Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Page (and stage) turners

I’ll never forget the first time I started to read Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” in my late teens. Or the second time. Or the third time. Without finishing it. There had to be something to this book, its advocates were so legion, but whatever it was, I wasn’t finding it. Each time, I experienced the first 100 pages  as a cascade of names and items I couldn’t place or keep straight:  the Kwisatz Haderach, the Bene Gesserit, Feyd Rautha, various Atreides and Harkonnens, stillsuits, weirding modules, heighliners, and on and on. Now there’s a Wikipedia page covering just the technology. At the time, there was no such resource. There was just the lonely labor of trying again and again until something started to make sense. Three times, I bailed on this book, until finally one night, pruning in the tub, I made it past page 100 and actually got interested.

The other night my wife saw me hunkered down in front of the bookcase on my side of the bed, looking for the next novel to read. In general, I read two or three books (and multiple magazines) at the same time. I’m looking forward to finishing the history of Germany  under the Nazis (especially delightful because I know how it ends) and then returning to the account of Roman Empires, as well as finishing Julian Barnes’ meditation on death and that account of how censorship ended so many comic artists’ careers. But in the meantime, I was looking for a novel, having recently finished T.C. Boyle’s “A Friend of the Earth,” as noted here previously. My eye landed upon Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy:  a one-volume compendium of “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Crossing,” and “Cities of the Plain.”

However overstylized his writing may be (or perhaps because of its trickery) I find McCarthy to be a wonderful writer. No matter his overuse of polysyndeton, he has a grasp of vocabulary and flow and scenic description that at times beggars belief. I get caught up and keep reading. In addition to “All the Pretty Horses,” I’ve read “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road,” and enjoyed them all immensely. But I got stopped cold about 160 pages into “The Crossing” by an endless monologue given by an old man unmoored from this life. This old man goes on about… something… for so long I felt trapped in purgatory with him. And finally freed myself by putting the book down. A quick check-in with my son revealed that, unprompted, he had stopped at precisely the same waystation. Neither of us knew what the old man was talking about, endlessly and with seemingly no purpose, and both of us had ditched.

But now I picked it back up and climbed into bed. Even if the plot didn’t advance — and clearly, that’s what I was missing, some action, some sense of forward movement, something that would pick me up and carry me along in the way that made “No Country for Old Men” utterly unputdownable — I figured I would find myself entranced again by some of the prose before quietly slipping off to sleep. Without the aid of a bookmark, I found where I had left off probably six months ago, near the terminus of the old man’s interminable monologue, and started up again. And then found myself reading for hours. Here’s what happens:  The existential treatise ends a mere page or so after I had quit, with the old man bidding our protagonist, 17-year-old Billy Parham, farewell. Billy rather speedily crosses the border from Mexico back into the U.S. (New Mexico; nice touch) and returns to his family’s ranch to discover that the ranch has been cleaned out and his parents murdered. He heads into town and gleans what information he can from the sheriff, then picks up his younger brother, who somehow escaped the onslaught, and returns with him to Mexico, where they seek their horses and, no doubt, the men responsible for the murders.

In other words, now the book is a page turner.

I related this to my son, getting up to the point of Billy’s return and what he finds, when my son called out, “Stop. Maybe now I want to finish reading it.” He’ll have to wait for me to finish it first.

Is all this a very long way of saying that story is important? Perhaps. Is it the most important element? Maybe not. I loved “The Incredibles” because I got so caught up in Mr. Incredible’s personal crisis (a hero forced to reject his heroism, and so subject to the predations of bureaucracy and the 9 to 5); by contrast I in no way care about Ginormica’s problem in “Monsters vs. Aliens” (a young woman supported in marrying the wrong man by her friends and family discovers her true family when she is imprisoned with friendly monsters, of which she now is one). (More about this later.) The key difference is not in the story elements, but in the thematic and character elements. But story is important, and it seems oddly irritating in 2009 to have to say this. It is especially irritating to have to say this with regard to the theatre, where somehow it has become laughable to suggest that we should care what happens, and that actions should have consequences, but here is Theresa Rebeck, in today’s LA Times, having to defend these notions for us. I have stood in her shoes too many times. It’s especially galling to have cut one’s teeth on Ionesco and Beckett and to have one’s view of theatre derided as “nostalgic.”

Audiences aren’t stupid and they don’t lie. With drama we can more easily fool ourselves, but comedy is the truest form because it exposes all falsehoods:  Either it is funny or it isn’t, and either the audience laughed or it didn’t.  It’s that simple. No, not all experiences are universal.  There were many who loved “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” but if I never see another newish Neil Simon play it will be far too soon. (Seeing “The Dinner Party” was for me a singular event; it was the very evening in which I swore I would forever after more cautiously guard my time. This after two hours of feeling my life drain away.)  Every play is not for every body; but many new plays are for nobody — nobody except the people who make them. If the language poets killed poetry, I’m afraid their ilk have now turned their sights onto the stage. Twenty-five years ago, an undergrad professor told me that if poetry lost the educated, the enlightened, the readers, the people it already had and should have, then the fault lay with the poets. I think about that every time I come across a new poem utterly inflated with its own word play and cleverness but resolutely impregnable of meaning. But where I feel worst about this is in the theatre, when audiences are left cold by something obtuse that the playwright and the director are so unjustly proud of. The underlying purpose of all theatre must remain catharsis — that frisson of fellow-feeling, when the emotional brutality of the event whether comic or dramatic is brought upon us. When language is made pre-eminent over feeling, all we’re left with is puns.

One Response to “Page (and stage) turners”

  1. Mike Folie Says:

    Very well said.

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