Monday, May 31, 2010

Fiction Mondays: The Manual of Detection

Hello everyone! Sorry for the unannounced week off--I had several story deadlines the Friday before last, and my brain melted for an entire week after. Plus, I'm getting ready to move, so that's keeping me pretty busy. Finding an apartment is HARD.

So I'm back, and this week, I want to talk about a mystery novel which is really more of a fable (in the Calvino sense), Jedediah Berry's debut, The Manual of Detection. This book caught my eye when it was out in hardcover, and I finally picked it up when it came out in paperback, and I really loved it. It's a magical realist take on the noir genre, which doesn't make much sense when I say it like that, but really works in the world the author creates.

The plot revolves around a clerk in a large detective agency (clearly modeled on the Pinkerton Agency, complete with a large eye and the slogan "Never Sleep"), George Unwin, who is forced to act as a detective when the agency's superstar, Travis Sivart, goes missing. I can't really discuss much of the plot without giving too much away, but the mystery leads him to discover that some of the most famous cases, including "The Oldest Murdered Man" and "The Man Who Stole November Twelfth," were solved incorrectly. His efforts to correct them lead him to a dream-world and a vast conspiracy.

Berry takes the tropes of film noir and hard-boiled mystery and bends them to create a setting that is both alien and familiar. The action occurs in a city that is perpetually dim and rainy, where the old ways of criminals have been replaced by an element that is more devious and dangerous. All of the old elements are present--each detective is assigned a Girl-Friday type assistant, there's a femme fatale, the detectives are loners who frequent dive bars and carry revolvers--but once the plot gets rolling, these things turn out to be much more complicated than they appear. Travis Sivart, the missing detective, just wanted somewhere he could retire, out in the country, and Unwin's new assistant is a narcoleptic whose involvement in the agency is much deeper than it initially appears to be.

The book is divided up into chapters from the Manual of Detection, the book within the book that each detective is issued. There are chapters on interrogation, on nemeses, and a chapter that was cut from later editions, on a technique to enter dreams to solve a mystery. This book-within-a-book structure is where I really noticed the Calvino references, mostly If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, a book about trying to read a book. The book becomes very important to the plot of the novel, and, fittingly, the story ends in the eighteenth chapter, "On Dream Detection." It can be tough to pull off a dream sequence in a story, let alone several, and I think that making the plot revolve around the dreams of the protagonist and the entire city is a very bold move that pays off for Berry in this novel.

That's all I've got for today. Enjoy the long weekend.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday Films: "Maybe We're All Here for a Reason"

This Sunday, after a six year run that brought its characters from Australia to an island, to Los Angeles and the 1970s, pulling in science fiction, big philosophical and religious themes, and more literary allusions than one can accurately count, the show LOST will come to an end. Since I started watching, about halfway through the second season, the show has been my absolute favorite thing on television, a constant source of debate, theorizing, confusion, frustration, and moments that made me stand up from my chair, pulled into the story and the characters in a way I have never before experienced in network television.

The end of LOST is kind of bittersweet for the viewers--I know I would love to see more, but at the same time, the ability of the creators to say when they will end the show has tightened the writing and given the story a lot of dramatic momentum (we all remember what happened in the third season, when they had to fill time). Ever since the end of the third season, the story has been hurtling toward this ending, and this weekend, we get to see if our faith in these writers, actors, directors and producers paid off. Which is appropriate for a show that has faith as one of its ultimate themes.

I think it's more than just the end of a story, though. It's the last of its kind in more ways than one. For starters, it doesn't look like anything else on television; it's filmed on Panavision 35mm film, which is why it looks so cinematic. The score, by Michael Giacchino, is always incredible (including the sounds at the beginning and end of the episodes, a high-pitched crescendo and a sudden bass drum note, respectively). But maybe the biggest difference between LOST and the sci-fi shows that try to piggyback on its success is the literary nature of the story, in two different senses of that word.

The first is the way the writers utilize many literary concepts: effectively embroidering the themes into the episodes, the structure of real-time and flashback, the use of foreshadowing and using lines more than once in different contexts (this was done to great effect this season, but to talk about that would spoil it). The other use of the word literary, though, is why it found such a devoted audience while other shows (The Nine, Flashforward) failed: the characters drive the story. We're interested in the mystery, yes, but what's carrying the plot along is ultimately the characters and the choices they make. And that's what makes the show so rewarding, in spite of the frustration and the cliffhangers and the occasional leap past believability: I care about these characters and I'm invested in them.

Will I be sad to see LOST end? Hell yes, I will. It'll be the end of an era of television. But I also think it's time to go. I hope this finale ends up being one of the great ones in television history, but more than that, I hope it serves these characters and their story well. I could make a lot of predictions and theorize a few more times before the last episode airs, but I think I would rather see where the episode goes. It seems that a big idea of this final season has been getting the characters to "let go," and I wonder if that's telling the audience to see how the season unfolds and trust the writers. They've never failed in a season finale before, and I don't think they're going to do so with the end of the series.

So to end this with my all-time favorite line from the show, "WAAAAALT!!"

No, wait, that's not right.

"See you in another life, brother."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Sing Sing Sing Every Song We Know

I will admit that when I first listened to the Hold Steady's new album, Heaven is Whenever, I wasn't overly-impressed. There were some stand-out songs, of course, but nothing that matched the moment in "Stuck Between Stations" when the piano filled in that little break before Craig Finn started singing "We drink and we dry up." Or the break in "Stevie Nix" before the "17 forever/33 forever" section. I started to wonder if the loss of Franz Nicolay meant something essential had left the band. The whole thing seemed a little bit older, and a little bit sadder, and I wondered if they still had the power of their first three albums.

It's an album that I needed to hear a few times, and now I'm finding that I like it a lot more than I first thought I would. Sure, the piano is gone, but I don't think that's the biggest change. Craig Finn's lyrics have shifted slightly, and this album takes on the voice of someone who has walked away from the scenes of his youth and is torn between nostalgia and imparting the hard lessons he learned there. The opening song, "The Sweet Part of the City," is one of my favorites, a look back at the events and themes of Separation Sunday that acts as kind of a memoir of where the band came from. The last few lines, "We were bored so we started a band. We like to play for you, we like to pray for you," are almost a manifesto of what the band is about: a rock and roll band obsessed with the big Catholic themes.

Another of the great tracks on the album, "The Weekenders," is a song about the couple in the earlier song "Chips Ahoy," and it has the feeling of something that has ended. The narrator is remembering, and wishing they could do it again, but he doesn't delude himself. What's really interesting is that the characters who recur in the earlier albums don't turn up, at least in name, in this album. Hallelujah, Gideon, and Charlemagne vanished into the Midwest, and the band telling their story seems to have moved on. It feels like a book where you really loved the characters has ended, and the author has moved on to different stories.

I read a review that called this a transitional record, and I think that's accurate. The band is shifting their focus, both lyrically and musically, and I think they address the dangers of this in one of the tracks, "Soft in the Center." The song is filled with advice, one line of which is, "You can't tell people what the want to hear if you also want to tell the truth." Another one is simply, "the center is a dangerous place." He's referring to frozen lakes, but he might also be talking about these middle albums, when a band is slowly shifting toward a newer sound.

The more I listen to this record, the more I wonder if it's the band's last album about the Twin Cities; and why shouldn't it be? They've moved to Brooklyn and developed a much larger fan base--maybe it's time to tell a different set of stories, about a different cast of characters. If this is how they end that chapter of the Hold Steady, I think it's a fitting end. It will be interesting to see how the next one begins.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Check out My Story!

Today's post is a short one--book reviews will continue next week, when I'll be writing about Jedediah Berry's excellent The Manual of Detection. Today, though, I have news: in case you missed it over the weekend, I have a story up on Opium Magazine's website! Go check it out!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Nerdy Links

My friends Kevin Mead and Travis Helwig have a mixtape!

The Mountain Goats finally take a stand against Justin Beiber. I should probably note that I'm not entirely sure what a Justin Beiber is, but I think I'm going to agree with the creator of this website.

I really love the "Book Notes" feature over on Largehearted Boy. Music is such an important part of how I work, and I like to see what other writers put on the playlists for their work.

And finally...not nerdy, but completely awesome: Oh Boy Records is putting out a John Prine cover album featuring the Avett Brothers, Justin Vernon, Conor Oberst and many other great artists. It'll be available June 22nd.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Fiction Mondays: First Drafts

It's kind of strange how stories come together at different speeds: even when you have two stories of the same word count, one may take months and another get knocked out in a matter of weeks. I have one in a notebook that I keep adding too, trying to see the shape of the story I'm telling; I mostly write it while I'm on breaks at work, and it's a slow process of discovery. The idea was initially built around two scenes, but the further into it I get, the more story there is between those scenes.

Last week, I wrote the entire first draft of a short story. I started it on Monday and finished it yesterday. The story is about twins whose mother ran off when they were kids and now calls only on holidays. I jumped into it with a few images and a small line of description, and the story came together incredibly quickly. For a first draft, I'm really proud of it. It was one of the fastest drafts of a story I've ever written, and when I re-read it, I was surprised to find that I really liked the shape of the story. Of course, it needs a lot of work, but I feel like I got the framing done now I can go in and start to work on the smaller details.

The other story feels more like I'm drawing the blueprint as I go, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It's a first draft, right? So what if it ends up with no doors and four chimneys?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Friday Films: Roger Ebert Hates 3-D

Working at a movie theater, I've had a few customers ask when we're installing 3-D projectors. The answer is "probably never." When they ask why not, I tell them that it's a fad, which I truly believe. It's just the current iteration of Hollywood trying to give you a reason to go to the theater, and right now it's working. But it's not going to last. It never has before. At the advent of television, they brought out Smell-O-Vision, the Thriller and...3-D. And then in the 70s, as home video rental emerged, they brought out...3-D. Now that the home theater is so popular, and movie rentals are so cheap (not at Blockbuster, but that's another dying breed), they're feeling a little bit pinched and desperate. Save us, James Cameron!

Roger Ebert has a well-reasoned, intelligent rant over at Newsweek on the current version of 3-D. Definitely check it out. Here's a preview:

"3-D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension. Hollywood's current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience. For some, it is an annoying distraction. For others, it creates nausea and headaches. It is driven largely to sell expensive projection equipment and add a $5 to $7.50 surcharge on already expensive movie tickets. Its image is noticeably darker than standard 2-D. It is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness. It limits the freedom of directors to make films as they choose. For moviegoers in the PG-13 and R ranges, it only rarely provides an experience worth paying a premium for."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Song of the Week

The lead singer of Art Brut, has a new side project called "Everybody Was in the French Resistance...Now!" and although their album got a pretty terrible review, this song, "G.I.R.L.F.R.E.N." is really fun. I heard this song on the radio Sunday night, and it is an unabashedly ridiculous, catchy song. It should also be noted that the song is a call-back to the Modern Lovers' "Girlfriend," where Jonathan Richman misspells the word.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

One of my favorite ideas about writing fiction is from Flannery O'Connor. It's the idea that a moment of grace is often preceded by a moment of violence. Not only that, but it makes the action of grace possible. Now, "grace" can be interpreted in a number of ways—maybe it's the redemptive moment, or even the revelation that sometimes happens at the end of short stories. But sometimes it's less than that: it's the moment the character is ready to accept that revelation or redemption. I kept thinking of the violence/grace equation as I was reading Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a collection of short stories full of violence and humor and vivid characters.

The majority of the characters are lower middle-class (with two notable exceptions: a wealthy real-estate developer and a viking, but more on that later) and they're all experiencing disappointment, whether it takes the form of divorce, failed inventions, or reaching old age and finding themselves too reliant on their children. There's an underlying sense of melancholy through the whole book, but Tower's ability to draw a kind of black humor from his characters and situations makes it so that the stories don't get bogged down in despair or melodrama.

The first story, "The Brown Coast," was probably my favorite in the book: a laid-off carpenter finds himself in a kind of exile on a Gulf Coast island, repairing a house for his uncle. His wife threw him out after she found another woman's footprint on the inside of his windshield. The carpenter, Bob, starts collecting fish he finds near a rocky outcropping, assembling a full aquarium, until a well-meaning neighbor gives him a sea cucumber that poisons the rest of the fish. Bob regards the sea cucumber with something like pity: he figures that if he was born a sea creature, he would be this ugly, poison-belching thing, rather than a beautiful, graceful fish. He flings it out into the water, nearly hitting a glamorous young couple on a sailboat. The story is just full of incredible imagery and language, and Tower can describe a broken porch in such a vivid way that you can see the cracked and rotted wood. But the moment where the violence and grace concept really came into play was when Bob sees what happened to his aquarium and decides to feel sorry for the sea cucumber—even though the creature has destroyed so much, it can't help its nature any more than Bob can.

There are a few stories in the book that aren't as strong—"Leopard" is written in the second person and it comes off a little forced. I feel like the story could have easily been one of my favorites if it had been told differently, because the plot is reminiscent of a Mountain Goats song: a boy home sick from school hates his stepfather and learns that someone's pet leopard is loose in the neighborhood, and the story ends with a (possibly imagined) rustling from the woods as the stepfather argues with a police officer. The second-person just didn't work for me. And "On the Show" experimented with an omniscient narrator but it could have been better-developed. On the whole, though, these were the kinds of short stories that made me want to write more short fiction.

The title story was probably one of the strangest, most surprising stories I've read in some time: it's about a viking who is recruited to go pillage an island that his crew recently returned from, when all he wants to do is stay home and spend some time with his wife. The viking and his crew get dragged along on a raid, but once they get there and realize that the island has been over-pillaged and the whole trip is worthless, they go meet some of the villagers and the narrator's friend Gnut falls in love with a local woman. The story is interesting in the way it's told: except for the fact that it revolves around vikings, the story and its characters could exist in any of Tower's stories. I guess the author was thinking about how the same troubles exist in any kind of setting or time period; the last few lines are about worrying what the world can do to the people you love, lying in bed listening for the sound of oars rowing toward your home. And it's strange how relevant that feels.