Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Koenig

The law of similars

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Like just about everybody else in the western hemisphere, I picked up a copy of Adele’s 25 earlier this month. My favorite song on the album—which I like even more than 21—is “Remedy,” both because it’s sweeter and less bombastic than some of her other tracks, and because it reminded me naggingly of something else. It took me a few days before I realized that I was thinking of one of my secret favorite albums: Essex by Alison Moyet. There’s the same rich, bluesy, but slightly remote voice that circles around the heart of a song before attacking it directly, and when Adele sings “I will be / I will be / Your remedy,” it’s hard not to hear an echo of an artist I’ve loved since I was in high school. And I’m not the only person to draw that comparison: when I enter the relevant search into my browser bar, two of the recommended queries are “Adele Alison Moyet’s daughter” and “Adele Alison Moyet related.” She isn’t, and they aren’t, but Moyet herself has been asked about their perceived similarity. And her response to the question brought me up short: “When I saw Adele I thought: ‘I’ll give it an hour before people say I was her,’ just because I was fat. When you watch X Factor you can bet your bottom dollar, every single fat singer sounds like me as far as the judges are concerned.” And in another interview: “We were two fat girls singing torch songs. It always happens…I do get that we’re both stationary performers, but there’ll be a talented man, with an electronic background, who has much more in common with me musically…It’s lazy comparisons.”

I don’t think that’s where I was coming from—I’ve managed to get through the last two decades with only the vaguest idea of how Moyet looked, aside from on her album covers—and I’d argue that their affinity runs deeper than Moyet acknowledges. But I can understand her frustration. We all have a way of picking up on a superficial similarity between two artists, or two works of art, and using it to draw comparisons between things that are actually quite different. When one actor resembles another, or a singer reminds us in passing of one we’ve heard before, it can typecast them in our minds in a certain way, and when an entire culture sees the resemblance, it can redirect or derail entire careers. It’s the artistic equivalent of the false friend, two words in different languages that look like cognates but really have nothing in common, and it can be equally misleading for the unwary. Back when Clive Owen was being touted as the next Bond, he shrewdly put his finger on the source of the rumors: “I wear a tuxedo in Croupier and that might have had something to do with it.” In fact, Owen wouldn’t have made a great Bond: he’s an odder and more internalized actor than the role requires, and despite his looks, that tux, and the fast cars he drove for BMW, he’s far more comfortable in quirky character parts. Fortunately for us, that snap judgment didn’t have much of an impact, and both he and Daniel Craig are better off. But not every actor or artist is so lucky.

Alison Moyet

Over the weekend, I started thinking about this again while listening to the premiere episode of the second season of Serial. Back when its initial run was unfolding, I wrote: “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 [Sarah] Koenig is closing in on fifteen hours or more.” And my first thought on learning about the subject of the new season—which centers on the case of Bowe Bergdahl, who is currently facing a court-martial on charges of deserting his post in Afghanistan—is that Koenig is doing herself no favors by straying back into Morris territory. (Morris famously, if imperfectly, explored the war in Afghanistan in the book and movie Standard Operating Procedure, and the only way Koenig could have made the Morris comparison more explicit would be by structuring a podcast around a topiary gardener and a robot scientist.) Yet the more I think about it, the more I find the comparison strained. Koenig and Morris have two very distinct styles as journalists and interviewers, and they’re seeking fundamentally different effects. Serial was never going to be The Thin Blue Line, either in terms of focus or approach, and using Morris as a club to bash Koenig over the head strikes me as unfair now, even if I still have doubts about how the last season turned out.

Of course, there’s something in the human brain, with its fondness for pattern recognition, that loves to draw such comparisons. All we can do is recognize them for what they are—as judgments made in the space of a blink—and try to separate them from our more considered critical opinions. It’s easy to draw a false analogy from a few similar properties, and it can take a long time before we recognize our mistake. (This is all the more true because the first thing we latch onto from a new artist is often something that happens to ring a bell.) And it applies to more than just art. Over a century ago, the embryologist John Graham Kerr wrote:

Striking resemblance in superficial characters provides a type of pitfall which the morphologist has at an early stage in his education to school himself to avoid. He comes across cases of amazing resemblance, e.g. in pairs of “mimetic” butterflies, between a marsupial and a placental mammal, between the organ of vision in one of the higher insects and that of one of the higher Crustacea, between the skeleton of a flagellate and that of a radiolarian, and he learns to recognize that superficial resemblance may, and frequently does, provide a cloak for fundamental unlikeness. It is, in fact, one of the main parts of his business as a morphologist to find out whether in each particular case the striking resemblance so apparent to the onlooker is an expression of resemblance in fundamental points of structure or whether, on the other hand, it is merely superficial.

And that’s as true of fans and critics as it is of morphologists, and whether we’re looking at radiolarians or just listening to something on the radio.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2015 at 9:29 am

The Serial box

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Sarah Koenig

Note: This post contains spoilers—if that’s the right word—for the last episode of Serial.

Deep down, I suspect that we all knew that Serial would end this way. Back in October, Mike Pesca of Slate recorded a plea to Sarah Koenig: “Don’t let this wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.” In the end, that’s pretty much what it was, to the point where it came dangerously close to resembling its own devastatingly accurate parody on Funny or Die. There’s a moment in the final episode when Adnan Syed, speaking from prison, might as well have been reading from a cue card to offer Koenig a way out:

I think you should just go down the middle. I think you shouldn’t really take a side. I mean, it’s obviously not my decision, it’s yours, but if I was to be you, just go down the middle…I think in a way you could even go point for point and in a sense you leave it up to the audience to decide.

Koenig doesn’t go quite that far—she says that if she were a juror at Adnan’s trial, she’d have voted for acquittal—but she does throw up her hands a bit. Ultimately, we’re left more or less back where we started, with a flawed prosecution that raised questions that were never resolved and a young man who probably shouldn’t have been convicted by the case the state presented. And we knew this, or most of it, almost from the beginning.

I don’t want to be too hard on Koenig, especially because she was always open about the fact that Serial might never achieve the kind of resolution that so many listeners desperately wanted. And its conclusion—that the truth is rarely a matter of black or white, and that facts can lend themselves to multiple interpretations—isn’t wrong. My real complaint is that it isn’t particularly interesting or original. I’ve noted before that Errol Morris can do in two hours what Koenig has done in ten, and now that the season is over, I feel more than ever that it represents a lost opportunity. The decision to center the story on the murder investigation, which contributed so much to its early popularity, seems fatally flawed when its only purpose is to bring us back around to a meditation on truth that others have expressed more concisely. Serial could have been so many things: a picture of a community, a portrait of a group of teenagers linked by a common tragedy, an examination of the social forces and turns of fate that culminated in the death of Hae Min Lee. It really ended up being none of the above, and there have been moments in the back half when I felt like shaking Koenig by the shoulders, to use her own image, and telling her that she’s ignoring the real story as she leads us down a rabbit hole with no exit.


In some ways, I’m both overqualified to discuss this issue and a bad data point, since I’ve been interested in problems of overinterpretation, ambiguity, and information overload for a long time, to the point of having written an entire novel to exorcise some of my thoughts on the subject. The Icon Thief is about a lot of things, but it’s especially interested in the multiplicity of readings that can be imposed on a single set of facts, or a human life, and how apparently compelling conclusions can evaporate when seen from a different angle. Even at the time, I knew that this theme was far from new: in film, it goes at least as far back as Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and I consciously modeled the plot of my own novel after such predecessors as The X-Files and Foucault’s Pendulum. Serial isn’t a conspiracy narrative, but it presented the same volume of enigmatic detail. Its discussions of call logs and cell phone towers tended to go in circles, always promising to converge on some pivotal discrepancy but never quite reaching it, and the thread of the argument was easy to lose. The mood—an obsessive, doomed search for clarity where none might exist—is what stuck with listeners. But we’ve all been here before, and over time, Serial seemed increasingly less interested in exploring possibilities that would take it out of that cramped, familiar box.

And there’s one particular missed opportunity that was particularly stark in the finale: its failure to come to terms with the figure of Hae herself. Koenig notes that she struggled valiantly to get in touch with Hae’s family, and I don’t doubt that she did, but the materials were there for a more nuanced picture than we ever saw. Koenig had ample access to Adnan, for instance, who certainly knew Hae well, and there are times when we feel that she should have spent less time pressing him yet again for his whereabouts on the day of the murder, as she did up to the very end, and more time remembering the girl who disappeared. She also interviewed Don, Hae’s other boyfriend, whose account of how she taught him how to believe in himself provided some of the last episode’s most moving moments. And, incredibly, she had Hae’s own diary, up to the heartbreaking entry she left the day before she died. With all this and more at Koenig’s disposal, the decision to keep Hae in the shadows feels less like a necessity than a questionable judgment call. And I can’t help but wish that we had closed, at the very end, with five minutes about Hae. It wouldn’t have given us the answers we wanted, but it might have given us what we—and she—deserved.

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2014 at 9:29 am

The Necker Cube of Serial

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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

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