Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Drinker by Hans Fallada

How unreliable is the unreliable narrator? In the case of Hans Fallada’s “The Drinker,” we are able to chart the moment Erwin Sommer’s descent into alcoholism starts, and mark each digression down into it by his excuses, his explanations, his evasions. As Sommer says early on, “Man gets used to anything, and I am afraid that perhaps he gets used quickest of all to living in a state of degradation.”

Hans Fallada was no stranger to alcoholism or degradation. Last year, his final novel "Every Man Dies Alone," became a surprise bestseller 60 years after he wrote it, a fitting tribute to a trouble life. In Nazi Germany, he was committed to an insane asylum during the war as his marriage broke down because of his drinking problem.

But there is no mention in "The Drinker" of Hitler, or Nazis, or even the slightest political tinge to the story of Sommer, who slowly devolves from a respectable businessman into a man who threatens his wife’s life for a drink. Yet we are confronted with the question of how an author who obviously felt himself at odds with the ruling system could write a novel like this and it not, somehow, be about the evil all around him.

But let us come back to that. From the moment Erich Sommer enjoys a bottle of wine with his wife, we can see his self-control slip away as he warms to alcohol. But there is more to it than that. Erich tells us that he also gives his wife some money to ease over a quarrel, and that this is a ruse - he is really masking the fact that his business is not doing well. We know that he feels animosity toward his wife, Magda, because she is better at running the business than he is. His anxiety blossoms to jealousy, rage and self-pity under the alcohol, and soon he is making eyes at a bar maid, just for another glass of schnapps.

Fallada does a remarkable job at rendering the alcoholic in stunning clarity. His denials reveal, his explanations obfuscate, his evasions point to the very facts he hopes to obscure. He cannot see the flaw apparent to others, yet he perceives the stealing of his soul in the clink of a glass. And even as Erich Sommer leaves home, becomes a thief, then a criminal, then is committed, he has perfectly good explanations for each situation which contradict his earlier resolves. He is not interested in the future, but only in surviving the present.

In doing so, he presents us with a reminder of the nature of persistent sin. Sommer carries around the idea of himself as a gentleman, respected in his community, valued as a member of society. But he perceives his enemy as his wife, so each degradation is somehow his twisted revenge against her. And yet, at the same time, he ignores those degradations and sees no change in who he essentially is, even as his nature bears little resemblance to the man who began the novel.

Contrast him with Lobedanz, his temporary landlord, who keeps him supplied with alcohol and sheltered from the world even as he is bleeding him dry of money and possessions. Lobedanz caters to Sommer’s self-image as he fingers Sommer for an easy mark. “I’m sorry sir,” he says, at their first meeting. “I’d like to have you as a lodger, an educated man who wants to frighten his wife a bit in a gentlemanly way. We beat our wives, it’s simpler and cheaper.”

Sommer doesn’t even bother trying to justify his behavior later, once he enters the asylum. He relies on his own wit and instincts to save him, and succeeds in plunging deeper into delusion and decline. He becomes disfigured in a prison fight. Leaving for the asylum, he must walk in handcuffs through his hometown “like my own ghost.” The asylum, which he describes as “hell,” offers some hope of eventual release, but Sommer’s problem isn’t alcohol, but the denial that there is a problem at all. “In this life, you are driven forward pitilessly. There is no rest, no remission,” he says.

So is this novel about an alcoholic, or the collective denial practiced by millions of Germans who gave their lives and their futures over to Adolf Hitler? There are hints at the soiled, soul destroying tyranny, such as the way in which Sommer and his wife Magda communicate near the book’s climax, when he is hesitant to say anything negative about the asylum for fear he will never leave. There is Sommer himself, who carries the literal wounds of his experience in prison. The book’s climax shows that there is never really any escape for ourselves from prisons of our own making, which means that our unreliable narrator may be the most clear-eyed character in the book.

But it hardly matters whether Fallada was trying to say something more than is apparent in “The Drinker.” The story was familiar enough long before Hitler’s rise and fall - how a person’s own justifications can twist them, while at the same time convincing them that if this is true, if they are irredeemable, then they are merely a reflection of a world twisted beyond repair, with no rest, no remission, no hope of grace this side of Heaven.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Creating 'The Social Network,' Creating Us

Art is a tool we use to invest meaning in our lives, and the best art comes from the most familiar yet least expected places, and the least expected meanings we recognize there.

Today’s announcement of the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards includes “The Social Network,” with seven including Best Picture. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay follows some of the construction of the book he adapted, “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich. The information was taken from interviews and court proceedings, which is why the movie uses the construct of depositions to tell the story, during which the characters retell their versions of what happened. Before seeing it, one wonders how anybody could make an engaging film about the creation of Facebook.

But to keep the movie from playing out like a trial, Sorkin instead bookends it with a device much like Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud” - the key to understanding the main character, Mark Zuckerberg, is in the scene which opens the movie.

Mark and his date Erica Albright are discussing Final Clubs - Harvard’s tradition-bound exclusive societies which tap students to join and seemingly propel them onto lifelong success. Mark tells her that he must do something to get the attention of the clubs, because they are “exclusive and fun and lead to a better life.” Erica chastises him for being obsessed with the clubs, but their relationship breaks down when she asks Mark what is the easiest club to get into. Mark assumes that she is asking which one he would have the best chance of joining, and we see immediately that Mark, for all his genius, has no self-image or self-esteem.

The scene is a primer in characterization, in rich dialogue, and in mimicking life. Erica and Mark discuss three or four subjects at once, with Mark’s opening question - “How do you distinguish yourself?” - establishing the keynote for the movie that follows. We realize immediately with Mark’s seemingly-rote question, “Would you like to talk about something else?” that he has no social skills.

Erica assures him she isn’t “speaking in code,” to which he tells her there is a difference “between being obsessed and being motivated.” But we know that Mark is both. Erica attempts to reassure him, then in a half-joking, half-earnest voice, tells him he should be “the best you you can be.” This phrase, of course, rings hollow with him, as she intended it. But its triteness masks its relevance, for it’s the sort of thing you would hear in an elementary self-esteem lesson instead of a college bar. But it reminds us once again of who we are dealing with - a socially stunted yet brilliant person on the cusp of a life-changing event.

Erica leaves Mark, with him questioning “Is this real?” Real life is much harder than the Internet, which is where Mark retreats in anger and begins blogging about the evening, calling her names, saying that her bra size is much smaller, and creating a website that allows voters to pick the hottest between two women. We realize just how gifted Mark is, and once again, how unable he is to connect with another person. Eventually, his exploits lead him on to the other characters who will be there at the creation of Facebook, and the eventual carnage of those friendships.

Mezrich’s book states plainly why Facebook emerged from other social networking sites to become an astounding success:

“…it was going to mimic what went on at college every day - the thing that drove the college social experience, drove people to go out to the clubs and bars and even the classrooms and dining halls. To meet people, socialize, converse, sure - but the catalyst of it all, the burning engine behind those social networks, was as simple and basic as humanity itself.”

Later in the movie, flush with success at Harvard, Mark encounters Erica again in a club. We sense he wants to apologize, and he asks if she’s aware of Facebook. She will have none of it, still remembering his blog entries, not caring what he does “in a dark room.” He is anti-social, she says, and no amount of success will make him anything less. “Good luck with your video game,” she says, dismissing him as he leaves her with the friends she did not wish to be rude to by leaving. Immediately after this meeting, Mark decides it’s time to expand Facebook.

Just this week, Pope Benedict XVI issued a statement, “Truth, proclamation and authenticity of life in the digital age,” which lauded social networking sites as a way to connect but warned of the danger of substituting such contact for real life encounters.

"Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world," he said. "In the search for sharing, for 'friends', there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself."

Earlier, I wrote about how Facebook gives us a window not only into how we encounter people in the here and now, but also in the hereafter. But Sorkin’s script introduces a few interesting points about social networking - that in creating a different world for ourselves in the virtual, we risk bringing our own individual contradictions with us. We cannot expect honesty in a world we create when we are dishonest in the world we did not choose. No matter what our visions are about ourselves, reality intrudes, even in the world that is unreal.

As Facebook expands in “The Social Network,“ the movie explores various other, older concepts of how people interact- for example the Winklevoss twins’ hesitancy to sue Zuckerberg because of the concept of the Harvard gentleman. But Mark needs a new muse, and Sorkin introduces the character of a young, female lawyer called in for jury selection consultation, perhaps to take up Erica’s missing space in the narrative.

She speaks to Mark during off times in the depositions, with him finally telling her “I’m not a bad guy.” She tells him he’s not, but “you’re trying hard to be.” As the movie ends, we see Mark has been checking Facebook throughout the picture and he’s finally found the profile page of Erica Albright. He continues to refresh the page, hoping to find out what she’s up to, even after he’s cast aside the idea of sending her a friend request that he knows she’ll refuse. He is a billionaire, alone in a room in a tall building, master of an unreal empire where he alone is its sole monarch and, seemingly, its only subject.

In the background, the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” plays, asking the question:

How does it feel to be
One of the beautiful people?
Now that you know who you are
What do you want to be?

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Inception and a Grief Documented

One day after his mother died in 1977, the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes began jotting down notes, recording each stage and random thought of his grief. Only a few weeks into it, on Nov. 3, he made this observation, after confronting, as many in mourning do, the image he held in his head of his mother and what he perceived she still demanded of his attention.

“On the one hand, she wants everything, total mourning, its absolute (but then it’s not her, it’s I who is investing her with the demand for such a thing). And on the other (being then truly herself), she offers me lightness, life, as if she were still saying: “but go on, go out, have a good time.”

Barthes’ struggles with grief were documented last year in the posthumously published “Mourning Diary,” which collects the scraps of paper upon which he poured out momentary pangs of grief, embarrassed at them and fascinated by them, perceiving in them hard truths won at a very high price. The information we gain, the character we tell ourselves we are building at the price of dealing with the loss of a loved one’s life seems hardly a fair bargain.

I was reminded of this recently watching Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” a brilliant movie that not only deals with the difference between dreams and reality, but how we mourn the loss of the beloved, the loss of possibilities, and the loss of home. Rarely has any conventional Hollywood thriller ever tackled such themes in so compelling and subtle a way.

There are chases and gun battles aplenty in “Inception,” but we are assured these are merely projections in the dream worlds we enter - projections of either the dreamer protecting himself from unwelcome visitations or projections of the dreamer’s inner turmoil. Our hero is Cobb, a man who specializes in heists from the dream world, stealing vital information while the victim literally sleeps. He is hired by Saito, a Japanese businessman, to stage an inception - in other words, to plant an idea inside the mind of one of his key competitors.

To tell this complicated story, Nolan hit upon a conventional framework - the heist film. Cobb assembles a committed team and they carefully plan how they will conduct Fischer, the target, through many layers of dreams until Saito’s intended idea is introduced into his subconscious. But every heist film needs a villain, as well as a femme fatale, and “Inception” has both - in the form of Cobb’s wife, Mal. But we learn deep into the film that Mal is, in fact, not Mal but a projection of Cobb’s which follows him from dream to dream, tormenting him. The real Mal is dead, and this projection is a vengeful ghost, the memory of her conjured up by Cobb’s guilty conscience, bent on convincing him to remain in the dream world.

Cobb is a man plagued by guilt - survivor guilt. Both he and Mal shared a lifetime within a dream world of their own creation. The dream world still exists, and for Cobb to return home once and for all, he has to confront this false Mal, to her face, on why he cannot stay with her:

“I wish more than anything, but I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. . You’re just a shade of my real wife. And you were the best that I could do but I’m sorry, you’re just not good enough.”

True to form, the false Mal stabs him, asking him if it feels real. This set of circumstances would seem all too real to another grieving widower, C.S. Lewis, recording his feelings in a book he published under a pen name as “A Grief Observed.” Lewis, after despairing that he was losing vital memories of his wife after her death, realized that his memory created something dishonest in her absence. His words are much like Cobb‘s:

“All reality is iconoclastic. The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality. And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead.”

The lesson of “Inception” perhaps can be found in the parting words of Cobb’s partner Ariadne as she leaves the collapsing dream world - “Don’t lose yourself.” But Lewis realized that the loss of his wife could only remind him of how our imaginations buckle and fall short when we try to imagine, or understand, God. Jesus is the ultimate reminder that the idols we erect in our minds fall just as short as the ones we fashion with our hands:

“He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”

“Inception” lures us through a maze of false realities, with the world “up top” just beckoning us. It doesn’t take too large a leap to see Nolan offering a commentary on the hope of an afterlife. Reunion with loved ones long gone is one of the hopes of Heaven. And while modern rationalism tells us this is a false hope, a dream, that pang of doubt itself seems its own dream. Why should all that we are have no meaning? Surely, there must be something somewhere waiting for us that is real, that is truth. If we might only wake up and find the way…

In the end, Cobb escapes the dream world, and his avenging, tormenting memory of Mal, to a reunion with his children. Or does he? The final shot of the film leaves the question open. One of the oldest stories in human history is the longing for home, to finally return home. The assurance and security seem far-off, sometimes even when we are there. We wonder what else we require for bliss. Reality seems stubbornly unforgiving when compared to our dreams. The question “Inception” leaves us with is - when we "get home," how will we know we are really there?

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mark Twain - Blogger

Mark Twain may have been dead for a century, but news of his continued life is no exaggeration.

With the recent publication of his autobiography, Twain became a best-selling author in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And he is proving once again how little technology and mass communication have changed - or improved - the makeup of guilty man.

For many years, Twain wanted to write his own life story, but found the usual style of autobiography a straitjacket of dates, times, places and memories, to be put into some chronological order. For a self-invented man, this kind of artificial order for the sake of palatable narrative was not to his liking. It didn't feel true, he wrote. And so, he began dictating a series of daily talks, with observations on the day’s news, sprinkled with memories and seasoned with his own singular humor.

Basically, he was blogging.

On January 10, 1906, Mark Twain sat down to dictate that day’s entry. In the news was a little item he referred to as ‘the Morris incident,’ and Twain wondered what the verdict of history would be on it in fifty years time. “The Morris incident comes up and blots the whole thing out. The Morris incident is making a flurry in Congress, and for several days now it has been rioting through the imagination of the American nation and setting every tongue afire with excited talk.” He then goes on to state, rightly, that by the time people read his autobiography, they will have no idea what he is referring to.

He is correct, of course. The reader can be excused for not remembering the plight of Mrs. Minor Morris, who came to the White House on January 4, 1906, to ask President Theodore Roosevelt to have her husband reinstated to his post at the Army Medical Bureau. Unable to see the president and unwilling to leave, she was dragged out by police screaming and arrested for disorderly conduct, then temporarily charged as insane. She was later released and told her indignant story to reporters from her sick bed, resulting in six months of charges, countercharges, investigations and the sort of general public spectacle that Washington, even then, was good at manufacturing.

Twain’s reason for inserting this into his autobiography was not because he felt it was important - but rather that it was the stuff of life. The stuff that consumes most of our time and attention, Twain is saying, may not be as important in scope as the events we believe invest our lives with meaning, but they have some importance because they illustrate the quotidian nature of existence.

The item is also instructive because of how familiar it is to our news junkie sensibilities 100 years later. One common complaint among bloggers is that daily news topics sometimes act as a convenient ideological bait and switch for “the real issue.” The idea is that some group, invested in keeping “the real truth” from the public, either invents a cause celebre or serves up a steady drumbeat of stories about some inane topic and the American people conveniently seize on that topic instead of paying attention to this or that issue which begs for change. Everything from short attention spans to lack of education to the lure of “infotainment” is offered up as an explanation. If only the public weren’t so gullible, we are told, then they would see these banalities for what they are, and we would finally have genuine change.

For example, a quick Google search of the words “media smokescreen” calls up accusations that the story of the “Ground Zero Mosque” was a right wing plot to divert attention from President Obama’s bringing the last combat troops out of Iraq. Another site complained that last year’s stories about the private peccadilloes of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford were the liberal media’s attempt to divert the nation from recognizing Obama’s policy failures and inability to restart the economy.

I’m sure readers can immediately call to mind at least a dozen news stories from the past decade that received disproportionate coverage from their relative importance. It took the cataclysm of 9/11 to wipe the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy case from the 24-hour news cycle. Anna Nicole Smith’s death, Michael Jackson’s death and other celebrity funerals have had the same effect. The disappearance of Natalee Holloway, during the summer of 2005, was also labeled a distraction drummed up to divert attention from the mounting dead in Iraq, even as ratings mounted for chat shows that did nothing but dissect such diversions.

Critics complain of ideological bias as driving news judgments, while others point to shadowy corporate interests intent on controlling the news and thereby controlling political thought and discourse, as well as dissent.

But Twain’s observations come in 1906 - before radio, television, the Internet and ideological blogs. In fact, the 24-hour news cycle did not exist in any recognizable form. News was strictly disseminated by word of mouth and by newspaper. Whatever the news topic of the day, it may not have arrived at any given spot for days, or even weeks.

Looking at the Morris incident a century on, we see that perhaps the public’s appetite for news hasn’t changed as much as we might like to believe. It also reveals another truth - people tend to digest these stories, and hunger for similar news, because of the stories’ larger narrative significances.

Twain points out what the Morris affair says about Theodore Roosevelt and his character. “Certainly a biography’s chiefest feature is the exhibition of the character of the man whose biography is being set forth,” he observes, with his point being that Roosevelt was a man of extreme enthusiasms, passion and an occasional inattention to courtesy, which he naturally transferred to his secretary, who dealt with Mrs. Morris. The reason for the Morris incident’s hold on the public’s imagination in 1906 was what it said about the first Roosevelt White House and the occupant at that time.

The death of Anna Nicole Smith, for example, was yet another all-too-familiar example of how little happiness money can buy, or how outer beauty does not guarantee inner peace. Mark Sanford’s multiple denials of infidelity, and then his daily reactions to the uncontestable proof, appeal not just to a gossipy public but act as confirmation of our worst fears about politicians - that they are, in fact, human beings. By seeing his failures, we see ourselves, or we see what we hope we might never become. It isn’t a shadowy conspiracy diverting us as much as our own curiosity and temptations not to fill time with what is important, but with what is, on some level, a little more exciting, or petty or fun.

Twain’s voice sounds amused and astonished: “You set the incident down which for the moment is to you the most interesting. If you leave it alone three or four weeks you wonder why you ever thought of setting such a thing down - it has no value, no importance…But that is what human life consists of - little incidents and big incidents, and they are all of the same size if we let them alone. An autobiography that leaves out the little things and enumerates only the big ones is no proper picture of the man’s life at all; his life consists of his feelings and his interests, with here and there an incident apparently big or little to hang the feelings on.”

Reading Twain, one is reminded that much of life is forgotten, and forgettable, but almost never dull.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

"Brilliant Disguises' one of the year's ten best!

Christy's Book Blog named "Brilliant Disguises" one of the year's ten best books in Christian Fiction.

To see, look here.

To read Christy's original review, which she called "the rare self-published book that is truly worth a read," look here. She concluded: "Thornton has much to offer the Christian fiction genre, and I hope that a publishing company picks him up soon."

To order the book, visit