Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Simpsons

American Stories #7: The Simpsons

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

By now, it might seem that there isn’t anything new to say about The Simpsons, but it’s worth emphasizing how much it depended on an accident of timing. When it premiered, there hadn’t been a successful animated show in primetime since The Flintstones, and it clearly bore the fingerprints of its most famous predecessor. It was a family sitcom designed more or less along the lines of the ones that had come before it—Matt Groening came up with the concept in the waiting room before a pitch meeting—and while its tone and attitude were new, its structure in the early days was resolutely conventional. If it rapidly evolved, this was thanks in large part to luck. Bit players like Apu or Principal Skinner, introduced for the sake of a specific gag, stuck around to be brought back for a few lines at a time because they depended only on the availability of a core voice cast, which meant that the population of Springfield naturally increased. The number of potential characters was as infinite as it was on a good sketch comedy show, with no limits on how many could appear in a single scene. As the animation grew more sophisticated, the writers began to see that they could literally go anywhere and do anything, within the limits imposed by the patience and ability of the animators. (The directors, who were occasionally overwhelmed, joked about being asked to draw “an elephant stampede in a hall of mirrors,” but they invariably rose to the challenge.) Instead of a series about a family, which is what its title still implied, it became a show about everything in the world, and early breakthroughs like Bart the Murderer expanded its scope to all of popular culture. Its network was content to leave it alone. And if it ultimately emerged as a work of art vast enough to form the basis of its own metaphorical language, it was because the medium had risen to meet the ambitions of its writers at that exact moment.

The first eight seasons of The Simpsons remain the greatest case study imaginable for what happens when a small group of smart people is given creative freedom within a form that imposes minimal constraints on the imagination, given enough ingenuity and intelligence. Yet the same elements that enabled the show’s success also contributed to its decline, which will last, in the end, for at least twice as long as its golden age. From the beginning, the cast and crew were predominately white and male, and its treatment of minorities is finally drawing the scrutiny that it deserves. Its producers engaged in a form of category selection in hiring new writers who looked pretty much like they did, which was both a symptom and a cause of the lack of diversity in the industry as a whole, and the result was an echo chamber, brilliant and dead, that seemed disconnected from anything but itself. There’s also a hint of the pattern of generational succession that you see in so many successful startups. The founding members tend to be weirdos like George Meyer or John Swartzwelder, who are willing to take creative chances in oddball projects like the magazine Army Man, but as the enterprise becomes more successful, the second wave of hires comes from Harvard, with talent that is conventionally accomplished but deeply risk averse. And the series today looks more or less like you might expect. It’s a show that continues to grow on a technical level—although its animation has also grown more conservative—but hasn’t advanced creatively in fifteen years; it settles for the kind of cleverness that plays well in the room but is unlikely to make an impression on viewers; and it has no real incentive to change. The Simpsons is still the best show ever made about America. But the most American thing about it might be its downfall.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2018 at 8:35 am

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 27, 2016.

Last year, when I finally saw The Revenant—it wasn’t a movie that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town—it struck me as an exquisitely crafted film that was very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat in my eyes—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd its story was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog, who doesn’t lack for pretension, also actively seeks out such moments, even if he maintains his poker face throughout.) About five minutes after the movie began, I realized that I was fundamentally out of sync with it. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with an unexpected arrow through a supporting character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are a lot of fluent speakers out there. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are a little rough, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out at its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that verged on outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what seemed like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself observes in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stick in the brain because we can’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are simultaneously so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

In fact, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like some demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were both so nice that he said them twice. And it’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2017 at 9:00 am

The conveyor belt

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For all the endless discussion of various aspects of Twin Peaks, one quality that sometimes feels neglected is the incongruous fact that it had one of the most attractive casts in television history. In that respect—and maybe in that one alone—it was like just about every other series that ever existed. From prestige dramas to reality shows to local newscasts, the story of television has inescapably been that of beautiful men and women on camera. A show like The Hills, which was one of my guilty pleasures, seemed to be consciously trying to see how long it could coast on surface beauty alone, and nearly every series, ambitious or otherwise, has used the attractiveness of its actors as a commercial or artistic strategy. (In one of the commentary tracks on The Simpsons, a producer describes how a network executive might ask indirectly about the looks of the cast of a sitcom: “So how are we doing aesthetically?”) If this seemed even more pronounced on Twin Peaks, it was partially because, like Mad Men, it took its conventionally glamorous actors into dark, unpredictable places, and also because David Lynch had an eye for a certain kind of beauty, both male and female, that was more distinctive than that of the usual soap opera star. He’s continued this trend in the third season, which has been populated so far by such striking presences as Chrysta Bell, Ben Rosenfield, and Madeline Zima, and last night’s episode features an extended, very funny scene between a delighted Gordon Cole and a character played by Bérénice Marlohe, who, with her red lipstick and “très chic” spike heels, might be the platonic ideal of his type.

Lynch isn’t the first director to display a preference for actors, particularly women, with a very specific look—although he’s thankfully never taken it as far as his precursor Alfred Hitchcock did. And the notion that a film or television series can consist of little more than following around two beautiful people with a camera has a long and honorable history. My two favorite movies of my lifetime, Blue Velvet and Chungking Express, both understand this implicitly. It’s fair to say that the second half of the latter film would be far less watchable if it didn’t involve Tony Leung and Faye Wong, two of the most attractive people in the world, and Wong Kar-Wai, like so many filmmakers before him, uses it as a psychological hook to take us into strange, funny, romantic places. Blue Velvet is a much darker work, but it employs a similar lure, with the actors made up to look like illustrations of themselves. In a Time cover story on Lynch from the early nineties, Richard Corliss writes of Kyle MacLachlan’s face: “It is a startling visage, as pure of line as an art deco vase, with soft, all-American features and a comic-book hero’s jutting chin—you could park a Packard on it.” It echoes what Pauline Kael says of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet: “She even has the kind of nostrils that cover artists can represent accurately with two dots.” MacLachlan’s chin and Rossellini’s nose would have caught our attention in any case, but it’s also a matter of lighting and makeup, and Lynch shoots them to emphasize their roots in the pulp tradition, or, more accurately, in the subconscious store of images that we take from those sources. And the casting gets him halfway there.

This leaves us in a peculiar position when it comes to the third season of Twin Peaks, which, both by nature and by design, is about aging. Mark Frost said in an interview: “It’s an exercise in engaging with one of the most powerful themes in all of art, which is the ruthless passage of time…We’re all trapped in time and we’re all going to die. We’re all traveling along this conveyor belt that is relentlessly moving us toward this very certain outcome.” One of the first, unforgettable images from the show’s promotional materials was Kyle MacLachlan’s face, a quarter of a century older, emerging from the darkness into light, and our feelings toward these characters when they were younger inevitably shape the way we regard them now. I felt this strongly in two contrasting scenes from last night’s episode. It offers us our first extended look at Sarah Palmer, played by Grace Zabriskie, who delivers a freakout in a grocery store that reminds us of how much we’ve missed and needed her—it’s one of the most electrifying moments of the season. And we also finally see Audrey Horne again, in a brutally frustrating sequence that feels to me like the first time that the show’s alienating style comes off as a miscalculation, rather than as a considered choice. Audrey isn’t just in a bad place, which we might have expected, but a sad, unpleasant one, with a sham marriage and a monster of a son, and she doesn’t even know the worst of it yet. It would be a hard scene to watch with anyone, but it’s particularly painful when we set it against our first glimpse of Audrey in the original series, when we might have said, along with the Norwegian businessman at the Great Northern Hotel: “Excuse me, is there something wrong, young pretty girl?”

Yet the two scenes aren’t all that dissimilar. Both Sarah and Audrey are deeply damaged characters who could fairly say: “Things can happen. Something happened to me.” And I can only explain away the difference by confessing that I was a little in love in my early teens with Audrey. Using those feelings against us—much as the show resists giving us Dale Cooper again, even as it extravagantly develops everything around him—must have been what Lynch and Frost had in mind. And it isn’t the first time that this series has toyed with our emotions about beauty and death. The original dream girl of Twin Peaks, after all, was Laura Palmer herself, as captured in two of its most indelible images: Laura’s prom photo, and her body wrapped in plastic. (Sheryl Lee, like January Jones in Mad Men, was originally cast for her look, and only later did anyone try to find out whether or not she could act.) The contrast between Laura’s lovely features and her horrifying fate, in death and in the afterlife, was practically the motor on which the show ran. Her face still opens every episode of the revival, dimly visible in the title sequence, but it also ended each installment of the original run, gazing out from behind the prison bars of the closing credits to the strains of “Laura Palmer’s Theme.” In the new season, the episodes generally conclude with whatever dream pop band Lynch feels like showcasing, usually with a few cool women, and I wouldn’t want to give that up. But I also wonder whether we’re missing something when we take away Laura at the end. This season began with Cooper being asked to find her, but she often seems like the last thing on anyone’s mind. Twin Peaks never allowed us to forget her before, because it left us staring at her photograph each week, which was the only time that one of its beautiful faces seemed to be looking back at us.

Live from Twin Peaks

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What does Twin Peaks look like without Agent Cooper? It was a problem that David Lynch and his writing team were forced to solve for Fire Walk With Me, when Kyle MacLachlan declined to come back for much more than a token appearance, and now, in the show’s third season, Lynch and Mark Frost seem determined to tackle the question yet again, even though they’ve been given more screen time for their leading man than anyone could ever want. MacLachlan’s name is the first thing that we see in the closing credits, in large type, to the point where it’s starting to feel like a weekly punchline—it’s the only way that we’d ever know that the episode was over. He’s undoubtedly the star of the show. Yet even as we’re treated to an abundance of Dark Cooper and Dougie Jones, we’re still waiting to see the one character that I, and a lot of other fans, have been awaiting the most impatiently. Dale Cooper, it’s fair to say, is one of the most peculiar protagonists in television history. As the archetypal outsider coming into an isolated town to investigate a murder, he seems at first like a natural surrogate for the audience, but, if anything, he’s quirkier and stranger than many of the locals he encounters. When we first meet Cooper, he comes across as an almost unplayable combination of personal fastidiousness, superhuman deductive skills, and childlike wonder. But you’re anything like me, you wanted to be like him. I ordered my coffee black for years. And if he stood for the rest of us, it was as a representative of the notion, which crumbles in the face of logic but remains emotionally inescapable, that the town of Twin Peaks would somehow be a wonderful place to live, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In the third season, this version of Cooper, whom I’ve been waiting for a quarter of a century to see again, is nowhere in sight. And the buildup to his return, which I still trust will happen sooner or later, has been so teasingly long that it can hardly be anything but a conscious artistic choice. With every moment of recognition—the taste of coffee, the statue of the gunfighter in the plaza—we hope that the old Cooper will suddenly reappear, but the light in his eyes always fades. On some level, Lynch and Frost are clearly having fun with how long they can get away with this, but by removing the keystone of the original series, they’re also leaving us with some fascinating insights into what kind of show this has been from the very beginning. Let’s tick off its qualities one by one. Over the course of any given episode, it cuts between what seems like about a dozen loosely related plotlines. Most of the scenes last between two and four minutes, with about the same number of characters, and the components are too far removed from one another to provide anything in the way of narrative momentum. They aren’t built around any obligation to advance the plot, but around striking images or odd visual or verbal gags. The payoff, as in the case of Dr. Jacoby’s golden shovels, often doesn’t come for hours, and when it does, it amounts to the end of a shaggy dog story. (The closest thing we’ve had so far to a complete sequence is the sad case of Sam, Tracey, and the glass cube, which didn’t even make it past the premiere.) If there’s a pattern, it isn’t visible, but the result is still strangely absorbing, as long as you don’t approach it as a conventional drama but as something more like Twenty-Two Short Films About Twin Peaks.

You know what this sounds like to me? It sounds like a sketch comedy show. I’ve always seen Twin Peaks as a key element in a series of dramas that stretches from The X-Files through Mad Men, but you could make an equally strong case for it as part of a tradition that runs from SCTV to Portlandia, which went so far as to cast MacLachlan as its mayor. They’re set in a particular location with a consistent cast of characters, but they’re essentially sketch comedies, and when one scene is over, they simply cut to the next. In some ways, the use of a fixed setting is a partial solution to the problem of transitions, which shows from Monty Python onward have struggled to address, but it also creates a beguiling sense of encounters taking place beyond the edges of the frame. (Matt Groening has pointed to SCTV as an inspiration for The Simpsons, with its use of a small town in which the characters were always running into one another. Groening, let’s not forget, was born in Portland, just two hours away from Springfield, which raises the intriguing question of why such shows are so drawn to the atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest.) Without Cooper, the show’s affinities to sketch comedy are far more obvious—and this isn’t the first time this has happened. After Laura’s murderer was revealed in the second season, the show seemed to lose direction, and many of the subplots, like James’s terminable storyline with Evelyn, became proverbial for their pointlessness. But in retrospect, that arid middle stretch starts to look a lot like an unsuccessful sketch comedy series. And it’s worth remembering that Lynch and Frost originally hoped to keep the identity of the killer a secret forever, knowing that it was all that was holding together the rest.

In the absence of a connective thread, it takes a genius to make this kind of thing work, and the lack of a controlling hand is a big part of what made the second season so markedly unsuccessful. Fortunately, the third season has a genius readily available. The sketch format has always been David Lynch’s comfort zone, a fact that has been obscured by contingent factors in his long career. Lynch, who was trained as a painter and conceptual artist, thinks naturally in small narrative units, like the video installations that we glimpse for a second as we wander between rooms in a museum. Eraserhead is basically a bunch of sketches linked by its titular character, and he returned to that structure in Inland Empire, which, thanks to the cheapness of digital video, was the first movie in decades that he was able to make entirely on his own terms. In between, the inclination was present but constrained, sometimes for the better. In its original cut of three hours, Blue Velvet would have played much the same way, but in paring it down to its contractually mandated runtime, Lynch and editor Duwayne Dunham ended up focusing entirely on its backbone as a thriller. (It’s an exact parallel to Annie Hall, which began as a three-hour series of sketches called Anhedonia that assumed its current form after Woody Allen and Ralph Rosenbaum threw out everything that wasn’t a romantic comedy.) Most interesting of all is Mulholland Drive, which was originally shot as a television pilot, with fragmented scenes that were clearly supposed to lead to storylines of their own. When Lynch recut it into a movie, they became aspects of Betty’s dream, which may have been closer to what he wanted in the first place. And in the third season of Twin Peaks, it is happening again.

The Berenstain Barrier

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If you’ve spent any time online in the last few years, there’s a decent chance that you’ve come across some version of what I like to call the Berenstain Bears enigma. It’s based on the fact that a sizable number of readers who recall this book series from childhood remember the name of its titular family as “Berenstein,” when in reality, as a glance at any of the covers will reveal, it’s “Berenstain.” As far as mass instances of misremembering are concerned, this isn’t particularly surprising, and certainly less bewildering than the Mandela effect, or the similar confusion surrounding a nonexistent movie named Shazam. But enough people have been perplexed by it to inspire speculation that these false memories may be the result of an errant time traveler, à la Asimov’s The End of Eternity, or an event in which some of us crossed over from an alternate universe in which the “Berenstein” spelling was correct. (If the theory had emerged a few decades earlier, Robert Anton Wilson might have devoted a page or two to it in Cosmic Trigger.) Even if we explain it as an understandable, if widespread, mistake, it stands as a reminder of how an assumption absorbed in childhood remains far more powerful than a falsehood learned later on. If we discover that we’ve been mispronouncing, say, “Steve Buscemi” for all this time, we aren’t likely to take it as evidence that we’ve ended up in another dimension, but the further back you go, the more ingrained such impressions become. It’s hard to unlearn something that we’ve believed since we were children—which indicates how difficult it can be to discard the more insidious beliefs that some of us are taught from the cradle.

But if the Berenstain Bears enigma has proven to be unusually persistent, I suspect that it’s because many of us really are remembering different versions of this franchise, even if we believe that we aren’t. (You could almost take it as a version of Hilary Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment, which asks if the word “water” means the same thing to us and to the inhabitants of an otherwise identical planet covered with a similar but different liquid.) As I’ve recently discovered while reading the books aloud to my daughter, the characters originally created by Stan and Jan Berenstain have gone through at least six distinct incarnations, and your understanding of what this series “is” largely depends on when you initially encountered it. The earliest books, like The Bike Lesson or The Bears’ Vacation, were funny rhymed stories in the Beginner Book style in which Papa Bear injures himself in various ways while trying to teach Small Bear a lesson. They were followed by moody, impressionistic works like Bears in the Night and The Spooky Old Tree, in which the younger bears venture out alone into the dark and return safely home after a succession of evocative set pieces. Then came big educational books like The Bears’ Almanac and The Bears’ Nature Guide, my own favorites growing up, which dispensed scientific facts in an inviting, oversized format. There was a brief detour through stories like The Berenstain Bears and the Missing Dinosaur Bone, which returned to the Beginner Book format but lacked the casually violent gags of the earlier installments. Next came perhaps the most famous period, with dozens of books like Trouble With Money and Too Much TV, all written, for the first time, in prose, and ending with a tidy, if secular, moral. Finally, and jarringly, there was an abrupt swerve into Christianity, with titles like God Loves You and The Berenstain Bears Go to Sunday School.

To some extent, you can chalk this up to the noise—and sometimes the degeneration—that afflicts any series that lasts for half a century. Incremental changes can lead to radical shifts in style and tone, and they only become obvious over time. (Peanuts is the classic example, but you can even see it in the likes of Dennis the Menace and The Family Circus, both of which were startlingly funny and beautifully drawn in their early years.) Fashions in publishing can drive an author’s choices, which accounts for the ups and downs of many a long career. And the bears only found Jesus after Mike Berenstain took over the franchise after the deaths of his parents. Yet many critics don’t bother making these distinctions, and the ones who hate the Berenstain Bears books seem to associate them entirely with the Trouble With Money period. In 2005, for instance, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post wrote:

The larger questions about the popularity of the Berenstain Bears are more troubling: Is this what we really want from children’s books in the first place, a world filled with scares and neuroses and problems to be toughed out and solved? And if it is, aren’t the Berenstain Bears simply teaching to the test, providing a lesson to be spit back, rather than one lived and understood and embraced? Where is the warmth, the spirit of discovery and imagination in Bear Country? Stan Berenstain taught a million lessons to children, but subtlety and plain old joy weren’t among them.

Similarly, after Jan Berenstain died, Hanna Rosin of Slate said: “As any right-thinking mother will agree, good riddance. Among my set of mothers the series is known mostly as the one that makes us dread the bedtime routine the most.”

Which only tells me that neither Farhi or Rosin ever saw The Spooky Old Tree, which is a minor masterpiece—quirky, atmospheric, gorgeously rendered, and utterly without any lesson. It’s a book that I look forward to reading with my daughter. And while it may seem strange to dwell so much on these bears, it gets at a larger point about the pitfalls in judging any body of work by looking at a random sampling. I think that Peanuts is one of the great artistic achievements of the twentieth century, but it would be hard to convince anyone who was only familiar with its last two decades. You can see the same thing happening with The Simpsons, a series with six perfect seasons that threaten to be overwhelmed by the mediocre decades that are crowding the rest out of syndication. And the transformations of the Berenstain Bears are nothing compared to those of Robert A. Heinlein, whose career somehow encompassed Beyond This Horizon, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and I Will Fear No Evil. Yet there are also risks in drawing conclusions from the entirety of an artist’s output. In his biography of Anthony Burgess, Roger Lewis notes that he has read through all of Burgess’s work, and he asks parenthetically: “And how many have done that—except me?” He’s got a point. Trying to internalize everything, especially over a short period of time, can provide as false a picture as any subset of the whole, and it can result in a pattern that not even the author or the most devoted fan would recognize. Whether or not we’re from different universes, my idea of Bear Country isn’t the same as yours. That’s true of any artist’s work, and it hints at the problem at the root of all criticism: What do we talk about when we talk about the Berenstain Bears?

The glory of being a clown

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Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus souvenir program

When I was younger, there was a period in which I seriously considered becoming a clown. To understand why, you need to know two things. The first is that a clown lives out of a trunk. I was probably about six years old when I saw the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for the first time—it was the year that featured the notorious “living unicorn”—and I don’t remember much about the show itself. What I recall most vividly is the souvenir program, which I brought home and read to pieces. It was packed with information about the performers and their lives, but the tidbit that made the greatest impression on me was the fact that they’re always on the road: they travel by train, and if you want to be a clown, you need to fit all your possessions into that trunk. As a kid, I was always fantasizing about running off to live with nothing, relying on luck and my wits, and this seemed like the ultimate example. It fascinated me for the same reason that I’ve always been intrigued by buskers, except that a clown doesn’t work alone: he’s part of a community of circus folk with their own language and traditions who have managed to survive while moving from one gig to the next. I’ve written here before of how ephemeral the career of a dancer can seem, but clowning takes it to another level. It lacks even the superficial glamor of dance, leaving you with nothing but the life of which Homer Simpson once lamented: “When I started this clown thing, I thought it would be nothing but glory. You know, the glory of being a clown?”

The other important thing about clowns is that they have a college. (Or at least they did when I was growing up, although the original Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College closed its doors nearly twenty years ago.) I first read about clown college in that souvenir program, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the discovery that it existed. Even now, I can recite the description of the curriculum almost from memory. Tuition was free, but students had to pay for their own room, board, and grease paint. Subjects included costume and makeup design, tumbling, acrobatics, pantomime, juggling, stilt walking, and the history of comedy. The one catch is that if the circus offered you a contract at the end of the term, you were obliged to accept it for a year. Its graduates, I later learned, included Penn Gillette, Bill Irwin, and David Strathairn. But what stuck me the most was that this was a place where instructors and students could come together to discuss something as peculiar as the theory and practice of clowning. When I look back at it, it seems possible that it was my first exposure to the idea of college of any kind, and the basic appeal of it never changed, even when I traded my fantasies of Venice, Florida for Cambridge, Massachusetts. You could argue that learning how to become a clown is more practical than majoring in creative writing or film studies. And in each case, it allows an unlikely community to form around people who are otherwise persistently odd.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus souvenir program

It’s that sense of collective effort in the pursuit of strangeness, I think, that makes the circus so enticing. When we talk about running off to join the circus, what we’re actually saying is that we want to leave our responsibilities behind and join a troupe of likeminded individuals: free artists of themselves who require nothing but a vacant lot in order to put on a show. If I was saddened by the recent news that Ringling Bros. is closing after well over a century of operation, it’s because I feel a sense of loss at the end of the dream that it represented. There were aspects of the circus that deserved to be retired, and I wasn’t sorry when they finally put an end to their animal acts. But I never dreamed about being a lion tamer. I identified with the clowns, the trapeze artists, the acrobats, the contortionists, and all the others who symbolized the romance of devoting a life to a form of art that is inherently transient. To some extent, this is true of every artist, but what sets the circus apart is that its performers do it together, on the road, and for years on end. Directors like Fellini and Max Ophüls have been instinctively drawn to circus imagery, because it captures something fundamental about what they do for a living: they’re ringmasters with the ability to harness chaos for just long enough to make a movie. Yet this isn’t quite the same thing. A film, in theory, is something permanent, but a circus is over as soon as the show ends, and to make it last, you have to keep up the act forever.

And I’ve gradually come to realize that I did become a clown, at least in all the ways that count. (As Werner Herzog observes in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe: “As you see [filmmaking] makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone—just look at Orson Welles or look at even people like Truffaut. They have become clowns.”) I spent four years at college studying two dead languages that I haven’t used since graduation, which is either a cosmic joke in itself or an acknowledgment that the knowledge you acquire is less important than the fact that you’ve pursued it in the company of others. Later, I left my job to become a writer, an activity that I’ve since begun to understand is as ephemeral, in some respects, as that of a clown or ballet dancer: few of its fruits last for any longer than the time it takes to write them down, and you’re left with nothing but the process. Along the way, I’ve successively joined and departed from various communities of people who share the same goals. We’ve never traveled on a real train together, but we’re all bound for a common destination, and we’ve developed the same set of strategies to get there. The promise of the circus is that you can get paid for being a clown, if you’re willing to sacrifice every practical consideration and assume every indignity along the way, and that you’re not alone. In the end, the joke might be on you. But the joke is ultimately on all of us. And maybe the clowns are the only ones sane enough to understand this.

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2017 at 9:32 am

In the cards

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Vladimir Nabokov

It’s been said that all of the personal financial advice that most people need to know can fit on a single index card. In fact, that’s pretty much true—which didn’t stop the man who popularized the idea from writing a whole book about it. But the underlying principle is sound enough. When you’re dealing with a topic like your own finances, instead of trying to master a large body of complicated material, you’re better off focusing on a few simple, reliable rules until you aren’t likely to break them by mistake. Once you’ve internalized the basics, you can move on. The tricky part is identifying the rules that will get you the furthest per unit of effort. In practice, no matter what we’re doing, nearly all of us operate under only a handful of conscious principles at any given moment. We just can’t keep more than that in our heads at any one time. (Unconscious principles are another matter, and you could say that intuition is another word for all the rules that we’ve absorbed to the point where we don’t need to think about them explicitly.) If the three or four rules that you’ve chosen to follow are good ones, it puts you at an advantage over a rival who is working with an inferior set. And while this isn’t enough to overcome the impact of external factors, or dumb luck, it makes sense to maximize the usefulness of the few aspects that you can control. This implies, in turn, that you should think very carefully about a handful of big rules, and let experience and intuition take care of the rest.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what I’d include on a similar index card for a writer. In my own writing life, a handful of principles have far outweighed the others. I’ve spent countless hours discussing the subject on this blog, but you could throw away almost all of it: a single index card’s worth of advice would have gotten me ninety percent of the way to where I am now. For instance, there’s the simple rule that you should never go back to read what you’ve written until you’ve finished a complete rough draft, whether it’s a short story, an essay, or a novel—which is more responsible than any other precept for the fact that I’m still writing at all. The principle that you should cut at least ten percent from a first draft, in turn, is what helped me sell my first stories, and in my experience, it’s more like twenty percent. Finally, there’s the idea that you should structure your plot as a series of objectives, and that you should probably make some kind of outline to organize your thoughts before you begin. This is arguably more controversial than the other two, and outlines aren’t for everybody. But they’ve allowed me to write more intricate and ambitious stories than I could have managed otherwise, and they make it a lot easier to finish what I’ve started. (The advice to write an outline is a little like the fifth postulate of Euclid: it’s uglier than the others, and you get interesting results when you get rid of it, but most of us are afraid to drop it completely.)

David Mamet

Then we get to words of wisdom that aren’t as familiar, but which I think every writer should keep in mind. If I had to pick one piece of advice to send back in time to my younger self, along with the above, it’s what David Mamet says in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

It isn’t as elegantly phased as I might like, but it gets at something so important about the writing process that I’ve all but memorized it. A real writer has to be good at everything, and it’s unclear why we should expect all those skills to manifest themselves in a single person. As I once wrote about Proust: “It seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy and obsession should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape.” How can we reasonably expect our writers to create suspense, tell stories about believable characters, advance complicated ideas, and describe the bedroom curtains?

The answer—and while it’s obvious, it didn’t occur to me for years—is that the writer doesn’t need to do all of this at once. A work of art is experienced in a comparative rush, but it doesn’t need to be written that way. (As Homer Simpson was once told: “Very few cartoons are broadcast live. It’s a terrible strain on the animators’ wrists.”) You do one thing at a time, as Mamet says, and divide up your writing schedule so that you don’t need to be clever and careful at the same time. This applies to nonfiction as well. When you think about the work that goes into writing, say, a biography, it can seem absurd that we expect a writer to be the drudge who tracks down the primary sources, the psychologist who interprets the evidence, and the stylist who writes it up in good prose. But these are all roles that a writer plays at different points, and it’s a mistake to conflate them, even as each phase informs all the rest. Once you’ve become a decent stylist and passable psychologist, you’re also a more efficient drudge, since you’re better at figuring out what is and isn’t useful. Which implies that a writer isn’t dealing with just one index card of rules, but with several, and you pick and choose between them based on where you are in the process. Mamet’s point, I think, is that this kind of switching is central to getting things done. You don’t try to do everything simultaneously, and you don’t overthink whatever you’re doing at the moment. As Mamet puts it elsewhere: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2016 at 8:21 am

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