How serialized storytelling has evolved on television, and how prestigious shows habitually promise viewers more than they can possibly deliver.
The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary … More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.
A collection of introductions to fictional books covering, among other things, x-ray pornograms, computer-generated literature, and a biography of a sentient, moody super-computer. If you like the Borges above [Dreamtigers], or Borges in general, or strange science fiction, or strange conceptual writing in general, this is absolutely a book for you.
I love narrative and how it exists and why it exists and how it’s meant to be used. You can come up with a paragraph full of some truth, something that’s universal, some exploration, and it can be really informative, but it’s likely to not be that interesting. But you can spin a story, you can tell a narrative, and you can infuse it with this stuff, and if you’ve done your job right, you haven’t just captured somebody’s attention long enough to take them on this journey, you’ve also figured out something about the exploration through the act of the story.
Says the guy who made one of the most interesting movies I’ve seen this year.
The full story is never as tidy as the one that starts with “Obviously . . .”
Mainstream games, or at least a significant subset that I’m too lazy to define here, make use of three big techniques to tell stories:
- Invisible boxes.
- Environmental storytelling.
I think both game developers and players understand these techniques by now, and in fact I think players are getting tired of them. I know I am.
To offer some context for my perspective, the year I was fifteen I hitchhiked 15,000 miles alone, mostly through truck stops. By the time I was nineteen I had hitchhiked another 5,000 miles through Turkey, Greece, and pre-war Yugoslavia, also alone. Those years were a time of misery and terror, but they were also transformative. Every day I bounced wildly between danger, high comedy, and extreme loneliness—which is to say that it was also an adventure, and that inside all the high stakes turmoil was a nascent self that was trying to become, to change, to step out into the world as an adult.
But there is no female counterpart in our culture to Ishmael or Huck Finn. There is no Dean Moriarty, Sal, or even a Fuckhead. It sounds like a doctoral crisis, but it’s not. As a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker, my survival depended upon other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me. Without a Melvillean or Kerouacian framework, or at least some kind of narrative to spell out a potential beyond death, none of my resourcefulness or curiosity was recognizable, and therefore I was unrecognizable.
A man who drops his old good-time buddies when he finds God is sanctimonious; a man who drops them when he joins AA is just doing what it takes to stay sober.
All these people, telling stories about the stories that their things tell about them.
Actually, the more obvious it’s not a normal illness, the less likely they’ll mention it. Even if your cast includes some of the most helpful doctors or mind readers, the character won’t bring it up for quite a few episodes in a row, constantly making the excuse they’re just a bit under the weather.
Maps are not only about space, they’re also about time: maps are frozen journeys.
Every whole person understands his lifetime as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and a middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing.
One reason crime movies tend to be intrinsically interesting is that the supporting characters have to be riveting.
When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us.
Great interview. I’ve been slowly working my way through The Histories lately, and this attitude reminded me of Herodotus:
If I were simply to present these people talking about the deep past at face value, an historian would almost immediately say, “Gourevitch was taken in by these guys and their spin on history.” But to me what’s interesting—and the way I’ll present it—is that this is how they are invoking and recounting their inheritance, which may or may not be historically accurate. […] It’s an identity story as much as an accurate history.
On memory and moving on:
There’s a kind of fetishization of memory in our culture. Some of it comes from the experience and the memorial culture of the Holocaust—the injunction to remember. And it also comes from the strange collision of Freud and human rights thinking—the belief that anything that is not exposed and addressed and dealt with is festering and going to come back to destroy you. This is obviously not true. Memory is not such a cure-all. On the contrary, many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in large part in the name of memory. The difference between memory and grudge is not always clean. Memories can hold you back, they can be a terrible burden, even an illness. Yes, memory—hallowed memory—can be a kind of disease. That’s one of the reasons that in every culture we have memorial structures and memorial days, whether for personal grief or for collective historical traumas. Because you need to get on with life the rest of the time and not feel the past too badly. I’m not talking about letting memory go. The thing is to contain memory, and then, on those days, or in those places, you can turn on the tap and really touch and feel it. The idea is not oblivion or even denial of memory. It’s about not poisoning ourselves with memory.
And there’s this:
There’s no such thing as a story all by itself. Stories don’t exist in solitude—they exist in relation to other stories.
On Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, etc.:
The sensualists are bored with dramatic housekeeping. They’re interested in sensations and emotions, occurrences and memories of occurrences. If their films could be said to have a literary voice, it would fall somewhere between third person and first — perhaps as close to first person as the film can get without having the camera directly represent what a character sees.
Yet at the same time sensualist directors have a respect for privacy and mystery. They are attuned to tiny fluctuations in mood (the character’s and the scene’s). But they’d rather drink lye than tell you what a character is thinking or feeling – or, God forbid, have a character tell you what he’s thinking or feeling. The point is to inspire associations, realizations, epiphanies — not in the character, although that sometimes happens, but in the moviegoer.
You can tell by watching the sensualists’ films, with their startling cuts, lyrical transitions, off-kilter compositions and judicious use of slow motion as emotional italics, that they believe we experience life not as dramatic arcs or plot points or in-the-moment revelations, but as moments that cohere and define themselves in hindsight — as markers that don’t seem like markers when they happen.
Preface otherwise banal life wisdom with “My father once taught me…” (or similar) and it then becomes rich with generational credibility.
Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects.
The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.
Lord help me I just started reading the Histories.
If we can manufacture a good guy, we can exalt him. If we can manufacture a bad guy, we can degrade him. If we can’t decide, we can argue and call each other names. But more than anything complicated, the dialectic is always about deciding who is the bigger asshole.
Life is interesting all over. Every life, properly understood, is compelling. Anyone aspiring to be an artist knows there’s no such thing as why-bother or nothing-to-see.