Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Umberto Eco

My ten great books #10: Foucault’s Pendulum

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Foucault's Pendulum

When a novel has been a part of your life for over twenty years, your feelings for it tend to trace the same ups and downs as those of any other friendship. An initial burst of passionate enthusiasm is followed by a long period of comfortable familiarity; you gradually start to take it for granted; and you even find your emotions beginning to cool. Faced with the same unchanging text for so long, you begin to see its flaws as well as its virtues, and if its shortcomings seem similar to your own, you can even start to resent it a little, or to question what you ever saw in it. Few books have inspired as great a range of responses in me as Foucault’s Pendulum, which in many ways is the novel that had the greatest influence on the kind of fiction I’ve attempted for most of my career. I read it at what feels in retrospect like an absurdly young age: I was thirteen, more comfortable around books than around people, and I was drawn to Umberto Eco as an exemplar of the temperament that I hoped would come from a life spent in the company of ideas. “It is a tale of books, not of everyday worries,” Eco says in the prologue to The Name of the Rose, and every line he writes is suffused with a love of history, language, art, and philosophy. Foucault’s Pendulum takes the same tendency to an even higher level: it’s a novel that often seems to be about nothing but books, with characters who exist primarily as a vehicle for long, witty conservations, crammed with esoteric lore, and a bare sliver of a thriller plot to hold it all together. For a young man who wanted to know something about everything, it was enormously attractive, and it set me off on an intellectual foxhunt that has lasted for over two decades.

Much later, as I began to write fiction of my own, I began to see how dangerous an influence this was, and I found myself agreeing with Tom Wolfe, who famously called Eco “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” After I’d gotten my early Eco pastiches out my system, I put the book away for a long time—although not after having read it to tatters—and I started to wonder how my writing life would have been different if I’d been sucked in by the example of, say, John Fowles or John Updike. It’s only within the last few years, after I finally wrote and published my own homage to this book’s peculiar magic, that I’ve finally felt free to enjoy and appreciate it on its own terms, as an odd, inimitable byway in the history of literature that just happened to play a central role in my own life. (If I’d encountered it a few years later, I wonder if I’d even be able to finish it—I’ve never been able to get through any of Eco’s later novels.) In its final measure, Foucault’s Pendulum is one of the best of all literary entertainments, a spirited tour of some of the oddest corners of the Western mind. It’s the most genial and welcoming of encyclopedic novels, as ironic as Gravity’s Rainbow when it comes to the limits of interpretation, but too charmed by texts and libraries for its lessons to hold any sting. In the course of his research, Eco reportedly read something like a thousand works of occult literature, winnowing out and saving the best parts, and the result is a book that vibrates with the joys of the musty and obscure. And it ultimately changed me for the better. I no longer want to be Umberto Eco. But I’m very glad that Eco did.

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2017 at 9:00 am

Rogue One and the logic of the story reel

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Gareth Edwards and Felicity Jones on the set of Rogue One

Last week, I came across a conversation on Yahoo Movies UK with John Gilroy and Colin Goudie, two of the editors who worked on Rogue One. I’ve never read an interview with a movie editor that wasn’t loaded with insights into storytelling, and this one is no exception. Here’s my favorite tidbit, in which Goudie describes cutting together a story reel early in the production process:

There was no screenplay, there was just a story breakdown at that point, scene by scene. [Director Gareth Edwards] got me to rip hundreds of movies and basically make Rogue One using other films so that they could work out how much dialogue they actually needed in the film.

It’s very simple to have a line [in the script] that reads “Krennic’s shuttle descends to the planet.” Now that takes maybe two to three seconds in other films, but if you look at any other Star Wars film you realize that takes forty-five seconds or a minute of screen time. So by making the whole film that way—I used a lot of the Star Wars films—but also hundreds of other films, too, it gave us a good idea of the timing.

This is a striking observation in itself. If Rogue One does an excellent job of recreating the feel of its source material, and I think it does, it’s because it honors its rhythms—which differ in subtle respects from those of other films—to an extent that the recent Star Trek movies mostly don’t. Goudie continues:

For example, the sequence of them breaking into the vault, I was ripping the big door closing in WarGames to work out how long does a vault door take to close.

So that’s what I did, and that was three months work to do that, and that had captions at the bottom which explained the action that was going to be taking place, and two thirds of the screen was filled with the concept art that had already been done and one quarter, the bottom corner, was the little movie clip to give you how long that scene would actually take.

Then I used dialogue from other movies to give you a sense of how long it would take in other films for someone to be interrogated. So for instance, when Jyn gets interrogated at the beginning of the film by the Rebel council, I used the scene where Ripley gets interrogated in Aliens.

Rogue One

This might seem like little more than interesting trivia, but there’s actually a lot to unpack. You could argue that the ability to construct an entire Star Wars movie out of analogous scenes from other films only points to how derivative the series has always been: it’s hard to imagine doing this for, say, Manchester By the Sea, or even Inception. But that’s also a big part of the franchise’s appeal. Umberto Eco famously said that Casablanca was made up of the memories of other movies, and he suggested that a cult movie—which we can revisit in our imagination from different angles, rather than recalling it as a seamless whole—is necessarily “unhinged”:

Only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.

After reminding us of the uncertain circumstances under which Casablanca was written and filmed, Eco then suggests: “When you don’t know how to deal with a story, you put stereotyped situations in it because you know that they, at least, have already worked elsewhere…My guess is that…[director Michael Curtiz] was simply quoting, unconsciously, similar situations in other movies and trying to provide a reasonably complete repetition of them.”

What interests me the most is Eco’s conclusion: “What Casablanca does unconsciously, other movies will do with extreme intertextual awareness, assuming also that the addressee is equally aware of their purposes.” He cites Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. as two examples, and he easily could have named Star Wars as well, which is explicitly made up of such references. (In fact, George Lucas was putting together story reels before there was even a word for it: “Every time there was a war movie on television, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri, I would watch it—and if there was a dogfight sequence, I would videotape it. Then we would transfer that to 16mm film, and I’d just edit it according to my story of Star Wars. It was really my way of getting a sense of the movement of the spaceships.”) What Eco doesn’t mention—perhaps because he was writing a generation ago—is how such films can pass through intertextuality and end up on the other side. They create memories for viewers who aren’t familiar with the originals, and they end up being quoted in turn by filmmakers who only know Star Wars. They become texts in themselves. In assembling a story reel from hundreds of other movies, Edwards and Goudie were only doing in a literal fashion what most storytellers do in their heads. They figure out how a story should “look” at its highest level, in a rough sketch of the whole, and fill in the details later. The difference here is that Rogue One had the budget and resources to pay someone to do it for real, in a form that could be timed down to the second and reviewed by others, on the assumption that it would save money and effort down the line. Did it work? I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2017 at 9:13 am

How not to read the news

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Umberto Eco in his library

In “How Not to Use a Cellular Phone,” an essay first published in the early nineties, the late author Umberto Eco described what seemed, at the time, like the most obnoxious kind of cell phone user imaginable. It was the person who is anxious to show us how much in demand he is “for complex business discussions,” and who conducts these conversations at great length in public spaces like airports or restaurants, thinking that the impression he makes is “very Rockefellerian.” Eco observed:

What these people don’t realize is that Rockefeller doesn’t need a portable telephone; he has a spacious room full of secretaries so efficient that at the very worst, if his grandfather is dying, the chauffeur comes and whispers something in his ear. The man with power is the man who is not required to answer every call; on the contrary, he is always—as the saying goes—in a meeting…So anyone who flaunts a portable phone as a symbol of power is, on the contrary, announcing to all and sundry his desperate, subaltern position, in which he is obliged to snap to attention, even when making love, if the CEO happens to telephone…The fact that he uses, ostentatiously, his cellular phone is proof that he doesn’t know these things.

At first glance, Eco’s point might seem dated. Few people these days regard the mere act of using a cell phone as a status symbol, and if anything, the sight of someone actually talking on one has begun to feel slightly quaint. In fact, of course, the essay isn’t dated at all. The only difference is that we’ve all been transformed into the sorry figure whom Eco describes. Like him, we’re expected to be available at all times for emails, texts, tweets, and even the occasional phone call, and we don’t have the consolation of thinking that it makes us special. Instead, we’re all uniformly vulnerable to constant interruption, not only by friends and colleagues, but by strangers, spammers, and nonhuman sources of distraction. I’m thinking, in particular, of the news. The gap between an event in the world and its dissemination, analysis, and dismissal online has been reduced to invisibility, and it’s only going to get worse. During the election, there were times when I felt like a slave to information, which is just one step away from noise, and I took steps to insulate myself from it. At the time, I thought it was a temporary measure, but now it looks more like a way of life. Which, in a way, may be the only truly positive outcome of this past year. It forced me to do what I never would have been able to accomplish voluntarily: to take a step back and think more critically about my relationship to the unending deluge of data in which we live.

Robert A. Heinlein

You could make the case we have a moral obligation to be informed of all events as soon as they occur, or that unplugging is a form of denial in itself, but those who lived through even more stressful times knew better. In a letter dated December 21, 1941, two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Robert A. Heinlein described his own “mental ostrichism” to John W. Campbell:

A long time ago I learned that it was necessary to my own mental health to insulate myself emotionally from everything I could not help and to restrict my worrying to things I could help. But wars have a tremendous emotional impact and I have a one-track mind. In 1939 and 1940 I deliberately took the war news about a month later, via Time magazine, in order to dilute the emotional impact. Otherwise I would not have been able to concentrate on fiction writing at all. Emotional detachment is rather hard for me to achieve, so I cultivate it by various dodges whenever the situation is one over which I have no control.

It’s a statement that seems all the more remarkable to me the more I think about it. Whatever his other flaws, Heinlein wasn’t a mental weakling, or a man inclined to avoid confronting reality, and the fact that he felt the need—as a form of preventative mental hygiene—to delay the news by a month is tremendously comforting. And it reassures me that I’m justified in thinking hard about the way in which I relate to the information at my disposal.

To put it bluntly, there’s nothing wrong with reading the paper every morning, absorbing what seems to have mattered over the last twenty-four hours, and then turning off the spigot for the rest of the day. It’s how people got their news for most of the twentieth century, which certainly wasn’t lacking in meaningful events. (Increased coverage doesn’t always lead to greater understanding, and you could even make the case that the sheer volume of it—which has diffused the impact of what is truly important and paved the way for the rise of fake news—has inhibited our ability to respond.) It may even turn out to be more useful to postpone these confrontations to a modest degree. When Napoleon was the Emperor of France, he developed a strategy for dealing with the massive amount of correspondence that he received: he would wait a week before opening any new letters, and by the time he got around to looking at a particular problem or request, he would usually find that it had been resolved, or that the passage of time had put it into perspective. The news works in much the same way. There are very few items that can’t be better understood after a day or two has passed, and for those rare events that are so urgent that they can’t be ignored, there will always be a chauffeur, as Eco puts it, to whisper it in our ears. As Heinlein understood, when you can’t help something in the short term, you have to manage your relationship to it in ways that maximize your potential impact over the long run. It’s measured in years rather than seconds. And it starts right now.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2017 at 9:03 am

The Importance of Writing “Ernesto,” Part 1

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My short story “Ernesto,” which originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been reprinted by Lightspeed. To celebrate its reappearance, I’ll be publishing revised versions of a few posts in which I described the origins of this story, which you can read for free here, along with a nice interview. Please note that this post reveals details about the ending. 

Readers of the story “Ernesto” might reasonably assume that I have a strong interest in the career of Ernest Hemingway. The central character, after all, is a thinly veiled version of the young Hemingway, with a dash of Sherlock Holmes, investigating what initially appears to be a paranormal mystery in the Madrid of the Spanish Civil War. At first glance, it might even seem like a work of Hemingway fanfic, like Bradbury’s “The Kilimanjaro Device,” or Joe Haldeman’s far darker and more sophisticated “The Hemingway Hoax.” (Science fiction writers have always been drawn to Hemingway, who certainly had a lot to say about the figure of the competent man.) In fact, although I live in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, and my daughter has learned to recognize his face on the omnipresent signs that have been posted near the library, he’s a writer I’ve always found hard to like, if only because his style and preoccupations are so radically removed from mine. And the chain of events that led me to write about him is my favorite example from my own career of what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, or how a story is never really about what it seems.

“Ernesto” emerged, like many of my stories, from an idea sparked by a magazine article. In this case, it was a piece in Discover by the science writer Jeanne Lenzer about the work of Dr. William Coley, the nineteenth-century surgeon who experimented with bacterial infections, especially erysipelas, as a treatment for cancer. Around the same time, another article in the same magazine had started me thinking about a story about the investigation of miracles by the Catholic Church. And while that particular notion didn’t go anywhere, I ended up settling on a related premise: a mystery about a series of apparently miraculous cures that are actually due to the sort of cancer immunotherapy that Coley had investigated. The crucial step, it seemed, was to find an appropriate figure of veneration, ideally a Catholic saint, around whom I could build the story. And it took only a few minutes of searching online to come up with a viable candidate: St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, who died of erysipelas. No other historical figure, as far as I could see, fit all the criteria so well.

Here, then, I had the germ of a story, which could be described in a single sentence: a number of visitants to the tomb of St. John of the Cross are cured of cancer, in what seems like a miracle, but is really due to the side effects of an erysipelas infection. (I knew that there were a few holes in the science here, but I was confident I could work my way around them.) At this point, however, I became conscious of a problem. Since the story was supposed to be a mystery along the lines of The X-Files, I couldn’t have the solution be obvious from the beginning, and I was pretty sure that any modern doctor would be able to tell fairly quickly that a patient was suffering from erysipelas. To delay this revelation, and to mislead the reader, I had to keep my patients away from the hospital for as long as possible, which implied that I couldn’t set the story in the present day. This meant that I was suddenly looking at a period piece that was set in Spain, although not so far in the past that I couldn’t talk about Coley’s work. Which led me, by a logical process of elimination, to the Spanish Civil War.

And that’s how Hemingway entered the story—in the most roundabout way imaginable. When I began devising the plot, not only did I not have Hemingway in mind, but I didn’t even have a setting or a time period. The search for the right saint carried me to Spain, and the specifics of the story I wanted to tell led me to the Spanish Civil War, which would allow me to confuse the issue long enough to delay the solution. At the time, it felt almost random, but when I look back, it seems as mathematically necessary as the reasoning that Poe once claimed was behind the composition of “The Raven.” Once the essential foundations have been set, the writer’s imagination can begin to play, and it seemed to me that if I was going to tell a story about the Spanish Civil War, it pretty much had to include Hemingway. As Umberto Eco says in Foucault’s Pendulum: “Like soy sauce in Chinese dishes. If it’s not there, it’s not Chinese.” Within a few days of starting my research, then, I found myself facing the prospect of writing a story about Hemingway investigating a paranormal mystery in wartime Spain. I really wanted to do it. But I wasn’t sure that I could.

The alphabet method

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Your Key to Creative Thinking

It might seem like quite a leap to get from The Gulag Archipelago to The Complete Scarsdale Medial Diet, but creativity makes for strange bedfellows. I got to thinking yesterday about Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which he used to compose and memorize poetry in prison, after picking up a book by Samm Sinclair Baker, who cowrote the aforementioned diet manual with the unfortunate Dr. Herman Tarnower. Baker, of whom I hadn’t heard until recently, was an intriguing figure in his own right. He was a former gag cartoonist who became an advertising copywriter and executive at two agencies during the Mad Men era, and then quit to write a series of self-help books on subjects ranging from gardening to skin problems to sex. Among them was a slim volume called Your Key to Creative Thinking, which I picked up at a yard sale last weekend for less than a dollar. It’s a breezy read, full of useful advice, much of which I’ve covered on this blog before. Baker advises the reader to seek out as many facts as possible; to adapt ideas from different fields or categories; to use words or pictures as a source of random associations; to invert your criteria or assumptions; to take good notes; and to let the ideas simmer by relaxing or going for a walk. They’re all valuable tips, of the kind that nearly every creative professional figures out eventually, and Baker presents them in a fluffy but engaging way. Used copies of his book currently sell for a penny on Amazon, and it’s worth checking out if, like me, you’re addicted to this sort of thing.

But what really caught my eye—and for reasons that may not have occurred to the author himself—was a section titled “Alphabet Creative-Spur System.” Baker writes:

Here’s a little creative-spur system that I’ve always kept as a helpful, small “secret method” for myself. It’s a quick aid in sparking creative thinking and rapid results.

This system is simply a matter of running down the alphabet with the key word of your problem and developing ideas in rhyming variations of the word…On quick, simple problems run the key word through your mind, varying it letter by letter, from A to Z, in rhyming fashion.

In respect to more complicated, weightier problems, work with pencil and paper, or typewriter, setting down letter by letter and filling out accordingly.

As an example, Baker uses the word “detergent.” He runs through the alphabet, looking for rhymes and near-rhymes like “emergent” (“You can see how greater cleanliness ‘emerges’ from using this detergent”), “he-detergent” (“Consider featuring this one as the ‘he-man’ detergent that has extra muscle”), and “pre-tergent” (“This suggests a preparatory phase built into the product, so that it produces double cleaning action”).


At first glance, the method seems cute but not particularly revelatory. What struck me when I tried it, though, is how conveniently it can be done in your head, and how easy it is to remember the results. That’s a more powerful combination than it sounds. I’ve developed a lot of creative hacks over the years, from mind maps to the use of random quotations to spark a train of thought, but most require a fair amount of preparation, or at least that I sit down for half an hour or so with pen and paper. This isn’t always possible, and one of the key problems in any creative artist’s life is how to fill in those precious scraps of time—on the bus, in line at the grocery store, in the shower—that seem like prime real estate for thinking. The nifty thing about the alphabet method is its simplicity, its instantaneous accessibility, and its ease of retention. It doesn’t require any tools at all. The underlying mechanism is automatic, almost mindless. You can do it for thirty seconds or five minutes while keeping half of your attention somewhere else. And best of all, the ideas that it generates can be called back without any effort, assuming that the connection between the rhyming key word and the associated concept is solid enough. That’s a nice benefit in itself. Writers are advised to keep a notebook on hand at all times, but that isn’t always possible. With the alphabet method, you don’t need to worry about writing down what it generates, because you can always recreate your train of thought with a minimum of trouble.

And I have a hunch that it could provide the basis for other creative strategies. The idea of using the alphabet as a mnemonic device isn’t a new one, and there are even theories that the alphabet itself arose as a way to memorize information encoded in the order and names of the letters. (Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, offers up a particularly ingenious interpretation along these lines.) But it isn’t hard to envision a system in which the beats of a story, say, could be retained in the head by associating each section with an alphabetic keyword. Here, for instance, is how I’d memorize the first few story points of Casablanca:

A) “African music,” followed by the Marseillaise, plays over the opening credits. As Umberto Eco notes: “Two different genres are evoked: adventure movie and patriotic movie.”
B) “But not everyone could get to Lisbon directly.” The narrator describes the refugee trail from Paris.
C) “Casablanca to Lisbon to America.” Refugees wait for visas to make the trip to the promised land.
D) “Deutschland über Alles.” The arrival of Major Strasser. His conversation with Captain Renault.
E) “Everybody comes to Rick’s…”

And so on. The human brain isn’t particularly good at keeping track of more than a few pieces of information at a time, but the great thing about the alphabet method is that you aren’t really memorizing anything: you’re just preserving the initial seed of a process that can be used to generate the same idea when necessary. I may not remember exactly what Baker had in mind with the word “pre-tergent,” but I can reconstruct it easily, and that’s doubly true when it comes to my own ideas. All it requires is that you know the alphabet, that you can run through it letter by letter, and that you’re more or less the same person you were when you came up with the idea in the first place. You don’t need a rosary. All you need is the alphabet, and yourself.

The act of noticing

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Jonathan Franzen

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 24, 2014.

Yesterday, while playing with my daughter at the park, I found myself oddly fascinated by the sight of a landscaping crew that was taking down a tree across the street. It’s the kind of scene you encounter on a regular basis in suburbia, but I wound up watching with unusual attention, mostly because I didn’t have much else to do. (I wasn’t alone, either. Any kind of construction work amounts to the greatest show on earth for toddlers, and there ended up being a line of tiny spectators peering through the fence.) Maybe because I’ve been in a novelistic state of mind recently, I focused on details that I’d never noticed before. There’s the way a severed tree limb dangles from the end of the crane almost exactly like a hanged man, as Eco describes it in Foucault’s Pendulum, with its heavy base tracing a second, smaller circle in the air. I noted how a chainsaw in action sprays a fan of fine particles behind it, like a peacock’s tail. And when the woodchipper shoots chips into the back of the truck, a cloud of light golden dust forms above the container, like the soul of the tree ascending.

As I watched, I had the inevitable thought: I should put this into a story. Unfortunately, nothing I’m writing at the moment includes a landscaping scene, and the easiest way to incorporate it would be through some kind of elaborate metaphor, as we often see, at its finest, in Proust. (“As he listened to her words, he found himself reminded of a landscaping crew he had once seen…”) But it made me reflect both on the act of noticing and on the role it plays, or doesn’t, in my own fiction. Most of the time, when I’m writing a story, I’m following the dictates of a carefully constructed plot, and I’ll find myself dealing with a building or a city scene that has imposed itself by necessity on the action: my characters end up at a hospital or a police station, and I strain to find a way to evoke it in a few economical lines that haven’t been written a million times before. Occasionally, this strikes me as a backward way of working. It would be better, it seems, to build the story around locations and situations that I already know I can describe—or which caught my attention in the way that landscaping crew did—rather than scrambling to push out something original under pressure.

Joseph O'Neill

In fact, that’s the way a lot of novelists work, particularly on the literary end. One of the striking trends in contemporary fiction is how so much of it doubles as reportage, with miniature New Yorker pieces buried like bonbons within the larger story. This isn’t exactly new: writers from Nabokov to Updike have filled their novels with set pieces that serve, in James Wood’s memorable phrase, as “propaganda on behalf of good noticing.” What sets more recent novels apart is how undigested some of it seems. At times, you can feel the narrative pausing for a page or two as the writer—invariably a talented one, or else these sections wouldn’t survive the editorial process—serves up a chunk of journalistic observation. As Norman Mailer writes, rather unkindly, of Jonathan Franzen:

Everything of novelistic use to him that came up on the Internet seems to have bypassed the higher reaches of his imagination—it is as if he offers us more human experience than he has literally mastered, and this is obvious when we come upon his set pieces on gourmet restaurants or giant cruise ships or modern Lithuania in disarray. Such sections read like first-rate magazine pieces, but no better—they stick to the surface.

This isn’t entirely fair to Franzen, a superb noticer who creates vivid characters even as he auditions for our admiration. But I thought of this again after finishing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. It’s a novel I’d wanted to read for years, and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot, while remaining conscious of its constant shifts into what amounts to nonfiction: beautifully written and reported essays on New York, London, the Hague, India, cricket, and just about everything else. It’s a gorgeous book, but it ends up feeling more like a collection of lovingly burnished parts than a cohesive whole, and its acts of noticing occasionally interfere with its ability to invent real interactions for its characters. It was Updike himself, I think, who warned writers against mining their journals for material, and you can see why: it encourages a sort of novelistic bricolage rather than an organic discovery of the action, and the best approach lies somewhere in the middle. And there’s more than one way of telling a story. As I was studying the landscaping crew at the park, my daughter was engaged in a narrative of her own: she ran into her friend Elise, played on the seesaw, and then had to leave abruptly for a diaper change. Or, as Beatrix put it, when I asked about her day: “Park. Elyse. Say hi. Seesaw. Poop. Go home.” And I don’t think I can do better than that.

Our struggle, part two

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William B. Davis on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for the X-Files episode “My Struggle II.”

“The writers we absorb when we’re young bind us to them, sometimes lightly, sometimes with iron,” Daniel Mendelsohn once wrote in The New Yorker. “In time, the bonds fall away, but if you look very closely you can sometimes make out the pale white groove of a faded scar, or the telltale chalky red of old rust.” That’s true of movies, television, and other forms of art, too, and it’s particularly powerful when it happens in your early teens. If you want to change somebody’s life forever, just find him when he’s thirteen—and give him a book. I’ve increasingly come to recognize that two-thirds of my inner life was shaped by half a dozen objects that I happened to encounter, almost by accident, during a window of time that opened up when I was twelve and closed about two years later. They included a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a movie and a television series by David Lynch, and a pair of novels by Umberto Eco. Take any of these props away, and the whole edifice comes crashing down, or at least reassembles itself into a drastically different form. And of all the nudges I received that put me on the course I’m on today, few have been more dramatic than that of The X-Files, which premiered as I was entering the eighth grade and left a mark, or a scar like that of a smallpox vaccination, that I can still see now.

I’m writing this because I’ve realized that a young person encountering The X-Files today for the first time at age thirteen, as I did, wouldn’t even have been born when the original finale aired. It’s likely, then, that there’s a version of me being exposed to this premise and these characters courtesy of the show’s revival who has never seen the series in any other form. And I honestly have no idea what that kid must be thinking right now. Aside from a miracle of an episode from Darin Morgan, the reboot has been an undeniable letdown even for longtime fans, but to new viewers, it must seem totally inexplicable. It’s easy to picture someone watching this week’s finale—which is devoid of thrills, suspense, or even basic clarity—and wondering what all the fuss was about. I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that my favorite television series, or at least the one that had the greatest impact on what I’ve ended up doing with my life, was so uneven that I don’t need to watch the majority of its episodes ever again. But to someone who hasn’t made that mental adjustment, or isn’t familiar with the heights the show could reach on those rare occasions when it was firing on all cylinders, the revival raises the question of why anyone was clamoring for its return in the first place. If I were watching it with someone who had never seen it before, and who knew how much I loved it, I’d be utterly humiliated.

Lauren Ambrose and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

I don’t think anyone, aside perhaps from Chris Carter, believes that this season gained many new fans. But that isn’t the real loss. The X-Files, for all its flaws, was a show that could change lives. I’ve written here before of the Scully effect that led young women to pursue careers in science, medicine, and law enforcement—which would be completely incomprehensible to someone who knows Scully only from her reappearance here. (Gillian Anderson does what she can, as always, but she still sounds as if she’s reading the opening narration to “My Struggle II” at gunpoint. And when she sequences her own genome in what feels like record time, I just wanted her to say that she was sending it to Theranos.) The reboot isn’t likely to spark anyone’s curiosity about anything, aside from the question of why so many people cared. And while it’s a tall order to ask a television show to change lives, it isn’t so unreasonable when you consider how it once pulled it off. The X-Files entered my life and never left it because it was clever, competent, and atmospheric; it featured a pair of attractive leads whom I’d be happy to follow anywhere; and its premise pointed toward a world of possible stories, however little of it was fulfilled in practice. It changed me because it came along at the right time and it did what it was supposed to do. The reboot didn’t even manage that. If anything, it made me retroactively question my own good taste.

I won’t bother picking apart “My Struggle II” in detail, since the episode did a fine job of undermining itself, and there are plenty of postmortems available elsewhere. But I’ve got to point out the fundamental narrative miscalculation of keeping Mulder and Scully apart for the entire episode, which is indefensible, even if it was the result of a scheduling issue. Even at the revival’s low points, the chemistry between the leads was enough to keep us watching, and removing it only highlights how sloppy the rest really was. It doesn’t help that Scully is paired instead with Lauren Ambrose, giving a misdirected interpretation of a character who isn’t that far removed from Scully herself in the show’s early seasons—which just reminds us of how much Anderson brought to that part. The episode falls to pieces as you watch it, packing a contagion storyline that could have filled an entire season into less than fifty minutes, reducing Joel McHale’s right-wing pundit, who was such a promising character on paper, to a device for delivering exposition. (Since the episode ends on a cliffhanger anyway, it could have just moved it to earlier in the story, ending on the outbreak, which would have given it some breathing room. Not that I think it would have mattered.) As the revival slunk to its whimper of a close, my wife said that I’d been smart to keep my expectations low, but as it turns out, they weren’t low enough. If the series comes back, I’ll still watch it, in yet another triumph of hope over experience. Keeping up my hopes will be a struggle. But it wouldn’t be the first time.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2016 at 9:48 am

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