Writing the impossible: Thoughts on immortal characters in fiction

Deities, vampires, demons, elves, artificial intelligences, cyborgs, genetically enhanced humans, sentient ships, aliens. All immortal, or living a life that’s quite a bit longer than the average. I love reading about inhuman aliens, about immortal characters, about the other that is, in some deep way, truly other. And so I am always more than deeply disappointed when the alien is merely a human with purple skin and the 400-year-old vampire prince has all the personality of a petulant teenager with pointy teeth. I am looking at you, urban fantasy. You, space opera. You, paranormal romance.

Immortality, like any story decision, deserves to be more than a cursory afterthought. Especially when its immortality granted to someone who would otherwise be human.

The questions are endless: What is it like to still be healthy and alive after a hundred years? In two hundred, how much has society changed and what is your role in it? In two thousand, how do you see time and the people around you? Does your perception of time continue speeding up, or do the days drag by? How has your religion changed, if it’s even still around? Is the passage of time oppressive or inspiring? Does living forever mean disengagement and bitterness, or compassion and patience? Which languages do you choose to learn and how often? What up with science? Have you upgraded your rotary phone yet?

Ever have trouble talking with an older uncle about things you care about? Image your uncle grew up in ancient Mesopotamia. Or was a nomadic shepherd on the Asian continent somewhere. Or a British sailor on a whaling ship. Now he asks you what you’ve been up to. Probably in ancient Chinese.

Damn.

Immortals in romantic subplots

Is that a 475-year age gap I see? Is that a teen dating an octogenarian?

Immortal love interests are ubiquitous in the romance genres. They come with troubled pasts – history is no cakewalk, after all. They demonstrate the weight of history through outbursts of anger, their iron-clad control, their impassive countenance, their pushy, alpha-male tendencies.

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Where are all the ancient alpha males who grew up in egalitarian societies or encountered the hard, no-nonsense women running households and businesses?

 

I always feel vaguely cheated. Is that it? Is that all? You’ve lived for hundreds of years, and all I get is a foot-stamping romance-novel trope, muttering “mine” uneasily under its breath? You are my immortal heroines acting with all the self-possession of a teen high on red bull and sugar. Continue reading

[Small Chirp] One-hundred and seven pages later – decking the halls with books.

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All that’s left of Great Expectations.

Star and curls

I love books, and this winter holiday season, I decided to grab a pair of scissors, a glue stick, and dig into a couple classics. I started with Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, because there’s something to be said about putting all those words to good, pretty use. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing at first, and here are the first few star-meets-flower-thing decorations I came up with. The large ones are made by rolling pages and gluing them to a paper plate base:

Stars

Some experimentation later, I was ready to try something bigger and badder. Here’s my favorite result of an evening of rolling and gluing. (By the way, if you don’t have a glue gun, go with a glue stick. Liquid glue takes way too long to dry.)

Bye-bye Great Expectations,  hello holiday decorations! Continue reading

[ Best and Worst ] Little Lo & Big Blu

Incidentally, both the best and the worst books I’ve read were courtesy of the same professor. One was an unassigned, personal recommendation, and the other required for class. One of these books I’ve read so many times in the intervening three years that I’ve inadvertently memorized the first chapter. The other I will never, ever forgive my dear professor for implanting in my memory.

Best: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Once again, I return to my original Lolita, with its ailing spine, peeling cover, and well-thumbed through pages. It’s the 50th Anniversary Vintage Edition, with fleshy pink lips gracing a cover that I know Nabokov would abhor. The précis, which I am fairly sure Nabokov would decry as a clumsy, cliché, and cursory sketch of his most complex novel, reads:

Awe and exhilaration – along with heartbreak and mordant wit – abound in Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Most of all, it is a meditation on love – love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.

When I learned that half my task was to write about my best read, it took less than a millisecond for Lolita to burst to the forefront of my prefrontal cortex. It was instantaneous, reflexive. I’m not even sure it came from my memory, but rather my spine. However, it took only another half a second for me to say to myself, “No, Whitney, you cannot write about Lolita. I forbid it.” Continue reading

Book Watching: How a great book became a worthy movie

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the five books I would want with me on a desert island (the others being The Little Prince, any anthology of Jeeves and Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse, the Bible, and the fat poetry anthology that lives by my bed). I first read the novel during the worst semester of my college years; my life was so stressful that I read five or ten pages at a time,  barely able to take the grief and pain in Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing. But it was so good that I could not give it up, even when it sent me to bed shaking.

The story, for those who don’t know, is about Oskar Schell, a precocious, possibly autistic nine-year-old boy whose father dies in the WTC on 9/11. His father had played scavenger hunt games with him, so when Oskar finds a key hidden in an envelope labeled “Black” with his father’s things, he takes it as a clue that the last and most important hunt is still waiting for him.

He takes off on a solo mission to ask everyone in New York with the last name “Black” if they know anything about the key. Interlaced with Oskar’s journey to find his father in the boroughs of New York is the story of his grandfather, a man who’s lost both his family and the ability to speak, and his grandmother, the sister of her husband’s true love.

Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t flinch in the face of emotion, which I find wonderful in the Age of Irony, and he also does some typographical things that feel emotionally powerful, rather than gimmicky. So you can imagine the curdled blend of hope and preemptive disappointment I carried with me into the theater to see the movie adaptation. Continue reading

[ Book-watching ] Sherlock Holmes is kind of an asshole

I have a confession that will likely knock me down several literary pegs: I’ve never read a single Sherlock Holmes story.

Now, that isn’t to say that I’m totally ignorant on the subject. I’ve watched the newest BBC re-visioning of the character, sat through several lectures on him in college lit courses, and–of course–pretty much have the Wishbone episode of “The Hounds of Baskerville” memorized. But as far as actually picking up the source material, I’ve just never really been interested.

But in order to fulfil my book-watching duties for Game of Shadows, the most recent installment of the Robert Downey  Jr. version of the character, I decided to suck it up and grab a recording of  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes off Audible. I only made it about halfway through the third story before I came to the follow conclusion: Sherlock Holmes is kind of a pretentious dick.

“Well duh,” says my roommate when I unveil this revelation. “That’s sort of the point of the character. He’s wicked smart and not afraid to show off his brains.”

“But he’s a jerk!” I counter. “How did he get to be such a popular heroic character?”

“Because everyone loves a smartass.”

That I definitely could disagree with. And it explains why I like the visual versions of Holmes more. I don’t like my literary characters being smart-mouthed unless they regularly pay for such lip (see: Harry Dresden). With Holmes, it appears that he can be smart allecky as can be and never pay a price (note: as I’ve only actually listened to one-tenth of one book, this assumption may be very, very wrong). Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Game of Shadows so much; every punch Holmes received was well-deserved.

Game of Shadows picks up not too terribly long after the events in the first film, but much has changed.  Holmes is tipping farther into the land of manic genius as he tries to unravel the person behind the rash of terrorist bombings that have taken place throughout London and other major cities in Europe.  Enter Professor Moriarty, played wonderfully by Jared Harris, who sets into motion a frantic trip around Europe to not only stop the continent from going to war, but also save what Holmes holds most dear: namely a highly perturbed Dr. John Watson.

One of the biggest complaints from the original movie was the Holmes was far too much of an action hero. Purists (chief among them being Canary the First) wanted their Holmes to be just as he was in the books: battling only with brains and never with fists. That makes for fairly boring cinema. However, I feel as though director Guy Ritchie took some of the braying to heart. There are more sequences of Holmes precisely dissecting a fight before it happens, filmed through neat slow-motion shots while Holmes gives a running internal dialogue of his predicted moves. The mystery in this film is also much more complex than the first, giving Holmes more time to shine as the brainiac he is.

There were times, though, when this giant mystery seemed to overwhelm the film. Part of what made the first movie so enchanting was the narrow focus–one case that never took the pair outside of London. The gallivanting trip across countries made for an awful lot of continual rehashing and re-positioning of plot that made a good chunk of the story seem like mere check marks on a list. Plot pieces didn’t always surface seamlessly; sometimes they had to be jerked full force into the light so that Holmes and Watson could move on to their next port of call.

That said, the movie was great fun. Jude Law’s Watson in particular was highly entertaining, with his dry humor and logic offering the perfect foil to Holmes insanity. Robert Downey Jr. is still the perfect casting for the role of Holmes (regardless of what Canary the First may think), striking just the right balance between crazy and gifted. And he’s still definitely an asshole. But at least he gets punched for it.

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Happy Birthday, Holmes! (Born January 6, 1854)

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Read More About What’s Hitting the Screens:

[ Book Review ] Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad

Melissa’s Review: The Penelopiad, a novella by Margaret Atwood

 
Atwood’s response to Homer’s Odyssey was first on my list of fun reading while on break from graduate studies. Having been on a steady diet of classics, I’m getting a little sick of the male protagonist and his heroic adventures.

Please, somebody pass the microphone to a woman on the scene. (Oops, not her. That guy just turned her into a tree.)

Here is Penelope’s epic–her own story, not simply her take on her husband’s renowned exploits. (Cyclops, or one-eyed tavern keeper?)  Penelope speaks to us from the underworld, having seen the intervening centuries come and go, changing the world as she knew it.  History has made of Penelope a figure of obedient loyalty; of Odysseus, a god-like hero. Behind the scenes, we find, things are not as glorious as they seem.

Far from a book-by-book translation of Homer, Atwood’s version focuses on a startling little detail from Book 22: the tale of the twelve murdered maids.

Homer tells us the maids were disloyal sluts, sleeping with the disrespectful suitors vying for Penelope’s hand in Odysseus’s absence. In the gruesome scenes of revenge that follow his return, Odysseus orders his son Telemachus to murder the maids for their disobedience, after forcing them to clean the bloody mess of the hall. Telemachus hangs the maids in a single row.

Atwood tells us the maids were essentially innocent, their flirtations with the suitors a kind of strategic reconnaissance mission ordered by Penelope in her attempt to preserve her family’s wealth from greedy hands.  The maids are “like sisters” to Penelope, bringing youthful energy, songs, and sweets to her room at night, where they help her unravel Laertes’ burial shroud. Their assistance in this dangerous deception is actually a gesture of loyalty.

And it’s also kind of fun. “There is indeed something delightful about being able to combine obedience and disobedience in the same act,” Penelope says of the maids’ mirth in their complicity.

In the voice of the maids, Atwood is often direct about this witty balancing of accounts:Atwood’s own delight is evident in this reworking of myth. Though obedient to the task at hand, her work is skillfully defiant of accepted academic perspectives– on Penelope and the maids specifically, and on the validity of feminist critique of myth. In the dark tenor of the maids’ songs and sea shanties (they act as a tragicomic Greek chorus, turning the story wheel between chapters), we can hear both the maid’s disobedience and Atwood’s.

“You don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.”

The comparison is an apt one for a novella exploring the ways in which one human life assigns value to another. Money is the paper symbol of a currency’s value; a story is the fictional symbol of real human dramas. How we see the maids, and how we see Penelope– hell, how we see women in myth– says as much about the story as it does about us.

Which is the whole point of mythology.

The Penelopiad is the second volume (2005) in Canongate’s Myth Series, “a long-term global publishing project where some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing.” (The latest edition is Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010). A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, a retelling of the Norse myth of end times, will be out in January.)

There will be critics of this kind of modernization of classic stories. The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s reworking of The Iliad, underwent considerable critical fire for its efforts to bring the tale to a modern audience.

And there are some pitfalls of the process of modernizing an ancient story. For me, the weakness (here) lies primarily on the level of language. Though Atwood’s response to Homer is written in the same forthright, gripping language that makes her novels so compelling and masterful, it admittedly pales in comparison to the metered poetry of The Odyssey.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This is, after all, not a translation but a kind of poetic riffing: a story in its own right, and an important antidote to the hard-to-stomach female-bashing of so much of classic literature. A traditionalist might DQ me for reading Homer and Ovid through my 21st century glasses, but I argue there’s a great deal to be gained from Atwood’s refreshing revisioning, and from this kind of intelligent engagement with myth.

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What say you, Canaries? What is your favorite myth/fairytale retelling?

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[ Small Chirp ] Whedon dives into Shakespeare

The announcement ricocheted through the Twitterverse last night. Somewhere between making the Avengers film (mmmm Thor), working on about a million Dark Horse comics, and a slew of other things, Joss Whedon has apparently been making a secret film based on Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing.

The feat of secrecy becomes even more astonishing when you look at the cast list: Nathan Fillion, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Sean Maher, etc, etc. That so many faces from the Whendonverse managed to covert together without major fanboy alarms ringing is quite astounding. But the cast does make the prospect of the film an even more exciting one. With so many beloved actors in the mix, there are plenty of classic-literature-phobics out there who might overcome their fears long enough to see the film–maybe even long enough to read the play!

Much Ado About Nothing is a Shakespearian comedy that follows two couples: Benedick and Beatrice, who claim to not be in love and who banter and bicker nonstop; and Claudio and Hero, who can’t even speak because they are so in love with each other. Add into the equation an evil trickster, Don John, and all sorts of misunderstandings and shenanigans ensue.

What I am most curious about–besides who is playing whom–is the translation of play to film. Given that the image above has snorkel gear and a martini glass, I think it’s safe to assume that the setting will be modern. But what about the language? Will it be like the 1996 Romeo+Juliet, a film that actually managed to make the famous love story even more meleodramatic by using the original Shakeperian script in a modern setting? Or will it lean more towards West Side Story, with modern language and maybe even a few songs mixed in?

Either way, I’m pretty excited about this mystery film.