Wednesday, January 02, 2008


I’m back at work today after an extended holiday. Vacations are for rejuvenation and mine did a good deal of that for me. There was probably less than the usual bit of sports viewing – a trip to St. Louis for the Bragging Rights (not so) Classic where each year the Illini Men’s Basketball team plays Mizzou (both teams played hard but not very well and we eked out a victory), the painful to watch Rose Bowl where USC pummeled us and I didn’t last till the end of the first half, and in between a compelling if meaningless game between the Giants and Patriots where I had predicted the upset that almost was and that did keep me in my seat till the conclusion. Other than that I mostly avoided sports viewing and though I did idle away a fair amount of time I spent a good chunk of each day in more sustaining diversions.

It’s easier for me to make resolutions before a holiday than for the new year; there can be more intention on how to spend leisure time while the nagging demands of work oftentimes present themselves as immediacies and hence at odds with free will. I wanted to spend some substantial time each day reading good fiction. The act of reading is itself restorative, especially insofar as one can become immersed in the story. I noticed that I’m less able to achieve that now, a complete loss of self, than I was in College when each summer I had made a like commitment to read some great work. Habits formed from reading at a computer, where one interrupts quite regularly to do a Google search to follow a tangent thought, check on an email whose alert has plopped onto the screen, or make some notation of an idea that came to mind all mean that reading has become much more of a back and forth thing where the reading competes for attention with other demands. Now, even when sitting away from the computer in a comfortable chair and with a very good book, it takes substantial discipline to stick with the reading and not jump to do something else. Eventually, fascination with the narrative takes over. I’m very glad that is still possible. But it used to be so much easier. I had asked my wife to get me a Kindle for a Christmas present. (It is back ordered.) Now I’m beginning to wonder whether an eBook can produce the same effect.

The novel I chose was the Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my mom had wanted me to read this when I was in my late teens, but I never did, so this was the delayed fulfilling of that request. Sometimes, it is good to live under the imposition of such obligations. Though it was written more than seventy years ago and the subject matter is horrifying (the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915) I thought the book a masterpiece. This William Saroyan quote about the book is particularly apt.

"In number of words and pages this is a long novel, but in swiftness of movement it is all too short. Reading it, one hopes it might never end, and actually it does not end. Its implications cling to the heart and mind of the reader as some long forgotten and suddenly remembered experience in the story of all who once lived on the earth and somehow live yet. The novel is written with the ease which gives writing and life inevitability. Here, at last, is a contemporary novel full of the breath, the flesh and blood and bone and spirit, of life."

And while the book was quite popular at the time of publication, it seems not to have found a place in the readings lists of great fiction that are de rigueur for serious young adults. (I did a Google search on *great books of the 20th century*. While there was substantial variation from one list to another, Werfel’s book didn’t appear on any of them.) Yet there is much to learn from it, and though it is about the Armenians in Turkey in 1915, there are very strong parallels to the current situation in Iraq; how we think of Middle East more broadly; indeed on the issues of tribal, racial, and religious conflict wherever they may manifest. There is also much about the nobility of human character, as captured in the behavior of the protagonist Gabriel Bragadian, as well as on the fanciful and quite possibly very damaging behavior that emerges from normal human reactions when confronted with tensions and pressures, as captured in the behavior of all other characters in the story, Bragadian himself as well. Though the book is a translation and, of course, there must be something lost in the process, it is also an exemplar on how to tell a story well. There is comparatively little dialog. Instead, most of it is narrative qua analysis done in the third person. It is a style I could aspire to in my own writing, giving me some hope that I could do fiction.

The Saroyan quote notwithstanding (and note it was written soon after the book was published, 1934 or 1935, where the sense of timing was different than today, not that there wasn’t quick and snappy dialog such as in the Thin Man, but themes were fleshed out more fully before moving on to the next subject) I would characterize the pace in the Forty Days of Musa Dagh as leisurely. The sense of time flows slowly. The motivation of the character stays consistent based on a long prior pattern of prior circumstance. Themes and characters are revisited creating a cascade of intensity and interest. And while those characters despair, the reader luxuriates in their story, almost certainly because of this engrossing yet slow flow. It is an effect I’d like to strive for in my own writing.

I want to switch gears and talk about my other resolution for over the holiday – to do about an hour of exercise each day, come hell or high water. This time of year, especially because the weather is nasty outside, I’ve become a stationary bike guy. It’s good for me and low impact on the joints. But it is mind numbingly dull. So I give myself *candy* in the form of a TV program I can watch and distract me from the tedium. The West Wing worked wonders in this regard but I became saturated with that so I looked for some other series on that might do the trick. Unfortunately, it appears that LA Law is not available in DVD. I was an addict for that show and it’s been such a long time ago now that watching it again would seem like a fresh experience. I had to try something else. The Sopranos are in rerun now, but for some reason that show didn’t appeal to me. I opted for 24 where each episode within a season represents a different hour in the same day. I really just took a flier based on liking Kiefer Sutherland (the lead) in some of the films I’ve seen him in recently. I’m able to last through two episodes in one sitting and after cheating (one afternoon/evening I watched 4 episodes without being on the bike) I finished up the first season on Sunday.

Information technology plays a very big role in 24. The characters are always on their cell phones and that is the primary way that new is conveyed. There are surveillance cameras seemingly everywhere, controllable by the bad guys in ways that are very frightening (both to the good guy characters and to us viewers in the potential that this implies). How the bad guys get control of the surveillance cameras is explained in some parts because they have a mole on the inside working for them, but in other parts just seems to happen to make the story even more frightening. The mole (or possibly multiple moles) creates another twist to the story; nobody can be trusted. That creates more paranoia. Further there is strong reliance on computers to cross check databases of information and to decode encrypted content. The reliance on information technology is crucial for the next point.

The pace of 24 is frenetic, even manic. For the first few episodes it’s all you can do just to get your bearings. Things happen so fast with no apparent rhyme or reason. That is revealed later. There is horror in this story right from the outset but beyond horror there is a strong feeling of disorientation because it’s just not clear what is going on. Then, as one begins to understand what is going on, something else starts to become clear. None of the characters get any sleep. It’s an all nighter (followed by an all dayer) since the first episode is at 12 AM, which really means these folks should be going to bed when in fact they are just getting started. Much of the fast pace and horror happens while the characters are physically exhausted. This increases their stress. A good deal of the heroism in the Kiefer Sutherland’s character comes from being able to perform at a high level in spite of these circumstances.

About three quarters of the way through watching these episodes (once one starts on the first few they are highly addicting which is why I cheated) it occurred to me that the success of the show comes in part because in some way the characters share the same sort of experience as the viewers – a feeling of being overwhelmed by the circumstance, too much different type of information coming at you too quickly with no way to figure out the big picture, and technology the source of it all. The rest of us aren’t about to be assassinated or have family members kidnapped, true enough. But the other parts of the experience are the same. The always on, being connected, letting the cell phone determine the agenda; that’s a normal experience nowadays. The show captures that very well.

But the narrative itself, once it unfurls, is ordinary, even trite. Today in preparing to write this post I found this book review of some Werfel biographies from 1990. It described Werfel as loving to go to performance, whether play or opera, but despairing about midway through because by that point the only thing to look forward to was the end. I had that sort of feeling watching the last few episodes of the first seasons. They were entirely anticlimax. I will likely buy the next couple of seasons (or get them as a birthday present soon) but that is because of the stationary bike. As mind candy it works for me. As more serious entertainment it doesn’t.

For the more serious entertainment, I believe the pace has to be leisurely. How else can depth of thought be brought in? But how do kids nowadays develop a taste for that? Isn’t the conditioned response to information overload to demand more of the same? We need something to cut the vicious cycle. My suggestion is to have them read the Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

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