July 28, 2013 § 2 Comments
Hey dudes. How’s your summer coming? I trust you’ve been surviving without regular updates to The Oldest Jokes in the World (if you’re having trouble coping, I hear keeping up with the developments at slashserial.com helps). I hope I won’t offend any of you dedicated readers when I reveal that I’ve spent a good part of this summer reading paper books instead of blogging.
It’s been especially bad over the past few weeks because I’ve been consumed by the sort of book that engrosses you until the world (or, at least the internet) seems lifeless in comparison: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh. The good news is, though, that now that I’ve emerged on the other side of the cover, I want to get out in the world and tell everyone about it.
The second book in Ghosh’s yet to be finished Ibis trilogy, it is the follow-up to 2008’s Sea of Poppies. That first book of the trilogy is easily one of my favorites of the past ten years. Exploring the effects of the Opium trade on the Asian continent in the first half of the 19th Century, the novel had a huge cast of colorful characters from every country and caste: British sea captains, Hindi widows, disgraced zamindars, Chinese junkies, and mixed-race sailors.
Incredibly, this second book in the series adds even more characters, as we abandon the sea to follow developments in the opium trade in Canton and Hong Kong; the characters from last book remain in the action, but the focus now is on a new set of players, just as lively and believable as those I grew to love in the first part.
This huge cast of characters and cultures allows Ghosh to employ an incredible diversity of craft, as well; these novels really do everything I want a novel to do and more. As The New Yorker pointed out in their review, the novel is “At once intimate and epic,” able to illuminate huge historical machinations by closely examining the thoughts and emotions of a disparate and dynamic collection of individuals.
Even better, at least as far as this blog is concerned, it is at once smart and funny, high and low brow. With so many cultures coming together in the opium trade, there is a wealth of language in the world being described, as cultures clash against each other with misunderstanding while occasionally merging into new ways of life and pidgin dialects. The amount of detail Ghosh puts into making these distant worlds seem real and sound true is a compelling feat of historical research. Instead of relaying this knowledge with dry sobriety, though, he often uses this massive vocabulary to make dirty jokes.
While Sea of Poppies let loose some of the best fart jokes in literary history, River of Smoke had a great running joke about a French girl offending cooks by saying their kitchen smelled like a creperie. Or consider this dialogue between a group of Opium magnates: Bahram, the novel’s great fallen hero, and the free-trade obsessed Mr. Slade:
This piece of news did nothing to sweeten Mr Slade’s humor. With a quiver of jowls he issued one of his cryptic pronouncements: ‘Well, if our Achilles is to sulk in his tent, I suppose he can not be without his Patroclus.’
‘”Patroclus”?’ Bahram followed in puzzlement. ‘What is “Patroclus”? Some new kind of medicine, is it?’
‘I suppose some would call it that?’
‘But what about Charles King?’ said Bahram. ‘Why is he absent? Is he taking Patroclus also?’
‘That possibility,’ said Mr Slade gravely, ‘cannot be dismissed, certainly. Ab ore maiori discit arare minor.’
‘Baap-re! What does that mean, John?’
‘”From the older ox the younger learns to plow.”‘
‘My goodness!’ said Bahram. ‘It is unbelievable! Time is running away and they are busy ploughing and all?’
If you’re as lost as Bahram, you can learn about Achilles and Patroclus on wikipedia—a luxury no one had when our cultures were first coming together. In watching Mr Slade keep Bahram out of the joke in the scene above, we begin to suspect that he has no real interest in communing with him, sharing cultures and ideas on an equal footing, but is simply using him for further profits and power.
Interestingly, it is through scenes of misunderstanding like the one above that we begin to understand what it must have been like to live in those first explosions of globalization; I’ve written before about how jokes have an ideal listener and can work to help include (or exclude) someone from a conversation. The jokes in these novels made the world and its words—daftars, zamindars, and lascars—seem realer and more vibrant to me than any definition could. You leave these novels feeling like you’ve not only gained some understanding of the cultures discussed, but what it means for them to confront and enrich each other.
I feel this trilogy is truly the best thing going in literature right now, and am going to start the countdown as soon as a release for the conclusion is announced. If it takes Ghosh the same amount of time to get it out as it did the second, we can hope for it in 2014–which should give you plenty of time to get caught up by then.
July 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
With the second season of The Newsroom airing on HBO this summer, I thought this would be a perfect time to reblog this silly little vignette I wrote up during the controversy surrounding The Newsroom last year. With all the work I’m putting into slashserial.com, I haven’t had much of a chance to post anything new here, plus The Newsroom season one has finally made it on to Netflix, so my little parody isn’t as uninformed as it was last year!
One of my favorite non-prose writers, Aaron Sorkin, has been in the press and all over the internet lately because of his new show, The Newsroom. He’d been getting a decent amount of criticism for plagiarizing his own writing from previous shows and then last week, he fired the show’s entire writing staff—except for his ex-girlfriend—before they started on a second season. I haven’t seen The Newsroom yet (I like to wait for DVDs and take down a whole season in a week), but as an Aaron Sorkin fan with an admiring familiarity with many of his other shows and movies, I feel like I have a pretty decent guess at how these two items are related.
“THE WRITING ROOM”
by Evan Kingston
The writing staff couldn’t help being a little frightened when they showed up for their first day on The Newsroom. They were all Aaron Sorkin fans: Steve studied the cadence of Sports Night dialogue before every script he wrote, Kevin cited The West Wing as the reason he got into television, and Corinne even dated Aaron for a while—and persisted in her belief that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was underrated, even after its auteur had broken up with her. Nervous at the prospect of meeting one of TV’s greatest writers, they engaged in rapid chatter while taking nervous laps of the office’s busy hallways.
But when Aaron called them all into the writing room and introduced himself, he assuaged each and every one of their fears with a stirring speech, replete with Biblical and musical theater references, about how they were going to change television—and America itself—with the work of the coming weeks.
“But I don’t want you to feel too much pressure,” he concluded. ”Just know that the only thing you ever need to do to make me happy is come in to work every day.”
“I’m really disappointed in all of you.” Aaron said to begin their meeting the next day. ”Every script you guys gave me—the entire season—is complete crap. Start over.”
It took a long silence for any of them to work up the nerve to respond, and Kevin was first. “Can you at least tell us what we did wrong, what sort of direction to go in?”
“I brought each of you in on this show because you have good taste. So go back and look at the work I did on Sports Night—a show that was too good for TV—or West Wing, where I made America better than America ever could. That was great TV; use it as your model, your guide, your template.”
“We can do that,” Steve beamed.
“You can’t do anything right.” Aaron said at their next meeting as he slid their stacked scripts into the recycling bin he’d brought with him to the table. ”These were more like your old scripts than anything I’ve ever written.”
“So it’s got the right structure and pacing.” Aaron made a fart noise with his mouth. ”Big deal. You’re still missing most of what makes any writing great. Where’s the awkwardly pompous male lead, his intimidating father figure, a driven yet manic woman? Everything that makes a story interesting? Where’s the enticingly unavailable redhead?”
As the staff worked together all night, Kevin took charge, his confidence eventually leading him to declare, “If you haven’t seen Kevin write Sorkin, you haven’t seen Shakespeare how it’s meant to be done.”
When Corinne laughed at his reference, he seized the opportunity to declare, “You have beautiful red hair. We should go out to dinner sometime.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m sort of maybe going to be unavailable soon, so I probably shouldn’t,” she evaded.
Once she’d turned down each his thirty subsequent advances, they focused on repopulating the show with proper Sorkinian archetypes.
When they presented Aaron with their new scripts in the morning, he hung his head. ”This isn’t happening.”
“What could possibly be wrong with them now,” Steve pleaded. ”We reworked every character exactly to your demands.”
“A character is defined through dialogue,” Aaron corrected. ”So how can they be like Jed Bartlett if they don’t say what Jed Bartlett says?”
The next day, Kevin turned in a skillful pastiche of the greatest Sorkinisms ever, lines from a dozen different projects artfully arranged to form a surprisingly coherent plot. Steve turned in the pilot for Sports Night, with most of the character names changed. Corinne blew off the assignment by saying she hadn’t had time the previous night.
“I think it’s too little, too late, guys,” Aaron sighed after looking them over. ”These are close, and I’m proud of everything you’ve learned from me while working on the show, but these scripts are still missing that final touch, the right few words.”
Kevin guffawed. ”What? ‘By Aaron Sorkin?”’
“I know it’s harsh,” Aaron continued, “But this isn’t TV camp. It isn’t important that everyone gets to play. I’m sorry, but you’re fired.”
Steve, hoping it was just Kevin, asked, “Who?”
“‘Whom,’” Aaron countered pedantically.
“Actually, in this instance—”
“All of you,” Aaron interrupted. ”You’re all fired.”
The entire staff shuffled out, except for Corinne. ”Even me, Aaron? I emulated you one better than everyone else. I am wearing your shirt.”
Aaron paused for a moment before smiling. ”I thought it looked tight.”
If you’re a Sorkin fan, I hope you got a few laughs out of that and caught a few of the Easter Eggs. I really do love Mr. Sorkin’s work and am looking forward to ignoring the critics and deciding for myself once Season 1 of The Newsroomcomes out. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, satire is probably a ways further down the list, but flattery nonetheless. Or, to parody the quote that stands as this blog’s subtitle, what works can one trivialize except those of great importance.