Every few months, I’ll get the urge to radically simplify. The house where I live is comfortable but modest, and I don’t feel as if my possessions are taking over my life, but I often wonder if I could take it even further. Thoreau’s example is the most famous, of course, but I also find myself thinking of the poet Chomei, who at the age of sixty built a house on Mt. Hino that was ten feet by ten, with no furniture except a small shrine, a desk, a bed of straw, some musical instruments, and a few volumes of poetry and music. As Chomei writes:
In such a place there is no need to keep the commandments, for there is no temptation to break them.
I feel a similar sort of longing whenever I see pictures of someone’s tiny house, or when I browse the photo galleries at the Minimalism forum on Reddit, in which the striving to reduce one’s life to its bare essence—which often seems to consist of a bike, a laptop, and a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—turns into a perverse kind of competition to show off the least number of belongings. (Reading many of the posts there, I’m reminded of the good sense of E.B. White, who pointed out that a life like Thoreau’s is much easier when you’re “male, unmarried, and well-connected.”)
Like most people, I use travel as an excuse to temporarily pretend that I’m the person I’d like to be all the time. I’ve always been a homebody at heart, but I did a fair amount of traveling in my twenties, and I took a lot of pride in packing light. A few days after I quit my job in New York to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, I was on a plane to India with nothing but a daypack, which was enough to see me through three weeks of train and bus travel from Mumbai to Karnataka to Goa. A few years later, I did the same on a three-week trip to Europe, which led to some suspicious questions from customs on the way home—apparently a single male going from Ireland to Italy to London with an Eagle Creek backpack and a shoulder bag has to be up to no good. These days, with a baby in tow, I can’t even get on the subway without a Sherpa load of equipment. But I still daydream about lighting out for the territory with little more than I can carry in the smallest backpack I own.
But it isn’t going to happen, either at home or abroad, and it’s all because of the books. Since I don’t much care for the Kindle, for my trip to India, I took no fewer than five books—Shantaram, A Son of the Circus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the nonfiction book Evidence of Harm, and a travel guide—and found myself obliged to lighten my load along the way: I deliberately abandoned Shantaram on the airplane, which was no great loss, and left A Son of the Circus on the end table of my tiny hotel room in Bangalore. For my trip to Europe, I brought a volume of the essays of Montaigne, cut into two pieces for easier handling, along with Emil Ludwig’s Napoleon and some paperback novels. I also tend to acquire additional books on the road. During my trip to London to do location work for City of Exiles, I scavenged stores for local true crime books, which I thought would come in handy for research, and came home with a bag that was bursting at the seams. If, as Colin Fletcher says, a pack is a house on your back, then mine seems fated to end up looking a lot like my library at home.
In short, I’ll never be as minimal as I should be, as much as I like to dream about the books I’d own if, like Chomei, I only had a single shelf. And that’s probably for the best. As much as I like looking at tiny houses, they always strike me as a little sad and incomplete without books, and I know that if I built myself a cottage, it would soon be packed with thrift store paperbacks. My life seems fated to be as cluttered as my brain, and even as I try to pare things down in other ways, I’ll never be able to give up my book addiction. It’s possible that these impulses are two sides of the same coin: the more books I read, the more I learn to value those few works of lasting value, even as my eye strays to the newest enticing discovery. And if the whole point of simple living is to allow for a complicated inner life, in my case, it’s inseparable from a bookshelf that’s the opposite of minimal. The result is a life that oscillates back and forth between simplicity and clutter. I may never be a true minimalist, but simplifying my life in the few ways I can lets me spend more time with the books I love.
A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.
Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.
As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.
Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.
And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.
As I’ve said here perhaps more often than necessary, television is a very strange medium, and the fact that it occupies such a familiar place in our lives can blind us to how weird it really is. It creates characters and stories that can feel as vivid as our own friends or memories, and it’s like real life in another way: sooner or later, it ends, and nobody—including the creators—ever really knows how. Even the best narrative plans have a way of going sideways, and much of the fascination of a great television show comes from how it deals with the unexpected, whether in the form of a cast change, a creative departure, or an unexpected extension or cancellation. Television can be as unpredictable and uncontrollable as life itself, except that we know, or think we know, who really pulls the strings. While it’s true that many viewers probably don’t care much about where television comes from, in recent years, there’s been a greater degree of engagement than ever before between the audience and the men and women behind the curtain. And it inevitably changes the way we experience it.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since watching “The Crash,” the latest episode of Mad Men, and reading Todd VanDerWerff’s thoughtful—if somewhat bewildered—review on The A.V. Club. (Its opening sentence: “What the ever-loving merciful fuck?”) VanDerWerff is one of my favorite writers, and I’ve been reading his articles and criticism with pleasure for years, but I was particularly struck by one observation:
A lot of the core conflicts on this show are the sorts of core conflicts one might find in a TV writers’ room, and to a degree, for the people who follow this show obsessively, its true protagonist is Matt Weiner. The question for many of us obsessive fans isn’t what Don Draper will get up to next but what Matt Weiner will get up to next.
I think VanDerWerff goes a little too far when he says that the episode seems like Weiner’s “dare to the weekly review culture,” but otherwise, his analysis is right on the mark. Weiner is the secret hero of his own show, which more than any other series in history is about the process of writing itself: Don Draper writes ads, but he’s also the author of his own life, and it’s fascinating to see how the show continues to exercise the same chilly emotional control even as Don’s story spins apart.
Every week, after watching the latest episode of Mad Men, my wife and I will play the short featurette that accompanies it on iTunes, in which Weiner and members of the cast share their thoughts on the latest installment. These videos presumably began as an easy promotional extra, but they’ve evolved, at least to me, into a weirdly exegetical part of the show itself: as soon as the closing credits roll, I just want to know what the hell Weiner was thinking. Weiner seems aware of this, too, and there’s a teasing quality to many of his comments, which are lucid and reasonable, but which also seem to explain a lot more than they actually do. They’re a little like T.S. Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land, which are less a way of clarifying the poem than an integral part of the text. Sophisticated readers and viewers know that you should never take a writer’s statements about his own work at face value, and although Weiner comes across as a smart, ordinary, entirely earnest guy when he explains himself to the camera, there’s something Nabokovian in the way he elucidates a few select points while leaving the rest of it shrouded in mystery.
And it’s made me reflect about the ways in which television is an ongoing dialogue, imaginary or not, between a creator and his audience. This isn’t true of every show, of course, and it’s never more clear than when it’s no longer there. It’s fair to say that Community‘s new showrunners are highly conscious about how the series is perceived, and they’ve been good—almost to fault—about honoring the show’s history and giving fans what they think they want. Yet that old sense of interchange or possibility is missing: you never catch the show in a moment, as you often did in the old days, in which you could almost hear Dan Harmon thinking out his next move. The result feels a lot like the second season of Twin Peaks, after the departure of David Lynch and Mark Frost: it was still weird, but in a calculated way, as if strangeness were simply a part of the premise, rather than something that the show’s creators found themselves doing while trying to tell a story in the only way they could. Mad Men is both the best and the strangest show on television, and it’s dazzling in the way Weiner lays out the pieces and dares us to put them together. He even gives us a few helpful hints. But I’m not sure if I entirely trust him.
The superior artist is the one who knows how to be influenced.
I don’t think there’s a more powerful moment in all of rock music than the transition between the two halves of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. For three minutes, we’ve been living near the heart of a man’s romantic and sexual agony: the critic Dave Marsh calls it one of those rare songs in which “a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or a suicide.” Then there’s a trailing off, a pause, and we’re launched into Jim Gordon’s transcendent piano coda, which takes over the rest of the track and leads us triumphantly to the end. It’s unclear how the two halves are meant to relate, or whether the coda is the sound of love fulfilled or abandoned, but the juxtaposition of the two movements creates an effect that is far more profound than either of them taken separately. The result is a song that has obsessed me—and so many others—from the moment I first heard it, to the point where I’ve written much of my current novel with “Layla” playing in the background.
This sort of synergy, in which two seemingly unrelated components are set side by side to create a larger whole, is such a powerful artistic tool that it deserves special consideration. Some of the most memorable pop songs ever written, from “Hey Jude” to “Dry the Rain,” consist of two contrasting halves joined together in a way that only seems more mysterious with time. In many cases, the pieces weren’t originally meant to go together at all: the piano coda to “Layla” was composed as a separate piece, and was joined to the first half—which had already been written and recorded—when Clapton happened to hear Gordon playing it in the studio one day. These sorts of decisions may seem like serendipity, but they’re really an expression of craft on a deeper level: I suspect that Clapton intuitively sensed that the song was incomplete without some form of resolution, and that he seized on the coda as the missing piece he needed, precisely because it seemed like a dispatch from a different world entirely.
We see this effect in other forms of art as well. I mentioned recently that many of Shakespeare’s most resonant plots—from The Merchant of Venice to King Lear—arise from the combination or juxtaposition of two previously unrelated storylines. There’s no better example of this than The Winter’s Tale, the most beautiful and mysterious of the late romances, which moves from a tragedy of sexual jealousy in Sicily to the gentlest of pastoral comedies in Bohemia. (It’s a transition that may work better on the page than in performance: the production I saw several years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Sam Mendes, did a fine job with the tormented first half, but turned the second half into an aimless hootenanny. As usual, comedy is harder to stage than tragedy, and this is never more clear than when one follows right after the other.) On a more calculated level, we find a similar transition halfway through Psycho: I’ve seen this movie countless times, and I still get a chill when I first glimpse the sign of the Bates Motel through the rain, which reminds me of which movie I’m really watching.
On one level, the impact of such juxtapositions is easy to explain: creativity, as Arthur Koestler points out in The Act of Creation, is about combinations, and when two contrasting pieces are set side by side, it’s no surprise that elements of the first half can bring out unsuspected qualities of the other. (You often see this in visual art, which has long been familiar with the power of the diptych.) But that doesn’t tell us why the pieces can vibrate so memorably in certain cases, while in others they just tend to lie there—or why two unrelated pieces are so much more effective than three, even as the rule of three works so powerfully in other contexts. A work of three parts, with its tidy tripod of effects, can come across as a piece of artistic calculation, or like the three stages of an argument, while two implies something deeper. There’s no better example than Chungking Express, with its two parallel stories of policemen in love: Wong Kar-Wai originally planned to tell three, but only had time for two, an accident for which we can all be profoundly grateful. Three stories would have come across as a narrative device, while two seem like life itself, and like the coda for “Layla,” it feels as if it could go on and on.