Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Predestination and the Hero of Our Time

It's amazing what staring down the barrel of a loaded gun will make you believe.

Late in Mikhail Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time," its Byronic hero Pechorin bets one of his barracks fellows, a Serbian lieutenant named Vulich, that there is no such thing as predestination. The bet stems from an argument, and comes after Pechorin has survived various physical and romantic threats that have thus far failed to stir his blood. However a game of Russian roulette, so to speak, ends with Vulich aiming a pistol at his own head to no effect, when it misfires. Moments before, Pechorin had sensed from Vulich's manner, and a feeling in the air, that the man was going to die. As he walks away, Pechorin tells Vulich he does indeed believe in predestination, then he goes out into the night air: 

"Stars shone calmly in the deep blue sky, and I was amused to think that there were once wise men who imagined the stars took part in men's petty squabbles over a patch of land or somebody's 'rights.' While in fact these lamps, which they supposed had been lit for the sole purpose of shining on their battles and triumphs, still burn on as bright as ever, while they, with all their passions and hopes, have long since vanished, like a fire lit by some carefree traveller at the edge of a forest. Yet what strength they derived from this certainty that the heavens with all their countless hosts looked down on them in silent, but never-failing sympathy. And we, their pitiful descendants, drift through the world, without beliefs, pride, pleasure or fear, except that automatic fear that grips us when we think of the certainty of death. We can no longer make great sacrifices for the good of mankind, or even for our own happiness, because we know they are unattainable. And as our ancestors rushed from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt. But, unlike them, we have no hope, nor even that indefinable but real sense of pleasure that's felt in any struggle, be it with men or destiny." 

This beautiful passage sums up our hero and his time. Pechorin confesses to various people that he gains little pleasure from life, and sees it as mostly pointless. He comes to embody a new wave of Russian, less certain of the religious truths that had long dominated the nation, and a student of the absurdity of life. But for just a moment, he is faced with the disconnect between his intuition - which told him Vulich was doomed, and the reality - with Vulich collecting on the bet.

Predestination in Lermontov's time was a Christian idea, of course, though the novel also points to the Islamic idea as well. The argument hinges on when a person's appointed moment of death will come, but the question deals with life as well. What will we do? What can we do? How much control does God have over us? Is the future already written? If we are fated to know Him (or not know Him as the case may be) then should we do anything at all to speed or change the outcome? Pechorin is bored with an absurd life, seeing little point to anything, but we see him in this little moment as questioning all he has believed or not believed, if only for a second. Pechorin disbelieves in it because he does not believe in a divine order, or perhaps any other.

Our time has a different version of predestination that is more scientific, and perhaps more pitiless. Some scientists who study the brain tell us that what we have come to believe is free will may be nothing more than the biological responses of our brain to external stimuli. That our deepest fears and emotions, not to mention our most dire decisions, are the product of silent chemical and electrical impulses is a disquieting and dispiriting thought. In this world as in Lermontov's, the "hero" is robbed of his heroism because heroism itself isn't anything more than a name we give to a behavior, which no longer seems as mystical or praiseworthy. All social strata and every emotion loses its "magic," for lack of a better word. If he becomes a hero then, it is only because he is not afraid of a world robbed of meaning. But a hero to himself? To others? In the eye of the beholder...

But the story does not end with his walk. When Pechorin returns, he finds that shortly after winning his bet, Vulich was the victim of a Cossack sword stroke. He is dead, so Pechorin's intuition, and Vulich's fatalism just before putting the gun to his head, were both right and wrong. Whatever fate was ordained, it was not what we or they expected. Pechorin indulges his own fatalism in nabbing Vulich's murderer, then states that he prefers to doubt everything. "I always go more boldly forward when I don't know what lies ahead. After all, the worst you can do is die, and you've got to die some time."

The author of "A Hero of Our Time" died as a young man, and in a preface to his work says that the novel is full of bitter truths that are meant for people who have dined on sweets for too long. Yet he curiously ends his introduction by saying that mankind suffers a malady and "Heaven alone knows how to cure it!" The argument over predestination obscures an older one in each human soul over meaning and the inadequacy of human beings to find meaning on their own. We learn midway through the novel that after Vulich's death, Pechorin will eventually meet his end in Persia. Through his and our sleepless nights, the silent stars go by.

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 AL.com 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. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"I am a sick man...I am a wicked man," begins the anonymous narrator of Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground," in words that sound just as current and common in the 21st century as they must have read on the page in the 19th. It is a voice we hear every day and with increasing regularity, as we become animals both more and less social, more and less giving, more and less self-destructive. Even in the smirking author's voice behind that of the Underground Man is a reminder that human consciousness curdles without attention, and without love.

You could argue that the book and its themes are hardly needed anymore. Over the past month, American society, at least, has gotten a refresher course in just what sick, wicked men are capable of. On July 20, a would-be comic book villain interrupted a midnight screening of a movie by killing 12 people and wounding 58. His act overshadowed a similar one a few days before, when an angry unemployed man shot 17 people in an Alabama bar after other acts of violence, none of them, thankfully, fatal. Within the past week, an apparent racist killed six and wounded two others at a Sikh Temple before turning his gun on himself. And not long after, the author of a Jan. 8, 2011 attack at a political rally pleaded guilty to killing six and wounding 13 others, among them, a sitting U.S. Congresswoman.

In each of these cases, what we have are varying forms of mental illness, diagnosed and undiagnosed, suddenly disclosed behind the trigger of a firearm. Some of the perpetrators seem to us insane, some disaffected, and some simply angry and armed at the worst time. In each case, as in all the cases where some seemingly crazed loner uses a gun to announce his almighty existence to the world, media outlets set up vigil at the scene of the crime and begin to look in vain for the causes of such acts. The inevitable stories follow - the seeking-out of the gunman's neighbors, with either memories of antisocial behavior or the mystified "he seemed so quiet, so harmless." There are the psychologists who try to put the private traumas we all struggle with in society in context. Then the victim's families are interrogated for their observations on the senselessness of it all, in the vain hope of finding "closure." This is the media's hunt, not the victims', because closure will allow the interviewer to move on. If these horrors teach us anything, it is that there will be no moving on for some.

And yet, the world does move on. It is the maddening nature of existence that nothing - nothing at all - brings existence to a halt. The world goes madly on. Yet we all secretly covet that moment when we can, as Eliot observed, dare to disturb the universe. The narrator of "Notes" is just such a being. Richard Pevear reminds us that Dostoyevsky's Underground Man relates to us "the instability, the perpetual 'dialectic' of isolated consciousness." What we have are the writings of a man whose brain will not relax, who desperately wants an acknowledgment from someone of his importance. From the first sentence, we are aware that he is very aware of his sickness, yet he still feels he has much to offer, if everyone would merely give him his moment. And as he himself observes, he not only takes pride in his sickness, but swaggers in it.

"And now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something."

Here is a man stewing in his consciousness, as the first section, "Underground," makes plain. The Underground Man surveys history and finds himself akin to its movers and shakers, yet can't quite understand why he has been robbed of his place among them. He detects the outlines of a conspiracy, and finds it extends from his front door to the very zenith of civilization. Not that there are any secret meetings on his behalf, but it is an unstated and unshakeable pact to deny him his importance. He perceives an ungrateful world that will not acknowledge what he has to offer, but yet he continues to address his comments to a group of "gentlemen" he presumes are reading what he has to say. We can assume that our hero feels, even in his solitude, that he is playing to a crowd.

There are two ideas that we can impose on the text from the comfort of more than a century's remove. The first is that the Underground Man's feelings are not at all unique. We all feel, at one time or another, the feeling of disappointment that life has not, as yet, fully grasped all we can give to it. It goes hand in hand with a similar feeling that the world is "on to us" and will no doubt in the next second figure out just how naked we are in our armor against it. But the other idea we can see now is that even in our solitude, we tend to believe what we are doing matters, or should matter, to a group of eyes far away from our own. Anyone who has read, say, the Unabomber's Manifesto or the ravings of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, hears the same sad and sinister music of someone resolved to not remain forever anonymous.

It is in the second section, "Apropos of the Wet Snow," that our Underground Man interacts with the world. At least, he does in his own way, resolving to bump into his enemies in the park and force them to acknowledge him. His stewing ravings, which are exceptionally literary, reveal themselves as dead when uncorked among living, breathing people. His actions are freighted with cosmic significance to himself, but his fear restricts him from carrying out his plans. He turns "coward before reality," he tells himself. He is a martyr for an embattled cause - himself.

It is only when he finds Liza, the prostitute, that we see him reveal the tenderness that is still within him. Dostoevsky picks a female foil for him, sure to excite and yet bewitching because of her distinct "otherness." We have the faint sniff in the air of perhaps a happy ending for the embattled narrator, finding love in the presence of another who simply wants to be acknowledged. But even this comes to nothing. When Liza tries to reach out to him, he lashes out that society will not allow him to be good. She flees from him, and the Underground Man leaves us as he came to us, alone. "Which is better?" he asks. "Cheap happiness or lofty suffering?" He will take suffering, and one presumes he does not mean ultimately to suffer alone.

As I said, the voice is familiar. One sees it in the anonymous postings that follow news articles and opinion pieces on every website, where a person stripped of identity is suddenly capable of the most vile, poisonous words, left in answer to no one and everyone. The identity of the Underground Man can be both the voice of the teenagers who pick one of their number and begin assaulting him socially until he crumbles, or the one who crumbles under the weight of their taunts. It is the voice of the letter to the editor that inevitably digresses from the issue of the day to the obscure slights of a lifetime, seemingly for reasons known only to the author. It is the voice of the amateur blog, where the writer leaves an observation that perhaps no one else may read, but is desperately important to the one writing.

Dostoevsky created his character as a reaction to certain strains in Russian philosophy. He recognized them as perhaps the seed of something destructive, though it would be perhaps too much to say that he perceived the coming Bolshevik tyranny and all its subsequent horrors. But instead of writing a philosophical response, he created a character who has educated himself and will not learn. Instead of finding the connection between himself and the rest of guilty humanity, he exalts himself in a kingdom of his own creation. Such is the nature of sin that we are always merciless on ourselves but even more on others, grasping God's infinite mercy to our own bosoms and hoping for His terrible justice to be visited upon everyone else.

The Underground Man is a man without gifts who intends, at some point, to teach someone else what he believes society has taught him. If he has felt a keen anguish, then others must as well.  His tragedy is that he is all too aware, of everything. If he speaks for our time, as Dostoevsky felt he spoke for his own, then we find in our fractured social networks, where even children can create true and false personas for themselves, the verdict that we are most dangerous when we are left alone to exult in our wickedness. But the personal audience we create for ourselves never is, and will never be, enough to satisfy.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
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Sunday, July 15, 2012

HHhH by Laurent Binet

History demands a great deal from those who study it, and even more from those who don't.

Historical fiction, though, serves two purposes - it informs us about the things history can only hint at - the ambitions, the motivations, the petty humanity that drive events forward. It also allows author and reader to experience events we may or may not know as they happened the first time, with only a shared wink that these things matter enough to be told and retold, shaped and reshaped. We live our lives moment to moment, not knowing what decisions will bring, nor whether any given day could be our last. But no one in history is any different, and our advantage in the present over those in the past is that we at least know, in part, how their stories panned out.

But Laurent Binet's "HHhH" is a house divided against itself - a historical novel that tells a story even as it tries not to, a story about a story that tries not to be a story. It is a story about an event as much as a story about how we tell stories.

Binet did not go too far into the past to begin his laboratory experiment in yarn spinning. He chooses the career and assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the "Butcher of Prague," the SS executioner who was Heinrich Himmler's lieutenant. This is where the enigmatic title comes from - the initials for a German expression meaning "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." World War II, as we have seen in several works I've examined, is a gold mine for the contemporary novelist concerned with humanity, both base and glorious.

But our author here isn't interested in a rollicking spy story, or of its heroes. The two men who killed Heydrich - Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis - do not begin to appear fully until nearly 100 pages into this book, and this event is presumably what the plot builds toward. Binet announces on page four his resolution, as he attempts to set a scene with one of his "characters:"

"I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do? I don't want to drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least, to give it some substance. I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind."

Reading this, I was reminded of John Updike's objection to one of my favorite novels, E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," which blended historical figures with invented characters. Updike felt there was something obscene in digging up long dead people to perform for the author and the audience, doing and saying things they either couldn't have thought or might not have done in real life. But this sort of thing has been going on as long as mankind has been telling itself stories.

So Binet has announced for himself a grand aim - to tell a story on the nature of storytelling using this particular story. Its real characters - the ones in the present - are presumably himself and the woman Natacha, to whom he is giving his pages. She will often chide him that he is "making up" this or that detail. He also reexamines previous tellings of this story, comparing them with his own. The narrator suspends action for his own pronouncements, or observations, freezing in time these heroes and villains before pushing "play" once again for our amusement.

I'm not sure this works, frankly. This novel and its author seem very satisfied with themselves at times, so that even when the author frets that he is missing this or that important detail, we don't think he's sweating all that much. And whatever observations the author brings to the drama don't strike us as being all that revelatory about the story or storytelling. No, the point is what we know about the author. This pose isn't all that new or revolutionary, by the way. The teller of the tale is supposed to be important because his success or failure at telling the story matters. Why else would we care to remember, millenia later, that the poet who sang of Achilles and Odysseus might have been blind?

By choosing this particular tale, Binet allows himself the ability to invoke the Nazis' handsome death angel without giving us a sense of who the man was. He has no more depth than the Nazi henchmen who populate the Indiana Jones movies. He's there, but it isn't in our minds anymore than through a photograph. He is there simply to be a bogeyman. We are supposed to feel against him, or for him, based solely on Binet's sometimes dry recitation of a few pertinent facts.

Ah, you might say, that's the point of the story! If he "dramatized" the action, he would be making it up! By giving us the postmodern distance of an ironic reimagining of the novel, by the author fussing or not fussing over what color somebody's shirt might have been, we instead get something "truer."

Baloney. Even as Binet eschews sentences allowing his characters to "check their watches" to set a scene, he is still making something just as artificial. He is creating a character even by not doing so, and so doing, doing it badly. Like it or not, this is the story he has chosen. If it deserves our attention, it isn't necessarily because of the selfless bravery or, if you will, absurdity of our two assassins - it's because the author decided to tell the story. The right author can make a story with Nazis, no Nazis, a murder, no murders, six million murders, worth reading.

Another example, from later in the novel, when Natacha reads in Magazine litteraire:

"Has there ever been a biographer who did not dream of writing, 'Jesus of Nazareth used to lift his left eyebrow when he was thinking?"...I don't immediately grasp the full meaning of the phrase and, faithful to my long-held disgust for realistic novels, I say to myself: Yuck! Then I ask her to pass me the magazine and I reread the sentence. I am foreced to admit that I would quite like to possess this kind of detail about Heydrich..."

Binet invokes Jesus, for whom the only solid biographical information comes from the Gospels, which are persuasive texts written to express theological mysteries and not the inner life of a man who proclaimed Himself divine. So in reading that story, we might find ourself wanting the kind of detail we don't get in biographies, but in novels. What did His face look like? What did His voice sound like? What did He feel, weeping at Lazarus' tomb?

In Binet's theory, one simply can't make up that sort of detail, even the lifting of an eyebrow, in a novel without it being a cheap lie. So in reading this, I'm tempted to think that "HHhH" isn't an exercise in theory, or a failure of the author's imagination. It's a pose, and the worst kind really, because it appears like nothing else so much as ... a pose.

But to say all that isn't to say that "HHhH" isn't worth reading - it is. My objection, then, is that Binet fails in his ambition to write a novel of ideas because the ideas he animates this novel with, frankly, aren't all that interesting. We know when we read a book that we aren't reliving the events. If we were unable to tell the difference, most of us would succumb to heart attacks before we aimed our weapons, destined to jam, at the executioner's oncoming car. And perhaps there is something vulgar in reanimating the dead for the sole purpose of entertaining the living.

But this isn't so much a manifesto against the artifice of storytelling as much as what it claims not to be - an entertainment designed to enlist the past at a comfortable mental distance. The strategy is just different, and all too familiar. One still hears the wheels we are supposed to ignore, and senses the dripping features of the waxworks figure.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus: Engineering a Creator and Destroyer

Before it was the title of a summer science-fiction offering, Prometheus was known as the trickster titan who stole fire from the gods for the use of humans. The story’s ancient subtext is that man needs something extra to contend with the supernatural – that man aspires to contact with God, to understand Him, but cannot approach the throne without a short cut.
In that light, it’s interesting that the lead character in “Prometheus” is Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, an archeologist looking for the roots of humanity, who wears a cross around her neck, the reminder of her late father. From cave paintings and ancient relics, she and her colleague Charlie Holloway – the skeptic - find that several ancient representations of men and some superhuman beings show a similar star pattern in the background. After some investigation, they find a star pattern matching it a great distance from earth. And so begins our quest in the year 2093– to find the extra-terrestrial origins of our species. Shaw’s hypothesis is that beings came from the stars to earth and somehow made mankind.

But as one scientist on board the ship “Prometheus” observes, such a hypothesis flies in the face of “three centuries of Darwinism.” From this light, “Prometheus” bears a resemblance to stories like “Childhood’s End,” “Contact,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and even the much-maligned plot of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” The scientist is saying that what we call God is instead another being from another world. That is, until Dr. Shaw sets him straight – the question isn’t who created us, but who created it all. Dr. Shaw isn’t interested in some species that can tinker with DNA and produce something new, but a Presence that can create it all from nothingness. Still, she wonders not only where we came from, and why.

Along for the ride is David, a robot obsessed with the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” who is at times passive and at times sinister. David is the HAL-9000 computer from “2001,” only with arms and legs. There is much in this movie that seems similar (or ripped off) from Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s famous collaboration, but it is the question of faith which is new here. Clarke and Kubrick gave us a secular faith, scrubbed of God with the mystery of the universe substituted. Dr. Shaw journeys into space with a vague idea of what she seeks, but it’s interesting that in this universe, God is also part of the journey.

The character of David also allows the film to explore the meaning of existence. When he asks a crew member why he exists, the answer is for no other reason than because humans could build him. David observes that a human being would be very dissatisfied with that kind of answer for himself. A compensation would be that there is no purpose, and no meaning to existence. Yet while that offers consolation for someone who feels they need no god to justify themselves to, it still leaves a void when the end of life approaches and one craves meaning.  

In charge on the journey is Meredith Vickers, an employee of the trillionaire Peter Weyland. He was willing to fund this expedition, but Vickers expected to find nothing. Instead, when they find a seemingly deserted complex that appears to validate Shaw’s hypothesis, Vickers seems shocked. The ship’s captain, Vanek, asks her, “Did you want them to be wrong?” A fair question. Some people say there is no point in looking for God, and that conclusion keeps them happy, because finding God might require something of them. As long as my thinking stays the same, in other words, there is nothing that might require it to change.

Just as Lawrence of Arabia was told there was nothing in the desert – “and no man needs nothing” – the crew of the Prometheus seemingly find a void with their discovery. The remains of “the Engineers” are nothing they can communicate, or commune with. They find an alien species with a similar DNA profile but also with a dark side that seems too familiar. The remaining Engineer is not happy with his creation, evidently, and means to destroy it. When Weyland, who has also come on this journey, goes to the Engineer hoping to prolong his life, he discovers how dissatisfied the Engineer is.

On a very elementary level, “Prometheus” is a science fiction horror film, which is why its main message seems to be, “longing for the Creator brings on death.” The end of the movie gives no answers to Dr. Shaw as to why the Engineers made the human race, and even though she has barely survived, she wishes to continue the journey to find out. But before leaving, she retrieves the cross she has worn around her neck. “After all, you still believe,” David tells her.  It was a journey of faith that took her to the stars, and it is faith that perhaps will lead her home.
Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book, "The Uncanny Valley," for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

Perhaps no other culture in history was ever as saturated in games as our own. We watch professional athletes in elaborate spectacles and pay to wear their jerseys. We load games onto our phones and play them on our televisions. We participate in amateur and professional leagues for trophies or stories to tell each other after the games are finished, over food and drinks. Games, and play, have lasted perhaps as long as mankind has. We simulate the struggles of life, we learn its lessons, and we pass judgment on each other's worth according to our successes and failures at games. Unlike life, in which an ultimate verdict comes only at the end, games give us a verdict that can be changed with the next game.

Now comes "The Hunger Games," the movie of Suzanne Collins' dystopian young adult novel. It was not what I expected. In some ways, it is not like the book, in that it is not a classic, crowd-pleasing action movie with a rousing score and obvious laugh lines to goose the audience into laughs. This moody, intense thriller jettisons some of the clumsier elements of the book and occasionally leaves you with the impression it's hunting something bigger than ticket sales.

The story deals with Panem, a police state divided into districts which stages an elaborate, multi-media gladiatorial spectacle each year known as the Hunger Games. Children from each district are trained to fight to the death, with the winner receiving all the material wealth so sorely lacking among their countrymen. Taking us on this journey is Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who learns that even for those fighting against evil, evil wins a little each time it changes them.

The movie begins as the book does in the Appalachian setting of District 12, where poor families watch the men troop off to the mines each day while they barely survive in ramshackle houses. The setting reminds one of "Deliverance," except that these Ozarks seem to be ruled over not by backwoodsmen but by Big Brother. This is to be expected of course - "The Hunger Games" owes a debt to Orwell's "1984," and the movie's production design harkens back to Michael Radford's film of the novel. The washed out propaganda signs, the viewing screens, the uniformity of the police state all serve to remind us that Panem does not know freedom. But these early scenes also create the contrast which will serve the rest of the story - Katniss is a reminder of the simpler past, and is as yet uncorrupted by the city, and thus by the dictatorship.

All of this changes though, at Reaping - when the children are summoned for the choosing of a boy and girl to take part in the Hunger Games. From this point, the movie seizes on the dominant theme of the book: the feeling of helplessness in the face of tyranny. Police states are about control - controlling actions that are contrary to the state, controlling people who have their own ambitions, controlling emotions to keep everyone in line, even controlling thoughts such as love. Attachments, except those sanctioned by the state, can be deadly. We are told that by this time, the Hunger Games have gone on for three-quarters of a century, and the subjects display only resignation in the face of them. There is no escape sought, or expected. When participants are chosen from the children, the "lucky" ones are expected to step forward and be grateful for this slim chance at freedom. Some of the children have been trained for this moment, but as we learn later, they all have that same feeling of being merely a spectator at their own destruction. It is only when Katniss volunteers to save the life of her sister Prim that we see someone willing to seize their own moment.

Chosen at the same time is Peeta Mellark, a boy with conflicted emotions about Katniss, who immediately understands the dynamics of the Hunger Games. As they speed toward the capital for their preparation, it becomes obvious that the games are "a television show," in the words of their trainer Haymitch. The tributes are instant celebrities, served up for the spectators, and Peeta smiles because he senses it is the only way to survive. You must convince the people to like you, even though you will eventually have to commit murder.

But Katniss will not surrender to this idea. She sees the garish, over-the-top capital for what it is, a world of tin illusions that will not last. Katniss becomes a kind of Joan of Arc, resigned to her fate, unwilling to compromise with the evil around her, defiantly keeping her own fierce morality. All the elaborate costumes, the opulent rooms, the fine food and attention comes at too high a price for her. It will not last.

Hovering over the show is the power figure, the evil President Snow played by Donald Sutherland, looking like a cross between Mark Twain and a sinister Santa Claus. He informs us that the Games are a small helping of hope for the people, another way of keeping the masses in line. "Hope is the only thing stronger than fear," he says, but only so long as it is contained.

Another of the major themes of the book and movie is the pervasiveness of media, and we get this during Katniss' interview with the Hunger Games' master of ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman. (Panem is fairly run amok with Roman names, perhaps demanding to know if we are not entertained...). Director Gary Ross decides to shoot the scene almost from Katniss' shoulder, so that we experience it as she does. We are surprised when the audience laughs at her honest answers as though they are jokes, and we are pleasantly surprised, as she is, when they laugh. Soon, she too is intoxicated by the crowd and the attention, as we would be.

Then the games begin, and Katniss is at first concerned only with staying alive. The brutality of the games is softened somewhat by Ross' direction, relying on hand-held cameras and motion to let our minds imagine the murders in the arena. But when Katniss does finally kill, it is to protect and avenge. She will not surrender a part of herself in order to provide the necessary entertainment.

But she does change. Her attachment to Peeta grows as the rules are altered to allow them both to possibly live at the games' conclusion. Though the two have no way of knowing, they are inspiring the first stirrings of revolution. Peeta is injured, and Katniss must care for him, which further endears them to the crowd. But to each other? We are not sure the connection they feel is completely genuine, especially when Haymitch encourages Katniss in a note that she might plant a more entertaining kiss on Peeta for the benefit of sponsors.

There is no mention of religion in Panem, so we have no idea what Katniss and Peeta expect to happen to themselves when they nearly choose suicide over victory in the games. They only see death as a release, as a final act of defiance to the power that sent them to kill each other. It is the only choice left to the two, at least by their own moral code. When they are snatched back to prevent their victory, they learn a lesson, as does President Snow. In order to survive in a dictatorship, one is forced to lie, every day, as long as the dictatorship lives. Katniss and Peeta must maintain the fiction of their relationship for the near future in order to continue surviving. But their lives are a threat to the power of Snow, and as the camera follows him away from the adulation of the games, we know that in order for him to survive, he must eventually finish the task these games denied him. Evil can never rest as long as hope lives.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
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Monday, February 27, 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Only months after her husband was cut down by an assassin in Dallas, Jacqueline Kennedy sat with the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. for a series of interviews. Knowing her comments would be sealed for several decades, she began freely recounting her husband’s political career and what she knew of the thought processes behind the great decisions of his presidency. The tapes of these conversations, sealed since 1964, were published last year. It was Caroline Kennedy’s responsibility to finally release her mother's memories.

“When does someone no longer belong to you,” she asked, “but belong to history?”

We often forget that history isn’t large impersonal forces, dates and names, but humans making decisions - be they short-sighted or far-reaching. The people of the past, and we of the present, have to live with the consequences. When we view their decisions years, decades, centuries later, we no longer see clearly the alternatives, or the pressures. Everything seems inevitable. As inevitable as a bullet, fired from a gun.

The premise of Stephen King’s “11/22/63” isn’t exactly new, but the result is one of the most satisfying long works in his prolific career. Imagining alternate realities to the Kennedy assassination has long been a parlor game for the Baby Boom generation. But Stephen King is content to create a fiction acknowledging the impersonal forces of individuals and the decisions and destinies of millions.

“11/22/63” follows Jake Epping, a Maine schoolteacher who is introduced by a dying acquaintance to a portal into the past. There the visitor from the present always arrives at the same date and same moment: September 9, 1958, at 11:58 a.m. Step through a second time, and you undo whatever you may have changed in the past. This allows for two things in the course of our story - the protagonist will have to spend a good deal of time assimilating into the past in order to change the outcome on Nov. 22, 1963, and whatever is changed can also be undone.

The story allows King to leaven in his usual ingredients - pop culture references, song lyrics, meetings with characters from previous King novels. It also allows him to create a nostalgic view of the past that we enjoy visiting. We can see the late fifties and early sixties in a way that invites us in. People, for the most part, are friendlier. The pace is more leisurely. Money goes a lot further. Even when things get dark, we enjoy the pulpy character of the darkness. This allows Jake, whom we accompany on the journey, to make the inevitable modern observations on the nature of the past.
Occasionally, the difficulties of the time are dealt with too easily. King mostly touches on the segregated nature of 1960s America in one scene that occupies two pages and dispenses with it in a way that seems too pat. It’s also easy to forget that in this simpler, easier time, people lived everyday under the tension of the Cold War, with the lurking idea that megatons of nuclear weapons were aimed at them and could be detonated at any moment, possibly even by mistake.

King also establishes a rule early on - the past is obdurate, Jake tells us. The more significant an event is, the more obstacles will emerge to block someone bent on forcing it in a different direction. When Jake does change the past, the results are sometimes bloody - and only marginally better or worse than the actual time he came from. Jake becomes a dark guardian angel, a man who realizes that at the end of his journey, he may very well have to kill a man to accomplish it, though he has no idea when he sets out that Oswald's murder will not be the only one required of him.

To carry out his mission, Jake assumes the identity of George Amberson and eventually finds his way to Texas to resume his career as a teacher in the past. The longer he stays there, the more he risks becoming involved in the past. His love affair with Sadie Dunhill is a sweet diversion, and in some ways a more subtle obstacle thrown up by the obdurate past. If Jake wants to thwart history, he is going to have to be willing to sacrifice something.

"11/22/63" allows King to indulge in one of his great themes - the nature of fate.

Many times in King's major works he comments on how much control his characters - and we as human beings have - over the way our lives will turn out. King often riffs on how the random acts of terror that dot our lives don't seem so much to be aberrations as the actual fabric of life, and that human beings seem in the grip of forces much larger than just emotions of the moment, much larger than just individual sin:

"For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see the world is barely there at all. Don't we all secretly know this? It's a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark."

In the course of Jake/George's odyssey, we see several images rubbed raw by their constant evocation in our collective memory - the Texas School Book Depository, the Grassy Knoll, the specter of the Vietnam War. Jake understands that he must undo Oswald's act - and much of the book deals with Jake determining whether Oswald was the actual assassin - because Kennedy's death set in motion the events after: Vietnam, Watergate, the cynicism of the present, the loss of American idealism etc. Jake isn't intent on preventing one horror, but all the ones that follow. As he says, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it harmonizes, and what it usually makes is the devil's music."

In “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution,” James Piereson remarks on one consequence of that day in Dallas. Piereson states that the assassination changed the character of American liberalism, once it was revealed that Oswald was not a right-winger incensed by Kennedy‘s support of civil rights or his stance on Communism, but a misbegotten Marxist hungry for attention. It did so “by undermining the confidence of liberals in the future; and…by changing their perspective from one of possibility and practical reform to one of grief, loss, and frustrated hopes. It also compromised their faith in the nation because many concluded, against all factual evidence, that in some way the nation itself was responsible…A confident, practical, and forward-looking philosophy, with a heritage of genuine accomplishment, was thus turned into a pessimistic doctrine - and one with a decidedly negative view of American society and its institutions….It now seems clear that Kennedy’s assassination had the effect of draining much of that political energy out of the liberal movement.”

For Piereson, the political affiliation of Oswald is key to understanding the result. The initial belief of Kennedy supporters was that it was the climate of Dallas - a right-wing bastion in the heart of the segregated South - that had killed Kennedy. This view is stamped on virtually every page of William Manchester’s “The Death of a President,” where Dallas sometimes looms as a cross between some backwoods version of the Inferno and a Martian colony.

But the truth was that Oswald was a left-winger - an ex-Marine who renounced his citizenship and defected to the Soviet Union, disenchanted with American materialism and foreign policy. This, followed by Oswald’s immediate death, froze in many people’s minds the idea that Oswald was somehow not so much an assassin as a stand-in for whatever individual bogeyman could be made to stick in his place. In this climate of blame, the evitable result was the succeeding generations of conspiracy theories the event spawned, trying in vain to invest in Kennedy’s death a sense of meaning that was not there, if the official narrative - Oswald, a nobody, acted alone for quixotic reasons - turned out to be true.

King even quotes from Manchester’s explanation of why he did not believe the various theories:

“To employ what may seem an odd metaphor, there is an aesthetic principle at work here. If you put six million dead Jews on one side of a scale and on the other side put the Nazi regime - the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state - you would have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals. But if you put the murder of the President of the United States on one side of another scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something along with Oswald, something weightier. A photograph of H.L. Hunt handing Oswald a check for a million dollars would do the job nicely. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist.”

The key word there for future generations is that last “unfortunately.” Manchester, as with other chroniclers of the Kennedy years, desperately wished there was such evidence because it would bear out their worst suspicions about American political life, not to mention invest in Kennedy’s death the meaning that the event cries out for.

But King takes that absence of meaning and fills it with something else. His solution is simple and ingenious. A few months prior to the assassination, when time becomes even more precious, Jake/George is attacked and injured. During his time in the hospital, Jake is unable to remember the most basic facts about who he is, and what he has ahead of him. Suddenly all the conspiracies are rendered meaningless, all the minutiae of the story moot. It becomes a simple issue of a man in a tall building with a gun bent on murder, and another lonely, confused man bent on maiming history. He feels for Oswald "sorrow for a spoiled life. But you can feel sorry for a good dog that goes rabid, too. That doesn't stop you from putting him down."

By the book's end, Jake/George must decide whether he wants to continue his mission, and then whether he can live with the results. The book continues to delight, continues to entertain, continues to illuminate. Time, it seems, has its own guardians, and eventually Jake must learn to dance with them, and find a way to dance in the world that is left.


It is hard to read "11/22/63" without wondering how your own life might be different with just a few changes here and there. In June 1999, I wrote a newspaper story about a man from Gadsden, Alabama, Don Gentry, who served in the Marine Corps in the 1950s with Lee Harvey Oswald in Japan.

On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, he was sitting in a barber shop when news came over the television that the president's possible assassin had been arrested in a theater. Gentry sat bolt-upright, dumbstruck, when he heard the name of the assassin. He told me his immediate impression, knowing what he knew about Oswald from the service, was that he probably did it. "You could have poured me out of that chair," he said.

It probably shouldn't surprise us that Don Gentry later became a preacher. He wondered how history might have been different if he had shared the Gospel with the man who later killed Kennedy. The impersonal forces of history can be very personal.

Other posts about Stephen King's work here and here


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 AL.com 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. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Many Dimensions of Star Wars

At midnight, May 19, 1999, I sat in a crowded theater like scores of Americans waiting for the lights to dim and the “first” installment of Star Wars to fill the screen. Sitting next to me was my wife of nearly two years. At home was our infant daughter, born almost one month to the day before. At that moment, I felt young and old, mindful of the past and hopeful for what the near future might bring.

None of this seemingly has anything to do with “The Phantom Menace,” but it has a lot to do with it. When I was seven years old, I saw the “first” Star Wars movie - Episode IV: A New Hope - in a different city, obviously at a different time. It would be another 12 years before I would meet my wife. The idea of having my own daughter was deep in the future. On that day, I was just a little boy who wanted his own light saber. Consequently, my reactions to both movies, like many others in the audience, were vastly different. With the re-release of “Episode I” in 3D, it’s probably worthwhile to revisit the opening chapter, now removed from the acclaim and vitriol that greeted it nearly 13 years ago.

“The Phantom Menace,” of course, is the beginning of the six-film story of the rise, fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, the prophesied Chosen One, the boy/man who eventually becomes Darth Vader. In our first film, Anakin is a nine-year-old boy in a forgotten part of the galaxy, discovered seemingly by accident at the exact moment of an intergalactic disturbance. Something that was on my mind in that crowded theatre in 1999 was a passage I remembered from a story in Time Magazine quoting Steven Spielberg that the “first” Star Wars trilogy would be very different from the “second” - “more like a Greek tragedy.” “The Phantom Menace” therefore must give a sense of the tragedy to come.

Lucas does this by showing us Anakin in the beginning as an absolute innocent, a little sandy-haired slave who scampers across the screen shouting “Yippee!” For those of us whose young nightmares were inhabited by the seven-foot Sith Lord he grew into, the boy seems inconceivable. It would have been a much easier decision to introduce an older version - slightly more mature with a more visible hint of darkness. But Lucas gives us the boy consciously to highlight the tragedy which follows. He must give us a sense that a soul has been corrupted, and also that there is something within him later worth redeeming, let alone fertile ground where redemption is possible.

We also encounter Luke and Leia’s future mother, Queen Amidala, the embattled sovereign of something that is either a monarchy or a democracy or both. (The politics of the prequel trilogy somehow manage to be too complex and too simple at times.) She is older than Anakin but not too much so - she shows a motherly concern for him as the group leaves Anakin’s home planet in a scene meant to echo a later one between Luke and Leia in Episode IV. But she is closer to the action in a way that Anakin is not - at least, until the film’s end.

Watching the movie again, I was struck by how ambitious it is. In the course of two hours, we move among two civilizations on one planet, speed to another world and visit still another before returning to our entry point at Naboo. I was also struck by the speed with which all of this happens. In the first thirty minutes, we are introduced to the Jedi Knights, witness a planetary invasion, travel from an underwater city through the planet’s core, then take off into space and arrive eventually in a junk shop to meet the saga’s hero - and villain - in the person of our young budding pilot. This newfound speed was a surprise, since one of the first impressions I got watching the film that opening night years ago was of “dead spots” in the narrative - expository scenes that didn’t really advance the story. Those spots are still there, as though Lucas did not trust his audience enough to keep up.

Lucas made another decision with the prequel trilogy, which was to create a set of films to stand the originals on their heads. This results in a trilogy of much more subtle films than the saga of Luke Skywalker. Instead of the Galactic Empire, a perfect adversary in the first trilogy, (Torture! Murder! Planetary destruction!) it seems this time we have the Galactic Trade Federation, which invades Naboo with its droid army. However, we know next to nothing about them beyond their green viceroy, Nute Gunray and his Japanese-sounding speech patterns. What do they do? Why do they need a droid army? Or perhaps it is Darth Maul, the horned-tattooed, intimidating figure with the double-edged light saber we should fear? He barely has any dialogue at all and is only called on to glare menacingly when he is not fighting two Jedi at once.

That’s because the real villain, of course, is the “Phantom Menace” - hiding in plain sight, the Senator from Naboo, Palpatine, who secretly is Darth Sidious, the Dark Lord of the Sith. As we will learn later, the will of the Force has ordained that the Dark Side will soon gain ascendancy. The Dark Side clouds the vision of the Jedi, making them unable to see the calamity which awaits the Republic. Instead, they can only sense the danger that seems to surround the coming of Anakin. It is the death of Qui-Gon Jinn, Anakin’s would-be teacher, that forces the Jedi to take on the boy’s instruction. However, the death is a double tragedy, since we are left to wonder what the boy would have done under Qui-Gon’s tutelage. And though we only dimly realize it, the Old Republic’s days are numbered. All too soon, it will become the Empire.

But in recounting these plot points, it’s easy to see the essential problem with the prequel trilogy - we know where the story is headed. Lucas has actually attempted something new - he is depicting a fallen messiah, foretold by a vague prophecy. We should be shocked to learn the fate of this little boy, but we aren’t, because we know it already. Because of this, plot twists do not surprise us. If you were to watch all six films without knowing the story, the revelation that Palpatine is Darth Sidious should surprise your. That the sweet boy of Episode I will two movies later murder younglings in the Jedi Temple should shock us, but it doesn’t. Our big shock moment came when Darth Vader revealed to Luke who his father was, and that’s the part of the story we want to see now, not some kid blowing up a ship in what seems like a pale echo of his son’s later achievement.

The chief source of derision in “The Phantom Menace,” of course, turns up early on in the movie - Jar Jar Binks, a clumsy, flop-eared amphibian who accompanies Qui-Gon, Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi on the journey. Jar Jar perfectly illustrates the problems that the movie presents. My theory is that Lucas, knowing that Episode III would be extremely dark, invented Jar Jar as a light-hearted entry point into the story, counterbalancing the eventual fate of Anakin. And like the rest of the movie, Jar Jar is many things at once- a fully digital character, aimed at providing both slapstick and spoken humor through his speech patterns, a loveable chum with a funny walk for our heroes. He doesn’t just try to pull off one thing, but attempts all these at once, and one occasionally wonders if any one of these ambitions is ever fully satisfied. If we take the original movies as a model, he’s in the story to function as Chewbacca. But Chewbacca doesn’t have dialogue, and his comic relief is largely physical due to his size. Basking in the reflected light of Han Solo, Chewie is “cool.” By creating a slapstick foil who is a fool, Lucas disappoints his fans with a character who is not sufficiently cool.

And herein we have the source of our movie’s anguish. “Star Wars,” as a whole, accomplishes what all great, enduring fiction does - it creates a world that makes you want to inhabit it. But more than that - it made a whole generation of fans want to create their own extensions of it. Because George Lucas made the decision to begin the saga in the middle, he gave that generation of fans a free license to imagine the story that precedes the coming of Luke Skywalker. This explains the subsequent fan fiction, fan created movies, novels, video games, and the constant demand for them. Giving those same fans 16 years after the original trilogy to imagine the backstory gave them ample time to fall in love with their own stories, to claim ownership of the fantasy realm, and to disdain anything that might replace them. When considering this, it is little wonder they didn’t expect - or want - the story to be filled with the likes of Jar-Jar Binks. When one sees the hate “The Phantom Menace” spawned from fans who waited patiently for it, the result seems academic.

Which brings us back to where we started - the theater where all of us waited to see how our cherished story began. The newer film didn’t mean the same to us as its earlier manifestations because it came to us at a different time in our lives. Our fantasy suddenly had much larger frontiers, and we were left wanting something more familiar. In fact, one wonders what the verdict would have been if Lucas had made the films in order, from Episode I to VI. Would we be disappointed that Luke’s portion of the story wasn’t as suitably grand as the fall of his father, or that the rebellion is a much smaller affair than the earlier wars with thousands of computer generated armies? Would we lament the absence of the prequel trilogy’s more earnest characters, replaced by the cocky heroism of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian? Would some critic find fault with Anakin’s presence behind the dark mask, his brooding thoughts closed off to us, and his children weak imitations of the characters who came before?

In watching the 3-D version, a few things have changed. I’m 41 and my daughter, now 12, sat next to me this time. The 3D transfer was unremarkable and a little disappointing. The moments where I laughed seemed more out of obligation than inspiration. But as Obi-Wan Kenobi fought Darth Maul to the death, I felt myself once again transported, and would have happily sat down to watch whatever came next, no matter how well I knew the outcome. At least that reaction was still intact, virtually unchanged from its beginning in 1977. Such is the enduring power of the Force.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book, "The Uncanny Valley," for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.