A confession: sometimes, when I can’t seem to muster my prose past some insurmountable stretch in a manuscript, I utter the words “Game Six.” Some writers, in this situation, smoke tobacco. Other writers smoke stuff that is definitely not tobacco. I’ve heard of head-banging and tea-drinking and all manner of ball-squeezing. But for me, the trick is the greatest game in the history of the Detroit Pistons.
Dial it back to the 1988 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Pistons. Going into Game Six, the Lakers are favorites to win. They’ve got legends Kareem Abdul-Jabar, James Worthy, and Magic Johnson. They’ve got the kind of reputation where one of the least regular things in the world, an NBA Finals win, seems the natural outcome for them. Detroit? Well, they’ve got a few passive aggressive contact maneuvers and ambition. Just a few years ago, they were one of the worst teams in the league, but by Game Six in 1988, the Pistons lead the series 3-2, meaning if the Pistons win the game, they take the championship victory for the first time in history.
It’s a close game. Captain Isiah Thomas scores 14 points in a row. There’s the possibility of a playoffs win tingling in his fingertips, and in the order of the court, an aperture seems to open, one through which the Pistons might prevail to become the country’s best professional basketball team. Thomas passes the ball to shooting guard Joe Dumars and takes an awkward step. Just one. But one wrong step can end careers. The aperture closes quickly. Thomas goes down, and sprawled on the floor grabs his shin, as though he might hold his right leg together. He limps to the bench with the help of the Pistons’ trainer.
Except Thomas is not a guy who can sit idly watching his team squander a shot for the title, even if he has a sprained ankle. So seconds later, he returns to play. The rest of the game seems unreal. Sneaker rubber chirps across the court like injured birds. Thomas dogs toward the ball with a hiccupping stride, shoots, scores, shoots, scores. At the end of the quarter, he’ll have taken 25 points for the Pistons on a sprained ankle, setting an NBA record. It’s the most awing performance in Pistons history, the kind of game where somehow, no matter how arbitrary the rules, as foolish as devoting one’s loyalty to one team may be, and in spite of one’s better judgment telling you that pro athletes earn millions for what can only be called recreation, you might find yourself levitating with the confidence that the human will can manhandle any physical limit. Then the Pistons lose, by one point, on Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s final free throw. Thomas’s best is glorious, but it isn’t enough.
And this titanic insufficiency is exactly what I consider when I write, because the athlete’s work is the writer’s work. This comparison may offend those of Cartesian mind-body division persuasion, but sport and fiction are both vocations requiring incredible efforts, imbued with the potential for real beauty, and perhaps offering little utility. Try to explain what’s so important about writing a novel, and what you’ll end up with is not so far from those offered by ye of muscular bent: It’s inspiring. It manifests happiness. It interrogates limitations. It’s for its own sake. It makes us feel less alone. It illustrates the human condition.
More importantly, writers and athletes are both in the business of narrative. As any sports fan will tell you, winning is not what makes a great game; the outcome is mostly irrelevant to the grace of the sailing pass, the coy swish of the net, the steam engine hook sending a fan of glittering sweat from the dumbstruck face of a falling opponent. Yes, we know from the beginning that Humbert Humbert will be found out, but, oh, how those sentences dazzle! The coiling clauses, the bubbling rhythms, the promiscuity of meaning — that is the material of literature. No writer writes merely for the ending, just as no player is simply in the game to see themselves on the other end of the clock. Their jobs aren’t to answer, “What happens in the end?” but “How does the story unfurl?”
Not that ending isn’t a consideration. I don’t know a single writer who loves the idea of writing unfinished manuscript after unfinished manuscript ad infinitum. In fact, I think that that’s most writers’ primary fear in media res. But a book doesn’t appear fully gestated, and it isn’t formed any better by getting it over with. If that were the case, A Farewell to Arms would read in its entirety: We loved and she died anyway. The Hound of the Baskervilles might be: A mystical dog isn’t killing people. The Pulitzer would go to the most outstanding Tweet. Congratulations, Werner Twertzog.
What we see instead from writers is something like a game played with language. Of course when you’re writing, the occupational hazards don’t include facing elephantine men whose primary directive is weaponizing 300 pounds of flesh against you to bone-crushing effect; writing, though it may not always seem so in workshop, is not head-to-head competition. But what authors often do find is that when they’ve written themselves into the corner, they’re looking for the holes where they can pull an agile maneuver. They’ve got a vocabulary of plays, and there’s only one combination they’ll orchestrate for the forward drive. Often, the most spectacular moments are the ones where the constraints seem impossible to work through.
Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, The Mezzanine, takes the form of a single lunch break escalator ride. The narrative doesn’t derive tension from a single challenge or imminent threat. Nor is there a particular adversary. In other words, several years ago, Baker found himself in the complex choreography of composing a novel, one bounded by two floors, and he was going to need some fancy fucking footwork to make the narrative move. So he planted the body on the moving escalator to push his narrator forward through time, all the while the mind splintering into branches of thought — and footnotes — that pivot back in time even as the narrator continues up, up, up. In a 2011 interview with The Paris Review, Baker considered his writing process in strikingly athletic terms:
It was totally absorbing, the feeling of being sunk in the midst of a big, warm, almost unmanageable pond. I could sense all these notes I had, all these observations I’d saved up to use, finally arranging themselves in relation to one other.
Baker’s syntax reveals some ambivalence about his own agency. He could sense, but it’s the observations that arranged themselves. It’s almost as though he cannot quite take credit for his work. The novel is one part the sense of the writer and one part some alchemical miracle stepping one word beyond another, as though preparation has met luck and spat out a slim volume of genius. It’s the kind of statement that could make a lot of aspiring writers push their wheelie chairs back and reach for the good stuff, because, in moments of doubt, it’s easy to wonder the extent to which the lottery of talent muscles out studiousness.
Can every writer be a Nicholson Baker? Can every athlete be an Isiah Thomas? I don’t know. But what I can say is that in both the athletic and literary worlds, interested parties find themselves asking whether the ratio for a successful career skews more toward aptitude or labor. Francine Prose begins her nouveau classic Reading Like a Writer by asking, “Can creative writing be taught?” It’s a question familiar to those following the ongoing M.F.A. debates and one that inverts that of David Epstein, who asks in his book The Sports Gene, “Do ‘sports genes’ exist at all?”
When we consider these questions, fiction and athletics suddenly become arenas where fate and free will grapple in a confusion of twisted limbs. To call a book a work of genius is to marry it to destiny, the kismet of the extraordinary mind. We rarely, however, call an esteemed novel a work of assiduousness, even as we urge students of writing to dedicate themselves to craft considerations. Perhaps because the mind is less visible than the slight frame, we’re less likely to say that a decent prose stylist probably won’t cut it as a writer than to tell a really good defensive lineman that he may not have enough body mass to carry out pro ball-level hard hitting.
While drafting my novel The Hopeful, which, coincidentally, considers whether grand resolve can overcome mediocre ability, I sometimes did wonder if I was deluded to believe I could write a book or just doing what anyone might: working my ass off until I had a manuscript to show for it. In a way, my problem was also that of my protagonist Ali, a young woman who, after an injury, is unsure whether the betrayals of the body have disqualified her from her dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. Ali wishes to return to the world of competitive figure skating, a sport, like literature, of individuals rather than teams — and one in which the triumphant performance requires the demonstration of both technical facility and artistic merit, a realm where most people fail. In figure skating, an athlete attempts to learn maneuvers she may or may not be capable of performing by throwing herself into the air, falling, trying again and again, and maybe never succeeding. She’s invested not in the agony of defeat, but the agony of hope. And wasn’t I, too, as I wrote, throwing myself on the page to find out whether or not a novel would land?
There was the moment I got to page 40 and didn’t have a clue what my character would do next. There was the period where I decided to cut up a chapter and insert sections throughout the novel as flashbacks but couldn’t see how without sinking the narrative momentum. After the first draft was complete and the middle still felt flaccid, I pondered whether the whole scheme had been an enormous waste.
In his essay “Digging the Subterranean,” Charles Baxter notes that the board game Careers gestures toward a fundamental strain of narrative. The players are meant to choose which life goal they most desire: money, fame, or love. The part where everyone trips up is that you aren’t rewarded for points won in other realms. Want money and instead receive love? You lose. Want love and not fame? You and Taylor Swift both. “To ask for certain outcomes in life and to get another result,” he writes, “is tragic or comic or some combination of the two, depending on where the observer is standing…These discrepancies are at the core of many great stories, and myths.” This was the center of my novel. Ali wants to be an elite athlete, but she’d be much more successful if she just played to her skills, became a litigator or something more cerebral. It occurred to me that life would be an easier and more champagne bubbling existence if I took a job as a pharmaceutical rep instead of writing something that would only maybe one day be a novel. I was possibly situated in a losing round of Careers.
But this is where Game Six really factors in. Perhaps it’s Pollyannaish, but I do believe that that night in 1988, Isiah Thomas returned to the court with his gimpy ankle not for the win or big coin or fame but because he loved basketball. It’s easy to fantasize about the published book or the championship victory, and it’s easy to believe that whatever handicaps we suffer, whether the blocked mind or the swelling sprain, are too difficult to circumvent. Yet, I didn’t start writing to publish a novel, even if that’s what ended up happening. I started because I liked the late-night game of turning sentences, plowing clauses to the top or bottom to vary effect, whispering paragraphs to listen for the caught rhythm and assonant glide. So when the story goes flat or the words snag, I don’t convince myself I can knock out a novel or bribe myself with imagined printed books. I think of Isiah Thomas in ungainly pursuit of baskets, throwing that orange globe, hands hanging like autumn’s last leaves from raised wrists, not quite enough and rapturous.
Image Credit: Flickr/slgckgc.
Like many of you reading this magazine, I view work primarily as a distraction from reading.
In this, I consider myself relatively lucky; as a teacher, much of my work consists of reading, and although this reading – papers mostly, with some student fiction mixed in – isn’t always what I’d choose to read in my spare time, it’s a whole lot better than being asked to evaluate something dry and bureaucratic: manuals for outdated AV equipment, maybe, or a prospectus on public health.
In fact, I’m doubly lucky, because once a week my job shifts from the classroom to the nearby library archives, where I work in data entry, processing very old books. I’m not lucky because of the work itself, per se, which is rote; after nine hours (minus lunch) of scanning bar codes and typing in author, title, and publication history my brain feels both mechanical and somewhat foggy: a kind of drunken robot. I’m lucky because the rote nature of the work allows me to listen to books on tape.
I say allows, but I could just as easily say requires, since without the distraction these books provide I might be unable to finish my tasks at all.
(Here is where I will refrain from speaking at length of the distant sadness contained in a stack of micro-run poetry chapbooks from the 1970s: the men with mutton chops in quilted jackets, seated on the hood of a rusty car, and who thank said car in the acknowledgments; the practicing nuns with highly sexual poems regarding Jesus and the potency of wayward bulls.)
At its best, the book on tape leads the listener into a kind of reverie. By shifting the locus of linguistic labor onto the reader’s voice, the listener receives the vision of the story directly. I can think of nothing closer to the model of what John Gardner called “a vivid and continuous dream.” Your mind can wander, while you work. You type in this world. You live in another.
I know I shouldn’t use the term “book on tape.” It’s doubly anachronistic; tapes have long since been replaced by CDs, and CDs, in turn, by the seeming purity of a digital file, recorded in a studio somewhere and then uploaded to a central database where a listener can access it when needed: in the cold, dry basement of library storage, pressed up against a cinderblock wall, ears wrapped up in cushy, noise-canceling headphones.
But I can’t help holding on to the term. It reminds me of physical history, of which I was once a part. At twenty-nine, I’m just old enough to remember the time when, entering the public library in the small city of Bridgeton – a slowly dwindling farm-supply and lumber outpost in rural South Jersey – my mother and I would be confronted by a wide, tall shelf labelled “Books on Tape,” which, unlike the library’s books, were limited to one rental at a time. They were big, bulky plastic packages, much thicker than video boxes, sometimes containing up to eight tapes, and, if the book was especially long, composed of two packages, held together at the spine.
I don’t know who their target audience was, other than bookish ten-year-olds like myself, who enjoyed the experience of being read to, but I like to imagine it spanned all class and age brackets; a soybean farmer listening to Raymond Chandler while piloting his combine through an autumn field, or an aging tax attorney listening to Dickens while picking his kids up from some springtime soccer game.
I used the tapes primarily to fall asleep. As a small child I was terrified of the dark, and although for various reasons (divorce, other distractions) my parents had given up reading to me, a voice in the night remained a source of comfort. On a bad night – or if the book was especially riveting – I’d stay awake for the whole story, as I once did for The Hound of the Baskervilles.
(A giant howling dog, its snout outlined in phosphorus – not highly recommended as a nightmare cure.)
On a good night I was asleep before the warning came – end of side one – and the tape shuttled to a stop.
Thus I have an imperfect recollection of much of the most popular authors offered by my small-town public library: Dickens, Poe, Austen. Some chains, a raven, several weddings of dubious provenance.
I also came to the terrible misconception – misled, I think, by the subtitle Read by the Author, which I came to believe was common to every package – that the person reading was invariably the person who’d written the book: a mistake I blame for my wicked tendency to conflate author and narrator, Holden and Salinger, Wormwood and C.S. Lewis.
In those days I had very vivid dreams. I assume everyone’s dreams are more vivid in childhood – but I sometimes wonder, flattering myself shamelessly, if mine weren’t more vivid than most, falling asleep with someone else’s world playing into my ear.
Nowadays I face a problem: how to get access to books-on-tape, down in the archives? The library basement has no tape or CD player, and the computer I use is old and slow. Moreover, I don’t want to spend any money; paying for distractions in order to accomplish paid labor seems a little outrageous to me, or maybe it’s the fault of Bridgeton Public Library, for hooking me on the concept of free media, years ahead of the curve.
It makes sense that books-on-tape would be expensive. There’s the matter of copyright, and then there’s the matter of finding an actor to read for long stretches at a time. As any listener knows, the reader matters; I’ll never forget the aesthetic experience of hearing Basil Rathbone read “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe’s already purple prose brought to the maximum pitch of ridiculousness, or the nearly unpronouncable vocabulary of H.P. Lovecraft, forced through the gravelly larynx of underappreciated voice actor Wayne June.
It’s hard work to talk for an entire day.
Such actors add a level of subtlety and clarity to the experience – but are they necessary? When I think of the books-on-tape from my childhood, it isn’t the professional sheen I remember, but the sense of intimacy, of one voice speaking directly to the listener. Listening to a book-on-tape is always, in some sense, nostalgic; one remembers the primal experience of being read to as a child – and most of us weren’t lucky enough to have trained actors as parents.
Which is why I’ve become so enamored with the website Librivox, which bills itself, tongue-twistingly, as the “acoustical liberation of books in the public domain.” Essentially, it’s a database of books that are out of copyright, read by volunteers, and available for free.
Amateurism is part of the purpose here, but it has its drawbacks. Speaking charitably, one has to admit that the readers vary widely in their performance styles; as their website puts it, “[w]e’ll accept you no matter what you sound like.” The breadth of titles is fairly impressive, however, and not all that different from the stuff I once found in the library: classics, mostly, with a few odd treasures thrown in: Japanese ghost stories, sea-faring yarns, early pulp sci-fi.
Most impressive, however, is the amount of reading labor these people are willing to volunteer for free. Several weeks ago I spent my entire workday listening to a recording of Heart of Darkness made by Kristin LeMoine, a mother of two who has somehow found the time to record nearly a hundred full-length audiobooks, including works by H.G. Wells, Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott, and whose pleasant, straightforward, and clear reading style helped cool down some of Conrad’s more overheated descriptions. I’d trust her with Ivanhoe, if I ever have the time to listen to the whole thing.
How can I adequately thank Kristin LeMoine for her work? I suppose a short note on the LibriVox forums might do, but it couldn’t do justice to the odd intimacy of living with a stranger’s voice for the entirety of a working day, hearing the pops of their home microphone and the sudden sharp edits that show when they got up to go to the bathroom, or to feed their children.
So what makes a good reader? My youthful confusions aside, having written a book doesn’t always make you a good candidate for reading one, as evidenced by the poor performance of many of the authors featured in “X reads Y” podcasts. Perhaps this should be self-evidence from experience with fiction readings. Most writers overvalue the work of words on the page, and undervalue the excitement of rhythm and cadence. Or maybe they’re simply shy.
(Though this disillusionment doesn’t stop me from conjuring up writer/reader combinations made impossible by time and language: Woolf/Proust, Williams/Stein, and – my personal favorite – Beckett reading Flann O’Brien’s absurdist masterpiece The Third Policeman with the same lilting familiarity he brought to his own work.)
I suppose I have high standards for reading aloud. My father, once an aspiring actor, was an eager reader when it came to children’s books: a parent who could “do the voices,” as the kids like to say. I still remember sitting in our living room, watching the sun setting over the marshland in the window behind his head, while he read to us from Brian Jacques’s Redwall:
He intoned the second sentence, which repeated later in the chapter, like an ominous refrain, in a voice I remember as a basso profondo.
(Actually, my father is a baritone. These things deepen over time.)
Not all the readers at Librivox live up to this lofty example. Some recordings are ruined by a reader’s mumbling, others have poor fidelity, and others are simply ill-suited to the material; after all, everyone has their own preference when it comes to accents. Kristin Lemoine aside (who is, as far as I can tell, an American), I prefer the English and Irish readers. Maybe it’s simple exoticism, but I prefer the rolling cadence of the UK to the flat affect of the U.S. readership, especially when the work itself is English or Irish in origin.
And yet – part of the beauty of a site like Librivox is the sense of personal attachment evident in all these volunteers, professionalism be damned, and sometimes a less traditional voice lends an extra dimension to a story. Certainly gender is not an obstacle to good interpretation; if anything, women reading men (and vice versa) can adds depth to an episode, as when the aforementioned Kristin LeMoine narrates Marlowe’s visit to Kurtz’s former fiancee at the end of Heart of Darkness – a man might have succumbed to the temptation to turn the fiancee into a fool, but LeMoine renders her sympathetically, which only makes the tragic irony more painful.
Some of my most satisfying Librivox experiences have been episodes of productive disjunction; I have heard no greater depth of feeling than in the voice of Southern woman reading Thomas Hardy, and this reminds me of the original potential of books to bring you other states of mind, and to make connections.
I myself am not a Victorian Englishman, yet I feel a deep attachment to Hardy’s Wessex and its language. Why should I be so hypocritical, then, as to expect his words in an English accent?
Perhaps I’m too attached to reading aloud: to both being read to and reading to others. It’s an iron rule in my marriage, for instance, that I am not allowed to read passages in the book I’m currently devouring out loud to my wife, especially when she is in the middle of a book of her own. There is something mean-spirited and arrogant about the impulse to continually narrate. One can’t simply stand in the middle of a train platform, reciting Whitman in a basso profondo, without risking a police escort. There must be limits.
That being said, there are precious few opportunities in life to read and be read to, and there is something utopian to me about the creation of a site like Librivox, which – unlike Goodreads, which is slowly but surely evolving into yet another marketing arm of Amazon – operates solely on people’s inexhaustible appetite for reading and listening. It seems like a triumph of the old conception of the internet, which promised you access to thousands of other people who were willing to share their dreams and passions with total strangers: a conception which is increasingly being crowded out by more market-driven forces.
It is hard to explain, now that the internet has effectively annexed small towns such as the one in which I grew up, how important it was to me to go every week to the public library and pull those bulky plastic cases off of the shelves, one at a time, to take home. When I imagine the other people who walked through its Neoclassical facade and lingered a while at the same shelf, I can’t help but overlay my own experience onto them, and imagine they also used them a sort of portal into alternate lives: riding a steamboat down an African river as they ferried their children to basketball practice, or fretting over the foolish marriages of aristocratic Englishwomen as they double-checked the finances of their farm.
Time marches on, and there’s no use being nostalgic about old media. If I still lived near Bridgeton, I could get all the free audiobooks I wanted; the local library now provides free downloads to those who hold a library card.
But I am more interested in the way sites like Librivox have flipped the script on our conception of the audiobook; it has made us actors, once again. It used to be we went to library to hear stars of stage and screen intone the classics. It’s a delightfully democratic development that now, when we get a day off from work, we can settle down in front of our computers with a glass of water, turn on our microphones, and return the favor.
Image via Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com/Flickr
[The only real spoilers for the new series of Sherlock, which concluded last weekend in the United Kingdom, are for the first episode, “The Empty Hearse,” and will be marked as such.]
In 1893, after two novels, twenty-four short stories, and wild public acclaim, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes. In “The Final Problem,” published, like most of the stories before it, in The Strand, Holmes and Moriarty fight atop and then tumble over a Swiss waterfall; Dr. Watson, witnessing the struggle from a distance, determines that “any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless,” and puts his friend to rest. It had been six years since Holmes had begun deducing his way across the page, and Conan Doyle had had enough of his hero: “Poor Holmes is dead and damned,” he wrote later. “I couldn’t revive him if I would (at least not for years), for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do toward pate de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.” Three years later, in a speech at the Author’s Club in London, he said that, “I have been blamed for doing that gentleman to death, but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.”
The public, unsurprisingly, was furious. At least 20,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand, flooding the offices with angry letters and, apocryphally, donning black armbands in mourning. The Strand, likely dismayed at losing their star revenue source, announced that:
The news of the death of Sherlock Holmes has been received with most widespread regret, and readers have implored us to use our influence with Mr Conan Doyle to prevent the tragedy being consummated. We can only reply that we pleaded for his life in the most urgent, earnest and constant manner. Like hundreds of correspondents, we feel as if we have lost an old friend whom we could ill spare. Mr Doyle’s feeling was that he did not desire Sherlock to outstay his welcome, and that the public had had enough of him. This is not our opinion, nor is it the opinion of the public; but it is, we regret to say, Mr Doyle’s.
While The Strand was throwing Conan Doyle under the proverbial bus, he put some physical distance between himself and the British public, retreating to the Continent with his family. But the outcry inevitably reached him, and he later wrote, “I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public. They say that a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead, and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends. ‘You brute’ was the beginning of the letter of remonstrance which one lady sent me, and I expect she spoke for others beside herself. I heard of many who wept. I fear I was utterly callous myself.” In the years that followed he worked to put metaphorical distance between himself and his character, too, but while his more “serious” work, including the staunchly pro-imperial dispatches from the Boer War, was well-received, he failed to rekindle the extreme devotion of the British public. His 1899 A Duet with an Occasional Chorus, a love story that was by all accounts irredeemably sentimental, was outright panned — a book “quite unworthy of Mr. Conan Doyle’s reputation.” Andrew Lang, a prominent critic, summed it up: “It may be vulgar taste, but we decidedly prefer the adventures of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.”
Conan Doyle was a practical man. Back from Africa in 1901, eight years after the death of Sherlock Holmes, he began to write a new story based on a long trip to the Devonshire moors. He had a mystery; he lacked a detective. In the end, it seemed almost inevitable: “Why should I invent such a character,” he said, “when I already have him in the form of Sherlock Holmes.” The Hound of the Baskervilles is set before Holmes’s canonical death, but Conan Doyle had shown his hand. When he was knighted the following year, legend suggests that he was encouraged by King Edward VII, a great Holmes fan, to resurrect the character for good.
After a somewhat feeble explanation of how he survived and a relatively bland reunion (Watson faints, Holmes apologizes, and they shrug and go off crime-solving once again), the consulting detective returned. A final novel and 32 short stories kept Conan Doyle knocking out locked-room mysteries until just a few years before his death. The world changed drastically during these two decades, but the adventures of Holmes and Watson remained relatively constant — most of them were still set in the late-Victorian period, because the gap between Holmes’s death and resurrection, known as “The Great Hiatus” by fans, was just three years long. The public devoured them, but for many, and perhaps for Conan Doyle himself, something had been lost at the Reichenbach Falls. He wrote later, “Some have thought there was a falling off in the stories, and the criticism was neatly expressed by a Cornish boatman who said to me, ‘I think, sir, when Holmes fell over that cliff, he may not have killed himself, but all the same he was never quite the same man afterwards.’ I think, however, that if the reader began the series backwards, so that he brought a fresh mind to the last stories, he would agree with me that, though the general average may not be conspicuously high, still the last one is as good as the first.”
In 2012, after six feature-length episodes, myriad critical accolades and awards, and wild public acclaim, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat killed off Sherlock Holmes. But wait, no — you can’t talk about Sherlock without talking about the century that preceded it, because its foundations lay both in the stories and in the staggering number of iterations that followed.
It’s hard these days to think of an oft-adapted character as “singular,” to use Holmes’s favorite expression. Hollywood has us drowning in a sea of remakes and retellings, a sort of empty spin on fanfiction in which screenwriters and movie producers ask a mild “What…” rather than a brain-bending “What if?!” But there is something singular about Holmes, the “most portrayed literary human character in film & TV.” (Guinness Book of World Records, 2012. The most portrayed non-human character? Dracula.) There are reasons why the public was drawn to Holmes in the first place, and there are reasons why he endures. The forces at work in the modern Holmes boom, which began with the Guy Ritchie films in 2009, the first major adaptation in more than a decade, culminate in two relatively different modernized television shows, Sherlock and Elementary. The consulting detective in the present day gets at a great deal of nuance, and Sherlock in particular in many ways is a study of adaptations as much as of the canon. (The term canon, by the way, traditionally referred to the Bible, but it was in fact first applied to literature with Sherlock Holmes fans and their fan works, in 1911.)
To get at the heart of the appeal, you have to go to the source. The Victorian period saw a dramatic rise in crime, particularly in the British capital, and the invention of the literary detective was a direct response to public fears. Scotland Yard was formed in 1842, and through the establishment of methodical police work, crime rates began to decline. But as the century waned, public anxieties about crime actually rose: the Empire began to spill back onto domestic shores, and xenophobia bred somewhat unfounded fears about the safety of the streets, particularly in the nicer areas of London, far from the concentrated poverty and desolation of the East End. At the same time, rapid leaps in science were busy explaining away the modern world — as Sherlock Holmes came to fruition, many of Conan Doyle’s contemporaries were at work engaging with the ethical complexities of scientific advancement in their fiction, reconciling the romantic with the rational while dealing with growing worries about progress. Holmes hit at an exact convergence of the British public’s anxieties and desires — and he hopped around town solving crime with wit and flair, too.
Sherlock Holmes is a magician who explains his tricks: the deductive leaps that are so easy to parody — “Ah! I can see from the smudge of dirt on your left trouser cuff that your wife is having an affair!” — lie at the heart of the appeal of these stories across all adaptations. We are Watson, or just a bit swifter — we know Holmes’s methods, and revel in watching how they are applied. Holmes is ultra-rational, but the crimes are fanciful. In “Sherlock Holmes, Crime, and the Anxieties of Globalization,” a comprehensive study that situates Holmes perfectly in the time in which he was conceived, Michael Allen Gillespie and John Samuel Harpham cast him as a perfect arbiter of “collective human power”: “Holmes is less an individual than a literary or even mythological representation of the capacities of modern science applied to the discovery of criminal behavior. We can believe in Holmes, in part, because we believe in modern science and its claim that there is an answer to every question and a solution to every problem.”
Holmes works outside the law but endeavors, above all else, for justice to be done, a late-Victorian Batman, maybe, though not as tediously tortured. He is at his heart a conservative figure, working above all to restore order. His methods may test the bounds of morality from time to time, but he is imbued with an unshakable code of fairness. But most importantly, the stories are fun. Sure, they can be sloppy from time to time — I’ve seen it joked that the “C” in Conan Doyle stands for “continuity” (fans have been forced to speculate that with Watson’s war wound in the shoulder in one story and the leg in another, he must have been some sort of contortionist to manage such an injury). But nearly every story is an elegant little construction, a baffling case with a satisfyingly straightforward, rational solution. It’s easy to see what’s to love.
And people have really, really loved them. Even while Conan Doyle was still alive and writing, the adaptations began. Conan Doyle sanctioned it, famously replying to a request to put Holmes onstage with the line, “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” The practice of writing pastiches, essentially Holmesian fanfiction (though unlike most modern fanfiction, many have been written for traditional publication, and stand-outs like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer, have enjoyed great commercial success), has drawn enthusiasts for more than a century, including writers far more famous for other things, like J. M. Barrie, Dorothy Sayers, and Michael Chabon. The first screen adaptation was in 1900: “Sherlock Holmes Baffled.” Obsessives gathered; societies were formed; “The Game” was played. Some of the enduring appeal of the traditional adaptations lies in nostalgia for the late-Victorian period — see Vincent Starrett’s poem “221B” for a pure, unadulterated expression of that nostalgia, with its final couplet, “Here, though the world explode, these two survive/ And it is always eighteen ninety-five.”
Holmes booms have come and gone over the decades — the last major influx of adaptations was in the seventies — and though most are set amongst the old ‘swirling-fog-and-hansom-cabs’, they manage to tap into the anxieties of the ages in which they were conceived. But then there are the direct modernizations, which began with the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce films in the forties: the filmmakers pulled Holmes and Watson into their own time, fifty years on from the source material. One might argue that the modernization in the new millennium began not with Sherlock but with House, a relatively loose adaptation but still Holmesian at its core. (One might also argue that Holmes has influenced huge swaths of twentieth-century storytelling and modern forensics-based deductive crime solving, on television and elsewhere, but there’s only so much a single essay can handle here.) Moffat and Gatiss cite the Rathbone iteration when they talk about their decision to set Sherlock in modern London. Elementary, set in current-day New York with a female Watson (not the first female Watson, by the way) partly owes a debt to House, a clever, Holmes-influenced procedural that remained, at its heart, a procedural.
But in the modernization, all three work to get at something essential that’s changed in the past century, and Ashley D. Polasek draws parallels with them and the Ritchie films in “Surveying the Post-Millenial Sherlock Holmes: A Case for the Great Detective as a Man of Our Times.” “This is not just Holmes for the twenty-first century, but Holmes of the twenty-first century,” she writes, describing the shift from hero to “a more complex post-modern antihero” as fundamental to the new adaptations. The writers of these versions play on Holmes’s flaws, seen as eccentricities in many of the traditional adaptations, and position him as a child in need of management, with an overactive mind that needs to be engaged lest it slide into self-destruction.
Despite these parallels, the three current franchises — soon to be joined by a fourth, Bill Condon’s film with Ian McKellen as an elderly consulting detective — are their own animals: it’s reductive to compare them when they are each working to do something relatively different. And all due respect to Elementary and the Ritchie films, but it is January 2014, and after an excruciating two years waiting for the cast and crews’ schedules to align, Sherlock is back on our screens. On New Year’s Day, nine million Britons tuned in to see how Sherlock survived a leap from the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital at the end of the last series. If that was the first question on the collective mind of the nation, the second must surely have been: was this worth the wait?
“It isn’t supposed to be like this,” Steven Moffat, the co-creator of Sherlock, said recently, referring to this series’ domestic ratings, which have been the highest yet this series. “This show, which we all thought would be our vanity project destined for three million in the ratings and possibly an award from an obscure European festival, has become a barnstorming international phenomenon.” The rapid rise in the popularity of Sherlock means that more and more people will have to suffer through the long wait, known only partly affectionately by fans as “hiatus,” a reference to the original not-so-great one. The unique format, three feature-length episodes per series, invariably changes the demands of the production schedule, but what feel like endless gaps — eighteen months between series one and two, and two full years between two and three — are mostly the result of the recent exponential rise of the careers of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the latter of whom has spent a good portion of the past few years halfway around the world, filming The Hobbit trilogy in New Zealand. But Moffat spins the delays as a positive thing: “This feels like a good form, and it works for us,” he said last month. “Gaps and starvation have become part of the ecology of this. It certainly maintains it as an event.”
Sherlock is set in and often engages with ultra-modern London — the present-day capital, at least my corner of it, is a city that feels on the brink of perpetual change, steel and glass pressed up against ancient buildings. Sherlock sometimes feels like a similar mash-up, a layering of nearly 130 years of Holmes references carefully built by two of the world’s biggest fanboys, Moffat and Gatiss (it should be noted, too, that the episodes are peppered with homages to the history of film as well, though I’m more likely to spot an obscure Conan Doyle reference than literally anything at all from classic cinema). The longer episode length and the tendency toward sheer irreverence give Moffat and Gatiss space to prod at their characters, or, more often, to drag them through the fire. They’ve said it before, though they’ve never had to repeat it as vehemently as they have the past few weeks, that Sherlock is not a detective show, but rather a show about a detective.
Like plenty of other shows with a big fan base, Sherlock devotees run the gamut from casual enthusiast to bona fide obsessive. In Great Britain, a country whose television watching habits feel a bit more old-fashioned than ours, a third of all televisions are tuned to the big shows any given week, from Sherlock and the Doctor Who specials to things like The X Factor and the hit of the recent holiday period, Mrs. Brown’s Boys, a lowest-common denominator comedy with a cross-dressing lead that feels like it travelled in a TARDIS straight from 1977. Like the most popular Holmesian iterations before it, Sherlock does not exist in a vacuum — the show and its charmingly obnoxious “high-functioning sociopath” lead detective are beloved by the British public. The solution to the final question posed by the series two finale — how did Sherlock survive a jump off the roof of a building? — occupied prime space in British newspapers in the weeks afterwards. Theories were spun, some wilder than others (some frankly insane), stuff involving masks and ropes and strange angles and sleeping draughts and body-switching and inflatable bouncy castles and, of course, a squash ball under the armpit, to stop the pulse.
And herein lie the concrete spoilers for “The Empty Hearse,” and really, if you plan to watch it and haven’t yet, please stop reading now. Gatiss was tasked writing the first episode, which brings Sherlock back from the dead, and he took the clever route out — it’s a route out, undeniably, a clear acknowledgement that the public would never be fully satisfied with any solution. At the premiere of the episode at the BFI in December, the press were given a list of embargoed topics that included both how Sherlock survived and when in the episode this information is revealed — the two fake-out explanations and the final, most plausible one at the end. (Being given this information prior to the screening with no specifics was, as you can imagine, pretty confusing!) We are left with a heavy seed of doubt, even when the explanation comes from Sherlock’s own mouth: if we are inclined to be Anderson-like, we will continue to poke holes in the theory, or we’ll sigh and say, “Well. That’s not how I would have done it.”
I found the concept very clever, and “The Empty Hearse,” a fan club that dons deerstalkers and meets to talk theory, tweeting out #sherlocklives when the detective returns from the dead, was a fascinating piece of meta-commentary, not least because, at the BBC’s prompting, that same hashtag had been tweeted at extraordinary rates for a publicity stunt, more than half a million times even before the final episode aired last week. But the British public was left divided. Because the episode, too, was leveled with (in my opinion, largely unfair) accusations of “fanservice” — in-jokes, nods to unlikely romantic pairings, and frequent references to the two prior series. Op-eds were penned, in The Guardian and elsewhere, suggesting there was no more room for a casual fan when a show’s writers were focused on the deeply devoted. And on a baser level, some were still left scratching their heads at the explanation of the fall. But, as to be expected, this is all far from new. In a recent hour-long conversation with Empire (a seriously interesting one for fans, by the way, but I can’t stress this enough: do not listen until you’ve seen all three episodes), Gatiss and Moffat chuckle at the parallels with Conan Doyle’s Holmes resurrection:
Gatiss: We discovered a lovely review of “The Empty House,” Doyle’s original story, in which of course Doyle says that he escaped due to his knowledge of an obscure form of misspelled Japanese wrestling. And the reviewer basically says, “Oh, come on, Dr. Doyle.” It’s rather thrilling, actually, that it’s the same sort of review now…
Moffat: Down to every detail we get the same reaction. It’s quite extraordinary. And in both cases, in both “The Empty Hearse” and “The Empty House,” you are dependent on Sherlock Holmes’s own account of how he survived. Now keep in mind that he’s been lying for two years. Who’s to say any version of Sherlock Holmes has told the truth about how he did it?
Asking a writer to work to satisfy to a specific audience — any audience, from the broadest of the general public to the most highly attuned fans — is absurd. But you don’t get the sense that Moffat and Gatiss are particularly bothered by all of this, though: it is at its heart their retelling, and they know perhaps better than any adapters who’ve come before them exactly how well-borrowed — and well-loved — these characters have always been. And if there’s any constant, it’s that the British public (who am I kidding, it’s the whole world these days) can’t stay silent when it comes to matters of Sherlock Holmes: they clamor for more and, like ageless critics from the Cornish boatman up to Anderson himself, mumble how they would have done things differently. Moffat and Gatiss actively encourage it: at the Q&A following the screening of the final episode, Moffat said, “What happens is — and I was part of this, I am part of this — is that you see something you love, you start doing your own version of it. Then you start disagreeing with the actual version and think ‘my version’s better,’ and then you discover you’ve made something entirely different and you go off and do your own thing.”
In “His Last Bow,” chronologically the last Sherlock Holmes story, the detective remarks to his companion, “Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.” People have spent more than a century flipping that remark on its head: Holmes feels like the fixed point — though who am I to separate the best pair of friends in the history of literature? They can be fixed points together. These stories, and Sherlock, and Rathbone and Jeremy Brett and Basil of Baker Street: we are not revisiting these characters and conceits because we are out of new ideas. A very old idea resonates; it comforts and entertains. In the case of Sherlock, even after all these retellings, it still manages to surprise. Conan Doyle, lamenting over the fact that Sherlock Holmes overshadowed all his other work, wrote in 1923, “It is not a matter which troubles me, however, for I have always felt that justice is done in the end, and that the real merit of any work is never permanently lost.” The merit lies in the enduring popularity of his creation, because every engagement with this universe — a reading, an adaptation, a challenge, a critique, or even just a casual night in front of the television — is surely a testament of love to Sherlock Holmes.
On Monday last, mere days after the announcement of Granta’s fourth installment of young British novelists, I went to hear two of said novelists read at the Book Club of California, one of the great California bibliophilic clubs–a book-lined, womb-like suite of rooms in a building near Union Square.
The novelists, Ross Raisin and Nadifa Mohamed were ferried to California through a joint effort of Granta and the British Council, and feted through the somewhat startling collaboration of the aforementioned Book Club and City Lights Books, venerable but in many ways dissimilar San Francisco institutions.
The Book Club is kept alive by the efforts of patrons who wish to keep old-fashioned pursuits like bookmaking and book collecting and book reading alive. I had been before Monday; I have rolled dollies through its hallways for employers, and bundled up priceless items in bubble wrap while kneeling in the deep nap of its carpet. It is the kind of place where you might encounter a manuscript leaf from The Hound of the Baskervilles, or some press book monumental in its beauty, person-hours, and price. It is clubby, but not snobbish, with weekly programs that are open to the public. It is staffed most of the time by a beautiful poet and a former finance man who has latterly devoted himself to the arts.
The Book Club is a place of wonders, but it does not generally feel very current. I mean it most affectionately when I say that during the reading you could hear people hack and gurgle, and when the cell phones sounded, which they did rather a lot, it seemed less a function of callow youth than of people who couldn’t figure out how to turn them off, or needed to keep them on for reasons relating to LifeCall.
The Book Club is not hip, but on Monday evening, I felt the spiritual glamour of a place, which, despite its age and sometime pokiness, is founded on the fundamentally sound principle that if you have three glasses of wine in a plastic cup and listen to something beautiful or see it, it can change the whole complexion of the world. The world, as you walk out the door into an unseasonably warm night, and stride down Grant Avenue lined with exquisite narrow buildings, is imbued with possibility.
I was obviously besotted with wine, but also by the talent of Ross Raisin and Nadifa Mohamed and John Freeman, Granta editor, who moderated so smoothly and well that I spent a few moments trying to figure out how old he was, and whether his smoothness was the smoothness of years or divine spark. For my companion and me, the wages of the Book Club’s unhipness were proximity; we sat in the second row, a yard from the podium. Freeman said of the novelists, “In 10 years they won’t be in this room, they’ll be in an auditorium of 500,” and I feel now that this is true, and am grateful for this early-career intimacy.
Both novelists read from their pieces in the current Granta. Raisin, who is the author of God’s Own Country and Waterline, went first and read only part of his story, called “Submersion.” It began without fanfare: “We were out of town, drinking in an empty beachside bar in a small resort down by the coast.” A barman’s patter, a “you,” a television set showing a hard rain. Raisin later told the crowd that he read a lot of Hardy, and Hardy was perceptible a few sentences in, when these seasonal rains were invoked with unexpected pastoralism: “Morris Peake danced in the square. Groups of children ran down to the swollen river to play and smoke and cut channels into Van Stamen’s soft wet fields,” upon which, less pastoral, drowned parsnips eventually floated like “baby’s limbs.”
And then a quick shift to surreality:
The helicopter camera has panned down, and it’s following an object that at first looks like some kind of dark box, but as the image grows closer I see that it is in fact our father, asleep in his armchair, drifting down the high street…Our father is drifting now past the barbershop…the skin on his face is red and peeling, the scalp blistered, hairless…its charred black shape…the remote control deformed and melted onto the armrest.
I found the thing electrifying.
Mohamed, the author of Black Mamba Boy and the upcoming Orchard of Lost Souls, read from a story called “Filsan.” The titular Filsan is a female soldier in the Revolutionary Somali Army, assigned to Hargeisa, where Mohamed herself was born. Like “Submersion,” the story had elegant pacing. The reading began with Filsan and her comrades in a dusty village, where a rebellion is or is not brewing, and the mission is ostensibly to destroy the water supply to save the water supply. The villagers don’t heed Filsan, although she is there “with the full authority of the Revolutionary government.” Later, they heed: she is surprised by the bullets spilled from her own gun, and by the shells of those bullets when they become “bronze beetles scuttling” over her feet. Three men are dead. At the end of the passage, Filsan’s colleague congratulates her while she asks, “What happened? Who killed them?” Again, electrifying.
After these relatively brief readings, John Freeman took over and asked Raisin and Mohamed about their storytelling influences and motivations. “I’m a Yorkshireman, and I’m from a family of quite quiet, recalcitrant, gruff Yorkshire people,” said Raisin, in what might make a nice, to-the-point epitaph. His formative reading, he reported, ranged from James Herbert and Dean R. Koontz and Stephen King all the way to Graham Greene and the aforementioned Hardy. There is another novelist in his family tree, but not one, evidently, who appears on any Granta lists.
Mohamed talked about her father, a “Forrest Gump” whose stories tended to begin and end in provocative clips like “The last time I had a headache was in Ecuador in 1963.” She spoke of intentionally addressing the “small lives caught up” in history in her writing–people like her father (or a woman, no relation, who saved her whole life to buy an English Bible she couldn’t read, only to be executed for it by Bloody Mary.)
Place came up a lot. It is a central conceit of the Granta list, an enterprise that leaves “Britishness” open to relentless interrogation from all sides. The catholicity of the list, in terms of birthplaces and borders and varieties of government documents, has been remarked upon at length: grumpily, by the right-wingers in The Guardian’s Comment is Free (“Amazing what passes for being British these days isn’t it”), and earnestly, by Granta itself. Freeman sprung surprise passages upon the two novelists to read and show the ever-increasing lexical depth of English: Raisin’s passage in Glaswegian, Mohamed’s invoking jinns and half-men. And then he sprung something even harder, his final question: “How do you feel about Britain today, and if you had to explain to someone who’s been living on the moon for the last 204 years, how the British cosmology of literary life works, how would you do that?” And we all had some laughs and they spoke well and there was no answer, because what is the answer to How British is it?
I thought about places when Raisin quoted the climactic augurs–“If it floods, it floods”–with “flood” shaped the same way as “gruff” (as in “gruff Yorkshire people”). Or when Mohamed read her characters saying “Stop” and “Get back, back, back,” with the full meaning of the words in her delivery, and the texture imparted to the words by her pleasant, infinitesimally stuffy-nosed voice. I thought about places, how people might look at the sky over Somaliland, “counting the stars as they one-by-one bowed and left the stage,” or how a man might dance in Raisin’s rainy town square.
Like all good stories, though, these readings also took me back to my own territory (where, for reasons inscrutable and presumably risible, Raisin’s novel God’s Own Country is called Out Backward). Mostly the associations were grim: hearing Raisin’s passage on helicopter footage of flooded-out people on roofs, what American could fail to think of Katrina? When his beer-drinkers see their be-armchaired, waterborne dad with peeling skin and melted remote, different footage leapt unbidden to mind: the man from last week, photographed in the wheelchair with his legs blown off, whose father found out from the news. At the end of Mohamed’s story, I thought about people who are very young, whom I can’t believe mean for bullets to spray out, or want for things to end with men on the ground and their wives weeping upon them.
Later, I read several peevish things in The Guardian about Freeman, who allegedly maligned Leeds as a provincial outpost in a recent interview. But the first words out of his mouth at the Book Club of California were “I grew up in Sacramento,” which, despite being the former stomping ground of Joan Didion and Raymond Carver, is a somewhat unsexy capital. I know this, having spent a summer toiling behind the hostess stand of the now-defunct Pyramid Alehouse on its main drag, so when Freeman said this, I thought simultaneously I’m surprised and I feel you. And when it was all over I thought about the prosiness and unexpected glamour of places, like Sacramento, or the Book Club of California, 100 years old and hosting world-class novelists I am grateful to have seen in the flesh.
When I got home, still high from the evening’s triumphs, I finally became a member, at the reduced-price rate for the young novel reader.
Image Credit: The Book Club of California
In Dan Chaon’s story “Prodigal,” from his collection Among the Missing, the narrator says: “When I was young, I used to identify with those precociously perceptive child narrators one finds in books. You know the type. They always have big dark eyes. They observe poetic details, clear-sighted, very sensitive… Now that I have children of my own… I think of that gentle, dewy-eyed first person narrator and it makes my skin crawl.”
A New York Times review of the recent novel Mercury Under My Tongue praised the book by saying of its protagonist, “Fortunately, unlike the precocious child narrators that populate so much fiction, there isn’t a whiff of gee-whiz wonderment or innocence about him.”
I love precocious narrators. Of course the child narrator is not a new construct, but some of the most buzzed-about novels of the 2000s, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, have featured memorable young leads. The books have met with both exuberant acclaim and accusations of being cloying, gimmicky, mannered, precious, faux-innocent, forced, unbelievable, exasperating, show-offy, or just plain annoying. But I admire the books’ inventiveness, and I love the characters’ idiosyncratic voices, unapologetic intelligence and bold curiosity. And, like Chaon’s narrator, and probably like many lifelong readers, I see a bit of myself in them.
With so many precocious children and their quirks to keep track of, here is a guide to some of the genre’s recent standouts:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Oskar Schell, 9, “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector.” Having found a key left behind by his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks, Oskar sets out to find the lock.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Blue van Meer, 16, who never met a simile, metaphor, parenthetical quip, reference, citation, or Strategic Capitalization she didn’t like. Her mother died in a car accident; Dad is a brilliant, nomadic, and pompous professor.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Christopher Boone, 15, autistic and mathematically gifted. A fan of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, he investigates who killed his neighbor’s dog, and uncovers the truth about his mother’s death.
Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love: Alma Singer, 14, who keeps a notebook called “How to Survive in the Wild” inspired by her adventurous father, who died of cancer. She is trying to find the author of an old novel that her mother is translating.
Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: T.S. Spivet, 12, a cartography genius traveling by train, alone, from a Montana ranch to Washington, DC, to accept an award at the Smithsonian.
In each of these books, told in first-person, voice is central. Reviewers often remark that the protagonists sound nothing like a “real” child or teenager. But aside from Curious Incident, which is meant to be a feat of channeling—this is how the world looks through the eyes and brain of an autistic boy—reality and fidelity are not of primary concern. Lacking much real-world and life experience, the characters filter their lives through film noir, cowboy movies, detective stories, Jewish mysticism, novels and history.
As T.S. says before beginning his train journey, “I guess I was a sucker for historical myth just like Father. But whereas his Spiral of Nostalgic Unfulfillment was directed at the cinematic West of the trail drive, one need only whisper the phrase ‘bustling railroad town’ to raise my blood pressure a notch.” Alma’s hero is the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who disappeared during WWII. Blue describes Hannah Schneider, the film teacher whose mysterious death fuels the book’s plot, as straight out of a black and white classic:
She had an elegant sort of romantic, bone-sculpted face, one that took well to both shadows and light… Within her carriage… was a little bit of the Paramount lot, a little neat scotch and air kisses at Ciro’s. I felt, when she opened her mouth, she wouldn’t utter the crumbly speak of modernity, but would use moist words like beau, top drawer and sound (only occasionally ring-a-ding-ding).
These influences from previous eras create an internal logic for each book. The trick is similar to that of the movie Brick, which transported the conventions of ‘30s detective fiction to a Southern California high school. Would a high schooler say “No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one”? Of course not. But as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote of the film, “it’s an engrossing fantasy picture that in some ways gets close to the feeling of teenage life, even though it bears almost no relationship to its reality.”
For his Spring 2008 ready-to-wear collection, Marc Jacobs designed shoes that had squat heels jutting out backwards, horizontally, from the ball of the foot. I love shoes as much as I love reading, and found this pair quite special: Jacobs had managed to rearrange conventional elements into something whimsical, and expand the idea of what a shoe can be.
Most books fit within a remarkably limited format, but formal inventiveness is a salient trait of these novels. Like children, they don’t always follow the rules. The books include maps and diagrams in the margins; pages in color and marked up with a red correction pen; illustrations and photos; blank pages; pages with type so dense they’re unreadable; foot notes and citations; chapters named for classic books or numbered with increasing prime numbers; and codas of a mathematical proof (Curious Incident), a Final Exam (Special Topics), and a flip book (Extremely Loud). According to critics like B.R. Myers, whose article “A Bag of Tired Tricks” appeared in The Atlantic upon the publication of Extremely Loud, my enjoyment of such “spurious playfulness” makes me “easily amused.”
But I don’t see these flourishes as gratuitous examples of “look at me! I’m different and clever!” T.S. makes sense of the world through mapping, and as he deals with the recent death of his younger brother “during an accident with a gun in the barn that no one ever talked about,” the tragedy’s repercussions are fittingly explored in the margins. Christopher’s brain functions in an emotionally detached, logical/mathematical/schematic way that necessitates diagrams. I found Extremely Loud’s backwards-flipbook, in which photos show a leaping body rising upwards alongside one of the twin towers, a moving visualization of Oskar’s biggest wish. Plus, it’s simply fun to turn the page and find a picture. It’s a fitting throwback to children’s books, as well as a nod to the hyperlinked/sidebar-ed/multimedia texts we read, without fuss, online.
The playfulness extends to language. More than any book I can remember, Special Topics delights in inventive, extended description. Listen to Blue riff on a central character:
He was a Goodnight Moon (Brown, 1947). Goodnight Moons had duvet eyes, shadowy eyelids, a smile like a hammock and a silvered, sleepy countenance… Goodnight Moons could be male or female and were universally adored. Even teachers worshipped them. They looked to Goodnight Moons whenever they asked a question and even though they answered with a drowsy, wholly incorrect answer, the teacher would say, ‘Oh, wonderful.’
None of the precocious narrators are Goodnight Moons. In fact, let’s call them The Outsiders (Hinton, 1967), though with less class warfare. They do not fit easily into the world. Aside from Alma’s Russian immigrant pen pal, none of them has a true friend his or her own age; professors, teachers, parents, grandparents and strangers to whom they write letters provide a tenuous social life. They are unpopular at school, lonely, awkward, weird.
I was not a 12-year-old cartography genius or pint-sized private eye, but I was an overachieving kid who took a while to figure out how to be smart without being an annoying show-off—a quality of precocious narrators that often bugs readers. I recently re-read the journal that I kept through high school, which was not all that long ago. The content breakdown is approximately 60% about boys, 30% about how lonely I felt, and 10% about how great I was doing on my AP physics tests. I had forgotten about the time I gossiped about how academically stupid my crush’s girlfriend was, and then he confronted me about it via AIM conversation. Which is to say, I really could have used a bookish friend like Alma or Blue. (And like Blue, whose father quizzes her on vocabulary and makes her perform readings of classic plays during long car trips, I had parent-assigned summer homework. I remember writing short reports about the book Cheaper by the Dozen and the sport of diving; homework earned points, which could be redeemed for sodas and CDs.)
The books also nimbly capture how, when brains trump social skills, you end up feeling both older and younger than everyone around you. Alma and Blue are clueless about boys and have disastrous first kisses, but are ambitious enough to unravel complicated mysteries. And that’s what’s heartbreaking about these books: they put smart kids in the position to feel like they can, and should, come up with answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
Because for all their cuteness, the novels are really about surviving death and loss. Several of the characters assemble literal survival kits, that include items like a telescope, compasses, drafting paper, duct tape, a stuffed animal, a snakebite kit, iodine pills, Swiss Army knives, a copy of Edible Plants and Flowers in North America, and Juicy Juice boxes. But what good is a compass or stuffed animal—where can you go, and what second-rate comfort will you find?—when you are a child whose parent or sibling has died?
As a culture, we have an odd relationship with high-achieving youths. The media scrambles to cover four-year-old abstract artists, 12-year-old fashion bloggers, 13-year-olds who climb Mt. Everest—but we regard the little prodigies with a mix of admiration, disbelief, mistrust and even hostility. (Witness the backlash against some of the precociously talented young novelists themselves, like accusations that Pessl only got a book deal because she’s pretty, and the phenomenon of “Schadenfoer“; note the glee people are taking in mocking Krauss’ recent over-the-top blurb.)
The other day, I overheard a commercial advertising a contest that would reward “the fastest, most accurate texter.” Then I learned that Jersey Shore’s The Situation had inked a book deal.
In an age of shortening attention spans and the glorification of stupidity, I find it comforting and exciting to spend time with young characters for whom books, maps, notebooks, letters, research, drawings, imagined inventions and classic films are central and essential. Precocious narrators, and the ambitious novelists who create them, give me hope that our culture can keep evolving without sliding into Idiocracy, and stand as proof of the power of intelligence, imagination, curiosity, and even “gee-whiz wonderment.”
In The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, T.S. coins the term “Stenpock,” after his science teacher, Mr. Stenpock. A Stenpock is someone “who insists on staying within the confines of his or her job title and harbors no passion for the offbeat or the incredible.” Precocious narrators are anti-Stenpocks, and I’m a sucker for them.
[Image credit: Inna]