Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Review: The Platypus of Truth

And lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the Age.

Today is the last day of 2014.  The big news of 2014 is that Western Culture has survived one-hundred years after the onset of the Great War.  The world is changed.  At least somewhat.  But in the shadow of that great anniversary, many other things have happened.  Here at the Platypus of Truth, it's been a pleasant, but low-volume year.  That may be due to the fact that 2014 was the first summer in some time that I didn't attempt any live-blog read-throughs.  Those raise the number of posts per year like nobody's business.  Instead, 2014 saw an uptick in poetic compositions and a continuation of 2013's travel-blogging.  That makes 2014 the year of memory and reflection at Platypus of Truth and that seems appropriate a hundred years after the end of one of the most astounding eras in Western history.  What will next year bring?  I don't know.  There will certainly be more about Clariel and Nix's attempts to sell a reluctant hero.  Then there's still plenty of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber on my shelf waiting to be read.  Having to buy a car has put a big dent in travel funds, so we'll see if that goes on hold for a bit.  Poems seem to come and go as they please.  The future is always uncertain, but what is certain is that if I'm still alive and kicking I'll be eager to share my thoughts with you here at Platypus of Truth.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Nix's Clariel and the Call to Adventure (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXIX

My strategic reading of Garth Nix's Clariel continues.  My goal with this reading is to find out how Nix creates an interesting novel with a heroine who persistently refuses the "call to adventure".  To this end, I've been taking notes as I read and sharing them here.  Those who have not read Clariel may not wish to continue reading as I do mention major plot points in my remarks.

*Dr. Song Says: Spoilers!*

The last post ended with Clariel's first lesson at the house of Magister Kargrin.  This post will run to the end of chapter nineteen or Clariel's escape from the prison hole.

7. A reluctant hero often draws the wrong conclusion from valuable information since their focus is in the wrong place.  Nix manages to use Clariel's wrong conclusions in a way that still keeps her headed toward the "the call to adventure".  She consistently fails to realize that the threats posed by Kilp and Aziminil threaten any chance she has of living as a boarderer and will continue posing such threats until they are completely wiped out.  Even then, it may not be possible for Clariel to ever become a boarderer.  While Clariel fails to fully realize these things until it's almost too late, her determination to use Kargrin and the others to get what she wants ends up pushing her in the right direction without violating Clariel's character as Nix has constructed it.

8. If the hero recognizes a similarity or link between themselves and the villain, then this will be a powerful inducement to take up the call.  In Clariel, this link paradoxically means that Clariel by agreeing to confront the villain is one step closet to getting what she wants since after the confrontation produces a link between the two she must be evacuated from Belisaere before Aziminil can find her.

9.  Nix uses small "wins," such as finding the colorful fish in Aziminil's hut, to keep the reader feeling that positive gains are being made in the story even when things seem to be going all wrong.

10. It's interesting that Clariel doesn't show any sentiments associated with actual people (in this case, to her parents) until page 148.  That's a long time for a character to remain unconnected to teh characters around them.  When we finally do see Clariel show some sentiment, however, it's much more powerful and just a little show of affection goes a long way toward making her a more sympathetic character.

11. Much of the middle section of the book seems to be about Clariel learning to find strength in her extended family to make up for the weakness of her nuclear family.  Clariel becomes more human as she realizes that she is not alone and others share her pressures and problems and are willing to help (i.e. Bel, Gully, and Kargrin).  This also begins to turn her toward taking up "the call to adventure," but her interaction with Aziminil taints this desire and keeps up the tension.  Even Hamlet has to take up the "call to adventure" by Act V.  A reluctant hero cannot always be reluctant.  Keeping the reader's interest in a reluctant hero is one problem, but negotiating the hero's transformation from reluctant hero to hero is another.  Nix seems to be coming at that transformation is small steps so that when it happens (even if it's a day late and a dollar short) the transformation is believable in terms of the character, her journey, and her world.

12. Throwing characters at a reluctant hero is a great way to railroad them into taking up the call.  This is because it's very hard for anyone to avoid forming any positive relationship at all with anyone around them.  At some point, the hero is going to feel obligated by some sort of relationship with someone to do something.  As long as that someone is tied in to the main plot, you have a motive for Prince Hamlet to act.  Nix uses the Academy as a way to force Clariel to develop the relationships (however tenuous) that will ultimately force her into action.  Even her meeting with Aronzo, who she has reason to hate, help drag her in to the main plot.

13. Kill off some characters.  Nix does a good job of misdirecting the reader from the fact that he's about to kill off Clariel's family.  The suddenness and injustice of their deaths, gives Clariel a wonderful vengeance motive and also allows her to realize that she cared about them far more than she thought.  This has the duel effect of continuing Clariel's humanization process and also giving her another personal investment in defeating Kilp and restoring order to Belisaere.  The final effect of this is that by page 227, Nix has foreced Clariel to accept the "call to adventure" and made her feel that she no longer deserves to go back to the forest.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Nix's Clariel and the Call to Adventure: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXVIII

I'm about one-hundred pages in to Garth Nix's YA novel Clariel.  One purpose I have in reading this book is to discover how Nix gets us to invest in a story with a gruff and unlikable heroine who consistently resists the call to adventure.  That's a tall order for any author, but Garth Nix seems to have pulled it off.  So here I am, pen in hand, taking notes on how he does it.  Since it looks like I'll have quite the page of notes by the time I finish Clariel, I've decided to share my thoughts in several installments.  What follows takes us through the first one-hundred pages, or right up to her first lesson in Charter Magic.  If you haven't read the book yet, you may not want to continue reading.

1. To make an "unsympathetic character" "sympathetic", establish what they love and what their goal is early on.  Give them something they want that the audience can sympathize with.  For Clariel, it's a desire to go back to the Forest and be a Boarder.  Within just a few pages, Nix makes sure that we know what Clariel loves, hates, and wants.

2. In order to hook the reader and help them through their initial distaste for the main character, use a prologue that introduces the threat.  This shows us what the cost will be if the main character refuses the "call to adventure".  In the case of Clariel, we start off with a Free Magic creature possessing an old junk collector.  We don't hear about it again until around page ninety-nine, but the knowledge that it's out there adds an undercurrent of urgency to all of Clariel's sturm und drang.

3. A character like Clariel can make up for being gruff and angsty by demonstrating exceptional competence in one area (in Clariel's case, her wood-lore and survival skills).  They need not be competent in other important areas, but if they are not weak, then we can at least respect them and maintain our interest.

4. In order for the character to remain an "unwilling hero" and not simply become "wishy-washy", they must remain ardently focused on achieving their own goals (back to the forest, back to the forest, back to the forest).  This gives them an understandable reason for resisting the "call to adventure".  They cannot resist the call permanently and still have much of a story, so at some point they will need to try and wrench the "call to adventure" to their own purposes.  For Clariel, this seems to be a matter of "I do this and I get to go back to the forest".

5. Following point four, it is important that something from the world of the "call to adventure" threaten the hero's own goals early on.  This keeps the hero engaged with the "call to adventure" even while in the midst of trying to refuse it.  In Clariel's case, this comes when Mistress Ader tells her that unless the king resumes control of the kingdom, the Boarders will be disbanded.

6. Give the character friends and allies that are maximally invested in the "call to adventure" and who can help the hero see how it applies to the hero's own goals.  Let them help the hero remove an obstacle to the hero's personal goals while at the same time pushing them to accept the "call to adventure".  For Clariel, this process begins at the Academy where she is introduced to the conspirators who are seeking to block Governor Kilp and destroy the Free Magic creature that is using him to gain power.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Wintry Reading (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXVII

Christmas Vacation is finally here and with it some time for Winter reading.  Winter reading isn't the long, lazy, meandering sort of thing that Summer reading is.  For one, the time is too short.  For two, the holiday season and the end of the quarter leave little time for easy ambling.  Winter reading is the sort of thing that gets done in a busy airport, in the shotgun seat of the car, while relatives watch t.v., or right before bed.  It's a way of filling in the corners of holiday time, a way to savor the last bit of the season.

So what have I crammed in to my Christmas Break?

Smith of Wootton Major: We read this Tolkienic scripta minora in one go with the Inklings Club this weekend.  Smith of Wootten Major is a melancholy tale about a boy who is given a passport to Faerie that he must surrender when he reaches old age.  Tolkien advised his audience to simply read and enjoy, but it's hard not to see this as Tolkien's musings on the limits of creativity and the threat posed to the Numinous and the Beautiful by Modernity.

Father Christmas Letters:  It was a Tolkien weekend that began on Friday with an Upper School trip to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and continued through a Saturday evening of food, fun, reading.  When the Inklings finished Smith of Wootten Major, we took a break to eat, fellowship, share our own creative endeavors, and then plunge back in to the world of Tolkien with his hilarious Father Christmas Letters.  The antics of Father Christmas and the North Polar Bear had us in stitches.  It was emblematic of the weekend that by the time we got to the fight with the goblins all I could think of was the North Polar Bear with his jaunty little scarf sitting on the body of Azog the Defiler and swigging a glass-bottled Coke.

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci: I've admired the work of Johnathan D. Spence ever since grad school when we read Treason by the Book.  Since then, I've gobbled down The Gate of Heavenly Peace, The Death of Woman Wang, and God's Chinese Son.  Spence has a truly literary flair and writes the best history of any living writer I've encountered.  I'm still working my way through this short book, but the level of form following function is astounding.  This is a true master-work and reminds me that some people have in fact earned the right to tenure, chairs, and research positions.

And Then There Were None: Agatha Christie is always good for a little fluffy fun.  In this case, we're reading her to get ready for this year's school play.  We have a new, experienced director who's also an alum, so I'm very excited to see this one on stage.

Clariel: I haven't read anything by Garth Nix before, but I have several friends who rave about him, so he's been on the list for some time.  The inciting incident for this particular read: I have a sad little book languishing in edit hell that needs some help with its reluctant hero and I've been told on good authority that the titular protagonist of Nix's book can point a possible way forward.

So there we go.  Who knows what of this I'll actually finish, but as with Summer reading, the point of Winter reading is not to finish but to have fun.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Gillette's Holmes: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXVI

Sherlock Holmes has been a perennial favorite since his creation at the turn of the last century.  Over the last few years, the super-sleuth's stock has risen higher than ever with an American movie franchise running side-by-side with the BBC's modern television adaptation.  Whether you're a fan of Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch, the baseline for the part was set down by now-forgotten American actor William Gillette.

William Gillette (1853-1937) led a rather colorful life that involved hanging out with Mark Twain, living for years on a river boat, revolutionizing American theater, having his posters done by the artist of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, and building his own private castle on the Connecticut River.  He even had the cheek to dress up as Sherlock Holmes for his first meeting with Conan Doyle.  This singular gent over the course of 1,300 performances created the Holmes we know and love: deerstalker cap, bent briar pipe, hawk-like profile, and prominent cocaine addiction.  He's also the one who discovered that a handsome hetero-Holmes sold tickets (Cumberbatch has proved that in recent years a homosexual Holmes can sell just as well).  All this plus a trip to Gillette's quirky castle this past summer left me eager to get a hold of the play.

Sherlock Homes is a play in four acts.  It tells us as much about fin-de-siecle culture as Guy Richie's adaptation tells us about our own times.  That is to say that it's very much a play of its time.  However, being of its time does not mean that it isn't an enjoyable read.  Gillette has a flair for personal drama, tense action, and fun characters.  His take on Holmes as a smug, world-weary, sophisticate strikes just the right note to offset the inherent pulpiness of the plot.  It's the kind of thing I would love to see a revival of, maybe with a few judicious re-writes.  Even better than a revival, however, is news that a 1916 film adaptation of the play staring Gillette has been found and it will be released in the States in May of 2015.

So, if any of that has piqued your interest, why not get the 99 cent version of the script on Kindle and give it a read?  

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Wintry Platypus Entertainments

I can't really say that it's been a long December yet, and I don't really have any reason to believe that next year will be better than the last.  It may be some consolation that I've been out of the L.A. sprawl for more than five years now.  At any rate, Winter is coming.  Winter doesn't mean much in meteorological terms in Houston, but there is still a special sort of je ne sais qua that permeates the last month of the year.  Some books, some games, some movies, and some music (without special regard for their Christmas-i-ness) feel more appropriate in December regardless of where one happens to be.

Now that the month has begun, my thoughts are turning toward the right artistic combination for the season.  In two weeks, my students and I will all be going to see the final installment in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy at the end of finals week.  In the meantime, my wife and I are in the middle of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha, a beautiful and slowly-unfolding samurai epic with just the right notes of melancholy and retrospective.  We'll see what else comes down the pipe.  Some J.R.R. Tolkien (perhaps Smith of Wootton Major?) is definitely in order.  I may also go back to Hellboy.  Whatever happens, you can be sure that I'll share any worthwhile reflections here at Platypus of Truth.