True Crime (Part One)

by Nolan Doyle

Note: On the eve of the second episode of a series that documents one of the most culturally captivating “true crime” narratives of our time, American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson, here are some thoughts on the significance of the genre.

The consensus was that no title on Jack the Ripper ever gathers much dust … the hottest backlist titles now, in the true crime genre, deal with serial killers
– the more gruesome and grotesque the better.[1] 


Jack the Ripper

The above quote comes from an article in Publisher’s Weekly in 1993. With some slight modification, it could have been published last week. True crime still dominates media from a publisher’s backlist to Netflix. As the quote suggests, this is not a new phenomenon. It is, has been for centuries, a genre of consistent popularity and dubious respect. Respect aside, literary or otherwise, I’ve noticed a recent trend: its titles are growing increasingly popular. It’s beginning to shake its Rodney-Dangerfield-syndrome.

What is True Crime?

In case the moniker doesn’t describe the genre sufficiently, a definition:

True crime is a non-fiction literary and film genre in which the author examines an actual crime and details the actions of real people.[2]

Do forgive the phrasing of this definition: it sounds just like the opening credits disclaimer for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. As a work of fiction, SVU happens to be classified as a “legal drama,” a fact for your consideration. Unlike SVU, in true crime the author examines a real-life criminal case. The author acts as an investigative journalist, who reports to the audience. For the author, that it is an “actual” crime adds consequence and importance to the case. As for the viewer, that these are “real” people adds the gravity of human consequence. In tandem, it may be that the pleasure in a true crime narrative is in participation in a larger, culturally significant story. And, in the modern incarnation of the narrative, the degree of “audience participation” has been amplified.


There has been much speculation with regard to the origin of “true crime.” One of those speculators and part-time true crime author, Joyce Carol Oates attempted to describe the phenomenon in 1999:

Accounts of true crime have always been enormously popular among readers. The subgenre would seem to appeal to the highly educated as well as the barely educated, to women and men equally.[3]

According to Oates, true crime does not have any intellectual barriers; anyone can participate. It seems to be the case that true crime is accessible. Since its accessible and engaging, it tends to be popular. As a function of its popularity:

“true crime” has become a crowded, flourishing field, though few writers of distinction have been drawn to it.[4]

That she says that few writers of distinction have been drawn to it is an interesting statement: with herself and Truman Capote as two that I can name off-the-cuff. Historic appeal to writers of distinction aside, a few things have changed since Oates wrote on the subject: namely, the subject matter and the storyteller’s medium.

Modern True Crime (continued in part two):capote

Once home to gruesome, grotesque retellings of serial killers’ lives and murderous careers, the genre has pivoted in an interesting, engaging way. Typically an arena for heavyweight investigative journalism (think: In Cold Blood) the genre has become host to the revisionist court case. The revisionist court case, where the author/investigator reports on the investigation and the audience supplants the jury.

Yesterday, the Broncos defeated the Panthers in the Super Bowl. A few times during the game, the referees went to the booth to review a call. This brought to mind something we consider in regard to revisionist procedure: in football, we live in an era of instant replay—where the audience knows better than the referee, or at least thinks that he does…

Note: In part two, let’s consider three important narratives in modern true crime: Serial, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer. With respect to these stories, a look at audience size and critical reception. With audience participation in mind, we’ll examine the legal, cultural consequences of each story and why we like to feel involved.




[1] David Schmid (2010). “True Crime”. In Charles J. Rzepka; Lee Horsley. A Companion to Crime Fiction. John Wiley & Sons.

[2] Ray Surette (2010). Media, Crime and Criminal Justice: Images, Realities, and Policies. Cengage Learning. p. 92.

[3] Oates, Joyce Carol (1999), “The Mystery of JonBenét Ramsey”, The New York Review of Books, Vol. 46, No. 11, 24 June 1999.

[4] Oates, Joyce Carol (1999), “The Mystery of JonBenét Ramsey”, The New York Review of Books, Vol. 46, No. 11, 24 June 1999.

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iTheocracy and Sexualization in The Handmaid’s Tale and Reality

by Claire Sbardella

Last summer I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. No more relevant time, I thought: what with the Josh Duggar scandal that had occurred earlier that summer, and the rise of misogynistic demagogues such as Donald Trump. The speculative fiction novel portrays a dystopian environment where a theocratic, totalitarian government overtakes the United States, and where strict interpretation of the Bible reaches its ultimate conclusion. One real world parallel to this is the Quiverfull sect, while another is misogyny in public figures. An example of a family that follows Quiverfull ideology is the Duggar family, former stars of 19 Kids and Counting. Donald Trump, currently a major public figure, has on numerous occasions displayed enormous misogyny, racism, and fear. An important outcome of both is an emphasis on female purity and their role of serving men, which leads to increased sexualization of women and distorted interactions between genders.

Atwood draws the principles for her theocracy from the Old Testament. For example, women were treated as the property of men and were bought and sold. If a man was rich enough to have female slaves, he was also intimate with them. For example, Abraham, the father of the Israelites, had a wife but also slept with his servant Hagar, eventually having children with both of them, which were considered his. The theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale codifies these tenets and regularizes them. The hierarchy for women lies underneath men. The highest role a women can aspire to is that of Wife, but many, including the main character, are Handmaidens, women whose sole purpose is to bear children. To further subjugate women, the government does not allow them to read or even have names that signify independence from men – the main character’s name, Offred, means “of Fred.” Even clothes oppress: for example Offred’s red dress has a “skirt… ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full” (Atwood 2). This scarlet dress demonstrates her rank as handmaiden, the red color symbolizing her sexual availability for procreative purposes.

As fanatical and unlikely as Atwood’s government seems, it is not much more extreme than some well-known subcultures today. When taken into context with the Duggars’ religion (stars of the former reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting), the religious sect Quiverfull, Atwood’s dystopia seems more immediate and pronounced. The name of the sect comes from Psalm 127:3, “Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord. . ./Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.” Like the theocracy in The Handmaid’s Tale, practitioners desire to return to fundamental Biblical principles. Because women in this movement are expected to be homemakers and child-rearers, education beyond high school is discouraged. Modest clothing, such as long skirts and loose tops, are required for women. Birth control of any type is not allowed, due to the fact that they deem separating sex from procreation immoral.

As seen in the case of Josh Duggar, subjugating women under man’s authority leads to their heightened sexualization and exploitation. Josh was raised within the Quiverfull movement and starred on 19 Kids and Counting. He was later found guilty of various sexual offenses, the worst of them the molestation of his younger sisters. His parents covered the crime, and it remained hidden until the investigation by the news website In Touch. The nonchalance of Josh’s parents and their insistence that such “sexual exploration” was normal in their community was as disturbing as the molestation itself.

cover-768The psychological damage and fear that Offred endures day to day as a Handmaiden  parallels that of the gross traumas Josh inflicted on the women in his life. Josh’s crimes were hidden until the information was leaked last year, meaning that the victims were forced to keep their trauma quiet for years. Not only that, but Josh later wrote “Modesty was a factor. . . . It was not uncommon for my younger siblings to come out of their baths naked or with a towel.” Here blame is leveled on the victims themselves, small children. Offred too is trapped. She cannot speak to other women except about the barest trivialities, for fear of being spied on and executed. The slightest interactions between men and women are sexualized: “these two men . . . aren’t yet permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me” (Atwood 4).

Margaret Atwood’s searing and thought-provoking novel demonstrates the ultimate conclusion of systemic female oppression. While I do not believe that modern society as a whole holds such stringent worldviews (there is a reason that Quiverfull is only a small sect), the book can help shed light on the Duggar scandal by imagining a world in which women suffer extreme lack of agency, and the heightened sexualization which occurs when gender roles are enforced.

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How to Write a Young Adult Novel

by Emma Nash

With graduation fast approaching, college seniors everywhere are faced with the terrifying prospect of their impending adulthood. We have reached the point in our lives at which we must start contributing to the nation’s workforce in one way or the other (excluding of course those of us who have deferred in favor of a few years in grad school). Since I understand the horror of not knowing what the future holds, I want to proffer one potential career option to my fellow soon-to-be graduates: why not try your hand at writing Young Adult fiction? It’s an excellent alternative for those of us who are too creative and free-spirited to sit in an office all day. As a YA author, you’ll never have to worry about things like break room etiquette or finding the perfect pair of black slacks for the office.


Toward this goal, here is my (un)patented how-to guide, “How to Write a YA Novel”:

What you’ll need:

  1. Spare time
  2. MacBook
  3. English degree (recommended, not required)

What your story will need:your-utopia-my-dystopia

  1. Setting: should be one of the following—
    1. Dystopian America
    2. Future/Space Dystopia
    3. Mythical/Medieval Dystopia
    4. Washington state
  2. A corrupt/ totalitarian government, so rigidly evil as to resolve any ethical grey area concerning the protagonist’s choice to oppose it.
  3. Strong Female Protagonist who (choose at least 3 of the following):
    1. Recently turned 16, 17, or 18 years old.
    2. Is beautiful, but doesn’t know it. Be sure that this is one of her defining character traits.
    3. Is very slim, usually despite the fact that she never exercises.
    4. Has special previously undiscovered mystical powers.
    5. Is secretly good at archery.
    6. Is missing one or more parent.
    7. Has at least one dependent (perhaps an archetypically innocent little sister?).
    8. Is a lovable loner.
    9. Has an inconvenient/unnecessarily extravagant name (ex. Selene Stonehenge or Alana Fairmeadow).
    10. Bad attitude masquerading as independence.
    11. Has a distinct hairstyle.
    12. Has secret musical ability.
    13. Looks like the author, but isn’t a vehicle for the author to live out her fantasies.
    15. Is poor.
    16. Secret princess!?!?
    17. Has undergone a traumatizing childhood experience
    18. Is unfailingly, impractically selfless (enough so to make Ayn Rand roll over in her grave).
    19. Makes attempts at witty banter.
    20. Is terminally ill.
    21. Experiences repressed sexual desire.
    22. Isn’t like other girls (exactly how she is so different, we may never know).
    23. Has disturbingly low self-esteem.
  4. Gratuitous angst.rebellion
  5. A plucky best friend (not necessarily human) (not as attractive as protagonist).
  6. A love triangle; be sure to note that:
    1. The love interests should be constantly described as vastly different from one another (be sure to never provide any evidence of substantial dissimilarity of character—differences should be purely cosmetic).
    2. One love interest must be familiar, safe, and overly protective. The other must be new, dangerous, and overly protective.
  7. Adults who just don’t understand
  8. Place names derived from ancient languages.
  9. A larger-than-life moral quandary (the answer to which should be obvious to the reader, but utterly indecipherable to the protagonist).


And that’s it! If you can fit these elements into your story, you’re guaranteed success as the next big YA author. Look forward to a life of ease and prestige! Well, at least a life of ease.

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Sharks, Spaghetti-Os, and Other Nonsense

by Caroline Todd

Here’s a quick summary of every Art History course from 101 to an honors thesis: every artistic movement is a reaction against whatever came before it. After the austere extravagance of the Baroque era, the French aristocracy introduced the light, whimsical, Rococo style, and the Realists followed the Romantics. Nowadays, though, the art world is stuck in a strange limbo. Many art historians and critics refer to our contemporary art scene as “post-postmodernist” (some are serious, but thankfully most are joking) – though modernism stuck around for a while after World War II, our self-reflective postmodern ship sailed a few decades back. With a critical perspective on artistic production at the center of artists’ minds since the 1950s and ’60s, our predominant artistic mode has been anti-establishment ever since. In fact, it’s been that way for so long that we no longer have any boundaries to test. Real people visited a Chicago art gallery in 2010 to watch a performance artist open a can of Spaghetti-Os and stuff them in her pants while reciting a nihilistic poem. In 1991, a New York investment banker paid $12 million for a dead shark placed in an enormous tank of formaldehyde (that eventually decomposed to the point that it had to be replaced). All this more than forty years after celebrated composer John Cage premiered his famous work 4’33” – four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

Damien Hirst's pretentiously titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Call me a traditionalist, but there’s little contemporary art I legitimately enjoy. When I visit a museum, my first stop is the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European art galleries; I’m one of the emerging avant-garde’s biggest fans. Though the art world has never been a flawless one, and gifted artists go overlooked just as less-talented-but-well-connected ones ascend to fame, the twentieth century’s decreased attention to aesthetics makes talent less a part of the artist-as-celebrity equation than it used to be. Now it’s more about ideas, which is admirable to an extent – after all, pure aesthetics can only go so far to convey the depth of human experience. But since what people are willing to pay for your work serves as a measure of your worth as an artist, those who somehow manage to make millions of dollars on a few pieces emerge triumphant. Take Jeff Koons, for example, who came to the art world from Wall Street. Armed with knowledge of what an equal parts fabulously wealthy and spectacularly pretentious New York art market might be willing to pay for, he made his artistic debut in the 1970s. (One time, he stuck three basketballs in an aquarium, and another time he set four vacuums on display in a glass case.) His Balloon Animal (Orange) recently sold at Christie’s for $155 million, making it the most expensive artwork ever sold by a living artist. Of course, it can’t even really be called “his” Balloon Animal, as Koons’ process relies entirely on his artistic workshop making every one of his pieces for him.

Kandinsky's Composition VII

Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VII

Koons’ work, as well as other contemporary artists’, raises an important question: is it truly good art, or does its value stem from the good name attached to it? As an English and Art History double major, I’ve become somewhat of a snob by default, and I understand just enough postmodern cultural theory to declare the latter. But my official pronouncement of Bad Art stems out of a respect for all the works I’ve mentioned so far, with no small amount of disdain, as “art” – which at its most basic definition is anything, truly anything, the artist or creator decided to endow with the title. You can’t claim something like Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VII isn’t art because your four-year-old niece could do it, chiefly because she didn’t, and she probably wasn’t around to understand the transformative cultural implications of expressionistic art in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Art hasn’t always been perfect – the Old Masters had workshops too, and they didn’t paint every one of their works all by themselves, especially if they were in high demand. Many artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became famous because they were in the right place at the right time, or were lucky enough to have enough money to spend on an extensive Royal Academy training. (Of course, most of these artists also happened to be white men, but redefining the artistic canon is another problem altogether.) Generally, though, the artists we keep coming back to have one thing in common: they set historical precedent. Major players like the Cubists, the Dadaists, the first performance artists, or my favorite Manet, all caused a stir, but a few brave others followed suit and the legitimate movements that we still discuss today were born.

You can’t do that with Spaghetti-Os.

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Experimental Literature

By Emma Nash

Generally speaking, I favor what’s conventional. I’m the type who prefers paintings be of traditional landscapes, hunting dogs, or horses, and finds that anything more avant-garde than Picasso is best viewed in a museum. Therefore, it can come as little surprise to the reader that I was wary of Experimental Literature when I first began studying it. My initial instinct was to consign Experimental Writing to the same place I had avant-garde artwork. That is, I thought it might be worthwhile for study in academic settings, but had no place in practical or everyday use. Basically, when I thought of “experimental” literature, I pictured gaunt, turtleneck-clad figures lurking in dank coffee shops and jazz clubs, taking drags from quellazaires and cultivating their ennui. I never imagined it could grace the bedside tables of working mothers or the beach bags of vacationing grandfathers. To use an obvious and perhaps extreme comparison, your average suburban family wouldn’t have Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” in its living room.

Of course, my conception of Experimental Literature resulted largely from ignorance of the genre (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad not only received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2011, but also enjoyed a high degree of commercial success). When I began my capstone course on “Hybrid Texts,” I quickly and happily discovered the wide variety of experimental work that was simultaneously thought provoking and conventionally entertaining.

For example, consider M.K. Asante’s memoir Buck, which includes a free hip-hop soundtrack to accompany the book. The soundtrack adds meaning to Buck’s story, and readers’ experience wouldn’t be the same without it (in an interview with, Talib Kweli, who partnered with Asante to create the album, noted that it allowed the viewer to enter the world portrayed in Buck). However, the book still stands alone without the accompanying soundtrack, dealing poignantly with difficult issues in a concrete and approachable way, such that the reader need not be an expert on hip-hop to appreciate the story portrayed.

mausConsider also Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Maus is Spiegelman’s retelling of his father’s memory of the Holocaust. Importantly, it is a comic book, and as such differs vastly from traditional literature. However, unlike what I’d imagined of experimental literature, rather than alienating its audience through excessively cerebral and ostentatious devices, Maus’s form allows greater access to the emotion and horror associated with an impossibly awful story. For instance, Maus depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. The metaphor is simple, but the implications are profound: readers better apprehend the helpless fear the Jews felt of the Nazis who hunted them.

Asante and Spiegelman certainly made use of experimental writing in ways that deepen every reader’s understanding of their books. In these instances, experimental writing is helpful to the lay reader. However, what do we do about those pieces of experimental literature that are not immediately accessible to readers, particularly those outside of academic settings? Anne Carson’s Nox is a beautiful and fascinating elegiac remembrance of her older brother Michael, written around the framework of Catullus’ 101, an ancient Latin elegy honoring that poet’s brother. Nox is highly experimental (it’s compiled like a scrapbook, the pages covered in ephemera from the author’s life). Fully understanding Nox requires that the reader have extensive knowledge about the Latin language and the study of Classical languages and culture. What’s more, even a cursory apprehension of the book requires some outside knowledge or research (i.e. knowing that Catullus’ 101 is about the poet’s brother). This kind of book demands that its audience engage with more than just the textual story, and is therefore inaccessible to the casual reader. What’s more, Nox’s sticker price ($30 on Amazon after a price cut from the original $42) might be discouraging to “casual” readers. This being the case, I wonder where Nox belongs. Does it require too much effort to belong in the popular canon? Are there books that belong only in academia? Or is it unfair of us to limit its sphere just because it requires greater engagement on the reader’s part?nox

These questions raise others: If some books are best studied in academia, what is the cutoff? Is it a spectrum? Is there a point at which a book becomes such a hassle that it no longer counts as entertainment? Is there a point at which innovation becomes so cumbersome as to make it impractical?

What do you think? When does innovation lose its value? Do books like Spiegelman’s Maus belong in the same curriculum as those like Night by Elie Wiesel?

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Ivory Kings/ Stern Beauty and a Rich History in Chess

When I ordered the erudite Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings (St. Martins, 2015), I just meant to scratch little itch, satisfy a whimsical curiosity. Years ago when I was a dedicated chess stumblebum I learned about the Isle of Lewis chessmen and was enchanted by photos of them – severe, dignified, beautiful. When I had the opportunity, a decade ago in Cobh, I purchased a polymer replica of one of the kings from that bag of artifacts and placed it on the desk in my study, so when I recently saw that someone had written a new book about them, I thought it would be more about art and carving than anything else and that I’d get a full explanation of their origins, history and so on. No weighty cultural stuff, you understand. And, by the way, there are many books on these fascinating figures.

lewis piecesAfter all, what did I know of the far north beyond skalds, Danegold, Showtime’s Ragnar Lothbrok (who was a historical figure), Vineland, scenes from a Kirk Douglas film, bits of eddas, the Penguin version of the Laexdala Saga, broadswords and dragon ships, the majority of it remembered from my readings of Beowulf? I sought a taste and found a feast.

Half an hour into the book I was learning about the walrus ivory trade, amazing raids, Arabian silver, trade and migrations of the Vikings, the history of Scandinavian Christianity as reflected in the game’s evolution, conflicts between the sagas, the nature and legends of the berserkers and much more. Amid the unfamiliar place names, kings’ and saints’ names, multilingual references and etymologies, Brown has used the evolving history of the military, royal and ecclesiastical figures in the Lewis find as a portal to the history of chess and of northern Europe. And though she suggests the story’s big surprise early on, the author gives us plenty to think about before details of the big reveal: the likely carver of most of the pieces was, appropriately, Margret the Adroit. Yes, “Magret,” as in “Margaret.”

Whim is not enough to get one as innocent of Norse culture as I am through a book so dense with the names of fjords, stave churches, major figures like Sigurd Mouth and Gudmund the Good, but Brown’s energetic and precise writing, her own sense of whim and the growing implication of the importance of the details of Viking merchants and their pursuit of silk or the greed of archbishops or the grit of explorers seeking the next big walrus hunting ground . . . well, it’s a hard book to read but equally hard to close. Ivory Vikings sports forty pages of notes, but I could also have used a glossary, more images of the pieces, more extensive genealogies, more detailed maps and timelines to make me feel at home in the braided and jump-cut narrative, which is as clever as it is learned but so rife with the ancient (but to me “new”) information, that its pleasure and labor are seldom quite separate.

Thank goodness Brown writes with panache and a sense of humor about the high seriousness of her larger subject, which is the shaping of modern thought and human ambitions, but I felt a little ambushed near the end when her early assertions about the actual authorship of the late medieval carvings turns out to be just a viable theory. She occasionally winks and nods and hints, but otherwise treats the belief (or wish) that Margret the Adroit made the bishops, kings, queens and rooks as if there were some consensus. I know the mystery is intriguing, and saying we don’t really know the creator’s identity would likely dampen the allure, but though I won’t deny her gambits and tactics, I think her knights should move in conventional and uniform fashion throughout the book. She should say early on that Margret is primarily an appealing candidate whose presence allows for a compelling narrative..

lewis berserkIvory Vikings has, nonetheless, many wonders to reveal. How can a chess piece be berserk, go berserk, be a berserker? [Berserk is literally “bear shirt.”] Before the rooks were images of towers, they were shield-bearing warriors in byrnies and helms. Bearing their swords, eager for battle glory, many are portrayed as chewing on the rims of their shields. If this seems unlikely, watch football players on the sidelines in their pre-game rage wind-ups. But my description of the pieces is neither as accurate nor as deft as that of NMB the Adroit.

The queens – whether in dismay or despair, grief or calculation – are all portrayed with a hand on the cheek, as if mid-sigh. I think one look at the Lewis Chessmen entry on the images search of Google will send hordes to Amazon for this book, and Ms. Brown’s rigor and panache as a storyteller are up to the task of chronicling a voyage through the book. For accompanying images, however, Google will be useful as a prop.

Just a note on Brown’s style may be useful. She’s witty, fond of extended catalogues and embellishment. It’s tempting to say that her writing is as Romanesque as the ornaments on the Lewis royal pieces’ thrones, the clauses curling like vines and lush foliage, dragonish, elegant as competition knots. But it’s easy to fall into rhythm with them and just enjoy the language . . . until another of those paragraphs with (to the uninitiated) unpronounceable names and places rolls around.

Most people are familiar with Staunton style chess pieces, and quite a few with Renaissance sets reminiscent of Charlemagne’s court, Bergmanesque Gothic and even Civil War sets. Brown never points this out, but the Lewis set is so much richer a trove of historical and cultural implication that to play with such a set must be a different experience from what I’m accustomed to. The non-white pieces would likely have been (back when Bishop Pall commissioned Margret to fashion them, if that’s truly what happened) reddish, madder-stained, and since I’ve often held my polymer replica (similar in size and weight, as well as configuration) of a walrus ivory original king, I’m not sure playing with plastic would be bearable, though a nicely-turned Staunton set still works.

I’ve learned a little of what the pages of Ivory Vikings have to offer (say a shifty opening, a Sicilian defense, a fork) but I’m still playing in the dark, as I read the book only once and quickly. If I don’t find to correct that soon, I expect to be punished, perhaps with the shameful fretsterfermat, a kind of mate, but you’ll have to look that one up on your own.

lewis berserk

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Tangerines and Grief

tangerinesIn the Estonian-Georgian film Tangerines, which I recently viewed on Netflix, the central character Ivo, at an impromptu evening picnic in a near-deserted war-torn village, can think of only Death to toast. His three companions, all deeply scarred by the 1992 conflict – two of them enemies, rescued casualties from a firefight – demur, but Ivo persists, telling the soldiers Ahmed, a Chechen mercenary, and Niko, a Georgian volunteer, that they are the children of Death and its servants. For the past year I have been disheartened and almost willing to raise a glass in that desperately defiant and ironic salute to the grim reaper, but after an hour and a half with Tangerines, I began to feel ashamed of myself.

The last decade has been hard on my friends, and I have counted the afflictions and fatalities, nursing my grief like a private, secret, even prized, possession. I’ve been unable or unwilling to attend memorial ceremonies, keep in contact with families, participate in written tributes. Those who found solace in the sorrow dance suddenly seemed like strangers. The result has been a self-righteous isolation: these public rituals fell so far short of what I believed my profounder-than-thou feelings of loss that participation would seem, I reasoned, like an understatement. My misery didn’t want company, as I didn’t want to overdramatize my sorrow nor to minimize it, so I withdrew from any potential community of mutual solace and bore down, pulled in my outposts, concentrating on daily survival, sequestering when possible with my wife, staring at the TV’s festival of horrors – extreme weather, national and international political sniping and lying, terrorism, insurrection, economic threats. The collective grievances all served to distract me from examining my own grieving inertia, which amounted in the end to misconduct.

Eager to deny that we’re immersed in self-pity, we’re capable of excavating a sanctuary of distraction and numbness, only to discover that it soon becomes a pretty effective grave. We harden, accentuate the practical, minimize the emotional. We soldier on, eyes front. But then, if we’re very lucky, something breaks the trance. In my life the awakening agent has often been the discovery (or rediscovery) of a work of art – film, poem, story, song, painting – and I won’t go so far as to claim that art heals me like some medical prozac panacea, but it speaks to me in that thunderous and irresistible whisper with which the bust of Apollo said to Rilke, “You much change your life.”

Of course, timing is crucial. Back before Christmas, I would have kept my mind too distracted to really engage with Tangerines, and even last week I probably wouldn’t have been quite ripe for a face-to-face encounter with Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” to help me start rescuing myself, but Tangerines (Mandarinebi in Estonian) came as a surprise and provided just the summons I needed. I suspect I was not alone. After all, the film received, I’ve discovered, nominations for best foreign language film in both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards last year. . . though on second thought, those may be suspect credentials. Fortunately, I often find the decentering element of foreign films can bring from the periphery some topic or imagery that I can see with my direct gaze clearly for the first time. Maybe it’s the subtitles, but I suspect it’s more a matter of non-American filmmakers being not so inclined to “entertain,” to both exploit and encourage our shallowness. They demand more.

I don’t want to tell too much about this film. Its story is an old one, its trajectory nearly guessable, but what follows is just a hint at how the small story of four men working out their salvation with diligence plays against the backdrop of the “large” stories of war, sectarian hostility, displacement, harvest.

In Zaza Urushadze’s film (his as writer, director, producer), the grandfatherly Ivo and the younger Margus remain in their evacuated village to bring in the precious tangerine harvest, despite war’s rapid approach. Ivo makes crates, his friend picks fruit, the landscape teems and shimmers – with both sea and mountains close, the forest deep and the sky deeper. The setting is vital in all senses, and the men robust, disciplined, dedicated to their task, stoically good-natured, given the circumstances. But the savagery falls upon them, and soon they witness a firefight and rescue a pair or survivors, whom they nurse as the two sworn enemies taunt each other, threaten and engage in vitriolic dispute. I’m paring this down in an embarrassing way, but I don’t want to interfere with readerss chances to see the film afresh.

It’s an old story: each combatant slowly and perilously begins to recognize the other’s humanity, and as they do, their allegiances, losses and griefs are revealed, along with those of Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and Margus (Elmo Nuganen). The Chechen mercenary Ahmed and the Georgian volunteer Niko begin to shed their prejudices and indoctrination. (There’s an old Twilight Zone episode, “Two,” along this line with Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery, and such stories usually begin with the “last two standing” premise, as does the song “Wooden Ships” or Hardy’s “The Man He Killed”). Empathizing as they learn to share their sorrows, they assist their hosts with the work around the farm and promise to assist with the harvest. To watch them guardedly gravitate towards one another is to be reminded of Faulkner’s “human heart in conflict with itself.”

You don’t want to be told how the inhumane obstacles arise, as that would spoil the dramatic tension, but before they do, much is exchanged among fatalist, Christian and Muslim – questions of mortality and duty, fathers and sons, harvests accomplished and harvests thwarted, honor and fairness. The rough bucolics provide a powerful backdrop which helps to keep sentimentality at bay; the wounds are all deep, the treatments severe, the dialogue authentic. Perhaps the hardest element of the narrative to embrace is: of the four survivors holed up in this front line village, all four are actually good men, but none a duplicate of the other. I wish I could believe in that ratio as representative. As the story develops, the men’s plans and needs twist together like the vines of a wisteria, braiding strength. Soon they are engaged in word and communion, at war with the war, but the story, the time, requires sacrifice in order that disaster be averted.

At the end, the titles rolled, as did the landscape and plangent music, and I pondered the cost to each of those men to understand and express his own dreams and miseries. Dire circumstances and the guidance of the sardonic Ivo brought them out of the solipsistic (or numbed) refraction of their feelings and into a vital relationship with their pasts, their destinies and their companions.

tangersceneThe acting was moving, the script running from grim to wry to droll. An allegory, perhaps, with its journeys and meetings, its dark night of the soul and the inexorable silent progress of the citrus crop – ripe for picking but with only a brief window of opportunity.

From start to finish, I saw actors portraying the kind of man I had forgotten how to strive to be – resourceful, stoic but sympathetic, receptive and centered and generous. Art had done its job again; a made-up but believable story had nurtured and stimulated me and said, “try harder; you have that responsibility.” The influence of Tangerines has lasted for days, and I hope it will continue to do so, but I’m sure I’ll eventually need another fix, which I can’t get from buying a rapid-fire weapon, nor from cursing and threatening a whole culture or a band of sojourners or a gender, not even from being rude or dismissive. Tangerines won’t banish pettiness or melodrama any more than “Mending Wall,” A Hundred Years of Solitude or “Trois Gymnopedies” will, and I continue to need booster shots, but I remember now where to seek them, and it will not be in a toast to death.

Tangerines reminds me that I owe a debt to what has been and what will be to shake off my sense of defeat, understand my losses and weave the grief tightly into my personal tapestry of human strength and vulnerability.  I must change my life.

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When Zombies Craved Souls More than Brains (Part deux)

valWhen I slipped out of the Georgia sunlight and into the Rex that Saturday in the fifties, I was not prepared for all the varieties of darkness I was entering.  The film I Walked with a Zombie, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tournier was over a dozen years old and making the scare matinee rounds.  It had not been so successful as Lewton’s The Cat People, in which the techniques of noir mystery meet inexplicable, panther-transforming beings.  Lewton and Tourneaur were already notorious for their shadow effects and enigmas, melodrama and legerdemain, but if they and the writers (Siodmak and Ray) were much aware of either the Bronte overtones or cultural/historical implications of their zombie narrative, they didn’t deploy the connections with systematic vigor.  As for me, I wouldn’t have known Emily from Bramwell, but I was still very much in my impressionable phase, a little uncomfortable over even the cosmetic gargoyles leering from high on the theater walls.  I swallowed my popcorn and RC and chewed (or threw) my Red Devils with a devotion unreminiscent of communion, but I’d heard this movie had a creepy ugly zombie and a beautiful semi-zombie who had been an evil woman in ways the film only dared hint at, so my curiosity drew me into the dark.

Light and darkness, prosperity and poverty, goodness and wickedness, different kinds of physical and psychic confinement — all these were bound up in a cadre of characters I was learning to believe should be watched and understood.  In short [spoiler alert!] a virtuous Canadian nurse is hired to travel to the mysterious Caribbean island of San Sebastian, where she is to tend the mysteriously ill wife of a sugar cane magnate.  Soon the viewer discovers that the family is torn not merely by an unnamed riff (a wife, two brothers, a mysteriously guilty mother, suggestions of incest I didn’t get for years), but the island is even more dramatically divided between luxuriant affluence (white) masquerading as civility, and afflicted poverty (black) perhaps reinforced but certainly excited by nocturnal forces involving drums, ecstatic dancing, chants and spells and trance states.  Unfamiliar and threatening as the voodoo followers are, they come across as the good-hearted party, even with their priest (Sabeur) wielding swords.

zombie 5Almost as soon as Nurse Betsy arrives on the boat from Antigua, a cart driver tells her that the Hollands (cane magnates now imprisoned by fear in their fortress-like compound) “brought the colored folks to the island, the colored folks and Ti Misery, the old man who lives in the garden.”  It happened “long ago . .  . the folk chained to bottom of the boat.”  Willfully naive, it turns out, Nancy remarks that the imports were certainly brought to “a beautiful place.”  “If’n you say,” is the driver’s response.

So the oppressed cane workers, deprived of authority, autonomy and so on, have taken to other avenues to power, and these forces thrive in the swamps beyond the cane rows.  It’s easy now to see it unfolding, but Nancy/Jane Eyre, when we see her fall for Mr. Holland while caring for his near-catatonic wife, still seems innocent, and the woods are dark and deep but not so lovely.

Ti Misery, by the way, is the prow ornament from the ship that brought the slaves, an image of St. Sebastian, arrows and all.  He means more to the cane workers than the cane owners, but the writers miss many great chances with him yet manage a couple of brilliant images of the statue.

But the Euro-folk don’t much rely on their religion, as they have science, modern medicine, and the downtrodden workers have their more mysterious forces and sympathetic magic.  No one will quite say what Jessica Holland did that earned her the curse of madness, but insinuations mount up — something about the brother she isn’t married to, but also suggestions of cruelty, perhaps towards workers.

zombie 4It never quite parses or unknots, but the voodoo scenes are what I “got,” was chilled by and remembered — controlling people with dolls and needles, a stabbing of the accursed woman without her flinching or shedding blood, the grisly animal parts hanging from trees and bone altars on the ground.  The film opposes the members of the two races but isn’t clear in its imagining of voodoo and Christianity as contrary forces, so maybe it’s time for someone to remake this story. . . but no, they’ll never get the poetry right, the atmospherics, the night walks into the cane fields, the zombie  servant of Damballah with his huge eyes, the sound of the blown conch through the ground fog.

Near the end of the film, a family member admits of the poor mad wife, “Jessica is not insane.  She’s dead.”

So undead, really.  And how do you cure that or rescue someone from it.  The fact that only one large problem is resolved by the end of the film left me unsettled.  It was a little like reading “Young Goodman Brown” before I was ready for it.  I wanted to know what was right, what was kind.  It was years before I understood that I had also been placed in the midst of a dangerous dynamic.  Good or bad, the former slaves were portrayed as dealing in unnatural forces.  Bad or good, the former masters (now drunks, quarrelers, liars and abusers) were still the ones with the trappings of culture.  It took the Sixties to even set my mind in the right direction on this dilemmas, but by then I wasn’t thinking of zombies so much as night riders and attack dogs, and though I’ve given it a lot of thought over the past decade, I’ve yet to go back and unpack that whole film to see which of its narrative and imagistic  roots were insidious, and which of my own . . . .zombie sebastian



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When Zombies Craved Souls More than Brains

(Part 1)
Lurking in Local Shadows: Rumor, Legend, Fantasy, Landscape, Twisted Religion

zombie 1When I was a boy – say eight, nine, ten – I was terrified of zombies, who always seemed involved in both mystery and the Mysteries. I had never heard of George Romero or The Night of the Living Dead (which does not employ the word “zombie”), but what I knew of zombiedom came from Weird Tales, Val Lutens’ somewhat confusing but brilliantly atmospheric and resonant film I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and stories, quips and recipes from local ancients like Granny Johnson, who was said to be half Choctaw and who seemed to keep all summer in the eave of her stoop a gigantic web with a writing spider which could stop your heart if it ever spelled your name. That was gospel in our gang. We occupied an atmosphere of superstition – witchcraft, Haitian voudoun, séance foolishness, ghost stories even at church camp and actual peculiar and violent misbehavior in our local haunts and news reports. Blood and secrecy, titillation and genuine menace.   Mask societies and Brotherhoods, even.  Adults thickened the broth,  seeming to delight in exaggeration, insinuation and misdirection, and I suspect some of the local sense of the spooky was summoned in rebellious and contrary minds as counterpoint to the zealous ubiquity of the foot-washing, amen-shouting, Bible-smacking, full-immersion Baptist churches in East Griffin, from Faith to First Sure to Devotee, from Praise out by the Pomona peach orchards to Blood of the Lamb near the rumored Rebel supply depot from way back when.

These days I understand that current zombiephiles, in contrast, are actually delighted to observe gouge and gash and grue and not one iota in fear for their life forces.  It’s all about creatures that have to be killed with the fervor of video game zapping.  I suppose TV has a lot to answer for there, but the aficionados enjoy dressing and painting themselves as the half-mutilated brain gobblers that lurch forward on the flatscreen like Karlof’s mummy or Frankenmonster. A kind of teen Halloween festival scenario.  Zombiefans sometimes maintain that they have a serious intellectual interest in matters apocalyptic, pandemic and allegorical, as well as all manner of natural and human-generated catastrophes. A fair few may be shaking off Thanksgiving lethargy by compiling zombie bibliographies or writing zombie musicals and watching Znation marathons, IZombie, The Walking Dead.  I suppose hobbies are healthy.

zombie 2And I don’t begrudge these operatives in the zombie industry their diligence or their fun and fancy, except when they turn evangelist on me and suggest that, if I’d just read the right zombie masterpieces, I’d be stunned, converted and elated by the authors’ ingenuity and the emotional depth of their characters. I just hope they don’t mind my conviction that they’re playing a game, a faddish and profitable one right now, and a pretty standard academic band-wagon ploy, but not one that leads to a lot of new discoveries about their personal morality, aesthetics, metaphysics or sense of humor. Or human nature. They’re engaged in an extreme version of “making believe”; whereas, my running mates out East McIntosh Road and I actually believed, even if we harbored a flicker of optimistic skepticism. If we found pinned to a skinned willow limb by the tractor shed a snake slough with red thread twisted through it, we’d run back to the house and write Jesus’ name in a dish of salt, while reciting the Twenty-third Psalm, or some such dubious ceremony. “Dubious” I say, but I still have my fetishes, including an agated cow tooth, an arrowhead and a dove wishbone I kept in a Hav-a-Tampa box under my bed for years to ward off something or other.

By clinging to those old days of the fifties, I suspect I’m playing a game, too, but it was no game when I was a shirtless rube in Georgia and then N.C., trusting in much of the jumble I heard about the voodoo religion, which is the bridge across which “zombie” crossed into our mainstream culture. I at least half believed in spells and starlit meetings in the deep woods, Hand of Glory, chicken blood slung about, sweaty priestesses and conjure men in top hats and spats, herbs and needles and chants, all that stuff later appropriated to lend Angel Heart the whiff of authenticity. I believed in the menacing – silent, distant, Other! – Sally Soapsuds, a kind of traiteur she-demon who lived local, just across the deep railroad cut beyond the pine farm, a crabbed and balding crone, as my running mates and I constructed her, who would castrate misbehaving little boys with a corn knife, then use their severed parts in a recipe for coarse soap.

Crazy, I know, and we were a long way from flores por los muertes in Streetcar, Marie Laveau, Anansi and their ilk or the islands where Papa Legba and Baron Samdhi held court. My friends and I were both projecting and patching together an Outsider, an Inexplicable from what mischievous elders told us and what our rancid imaginations could summon, but the fear had real voltage of a sort that current zombiemania lacks. We were trying to figure out who we were, amid school learning, church learning and the wild magic of the woods. The possibility of identity theft and the loss of all will was, we felt in our marrow, a real threat. We had all the heebie-jeebies of Tom Sawyer in the boneyard, but little of his bluster.   And after all, it had to do with the devil, or The Devil, but we weren’t quite certain how.

You see, those old fashioned zombies didn’t come to us as battalions to besiege and attack like Tolkien’s (and Peter Jackson’s) orc hordes. They came as single spies, rattling doorknobs, red-eyed, their bodies whispering against the cornstalks, spells (maybe in Cajun French, which we’d hardly even recognize) on their tongues as they moved with unimaginable stealth and malice aforethought. They slid through ground fog and mire ooze and from one flare of foxfire and swamp gas to the next. They were alternately secretive and brazen, and they did not want to eat our (my!) brains. They wanted our souls, servitude, renunciation of the light. There was a metaphysic in operation here, a spiritual issue, not any junk-science epidemiology (which I’ve researched just enough to equate with mail order ads in the back of comic magazines); perhaps more junk-blasphemy. The zombies of old were to us more like eidolons or ghost riders than monsters, and with them came all the terrifying allure of the occult, all the more threatening because preachers had made it clear that even we “innocents” probably had Dark Hearts. Maybe we were in some ways unconsciously seeking thrill, but the impact was less intellectual than visceral, and if we were being entertained, it was not in a way we recognized. If we sought out the images and texts that sent a jolt of fear through us, it was because we were mindful of my grandmother’s advice against trusting the ignorance-bliss equation.  “It’s best to know what’s out there,” she said almost daily, in a whisper.

zombie 3So much for the local ingredients. I also read Weird Tales, in which the neo-Lovecrafts, as well as some original and transgressive writers, cut their teeth. Werewolves, mummies, deranged dentists, leopard men, escaped lunatics, sachems, Creole conjures, aliens and urban ghouls – it was all fodder for the pages of that thrill-chill publication. And my friends and I composed some stories ourselves, with “The Monkey’s Paw,” “Lygeia” and “The Open Window” as our guides. After all, what was on the page in the daylight twenty-six letters we could participate in, imitate, join. Today it’s called “fan fiction” when it’s not being labeled Young Adult fiction. But we could not similarly master the abandoned barns, brier yards, snaky woods, rotting timber mills, ghost slave narratives told around campfires, runes and bone shards and ideograms, the “Colonel’s Lights” that flickered on the distant hills, then vanished. Daytime school was beginning to teach us to examine the English language, trace the motives, learn how the narratives worked. But the local spoken word, with all its slang and syrupy syllables, was different: anybody who gave voice to the exotic folkloric shiver-and-boo stories (even when we did it ourselves) was in part aiming to further mystify, to thicken the soup, or whatever was bubbling in Sally’s cauldron. And the young imagination newly hazed with testosterone could be a fertile field.

I can see now that our auto-neurotic embrace and conflation of the unknown, the Other, sensational crimes, the twisted way local and regional history and dogma were stored and delivered – it all depended upon some profound but almost ubiquitous misunderstandings, including a complicit but unacknowledged racism, and I want to return to this next week in Part Two, when I focus specifically on Val Lewton’s zombie movie, which also presents the entanglement of cursing and curing in voodoo, twisted together with a metaphysical battle (similar to vampirism’s crucifix-and-holy-water vs. fang-and-dark-heart dynamic) that is steeped in Catholic imagery, some of which had hold of us, though we didn’t get it at prayer meeting. The story also involves impossible-to-ignore conflicts across social classes and between rural and settlement dwellers, as much as between descendants of slaves and descendants of the “gentry” who owned plantations or took wages from those who did, people who, at least legally, owned humans as if they, too, were property. Also, that gentry’s complacent minions.  History told us it was blood-soaked ground, and folklore concurred. It may have all been somewhat exciting, as well as terrifying, but it wasn’t fun.

Next Week: I Walked with a Zombie (or A Canadian Jane Eyre Voyages to St. Sebastian Island, Is Smitten with an Unwidowed Sugar Planter, Ministers to the Undead and Witnesses Strange Rites Amid Whispers of Stranger Wrongs, All Without Mussing Her Coiffure – Also a Scary Sword Trance Dance out Where the Wild Things Lurk)

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Questioning Today’s Young Adult Fiction

Teenage boy reading a book in nature

Teenage boy reading a book in nature

Recently we’ve witnessed a clear trend of the young adult novel and its increasing popularity. For my generation these novels seem completely conventional; it’s what we’ve grown up with. But this hasn’t always been the case. Many people date the birth of today’s young adult fiction, which lies between children’s literature and adult literature, back to S.E. Hinton’s classic, The Outsiders, published in 1967.

The Outsiders is a grim tale: the account of a 14-year-old well-intentioned misfit named Ponyboy who deals with young gang-like violence, death, and feelings of marginalization in society. He writes the book as a way to deal with the resulting grief. Though it deals with dark issues, the story is something of a reasonable tale. Ponyboy and his brothers represent victims of a violent, unguided lifestyle that is all too real.

Reality in adolescent literature has become scarce though. Consider the mega hits of the past decade in this category- The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter (all series) are perhaps the top three. The Hunger Games series details a tradition of a battle reality show, for lack of a better phrase, between young men and women as well as the resulting revolution in a futuristic society. Twilight and its sequels are about the conflicting love between a young lady and a vampire, followed by a werewolf that is allegedly equally as charming. Need I provide a synopsis for the 7-piece Harry Potter series? For those who’ve spent the last ten years in a desert cave, JK Rowling’s “masterpiece” chronicles the coming of age of a young boy in a small English town, turned wizard at an institution for the magically oriented.

harry potterMaybe what is so distinct about these young novels isn’t the unrealistic circumstances, but instead the obvious power and special qualities of the main characters. Young Harry is dubbed “the boy who lived,” after surviving an attack from a deadly foe, and later receives the title “the chosen one,” meant to destroy this foe who would otherwise take over the world. He is the fastest broom rider at his school, and the most naturally gifted when it comes to performing spells. Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen is a prolific bow hunter with the courage to volunteer for her village’s spot to fight in the battle, which typically produces one survivor… the champion.

The bottom line is that these titles sell. They sell like a wildfire burns. The question is, why? Perhaps young readers need a hero; they crave to behold power, skill and triumph in the face of unbeatable circumstances and antagonists. What concerns me, and what I believe we should ask ourselves, is why everything short of magic and glory fails to satisfy young readers to the extent that they adore characters like Katniss and Harry. Not only were the champions of The Outsiders and Catcher in the Rye normal young adults—you might also argue that neither of them succeeded by the end of the novel. That would be the surface impression. Their triumphs were subtle and largely internal. Holden reconnects with his sister in the final scene as the only tangible result, but the reader concludes that he has become comfortable with his place in the world. Ponyboy isn’t as fortunate, but in the process of his hardship comes to terms with the cold realities of adult life.

The latter novels are distinctly less glorious, but they add value to society through their contemplative nature. These books force young readers to question their own impressions of happiness, ethics, and inspire thinking on the challenges and pleasures of growing up. This isn’t to say that these themes don’t extend to today’s young adult literature as well; in fact, each that I’ve mentioned is permeated by these topics. But, they aren’t the focus. They are presented in circumstances that make their verity a doubt. We cannot appreciate the lessons within for their simplicity and applicability to the real world.

Young readers today demand their life lessons with a side of fantasy, and a generous serving of victory for desert. Moving forward, let’s hope that the temptation to eat the carbs and the sugar before the steak doesn’t translate to literature, and more importantly, to learning life lessons at a young and impressionable age. The beauties of our world are simple, and for a generation prizing unrealistic achievement in magical lands, let us hope that they may continue to appreciate—to cherish—all the things they may actually encounter in their lives.

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