Little earthquakes

22 07 2014

Ann Patchett writes lovely characters.

Well, huh, that could be misleading, implying that all of her characters are lovely. They are not.

Let me try again: Ann Patchett is a lovely writer of characters.

Yes, better.

Even when the characters are only briefly sketched, or when she chooses to hide aspects of the character from the reader, she gives you enough that you want to learn more about these people.

Dr. Swenson in State of Wonder is, shall we say, an obdurate personality, bound up in her own understanding of the world and impatient-to-dismissive of alternative views. I found her to be admirable, as well as the kind of person who terrifies me. How does someone get to be that way? What is it like to live utterly without neuroses?

You could put a label on it, I guess, call her some variant of -pathology, but that would take away her humanness, reduce her to that pathological label.

In any case, Patchett doesn’t give us much to go on—here’s Annika Swenson, now deal with it—but she gives us (or me, at any rate) enough to make her a real human being, to make me wonder about her.

Patchett is generally able to make all of her characters, supporting and main, human. I was a bit frustrated with the main character in Patron Saint of Liars—or maybe I was frustrated with Patchett’s withholding of information about her—but I never doubted she existed. (In fact, she’s one of the inspirations for the main character in my second novel, who, like Rose , leaves an apparently decent life to live her own life.)

I do have to admit, however, that the opera singer in Bel Canto, Roxane Cross, never did become real to me. It’s not that she was a cardboard character or that I disbelieved that someone like her could exist, but she never came into view.

A lot of people loved that book, but I did not. It shared, with Run, Patchett’s greatest weakness as a writer: plot.

Now, I didn’t have a problem with the set-up of Bel Canto—a gala is taken over by militants—nor with the  suspension of time in which the hostages and militants alike subsequently live: Patchett excels at setting the stage and the letting her characters loose.

No, the problem was with the resolution. Patchett is fine at setting things in motion, but not so fine at bringing them to a close, and the bigger the push at the beginning, the rockier the ending. Had I been more drawn to Cross, (as I was with the characters in State of Wonder, which suffers from a similar dynamic) I might have been able to walk over those rocks with her, but I wasn’t, and thus was left stranded.

The lack of realness in many of the characters in Run meant that the reader was left mainly to the plot, which was. . . not good. Patchett is generally willing to let things ride for long periods, but in Run, she kept jamming up her characters with unnecessary plotting, with the overdrawn happenings crowding out the characters.

Which is why I think her best novel is The Magician’s Assistant. She sets events in motion, and then just lets them go; what plot developments there are arise from the characters themselves, so instead of these events pulling us, er, me, out of the story of their lives, they drew me further in.

Maybe because, like Taft (a much better novel than its name implies) and Patron Saint, the events are smaller, arising out of her characters lives rather than intruding upon them.

I know: the line between “arising out of” and “intruding upon” can be arbitrary, depending on whether you think a couple of runaways showing up at a bar or long-estranged family arriving to visit the grave of a recently-dead son & brother is organic rather than artificial.

Or maybe Patchett is just better at revealing the beauty in the ordinary than the extraordinary.

In any case, I prefer the ordinary set-ups, largely because Patchett doesn’t have to strain to move her characters into place for the denouement: they move there of their own accord and, in that end, we are left with the people themselves.





Don’t forget your books

16 01 2013

Yes, I am going to comment on David Brooks’s syllabus and no, I am not going to make fun of it.

Easy stuff first: attendance and participation–20%; two 2500-word essays, 40% each. That’s not far from my 300-level bioethics course: 20% A&P, 20% science quiz, two research papers, ~2500 words, 30% each.

No, what caught my eye was the reading list: Look at all of those books!

General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman” by Ed Cray

“Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do And Who We Should Be” by Mark Schwen and Dorothy Bass

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan

“Augustine of Hippo” by Peter Brown

“How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer” by Sarah Bakewell

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke

“The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist” Dorothy Day

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niehbuhr

“Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin

I’d rather have the students read Pericles (via, say, Thucydides—and hey, let’s toss in the Melian dialogue while we’re at it) than read about Pericles—ditto Augustine and Montaigne—but if the Kagan, Brown, and Bakewell books include large chunks of these thinkers’ words, it’s defensible.

I like the Dorothy Day (of course), think de Tocqueville would have been better than Burke (and, perhaps, Niehbuhr), and while I have the Kahnemann book on my to-read list, I wonder what he’ll do with it. Berlin, eh, but perhaps fitting.

I also think  “The Character Course” would be a better title than “The Humility Course”—I think a fair amount of the snark is due to the title itself (the other part, of course, due to Brooks himself)—but it’s the content that matters, and, again, the content is defensible.

That’s not a major endorsement, of course, but its minimalism isn’t meant as a slam. It’s hard to put together a syllabus, especially the first time, and what’s on the page and what’s in the classroom are not always in sync. And that were I to teach a course on, say, political character, I’d probably keep Pericles (and the Melians) and Augustine and Day, add Plato and Machiavelli (of course), perhaps Voltaire, probably something from Foucault’s History of Sexuality, focusing on ethos and self-care. Something from Mandela. Portions of the Nixon tapes, perhaps. Some James Baldwin.

At least, that’s what I’d like to offer; I wouldn’t actually be able to do so: There is no way I could assign that many texts. My previous chair actively discouraged me from assigning too much reading (too much for a 200-level course: more than 25-50 pages a week), although the current chair might not have a problem with my overloading 300-level students.

More to the point, the students wouldn’t do the reading. I got my 100-level American government students to read the text by assigning near-weekly quizzes, and by requiring them to pull from the supplemental book (journalistic essays) for their take-home mid-terms. I’m wondering how to get my 100-level contemporary issues students to read their short-short pieces before class, and am tentatively planning to require them to hand in a brief summary of the readings before each and every class.

In other words, if they’re not being graded directly on the readings themselves, they will not do them.

I recognize this with my bioethics class, and while there is a fair amount of reading on the syllabus, I’d bet that more than half the class doesn’t bother to do all of the reading. Why would they? No final exam.

Given that, I’ve concentrated less on the answers the various authors provide and more on the questions. They won’t remember the readings, may not need most of them for their papers, so if I want them to get anything out of the class, I have to find something that will stick to the roofs of their minds.

(Another image I’ve used? Questions-as-earwigs.)

I ask them questions, I poke their answers, turn them around and push ’em right back at ’em. Oh, you think this is settled? Well then, what about that? What, you say that that has nothing to do with this? What about p, q, r? If you approve of red, why not orange? On what basis do you disapprove of triangles?

I can do this because these kinds of troubles are inherent in the material itself; when I half-joke that I aim to trouble you, it’s less about what I come up with sui generis than what I can point to in the rumpled textures of, say, enhancement technologies. Having ranged over this ground for some years, I’ve become, to switch metaphors, pretty good at kicking up the artifacts half-buried in the dirt—and showing them how to do so, as well.

It’s be great if my students would read everything that I assign because they truly want to learn everything they can about the subject, but that ain’t gonna happen.

So I work around that, and try to get them to care enough to learn, anyway.





Dese bones gonna rise again

31 05 2011

This was not the best season of Bones.

Which is to say: this was the worst season of Bones. Not a single episode was as good as previous episodes, and while there were no truly terrible episodes, the best it got was only “all right”.

Alyssa Rosenberg argued on Matt Yglesias’s blog (now her own, at ThinkProgress) that the problem was with the overarching theme (the sniper), namely, that is was weak and centered on a boring character. I think she has a point: Although the first season didn’t have an overarching theme, two were set up for the following seasons, one regarding Brennan’s family and another with the serial killer Howard Epps.

Now, I kinda think the whole sexual-sadist-serial killer is played out (yeah, I’m looking at you, CSI, with the truly boring Nate Haskell), but they undercut the superman-superevil bad guy schtick deliberately: Howard Epps thought he was a genius but, as Zack pointed out, he really wasn’t as smart as he claimed to be.

Season two was backboned by Brennan’s backstory, with her plastic-surgeried criminal father dipping into and out of a number of episodes. (“Judas on a Pole”, which introduces him, also includes a great cover of Kate Bush’s “Running up that hill”.) It also introduced the Gravedigger, a nasty piece of work who appeared again in single episodes in seasons 3, 4, 5, and 6.

The Gormogon thing (season 3) was weird, and the Zack angle on that was weird, but it was also satisfying: so over-the-tops nuts (ritualistic cannibalism of secret society members) that there was a certain brio to the writing. Everybody seemed to be having a good time—well, you know what I mean.

Season 4 didn’t have any major arcs, save, perhaps, the Angela-Hodgins fallout, as well as an somewhat underdeveloped bit about Booth’s brain. (It didn’t really cohere, but that it didn’t really cohere didn’t really matter.) Oh, and the introduction to a rotating cast of interns/assistants. Anyway, it had a fine, fine, season ender.

Too much about the Booth/Brennan relationship interfered with season 5, but there were still some very good stand-alone episodes, as there were in each of the preceding seasons. I’m one of those who did NOT want Booth and Brennan to get together—yes, adults who have chemistry may nonetheless desist from dating—but I was even more annoyed at how forced those episodes were. Stephen Fry, who brought back his utterly charming character Gordon Wyatt, then ruined the moment by pushing (against character) for a romantic relationship. Brennan’s father talked about it, Angela talked about it, Booth and Brennan separately brooded about it—blech, it was all too much.

Yeah, we get it: they have chemistry, but enough already! Anyway, the Angela-Hodgins arc was more interesting.

Still, there was an energy and wit running through these seasons, a humor and affection comingled with the murder and mayhem, such that even amidst the utter unreality of the television crime procedural, you got the sense that these were real people doing real work.

The people mattered, the work mattered: a fine balance.

This year, however, that was thrown off. Again, I think Rosenberg may be onto something about the boring sniper arc, but I think the greater problem was that the balance got thrown off. The crimes were almost beside the point, or existed only to drive the personal plot-lines; thus the play of earlier seasons was missing, as the writers sought to reduce the looseness and otherwise force into a pre-exising cutout every damned storyline. This not only took away much of the wit of the dialogue, it also signaled a certain impatience with the characters.

So, for example, Sweets entertains doubts about his expertise and has those doubts resolved all in a single episode; both the doubts and the resolution were, erm, doubtful. (And Miss Julian opened up to Sweets, which, frankly, was not believable.) Brennan’s father was brought in for a couple of completely superfluous scenes, and there were bits about Cam and about Angela’s pregnancy (guess, no, really, just guess how the season ended), but it was all rather listless.

And having a number of the interns each undergo a character change? Please. Give me back my uptight Clark. (f only they could give back my favorite intern, whose death scene was devastating.)

It was never truly awful and, really, only a few episodes were bad, but it was such a letdown. I’ll watch again next year (even though I was not particularly happy with the last episode set-up for the new season), but I hope this season was a lapse rather than a harbinger.

I did, however, watch a truly awful show this year, even after swearing off it. Yes, I moaned my way through yet another season of CSI-New York. Ye gads. They brought in Sela Ward to replace Melina Kanakaredes, and I thought, Oh, well, I like Sela Ward.

I might still like Sela Ward, but her character, Jo? Do. Not. Like.

This show just got sappier and more moralistic as it went along. God, I can’t even be bothered to go through everything that was wrong with this show because everything was wrong.

The only good thing: it may finally have gotten so bad that even I will look away.





What you say? I’m just askin’ (pt I)

29 08 2010

When do words and acts become being?

As quoted by Tobin Harshaw in The NYTimes’ The Opinionator, Sister Toldjah:

The little secret that is not really a secret except in the closed-minded world of the left is that most conservatives don’t “hate” gay people. Apparently, because most conservatives don’t support gay marriage and don’t support gays openly serving in the military, they “hate” them. This is “hate” – in spite of the fact that most conservatives also do not support polygamy nor any other type of “alternative” marriage, nor do they support women serving on the front lines in war. It’s an issue of not wanting to tamper with the existing social structure of the two parent man/woman family, and not wanting to create an atmosphere of great uncomfortableness in the military between those who are openly gay and those who aren’t. We’ve seen the disastrous results of the left’s tampering in the social arena for decades now, and we’re opposed to signing onto anything else they have to offer on that front.

A commentor, Ralph Dempsey agreed:

I am so sick of being called a ‘homophobe’ just because I oppose gay marriage and want to keep homosexuals out of the military. The liberal Left is trying to play the same game they play with the race card. Sincere, honest, loving, genuine people oppose two men or two women attacking the sanctity of those in heterosexual marriages. That is not bigoted any more than people who opposed interracial marriages were racist. Over 85% of the country during the early 60’s did not want Black men trying to procure white women – were all these people racist? Give me a break. We should be free to oppose minority lifestyles without being labelled as haters.

Hm.

I do like that Mr Dempsey made manifest what is so often implied: Why should the majority suffer any consequences for opposing (oppressing?) minorities?

(And yes, I also like the comparison to views about interracial marriage in the 1960s, when ‘Over 85% of the country did not want Black men trying to procure white women’ didn’t necessarily mean those people were racist. I see. Would you accept sexist?)

As much as I’d like to play around all day with the scary-Negro-carrying-off-white-women image, I do think the more significant issue is the one of doing and being: At what point can your actions—your words, your deeds, your opinions—point to something about you and your character?

Nobody wants to be a bigot, but, it seems, many people wish to speak and act in a bigoted manner.

My first reaction is thus: There are two kinds of tolerance: that of the superior for the inferior, and that of equals for equals. As long as gays and lesbians (and bisexuals! don’t forget us bisexuals!) and anyone else cast in the role of Those People are treated as lesser, then those with the superiority complex may justly be called out for the bigotry of that superiority.

If you seek to deny others what you enjoy yourself, then you may be justly called out for the injustice of that denial.

If you seek to justify this injustice, then you may justly be called a bigot.

You want to be able to speak and act in a bigoted manner, but you don’t want to be called a bigot.

It’s really quite simple: If you don’t want to be called a bigot, then quit acting like one.

****

A fine conclusion (and one which sentiment I’ve almost certainly stolen from others), and certainly a satisfying shortcut through bullshit.

But, alas, in so shortcutting the deeper question is both highlighted and skirted: what are the dots between what you do and who you are?

And what are in those dots, anyway? Stay tuned. . . .





Writing prose, anything goes (pt I)

21 06 2010

I’m very hard-working for one so lazy.

And analytical, for one so emotional. Ditto excitable and nonplussed, enthusiastic and apathetic, ambitious and resigned, arrogant and doubtful, ignorant and well-read, watchful and impatient, attentive and brusque, orderly and chaotic, disciplined and scattered, impetuous and thoughtful, collegial and contrary, motivated and inertial.

It’s not that I’m unique in my dichotomies, but I am certainly of the type that veers toward one end or another. Some of us are naturally moderate; some of us are. . . not.

Temperament has popped up fairly regularly on this blog, and against all expectation: I don’t know how much I thought about it before I began blogging (or before I passed the midpoint of my life).  And I’m not sure what to make of it.

I think it’s a real phenomenon, but I’m uncomfortable giving the concept (completely) over to psychology. I’m not anti-psychology, especially in the psychotherapeutic realm, but my eyes thin at some of the grander, i.e., more reductionist, claims of the field. To the extent that psychology has modeled itself on the physical sciences, it has, like all non-physical sciences, lost sight of its subject.

(I think this is even a problem with the biological sciences, although much less; that’s another post.)

I used to joke with my grad school therapist that she spoke psychology to me and I, philosophy to her, and most of the time we managed to make ourselves understood to one another. So I guess that as much as I recognize the psychological aspect of temperament, I’d like to preserve, perhaps even privilege,  its practical-philosophical dimension.

What is it to be one way rather than another? How adaptable are we? What is temperament’s relationship to character?

How I am now is not how I always was—no surprise, given that I’ve aged—but I’ve also wondered how durable is my who-ness. Circumstances matter—it’s highly doubtful a woman from the lower-middle classes could have earned a PhD even a hundred years ago—but would I have been as driven by ideas? Would an 18th or 19th century version of me be recognizable to me, or would I have gotten married and had kids and been more like my contemporaries than is the 20-21st century version?

Or what if I hadn’t fallen off a cliff in my early teens? I had been a happy, hopeful, outgoing, and optimistic child; those traits shriveled in darkness of my depression. I broke, and broke with who I had been.

What emerged was not unknown to me—I think those characteristics had been running through me, submerged, before—but did they cause that break? Did they only emerge afterward?

Could it all—could I—have been different?

Of course—so much is dependent upon circumstances.

And of course not, because I can recognize in the memory of that sunny child traits which I see today: the dichotomies, the conflicts and contradictions, the poles to which I was always drawn.

I’m an adult now, past the sunshine and no longer living so obstinately in the dim, living in that middle space which was never my natural home.

I am unmoored; I need new poles.