06 May 2008

Post 123

Heeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrre we go!

I just saw Iron Man. My opinion regarding fiction has been in an uproar in the past week or so, and my various thoughts, drifting like silt in a tide pool, have yet to settle, so expect some scatterbrainedness in the following review.

I had a pretty good handle on the premise of Iron Man when I entered the theater, and I told myself that, regardless of what the reviewers were saying, if Tony Stark didn't die in the end, this could not be solid fiction. But superheroes don't die--it runs counter to genre rules (at least in movies)--so I didn't go with high hopes for a tragic end.

SPOILER: Tony Stark does not die.


But I really think that the movie would have been solider if he had. I mean, the build up was there from the beginning; throughout the movie, his precarious health is a major issue. I mean, he built the first suit (it seems) because he didn't think that he had much time to live, and he wanted to go out with a bang! Tony Stark needed to die!

But heaven forbid we have a tragic superhero! How on earth can you have a sequel after the hero dies?

Well, there were several options presented in the film itself. I mean, it's always kinda cool to see a sidekick take center stage--makes for a great cliffhanger ending, too. And there's that one scene when Rhodes looks at the original suit and says something whimsical about how he'd like to use it some day. Well, have Tony die and Rhodes take over. It's perfect!

(My favorite option, though, would be to have Tony die and Pepper take over--can you say Iron Maiden?)

Anyway, even though the movie could have been higher quality fiction than what it was, it certainly had its moments. In fact, as far as superhero movies go, this was pretty impressive. I liked a lot of things about it, and I don't think that it would be a complete waste of your time if you went to go see it.

Good enough? Can I stop being nice now?

Good. Because I have more complaining to do....

What was up with the beginning chronology? Was that an attempt at in media res? 'Cuz, if it was, it was a pretty sorry excuse for it! Now, you must understand, I love in media res; I think it's wonderful. I'm all for starting a story in the middle and filling in the backstory as you go. And I kinda like when a story starts at one point and then flashes back, catches up to itself, and move on. Think Hudsucker Proxy: that worked well. Iron Man, not so much. It didn't do a thing for the story. And I have a theory (a bitterhearted theory, of course) as to why.

I'm going through a phase right now that involves an intense disliking for the notion of fiction. I don't like fiction.

Unfortunately, it really isn't that simple because I still like movies. But fictitious books--why on earth would I dedicate the time required to read a book on a book that isn't true? What's in it for me? I really don't think that the cost:benefit ratio is in my favor....

See, I've got this theory--a dream, of sorts--and I hope to one day have the tenacity to pursue it. I think--I really believe--that there are enough obscure, crazy stories in history that, if all we want is whizzbang wow-me's from our books and movies, then fiction ought to step aside. There is no craft in making fictitious wow-me's, and if fiction loses its craftiness, what good is it?

Now, please don't misunderstand. I recognize that aggregate of fiction probably isn't dominated by whizzbang wow-me's, but I fear that sensationalism is becoming too important both in fiction and in the world as a whole.

My discussions on fiction usually end up coming around to D&C 50:23 eventually, so I may as well put it here. The fact of the matter is that I am looking for things that enlighten me and increase my ability to be a worthwhile human being and not for things that simply permit me to escape reality. I have mentioned that I still like movies, and the fact that Charade and Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels are among my DVDs shows that even I enjoy a bit of simple entertainment from time to time, just not all the time.

Now, I realize that my beef may be with the nature of fiction itself. I mean, I assume that fiction has its roots in sensationalism; just look at Beowulf. But fiction has come a very long way from such roots, though I fear that it may be looping back or somehow imploding on itself.

In stark contrast to Beowulf, I suppose, stand the parables of Jesus, in which all story elements are only important insofar as they support the doctrinal message--useful in teaching, yes, but still not really what I'm looking for when I pick up a book from the library.

As I said at the beginning, I am still unsettled on my opinion of fiction; I'm undecided on what I think its place is. But I think that fiction has so much potential that is remaining totally untapped, and it's kinda becoming a lame horse--to me, at least. It seems that human ingenuity is ceasing to be a beast of burden and becoming more like--I dunno--a dancing monkey.

I'm not really that fatalistic--technology boom says human ingenuity is still plenty productive--but I'm just not sure that we create great works of fiction any more. And it makes me sad because, when I want some whizzbang, I never turn to fiction. I have this book that was published, I dunno, like, in the 30s or something. It's called Mademoiselle against the World. It's the autobiographical account of a globetrotting French woman, and it's far more sensational than most over-the-top action-adventure flicks--and it's a true story, which makes it even more sensational! Yet, this amazing story is almost entirely forgotten. Just think of how many stranger-than-fiction stories there must be in the annals of human history! I mean, "identity theft" is a household term these days, but I there are hundreds of pre-1900 instances of identity thieving that are way more exciting than spurious credit card charges--furthermore, I bet they wouldn't be terribly hard to dig up. See, if we just want to be wowed when we walk into a movie theater or pick up a book, writers ought to start probing history for some juicy stuff: just find some obscure story that's really cool and throw it into the public eye.

The task of writing fiction ought to be a lot more demanding than the mass production of cheap thrills--and a lot more meaningful, too. If you're going to feed me a book-long lie, it had better be a good one.


  1. You're obviously not well aware of the GOOD type of written fiction, or I don't think you would end up being so opposed.

    Go read Gilead and Peace Like a River. And then see if you didn't feel the slightest bit edified. Seriously. And do I also need to mention The Chronicles of Narnia?

    I believe one of the excellent things good fiction can do is to broaden a sense of perspective and open the eyes of people to viewpoints entirely different from their own.

    Good non-fiction, I grant, can do the same things. But its scope seems so much more limited to me.

    Also, because I'm curious: what are your views on biographical and historical fiction?

  2. .

    Also, nonfiction is limited in its reality and if you give it the strengths of fiction, it becomes fiction.

    The world is messy. Fiction is a laboratory where we can separate the pieces and see what they do in isolation. The real world cannot give us that opportunity. And when we pretend it can, we're just lying about what we are doing: crafting yet more fiction.

    Even memory is unreliable -- we are constantly crafting our past into cohesive narrative when it just isn't.

    So: which is more honest in the final analysis? And which is more worthy of our time?

    Answer: Neither, both, whatever. Are we really going to cut ourselves off from half of human understanding in search of Truth? It's a false dichotomy like Science/Religion or Chocolate/Vanilla.

  3. Hmm... Apparently I missed my mark when I wrote this because you both misunderstood my sentiment in the same way. Of course, I wrote this when I was pretty tired, so it is pretty convoluted, I'll give you that. And the fact that I claimed to hate fiction probably didn't help much.

    Honestly, I don't really remember what it was that I was driving at, but let me try it again now that I'm more awake:

    I fully recognize that fiction can "broaden a sense of perspective and open the eyes of people to viewpoints entirely different from their own." I think fiction, as a general rule, is a more viable medium for that sort of thing than nonfiction is. Perhaps that's why I'm so disenchanted with a lot of modern fiction: so much of it doesn't seem to be doing that. Our society seems only to crave an escape, so I say save the beauty of fiction for something better and instead toss to the peons little bits of history to chew on.

    I don't suppose I really said anything like that in my post, but I think that that's the sort of conclusion I had reached by the time I finished writing--unfortunately, I didn't edit this post at all after I wrote it (as you can probably tell), so all of my ramblings in trying to find a stance are still in there.

    As regards historical fiction--I'm not sure. I haven't ever read anything that really qualifies as "historical fiction"; the idea doesn't really appeal to me, but that doesn't mean it can't be good.

    As for Thmazing--uh--I'm not sure I agree with you, but maybe I'm just misunderstanding what you're trying to say. It seems to me that any conclusions reached in the laboratory of fiction would only ever be theoretical at best. However, if someone had, through real life experience, gained some great insight into the meaning of life or some such, I think that fiction has a much greater capacity to demonstrate such truths than an autobiographical account ("How I came to terms with karma," or something like that) ever could. Again I cite Jesus: He found fiction to be a most excellent way to teach principles. Not that I think that all fiction should preach a sermon, but I do subscribe to this ideal set forth by Poe:

    "A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect."

    Also, I think that your attack on the reliability of memory is a moot point because, if we assume that memory is totally unreliable, then even fiction will never do us any good because we won't remember it right anyway.

    (I understand that I'm blowing your argument way out of proportion, and I apologize for that, but your argument seems to be leading us to a dangerous land where no statements can ever be solid.)

    To be really honest right here, I think that I'm just kinda bitter that so much of the fiction I've read or watched lately has left me thinking, "Oh, well, that was--nice. I guess," rather than, "That changed my life!" Perhaps I hold fiction up to an unreasonable standard, but as I said in this post (at the very end, when I had finally figured out what it was I was trying to say), "If you're going to feed me a book-long lie, it had better be a good one."

  4. Pablo Picasso once said, "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth." I think that's an important idea to keep in mind in regard to fiction--not that a book-long lie should be "a good one" (although that is decidedly vague--what, exactly, is involved in a "good" book-long lie?), but that any GOOD work of fiction should lead us to realizing some sort of truth.

    I would tend to agree you with in terms of a good deal of current popular literature and escapism . . . but not entirely. Many excellent works CAN be just an escape, but they can also be so much more.

    For me, it's a matter of looking beyond the plot. And my sister and I agree--a novel has to have some apparent (to us, anyway) themes and motifs or we get bored. Very, very bored. Basic plot devices exist to serve those who read to escape--but most books have so much more.

    And you don't think you've ever read biographical or historical fiction? Add The Agony and the Ecstasy to the list of books I mentioned before.

    One final thing: I don't think the fickleness of memory is a moot point because we're guaranteed not to correctly remember fiction. I would say that, since we recreate actual events in our own individual ways, that there is sometimes more truth in fiction than there is in reality.

    I feel that you see a very precise boundary drawn between fiction and reality. But I think it's more of a smudge than anything. (Think of the ending of the movie Big Fish)

  5. Alright. I hate to do it, but I'm going to have to side with Schmetterling on this one, as a lover of fiction.

    While I don't totally agree with everything he said, the main thing I got out of first and second posts was that he's sick of dime a dozen paperback novels that have been pumped out after a short period of development which was aimed at grabbing the publics attention for just long enough to make a fistful of sales.

    The recent fiction I've engaged in has been almost completely about "how can I shock or surprise the reader with some unexpected twist or with sensory overload." Fiction these days seems to be all about putting more fire in the dragons' mouths, bigger craters under the explosions, and more nonsensical twists into the plot.

    I would also like to see more reality dug up for my wonderment. Schmetterling has shared sections of the autobiography about this lady with me. It's an amazing story. If it were fiction it would suck, but sense it's true it's amazing. Because fiction is running out of whizzbang that we haven't seen before, reality can wow us with greater efficiency.

    Having said that, I'll say again that I love fiction. Even the new fiction. I like a good whizzbang flick and I'll let just about any fiction steal my attention. I just wish that all of it would leave me feeling like "The Magician's Nephew" from "The Chronicals of Narnia"

    I just watched "The Princess Bride" for the first time in a long time, and that particular piece of fiction never gets old for me. Neither does the book. Why? I dunno... maybe it's because of all of the AMAZING one and two liners. Maybe it's because of the silly clever things that were done - like the grandpa cutting himself off and then speed reading to where he'd left of while we watch a speedy rerun. Maybe it's because I love the variety of characters. Schmetterling watched with me and he pointed out that if you were any of the minor/supporting rolls in the film you'd be famous forever. Heck, there were no small rolls in that movie! Anybody who said ANYTHING (with maybe one exception) had such a cool character that you could never ever forget it: the lady who says "BOOO!", the priest performing the wedding (officialy known as "The Impressive Clergy Man"), the albino, Miracle Max AND EVEN HIS WIFE are all unforgettable characters. Their ten seconds of screen time are enough for us to remember them for ten decades. I'm sure that when I'm eighty I'm still going to try to impersonate "Mawwiage is what bwings us togevo today" any chance I get. We love these characters and we love to let them entertain us. Fiction needs to be that way. (Note that the princess bride IS FILLED with flashbang moments,especially in the book, but that they are not what make us watch or read... the fight scenes are worthless without the witty and friendly chatter going on at the same time)

    Heck, while I'm talking about William Goldman let's talk about "Maverick". Awesome flick. Surprising twist at the end. First you say: "What??", but then you realize that it makes sense. The twist wasn't an afterthought, and it's fun to watch the movie again and see that the twist wasn't far fetched at all. "Maverick" is just as rewatchable as "The Princess Bride" If I wasn't worried about space I'd write an "Ode to Goldman" right now. He definitely ranks in my top ten of all fiction writers.

    What was I talking about? Oh yeah... dime a dozen fiction.

    By the way, I really enjoyed iron man. I don't care that he didn't die. I did care that he revealed his identity. It would have been really easy to kill him, and it would have been just a little more believable if the blast that killed the bad guy would have done a little more than just knocked him aside. I loved the doctor that saves his life at the beginning.

    Anyhow, Schmetterling has a valid point. I'll still take dime a dozen fiction, but I'd really rather get the better lies instead. Better = not dependent on FlashBang bombardment for keeping my attention. FlashBang is good, only it's got to sit in the passenger seat and let substance do the driving.

  6. Hooraaaaaaaaaay, a point for meeeeee....

    At least ONE person doesn't think I'm a COMPLETE nutso....

  7. Whoa, now . . . I never claimed you were a complete nutso.

    I just happen to not agree with you.

    And I'll recant and let you demonize mass-market paperback novels to your hearts' content, but please recognize that they do not by any means embody the state of fiction as a whole. They're the vocal minority in an amazingly huge body of work that includes fiction far superior.

    As for finding "sensational" non-fiction or as Schlange put it, "reality dug up for wonderment": these days, you don't find too much of that. Mostly because publishers and writers don't trust it after the whole debacle with James Frey. (Not to mention Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass) The more sensational a piece of non-fiction, the more likely we as now-cynical people will believe it is far more fictional than it claims.

  8. .

    I only agree with that as regards nonfiction of recent vintage. There is lots of nonfiction/history being published of things long ago that is fascinating. Look around! Go to the history section of any large bookstore and pull off the ones with interesting spines!

    And I'm amazed that we're knocking escapist fiction so much. I have a hard time remembering it exists. I'll often give a big name a try, but then I'm done with them. Unless there's more too them. Stephen King's Cell for instance--no doubt dismissed by many as a gory zombie novel--was one of the finest treatises of human nature I've ever read (technically: listened to on cd driving to and from work).

    What are we looking for?

    This is what we find.

  9. Interestingly, the first thing I thought of when this entry mentioned escapist fiction is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which is soooooo much more than escapist fiction.

    I guess my reading habits may have affected the way I reacted.

    And this is my thing about recent histories written of things long ago: everything seems so inevitably dry to me. But perhaps I'm looking in the wrong places?

  10. Here confuzzled, try "The Great Brain" series by John Fitzgerald. I hope it's as good now as it was when i read it in the 5th grade. The books are loosely based around Fitzgerald's childhood experiences in the late 1800's. Mostly the stories he tells are about his brother and his latest and greatest schemes to con the neighborhood kids out of their cash.

    Also try "A Fine and Pleasant Misery" by Patrick F. McMannis - it's a satire on his childhood experiance.

    Oh, since this is still officially the Iron Man post, I wanted to throw out there that I really enjoyed suit development scenes in the show. They didn't have to spend nearly so much time showing us what he did to develop the suit, but I was really glad that they did. Those scenes gave a dimension of charm to the film.

  11. .

    Kavalier and Clay was a a good book.

    And I should say that I understand what you mean, Schmett--I've been feeling a little overfictioned lately (as will be mentioned in my next 5 post). I get most of my nonfiction from mags (how's this for escapist?), but Simon Winchester springs to mind as a fun-to-read historian. (That's for you, Confuzzled.)

    I liked the Great Brain books when I was a kid too, though I can't vouch for them anymore. It's been a long time and my tastes change. I get pickier as I age.

    I also thought I would mention that sometimes purely escapist crap (to use your terms) can't even merit a full book. Laurel Hamilton, for instance. I didn't get very far before I gave up. And that was on cd in the car with nothing else to do! It was awful!

  12. .

    Saw Iron Man. Liked it a lot. He probably should have died.