Monday, December 05, 2016

Books 86 and 87: Making stories out of nothing at all.

It occurred to me as I got ready to write this post that As She Climbed Across The Table and The Pretty Good Jim's Journal Treasury are actually flip sides of the same storytelling coin.

Both of them (wait, here's the clever bit) are about nothing, after all: As She Climbed is about a woman who falls in love with a black hole, while Jim's Journal is a comic strip about more or less nothing at all: the minutiae of Jim's life, literally: in many strips he talks about cooking a hot dog, or watching his cat play with a leaf.

What makes them so interesting is how the two entirely-disparate works demonstrate good and bad writing -- As She Climbed being (mostly) bad (in a way) and Jim being somehow mostly good.

As She Climbed Across The Table is lowkey scifi: set in an unnamed college, it follows Phillip, whose girlfriend Alice is a physicist. At the outset of the story, a colleague of Alice's creates a sort of universe that 'fails to detach,' and creates a black hole of sorts in the lab: it doesn't suck everything in, but selectively takes some things and not others. Alice, studying it, falls in love with the black hole and out of love with Phillip, and the story is mostly Phillip's attempts to understand what is going on.

Jim's Journal meanwhile is the story of Jim, a quiet guy who goes to college, then graduates (maybe? it's not clear) and gets a job at a copy shop. Eventually Jim gets married and then goes to work at a grocery store. Recurring characters include Jim's college roommates Tony and Steve, and a couple of coworkers and classmates and a few of Jim's relatives.

The shtick, as it were, for Jim, is that the comic is adamantly about nothing:

There's lots more than that.

So the thing is, Jim's Journal is actually more... compelling reading, I'm going to say: compelling, in a weird way.  Because with As She Climbed, for most of the book, I found myself not really caring about what happened to those people.

Part of it may simply be the characters. Like the pampered rich jerks in The Nest, Phillip and Alice seem part of a world I don't care about, and one which seems troubled only by its own peculiar, and largely self-inflicted, troubles. It's hard for me to care about the troubles of a rich person. Money may not make you happy, but it removes obstacles to happiness and helps cope with troubles.

Sweetie and I were discussing this once, and here was how I pointed it out. Her dad and her (now deceased) stepmom live in Oakland. We live in Wisconsin. When her stepmom died, she really wanted to go to the funeral, but it was pretty expensive and ultimately we decided it wasn't something we could afford.  Having more money wouldn't have saved her stepmom, but it would have helped ease Sweetie's mind about what to do.  If you are rich and your child gets sick or your girlfriend leaves you, money might not buy them back -- but at least you don't also have to worry about getting evicted or having your car repossessed.

And the troubles Phillip and Alice have are not troubles that are universal, or that could be cared about; maybe it's partly the unreality of the situation -- she falls in love with a black hole, after all -- but it's also partly that these are people about whom we are given little reason to care. Most of their relationship exists for us because we are told it exists for us; the black hole is created, and Alice falls in love, in about chapter 1, and we barely know these two and are barely given any reason to care about them. Phillip is falling apart, but we only understand why because he tells us it's making him fall apart. So a couple of academics, who we're told had a great relationship, ran into trouble when one essentially got superdevoted to her job. OK now what?

Jim, on the other hand, lives the kind of life we all basically live, only he lives it better. It's not even a life of quiet desperation. It's a life of quiet contentment. Literally the most important thing we learn about Jim is that he got married, and that is covered in one strip. He also takes a cross country trip in which very little is related about the trip itself. (He takes two I think, and both are similarly banal.)

There's a touch of Jim in me, I think; I'm a guy who at times likes the regular, the little stuff. I have staunchly defended chain restaurants, for example, because sometimes I just want to know what I'm getting and don't feel like having an adventure; for all the parts of me that wanted to go to Morocco and eat a sheep's eyeball, there are a lot of offsetting parts of me who look back on a day spent sitting on the beach near the zoo, watching Mr F and Mr Bunches splash around and think that was one of the most perfect days I could've had.  When I'm not reading books about women who fall in love with black holes, I'm re-re-re-watching Seinfeld episodes.  So I can empathize with Jim.

But the bigger part of it is that with Jim, the story was somehow compelling despite being aggressively anti-narrative. Whenever something exciting seems like it might happen to Jim (like the brief episode where a woman seems to be flirting with Jim in the copy shop, and Ruth, his wife happens to meet her) the story shies away from it; Jim and his friends take trips to small towns or go see movies, try to write a script for a sitcom for a few days, talk about actresses they like, but nothing ever happens, and yet the story keeps moving along, somehow, without it even intending to be a story. Nobody seems to end up better off or worse off; when the strip ended Jim was married but living basically the same life; Tony was still single and flitting from exciting goal to exciting goal -- he last wanted to be an astronaut but at one point was superexcited about the world of telemarketing. We don't even know what Steve does, and yet all of them felt real to me.

There's a lesson there, for storytelling. It's not that characters have to be likeable or stories have to be exciting. Jim is a blank slate, really; he's neither likeable nor unlikeable, really. Tony is unlikeable, Ruth is likeable, Steve is neutral, but overall these are characters about whom we know little (and probably read more into the tea leaves we are given than might be warranted.)(Which, let's not underestimate that: to the extent that we are filling in the blanks ourselves, Jim's Journal helps us create the story in a way that makes the neutral feel personal, not a bad trick.)

Phillip and Alice seem likeable enough for people I don't care about, as well. And their story is much more interesting; who wouldn't be caught up in a black hole with international scientists pushing cats into it and everybody and their brother trying to crawl through it?  But the story itself never grows very compelling, despite all that going on, because I just didn't care, in the end, about Phillip and Alice and the rest.

Jim and Ruth and Tony and Steve make us care about them -- like or dislike -- so their boring stories become more interesting than Phillip and Alice's story, which is exciting but feels completely unrelatable. Hearing what happened to Phillip and Alice is like reading about Kim Kardashian's jewelry heist: momentarily interesting, maybe, but of no importance in my life and nothing I can really care about for very long.

It might have been different if Phillip and Alice's relationship was more real; maybe Lethem could've let the relationship grow and not move so quickly into the black hole stuff, brought it along a bit more. Like All The Birds In The Sky, which it reminded me of, Lethem seems to not trust his characters to carry the story, and instead has to keep throwing events at us, papering over the relationships and emotions and drives of his characters, packing the story full of quirkiness.  But that's just a trick to keep you reading when you would otherwise not; if you think about the great stories that you love, or at least if I think about the great stories that I love, even the most momentous stories have characters who made you want to find out what good (or bad) things happen to them. If the characters don't feel real, or aren't someone you care about one way or the other, packing a ton of story around them ultimately won't help.  Even The Lord Of The Rings spent a ton of time on character; by the end, the friendship between Frodo and Sam is astounding, and the way the characters grow and interact helps make that story more than just a swords-and-sorcery bland epic.  But As She Climbed (and All The Birds, for that matter) have characters that could've been interesting, only they weren't, so the story seemed to suffer.

That's surprising for me, because two of Lethem's earlier books I read -- Girl In Landscape and You Don't Love Me Yet -- were compelling and featured great characters, people whose lives were similarly out-of-touch with mine (a girl on another planet, in the first, and a woman who works in a performance art piece and has a rock band in the second, as examples) but they felt real and I wanted to know how things went.  But there's none of that life in As She Climbed -- and Jim's Journal is packed full of it.

The only reason I'm not feeling completely ripped off by As She Climbed is that Lethem manages to make the finale of the book so amazing that it somewhat rescues the rest of the book; about 80% of As She Climbed is basically dreary; it's just more internal academia with tell-don't-show characterization. But the ending to the story, which I won't spoil, saves the book and moves it from a must-avoid to a you-should-probably-read-it-sometime. (It's lucky for Lethem the book is short, and at least pleasantly written; I wouldn't recommend people read it otherwise but it'll be quick work and the work you do to get to the ending is worth the payoff.)

As for Jim's Journal? I think people should read that, too, although it's a more polarizing work; it's the kind of thing where people either instantly love it or instantly hate it, mostly, and if you don't like it it's almost impossible to explain why it's so good to people who love it. There were strips in the book where I laughed out loud even though I could never have explained to anyone why they were funny to me.

Overall, as I said, it's interesting to contrast the two books: Jim's intense effort to be about nothing at all ends up making the characters feel more alive and universal, and drives an anti-narrative into being, while As She Climbed's intense effort to turn nothing into a story has the exact opposite effect, as if the black hole sucked in all the interesting parts of the story but left the dry words on the page behind, stripped of any meaning.

While I was writing this, I was thinking about some other things I read or saw that seemed to help make this point. The other night I watched The Foot Fist Way, a goofy story about a small town mini-mall tae kwon do teacher whose wife keeps cheating on him and who gets to at one point meet his hero, a loser-ish B-movie karate guy, with the inevitably disappointing result.  At the end of the movie, I got a little emotional-feeling about the main character, despite the fact that he is mostly unlikeable and would be considered a loser by pretty much everyone who meets him; the movie made me care about what was happening to him and his weird little sad life, and I got invested in it enough that when it ended, I was genuinely emotionally affected.

The other thing was We Are Become Pals, a weirdly awesome story by the duo who used to write A Softer World. As the blurb on the Tumblr reads, it's a story about two friends. I read it a long time ago and still remember it -- not for the plot, which was kind of fantastical and involved I think explosions and the like -- but for the friendship between the two main characters. Having read it nearly two years ago, I still have a good feeling about it, even though I can't remember the plot at all.

Those are examples of stories that trusted their characters more than the plot. You've got to have some reason to care about a story, and that reason is always the characters in the story. All the bells and whistles, all the blind men and sexy therapists and student protests and lab cats and office parties and the like in the world can't make you care about a story, while the complete lack of all of those things is no impediment to caring.

1 comment:

Andrew Leon said...

I hate when I find an author I almost like but the stories always leave me feeling... underwhelmed. I tend to keep trying those long after I should have stopped, hoping for that one good book.

And I had something else I wanted to say, but it's gone now.