Archive for December 2nd, 2010
There’s no question that comedy is harder to do than serious stuff. There’s also no question in my mind that comedy is less valuable than serious stuff.
Similarly, it’s clear that Tree of Codes was much harder to write, at least in some ways, than most conventional novels, but in the end, it’s also probably less valuable. I’d much rather see Foer really tackle a genre piece, for example, after the fashion of Michael Chabon, although I don’t see this happening anytime soon.
Still, there’s something to be said for an artist willing to work under such serious constraints. Writers, in particular, stand to benefit from deliberate restrictions, much more than, say, filmmakers, who are already forced to deal with severe constraints—of time, budget, location—that don’t apply to fiction. (The history of film, unless you’re James Cameron, is a history of solving problems using limited resources.) A writer is limited only by talent, and perhaps by time, which means that most restrictions need to be imposed from the outside. Which is often a good idea.
So what form should these restrictions take? You could try writing under a set of challenging formal rules, as poets do, or within a massive symbolic architecture, like Dante and Joyce. But for ordinary mortals, the most productive constraint is a very different one, and it’s such an important point that I’m putting it in boldface:
For most writers, the best and most useful constraint is genre.
Genre is often seen as a crutch, allowing a writer to let established formulas take the place of invention—but ideally, the opposite is true. By pushing back against a genre’s conventions, and finding ways of telling fresh stories within those constraints, a writer is forced to be much more inventive than if he or she had complete narrative freedom. As P.D. James puts it in The Paris Review:
…I thought writing a detective story would be a wonderful apprenticeship for a “serious” novelist, because a detective story is very easy to write badly but difficult to write well. There is so much you have to fit into eighty or ninety-thousand words—not just creating a puzzle, but an atmosphere, a setting, characters…Then when the first one worked, I continued, and I came to believe that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.
It’s even possible, she might have added, to discover things about men and women that wouldn’t have occurred to the author at all without the genre’s constraints. This is also one of the virtues of an intricate plot, which can test a writer’s ingenuity as much as any elaborate symbolic structure, and has the additional benefit of not being unreadable. Which, really, isn’t a bad place to start.
A few years back, Roger Ebert shared this story, which is one of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes of all time:
Jack Lemmon told me that he was in line at Ace Hardware in Beverly Hills, and the sales clerk kept looking past him. “I may not be the biggest star in the world,” he said, “but, jeez, usually when I stand in line, the clerk will notice me. I turned around, and there was Klaus Kinski with an ax.”
However, in Michael Caine’s new autobiography, The Elephant to Hollywood, which came out in October, we read:
It was in that [hardware store on Beverly Drive] that I had what still ranks as my most terrifying experience in America: I was browsing through the power tool display when I popped my head round the corner and there in the next aisle was Klaus Kinski buying an ax. Never has a shop full of DIY aficionados cleared so quickly….
Conclusion: either Klaus Kinski bought an ax on more than one occasion (which, frankly, is more plausible than it sounds); Lemmon, Caine, and Kinski were all at the hardware store at the same time; or someone is mistaken or confused. Any theories?
Yesterday’s post about Ralph Rosenblum’s excavation of Annie Hall from the brilliant mess of Anhedonia reminds me, not quite randomly, of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Twee of Codes. (Excuse me, I mean Tree of Codes—and I can’t believe that I’m the first to make that particular joke.) It certainly has an astonishing premise: Foer has literally carved a new story out of a larger novel, Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, by selectively removing most of the text, leaving only a few scattered words on each page. The result, which uses elaborate die cuts to remove the deleted passages, looks amazing, even if Foer sounds oddly dissatisfied by the outcome. (“French flaps would have been nice.”) If nothing else, it’s a reminder of how important a book’s physical body can be.
I haven’t read Tree of Codes yet—among other things, I don’t have forty bucks to spend on it—and while I don’t think it absolves Foer from his obligation, as a major novelist, to write more conventional fiction, I’m impressed by its ambition. It’s worth noting, though, that this particular experiment isn’t so different from what every film editor is called upon to do: extracting a useful narrative out of an existing mass of intractable material. Annie Hall is only the most extreme example. Nearly every movie, for the sake of pacing and coherence, especially if it can’t afford reshoots, is forced to combine scenes that originally appeared in different parts of the film, say, or use a reaction shot from one scene to bridge an unrelated gap. David Mamet, in his otherwise disappointing Bambi vs. Godzilla, has a terrific passage about this, which is worth quoting in its entirety:
Stuck in a scene, in the editing room, sometimes the roof falls in: an actor has not picked up his cue, and the scene stops dead—there is no cutaway (no other actor to cut to, to “pace up” the sequence), and the movie grinds to a halt.
“If only,” the director or editor says, “if only the actor sitting there like a sphinx had looked to his left: if he’d looked to his left, instead of his right, I could intercut his close-up with a shot of the other actor and pace up the scene.”
But no, the actor never looked to his left, and the scene is doomed to death. But perhaps there is one hope.
The director says, “Check the slate piece.”
What is the slate piece?
Here’s how it goes: When the shot is set up, the actors are called in and placed. The sound guy calls “rolling,” the camera is turned on, the operator tells the camera assistant to “mark it,” the assistant puts the slate board (the once actual slate with chalk markings, now electronic) in front of the lens to record on film the shot’s number and take. The shot is thus “slated,” the director calls “action,” and the take begins.
But, we may note, there was a moment, when the camera was filming, before the shot was slated, when the actor was waiting for action to be called. In this moment he may have looked to his left, his right, up or down, frowned, or smiled or yawned or done any number of things that just might magically come to the aid of a stalled or otherwise doomed shot.
This accidental, extra, hidden piece of information is called the slate piece. And most of moviemaking, as a writer, a director, a designer, is the attempt not to invent but to discover that hidden information—the slate piece—that is already lurking in the film.
Which strikes me as very similar to what Foer has done here. His task was hugely complicated, of course, by the fact that not just the words themselves but their order was fixed and immovable. To create a workable narrative from this material, his ingenuity must have been pushed to its limits—which, in itself, is admirable, especially in a writer whose work can otherwise seem, er, a little undisciplined.
It’s unclear how useful his example is to the rest of us (I can’t imagine Tree of Codes as anything but an interesting experiment) but it does raise the question of how writers can selectively use constraints as a spur to creativity. I’ll be writing more about this later today.