Monday, September 28, 2009

Threads of the Story – Anansi Boys

I think I mentioned this when I did my blog about “Stardust”, but I really like Neil Gaiman’s concepts for his books. He obviously loves mythology about as much as I do, he seems fascinated with storytelling, and he had no problem mixing the surreal and the humorous together with fantasy and horror. All in all it should be the perfect mix. However all three of his previous novels, “Stardust”, “Neverwhere” and “American Gods” never quite clicked for me. In all three cases it was because of the protagonist. I never connected with the main character and instead kept wanting the book to be about the supporting cast (who were all amazingly colorful.

Well Gaiman bucked his trend in “Anansi Boys”. Not only does he create a leading character that pulled me in, but the entire story was a blast to read. Our hero is a typical sad sack character with the unfortunate name of Fat Charlie. The story starts with an explanation of why Fat Charlie is called Fat Charlie, even though he’s not fat.

The story goes like this, Fat Charlie was given the nickname by his father. We’re told that once his father gives anything a nick name – it sticks forever. So even though Charlie was a little pudgy kid that grew out of his husky state; he remained Fat Charlie to everyone he knew. This little story nugget establishes several key points right off the bat.

First off Fat Charlie didn’t get to pick his name, it was forced upon him. And pretty quickly we see that Fat Charlie has a lot of things in life forced on him. Sometimes he minds, sometimes he doesn’t, but there is nothing he can do about it. Life does things to Charlie and he reacts. And since life seems obsessed with giving him crap, Charlie’s always seems down on his luck or just surviving his existence.

Second we learn that Fat Charlie’s dad has no problem calling his son “fat”, and making sure that everyone else calls him “fat”. Right there you learn enough about the father to understand why Fat Charlie doesn’t like the man. But there is more to the story and it becomes apparent that Fat Charlie’s going to have to come to grips with his father.

The story continues along its merry way, introducing a mysterious sibling, a bit of magic involving spiders, and an ordinary lime that just might save the day. Because we like Charlie and feel bad for the guy (nothing seems to go his way no matter what he tries), the story carries you along, just waiting to see if Charlie is going to manage on the up side of things. Gaiman does a good job with the character and developing him over the course of the novel. Fat Charlie is not the same man at the end of the book, but after all his adventures – I’d be a little different too.

If asked what kind of book this was, I’d find it hard to place. It’s almost like a fantasy tale told in modern times. There is magic, there are gods meddling in human affairs, there’s lost siblings, lost loves and murderous corporate a-holes. You get a little bit of everything. But the book is always entertaining and has quite a few laughs in it. I especially liked the bit about the lime. I’ll never look at that little green citrus the same way again.

So all in all, “Anansi Boys” was a great read and one I’d definitely recommend. It’s my favorite of Gaiman’s novels, and a good place to start if you haven’t read any of his short fiction (which I also recommend). It’s good to see him finally create a protagonist I could connect with and one that I wanted to follow on his journey. Gaiman has never lacked for imagination and skill with creating worlds and supporting characters. This time the whole package is very satisfying.

Have you read “Anansi Boys”? What did you think of it? What did you think of Gaiman’s other work? Do you have a favorite “down on their luck” protagonist?

Monday, September 21, 2009

You can’t go home again – X-files: I Want to Believe

I have an odd relationship with the X-files. When it first started out on TV I resisted it’s siren song. A co-worker was a huge fan and she kept trying to get me to watch it, but the commercials I saw just didn’t pull me in. My wife (girlfriend at the time) watched it infrequently and enjoyed what she saw, but I still didn’t care to see it.

I actually saw about half of one episode, (early season 3 episode with a young man who can control electricity). Coming in halfway and not getting set up, the whole thing seemed silly. I wrote off the show. And then a about halfway into the same season I caught the episode “Pusher”. The story was simple, a man has the power to persuade others just about anything he wants to. It’s not mind control per se, but it was a tool he could use very effectively – even convincing someone to take their own life. He ends up facing down Mulder and the episode was very effective. It was tense, the acting was good and the script was solid. I was hooked and continued to watch the series and pick up the VHS episodes.

I watched up until the movie, “Fight the Future” came out. I was seriously pumped for the film and found it disappointing. I picked up the show when it came back the next season, but missed a few key episodes. When I was able to watch again, I was lost in regards to the overarching story. I stopped watching and never really got back into it.

Eventually I revisited the series on DVD and found it just as entertaining as I remember, but with some elements that were so 90’s it hurt. Most of it had to do with the general feeling of paranoia and grimness that seemed to permeate the episodes (helped in great measure by the Vancouver locations). While the 80’s always seemed to be colorful and loud, the 90’s were dark, dirty and aggressive. Something the “X-files” seemed very much in tune with. Seen out of that light, it comes across a bit trendy at times. The core stories and acting are still very good, but some of the trappings are less appealing.

So I was surprised that the long rumored second X-files film was green lighted. In most cases nostalgia takes about 20 years to kick in completely. This means that X-files still had a few years to go before it could really jump on that bandwagon. The problem is that the stars and crew aren’t getting any younger and I suppose the idea was to strike while everyone was still willing and around to do it (and not make it look too silly with senior citizens chasing down UFOs).

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a bad idea. The first X-files movie, while entertaining and part of the over-arching story never really captured my imagination (even on repeat viewings) as a solid film. It still felt like a television episode blown up for the big screen, but not quite measuring up. Star Trek had similar issues with it’s Next Generation films, especially “Generations” and “Insurrection”. The extra something needed to make them feel big screen worthy is missing.

I was afraid a second X-files film would fall into the same trap. And in a way it did. I know everyone was hoping for a success and possibly a string of movies with this being the genesis, but it ended up being something that disappointed the hardcore fans and didn’t generate enough interest for new comers. The plot does not revolve around some of the more sci-fi or monster elements. Instead it seems to be a simple serial killer investigation. Supernatural elements appear, but they don’t’ drive the case the way they would in the television series. It’s an interesting new direction, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like the X-files.

It’s been a few weeks since I saw the movie and I’ve had some time to think about it. What I think we ended up with was an epilogue of sorts. It was a summation of two people’s lives (and the acting is still solid with plenty of good moments for Mulder and Scully). They seem different from how I remember them (but I never saw the last few seasons), but it seems fitting in a way. They’ve evolved just as I have and this case brings up some pain for both of them. In a way it was interesting to see that dynamic work.

As I mentioned in my blog about the first season of the show, one of the reasons it works so well is that the characters of Mulder and Scully are well thought out and well matched. They create their own tension and support and to see it at work in a new story was the highlight of the film. But in the end I couldn’t help but feel that it was a bit hollow and a too late (or too early) to really capture what it needed to. There is a sadness to the film, but I think it also reflects on how I felt when it was over. Sometimes, you just can’t go back.

What did you think of the new X-files film? What did you think of the first film? Have you had the experience of a revisit to something you enjoyed in the past and were disappointed?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Story Evolution – Makers of Rome

I had a history teacher in college say something to the effect of, “Plutarch wrote a series of histories about famous Romans and Greeks. These are called ‘Plutarch’s Lives’. It might be better to call them ‘Plutarch’s Lies’.” It got a nerdy chuckle from most of us, and I never really delved into Plutarch after that.

After my adventures with Herodotus last year, I decided some more ancient histories could make a good read. I ran into Plutarch’s name quite a bit, and since I had recently finished watching the HBO series “Rome” it seemed like reading some of Plutarch’s Roman lives would fit the bill.

I settled on the penguin classics version called “Makers of Rome”. This covers nine lives spanning from the legendary (and possibly mythical) general Coriolanus up to Mark Antony, the infamous lover of Queen Cleopatra. I also got to read about Fabius Maximus, Marcellus, Cato the Elder, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaiu Gracchus, Sertorius, and Brutus. For those of you who could care less about all these guys with “us” at the end of there names – hold on, there is a point.

First thing, the introduction pointed out that Shakespeare used Plutarch’s lives to create three plays: The Tragedy of Coriolanus, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. Now I’d never heard of a play about Coriolanus, but like most people I had to read Julius Caesar back in high school. I remembered that the play was more about Brutus than Caesar, and reading the Life of Brutus makes it all fall into place.

The really interesting part comes with Mark Antony. The Penguin edition includes an Appendix all about this particular life. It not only points out all the changes that Plutarch made to the history, but also pointed out the changes that Shakespeare made on top of that.

Now, I should clear something up here. Plutarch never set out to write history. His goal in writing these lives was to create a biography of these famous people to prove a point. Most of the time these were ethical ideals that the famous figure would be measured against – sometimes acting as an ideal example, other times failing to make the grade. In either case, Plutarch would sometimes warp history to fit the needs of his biography. So really Plutarch should read, “Based on a true story.”

Shakespeare makes some dramatic changes as well. Most of this has to do with shortening the time in which the story takes place, but there are other historical differences. However, since he is basing his play on Plutarch’s version of events, his version of Antony comes across a bit different from the historical version of the man.

And this was the version of Mark Antony that appeared in HBO’s “Rome”. It was interesting to see how long the image of an impulsive and completely manipulated Antony has prevailed. Even Cleopatra fares on the poor side of things. She is usually shown as a woman who is driven by her base desires and impulses. These end up causing her and Antony misfortune. But modern historians find that Cleopatra was far from the impulsive woman she is usually portrayed as.

This all tells me that writers have been messing with history since the time of Plutarch (and even before if you take a look at Herodotus). It also tells me that the evolution of a story can take many forms, twisting and turning through time. Each new author adding their new take on the old tale. Does that make all us storyteller liars?

It reminds me of a Mystery Science Theater episode called, “I Accuse My Parents”. The movie revolves around a young man who lies about his parents to his friends and classmates. His parents are drunk good for nothings, but according to Jimmy, they are wonderful caregivers. Jimmy’s lies pile up and up and up. At one point in the movie one of the robots quips, “He’s a gifted storyteller”. And that actually got me thinking. Are all storytellers liars?

Have you read Plutarch? What did you think of his work? How about Shakespeare’s take on historical events? If you are a writer or storyteller, do you consider yourself a liar?