Monthly Archives: March 2014

A Stream of Consciousness Regarding True Detective

This won’t be very linear, and if things sound like a mixture of voices rising from different corners of the room, well, that’s kind of how the show made me feel. I liked this story from start to end. You can poke holes in the most perfect structure, and this one isn’t immune to criticism by any stretch and writers far better than me have already performed far more telling autopsies.

Some of these autopsies have been less than kind and I feel they miss not just the point of a genre show, but in their eagerness for political correctness or in their bitterness at misreading the red herrings, loose the value of what’s at hand. But there is also sound and just criticism at hand, so let’s get the worst of it out of the way early.

True Detective isn’t kind to women, not in the show, not in the reality of casting or roles, and not in terms of screen time. Maggie starts out as and remains the only woman with anything real to do on the show, and even her presence is a fleeting ghost touch. All other women serve as mutilated MacGuffins, deceased props, or an artificial source of comfort or conquest for the men who exclusively attack the narrative. There is no forgiveness or excuse to be made for it, and much like the director, all I can say is that while I acknowledge this, the story called me strongly enough that I could do little more than shrug at this regretfully and move on. I might note that the show isn’t much kinder than minorities, but I think that’s stating the obvious.

Anyway.

Visually, there is stark beauty here beyond what I’ve seen in a long time in a genre show. There are moments of sheer, absolute awe and horror. Consider the wide angle helicopter shots of sprawling Louisiana countryside, where every single pixel is in perfect depth-of-field frame from one edge of the HD screen to the other, while a yellow sun cooks the vegetation and kudzu vines hanging like ropes from sagging trees, or setting-sun blaze that sets fields of green shimmering like an otherworldly landscape draped in living skin. Look at the way the camera roll in a languid, low sweep around Rust as he gets out of the car at Childress’ house separating focus from the thick, green leaves and trees in the background and Rust, and then as the camera stops, the focus inverts immediately snapping the background into a blur and Rust into crisp focus. Look, also, at the confrontation between Childress and Rust – when the killer stabs Rust and lifts him off the ground. Does he actually commit the physical act or is that how Rust feels, like he is being torn by his own body weight?

These things imply, hint, and suggest at the world of the show. A visual medium must use visual metaphors and similes to extend the story. There is some wonderful writing out there about the use of framing shots and the way the first three episodes use the medium-framing of Rust and Martin to build audience trust that makes their unreliable narration that much more unnerving as it begins to unravel.

The dialog is similarly rich – it works for me but it has also received some criticism – when Rust talks about towns and places that feel like they’re not real, just someone’s idea of places, he’s not just talking about the physical space. He’s implicating all of civilization, that this illusion of security and sanity is just a thin filter that we’re forcing around a savage and meaningless world. We’ll come back to this point later, I think.

Besides, he’s not wrong within the context of the show, and if he takes liberty with language and speaks with a hint of baroque eloquence (or, perhaps, a misguided attempt at lyrical language depending on your taste), well, I bare him no ill will to that end. I find my own way of speaking to be more convoluted than necessary, but then, I find it’s the precise lack of necessity that gives things pleasure.

So, writing, past the point of necessity, can be a pure joy if executed correctly. I’m still trying to find that balance, myself.

Anyway. Focus. Right.

Let’s talking endings, intent and the insidious nature of fiction.

The last episode has served up a considerable amount of consternation, particularly among those who’ve concocted a private narrative and concluded a path they wanted the story to take rather than waiting to listen to the writer – and that is both the genius and weakness of the writing. It sketches a world so rich, convoluted, and expansive that it cannot possibly be all of the things it evokes in its audience. That is part of the problem with works this good – they are brilliant until the mystery is solved.

Look at Twin Peaks for an example of something that worked until it didn’t and quite suddenly, it plummets from zeitgeist to cultural waste bin – once the mystery is solved. David Lynch, a man who understands the nature of mystery like few others, has said many times that mysteries aren’t meant to be solved within the story, or rather what he means, or what I take him to mean, is that they aren’t meant to be solved for the audience. That there is deep work that the audience must do along with the narrative.

I think True Detective is very clever about the way it solves the mystery, and the way it leaves it untouched at the same time. It tells a story, and hints that the truth seen, heard or implied is not the complete truth, regardless of what the characters, the episodes, the actors, the writer or the director have to say about it. That last part is important, I think, and perhaps not even a deliberate choice.

I suggest that the story in insidious enough to infect reality.

Consider, this is a show that repeatedly hammers home the fact that the narrative structure is unreliable, that the lead characters are not truthful, one commits infidelity, another has lived years lying about his own identity. The circumstances surrounding the mystery itself are shrouded in conspiracy and deceit, and even minor characters are repeatedly shown to be lying, secretive people, shrouded in layers of mystery. And yet. When the story gives us a conclusion, when the narrative provides us with a neatly tied up package, when the writer and director claims the same, that the answers are all provided for, we accept their word. The cleverest trick the Devil ever pulled, they say, was to tell the truth.

Whether Carcosa, or the King in Yellow exist is irrelevant, there is hard evidence in the show that proves some level of conspiracy, whether Rust is involved in it or not (I think not, but there is little evidence for that other than the actual ending monologue (see below)). It’s also clearly evident that the writer sketched out a world far bigger than he intended to tackle.

Because if you boil it down, if you take away all the conspiracy stuff and just look at what these eight hours are about, it’s not about the supernatural or the video tape or the King in Yellow or the Tuttle family or anything bigger than a single woman’s murder. That’s what Rust and Martin are hunting, the man they’re after is Dora Lang’s killer, nothing more.

So, yes, I can go on and on about the other men in the video tape, the spiraling birds or the vision of stars that Rust experiences, the hard evidence of the photographs and video tape that Rust claims to find in a Tuttle home – any small part of that hints at a much bigger story, at secrets that would make for compelling storytelling and a wider arc than the eight hours allowed, or could hope to accommodate, but that doesn’t diminish their influence on the story that was actually told.

These dark, unsolved secrets act as clouds hanging over a landscape, a storm with vast and ranging reach but we ourselves can only shelter and secure ourselves from its damage against us, cowering as it passes us by. The local damage in this case, is Dora Lang’s murder (and, by extension, Childress’ other victims). We submit to a force of Nature that we can’t control despite all illusions about exactly how much control we exert on reality.

Every time a storm rips across a community – named storms, hurricanes, repeatedly mentioned in the show, by the by – we manage to be surprised. Why is that?

Because the storm brewing in the show, the conspiracy, the horsemen, the Tuttles, whatever, that black and ominous cloud, that suggested horror waiting in the wings with unseen scope and scale is what the Yellow King is. That’s the horror, that’s the darkness, because all we can do is protect ourselves from the smallest personal damage possible. And that’s the truth that forces Rust to embrace the illusion he struggled against for so long.

Anyway.

Of course, there is weakness in the last episode, the final clue is classic deus ex machina of the weakest sort, and there are a couple of lines that made me roll my eyes after seven perfect episodes, but the actual conclusion hangs together because it solves the smallest mystery it needed to solve. That was the contract the show made with the audience at the beginning and it fulfills that deal, it made no deal regarding any of the other, grander, darker things hinted at.

Look at how the murderer turns out to be no more than a mentally ill, simple man with a cruel, sadistic streak – that, the story suggests, is the true face of evil. No grand spiritual meaning, just plain, every day cruel, misguided, dumb, meaningless sadism I prefer to think that the grand designs hinted at in the wings of the show (as above) carry more weight, and by leaving those things hidden, that weight will, forever, remain, and the characters, the places, the mysteries and the show will live on in my mind.

That’s good writing.

To me, anyway.

91 Years

On the morning of Friday the 14th of March, my mother’s father, my grandfather, Syed Moinuddin, passed away. He was 91 at the time of his death.

In 1923, he was born into an India that was held by an imperial foreign power. King George V of Britain claimed to rule a land he visited but twice, and that was enough to brand my grandfather a British subject. The Mughal dynasty had faded away long ago, and along with it, the last barrier to foreign rule. The last Muslim ruler – Bahadur Shah Zafar – died in 1857, exiled in Burma, denied the right to be buried in his own homeland.

India was very different in 1923, stretching from the Hindukush in the west, buttressed against Afghanistan and to the east against China, in the north against Russia and Mongolia, it stretched to the south all the way to the very tip, standing on one foot on the rock of Sri Lanka. There was no Pakistan, no Bangladesh, just India. But India was not really Indian anymore.

My great-grandfather, it’s said, was a man of wealth and means, and my grandfather received a princely upbringing and a fine education. There is a legend I heard as a child from my grandmother. Whether it’s about my great-grandfather or not, I don’t remember.

Once upon a time, she said, a rich and powerful land lord with great swaths of land and villages to his name had no children. He lived in a manor surrounded by great orchards, where peacocks would preen and show off their feathers and the family gathered on the high veranda surrounding the house to look out over their vast properties. Traveling between villages in his carriage one day, the land lord came across a beggar walking in the road. For whatever reason, he offered the beggar a ride, and gave him the two pomegranate seeds that he had remaining to eat. Reaching the village, the beggar stepped off the carriage and smiled at the land lord, “May Allah grant you as many sons as the seeds you have given me.” Two sons were born then, to the land lord.

My grandfather had one brother who died in the late 80s, I think. It doesn’t matter if the story is true in fact, it’s true in other, more important ways. It was the story I told my son the night he was born, while my wife slept, and I walked him in the dark of the hospital room, trying to shush his crying. He listened attentively once I  began speaking in Urdu, blinking his new-born eyes at me, and then fell asleep. The next day, my grandfather came, and held him.

I visited those ancestral lands once, twenty years ago, and all I remember is a warm clear blue sky, fields of golden corn, orchards hanging low with mangoes and guava, and a thin blue stream bubbling down to the Ganges somewhere to the west. An old, peeling, one-room brick mosque stood among the trees, with small minarets, graves behind the prayer wall, names fading on the tombstone. Who knows if any of that still exists.

And, I know, these aren’t the true ancestral homelands, that would be the water-starved town of Gardez in Afghanistan, or before that, maybe even the deserts of Arabia. Who knows, really, and how greedy can you be with cultural appropriation? Indian, Afghan, Arab…

70 years after he was born, in the mid 90’s, he visits me in my college dorms and tells me of his hazing in college. “They made me stand up on a chair and recite poetry.”

His love for Urdu poetry and writing was, I think, his great personal joy. He wrote in Urdu, and kept his long handwritten notes in a cupboard in the living room, and sometimes I looked through them but never quite understood the twisting, convoluted truth that writhe in Urdu poetry. Words with double purpose, phrases that turn on each other, devouring meaning but illuminating revelation. It was far above my head.

Sometimes I wonder if my own doubt and shyness about my writing isn’t inherited from him, why I write and put away things instead of showing them to other people. A few years ago, my uncle collected my grandfather’s materials and printed a collection of his poetry in India under the name my grandfather assumed for his poetry. My grandfather was so happy to hold the book in his hands, hear the poems read aloud.

His appreciation for English literature was also a deep and passionate thing, one he passed on to me. He frequently read Charles Dickens and Walter Scott; Great Expectations and Ivanhoe being the books he read me the most often when I was little. I think while he appreciated the Victorian novel, he loved the medieval stories best, stories and poems of knights and battles in far away lands he never saw. My son Samir is quite blond and when they met, my grandfather – his great-grandfather – called him Sir Samir. “You look like a knight,” he said. It’s easy to picture the kid’s shaggy blond hair in a suit of armor atop a horse with lance in hand. They shook hands with great solemnity.

Last year, his eyesight was too far gone to make out words on a page and so I read aloud the Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Tennyson. I don’t think I did it any justice, but he smiled to hear it anyway.

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward…

In 1947, after the freedom and during the partition of India, he was living in North India. He was married with one son. The country was violently tearing itself apart as Pakistan split off. They lost everything – the lands, the villages, the mansions, the wealth (if it ever really existed), all reclaimed by the Indian socialist government from those they considered to be British collaborators. The family broke in two in a desperate bid for survival, his younger brother went to Pakistan and he moved south to the city of Hyderabad.  In that city, three year later, my mother was born. Three other children followed and 27 years after my mother, I was born.

My brother and I grew up in the modest house my grandparents had built for their children. It was a lovely place, surrounded by walls with doors into neighbors yards and fruit trees, vegetables and herbs in the back. The bougainvillea bushes covered the front wall with purple flowers alongside tall trees that I can see but can’t remember the names of. There, he taught me to read and write in English, Urdu and Arabic, he helped me memorize long Arabic passages for prayer, passages I still remember, though I seldom if ever put those memories to use anymore. The house is gone now, sold to a land developer who knocked it down, and built condos where where… well. So much happened. The house was called Jamey Gulshand.

When my grandfather died a week ago, it was after a long, bitter, cold, and cruel illness that left him a shadow of the active, energetic, passionate person I knew. The man who laughed frequently, and would lie in bed, singing Urdu ghazals to himself in a deep tone, occasionally he would speak in Farsi and my grandmother would laugh, asking me if I knew what he said, a man who would rather walk than take a bus, no matter the distance or the heat.

That man was long gone, and the one left behind was a pale, pale ghost. I was grateful for the end to his suffering. He never had many possessions but in the end, he had very few belongings left to him. Among them was a small ball of dried mud that he would hold sometimes, mud collected from the Ganges delta, the river that gave life to the verdant valley of his youth. I wonder what he remembered when he held that ball of dirt in his hand.

Well.

He was born an English subject in a rural, occupied India and died a celebrated patriarch with 5 children, 13 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren in his son’s home in America. He was buried the next day in a foreign land but alongside his wife of 65 years. He was a man who prayed 5 times every day even when I hated the thought of him bowing to a god who would allow him to be in so much pain. His faith was absolute, while mine dissolved and ran like water colors into the gutter of disbelief. Even so, he never begrudged me anything, never asked me why. I loved him for that.

Now with both my grandparents gone, it feels like the most decent, honest, humble, good people I’ve ever known are now lost and I’ll never know anyone like them again. It feels like the end of something big. Though my parents are both here, I can’t help feeling like an orphan. A piece of history ended last week.

Quada-hafiz, Abba.

The Re-spawning

At the height of our mutual dislike, in the midst of chasing each other, eager for a fight, over some perceived and forgotten slight, my brother and I found ourselves in a neighborhood far from home. Suddenly we were surrounded by kids we did not know who saw two boys separated from their pack of friends and were hungry for a bit of the old ultra-violence.

I had been running after my brother who was on his bike. As the other boys surrounded me, I saw my brother take off, pedaling with furious speed, a feral grin on his face. It made sense, I didn’t begrudge him. I had been chasing him to administer a thrashing, and the fact that I in turn should be surrounded served as poetic justice. I put on a brave front, preparing to take my lumps, while my heart raced and my hands shook in fear of the Cricket equipment they carried, hoping to make it out without broken bones.

Their leader was a big boy, cruel, and he indulged himself, shoving me around, mocking my name, my bone-thin frame, my brother who had just abandoned me while his friends laughed. I retaliated with weak retorts and a quickly fading voice from a drying throat. Five minutes passed, and I had barely suffered a few bruises when I saw a bike come around the corner of the street.

It was my brother, that same feral grin on his face, as he sped up to me. Following after him were a half dozen of my friends.

What does this have to do with anything?

Well. After a perfectly normal 20 week anatomy scan on Monday, my dear wife announced her pregnancy on Facebook.

This unexpected occupation by an unannounced tenant in her body is a source of both relief and worry. We hadn’t planned for this, nor allowed for its eventuality in our long term plans, but the surprise is not unpleasant. Our first child is a human male, and since that worked out quite well for us, our genes decided to play things safe and produced a sequel.

As evidenced above, I grew up with a younger brother myself, and while we were relatively close until I hit puberty, we reversed polar for the next ten years. Much of it had to do with things that are far too complicated to get into here, but sometime in my mid-twenties, we began to reconcile and the last ten years have been significantly improved, the sometimes-cold, sometimes-hot war had been replaced with a peace treaty and bricks from the wall of separation between us have been used to build bridges instead. Problems, of course, remain, but they seem less intractable.

When I tried to think about my son without me and my wife in the picture, it often left me feeling sad and anxious. The idea of being completely alone in the world is the greatest source of agitation and stress for me. As someone with a small but intensely loyal group of friends that is something of a chosen family, I don’t devalue their contribution to my life. Certainly, they have been the reason I was able to get through the difficult steps necessary to become who I am now.

But I like to imagine that there is some value to be had in family as well. Coming from a culture of intense familial closeness in my psychic infancy, I value relations of blood quite highly. The fact that I remain more or less segregated from the vast breadth of my own blood family for whatever reason (lack of faith, or difference in age, or geographical distance, or cultural incompatibility) is a constant source of consternation and regret. I’m grateful now that my partner and I will parent two children, my son will share blood companionship beyond just his elders. And that he will be part of a family beyond his own, in his later life.

Rather coincidentally, I recently played a game called Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – which is probably the finest example of art, emotion and storytelling I’ve ever experienced in a video game. I’ll write about it on its own once I have some perspective, but it left me feeling incredibly grateful for this happy turn of events.

Briefly, the game follows two brothers in search of a cure for their ailing father, and must work together to overcome obstacles. The older brother is stronger, the younger more agile and able to squeeze through openings too small for his elder sibling. This elegant set-up allows for incredible depth of storytelling and emotion, and it very accurately depicts the relationship between two brothers as I experienced it.

It made my heart yearn for the sort of adventures I had with my brother when I was young. And it made me heartsick and grateful to imagine that my sons might have such adventures as well, together. Stories I’ll never hear, but with fallout I’ll see, whether in bruised limbs and torn clothes, angry words or desperate misdirections from truths that might anger or worry. I know there will be arguments, fights, and I’ll see their lives through a veil, obscuring much, whether by design or accident.

But I hope – hope for them to be friends, like my brother and I turned out to be, after our time in the desert, after years when our hatred for each other was so intense that it seemed like we might be pleased to see each other murdered.

I hold on to the fact that in the worst depths of our loathing for each other, my brother raced to fetch me help, when he saw I was surrounded, despite himself and our differences. He came to my rescue.

My son seems quite excited by the possibility of becoming a big brother, and announces it with glee to everyone he meets. I’m grateful for the changes we’ve made to our house recently – and that we made the move to a house from an apartment at all! – making it more permanent, and further adjustments will be essential, but for now, this pregnancy has put to rest an anxiety that I never even bothered to acknowledged, because it had seemed uncontrollable before.

It’s funny how far this is from how I imagined life ten years ago, and how glad I am to experience this bounty of new and unexpected experiences. I’m excited to see my new son in a few months time, and introduce him to his brother.