Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Best Gimmick/Symbol In A Book.

Beginning in about 9th grade, I learned to question the world, and in particular, to question pretty much anyone in any position of authority ever told me, ever. This was not some kind of cool "question authority" type of stance on my part; I am about as far from James Dean or any other kind of rebel you might ever find. It was something more primal, something deep inside me that makes me, when someone says right, say left.

One of the main things I questioned, back in those days of yore, was whether writers and poets had actually intended all these hidden meanings and symbols that my English teachers were telling me were in there. We'd read, say, an e e cummings poem, and they'd go ahead and say something like "The tire in that poem stood for death."

I never really got that. Nor do I know how they got it. Who decided that? Did Edgar Allen Poe leave an author's note in which he said "The House of Usher is symbolic of the banking system in the late 19th century; Roderick's beloved sister is the gold standard. Please let out the cat, Thanks." I don't think so. Maybe it was in the teacher's edition.

My stance on this is well-known, and that stance is: whatever the artist thinks the art is saying is interpreted through the eyes of the art-ee, so it's not that big of a deal. (I could call this the My Aunt's Dog Theorem.) What the My Aunt's Dog Theorem tells us, as consumers of art, is this: we interpret art in light of our own experiences, so symbols are likely to be mis-read.

Deep down inside, everyone, even my old English teachers, knows I'm right. The interpretation of a work of art depends on the circumstances of the person who created it and the person who is perusing it, and unless those two people are in similar (if not identical) situations, it's likely the symbolism is lost on the reader. So it's very difficult for me to get the same thing out of a Bukowski poem as Bukowski wanted me to get, and it's very difficult for me to get the same thing out of a Bukowski poem as Modest Mouse gets.

That is, though, a pretty good song to work out to, and also it is the reason why I know who Bukowski is in the first place; after listening to the song for nearly a year, I finally decided to find out who the heck Bukowski was, and then I liked his poems.

I have some experience in this area-- symbolism, not liking Bukowski's poems-- being someone who writes and all and having once won an award for poetry. In particular, I have some experience with people completely missing the symbolism that I tried to insert into a short story I wrote. The story is called Astrid Forever, and you can see it every now and then on my horror website. In the story, a guy is visited by his dead wife for a couple of days. Periodically, throughout the story, the color and scent of oranges is referred to; the point of that is that Astrid loved oranges (and plants are somewhat important to the story) and when the color orange is seen or oranges are smelled, it means that Astrid is around.

So when that story was first read by someone, the comment was "The orange thing seems kind of random." I probably should have simply said the oranges were symbolic of the national banking system.

I continue to use symbolism, as do other writers, and symbolism continues to be missed and/or mistaken for a gimmick... unless it's done really well and actually makes what I assume to be the point it was supposed to make, unless it's done so well that you don't even realize that you're being hit with symbolism until probably 1/3 of the way through the book, even though the author tells you what he's doing.

That kind of genius symbolism is best displayed by Cory Doctorow, whose book Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town contains The Best Gimmick/Symbol In A Book.

Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town follows the story of a guy who has just retired from running a variety of stores to write a story; however, before he can really begin writing his story he gets involved in (a) defending himself and some of his brothers from attacks by the brother they killed years before and (b) helping set up a citywide wireless network and (c) the affairs of his neighbors, one of whom [SPOILER ALERT ABOUT MUTANTS] has wings.

The main character's father is a mountain; his mother is a washing machine. One of his brothers can see the future; another is dead, a third is an island and three are Russian nesting dolls.

For all that, the story is actually not weird at all. For all the fantastic elements in it, for everything that Doctorow throws into it seemingly at... ahem ... random, it's one of the most believable, straightforward stories I've ever read. It's like all the weirdness cancels itself out, leaving just a great story.

Here's what Cory Doctorow does that's actually genius, though: The point of the story, or at least one of the points of the story, or at least what I think one of the points of the story might be (see My Aunt's Dog Theorem, above) is this: Our identities are slippery; we are different people at different times and who we are depends on where we come from, who we are with, and what we are doing.

That's one of the messages I took from the story, and I took it in part from this gimmick/symbol: The main character, who generally goes by "Alan," answers to any name that starts with A, and sometimes calls himself by other names, so long as they all start with A. His brothers, in order, have names starting with B, C, D, E, F, and G, and their names constantly change; only the first letter remains the same. So "Alan" goes also by "Adam" and "Al" and "Albert" and any other name that starts with A; other characters call him what they feel like, but it always starts with "A." The dead brother, "Davey," goes by "Danny" and "Delbert," or what-have-you.

Alan even tells the reader that's what's going on; early on, he says he's not real stuck on names and answers to anything.

All the other characters except the brothers have names that always remain the same; only the brothers, who all are 'sons of the mountain' have shifting names. The brothers are trying to figure out where they fit in the world, who they are.

It's all done so subtly that I didn't even realize it, like I said, until about 1/3 way through the book, when it suddenly struck me. Then I realized it and watched for it, trying to figure out if one name got used more than others (maybe, maybe not, I decided) and then marveling that it wasn't confusing, not in the slightest. I had no problem following the story or the characters, even though the main characters' names kept changing.)

There are a lot of reasons why it should not surprise me that I was able to follow the story, beginning with the fact that identities in real life and art are already slippery and yet I have no trouble following them. I have lots of names. I'm "Dad" and I go by my name and my title and by the nicknames Sweetie has for me. I have several zillion nicknames for the kids, and everyone in the house can follow them. There are dozens of people I interact with on a periodic basis whose names I am unsure of (including, embarrasingly, one who just quit our firm. The office manager announced that we were having a going away party for her -- I'll call her "Jennifer," and I didn't know who Jennifer was; when I guessed, I got it wrong) but with whom I can work.

Secondly, the human brain is good at making order out of nonsense. We do it everyday in our lives, assembling all the random bits of information that flow into our eyes and ears and nose and mouth into a coherent whole, and we can do it quite well, apparently, without any regard to logic or rules. I know that because I'm familiar with the brain-scramble puzzle, which proves that most rules of spelling and grammar are not necessary for something to make sense; they make it easier, but they're not necessary (like lawyers! ba-dum bump!)

Take a look at this, which I got from that link:

'Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.

You could read it, right? So could I -- so your brain just went ahead, without any of the usual rules, and made sense of it.

That's what symbolism and themes and all the meanings that we ascribe to works of art are, in the end -- our brains imposing logic and order and meaning on something that otherwise might seem to be random or scrambled or weird. We have a drive to find meaning in everything: in song lyrics, in paintings, in cloud formations, in fist-bumps. The meaning we ascribe to those things will almost always vary depending on our background and mood and the specifics that make each of us, each of us.

But some things, too, are universal; some meanings are there waiting to be plucked like low-hanging fruit, and like all things that seem obvious after the fact, it takes genius to point them out. The idea that our identities are simply the result of our circumstances, that we are the sum of all the things we've done and all the people we know, is one of those universal truths, but one that is scrambled and hidden and unintelligible until someone like Cory Doctorow points it out through the use of The Best Gimmick/Symbol In A Book.

Or, who knows? Maybe he was just having fun.

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