Archive for April, 2012
I know it’s cliche to think things like, “Can you believe people still love the Odyssey after 2700 years,” it’s a bit like becoming enraptured with your hand when you’re stoned. Nevertheless, it is marvelous to contemplate the structure and evolution of the human hand after smoking pot (I have heard), and it is remarkable that the Odyssey remains a great read in 2012.
That awe leads many writers to want to borrow prestige from timeless works—itself a time-honored tradition upheld by James Joyce and the Coen brothers, among many others. Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto join the tradition with The Infinite Horizon, a graphic Odyssey set in a near-future dystopia where undefined wars have left the world in anarchy. Our Odysseus (unnamed) starts his journey home from Syria, where the U.S. is pulling out of its final war; his Penelope, actually named Penelope, is home with their son “Terry” in upstate New York, trying to hold their farm against waves of refugees from the city. (Oddly they’re in the Catskills and not Ithaca. Maybe Ithaca would have been too on the nose.) Odysseus slowly makes his way home, fighting past a pirate attack, the Cyclops, the Lotus Eaters, the Sirens, and I think Scylla and Charybdis.
All of this is good adventure sci-fi, and the art is several notches above average. It’s also fun to play the game of identifying which episode of the Odyssey we’re on now.
But there’s a cost to borrowing prestige from a classic like the Odyssey: it raises the reader’s expectations. When you borrow perhaps the greatest adventure story in world literature, readers will expect a great adventure as a matter of course—plus something more. After all, I could always read the Odyssey; I need an additional reason to read this new version of it. What does this version tell me about my world that the original doesn’t? Or, another option: what does this version tell me about the Odyssey that I might otherwise miss?
In other words, why are you retelling the Odyssey?
Actually, that’s a question you could ask of any work that draws on or refers to sources it wants the reader or viewer to recognize. For example, O Brother, Where Art Thou? answers well and A Serious Man doesn’t, and that accounts for about 80 percent of why the former is a better movie.
As good as The Infinite Horizon is at spinning a yarn, its answer is essentially nonexistent. As a result it’s emptier at the end than I wanted as I was reading it. That’s too bad, because the idea of using the Odyssey as a template to write about a returning American soldier is a timely one, given the struggles of our real-life returning soldiers, and I would have liked to see something more meaningful done with it.
I’ve got a new story linked on the story page, a form for you to fill out. Don’t skip any questions or your application will be discarded.
It occurs to me that not everyone follows me on Facebook or Twitter, so I should mention this here too: a couple weeks back Richard Fulco asked me to write something for his blog about music in Soap and Water, so I did, and here it is. It was fun to write and is about how Merle Haggard is a big, awesome asshole.
I know I regularly inveigh against the proliferation of memoirs, but I’m going to praise a memoir today. In fact, I’m even going to say I hope budding memoirists follow Derf Backderf’s example. If we must have all these memoirs, we might as well have ones that know their place.
In My Friend Dahmer Backderf keeps himself squarely in the background. He’s telling the story of his high-school years, yes, but he knows that the only reason readers might care about those years is that he went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer. He keeps his focus on Dahmer, therefore, even following him into solo scenes, reconstructing his habits and home life from later interviews Dahmer gave. He himself—Backderf—only appears when his life intersects Dahmer’s.
This may seem like a simple thing, but imagine how easy it would have been for a memoirist to do it the other way around, to stick to his own perspective and only describe the moments of Dahmer’s life that touched on his. Not just easy, common. I’d wager that 90 percent of memoirists would have gone that way, and their decision might be defended as a form of journalistic integrity, but really it would come across as narcissism and a lack of imagination. What Backderf has done instead is much more respectful of the reader, and much more compelling.
Partly that’s because even in high school, Jeffrey Dahmer was fascinatingly fucked up. His parents were in the midst of a bitter divorce, his mother suffered from some kind of paranoid delusional thing and was heavily medicated, and he’d already started the serial killer pattern of hacking up roadkill to see what was inside. In school he mimicked the tics and slurred speech of a person with cerebral palsy, and his weird behavior made him a sort of mascot for Backderf and his friends. To keep a lid on his necrophiliac urges he kept himself permanently drunk, including at school, and Backderf asks how all the adults in his life could have ignored his obviously nutty behavior and failed to get him psychiatric attention.
I think that’s probably an unfair question. I’m perfectly willing to let Backderf and his friends off the hook when he points out that:
You never ‘narced’ on a classmate. It simply wasn’t done. Besides, my friends and I, we were just clueless small-town kids wrapped up in our own lives.
I think he should let the adults off the hook a bit too. They should have noticed and tried to do something about Dahmer’s alcoholism, sure, but I can’t believe that getting him attention for that would have been very likely to uncover his deeper problems. Maybe it would have. In any case, Backderf certainly makes it easy to understand how people can ignore and rationalize weird behavior—and frankly much of the time, the 90 percent of the time you’re not dealing with someone dangerous, that might be the right way to react.
But in asking “Where were the adults?” Backderf is at least following through on the best thing about My Friend Dahmer: he treats Jeffrey Dahmer as a human being. Which doesn’t mean he excuses him, of course. Treating him like a human being means treating him as a being at least theoretically capable of moral judgment. He writes in the preface:
This is a tragic tale… It’s my belief that Dahmer didn’t have to wind up a monster, that all those people didn’t have to die horribly, if only the adults in his life hadn’t been so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent. Once Dahmer kills however … my sympathy for him ends. He could have turned himself in after that first murder. He could have put a gun to his head. Instead he, and he alone, chose to become a serial killer and spread misery to countless people.
Up to that moment when Dahmer kills, Backderf tries to understand him. He shows Dahmer struggling with desires he doesn’t want to have, and slowly losing the struggle. I’m not sure there’s a deeper lesson to that. It’s probably just rubbernecking. But Backderf gives us a hell of a car crash to stare at.