Episode 54: The Plant Stopped Growing

I’ve been reading some interesting lit theory essays and whatnot but this one particular text has got me thinking way too much. I just finished Stephen King’s foray into digital serials with his webnovel The Plant. This was my first time actually reading a King novel (I know, bad English major) but from what I’ve seen in his films, the narrative structure is fairly similar to his other works. Take something fairly normal and mundane, start teasing out the problems/conflicts/desires of your characters, add crazy supernatural element that completely redifines the trajectory of the story. What’s even creepier is just how much the story hits close to home. Without the crazy telepathic super plant of course.

The story is simple enough. John Kenton is an editor at Zenith House, a very low quality book publisher. Sales are craptacular so they are trying to find the next big seller before the company goes under. John has an English degree from Brown, loves literature, and hates his life and his job, but his long distance girlfriend Ruth keeps him grounded. His boss is editor in chief Roger Wade, who is strict but ends up being a father figure to John. He believes he found a book with potential in the form of Carlos Detweiller who writes about the occult and other dark stuff he claims is true. Also, he and John are both from Rhode Island (spooky, right?). Carlos’s manuscript and appended photos are weird and scary as Hell so they call the cops on him but they can’t find anything. Carlos then proceeds to threaten John and sends what seems to be an ordinary house plant named Zenith, the common Ivy. John asks that any such package be destroyed immediately but the janitor Riddley Walker decides to keep it. And the things start getting weird.

Over the following chapters we learn that: Carlos is a powerful warlock but he is also very stupid. Ruth breaks up with John after she falls in love with another man while she is doing her PhD on the other side of the country. The Janitor isn’t a stereotypical black guy but actually a graduate from Cornell that is doing research for a book. Sandra, one of the editors, is a bit of a slut. Herb Potter, another editor, is being threatened by crazy WWII commando Major General Anthony “Iron Guts” Hecksler for rejecting his book. Iron Guts escapes an insane asylum, fakes his own death and prepares to take out the entire staff. All the supernatural stuff is real. The tiny plant is telepathic, invisible to everyone but a few chosen people (the editors at Zenith, plus Riddley) and grants inspiration to anyone who smells it. Thanks to the plant, the editors are able to find/make very promising books that can not only help Zenith survive but thrive and make everyone rich. Carlos and the general prepare to kill their respective targets but end up meeting and killing each other. The plant actually eats the latter except for a few undigestibles. The ensemble comes even closer together in their circle of trust as they hide the deaths and the evidence but worry what will happen to them now.

At this point you’d expect things to get even freakier, like the editors going crazy and kill each other or something while the plant is being a master puppeteer or something. But no the story end here. The story takes place in 1981, was published in 2000 in six parts, and has been left unfinished since then.The website itslef actually says that should inspiration ever come back the story might continue, though probably not in the web format. Still, I have to give credit for King’s form of publication. He actually sold the book on an honor system. You could get the PDF for free, and he asked that you give him a buck or two per installment (I’ll send him ten bucks or so once the next part gets made or I finish mydissertation, whichever comes first). I read in Wikipedia that he expected that readership to pay ratios should be at 75% or he’d stop the book entirely. Maybe he took that a bit too seriously, I don’t know but The Plant remains in a sort of narrative limbo. You could believe that the current open ended finale could work as an ok conclusion but more installments were promised so the story feels like it should continue but it has been halted. And thus readers wait to see what happens next or even if there ever will be a next.

One more interesting thing about the novel is that it is written in a weird modern epistolary format. Readers only get get to read the story through interoffice memos, letters, diary entries, and such from various characters. Including the crazy antagonists and a few pages from the plant explaining how things are going when no one is at the office. Thus, the narrative voices are given with hindsight, we know they survive whatever they are talking about and the whole process is a bit meta, which I actually enjoy for the sake of reading and research. Also, only parts 2 and 3 have a synopsis of previous events that actually contains some foreshadowing and clarifies events but do not exist in further installments which are almost double the length of the first ones. Weird huh.

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Episode 53: When Fiction Is Shaped by Real Tragedy

There are many topics on which I was planning to write about tonight. Some books that I read over the last few weeks, my experiences teaching today, even a cool anime about boxing. But then something happened that has a lot of people just the wind knocked out of them. As I mentioned in one of my first posts, I’m a big wrestling fan and tonight I was watching Raw like I normally do when the unimaginable happened. Jerry the King Lawler, wrestling legend, hall of famer and funny color commentator for the program, who had just wrestled in a tag match with Randy Orton against CM Punk and Dolph Ziggler (and won by the way). A few moments later, the concentration of the crowd left the ring and focused on the announcer’s table, rather than being shattered at the end of a match, Jerry the King Lawler collapsed.

Not caught on camera, but seen by thousands on the live performance, Jerry’s voice stopped being part of the program as Michael Cole continued to provide commentary. A few moments later, Cole explained that Lawler had collapsed ringside, doctors rushed out took him backstage, were performing CPR, and took him to the nearest hospital. The silence became palpable, as segments and matches continued sans commentary, something not audible for the live audience but a constant presence for the viewers at home.

Twitter was immediately flooded with the hashtag #PrayForLawler as it trended worldwide almost instanteneously. Perhaps more interesting was the connections that it drew from past tragedies. The most obvious of course was that of the 9/11 anniversary coming up only an hour after the night’s broadcast. Wrestling fans however made the connection to a more personal tragedy from about 13 years ago. In a stunt gone horribly wrong, Owen Hart ziplinned from the rafter’s to the ring only to fall tragically. He was immediately taken on a stretcher out of the arena. The pay per view continued as normal and at the end, good old JR had the unenviable task of having to tell the world that Owen Hart had died. Tonight, his brother Bret Hart had made his triumphant return to Raw in Montreal. For some reason one tragedy reverberates with the other and circumstances began to be reflected. Owen died almost on impact but his death was not reported until after the event itself. A lot of us feared that the same was happening now. Cole would come back and put these anxieties to rest as he said that Lawler was breathing on his own. You don’t ease someone into sad new by saying that things were getting better, that hope was clear even in the darkest of skies (unless you’re an evil bastard and not even in kayfabe would anyone try to pull that).

Perhaps the most real moment came when Michael Cole clearly said that this was not part of tonight’s entertainment. This was code for saying that this was not scripted, as pretty much every second of the actual program. Somewhere in the midsts of tragedy , there are two mindsets that appear amongst performers and viewers alike. The show must go on vs we need to stop this. Now. Raw is a live show and hasn’t missed a program in decades. The most that has happened is that the deaths of wrestlers greatly impact the program content. When Owen died the matches, interviews, and overall segments were a tribute to him as a person and an athlete, even when his character at the moment was a heel. A few tyears ago something similar happened when Cris Benoit died, and it was known just hours before the show, they scrapped the live performance and proceeded with interviews and clips of his greatest matches, even having to abort the storyline of Vince MacMahon’s Kayfabe death. It wasn’t until the more gruesome details of the murder/suicide of his family that Benoit was almost erased from the annals of wrestling history.

From a serial literature perspective, a lot of things happen in between installments that can change everything. Important events can easily overshadow or hampen the delivery of any part of the narrative. Charles Dickens had to postpone installments twice because of a death in the family. It gets even weirder with the events of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which Dickens died by the time that the third installment had just been published. He had written up to the sixth installment, and thus the question arised, do we stop the story now, publish what we’ve got, or find someone to basically finish the novel. They inevitably chose the second option, thus leaving the narrative officially unfinished and any event occurring to the characters after the sixth installment is pure speculation, guesses, and maybe even qualifies as fan fiction.

As for tonight, the most recent reports show that Jerry is responsive, breathing on his own, and getting further tests to see what’s going on. Further addendums of, “this is not part of the show” and “this is real” still ring through all reports. Either way, my thoughts and preayers are with Jerry and his family. Hope yours are as well. Let’s see how the shows and performers go on.

Episode 52: The Woman in White

Over the last few days I have been working on a classic Victorain serial which is considered to be one of the first sensationalist novel. Written in 40 parts over a span of 10 months in the literary magazine All Year Round, William “Wilkie” Collins delivers a pretty awesome novel. You can tell that a lot of future works borrowed heavily in the narrative strategy department of how to make people gasp in surprise. If you are interested in reading this one on your own then stop reading now because spoiler alerts follow like crazy.

As I always say, pacing is a big issue. If you read the book straight up you are going to find a lot of discrepancies in chapter length. There are a few short ones here and there but a few long ones just seem to drag on. However, if you read it in the serialized installments(which I only know thanks to a book thatcontains the original breaks for a lot of Victorian serials) , each subsection is almost uniform in length and tend to end with a gasp worthy cliffhanger. In order to try and keep as close to serial reding experience as possible, I take breaks at each installment break, mostly an excuse to rest eyesight, do some pushups, facebook break or whatever but this does help me take a moment and reflect where the story has been and surmise where it is going. The narrative is predictable in its unpredictability in that you know that something crazy is just right around the corner.

I don’t know if my serial senses are sharpening, I read some review a while ago which I don’t actively remember, or if it was just a lucky guess but I was able to notice Chekov’s Gunman early on in the novel. While the mysterios and elusive Anne Catherick is mentioned several times as someone to keep an eye on, but mild mannered Italian Professor Pesca who only shows up in the first chapter (and again near the end) caught my eye. Especially, once Yokozuna sized 20 Charisma Count Fosco is shown to be the real villain of the story.

Spoilers show in the story already through two particular forms. First off is the index. A lot of books will have chapter titles that can range from obvious summary to subtle thing you’ll figure out later. The weird thing is that all the chapters are numbered without a title per se, but they do have the character that wrote different parts of the novel. Hence you know that barring any weird flashbacks or whatever, you know that Walter Cartright and a few other people still have an important role to play out. The other ppoint is the narrative framing of the book itself. It is set up as the characters going back and writing about their events. In the case of Marian Halcombe, they show her actively keeping a journal, which can be assumed as collected at some moment afterwards but other characters deliberately said they convinced him to write about this long after the fact of these events and that the reader should not worry about how they got it. Because it’s portrayed in hindsight you get a lot of moments where the suspension of disbelief is strained as to whether the characters will survive, succeed, etc.

Here’s the quick summary of major plot points, I swaer if any students come here to avoid their literary responisbilities, whis will only help a bit. Read the actual thing.

Walter Hartright is a drawing teacher and has heard about a job, room and board for a few months. On the way there, crazy girl dressed completely in white (Anne Catherick) talks with him. He is friendly, they talk a while, lets her go, turns out she just escaped the Asylum.

Hartright gets to Limeridge where half sisters Marian Halcombe (the smart dependable but kind of old at the age of 32 and ugly one) and Laura Fairlie (hot one who cries all the time, about to turn 21). Walter immediately falls in love with Laura but it turns out she’s engaged. Depression ensues as love is obvious but they can’t. Walter leaves and tries to do something completely different far away but will send some letters to Marian because she is super friend zoned. Laura gets a book of drawings which she keeps in secret.

The fiancee is a 40 year old dude called Percival Glyde, technically Sir Glyde because he is a Baronet. Laura all but begs him to call off the wedding because she loves someone else but Glyde is a dick and refuses. His anger management issues also become apparent. There are some issues as to how money will be split up, because property laws in Victorian England are harsh and suck for women. There are a few moments of hope but in the end they get married.

After a long honeymoon, SIr and Lady Glyde return to England with the weirdly evil Count Fosco and his wife come with them. This is the type of guy that can compliment you and make you feel horrible for it. Dude’s creepy as hell and everyone knows it. Glyde is being aggressive and screaming all the time so it seems like he is the most evil of the two but who is really in charge becomes pretty clear. Crazy girl Anne who looks exactly like Lauren, keeps popping up and it turns out that Sir Glyde was the one that put her in the Asylum. She has hero worship towards Lauren’s mom. Marian continues the investigation of this as Percival is doing some maneuvering to get more of his wife’s money soon. Marian eventually figures out that Fosco and Glyde have a really evil plan to basically steal all the money. She ends up sick and then an even crazier and super evil plan comes out.

Marian is super sick, Fosco keeps arguing with the doctor, Lauren is distraught. Somewhere down the line, Marian slightly recovers and she leaves with Fosco somewhere else. Glyde tells this to Laura who decides to go see her sister. Then it turns out that Marian had never left, Laura was sent to a trap. Then we hear that Laura is dead. WTF?!?! I know.

Walter comes back and hears about what heppened, he goes to see the tomb and finds Marian, next to Laura. Turns out that the person they killed and buried was Anne. Without much evidence or money, Walter, Marian, and Laura, join forces incognito to figure things out and just survive. Walter takes center stage and starts investigating once again. Glyde tries to bury the evidence of his parents never being married which means that he should never gotten money or title. In the processs he sets an old church on fire and dies.

The only way to restore Laura’s honor and identity is to get a confession out of Fosco, who is clearly the smartest character in the novel, also the most pompus.. Thanks to Chekov’s Italian Professor, we find that this guy and the Count are actually a part of a secret order of something from Italy, with secret scar insignias and everything.. Walter puts up a Batman Gambit and gets the confession (which is printed in the novel and is just plain super fopish and crazy. Fosco is let go to escape in exchange for cooperation but mysterious short Italian guy that keeps popping up stabs him in the middle of France. Laura and Walter end up married with a kid and happily ever afters show up for everyone not evil.