Monday, October 13, 2014

On turning 40 and things I've seen and read: Fate/Zero, A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Magicians. Ways to make yourself melancholy during these gorgeous autumn days. 


It’s two months before I turn 40. But I’ve been mourning the end of my thirties for the last year.

40 is when you have to recognize, finally, that there are doors you’ve passed which will never open to you; there are paths which are forever blocked. “Way leads on to way,” as the poet said, and you will never find your way back to that turning point in the golden wood. Of course, I’ve been realizing this throughout my thirties. It’s just that the finality of that number, “40”—the thudding close of a decade—has a new hardness that drives the point home.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is failure, and of how it is not something talked about in our world. All our cultural narratives are of success. We tell our children that they can do anything, as long as they work hard enough and believe. We encourage people to follow their dreams. We love stories about underdogs, about people rising above adversity. When we read about failure, it’s almost always as a prelude to a story of success: Steve Jobs is humiliatingly ousted from Apple, but eventually returns in triumph to lead it to new heights of glory. A musician or artist or writer or sports star or someone flames out. . . but claws back to even greater achievement. Failure teaches lessons, the business blogs intone. You learn from failure. It’s just a step, a lesson, in the eventual road to success.

We don’t read about the ones who never made it. We don’t tell the stories of the people who left their fields entirely and forever, of the failures that were permanent and career-destroying. We don’t want to read about someone who ruined his marriage. . . and then never got a second chance, never found love again.

I was thinking of this partly because I saw the end of the anime series, Fate/Zero, last week.** And oh my god, it’s probably the most nihilistic thing I’ve ever seen. This action fantasy anime makes Game of Thrones look like lollipops and rainbows. In a way, the series is about nothing but failure. Mages and legendary heroes compete in a seven-way battle for a holy grail. . . and it’s nothing but characters suffering horribly and dying in vain for empty, broken ideals. For love that is not requited. For the sake of loved ones who don’t deserve that love. Characters have the best of intentions, and they sacrifice and work so hard, and all their efforts make things worse. Pretty much all of them fail in what they set out to do. . . and the “success” stories are not what the audience (most of us, anyway) really want to see. These are the heroic tropes of fantasy all turned on their heads and shaken with a vengeance.

There’s failure in real life. But we don’t usually want to see failure in fiction. We want the Hero’s Tale. And we want the Hero’s Tale in our nonfiction, as well—in the inspiring stories on business blogs and inspirational websites and feature articles in magazines. What kind of narratives do we have to deal with failure and the mature acceptance of failure? I think part of the reason Fate/Zero struck me so hard (beyond being amazingly well done) is that it is such an inversion of the usual fantasy adventure tropes. After all, the Hero’s Eventual Triumph (even if in simultaneously tragic or bittersweet form) is practically embedded in the DNA of modern fantasy adventure.

And it’s in pretty much all mainstream fiction, too. Even in most of the “literary” fiction I’ve read.

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Another thing I finished last week was Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize winning book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” The “goon” in the title is time itself (“Time’s a goon, right?” a washed-up rock star says to his publicist). The book consists of linked short stories featuring characters who often seem to have only the most tenuous of connections with one another. However, as the book progresses, more connections between characters appear, until one sees at the end that everyone is linked in a complicated and mostly invisible web that even they are not fully aware of. Time itself is the book’s main theme, and the stories leap forward and backward in time in a way that can be formally thrilling. We see characters at different stages of their lives, in non-chronological order. During the course of ordinary life, we see characters fail. And some of the failures are actually more than ordinary—they’re spectacular. A New York publicist at the top of her game throws a celebrity party that goes so disastrously wrong that she ends up in jail. . . and later, at the bottom of her life, accepts a position as freelance publicist for a genocidal dictator, just to make ends meet. A celebrity profile writer fears that his serious writing career is circling the drain. .  and tries to rape the actress he’s interviewing (jail time for this one, too). Washed-up rock stars abound. Marriages and relationships end. Time is a goon, and beats up everyone in the end.

It’s not really a dark book, however, and certainly not grimdark. For one thing, much of it is very funny—particularly the chapter on the publicist and genocidal dictator, which is wonderfully satirical. There’s an often remarkable and formal inventiveness to these tales. And though there’s plenty of heartbreak, there’s no nihilism here. This book is too human for that. Characters lose, and fail, but they also grow and succeed and find redemption. Interestingly, though, that redemption often feels muted. We see characters at the nadir of their lives, but we’re often not shown those moments of growth and redemption; we’re often just told that it’s occurred, years later. We know that troubled kleptomaniac Sasha eventually grew up, married her college sweetheart and had two children . . . but we don’t know how she pulled herself together to do these things. And this book knows that despite appearances, there really aren’t any happily-ever-afters. The chapter narrated (okay, given in Powerpoint format) by Sasha’s daughter shows a family that is loving but also troubled in very human ways. Sasha does grow up, and her life by the end is definitely better than her life at the beginning, but even then “. . .she was like anyone, with a life that worried and electrified and overwhelmed her.”

“I don’t know what happened to me,” a minor character says at the end of the book, nearly in tears to a man he barely knows. “I honestly don’t.”

“You grew up,” the other character replies.

And that’s the real story in “A Visit from the Goon Squad”: the story of ordinary people suffering time’s slings and arrows, struggling, growing disillusioned, soldiering on and growing up. It’s a good book, completely deserving of a Pulitzer. It is also, in the end, a somewhat melancholy book. There is a great, triumphant fist-pumping moment of improbable glory toward the end. . . but the book ends on a lament for time’s passing. We’re all growing older, the last pages seems to say; it can’t be stopped, and none of us know what the future will bring.

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I blogged about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy before. This is also a story about growing up in our contemporary world, though told with the language and forms of fantasy. But while the characters in “A Visit from the Goon Squad” often seem to grow up merely as an inevitable side-effect of drifting through time. . . something more deliberate seems to happen in the last volume of the The Magicians series. Quentin Coldwater and his friends are seen actively confronting past traumas and taking the steps required to grow up. Quentin is seen in the process of coming to terms with his own limitations, accepting past disappointments, learning to put others ahead of himself and becoming a fully functional, adult human. The ending notes are of wonder and hope. At age 30, Quentin is ready to embark on a rich adult life. He’s not a washed up rock star or record producer on his fifth wife (as in A Visit from the Goon Squad). He’s a bit older than the traditional young adult hero; he’s coming-of-age arc took longer than most. But he’s still young, and there’s still a sense of wild possibility. There is just now the sense that he is mature enough, adult enough, to handle it.

                                                              ***

I’m almost 40, and there are many times when I still don’t feel adult enough to handle it. I love coming-of-age tales, yet I don’t feel that I’ve really come-of-age. I haven’t sunk to the depths of some of Egan’s characters in “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” but. . . but I suppose I do see my life reflected, partially, in the complicated, light-and-dark patterned lives of her characters. How do we handle failure in real life? How do we handle disappointment and and aging and our own limitations? Most of us, happily, do not live in a hopeless grimdark universe like Game of Thrones or Fate/Zero (not in the modern Western world, at any rate). But do we get to grapple with our issues with the clean, narrative resolution of Quentin in The Magicians? Egan sidesteps some of that hard grappling work altogether, flashing forward and backwards in time, showing us characters at their bottom and then happily married to a second wife years later. The inner work of growing up—how hard that is to depict. How hard it is to do.


**Note that I Fate/Zero is actually a prequel to the series Fate/Stay Night. Which I am watching in the hopes that redemption and goodness will triumph(?) at least a little bit (?) after all. 


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