If you’re gonna make a speech in your novel, you should just make a speech!

url_quotThe_Junglequot_By_Upton_Sinclair-s312x475-108352-580John Scalzi recently linked to his review of Atlas Shrugged, which made me think of my own post about the book (which is, incidentally, my favorite novel).

And that made me remember my major criticism of the book, which is that the final third of the book is pretty superfluous. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but the book is about a heroic corporate executive who struggles to keep her railway afloat even as the United States implements increasingly authoritarian collectivist policies. About two thirds of the way through the book, though, she discovers that all her fellow industrialists (who’ve been disappearing throughout the book) are holed up in a secret colony in Colorado where they’re waiting for the United States to collapse (after which they’ll come out of the canyon and create a better and freer USA). Anyway, Dagny decides to leave the canyon because she can’t accept that her train system needs to be destroyed, and then a whole bunch of other stuff happens and she regrets her decision, etc, etc.

However, everything that happens in the book after she decides to leave the secret colony is, both from a plot and a thematic standpoint, entirely superfluous. She’s already made her decision. She’s heard what the other industrialists are planning, and she agrees with it, but she’s not willing to make the sacrifices that the plan will demand. And from the moment she goes back to her desk and tries to run the railroad, we know that she is doomed. We know that there is no way for a person like her to operate within the system that Rand has created.

The problem with the book is that it doesn’t trust its readers to understand that Dagny has made the wrong choice. And that while her choice was laudable, it was also sentimental and blind and fearfful. Instead, it needs to spend hundreds of pages maneuvering everything into place so that she’s converted, even though everything that happens has a sense of inevitability to it. Oh, and it also needs to give room for its hero to make a 50 page speech about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

It’s silly. If you’re going to write a novel to support an idea, then write the novel. And trust that your characters and your plots have enacted it. Another novel that’s crippled in the same way is The Jungle. Upton Sinclair wanted to write a novel about how industrial society is destroying poor immigrant families, so he wrote an absolutely beautiful and heart-breaking novel. And then, after the family has fallen to pieces, the novel goes completely off the rails and the main hero becomes a socialist and we spend dozens of pages listening to speeches.

I think the desire here is to leave the audience with both: a) a sense of hope; and b) a call to future action. It’s not enough to convince them that the problem is real; you also need to convince them that your solution is the right one.

And I think that’s great.

People all the time will say something like, “Don’t write a novel to sell an agenda.” Which is obviously incorrect. There’ve been tons of people who’ve written novels in service of ideas and agendas. Personally, I’m even a big fan of putting a huge explication into the novel. I think that if you have something you’re trying to say, then it’s a moral necessity to actually come out and say it. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to do it, then you shouldn’t let it ruin the plot and character arc of your book.

If you want to include a long explication of your philosophy in your novel, there’s a very easy mechanism for doing it. You just include an essay-length addendum. Tolstoy has an absolutely fascinating 30,000 word epilogue in War And Peace where he tries to make some nonsensical point about God and God’s plan for the Earth (Napoleon is involved somehow too). Admittedly, no one reads it, but anyone who wants to read it can do so (I read and loved it). And, more importantly, he didn’t pervert the structure of his novel in order to include it! He didn’t figure out a way to turn Prince Bezubhov into a mystic who was revealed these secrets on a mountain somewhere. No. He just ended Bezubhov’s story in an apropriately tragic fashion…and then he stepped out from behind the curtain and explained himself. (George Bernard Shaw was also famous for doing this in the prefaces to his plays).

I really really really like ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

Rosa_Orange_is_the_New_Black_Episode_209Just like everyone else in the world, I just watched the second season of Orange Is The New Black and, just like everyone else in the world, I loved it. I was a bit shocked by just how much I liked it. I think there’s the kind of liking when you read or watch something and you enjoy it a lot and incorporate it into your worldview and remember it fondly for years or decades. And then there’s the kind of liking when you read or watch exactly the right thing at exactly the right time in your life.

And that’s a different level of liking. I mean, I’m not sure I can think of a TV show that I’ve enjoyed as much as this. But I feel the same way about it as I felt during the week when I read Sandman between 1-4 AM in the night, every night, while hopped up on caffeine and working on a report for the World Bank. I’m not sure that’s the greatest graphic novel I’ve ever read, but the sheer desolation and apathy of the Sandman universe really affected me profoundly in a way that I’m not sure it would have if I’d read it in a different time and place.

I feel the same about OITNB as I did when I read Adrian Tomine’s Sleepwalk and Other Stories while I was in the second to last day of a one-week sprint to complete a novel. There it wasn’t just his subject matter (apathetic slackers and their sly little lives), but also the style of his stories. To me, they felt revolutionary in their formlessness. The way they ended in places that didn’t feel like endings and dwelled for ages on things that didn’t seem at all worthwhile. I still remember the one about the kid getting a summer job at a print shop. He works there for a summer, shoots the shit with his coworkers, then says goodbye and leaves at summer’s end. Nothing happens. But it captures the feel of nothing happening in such a startling way. And because my life was in a weird heterostasis at that moment, I think it resonated with me more strongly than it would have.

Or reading The Jungle while I was vacationing with my parents and staying on their boat. Actually, I have no idea why that stuck with me so strongly, but it did. Man, The Jungle is amazing.

Anyway, I don’t yet have the perspective to know why this affected me so profoundly, but someday, I imagine, I will.

(In case anyone cares, I was most into Rosa, the cancer-ridden bank robber. Oh, and the two surprisingly dangerous old ladies: the one with the chest tattoo and the one with the stringy hair. They were the best. And Poussey’s flashback. I loved it. And also Taystee’s flashback, although that made me feel really sad. And Red. Oh my god, Red. She was tremendous in this season. And Crazy Eyes! Never my favorite. But her performance in the season finale was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was incredibly compelling. And Black Cindy!  They gave her so much personality. It’s amazing how they filled out all the little side characters from the first season. Oh my god, and Morelli. I almost cried during her flashback episode. And I was even compelling by Jason Biggs’ plotline! I mean, it wasn’t my favorite, but his parts were still sweet. He does still some have of that awkward American Pie charisma to him)

Wrap-Up Season 2011: Surprisingly Good Books, part two

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair – This is the novel about Chicago’s meat-packing industry that put the nation into such an uproar over how their meat was prepared (at one point it implies that when workers fall into the renderer and die, their meat is just be added into the sausage) that the government created the Food and Drug Administration and started regulating food preparers. But the novel is actually a story about how this family of Lithuanian immigrants gets totally crushed by capitalism. I particularly enjoyed Sinclair’s attention to the numbers, the amount of dollars and cents this family needs to keep their head above water. It’s a very emotionally affecting novel, and it would’ve been utterly perfect….if it had ended about 2/3rds of the way in. After the family falls apart, it’s patriarch starts going on these picaresque adventures (at one point there is an extended interlude where he helps a drunken millionaire’s son get home and then has a bartender steal the $100 that the son gives him) and then the man ends up embracing socialism, so it all gets a little silly. Still, even that is a little respectable. Sure, all that stuff ruined the book, but I can see why Sinclair had to put it in. Sinclair wanted his book to change the world, so he needed to put in something about what his riled up readers should go out and do. He allowed his political instincts to overrule his artistic ones, and, maybe, for him, that was the right decision.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – This book is by a hedge fund manager who claims that we’re terrible about predicting the future because none of our projections allow for ‘black swan’ events, which are huge, discontinuous events that change everything (like, 9/11, or the Harry Potter phenomenon). That part is pretty interesting and even somewhat convincing. What’s more fun, though, is the narrative tone of the book. The author comes off sounding like a megalomaniac and an amazing dick. He sounds like such an asshole that he almost feels fictional. It’s as if Taleb was writing a very experimental novel where a fictional persona expounds upon a science-fictional idea. It’s a really engaging book.

Candy Girl by Diablo Cody – This is Academy-Award winning screenwriter Diablo Cody’s memoir about her year as a Minneapolis stripper. I was really sick when I read this book, okay, but I still enjoyed it. It goes into all the proper anthropological detail about what being a stripper is like…and I am sucker for that kind of stuff.

Paying For It by Chester Brown – There are a surprising number of graphic novels about the author’s sexual dysfunction, but I think this own stands out even in that crowd. For years (decades?) the author has been patronizing prostitutes exclusively (as in, he has not been pursuing any other kind of sexual relationship) and in the course of this pursuit, the author has developed all these theories about why patronizing prostitutes is a sensible alternative (for people like him) to romance. The book covers his odyssey, beginning with his first visit and ending with him happily ensconced in an exclusive (though still monetary) relationship with one prostitute. It ends with fifty pages of appendixes in which he details his views on prostitution. Oh, and for some weird artistic reason, he never shows the faces of any of the prostitutes he visits! They are always turned away, or their faces are hidden. The book is really bizarre, but it was also really good.

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather – This is a series of three linked novellas that doesn’t sound like it ought to cohere at all. The first is about an elderly professor reflecting on his family and on the son-in-law (who died in the war) who was the only person he felt close to. The second is a flashback to the summer that the son-in-law spent excavating a New Mexico plateau that held a Native American city. The third is about the professor’s lonely summer without his wife and daughter (they’re vacationing in Paris). And yet, somehow, it all does come together. It’s about excitement, and the intellectual life, and loss. It has a very wistful tone, which avoids being cloying because it’s broken up with the very exciting, adventurous middle. Also, maybe I just love Willa Cather so much that I can even enjoy her minor novels.

Portrait of the Addict As A Young Man by William Clegg – Literary agent Bill Clegg’s memoir about a two month $70,000 crack cocaine binge. I don’t know why this was so entertaining. I think it’s because the dreamlike tedium of the narrative kind of echoed the tedium of the binge: the endless succession of hits in an endless succession of five-star hotel rooms. Also, I was really sick when I read it.

Local by Brian Wood – If there’s anything I’ve learned this year, it’s that I am a sucker for graphic novels about shiftless twentysomethings. In each of this series of twelve comics, the main character, Megan, ages by one year and moves to a new city (and grows up a little). There’s one about her having a horrible roommate in New York and one about her being a fairly creepy movie theater clerk in Nova Scotia and…well…if you like this sort of thing, you’ll really like this series: it is wanksty early-20s at their most elemental.

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey – Reading this book made me realize what I dislike about biographies. They’re too long. You know, I’m only going to read maybe (at most) 10,000 books in the whole rest of my life. It seems like a huge waste to devote a whole .01% of that to learning about a single person. What have all these famous dead people ever done for me? Why do they deserve so much of my headspace? This book neatly solves that problem through the novella form autobiography. I’d probably never read a full book about Florence Nightingale, but I will definitely read a novella about her. There’s definitely room for biographies at a length somewhere above a Wikipedia entry and somewhere below a full book.

You know how we got taught in elementary school that Native Americans used every part of the Buffalo? Well early 20th century industrial food processors were good at that too.

From Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

 “No tiniest particle of organic matter was wasted in Durham’s. Out of the horns of the cattle they made combs, buttons, hairpins, and imitation ivory; out of the shinbones and other big bones they cut knife and toothbrush handles, and mouthpieces for pipes; out of the hoofs they cut hairpins and buttons, before they made the rest into glue. From such things as feet, knuckles, hide clippings, and sinews came such strange and unlikely products as gelatin, isinglass, and phosphorus, bone black, shoe blacking, and bone oil. They had curled-hair works for the cattle tails, and a “wool pullery” for the sheepskins; they made pepsin from the stomachs of the pigs, and albumen from the blood, and violin strings from the ill-smelling entrails. When there was nothing else to be done with a thing, they first put it into a tank and got out of it all the tallow and grease, and then they made it into fertilizer.”

I wonder if the modern food industry is like this? If so, given the rage for environmentalism,  they should publicize that.