Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 1st, 2014

The Necker Cube of Serial

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Serial

On January 13, 1999, a teenage girl named Hae Min Lee disappeared in Baltimore. The following month, shortly after her body was discovered, her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was charged with her murder. Listeners of Serial, the extraordinary radio series currently unfolding on NPR, know exactly how much this bare description leaves unsaid. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the case itself, and in any event, there are plenty of resources available for those who want to dive into the intricacies of cell phone towers and whether or not there was a pay phone at that particular Best Buy. As a writer, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of Serial itself. As far as I know, it’s an unprecedented experiment in any medium, an ongoing nonfiction narrative unspooling before an audience of millions. Producer Sarah Koenig has said that she doesn’t know how the series will end, or even what will happen from one week to the next, but this doesn’t mean she lacks information available to others: it’s the shape it will take and her ultimate conclusions that remain unclear. As such, it’s not so different from any kind of serial narrative, whether it’s Tom Wolfe writing The Bonfire of the Vanities week by week, Stephen King publishing installments of The Green Mile without knowing the ending, or even my own experience of writing a trilogy with only the vaguest idea of its final form.

The difference is that Serial is centered on factual events, and the obsessiveness, verging on paranoia, that it encourages in its audience can’t be separated from Koenig’s own efforts to resolve the tangle of problems she has imposed on herself. And its fascination lies less in any particular detail or narrative element than in the overall mindset it encourages. It implicates the listener in Koenig’s own uncertainty, in which every fact, no matter how unambiguous, can be read in at least two ways. To take one minor example: Koenig notes that after Hae’s disappearance, Adnan never tried to page her, despite the fact that he’d called her at home three times the night before she disappeared. On its face, this seems suspicious, as if Adnan knew that Hae could no longer be reached. Think about it a little longer, though, and the detail inverts itself: if Adnan were really the “charming sociopath” that prosecutors implied he was, paging Hae after her murder would have provided a convenient indication of his innocence. The fact that it never occurred to him becomes, paradoxically, a point in his favor. Or maybe not. Everything in Serial starts to take on this double significance: Koenig refers to the case as a Rubik’s Cube she’s trying to solve, but an even better analogy might be that of a Necker cube, which oscillates constantly between one of two readings. We even sense this in the way Koenig talks about her own objectives. In the beginning, it feels like a quest for Adnan’s exoneration, but as her doubts continue to multiply, it becomes less a crusade than a search for clarity of any kind.

Necker Cube

Perhaps inevitably, then, Serial occasionally suffers from the same qualities that make it so addictive, and it often undermines the very clarity it claims to be seeking. Listening to it, I’m frequently reminded of the work of Errol Morris, who exonerated a man wrongfully convicted of murder in The Thin Blue Line and has gone on to explore countless aspects of information, memory, and the interpretation of evidence. But Morris would have covered the relevant points in two densely packed hours, while Koenig is closing in on fifteen hours or more. Sometimes the length of time granted by the serial format allows her to explore interesting byways, like the odd backstory of “Mr. S,” who discovered Hae’s body; elsewhere, it feels a little like padding. Koenig devotes most of an episode, for instance, to Deirdre Enright, who runs the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia Law School, but they spend the better part of ten minutes simply commiserating over material we’ve seen before. Morris would have introduced Enright with a brief explanatory caption, given her two vivid minutes on screen, and moved on. Serial is never anything less than absorbing, but there’s often a sense that its expansive runtime has allowed it to avoid the hard choices that other nonfiction narratives demand. As a result, we’re sometimes left with the suspicion that our own confusions have less to do with the ambiguity of the case than with the sheer amount of information—not all of it relevant—we’re being asked to process.

But that’s part of the point. Koenig herself becomes one of her most provocative characters: she has a nice, dry, ingratiating manner that encourages an unusual degree of intimacy with her interview subjects, but her sheer fluency as a radio personality sometimes leaves us questioning how much of that closeness is an illusion. Which is exactly how we’re meant to feel about everyone involved. For me, the most memorable moment in the entire series comes courtesy of Adnan himself, speaking by phone from Maryland Correctional Facility:

I feel like I want to shoot myself if I hear someone else say, I don’t think he did it cause you’re a nice guy, Adnan…I would love someone to say, I don’t think that you did it because I looked at the case and it looks kind of flimsy. I would rather someone say, Adnan, I think you’re a jerk, you’re selfish, you know, you’re a crazy SOB, you should just stay in there for the rest of your life except that I looked at your case and it looks, you know, like a little off. You know, like something’s not right.

If Serial has a message, it’s that it’s necessary to look past our instinctively good or bad impressions of a person to focus on the evidence itself, even if this defies what we’ve been programmed to do as human beings. At its best, it’s a show about how inadequate our intuitions can be when faced with reality in all its complexity, which turns the search for clarity itself into a losing game. It’s a game we’ve all been playing long before the show began, and regardless of how it ends, we’ll be playing it long after it’s over.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2014 at 10:14 am

Quote of the Day

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Lofti A. Zadeh

In general, complexity and precision bear an inverse relation to one another in the sense that, as the complexity of a problem increases, the possibility of analyzing it in precise terms diminishes. Thus “fuzzy thinking” may not be deplorable, after all, if it makes possible the solution of problems which are much too complex for precise analysis.

Lofti A. Zadeh

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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