Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Big Book genre

Note: Spoilers of The Wire and Quicksilver abound

I’m a big fan of big books. If you can’t use a book as a doorstop, then it’s more likely to disappoint me. The best big books attempt to grasp an entire world and the reader believes that everything is in its grasp. The world is lumpy and too hard for anything or anyone to hold it so comfortably, but that’s what you believe as you read or watch, in the case of The Wire.

It works by completeness; its gets its seeming completeness by its lack of focus, its occasional casualness about advancing its central plot point. There’s a moment in the final season of The Wire as Cedric Daniels and Ronnie Perelman are about to uncover McNulty’s deranged homeless plot, and they go down to the evidence depository downtown. They’re poking around and they get the cop on duty to find the relevant cellphone for him. The cop does, and then Daniels tells him, “I’m glad you landed on your feet.”

“It’s better than work,” the cop replies, and you realize where you remembered that cop from: the first season, where he was just another hump. Turns out “landed on your feet” is a sly joke on the part of the writers, as the cop had been trying to fall down the stairs in order to get permanent disability, full pension. (Daniels did not, if I recall correctly, know this).

Was it, strictly speaking, necessary to include this moment? No. Did it really advance the story at all? No, it didn’t. We would’ve been quite happy to leave this particular cop moldering in our memory. You could call it a true-to-life moment—people often reappear oddly, suddenly, in minor ways—but obviously strict fidelity to life shouldn’t necessarily be the top priority of a writer. What it is is the suggestion of a full life…a bad story makes you believe that its cast dances on its puppet strings when needed and is left limp when unneeded; a good story makes you believe that the characters have been up to something even while their story isn’t being told. In this moment, you wonder, well where did this particular cop go all this time? It can’t be answered—and frankly it’s not the biggest howdunit of the entire answers—but it suggests a fuller life than the show has time to get to.

Big stories are more apt to have the room to include these losses of focus. A big story necessarily has a larger cast, and that larger cast, never all being gathered together, must be toggled between. So within that switching between stories, you get to pick up and leave characters as necessary. A shorter story, being more intimate, doesn’t have that same scope to work with. Its focus works against it.

A lack of focus implies occasional fuzziness and that’s where a story like Quicksilver can run into trouble. Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver is the beginning of a trilogy about, well….scientists and politics in the Baroque Age, mostly focusing on England. It’s the type of book that becomes more entertaining the more you know about the period. I know a fair amount so I found it fairly entertaining. But there’s no question it’s lugubriously written: characters fade in and out of focus of the story, aren’t particularly sharply drawn—none of them seem to have lives or personalities outside of their appointed roles.

Stephenson’s book illustrates, however, much of what makes the genre good. There’s an assumption, I think, that the big book genre that describes so much of the world is necessarily accurate. There’s some truth to this perception—Quicksilver and The Wire and Tom Wolfe’s books all required extensive research. But it’s ultimately false, I think, for reasons that are pretty intuitive. Quicksilver is often purposefully flagrantly ahistorical (Stephenson invents an island called Qwghlm among other things), in a sort of charming way. But that’s really only a suggestion of what Stephenson is up to; he clearly is an advocate for certain figures and people and trends in the era: specifically, the Puritans (who, incidentally, did not call themselves that.) This is a good focus as the Puritans really do get the retrospective shaft in our historical memory: I suspect we all remember them by Mencken’s attack on them, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be having fun.”

Stephenson’s view is more like the (also historically iffy) view of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic, which is to say that he saw the Puritan’s energy and hard work as a part of a capitalistic-scientific-democratic vanguard in the period. So the central character, Daniel Waterhouse, flits between science, real-estate development, architecture and politics, as a way of demonstrating the verve of the Puritans. Which is true enough, I suppose. It’s certainly entertaining. But it’s not necessarily history (which isn’t what Stephenson is after anyway, so who gives a shit?)

David Simon, however, certainly is after something like history in The Wire, so we should examine his priorities. It reveals something like the major weakness of the big book, i.e. its susceptibility to falling sway to its creator’s perspective. Being overly didactic. Being wrong. A smaller story generally is what? More domestic? It’s easier to imagine a smaller story tucked into a small corner of the world not interfering with everything, so its perspective on the world can often be comfortably reconciled with the world at large. The big story, in trying to represent the world at large, cannot have its perspective so easily reconciled with your own.

And obviously The Wire has perspective. Simon appears to be a believer in a dialectic: of the irresistible forces of history sweeping everyone under its wake and arranging the wreckage where it sees fit. Some call him Marxist; this isn’t quite true. Marxists believe in the inevitable triumph of the proletariat. There’s nothing in Simon’s perspective that suggests that. Simon’s worldview appears to be out of an eastern religion: there are roles, castes—the Omar role, the rogue detective role, the political hump—and certain people are swept in an out of those roles like the circling of a wheel. At the end of every season, the montage shows new people stepping into the old roles vacated by those who have been laid low by the game. “The game remains the game,” Marlo says to Avon Barksdale in prison, the new saying it to the old, which on multiple levels is what David Simon means. What enables this, in Simon’s telling, are the broken institutions: interested in themselves and their own power and prerogatives rather than their purpose. It’s a vision, one that sees a lot of things that other people won’t or can’t. It’s also not true, in many important cases. Simon is in many ways blind to the kind of upheaval that threatens his broken order. The internet, for example, is barely mentioned or touched upon in the show. This is realistic in many ways, of course. But in other ways not so much. When Randy, everyone’s favorite middle school entrepreneur, discovers that instead of buying his candy from the Korean grocery store he can purchase in bulk on the internet, his excitement at a business opportunity is a reminder that The Wire’s universe can be upended in so many ways. (The lack of the internet is most glaring, of course, in its journalism season. In real life, the Baltimore Sun would’ve requested internet commentary on the serial killer plot.)

The Wire is more work of genius than it is flawed, and its genius almost always overwhelms the flaws. It usually works by deceiving you about the flaws, but flaws they are. The chief virtue about the show (and about well-done big epics of the type) is not in the truth of its vision, but the comprehensiveness and originality of its vision.

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