September 29, 2011

Music in Fiction

We're used to opera, musicals, music in drama, music and dance.  The soundtrack is recognized as an essential part of a movie, as important as the cinematography, the sets, the dialogue, and the acting.  Some of the greatest composers of the 20th century, guys like Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, and Bernard Herrmann, are primarily movie composers.  Quentin Tarantino is brilliant in his use of pop music in film: he understands pop music not only in its vital soundtrack function, but he understands how pop music functions as cultural indicator, and how that can weave another level of meaning.  It is this "cultural naming" function that is the primary value of music in fiction.

One of the things I do when I'm writing a character is to figure out what kind of music he/she listens to, and how music functions in his/her life.  I may not necessarily bring it up in the story, but I usually know what my characters listen to.  In a couple of cases, I've gone so far as to put together playlists or load up mp3 players with music for my main characters, and listen to that music while I am writing the story.  It's a pretty easy way to define a character, since we (especially we Americans) have used music to define ourselves since the dawn of the jazz age; but it also can be very lazy shorthand.

Frank Bill doesn't use music in this way in Crimes In Southern Indiana, but he does make a mistake that bugs the hell out of me when I run across it: the bogus soundtrack provided by the radio.  In this conceit, a character turns on the radio and a song is playing, and that song is meant to be the soundtrack for the scene.  That, of course, requires that the reader be infinitely familiar with the song and/or artist . . . it is almost as if the writer plants the song in your head so he has a soundtrack.  Now, if the music is tied into the characterization, I don't have a problem with that (if it's done right); but it's cheating just to use the song for backdrop, for atmosphere.  Bill mentions specific music only twice in the book, so it's a very minor problem for him . . . but it is a problem.  First of all, I think he's using it sketch atmosphere, and as I said, I think it's a cheat.  Secondly, both times a character turned on the radio, and there was either a Johnny Cash or a Dock Boggs song on the radio.  Okay, that's just not realistic: the only way you'll turn on the radio in Southern Indiana and hear either Johnny Cash or Dock Boggs is to pick up the Louisville public radio station on a Sunday night.  There's no way a bunch of ultra-violent tweakers or tragically doomed redneck fishermen drinking Natty Lights out of styrofoam  coolers tucked away in the front of their pickups are going to be cruising around Southern Indiana listening to Louisville public radio.  Now, there is a spot on the dial down here that plays old-time country, but even then, the Cash songs are few and far between, there's no Dock Boggs whatsoever on that station. And again, the audience is either the folk who were old enough to hear the music first time around in the 50's, 60's, and 70's (and are probably much more interested in Jim Reeves or Eddie Arnold than Johnny Cash), or they are hipsters, not tweakers and rednecks.  It throws a kink in the characterization, if you know what I mean.  I can totally see where, at that point in the movie, a Dock Boggs song comes up on the soundtrack, but not on the radio.  Lynyrd Skynyrd makes sense, not Dock Boggs.*

Like I said, not a huge problem for Bill.  But look at this name-check pile that Elmore Leonard drops in Mr. Paradise:
I like to go to clubs and wave my arms in the air, thrash around, get down with the beat.  I think there's more energy here than in New York, a working-class audience getting their release.  You know what I mean?  I've seen Eminem at the Shelter, in the basement of St. Andrews?  Iggy at the Palace, back with the Stooges.  Hush, white hip-hoppers, and the Almighty Dreadnaughtz at Alvins.  Karen Monster, a cool chick, the Dirt Bombs, they're high-speed Detroit punk.  The Howling Diablos any Sunday out in Berkley.  There's a new band called the Go, kind of glam but they're okay.  Aerosmith I love, they keep coming back to town.
Obviously, besides name dropping Iggy for, like, the hundredth time, it looks like all Mr. Leonard did was go pick up some free weekly rag in Detroit and drop a few names onto the page . . . Jesus, what a mess.  Where to start?

Well, this little diatribe is meant to tell us something about the femme fatale of Mr. Paradise, Kelly Barr.  It seems that Ms. Barr, in addition to being a music aficionado, is a fashion model best known for her appearances in the Victoria Secret catalogue (the novel opens with Kelly and her Playboy-bunny-high-dollar-escort-soon-to-be-murder-victim roommate Chloe having cocktails in a bar when Kelly is approached by the frumpy waitress who idolizes her for an autograph).  Ms. Barr is twenty-seven.  This novel was written sometime around 2002.  So, let's start with Iggy:  the final Stooges performance was indeed at the Palace, on February 9th, 1974.  Which would have made young fan Kelly approximately . . . ready to be conceived. And even if we allow that she could be referring to the 2003 reunion, that show was at Pine Knob, not the Palace.

But it goes deeper than this kind of knit-picking.  We are talking about music as a sense of identity, and even if you choose music of locality to be your marker, then you are still stretching.  Who in the hell identifies with Aerosmith (a Boston band, by the way, which kind of throws a monkey wrench in the locality thing), the Dirt Bombs, and Eminem?  The crossover there is extremely limited, and the musical taste demonstrated is democratic, to say the least, and doesn't define the character at all.  But even more crucial is the language: this is not the language of a twenty-seven year old who is "hip" enough to be into the Dirt Bombs.  "Get down with the beat?"  Who under the age of fifty would say that?  "Working class audience getting their release?"  I would lay money that a Victoria Secrets model hasn't used the term "working class" outside of school . . . and even if this "chick" was "hip" enough to be down with the "working" "class", she wouldn't talk about the sweat and dank of a Detroit club being a "working class audience getting their release".  Besides, there isn't much of the working class left in Detroit; there are the rich, and the wage slaves of the service industry, which qualifies as sub-working class.

It's not only music that gets this treatment - fashion, cars, pop culture, all are there to be misunderstood.  Mr. Paradise is a dismal novel, and I say that as a Leonard fan.  All it amounts to is a 291-page exercise in the misuse of pop-culture shorthand, as if it were written by a tragically square community college lit professor.  It's a shame, because Leonard has produced some of the very cultural artifacts that any hipster should know.

And it's a shame because music can contribute a lot to fiction, if it is used with some intelligence.

*  I have only read Crimes in Southern Indiana once, and when I went back to find the two musical interludes in question, I was not able to find them.  If I have misrepresented the circumstances in any way, please correct me in the comment section.

September 21, 2011

The Poverty of the Male Gaze [UPDATED]

I've read a fair amount of Edward Abbey in my life, most notably in a tent pitched in the desert just outside Tucson on one of my Easter week trips somewhere between '98 and '03.  Somehow I never got around to The Monkey Wrench Gang, an oversight I am now correcting.

Abbey gets all the characterization out of the way up front, in a very businesslike fashion: his main characters all get their own brief chapters right at the start, and then (I assume) we move on to the whole point of the story, the ACTION!  Trouble is, Abbey is stubbing his toes a little bit when it comes to the characterization, especially when it comes to Bonnie Abzug, the woman of the crew at the center of the story.

The problem with Bonnie is this: 28 year old ex-dancer, spunky, heady enough to be aware of all the hip trends but too self-possessed to be sucked in (he lists her bookshelf only to go on about how the books are neglected), "sexy" (Abbey, in the narrator's voice, describes her as "half WASP", and then goes on to translate WASP as "white anglo sexy protestant"), and hard to get, but not unattainable . . . sort of like that Porsche you have to save up a long time for, but are able to afford by your mid 40's. 

Frankly, it's kind of pathetic.  It's the same problem that almost ruins Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo books): the liberated, sexual woman as imagined by the repressed middle-aged male libido. While Abbey's imagination at least seems to enable him to make characters like Hayduke and Sarvis a lot less annoying than Larsson's Blomkvist, the women are still a problem; Bonnie may be "liberated", but she sure as hell isn't liberated from the male gaze.

I had this idea knocking around my head tonight as I watched The Bourne Ultimatum on TV, when, lo and behold, a couple ads for new television series slotted themselves into the same thought: seems we are going to be treated to Mad Men riffs by the major networks in the form of two new series, one about Pan Am stewardesses, and the other about the Playboy club.  I can just tell by the ads that these series, though they may be politically correct (as are Abbey and Larsson), that they too will be the product of some filtered, sanitized, and ultimately sexist libido . . . probably not exactly a middle-aged libido, but close enough.  Mad Men, you see, for all the mid-century estrogen flowing from the tube, has a complexity about it that the repressed middle-aged (or, for that matter, mainstream commercial) libido does not recognize.  There is no question that Mad Men sexualizes its characters, both male and female (indeed, that is one of the central themes of the show), but it also addresses the complexities and multivalences of its characters, which liberates it from the repressed middle-aged male libido, or any libidos that would contain it outside the libido that the characters transcribe for themselves.

Sexualization itself is not the problem: the problem is the poverty of the typical Western middle-aged male libido . . . or, to put it another way, the mainstream (white, Western) male has no sexual imagination.  Hayduke is short and hairy, Sarvis is old and fat, Smith is skinny and gawky, but Bonnie is a nearly perfect specimen, with no human flaws to define her?  Why does Bonnie have to be a dancer (that is a real hippie-60's/70's thing, by the way)?  And, if she's a dancer, why does she end up having to be a stripper?    And if she is a dancer/stripper, where is the erotic motivation for her?  Or, if there is no erotic motivation, what are the socio-cultural forces that pushed her that direction?  Where is Bonnie situated on this physical/sexual/cultural axis?  These questions aren't answered for a simple reason: dancer/stripper is imagist shorthand for SEXY BABE . . . and here, "imagist shorthand" should read "stereotype". And it's not just the female characters who suffer in this scheme: Lisbeth Salander as a portrait sketched by the male libido was bad enough, but the whole Bomvkist-as-Don Juan thing almost destroys the novels.  I'm not far enough into The Monkey Wrench Gang to find out if Bonnie Abzug is going to sink the novel, but I doubt she will, since I expect Abbey to focus on the ACTION, now that the annoying task of characterization is out of the way.

I understand that it is hard to write female characters, and I know from experience: the only interesting female character I have written so far is a six foot, two hundred pound, lesbian African American bodyguard, and I have written her so butch it barely counts.  It is too much to expect every male writer to write perfect female characters; but, given the fact that these stories are our cultural narrative, it is important to understand them for what they are.

And now, back to The Monkey Wrench Gang.

*          *          *          *          *

UPDATE: Okay, I am going to let Abbey off the hook for this one.

First, while The Monkey Wrench Gang is narrated third person omniscient, the narrator is an unreliable one.  Throughout the book, Abbey's own personality takes control of the narrative, from the descriptions of the desert, to the bias against "everything big" (government, business, military, police, etc.), to the obvious targets he sets up (among others: universities, "book larnin'", R. D. Laing & Buckminster Fuller - man, he really hates those geodesic domes), all the way down to sly, pointed one-liners in the voice of the narrator instead of one of the characters.

So why does he get (partial) absolution just because he is showing his hand more obviously than, say, Stieg Larsson?  It is precisely this unreliability which makes him more acceptable: you either take him or leave him, essentially treating him like one of the characters in the book.  This drawing down of the objective narrator into the subjective realm humanizes the narrator, asks you to overlook his flaws.

So why wouldn't you overlook Larsson's flaws in the same way?  Well, because Larsson's narrator does not break the seal of objectivity in the same way that Abbey's does.  The narrator remains essentially invisible in the Millennium Trilogy, which asks you to accept the narrative structure as fact.  The male gaze undermines this narrative structure, calling everything within the narrative structure into question.  This is especially problematic because the Millennium Trilogy is almost naively leftist, and if one of the pillars of Western Leftism (feminism) is questioned, then everything that extends from this leftist point of view is also called into question. 

To me, it maps like this: Edward Abbey, narrator, is saying to the reader "I have a story.  This is my story, and it has me in it.  To hear this story, you will have to put up with me . . . but hang around, I promise it will be worth it."  Stieg Larsson, on the other hand, is saying "Here is a story.  It is true."  How much more of a deficit will problems be for Larsson than for Abbey?

Second, Abbey is much more about ACTION than Larsson is.  Both are dealing in culturally seismic milieus, but Abbey is painting the whole novel in broad strokes, like storms sweeping across the desert.  Larsson, on the other hand, is taking a piece of thriller genre fiction and deepening it with a heady dose of cultural/political tension.  You can forgive Abbey characters boldly painted because they serve a larger narrative.  Larsson's characters, on the contrary, make a claim for more profundity at the precise point they are called into question (i.e., from a point of view that has come to be called "politically correct" around these here parts).

In the end, feminism may be problem for both writers, but I am much more willing to put up with Abbey the curmudgeon than Larsson the clueless middle-aged white liberal.  Larsson's Millennium trilogy is fun reading, but The Monkey Wrench Gang is what the folks would call a ripping yarn.

September 11, 2011


So, what is it that we a remembering now?
  • That we are not immune to the horrors of the world?
  • That we are capable, in extreme moments, of extreme sacrifice & extreme selflessness?
  • That, when allowed time to "think" about things, it is actually our fears & emotions that take over?
  • That the quest for justice can be perverted with disastrous, evil results?
  • That the world is awfully damned quiet when all the planes are grounded?
  • That our capacity for exploitation knows no bounds?
  • That people with the will to do harm can do enormous harm against very long odds?
  • That the enemy of our enemy is not always our friend?
  • That chickens come home to roost?
  • That people will come up with the most outrageous explanations to avoid that which they do not want to face?
  • That assassination and murder are the same thing?
  • That war by another name is terrorism?
  • That the ends justify the means?
  • That the ends don't justify the means?
  • That one horrible act can became an excuse for a lot more horrible acts?
  • That nothing is ever clear?
  • That almost nobody is right when it comes to this?
  • That myriad & endless eventual minutiae can be roped into the same narrative, robbing such event of meaning and substance, no matter how monumental said event was/is?
  • That those ah-rabs hate our freedom?
  • That there is a whole 'nother reality that we have only begun to be introduced to?
  • That bin Laden is/was Satan?
  • That bin Laden was a revolutionary?
  • That we helped create the very terrorist organization that is responsible for 9/11?
  • That our jingoism knows no bounds?
  • That, if Japan had nuked us instead of vice versa, this event wouldn't seem as monolithic?
  • That we really don't like it when the war is brought to us for a change?
  • That people running for office know no shame?
  • That there are people, ordinary people, who pay the ultimate price for things that happen far beyond their muster?
  • That this horrible act harmed not only innocent citizens of New York and Washington, but innocent citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention collateral damage in Britain, Spain, Pakistan, India, Palestine, Israel, Syria, etc.?
  • That violence begets violence?
That the sun always rises in the morning?

In the mouths of far too many, "REMEMBER 9/11" is empty sloganeering.  It is nothing more than lip service to a demographic, a bumper sticker that signifies your club.  It is all about the speaker, not those about whom we speak.

In the mouths of far too many, "REMEMBER 9/11" is a call to war against that which they refuse to understand, an empty blanket of words to protect them from the OTHER.

Some will not be able to forget, as much as they want to.  For the rest of us, given the "lessons" that we have "learned" from 9/11, amnesia would be better . . . an entirely appropriate moment of tribute for the innocent victims and the heroes (yes, I will use that word) who tried to rescue them has been swallowed by flag waving USA! chants.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: REMEMBER 9/11 is the victory of the people who brought down the towers.  Their place in our fears is ultimately exactly what they hoped for.

The past returns to us like a ghost, haunts us . . . handcuffs us to a history that we can't escape, or believe we can't escape.  To move forward, we must overcome the past, actively build our past into our own future . . .

. . . which indeed, is exactly REMEMBER 9/11 crowd are doing, but with disastrous results.  It's one thing to write your past, but you must be responsible for it.  The REMEMBER 9/11 crowd are handcuffing themselves to the ghost of burning buildings, to a future of vengeance and retribution.  It is, indeed, an old specter, a film that has been running in a destructive loop almost since the beginning of remembrance, since the beginning of history.  It is the haunting, the history we can't escape: it is the document of our extinction.

So let's turn our backs on all this jingoism.  If we want to remember 9/11 at all, let's make it a Memorial Day for slaughtered innocents worldwide - not just here, not just then.  Let's make it a day for those who are destroyed by forces of violence and repression everywhere.  Not a victim's day, mind you, but a day to re-dedicate ourselves to the dreams of the lost, the dreams that perhaps they didn't even dare to dream.  Let us make 9/11 a quiet memorial to the brotherhood of the common man.

In other words, let's forget 9/11.