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.





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.