Last evening was one of those rainy, semi-stormy times where darkness falls a little too early and the birds go quiet too soon. It was the kind of weather that inspires me to curl up with a good book. Unfortunately, it was also the kind that inspires me–once the curling up has been accomplished–to take a nice long nap. Since sleeping in the evening tends to lead me down the road to not-sleeping at night, I decided to watch TV instead, figuring the blare of the speakers and the glaring images would keep me awake long enough so I could go to bed properly later on. I watched a saved episode of Dr. Who (I never in a million years thought I would like that show, but I can honestly say I find it charmingly entertaining), and then started watching some new show on USA about a U.S. Marshall and the witness protection program. Halfway through the show I knew I wanted nothing more to do with it, ever. But, the ham-handed attempts at character development sparked an epiphany in me; novelists have altered the way they write. And I suspect–whether by example or as a result of accommodating to meet their evolving audience’s demands–television and movies have helped along this transformation.
This revelation came during a scene about forty minutes in where the tough-as-nails (but-with-a-soft-chewy-inside) Marshall preempts a broken heart by telling her groin-buddy that they’re nothing more than that. After proving her prowess at manly distancing tactics, she goes to her car for a private cry. As she quietly bawls, her reflective voice-over begins, and she tells us some people hide to avoid being killed, some hide so no one will see them, and some hide (and I’m doing a little encore performance of throwing up in my mouth a little as I revisit the rest of the line) so someone will finally prove to them they’re worth looking for. Yep. To keep our monkey-in-a-room-full-of-shiny-objects modern attention span, television has resorted to cracking us over the head with hackneyed metaphors in an attempt to reveal every single thing–conscious and unconscious–going on in the character’s head in less than one hour. And it seems more authors are now employing that tactic, psychoanalyzing the protagonist’s entire mindset by the end of page one. Our demanding, instant gratification society has given birth to a slew of plots filled with boorish gimmicks and unrefined pacing.
To me, this spilling of guts seems the most unnatural thing in the world, as if a potential new friend were to come over for a dinner party, sit down and say, “Nice to meet you, everyone. When I was five Daddy walked out for a younger woman and Mommy turned to the hooch. I felt abandoned and alone, with only a stuffed bear named Taco for company. But, Taco couldn’t make my PB&J, so I learned to rely on myself. Since everyone let me down as a child, I now find it difficult to relinquish any amount of control to anyone for fear of getting hurt, which is probably why most of my friendships and all of my romantic relationships ultimately fail. Would you please pass the rolls?” In reality, that sort of behavior would be enough to shock and mortify all in attendance. So, why should it be permissible simply because it’s done in the name of fiction?
It’s the difference between a strip and the burlesque. With a stripper, there’s no subtlety, no finesse. It’s all business and the vast majority of the action happens after all the goods have been laid out. No matter what acrobatic, gravity-defying feat presented us, the best parts are already out there. No more anticipation. With burlesque, however, the removing of the layers is the action. The end result is merely the culmination of the sensual unveiling of that which had once been concealed. It’s why they first called it a striptease. And somehow, many writers seem to have forgotten how to tease. Or, maybe they simply prefer the modern version of the girlie dance.
Me? I’ll take the burlesque any day.
As aware as I am of this phenomenon, I’m not completely immune to the effects of modern life. I’ve decided to slow down my brain and take a literary peripatetic journey; I’m reading Proust. He’s a bit extreme, I know, but extreme times calls for extreme measures–or so they say. I’m about twenty pages into Swann’s Way and kind of enjoying it. The pages-long paragraphs have yet to bother me, so that must be a good sign. At any rate, his meandering writing style ought to help downshift my gears for a while.
By the way, I’m getting the impression Proust was on drugs. Maybe opium? I say this only because I’m pretty sure no one not on drugs would ever think that Tetris-ing one’s body into the shape of the objects in the room could inspire the recollection of the location one presently occupies.