The Counselor

I accidentally went to see The Counselor last night. My friend Erica and I had dinner and went to a bonfire at the university where we work, but it was really cold last night, and we decided to see a movie. Erica read a one-sentence summary and told me Michael Fassbender was in it (which was really all I needed to be convinced).

Somehow, I failed to remember until the opening credits rolled that The Counselor is the film for which Cormac McCarthy wrote the script. (The Daily Beast posted a great explanation of why it’s important that McCarthy wrote the script and that it was successfully made into a film.)

Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant contemporary American writer. The Road is one of the best post-apocalyptic books of all time, and one of my favorite pieces of contemporary fiction. After reading that novel in 2009, I picked up Blood Meridian, a friend having told me that it was McCarthy’s best work. I finally abandoned that novel halfway in because I actually couldn’t handle the gritty, violent bleakness of the book. The Counselor very effectively captured McCarthy’s narrative style, which worked sometimes and failed at others.

To summarize the film, Michael Fassbender plays the Counselor, an unnamed lawyer who gets involved in drug trafficking. The film moves between El Paso, where the Counselor lives with his fiance and where Brad Pitt drinks in bars and holds meetings with the Counslor, and Juarez, Mexico, where Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz’s characters are primarily based. There are brief forays into London, Amsterdam, Chicago, and Boise, which reveal the widespread operation of the drug traffickers. The Counselor joins the trafficking operation, but things quickly fall apart when the son of one of the Counselor’s clients is killed. Those involved in the operation attempt to run, mostly unsuccessfully. The film closes with one man facing the graphic, horrifying results of the choices he made, understanding that his greed (and the others’, though that isn’t necessarily made clear) led to unbearably tragic consequences.

There are some aspects of the film that worked really well. Ridley Scott directed, and the film was a fantastic visual representation of McCarthy’s prose; vast landscapes of both the city and the desert, combined with shots of a man driving a motorcycle at 200 mph and cheetahs chasing jackrabbits, immediately foreshadow how the film’s plot will play out. These people are driven by greed, by a futile search for wealth, by a desire to hunt and vanquish anyone who gets in their way. They are intensely selfish and engaged in a lifestyle that the Counselor really can’t fathom.

Where the film doesn’t quite work well lies with McCarthy’s writing, I think. His prose is sparse. In The Road, for example, he has virtually no organization pattern: no chapters, no quotation marks or attribution phrases to indicate dialogue or speaker. This works really well for his stories, though. When style can combine with content to reveal desperation and desolation, writing can be more powerful. An author can leave out major plot elements (like what caused the apocalypse) and trust the reader either to fill in the gaps or to recognize that those plot elements never mattered to begin with. The blending of form and content can propel the story, add suspense, and keep the reader engaged, constantly looking for clues as to what’s really happening. 

That doesn’t work as well in film, though. The first 3/4 of the movie left me confused but interested (and, frequently, disturbed) as I tried to piece together the story–how did all these people connect, what specific role does each play, why are they all so messed up, who are these random people who are clearly antagonists? But none of that really gets explained. The subtlety of the story doesn’t always give the reader enough to work with. (It does provide some weird and disturbing sex scenes that I wish I could remove from my memory.)

And then the last part of the film involves a lot of conversations on phones, and the film beats the reader over the head with METAPHORS and DEEP (or perhaps empty) PHILOSOPHICAL CONCEPTS and THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND. Oh, so those cheetahs were supposed to be metaphors for Cameron Diaz’s characters; somehow I missed that EVEN THOUGH she has cheetah prints tattooed on her body (I didn’t miss that; note the sarcasm). I was rolling my eyes at the point when Fassbender is on the phone with some guy, who tells him about all the different kinds of worlds there are and why he can’t live in one world when he’s entered another and THESE ARE THE CHOICES YOU’VE MADE and IT’S HOPELESS and SUCK IT UP, COUNSELOR. The film shifts from very subtly showing to over-the-top telling, then to a suckerpunch of a conclusion (not unexpected, just really, really bleak). I wish we could have worked more toward a middle ground: slightly less subtlety in the beginning and slightly less preaching at the end.

Books and films are different mediums. Both are vital, but they can’t be treated the same way. In books, the writer only has his or her words; subtle descriptions can blend with narration to craft the story. But trying to blend subtlety with too much exposition in the dialogue is frustrating.

Yes, the film is visually artistic. It is visceral and bleak and violent (though not the most violent thing McCarthy could have written, so there’s that). Fassbender and Bardem are fascinating to watch, as usual. And it left me feeling hopeless at the end. I wish I’d been more prepared for the film, but I don’t actually regret watching (most of) it. I’ll never see it again, and there are very few people I would recommend this film to. I’m impressed that McCarthy managed to get an original screenplay produced, but I think he should focus on novel writing and let other screenwriters adapt his work instead.

More Than This

Ask me what my favorite book is, and I’ll pause because, for some reason, my FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME isn’t all that popular in the United States. Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go should be the most famous dystopian young adult novel of all time. It’s far better written, way more thought-provoking, and definitely more relevant than The Hunger Games (which I liked a lot, so no offense there). It inspired me to write my M.A. thesis (I even borrowed a quote for the title of my thesis), and it gets better every time I read it (four times now). Ness’ follow-up young adult novel, called A Monster Calls, was beautiful and haunting and award-winning and NOTHING like his Chaos Walking trilogy. Ness is brilliant. He is versatile. And he breaks my heart every flipping time.

I’ve finally finished his newest book More Than This.

* * *

More-Than-This-Patrick-Ness-628x1024“‘People see stories everywhere,’ Regine says. ‘That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.’ She glances back at Seth. ‘We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.'”

* * *

More Than This was released last month, and I’ve been reading it for the better part of a month, only because it’s impossible to read when one is a writing teacher, not because the book wasn’t utterly engrossing.

The book begins hauntingly: “Here is the boy, drowning.” No pretense. Seth dies before we’ve even reached the official first chapter. Seth, our protagonist, wakes up in a desolate wasteland in the town in England where he lived as a child. He is alone, naked, and covered in metallic bandages. The head injury the he sustained before drowning seems to have no bearing on this reality in which he exists now. And he’s got to figure out what’s going on.

He thinks he’s in hell, that this is the afterlife: alone, transported to a place where his life was utterly different. He believes he has to pay penance for the choices he made as both a child and a teenager. Then, he meets Regine, a large, sassy, black girl, and Tomasz, an intelligent, sweet, brave Polish boy. And his understanding–as well as our understanding–of reality completely shifts.

I can’t really say anything more than that. This book is a whole lot of things that have to be experienced on one’s own. It’s terrifying; I wouldn’t let myself read when I was home alone at night. I seriously tried to read as much as possible during daylight hours. This book is unnerving, constantly challenging my expectations of where the story was heading. This books is confrontational, as if it and I were in constant conversation; it kept subverting my understanding of the story and throwing ideas and philosophies in my face. If this book were a person, it and I would have some spectacular verbal fights. And maybe throw a few fists, too. And we would respect each other for our differences.

Terrifying, unnerving, and confrontational are good qualities for this story to have. It’s an existential journey through a desperate world; the characters and the readers will both question reality and push against the constraints of what is and ought to be. It’s a story about people who face a desolate future and know that there has to be more than this; they are the few who get the chance to find out what this is or might be, and they fight to find the truth and to discover what really matters.

That being said, the ending made me angry. I closed the book, closed my eyes, and said audibly, “What are you doing to me, Patrick Ness?” This book affected me differently than all his other books. I wanted a different ending; I wanted confirmation, closure, but the book wouldn’t give that to me. I don’t think the book is capable of giving that to me; everything contained within the story led to this conclusion. I just didn’t want to accept it.

Ugh, this is so vague. I can’t give you any more than this, though. (Did you see what I did there?) This book was fantastic, and Ness is still the genius I always thought him to be. When I read Ness’ books, I have to suspend my expectations, put my trust in his storytelling abilities, and hold on for the ride. It’s worth it every time, for the way he makes me perceive the world in which I live, for the way he makes me hope for better things in the face of adversity, for the way he makes me want to fight oppression and negativity. For the way I get absorbed in a story that engages my mind and my heart. For the way I want to yell at him for what he does to the story and then hug him for making my life better.

Patrick Ness is amazing. I have so much respect for him. And I’m doing my level best to convince everyone I know to read his stuff. Get to it, people!

Wake Me Up

Two of the last three mornings I’ve woken up, shaking the remnants of dreams out of my consciousness. Fortunately, while these dreams have been vivid and their effects lingering, they haven’t been visceral, haunting dreams. Just reflective.

Dream #1: I was alone in San Francisco, having flown there for a vacation trip. I was exploring an art museum near the wharf (or at least my mind’s version of the wharf), and most of the dream took place in the museum bookshop. A really nice woman working in the shop watched me wander around the shop, picking up and setting down books, postcards, and figurines. She finally called me to the counter and pulled a book out. She said, “You’ve been to Boston, right?” I said yes. (In the dream, this didn’t seem strange, but this was the first conversation we’d had; how did she know my love for Boston?) She said, “You’ll find this book interesting, then. It’s about the literary connections between California writers and Boston writers.” I turned the book over, noting that the price was only $6.95. (Seriously?!? A scholarly book for $7? This was definitely a dream!) She then said, “This will be useful when you return to Boston.” After a longer conversation, I bought the book and some postcards, then left the museum, wrapping my scarf tighter around my neck and setting off to explore windy San Francisco.

I woke up, wrapped in my fluffy comforter in my room in South Carolina, happy that it was a Saturday morning but disappointed that I wasn’t exploring alone, confidently, in California, too. I even looked up flights to San Francisco, which means that TripAdvisor is going to be emailing me travel deals on flights to SF for the rest of my life now.

Dream #2: I went to North Carolina to a tattoo/piercing place. I arrived there to discover that, unbeknownst to me, one of my students worked there. (This place employed a lot of people–my student was an assistant of some sort and was absent for most of the dream.) The place was housed in an old farmhouse, and I seemed to be the only patron (or else they were all hidden in other rooms in the house). I walked in and talked to the woman at the front, who asked what I was there for. I spent a long time discussing tattoos and piercings with her. I decided I would get a second hole in my ear, then decided against that. I considered piercing the cartilage at the top of my ear, but I knew that hurt, and I didn’t think I would even like having that done, so I decided against that, too. Finally, I settled on what I knew I’d come for anyway: a tattoo. I knew the exact tattoo I wanted: lyrics from the Gaslight Anthem’s song “Handwritten” (about writing: “It travels from heart to limb to pen”) with an image of a pen and drops of ink. When I described the tattoo to the tattoo artist, she even knew I would want the drops of ink. She handed me a book to pick out a font (is that even a thing?), but I spent so much time trying to decide that we ran out of time. (Apparently, she only tattoos people in the yard of the house, and the sun was setting. Yeah, I don’t know what that’s about, either.) I said that I would come back now that I’d decided what I want; I said goodbye to my student and left. I think both the tattoo artist and I knew that I wouldn’t be back. Then, I woke up with a terrible headache.

Ultimately, I think both of these dreams are about figuring out what my actual, waking dreams are. This is a natural result of achievement, right? For those of you who don’t know, I recently got a job promotion. Starting November 1, I’ll be full-time faculty at North Greenville. I’ll no longer try to balance a full-time staff position in the library and writing center with teaching classes as an adjunct. My last day in the library is Oct. 31, and I’m very excited to be moving finally into a position I’ve hoped to have for almost five years.

I’m 28 years old. I’m young. Too young, it almost seems, to be in my fifth year of teaching college writing and to have been hired as a full-time English instructor. But this is my dream: to teach students how to write and how to love literature. Yes, it’s at a small university, and yes, I’ll never be wealthy. But after a semester last spring of wondering if I’d made the right career choice and even of considering leaving my career, this semester has been a beautiful confirmation of why I love my job and why I love being at NGU. I have amazing students right now, and I’m finally going to be able to focus solely on them.

The rest of my life, however, is in a space of wondering what my other actual, waking dreams are. I’ve known for years that I place too much of my identity into being either a student or teacher (depending on what season of my life I was in at the time). Weekends, summers, and vacations often seem like a pause from “real life.” Even when I traveled to Savannah last weekend to present at a conference, I worried about my students and kept in contact with them through email and Twitter as they took tests and submitted essays, even in my absence. Life away from my work seems weird and unnatural.

But aside from my career and my students, what do I want? In looking at the first dream, it seems obvious: I want to travel. Duh. I know that. Everyone knows that. In the first dream, I was alone, exploring a strange city, unafraid. I want that. I don’t always have the financial ability to do that, but that’s a goal worth achieving, right? It’s definitely manageable, too. If I save up, search for inexpensive flights and hotel deals, I, too, can visit San Francisco. I could even write that book (as my friend Kevin suggested)! After all, writing a travel guide is on my List of Things To Do Before I Die.

You know what else is on my List? Getting a tattoo. The tattoo I described in the dream is the one that’s been on my mind for the last six months. In March, I saw The Gaslight Anthem live, and when they sang “Handwritten,” I remember thinking, I should have that line tattooed on my wrist. I love it so much, and it seems to encompass all that I love about writing and music. So why haven’t I gotten a tattoo yet? Fear, definitely. Fear of judgment from people who disapprove of tattoos. Fear that I, too, will regret my choice years down the road.

In the second dream, there was a dream within reach, and I walked away from it because of fear and indecision. In the first dream, my dream was happening, but it’s unattainable right now. In real life, I’ve achieved one of my dreams. Now might be a good time to rest in that fact and remind myself that dreams don’t happen in my own timing (otherwise, I would have been a full-time instructor two years ago). I need not despair that I haven’t visited San Francisco or gotten a tattoo yet. I need not despair that I haven’t figured out how to introduce myself to that very attractive guy I’ve been eyeing. I need not despair that I haven’t figured out where and when I’m going to get my Ph.D.

I do, however, need to recognize that these are all dreams that I have and that fear and indecision might, in the future, keep me from achieving them. It’s also telling that I was alone in both dreams: I want independence (traveling alone in SF), but I need accountability to follow through with some things (getting the tattoo). Facing my fears and dreams on my own is not going to work.

Knowing this, and knowing the dreams I’d like to follow through on, what happens next? Maybe it’s time to start figuring that out.