Category Archives: how fiction explains the world

Everything But the Batman

The crowd that assembled on Saturday night for a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Sheepshead Bay, a remote and fairly diverse part of Brooklyn, could be described with only some exaggeration as a mob. I was instructed to wait outside in a loose throng, clutching my ticket to the sold-out show, because there was not enough room for us in the theater lobby. An employee searched my bag before I could enter—I was at first relieved, and then disturbed, to realize he had bigger concerns than the Sprite Zero and Pretzel M&Ms I was sneaking in—and two New York City police officers stood watch at the door. This was no ordinary movie. One day earlier a man walked into a screening of the same movie in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58. That was a crime straight out of a Batman movie—a brutal attack on random citizens, motivated by a kind of insanity that challenges the very notion of a civil society. The Aurora screening had its real live supervillain–the shooter described himself as “the Joker.” In Sheepshead Bay we had real live cops—the New York City police who frisked me with their eyes provided the basis for the Gotham City police. And at every screening—The Dark Knight Rises earned $162 million over the weekend—there was a Gotham-style mob. The viewing of this movie creates a set of circumstances in which someone like Batman ought to emerge and tilt our society back toward order and civility. But there was only one Batman, and he was stuck on the screen.

- Brian Hurley

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In Defense of Teaching Creative Writing

Two weeks ago we showed you an opinion piece in the New York Times by Claire Needell Hollander, who says children should be reading more great literature in school. Claire was kind enough to write the following piece for us, arguing the flipside: that children should be taught to write creatively. – Eds.

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Years ago in a creative writing class I was a teaching, a student of mine, a fourteen year old eighth grader—we’ll call him J—wrote a narrative about playing in the snow in Central Park with his mother, his stepfather, and his natural father, all of whom were dead. “Itʼs not really Central Park,” he told me. “Itʼs more like heaven.”

The next week, in the same class, all hell broke loose at Jʼs table. J had apparently been muttering disturbing things under his breath. The student next to him finally erupted. “Ms. Hollander, J is talking some crazy shit!” The boy stood back from the table, seeming truly alarmed by Jʼs utterances. I expected that J had said something threatening or crude to the other kid. J could be pretty off the hook. Once, when I asked him where a particular student was, J said to me, “probably in the bathroom jerking off.”

I sat down with the boys to find out what was happening. What J had said was: I know Iʼm going to die real soon. The other boy was understandably upset.

The core of Jʼs daily reality was mortality—his own, and that of those close to him. For him the imagined place, the place that couldnʼt be, was the mundane: Central Park in winter with a family that no longer existed, if it ever had in any real sense.

Is it important that a teacher know this about J? Sure. It is even more important for J to express that reality, to articulate a story that is particular to him, that is not mainstream, not “typical” in any way. Writing his story didnʼt assuage his fears. Rather, it made his extraordinarily bad fortune more real. It called attention to the extremity of his experience.

Great fiction, as well as rudimentary efforts like Jʼs, helps us to grapple with the extremes of human experience. These may be internal experiences, like the emotional despair and alienation of Kafka. Or they may be interpersonal experiences, like the realization every young woman faces, and relives in Austen, that there is someone out there demonic enough not to reciprocate her feelings of abject devotion. When kids pick up the pen or laptop to really write, they discover what their stories are. They discover their greatest hope, the cause of their despair, the story that makes their heart beat out of their chest.

Once the story is out and the heart is racing, you have a student who is primed to learn. He is going to correct his punctuation. He is going to care about word choice. He is going to organize his narrative into paragraphs. He is going to care about his craft. He wants to be understood, and there is no greater motivation for learning.

Kidsʼ stories might not be compelling or complex. Sometimes they write about superheroes and include pages of battle scenes that are incomprehensible, derivative, and insanely dull. There may be eighteen pages about a crush some girl has in which the climax is a walk to the lunchroom. Kids hit false notes, attempt to shock, imitate movies and television, and create thinly veiled characters based on friends and, worse, enemies.

You can safeguard against some of this by introducing mentor texts that are moving and stylistically accessible: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Itʼs Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. (This last one you have to keep behind your desk because they steal it.) By introducing these stories you can help them to recognize authenticity in themselves and others. This is what fiction does, and what poor attempts at fiction fail to do. I know this from writing bad fiction, and reading some. But feeling that youʼve hit the right note, that something you are saying may resonate in the mind of another, is a reason to write well, to want to write well. To be understood.

Distinguishing between a story that resonates and one that feels false or manipulative is a kind of spontaneous analysis that feels innate, and adult readers often take it for granted. But applying it to written language is far from innate, and we need to foster that ability in the very young. It takes practice, it takes freedom, it takes courage, and it takes time. But if a kid begins to think he can do it—really capture some perfectly authenticated thought in writing—he will thirst for it. He wonʼt just read books, he will need them. He wonʼt just write, he will be a writer.

- Claire Needell Hollander

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Editing

These old shoes of mine are coming apart. First the inner fabric ripped open, exposing a soft clump of foam. So I tore that out. Then the plastic skeleton of the heel chiped away, so I pulled that out, too. If this continues—the shoes breaking down, me trashing the pieces—soon I’ll be walking around barefoot. Which is probably fine, since the shoes were crappy to begin with, and nothing beats a bare foot for walking.

This is a parable about editing.

- Brian Hurley

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The Super Bowl at Disney World

I watched Super Bowl XLVI at Disney World—first at the EPSN Club in Downtown Disney, and later, because the ESPN Club was mobbed with people who had claimed their seats eight hours before kick-off, at a smaller bar on the Disney boardwalk. It will surprise no one that I found the experience surreal and a bit overwhelming.

The trip came about because my sister works for Disney. Specifically she works for a video game developer in California that falls under the Disney corporate umbrella. But like all Disney employees, my sister is considered a “cast member” at Disney World in Florida, with all the privileges of a full-time employee of the park. She, her husband, my girlfriend, and I could enter the parks for free. And we happened to go on Super Bowl weekend.

Is there anything as slick, lucrative, inescapable, and stereotypically American as the Super Bowl? Only Disney World. The Super Bowl is America’s most-watched event. Disney World has made Orlando its most-visited city. And ESPN is their love child, a Disney property that airs NFL games. Standing beneath a hundred TV screens blasting the Super Bowl at the ESPN Club in Disney World, I felt like a red blood cell winging through the cardiovascular system of the American body. Captain America came on TV, plugging his next blockbuster movie, and for a second it all made perfect sense.

Two slogans show up everywhere at Disney World, on banners, sweatshirts, ice cream sandwich wrappers, and charter buses: Where dreams come true and Let the memories begin. Where dreams come true is a promise, to kids, that all their wishes will be fulfilled at some hazy point in the future. Let the memories begin is a word of caution, to adults, that their best moments are in the past, or soon will be. From the start Disney World is playing with time, urging us to idealize the past and defer our dreams to the future. This makes sense, because if there is joy to be found at Disney World it won’t be found in the present, where the line for a single ride can set you back an eye-glazing 80 minutes, and rollercoasters end in a blink.

Football abhors the here-and-now, too. During the NFC Championship Game I shouted to my girlfriend that she had just missed an amazing Vernon Davis reception. She emerged from another room slowly, saying, “Maybe there’ll be replay.” Sarcasm. There were six replays. With each one, the original sensation of watching the catch felt more distant and obscure. The replays became the real thing. The pre-Super Bowl chatter was all about dynasties, record books, Hall of Fame careers. One team, the commentators assured us, would leave the field with the taste of defeat in their mouths. Viewers were encouraged to imagine and savor that taste. And then to imagine the taste of victory. To enjoy football is to anticipate and, later, wallow in these two flavors. We understand the game before it happens, and after it happens. But during the game, the action on the field is a kind of barely contained chaos. We can’t settle on its meaning until the final whistle.

Expectations for the Super Bowl and a trip to Disney World can be impossibly high. Rather than meet those expectations in the present moment, Disney World and the Super Bowl deflect our attention to the past and future. For example, by telling us how sacred and wholesome our family memories are, or by vowing that the next game—no, the next one—is when our champions will face their true test. In order to maintain this perpetual deferment, Disney World and the Super Bowl keep us occupied with stories. They are expert storytellers.

The NFL keeps a godlike eye on the field, with cameras to capture every angle, replay, close-up, and audio clip. These are turned, by its NFL Films division, into everything from up-to-the-moment highlight reels to feature-length hagiographies of classic games. NFL stories created by NFL Films can be delivered to consumers on the NFL Network, which shares some of its content with Disney’s ESPN. The key plotlines are about hope, hype, failure, redemption, and legacy. Even if the action on the field is disappointing in a given year, the Super Bowl is the climactic final chapter of an annual story that invariably ends in fireworks.

So does a day at Disney World. The parks use of every type of media I can imagine. In addition to the cartoonish architecture and nostalgia-inducing costumes, I saw bespoke typefaces, fake newspaper clips, tile mosaics, and petroglyphs. Disney World has what I’ll wager is one of the most expensive examples of shadow puppetry in the world (at the climax of the Expedition Everest rollercoaster). All manner of storytelling is deployed, all at once, in the service of a single vision. The visitor is immersed. On a boat ride between our resort and Downtown Disney, my sister looked at the night sky and said, “Is that the moon or a Disney moon?” It was an honest question. (It was the moon.)

Even the people are a form of media. Like my sister, every dancer, cook, and janitor at Disney World is considered a “cast member.” I saw a boy with a broom and a pail follow a parade down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, sweeping up the horse shit. He was in full costume. Disney employees are, first and foremost, actors. NFL players are coached to speak in the evasive, optimistic jargon of SportsCenter sound bites (SportsCenter is owned by Disney) and they can be fined if their antics conflict with the NFL’s image.

For every NFL pre-game reel, we can dig a similar movie out of the Disney vaults. Tom Brady, the gifted leader faced with the possibility of his own decline, is Woody from Toy Story. Eli Manning, the unappreciated sibling who finally goes all the way, is Cinderella. If these connections are too easy to find, it’s only because the stories are so primal and easily reworked. They can go on forever, episodes in a grand narrative that never fully arrives, and never really ends. There is always next season. You can ride the rollercoaster again.

The grand narrative at Disney World is the myth of the ideal community. Like it or not, your fellow Disney “guests” are, if not the main attraction, perhaps the heart and soul of Disney World. Yes, even the father with burst capillaries who is spitting tobacco into a commemorative Disney mug. Even the mother who barges into the men’s room to teach her toddler son how to pee. (Is Disney World primarily an obstacle course for parents to teach their kids to go potty?) Even the girl in line for the Himalayas-themed rollercoaster who says, “Daddy, what country are we in—Egypt?” and her father says, “Asia, stupid. We’re in Asia.” Disney World throws you together with strangers—in lines, on rides, at snack huts, at your resort—as if to force-feed the lesson that it’s a small world after all. When the grand narrative works, and the park does, in fact, feel like an ideal community, it’s because of self-selection. Aside from a few goth-looking teenagers whose costumed rebellion is the exception that proves the rule, people at Disney World have chosen to be there. They pay for it, set aside vacation days for it, rent cars and buy rain ponchos and pack lunches for it. They have an interest in making sure it’s as picture-perfect as they were told it will be.

The grand narrative of the Super Bowl is the idea that personal excellence can be won through sports. We’ve made up rules that say go 10 yards for a first down, go to the end zone for 6 points, score the most points and win, win the most points and you’re a person of character, a person to be feared and respected. These are arbitrary goals. But we treat them as if they’re important, so they become important. We use the Super Bowl to confer an arbitrary greatness of those who win it, and, by extension, on those who follow it.

Is there anything as hokey, commercialized, and patronizing as the Super Bowl?  Only Disney World. But it could be worse. They could be telling us to sit on our asses all day, clicking the mouse and giving our private data to corporations, all while demanding that life get easier and videos stream faster. At least Disney World gets us to walk around and look at each other. At least the Super Bowl tells us that hard work and exercise ought to be rewarded.

Anyway, I left at halftime.

I didn’t need to see the Super Bowl-winning quarterback greet the cameras with “I’m going to Disney World!” The highlights would be at my fingertips for the rest of eternity, eclipsing any insights I might have during the game. But a walk in the drizzling rain with my girlfriend on a warm Florida night….

We settled up with Rolando, our bartender in Orlando, and then we did what Meursault would have done, what Zidane did do—look the game in the eye and say fuck this.

At halftime Epcot Center was a kingdom of women and children. I shared a soggy crepe in a fake France with a real person I love. We found an imaginary Canada where a boy beneath a synthetic pine tree was watching the game on a cell phone. The story never fully arrives and it never really ends.

- Brian Hurley

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A New Year’s Wish

The cocktail menu at a bar I visited last night included something called a Malcolm Lowery. It started with tequila and included triple sec and lemon juice. So I was pretty sure I knew what the drink’s name was supposed to mean. I asked a co-owner of the bar if they had created the cocktail in honor of Under the Volcano, a novel about drinking oneself to death on mezcal and tequila in Mexico. They had. And until I mentioned it they had not realized that Malcolm Lowry’s name was spelled wrong.

It takes a dark sense of humor to name a tequila drink after Malcolm Lowry. Very dark. So dark that I wonder if there’s any humor in it at all. It’s like naming a set of kitchen knives after Elliott Smith, who stabbed himself to death. Or a shotgun after Ernest Hemingway or Kurt Cobain. It’s a powerful association, but not something you want to advertise. There used to be a tequila bar in Midtown called Under the Volcano, and I wondered about their intentions. But at least they kept framed photographs and Malcolm Lowry memorabilia on the walls. At least they knew who the fuck they were talking about.

Those of us who care about stories and language and communication and books are constantly fretting that we’ll be marginalized by society, by the marketplace, by the cruel march of history. And on the other front, the authority and prestige of the written arts are being co-opted and dumbed down by commercial interests. As evidenced by the fact that cocktails are being sold under the names of famous authors by people (in Brooklyn, no less) who don’t even know the author’s name.

So this is my New Year’s wish for you, dear readers. Because I love you, and because by caring deeply about language and storytelling you have recognized what truly matters. May you always know what the fuck you’re talking about. May you only associate with people who know what the fuck they’re talking about. May you throw all your Malcolm Lowerys back in the bartender’s face.

- Brian Hurley

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The End of the Affair?

Three weeks ago I reviewed You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik and called it “a novel of big ideas” and “a sexy, enjoyable story” that “reanimates” the great existentialist arguments of Camus and Sartre.

Now commenters are coming forward to say that the ethically problematic affair at the heart of the novel is based on a real-life affair that the author — a former teacher — had with a student. And that the student did not consent to having her private life depicted in this public and transparent way. I’ll refer to these two assertions as “the allegation.”

I’m grateful to Genevieve, who brought this Jezebel article to my attention.

And to Kate, whose comment is worth reading again:

[Knowing that the affair was real] should change the reading [of the book], in my opinion, because the intent is distorted.

Why would he write this story and release it as a novel if so much of it was true? Why wouldn’t he own up to his actions and acknowledge his real role in it. Instead, it seems he is reaping the benefits of being a new upcoming fiction author while masquerading as having spent all his time in Paris just writing.

I was a student of his and I’m still shocked from when I read it in September. I can say that it felt like reading something he kept as a diary during that time I knew him. Most of the situations, characters, and places are true, aside from the admiring male student that only has good thoughts for “Mr. Silver.”

“Marie” is a human being, a girl with real feelings, who has recently had a en even worse shock than the rest of us, discovering that her unfortunate high school relationship and abortion have been recorded in a book. A book that gives her an imaginary voice and has her yearning for her captor. A book that her former lover has been receiving praise, numerous awards, and money for.

An unfortunate relationship that should never have happened in the first place.

Now, do you think he could’ve written this book quite as well if it hadn’t happened?

Thanks, also, to anonymous commenter “hello” who claims to have been Maksik’s student and calls him a “sleazy cocksucker.” I like your candor.

I should mention that I’ve emailed with the author since my review went up, and it was a pleasant exchange.

I’m not in a position to evaluate the truth of the allegation, or to suggest an appropriate punishment or penance if it’s true. But I did read the novel carefully and I want to share some observations about how the allegation changes my understanding of the text.

It’s eerie. Because the feelings of anger, betrayal, shame that are being voiced about the allegedly real affair are also discussed in the novel. It’s as if the novel anticipated all of these reactions and folded them into the text. Even now the novel feels more real to me than the reports and reactions on the web.

Moreover, the controversy surrounding Alexander Maksik feels like an extension of a theme in the novel. Will Silver, the fictional teacher who is allegedly interchangeable with Maksik, applies the basic tenets of existentialism to show his students that life has no inherent purpose, that God does not exist, and that an individual must be responsible for her own choices in life and their consequences. Some of Will’s students take this lesson to heart, but they end up idolizing Will and treating him as an exemplar of how to conduct their lives. Which, of course, violates the lesson. But in a dramatic twist, the students watch Will cause his own downfall, as his affair with the student comes to light and he is summarily fired. Thus, in tragic fashion, Will’s lesson is complete. He becomes an existentialist hero by embracing his own choices—especially those that go against the grain of modern society—and accepting their consequences. And his students learn, by experience, not to place their faith in authority figures.

If the novel says that we should obey ourselves, and not our teacher (who taught us to obey ourselves), then the allegation suggests that we should obey ourselves, and not our teacher (who taught us to obey ourselves (and not even the author who invented the teacher)). In the novel, the lesson is finished when the teacher is struck down. In life perhaps it’s complete when the author is brought low.

You Deserve Nothing is unabashedly romantic about Paris and unabashedly sexy in its depiction of the student-teacher affair. There’s a sense of longing that drips off the page. But at the first hint that the affair—between a 17-year-old girl and a 33-year-old man—was real, I felt my stomach twist. What had been a racy, convention-defying romance in the novel suddenly felt like a craven, embarrassing scandal. Ain’t that something? I don’t know what it means. But we’ve clearly erected a HUGE wall between life and art. In art we can gaze at this type of affair, and even long for it. In life we turn away and point fingers. If the allegation is true, does it make the romantic longing of the novel an abomination?

Final thoughts. Shall we use the term “reverse Frey” to describe the presentation of true material as fictional, since James Frey is the poster child for presenting fictional material as true? And were you aware (thanks, Wikipedia) that if a Son of Sam law had been in effect, we wouldn’t have gotten The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, or The Confessions of Saint Augustine?

- Brian Hurley

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Crossing the Water

Crossing the Styx

If you “cross the Styx” you journey to the underworld. Just like Hercules, Theseus, Orpheus, Odysseus, Aeneas, and Dante did.

Crossing the Hellespont

If you “cross the Hellespont” you make a greedy, short-lived attempt at seizing power. Just like Xerxes when he crossed the Hellespont to invade Greece, and Alexander the Great when he crossed the Hellespont to invade Asia.

Crossing the Rubicon

If you “cross the Rubicon” you make a bold decision that can never be taken back. Just like Julius Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon and started the civil war that turned the Roman republic into an empire.

Crossing the Jordan

If you “cross the Jordan” you find salvation. Just like the Israelites who escaped slavery in Egypt by crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land, and the gospel singers who talk about crossing the Jordan into the afterlife.

Crossing the Delaware

If you “cross the Delaware” you take a surprising action that succeeds against improbable odds. Just like George Washington when he crossed the Delaware for a surprise attack on the Hessian mercenaries in Trenton.

- Brian Hurley

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Buttheads Butt Heads

If you asked me to name all the French Algerians I can think of, the list would be short: Zinedine Zidane and Albert Camus. Zidane is infamous for the illegal headbutt that got him expelled from the championship game of the 2006 World Cup. Camus is known for having prefigured that senseless act of violence in his 1942 novel The Stranger (among other things). But I didn’t realize until this morning, as I read The Stranger for the first time, that in addition to the Zidanesque murder in the book, Camus also writes explicitly about what must be the official martial arts move of Algeria.

The distance between us and the Arabs was steadily decreasing. When we were only a few steps away the Arabs halted. Masson and I slowed down, while Raymond went straight up to his man. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I saw the native lowering his head, as if to butt him in the chest.

If that’s not philosophical enough for you, here is Jean-Philippe Toussaint reading a ridiculously cerebral essay on the subject.

- Brian Hurley

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