Rejected Story Ideas, Part 2

 

7, 39, 43

A group of special ops is sent to a remote desert town thought to house a dangerous group of terrorists. The town in question has already been bombed and is reduced to ash, but recent intelligence indicates that many terror cells are housed underground and all precautions are being taken to ensure that this particular group of terrorists is neutralized. Under the command of Squad Leader, the team lines up behind an embankment of rocks and gets into position.

The group is going through the shambles of the clearly primitive (and yet once vibrant) village when one particular solider, Thirty Nine, notices a single building which mysteriously has been completely untouched. A warehouse containing rows of bright & shiny red Toyota Land Cruisers. Having seen cars like this in old movies, Thirty Nine stops to appreciate the old-fashioned vehicles with rubber tires and combustion engines.

“Drop your weapons,” a voice says from behind.

Around two dozen terrorists surround the special ops with aimed weapons, easily outnumbering them.

“Drop them now.”

Thirty Nine and the others drop their weapons. The terrorists quickly rip off their helmets, deprogram the distress signals, and lead them at gunpoint to an encampment with torches and a wooden fence with sharp posts. The camp looks as though it has been quickly built within a craggy space of rocks unobservable from the air. There are small huts scattered throughout and a small tower in the middle of the camp. The ops are taken to the huts in groups of three and stripped. In Thirty Nine’s hut are also Seven and Forty Three. They are tied to the walls with old ropes and left hanging. They’re tied tight so their limbs turn swollen and purple.

Two days go by, and none of the guards and/or terrorists come into the hut. The men discuss their predicament but know also that they are most likely being recorded or observed in some way. They’ve learned how to move slightly and shift their weight to accommodate the uncomfortable position of hanging from a wall.

One the third day one terrorist comes into the hut with a knife. The men don’t flinch as he walks around the hut holding the knife in clear view. He stops at Thirty Nine and grabs his testicles and says, “Are you afraid I will cut these off? It would be very painful, no? A man’s worst nightmare. Trust me, they are a useless appendage to you now.” But then, as if he had just suddenly and for no reason changed his mind, the man turns to Seven and makes a swift gesture as though he’s about to cut, and he does; the terrorist cuts Seven’s right arm free from the rope, and Seven lets out a sigh because the blood is now free again on that side of his body and he wasn’t stabbed. The terrorist then very casually walks out of the hut.

“What was that about?” Seven says.

“I don’t know,” Thirty Nine says.

Seven begins trying to untie his other restraints, perhaps to his credit, but the ropes are tied in knots not to be undone by human hands.

“I can’t.”

“Don’t waste your energy.”

Once Seven finally does give up he has a hard time concealing his superiority of circumstance, letting out sighs of relief and speaking as if he’s better suited to free the group now that he has one hand free. But this, of course, is an illusion. He’s no closer to freeing them than he was before. Seven’s free hand only makes the inevitable more comfortable for him. He overcompensates against this newly formed gulf between him and the group by seeming to have a renewed concern for contemplating escape strategies.

“I could swing now to get my arm out the door.”

“Don’t waste your energy,” Thirty Nine says.

On the fourth day another man comes into the hut with a bowl of water and a knife. Without a word he sets the bowl down and with the knife cuts free one hand of Forty Three. Before Forty Three can even let out a sigh, Seven is already drinking the water. “Share,” Thirty Nine says. But Seven isn’t slowing down. Forty Three tries to stop him but it’s too late. Seven finishes the bowl and begins to tussle with Forty Three. And Forty Three manages to get a pretty good grip on Seven’s throat and begins choking him.

“Stop,” Thirty Nine says. “This is what they want. They’re going to kill us anyway.” A group of men gathers at the hut’s entrance and watches Seven die. His body hangs limp on the wall and his one free hand dangles like a marionette’s. And the men go laughingly to the tower and come back with another bowl of water, and then cut Thirty Nine’s right arm free and set the water down again. “Let’s do this the right way.” Thirty Nine nods and allows Forty Three to take the bowl first. He drinks exactly half and puts it back in the middle of the floor. Thirty Nine drinks the rest.

The onlooking men make disappointed gestures and leave the hut.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know.”

“They’re trying to get inside us.”

“What does it matter if we die?”

“We could escape.”

Neither of them sleep that night. Seven’s body begins to stink. With one free hand Thirty Nine turns his body and looks out the thatched roof. The stars are bright, the only light besides the few torches in the camp. Thirty Nine thinks back and realizes he never learned the constellations. They’re not so great, he thinks. They’re just there in the sky like clouds. It would be all over soon and doesn’t matter. Forty Three leans over to Thirty Nine.

“Kill me.”

“What?”

“Strangle me. It’s dark and won’t be on camera. I can’t take it anymore.”

“There could still be a way out.”

“We’ve tried all day. There’s no way out.”

In the morning they bring another bowl of water and a small piece of bread on a tin plate. Thirty Nine and Forty Three are salivating, but Forty Three isn’t looking so good. The men stand in the doorway.

“You take it.” Forty Three’s voice was hardly audible.

“Let’s do halves like before.” The men pay close attention to the dealing. They look to Forty Three for his reply.

“No. You take it and I’ll take whatever they bring next time.” Thirty Nine hesitates, unsure of what Forty Three means by this. Some of the men notice this and looked to Forty Three for his reply. Some didn’t and instead maintained their study of Thirty Nine. “Take it!” Forty Three’s shrill yell pierces the air. The men laugh. Spit runs down his chin. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to cause a scene so he drinks the water and eats the bread. And the men leave with some mixed sense of satisfaction.

Thirty Nine then gets a strong hand to the face and then another. “How could you?” he says. Thirty Nine is trying to shield himself from the blows.

“You put me in a spot. We can’t argue in front of them.”

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

Thirty Nine socks Forty Three in the trachea and he vomits nothing.

“We can’t let it come to this. This is what they want.”

“We’re both dying regardless of what they want.”

By next morning Forty Three is barely hanging on, and Thirty Nine isn’t doing much better. Their heads are hanging as blood is locating itself in uncomfortable parts of their bodies; their lips are cracked; their thoughts are cracked. It seemed like the end. But then a smell lifts them out of the daze. The sweet smell of dinner rolls and hot meat.

The men walk in issuing orders. They have a steak dinner on a tray and big canteens of water.

“You can have this meal but you must pay. Whichever of you gives us the eye of the other man can have the food.”

Thirty Nine looks at Forty Three who is looking at the food.

“We’ll split it,” Thirty Nine says.

“That’s not how it works,” the men say.

Forty Three lunges at Thirty Nine, tearing at his face. Thirty Nine does what he can, grabs Forty Three’s neck, and still Forty Three is flailing. But Thirty Nine has a bit more strength left. He looks at Forty Three pleadingly but he won’t make contact. He looks wherever his arms are going, pulling Thirty Nine’s hair & neck. Right before Forty Three dies he looks at Thirty Nine. His eyes say something like thank you and then go vacant. The men in the doorway are hollering and having a good time.

“Good job, solider,” they say. “Do you want this food?”

“Yes.”

“We need the eye.”

“…”

“That’s the deal.”

Forty Three’s dead body hangs on the wall. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to do it. Not with these men watching. He takes Forty Three’s chin and notices his dark eyes. Then he puts the head back down and digs into the socket which is much drier than he expected. There is a little sound and it seemed like it wouldn’t come out but, with a little effort, it did. It dangles from his face by its nerve. Thirty Nine pulls it free with a snap and throws it at the feet of the men. One of them picks it up and put it in his pocket.

“You’ve earned this,” they say. The men raucously applaud and put the plate of food before Thirty Nine and he eats it.

“You’re coming with us,” they say and untie him from the wall and carry him out into the sun, to the tower in the middle of the camp.

The tower is a wooden thing like the huts but bigger. The tower is empty inside, a hollow room with a metal platform on the ground that begins to sink like an elevator into the sand, taking the men into an underground chamber. Everything was total dark and Thirty Nine wonders how they’ve acquired a steak since, to his knowledge, there aen’t any cows in this part of the world.

They took him to a room with a woman sitting on a cot. She’s wearing a tight-fitting military uniform decorated with many badges. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and looks at the wall. The men leave, closing the door, and she motions for Thirty Nine to sit on the cot opposite her. He sits down and sees that she’s young and beautiful.

“What do you think of all this?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“No.”

“Do you know what your people have done to us?”

“No.”

“Of course not.” She takes a small controller from her breast pocket and presses a button. The wall across us lights up with images, terrible images of scorched people running in the streets and buildings collapsing in onto themselves. Huge ships are dropping the fire. Thirty Nine recognizes the ships as his own. (He’s never seen the attacks from this angle before.) Large plumes of smoke wade through the streets like chess pieces, in frame after frame, and there were limbless bodies squirming through the streets and scorched babies. “Quite something,” she says.

“We were hitting terrorist sites. Terrorists from your country bombed us first. That’s what started this. It was retaliation.”

“Those mothers and their children do look like a threat to national security, don’t they?” She clicks on the screen again. It’s a video of Forty Three choking Seven. “Yes, your people seem to know a lot about retaliation. I could play the one of you killing him? That one. Forty Three.” She motions.

“No,” Thirty Nine says.

“You think I’m pretty cruel, don’t you?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Of course you have. The Thirty Nine model is temperamental.”

“My name is Thirty Nine.”

“That’s not your name, son. That’s your model. Names are for people. You’re a standard issue, military grade, very life-like thing meant to resemble a person. But you’re not a person.”

“I am a person.”

“Regardless of what you think you are, you’re going to be terminated. If you were human we’d call that execution. The good thing is you’re built with fake flesh, fake blood, so it will still be a very good show. We like that type of thing here, watching it on TV. Keeps the morale up.” She leans closer to Thirty Nine and grabs his chin. Her breath smells like motor oil and her blonde hair reflects the harsh fluorescent lights. “Do you know who you’re talking to, soldier?”

“Your face looks familiar,” he says through squished lips, pinched by the grip under her leather gloves. She stands up. Her crotch was level with his face.

“The President of the United States of America.”

 

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Unexpectedness in Anne Carson’s 1=1

Photographer
Source: UCLA

Read “1=1” here in the New Yorker

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO NEATLY SUM up Anne Carson’s work. She’s written in a wide range of forms: poetry, essay, performance pieces, translations, and a genre invented by her called “short talks” which are hyper-condensed lyrical meditations on any number of scientific, historical, or anthropological topics. She pushes the boundaries of whatever form she’s in, often into the avant-garde. Sam Anderson wrote in his New York Times profile of Carson: ‘[she] gives the impression—on the page, at readings—of someone from another world, either extraterrestrial or ancient, for whom our modern earthly categories are too artificial and simplistic to contain anything like the real truth she is determined to communicate. For two decades her work has moved—phrase by phrase, line by line, project by improbable project—in directions that a human brain would never naturally move.’

To put it as straightforwardly as possible: Anne Carson’s writing is weird. She plays with form, structure, and genre, which can disorient a reader expecting a conventional approach, but if you come to Carson’s work with an open mind, letting the words guide you ‘phrase by phrase, line by line,’ you will most likely be delighted.

SHORT STORIES ARE A NEW venture for Carson in form, she didn’t write any before 2016 when she published three: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “1=1,” and “Back the Way You Went,” in Harper’s and the New Yorker, and each one is uniquely masterful. If Faulkner’s old quote holds true that every short story writer is a failed poet, then Anne Carson’s short stories are a testament to what happens when a successful poet decides to turn to short stories, not out of necessity, but as a creative choice.

“1=1” especially embodies Carson’s strengths as a writer. It is lyrical but strict in its brevity with short punchy sentences like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and the literary minimalists, but accomplishes a totally different effect, not a working class ho-hummy vibe—that is not who Anne Carson is as a writer—but as a means of legitimately condensing prose to only what is necessary, and, as Sam Anderson pointed out, usually in a direction ‘either extraterrestrial or ancient’.

Carson put it perfectly in an estimation of her own work at a recent Lannan Foundation event:

‘Somebody was talking to me about writing the other day. They said the good thing I did in my writing was to have every word resist the next word or resist the way it should go. I believe that’s accurate enough. It’s partly orneriness but it’s partly trying to make the words take you to a fresh place.

THE SENTENCES IN “1=1” are ornery but the plot is simple. A woman goes for a swim, reads the newspaper, and has an interaction with her neighbor. There isn’t a necessary causal link between these events, they happen in the same day but other than that it’s not obvious how the events work together. Although “1=1” feels like a coherent whole. The three main events: 1) swimming, 2) newspaper reading, and 3) neighbor interaction, happen in two acts.

Swimming takes up the entire first act. The first sentence is: She visits others. We don’t know who these others are. She swims and watches a man play fetch on the beach with his dog. As she swims and observes and has several interwoven revelations as the tense of the narration switches subtly from the beginning to the end of the first paragraph, from third person to second person, almost imperceptibly, pivoting from “she,” to “oneself,” to “you.” It becomes clear by the time we get to “you” that yes, swimming is a physical act this woman is performing in the story but it’s also a metaphor. In the middle of the paragraph, at the same time tense is about to change, so too does the act of swimming become something else:

People think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty, to know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path, to be in the perfect place to hear the nightingale sing, see the groom kiss the bride, clock the comet.

What does knowing beauty, hearing nightingales sing, grooms kissing brides, and clocking comets have to do with swimming? Nothing, except Carson already has us on the hook. She’s melded two concepts together without having to spell it out for the reader because she writes intuitively. As the woman gets in the water her mind wanders and we wander with her, as if the physical submersion she undergoes gives license for the prose to also become fluid. Swimming = the ambiguous resistance every person must learn to navigate, continuously:

Every water has a right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke. What does that mean, fail it.

THE SECOND ACT BEGINS with an ending: Her visit ends. Back at her home, she reads the newspaper. A story about migrants packed in a train, ‘filthy families and souls in despair…’ She considers her life (act 1) and theirs side-by-side, concluding: Words like “rationale” become, well, laughable. Nothing about this consideration is necessary to the plot but it illustrates further Anne Carson’s methodology. The main character faces the chasm between her and others—i.e. the isolation of selfhood—wherein no rationale is sufficiently explanatory; should this be framed as a question, [it] would not be answerable by philosophy or poetry or finance or by the shallows or the deeps of her own mind…

Faced with this problem, She goes downstairs and out to the stoop, hoping it’s cooler there. She then has an encounter with her neighbor Chandler who is drawing pears with sidewalk chalk. She tries talking with him but he doesn’t answer because he’s focused on his drawing: His gaze is ahead and within.

The second act ends by tying things back to the beginning. Thwarted by her attempts to connect with Chandler, the main character goes back upstairs and thinks of capacity, both ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’:

Upstairs, she finds herself thinking again about the failure to swim. It can be quantitative as well as qualitative. Imagine how many pools, ponds, lakes, bays, streams, stretches of swimmable shore there are in the world right now, probably half of them empty of swimmers, by reason of night or negligence. Empty, still, perfect. What a waste, what an extravagance—why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them? 

The beauty in the writing I think is partly fueled by Carson’s obsession with avoiding ‘rationales,’ or overarching explanations that demystify experience. It’s hard to explain what’s going on here and that’s kind of wonderful. It’s mainly meant to be enjoyed. But, at the very minimum, Carson makes clear her basic metaphor that runs through “1=1”: water, again, is a kind of potential of circumstance. Empty, still, perfect. You could be anyone but you are just you. Why not make oneself accountable to that? Why not swim in all of them?

Chandler rings the doorbell. Done with his drawing, he is reaching out to her. He wants to show her his drawing of a fox. She looks at it and feels its connection with her day. In the picture the fox is swimming. Earlier that day she was swimming. She stands awhile, watching the fox swim, looking back on the day, its images too strong, and yet the soul—how does it ever get peace in its mouth, close its mouth on peace while alive… The fox is stroking splashlessly forward. The fox does not fail.

What is significant about the fox’s not failing? It picks up where the question in act 1 left off: What does that mean, fail it. The question isn’t answered but it is addressed. The woman swam in act 1, the fox swims now. The fox is a work of art which is part of its perfection. But is the fox doing more? Does it have peace in its mouth? Is that perfection?

HAROLD BLOOM WROTE in How to Read and Why that basically all short stories are ‘either Chekhovian or Borgesian; only rarely are they both.’ What he meant was that short stories tend to either be realistic (following Anton Chekhov) in which the mundane is elevated by description; or they are fantastic (following Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka) whereby the fantastic is brought down to earth by being made tenable. Anne Carson’s “1=1” is this rare case that blurs the line. She’s able to do this by how she writes at the sentence level. Nothing supernatural happens in “1=1.” Nothing much happens at all. It isn’t a fairytale. It isn’t a straightforward myth. It’s basically realism but it’s by surprise that she captivates. The events in her stories do not fall in succession like dominoes but rhyme with symbol, metaphor, and intuition.

 


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Is there a Glass Ceiling on Villainy in the Sequel Star Wars Trilogy?

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ONE OF THE MOST common criticisms of The Force Awakens (2015) was that it was essentially a redux of A New Hope (1977) with new characters and slightly different situations but with the same basic storyline:

Bad guys have superweapon. Unsuspecting hero who lives on desert planet gets caught in middle of plot to thwart superweapon. With struggle good guys destroy superweapon. Hero basks in glory and gets whiff of personal destiny.

(And there are even more specific similarities beyond the plot.)

This could be because The Force Awakens is a textbook ‘soft reboot,’ which sacrifices creative/risky storytelling for conventional, repeated ideas (probably in order protect investment). Much of Hollywood now relies on continually reasserting brands instead of writing new stories because people go out in droves to see their favorite stories reprised.

The Force Awakens though and the next two movies in the new Star Wars trilogy (The Last Jedi and the as of yet untitled Episode IX) are in a unique position following up one of the most groundbreaking movie franchises of all time.

IT’S NO SECRET that the original Star Wars trilogy was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell and particularly his book Hero with a Thousand Faces which is an account of ancient hero stories all around the world. A New Hope especially is structured like an ancient hero-myth. A regular farm boy goes on an adventure, gets magic sword from wizard, and goes to save the princess trapped in the castle.

It’s a simple tale of good and evil.

But then The Empire Strikes Back & Return of the Jedi went on to complicate things. Focus was shifted from the universal hero story of Luke to include more of Darth Vader. George Lucas famously decided last minute during the later drafts of Empire to rewrite Darth Vader as Luke’s father.

Whatever began to endear Darth Vader to George Lucas as a character, the prequels—however clumsy—placed Darth Vader squarely in the middle of the whole saga as ‘the chosen one.’

The villain turned out to be the one to bring balance to the force.

THEREFORE THE SEQUEL TRILOGY (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Episode IX) has a big job to do, especially in its treatment of evil.

And The Force Awakens already showed some weaknesses in this regard and was particularly bland in its handling of what is supposed to be the absolute threat to peace in the galaxy: the superweapon Starkiller Base, which is just a bigger Death Star. Han Solo even cracks jokes about it in the middle of the climactic action sequence:

Also, the only really distinguishing characteristic of Supreme Leader Snoke—the new Emperor Palpatine—is that he’s really big version of Gollum.

Making the new villains and superweapons so blatantly derivative of the past trilogy—basically the same but only bigger—shows a lack of creativity but it also shows how thoroughly the original Star Wars trilogy maximized dramatic PG-rated villainy, leaving little room for future installments to up the stakes.

The Death Star, a destroyer of entire planets, pretty much maxed out the villainous possibilities of the Empire:

The only way the First Order seemed to be able to distinguish itself by way of originality was to make Starkiller Base capable of destroying more than one planet at once:

But scale is not the only issue.

As was discussed earlier Darth Vader’s story as a villain is given depth and intrigue by his being the real hero of the story. That’s what makes him interesting. He is the last person we would expect to soften. Any villain character reversals in the new trilogy (from Dark to Light, Light to Dark) would feel too ripped off from Darth Vader’s story, even for a soft reboot. Kylo Ren is made somewhat interesting by being Han and Leia’s son but even this revelation felt reminiscent of the ‘I am your father’ reveal from The Empire Strikes Back, harkening back to and possibly re-instantiating familial betrayal and redemption as key themes for the sequel trilogy.

It will be interesting to see what The Last Jedi and Episode IX do to expand on the characters of Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo Ren, and General Hux; what type of threat the First Order will present to the galaxy; and whether or not it will be very different from the old Empire. Will there be a new superweapon? If not, how will the First Order menace the Republic? If there is a new superweapon, how will it be different than the Death Star and Starkiller Base?

Is Snoke actually a very tiny evil Yoda?

In short, as a first step towards a new villainy The Force Awakens represents a safe reprisal, relying heavily on previously existing elements.

It was not bad but not great either.

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THE LAST JEDI comes out December 2017. Episode IX is tentatively slated for May 2019. If they are going to be as entertaining and lasting as the original trilogy (no easy task) they are going to have to know how to handle their antagonists, break new ground, and ultimately do better than The Force Awakens.


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Personal: American Dreams

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Nate Burbeck

WE ARE FIRST TIME ‘home’ buyers, which, when you think about it, is a funny way of putting it.

The real estate industry’s use of the term shows a penchant for selling more than just a house.

But do apartments/condominiums/cardboard boxes along the highway not serve as homes for people?

First time ‘house’ buyer does not have the same ring to it.

Last night my wife and I saw three houses with our realtor. The first house was in a subdivision behind a Barnes & Noble, in the middle of town, although you had to drive pretty far back along the roads to get there. It was a tidy little house with hardwood floors throughout, narrow hallways, and dimming lights. It was not a long drive to the second house, farther outside of town, which was in a neighborhood bordering Route 48: the main road which cuts through the middle of downtown Dayton, OH. It was an unoccupied “L” shaped white brick house neatly tucked on a gently sloping hill with new insides. And even farther South on Route 48, the furthest out of town, was the last house. It stood relatively solitary on a backroad surrounded by trees and large patches of grass stretching into farms, parks, and church lots.

This triangulation of houses is in the forgotten area between Cincinnati and Columbus, OH. Probably the only focal point of national significance is I-75 (which runs from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan down through the everglades to its terminus in Miami, FL). This area, “Southern Dayton,” is cradled to the east of this major highway. And there are not so subtle gradations of class and society stratified on both sides of I-75, which acts as a sort of dividing line—running between burned out old warehouses, strip malls, and the occasional patch of wooded terrain.

In other words, this is middle America.

HAD YOU TOLD ME when I was an adolescent that I would, ten years later, be shopping for houses in Southern Dayton, I would not have believed you. I would have probably been offended.

The choice for me then was between the city and the beach.

Best case scenario would have been a city on the beach.

My future life to me at that time seemed so far off that the possibility of staying within the bounds of suburbia into my adulthood was abhorrent. I got the sense, as I’m sure most kids still do through whatever types of media they ingest, that real life only happens on either American coast. If you are a big shot you will go east or west. To remain hemmed in by the trappings of a comfortable fly-over state life cosigns you to a slow corrosion of meaningless toil and obscurity.

That is what I thought almost all of my life.

Then, when I was 23, I met the woman of my dreams and we got married. And then, three years later, we had a baby (which were both preemptive life watermarks by millennial standards).

My big city dreams would be curtailed in ways I could not predict: I wanted to be a musician, I also wanted to write something important. And to do that I needed to be in or near a hub of creative influence: New York City, Los Angeles, etc.

But that was not to be.

I found out how conciliatory adult life can be. With marriage and children comes an entirely new consideration of familial unity which puts a lid on certain prospects for relocation, or at least makes it more difficult. Personal advancements become subjugated to focusing primarily on providing for those one loves—and not only financially—which sometimes means avoiding unnecessary risk. The pace of life tends to slow down. Health insurance becomes a must.

In short, I learned some things about myself. I saw the hollowness of my kid ‘dreams’ in light of my new life, and how uncritically I had imbibed those kid ‘dreams’ from pop-culture and had, at the time, interpreted them falsely as somehow unique to me. I realized the importance of family—the importance of contextualizing one’s individuality within a loving collective, and how sad life can be without that. I learned that maybe I am not a big shot, maybe I am a normal person, and maybe I am okay with that.

SO I WAS A LITTLE SURPRISED to find these kid ‘dreams’ coming back to me, almost from the dead, as we drove last night from house to house. There was an old dread, an old reluctance to lay claim to my home.

Although I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.

Being a first time home buyer after all is a big step towards permanence.

Up until this point our life situation has been nullified by a kind of transience, the kind that can pack up and move at any time, deciding to chase the big dream after all. This enables a having of the cake and eating it too: pretending to let go of kid ‘dreams’ while still maybe only just a little bit holding onto them, all while performing the sober considerations of adult life, having them in your back pocket as a sedative when needed.

Seeing each of these houses was seeing a potential future, a future of no insignificant length, one measured out by years instead of months.

The specter of old dreams loomed.

I came face to face with my real self as opposed to an idealized self; not the self I dreamed about becoming but the self that had actually made the real day-to-day decisions of my life. This raw truth had the expected effect: I drove around in a muted sort of shock, unable to figure out what standard to hold to my life to measure its failure or success, or the ambiguity therein.

I GREW UP in Ohio. I always thought it was boring, ugly. Going on vacation proved this. Every place seemed exotic by comparison. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned, from literature of all places, how to appreciate the physical, geographic beauty of home.

David Foster Wallace’s opening to the posthumous The Pale King, a description of Peoria, is one of my favorite examples:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’squarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

Or a much shorter summation from Kurt Vonnegut:

What geography can give all Middle Westerners, along with the fresh water and topsoil, if they let it, is awe for an Edenic continent stretching forever in all directions.

Makes you religious. Takes your breath away

Driving along the state routes to our different house options immediately reminded me of these descriptions and of my own impressions about the land I live on—flat vistas along the highways of the fields and neighborhoods.

Understatement.

Subtlety.

I had missed this before.

THE HOUSES THEMSELVES presented different types of options. The one behind Barnes & Noble was the closest to town. The “L” shaped house was removed a little bit from town. The country house was furthest from town. There were gradations, even in nondescript middle America.

We walked into the first house and were immediately struck by the paint. Brown and red with soft lighting throughout. It was a nice place. Small but nice. All of the family’s stuff was still in the house. There was a guitar on a stand. Books on shelves. Blankets on couches. The bedrooms were all neatly organized.

We felt like we were intruding.

On one of the dressers was a copy of Big Sur by Jack Kerouac and a Collected Works by Oscar Wilde.

Good taste isn’t dead after all, I thought.

The back yard was a good third of an acre, surrounded by other thirds of acres filled with clotheslines, sheds, coiled hoses, and partial fences. The frozen grass stiffly held a dusting of snowflakes like dandruff. This grass could be my grass, I thought. A piece of earth. Mine? Mine. Basically the American Dream. Invented by guys in powdered wigs. Self-evident truths. All men are created equal. This grass does not belong to nobles or despots. It belongs to this family. It could belong to me. A piece of ground. Personal sovereignty

I could hear I-75 in the distance, cars hissing through the air from Michigan to Miami. What were they doing in those cars? Listening to music. Talking. Thinking to themselves.

 

Culture: Casey Neistat & the Inversion of Greek Tragedy

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Credit: Casey Neistat

I REMEMBER THE FIRST Casey Neistat video I ever watched. It was a rainy day at the office—gray, windswept, and generally very depressing—I was scrolling on YouTube’s Trending page and there was this video entitled, “this was 100% HER FAULT.” The thumbnail was of a hairy and tattooed arm pointing at a shrugging woman on a bus.

I was conscious of the shallowness of my curiosity, of the clickbaity title and thumbnail, but what else did I have to do that afternoon? Nothing. And I had to know: who was this woman and what did she do wrong?

Hook, line, &…

Little did I know that I was stumbling onto one of the fastest growing YouTube channels of 2016, and that this video was part of a larger project: a series of daily vlogs covering almost two years in the life of this one man, Casey Neistat, a young squirrelly Sean Penn lookalike with goofy sunglasses.

“this was 100% HER FAULT” was immediately interesting. A softly droning electronic beat drops and there is the Houston city skyline time-lapsing from dawn to early morning. All the filming is done by Neistat himself, as well as the video editing. The style is good. It feels very new and technically polished but is also carefully calculated to feel amateurish when necessary, like an everyday personal vlog (although Neistat is far from an amateur, with an impressive career history in cinematography before ever doing YouTube videos).

The next scene is of the faulted woman in question—Candace Pool, Neistat’s wife— casually brushing her teeth. Casey walks into the bathroom, camera in hand:

Casey: On a scale from 1 to 10, how much did you miss me?

Candace: Up until this morning? 10.

Casey: Besides our minor fight this morning, how much did you miss me?

Candace: 10.

Then cut to kitchen. Candace is hurriedly walking.

Casey: What are we doing right now?

Candace (slightly exasperated): Going to get you a suit.

Already, in under a minute, the premise is set. There’s been an artsy intro, and a dialogue that clearly establishes all the necessary pieces of a classic drama: 1) intended goal = going to get suit & 2) complication = tension between the characters. One itches for a resolution—especially with the title and thumbnail image in mind. What exactly is going to go wrong?

And why does Casey need a suit anyway?

Cut to SUV, on the way to buying suit.

Casey (to camera): I know my life as portrayed in this show is fairly chaotic but the last couple of days have been peak chaos… So since we’re going to New Orleans for a wedding, I need a suit. I don’t have one.

Casey (to Candace): What are you wearing? Where are we going?

I would learn later that this was classic Casey Neistat. Every vlog has some intended purpose. And it isn’t always clear whether Casey superimposes these events onto his life as a narrative structure to engage the viewer or whether he just has a knack for animating everyday events with clever editing techniques, or both. Whatever it is, the effect is the same: Casey Neistat’s life is fun to watch.

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WATCHING HIS DAILY VLOGS became like a ritual for me. They would pop up on my feed and I noticed a particularly consistent set of emotional response swell up inside of me that I could not exactly place. Like “this was 100% HER FAULT,” most of Neistat’s videos chronicle the everyday events of his life, and I soon began to realize that I had caught Neistat in the middle of a massive upward trajectory. The internal spark animating the narratives of his videos were consistently the exciting developments in his career, and his ‘peak chaos’ schedule thereafter. Neistat had already been making successful viral videos for years on YouTube, but when he started posting his daily vlogs in March of 2015 his monthly viewership was 3 million, and by October 2016 his monthly viewership had grown to 130 million. His daily vlogs during this time are both the means of his success and a diary of his success. Casey’s life is cool at the beginning of the daily vlogs as a middling Youtuber and gets way cooler by the time he reaches superstardom.

The plots in his vlogs are pretty standardized, taken as a whole: Casey travels to such and such location, Casey does interesting project for interesting company/person, Casey reviews piece of hardware, Casey does thing with drone, Casey does a Boosted Board commercial, Casey answers questions, Casey gets mail. All of his videos fit somewhere on this spectrum but achieve a level of entertainment because each of these categories become more expansive as Casey’s brand and viewership grows. He travels to more interesting locales, in more expensive flights, in more expensive hotels, does even more crazy projects, gets cooler hardware, wrecks more drones, and gets more fan mail.

Realizing this overall direction helped me pinpoint the emotional thread that ties the intrigue in Casey Neistat’s plots together, and it’s a common emotional impetus among the projected lives of social media stars in general:

Envy.

I felt envy when I was watching “this was 100% HER FAULT,” all the way to Casey’s final daily vlog. I wanted to live a life like Casey was living. I wanted to be doing interesting projects that millions of people enjoy; I wanted to travel to exotic places, and to meet interesting people. I didn’t want to be sitting in my gray office building, shuffling papers, and feeling unimportant.

This is interesting because most entertainment—as is classically understood—is not engineered to produce envy. I can hardly think of any movie or book in which the main character’s life is so outrageously good that we can’t help but envy them. That would be a boring story.

WHEN DEFINING TRAGEDY, Aristotle says in his Poetics that:

A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language;… in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.

This is the classic model which is still in use today. Think of basically every movie or book that exists, tragic or comic: we observe something bad happen to a character we like (or have some connection to) and their response to that bad thing. When we watch something bad happen to someone we like, it sparks pity in us, insofar as we are connected to a character, whether they are fictional or real. We watch and enjoy tragedies because pity has a bright underside. Yes, if a bad thing happens to a character we like—that is bad. It makes us feel bad for them, to a degree. It produces an anxiety in us that will have to be resolved in some way. But the bright underside of tragedy is this: we are watching something bad that is happening, not to us, but to somebody else. And that’s the key. Deep down tragedy counterintuitively makes us feel good—even though superficially we may feel bad—because the ‘tragedy’ makes our own lives look good by comparison.

Casey Neistat is a perfect inversion of this model.

Envy, not pity.

Even in the face of small inconveniences (“this was 100% HER FAULT,”), the modus operandi for Neistat (and his social media ilk) = Positivity. Casey is constantly upbeat and hardworking (see a video of his daily schedule) to a frantic and crazed degree. There are hardly any moments of melancholy in all the hours of his life that are recorded online. He seems invincibly happy.

This envy-based entertainment is a new development via internet culture—many have tapped into its power (see Dan Bilzerian, Roman Atwood, Tyler Oakley, Maddi Bragg, Cameron Dallas).

It runs on a non-fictional pretense. That is: these are real people, not fictional characters, so we buy into their positivity at face value. It tacitly tells us: anything is possibly as long as you work hard, are smart, are pretty, have an identifiable brand ethic, etc., etc. This new form of story-telling requires an ethic of positivity to produce the desired effect. We are to believe that these ‘real’ people really have it all figured out. Whereas a classical tragedy could be very dark in its core contents (Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, etc.), and depressing, the implication was positive: at least this is not happening to you. This new form is the exact opposite: most of its core contents are extremely positive and uplifting—the music, visuals, attitudes, etc. are embodiments of sunny days, everyday; cool people and fun adventures—but the implication is negative: your life by comparison is not as cool as Casey Neistat’s.

Neistat recently addressed this perception of his own channel in a video entitled “i’m not that happy.”

Around 4:40 he says:

My thesis when I was daily vlogging was to pluck the fun and happy and interesting aspects of my life out of the 24-hour day that is my life and turn it into a 10-minute video for you, the audience. I chose that approach because, much like a lot of you, I enjoy videos that make me feel good vs. ones that are overwhelmingly depressing. No one wants to watch a video of someone groveling about how lame their life is.

[But I do see how viewers] would see that as the totality of my life—like every second of my life is that happy. And it isn’t. No one’s life is that happy. I try really hard to live the happiest most positive life I can, but life is ebb and flow. And my life has been no different, especially throughout the vlog. 

And at 6:20:

…[As vloggers] we have the opportunity to edit our lives—edit out the shitty parts and leave in the really happy parts. But know that they exist.

FURTHER ON in the Poetics, Aristotle describes the difference between the historian and the poet:

The historian speaks of things which have happened, and the poet of such things that might have happened.

In other words, a good story, in order to be believed, must be plausible or believable—but the audience knows upfront that it is fiction. We know, for instance, we are about to see something made up when we walk into a movie theater. This has been the tacit agreement between the maker of the fiction and the audience for thousands of years, since Aeschylus: that we are about to pretend. Hollywood spends billions of dollars every year to more effectively suspend our disbelief in this way. So, says Aristotle, the best fiction is ‘true’ in the sense that it is the type of thing ‘that might have happened,’ via likely causes and effects. It didn’t happen but it could happen, and probably would happen, based on what we know of human nature. The deeper the understanding of human nature embodied in a piece of art, and the more plausible its plot, the greater the effect it has on its audience. We are touched deeply because we know great works of fiction are ‘true’ in some sense, in their plausibility, at the very least.

Neistat’s brand of storytelling (and arguably most human behavior on all social media) runs counter to this principle as well. Unlike a work of fiction, we assume when watching a vlog that what we’re seeing is true, and it is ‘true’ in the basic sense of the word—it did happen. Neistat’s vlogs, and others like his, are true at face value. But what they edit out creates a picture that is out of proportion—we assume we’re seeing truth when really we’re seeing a fiction, a new, and, I would argue, more sly type of fiction. It isn’t a fiction spun from events made up whole cloth, but from real events edited together to specifically or selectively give a false impression of reality. Nearly all social media works in this way, because all we experience of someone is their profile, the implication = this is my life. A profile is, after all, probably an apt metaphor for Neistat’s ethic of presentation. In his vlogs he is a projection of himself rather than himself—a meticulously curated projection including only the fun parts.

This style of story-telling is not necessarily brand new. It had forerunners in cinéma vérité and docufiction dating all the way back to the 1920s—authentic-looking movies that blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction, without expensive sets and costumes. But these attempts were scant and avant-garde before the widespread proliferation of social media.

My question is: what effect will this type of story-telling have on the masses now that it is mainstream?

Is the Neistat way of narrative more or less authentic in today’s age of authenticity? Is it a new way forward for creative story-telling? A trendy blip on the screen?

I AM IN A NEW office now, with the same company, at the same regular dreary job I had the first time I saw Casey Neistat zooming around NYC in an Adderall-soaked furry. The office is still gray. The sky is even still gray.

I realize that I am probably not the most objective critic of Casey Neistat videos because I have seen so many of them. I walk to the Break Room to try and clear my mind. I’ve been sitting at my cubicle since lunch. I need a breather.

My friend is in the Break Room.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey,” he says.

“Do you have a minute?” I say.

“Sure,” he says.

“Cool. I want to show you something.”

We walk to my desk and I show him a video entitled “HUMAN FLYING DRONE,” in which Casey Neistat is pulled on a snowboard by a giant light-up technicolored drone,  swerving through the streets, giving high-fives to those watching. The drone pulls him up into the air against an orange and purple sunset backdrop. The shots pans until he is center-frame and the words appear:

Happy Holidays

From Casey Neistat

and your friends at Samsung

I want to get an outside perspective. I want to know if I’m reading too much into this.

“What do you think?” I say.

He is smiling, eyes are wide.

“Wow, looks like he is having a lot of fun.”

Critique: Will McPhail’s New Yorker Cartoon

 

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I am of the adolescent opinion that a cartoon can say more than a think piece and can probably say it better.

The New Yorker ran the cartoon you see above on January 2nd, almost two months after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. It was drawn by the artist Will McPhail.

And then there was a subsequent firestorm on social media regarding the cartoon.

There are a few ways to read this cartoon, but based on a recent tweet from McPhail regarding the electoral college, I think we’re safe in assuming the guy in the black shirt is meant to represent Donald Trump:

mcphail

So the political analogy begins to emerge. Donald Trump the buffoon pronounces himself capable of taking over the pilot’s job even though he is just a ‘regular passenger’ who probably doesn’t know how to fly a plane.

This is a funny critique of Trump himself: the crudity of his campaign message and public persona, his lack of experience in politics, and his open appeal to the ‘regular passengers like us,’ taken together do seem ridiculous, worth lampooning.

But who are these ‘smug’ pilots, and why are so many passengers raising their hands? Could they be the current administration? Progressive media? A conflation of the two?

Are these passengers wrong to consider the pilots smug? If not, are they only incorrect in asserting smugness matters when considering a pilot’s qualifications?

The deeper level of the joke takes hold, given the recent accusations of the Democratic party being smug and also the media class—so they are therefore partially to blame for Trump’s win, so the story goes. (See 1. Emmett Rensin, 2. Anthony Bourdain, 3. Mark Lilla, 4. Nikki Johnson-Huston, 5. Michael Lerner, and 6. Glenn Greenwald to cite just a few examples.)

And whether this charge of smugness in progressive media is an overgeneralization or not, the cartoon is a striking counter-narrative to that claim. The cartoon mocks those who voted for Donald Trump as misguided for registering smugness on the part of the media class/progressives; but it also grants the sole technical competence to the current ‘power structure,’ to borrow a progressive phrase. In other words, it is a breathtakingly smug move on the part of a progressive publication to literally put the status quo in the cockpit and all Trump naysayers in the coach seats, double-downing on its insistence that it alone can fly the plane—especially in a piece that is ostensibly trying to counter to the claim that they are smug in the first place, or that it matters.

This is more than the cartoon wants to say but I think it’s pretty clear this is what it’s saying, intended or not.

It’s a statement about who is in power now and who is about to be in power and why. It’s a statement blind to its own blindness: insufficiently and inaccurately registering the dissent that exists against it, with a moral imagination too small to impute anything but negative qualities to those who support the opposition.

The cartoon itself is not anything too bad or morally egregious. It is normal, especially in election years, to throw rocks at the other side. It’s part of the democratic process.

But I’ve never seen a cartoon that so embodies the thing it’s critiquing, that so shoots up its own asshole.