Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Real Dystopia

I'm currently reading the scariest dystopian story I've ever read (and I've read a lot): The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson. It won this year's Pulitzer Prize, and it was about North Korea, so I thought I'd give it a go. I knew nothing about North Korea.

Korean children during the Great Famine

The book is fiction, but the story is true enough: that's what makes it so frightening. The novel follows Jun Do (think: John Doe), meant to be a North Korean everyman. We follow his journey from Dickensian orphanage, to surviving the Great Famine in the 1990s (in which millions perished), to his time as a Korean-English interpreter — he ends up at a surreal Texas barbecue with a senator — to, finally, a stint as Kim Jong Il's right-hand man. And since this is one of the worst dictatorships in the world, be assured that with each identity Jun Do assumes, he suffers in new and horrible ways. I had to skim the bit where the tattoo on his chest is sliced off with a boxcutter. (It does happen offscreen; it's still cringeworthy.)

As improbable as this plot sounds, in a land as completely upside down as North Korea, it seems plausible that all this could happen to one man. And Johnson researched the heck out of that strange country, including traveling to Pyongyang, the capital. (I'd like to know how he pulled that trick off without ending up in a gulag.) The details are made up, but the story is not an invention.

Lockstep love for the Dear Leader

Well, what is a "dystopia," anyway? Why do we always think of it as fiction? We think about books like the Hunger Games and Fahrenheit 451 as cautionary tales, as warnings that we in western democracies better keep an eye on our scurrilous leaders, else we'll have a President Snow forcing our children to fight each other to the death. But there are societies right now that are just as bad — worse — than these imaginary dictatorships. I'd rather live in the world of 1984 than in Johnson's North Korea. Both have their Big Brother, but you don't have rampant starvation and frozen gulag hellholes in 1984.  

"Dystopia" literally means "bad place." In fiction, a dystopia is usually a utopia where something's gone wrong. Some leader got it in their noggin that they could create a perfect society where everyone would be happy — if only everyone would obey. Usually the government in charge of this "perfection" has become incredibly repressive: you have to control every aspect of a place if you want your ideology to be pure and true for every citizen. Otherwise your plan becomes sullied by other people's ideas.

I've been drawn to dystopian fiction for a long time, and had the pleasure of reading Orwell's 1984 again this year. The Orphan Master's Son owes a lot to that book, which might be considered the first dystopian novel. Orwell was thinking about the Soviet Union, so it's not a surprise that the North Korea of Johnson's novel would so strongly mirror Orwell's fictional world: what is it about communism that lends itself so readily to dystopia?

It's not like capitalism is without its flaws. I also read The Grapes of Wrath this year, and I just finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a nonfiction book which documents life in a slum in India — as the author says, much of the slum's structure is a result of global market capitalism. But the grimmest pictures painted by capitalism's critics just can't match the world depicted in The Orphan Master's Son. Whatever our society's flaws — and we have so many — we are not like that. Thank goodness we are not like that.

Your turn: have you read a fiction book that has affected (or even changed) your views of economic or political systems? What was it, and how did it shape you?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Movie Review Sunday: Anna Karenina

When most people think of Leo Tolstoy's sweeping classic Anna Karenina, a story about love and early twinges of revolution in Imperial Russia, they tend to fall into one of three categories:

  1. You wholeheartedly embrace the adventure of reading such a venerated classic.
  2. You grit your teeth and swear that you will get through the stupid thing, even if it kills you.
  3. Or, you say to hell with it and just watch the movie.
I tend to fall somewhere between #s 2 and 3. I have tried a few times to get through Anna Karenina the novelbut I'll be honest and say that I've only made it as far as the second or third chapter. And, in the end, I've ended up not watching one, but two versions of the story. The most recent version available casts Keira Knightley as the lovestruck titular character with Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the boyish and strangely highlighted-haired Count Vronsky.

Now, I'd heard a thing or two about director Joe Wright's film before I decided to sit down and take it in. Mainly the reviews were mixed at best, some enjoying Wright's daring take on the story, while others scratched their heads over what he was trying to do. When I hear such dissension over a much-touted film I'm always curious to see why.

Keira Knightley as the
lovely Anna Karenina.
Anna Karenina opens with an elaborate stage (as seen in the movie poster above), informing the audience that it is Imperial Russian, 1874. And this is how the story plays out, on a stage with lush costumes evoking the mindset and emotions of each character, from Anna's dark, sumptuous gowns to Kitty's vibrant pastel hues. The audience is hurtled through set and costume changes, all the while trying to keep up with the dialogue spoken onscreen so as not to miss a single moment in this bizarre, somewhat off-kilter idea of actually staging a film.

In the beginning, we see Anna come to her brother Prince Stiva Oblonsky's aid as she tries to diffuse a tense atmosphere between Dolly, Stiva's wife and Stiva himself, because of his infidelity with the governess. The foreshadowing of what will become Anna's own infidelity is present in the scene where she's speaking with Dolly and asking her if she has enough love in her heart to continue on with Stiva. All Dolly can do is cry and say that none of it is her fault, so why is she supposed to be the one to clean up her husband's mess. Of course, Anna herself creates the same kind of mess in her dull, loveless marriage.

Anna and Vronsky
The soon-to-be lovers of Anna and Count Vronsky first meet on the train when Anna arrives in Moscow from Saint Petersburg to meet with her brother and wife. A very fitting scene since their romance begins and ends with a train. There is a whiff of something in the air when the two first look into one another's eyes, but it isn't until the formal ball that the longing comes out. And all in front of Kitty, Dolly's younger sister who only has eyes for Count Vronsky. But this is where the love triangle gets tricky. There is another young man in the mix, Konstantin, who longs to marry the sweet, virtuous Kitty but, alas, he is only a plain-looking rural landowner, hacking out his living on the plains of Russia. The only time the film is taken offstage is when the cameras wander outdoors, out into the fresh beauty of nature and away from the stuffy confines of Russian royal society. And this is where we see Konstantin come alive, but also his heartache as he tries desperately to put Kitty and his failed proposition of marriage from his mind.

And so the story unfolds in three tales of love:  one of healing with Stiva and Dolly, one being torn apart with Anna, Vronsky and Anna's husband played with such heartbreak by Jude Law, and one being born out of complete love and innocence with Kitty and Konstantin.

Kitty and Konstantin proposing marriage through blocks.
This staged journey of what eventually becomes tragic love has a strange quality to it. I actually had to watch the film twice because the dialogue tends to get swallowed up by the lovely music overtaking much of the film. And even then, I had to listen closely to understand what was falling apart and what was mending. Having not finished the book, I'm going to go with my gut instinct and assume the tragic ending is a result of Vronsky's hand being forced into marriage because, well, that's what a young gentleman with royal blood did during a time like this. He most certainly could not go off and marry his mistress.

Here's the thing, although I struggled with and found that the staging of this film was crazily distracting, I thought the actors brought a healthy dose of humanity to one of the most famous literary infidelities of all time. Keira Knightley makes a very convincing Anna, although I've always imagined Anna's character as older. Taylor-Johnson, even with his distracting highlighted hair, pulls his emotions from deep within and throws them before the audience, hoping we will see how much he loves his darling Anna, but how much is too much sacrifice for happiness? Konstantin and Kitty's story is the most uplifting, bringing young love and tough decisions to the table, only to see that just because one is of royal blood doesn't mean one won't roll up one's sleeves and do the dirty work. And heck, your husband just might fall even more madly in love with you in the end!

I'm a little on the fence with this version of Anna Karenina, mainly because it's hard to follow with all the distracting scenery changes. But the story is still there, in all its sad, gorgeous, youthful glory. If you're looking for a more literary interpretation of Tolstoy's story then might I suggest this version of Anna Karenina.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen this film and have an opinion to add?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Are Strong Heroines Becoming Cliché?

In the last few years, I have noticed an ongoing trend (particularly in Children’s and YA fiction): the rise of the strong heroine, aka The Crusader. Gone is the Cinderella-like waif who patiently awaits for her Prince Charming to save her. The 21st century heroine can simultaneously fight several men and is never in need of a handkerchief (much less owns one) to dry her tears. This archetype has emerged with such force that most children’s films in the last year have presented us with the same heroine: Merida in Brave, Snow White in Mirror Mirror (a waif turned crusader after a-week-long boot camp in the cave of the dwarf-thieves), Black Widow in The Avengers, Katniss in The Hunger Games and recently Eep in The Croods—to name a few.

Xena, the mother of the 21st century heroine

Sure, this fearless adventurer is preferable to the passive heroine who couldn’t fight her way out of a paper bag without breaking into tears, but I sense the fighting heroine is slowly becoming the new cliché. I find myself rolling my eyes every time I go to the movies and see one of these Amazonian women flying through trees and beating up men. (I honestly tried to give The Avengers a chance, but when I saw Scarlett Johansson in a skirt and heels beating four men while tied up to a chair and then walked away while checking her cell phone, I had to pass.)

Perhaps the problem is that the Strong Heroine has become too literal. Strength doesn’t only mean physical prowess. Strength doesn’t mean turning into men. Strength means not giving up in the face of adversity and taking on challenges in spite of our weaknesses. Historically, women have operated differently than men. Why does fiction insist on changing this fact? (I can already see the list of women fighters coming my way!) But in spite of all the exceptions we can come up with, I can’t help but wonder if we’re creating role models for girls that are impossible to follow. And what about the minor fact that in historical fiction, these female characters are frankly anachronistic? (Yes, I have heard of Joan of Arc and Catalina de Erauso, but these are extraordinary women, that’s why they’re so famous.) My issue here is not having heroines who occasionally engage in fights, the problem is that this archetype seems to be proliferating like an amoeba in a pond of dirty water and overpopulating our books and films—therefore losing the uniqueness and charm this type of heroine once had.

To be fair, Katniss in The Hunger Games is a more believable crusader. This heroine has a specific set of skills which help her survive, but she knows that she would fail in a hand-to-hand combat with her male rivals, who are bigger and stronger than her. Her intelligence and strategic abilities are what ultimately let her prevail.

Strength in women (and men)* can take many forms. It can mean dealing with economic hardship, illness, orphanhood, or having a dream and not giving up until you achieve it. There are several examples of strong heroines in fiction who, I believe, display more realistic traits. Perhaps my all-time favorite is Xica, the protagonist of Brazilian soap opera Xica da Silva, the story of an 18th century slave who becomes the object of obsession of the new Commander in town. With her newfound power, charm, cleverness and a touch of cruelty, she changes the lives of both aristocrats and slaves in the small town of El Tijuco. Strong, but never one to impart violence with her own hands, Xica—together with her nemesis Violante Cabral—become puppeteers and history makers by outwitting each other with their own armies of friends and allies.

The rivalry between Violante (left) and Xica (right) kept Brazil and the rest of
Latin America glued to their TV screens for 231 episodes

Another powerful woman without superhuman strength is Manuela Saenz in Our Lives are the Rivers. Although based on a real historical character (Simon Bolivar’s lover) Jaime Manrique has fictionalized her life and turned her into an admirable, passionate, yet vulnerable and flawed character. Sure, she dresses up like a man and fights alongside Bolivar in a battle (I haven’t been able to corroborate if this is fiction or fact) but this is a short portion of the book and for most of the novel, Manuelita has to face the true hardships of being a married woman in love with another man during the 19th century, fighting for her ideals and having to share Bolivar with the Revolution (and other women).

Portrait of Manuela Saenz, known as "The Liberator
of the Liberator" for saving Bolivar's life

And talking about wars, how about Melanie Wilkes and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind? These women really surprise us throughout the book. Scarlett, once a naïve debutante who only thought about her good looks and her crush on Ashley Wilkes, proves her strength when she helps deliver Melanie’s baby, escapes Atlanta during the Yankee invasion and resurrects her father’s plantation (true, her methods are not always honest or selfless, but her strength is undeniable.) Melanie also surprises us. An apparently frail woman who Scarlett initially diminishes, Melanie rises up to the occasion when she shoots a soldier who tries to take advantage of Scarlett. She’s also someone who, in spite of her bad health, is not afraid to bear children, someone who defends her friend from nasty rumors, and the only one who can give Rhett the will to live after the death of his small daughter. This is an example of a woman using violence in a way that is not anachronistic or unbelievable.

But strong women are not limited to historical protagonists. Sally Field’s character in Steel Magnolias show us a different face of strength. M’Lynn Eatenton is so collected that in spite of all the craziness that always surrounds her, she remains the voice of reason and a steady port for all to land. And who can forget the stoicism and determination she displays when her daughter falls into a coma?

In conclusion, a woman doesn’t have to be as physically powerful as a man in order to be considered strong. I believe it takes a combination of resourcefulness, persistence and intelligence. There are women with these traits all around us. Do we really need special effects to show us how interesting they are?

Can you think of other remarkable women in fiction who are more realistic and complex than some characters populating our books and screens nowadays? Do you think that this archetype is losing its appeal due to its quick proliferation?

*Herculean, unbelievable characters are not only limited to females. Just take a look at your local movie listings to find the latest action hero with abilities far beyond the realm of human capabilities.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Has the Short Story Come Back?

In January 2013, The New York Times magazine had a cover story of George Saunders' Tenth of December, calling it "The Best Book You'll Read This Year." What's remarkable about this accolade, to me, is that Saunders' book is not a novel or a nonfiction exposé, but a short-story collection. And it's not just the Times going nuts for Saunders: he is everywhere. He's been interviewed by the Times, The Huffington Post, The Paris Review; he was on Fresh Air, Charlie Rose, even the Colbert Report.

We've got more, too: Karen Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove has made a huge splash, as has Yoko Ogawa's Revenge. Recently when I was on Facebook, I saw NPR Books not just recommending I read Claire Vaye Watkins' Battleborn, but yelling at me to do it. "YOU MUST READ THIS NOW!" (They really used all caps: it worked. I obeyed.) Junot Diaz, a mainstay of The New Yorker's fiction section, recently released This Is How You Lose Her, to gushing praise. Alice Munro's Dear Life has been called "stunning," "masterful," and "brilliant," by various major reviewers, with Munro herself enthusiastically labeled "the best short-story writer in English today" by Booklist. It's not just that novelists are putting out a few short-story collections: these are writers who specialize in the short story. And it's working for them. Their collections are selling.

What is going on? Ten years ago, I never read short stories. I didn't see them on bookstore shelves, and nobody was talking about them. I'm not sure they were really being made, except singly for publications like The New Yorker and The Sun. The last time most of us read short stories regularly was in high-school or college, when we were assigned them. Why the resurgence? Shorter attention spans, perhaps?

Whatever it is, I'm caught up in it. I inhaled Tenth of December, which really is one of the best books I've read in years. (When I first put it on the library hold list, there were eighty holds ahead of me. Eighty! I have never seen a hold list that long.) I gobbled up Revenge and Battleborn, too. I have read other collections by Diaz and Munro and will read the new ones as soon as they come in from the library. I've never read Russell but I've heard her read excerpts from Vampires in the Lemon Grove on several podcasts now, and I am already hooked, so that's also on the library hold list. (Thirty-six holds, in case you were interested.)

So apparently I love short stories. I love to read them, and I enjoy writing them. Some people don't. I think I get the reasons for both: on the pro side, they are bite-sized. I love reading fiction in general because I love exploring alternate realities, other lives, and I get that many more of said with a collection of short stories. All those worlds, all those ideas, all those characters: it's like a feast of a thousand appetizers!

But I get the complaint, too: all that work to get to know a new world and a new set of characters, and just as you get attached, the thing ends. To return to the food analogy, sometimes you don't want a thousand appetizers, you want a gigantic pot roast, or a tub of Ben & Jerrys. One delicious thing that you can savor for a long, long time.

Now what about writing short stories? I'm bad at finishing things but I am far more likely to finish a short story than a novel, so to me that's one big point in their favor. I also appreciate that the twist ending is no longer required. It's OK to have a big shocker ending, but it seems more fashionable now to leave a story at an ambiguous point. While this works for me as a writer, it can be pretty unsatisfying for a reader.

So now I turn it over to you: has anyone else noticed an uptick in short-story collections? Do you like reading them? Prefer them to novels? Prefer writing them to novels? Why?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Believing the Dream

Does Roxie Hart have a dream?
You bet she does!
We all have a dream, right? Well, have you ever put much thought in your characters' dreams? As writers, we tend to dial in on many different aspects of our writing. Is our grammar correct? Does the chapter run a decent length of pages? Is the ending satisfying? Did I pick a vivid setting and use it well? Can the audience connect to my main character?

Wait! That's a very good question.

Can the audience connect to my main character?

This question should be one of your main priorities when first setting out to write your story. Because, after all, we've read many of those "misses" of novels that never quite create a believable main character. But how do we create something that sounds so easy, but in reality can become a real time-suck?

The answer to this question is GOAL. Characters, in any given genre, need to have a GOAL. If I asked you, "What's your main character's goal?" in the story you're writing right now, my hope is that you can tick it off to me in ten seconds. If it takes you a lot longer and leads to a lot of unnecessary rambling, then you might want to stop right here and rethink your project.

Goals can be as varied as the day is long, but what most of them boil down to are two things:

  • Growth
  • Redemption
And almost all goals are driven by DESIRE. That dream has to seem possible somehow.
So how do we go about creating our character's goals? How do we know who should change most in our storyline? Can the opposition, or antagonist, have a goal as well?

First, we need to make sure the main goal of our main character (i.e. the person who goes through the most change) gets added early on in the story. Your audience needs to see this goal, don't keep it to yourself and then SURPRISE! look what I've sprang on the reader. That goal needs to be your main character's primary concern throughout the story. Don't do something stupid and make the death toll or the number of crashed cars more interesting than your character's goal. This goal you've created needs to connect to the theme of your story, and run through the entirety of the storyline -- from beginning to end.

As to who should change the most throughout the story, it's best if you know who that is early on. Most novelists start with a main protagonist and then before long get lost on the bunny trails of writing. Try to keep your MC on the right goal-oriented path from beginning to end.

The protagonist or opposing character is more than welcome to have a goal as well. And this is how you figure out the ending of your novel. Two things can happen in the end:

  • The MC realizes his/her goal, change has occurred, and the opposition has been vanquished.
  • The MC fails to realize his/her goal, change has still occurred on some level, and, unfortunately, the opposition has won out in the end.
It's just a matter of finding what works for your storyline.

Since films are more easily relatable for a large audience, let's take a look at a few. All films usually show the goal of the main character and all goal realizations occur early on in the storyline.

What does Bond hope to accomplish in the end?

SKYFALL -- In this latest installment where we get the joy of following James Bond, we see his goal early on. Atop the speeding train, 007 is trying to get one thing:  a hard drive containing a list of undercover agents' names. This is the main thread of the storyline. Although getting his hands on that hard drive morphs into getting his hands on the thief, Bond is focused on this one thing and this is what drives the story and brings the protagonist and antagonist's backstories to life. Most thrillers and action adventure films let the audience know early on what the MC is after and then the story unfolds from there. (Other films in this category:  Anything James Bond, Mission ImpossibleTransformers, Bourne series, G.I. Joe series, the Batman series, etc.)

All Inman wants to do is get his butt home and see Ada.
Does he realize his dream?

COLD MOUNTAIN -- Down to its bones, Cold Mountain is more of a love story than anything else. Inman wants nothing more than to return to his beloved hometown and the lovely Ada he hopes is still waiting for him. Ada longs for Inman to return someday, but she also has to learn how to survive on her own once her father passes away. Right from the start, the audience is shown what could eventually turn out to be a passionate affair between Inman and Ada, but will have to wait until the end of the film to see if anything develops. Plus, this is one of those stories where, in a sense, the antagonist wins out with the death of Inman. (Films with similar story structure:  The Mexican, The English Patient, Gone with the Wind, and Doctor Zhivago.)

Will Kathleen and Joe ever get along long
enough to fall in love?

YOU'VE GOT MAIL -- One of many movies with the romance story structure. Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox fall in love with each other long before they ever meet. The goal of each character is shown early on through the exchanged anonymous emails. Kathleen is finding some sort of fulfillment with her anonymous email partner that she can't seem to find with the real man in her life, Frank. But, of course, per the rules of rom-com films, when Kathleen finds out Joe is behind the emails -- the man trying to shut down her little book store -- a rift forms and the two eventually have to find their way back to one another. But the goal for Kathleen to find love is always there throughout the story arc. In the end, it's both the protagonist, Kathleen, and the antagonist, Joe, who change and find what they're looking for. (Similar films:  Notting Hill, Pretty Woman, French Kiss, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.)

Here's my challenge to you:  Next time you sit down to watch a movie or pick up a good book to read, see if you can spot the goal and see if the writer follows through! After all, like Roxie Hart above, all characters have some sort of dream to fulfill!

Can you think of any films or books where the MC's goal isn't very clear? How about one where the goal is never realized? Or better yet, one where the opposition wins out in the end?