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Literary Novels

Do you want to write a Literary Novel but don’t know how to start? Fear not!

Follow these 11 easy steps and you too can write a masterpiece of fiction. Soon, you will enjoy critical praise, fawning audiences, fancy cocktail parties, cushy academic appointments, prestigious fellowships, and modest sales. Does that sound good? Then let’s get it going!

Step 1 – Make your Literary Novel Serious

It’s the rare comic novel that joins the pantheon of literature. Comedy works in your favor if you excel at tragedy too (Shakespeare), if it is suffused with deep undercurrents of sadness (Chekhov), or if it comes with dazzling social insights (Austen). Otherwise, you are condemned to lightweight status no matter how blinding your brilliance.

Step 2 – Make your Literary Novel Sad

A corollary to Step 1. No one who is happy is a serious person. Happiness indicates you are entirely lacking in the basic insight necessary to be sad or that you have been hoodwinked by capitalism, the church, the NFL, Cosmo magazine, the makers of antidepressant medication, or the Republican party.

Step 3 – Make your Literary Novel characters Introverts

Extroverts don’t sit in rooms by themselves reading about other people’s lives. They are out in the world living their own lives. Always make your Literary Novel about your audience. Your audience is introverts.

Step 4 – Make your Literary Novel characters Introspective

A corollary to Step 3. Being an introvert doesn’t do you much good unless you are living your interior life more deeply, more consciously, and more fiercely than everyone else is living theirs. Passionate introspection and self-conscious brooding are to introverts what sky-diving and tech start-ups are to extroverts: high-status ways of demonstrating you are more successful than your peers.

Step 5 – Make your Literary Novel characters Hyper-articulate

A corollary to Steps 3 and 4. It doesn’t do you much good to live a passionate interior life if you can’t get the damn thing out of your head and into the world prancing around impressing people. So make your characters impossibly articulate especially in circumstances that should render them speechless, such as tumbling inside a fatal avalanche or porking the hottie of their dreams.

Step 6 – Make your Literary Novel Big

This is especially important if you are a male writer. Size definitely DOES matter to the male literary novelist and the bigger the better. You don’t want to be dangling some elegant slender volume praised for its jewel-like perfections when you are standing next to Jonathan Franzen, do you?

If you are a woman, you have it easier. You can say exactly what you want to say, in exactly the number of words you need to say it – and no more – and trust the intelligence and good taste of your readers to recognize your qualities. You should also trust you will hear a lot of sniffing about lady writers.

Step 7 – Make your Literary Novel Boring

Never make the mistake of entertaining the reader. You might accidentally become a popular success and popular success is for hacks. (Just ask Shakespeare or Twain or Fitzgerald or Nabokov or … well you get the point.)

The easiest way to make your Literary Novel boring is to assume that every passing thought you have is a rare gift to the world that must be shared. If you’ve ever used social media, this should be simple enough. Another easy way to bore the reader is to avoid plot. Be sure to let people know your book is deliberately boring by giving interviews in which you talk about subverting reader expectations or offering a stinging critique of the zombie-producing distractions of a debased all-for-profit culture.

Step 8 – Use Big Words in your Literary Novel

Hey, we coughed up forty bucks for the hardcover version of your frickin’ doorstop. We want our money’s worth. That means big words and lots of them. Even if they don’t quite work in the sentence.

Step 9 – Use Obscure References in your Literary Novel

A corollary to Step 8. One of the most important reasons people read Literary Novels is to look and feel smarter than people who don’t. Obscure references are essential to this process. So make sure you put in plenty. I mean, you do want to be the next Sirin right? (Did you get my reference? You did? Welcome to the club! You didn’t? Ha ha!)

Step 10 – Criticize Society in your Literary Novel

You should always criticize society in your Literary Novel as long as you are criticizing its insidious lack of liberal progress. Never criticize society for being too progressive. That is not literature!

Express outrage no one has fixed the problems you identify. Imply every problem would magically disappear if it weren’t for the malignant, soul-deadening, tyrannical machinations of the power elite. Do not make the mistake of offering solutions to the problems you see. Literary Novels are not in the solutions business.

Step 11 – Make your Literary Novel Difficult

This is the most important step of all. Your Literary Novel must be difficult to read. Remember, a truly original work of art is indistinguishable from a hot mess to its first audience. Further, no one is going to spend the time carefully reading an interminable and terminally boring new Literary Novel to figure out if it is a hot mess. They are going to play it safe and praise the book instead. This works great for you unless you really are a genius in which case, honey I’m sorry to tell you, you’re screwed.

That’s it! I look forward to your Literary Novel appearing in The New Yorker ten years from now. I did mention these bastards take a long time to write, and cause you unbearable suffering while you write them, didn’t I?

 

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Benedict Cumberbatch HamletFor nearly four acts, Benedict Cumberbatch, starring in the National Theatre Live broadcast around the world yesterday, is the best adjusted – and best – Hamlet I’ve seen. That the production falls flat in Act V is a disappointment, but does not take away from the many accomplishments of this fine staging.

Any performance of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” succeeds or fails primarily on the strengths of its lead actor and Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is very good indeed. He fully and convincingly engages with all of the character’s emotions: Hamlet’s grief, his sorrow, his anger, and especially Hamlet’s humor which is the lightest and most sparkling of all the readings of the Danish prince I’ve seen.

This is the result of the intriguing choice of making Cumberbatch’s Hamlet extremely well adjusted, considering his circumstances. Hamlet is typically played as having been unhinged by grief over his father’s death, his mother’s quick remarriage, Ophelia’s rejection of his love, and the disturbing appearance of his father’s ghost. (It can be argued that the text demands this reading.)

This leads Hamlet to contemplate suicide and to embrace a half-madness which serves both to disguise the threat a sane Hamlet poses to his uncle’s stolen crown and to disguise the insane parts of Hamlet from easy recognition.

In Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, his madness is all tactic to confuse Claudius. This makes Cumberbatch’s “antic disposition” particularly playful and makes his Hamlet particularly likeable because the whinging, self-importance, and condescension frequently seen in the Danish prince are muted. It does mean, however, that Hamlet’s contemplations of suicide come off as passing thoughts, rather quickly forgotten.

Cumberbatch isn’t the only good performer in this National Theatre Live production. Ciaran Hinds is very good as a false, awkward, and cowardly Claudius unequal to the tasks of playing either the public or the private role of king. Sian Brooke’s is moving as an Ophelia whose vulnerability is evidence from the beginning of the play, and whose descent into madness is credible and heart-breaking. Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude manages to yell at top voice and convince us of her passion in her confrontation with Hamlet.

This is more than I can say for the actors playing Laertes and Horatio both of whom rely on volume when emotional connection with their roles seems to desert them. (Are bellowing Horatios the new style? It’s not a good style.) Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are played for laughs and deliver. The Player King is meant to be a bad actor and succeeds competently.

Like most staging of most Shakespeare, the National Theatre Live production tries new things, some of which work and some of which don’t. The generally accepted version of Shakespeare’s “original” text has been edited more than usual, with many scenes moved around and lines traditionally spoken by one character often spoken by another. This emphasizes the elements of Hamlet the director seems to want to emphasize and works just fine until Act V (more on that in a minute). For many of Hamlet’s soliloquies, Cumberbatch steps out of the action of a scene and is isolated in a spotlight (very effective). There is at least one instance where the characters are running frantically around on stage while music pounds and strobe lights flash (this should be banned from the stage by statute). The duel scene is so rushed and hugger-mugger that it felt like Gertrude and Claudius were alive one moment and dead the next. When Hamlet is exiled to England, the stage is inexplicably filled with black dirt, a gimmick making pretense toward grand visual metaphor though exactly what the metaphor might be, who can tell?

Finally, there is the problem of the Cumberbatch Hamlet in Act V of the National Theatre production. Or rather the lack of problem. The foundation to Hamlet’s universal appeal is his struggle against a life whose pain and demands are more than he can bear, but whose alternative – death – is unappealing. Hamlet’s personal drama comes from his eventual philosophical acceptance of or passive resignation to this condition (take your pick), culminating in Hamlet’s conversation with Horatio that ends with the words, “Let be.”

Since Cumberbatch’s Hamlet bears up reasonably well under his pain and the task of avenging his father’s murder, he never gets to acceptance or resignation. He simply dies from the machinations of Claudius and Laertes, about as happy and unhappy as he ever was.

This does not detract from my forming conviction that Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is the best and most appealing I’ve seen on screen. Not to mention the sexiest. I hope the National Theatre makes this production of “Hamlet” available for streaming eventually. I’d like to see it again.

 

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shakespeareThe simple answer to that question is “yes” if by “modern audiences” we mean anyone without a BA in English Literature or a natural taste for Shakespeare’s plays. The real question is what needs to be done about it.

The occasion of this question is Professor James Shapiro’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s decision to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English and the commitment of other companies to produce these versions.

As you might expect from a professor of English at an Ivy League school, Shapiro thinks this is a horrible idea. And I agree with the reasons why he thinks it is horrible. We will lose “hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis.” We will certainly lose the “music and rhythm” of the poetry. We will lose the “resonance and ambiguity.”

Professor Shapiro does concede that some of Shakespeare’s language is “difficult” which he qualifies with the word “deliberately.” Then he goes on to make a very particular argument, which is that the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our Shakespeare – and not in our audiences – but in our actors and directors who “too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean.”

As proof of this thesis, Shapiro presents the example of a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” at Rikers Island during which the inmates were “deeply engrossed” and “visibly moved”.

Well. I would expect that a Columbia professor would not make arguments in the Times featuring holes big enough to sail a New Panamax ship through but as is frequently the case in life, my expectations were disappointed.

On actors and directors lacking a “firm enough grasp” of Shakespeare’s words, the question is How does Shapiro know this? Has he administered a test to a representative group of actors and directors which reflects the critical consensus of the various professions concerned and which was constructed by psychometricians to ensure its validity?

As you can probably guess from the sarcastic tone of my question, the answer is “no” or Shapiro would have told us about his data. Which makes this statement an opinion though I suppose, based on the professor’s profile, an eminent one.

Opinions are fine of course, and many can be convincingly proven, but one anecdote doth not an argument make, as I would hope any professor teaching any subject at any college would realize, and one anecdote about one performance of one play is all Shapiro offers.

Further, we don’t know if the audience was truly “engrossed” and “moved” as Shapiro claims unless he conducted a survey of the inmates afterwards and like my hypothetical test above, didn’t bother to tell us about it. Otherwise, we are going on his perception, which may very well be correct. I certainly find it plausible that people in prison would respond to a play with great jokes and the suffering of a monstrously misaccused and slandered young woman.

Now Shapiro is surely right that a good performance of a play can make the text transcendent just as a bad performance of the same play can make the text opaque, ridiculous, and tedious. But it is both grossly unfair and grossly simplistic to lay the blame for all the difficulties with Shakespeare’s difficulty at the feet of actors and directors, who have the courage to go out night after night and risk spectacular failure before a live audience, all in pursuit of the elusive alchemy of the sublime.

The fact is that some of Shakespeare’s poetry is difficult to follow on first and second and sometimes third hearing to most people. That is often the nature of poetry. If Hamlet had nothing more to say than “Dude, life sucks” he wouldn’t be worth paying attention to once much less repeatedly. Shakespeare is full of archaic words and ideas and concepts and allusions and references which are simply unfamiliar to audiences 400 years later and not every line is like Hamlet’s “when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin” which is at least amenable to the actor producing a knife and holding it to his throat. (Whether this gesture works or is laughably literal is another matter.)

Finally, many of Shakespeare’s plays feature complicated plots with large numbers of characters that might take a person seeing the play for the first time a couple acts to sort out; and while Shakespeare could count on at least some people in his audience knowing enough about the War of the Roses to make sense of the stories of Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V easily enough, for example, you are only going to stumble across the occasional modern audience member who knows enough about English history to recognize the characters by name when they first walk on stage.

To put it succinctly in the contemporary vernacular, Shakespeare has a “Who the f**k is that guy and what the f**k is he saying?” problem.

When these issues are ignored or dismissed or denied or excused, as Shapiro largely does in his piece, the net effect is to limit the audience for Shakespeare to intelligent, well educated men and women with a fair amount of specialized knowledge. That is a model that may work to keep your lecture hall full at Columbia but I suspect it is not working for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. If it were, would they bother rewriting the plays?

Shapiro’s model also has the fault (or is it virtue?) of restricting the audience for Shakespeare to an elite minority. Now many of the members of the elite minority seem to like this situation just fine, and I know people who continue to reflexively dismiss anything popular long after they should have outgrown such pathetic adolescent posturing.

But if the job of teachers and performers includes introducing great works of art to new people – rather than just preserving them as exclusive objects of status for the privileged few – then the efforts of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival look rather noble, even if the results horrify folks like me and Shapiro.

After all, if lots of people see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s modern language Shakespeare, and some of these people decide to try the real Shakespeare, and some of these come to love the real Shakespeare when they would not have come to love him otherwise – is that such a bad thing?

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Henry V may be the most cinematic of all Shakespeare’s plays. It stars a young underdog hero who wins the battle and gets the girl. It is a spectacular piece of theater, with nearly a dozen stand-out scenes, some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, and battles just begging to be filmed. Henry V has drama, action, comedy, romance, heartbreak, and a rich vein of ambiguity – all of which give actors and directors wide scope to shape their own versions of the play. Here’s how three of them did it, in order of personal preference.

Kenneth Branagh (1989)

henry v branaghBranagh’s Henry V is not only the best film version of the play by far – it is one of the finest film versions of any of Shakespeare play – because it flawlessly executes Branagh’s vision of the hard consequences of war.

Every element of the film reinforces this theme. Branagh’s screenplay presents many of the play’s darker elements: the English traitors, the hanging of Bardolph, the deaths in battle. The mood and production design are somber throughout: Branagh splashes mud all over Olivier’s bright Technicolor Henry V. Branagh assembles a remarkable cast of A list actors for all the major roles, who all bring their characters to specific human life. Branagh fully exploits the dramatic possibilities of each scene. And he delivers the knock-out punch with a four-minute tracking shot of King Harry carrying the body of a young boy killed by the French across the battlefield and through a tableau of almost every character in the play, living, wounded, or dead, while the non nobius is sung.

If you require nitpicking, there are traces of Branagh the insufferable ham within his very fine performance of Henry V. And Branagh doesn’t quite convince us Harry and his princes go only reluctantly to war. They prosecute their campaign against the French with too much vigor to make us believe that.

Laurence Olivier (1944)

henry v olivierLaurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V was a remarkable achievement, and greeted with great acclaim, when it first appeared during World War II. (The film was intended to raise the morale of wartime Britain.) The problems are that so much of Olivier’s version is out of step with modern taste, and so many of the scenes fail to make effective use of film as a medium, that contemporary viewers will see it as a half-success at best.

This Henry V still makes an impact, however. Olivier is excellent as an unambiguously heroic Henry V playing his role as public leader of the English army to perfection, most especially during the St. Crispin’s Day speech. He is very good showing us the private King Henry the night before Agincourt and the appealing young conqueror who wins the heart of his young French queen. Olivier’s charging knights and mounted sword fights still impress in an era of massive digital special effects. And the diction, presence, and physicality that made Olivier a star on the English stage are all on rich display.

Unfortunately, the phrase “stage star” sums up the difficulties with this Henry V. Much of the acting, including Olivier in many scenes, is the “presentational” style well suited to clearly communicating every word and gesture to the last row of a large theater but which on film comes across as loud, stiff, flat, and dull. Olivier’s clowns are worse. They play their lines for the broadest and most obvious comedy and the clowns include not just Falstaff’s retainers, but also most of the French nobility as well as the English clergy seeking to divert King Henry’s attention from their wealth by provoking a war with France. (The “Salic law” scene is hysterical, though.) All the comedy and the many actors playing “types” rather than individual men and women make this Henry V only rarely moving.

Finally, Olivier’s production design is a fascinating mess. He uses three distinct styles. Most of the scenes in England are played in a reproduction of the Globe Theater, with the actors and audience interacting with each other, and the acting suited to that situation. The sets of the interior scenes in France resemble famous illustrations from Les Tres Riches Heures and the acting is again stage style. Exterior scenes in France, all around the battle, are filmed outside or on realistic sets, and the acting humanizes the characters by taking advantage of the power of the movies to make the smallest gesture big. All this further reduces the emotional impact of the play. But it does prove the old axiom that an interesting failure is superior to a dull success.

Tom Hiddleston (2012)

shakespeare henry v hiddlestonTom Hiddleston is reasonably good as King Henry in the 2012 BBC production of Henry V (which is part of the “Hollow Crown” series), and many of the actors and scenes are persuasive. Overall, however, director Thea Sharrock has made a cock of her version of the play.

Sharrock doesn’t seem to have quite decided what she wants her Henry V to say or who she wants her King Henry to be. The film starts on promising notes. Sharrock opens with Henry V’s funeral (which The Chorus describes in the closing lines of the play) suggesting we are going to get an “all is vanity” approach. She reinforces this idea by giving us a King Henry who goes to war out of a sense of obligation to his own and his country’s honor.

But then she doesn’t follow through. Instead, much of this Henry V has the look and feel of Branagh’s. Sharrock underplays many of the scenes, most notably the St. Crispin’s Day speech, losing the drama without gaining new insight. And Sharrock muffs the Harfleur scene, where she has Hiddleston threatened the French citizens with genocide from within the walls of their own town if they don’t surrender . Didn’t anyone notice that the English army had already captured Harfleur?

This isn’t the only time Hiddleston’s King Henry shows irrational anger and a taste for violence. He also shows it when he orders the execution of the French prisoners at Agincourt. Then at other times, Hiddleston’s King seems deeply and sincerely pious. Then at other other times, we see flashes of the old charming rake Prince Harry from the Henry IV plays. The total effect of this is not a character who is complex and mercurial. The effect is that Hiddleston’s Henry V comes across as incoherent: a person who can be radically different from scene to scene, sometimes from moment to moment.

Big fans of Shakespeare, and of Tom Hiddleston, will not be unhappy with this version of Henry V. But for those who want to watch just one movie, Branagh’s is the version to choose.

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shakespeare

Portraits of “Shakespeare” from Wikipedia

The greatest and most amusing — and most tedious – literary conspiracy theory bouncing around is the assertion that “Shakespeare” the genius dramatist was not actually the historical William Shakespeare but some other far more deserving (and often far more aristocratic) person.

The various theories against Shakespeare’s authorship are amusing because conspiracy fans insistent on them so stubbornly while arguing for versions of the “truth” that often require a greater suspension of disbelief than the generally accepted “Shakespeare” story. These theories are tedious because they entirely miss what is important about Will.

But to the entertainment first. There are a couple reasons why Shakespeare conspiracy theories are so persistent. The one good reason is that there are relatively few documented facts about the historical William Shakespeare’s life, and within these few strong facts that link him to the authorship of the plays. This lack of conclusive documentation offers a fertile opportunity for the paranoid at loose ends for an object on which to fix their obsessions; or academics in need of their next publishing topic; or the occasional aesthete who is offended by the idea that the brightest star in English literature was also a grubby businessman.

This fertile opportunity is supplemented by two dubious assumptions that the conspiracy fans like to promote as self-evident facts. The first is that it is impossible for a person to become an artist of any quality unless he or she has received a highly privileged education. The second is that it is impossible for an artist to write persuasively about persons or topics unless he or she has had direct experience with those persons and topics; which in Shakespeare’s particular case means kings, queens, and nobles for the persons and the dynamics and psychology of power within a monarchy for the topics.

The first assumption of the conspiracy fans is dubious because it is contradicted by life. We can find many examples of people with intelligence, talent, energy, and determination who thrived without an elite education or special privileges. Robert Zimmerman, a college dropout from Hibbing Minnesota whose family possessed no special distinction moves to New York City and within a few years explodes into the culture as Bob Dylan. By the logic of the conspiracy fans, such an artistic life should not be possible and Dylan’s works should actually be the secret production of Pete Seeger, son of a Harvard-trained musicologist and a concert violinist who enjoyed all sorts of advantages and opportunities. (I’m not trying to bust on Pete here, just saying.)

The direct experience assumption is even more problematic. First, it assumes that the characters of the nobility and the dynamics are monarchical power are fundamentally different from those of – for example – ordinary people competing for position in a theater company. And yet we often find Shakespeare’s nobles sympathetic and their problems familiar. If these nobles are a different breed than us, why would we understand or care about them? If they aren’t a different breed – and that is my assertion – then Shakespeare would not need to have been at court to write about them and we would not need to be nobles to care.

Even worse, the direct experience assumption denies that artists possess any real creativity. If artists can only depict what they know or have experienced personally, that makes them, at best, recording clerks in whom the power of imagination is largely irrelevant.

Also, if we apply this logic consistently, then we’d have to delegitimize enormous numbers of artistic works. What are we going to do with all those paintings of the crucifixion? Clearly, no painters were present at the death of Jesus. Did the real author of Macbeth – Shakespeare or otherwise – personally know a murderous king? Because if he or she didn’t, by the conspiracy fan’s logic, the play couldn’t have been written and shouldn’t exist. Unless Melville survived a whale attack, he couldn’t have composed Moby Dick. And so on. There are convenient ways to get around this problem, of course. The most convenient is to assert that direct experience is necessary for acts of artistic creation. Except when it’s not.

These two assumptions cause additional mischief. Since they are used to “prove” Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays attributed to him, they also push the conspiracy fans to identify university-educated playwrights such as Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, or various aristocrats such as the Earl of Oxford, as the real Shakespeare. This produces some of the most fun to be had with the conspiracies, because the explanations are considerably more fantastic and more unlikely than Shakespeare’s own dullish biography.

In the case of Christopher Marlowe, as an example, the problem is that Marlowe was killed in 1593 while Shakespeare continued to write plays for a good twenty years afterwards. How does that work? Did Marlowe leave a trunk-full of unfinished plays? That’s quite an incredible explosion of unexploited creativity. Why didn’t Marlowe publish the plays himself or make arrangements to do so? How did Shakespeare get a hold of them? Were they written in secret? If so, why? How come nobody else except Shakespeare knew about them? Or if other people did know, why did they not care Shakespeare was presenting the plays as his own?

Or take this possibility. Marlowe faked his own death (perhaps to avoid a heresy investigation), succeeded at faking his death, was never found out, continued to write plays, used Shakespeare as a front to present these play, was never discovered or exposed as the real author, and presumably died in anonymous peace sometime around the time Shakespeare retired without Marlowe reappearing at the last moment to claim credit before he joined the bleeding choir invisible.

Really? As a potential movie starring Tom Hiddleston, stuff like this sounds superb. As history, considering we are talking about private citizens and matters that do not touch the vital interests of a state, it’s pretty ridiculous. The problems with the conspiracies generally fall under the categories of motive and means: why would another writer pretend to be Shakespeare and how did he pull it off? By contrast, all we need to believe about Will was that he was a slightly unlikely, extraordinarily talented autodidact.

When it comes to Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare conspiracies, I fall back on that old stand-by: Occam’s Razor. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation for an occurrence should be preferred. In this case, the simplest explanation is that “Shakespeare” really was Shakespeare. And until such time as new reliable evidence appears, which demonstrates that what sounds pretty ridiculous is gosh-darn-it the truth, that is where I will settle.

These who enjoy canvassing the question may continue to do so with all liberty, of course. But after a little time I find the whole debate boring. And depressing. Because what really matters about “Shakespeare” is our experience of his work, which is so wonderful, so deep, so multi-various, so entertaining and consoling. Who Shakespeare was doesn’t really matter. It’s what Shakespeare created that matters. Listening to the people who don’t understand that is amusing, for a minute or two. Then it becomes tedious.

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Flight Behavior Barbara KingsolverBarbara Kingsolver is such a good writer that she can make you forget — or forgive — some pretty substantial problems in a novel. This is a good thing because Flight Behavior has several although it is still a book well worth reading.

Flight Behavior has a number of shortcomings, but these do not include its language or characters, which are solid, complex, persuasive, and satisfying.

The novel’s central character is Dellarobia Turnbow who like many Kingsolver characters is a woman with an intelligence, spirit, and sex drive too large for her circumstances. In Dellarobia’s case, these circumstances are a small Appalachian town, an ill-matched husband acquired through a high-school pregnancy, a small confining house with two young children, and subsistence farming on the land of her resentful in-laws.

As Flight Behavior opens, Dellarobia is set to destroy (and so escape) her marriage through a particularly reckless and desperate act of adultery. When she climbs up the wooded hills of her husband’s family’s land to meet her lover, she discovers the entire Monarch butterfly population of North America, which has settled for the winter in rural Tennessee rather than deep in Mexico, because of climate change. The vision of the butterflies turns Dellarobia around, literally and figuratively, and send her life in new and remarkable directions.

There is a great deal in Flight Behavior to enjoy and admire. Each of Kingsolver’s characters walk on to the page fully formed, convincing, and distinct: from Dellarobia’s husband Cub, to her best friend Dovey, to her family and the people in her church, to Dr. Ovid Byron, the lepidopterist who appears to study why the Monarchs have so radically changed the migration patterns hard-wired into their DNA. Kingsolver makes it easy to understand and empathize with her characters even when they aren’t necessarily likable. Her conversations are a pleasure to read. And she makes the emotional arc of Dellarobia’s story moving and real.

The problems in Flight Behavior come from its plot construction, which is a bit of a mess, and its “big themes” which are didactically over-emphasized to the extent that readers might feel the need to take notes in case there is a test at the end.

The plot problems begin with Dellarobia’s reaction to the butterflies, which she feels is some species of religious revelation, which causes confusion in Dellarobia and controversy in her church.  This is a fine and intriguing idea, and fair enough. The problem is that the religion angle fizzles out before we are a third of the way through Flight Behavior with no more explanation than Dellarobia and everyone just seemed to forget about it.

Another plot line that fizzles is Dellarobia’s romantic obsession with Ovid Byron that goes on for a tantalizingly long time before we discover it is the shaggiest of shaggy dog tales. Then for good measure, when we are in the home stretch, Kingsolver drops on us one of those shocking personal secrets that typically form the “big surprise” of 19th-century novels, only to have all the characters involved immediate disappear for the rest of the book, the surprise unexplored and unresolved. In a novel that clearly demonstrates its commitment to conventional plot architectures, these qualities can only be seen as flaws.

The biggest of Flight Behavior‘s big themes is global warming, which is not only disrupting the life cycles of the Monarch species but seemingly the weather of Dellarobia’s home as well, making the precarious economics of the Turnbow and neighboring farms more precarious still. Kingsolver clearly believes the globe is warming and human activity is a cause (as does the consensus of the scientific community and me too, by the by) but she pursues this theme through long conversations between Dellarobia and Ovid, which weaken the novel while having no impact what-so-ever on public opinion. The novel is weaker because Kingsolver’s management of the exposition is ham-handed and her talking points way too obvious. As for public opinion, climate-change deniers are thin on the ground among readers of literary fiction to begin with, and the few members of that choir who might be in need of a sermon on global warming are not going to be moved. Few things are less persuasive than a lecture. Particularly when your audience is captive and you had promised them a story not a seminar.

Kingsolver also has a reasonable amount to say about the conflicting world views, mutual misunderstanding, and reciprocal lack of respect between the religious, conservative, working-class (at best) residents of rural Tennessee and the wealthy, well-educated liberals who descend on Dellarobia’s home to study the butterflies, agitate to protect them, or use the Monarchs as an occasion to indulge their self-righteous narcissism. Like with her handling of climate change, the problem with this theme is that it is too often explored through explicit, long expository comments from Dellarobia. There’s nothing wrong with big ideas in novels, but big ideas in novels work best when they are implicit and handled with subtlety.

The good news is that there is so much good stuff going on in Flight Behavior, and Kingsolver’s talent is so mature and sturdy, that your pleasure will be only mildly diminished by the novel’s problems. And you’re likely to be impress by how well the book succeeds in spite of them.

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Thelma Louise and Emma Bovary

Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, and Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

There is a great depressing theme in 19th-century literature of woman who – thwarted in their efforts to achieve independence and agency – turn to suicide.

Lily Bart in House of Mirth dies from an (accidental?) overdose of a sleeping drug. Edna Pontellier in The Awakening drowns herself. Anna Karenina throws herself under a train. And Emma Bovary poisons herself with arsenic. There is no place for the lives they desire in the worlds they live, and so death becomes the only liberty they can choose.

This theme jumped up and slapped me in the face recently when for the first time since 1991, I watched Thelma & Louise, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and directed by Ridley Scott.

The film concerns two women who plan a weekend getaway together. Thelma (played by Davis) wants to escape from her bullying lout of a husband and Louise (played by Sarandon) is looking for a break from her job as a diner waitress.  When a man Thelma meets at a bar tries to rape her in a parking lot, Louise shoots him dead and sets the movie in motion.

Thelma and Louise travel cross-country from their native Arkansas, simultaneously fleeing from the law following them in pursuit and toward a freedom that the film embodies in the American West. But society – or the machine of the plot – drives them to a choice between prison and death. Thelma and Louise choose death.

Thelma & Louise & Emma Bovary

There are a whole bunch of differences between Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Ridley Scott’s film (including artistic quality) but the characters and in particular the situation of the characters are similar, and it is with the similarities among the characters that I would like to start.

Geena Davis’ Thelma is a more obvious match for Emma Bovary than Sarandon’s Louise. Like Emma, Thelma is trapped in a marriage to an (at best) mildly successful buffoon in a provincial town that severely circumscribes her choices. Also like Emma Bovary, Thelma knows vaguely – and feels deeply – that something is wrong with her life, but isn’t able to articulate what the problem is and lacks the power to make effective changes. So Thelma, like Emma, falls into a transgressive form of rebellion for her time: highway banditry in contrast to Emma’s adultery.

Susan Sarandon’s Louise is a more subtle, and so to my lights, more moving character. She is in her middle-late thirties and seems to feel the possibilities of her life shrinking around her. Scott frequently films Sarandon staring in the mirror and pushing at her just-beginning to age face – often surrounded by younger women. She works in a diner. Her apartment is scrupulously neat and empty. We learn that she was a victim of rape in Texas years before. Her life is circumscribed it seems by age, and loneliness, and trauma. Louise shows hints of complexity in Scott’s often too simple world.

Thelma & Louise is Full of Ridiculous Male Stereotypes … Oh, Wait a Minute

It is a fool’s errand for a man to say a movie (or a book or anything) is or isn’t a feminist movie (or book or anything) – because he can never be right – so I’m not going to even try – but I will say that Thelma & Louise provides a great deal of rich material for people brave enough to wade into the discussion.

Part of the material is the panorama of male villains who seem over-the-top until you start thinking about them, and then they start to look pretty typical. So we have the insulting, demeaning, and emotionally abusive husband of Thelma.  We have the self-entitled rapist who thinks Thelma owes him sex because he wants it. We have the charismatic stud who knows how to tickle Thelma’s nether regions, then steals her money without a qualm (Brad Pitt). And we have the cool boyfriend – Louise’s in this case – who just isn’t quite ready to commit, but who is just nice enough to seriously mess with a woman’s head (Michael Madsen).

Another part of the material is Davis and Sarandon’s appropriation of typically male film tropes. You don’t have to look very hard to see Thelma & Louise as a remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (even the titles echo) or, for that matter, dozens of other films about men. You have the deep but platonic friendship. The cheerful flouting of the law in pursuit of their own best desires. Sexual liberty. The possession and expert use of fire arms combined with a reluctance to commit actual acts of violence. The freedom of the vast American west.

The comparison breaks down when it comes to motivation. Newman and Redford choose their outlaw status from what seems to be pure joie de vivre. Thelma and Louise are driven to it by an act of (wholly justifiable in my mind) revenge. Louise shoots the man who assaults Thelma – but only after she has safely rescued Thelma from him.

If Thelma & Louise were a typical revenge film, and Louise were a man, the movie would have been devoted to the male Louise tracking down the rapist and brutally killing him in a world where police do not exist. But since Louise is a woman, and Thelma and Louise take the tools of men into their own hands, the police track them down and put half a battalion of firepower on their asses instead. Particular, ain’t it?

Thelma & Louise: Deeply Subversive or Crassly Exploitative?

What prevents Thelma & Louise from being a great movie – as opposed to the moderately good to pretty good film that we have – is Ridley Scott’s weakness for empty, pretty spectacle and his heavy-handedness.

There is a glossy glamour in his shots that screams out “Hollywood!” instead of serving the story. Many times, Thelma and Louise seem as driven by the film’s desire to deliver a popular action movie as they are by the circumstances of their lives and society. You would be hard pressed to call any of Scott’s characterizations subtle (except for some of the details in Sarandon’s performance previously noted) and there is no ambiguity.

The problems are nicely contained in a scene near the end of the film, in which Thelma and Louise confront a trucker who has been making crude comments at them throughout the movie. The man is crass, sexist, and deeply stupid. When he refuses to apologize, Thelma and Louse shoot his truck which erupts in an enormous fireball while the man yells “Bitches from hell!” It’s sorta satisfying and sorta fun, I admit. But it also feels cheap.

As does the ending, when Thelma and Louise drive their convertible over the edge of the Grand Canyon and the shot freezes in mid-air, the frame brightens to white, and we’re treated to a montage of happy Thelma and Louises from earlier in the film instead of the wreckage of blood, bone, and metal which is their real end.

There is a lot in Thelma & Louise that can leave you unsettled and unhappy if you look for it. But when Scott has to choose between selling unsettled and unhappy – or selling KA-BOOM! Wow! Ha ha ha! – well, he chooses the ka-boom.

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