New Publications: 19, and 19

19stories-c-1

These aren’t really new—but the format is! Now you can get all the plays I’ve published this past year, or all the short stories I’ve published this past year, in one collection. The plan is to do this every year, with the titles corresponding to my age when I published the stories. Like a Complete Works series, but being put together contemporaneously.

19; A collection of short stories includes “Just Dig,” “The War on Hormones,” “De.mocra.cy,” “Grumbles,” “Boom Town,” and “Calamcity,” as well as all the afterwords I wrote for those stories. As always, you can get it on Smashwords and Amazon.

19plays-c-319; A collection of plays contains Beach Realty of Sandcastle IsleHe Molested KidsMonastery, and We’ll Tell Happy Stories, and the afterwords I wrote for those stories. Available on Smashwords and Amazon.

Play Time: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a classic contemporary play by Tom Stoppard, which follows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters, courtiers in Hamlet, as they are called to the palace to find out what’s wrong with the Prince, and then sent to deliver a message to the king of England. As they are led from one task to another, they catch glimpses of the great Shakespearean tragedy unfolding around them, and wonder at what is going on.

The play explores time in two ways, both of which are fundamentally tied into the medium of theatre—theatrical fatalism, and the conflict between finite time and eternal time.

Now . . . And Now . . . And Now . . .

Life and theatre are eternal and finite.

Life is eternal (or appears so), because it is impossible for a person to really grasp the fact that they have an end, the way they can grasp that a day or a season has an end. As Rosencrantz puts it, “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. … And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all.” (71-72)

And life is finite because people are born and they die.

Theatre is eternal because every play can be performed an infinite number of times. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is about two characters invented by a writer that died dozens of generations ago, and the play is still being performed (in fact, it’s currently being revived at the theatre at which it premiered exactly fifty years ago.) It’s also a very immediate medium, not something you can put down and stop like a book. The play is continuing, going from one line to the next, without end. And, especially in a play like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which languishes in long scenes of dialogue and moments of silence, this can give the impression that the thing is boundless. “One is, after all, having [a future] all the time . . . now . . . and now . . . and now . . .” (70).

And theatre is finite because, some exceptions aside, most plays last just a few hours or less.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern addresses this dissonant experience, the simultaneous feeling that we are immortal and knowledge that we are not, both through dialogue and through the form of the play. Of course, it being a play alone emphasizes the themes discussed by the characters, but there are some other formalistic aspects peculiar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that reinforce the concept. To start, there’s the title—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s a quote from one of the last lines of Hamlet, and as a title it seems paradoxical. For the majority of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not dead. Those final lines are another formal quirk to the play, and to Hamlet as well, because they’re recursive. The ambassador from England tells Horatio that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” (Hamlet 5.2.371) and Horatio, surrounded by the corpses of the royal family, tells the ambassador that he will “speak to the yet unknowing world / how these things came about” (5.2.380-381). The end of the play could be the beginning, and the whole thing could circle around on itself endlessly as Horatio tells the story over and over again—but the title, which comes from that same scene, declares how finite these characters are.Read More »

Play Time: An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley

An Inspector Calls is the most famous of J.B. Priestley’s time plays, as well as one of his best-known works in general. The play contains elements of all the other plays, starting with the setting—similar to that of Time and the Conways—of the estate of an upper-class family, the Birlings, in 1912. Unlike Time and the Conways, this play takes place entirely over the course of one night. A police inspector shows up to ask some questions about Mr. Birling’s interactions with a young woman who has just committed suicide—a former employee of Mr. Birling. It soon becomes apparent that all of the Birlings, as well as Gerald Croft, the fiancé of Sheila Birling, had some negative impact on this girl that lead to her demise, which Inspector Goole will extract from them and bring to light. In this way, the play is similar to Dangerous Corner, in the way that every character shares some blame in this girl’s death, and Inspector Goole is piece-by-piece constructing a timeline of events that leads to her suicide. The big “trick” (to use one of Priestley’s words in describing these plays) in An Inspector Calls is that the girl, Eva Smith, has not yet died, until the very end of the play, when the Birlings receive a call from the police station, informing them that Eva Smith has been found dead, and the real police inspector has been sent to question them.

Time and the Conways

Aside from this little trick at the end, the time discontinuity is mostly felt by the audience. Put it this way—the whole play is like the third act of Time and the Conways, in which the audience knows exactly what has happened in the future of the characters, but the characters don’t. There’s even a moment in which Mr. Birling bloviates optimistically about the prosperous future they will all live in. It’s different from the moment where Madge does the same in Time and the Conways though, because Mr. Birling’s is a capitalist dream of the future, in which “the interests of Capital—are properly protected,” (6) and everyone will “have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares.” (7) Birling’s optimism reaches its pinnacle of absurdity (from the audience’s perspective) when he mentions the Titanic—the “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” ship which seems to embody the pompous optimism of the pre-war period, as well as the promise of industrialism. This ship was a modern marvel, one of whose features was its inability to fail, that almost instantly failed catastrophically.Read More »

Play Time: I Have Been Here Before by J.B. Priestley

I Have Been Here Before is the third of J.B. Prietsley’s time plays, written the same year as Time and the Conways. The play explores P.D. Ouspensky’s theory of eternal recurrence, that everyone lives their life over and over again, and déjà vu and precognitive dreams are the result of remembering past lives. Unlike Time and the Conways or Dangerous Corner, Priestley doesn’t develop this idea through any formalistic techniques. The acts occur in chronological order, and it all takes place in the same timeline. The fact that it’s a work of theatre is in itself a formalistic technique, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but otherwise Priestley’s pretty straightforward, and presents the theory in a science fictional style.

The story unfolds over the weekend before Whitsuntide, a week-long holiday celebrated after Pentecost in parts of England. Three interconnected groups meet in the Black Bull Inn: Sam and Sally, father and daughter and the managers of the inn. Mr. Farrant, a teacher at the boarding school which Sally’s son attends. And Mr. and Mrs. Ormund, Mr. Ormund being one of the governors and funders of Mr. Farrant’s boarding school. Ouspensky’s theory comes in with Dr. Görtler, an exiled German scientist who seems to know exactly what everyone is going to do before they do it. The major conflict of the play, which ends up affecting everyone because of how entangled their lives are, is an affair between Janet Ormund and Mr. Farrant. Dr. Görtler attempts to defuse the situation by explaining a dream he had, in which he met Janet at a later time in her life, and learned that she and Mr. Farrant had run off together, causing Mr. Ormund to commit suicide, and the boarding school to collapse. This play seems the most hopeful of the three time plays I’ve so far read, because Dr. Görtler explains that everyone actually is capable of making small changes in their lives—their existence is not circular, they “move along a spiral track … [They] must set out each time on the same road but along that road [they] have a choice of adventures.” (264) Görtler convinces Ormund to let his wife divorce him and start a life with Farrant, and to not kill himself, and so, Ormund escapes the memories of self-destruction in past lives which have always haunted him.Read More »

Play Time: Time and the Conways by J.B. Priestley

Time and the Conways is the second of J.B. Priestley’s Time Plays—six plays (the first being Dangerous Corner) dealing with different theories of time, and how time is experienced. This play focuses on the Conways, a wealthy family living in a prosperous suburb of the fictitious manufacturing town Newlingham, and their declining fortunes between 1919 and 1937. The first act takes place during Kay Conway’s twenty-first birthday in 1919. Aside from Mrs. Conway, the Conways are all in their early twenties or younger, and have their whole lives ahead of them. The boys of the family have just returned from war. Mrs. Conway, the widowed mother of all of them, owns lots of valuable real estate in Newlingham. The future appears bright.

The second act jumps ahead twenty years to the present when the play was written—1937. Most of the Conways have scattered from Newlingham and fallen out of touch with one another, but they are reconvening (coincidentally on Kay’s fortieth birthday) to discuss Mrs. Conway’s finances, which have significantly deteriorated to the point of near bankruptcy. Everyone is disillusioned with their lives, where they ended up, and this point is driven home with Act III, which returns to that birthday party in 1919. We see the Conways interacting with the family friends that will end up being their spouses, and expressing their desires for the future—all of which, we know from the second act, will not come to pass.

Future

Priestley basically analyzed his play for me:

“KAY: But, Alan, we can’t be anything but what we are now.
“ALAN: No . . . it’s hard to explain . . . suddenly like this . . . there’s a book I’ll lend you—read it in the train. But the point is, now, at this moment, or any moment, we’re only a cross-section of our real selves. What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time, and when we come to the end of this life, all those selves, all our time, will be us—the real you, the real me.” (177)

The book that Alan, the oldest of the Conways, is going to lend Kay is almost certainly J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time. Priestley was continually interested in Dunne’s theory of time, exploring it in plays and essays throughout his career. An Experiment with Time posits exactly what Alan explains to Kay, with the additional claim that in dreams, our consciousness is able to experience the whole stretch of our existence, delivering precognitive visions of the future. Kay has this experience in Act III, apparently seeing some vision of Act II while Mrs. Conway is talking about how wonderful the future will be for the Conways. Of course, this is also the experience of the audience, throughout all of Act III. Having just come from the grim, shabby household of 1937, the jubilance of all the characters in 1919 rings false and discordant.Read More »

New Publication: Play Time, and Smashwords Sale

EDIT: A PREVIOUS VERSION OF THE PICTURE FOR THIS POST SAID MY ALL MY EBOOKS WOULD BE 75% OFF. PICTURE HAS BEEN UPDATED TO THE CORRECT DISCOUNT, 25% OFF.

If you’ve been reading my Play Time posts, you can now get all of them—plus the next four which won’t all be online until a month from now—in one convenient place, on Smashwords or Amazon. And if you haven’t been reading them, here’s what they’re all about:

playtime-c-2-alt4-NOTEfavoriteThis past spring semester I needed to fulfill my university honors requirements, so I “contracted” a creative writing class focused on time, by designing an additional curriculum of nine plays that I would read and respond to—all of them dealing with time in some way. Thus, Play Time—nine essays analyzing specific plays, pulling apart the ways the playwrights are using the medium of theatre to manipulate or comment on or distort or theorize about time. The idea wasn’t so much to definitively state What X Play is About, but more to point out what I find interesting in each play, and figure out how the artist—or how theatre as a medium—achieved it.

And if you get Play Time on Smashwords, you’ll get it for 25% off! For the month of July I’m participating in the Smashwords Northern Summer/Southern Winter sale, so all my ebooks there are 25% off, and Beach Realty of Sandcastle Isle and “Calamcity” are 50% off. Because those two pieces are about beaches, and Florida, and summer, and it’s summer in Florida right now. So, you can have some cheap beach reading, or some escapist reading if you’re in the southern hemisphere and you need to remember what sunshine is like.

 

Play Time: Dangerous Corner by J.B. Priestley

Dangerous Corner is a 1932 play by British writer J.B. Priestley, about a dinner party attended by the directors of a publishing firm and their wives. Pretty soon the audience learns that one of the directors, Martin, recently committed suicide, and was suspected of embezzling money from the company. A few moments later, one of the guests, Olwen, makes an offhand remark about recognizing a cigarette box—a cigarette box that she shouldn’t have any memory of, because it was originally Martin’s, and it was mailed to him the day he died. Olwen’s remark is like a single loose thread in a sweater, and once Robert, one of the directors and the brother of Martin, pulls at it, the sweater begins to unravel, spooling out a series of interconnected secrets that every last character has been hiding, all wrapped up in the death of Martin and the embezzled money. In the final act of the play, Robert, in a drunken craze, retrieves a revolver, the lights go down on the stage, and we hear a shot and a woman’s scream. When the lights come up, we are back at the beginning of the play, with the female characters having just listened to the last scene of a murder mystery radio play. The play progresses as it originally did, only this time, when Olwen remarks on recognizing the cigarette box, it goes unnoticed, as one of the directors succeeds in tuning in to a channel on the radio—something he had failed to do in the first iteration of the timeline.

Priestley presents time in a very concrete, mechanical way, as a series of events with causes and effects, and with specific choices directly affecting the chain of events. This if clear, of course, in the final scene in which the audience sees the entire course of the play altered by one instance, but it’s also clear throughout all the revelations that form the meat of the show. The characters are constantly trying to figure out who is to blame for Martin’s death—who is the person at the root of all of it?—and with each secret revealed, the blame shifts, and the timeline that the characters are constructing reorganizes itself to place a different person as the catalyst for all the events. The conflict and tension of Dangerous Corner comes from these clashing timelines that each character holds, and the only way to resolve the tension is by filling in the gaps with more information from other characters. Of course, each contribution to this communal timeline only opens up more questions, and reveals new gaps that have to be filled. Ultimately, the timeline can never be perfect because at the heart of it is Martin—someone whose understanding of the chain of events has disappeared from the world with his death. Olwen herself describes the problem of clashing realities when she’s talking about the radio play:

“The point is, I think—there’s truth and truth. … the real truth—that is, every single little thing, with nothing missing at all, wouldn’t be dangerous. … But what most people mean by truth, what that man meant in the wireless play, is only half the real truth. It doesn’t tell you all that went on inside everybody.” (5)

Indeed, the biggest gap in the story, the hole that will never be filled, is “all that went on inside” Martin. It seems like everyone had a different relationship with him, and characters will often assert something along the lines of, “you didn’t know him as I did.” When Robert is convinced that Martin killed himself because Martin believed that Robert stole the money, and Martin was shaken by his older brother’s misconduct, Robert explains, “But neither of you knew him as I did.” (37) When Freda, Robert’s wife, learns that Martin attempted to assault Olwen, she moans that “he wasn’t like that really. If you’d known him as I’d known him—before.” (42) Although the characters are intending to invoke authority when they say this, as if they are experts on who Martin is, Priestley’s precise phrasing points to the reality of the situation. You didn’t know him as I did. Not a definitive “I knew him,” or “I knew him best,” but rather a distinguishing between the different ways that different characters understood Martin, understood his experiences, composited his history.Read More »

Play Time: Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls centers on Marlene, an agent at the London-based Top Girls employment agency, who has just been promoted to manager. The action of the play occurs in three main spaces: the Top Girls agency, where the audience sees the tensions Marlene and her female colleagues are facing in a male-dominated world; the home of Marlene’s sister Joyce and Marlene’s illegitimate child that Joyce has raised as her own, where the audience sees Marlene’s lower-class roots and her rejection and contempt for them; and, the opening scene taking up more than a third of the play, a celebratory luncheon attended by historical female figures—some fictional, some real, some a combination of both—advising Marlene on her success and relating their own stories of achievement and challenges in patriarchal societies.

While there is no dramatic this-leads-to-that connection between these different spaces, they are all in conversation with one another, and in productions of the play all of the actors for the historical figures are double cast as other characters throughout the rest of the play. This thematic dialogue between the different spaces is what ties the play together into a cohesive exploration of female empowerment, and the self-destructive nature of empowerment through capitalistic, patriarchal means. It’s also, in itself, a theatrical way to represent how past and present overlap, echo, and argue—both the past of Marlene’s personal life, and the past of the entirety of history.

Interruptions and Continuations

The first scene of the play does an excellent job of dramatizing the conversation of history, with five historical figures converging in the present moment. Rather than a normal, back-and-forth conversation, the characters talk around one another. Instead of one character telling a story about an illness they had, and another saying “I had something like that too—how long did it last for you?” the dialogue runs more like:

“ISABELLA: But even though my spine was agony I managed very well.
“MARLENE: Wonderful.
“NIJO: Once I was ill for four months lying alone at an inn. Nobody to offer a horse to Buddha. I had to live for myself, and I did live.
“ISABELLA: Of course you did. It was far worse returning to Tobermory. I always felt dull when I was stationary. / That’s why I would never stay anywhere.
“NIJO: Yes, that’s it exactly. New sights. The shrine by the sea. The goddess had vowed to save all living things. / She would even save the fishes. I was full of hope.
“JOAN: I had thought the Pope would know everything.” (24-25)

Read More »

New Publications: “Calamcity,” and “De.mocra.cy” Audiobook

We’re well into summer now, so I’ve just published a summery novelette about a topic that I just can’t leave alone: climate change in Florida. A couple years ago, I posted two pieces of research on beach nourishment—that research was done for this story.

Minolta DSC“Calamcity” is set in a not too distant future, when beach erosion has accelerated dramatically due to rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity—but a new breed of bioengineered living shorelines appears to be a perfect solution to hold sand in place. To oversee a test-run of this technique, Joseph Lopez joins his brother Steve on Cape Dodd, a Floridian beach that has been battling erosion for years under Steve’s management. Joseph just wants to bring back the large, stable, sunny beaches of his youth, and provide a nice vacation house for his aging parents. But as Joseph and Steve find, Cape Dodd is in for a rough summer of constant hurricanes and mysterious mass die-offs of the living shoreline.

You can get “Calamcity” on Smashwords or Amazon.

Also, I’ve just released the audiobook for “De.mocra.cy,” a short story about symbolic protest, gangs, and regulation in a democratically run MMO. The audiobook is written and performed by me, so if you enjoyed my production of The Absolute at Large, you should enjoy the performance of this story. The audiobook is available for digital download on CDBaby, on Audible and iTunes. You can listen to a sample of the audiobook in the video below. And you can listen to some outtakes and moments of silliness from the recording session in the video below the video below.

Play Time: Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill

Strange Interlude covers a span of about twenty-five years in the lives of Nina Reeds and her three lovesick admirers—Charles Marsden, Edmund Darrell, and Sam Evans. At the beginning of the play, Nina is heartbroken over the death of the love of her life, Gordon Shaw, in World War I. Throughout the rest of the play, she is attempting to fill in the gaps left by Gordon with Marsden, Darrell, and Evans. There are plenty of twists across the nine acts of this five-hour play, but the most notable feature is the internal monologue device. Characters frequently stop to deliver their thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness style—not in a Shakespearean manner, where the actors seem to be taking the audience into their confidence, but more like the playwright has slowed down the action and opened up the mind of a character to show the audience their thought process.

This play deals with time in two ways—in micro and in macro. The micro is the internal monologues, which take individual, fleeting moments and expand them into sometimes multiple minutes of speech. The macro is the enormous scale of the play itself, which covers over two decades, comprises nine acts, and is typically presented with a dinner break in between acts five and six. The tension between these two levels of time is the tension, and dissonance, experienced by everyone—the brief, minute, immediate nature of the present set against the enormous backdrop of a person’s life.

Micro

O’Neill achieves this sense of immediacy in a few ways. First, the obvious, through the monologues. While there’s no indication of whether or not the rest of the scene freezes or slows down when a character’s internal monologue begins, it certainly seems to slow down. The monologues are full of ellipses and rambling sentences, questions and repeated ideas. The effect of this slow, languorous pace to the interior of the characters is that when the actual dialogue of the scene resumes, it feels rapid and instant, unrestrained.Read More »

Play Time: Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby by Samuel Beckett

For this project, I wanted to read some short plays at some point, as short plays can get away with doing deviant formalistic things that longer plays can’t. I chose these three plays by Samuel Beckett because they are sometimes collected together, or performed together, and with good reason. While each play was written separately, all of them overlap in their treatments of time and memory.

Not I

Not I is a monologue performed by “Mouth.” When staged, the actor playing Mouth wears black make-up over her face, and the lighting is as isolated as possible to just the mouth. The effect is of a disembodied mouth, floating in darkness, rapidly reciting sentence fragments which tell a story of a woman—presumably the owner of the mouth—who has lived a solitary, bleak life, and who has scarcely spoken throughout all of it. The title comes from the repeated refrain of Mouth: “what? … who? … no! … she!”—denying that what she is describing happened to her.

The play explores the disjuncture between experience and retelling, with the speaker being an extreme case of someone whose speech has become drastically separated from her experience of the world. The whole play, Mouth is trying to make sense of the woman’s life, constantly asking questions, constantly doubling back, always unsure, and always careening forward to dig up some other scrap of memory. The way Mouth bolts through fragmented sentences puts in mind a person searching through a library for a book, and reading aloud titles and last names of authors as they go.

The speech is not just an attempt to retell what has happened in this woman’s life for the sake of the audience—it is an attempt to make sense of it for herself. Almost all her life she has been speechless, unable or unwilling to connect her experiences with linguistic structure, and so Not I is an attempt to do so. It is a demonstration of the difficulties of manifesting a life verbally, of making sense of events through retelling, and of the disconnect between the person who lived an experience and the person telling it (even if they are one and the same.)Read More »

Play Time: We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury

This past semester I needed to fulfill my honors requirements by completing 3 s.h. of honors credit. I wasn’t in any honors classes, so I did this by contracting a creative writing class focused on time, by designing an additional curriculum of nine plays that I would read and respond to—all of them dealing with time in some way. Thus, Play Time—nine essays analyzing specific plays, pulling apart the way the playwrights are using the medium of theatre to manipulate or comment on or distort or theorize about time. The idea isn’t so much to definitively state What X Play is About, but more to point out what I find interesting in the play, and figure out how the artist—or how theatre as a medium—achieved it. This first post is on We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury, and I promise I will only use the abbreviation of that title from here on out.

We Are Proud to Present is a play about six actors putting together a theatrical presentation detailing the history of Namibia as a German colony, and the genocide of the Herero people. The play is as much focused on the conquest, exploitation, and extermination of the peoples of Namibia as it is on how the actors are portraying it, how they are trying to relate to it, how theatre operates as a medium, and how to tell the history of a people who were almost completely wiped out. 

Processtation

The play (that is, the theatrical work written by Drury) portrays this presentation (that is, the theatrical work performed by the characters in the play) from start to finish in chronological order, though it switches back and forth between “The Presentation” and “The Process” (7). Each scene is labeled as one of the two. “The Presentation” is an actual performance of the presentation, and “The Process” is a rehearsal of it (presumably early on in the production.) So while the audience (that is, an actual real world audience) is seeing the presentation about the Herero of Namibia from start to finish, they are also seeing the actors themselves in two different moments in time. This structure accomplishes a few things.

First, it’s an efficient way to show both the creation of the show and the show itself. The play could’ve been divided into two acts, the first The Process and the second The Presentation, but by interweaving the two into one continuous action, Drury can avoid repetition, and just show the most important pieces of each strand.

Second, it makes it very clear how The Process is being expressed in The Presentation. For example, at one point during rehearsal, the actors are doing an exercise, and Actor 3 is acting as Actor 6’s grandma:

“(ACTOR 3 smacks ACTOR 4 with his prop on each “Tell.”)
“ACTOR 3 (as Grandma): Tell me that you didn’t eat that cornbread. …
“Tell me that you didn’t eat that corner piece of cornbread.
“I don’t need you to Tell me that you ate that corner piece of cornbread.
“I can Tell the corner piece is missing so Tell me that you ate it.
“Tell me.
“Tell me.” (58)

Later on, during the actual performance, the audience sees how the actors have repurposed this theatrical device for a completely different scene, with completely different implications:

“(ANOTHER WHITE MAN lands blows on BLACK MAN on each “Tell.”)
“ANOTHER WHITE MAN: Tell the man you broke the law …
“Tell the man you were gonna kill me.
“I don’t need you to Tell me that you were gonna kill me.
“I can Tell you wanted to kill me, so Tell the man.
“Tell him.
“Tell him.” (102)

There are echoes, recurrences, like this all throughout the play, and by presenting the rehearsal and the performance in such close proximity Drury examines how the most contentious, the most bizarre, or the most seemingly useless ideas generated during rehearsal are reshaped, retooled, and evolved to express something in the presentation.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The End

When I was a kid, I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, and now I’ve reread all thirteen books. This final post is about The End, book 13. This post will contain spoilers for The End and probably other books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, then to paraphrase Lemony Snicket, “I would drop this [review] at once, so THE END does not finish you.”

The_End
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

Finally, we arrive at The End. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are at sea with Count Olaf, and a massive storm shipwrecks them on an island. Pretty soon they encounter the inhabitants of the island, an easygoing colony of castaways, lead by the “facilitator” Ishmael. Count Olaf is forbidden from entering the colony, and while the colony is undoubtedly dull and unambitious, it seems the Baudelaires have finally found a place where they can be safe. Of course, it turns out the island is full of as many mysteries and confusing conflicts as the world the Baudelaires left behind, and the siblings come to realize that they can never really escape these issues.

The End is also the end. (Surprise.) It is Book the Last, and it knows it. Where The Penultimate Peril felt climactic in terms of surface-level story elements—bringing together characters from all throughout the series, putting the Baudelaires in the middle of a direct conflict between the two factions of VFD—The End feels climactic in terms of theme. The book is exploding with meaningful imagery, literary and biblical allusions, thematic discourse, and symbolic scenes. I’m only going to talk about some of them though, the ones that interest me, but there’s all sorts of overlap, so hopefully I’ll be able to cover all the main threads by doing this.

STTTTTTUUUUUUUUUUFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF!

“What’s the deal with all this super specific junk in the general store?”—that’s the note I made when this motif first cropped up in The Hostile Hospital. In the opening of that book, the Baudelaires are in a general store waiting for a telegram, and multiple times Handler lists out in hyper-specific detail the items surrounding them, none of which seem to fit with each other:

“They were surrounded by nylon rope, floor wax, soup bowls, window curtains, wooden rocking horses, top hats, fyber-optic cable, pink lipstick, dried apricots, magnifying glasses, black umbrellas, slender paintbrushes, French horns, and each other, but as the Baudelaire orphans sat and waited for a reply to their telegram, they only felt more and more alone.” (18-19)

Is this a comment on materialism? Something about greed maybe? I had a hunch about what it could be, but Handler didn’t distinctly make the connection, so I just continued to note the motif whenever it popped up. In The Grim Grotto, when the Baudelaires are in the grotto, they each list out all the worthless items they’ve found while searching for the Sugar Bowl. Again, it’s hard to tell if Handler is just having fun or actually doing something.Read More »

New Publication: The War on Hormones

twoh-c-5It’s summer now—I just finished my sophomore year of college, and high school students around the country are wrapping up their spring semesters—so here’s a novelette about high school, half of which I wrote during my senior year of high school, and half of which I finished after graduating. You can buy it on Smashwords or Amazon. Here’s the synopsis:

In the near future, bioengineering companies create neutralizers—unicellular organisms that can destroy sex hormones in the brain, hopefully improving the academic dedication of students. Silver Path, a new performing arts school, is a pioneer in requiring that its students be neutralized. This kind of environment is perfect for Edward Warwick, a 12th-grader intensely dedicated to acting, and intensely wary of romantic distractions. But over the course of his senior year at Silver Path, it becomes clear that there are many hormones other than testosterone and estrogen, and making it out of high school without any drama may not be as easy as a monthly neutralizer check-up.

The publication also contains an afterword in which I describe how my own final year of secondary education directly lead to, and provided fodder for, this story.

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Penultimate Peril

A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of my favorite series when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books, and today I’m talking about the second-to-last one: The Penultimate PerilThis post will contain spoilers for book 12 and all the books preceding it, so if you do not want plot information given away then, to paraphrase Lemony Snicket, “allow me to recommend that you put this next-to-last [review] down first, and find something else to read next at last.”

ThePenultimatePeril
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

The Penultimate Peril is the penultimate book in Unfortunate Events, and it finds the Baudelaires at the Hotel Denouement, a hotel organized by the Dewey decimal system (for example, there are teachers staying in room number 371, the number for schools and school activities in Dewey Decimal Classification.) The Hotel Denouement is the last safe place for VFD, and the secret organization will be meeting there in just two days. The Baudelaires, disguised as concierges, spy on the hotel guests, hoping to discover whether or not the safety of the hotel has been compromised, and whether or not they should give a signal to call off the meeting.

I Won’t Tell You When You’re Older

The Penultimate Peril is full of cameos from characters introduced and exited earlier in the series and one of the characters to return is Sir—known as Sir because his actual name is unpronounceable. Other than his callous attitude toward the workers in his lumber mill, Sir’s defining characteristic is the cloud of cigar smoke that is forever swirling around his head, completely obscuring his face. When I first discussed Sir, I wrote about how he’s a model for what’s to come later in the series—these mysteries that are never solved, secrets that only exist as secrets. Since I’ve finished rereading Unfortunate Events, I’ve been poking around looking at reviews of the series. I’ve seen complaints that not all of the big mysteries were resolved, which makes the last few books kind of disappointing. To those people I would say:

You are less discerning readers than an eight-year-old.

I can’t take away anyone’s reading experience—I don’t think anyone is wrong to say that they were disappointed. I would, however, defend Daniel Handler vigorously from anyone who thinks he dropped the ball. Handler does a lot to signal that these big secrets will never be clarified a hundred percent, and rereading Penultimate Peril, I remember that the sequence with Sir was when I, as an eight-year-old, realized that there were certain things that the thirteenth book still would not divulge. The scene is farcical in the way it conceals Sir’s face. Klaus is spying on Sir and his partner Charles, and he escorts the two to a sauna. Sir orders Klaus to hold his cigar while he goes into the sauna. Francis of 2005 was so excited about this—finally, we get to see Sir’s face! What if he’s actually another character under that smoke? What if he’s a relative of another character? But then, “Sir handed Klaus the cigar and strode into the sauna before the cloud of smoke around his head could clear.” (109) And it was at that moment that I realized that we would never find out what the Sugar Bowl is.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Grim Grotto

As a kid, A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of my favorite series, and I’ve been rereading all thirteen books. Today I’m discussing my favorite book of the series, book the eleventh, The Grim Grotto.

Grimgrotto.jpg
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

In The Grim Grotto, the Baudelaire orphans join the crew of the Queequeg, a VFD submarine run by Captain Widdershins and his stepdaughter Fiona. The Baudelaires join the Queequeg in its mission to find the Sugar Bowl before Count Olaf does, eventually identifying its location as the Gorgonian Grotto, an underwater cave that contains a lethal, parasitic species of fungus.

Having at this point reread the whole series, I can say that this book is my favorite. The mood and atmosphere is deeply unsettling, there’s lots of great character revelations and development, and the plot is as good as they come—with the Baudelaires actually being proactive instead of reactive, for the first time in the whole series. So, in this post I’m just going to explain exactly why I love this book so much.

Staring Blindly

First off, the mood. I won’t reiterate everything I said about mood in my post on The Ersatz Elevator, but I will retread some of that ground, because The Grim Grotto is doing the same sort of thing. The mood in book 11 is similar to that in book 6, and both are achieved through similar means—they inspire dread by keeping the reader in the dark on the dangers surrounding the characters. In Ersatz Elevator there’s the darkness of the empty elevator shaft, and in Grim Grotto there’s the darkness of the ocean, and the narrow passage leading into the Gorgonian Grotto. While The Ersatz Elevator still outdoes this book in the omnipresent atmosphere of dread, Grim Grotto is a near second, with the oppressive feeling of a cold, dark, unknown world surrounding the Queequeg at all times. The most prominent example of this is what is referred to in a later book as “The Great Unknown”—a gargantuan serpentine shape, larger than the Queequeg and even Count Olaf’s own enormous submarine, which shows up on the Queequeg’s sonar as a question mark. Whatever it is, it’s something that terrifies volunteers and villains alike, and the best view the Baudelaires ever get of it is after nightfall, and “They could not even tell, just as I will not tell, if it was some horrifying mechanical device, such as a submarine, or some ghastly creature of the sea.” (311)Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Slippery Slope

A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books. Today I’m writing about The Slippery Slope, the tenth book in the series, as well as meaninglessness and morality.

Slipperyslope
Photo courtesy of HarperCollins

The Slippery Slope is set in the Mortmain Mountains, a chilly range of odd, squarish mountains, home to snow gnats, bears, and the VFD headquarters. The Baudelaire orphans are separated, with Sunny being kidnapped by Count Olaf and taken to the summit of Mount Fraught, and Violet and Klaus left for dead along the road up the mountains. Sunny is forced to cook for and clean up after Count Olaf and his troupe, who are planning to destroy the headquarters of VFD. At the same time, Violet and Klaus are searching for the headquarters, and hoping to rescue their baby sister.

The Slippery Slope is the first book where the reader starts to get some broad ideas of what VFD is, and why so many villains and heroes alike seem involved in it. It also has some incredibly clumsy grappling with morality and what separates good people from bad people. But, to paraphrase a Fernald’s remarks in The Grim Grotto (which does a much better job of handling these themes), books aren’t either good or bad, “they’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together” (223). And Slippery Slope is actually mostly good, so while I will get to the fumbled themes, I’m going to highlight some other parts where it sticks the landing wonderfully. First off:

Xylophone

After being attacked by a swarm of snow gnats, Violet and Klaus take refuge in a cave, and find a group of Snow Scouts camping there. The Snow Scouts quickly welcome Violet and Klaus into their troop, and recite the Snow Scout Alphabet Pledge:

“Snow Scouts … are accommodating, basic, calm, darling, emblematic, frisky, grinning, human, innocent, jumping, kept, limited, meek, nap-loving, official, pretty, quarantined, recent, scheduled, tidy, understandable, victorious, wholesome, xylophone, young, and zippered — every morning, every afternoon, every night, and all day long!” (71)

The pledge recurs throughout the book, sometimes as the Snow Scouts recite it and other times just in reference to its absurdity—however the most pertinent commentary on it comes immediately after the scouts first recite it, when Snicket writes that, “Like many pledges, the Snow Scout Alphabet pledge had not made much sense” (71).Read More »

New Publication: The Only Series that Matters

TOSTM-c-3Well, it’s newish. It’s a collection of all the posts I’ve been making about A Series of Unfortunate Events. If you haven’t been reading them, it’s a series of essays in which I examine each book in A Series of Unfortunate Events upon rereading them a decade after I first fell in love with them as a kid. The essays highlight literary techniques, thematic explorations, and the ideas communicated in these books that have resonated with me from when I first read the series to today.

If you have been reading them, consider purchasing the collection to support posts like these, and the blog in general. The collection holds all the posts that have appeared on this site so far, plus the last four posts that will appear on the site over the course of the next month, polished up and consolidated for the book. It also contains “Chapter Fourteen,” an essay that won’t be published on this blog, discussing my relationship with the series through different parts of my life, and The Appalling Appendix—an index of selected notes, quotes, and observations from the file I kept while rereading the series.

Currently it’s available on Amazon, and UPDATE: it is now available on Smashwords!

New Publication: Boom Town

I’ve just published “Boom Town,” a short story available on Smashwords and Amazon.

boomtown-4The story takes place in a small town on the living planet of Eltru, when a vast reserve of fuel is discovered beneath the town. Katherine, a young girl whose family lives on a spice farm over the fuel reserve, quietly observes her parents as they struggle over whether or not to sell their land to a mining corporation, and move away from their home. She relies on her close relationship with her brother to help her understand the secret conflicts and tensions between the adults, and ends up keeping some dangerous secrets of Julian’s herself.

The publication includes an afterward where I describe how subscribing to Asimov’s influenced the story, and my writing sensibilities as a whole.

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Carnivorous Carnival

I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events when I read it as a kid, and now I’m rereading and re-loving all thirteen books. Today’s post is about The Carnivorous Carnival, the ninth book of the series. This post will contain spoilers for book 9 and some of the books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, then in the words of Lemony Snicket, “your time might be better filled with something more palatable, such as eating your vegetables, or feeding them to someone else.”

Carnivorous_Carnival
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

In The Carnivorous Carnival, the Baudelaires arrive at a rundown carnival in the hinterlands, where Count Olaf is consulting the fortune-teller Madame Lulu to learn the location of the Baudelaires, and whether or not one of their parents survived the fire. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny disguise themselves as carnival freaks, and try to discover how Madame Lulu knows so much about the Baudelaires, and perhaps pre-empt Count Olaf’s next move. Count Olaf also helps Madame Lulu by trying to raise the popularity of the carnival, letting one of his henchmen direct the freak show and make sure the freaks are properly humiliating themselves, and installing a pit of lions.

The book is sparkling with amusing, vibrant characters, from the mysterious Madame Lulu to Kevin, whose big, freakish, shameful quality is that he is ambidextrous (“Is that why you traveled out here to the hinter-lands, so you could stare at somebody who can write his name with either his left hand or his right?”—hilarious. [66]) It’s strikes the perfect tone for a book about a carnival—colorful, eccentric, and with a strong undercurrent of sadness and danger. It also provides a great opportunity for me to talk about:

#FakeNews

In my post about The Vile Village I explained the differences between the books in the first half of the series, and the books in the second. Another difference, which I didn’t mention then, is the nature of the unfortunate events. In the first half, the unfortunate event at the end of every installment is Count Olaf getting away. This is continued into the second half, but also combined with the the Baudelaires repeatedly failing to uncover the mysteries of VFD, and more and more misinformation about them spreading with each book.Read More »