Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Problematic Tense

     A few weeks ago, I touched on some ideas about first person perspective (and why I'm not crazy about it).  A far less discussed element of writing is the tense.  Past tense is the natural default and the vast majority seem comfortable both reading it and writing in it, and I'm no exception.  Doing some recent writing, though, I started to explore its implications a little.
     Whether consciously or unconsciously, when we read something in past tense, there is an underlying sense of security.  The story being told is already over, we just haven't finished reading about it yet, thus the world the story is a part of is still around and relatively intact.  If it's being told in first person, then the person telling the story is still alive (usually).  Perhaps the past tense lets us off the hook a little.  Their are certain stories and certain genres which might benefit from the very opposite, however.  Horror and thrillers, for instance, function primarily on a lack of security and using the present tense can be very effective at undercutting this foundation.  There are no shortage of examples in recent literature (The Hunger Games by Collins, 5th Wave by Yancey and Broken Monsters by Beukes to name just a few).  From the very beginning, there is something just a little bit ominous about them.
     As a footnote, the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft was a master of subverting the security of the past tense story.  His narrators usually began with a dire warning about how their stories must be listened to, lest the world itself come crashing down.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

America's National Story

      Poet, critic and professor Joshua Clover makes a fascinating supposition in his monograph on the movie The Matrix, for the British Film Institute's Modern Classics Series.  In a rather heady footnote, he suggests that the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers "is America's National Story, the one it remakes in times of crisis."  The original film, based on Jack Finney's book, was made in 1956 and remade in 1978, 1993 and 2007.  Clover sites the film's central thematic allure as being "the fantasy that one is the last free consciousness, as yet untainted by ideology, called to superhuman vigilance lest one be overtaken."  One might say that the human-duplicating pod people (the "body snatchers" of the title) represent a direct threat to what Americans hold most dear: individuality.
      This is a fascinating theory and one could spend days coming up with alternate stories that might qualify as the prime narrative of America's collective psyche, not to mention stories that do the same for other cultures (Clover's throws out the story of the 47 Ronin as Japan's).  Beneath all this, though, is the compelling point that we use our art not simply as a means of expression but as a repository for our most essential ethos.  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Back to Sea

     Among my very earliest posts, I devoted some space to the graphic novel Set to Sea by Drew Weing, which I hailed as the Graphic Novel of the Year (of 2010).  With several years to revisit it and reexamine it, I believe it may actually be the Greatest Graphic Novel of All Time (though Shaun Tan's The Arrival is a tough contender). 
      Publisher Fantagraphics has given it a new print run, and if you haven't seen it yet, don't hesitate (it's available right here).  Even if it doesn't resonate for you quite as deeply as it has for me, it is a compelling work of art and a quintessential piece of cartooning.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Through The Woods

     Having mentioned the work of Emily Carroll in a post long ago, it's a pleasure to note the publication of her first book, Trough the Woods.  Her ability to haunt a story is on full display at her website, and I hold her webcomic Margot's Room up to my graduate students as a prime example of how to reinvent and expand an established medium for a new platform.  The book, however, is a treat unto itself.  Her folktale-like settings sit magically on thick paper, her spare language tempts you down a dark path and her rough linework functions as an ideal counterpoint to the quiet menace of her tone and the brilliant color work all around.
     Each story in the collection is worth pouring over, but the standout is "The Nesting Place," the book's longest piece.  While Ms. Carroll makes an art of giving you exactly the right amount of information and ending at exactly the most lurching moment in most of her stories, this one is a full banquet.  A beautifully slow build fully delivers its central shock and then gives you something more afterwards, something that turns fairy tale standards a little on their heads; a fiendish balancing act that uses subtle suggestion to disturb but also serves up the huge money shot that horror sometimes demands.
      And what sort of treat could be better for Halloween? 

Thursday, October 23, 2014


     When my older daughter was about six-years-old, my wife took her to a performance of a Shakespeare's  Much Ado About Nothing.  Concerned that my daughter was "getting it," my wife leaned over and explained certain plot points as they went by (very quietly, of course).  After a few times, my daughter stopped her and said "mom, I don't need to understand it to enjoy it."
     Does understanding become the foundational metric of enjoyment only as we get older? Is there a way a work of art can appeal more directly to our emotions and leave us delighted without us having to process it intellectually?  And, as we grow older, do we fight that phenomenon as we're experiencing it?