Monday, August 31, 2009

Authors, Authors

In a previous post, I contemplated The Wire's development of the idea of the hero, moving from the solitary agents of police procedurals of the past to a sense of the teamwork that is necessarily involved in any real crime-fighting project.

In another post, I proposed that The Wire could usefully be viewed as a novel, a multilayered, multivocal, expansive work of fiction.

With that in mind, what occurs to me now is that, just as The Wire broadens our conception of the hero outward to encompass a whole team, it also broadens our conception of the author. David Simon and Ed Burns, of course, are the names most commonly associated with the show, but the individual episodes are written by a whole cadre of writers, including George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane. The show was not created by a single heroic novelist but rather by a team of artists that of course also includes the directors, crew, cast, and others.

What's remarkable is that this team was able to create this multifarious and massive work—one of my friends pointed out that it's the equivalent of about 30 feature films—while preserving such a consistent and coherent vision.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Omar Comin'

In How Fiction Works, James Wood discusses the evolution of character in fiction. In writers like Dickens and Fielding, he writes, "Character is essentially stable, has fixed attributes."

"But at the same time," he continues, "another kind of novel was developing, in which good and bad wars within a single character, and the self refuses to stay still. What the novel powerfully began to do was to explore characterological relativity."

I'm halfway through season four of The Wire, a TV show that is perhaps best imagined as a kind of novel, not least because of its exploration of exactly this type of characterological relativity. Such relativity is rare on TV shows, whose episodic nature lends itself to fixed and stable characters. The Norm you see on one episode of Cheers is the Norm you'll see on any other.

On The Wire, though, characters change: McNulty, Greggs, Bunk, Beadie, Carcetti, D'Angelo, Bodie, Daniels, Stringer. These characters, and others, evolve and surprise us over the course of the show.

The one character who comes closest to being a fixed, stable, traditional TV character is Omar Little, who is also Barack Obama's favorite as well as many others', I'm sure.

It may seem odd to view Omar as a traditional TV character, since in so many ways he defies stereotypes and easy judgments. A gay urban bandit who never turns his gun on a "citizen," stealing only from those who are in "the game," Omar is one of the most intelligent, perceptive, and funny characters on the show.

"A man must have a code," Bunk says sardonically to Omar in the first season, skeptical of this violent criminal's claims to ethical consistency.

"Oh, indeed," Omar replies, with utter sincerity. It's a great line, and one that the writers almost can't help themselves from repeating—and they do, as Omar says this line at least twice in later episodes. It's the closest the show gets to this classic TV device of giving characters tag lines ("What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?").

Omar does live by a code, though. He stays Omar (or has done so thus far, at least), and that sets him apart from many of the other major characters, who are less stable.

In the opening segment of one season four episode, Omar walks the streets one morning in search of a new box of his favorite breakfast, Honey Nut Cheerios. Kids along his path announce his approach: "Omar comin'!" It occurs to me now that this is a bit reminiscent of the welcome that Norm received each time he entered Cheers.

Understand: I'm not complaining. I love Omar as much as anyone. I just think it's interesting to consider that this unconventional character may constitute The Wire's closest connection to conventional TV shows.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


In this post at Infinite Summer, Wallace honcho Matt Bucher delves into influences on Infinite Jest.

His first two examples are well-documented but not surprising: Mary Karr, sure—she dated DFW; Don DeLillo—no surprise there.

But then things get interesting: Thomas Harris! And Bucher backs it up with a passage-to-passage comparison between Red Dragon and IJ that is simply stunning. One might even be tempted to call DFW a plagiarist (if not for the fact that he re-writes Harris with such idiosyncratic brilliance).

For the sockdolager, though, Bucher draws a parallel to the oldest of old-school Nintendo games. And, I have to admit, it makes sense.

(He also argues, persuasively, that DFW was sincere in this list he submitted for a book that compiled the top ten favorite books of various writers. I always figured it was a joke, and a rather snarky one at that.)

Good stuff.

Packer on Cheney

From George Packer's remembrance of Ted Kennedy and Ken Bacon, an advocate for refugees, an account of being at a party for Bacon also attended by Dick Cheney:

I didn’t want to shake hands with Cheney, unless I also had the chance to tell him what I thought of him. But as soon as I saw the ex-Vice President and his ideologically combative wife making their way around the reception room, I knew that it would be impossible not to shake hands. Cheney was shorter and heavier than I expected, and he was leaning on a cane. This is the problem with meeting the high and mighty, and perhaps with Washington journalism: once you see important people in the flesh, they become just a little bit human, and it’s no longer quite so easy to preserve the dispassionate hatred that, for example, Cheney richly deserves.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lungs the Size of Lemons

From Alec Wilkinson's New Yorker piece on free diving, "a sport in which divers, on a single breath, descend hundreds of feet, into cold and darkness, and often pass out before they return":

What allows a person to hold his or her breath and dive to severe depths is an autonomic process called the mammalian diving reflex, which is activated when the nerves in the face come into contact with water, most effectively with cold water.... First, the heartbeat slows.... Under pressures of depth, blood withdraws from the arms and legs and concentrates in the chest. This is called the blood shift. Meanwhile, the lungs compress, halving themselves after ten metres, then reducing by degrees until, by a hundred metres, they are something like the size of a fist; free diving is the only sport in which the lungs shrink and the heart slows. The blood shift prevents the chest from collapsing....

"It takes a while to accept the physiological truths of a free dive, which are that your body knows how to conserve oxygen on its own," Campbell told me. "When you start, you don't necessarily believe that your body will take care of you at fifty and sixty metres. The reason you have to believe your lungs are the size of lemons is that, if you don't, the dive reflex won't kick in—it can be inhibited by stress.... In the early stages of learning to dive, it's very much 'What the hell am I doing?' You're getting to about six metres and racing back to the surface, because it feels so foreign. You're in a very irrational environment, being so far from the surface. It's human endurance, but you're doing it in a place where you shouldn't be able to prove human endurance."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Watching the Detectives

The third season of The Wire begins with the demolition of the high-rise housing project towers that have been sites of contention in the first two seasons. It's a signal of a shift in emphasis that I'm noticing in the first few episodes. For the first time, the mayor becomes a real character. A city councilman becomes an important figure. And cops like Burrell and Rawls have climbed their way into positions high in the law enforcement hierarchy. What we're getting now, more than ever, is a wide-angle view of how a modern (though old—it's interesting to consider that Frederick Douglass lived and worked in Baltimore as a slave) American city works.

And yet, the basic lens for this wide-angle view remains one of crime and punishment, law and order.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love the show, but I wonder if crime is ultimately the best lens with which to understand a city like Baltimore.

You always hear that Baltimore is a lot like St. Louis: same city-county divide, same heavily Catholic population, same patterns of flight from the city. The other day, I took a bike ride through the South Side—down Pestalozzi from Tower Grove Park almost to the brewery, then down Lemp, past the defunct brewery, down into the neighborhood that you can see from 55 before you reach the Broadway exit, then up to the state streets and over to Cherokee Street.

It's a landscape that's very reminiscent of the landscapes in The Wire, populated by people who could be straight out of the show. And the lens of that show kind of got into my head, I found. A woman walked slowly but purposefully between a couple two-family flats—Maybe she's going to the stash, I found myself thinking. An SUV full of young men blew through a stop sign and sped up the road. Are they going to crack some heads on a corner somewhere? A guy sat on his stoop and made a call on his cellphone. Is he calling in some muscle?

Most likely, none of these things were going on. But a show as powerful and complex as The Wire does get in your head and make you start to see things through its lens.

"The urban crime environment," the Baltimore cops call it in the show, but that's not all this environment is. It's a place where regular people, citizens, as they're called by the cops in The Wire, live. The show, because of its nature, has the lives of these people only in its peripheral vision. They're the innocent bystanders who get shot, the scared witnesses, the fathers whose sons have gotten caught up in bad shit.

At the beginning of season three, Bodie tells Poot something like, "If you just live up in them towers, you ain't shit. But if you sling in them, then you somebody." It's an accurate statement in terms of the show, at least. There are no major characters who live in the projects but aren't in "the game."

The show does make it clear, however, that virtually all of the people who live in the towers—and in most of the neighborhoods where drugs are sold on the street—are black. Why is that? What does that mean?

The show doesn't provide much to help viewers understand where those projects came from, or where the people who live in them lived before they were constructed, or why they're racially segregated, or why that matters. Is that a flaw in the show? I don't know, but I do know that, on previous bike rides through South St. Louis, I have looked at the landscape through a different lens, the lens of racial residential segregation, crafted powerfully by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton's classic book American Apartheid.

Massey and Denton's is a book of analysis and theory; The Wire is art and drama. And yet I find myself thinking that, in order to really understand The Wire, not to mention Baltimore and St. Louis, one would benefit from reading American Apartheid.

One would also benefit from seeing more of the ordinary lives that take place in the poor black neighborhoods of The Wire. Yet, because of its nature as a show about drugs and law enforcement, such stories aren't really relevant. The show does an admirable job of developing complex black characters at all levels of the police force and government. Yet these characters seem to have escaped segregation to a degree that I find questionable. At their middle-class level, blacks and whites work, socialize, and have sex with each other with utter ease. It's not even a question. In the episode I watched today, a bar full of cops, black and white, drank together and sang Irish songs in honor of a dead comrade. Race was absolutely not an issue.

Is that the way it really is for middle-class Americans, black and white? Massey and Denton suggest that it's not. Frankly, so does my own personal experience.

White people, it has been said, like The Wire. And for good reason: I suspect that it's the most nuanced, complex, realistic, and compelling television series ever created. Does it still fall short, though? Do white people still come away from it with a skewed picture of African-American life?

Zora Neale Hurston argued in her 1950 essay "What White Publishers Won't Print" that "For various reasons, the average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America."

Now, I think The Wire does much to dramatize the lives of such characters. But I guess I also think that, like any lens, the show's focus on crime can distort our perception of reality as well as sharpen it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Music on The Wire

I'm into the second season of The Wire now, and today I noticed that Asst. State's Attorney Rhonda Pearlman seems to have similar musical tastes to mine. In the first season, she was listening to Lucinda Williams (something from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, as I recall), and in the episode I watched today she was listening to "Goodbye to Carolina," a deep cut from Lyle Lovett's I Love Everybody.

It's pretty impressive, I think, that from season to season the characters' musical tastes are given attention and coherence. And the music chosen is just damn good, in general.

In the first season, I thought I heard Freamon listening to jazz saxophonist Hank Mobley in the office; later he and and Jimmy go to a bar where the great Miles Davis album Kind of Blue is playing. At the end of one episode, Daniels is listening to Ellington's "Fleurette Africaine," a haunting tune from the album he did with Mingus and Roach, Money Jungle, which itself is a great description of the world of The Wire. Later there's a scene in Daniels' house, I think it is, where he's listening to Coltrane.

The music is often chosen for thematic or slyly humorous purposes. In Avon Barksdale's strip club the dj is playing Bill Withers's "Use Me," for instance. There's a hilarious scene in the first episode of season two when Boadie is driving through Philadelphia listening to Garrison Keillor, and a witty use of the song "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" as the maverick McNulty plots to get revenge on Rawls for plunking his ass on a boat.

It's attention to details like these that make this show so enjoyable to watch.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Idea of the Hero

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, one of David Foster Wallace's colleagues at Pomona, recalled this about DFW:

He was, in fact, extremely fond of The Wire -- he stopped me in the hall one day last year and said, look, I really want to sit down and pick your brain about this, because I'm really developing the conviction that the best writing being done in America today is being done for The Wire. Am I crazy to think that?

I just finished watching Season One of The Wire (I know, where have I been?). I binged on it, in fact: thirteen episodes in four days.

I can see why Wallace was so impressed, of course. In one sense, The Wire seems to embody what Wallace was attempting in Infinite Jest: a multilayered portrait of a huge cast of characters at a variety of socioeconomic levels.

I was also thinking about the show in relation to the essay that Hal Incandenza, in IJ, writes for his Introduction to Entertainment Studies course. The essay, as you may recall, compares Chief Steve McGarrett of Hawaii Five-0 and Captain Frank Furillo of Hill Street Blues, suggesting that they are "useful for seeing how our North American idea of the hero changed" from the 1970s to the 1980s.

McGarrett, Hal argues, "is a classically modern hero of action." His cases are one-dimensional puzzles with clear solutions, and he characteristically homes in on the truth with single-minded clarity.

Furillo, on the other hand, "is a bureaucrat, and his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields." He handles multiple cases at a time while fending off distractions from colleagues and family members. He is "what used to be designated a 'post'-modern hero"—a "heroic part of the herd, responsible for all of what he is part of, responsible to everyone, his lonely face as placid under pressure as a cow's face."

(Incidentally, David Lipsky's Rolling Stone piece, published shortly after his suicide, quotes Wallace saying that Hill Street Blues "was a really important show to me.")

"But what comes next?" Hal asks at the end of his essay. Hal predicts that we await "the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines." (This unsupported conclusion gets Hal's grade knocked down to a B/B+.)

Arguably, that's what Don Gately becomes in the final couple hundred pages of IJ, but what about The Wire? How do this show and its heroes fit into the evolution that Hal sketches in his seventh-grade essay?

Granted, I've only watched the first season, and I've never seen a single episode of Hill Street, but it seems to me that The Wire's innovation is that it moves away from the idea of a single hero and toward the idea of a team. We may be tempted to see Jimmy McNulty as the McGarrett/Furillo figure early on (more Furillo than McGarrett), but gradually the other cops gain complexity and importance—Greggs, Daniels, Freamon, even Pryzbylewski. It's a cluttered field that's being navigated by a web of characters, all of whom are influencing each other and constantly revising the nature of the field itself.

And it's not just the cops, of course; the show also develops the complex humanity of the drug dealers—D'Angelo Barksdale, Stringer Bell, Boadie, etc.—and of strippers and addicts and more. Over and over again, the show takes character who seem peripheral extras (figurants, as they're called in IJ), and turns them into important, deep characters. It hurts us, for example, when sixteen-year-old Wallace gets shot.

In fact, the show complicates the notion of the hero, dramatizing the moral failings even of "real police" like Bunk and Jimmy, the redeeming moments for cops who seem seriously flawed (e.g., Rawls and Herc), the dawning compassion and awareness in a killer like D'Angelo, the moral code of the bandit Omar, and the struggles of a junkie like Bubbles (who I found much more compelling, incidentally, than IJ's junkie Poor Tony).

The notion of heroism is embodied not in a single character, but rather in a kind of free-floating and malleable ideal—"real police," for instance, or "the code" that Omar says a man must live by. It's a question of meaning. Is it worth it? Jimmy wonders after Greggs gets shot up. Is it worth it? Greggs wonders as she considers her girlfriend's wish that she quit police work. Are we still police? the cops ask themselves after collaborating with the cold-blooded killer Omar.

There's self-interest and careerism on one side, "real police" and a "code" on the other. But given the implacability of the drug trade and the pervasiveness of the corruption, the show challenges the idea that the heroic work of "real police" actually makes much of a difference at all. And is it worth it if it breaks your girlfriend's heart, or if your family falls apart in the meantime?

It's a Sisyphean project, "real police" work, in an existentialist world. McNulty, Daniels, Herc, Greggs, Freamon and others have to create meaning for themselves, live by a code of their own devising, and one which they may not even fully understand (as in Greggs's story of why she wanted to be a cop—"Here ya go, rook."). And, importantly, they create this meaning not as heroic lonely faces in an anonymous herd, but as fallible teammates who develop deep and real relationships with each other.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Who Reads Short Stories?

From "Why I Write Short Stories," by John Cheever: long as we are possessed by experience that is distinguished by its intensity and its episodic nature, we will have the short story in our literature, and without a literature we will, of course, perish. It was F. R. Leavis who said that literature is the first distinction of a civilized man.

Who reads short stories? one is asked, and I like to think that they are read by men and women in the dentist's office, waiting to be called to the chair; they are read on transcontinental plane trips instead of watching a banal and vulgar film spin out the time between our coasts; they are read by discerning and well-informed men and women who seem to feel that narrative fiction can contribute to our understanding of one another and the sometimes bewildering world around us.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hey Judas

The conclusion to Joan Acocella's review-essay of some recent books rehabilitating Judas, the betrayer of Christ, especially in light of the recently recovered Gnostic gospel of Judas:

Why shouldn’t we entertain the idea of an archetypal betrayer? In Gubar’s view, the original, Biblical Judas may have had a bad influence on our politics, but he does represent something true about our lives. He testifies, she says, to the “distressing nature of the human condition,” our “capacity for faltering and sinning” and then for despair and self-hatred—which, somehow, don’t prevent us from faltering and sinning again. Many of us, on many occasions, are not going to love one another. If this widely acknowledged fact is personified by one figure in the New Testament, why shouldn’t it be?

The alternative is to revise the Bible. Some religious scholars think that this is a good idea. Regina M. Schwartz, in her book “The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism” (1997), argues that the Old Testament’s endorsement of violence—the fruit, she says, of monotheism, with its intolerance—has been so destructive that we should delete it from the text and “produce an alternative Bible . . . embracing multiplicity instead of monotheism.” ...

All this, I believe, is a reaction to the rise of fundamentalism—the idea, Christian and otherwise, that every word of a religion’s founding document should be taken literally. This is a childish notion, and so is the belief that we can combat it by correcting our holy books. Those books, to begin with, are so old that we barely understand what their authors meant. Furthermore, because of their multiple authorship, they are always internally inconsistent. Finally, even the fundamentalists don’t really take them literally. People interpret, and cheat. The answer is not to fix the Bible but to fix ourselves.

Fiction by Sherman Alexie

I really liked this story, "War Dances" by Sherman Alexie, in the current New Yorker. Here's a passage in which the narrator wanders through a hospital looking to borrow a warm blanket for his father, who's just had his foot amputated:

And then I saw him, another Native man, leaning against a wall near the gift shop. Well, maybe he was Asian—lots of those in Seattle. He was a small man, pale brown, with muscular arms and a soft belly. Maybe he was Mexican, which is really a kind of Indian, too, but not the kind that I needed. It’s hard to tell sometimes what people are. Even brown people guess at the identity of other brown people.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” the other man said.

“You Indian?” I asked.


“What tribe?”


“I’m Spokane.”

“My first wife was Spokane. I hated her.”

“My first wife was Lummi. She hated me.”

We laughed at the new jokes that instantly sounded old.

“Why are you in here?” I asked.

“My sister is having a baby,” he said. “But don’t worry, it’s not mine.”

“Ayyyyyy,” I said and laughed.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Words, Words, Words

I read Infinite Jest a couple summers ago, but I've been following with some interest the Infinite Summer project, in which a bunch of people read this gargantuan novel together and try to make sense of it on a blog. Their reading schedule is somewhere around page 450 right now. I was looking back at some notes I took while reading the novel, and I found that at around this point, I made a big list of themes, keywords, motifs, etc., that I'd noticed in the novel so far. Some are pretty obvious, but I notice that even now the list is somewhat helpful to me in recalling the book and reviewing it mentally. Here it is:

Themes, Keywords, Motifs, &c. (@ pg. 450)
the truth of cliches
fathers and sons
film (why cartridges? ammo ref?)
buildings and bodies
grammar and usage
corporate history
urban legends
copia (a basic rhetorical method for this book (see 172-76 and 200-04)
Marlon Brando
Bob Hope
April (Fools Day)
Depend Adult Undergarment
Glad (Trash Bag?)
skin problems

Monday, August 3, 2009

Andy, Atticus, and Our Inheritance

In this interesting essay, Malcolm Gladwell reconsiders To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch, suggesting ways in which Finch is complicit in the unjust practices of his society.

Having just finished Douglas A. Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name, I've been re-thinking Atticus Finch as well, along with Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show.

Blackmon makes a compelling case that the label "Jim Crow" trivializes the terror and oppression of the period from the end of the Civil War to WWII. He proposes "the Age of Neo-Slavery" as an alternative that adequately describes the system of forced labor and political disenfranchisement that blocked the promise of freedom to African Americans.

It's a great book, horrifying at times in its detail, and it makes clear how different Atticus and Andy are from the more familiar images of the Southern lawyer and sheriff at the time. Blackmon narrates the stories of Southern lawyers who defended their clients against charges of holding black workers in involuntary servitude by arguing, cynically (but ultimately successfully), that no federal laws actually forbade the holding of slaves. Blackmon explains the legal system of the South that set up sheriffs with nearly absolute power over their tiny jurisdictions, allowing them to reap profit by arresting blacks on flimsy or fabricated charges and then leasing them out to mining companies, turpentine manufacturers, farmers, and others.

In this disturbing historical context, Atticus and Andy look like liberal fantasies—the lawyer who does his best to help a black defendant, or the wise, understanding sheriff who gently keeps the peace in his small town (which, as far as I can recall, had no black people in it). At the time, perhaps, these characters were conceived in contrast to their less attractive counterparts in the real world. As dominant images in Americans' collective memories, however, they run the risk of obscuring reality.

Gladwell's piece offers a nice alternate interpretation—and Blackmon's book digs up the bones of the past, forcing us to account for how the violence of our history relates to the present time.

Blackmon writes, near the end of the book:

When white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our "fault." But it is undeniably our inheritance.