Killing off your characters

A while back I listened to a podcast about Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel North and South. The panelists made a persuasive case that it is still worth reading. So I downloaded it and read it. The panelists were wrong.

It’s not, you know, terrible. But there’s nothing distinctive about it, and it falls too easily into Victorian attitudes even as the author sometimes seems to be pushing boundaries a bit. Dickens does the same thing, of course, but you can forgive him because he’s so brilliantly funny and inventive; Gaskell is neither. The panelists pointed out that she tries to fairly represent the points of view of capital and labor in the new industrial society that was transforming England. That’s admirable, but those points of view feel pretty dated 150 years on.

Here’s one distinctive thing Gaskell does: she shows no qualms about killing off her characters. Half a dozen major-ish characters die in the course of the novel, several of them for no apparent reason. That is to say, the plot would have worked just as well if the heroine’s mother hadn’t died, followed by her father, followed by her godfather… It’s Victorian England, of course, so it’s not unreasonable for someone to cash in his chips without any warning in his mid-fifties. But it happens enough in this novel that it feels like an authorial tick.

I’m intrigued by this because I’m approaching the climactic scenes of the novel that I’ve been working on. I’m clear on the general direction of the plot, but I haven’t worked out the details–like who’s gonna die. A bad guy or two, surely, but what about the good guys? It seems unlikely that they’ll get off scot-free. Unlike North and South, in my novel people are actually fighting each other (to be fair, there was a pretty good union-busting scene in North and South, but no one died in it). But which good guys? At this point I’m pretty fond of all of them.

I’m interested in finding out how this all turns out. Which is why I haven’t been blogging much lately.

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“A Theory of Justice” and me

One of my post-election vows was to read A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.  I just wanted to commend myself on my good work in completing this task.  It only took me five months!  I have to say that it wasn’t easy.  The book is 514 pages worth of dense, arid political philosophy that I am ill-equipped to judge.  And yet…

I keep thinking about Rawls’s concept of the veil of ignorance:

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today’s society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the “real world”, however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.

Isn’t that the way we should think about all social policy?  Imagine that you don’t know if you’re white or black, rich or poor, male or female, healthy or sick, talented or mediocre, a Muslim or a Catholic or an atheist.  How would you think about immigration policy, about health care, about taxes? The veil of ignorance doesn’t give you answers, but it encourages you to ask the right questions.

Shakespeare Sunday

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday, probably, and also his death-day.  Every day is a good day to quote Shakespeare, though.  Here is Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

A day late, but any day is a good day for a poem by John Donne.

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They’are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

What “A Theory of Justice” needs is a little “Slaves of the Volcano God”

I am following through on my resolution to read John Rawls’s magisterial A Theory of Justice.  But I’ve gotta say that it doesn’t have a lot of laughs.  Approximately zero laughs so far.  Nowhere near as many, in other words, as you’ll find in my friend Craig Shaw Gardner’s Slaves of the Volcano God.  I’m even using my valuable Slaves of the Volcano God bookmark to mark my place in A Theory of Justice, in hopes that some of Gardner’s humor will rub off.  No such luck.  (Of course, if what you’re looking for is political philosophy, I’m pretty sure you won’t find much in Slaves of the Volcano God.)

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By the way, something else that could have used a few laughs is Manchester By The Sea.  Casey Affleck is good in it, I guess, but mostly what he does is mope.  Maybe he’ll get an Oscar for moping.  (His big scene with Michelle Williams, though, is epically good.)

If you’ve already read Slaves of the Volcano God and still need some laughs (don’t we all?), you should try Gardner’s new novel, Temporary Monsters

Naming names

I was too annoyed with Western civilization last month to write the usual recap of my year’s reading.  But the best novel I read was The Sympathizer, which my son recommended to me.  It’s a novel about the Vietnam war, and life in America, and Apocalypse Now, and sundry other things, written from the point of view of a nameless Vietnamese double-agent.  For my son, this was pre-history; for me, it was stuff I had vaguely experienced, second-hand, told from a completely different perspective.

It was brilliant, but the author made a couple of choices that I found odd.  I liked that the narrator was nameless, but I was puzzled that many other characters–but not all–were also nameless.  The narrator’s boss is referred to only as The General, but the boss’s daughter has a name.  One character he has to deal with is called “the crapulent major”, while a comparable character is named Sonny.  (Spoiler alert: the narrator ends up murdering both of them.)

I have trouble deciding ahead of time whether minor people and places deserve a name.  In the novel I’m writing now, I have already had to retrospectively name a couple of places that turned out to be more important than I originally expected.  But this is standard fiction writing: characters and places, if they become important enough, get a name; otherwise, it’s hard to keep track of them  Nguyen is obviously trying to distance us from some of his characters; I’m not sure why.

Another distancing effect: he doesn’t use quotation marks.  My son didn’t even notice this, but it annoyed me.  It seemed like an affectation.  Punctuation helps the reader, and sometimes we need all the help we can get.

Richard Adams

Amidst all the dispiriting deaths in 2016, that of Richard Adams didn’t get a whole lot of attention.  But his Watership Down was a masterpiece, I think.  In it, he created a world so vivid, so completely realized, that it rivaled Lord of the Rings.  And it was about, you know, rabbits. Forty years later, I still look at a rabbit nibbling on some grass and I think of the word silflay.

I read his second novel, Shardik, and I thought it was just okay.  I didn’t bother with The Plague Dogs.  But Watership Down is forever.

“Would that the dead were not dead! But there is grass that must be eaten, pellets that must be chewed, hraka that must be passed, holes that must be dug, sleep that must be slept.”