The Ring Thing [The Fortress of Solitude]

The Fortress of Solitude is a coming of age in the city novel that captures the emotion of childhood’s isolation and desire for belonging in a uniquely powerful way. Its uniqueness is its strength. The coming of age novel is not new, often trite and draped in clichés, written by authors who are more interested in plot than understanding and empathy. For The Fortress of Solitude, this is not the case.

The setting for Dylan Ebdus’ childhood is Brooklyn in the 70s. And every sentence used to portray it feels as draped in graffiti as the brick walls that comprise the city. The language and descriptions are surprising and delightful, making no sense at all (“Eighth grade’s a distant rumor, a tabled issue, and Dylan knows from experience that the summer between might change anything, everything”), until they make perfect sense. Then the understanding of a world you may or may not know anything about grows stronger, and your empathy for Dylan, trying to find his place, begins to bloom (“But the stories you told yourself– which you pretended to recall as if they’d happened every afternoon of an infinite summer– were really a pocketful of days distorted into legend, another jailhouse exaggeration, like the dimensions of those ballpoint-crosshatched tits or of the purported mountains of blow you once used to enjoy, or how you’d bellowed an avenger’s roar when you squeezed the trigger of a pistol you’d actually brandished in self-pissing terror. How often had that hydrant even been opened? Did you jet water through a car window, what, twice at best? Summer burned a few afternoons long, in the end”). I enjoyed these sentences as much as I enjoyed the novel, amazed at where they ended considering where they began (“The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time *isn’t*”), and in awe of the strange comparisons that shouldn’t work but do (“The cars rushing below knew nothing. People in cars weren’t New Yorkers anyway, they’d suffered some basic misunderstanding. The two boys on the walkway, apparently standing still they were moving faster than the cars.” And “Winter days were static glimpsed between channel flips.”). They created an air of unreality to the story of Dylan’s childhood that connected with my relationship to my childhood which seems completely unreal to me but one hundred percent true. An emotional stamp on my brain rather than a movie to be rewatched at my leisure. And as I journeyed through Lethem’s book those emotional stamps were pressed and triggered, and I recalled my own experiences that were fashioned after Dylan’s.

That unreality plays out further in the plot devices. Specifically, a magical ring that can make its wearer fly or later, turn invisible. Lethem is able to bring Brooklyn to a vibrant reality rooted in conjured images, so when a drug addicted superhero falls from the sky and bestows his power-imbuing ring on Dylan, it feels out of place. Yet the weight of significance of the ring as it weaves in and out of the conscious narrative is undeniable. This disparity between significance and clarity is off-putting, and probably at the core of why The Guardian called it “a ruinously unconvincing subplot.”  But I am a sucker for magical realism, and I connected with superheroes as a child in a similar but less devastatingly needy way as Dylan and Mingus and Arthur. I felt clarity in my understanding of believing you could transcend the world you lived in, the lifeline that superheroes provide for children.

The ring thing was admittedly strange and felt underdeveloped. Like an idea for a book that never panned out, the vestiges still clinging to the plot’s skeleton like a malnourished subplot. But maybe necessarily so. Dylan’s discovery of the ring and subsequent sharing of that secret with Mingus bound them together in a shared experience inside of their shared experience. It was the physical manifestation of their friendship. It gave them a shared responsibility to each other that both of them felt as they wandered the streets in an ill-fitting super-suit looking for crime, but only actually stopping themselves from getting yoked. At the end of the day, they never quite understood that it was themselves they were trying to save. The ring was the physical secret that bound them to each other. They used each other to discover their hormonal young bodies and as an outlet for their insecurities and fears. And it was the physical representation of the link that brought them together again after years and the color of their skin sent them tail spinning into vastly different lives as adults.

All of the unspoken elements of a child’s ascent to adulthood were imbued into that magical ring, and so it remained an ever-present part of the background. A plot device used to flesh-out the unstated and subconscious narratives of our lives. Instead of seeing Mingus strive to defend his street from dealers and gangsters-which we discover he did towards the end of the novel-we see him arrested for breaking up a drug deal, dressed as Aeroman. We are able to see Dylan try to make things right for Mingus by giving him the ring. We follow Dylan’s dance of dependence and belonging as the ring shifts owners and usage over time. We get to glimpse, early in the book, the fate they are trying to transcend, as Aaron X. Doily crashes to earth, disgusting and near death, and passes the ring to Dylan, hoping he might fare better. It became the shorthand for all the complexities that go along with the fantastic writing and character work in this book. 

I found myself questioning whether the ring’s power was real or perceived. There was no indication for most of the book that anyone other than Mingus and Dylan-children given to fanciful thoughts, and who wanted to believe in its power-witnessed the ring work. In fact, every indication was that it did not work, its power was present only in their solitude. Dylan was only able to use the ring when no one was watching, which is why he gave it to Mingus, who used it to bust drug deals-an act Mingus was capable of without flight. And no tale was told of him using the ring to do so, until he was arrested as Aeroman, where it was reported that he jumped from a tree rather than flew (who was right?). Before that he had tried to use it to save Dylan from a yoking but ended up merely jumping into the river and floating away, unable to fight the current in his cape and ill-fitting suit. Even Dylan’s invisibility was aided by distractions (knocked over ice buckets and skewed papers) until he snuck into jail to free Mingus. A scene that seemed to show the ring’s undeniable power. But the story had already been told, and I had gone through the book questioning the ring’s power. But it didn’t matter. Whether the ring made Dylan and Mingus capable of flight was inconsequential. The ring had made Dylan and Mingus believe they were capable of flight. It made Dylan confident enough to leap and catch previously unobtainable spaldeens, and I envied them for it. 

So the ring is strange. More than a little. But so is growing up. It’s an act of facing and overcoming the strange. And Dylan has a lot of strangeness to sift through as he finds his place as a white kid in Brooklyn in the 70s. The ring thing is just one way he, and we, can try to make sense of it all.

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Reticence and Memory, a Beautiful Duo [Kazuo Ishiguro]
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Reticence and Memory, a Beautiful Duo [Kazuo Ishiguro]

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. On that date, I put him on my to-read list, and since that date I have read every one of his novels. I couldn’t stop. I found the author that wrote the way I wanted to read. At first, I sat back and enjoyed it, getting excited about my next Ishiguro book, intermittently breaking up the normalcy of other books with one I knew would be special. 

I recently finished, A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro’s first and my last of his novels, and ending with his first book made me realize how present his ideas and style are in all his novels. Ishiguro, admittedly, is fascinated by a person’s or people’s relationship to their memory of the past, not the past itself, but how we relate to it through our memories, and how often our memories fail us. In an interview with Malcolm Bradbury, his creative writing teacher that spurred this incredible career into action, Ishiguro mentioned this fascination and how, “Sometimes we look at our memories and they don’t line up neatly. They don’t help us.” This becomes the crux of his novels (most of them), a narrator looking back at a significant moment in their past, trying to understand it through their recollections of it (and when this is not the case, as in A Buried Giant, memory is still an all-important plot device). 

The problem, though, is that our memories of our past do fail us, especially when we don’t want to admit to ourselves the truths they reveal. And the narrators in Ishiguro’s books definitely don’t want to come to grips with the truths their pasts reveal. In the same interview with Bradbury, which was done after the release of A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro mentions that he likes to write about, “How to evaluate your life in total social change.” In A Pale View of Hills,that is life in Nagasaki in the wake of the bomb, in An Artist of the Floating World, that was social life in the wake of the war, in Never Let Me Go, that was people reflecting on life as they come face-to-face with a much-to-soon death, in The Remains of the Day, that was post-romantic England in the wake of the decline of the major houses, and on and on it goes. What is created with this blend of memory and social change is an unreliable narrator that eventually reveals more about themselves in what they are unwilling to see than in what they tell us. Thus, reading Kazuo Ishiguro is an effort of reading between the lines. The reader often sees more than the narrator ever could from our safe and objective vantage point with a book in front of our noses, and if someday, we were to put our own harrowing memories down on a page, the reverse would be true.

Ishiguro attributes this unique reading relationship between his readers and his novels to his origins as a songwriter. His songwriting is what gained him entry into his creative writing class, and therefore becomes the basis for how he writes his novels. In an interview for “What it Takes,” Ishiguro explains that “great songwriters leave something important for the singer to do,” emotion to portray, ad-libbing to be done, and consequently his writing tends towards the method of great songwriting by leaving important work for the reader to do every time they turn the page.

The most obvious means of accomplishing this is by what Ishiguro refers to as his “reticence” to portray emotion in his novels. This is different than writing emotionless books, in fact Ishiguro’s books might create more emotions in me than any other, but he never tells the reader the emotions that his characters are feeling. So often in reading we relate to characters by reaching into the page and empathizing with the emotions the characters are going through- as it is explained to us by the author- and thus growing in our capacity to understand and connect to people with a different experience than our own. But what happens when the story is told by a narrator who is trying to make sense of their memories during total social change? They are incapable of informing us of the emotions at play, they are tone-deaf to every line and scene, which become rich in texture, because in this information vacuum- one that is normally over-stuffed by other authors- we have room to authentically connect with his writing. We look at these memories through the eyes of a narrator who cannot comprehend them and understand the people in the stories through the flaws in the story telling, the misunderstood body language and dialogue, the consequential scene that makes no sense based on what was told to us had come before. The relationship with the writing becomes complex and intimate, mirroring the relationship the narrator has with their memories. 

In A Pale View of Hills, Etsuko, as she comes to grips with her daughter’s suicide, portrays this flawed relationship with memory as well as any of Ishiguro’s books. Scenes like her husband and his father passively-aggressively fighting over when to finish a chess game, her father-in-law confronting one of his son’s friends about an article which was critical of his past, her friend drowning her own daughter’s pet kittens in a river right in front of her, and others, all are rich in power and emotion, and yet Etsuko the narrator is incapable of articulating those feelings, and therefore the reader is left with important work to do. 

None of this work is as important as what is left to the reader’s interpretation after Etsuko’s final memory of Mariko before she moves to America. As Etsuko confronts Mariko, who had run away after the murdering of her kittens, she scolds her in a tone of voice much different than the placating one she had used with the child thus far. Then she switches to the pronoun ‘we’ as she refers to the upcoming journey to America. Then she brings out the rope (noose) that had made eerie appearances earlier in the book, and the narrator’s recollections of the past, carefully manicured for the ease and the comfort of the narrator has broken, and the truth of her past starts to break through like rays of light through cracks in the wall. 

At this moment, the novel makes a big shift. Leading up to that moment, the reader was left believing that this was a story of flawed interactions that portray how the narrator and her daughter got to their present state, and by that alone it was an engaging and interesting read. But after that moment the book shifts to something so much more. The narrator is more unreliable than we could have imagined, and everything up to that point is left open for interpretation. It was a turn that was mildly expected after having read all of his other novels, but I was able to imagine how even more shocking it would be as his first.

My initial reaction in the immediate words after Etsuko brought out that noose one more time was that she was the child murderer that had been a minor backdrop that brought tension to whenever Mariko ran away. But as so many of our initial reactions to reading are, this was too blunt a take for a delicate work. My secondary reaction, after I had finished the rest of the book, was that Etsuko was Sachiko and Mariko was Keiko, an easy one-for-one trade. It seems even a bit poetic, Etsuko as the narrator-character that watches from the doorways and corners of her memory, watching her life play out before her in a third person point of view as she retells it from the first-person narrative. But this also seemed a bit ham-fisted in comparison to the elegance of the writing. Plus, it wasn’t believable. This was a narrator that in the wake of her daughter’s death was hungry for answers. There is no way she would buy into such an elaborate lie as to convince herself that her past self was someone else. 

As I considered the book in the days that followed my reading, and as I listened to interviews with Ishiguro, I realized the answer was probably simpler than that. The answer is much more likely that we just don’t know what Etsuko’s past is and what is Sachiko’s. Etsuko can’t differentiate because her relationship to her past -marred by an atom bomb, fractured relationships, and total social change- is so muddy. What remains true is the emotions that remain, unnamed, on the page. The only things we can know for certain are the things unstated, because what is stated just won’t do. 

In many ways it is the most beautiful relationship Ishiguro is able to create between his reader and his work, most representative of all our relationships with our past, and therefore is such a wonderful starting point (or ending point for me) to view Ishiguro’s works about memory.

When asked if Ishiguro ever put himself into one of his novels, he said that he did not. That his novels were a way of asking if the reader experienced the things he experienced, if they felt the same things he felt. His books ask his reader the question, Is this true for you too? Do you see it this way? And a more beautiful question has never been asked.

Did you like this post? Click here for Did you blank it? home page.

If you liked this, you may also like:
Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
The Ring Thing [The Fortress of Solitude]
Empathy Through Reading: Recommendations During Racial Unrest
Quaid Reads [The Right Stuff]
If Rabbit Was Alive Today [The Rabbit Angstrom Series by John Updike]

Welcome to the Blog [Reservoir Dogs]

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The idea of a heist where no one knows each other is maybe the best representation of internet life in film. I was immediately drawn to the characters in Reservoir Dogs, who were all dressed the same and brought together for the same reason, and also veiled their identity with the same pseudonym, ‘Mr.’+‘color.’ The whole practice is so Tarantino-cool and added weight to a heist that had no background or build. An amazing storytelling tactic.

Yet, by the end of the movie, as we learn more about the characters and they reveal more about themselves to each other, this cool practice also becomes vaguely ridiculous because when the heist went to shit, none of that mattered anymore. In other words, when they needed their anonymity the most, the mode of providing that anonymity was destroyed. That’s what’s so tragic about Mr. White crying over the body of Mr. Orange. At the only point in time where it would have served him to not know the truth, he found out the truth, and the points where it would have benefited to know the person, he did not know enough. 

This all feels a bit too analogous to our own existence in both the concrete world and the abstract one we create on the internet. We join this heist together, all looking the same and here for the same reasons, hidden by pseudonyms and constructed personas, weighed down by an unjustified sense of importance, and yet too often those personas and identities and flattened images of ourselves leave us inappropriately ignorant, or gluttons of information we’d be better off not knowing.

The long and the short of it, the philosophical and the bare bones, is that the pseudonyms in Reservoir Dogs are awesome and they suck, they protect and they harm, they feel like the double-edged sword that is so often wielded when we venture into public discourse on the internet. 

As an ode to the two-sided nature of this world, I have adopted the pseudonym Mr. Blue on this site because I think its cool (and maybe for other reasons, but if I told you those that would be defeating the point now wouldn’t it?). As I do so, I imagine anyone who reads this will get to know me devoid of background or build, based solely on the identity constructed through my words and thoughts about the stuff I write about, which is also cool. And it could be a great representation of who I am, or this might be a poor representation of who I am, and you could end up cradling my bleeding body as you put a gun to my head to end my rat-bastard life (Too much? That was probably too much). 

The Reservoir Dogs got to shoot the shit at the diner without any preconceived notions, and Mr. Orange claiming tipping is ridiculous made him look like a complete asshole, and they all got to feel like they were in it together without any of the messiness that comes with relationships. But those relationships formed anyone despite their misguided attempts at isolation. I want my writing to be like that. 

Enjoy it if you like it and hate it if you hate it. Either way I hope we get a cool poster made of us strolling down the street, looking like badasses, that every kid in college puts on their dorm room wall. And now this analogy has officially gone too far.

Anyways, these are the conversations I want to have on this site. The stuff that transcends the ‘is it good or bad’ bickering of most internet conversations about media. I love talking about the things I blank, but I don’t love the internet’s discussion about those things. It too often gets all blanked up. 

I would like to have the strange and useless conversations we have in real life after blanking something. Where we sit on crappy couches with nothing to do, so we talk about the uselessness of the pseudonyms in Reservoir Dogs. Those are the moments that make blanking so much fun. If you also enjoy these types of conversations come back as much as you’d like. After all, now we are all in it together.

Did you like this post? Click here for Did you blank it? home page.

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Rulebook for ‘Boar on the Floor’ [Succession]

In the infamous Boar on the Floor scene in Succession. Greg gets frustrated because he gets told to sit on the floor after he thought he gave the right answer. “But those are the rules!” he claimed. To which Logan replied, “There are no rules.” But what if there were rules. As best as can be discerned, what follows is the Rulebook for ‘Boar on the Floor.”

Objective:

The object of the game is to find the Boar. The player declared as the Boar is the loser. Everyone else is declared not the loser.

Preparation:

Gather all of your closest colleagues and family that you suspect of secretly striving for ends contrary to your own. Provide them with a lot of liquor to slow their thought and lower their defenses. At the same time, prepare two sausages (or more) and keep them warmed and off to the side. Then lock the doors and refuse to let anyone leave. Have all players take a seat at the table while you stand over them menacingly.

How to Play

The Questioning:

Gameplay begins with a round of questioning. Choose a question that gets to the heart of the player’s supposed fealty to your cause (i.e. ‘Do you agree with ________?’ or ‘What do you think about ________?’). Once you have selected a question, choose any player at random and ask them the question. Ask as many people as it takes to come up with your desired number of Boars on the Floor (must be one more than the number of sausages prepared).

The Selecting:

After each player answers the question, the question-asker must decide if the answer was satisfactory or not. The criteria for judging the answers can be predetermined or made up on the fly. It is also encouraged that the criteria take into account how the question-asker feels about the player who answers in that given moment.  

If the question-asker determines the answer is satisfactory, they let the player be and ask the question to a new player. If they deem the answer unsatisfactory, they declare, “Boar on the Floor,” and the player must sit on the floor off to the side. This process continues until the desired number of piggies are on the floor.

Boars on the Floor:

Once the desired number of piggies are on the floor, gameplay moves to the floor area. The players not on the floor must begin a chant of ‘Boor on the Floor,’ once they do so, the piggies must walk around on all fours, oinking like a pig. Once they have done so for a satisfactory amount of time, the question-asker grabs the sausages (there should always be one less than the number of boars)

The question asker tosses the sausages onto the floor and makes the piggies fight for their sausages. It is up to the Boars to fight for one of the sausages by any means necessary, scratching, stealing, and pushing are all acceptable means of acquiring a sausage. The one piggie who does not grab a sausage is declared the Boar and the Floor and is subjected to humiliation and ridicule by all the other players present.

Strategy

Question-asker: 

The question-asker should focus on being as volatile and unpredictable as possible. Be judicious about who you ask your questions to and take your time before selecting. Survey the room with as much hatred as you can muster. But most of all, never let the people know what type of answer you are looking for. In fact, switching up your criteria from player to player may be a good idea. Put a piggie on the floor even though they had a good answer. It’s all good, because it all creates fear and dissention in those you work with and love.

Players:

Answer the question with as much honesty as possible, but also take into account how the question-asker feels about you. An honest answer isn’t always the best answer, sometimes you need to just get in line and tell the question-asker what they want to hear. If the question-asker chooses you to answer a question, be sure to show an appropriate amount of deference, but not too much fear. Fear is a sure-fire way to end up on the floor. 

If you are selected to be a piggie, there is no good way to commence. It’s probably better to not end up the Boar, but at the point where you are crawling on your hands and knees, oinking and wrestling for sausages, does it really even matter? It’s probably better to just wake up the next morning and pretend you were too drunk to remember any of it. 

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