to the book. There’s nothing broken, nothing to be fixed. Aristotle didn’t have the last word on imitation; the modernists and phenomenologists saw to that. “Of course, works of art imitate the objects they represent, but their end is certainly not to represent them,” Jacques Lacan once wrote. “In offering the imitation of an object, they make something different out of that object. Thus they only pretend to imitate.” Whether or not my son’s imitations of men and what they should love are pretend, they are his attempts to be in the world and to love it. Every time he surprises me with that sort of expression, I need to be grateful beyond words. Imposing my version of gender, my preference for skepticism and nonconformity, isn’t any more appropriate or healthy than forcing him into army fatigue onesies or calling him “Daddy’s Big Guy.” Yes, I hope to expose him to stated versions of all kinds of gender, not only your Gymboree binary, not only Boynton’s sexless bestiary. Yes, I plan to fight the tendency to make the default gender male. But most of all, I think of the gift my father gave to his son when he gave Fixed by Camel to mine. The book transmitted of a spark, bequeathing to my son and I both an encounter with surprise and depth. It’s that electricity I want to conduct. My father’s easy transfer of precise kindness is something I may well spend my life learning to imitate.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Not too long ago, the idea that “you are your brain” was the revolutionary mantra of a handful of scientists, but today it raises hardly an eyebrow among the general public. The brain has become, for many, synonymous with the biological machinations of the self, and the self-knowledge promised by neuroscience has ignited a hunger to understand how it weighs in on age-old questions: Do we have free will? How do we make decisions? What happens when we fall in love? Why do we make art? Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s polymathic new book is poised to feed this hunger. Blurring the lines between science writing, self-help, and cultural criticism with virtuosic ease, Imagine explores fields as disparate as neuroscience, sociology, and urban planning with the promise not only to explain how creativity works, but how you, too, can use these secrets to unlock your own creativity, and how we can collectively build a more creative culture.
The book ranges across a dizzying array of examples of the creative process, from Bob Dylan to the team at Pixar to the tech boom in Tel Aviv, creating a mash-up of anecdotes, science reporting and associative interjections from the humanities. In the second chapter alone, we get the guy who invented Scotch Tape; a psychologist who uses EEG to study the brain while people solve puzzles; a neuroscientist who studies insight; a passage from David Hume; a neurologist who is studying daydreaming; the invention of Post-Its; the classic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon…and the list goes on. To say that the density and diversity of sources marshaled here are impressive would be a massive understatement. As in Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, Lehrer has invited an eclectic mix of guests to his dinner party, and getting them all in the same room to see what happens is a rare achievement. But his real talent lies in the way he plays all these sources off each other in order to build a coherent argument, leaping from the story of how Barbie dolls were born when an American housewife saw a pornographic doll in the window of a German cigar shop to how seeing ones’ work with fresh eyes is “one of the central challenges of writing” to the neural pathways involved in reading and writing in order to demonstrate that “the only way to be creative over time — to not be undone by our expertise — is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.” To cap off this particular moment, Lehrer offers a toast to the poet Samuel Coleridge, who said he attended public chemistry lectures in London to “renew my stock of metaphors.”
Imagine uses the same mash-up method that was so successful in How We Decide, but the science of creativity simply isn’t as developed as the science of decision-making. Because of this, it turns out that Lehrer’s tried-and-true method doesn’t work quite as well. The difficulty with pinning down creativity — scientifically or otherwise — becomes obvious when you consider the diversity of anecdotal examples in the book. Is writing a song comparable to coming up with new uses for glue or solving a puzzle that has only one correct answer? Is the person who writes twenty cookie-cutter novels engaged in the same activity as the person who writes one book so unprecedented that it changes the trajectory of literature? Are any two creative processes really the same? At most, it seems that one could point out patterns, but Lehrer boldly sets his sights on formula.
Imagine argues that “creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes” and that by understanding these processes we can all learn to be more creative. The more people you talk with, and the more diverse those people are, the better. Companies that wish to encourage creativity should have everyone use a bathroom in a centralized place, like Pixar does. If we want to be a more creative society, we should lighten up on copyright laws and share ideas, like they do in Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. The scope widens until, by the end, Lehrer is advocating policy changes in areas such as education, copyright law, and immigration. He argues, for example, that because immigrants submit a disproportionate number of patent applications in the U.S., it seems that, as measured by the metric of patents, at least, more immigrants could make America a more creative country.
Trumpeted as “something of a popular science prodigy” by The New York Times, Lehrer has become a translator and ambassador, someone readers trust to explain what is going on in all those ivory towers full of beakers and cell cultures and genetically-engineered mice. Besides his two hugely successful books, he is a contributing editor at Wired, a frequent guest on WNYC’s RadioLab, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and a science columnist for The Wall Street Journal. For many readers he is the face of science in popular culture. And for good reason. He has repeatedly proven his skill at wrestling complex scientific ideas into nuanced and accurate discussions accessible to non-scientists. Take, for example, his excellent Wall Street Journal column in which he writes insightfully about the limitations of fMRI, a widely used brain-imaging technology with difficult-to-interpret data that ignites heated disputes both inside and outside scientific circles. Lehrer is also an expert and captivating storyteller, and Imagine aims high in grappling with the extremely difficult task of communicating subtle and complex ideas in an engaging way.
But Lehrer’s role as liaison comes with a degree of responsibility; most readers trust that he is explaining science accurately and drawing reasonable conclusions based on the data at hand. Lehrer’s polished style, affable enthusiasm, and obvious intelligence make it tempting not to question the science as he sees it. All the more troubling, then, that right from the outset of Imagine there are signs that science may be taking a backseat to story:
Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity — the human imagination has no clear precursors…The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere.
If there are any truths in biology, one is that nothing arrives “out of nowhere.” For almost the whole recorded history of science, people believed that we may be the exception. For years, scientists thought we were different because we use tools. Not so, as it turned out. Chimpanzees have us there. And gorillas and orangutans and some other primates. And birds. And elephants. And a few bottlenose dolphins. Even ants use grain to carry honey. Until very recently, many scientists thought language set us apart, but in the past ten years, researchers have observed precursors to human speech in primate vocalizations and striking similarities between how infants learn to speak and songbirds learn to sing. Even self-awareness, a treasured feature of human consciousness, is no longer considered unique to humans. It’s tempting to think that we are special, but today most researchers agree with Darwin’s eloquent observation that humans are animals, too; we are different in degree rather than kind. There’s no reason to think that creativity will be the exception.
The real problem is that claiming creativity’s exceptional status makes for a better story: if creativity is what sets us apart from the animals, understanding this faculty is tantamount to unlocking the mystery of who and what we are. As Lehrer writes, “Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special.” This claim raises the stakes for the book. The problem is, it’s probably just not true.
These few sentences set off some unexpected alarm bells, so we decided to take a closer look at some of the science upon which Imagine is built, specifically neuroscience, as that’s what Lehrer is best known for and where his greatest expertise lies. In the fourth chapter, for example, Lehrer assembles an impressive array of anecdotes and neuroscience results to explain why “letting go” is “an extremely valuable source of creativity.” “The act of letting go,” he declares, “has inspired some of the most famous works of modern culture, from John Coltrane’s saxophone solos to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.” So how does letting go, Lehrer asks, lead to creativity? “The story begins in the brain,” he claims, and turns to a neuroimaging experiment in which jazz pianists were asked to improvise new tunes while in a brain scanner. During improvisation, the scanner picked up a surge of activity in a brain area previously linked to self-expression. At the same time, the scientists also observed a sharp decrease in brain activity in an area previously linked to impulse control. Lehrer concludes, “This suggests that the musician was engaged in a kind of storytelling, searching for the notes that reflected her personal style…The musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental handcuffs.” At first pass, this interpretation sounds pretty convincing: the self-control center of the brain shuts down to clear the path for unfettered self-expression.
Except that it’s impossible to draw that conclusion from the data at hand. This is an example of a common logical fallacy that plagues the interpretation of neuroimaging data. Say you notice a crowd of people at your neighbor’s house one night, and then find out she is throwing a party. You can correctly conclude that whenever your neighbor throws a party, there will be people at her house. On another night, you again notice a crowd of people at her house, and you conclude she is throwing a party — but this time you’re wrong. She is hosting a church group. While you can conclude that a party means there will be people, you cannot conclude that people means a party.
This reasoning fails because brain regions, like houses, have many functions. If you scan the brains of 100 people while they add 2+2, and in every case the same little patch of cortex jumps into action, it’s safe to infer that the cognitive act of adding 2+2 is related to activity in that brain region. So far so good. (What the region might actually be doing — adding, focusing on the number 2, catching errors — is whole separate problem). It’s tempting to say, then, that every time researchers observe that little patch of cortex lighting up, it must mean that the person in the scanner is engaged in adding 2+2. After all, it’s the 2+2 part of the brain, right? That’s where intuition can lead you astray. There is not a measurable one-to-one mapping between any brain region and any particular cognitive process; the same little patch of cortex is likely involved in multiple functions, just as a house can be filled with people for many different reasons. So when you see the patch of cortex light up under the scanner, you can’t say the person is adding 2+2. Likewise, if a brain region previously linked to “self-expression” lights up while improvising music, you can’t say — as Lehrer does — that the musician was “engaged in a kind of storytelling.”
This claim is all the more surprising because Lehrer is clearly familiar with this logical fallacy. In the Wall Street Journal column about fMRI data mentioned earlier, he offers an elegant discussion of this very problem:
Consider an op-ed piece recently published in the New York Times, which used fMRI results to demonstrate, purportedly, that people “literally love their iPhones.” The evidence? When the researchers showed subjects a video of a ringing cellphone, a part of the brain called the insula exhibited a spike in activity. Because previous studies have linked the insula with feelings of love, the authors concluded that the gadget had become a “romantic rival” for husbands and wives.
But here’s the problem: The insula is also activated by feelings of disgust and bodily pain. It plays an important role in coordinating hand movement, maintaining balance and monitoring bodily changes. In fact, activity in the insula has been implicated in nearly a third of all fMRI papers. Because the brain is such a vast knot of connections, it’s often impossible to understand what’s happening based on local patterns of activity. Perhaps we’re disgusted by our iPhones, or maybe the insula is just preparing the fingers to move. The pretty picture can’t reveal the answer.
So what’s going on? It’s baffling, really, that in Imagine Lehrer makes statements so similar to ones he thoroughly discredits in his column.
And the problems continue to arise. Near the end of the same chapter, Lehrer presents what appears to be the most convincing piece of evidence yet that inhibiting self-control enhances creativity. He reports a study in which the researcher used a harmless technique called TMS to disrupt brain activity in regions previously implicated in impulse control while the subjects drew sketches of animals. Before TMS, Lehrer reports that their drawings were “crude stick figures.” But during TMS, they exhibited “strange, new talents.” Their figures were “suddenly filled with artistic flourishes.” The section concludes with the comforting bromide that we all have inner artists, if only the brain’s inhibitory mechanisms wouldn’t “constantly hold back our latent talents.”
We were curious to see these “before” and “after” drawings, so we looked up the study. Upon viewing the drawings we felt a bit misled by Lehrer’s claim that dampening activity in the brain area he connects to impulse control led to “strange, new talents.” These before and after drawings, for example, seem to be just slightly different versions of a horse:
Savant-like skills exposed in normal people by suppressing the left fronto-temporal lobe. Allan W. Snyder, Elaine Mulcahy, Janey L. Taylor, D. John Mitchell, Perminder Sachdev, and Simon C. Gandevia, Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, Vol 2, No. 2, 149-158, © 2003, World Scientific.
One might even argue that the saddle in the “before” drawing on the left represents an “artistic flourish” absent in the “after” drawings on the right. In the paper, even the researchers themselves did not claim to have observed any great shift in artistic performance. They concluded that the technique “did not lead to a systematic improvement in naturalistic drawing ability,” although the drawings did show a “change of scheme or convention.” These less-than-definitive results, coupled with the fact that the details of how TMS affects brain activity are poorly understood, renders any hypothesis about this brain area and “creativity” speculative. The researchers do argue for such a link elsewhere, and even if this unproven hypothesis turns out to be true, to say that this study supports the chapter’s claims that “the timid circuits of the prefrontal cortex keep us from risking self-expression” is still problematic. The book is representing speculation as fact. While isolated moments like these may or may not be indicative of a larger pattern, they do raise doubts about both how science is represented throughout the book and the way it is used to support Lehrer’s claims.
If dubious interpretations of scientific data appeared only once in Imagine, it might be a worrisome fluke; but they appear multiple times, which is cause for real concern. Lehrer steps over the line again when connecting amphetamine use to creativity. He states that “Because the dopamine neurons in the midbrain are excited…the world is suddenly saturated with intensely interesting ideas.” Such definitive statements imply that neuroscience has already charted a causal course from neurotransmitter chemistry to a complex cognitive process — which simply isn’t true. That it should have come from a writer who so clearly has the ability to write about science critically and intelligently still comes as a bit of a surprise.
All writers who translate neuroscience for the general public today work under a tremendous pressure to provide easy answers. And it’s not just writers who feel this pressure. So do scientists. It’s possible that Imagine is reflecting the sometimes unsavory habits of scientists who are worried about getting the sort of results that will ensure the millions of dollars in funding necessary to continue their research and move forward in their scientific careers. These habits often bleed over into the way scientists relate their work to journalists. The researcher who had subjects draw the “before” and “after” horses was quoted in The New York Times as calling TMS “a creativity-amplifying machine.” This sort of comment implies a causal link that has not yet been scientifically established, and it can tempt journalists into overstatement. Nevertheless, it is the job of the science writer to represent science as it is, to report on the often ambiguous reality of the scientific process — not to suggest certainty where it does not exist, even if it may seem more appealing to readers.
Everyone is looking for answers. By understanding the brain, the thinking goes, we can better understand ourselves and therefore change — our habits, diets, workplaces — in order to be better, happier versions of ourselves. This promise fuels neuroscience’s great popular appeal. However, while today’s neuroscience offers a deeper understanding the brain than ever before, it is still incomplete. It is far from providing the answers, or advice, that readers might find most satisfying. In the introduction, Imagine promises to deliver “what creativity is…how creativity works” and how “we can make it work for us” by revealing different types of creativity at work in different regions of the brain. This promise defies the reality of current brain science: despite the incredible progress of the past century, scientists really know very little about how the organ works, and can only postulate how neural mechanisms might be related to mind and behavior. People are looking, too soon, to neuroscience for answers.
We need good translators of science to the general public, and Lehrer has the public’s ear and the public’s trust. He is at his best when putting his considerable talents to the task of telling a story that is true according to the facts as we know them, rather than telling a story people want to hear.
In Harold and the Purple Crayon, that beloved children’s book by Crockett Johnson, the moon that Harold draws at the beginning of the story is what allows him to return to his bedroom at the end of the story. In fact, once Harold draws his purple moon, it appears on every page. It has to–it’s lighting his way. Not that a reader, young or old, would necessarily notice its ubiquity on first read. It’s not until afterward, or on subsequent readings, that Johnson’s superb and simple plotting reveals itself. The moon was there, all along, waiting for the climax. Its purpose in the story is, as Aristotle put it, surprising and inevitable.
I was reading (and re-reading) Harold and the Purple Crayon soon after I’d discovered the work of Tana French, the Irish crime writer of prodigious talents who has published a trio of novels about detectives in Dublin. French got me thinking a lot about plot precisely because she writes mysteries, a genre that requires the most tightly-constructed stories: the moon must be gracefully and subtly placed, or you risk losing your reader. I write this with confidence, even though I’ve read very little crime fiction in my life. I’m the kind of reader who devours episode after episode of Law and Order: SVU and then repairs to the bath (the bawth) to read a novel free of blood, murder, and so on.
I was excited to tear into French’s first novel, In the Woods. I imagined myself staying up all night, rushing to the story’s end. I figured that homicide Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, investigating the murder of a young girl, would be literary versions of Detectives Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson. I moronically told anyone who would listen what I was planning to read. “A whodunit!” I cried. “A police procedural!” I wanted blood, and detectives with latex gloves.
What I got was a few lessons on plot.
If a scene is the completion of an action in a specific time and place, then plot is…what, exactly? I’d venture to say that it’s the relationship between these scenes. It’s the irresistible pull–and meaningful accumulation of–cause and effect. (“The king died and then the queen died of grief,” as E.M. Forster famously put it.) It’s the moon planted at the beginning of the story, paying off at the end.
But there’s more. Beyond the world of storytelling, plot is defined as a secret scheme to reach a specific end. Or it’s a parcel of land. Or it means to mark a graph, chart, or map: the plotting shows us what has changed; our ship is headed this way. To a writer (me) interested in (obsessed with?) plot-making, all of these are significant definitions. The lessons abound. I once read somewhere that Margaret Atwood compared novel writing to performing burlesque: don’t take off your clothes too slowly, she advised, or the reader will get bored; get naked too fast, and the entertainment ends before it can really begin. I put that in my plot-pocket, too.
So how did French’s books help and influence my thoughts on plot? Here it goes:
1. Call me ignorant, but I was surprised that In the Woods didn’t move as swiftly as my favorite hour-long network cop dramas. There was air around the clue-finding, and the mystery didn’t unravel as cleanly as I expected. It might have if the story’s protagonist, Detective Ryan, weren’t so damaged, haunted as he is by a second (and unsolved) crime that happened when he was a boy. The thing is, were Detective Ryan not haunted, the story would lack not only emotional weight, but its narrative engine, too. Ryan’s internal conflict feeds the external one. As with all good stories, character nurtures plot, emerges from it. The most dramatic element of the narrative is the relationship between Detectives Ryan and Maddox, and how the murder case they’re investigating strengthens and then threatens that relationship. The scenes of them drinking wine in Maddox’s attic flat, and the passages about their partnership and the shared understanding between them, feed the thrill of the crime-solving, even as they divert from it.
Lesson: Although the reader wants to find out what happens, longs to have the mystery revealed, the mysteries of existence, of human interaction, which aren’t so easy to solve, are often the most pleasurable to experience on the page. A writer need not move inexorably toward the finish line. The asides, the exhales, are allowed. They are required.
2. I often hear people say that with genre fiction (and addictive young adult fiction), plot trumps prose. The writing needs to be invisible, they say, so that story can take center stage. But with French’s work that isn’t the case. Her prose is sharp and beautiful, and it draws attention to itself. French isn’t a sentence acrobat like Sam Lipsyte, but her prose is certainly visible. In The Likeness, French’s second novel, narrated by Detective Cassie Maddox, we get fun phrases like, “I hate nostalgia, it’s laziness with prettier accessories,” and “The lights of the house spun blurred and magic as the lights of a carousel.” This kind of writing calls to mind what John Gardner dubbed the “foreplay paragraph,” one that makes you want to read faster, to find out what happens, but which nevertheless keeps you anchored to it because the sentences are so well-constructed, so…sexy. It’s the writing that makes you not skip ahead: to the dead body, the nudity, the climax.
Now, I admit, The Likeness, my favorite of French’s novels, has a pretty unbelievable premise: a dead woman is discovered who looks just like Cassie…and this corpse also happens to be carrying identification that claims she’s Lexie Madison, Cassie’s former undercover alias. From there, Cassie infiltrates the victim’s tight-knit group of friends, posing as Lexie (the survived version). It’s a Gothic The Secret History, with more secrets and more police.
The absurd doppelganger premise is saved, I think, by Cassie’s voice. That is, by the prose. Who cares if what brings Cassie back to her undercover identity is a touch far-fetched if the descriptions are so right on? What French really wants us to focus on is the delicious and dangerous pull Cassie feels toward this isolated group of friends in their big, crumbling house. And our narrator describes the seduction of belonging so, so well.
Lesson: What Gary Lutz calls “page-hugging” prose isn’t necessarily anathema to plot. The descriptions in The Likeness may force the reader to slow down to savor the imagery and the sense of place (that plot of land), but they also serve to emphasize Cassie’s growing attachment to the crime’s possible suspects. As with In the Woods, what threatens the investigation magnifies the relationship between its players and its deeper meanings, and it makes solving the investigation that much more fun for the reader. Beautiful prose begets a beautiful plot.
3. By the time I got to French’s third novel, Faithful Place, I was able to figure out who the killer was fairly quickly. I’m not sure if that’s because I’d gotten more adept at reading crime novels, or if French made it easy. The thing is, it didn’t matter; I was still hooked to the story.
At the beginning of Faithful Place, undercover cop Frank Mackey is drawn back to the working class neighborhood he left at age nineteen, vowing never to return. He’d planned to go to England with his girlfriend, Rosie Daly, but she took off without him–or so he assumed. 22 years later, when Rosie’s packed suitcase is discovered in an abandoned house on his old street, Frank must not only reckon with what really happened to his first love, he must also face the dysfunctional family he’s tried so hard to leave behind. Juicy, right? But what happened to Rosie becomes secondary to Frank’s conflicts with his family, to his (impossible?) desire to escape his past and class.
What I love about French’s work is how she refuses to answer every question the story raises; in fact, sometimes the ones she does answer feel a little too easy, as if borrowed from a lesser, more simplistic narrative (see the less-than-stellar conclusion of In the Woods). She is better at vague, I think, more comfortable with loose ends. As Laura Miller points out in Salon:
French herself doesn’t play by the rules, and the prime rule of crime fiction, no matter how grisly, cynical or edgy, is that the plot begins with a disruption of order (the crime itself) and ends with the restoration of it, albeit in some slightly battered form. The guilty parties are identified and usually punished, secrets are unearthed and, above all, the world returns to intelligibility, however bitter the message it has to tell.
The crime is solved in The Faithful Place, but it isn’t until after the killer is revealed that the book’s grace becomes apparent. With the crime figured out, Frank and the reader must wrestle with bigger questions, discomforts and difficulties. There’s a darkness to the ending that’s deeply moving.
Lesson: A scene should raise multiple questions, but the scene that follows isn’t required to answer everything. Some questions can be carried from scene to scene, through an entire book, teasing the reader, or they can be posed in the final pages. The burlesque dancer might want to leave her brassiere on, and it can still be a damn fine show. Or: she can show you her tits, and you might be up all night thinking about her wrists, which had been covered all along.
4. In the Woods teaches us how to solve a murder, and, more importantly, how to work a case with a partner. (Or, maybe, how to botch that partnership.)
Detective Ryan says:
I wish I could tell you how an interrogation can have its own beauty, shining and cruel as that of a bullfight; how in defiance of the crudest topic or the most moronic suspect it keeps inviolate its own taut, honed grace, its own irresistible and blood-stirring rhythms; how the great pairs of detectives know each other’s every thought as surely as lifelong ballet partners in a pas de deux…
The Likeness teaches us how to go undercover. As Cassie tells us:
“…bad stuff happens to undercovers. A few of them get killed. More lose friends, marriages, relationships. A couple turn feral, cross over to the other side so gradually that they never see it happening till it’s too late, and end up with discreet, complicated early-retirement plans. Some, and never the ones you’d think, lose their nerve–no warning, they just wake up one morning and all at once it hits them what they’re doing, and they freeze like tightrope walkers who’ve looked down…And some go the other way, the most lethal way of all: when the pressure gets to be too much, it’s not their nerve that breaks, it’s their fear. They lose the capacity to be afraid, even when they should be.”
Faithful Place teaches how to lead your own private investigation, how to take your work home with you; Frank isn’t supposed to be on the Rosie investigation, but he must figure out what happened. As with the other two books, there are also nuggets of professional wisdom throughout. For instance, we learn that an undercover cop learns to flick a switch in his mind so that “the whole scene unfolds at a distance on a pretty little screen, while you watch and plan your strategies and give the characters a nudge now and then, alert and absorbed and safe as a general.”
What Faithful Place taught me best, though, is how to be working class Irish. What to eat and drink, how to say “Jaysus” instead of “Jesus,” and what to call the new middle class neighbors: “epidural yuppies.”
Lesson: Mysteries, and detective novels in particular, are how-to manuals in a sense. Part of their magnetism is that they teach readers how to be bad-ass cops: brave, sharp, maybe even crooked. But, really, there’s an instructional aspect to every story. The reader is learning the world of the characters, and the rules therein, and it’s pleasurable to be immersed in that day-to-day experience, in the expertise of others. The writer is teaching you how to live as someone else. She is also teaching you how to read her narrative. The writer guides your expectations. This is how plot works in this unique narrative.
You see, Tana French taught me that plot is a strange and amorphous aspect of craft, never a one-formula-fits-all kind of thing. (What in fiction is?) Sometimes the moon’s on page two, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes you’re reading for the moon, and sometimes you’re reading because you like the color purple, or Harold’s little jumpsuit, or Harold himself. Will he make it home safe? What does his journey even mean, anyway?
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?
Several years ago a friend of a friend of mine received free tickets to a new production of The Taming of The Shrew in Washington D.C. and made the unfortunate decision of bringing me along. I grew dismayed as the play progressed, believing that it was perhaps impossible to try to reinterpret a play so rife with misogyny. I’ve listened to the many reasons people have provided for why this play is actually a critique of patriarchy, how the final scene is so obviously repellent that it is impossible for anyone, least of all Shakespeare, to be condoning these values. In researching others opinions, I found a review of Conall Morrison’s 2008 version of this play for The Royal Shakespeare Company by Peter Lathan, who stated “In our modern political correctness we tend to think that Shrew was a play about keeping women in their place, just as we relate Merchant (the companion piece to Shrew in the RSC Theatre Royal season) to anti-Semitism, but that, perhaps, says more about contemporary preoccupations than it does about Shakespeare, for certainly Conall Morrison’s Shrew is more about status than misogyny.”
In my mind, the fact that some people today do still find women and minority rights to be mere “contemporary preoccupations” rather than actual human rights issues, makes the issue of lauding or critiquing a new interpretation of an old play especially slippery. Generally speaking, new versions of older literary works strive to do one of two things: exalt the original author’s story, or else try to save it from the weight of its own history. I have always been particularly confused by some feminists’ desire to reignite old stories with female characters or else reinvent female characters from days yore. We have so few new stories that delve into current female experience, that taking the time to further empower these older works seems to actually reinforce the notion that literature is a man’s world, and that the most women can do is amend these staple stories, rather than writing new works of their own.
Tim Burton’s new version of Alice in Wonderland is in some ways a feminist dream. It contains a screenplay written by a woman, Linda Woolverton, who strives to provide her audience with a self-actualized Alice, an Alice who is a warrior, rather than a princess. In this new chapter, Alice is 19 years old and at the mercy of a decidedly anti-feminist Victorian age, in which her main option in life is marrying an unimaginative bore of a Duke who, his mother warns Alice, has “digestive issues.” Rather than heed the sage advice of her mother, Alice does not don a corset, but rather begins chasing a real life rabbit she seems to remember from her dreams. She falls deep down the rabbit hole where she ends up in “Underland”, welcomed by several talking animals, all of whom want her to be the champion who fights the terrifying Jabberwocky and, in doing so, defeat the evil Red Queen.
Perhaps on its own this would actually be a fantastically good story. The problem is, it bares little or no relation to the actual text of Alice in Wonderland, which is not a fantasy or action-adventure novel, but a small and clever little book, filled with imaginative puzzles, rhymes, word games and mathematical problems, much more akin to a female version of The Phantom Tollbooth or Harold and The Purple Crayon than Star Wars or Lord of The Rings. The original Alice was neither a princess nor a warrior; she was a little girl. The book is actually refreshingly free of gender stereotypes. Alice is portrayed as smart and imaginative, filled with wonder at the world around her, but the focus is never so much on Alice per say, as it is on the world itself. In some ways, the wonderful thing about Alice in Wonderland is that it provided girls with a story which centered around their perspective of a fantasy world, but could ultimately be relatable to a little boy as well. By drawing more attention to the gender norms of Victorian England, Woolverton actually creates issues of sexism which never existed in the original edition.
This decision by Woolverton and Burton is a shame for a variety of reasons. First, because there is nothing interesting or controversial about showing that Victorian women were dealt a tough hand, and as such, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to force this particular trope onto this particular story. Second, it is reductionist. Why is it we have to see a woman play the role of a classic warrior in order to view her story as important enough to necessitate a big blockbuster movie? Lastly, it simply obscures the small joys that come from reading the original work. Many of Tim Burton’s films effectively capture the bizarre and otherworldly language of childhood; Alice in contrast seems like a composite of typical CGI images, chase scenes and the requisite action sequences that pop out of the screen, but fail to leave any sense of haunting after the credits roll on.
In the end, I find myself yearning for visions of female agency which are neither critiques of a patriarchal past, nor visions of an equally patriarchal future, wherein women are only valued if they are seen as tough and warrior like as their male predecessors. Perhaps Carroll’s original story worked because it wasn’t about what it meant to be a woman at all. Instead, it was about a particular girl and her particularly curious adventures into a world of nonsense so unique there still hasn’t been a film version which has really done it justice.
(Half of) Boswell, Stanley Elkin: My ambitious plan to read all of Elkin devolved into a desperate plan to keep from defaulting on my mortgage. I hope to give this one (and the rest of the oeuvre) the time it deserves in 2010, because Elkin, aside from being funny, is a master craftsman on the sentence level.
The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders: You’re a good man, Charlie Brown.
I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Percival Everett: It’s no Erasure, and I’m still not sure that the “whoa-crane-shot!” ending isn’t a shuck. But any book that features a Professor of Nonsense Philosophy is ultimately all right with me.
“The Sin of Jesus”, Isaac Babel (trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew): Grotesque, hilarious, profane, life-changing, and quicker than 8 Minute Abs.
Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, Michael Chabon: I read most of this waiting to hear Mr. Chabon read at the Tattered Cover in LoDo. I’d warned him in advance that, as somewhat of a book blogger (part book lover, part mugger), I’d have to come pester him after the reading. Of course, it never dawned on me that the time would come that I’d have to slide my copy of Manhood for Amateurs across the table and say “Hey…I’M THE RAKE!!!” That moment is the quintessence of life on the extreme margins of literature.
Harold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson: Great children’s book or greatest children’s book?
D.T. Max, “The Unfinished“: Still can’t believe DFW is gone.