It’s almost as if, as the torrent of images from Haiti begins to abate, Time announces “James Nachtwey is here,” and the crowd parts, a hush falls, and all the other photographs fall away.
I exaggerate, of course, but Nachtwey has attained almost this stature. The man, and the photographs, are always at risk of overshadowing the events they document.
There is a reason: look at the photographs in question. Nachtwey’s attention to composition is remarkable. His photos are strong graphic designs as much as anything else; he is able to find a stark simplicity in the scenes he photographs, even when the frame is cluttered. He also has an extraordinary ability to shoot for the symbol, as in his shot of the WTC collapse, for example, or a Kosovar farmer carrying scythes. Nachtwey is, perhaps, the leading example or the photojournalist/artist working today.
This leads directly to the critiques of Nachtwey: that his work is cold, exploitative, unsympathetic. The skill of his photography is offensive; some feel that it is inappropriate, somehow, for photos depicting such suffering to look so good. His sincerity is called into question. You won’t have to look too far to find the critical questions expressed as personal attacks.
Some, perhaps most, of this criticism is a case of good old tall poppy syndrome, but a valid question remains: do Nachtwey’s subjects lose their essential humanity as they become the subjects of his art?
A certain amount of back and forth is involved:
“Okay now. Delete the sentence that ends ‘unforgiven blimp fiasco.’”
“Delete from ‘cigar, mouse’ all the way to ‘favoring that we.’”
“And the sentence ending ‘punks and losers.’”
“And in the whole last paragraph, cut the following words: ‘duck,’ ‘flavor,’ ‘Marvin,’ ‘whereas,’ ‘celluloid,’ ‘bingo,’ and ‘dropsy.’ And cut the whole song Silver Threads Among the Gold.”
“Mmmmkay, there. Darling?”
From Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane
From the documentary film War Photographer, by Christian Frei.
I have a confession to make.
That sentence is designed to make you roll your chair a little closer to your desk, or look over your shoulder and pull the laptop closer to your belly. You’re about to share one of those confession things, to get a peep into the sordid private life of a stranger, to learn of — what? Torrid encounters with famous persons, or their pets? Bizarre masochistic rituals? A perverse interest in vegetable oil or shrink wrap?
Here it is: I think this multiple point of view thing is bullshit. I really do.
I recognize that, compared to the alternatives, this is not a very interesting confession. But your voyeuristic inclinations are none of my concern, gentle reader, so take that complaint elsewhere.
It’s also not the most truthful of confessions. I’m sorry; I have a tendency to exaggerate, and even to make things up. What can I say? This is where fiction comes from. It’s a short hop from fiction to proroguing Parliament; both spring from the same evasive instinct.
It’s more truthful to say that I like this multiple point of view thing as much as any other writerly stunt; the strong scent of manure only comes into play when we start talking about how wonderful multiple points of view are, how much closer they bring us to truth, how much more reliable than a single narrator, how much more expansive, how much more lifelike these stories are.
These stories are nothing like life.
Life is like this: I got out of bed, went and woke the kids up, stumbled blearily down the hall to my office to check my email for nightmares left over from the day before, yelled at the kids to get out of bed already, went downstairs and ate some kind of breakfast, yelled at the kids to get their butts out of bed before I came in and tickled them, put on the kettle for tea, and finally told the kids that if they didn’t get their sorry asses out of bed I was going to sing the theme from “Little House on the Prairie” at the top of my lungs, which horrifying prospect never fails to create the desired result.
Fiction doesn’t work that way, not least because most fictional characters possess far too much dignity to allow themselves to be written singing the theme from “Little House on the Prairie” like a drunk with a broken trombone. Fiction allows us to get outside ourselves. We want to invest in a viewpoint character. Film and theatre are like life, in that we see people from without; fiction demands a point of view. Or multiple points of view.
In multiple points of view, my morning routine could involve jumping from one head to the next to discover that, for example, number one son really is starting to think that his dad is a bit of a goof, or that daughter actually thinks my terrible singing isn’t entirely deliberate, or that wife finds the whole experience horribly trying and wishes I worked the night shift. Or, my neighbour could be arising bleary-eyed, wondering what in the hell is that terrible noise.
I have certain ideas about how I want to write, and I can’t help feeling that this multiple point of view thing, essentially, is cheating.
Oh, yes it is.
Find yourself a recent book on writing — any of the approximately one million now in print — and skip to the section on point of view. It’s almost guaranteed that this book will advise its readers to avoid the omniscient narrator, because that point of view is obsolete. Contemporary readers have tumbled to this particular game, and they won’t accept that an omniscient narrator can know all these things about the story. They’re too smart to fall for it.
But they will fall for tag-team third-person narration, provided that we label each section with the name of the viewpoint character: Bob, Joanna, Bob, Joanna, Etcetera. They will fall for a series of linked short stories, each with a unique point of view. They will fall for an author who somehow has access to the viewpoints of more than one narrator.
Is this anything but omniscient narration repackaged?
I don’t think so.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think that the writing books are wrong; readers do accept omniscient narrators, just as long as the narration and the story work. I’m not going to insist that there’s only one valid way to write.
But let’s not pretend that multiple points of view make stories more reliable, more authoritative, more life-like. The more we can see of characters’ intentions, of their inner lives, the more complete our picture of the story becomes, the less life-like it is, the more constructed, the greater the risk that the entire thing has nothing to do with any kind of truth. Multiple points of view, linked short stories … these are not richer or more life-like than a single story told from a single viewpoint; if anything, these techniques should amplify the fictionality of the fiction.
Every day, we make little discoveries; on Friday, while idly sitting, I made one of my own. By closing each eye in turn while focusing on a distant sign, I discovered that the vision in my right eye is about perfect, while my left eye remains noticeably blurry.
And this fact leads me to disagree somewhat with Rebecca Rosenblum on the subject of villainy.
Last spring, as I was on my evening walk, a kid in a black SUV asked me for directions. A quiet town, a quiet neighborhood, clean-cut kid in an expensive truck: an alarm bell rang, but I ignored it. The kid in the passenger seat pretended to show me a road map. His confederate in the back slid down his window, and something hit me in the side of the head, like a warm snowball on a day with no snow. When I turned to look, another something hit me directly in the left eye.
The last thing my left eye ever saw clearly was an enormous red glob of what later turned out to be ketchup, propelled at high speed, I know not how. And as ridiculous as it is to be attacked with ketchup, the outcome was three trips to the doctor, a hundred bucks on antibiotics and steroids, and what now appears to be permanent damage to my dominant eye.
So let’s talk about people doing “jerky things,” whether they perceive themselves as jerks, and whether the world would seem a sunnier, more reasonable place, if only we understood their motives. Let’s talk about whether, when a character does something nasty for no apparent reason, this is “manufactured plot,” an offence against verisimilitude, a failure to accurately portray human behaviour.
The first thing the human mind does is to look for connections – this is why we have religions, why we believe in superstitions, why we tend to assume that random events somehow relate to us. It’s why we want to know why people do things in fiction. But this is not how the world really works. Things just happen, and more often than not, people just do stuff, without logic, without rational motive, without any reason at all.
The kids involved — at least three of them — surely didn’t think of themselves as assholes, but they certainly set out that night to fuck with someone. They didn’t “have their reasons.” They had no logical motives. They had nothing to gain. This was a planned, deliberate act, and the sole motive was kicks. They did this for fun.
To suppose that we’re all good people and that our occasional nastiness springs from understandable, even sympathetic motives is a form of sentimentality. The truth is that people are jerks because people are jerks. We are neither inherently good or inherently bad: we’re inherently human, and being a jerk is part of that.
Fiction that admits this is true to human nature; fiction that seeks to motivate it, to explain that we’re all good people who never do things without good reasons, distorts human nature. Savagery is in all of us.
Human nature is more violent and cruel than we’re happy to admit. Ask Rwanda, or Bosnia, or El Salvador, or Sierra Leone. You may find reasons for conflict, but I doubt you’ll find a rational explanation for, say, decapitating a toddler in front of his mother, with a machete.
There is no why. The reasons we do the things we do often lie beyond our ken, and good fiction leaves them there. The fiction writer’s job is to describe the thing, not to explain it. People are jerks.
The Farmer’s Daughter by Jim Harrison. Anansi, 2009. (Grove Atlantic Press for you ‘Mericans.)
Jim Harrison is one of those love-’em or hate-’em kind of writers, the love or hate coalescing around a question that’s followed him from the get-go: is he “too macho?”
“Macho” is a label he vehemently rejects, pointing out that in Mexico, this word is reserved for men who express their dominance through gratuitous violence. Fine; the question is, then, is he too masculine?
What are we to make of the extraordinary, unearned sexual success of his male protagonists? Or of the precocious, preternatural sexuality of his adolscents? Are his female protagonists (Dalva, Julip, etc.) manifestations of his ideal female in their forthright sexuality? Indeed, what’s up with all this sex? Is it just male wish fulfilment? (Or, recalling that it is fiction, male wishfulness?)
Or do Dalva and Julip usurp male prerogatives — are they women who actually threaten male dominance? Is the sexuality of his male protagonists a boon, or an affliction? Is Harrison making some kind of point here that some of his critics continually miss?
In the third novella of his latest collection, “The Games of Night,” his narrator muses on that point: “… at odd moments we wonder who we truly are beneath the layers of paint the culture has applied to us.” Harrison has always been after the truth beneath that veneer, the animal within. Perhaps it’s because I read it concurrently with Conversations with Jim Harrison (University of Mississippi Press, 2002), in which Harrison continually answers interviewers on this point — encouraging me to read with more intelligence than my usual lunkish efforts — but it seems he’s never found that animal so convincingly as in The Farmer’s Daughter.
Not that he’s universally successful. The title novella, told from the viewpoint of an adolescent girl, is the weakest of the three. Harrison never seems to fully inhabit her consciousness and consequently she doesn’t come to life as richly or as fully as his other protagonists. She is too precocious (which Harrison hangs a lampshade on by continually having people say she’s old beyond her years), and too sexually open to be a believable teenager. While she’s undoubtedly a strong female character (in the same vein as Dalva and Julip), she never quite feels fully realized.
Harrison is far more successful in his reprise of his long-running character, Brown Dog. “Brown Dog Redux” finds BD on the lam, in Toronto, with his daughter Berry, who is rendered mute by fetal alcohol syndrome, and the story follows his return home to Michigan. It seems here that Harrison is putting BD to bed; if so, it’s a fine, and hilarious, exit.
Brown Dog ambles through life in a perpetual state of lazy, masculine befuddlement. He desires women without irony, says his counsellor (and sole true love), Gretchen, and this is why they sleep with him; never has Harrison stated so bluntly what all this sex is about. But BD is not exactly marriage material, and consequently he is abandoned, rejected, and permanently perplexed. He is, as his name implies, just like a big, dopey puppy, and Harrison gets at this idea much more successfully here than he did with Cliff, in his recent novel The English Major, whose befuddled canine goofiness was clearest when waitresses patted him affectionately on the head.
This is Harrison’s vision of masculinity: when we aren’t puppies, we’re dogs. And bearing in mind that dogs have teeth, we can also be wolves. The third novella of this collection, “The Games of Night,” takes up lycanthropy, one of Harrison’s old motifs. Harrison said of his unsuccessful, Hollywood-bastardized screenplay, Wolf (not related to his novel of the same title) that he wished he’d done it as a novella first, so he would have had control of it, and “The Games of Night” seems to be a belated attempt to correct that error.
Harrison’s protagonist is bitten in the neck by a wolf cub at the age of 12, which results in a blood disorder with symptoms only too familiar to Harrison fans: outrageous appetites for food and sex, and a violent disposition which overcomes his better nature, to his later regret. Those appetites wax and wane with the moon, on a monthly cycle; he is not precisely a werewolf, but he is half wolf, or half dog. That this coincides with puberty is hardly coincidental, and interestingly, the narrator continually euphemizes this condition with such expressions as “my monthly affliction,” recalling certain menstrual euphemisms. This is, Harrison asserts, the male condition.
Although the title novella is weaker than the other two, The Farmer’s Daughter is possibly Harrison’s best book, and the clearest expression of his concerns, in years.
Earlier I proposed that I might take a bus down Broadway into Kitsilano, but why bother with buses when you have feet?
Google Maps informs me that I put 11.2 km on said feet this evening; in penance for eating that hamburger, I’ve turned my heels into two of the same. Note to self: do not wear your work shoes on these expeditions. Your work shoes suck.
But I did turn up a couple of interesting things, including some Irish nonsense by Flann O’Brien, and a hardcover called Adult Entertainment by some guy called John Metcalf. Add that hardcover Ninety-Two in the Shade from yesterday, and I’d call that a successful business trip.
Never mind the database index I blew up this afternoon. These things happen.
I landed in Vancouver and promptly set about important business; that is, I found myself a hardcover copy of Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-Two in the Shade, a prize that has been eluding me for a couple of years now. I returned to the hotel, bubbling with a sense of triumph.
And then followed a link from Twitter to something about Paul Quarrington, the first words of which were, “Paul Quarrington was.” The past tense has, at times, a terrible impact. No-one is surprised, I suppose, but it seemed terribly sudden. I’m sorry that I never met him, not only because I loved Whale Music, but because of our shared interest in fishing.
I think I’ll re-read Whale Music when I get home.
Off to Vancouver again … this time, I’ll try to present a burnt offering of money at Duthie Books. (Without, I should add, actually burning the money first.)
I didn’t bother renting a car this trip — it seems wasteful when your morning commute from the hotel to the customer site consists, essentially, of crossing the street, when there’s supermarkets and restaurants and used book pushers and even Mountain Equipment Coop within walking distance. But I should be able to figure out how to take a bus down Broadway to Kitsilano.
It’s that kind of versatility that justifies my staggering salary.
I look forward to the usual productive period of hotel confinement, which should let me get some work done, and also maybe post a review of Jim Harrison’s The Farmer’s Daughter, and perhaps some further ill-considered rambling about screenplays.