[Last weekend, en route to Madagascar, Jeremy M. Davies swung by my Chicago atelier to hear my neighbor perform Mahler’s “Quartet for Strings and Piano in A Minor” on his singing saw. Fifteen minutes in, two other friends stopped by, bearing bootleg DVDs of three new films: Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, and X-Men: First Class. The singing saw forgotten, I fired up my video projector, and a marathon viewing ensued. Hours later, our guests departed, Jeremy and I recorded the following conversation.]
A D: Jeremy, when did you give up on Woody Allen?
Jeremy: Small Time Crooks.
[You want to read the earlier installments, and we want to help you: Part 1, Part 2]
[Drumming our fingers on the tabletop, humming along to Debbie Gibson, we contemplated just walking out on our waitress, when Jeremy remembered a Payday he had in his pocket. Passing it back and forth, we resumed our conversation.]
Jeremy: All this work, and still no appetizers. So we might as well talk about Kenneth Branagh, as this feeling of weary emptiness reminds me so much of his films …
A D: I remember adoring his Dead Again. I saw it on VHS, not too long after it came out. I had to pause it halfway through, I got so excited. I was, I think, all of sixteen.
"Phyrexian Ironfoot" (2006). Artwork by Stephan Martiniere. Copyright Wizards of the Coast.
Every Monday, I read Mark Rosewater’s weekly column “Making Magic,” partly because I have a casual interest in the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering (I once played it, and some of my friends still play it), but mainly because Rosewater routinely offers great insights into aesthetics and game design. (He’s also a strong writer who regularly experiments with his column’s form.)
In an article published a few weeks back, Rosewater outlines why he thinks one of Magic’s villains, the Phyrexians, are that game’s best. As is typical with Rosewater, it boils down to a design principle—in this case, how the game operates narratively:
As a story-telling venue, Magic is best when it is telling what I call environmental stories. That is, the best thing Magic can show off creatively is an environment. The genre of a trading card game requires that you show lots of creatures and places and objects. This does a good job of showing off a diverse environment.
The Weatherlight Saga [a series of much older sets] was an attempt for us to tell a plot driven story through card sets. What we learned from that is that it’s very hard when we can’t control the order that players see the cards to convey traditional plotting. […] What Magic is good at is telling stories about changes that happen on an environmental level. This way the changes aren’t seen on a single card but a wide swath of cards. When we tell a story in another medium, we will tell a story that plays to that medium’s strength. Card sets, though, have to tell stories that can be told through card sets.
One of the reasons that I believe the Phyrexians make a perfect villain is that they attack on an environmental level. Take Scars of Mirrodin [one of the game’s most recent sets] as an example. The attack of the Phyrexians isn’t something seen on a single card but on many, many cards […]. My contention is that Magic’s best villain is one that works in the kind of stories that Magic (the card sets) can tell.
In a basic sense, Rosewater is advocating that an author tell a story appropriate to his or her medium—age-old advice. But let’s look beyond that simple rule of thumb: What does it mean for a story to be appropriate? And what are the consequences for characters?
The WikiLeaks story is dramatic on so many levels, with a character at center stage, Julian Assange, worthy of Shakespeare: accused of sexual impropriety and putting lives at risk, touting an idealistic mission of transforming global geopolitics by turning them inside-out, inspiring the creation of a hall of mirror-sites and spawning cyber-attacks on his behalf and counterattacks from all corners. I’m not sure which Act we’re in right now. I am sympathetic to many of the ostensible aims of WikiLeaks in terms of opening and framing a discussion about the actual motives of U.S. foreign policy, and/or making for a more accurate assessment of body counts, especially innocent civilian deaths, for instance, which may have been covered up in Afghanistan and so forth. But that’s not exactly what I’m interested in pursuing here. Rather, what I want to start to explore is this idea of transparency that has become part of our common parlance–at once meme, metaphor, value, tool, call to action, and presumption–and I want to initiate a conversation about its pervasiveness, its relationship to selfhood and privacy, as well as why we are (rightly, I think) so conflicted about it.
The conflict is this: transparency is desirable in many situations–when it comes to how charitable organizations spend donations, when it comes to what corporate lobbyist met with what senator and how many times, as well as what their voting record was. But things get a little stickier when it comes to the self. How many of us, for instance, want to live here?
Perhaps I should wallpaper with WikiLeaks documents?
Earlier today John pointed toward Nigel Beale’s cleverly-titled criticism of my post “Tiny Shocks: Uncovering the Reductive Plot of James Wood’s How Fiction Works.” I’m looking forward to Nigel’s longer criticism; in the meantime I thought I’d reply regarding the mistakes Wood makes in his readings of Viktor Shklovsky and William H. Gass, since Nigel asked specifically about them:
Does Wood ‘misunderstand’ Gass? Is his reading of Shklovsky ‘demonstrably wrong’? Are these ‘intellectual errors’ or are they mischievous ploys to argue (successfully I’d say) points which you just don’t agree with? Who’s being Ad hominem here?
(Nigel, I hope you don’t mind my calling you by your first name; since we’re Facebook friends now, and I hope you’ll call me Adam. It keeps things friendlier!)
And let me say that it’s certainly fair for Nigel to take issue with my calling Wood’s account “smug and small” etc. Those are critical words, granted. I stand by them, however, as fitting descriptions of Wood’s argument and the manner in which he makes it: Wood’s reading of fiction in How Fiction Works is reductive, and I believe that a critic of his stature is capable of far better. (He studied with Frank Kermode!)
OK, on to the formalists.
A pleasant looking book.
[Update: As if this post weren’t long enough, there’s now a Part 2.]
On January 22, I read Shya Scanlon’s post “The Dull King”; on January 25 I read his second post “Cover Your Tracks.” Both were about reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Before that I’d heard of James Wood but hadn’t read anything by him; I knew some people liked him and some didn’t like him. I myself had no opinion about the guy. Nor did I have any real plan to read How Fiction Works. But still I posted a couple of comments on Shya’s posts, and Shya wrote back, and I wrote back, and before I knew it I’d written a very long comment that I turned into my own post, “Uncover Your Tracks.”
Then I thought what the hell and trudged through the snow to Columbia College. That was a fun trip; the library elevators weren’t working, and a security guard had to escort me up to the fifth floor. It felt like the normal world had gotten broken, and something exciting was taking place. I took that as a sign that I was on the right track. I went home right away and read the book from cover to cover….