Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Deep Thoughts #112 - Special Topical Nattily-Clad Edition

Yes, the snowiest February in the long, proud history of snowy Boston is, in fact, punishment because the recidivist Patriots cheated again.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Fifty Shades of Fault Done Gone, Girl

I'm eating lunch, or what passes for lunch, at the old juke joint this afternoon (technically yesterday), and looking for things to read out there on the magic internets. From one of the recent entries on the Paris Review's blog, I come to an article posted by the Guardian, about the Sydney Writers' Festival*. Apparently the Guardian did a live-blog of the festival (the 2014 edition), so I start scrolling through the entries to see if anything catches my eye—and what does the trick is an embedded tweet by someone called Courtney Robinson, who said, "Hey poetry slammers, that wasn't guerrilla or contrarian, it was fucking rude.” (Turns out I can’t go back that far in her Twitter feed to embed this one.)

Now, two things about that tweet. First, no tiny URL getting in the way of the thought and breaking up the rhythm. Second, take a look at what I quoted (or embedded, if I can manage to make that nubbin of technology work for me) and contrast what this tweet both contains and does not contain, with what the vast majority of other tweets do and do not contain. This one contains no numerals standing in for words. It contains no abbreivated words. It does contain a single thought, expressed in one—complete!—sentence, with correct punctuation.

Oh, and the F-bomb, too. Can't forget that. That's the interesting part. Take out the F-bomb, all you have is a tweet complaining about something the writer thought was rude. Is the writer being rude right back to the people by whom she was affronted? Sure she is. Is that being fair? Hey, who the fuck am I to judge? Her F-bomb emphasizes the degree to which she felt the poetry slammers were being rude, and, provocatively, encourages them to reevaluate their behavior in light of the way it made other people feel.

Not that the poetry slammers probably received any of those signals, but I digress in order to point out why I thought the F-bomb was interesting and not just a bit of profanity used in a gratuitous way; and it did another part of its job too, making me interested in what else the tweeter (Twitterer?) had to say. I click over to her Twitter page, and the most recent tweet says, in extra-large letters, "All aboard the lube mobile." Below the words is a picture of some kind of service van, taken by a photographer in traffic a bit behind the van. Below the words LUBE MOBILE is an illustration of a hand holding a wrench. It's probably safe to assume that this is some sort of automobile maintenance or repair service.

But the name of the service can be read in a dirty way, and I appreciate it when people allow their minds to work that way, both because of the tongue-in-cheek humor and because of the willingness to acknowledge sexuality. And yet that still isn't even the main point of this meandering post. (Although a secondary point is that this is another one of those instances where one random link leads to another and then ultimately points me at something interesting that I would not otherwise have encountered.)

That main point would be the tweet immediately following the one about the lube mobile. (Admit that you're laughing about the lube mobile. Even if you won't laugh out loud, or admit it to anyone else—admit it to yourself. Do I really need to paint you a picture of what's going on in the back of that van, after hours?) That tweet, which is slightly less elegant than the one addressed to the poetry slammers, reads, "I can't decide whether to read Fifty Shades of Grey or not, to hate read/ or just more deeply assess pop culture. Thoughts?”

This may be the first time in my life that I have ever wanted to respond to a tweet and then actually considered signing up for the service just to be able to do so; and though I did not do that, I do have thoughts, because I am in something of the same boat. Over the past year, we have played Gone Girl and The Fault in Our Stars, and beginning this coming Thursday, we will be playing Fifty Shades of Grey. The novels that spawned these films are three of the most popular novels of the last three years. Without having read any of the books or seen any of the movies, I have developed strong feelings of distaste for them.

This is mostly due to the fact that they are all wide release films that have no business playing at an art house—even a fake art house like the one to which I sell my labor for a pittance. Part of the dislike for Gone Girl is because it contains Ben Affleck, someone whose acting skills I find lacking. Part of the dislike for The Fault in Our Stars is because John Green and his entourage elected to rent one of our auditoriums for a friends and family screening of the film before it opened in Indianapolis. Though I suspect that many of his sycophantic followers would doubt the veracity of this claim, the following is true: John Green is not Jesus. And word around the campfire is that author E.L. James was difficult to work with during the making of Fifty Shades of Grey, which is a novel that started life online as Twilight fan fiction and supposedly contains quite a lot of bondage porn wrapped in what everyone I have talked to who has read it has described as really bad prose.

So what’s to like? I know that Gone Girl is a Missing Wife Thriller with lots of Shyamalan-esque twists, and I have read intimations that the prose is not especially literary. The Fault in Our Stars is a YA tearjerker, and if the novel is anything like the film, the ending is a soft, fluffy cheat—though perhaps not an unexpected one, given the point of view from which the story is told. Of the three, it’s the one I think is least likely to be terrible, and I’ve been trying to convince myself to buckle down and read them all, so that I can find out whether or not my hating on them is indeed valid.

And I’m open to all three, on their merits, regardless of what I have heard going in. If anything, the fact that I have the lowest possible expectations for all three novels greatly increases the chances that I will like all of them more than I thought possible before I began. I read Twilight in the same spirit, and came away from it with a firm confirmation that the prose is quite bad. On the other hand, Stephenie Meyer does have a solid grasp on pacing, and the story was interesting enough to keep the pages turning at a brisk clip. If I read these other three novels and find that any of them contains some hidden quality I hadn’t remotely expected to encounter, I will have no problem acknowledging that.

Based on the first two thirds of Gone Girl, however, I am fairly sure that I will have nothing to acknowledge about that novel. The problem, however, is not so much with the prose as with the fact that the two main characters, Nick Dunne and his wife Amy (the gone girl), simply aren’t very sympathetic characters. Amy, in particular, is a despicable human being. There are plot twists galore, which is mostly the point, and those twists keep the pages turning; but I’m not rooting for either of them, and in a book like this, if the prose doesn’t keep you hooked, and you don’t care about the characters, then all the plot twists in the world are just special effects. And because it relies so heavily on twists and misdirection, I am certain that it will be basically unreadable a second time. Once you know what happens, all you have left is 500 pages of post-internet vernacular that is, I think, as non-lyrical as it is possible for prose to be.

Reading The Da Vinci Code was a similar experience. I thoroughly enjoyed that novel the first time around, but once all the plot mechanics were laid bare, a second reading revealed that, for all of his talent at doing research and assembling the elements of a good yarn, Dan Brown simply isn’t a very good writer. The book wasn’t bad, but it doesn’t stand up to a second reading because it has nothing left to reveal of itself apart from an unstable foundation. I think that great books need to stand up to second and third and fourth and fifth readings, that they need always to reveal new things each time you read them.

Gone Girl does not pass muster in that regard, and I suspect the same will be true of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Fault in Our Stars. Remember that tweet I mentioned, many paragraphs ago? Courtney Robinson couldn’t decide whether or not to read Fifty Shades of Grey as something to hate read or as a way to gain further insight into current popular culture. I’m not going into any of these books hoping to hate them. Just because I suspect they are whatever negative thing I think they will be doesn’t mean that I want them to be. My purpose is probably more along the lines of the gaining further insight into popular culture idea (though it is true that I am not expecting any of them to fill me with pride at the current state of popular culture in this fading republic).

Either way, my thoughts on her question ran quite a bit longer than 140 characters, so it wouldn’t have done me any good to sign up for Twitter after all.

*—After I finished this post, I went back to add the code for the links, and I realized that the path from the Paris Review blog to the Courtney Robinson tweet was more protacted than I remembered. This is the post on the Paris Review blog. The link in the second bullet point led to this article posted by the Guardian, which had a link to this story at the bottom of the page. At the bottom of that page was this link to the story about the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and about halfway down that page was the Courtney Robinson tweet to the poetry slammers, which led me in turn to the tweet about Fifty Shades of Grey on her Twitter page.