Thursday, September 26, 2013

Flaubert's Micro-Astonishments

My last post on Game of Thrones and all my recent, unwritten musings on the masterful concluding chapters of Breaking Bad have got me thinking again about Madame Bovary, which is a pretty weird thing to say, I know.

But I’ve been teaching Bovary again and I’m struck by how the novel continues to compel my vested interested despite its surface near-plotlessness.  Is it just that a novel like Bovary and a novel like Game of Thrones fire entirely different synapses in the brain, and no reconciliation between their pleasures can be found?

I don’t know. 

One thing is certain.  Flaubert is not a good storyteller.

In Flaubert’s letters from during the writing of Bovary, he admits his disinterest in plot—in fact, he deliberately sets out to write a book “about nothing,” focusing on something other than dynamic plot events.  Certainly, Bovary is not plotless.  It’s a familiar adultery-and-repercussions narrative.  But Flaubert seems to suggest that explosive plot events would have a detrimental effect on his aim to explore the recesses of his characters’ psyches. 

If we push the metaphor a bit further, an explosive plot event is kind of like a gun going off.  It’s exciting, it makes your heart leap, but the fraught anticipation of it is distracting, and it leaves you deaf to any subtler sounds for several minutes thereafter. 

I don’t believe that’s always the case, but for Flaubert and Bovary, it may be true.

So, quite intentionally, Flaubert was not a good storyteller.  Not if we mean those classic Aristotelian virtues of compelling events, action-orientated characters, surprise reversals and revelations, suspense, momentum.  These are the elements we typically note as "good storytelling," and what we find in abundance with an author like George R.R. Martin.  These are the age-old elements of epic and romance, the very “cheap thrills” that Flaubert was satirizing in Bovary through Emma’s delusions.

If we look at the history of the development of “the novel,” it’s clear that all the developments and innovations since its inception have been movements away from those elements we tend to cite as “good storytelling.”  In a way, good storytelling was already established before 1700, so every innovation since has been in service of something else.

Mostly, the something else was efforts to make the fictional world seem more life-like, and in many cases, those efforts were antithetical to "good storytelling."  Just for example, surprise reversals (he’s really a ghost!  it’s his wife’s head in the box!) are fun storytelling, but they are contrivances, or at least a rarity, because they don't happen often in reality.  It is "less realistic" to depict them in fiction.

But good storytelling is obviously only one factor in what can make a narrative interesting.  Flaubert was deliberately uninterested in storytelling, choosing rather to explore microscopically the foibles of humanity, Emma’s psychological states, the distance between two or more people's psychological experience of the same event, details so precise and so evocative that we are shocked by their appearance, etc.

For example, Emma Bovary has an affair with a young man named Leon, and falls into what she thinks is “love” with him.  Flaubert writes, "She was in love with Leon, and she wanted to be alone as to delight more comfortably in his image.  The sight of him in person disturbed the sensual pleasure of this meditation" (the italics are mine, and the translation is Lydia Davis’).

This is clearly an example of interiority, an insight into Emma’s mind.  It’s not a surprise plot point, right?

Well…. there are macro-level plot surprises.  We expect Luke Skywalker to vanquish Darth Vader and avenge his father but (twist), Vader reveals he is Luke's father and cuts off his hand!  We expect Jaime to weasel his way out of a situation like every time before but (twist), a very Luke-like change of fortune happens to him, too!  These are the explosive gunshots of narrative.

But I’d suggest there are also these exquisite micro-level surprises, sudden insights.  We understand that Emma loves Leon in her own way and, as a consequence, would want to spend time with him, but (twist) she’d rather spend time alone with her thoughts about him.

I think the macro and micro twists have fundamentally the same effect.  Both are surprising because they give us insight into characters’ values.  Jaime’s fate wouldn’t shock us if we didn’t see the multifaceted irony in his loss and the circumstances surrounding it.  Luke’s fate wouldn’t shock us if we didn’t realize how drastically and ironically it renegotiates his personal journey.  And this insight into Emma wouldn’t hit us if it didn’t drive an ironic wedge between the appearance and reality of her character, if it didn’t poke a hole in what we understand “love” to mean for Emma.

In both cases you’re experiencing what Aristotle called astonishment, which I would define as the reader’s reaction to the surprise appearance of irony.

Another brief example arrives in Emma’s first dalliance with her other lover, Rodolphe.  They have just made love or are still making love—it’s deliberately unclear—and we’re immersed in Emma’s orgasmic flush of words and images (Davis translation again):

“…her blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk.  Then, from far away beyond the woods, on the other hills, she heard a vague, prolonged cry, a voice that lingered, and she listened to it in silence as it lost itself like a kind of music in the last vibrations in her tingling nerves.  Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending with his penknife one of the bridles, which had broken.”

The first “plot twist” here is again about ironic insight.  This is the most alive and present Emma has been in the book so far, and yet she’s divorcing herself from her own orgasmic scream, attributing it to some animal “far away beyond the woods.”  The second plot twist is the sudden juxtaposition between Emma’s lyrical, ecstatic impression of this event and Rodolphe’s complete dismissal of it. 

The jump cut is amazing: she’s still lost in reveries while he’s back to taking care of a mundane task.  The ironic gulf opens up, and we see the sharp contrast between their characters.  We’re astonished by this surprise appearance of irony (dramatic irony in this case—we’ve been shown truths about Emma and her relationship with Rodolphe that she does not yet realize). 

Admittedly, big plot points hit harder than these precise character insights, but in many cases big ironic plot points hit like blunt instruments, dull and numbing.  This is not always the case, as with most big plot points in Breaking Bad, which have the virtue of being sharp and explosive.  Or the Game of Thrones plot point I wrote about in my last post, which is big, but has a dozen exquisite micro-astonishing ironies swirling around it.

“Micro-astonishments” have the virtue of affecting the reader in smaller ways—often sharper, more precise.  They also strike more deeply, I think, because we recognize our own personal foibles of character.  They open up hidden truths in ourselves that we generally do not wish to confront (let’s face it, most ironic recognitions in fiction are not happy ones).  They sting and they resonate.

The other virtue of micro-astonishing twists of the type we find in Madame Bovary is that there are hundreds of them, several per page, not just the ones at major plot junctures.  You get way more astonishments for your time with a book like Bovary, and none of them are cheap. 

But, yes, for micro-astonishment to work, you have to read more slowly, more carefully.  If we read too bluntly for "stuff happening" on a surface or situational level, we'll skip over all Flaubert's sharp psychological insights, his dozens and dozens of sinister juxtapositions, his evocative details that feel both frozen in time and fully alive at once, or, as James Wood puts it in How Fiction Works, “each detail is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness.”  

It's easier to skip over the small, precise insights precisely because they're subtle, because we've been conditioned to read in search of the big plot points, propelling ourselves from one to the next, never paying attention to the fact that we're being offered one gem after another, if we allow ourselves the focused vision to see them. 

But if we slow down with a novel like Madame Bovary, we get the same kind of pleasure of astonishment in kind as we do from the big “page-turners.” The pleasure is only different in degree and number.  More subtle, more exacting, and far more numerous.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

On the Genius of George R.R. Martin

Some thoughts about plot, via the storytelling genius of George R.R. Martin.  Spoilers regarding last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, “Walk of Punishment” and obviously A Storm of Swords, so be warned.  I will not, however, blow any plot points not already aired.

Plot, the building block of narration—not in opposition to character, but in concert with character.  If you don’t have your characters acting, no story.  Actions and never more important as when they instigate plot “turns,” moments in a narrative when a character’s fortune is changed, or when a game-changing piece of knowledge is revealed, or both.

A good turn affects a reader just as much as a character.   It’s the basic building blocks of effective narration, more than anything else.  This isn’t a new idea (Aristotle), but we sometimes forget.  Luckily, George R.R. Martin does not forget.

Some turns are more effective than others, and the best kind are the ironic ones.  “Ironic” is a jumpy word, I know, but what I mean here is this: a) a turn that the reader didn’t anticipate but realizes he should’ve, and b) a turn that complicates how we thought we’d feel.  A is basically embedded in B, so it’s B that’s the real kicker.

So Jaime Lannister got his hand cut off last week.  I read this scene two years ago when I first blazed through A Storm of Swords.  Now, encountering it again on HBO, I’m thinking about why I’m so awestruck.  Here’s why.

1.       Suffering.  We’re moved by Jaime's sudden misfortune.  Aristotle listed a character’s suffering as one of the key ways that audiences are moved.  But empathy for suffering is a shallow (in fiction), too easily elicited, too easily forgotten.  Much deeper is our moral sensibility—our sense of judgment.  In this case, Jaime has been a pretty crap dude, so we might’ve welcomed his suffering.  What’s interesting is that we don’t.  Curious.

2.       It’s the worst thing that could happen to his core character.  Worse than death, probably.  Jaime Lannister is his bravado, his tarnished heroism, which is physically embodied in his swordsmanship (it is with that hand that he killed the mad king).  He’s a master of talk and sword.  So the irony here is the great question mark of what’s to come.  We could see Jaime dying, and we could see him living to fight another day.  But Jaime living, never to be able to fight again?  We don’t know what to think.

3.       It’s a failure of his core character.  Jaime’s rhetoric has gotten him out of a lot of scrapes.  He’s even, arguably, talked his way out of POW camp.  But this time, despite his best efforts, his rhetoric could not get him off the hook.  

4.       Locke is the instrument of Jaime’s amputation.  He’s no major player.  He’s just a two-bit mercenary whose allegiances are quite questionable.  Our sense of justice dictates that Jaime should be punished by a big deal character that he has grievously wronged.  Now, even if Bran Stark could somehow exact his revenge for the defenestration, it would be anticlimactic.  Jaime’s core character is lost.  He’s already defeated.

5.       Speaking of two-bit Locke, let’s not forget that Jaime is only in this predicament because his rhetoric was ignored.  Brianne sealed their fate, failing to kill the traveler who eventually ratted them out.  Jaime warned her.  But what makes the truth so gut wrenching is that Jaime was in the moral wrong, and Brianne in the moral right.  Yet, logically, she was wrong, and he was the one to pay the price.  One might say, unfairly.

6.       Brienne.  The most immediately wrenching irony is that Jaime has just revealed himself to be a chivalrous man.  He manages to use rhetoric to prevent Brienne from getting raped.  It’s a double-blow, then, when he is severely punished, mere moments after saving her.  There’s a poetic injustice to it, too, since one thing that defines Brienne is her “maidenhood” (she is the Maid of Tarth after all).  He saved what defines her, only to lose what defines him.  

7.       Jaime’s rhetoric should’ve worked.  It’s the same rhetoric he used a moment before.  In a way, it’s his tactical error that dooms him.  He “wastes” his pleading on Brienne, sealing his own fate.  It’s a mirror of the tactical error she made with the traveler—causing punishment to oneself by doing the right thing. 
8.       On the other hand, Jaime reverses his rhetoric, promising Locke punishment if any harm should come to him (Jaime).  With Brienne, he promised reward (a bounty from Tarth), and that’s what convinced Locke.  Another tactical error.

9.       It looked like Jaime was going to get away with it.  Martin (and the show writers) surprises us by seeming to remove the threat that Jaime is going to be killed on that chopping block.  Locke has the knife up to his face for quite a while, and then Jaime seems to convince him.  Either Jaime will be killed, or he’ll be left alone, we think.  Locke even begins to walk away, only to turn and chop the hand off in one swoop.

10.   There’s a bigger reason that surprise works.  It resonates, it calls backThis is the particular genius of Martin, the way he “rhymes” action from chapter to chapter, even book to book.  The world of Game of Thrones is not just an imaginary universe; it’s a universe governed by a god (or gods) with an exacting and poetic sense of irony.  Just before Ned Stark lost his head in the first season, to the Lannisters, it looked like he was going to be spared, but Joffrey’s mercilessness got in the way.  Ned’s death was itself deeply resonant, stretching back to an early scene when Ned shows his son Bran the meaning of justice, executing a deserter with his own hands—brutal but a clear moral code.  Later, Jaime attempts to kill Bran, Ned’s son (again, in this scene, it appears that Jaime is not going to hurt Bran, and then he does).  Then, in a climactic moment that mirrors both of those major events, Joffrey, Jaime’s son, kills Ned, corrupting the same method that made Ned such a morally upstanding leader.  In that case, Ned was forced to relinquish his moral code and call himself a traitor, though it did him no good.  Jamie’s amputation brings to bear all those moments, a veritable hall of mirrors.

11.   And more.  Let’s not forget that Catelyn Stark, Bran’s mother and Ned’s wife, is the reason Jaime gained his “freedom” in the first place.  When it seemed as if every moment in captivity he might have been killed, he’s ironically in much greater danger when he’s on the road, “free.”  It was Catelyn’s capacity for mercy and diplomacy— exactly what Joffrey lacks—that has put Jaime in this situation. 

12.   Another resonant mirror scene is a key moment in the previous season when Jamie concocts an escape attempt by coaxing his cousin, then killing said cousin as a means of getting a jailor to come into the pen (not in the book, I don’t think).  That scene plays out very much like the scene with Locke, except the roles are reversed.  

13.   There is ever more resonance, some I’m missing, probably.  Note the losses of body parts and what they say about characters.  Ned lost his head of course, and he was the hand of the king (another mirror reversal).  It was with his hand that Jaime pushed Bran out the window.  Bran lost the use of his legs, but has arguably gained so much more in the bargain (the dawning of his warg ability).  Davos Seaworth lost his fingers to a noble man (Stannis), and that loss gave Davos—ironically, again—his moral superiority over Stannis.  On and on and on…

A single event that resonates irony in at least thirteen different ways, an absolute master-stroke of storytelling.  You may think Game of Thrones and other such stories are mere pulp, but I admire such structural genius in the same way I admire a beautifully arranged sonnet.  It takes absolute precision.  I won’t say that every effect on this list was purposeful (Martin insists he doesn’t plan ahead), but the result is the point, not the intention.  If I could craft a moment as deeply loaded as this one, I’d consider my writing career a success. 

And, perhaps most astoundingly, Jaime’s lost hand isn’t even the most reverberating moment you’ll experience in this story…

UPDATE: after watching this week's episode, I see the writers are asking me to notice three other similar resonant connections:

Tyrion Lannister as the mirror of his brother.  Tyrion is no warrior, yet he fought bravely defending King's Landing and nearly lost his head for it.  He did not lose any body parts (in the book, he loses his nose), so he is still essentially himself--same wit and conniving.  Still, like Jaime, Tyrion wants to exact revenge on those who betrayed him (Brienne makes this connection to Jaime clear in her fireside chat with him, when she tells him he must live to take revenge).

By extension, Varys' story about his castration echoes the Jaime and Tyrion theme already established.  The castration may have changed who Varys thought he was, but it made him into the character he is today.

Finally, in another mirror reversal (and connection to Tyrion/Varys/Jaime), the Unsullied army rises up, all of them castrated in order to make them fierce warriors.  If we see Jaime's loss of hand as a kind of castration (and the narrative is clearly asking us to), then the unsullied represent the mirror opposite of Jaime.  Yet, like him, they are "prisoners," just as he was, only to be freed by a moral female leader (Danerys/Catelyn).

Oh, and it turns out that Jaime's ploy to save Brienne from rape was a lie (no sapphires in Tarth).  In that sense, he used his immoral propensity to lie to do good by the woman who was holding him captive, another ironic turn.

That makes sixteen separate ironic turns in one event.