Showing posts with label John Crowley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Crowley. Show all posts

25 July 2018

An Upstart Crow

David Edgerley Gates

Bernard Cornwell's newest book, Fools and Mortals, is a romance about Elizabethan theater, in particular about Shakespeare and the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A lot of Cornwell's books are swashbucklers, the Sharpe novels, the Last Kingdom stories, and this one has its share of derring-do and hair's-breadth escapes, but much of it is theatrical in the literal sense, how a play was staged in 1595, thirty-seventh year of Elizabeth's rule.



Shakespeare isn't uncharted waters. He's had leading parts and cameos before. The yardstick is the Anthony Burgess novel Nothing Like the Sun. Burgess himself calls the period "a word-drunk age," and his novel is a headlong rush of language, told in Shakespeare's own voice, both confident and sharing confidences. (One of my personal favorites is Bitter Applesa novel within a novel, John Crowley's reimagining of that tiger's heart, wrapped in a player's hide, in the first book of his Aegypt quartet, The Solitudes.)


Cornwell gives us a convincing and fully-realized world, the rivalries between the acting companies, the politics of religion, the sexual opportunism, and the internal dynamics of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, onstage and off. In their petty intrigues and their generosity, their authenticity and pretense, a mirror of their betters, and the audience.  Cornwell does his homework, and his careful detail pays off. He always gives it flesh and bone, smoke and odor and tallow. It smells, and not of the lamp.


Which leads to a different question. Using real people in fictions. It's one thing if they're a walk-on (Hitler overheard in the next room, say), and we've likely got more freedom of invention the further off they are from us in history, but whether in the wings or front-and-center, they still have to ring true.

Gore Vidal in Burr, to take an example, confounds our expectations of the Founding Fathers. It's a poisoned-pen letter, but a salutary corrective to the hagiography of Parson Weems. Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine. Socrates is entirely plausible, and no doddering old fart or department store Santa, either. Cecelia Holland. Robert Harris. Philip Kerr. Janice Law's sly mystery series featuring that unapologetic dissolute Francis Bacon. Here lurks a clue, perhaps.


If we don't know for certain what Francis Bacon was doing on a particular Monday morning (although we know he was an air raid warden, during the Blitz), we can make it up. The same goes for Shakespeare or Socrates. Or if we do know, we can fit that into the timeframe and fabric of the story. The trick, it would seem, is putting them in a plausible circumstance. I've used real people, although not in the lead, as a rule. Gen. Leslie Groves has a bit part in "The Navarro Sisters," which is about the Manhattan Project. Owney Madden makes an appearance in a couple of the Mickey Counihan stories, and so does Bumpy Johnson. It's local flavor. I've even hired Elfego Baca as a lawyer, once upon a time, to get a kid off a murder rap in El Paso.

You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts. Then again, you can't bend the facts to suit yourself. The best case is when you can fill in a few cracks in the existing narrative. There's a famous deleted scene in Ford's movie Young Mr. Lincoln, when Abe Lincoln first rides his mule into Springfield. Another young man steps out of a doorway, onto the plank sidewalk overlooking the street. There's a playbill on the wall next to him, advertising an upcoming theater performance. The two young men make eye contact briefly, and then glance away from each other. The second guy is of course the actor John Wilkes Booth.

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Best wishes and Godspeed to Art Taylor, who's taking a sabbatical from this forum, picking up the reins of the blogsite First Two Pages, as well as becoming new assistant director of creative writing at George Mason University.  

23 September 2015

Feeding the Inner Wolf

David Edgerley Gates

I had an odd insight at the supermarket the other day, watching a guy use the motorized shopping cart. He was a double-wide, for sure, carrying enough extra weight for it to be an obvious handicap, with tree-stump calves and thick ankles that probably indicated diabetes - but all of this beside the point. It got me thinking. He never set out to be that fat guy, he didn't do it by choice. It almost certainly had more to do with genetics, environment, the luck of the draw. We have a tendency to look at people with physical problems, obesity, rotten teeth, or bad skin, and hold them responsible, as if it were a moral failure.

I began to wonder about the corollary. What about people with glowing skin and great smiles and a body by Botticelli who turn out to be misshapen, or damaged underneath, but without visible injury? Perhaps some crippling trauma, or maybe no explanation at all. Maybe they're just plain ugly at heart.

There's a scene in John Crowley's novel LITTLE, BIG, where you encounter a crazy old drunk on the subway - or at least he seems like a crazy old drunk - and he's staggering up and down the cars, talking to himself. "I met the woof the other night, out back the churchyard. He didn't look like no woof, look like a man, but I knew him for who he was. He were hairy on the inside." The werewolf of folklore is known as Turnskins, a shape-shifter, wearing human covering as a disguise.

So, begging the question, Are there monsters? Some of us would say no, that it's nurture, or the lack of. I'd lean toward yes, though, the argument that it's nature, that evil is somehow innate, and not learned behavior. In other words, we can simply be hardwired the wrong way.

Do we come to the Manichean view that Absolute Good and Absolute Evil exist, as opposites? "Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it," Mephistopheles says, meaning he lives in the absence of God. But why shouldn't evil exist, without respect to virtue? Why do we imagine salvation is our reward for avoiding sin, when sin might prove to be its own reward? Bad isn't necessarily good taking a dive.

There was a time - the early days of the Church, say - when the world was seen as the earthly battlefield between the forces of light and dark, a struggle manifest, the war for men's souls. The stake was literal, not a metaphor. You could burn, your fatty tissue popping in the fire, and given the cooking time, it must have felt like an eternity. Then we have the misreading of Freud, as if a plausible explanation serves us as an excuse, or a note from teacher. ("Did you like Mr. Clutter?" "Why, yes, I did - right up to the moment I cut his throat.") Just supposing, however, that we don't see the dark silhouetted against the light, that there isn't any contrast, that the dark doesn't cast a shadow. It isn't the absence of God, or moral weight, or empathy, or some other frame of reference. Evil sufficient to the day. It stands on its own.

We're the ones who need help. We invent a mechanism that tells us the good is thrown on the scales with the bad, and they counterbalance. The one is necessary for the other. Yes, for dramatic tension in a fiction, a narrative, which is a construct, using familiar conventions. Not so much, we begin to think, in life. What if what goes around don't come around no more?

We appear conditioned to this idea of opposition: action, reaction, synthesis. I read a book one time about what the author described as The Bicameral Mind. The short version is Right Brain/Left Brain, but there's more to it than that. There was a long period in our development when we heard voices - the voices of the gods, perhaps? - but for a far longer period than our present psychological state, the accepted diagnosis or perceived reality, which has probably only obtained for about the last three thousand years, sake of argument, where such Voices signal mental illness, or at least the gateway to a less rational or linear world.

Presupposing the unspoken or the unseen, is the notion of duality functional? It seems like an enabling device, a comforting alibi. Rooted, as may be, in the bicameral mind, our physiology, the left a mirror of the right. This doesn't mean any of it has objective reality.

We might say, then, that evil exists for its own purposes. Not the opposite of good, but a force with no counterweight or equivalency. Thomas Pynchon, in THE CRYING OF LOT 49, says of Rapunzel, waiting rescue, what if the tower is everywhere, and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic? During the Middle Ages, many people thought the Black Death was evidence of God's abandonment, Not, we remark, a visitation of His disapproval - rather, a sign God had simply given up on us. But the disease vector of plague is a bacillus answering to its own necessities, unconcerned with the host bodies. We flatter ourselves, if we imagine we're any higher on the food chain, or that there's malice aforethought. In this sense, evil bears us no ill will. It's not retribution, and perhaps that's what makes it harder to bear. Evil is indifferent.