Tuesday, March 15, 2011

So Close and So Far

I love a story I could never write, that I couldn’t even conceive of writing, the diction and the plot and all of it existing somewhere outside of myself and yet – YET – somewhere so close to me that the damn thing makes me feel, makes me read the story again, then again.

That’s “Men Glass” by Sarah Rose Etter in The Collagist this month. Good stuff. Good read.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tournaments and Tragedy and Everything

So I’m sitting with a fellow writer at a chain restaurant bar in a part of town that only has chains and people who want chains and we’re watching the spread of TVs and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is being covered on most of the TVs except one that is covering the devastation in Japan and I look to my writer friend and I say: isn’t this the kind of thing modern writing should be trying to capture? This shattering of attention, this bizarre alignment of the banal and the horrific, what we consider important being shifted and moved by the programming needs of media as well as our own selfish needs to be insulted from things such as catastrophe and comforted by things such as sports where winners are clear and the pattern is so set that it’s known even before the participants are known, the only unknown being the final way those participants will be organized within the pattern. And here we’ll be, filling out our brackets while Japan bags up its dead and searches for enough capacity in their crematoriums. Although, I imagine, there are plenty of banal distractions in Japan, too. Then again, the thing is, I’m not so sure the NCAA tournament IS a distraction for a lot of people ... I think, for some, Japan is the distraction and that the NCAA tournament is the more important happening, will use up more emotional energy. I don’t place a moral judgment on that; it’s just an observation. There’s too much happening at any given moment and too little energy within any one of us to FEEL something about everything. Libyan rebels are getting murdered, btw. They’ve picked a bad news cycle.

Monday, March 7, 2011

This Thing, Right Now

I finally saw The Social Network. Seeing a highly praised movie well after its “moment” is a good recipe for disappointment. That expected disappointment didn’t disappoint.

The movie was fine. It was well-acted and the dialogue was that fun, nobody-really-talks-like-that-but-wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if-we-did thing with which Aaron Sorkin has been delighting me for many years. But I completely missed how this movie captured anything about the times we live in – or rather how it captured anything more about the times we live in than say, Inception, which, if nothing else, cut right to the way our modern world relies on controlling the opinions of others (leave your “Inception sucks” complaints elsewhere – I’m celebrating its premise more than its execution).

In my mind, The Social Network wasn’t about “this world” but rather “that world,” meaning the world of programmers and hackers that occasionally creates fantastical explosions of humanity-altering change that rockets several odd, probably-on-the-spectrum, geniuses to fame and fortune. This movie, I think, could be about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Which isn’t to say the movie had nothing to say about the current times, just that what it had to say was submerged beneath a character study of Mark Zuckerberg and those his rise to success affected most. Just because it’s about Facebook doesn’t mean it’s about Facebook.

And, really, I’m not sure any film can adequately capture what things like Facebook are doing to our culture. And that’s because what Facebook is doing is so internal to each person. Our external lives look pretty much as they have for awhile – we take kids to school, we make dinner, we sleep and root for sports franchises. But inside of this, we’re building these new communities that have the power to affect our wellbeing as much or more than our physical world.

This is significant. This is an alteration of the psyche that I’d argue is on par with the kind of shift caused by the great wars of the 20th century. How we perceive and relate to the world is radically changing.

A movie about the founder of a social networking site doesn’t really capture this (in America, young white men have long been able to get filthy rich and screw over their friends by taking control of a valuable product). What I believe can capture this in all its complexities is literature. Because, out of all the arts, literature is most capable of piercing the interior of human thinking and reflecting the way we order thoughts and emotions.

I’m sure a gifted filmmaker can and will prove me horribly wrong in my assessment of film’s ability to capture the social networking revolution; but I’m also sure I will, in the coming years, read far more fiction that captures this than I will see movies that capture this. In fact, I already have. What is Matt Bell’s How They Were Found but a representation of the reordering of thought and the imprecision of truth that comes from a world where our access to information is as likely to complicate as it is to solve anything? And what is Kevin Brockmeier’s new novel The Illumination (which I am reading now) but an examination of what becomes of us when all our inner pain is broadcast for the world to see? (as so many seem intent on broadcasting ever ache and misfortune on Facebook)

We live in a heady time, y’all. This is happening now. And those of us who write, have the opportunity to help make sense of this all ... or at least provide evidence of what it’s like to be alive in this time of incalculable change.

Just the other night I said to my wife that I’m glad I was in college before the proliferation of digital cameras and social media. There weren’t a lot of photos taken in those days and those that were taken are sitting on film, likely forgotten in someone’s closet. That fact right there separates me in profound ways from those who were in college just as few years after me. In fact, my college experience –or, at least, the repercussions thereof, are closer to my parents’ experience than they are to my friends’ who were born half a decade later. If that’s not evidence of something radical happening, I don’t know what is.

How do we capture this? That redefining of privacy? That change interpersonal relationships? That effect on the ways we conduct our daily lives? That alteration in the ways we perceive and present ourselves?

Those, I think, are excellent questions for us writers writing now. Excellent questions.