You know what we don’t do?
Talk about how one day they may have to use their own bodies to shield their students from the bullets fired by a semiautomatic rifle that our politicians are too cowardly and greedy to regulate.
Maybe I should. After all, there’s zero evidence that even now, even after Columbine and Sandy Hook and Parkland and too too too many others, anything will change. The Democrats will make a few feeble overtures toward gun control, the Republicans will ignore fucking everything while pocketing the NRA’s money, and I’ll see you back here again in a couple days at the next shooting. So does finding a closet to hide in work better with a lesson on Shakespeare or vocabulary?
The reality is that I don’t know what to tell my students. The craven response is, “Hey, this is the new normal. They need to be aware of it.” But how cynical is that? How defeatist is it to refuse to entertain the notion that maybe there are some practical things we can do to curb gun violence in this country?
But this isn’t an essay about solutions. I don’t have them, and that’s not my job. This is an essay about triage. About doing what I can in my own context.
The best I can do in the short term is keep my focus where I increasingly believe it needs to be: on teaching with kindness and empathy. I can only control what happens in my classroom (and some days even that is a stretch), and so at these terrible times all I can do is be present for my students and make sure they know I care about them and I’m listening to them. Curriculum is important. Of course it is. But whatever content I’m teaching, it has to have at its foundation the aim of helping students be more thoughtful, more sensitive, more empathetic.
If I can impart that to my students, and they can go out into the world and impart it to their students – and, crucially, other teachers begin to understand that all the book learning in the world is meaningless in a society where human life is devalued – maybe, just maybe, we can begin to move the needle.
Typing those words makes me uncomfortable. I’m not accustomed to sharing hippy-dippy idealism. Snark is my default. But one of my mentors told me when dealing with students she always tried to err on the side of kindness. That seems more important now than ever.
Be kind. Be kind. And help others to do the same.
The unavoidable flipside, of course, is that this means having some uncomfortable conversations with our students and colleagues. And I say this as someone who, when faced with confrontation, usually just mutters something passive-aggressive while scrolling angrily through his phone. But we need to let people know when they’re acting shitty. I don’t mean lecturing tediously from a place of dubious moral superiority. I mean literally saying, “That was a shitty thing to do.” Sometimes it’s enough to let people know we see them acting shitty – because if no one calls them on acting shitty they’ll think no one saw them acting shitty or, worse yet, they’ll start to believe what they did wasn’t shitty in the first place.
Being kind doesn’t mean being easy. Letting people get away with shitty behavior is just another way of saying we could have done the right thing but chose to look the other way.
So what do I tell my students? These passionate young people who want to get out there and make a difference?
You’re the front line in the battle against all this ugliness, and I can’t imagine anyone better suited for it.
You will make more of a positive impact on this world than you realize. I’m in awe of your willingness to take on this most vital of responsibilities, I will be here to support you in your efforts, and I’m so, so sorry for the mess we’ve left you.
This is and isn’t a review of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.
I’ve been in my current position in teacher education for nearly eight years – roughly 2,750 days, excluding weekends and breaks. I’ve been comfortable in this position for exactly zero of those days.
I’m a self-aware enough guy to have recognized this for years, even if I haven’t really been able to diagnose the problem. I mean, I’m a bouillabaisse of anxiety disorders at the best of times, but recently it’s also felt like more than that, and somehow inherently different than just garden-variety mopes (which I can usually cure with a good record on the turntable and a slug of scotch). I never felt discomfort and anxiety this acutely as either a high school teacher or Ph.D. student, and I’ve spent the last year in a fairly profound depression, only some of which is Trump-related. Of course there were challenges in my previous positions – shots to my self-esteem from students and parents and my own restless brain, and the process of researching and writing my dissertation was its own unique test of my tolerance for failure – but there was never a persistent voice haranguing me about my inadequacies like there is now.
But Amy Poehler kind of helped me figure it out.
Early in her book – part memoir, part humor – she writes about her days as a developing comic and actor, first with ImprovOlympic and Second City in Chicago, then as one of the pivotal figures in an early incarnation of the Upright Citizens Brigade. She relates those times as a crucible of inspired creativity, where she met and first acted with some of comedy’s future big names (Tina Fey, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser) and started developing the voice (and, really, the style of comedy) that has become one of the most pervasive in 21st Century pop culture. She tells of their successes but, crucially, she doesn’t discount their failures. In fact, she goes out of her way to mention on more than one occasion that her failures outnumber her successes. At one point she says she and Fey have done “hundreds” of improv shows together and “perhaps ten were very good.” There’s some false modesty there, to be sure, but as someone who knows a little about the combustible, crash-and-burn nature of improv, I understand the feeling.
But the key (for her and, in a moment, me) seems to be this: you grow with the support of other people.
It is, as Poehler says, “easier to be brave when you’re not alone.” There’s a cushion when you fail and a team of cheerleaders when you succeed. It’s that supportive environment that enabled her to take risks as an early actor, to fail and learn and grow.
And so, for me, this:
I read most of Poehler’s book at 30,000 feet. I always have a greater propensity for sentimentality on airplanes – it’s something to do with the lack of oxygen, I think, or my discomfort at being so physically close to strangers – but as I reflected on the confidence I felt as a high school teacher and doctoral student versus how inadequate I’ve felt for the last eight years (and how it’s actually gotten worse the longer I stay where I am), Poehler’s words felt exactly right.
As a high school teacher I was lucky enough to fall into a group of veteran educators – who quickly became my friends – who were patient with me, sharing what they did in the classroom, helping me get my feet under me, and providing a constant sounding board for new ideas I wanted to try. They provided me with the helpful criticism we all need to evolve professionally – “I’m not sure that lesson will work that way; let’s try it this way instead and see what happens” – but importantly for me they weren’t stingy with the praise. They always let me know what I was doing well. They borrowed my ideas – the good ones, anyway. They asked me what I thought. They recommended me for opportunities in which they felt I would thrive. I grew the most in my early teaching experience the year I taught a class for special needs students as well as a class for honors students. Both those classes were offered to me after being recommended for them by my friends.
It’s now a well-cited statistic that roughly half the new teachers leave the profession by their fifth year in the classroom. I, on the other hand, felt constantly supported and validated. It was an exhausting and frustrating and wonderful time. I’d go home on Friday more tired than I’d ever been, but somehow Saturday and Sunday would recharge my batteries to get me ready to do it all over again on Monday. And my colleagues were instrumental in that. By letting me know what was working and treating my missteps as opportunities to get better, I didn’t suffer the steep learning curve so many teachers seem to feel.
I owe my career to those friends, and I’ve not shown them nearly enough gratitude for their professional generosity. Jeannie, Norb, Sharon, Mark, Richard, Marcia: thanks. And thanks again.
The same kind of thing can be said of my time in graduate school. I was expecting a confidence-shattering siege in which my ideas were briefly considered and roundly dismissed. But again, I was lucky to be surrounded by a small community of people who challenged me in all the right ways while helping me understand how to leverage what I was good at. Central to this development was my adviser and eventual dissertation director, who is unique in his capacity to make you feel like you’re the smartest person in the room while still helping you strengthen your thinking. There’s nothing quite like having him read a section of your dissertation, lay a level gaze on you and say, “That’s really, really smart.” And then keep reading, as though I actually had something to say.
Which isn’t to imply that my time in grad school was one long victory narrative. There were frustrating conversations where I tried to figure out exactly how to finesse the approach my adviser seemed to want me to take (but which I wasn’t smart enough to nail) and emails with written feedback where I had to swallow my pride and just soak up the criticism, as well as torturous periods of revision where I had to constantly tamp down on the sneaking suspicion that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. He pushed me and challenged me and reminded me how much I still had to learn, but it was tempered with a steady stream of compliments that never left me questioning my worth.
And that, as it turns out, is the perfect transition to my current situation as a teacher educator, where questioning my worth is pretty much all I do. I see now that I’m one of those people who needs validation and support to grow. I don’t need applause 24/7 – as I mentioned above, well-meaning criticism is hugely important and I welcome the opportunity to get better by recognizing my faults – but because of my knack for self-sabotage I really don’t have a clue as to what I do well. Ask me to summarize my first eight years as a Ph.D. and you’re going to get a laundry list of failures with a single footnote that reads, “Here’s one day where I didn’t suck too bad.”
So, to turn this back around to what I’m learning about myself from Poehler’s book, I can start to source my perpetual discomfort to the nature of validation (or lack thereof) in my current position. I talk a lot to my students about how teaching isn’t the job to take if you need instant gratification, but the gratification you get as a high school teacher is U2-at-Red-Rocks level intensity compared to what I’ve experienced as a professor. In teaching, one form of validation comes from seeing your students’ development, and I could usually see the growth my high school students were demonstrating. I could see them become more sophisticated readers, writers, and thinkers. I could take a piece of their writing from August, put it alongside a piece of their writing from May, and see the difference I made. I had students who began the year as non-readers asking for book recommendations by the next summer. The other form of validation is the same in teaching as it is in every other field: simply hearing you’re doing a good job. And I have a grocery bag of notes from students (and their parents) thanking me for the investment I made in their (and their children’s) lives. It wasn’t a standing ovation at the end of each class, but I could feel pretty satisfied most of the time that I was tipping the scales in the right direction.
But now? It’s much harder to point to student success. They write learning objectives better? They really aligned that one assessment with the standard at the top of the lesson plan? The growth I see within a course is largely facile, which is no knock on the students; it’s just the nature of the work. And what about praise for my teaching, that other external support mechanism? Once a year I sit down for my annual review, I get a pat on the back for staying so busy, and that’s it for the next 364 days. Maybe it’s because we’re expected to have figured it all out by this point. Maybe the assumption is that once you’ve worked your way up to a Ph.D. you’re beyond such earthly concerns as routine praise. But for someone like me whose default setting is, “Well, at least nothing’s on fire,” I’ve found university teaching to be a solitary, uncomfortable time where I don’t really know if I’m doing anything well at all.
I should add that I don’t necessarily think I’m unique in this. The lack of a support mechanism for faculty is, in some ways, a product of the way the university system is set up. We’re all in our offices or teaching our classes or working on our individual projects, and the kind of supportive cross-pollination I wish I had more of isn’t easy to come by when the very framework of our profession is scattered. I just think some people are better at dealing with it. They either find other ways to derive satisfaction from their work or they’re simply more confident and don’t need as much external validation. (Alternate scenario: We’re all just a bunch of seething malcontents who never give voice to our collective frustration.) But when you combine the fundamentally diffuse nature of the university with my own introverted, standoffish nature, it actually starts to make a lot of sense that support and validation would be hard to come by.
Student evaluations get their own paragraph, because end-of-semester feedback would seem to be one concrete way I could point to specific successes. These evaluations can be nice, but they’re largely too anonymous and general to be of much use. It’s like a Yelp review from a total stranger. “I learned a lot in your class” is the educational equivalent of “Your taquitos were just the right amount of crispy.” It’s fine, but what am I really supposed to do with that feedback? It’s so vague as to be virtually meaningless. I’m not going to win many awards with “The readings were appropriate and not to [sic] long.”
This, too, is important: I’m completely cognizant of the fact that I may not deserve praise in the first place. If I felt like I was doing a solid job, I’m not sure I’d care too much about what anyone else thought. I’d be all, “Suck it, world,” and go about my business. But when you feel like you’re largely a garbage fire on legs, praise from other people becomes more important than perhaps it should be. I wish it wasn’t. I wish I was wired in such a way that I could go about my business with little input from the rest of the world. But this particular garbage fire needs a little encouragement from time to time.
And yeah – maybe I should stop being such a ninny and ask for feedback when I need it instead of waiting for it to come to me.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also talk a little bit about writing, since that’s another metric of success at the university level and an additional way to receive validation and support. But that presents its own set of problems. When it comes to the research component of the professorship, all that matters is publication. You can tell me, “That’s a fine piece of writing,” but a folder of “fine pieces of writing” means absolutely zero if no one wants to publish it – which actually means that as far as the profession is concerned these aren’t “fine pieces of writing” but are, in fact, garbage. It would be nice if man hours counted for something in terms of promotion, but unfortunately a folder of unpublished writing is useful as wallpaper for my office, but not much more.
So, if I’ve got a largely unsuccessful track record of publication (which I do) and not much validation for my teaching (which I don’t), that only leaves me with the third component of my job: professional service, as the undergraduate adviser. And that, friends, means my big contribution to the field is clerical work. Which, when I think about the people in my own life whom I want to emulate, is just too depressing to think about.
I’m drifting into gripe territory, which isn’t my intent. To be clear: I work with world-class colleagues who are all doing amazing stuff (winning awards and publishing books and making a difference for their students and all that) in a department that’s stacked with talent, and it’s their own dumb luck to have to work with someone who’s the Adam Sandler to their Daniel Day-Lewis/Jessica Chastain/pick your favorite thespian. I don’t mean for any of this to come off as a criticism of them, and it shouldn’t be read that way. I’ve tried to make clear that I situate most of this on my own (surprisingly broad) shoulders. And, of course, on the very nature of teaching at the university level. When you’re working in an environment where you have less contact with your students and your colleagues have less access to your teaching, it only makes sense that if you don’t have a pretty strong faith in your own ability you’re going to wonder if anything’s working.
What’s the takeaway, then, from Poehler’s book and my midair epiphany? I don’t really know. It’s a problem without a simple solution. I’m not just going to wake up one day and suddenly feel good about my work when I’m lacking the evidence to support that feeling. A solution to this problem will be labor intensive, and who needs that in his life when he’s already got a digital stack of lesson plans to grade? But I guess I know this: I’ve either got to figure out how to muster up some personal satisfaction in what I’m doing or I need to make a more concerted effort to go somewhere or do something where I’m going to get what I feel like I’m missing.
But this, too: My dumb brain circles around to gratitude a lot of the time and how it seems as though Facebook likes and Instagram hearts and whatever the hell it is we’re supposed to do with Twitter has somehow replaced substantive acts of generosity among friends. I’m guilty of it, too, clicking the “like” button when it’s been years since I told that hypothetical person how much I (hypothetically) value him or her as a (non-hypothetical) person/friend/colleague. I think we all (me included) need to remember to show more gratitude for what we recognize in others. And I’ll be the first to admit I fall short much of the time. I’m uncomfortable with emotion and the last thing I want is to seem like the skeezy dude who overshares. But be the change you want to see in the world and all that. If I feel like my world isn’t supportive enough, what am I doing to be supportive in my world? It’s a fair question.
Poehler writes at the end of her book, “The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others.”
Also, because this is (and isn’t) a review, Amy Poehler’s book is really, really good. You should read it.
There’s this notion that as you get older you eventually come to peace with who you are. The hardest part of that process for me was realizing I’m too insecure to do what I really want with my life. I’ve always loved acting, and for a time I loved writing (until academia beat that passion out of me). Growing up, I just always assumed I’d get involved with TV or movies or theater, doing something for a living that genuinely made me happy. And while I do love teaching, the most fulfilling times of my life were when I was doing improv or writing sketches in college or teaching high school kids to do improv or acting and directing in community theater. But when I had the chance to make the leap – I lived near Los Angeles for fifteen years – I couldn’t make myself do it. I even wrote a couple screenplays, but the thought of subjecting myself to the grind of judgment and evaluation was just too much. So I gave up on it. And now of course I hate writing and my teaching schedule eliminates even the possibility of doing some local theater in the evening. The closest I get these days to the thing I love is watching as many movies as I can.
All of which is a lengthy, navel-gazing setup to explain why I’m still irresistibly attracted to books <i>about</i> the creative process, even though as a frustrated, wannabe artist I’m no longer engaged in that process myself. Viewed from that angle, Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head is a delight, a 550-page series of interviews with various comedians, actors, and directors that could’ve been double the length and I still would’ve devoured it. As a high school student, Apatow recognized his desire to be a comedian and suckered various managers into letting him interview their up-and-coming comedians, never letting on he was actually a teenager lugging around a tape recorder for his high school radio station. The book starts with his first interview – a 1984 talk with the still relatively-unknown Jerry Seinfeld – and ends with (in this new, expanded edition of the book) a 2016 interview with author David Sedaris. In between we get conversations about comedy and creativity from such diverse pesonalities as Steve Martin, Garry Shandling, Jim Carrey, Sarah Silverman, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, Jon Stewart, Key and Peele, Louis C.K., Lena Dunham, and more – essentially a murderer’s row of the best comedic minds of the last 50 years.
It’s a fool’s errand to try to condense a book like this into a couple paragraphs, but there’s no denying the big takeaway from these interviews (especially in light of how I opened this review): the common thread among all these comedians is an unerring faith in their ability and the ways in which they could add their voice to the larger artistic conversation. That isn’t to say they didn’t have moments of doubt, but it’s fascinating to hear firsthand accounts of how their drive to do what they loved overcame whatever insecurity they felt. Interestingly, this is especially true of Apatow himself, who speaks freely with his guests of how critical he is of his own work (and worth). I’m not sure what lesson I personally should take from this; at 43, whatever creative ship I might have hopped aboard has almost certainly sailed. But as someone who lives vicariously through the lives of those doing what I wish I were doing, it’s compelling stuff.
(Tangent: It’s particularly fascinating for me to hear from the people who are Apatow’s contemporaries. They [and he] are roughly my age, and it’s fun to hear how we all prize the same pop culture touchstones – Carlin, Monty Python, SNL, Pryor, et. al. – even if they eventually went on to do something with their obsessions.)
A bunch of interview transcripts may not sound like the most entertaining read in the world, but trust me: it is. Especially if you consider yourself a fan of comedy, Sick in the Head is essential reading.
Malcolm Middleton – Summer of ’13
Until academia convinced me otherwise, I always thought I was pretty good writer. I wrote a lot as I grew up and, generally speaking, I enjoyed it. It was challenging, sure, but it was a good challenge, the kind that involved getting the right word to slot into just the right space or getting the phrasing to sing. I wrote copiously throughout elementary, middle, and high school, and I enjoyed the (admittedly pretentious) cachet that accompanied the adolescent boast, “I’m a writer.” The words might as well have been wearing a beret and smoking a Gauloises.
I continued to write throughout college, ten years of teaching high school English, and grad school – short stories and poetry, essays and criticism, screenplays and sketches. I’ve always been far too critical of myself to think there was anything truly inspired going on in my writing, but I enjoyed the affirmation and the creative process, and I genuinely liked sharing my work. From my close friends and colleagues I learned how to take criticism and avoid being too precious about my writing. Especially as a fellow of the South Coast Writing Project, I saw how a trusted and impartial eye could make weak writing strong and good writing even better. I welcomed the feedback. Criticism wasn’t personal. My writing wasn’t me.
As soon as I landed a tenure-track position and writing became necessary for professional survival, everything changed. I still had things to say – at least at first – and I thought I was saying them well. Until I began sending manuscripts to reviewers. Then the rejections started rolling in, couched in the veiled language of “revise and resubmit,” which is really just the editors saying (at least in my case it seems), “This article isn’t very good, but go ahead and spend a couple more months rewriting it so we can turn it down again.” While I’ve managed to accumulate a modest publication record, enough to be awarded tenure anyway, the rejections are now well into the double digits and recently – at a time in my career when I thought I was supposed to have this publication thing figured out – my accomplishments have dried up completely. As I watch my colleagues score success after success, it’s now reached the point where I can’t even get a proposal accepted at a professional conference.
The result? The kid who adored writing, who spent long hours scratching in a notebook, has become a man who hates it. Dreads it, in fact. The net result of being told over and over again by editors and publishers that I’m apparently incapable of writing anything worth reading is a sort of compositional paralysis, a complete loss of confidence in the belief that I have anything at all to say. The mere thought of writing anything now makes me distinctly uncomfortable (even this post, which I’ve resisted writing for months), and the act of sitting in front of a blank page makes me feel the way I imagine air travel or public speaking afflicts others. In the rare instances when I do write, it’s only out of a lingering sense of guilt, the nagging suspicion that I should write, not that I want to write.
I find all of this deeply unsettling. It’s a fundamental shift in my personal identity, but it’s also made me question myself professionally as a teacher of writing. I know most writers wrestle with self-doubt, but from the inside looking out this feels different. My insecurity isn’t situational, a matter of wrestling with a specific piece of writing that I trust I can eventually revise into submission – it’s systemic. Recurring professional rejection has caused me to doubt everything I thought I knew about myself as a writer and teacher, and I’m not sure how to take the next step, or even in which direction I should turn to look for it.
If our identities are created by an accretion of experiences, it’s interesting to consider that 25+ years of largely positive writing experiences were undone by a relatively minimal seven years spent in the machinery of academia. The solution, I know you’re saying, is to not let it bother me so much. And you’re right. Of course you are. I’m supposed to remember all the stories of successful authors whose early work was rejected again and again and again. I’m supposed to remind myself that rejection is just part of the process, and I can’t let it get me down. I’m supposed to resolve to keep writing, because giving up means I’ll never get where I want to be.
I know all of that. But rejection is so much more persuasive.
My attitude toward the Harry Potter series was nicely summed up in Jane Lynch’s recent interview with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast. They described some of the various social events they’ve been invited to but declined to attend. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun,” Lynch said. “I just don’t want to do it.” And that pretty much captures my ambivalence about J.K. Rowling’s wizard. I’m sure the books are good; great, even. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love them. My wife has all the books sitting on her shelf, and I bought her the new one a month ago. It would be so easy to pick them up. I just don’t want to do it. I’ve got too many books of my own to read to even consider committing to seven books and however many thousand pages Rowling’s series represents. But when the three Robert Galbraith books – written under Rowling’s pseudonym – showed up on Barnes & Noble’s “cheap books” shelves, that seemed much more manageable. A quick text to, and an enthusiastic recommendation from, one of my former students whose taste in mysteries runs parallel to my own clinched it. My first experience with Rowling wouldn’t be with Harry Potter but with her schlubby amputee detective, Cormoran Strike, in The Cuckoo’s Calling.
Regular readers of this blog (or my Goodreads feed) might recall my love for two other U.K.-based mystery writers, Ian Rankin and Mo Hayder. Their series – Rankin’s Edinburgh-set mysteries featuring D.I. John Rebus and Hayder’s grittier stories starring the tortured D.I. Jack Caffery – are, for my money, the best ongoing thrillers today. So how does Strike stack up against Rebus and Caffery? Not bad, although it feels as though Rowling is still growing into a genre she’s not yet comfortable with.
Strike himself is a compelling character. Rowling hasn’t finished delving into his backstory, but we get enough of it here to want to know more. Illegitimate son of a groupie and a rock star, Strike served for a time in Afghanistan as part of the British military’s Special Investigations Branch. While there, he was caught in an explosion and lost part of his leg. He returned to England, resumed a highly dysfunctional relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and became a private eye. When we first meet him he’s hit rock bottom, living out of his office and with only one client to his name. In a fortuitous turn of events, he’s gifted a plucky new receptionist and a wealthy client on the same day. Robin arrives fresh from the temp office, excited to be rescued from another stultifying turn in a cubicle. The client, John Bristow, has a childhood connection with Strike: Bristow’s brother Charlie was Strike’s best childhood friend before dying in a freak cycling accident. Bristow has now arrived to ask Strike to re-investigate the alleged suicide of his sister, supermodel Lula Landry.
Strike begins his investigation with reservations, essentially taking Bristow’s money only because he’s deep in debt. The case takes him through the pretentious upper echelons of London’s fashion scene, and Rowling has a lot of fun contrasting Strike’s hulking, disheveled bulk with the sleek, trim models and designers he comes into contact with. Rowling’s obvious strength and the book’s great joy – and honestly, the one reason I’d be willing to check out the Potter series – is her dialogue. Her characters come from a range of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and as a long-time Anglophile, I could hear the different regional dialects leap off the page. The supporting characters are all finely drawn, from Bristow’s rodent-like obsequiousness to film producer Freddie Bestigui’s bullish thuggery to homeless addict Rochelle Onifade’s crude desperation. And receptionist Robin – clearly positioned to play a larger role in the next two books – is the most fun of all, an adventurer bristling against her role as an office worker engaged to a banker. From this book alone, it’s easy to see how Rowling created a world in the Potter series that people wanted to live in.
The larger problem with The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, comes from Rowling’s mishandling of some of the genre’s tropes, which may simply be attributed to a first-timer’s rustiness. A lot of the plot – and you can see it from the very start of the book, when Robin and John Bristow both arrive on the same day Strike is rendered homeless – hinges on coincidences and lucky twists of fate. Rowling’s book is no less meticulously plotted than Rankin’s and Hayder’s books, but unlike those two writers, the internal logic she employs isn’t as consistent. In Rankin’s Rebus series, you can clearly see how each plot twist rises organically from character and motivation. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, certain plot points emerge only because Strike was in the right place at the right time or was able to make some enormous intuitive leap based only on an offhand comment. And then there’s the book’s lazy climax, where Strike explains the entire case to the villain and waits for him to confess on a pocket recorder. It’s a variation on what Roger Ebert called the Fallacy of the Talking Killer, where, at a movie’s climax, the bad guy could easily kill the hero but instead wastes valuable time explaining his motives, which of course causes him to be captured. The generous view is that Rowling is paying tribute to classic mysteries where this kind of thing was normal. The more critical view is that she just wasn’t sure how to bring the various plot threads together in any way other than the most straightforward. No matter which view is correct, the climax doesn’t really work.
All of which is to say – as I usually find myself doing – that I didn’t dislike the book. It’s a fun, fast read, and the dialogue alone makes it worth your time. To be fair, the degree to which Rowling grows into these characters and this genre might cause me to modulate my criticism later. It’ll be increasingly difficult to view this book’s flaws generously if they continue into the next two. But again, its rocky final chapters notwithstanding, The Cuckoo’s Calling is strong enough overall not to feel exceedingly optimistic about the series’ promise.
Air – Talkie Walkie (2004)
Time to play catch up. Three books, one post, because I’m all about customer service.
Mark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. After thinking about this one for a couple days, I came to the realization that Mark Danielewski may very well have written a book that’s unreviewable. This isn’t to say that it’s bad or that the content somehow puts the book outside the scope of a review – it’s just clearly incomplete. There are, to date, at least two additional volumes in Danielewski’s latest endeavor (with more to come, I think), and Danielewski being Danielewski, the first volume makes very little effort to tell a satisfying story with a conventional narrative arc. Usually the first book in a series sets the stage for what’s to come: introduces the characters, gets all the expositional business out of the way, ramps up the conflict, and so on. What the first volume of The Familiar is, instead, is a series of stories that I suspect will interlock at some undetermined point in the future. For now, we get only a taste of what’s to come: an epileptic girl who may have powers of healing; a Latino gang member; a couple on the run from government agents; a frankly incoherent story featuring (I think) Thai or maybe Korean characters speaking in a patois so thick I couldn’t really figure out anything that was happening.
And all of it is written in typical Danielewski style, with experiments in font and text placement, illustration and color, and shifts in perspective. It’s fun if you’re into this sort of thing (which I am), but anyone entering into it expecting a satisfying story is going to leave disappointed. But if you’re on Danielewski’s wavelength, there’s no way not to be really excited at the prospect of what’s to come.
Dave Eggers, Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Your Fathers, Where Are They? works more effectively as a thought experiment and an exercise in conversational flexibility than anything else, which marks this as minor Eggers. It’s a fun little thing, and a quick, relatively breezy read, but basically Eggers sets out to answer these questions: Why are white males such dickbags? (and) What’s missing in their lives to make them so angry and unsatisfied despite the fact they’ve had every advantage a person could want? I mean, it’s a compelling question (especially as one of the white males in question), but I find books that set out to do this kind of heavy lifting usually fail as solid narratives because they’re primarily concerned with responding to a thesis instead of telling a story. This one isn’t a failure – Eggers is too talented for that – but where a book like Eggers’ masterful Zeitoun works because the message is embedded in its heartbreaking narrative, the message is the narrative inYour Fathers, Where Are They?, and once that becomes clear it’s hard to get involved in the plot when we know that plot is just a means to try and answer a question.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around a man named Thomas. He’s 34 and disaffected, angry about the shooting death of a childhood friend, and someone so unstable we learn he once tried to burn down a hospital to make a point. But now he’s kidnapped half a dozen people and chained them in separate buildings in a decommissioned military base. The book is told exclusively in dialogue, as Thomas essentially interviews them (with the threat of violence right below the surface) about a variety of topics. From an astronaut, he wants to know what it felt like to work toward a shuttle mission for his entire life only to have NASA defunded just as he was on the cusp of career success. From a congressman he wants to know how and why even politicians with the best of intentions get sucked into the bureaucratic machine. From his 6th grade teacher he wants to find out if he and his friend were molested as children. And so on.
Watching Eggers play with dialogue and perspective in this way is fun, even if, as I said above, it becomes less satisfying once we clue in to what he’s doing. It ends ambiguously, as it must, which is probably only going to annoy people who aren’t already on board. I think Eggers fans will enjoy the exercise, but for the uninitiated, Your Fathers, Where Are They? will probably be more frustrating than anything else.
Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. I mean, I don’t know. Clever is good, right? It indicates intelligence (I think) and a certain sense of humor (I think). I like clever. Monty Python, Christopher Guest movies, Michael Chabon. But it’s gotta be effortless. If I can see the flop sweat, it’s not clever, it’s work. And Joshua Ferris sweat all over this mofo.
For a while, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour read like a worthy successor toAnd Then We Came to the End, Ferris’ previous book, which I loved. Paul O’Rourke is a dentist with some impressive anxiety issues, an unhealthy tendency to get overly attached to the women in his life, and an obnoxious devotion to his atheism. As a guy of comparable age who shares all three of those traits, I could relate. And Ferris is funny and unusually perceptive at times. I love this quote, which is going to haunt me every time I head into the classroom with students who grow farther and farther away from my age with each passing year:
The 1980s were thirty years ago. The people now following [minor celebrities] Daughn and Taylor thought of the 1980s as I used to think of the 1950s. The 1980s had, overnight, become the 1950s. It was unimaginable. I might as well have been wearing a Davy Crockett hat and cowering under my desk for fear of a Soviet attack.
Then Paul discovers someone is posting as him online. First appears a website for his dental practice where there hadn’t been one before. Then a Facebook account. Then someone using his name on the Boston Red Sox fan forum he frequently visits. Then Twitter. And at first the postings are innocuous and full of non-sequiturs. But then they become fixated on Judaism, and an ancient sect of religious doubters called the Ulm, and the tweets and postings start to sound more and more anti-Semitic.
And that’s where things go downhill. I love a good conspiracy novel as much as the next guy, but I shouldn’t see the gears and cogs of the conspiracy’s machinery at work. In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour the machinery was so obvious and laborious I could practically smell the grease and feel the steam. Where before we got wry humor, we suddenly get entire pages that go like this:
The Ulms’ origins were well documented by references to those books of the Bible where the Amalekites were mentioned, from Genesis through the Psalms. It was said that the Greeks called the Ulms metics and were known to them as anthropoi horis enan noi, or “the people without a temple.” There was a list of ways the Ulms had been systematically suppressed since the advent of Christianity . . .
And on. And on and on. And on. By the end of the book I was bored with the whole thing. I didn’t care about what happened to Paul or his practice or any of the other characters, really. And it’s a good thing, because the book ends with a damp squib of a resolution. I don’t mind vague endings – I’ll go to the mat defending the end of the movie adaptation of No Country for Old Men – but you’ve got to give me something. In this case, there was a story, and then it was done.
How did this get short-listed for the Man Booker Prize? The mind boggles.
The Beatles – 1962-1966
It’s no secret that of all the fictional monsters out there, zombies have been employed to do the most allegorical heavy lifting. Director George A. Romero has made a cottage industry of this practice, using zombies to critique race relations (Night of the Living Dead), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), the military-industrial complex (Day of the Dead), economic inequality (Land of the Dead), social media (Diary of the Dead) and – I think – survivalists (Survival of the Dead, which is easily his worst movie, so it’s hardly a surprise there’s no apparent theme). The reasons for this are well-documented; the most popular theory goes that because zombies are personality-free eating machines, directors can easily filter the conflict through whatever message they hope to impart. In all this time, though, there hasn’t really been a zombie movie – or book, since that’s what I’m writing about here – that deals with the inescapable humanity of zombies. In the pressure to survive, characters engage in very little hand-wringing over killing things that used to be people. Jonathan Maberry is the only other author I can think of who’s tackled this subject. In his Young Adult series Rot and Ruin, a character “releases” zombies with as much dignity as possible in an effort to respect the people they once were. But virtually every other depiction of zombies is mainly a vehicle for lots of stabbing and smashing and gooshing.* Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love a good gorefest as much as the next horror movie nerd (which I absolutely am), but I also like movies that confound our expectations and tinker with the tropes we’ve come to expect.
Which brings me, if you couldn’t guess, to M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, one of the best novels I’ll read all year, and one of the best horror novels of all time, full stop. Carey does something that’s almost unthinkable: he writes a novel that works simultaneously as a thrilling horror story, a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human, and a critique of what comedian Patton Oswalt describes as, “Science: We’re all about coulda, not about shoulda!” And he does this the good, old-fashioned way by creating characters that we come to care deeply about and for whom we want the best to happen. Even the villain – and I use that term loosely, because this is a book that deals exclusively in shades of gray – is complex and sympathetic. Carey does so many things well that I almost don’t know where to start – and I’m very hesitant to say much at all at the risk of ruining things for everyone else.
Here’s what I will say: The book begins twenty years after the Breakdown, a biological catastrophe that turns most of the population into ravenous zombie-like creatures the survivors eventually call “hungries” (which I have to admit is probably my favorite nickname of all the ones given to zombies by movies and television and books). At a remote military base in the north of England, Helen Justineau teaches a class full of young hungries, small children that display all the zombie signifiers but which are also capable of speech and rational thought and, most importantly, learning. They behave like normal children except for the fact that they have to be strapped to chairs with arm and neck restraints, and Justineau and the other adults at the school have to slather themselves with a medicinal astringent that masks their scent. Justineau develops a particularly strong connection with Melanie, the smartest child in the class, and this causes her to butt heads with Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a military scientist in charge of studying this unique group of children in the hope of finding a cure. Also present is Sergeant Eddie Parks, the no-nonsense leader of the guard who essentially views the children as a threat to be carefully monitored.
For the first part of the book we watch these four characters in uneasy orbit around each other. Justineau becomes heavily invested in the well-being of her students, and especially Melanie. Melanie, even though she doesn’t fully understand what she is, loves Justineau for seeing her potential and giving her glimpses (especially through Greek mythology) of the wider world. Caldwell sees the children only as subjects, and has no compunction about, say, removing their brains so she can study them further. And Parks is all about by-the-book containment; he doesn’t hate the children, they’re just part of his job. As a result, Parks and Caldwell see Justineau as unnecessarily (and probably unforgivably) soft-hearted, failing to see the animalistic nature of the children. Justineau, in turn, sees Parks as a violent military puppet who just follows orders and Caldwell as a cruel sadist who delights in torturing (undead) children.
The beauty of all this is just how subtly Carey establishes these inherent conflicts. Even though we see them developing, nothing is telegraphed, nothing is obvious. It wasn’t until the second third of the book, as the characters (along with naive soldier Kieran Gallagher) have been cut off from the base and now face a long march south to the main military complex, that I realized just how clever Carey had been. He took his time to bake in the suspicion these characters have for each other and then put them in a situation – marching over hostile terrain, pursued by human enemies and encountering more hungries – where they have to depend on each other.
So that’s the horror/thriller part. But I also said at the top that it’s a thoughtful rumination of humanity, and it is. Melanie is kind of an ingenious creation: an engaging and preternaturally smart child who also happens to be a ruthless killing machine. She’s constantly at war with herself, fighting against her nature and refusing to harm the humans with whom she’s traveling. This is largely down to how they view her. Justineau, especially, takes her seriously, and even Parks comes to respect what she brings to the group. She has a role. She belongs, and Melanie doesn’t want to jeopardize that because of a little hunger. So she encourages them to keep her in restraints and muzzled, and makes sure they remember to coat their exposed skin in “e-blocker,” an ointment that renders them scentless. But during their journey she starts to learn more about herself, who she is, and what Caldwell ultimately wants to do to her. Justineau and Parks know this, too, and as the external threat increases the farther south they travel, so too does the internal one. This all comes to a head in London, when the characters learn the truth both about the Breakdown and what Melanie truly is.
It’s a fantastic book – an effortless thriller that, yeah, also made me a little weepy at the end. The movie adaptation comes out later this year, and I will fight everyone involved if they mess it up.
* Colson Whitehead’s Zone One also qualifies as a thoughtful take on the zombie genre, but I think I’d argue that the zombies are almost incidental to what he’s doing and therefore Zone One isn’t really a zombie novel. Nit-picking, probably.
Sonic Youth – Murray Street (2002)