The Last Jedi, or How to Take a Piss on a Great Story

I love to teach the Star Wars movies as structures. They’re like great great structures for teaching my students how drama can work, especially in a film… If you think about the original three movies. Think about the way they’re organized together. In any movie or book—not always, but traditionally—there’s a place where the character, the main protagonist, has to make an absolutely important choice, and that choice will set the consequences and the terms of the rest of the movie and sometimes even the rest of this character’s life… In the first movie Luke makes the choice that he’s going to go follow Ben Kenobi, to pursue a lifetime in the force, and become a Jedi… If Star Wars was just nonsense, if it was jibberish, it wouldn’t hang as tightly as it hangs. Star Wars has been around a really long time. There isn’t a young person who hasn’t felt the choice between “I’m going to stay and help my family,” or “I’m going to go and do something else that’s more personal, that’s more me.” What makes Star Wars so poignant is you have this character who is so desperate to leave. He desperately wants to leave this little farm. But you know what he decides when he’s given the choice? He’s like you know what, my aunt and uncle need me. It’s an ethical thing. Even though I desperately want to go and be a pilot, I’m going to stay here and help them. And that choice he makes follows him throughout the rest of the movies. He’s more loyal than he is ambitious. That loyalty is not always something, as kids, we’re encouraged to embody. So when you see someone being loyal, really loyal, making a hard choice. “I’m going to stay at home on the farm rather than be a star pilot.” Well, that seems like a real thing to me.

— Junot Diaz

According to box office numbers, many of you have probably seen The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga.

(If you haven’t seen it be warned that there are spoilers below.)

As a lifelong fan of Star Wars, here is my emotional personal reaction to The Last Jedi:

NO! No, no, no, no, NO, no, no!, NOOOO!

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OK, that’s out of the way.

The night I saw The Last Jedi I walked out of the theater no longer a Star Wars fan. For the rest of my life I guess I can pitifully cling to my precious original trilogy. I know it’s an old fart thing to do. But for those few of you interested in my puritanical originalist arguments, below are my reasons why The Last Jedi is a nothingburger movie.

#1 Rey’s story is boring

Rey is a perfectly good stock action movie character. And Daisy Ridley’s acting is incredible despite having little in the script or story to work with. But Rey, as a character, lacks the universal touch because her journey, so far, doesn’t embody anything. Paradoxically, fictional characters are made universal by their personal and particular struggles. Not from their blandness. Far from being a “Mary Sue”—a character who can do no wrong—which has been argued by many online critics, Rey is almost a totally passive character. It’s only superficially that she displays strength using the force, wielding a lightsaber, etc. Fundamentally her journey in this new trilogy doesn’t signify anything beyond itself.

The irony of Rey’s character is that, in trying to do a more interesting and updated version of Luke, she is actually made more generic. Like Luke, Rey is a straightforward orphan type. Done over and over again in literature. Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins… But unlike Luke, Rey doesn’t make any active decisions to begin her journey, nor does she risk anything personal to endear us to her struggle. She’s waiting for her parents. Okay. She’s been chilling on this desert planet all this time salvaging rusted metal and eating green muffins. Okay. Then she’s in the right place at the right time and gets swept up in an adventure. Okay. And ends up being randomly amazing at the force. Okay.

THIS MUST BE BUILDING UP TO SOMETHING.

But no.

By the end of The Last Jedi, who cares about what happens to Rey? Just like every other story-line she’s involved in, her meeting with Luke is basically a blind alley. She learns some things about the force. But nothing about her personal struggle for identity is furthered one way or the other. She tries finding identity in her meeting with Kylo, which makes no narrative sense, but that ends up being another blind alley as well. How many wild goose chases does Rey have to go on before we glean one single thing about her character?

Here’s what I think they’ll name Episode IX:

Star Wars: Chasing Pots of Gold to the Ends of the Galaxy for no Reason Whatsoever

#2 Of plot holes & story weaknesses

The plot holes in The Last Jedi are so flagrant there is really no excuse for it. But the plot holes are only the symptom of a poorly crafted story.

It’s clear to me Rian Johnson has confused creativity with subversiveness. Being subversive is easy. Any teenager or French philosopher can do that. But being really creative isn’t easy at all. Building something truly inspiring from the ground up requires an inconvenient amount of introspection and imagination.

If you pay close attention, every plot point in The Last Jedi is a cute little comment on Star Wars—an attempt to deconstruct a convention that went before it. Deconstruction is fine as long as you replace what you tear down with something better, but The Last Jedi has nothing to bring to the table to replace what it tears apart.

  1. A planet destroying super weapon plot is replaced by a more micro & local level slow motion battle ship chase plot
  2. The trigger happy space cowboy is put into his place by a “strong” self-sacrificing Christ figure
  3. The subplot to retrieve the hack for the enemy shield ends up amounting to saving space goats
  4. The Jedi are replaced by… well, nothing. Just these characters… I mean they’re fine but… C’mon, they’re not Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Han Solo.

Each plot hole directly correlates with one of these points of deconstruction. The slow spaceship chase doesn’t make sense, because an entire First Order fleet could easily take down one Resistance ship, even if that ship had a functioning shield and plenty of fuel. There is so much labored dialogue throughout these scenes about why this isn’t the case, about how they can be tracked through light speed, etc., to the point where, for me, the exposition was a dead giveaway. It was too far a stretch and I was taken out of the drama.

Poe Dameron the Whiny Space Cowboy responds to said dilemma impetuously, so much so that he invites the scorn of Vice Admiral Holdo, the new acting commander of the ship, with whom he develops something of a rivalry. This narrative piece depends on the premise going before it to work, which it doesn’t, so the drama built on top is even more flimsy: Poe wants to know the plan for escape, but Aldo won’t tell him. After all he’s being a real jerk! But beyond this it isn’t clear why Holda is leaving everyone in the dark as they float helplessly along in space without an apparent plan of action. This contention between Holda and Poe seems contrived, like it had to be written for the story to work in the way it eventually did, and when Holda goes all kamikaze, it becomes clear. This was an edifice to support Holda’s now famous hyperspace scene. A cool idea, but a forced one that produces holes in the story. To quote a recent article which put it more bluntly:

“More to the point, though, this didn’t have to be a suicide run. Hyperspace jumps are plotted by computers, and droid ships are already a Star Wars staple. There’s no reason navies couldn’t construct unmanned ships to take on this task.”

#3 It’s just a Marvel movie in space

This all may seem like a bunch of nit-picking. And it is. To be fair, as a standalone movie The Last Jedi is fine, passable, a piece of neatly crisped toast. But as an extension of a story that has meant a lot to serious fans, who see it as maybe just a little more than a movie, The Last Jedi represents a concession to mainstream low-grade movie writing. It would be impossible to overestimate the role Star Wars has historically played in shaping the art of the Hollywood blockbuster. Star Wars wrote the playbook for big epic movies and now, instead of paving the way for new territory, continuing to blaze new trails, it’s absorbed the worst of it’s own cheap imitators.

I want to be very clear (if you’ve made it this far in the article). There’s nothing wrong with enjoying this movie. If you liked The Last Jedi, that’s good by me. Honestly I, and other Star Wars fans like me, are really not out to score hipster points at this late stage in the game. That’s not what it’s about. It probably sounds very snooty to be all about the ‘originals.’ But the apparent anger we feel really has more to do with the life cycles of art, which can be brutal. Trends go up and down. Mediums go in and out of fashion. Sometimes a lot of creative energy is concentrated in one industry while another flounders and has to re-find its footing. People are inspired cross-culturally by different things at different times. And every so often a thing has enough longevity to cross over into a new generation or a new medium and is reinterpreted. Sometimes this goes over really well and other times it doesn’t.

Here are three great videos you can watch that do a better job explaining everything wrong with The Last Jedi.

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Whispering into the Megaphone

In 2007 the writer George Saunders published a collection of essays entitled The Braindead Megaphone. The subject of the title essay is the description of a metaphor for how media consumption has evolved overtime to the present moment:

Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, owned businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and—surprise, pleasant surprise—being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.

Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.

But he’s got that megaphone.

Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing—but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. If he continually uses the phrase, “at the end of the day,” they start using it too. If he weaves into his arguments the assumption that the west side of the room is preferable to the east, a slow westward drift will begin.

I love a good metaphor.

This was written in 2007. Can you imagine? Twitter was just a year old. The first generation iPhone was released three months prior. George W. Bush was the president! Saunders was concerned primarily with cable news on TV. How quaint is that in 2017? The party has turned into something else. But Saunders was on to something that we certainly haven’t reckoned with ten years later, and continues to grow worse.

We’ve become used to Megaphone Guy and are even starting to like him, and getting cozy with his methods because, well, everybody’s doing it, man. Now, as party favors, there are little megaphones for everyone. Sure, some are larger than others. All the more reason to let your voice be heard!

But the real effect is this: what looks like everyone’s voice being heard is really the original Megaphone Guy’s voice being amplified not once but twice. Once through the original message, and then again through the echoing blasts of his supporters or detractors downstream who claim to proffer something new and different, but—whatever they may claim—they are still having to respond to an agenda set by the biggest megaphone in the room. And while it’s true that technology has made the distribution of megaphones more widespread and democratic, the quality of information has remained the same. Or gotten worse. The laws governing attention are no more based on who is “the smartest, most experienced, or most articulate” person at the party:

Imagine that the Megaphone has two dials: One controls the Intelligence of its rhetoric and the other its Volume. Ideally, the Intelligence would be set on High, and the Volume on Low—making it possible for multiple, contradictory voices to be broadcast and heard. But to the extent that the Intelligence is set on Stupid, and the Volume on Drown Out All Others, this is verging on propaganda, and we have a problem, one that works directly against the health of our democracy.

If that’s not prophecy–

I would love to be able to claim to be part of the solution to this, but I can’t. Perhaps like some of you, when I’m supposed to be doing work, I have a secret hunger for the noise and refresh my news webpages more than I need to, and I find myself doing it regardless of whether I really want to or not, like an impulse, and sometimes, like right now, when I am writing, I have to turn off the WiFi altogether or I will continually go back to the same pages to look for new developments in a day that I allow to be defined by the Megaphone guy.

But maybe we can get out of these habits if we try.

My dream for this blog would be to carve out a little section of the party for people who want to turn the Megaphone Intelligence up and the Volume down. Maybe we can even find a side room or something, throw the Megaphones out the window, and talk again. And who knows, maybe other people will come and join. Maybe the loudest only seem to win and in the end they really don’t. Maybe if we ignore Megaphone guy he will get tired and go home. There is only one way to find out. We have to start trying something different:

We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.

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State of the Blog

Recently some of you may have been wondering, Where have the blog posts gone? It seems as though a previously steady stream has slowed to but a trickle. Did the will-power tank peter out of gas? Is this another one of those countless blogs to be buried in the mass blog graveyard of forgotten dreams?

Well, hopefully, no.

Over the past few months I have been working hard on the beginnings of a novel. When I started I didn’t realize that writing a novel is a vortex of creative energy. More is required the further you get along until a kind of single-minded mania sets in. And like everybody else on the planet I have a full-time day job so in order to write I have to set aside a specific time or it doesn’t get done. Always this time has been divided between 1) fiction and 2) non-fiction (blog), but slowly, as this novel thing has ballooned into an uncontrollable mass with some actual but crude momentum, more time has been going towards trying to figure out exactly where it’s going.

This is not an epitaph but rather a new beginning! The blog posts I have been writing for the past year have largely been focused on thinking hard about what great artists and writers do and how they do it. As I learned I also became eager to put that learning into practice. So by looking at a few masters I was trying to write myself into being a better writer, and I’m glad to say I think it worked! At least I have become more patient re my own limitations. And hopefully you readers feel you benefited from a few of these reflections as well.

When I originally created this blog I wanted to keep it’s focus broad because my mind is always going down new rabbit trails and I’m not very good at boiling down my reflections into a marketable or niche-worthy form, (i.e. one of my many limitations). In the presence of a preset model, even a good model, my creativity withers and dies. If you tell me to write a story about a boy who slays a dragon, I will somehow end up with one about dragon befriending a boy, and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t doing this just to spite convention. Even when I tried to impose a convention onto myself as a way to auto-produce an effect I admired, I couldn’t do it.

I don’t know exactly where this new chapter in blogging is going. All I know is I have thoughts to put down and I’d like to put them down here more regularly. You readers have been very supportive and kind in your comments and feedback. I couldn’t think of a better place to continue to explore new territory as a writer.

Stay tuned.

 

George Saunders: Manifesto

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Kurt Vonnegut’s Anti-Science Fiction Novel

Breakfast of Champions isn’t one of Kurt Vonnegut’s best novels. He famously gave it a C on his report card of his own works:

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I tend to agree with Vonnegut. Breakfast of Champions a weird free-wheeling kind of novel, but for all it’s faults it does have something interesting going for it.

For one thing, Vonnegut is a master world-builder. This is maybe the largest hurdle between a would-be science fiction writer and a quality piece of writing. It’s hard work to convey an entire world to a reader so that they enjoy the process rather than feel burdened by details which may have nothing to do with the story.

Breakfast of Champions isn’t a science fiction novel, not really, but it feels like one precisely because Vonnegut isn’t building a far away planet or a technologically advanced spaceship. Instead he builds the world around us, i.e. planet Earth, like a science fiction writer might who happens to be from another planet.

One of my favorite examples is a minor one, a description of a chicken:

A chicken was a flightless bird which looked like this:

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The idea was to kill it and pull out all it feathers, and cut off its head and feet and scoop out its internal organs—and then chop it into pieces, and put the pieces in a waxed paper bucket with a lid on it, so it looked like this:

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This description has almost nothing to do with the story but Vonnegut places it perfectly so that we are delighted by his observation. And the whole point anyway is to make fun of bad science fiction writing which uses too much spurious detail.

The other thing Vonnegut does well is to use a story within a story. I usually hate when novels do this but I don’t mind when Vonnegut does it because they are mini-masterpieces in and of themselves.

Here is my favorite:

A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing.

Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.

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How Flannery O’Connor Writes a Freak

For my money Flannery O’Connor wrote a better and more convincing freak story than Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson or Cormac McCarthy. In her stories there is always something meaningful at stake. When asked about freaks in Southern literature she said that Southern writers can still recognize a freak because “to be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” O’Connor practiced what she preached. A highly theological writer herself, many of her stories are case studies re: a kind of freak that is only possible in a universe big enough to contain both Heaven and Hell.

I always thought writing a story about a freak would be easy. The weirder the better. But you figure out sitting down to write one that it’s much more difficult than it looks. If a freak is too weird the reader cannot relate to them and therefore doesn’t care to read about them, but if a freak isn’t weird enough they aren’t a freak. They’re just a little weird.

“Good Country People,” is a helpful object lesson in how to navigate this problem. Hulga Hopewell, the main character of the story, is painted in absolutely unflattering terms and yet we still care about her. Below are some of the physical characteristics O’Connor uses to describe Hulga:

large blonde girl

had an artificial leg

thirty-two years old

highly educated

large hulking

constant outrage

her eyes icy blue

her remarks were usually so ugly

her face so glum

standing square and rigid-shouldered

neck thrust slightly forward

poor stout girl

had never danced a step or had any normal good times

big spectacled

her arms folded

nothing wrong with her face that a pleasant expression wouldn’t help

had a weak heart

six-year-old skirt

yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it

blank and solid and silent

wore a pair of slacks and a dirty white shirt

she did not own any perfume

round freezing-blue eyes

You get the idea. There is almost nothing positive written of Hulga; but I was pulled into her character because O’Connor switches her third-person narration to and from the point of view of Hulga, Hulga’s mother (Mrs. Hopewell), and a more omniscient classical third-person narrator. This has the effect of giving the reader a view from many angles. It becomes clear throughout the first part of the story that Hulga is possibly being unfairly judged by her mother. Mrs. Hopewell and Hulga have very different ideas about life. Many of the descriptors above come from either the mouth or mind of Mrs. Hopewell in response to the antagonisms between them. Mrs. Hopewell is also a fan of platitudes and obvious statements like “nothing is perfect,” “it takes all kinds to make a world”, “they’re just salt of the earth people,” etc. which she often uses as stand ins for actual conversation with Hulga. All these subtle moves had me rooting for Hulga even though the surface of the story is unforgiving to her. But Hulga is not only a freak to her mother. There is a cast which supports Mrs. Hopewell’s perspective, a tenant family which lives in the house, foregrounding the notion of good ol’ fashioned hardworkin’ country people who don’ have time to thunk ‘bout the meaning of life and such—distancing Hulga from the consensus in the house and adding irony to her situation.

In this way O’Connor is trusting us to make up our own minds about Hulga. We know she isn’t overly pleasant but we’re not sure we trust Mrs. Hopewell either and consequently discount some of what he hear about Hulga and perhaps even feel sorry for her.

But these complications in point of view only serve to make Hulga an outcast. A freak is something more. I think this is why O’Connor risked overstating her case by taking one of Hulga’s legs. This type of move is classic O’Connor though she doesn’t do it without purpose. The leg serves an important narrative function which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read the story. But the missing leg doesn’t make Hulga a freak either. It’s more like a symbol-laden prop for the Southern gothic style.

The definition of freak, the real enchilada, comes from Mrs. Hopewell herself as she’s observing Hulga from a distance. A definition we can perhaps all relate to.

It seemed to Mrs. Hopewell that every year she [Hulga] grew less like other people and more like herself—bloated, rude, and squint-eyed.

Less like other people and more like herself.

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Jon Sudano: How to Troll with Positivity

You can fake a lot of things, but you can’t fake funny. Being funny is it’s own proof.

Ex. 1: Jon Sudano.

I laughed my butt off the first time I watched one of Jon Sudano’s vocal covers on YouTube. Never heard of Jon Sudano? Well, I better not spoil it. It’d be best if you found him out the same way I did.

Take for instance this stunning cover of Adele’s “Hello”:

 

Hmm, yes, you heard it right.

How ‘bout another crowd pleaser. Katy Perry’s “Roar”:

 

Or what about a classic? John Lennon’s “Imagine”:

 

This guy’s whole YouTube channel, every video, is him singing the melody and lyrics to All-Star by Smash Mouth over the instrumental tracks of other songs.

This is just—

I just, it’s—

How does he do it?

Somebody give this guy some kind of award. Grammy, Oscar. It doesn’t matter. A Nobel Prize in physics.

In one fell swoop it’s lampooning every earnestly contrived song cover on YouTube, the entire pop music industry, and neckbeards. But if it’s trolling, it’s the most positive trolling I’ve ever seen—practically a whole new category. He puts all the right things next to each other, conceptually speaking, lets you put the pieces together, and no one gets hurt in the process. It’s a joke that takes several videos to brew but once it does, boy, it’s some spicy sauce.

God bless you Jon Sudano.

Perhaps the internet isn’t just a failed society’s toxic wasteland of resentment after all.

Charlie Brown: Building Character

Charlie Brown is arguably one of the most recognizable fictional characters of all time—he and the rest of the Peanuts gang are larger than life.

But you may be surprised to learn that in the first Peanuts strips, published in 1950, Charlie Brown was little more than a prototype of his future self. He was more like a stock character than the unmistakable loser we all know and love. And beyond Charlie Brown almost every other piece of Peanuts was missing in these first strips. There was no Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, or Pig-Pen. The other starting main characters from the early 1950s strips–Shermy and Patty–would eventually be scrapped to make room for the future stars.

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Above is the very first strip of Peanuts ever published, October 2, 1950.

Although most of what we’ve come to know as Peanuts doesn’t appear in Schulz’s work until the 1960s, the original germ of what the character of Charlie Brown would become is present in this very first panel. Of all that’s absent, it’s what’s present that is most striking. There is Charlie Brown the likable loser:

Good ol’ Charlie Brown.

How I hate him!

I like this first strip and the beginning era of Peanuts–the early 1950s–because, all throughout this period, you can see that Schulz is still working. I think that’s why the first panel is two other characters looking at and commenting on Charlie Brown. It’s a way of acting out Schulz’s own task, which was to see and define a character people would be interested in. He was still trying to see Charlie Brown. He didn’t have a fully formed character to begin with. He just began and worked it out as he went along. It took him some time but he eventually got it. Below is a much more recognizable strip which was published January 1957.

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That’s more like it.

What a great reminder for the creative person. You don’t need to have everything all worked out. What you need is one good idea to build on.

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My Secret Life in Used Bookstores

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1.

Sometimes I go to the bookstore if the day is getting long at work. Does my boss know this? No, but he wouldn’t mind if he did know. I get my work done. But I keep these visits to myself is because it’s nice to have something to keep to myself; I pick up my keys slowly so those around me can’t hear jingling, which is always a tell that someone is leaving, and go through a side entrance. Usually it’s anywhere between 10-11AM, when the sun is just right in the sky, about the same time as the quiet period before the lunch rush, when people are going to dentist appointments.

This time of day and situation is important because it matches the idealized version I have in my head of this trip to the bookstore. In the ideal version the sun is out, the air has a slight chill, the store isn’t crowded, and I am able to browse the shelves at leisure. It’s important also that I am only barely conscious of being away from work which gives it the energy of playing hookie.

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2.

A good face to have when browsing at the bookstore is somewhere between contemplative and pissed off, to ward off any overly-friendly employees who may otherwise be tempted to ask if there is anything they can help you find. No, dammit. I am here to look. And here’s another important point. Much is made on the internet and elsewhere about the beautiful smell of used books, which is true: used books do smell good. But for goodness sake, don’t put your face so close to something someone could have been handling while sitting on the toilet. Even if you buy a used book and it sits in your house for a while, be wary. You have to buy a book new and then earn the smell to experience it without the uncertainty of people’s disgusting habits. This also goes for running one’s fingers along the spines on the shelves which I am always tempted to do. A used bookstore’s shelves have a nicely irregular pattern to them, without the calculated stocking of bestsellers and shiny new releases. The result is something like a literary genealogy of the area surrounding the store. Imagine everything people have read in this town. But one must remember that these books are not necessarily loved books. Indeed, they weren’t kept and instead were sold for pennies on the dollar.

The used bookstore is not only a good metaphor for the declining value of books but also a nice economic mitigation.

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3.

This next part is something I’ve always felt but have never had the words to express. And still don’t. So here goes:

Whenever I think about this ideal trip to the bookstore, or am actually on the trip, I also have an associated thought of watching documentaries in high school, PBS documentaries, which were shown in lieu of class. A substitute teacher would put one on. Or sometimes we watched them on the last day of class, as a formality, because final exams were already over and the teacher had nothing to teach—but we still had to be there. I would lay my head on my desk and fall asleep. The fluorescent lights would be shut off and the blinds drawn while outside the sun was shining on the baseball field and summer was waiting.

I still don’t quite understand why I think of this while I sneak off to bookstores. But a scene like this is usually in my mind while driving, or browsing. These seem like two totally unrelated moments in life. Maybe something having to do with the vague ‘educational’ feeling of bookstores brings back memories of school, of these anti-climactic endings to school, and the PBS documentaries which accompanied them.

But I have a hunch it’s something deeper.

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4.

This last point I want to make is about the sense of duty when browsing at the used bookstore. Excavating underappreciated works and reviving them. This is a powerful tonic for Today’s Age. It can do really big things for you. And this gets more to the point I was trying to make above, and book lovers often make this mistake. They want to make books popular by fetishizing them. Smelling them. Touching them. Taking pictures on Instagram with them in which they sit pensively by a latte and an open window. This is harmless stuff, but largely misses the point and will ultimately fail as an effort to revive the popularity of the book.

You don’t really have to do any of this. The best advertisement for the books you read, in fact, is you. Being an interesting person isn’t as hard as its made out to be. The hardest part is coming up with words to talk about what’s going on in your head. And so much is going on, I guarantee. Good books will help you learn how to say it. That’s all you really need.

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5.

Every once in a while I actually buy a book. It has to be a good one. And I’ll take it back to work with me, going back in the side entrance, and back to my desk. If I run into my boss he’ll give me a knowing nodding/smiling look. He knows. He has to know.

At my desk I put my keys down gently so as not to alert my surrounding colleagues of my absence. Why do they need to know? I can’t explain it to them. I set down the keys, noiselessly, and, if I have the time before lunch, I may even begin reading my new book. This also has to be quiet because believe it or not you can hear pages turning in an office. It’s an unmistakable sound amidst keyboard-typing and mouse-clicking. Phth, I turn the pages, quietly setting the book free while it quietly sets me free.

How Reading Chekhov Can Make You a Better Writer

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“Joy” is the first anthologized story in Modern Library’s Early Short Stories of Anton Chekhov and is a good example of how the genius writer came to find his chops. Published in 1883 when he was young and writing satirical newspaper blurbs about daily life, “Joy” is short, blurblike, and funny but also has a seriousness to it that would characterize the rest of Chekhov’s later work, and would eventually make him world famous. It’s a simple story about a young man named Mitya Kuldarov who comes home late at night and wakes up his parents to give them some exciting news:

“Where have you come from?” cried his parents in amazement. “What is the matter with you?

“Oh, don’t ask! I never expected it. No, I never expected it! It’s . . . it’s positively incredible!”

Mitya laughed and sank into an armchair, so overcome by happiness that he could not stand on his legs.

Chekhov is doing what any good writer does at the beginning of a story. Something is happening that is unexplained; it’s interesting, and brings questions into the mind of the reader. A common mistake beginner writers make is explaining too much to the reader so there is nothing left for the reader to do. The more detail, we think, the better and more vivid our story will be. But good writing is more subtle than that. We, as writers who want to motivate our readers to keep reading, must omit spurious detail.

And no one knows better than Chekhov the power of an open-ended question.

Mitya jumped up, ran up and down all the rooms, and then sat down again.

“Why, what has happened? Tell us sensibly!”

“You live like wild beasts, you don’t read the newspapers and take no notice of what’s published, and there’s so much that is interesting in the papers. If anything happens it’s all known at once, nothing is hidden! How happy I am! Oh, Lord! You know it’s only celebrated people whose names are published in the papers, and now they have gone and published mine!”

We come to know that Mitya is not only the type of person that comes barging into his parents’ house in the middle of the night, but he will also gladly give a lecture while doing it. And this will get funnier as Chekhov plays with it:

Mother glanced at the holy image and crossed herself. The papa cleared his throat and began to read: “At eleven o’clock on the evening of the 29th of December, a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov . . .”

“You see, you see! Go on!”

“. . . a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov, coming from the beershop in Kozihin’s buildings in Little Bronnaia in an intoxicated condition. . .”

“That’s me and Semyon Petrovitch. . . . It’s all described exactly! Go on! Listen!”

“. . . intoxicated condition, slipped and fell under a horse belonging to a sledge-driver, a peasant of the village of Durikino in the Yuhnovsky district, called Ivan Drotov. The frightened horse, stepping over Kuldarov and drawing the sledge over him, together with a Moscow merchant of the second guild called Stepan Lukov, who was in it, dashed along the street and was caught by some house-porters. Kuldarov, at first in an unconscious condition, was taken to the police station and there examined by the doctor. The blow he had received on the back of his head turned out not to be serious. The incident was duly reported. Medical aid was given to the injured man. . . .”

This is the Chekhovian formula in its nascent stage. What’s in one character’s mind begins to expose itself overtime as in complete opposition to what’s in another character’s mind. Slowly we realize, at the same time as his family, that Mitya is an idiot. Not only is he written about in the newspaper stumbling around drunkenly in the street and made a fool of; and not only is he not aware that he is made a fool; but not even the injuries he sustained were serious. This is a masterstroke of a comic genius. If Mitya had died in the street this would be a tragedy of alcoholism and despair—one common in 19th century Russia—but he is not even capable of being a real failure.

Mitya seized the paper, folded it up and put it into his pocket.

“I’ll run round to the Makarovs and show it to them. . . . I must show it to the Ivanitskys too, Natasya Ivanovna, and Anisim Vassilyitch. . . . I’ll run! Good-bye!”

Mitya put on his cap with its cockade and, joyful and triumphant, ran into the street.

“Joy” is a very short story which totals just under 700 words—and Chekhov makes the most of all of them. The greatest lesson a writer can learn from Chekhov is how to cut out every ounce of dead weight, but this method does not mean simply editing down to size. The Chekhovian method is about trusting your reader’s intelligence so that they may draw their own conclusion from your story. There is a reason we never know of Mitya’s family’s reaction to his stupidity: we don’t need it for the story to work. Chekhov lets Mitya go un-judged so that we as readers have the pleasure of judging him ourselves. A lesser writer would be tempted to keep going, to keep explaining, but Chekhov knew even at this very early stage in his career that stories are not explanations or even resolutions. A story is the act of using words to paint the anatomy of a problem and capturing what happens overtime to that problem when it is in the hands of human character.

 

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