The Un-Natural

Last night, looking for something to watch while eating dinner, I saw that Netflix had added The Natural to its list of Acclaimed Movies from The Past. I remembered liking the movie a lot as a kid, so I started it up.

Seriously, Cheese Man makes more sense than this movie.

My memory of this movie was pretty patchy. Like, Robert Redford got hurt somehow — maybe it had something to do with war? — and that made him an underdog, and there was some kind of sinister money plot, and at the end he hits an amazing home run and starts bleeding and manages to run the bases before he dies. Maybe?

The rewatch didn’t do this movie any favors. To start with, it’s little Roy Hobbs and his nobly poor farmer dad, and nobody else except the well-off farm girl Iris hanging around in worship. Where is Roy’s mom? No mom? Okay, maybe they’re just trying to keep this story succinct. Roy’s dad dies and lightning strikes the tree he died under. So Little Roy makes The Perfect Bat from the wood. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is earnestly aping Aaron Copland, which along with the Model T tells you that it’s the Olden Times, i.e., the early 20th century.

Roy Hobbs brands his bat WONDERBOY. So far what this movie seems to be missing is symbolism.

So cut to a few years later when Roy is off to make his fortune, but first he stops to have a midnight barn tryst with Iris. Then he gets on the train with…some dude who’s agenting him. A mysterious Woman in Black is on the platform. Some baseball insiders are in the dining car musing over a newspaper story that two sports greats have been mysteriously shot with silver bullets. I wonder if this will have any bearing on the story!

Roy and his agent get into a dick-wagging contest at a local fair with the baseball insiders, and Roy strikes out the legendary batsman. Back on the train (that was the longest half-hour water stop I ever heard of), the Woman in Black approaches Roy alone and draws him out so far as to say he intends to be The Best That Ever Was.

At their destination, the Woman in Black invites Roy to visit her in her hotel room, and he goes. She gets him to say again that he intends to be The Best, and then she lowers a black lace veil and shoots him.

What?

TITLE CARD: 16 YEARS LATER

Roy shows up at the dugout of a washed-up team in New York with a scout’s contract, and Wilford Brimley, pissed off at getting sent an Old Dude, refuses to play him. But eventually he has to, and discovers that he is The Best. Suddenly the team becomes good. The co-owner tries to bribe Roy to suck so that he can buy out the team from Wilford Brimley, and Roy nobly refuses.

Meanwhile this whole time, Roy refuses to let on a) where he’s from, b) why he didn’t keep playing ball after high school, and c) what the hell he’s been doing with himself for 16 years. We know he didn’t go home because there’s a scene where a lonely Iris goes into a diner and sees a newspaper article about this sudden phenomenon. No matter how many times people ask him, he deflects the questions.

Then Roy’s rival on the team crashes through a wall trying to catch a fly in right field, and somehow this kills him? Which leaves Roy a clear path to Wilford Brimley’s daughter and a place on the starting lineup.

What??

This is the halfway point of the film. I skimmed the cursor through the rest to see if there were some hope of a sensible plot, and I didn’t. So I noped out.

I can’t remember how Roy suffered the relapse of his wound in the side. Maybe the Woman in Black, annoyed at having failed to eliminate a Paragon of Masculinity, comes back for another try?

No doubt there was some kind of reveal when everybody finds out Roy’s Tragic Past, but it can’t be any less ridiculous than the build-up. Roy is too ashamed to admit to being the victim of a random malicious misfortune…why? Roy didn’t wind up back home…why? No newspaper article connected the dots with the other silver bullets…why? Roy’s agent mysteriously disappears at the point of the shooting…why?

It’s like Roy takes a 16-year hiatus for Doylist reasons, and his creators, the perpetrators of this plot, write it this way for Watsonian reasons.

I guess having your masculinity perforated is a fate worse than obscurity.

I must not have noticed the absurd misogyny of this plot when I was a kid because it read like randomness to me. After all, the potential is great. Robert Redford! as a baseball hero! facing incredible odds! in a dashing 1930s knickerbocker uniform! This could be great!

But you were failed hard, Roy Hobbs. No mom, no home community (highly improbable, WTF), no arc of team camaraderie, no war angst, no Great Depression angst, no best male friend, not even an honorable rival. Nope, just a lot of inept men and unfathomable femme fatales, a drab backdrop for the luminous Natural. If this were football there’d be flags all over the field. Illegal Succubus, Intentional Incomplete Use of Wilford Brimley (like, The Firm made better use of him, WTAF), Improbable Wounding, Running Out the Play Clock…I can’t even.

So, file this one under Beware Movies You Enjoyed As A Kid.

ETA: I went over to Wikipedia and read the rest of the plot summary. Oh my God, it only got more egregious from there. Two succubi and a Penelope. Oh, and Roy doesn’t actually die in the end; he lives to sire a line of Naturals while his loving long-lost Iris looks on. Well, at least the next generation has a mom. Baby steps?

Trajectories

Probably one of the pitfalls of visiting a writer’s blog — certainly one of the temptations of writing one — is the tendency to talk about craft in the form of dispensing advice, as if anyone asked for it. Pat Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold — people do ask for advice from the likes of them, so it makes sense for them to share advice with their whole audience.

Yours truly has rarely been asked for writing advice. (Not even from my students…well, especially not from my students, let’s be real.) Strangely, I find this somewhat of an obstacle to dispensing any.

However… Some years ago I picked up a great little book by Stephen Fry — an instruction manual for writing poetry called The Ode Less Traveled, which is the sort of cuteness that only Stephen Fry could get away with. The most memorable thing I took from the book is his introductory argument, which is that if you can learn to tie your own fishing flies, or paint with oils, or roller-skate, then you can learn to write poetry. The jargon of writing is one of the perks of learning an arcane pastime, much as we like to use it instead as a class marker, and so no one should be intimidated by the terms and forms and trickinesses of producing one’s own genuwyne home-made art. I agree.

So, I don’t object to rules as such — I’m both a teacher (by training) and a democrat (by temper), after all. But, like any fly-tyer ready to throw down in the Letters section of Fly-Tyers Monthly Magazine,* I do get annoyed by the writing advice of other people.

This morning I was ranting musing to myself along the old commute, on the subject of realizing and writing characters. I run across a lot of really screwy advice about writing characters, in writing blogs and on readers’ and reviewers’ community websites. (Less so in books, as the advice in that case really does need to be solicited in order for the publisher to get any kind of an ROI.) A lot of it seems to view the writer as a sort of Doctor Frankenstein rummaging through corpses for the Very Best Parts. The fledgling writer is advised to determine their character’s birthday, their favorite color, their worst childhood nightmare, their first pet/kiss/car/whatever. This, presumably, will add up to an imaginary meat suit that the writer can then climb into and animate upon the page.

But the problem with complaining about a rule that says You Should Do This is that one then seems to be saying You Should NOT Do This, and that’s not how it is at all. I’ve sketched some pretty deep filigree in the backgrounds of my characters. Only I called it things like Having Fun, or Telling Myself A Story No One Else Will Know About (except my longsuffering friends to whom I natter in chat windows). By all means figure out your character’s birthday. But ignore those people who earnestly tell you it will be the making of the actual story you are trying to write.

Still worse, in my view, are critiques of character-writing that prescribe balancing them, like a chemical equation, or in one case, a food pyramid. Give them more faults, make them eat more spinach, let them have an inner conflict or a thwarted desire or a terminal case of Cute Metaphors.

Bah! Ranty Morning Commute Me advises you to pitch the lot in the garbage. Characterization is not about balance, even when it is totally about balance. Characterization is about trajectory.

At the beginning of a story or often even a scene, your character — the character you are forming with and in yourself, the character you hopefully already like — starts in a place, physically, mentally, geographically, emotionally. At the end of the story, or scene, they are somewhere else. A good trajectory can be harmonious with other characters’ trajectories, or discordant. It can be thematically complex or it can be simple. But above all it ought to be noticeable.

A too-perfect character, perhaps, has nowhere to go but down yet doesn’t go down. A too-miserable character plods along their flat line. A character might be indecisive by nature, but their trajectory is entirely another matter. This is a story, not an oscillation.

Yet even with this I hesitate to offer hard-and-fast advice. I get annoyed with these little rules because they seem to take no notice of the gestalt of writing, the prolific chaos of gestating characters and their story and their surroundings and the stakes of their success or failure. I think these rules are silly because they aren’t designed to make people aware of this holistic picture. But, if they do that for someone…then they do. My first day of fencing I was taught to kick a penny across the floor. It was two years before I had a lesson in executing a flèche. The holistic approach isn’t necessarily Lesson One.

Still, I could do with about 100% less cute metaphors, stratagems, and Excel sheets in my writerly viewfinder. Mind your trajectories and never mind about that shadowy figure known as The Reader. The writer is always Reader One. Worry about Reader Two second.

Or as Chaucer says, take the wheat and let the chaff be still.

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* I made all of this up. But if there really is such a magazine, I bet dollars to donuts there’s a flame war going on in there.

Free as the road

A few days ago I discovered that making a new year’s resolution to “see friends more often” is a thing. Like, I dismissed it when I found it in the NYT crossword, but then I saw it cropping up on actual lists of people’s goals for the new year. And that inspired me to rant on Twitter.

And yeah, I know, nobody wants even friends randomly showing up at their house for undefined socializing, but that’s wrapped up in the whole cycle of overscheduled burnout that seems to have ramped up in the last ten years in particular. My friend calls me: “Is this a fencing night? Can we go have dinner?” And half the time, yes, it is a fencing night, and I miss fencing practice too often as it is, and I have friends there too, and so I say “How about Tuesday?”

This past summer I experimented with doing a bullet journal. I admit, playing with colored pens is fun, and it was nice to have my sticky-note to-do lists in one little Moleskine notebook. But then I got sick and had that whole ER rodeo thing, and lost interest. And the sheer executive functioning nightmare of earning a living plus managing a household plus connecting with my people — because none of that happens without significant effort — makes me think that something needs dismantling somewhere.

So no, I don’t think there’s a job I’ve fallen down on when six months goes by since the last time I go to my friend’s house. I think that six months of my chronos has stolen my kairos, and we need to mount the barricades.

Last Friday one of my book club friends died after only a week in hospice. She had been battling protean cancers for years, and they had finally grown beyond treatment. On the book club group text this week we hashed out whether to attend the visitation or the funeral, and if and when to move our winter feast. All these practical acts of scheduling, all the planning of my writing projects for the year — there’s a gap between all of that and my friend who now makes no plans and manages no schedule. I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure if I’m sad about her death and angry about the vicissitudes of planning…or angry about her death and sad about the vicissitudes of planning. I don’t know.

But I’ll have to let it lie for now, because it’s nine-thirty and my apartment isn’t going to clean itself before the year turns.

The grimdark/hopepunk gestalt, and other sandtraps

It’s so hard to get on Twitter without being overwhelmed by Appalling Things, but I do wind up picking at the margins of current topics when my friends talk about them, and then they get into the bloodstream of my thoughts and I wind up producing a personal podcast (like a personal pan pizza, consumed by one’s self only) on my commute. Which I was doing this evening, only then the thought occurred to me: Isn’t this why you have a fucking blog? (It’s my commute, so f-bombs are a feature of the landscape.)

Why yes, yes it is.

The new generations of writers and readers have been coming up with — I suppose they’re not genres, really, but descriptive modes for stories, and the one that’s come up on my radar recently is hopepunk. At first glance it seems like it’d be right up my street, hopepunk — coined, as far as I can tell, as a counter to grimdark, which I’ve already got a canned rant about. The short version is, for the last hundred years or so, a defining feature of Serious Literature has been grimness and darkness — dis-integration of people and relationships and situations, fragmentation of narratives. Meaning reduced to incoherence as a statement of truth, co-inherence mocked and flouted by assiduously unhappy endings. Thus not only do Serious People want to make you read stories about disaster and incoherence, they also want to scold you for wanting the opposite. And who needs it, really?

So hopepunk, yeah, sounds great, let’s have some! Only…what is it?

From my perspective on the fringes of the discussion, it looks like people have a hard time identifying what is a proper example of hopepunk, one that can be agreed upon by all parties. In fact, what some people see as hopepunk, others noped out of as the epitome of grimdark. And vice versa. It’s like “postmodern,” which is, well, you know, something…a little bit more modern than modern, right? No matter how clearly set out the concept is to start with, it runs afoul in practice of a sort of subjective gestalt.

And part of the problem is that people want stories to bear witness to their pain and difficulty and disaster; and to speak too quickly of hope is to betray their testimony to a final rebuttal. To say, “but that’s not what hope means,” and try to back-and-fill the concept, just clouds the issue further.

Which is why I still prefer Tolkien’s word eucatastrophe as a descriptive mode for the stories I want. We all know what catastrophe is: everything I said about Serious Literature above. So then what is the good catastrophe? It’s a story that specifically invokes that witness to pain and difficulty and disaster, so that it can bring forth the integrated meaning and co-inherence and renewal and reversal that every situation can potentially produce. Eucatastrophe does not betray by a clap-back from outside the situation: it restores things from within the structure of its own landscape of meaning. It makes the tellers of such stories agents in their own rescue; it puts others in potential touch with a wild and painful joy. You can want it or not want it, but it’s a definite thing. You can say, “This story has a payoff, but getting there might not be worth it to you.” Or you can say, “This story doesn’t have enough of a payoff to justify the misery.” Eucatastrophe as a concept lets you say definite things about actual stories, and have a, well, coherent conversation about them. In fact, so long as the concept is in place, you hardly have to use Tolkien’s 25-cent word at all.

A word you don’t actually have to say to use: now that’s a useful word.