Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Happily ever aftermath

Yesterday facebook was all about the fact that they should have run the ball. That point having been thoroughly and exhaustively established, today is all about Harper Lee, who I didn’t even think was still alive. Usually when this happens it means the person just died. She didn’t die; she wrote a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird depicting Scout’s adult life, and it’s about to be published. I’m half-expecting Lee to have gotten on the dystopian bandwagon, putting Scout in an arena to fight for her life. It may be a sin to kill a mockingbird, but Atticus didn’t say anything about a mockingjay.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Part of me thinks I should feel skeptical, maybe even dismayed. A good book is a work of art. Is there a “sequel” to the Mona Lisa, where we see exactly what it is she’s smiling about? While the idea is a fun one for art or writing students to play with, part of the great appeal of the original is what wasn’t painted. We don’t know why she’s smiling. That’s cool. Likewise, when I heard about Lee’s sequel, I wondered for a moment why this was even necessary. Stories, as I have often told my creative writing students, aren’t about what happens; they’re about what matters. The retrospective narrator of Mockingbird tells this story because it matters to her—it changed her life. It may change ours as well. But if all we want when we get to the end of the book is to find out what else happens to Scout, we might be missing a little of the point.

All of that said, however, I fully admit: I want to know what happens to Scout when she grows up. And Holden Caulfield, for all that he’s a bit of a prick. For that matter, I’d like to know if Rick and Ilsa ever meet up again after the war. And for the love of God, won’t someone please tell me what happens to the people on the Serenity? Yes, I, too, crave continuity. I love that a low-budget TV show with bad acting and cheesy special effects has resulted in a Klingon version of the Bible. I love that a cold war spy novel has led to a debate on whether the next “Bond girl” might actually be Bond. I love that every book these days is actually three books and four movies. I hate myself for loving this, but luckily I can escape my self-hatred on an ongoing basis.

I’m not sure why serialization seems to be more rampant than ever these days. Paradoxically, maybe the conditions that have provoked a rash of post-apocalyptic fiction have also made us desire a sense of continuity. The world is going down in flames, but we don’t want to miss a minute of the burn. Funny thing about that, too: even when the things we are seeing and reading are terrible, we don’t seem to want them to end. Lately I’ve been catching up on a lot of TV shows I missed in my cheapskate less-than-basic-cable days, and while many of them make me feel anywhere from mildly irked to outright enraged (“Why the hell is Jack Bauer the only person in the world who is ever right?”), I just can’t look away.

Part of the reason I’m watching more TV now is because it’s something that I, the BF, and the BF’s daughters can all enjoy together when they come over for dinner once or twice a week. The BF’s daughters like to watch Netflix streamed TV shows from the past few decades, and while they (and probably most of you) have already seen these shows before, it’s all new to me. Recently they were into the one about the free-spirited mother and daughter who come from old money but reject all the stodgy pomp and circumstance associated therewith. The dialogue is delivered rapid-fire in classic screwball comedy fashion, and while the characters are unbelievably annoying most of the time, the writing is smart and the actors do deliver. The BF’s daughters kept watching even when they vehemently disapproved of both the mother’s and daughter’s choice in boyfriend, and I have to say I agree with them. The free-spirited are not immune to picking smarmy bastards as mates.

Now they are onto a fantasy show whose characters are all from fairy tales, if fairy tales took an even darker turn from poison apples and cannibalistic witches to include tons of blood and gore. Some of the premises are clever—I like that Little Red Riding Hood is actually also the wolf; she’s a werewolf, see, which brings up all sorts of interesting id/ego/superego themes, or at least it does if you’ve spent too much time doing literary analysis—but a lot of the actors should check into Overactors Anonymous, and it’s often hard to keep a straight face through the dialogue. “What happened?” “The Queen ripped my heart out, found a dark spot on it, and put it back in my chest!” “You need to be more careful. You could have been killed!”

Watching TV with the BF’s daughters is made a thousand times more entertaining by their running commentary. A lot of it is deliberately crude and ridiculous—butts are frequently invoked, as are things that purportedly crawled out of said butts—but I laugh harder at their jokes than anything on the shows. The truth is I would not watch any of these shows on my own time if the girls were not watching them, but since they do, I do too—and I can’t help desperately needing to know what’s going to happen next.

It’s an odd thing about entertainment, be it on page or on screen: we want it to help us escape from reality, but we also need it to be somewhat like reality. If we can continue to view a fictional character’s day-to-day life on an ongoing basis, it becomes easier to pretend that witty repartee, magic wands, photon torpedoes and tricked-out Aston Martins are part of our day-to-day lives. So yeah, I’ll probably read Lee’s sequel. Who knows, maybe it’ll be about avian zombies—To Kill a Walkingbird—and the movie can serve additionally as a Hitchcock sequel. Now we’ll finally find out what happens when the birds go beyond Bodega Bay.



  1. In my dreams I'm as cool as Luke; but in reality, I'm pretty sure I'm stuck being Kirk.

    1. Better than being one of the guys in red shirts who die horribly right away.

  2. You hit on many of the arguments I've made concerning the emotional draw of serial texts. In my optimistic moments I like to think that serial texts have more potential to tackle important subject matter (Social commentary), if for no other reason, they have more time and exposure to do so (& sometimes more subtly & slowly). I think you really hit on something here about the particular draw of communal tevision viewing and the family and social conversation it can lead to ("water cooler" chatter). Your reflections about watching tv with the BF's daughters made me think of the many inter-generational bonds forged by the ultimate serial genre: the soap opera.

    1. Thanks, Ames! I am seriously flattered that you read and commented -- I've learned tons from your scholarship on this stuff. I like your point about serial texts' impact; I think people sometimes get the idea that serialization is "commercial" rather than artistic (like the analogy I made to the Mona Lisa), but of course that's absurd. Art can (and probably should) have a personal connection to our daily lives.