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Monday, May 16, 2016

Rules, and Annihilation (a Title I Misspelled A Lot)


The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you. - Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation
Guys, if there's one thing you should know about me it's that I want your old video games. Anything published before the Playstation 2. I especially want your NES and Super Nintendo games. But I'll take Genesis, too. Dreamcast? Yeah. TurboGrafx? SURE. Please do not give these games to the DI. If you do someone will buy them for next to nothing and post it on their Instagram and I'll see it and I will be very angry and delete Instagram from my phone. Then I'll cook a cool looking dinner and reinstall it so that you can see it. I need you to see that dinner. It tastes better if you do. Trust me on this one.

Got a system I didn't know existed? I want it.

If there's another thing about me, though, it's that I love rules. I love rules so much that I love things that aren't even rules, but more like guidelines. Like, when I'm at a self-service car wash I will do everything on that clicky dial. I HAVE to do everything on the clicky dial. Do my tires really need a special tire soap on them? YOU BET YOUR BIPPY THEY DO. If your bippy is sweet then you bet it all the more.

Working in customer service, there are a lot of rules. Rules that, if not followed by customers, can result in a lot of extra work when extra work is not a thing one wants at one's job. Even if it doesn't, I'll probably still be a bit of a jerk about it. I remember two teenage boys who bought tickets to see Now and Then, a movie that according to Buzzfeed has 30 reasons why it was a defining moment for girls. Now listen. I know those guys wanted to see Money Train. I knew because I'd done such a thing myself. I once snuck an entire Subway sandwich into the movie Suicide Kings in the sleeve of my jacket. I had to flex really hard on the other arm to make it look even. My friend sneaked in an entire 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew in his JNCOs and we passed it around like winos waiting for the next boxcar.

Was I going to let these two young men see the R-rated Money Train (according to IMDB, rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, and a sex scene) when they bought tickets to see Now and Then? No. We had rules in this movie theater. They were going to watch this seminal coming of age film about being a young girl in Shelby, Indiana in that crucial summer of 1970 or they would watch nothing. So another usher and I posted ourselves right outside the door. The guys tried three times to walk past us, and each time we asked to see their tickets. They eventually returned to the theater and watched the entirety of a film that Buzzfeed proclaimed "It made you want to dance while riding your bike." I like to think those guys learned something that day that one day made them better husbands and fathers.

Speaking of Money Train, as workers in the theater we would sometimes take our breaks in the back of a movie house and watch 15 minutes of whatever was on. There was a girl there who I may have been crushing on and she grabbed some popcorn and asked if I wanted to hang out with her in whatever was the closest screen handy. I said OK. This movie is one hour and fifty minutes long. I imagine less than 30 seconds of that consisted of the one aforementioned sex scene. Was it on when we went it? It was. Was it awkward? Uh-huh. This is 16-17 year old me who would get chased around the theater by older teen girls who would say dirty words to me because I would blush so easily, and so, so redly. (Was this sexual harassment? It really was.)

Anyway, I like to call this phenomenon the mom rule, as in if you're mom is going to come downstairs while you're watching a movie, it doesn't matter if there isn't a sex scene in it, there will be this time, and it will by while she comes down to see if you have any dirty dishes or want microwave popcorn.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Rules. I love 'em. And when it comes to books, I like them to be just so. I understand that artists like to break rules, and I'm OK with that. But only if they demonstrate that they know the rules first. Then it's like a whole thing. It's like me sneaking a sandwich into a theater. That was performance art, you see. Delicious, salty, jacket-ruining performance art.

I love the three-act story structure. Meeting, inciting incident, pinch 1, midpoint, pinch 2. MM-mm. I just love looking at those graphs. Pinch 2, 2nd turning point. Oh boy. If you're going to break this structure, you'd better have a dang good reason for doing so, is what I'm saying.

I feel like lately this structure is being flaunted to an extreme that I just cannot get down with. We're getting books that call themselves "Book 1" before another book even exists. This kind of hubris is rule-breaking of the first order. Look at Star Wars. Lucas and co. probably hoped that would turn into a franchise, but they weren't sure. So A New Hope is a complete movie. When it was first released, it didn't even call itself A New Hope, nor did it proclaim that it was "Episode IV." That stuff was added later. It was just dang Star Wars because you never know. In it, we get a whole story. Whiny towhead never changes his clothes, hugs a girl for the first time, shoots a torpedo into a hole, then gets a medal. Boom.

Only after the masses demanded more characters to buy toys for did they add the episode number and subtitle. Then they created a perfect second act with a nice cliffhanger to be concluded in the third movie. Easy peasy Japanesy lemon-squeezy. Another great example? The Matrix. As far as most of us are concerned there only is one Matrix movie followed by some iffy fan fiction. It's a classic because it stands alone.
The next time all the Star Wars got together for another adventure, though, it was with a secure knowledge that they had three movies to make. So the first one barely tells a story and just sort of ends. It just introduces everything. This is the only problem with The Phantom Menace.

This is especially a problem with books, and especially especially a problem with genre fiction. I know people who don't ask for a book recommendation, they ask for a series recommendation. I think it's gotten to the point where an author writes a stand-alone book, and the publisher says, "We love it. This concise storytelling doesn't make us enough money, though. Can you make it into three books that are too long?"

Let's look at another iconic picture (I call them pictures now that I'm over 35): Raiders of the Lost Ark. Imagine with me an alternate scenario. Indiana Jones has students who have a crush on him. One flirts with her eyelids. He goes on an adventure to find some commandment dust that kills people. A boulder chases him. Then the bad guys get the ark! Credits roll. There's an after credits scene that introduces Shia Lebeouf as a baby.

You guys, there is no climax to this movie. There is no resolution. We do not get to see melting faces until the next movie. I don't know about you guys, but I want to see some melting faces now. Not next time. Not in book 2. Give me catharsis. Give me those white, white Nazi eyeballs!

A book that doesn't end is like eating a Drumstick brand ice cream novelty (why are ice creams and adult toys the only time we use the word "novelty" anymore? Maybe magic? I don't know. I don't go to a lot of magic shops.) treat without getting to that hunk of chocolate at the bottom of the cone. Why did I even bother? What if life is actually meaningless after all? Why does every ice cream novelty end with a trip to existential hell?
Some books have ambiguous endings, which are fine. Some books have open endings, where the character keeps on living and she kisses the guy who existed only as eye-candy and we know that probably she won't be dating him again at the beginning of the first book because we kind of depend on her finding some new 20-something to mack on as part of the next story. But here's the thing, you guys. SHE SOLVED THE MYSTERY. You don't end the book until she kisses the hot guy and you don't kiss the hot guy until you've solved the mystery. You guys. This is book writing 102 (book writing 101 is don't write a book).

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer is a book that introduces many, many mysteries. And it answers almost none of them. At the beginning we meet The Biologist. The Biologist is on a team with The Psychologist, The Anthropologist, and The Surveyor. They didn't learn each other's names because we're told that the mission they are on is so dangerous, names are unnecessary and could cause problems. I think. They are exploring Area X. Area X is a part of the undisclosed world (I think I read that it was maybe Florida?) that is weird now. We don't know why it's weird. We barely know how it's weird. It's creepily, creepily weird, though.
I felt in that moment as if it were all a dream—the training, my former life, the world I had left behind. None of that mattered anymore. Only this place mattered, only this moment, and not because the psychologist had hypnotized me. In the grip of that powerful emotion, I stared out toward the coast, through the jagged narrow spaces between the trees. There, a greater darkness gathered, the confluence of the night, the clouds, and the sea. Somewhere beyond, another border.
There are lots of very tantalizing mysteries here. Why does the dolphin have such human-looking eyes? Why has only one expedition returned, but strange, and why did they all die of cancer at roughly the same time? What is the tunnel? Or is it a tower? Why can't you bring technology? What is that howling thing? Can you run out of question marks for a blog and then you have to end the sentence lamely.

Good questions, huh? I might think, if I were reading this blog (which I will again right before posting it and then I'll say "hell yeah" very quietly to myself and then hit "post") I would think this sounds like an interesting, scary, and compelling piece of fiction. I would be right, too, if the book had an ending. Or even a middle. I would recommend it if it explained anything instead of spend its entirety introducing new questions.

I read the synopses (I had to look that up, "what's the plural for synopsis," I googled) for the next two books, and sure enough they explain some of it. Guess what? They were all written at once and released all in the same year. It's almost like it's one story spread out over three books. People. I cannot stand for this. When I hold a book in my little Trump-like baby hands, I want to know that this book tells one story. Not one third of a story. I do not have time in my life for books that tell one third of a story. 

Was Annihilation so lean and mean that there was not a single word wasted? That this story could only be told over three volumes? Was it this masters class on showing, not telling? Did it have zero unnecessary flashbacks and only tell us the bare mins of what we needed to know? Was it Hemingwayian in its simultaneous brevity and profound depth? No, you guys, of course not. The writing is not bad. It's actually good.
It was a test of a fragile trust. It was a test of our curiosity and fascination, which walked side by side with our fear. A test of whether we preferred to be ignorant or unsafe.
Someone decided they can make three times the money with three times the books and I guess they were right. There's going to be three movies, too. Actually, though, it will probably be four. On second thought, don't listen to me at all. Write your books. Make your movies. Buy me a lunch sometime.

Cool. Bye.