No Loss of Mass

Luke Godfrey changed his mind about his bacon sandwich. He put the red plastic ketchup bottle back down on the table and picked up the blue one, took the top slice of bread off his sandwich and gave it a squirt of mayo. The man sitting opposite Luke Godfrey – Shane Allahan – watched him.

‘Since when do you put mayo on bacon?’ Shane asked. ‘I’ve never seen you do that.’

‘I don’t, normally – I’m just sick of ketchup,’ said Luke.

‘Brown sauce, okay; ketchup, definitely – but mayo on a bacon sarnie? Mayo is for the chicken salad sandwich, mate, not the bacon.’

‘Those times, they are a-changin,’ said Luke. ‘Maybe in more ways than one.’

Luke and Shane were good friends and worked in the same office. They were cut from the same cloth. They would meet up a couple of times a week at their local greasy-spoon for breakfast before wandering into town to their office. Occasionally one of their flock would be in the café as well, pouring only ketchup on his breakfast.

‘Meaning what exactly?’ said Shane, as he popped a perfectly round onion ring onto his tongue.

‘Meaning I’m done with United, mate,’ he said.

‘Which means what? How do you mean, “done” with United?’ asked Shane. ‘You mean you’re not renewing your season-ticket? I know you were moaning a while back about that, but – ‘

‘No, I’m mean I’m done. They are not my team anymore.’

Shane was confused and stopped eating a sausage to consider what Luke was saying. ‘Let me get this straight. You’re saying you’re no longer a United supporter? No more games, no more pub with the boys?’

Luke looked cagey. ‘Well, not quite.’ He took a breath and then said it. ‘I’m going over to City.’

A lump of semi-chewed sausage fell from Shane’s mouth. ‘Say that again, I didn’t hear you right. For a second I thought you said you were going over to City.’

‘That’s what I said. I’ve emailed the chairman of their supporters’ club. I’m seeing him in a couple of days. They’re gonna take me through it; you know, the process and what they expect and all that and then they’ll see if I’m okay for them and then I’ll be…well, I’ll be one of them.’

Shane just looked at Luke, opened mouthed, for several seconds. Their breakfast was forgotten.

‘Okay,’ said Shane, ‘I’ve got a few questions.’

‘Thought you might, but before you ask them let me just say I’ve really struggled with my conscience on this – it’s not a decision I’ve taken lightly.’

‘Why were you United in the first place?’

‘Because my dad was, that’s how I was brought up,’ said Luke.

‘Exactly,’ said Shane. ‘You can’t just switch your loyalty. You have to think about this a minute – no, just wait a second – your loyalty grows out of time, out of going to the games and worshiping the team; it grows out of all the great nights and the crack down the pub. You didn’t do any of that with City.’

‘Shane, this is why I said I struggled with my conscience, this is not a simple thing, like flicking a switch. It’s a conversion.’

‘What? Mate, nobody – and I mean nobody – has ever converted from one team to another; it’s unheard of and it’s also ridiculous. It can’t be done. You must be delusional. There’s no such thing as a genuine conversion. It just means you didn’t believe what you said you believed to begin with.’

Luke suppressed a snarl, he felt anger tightening his gut. ‘I’m offended! How dare you upset me! I’m telling you about my deepest feelings and beliefs, and how I’ve struggled with my conscience, and you think I’m just mad! I haven’t just got some “new” loyalty, I’ve converted my feelings for United into feelings for City.’

‘You haven’t listened to me. Loyalty stands on the past and you have no past with City.’

‘And you haven’t listened to me. It’s the same loyalty that you’re talking about – just converted.’

‘Jesus! And what does that actually mean? I mean, really. It’s changed colour? Changed shape?’

‘Shane, come on, mate. Take it seriously,’ said Luke

Shane stood up and the table legs scraped as he shoved his way past. He slammed the door behind him.

Greasy Graham, the café’s owner, looked over at Luke. ‘What’s ‘is problem?’

Luke didn’t look up.

2

Luke strode into the shop and asked the sales assistant for the new City shirt, and yes, he wanted the home shirt, not the away strip.

It took the assistant a couple of minutes to fetch one from the back room and Luke held it up in front of him, admiring the badge before kissing it: the symbol of who and what he was to become. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and tears of joy tried to escape from his overactive tear ducts. He nodded at the assistant and went to a changing room to try it on.

He rubbed the shirt smooth across his cider-belly and gazed at himself in the mirror. He felt complete, like he’d come home to where he belonged, and that was part of it for Luke – belonging, feeling like you were not alone. He still had his friends. They’d come round.

Shane Allahan was furious, however. He’d spent an hour texting everyone he and Luke new to tell them about Luke’s Judas-move. All the history, all the beer they’d drunk, all the toilets they’d vomited in together, all this was for nothing? It could just be thrown away? It made no sense. Shane checked back through the texts he’d received from his two best mates, Mark and John both suggested they all never speak to Luke again. Another friend of Shane’s, Luke’s cousin, Paul, went even further and suggested something which Shane thought was crazy, but the idea was growing on him. They wanted to petition their landlord, Big Steve The Stoner, and get Luke officially barred from the premises. Luke had to go, they suggested, it was a matter of honour. Friendship and family was one thing, but football was something else.

Luke was due back in the office later than usual, by arrangement, and so Shane was at his desk, clicking away at his computer when Luke sat down opposite. Shane didn’t look up; he shifted in his seat and coughed.

‘Come on, mate, we don’t need all this,’ said Luke. He tapped into his computer and gave the mouse a few clicks, setting things ready for the rest of the afternoon.

‘They taken you in?’ said Shane without looking up. He was staring intently at the screen; whatever was on it was too important to risk looking away.

‘Yeah, they have,’ said Luke. ‘I’ve got the shirt. Look, it’s just the lack of buying and the excuses all the time. And the manager, well, Christ, don’t get me started on him.’

‘So you’ve got your new robes,’ said Shane. ‘Very nice, I’m sure. I’m sure you’ll look quite the picture of devotion.’

That was the last they spoke all afternoon.

3

The Baptist Bar, the local watering hole for United devotees – and Shane and Luke’s local – was so named because it used to be a Baptist Church years ago and was converted into a drinking den when demand for the supernatural started to wane. On any given night, most of the customers would be in red – the scum in Blue had their own place of worship across town.

Nobody expected Luke to show up that night no matter what he was wearing, but to walk through the door dressed in blue – every head turned but not one spoke for seconds as they comprehended the sight before them.

‘Alright, boys,’ said Luke, back to the door. ‘I’m still the same guy – what’s the big deal?’

‘You’re in the wrong pub,’ said Big Baz. The over-hang of his gut wobbled with rage. Luke could see his skin was almost as red as his shirt.

‘Look,’ said Luke, trying not to show his fear, ‘I’m just looking for a pint and we can sort this all out. Okay? Who wants a pint? On me.’

Shane couldn’t look at Luke; he turned away and tears dripped onto the pool-table as he shook his head.

Nobody made a move, but then the landlord, Big Steve The Stoner, produced from under the bar a hastily fashioned effigy, wearing a City shirt, held up by a broom handle stuck in its backside.

‘This is you, Judas. You’re just paper, straw and cardboard in this place now.’ Men in red shirts all nodded, grunting their agreement.

A passerby would later tell the fire-brigade that the door flew open and a guy in a blue football shirt shot out at top speed. The burning effigy hit the door as it slammed shut behind him, burning down the pub.

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Techno God

A woman I work with once told me ‘I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something…’

If such a person would submit to forensic questioning, and would answer honestly, it would be quickly established that they were just afraid of death. This doesn’t mean afraid of dying, it means afraid of being dead – of not existing. It is, initially, a horrid thing to consider.

This is why O’Brien tells Winston that he will be vaporised, removed from history, that no record of his existence will remain: he was playing to an innate fear of the dark in all of us, and those lines where O’Brien talks of deleting Winston from history are where religion and the state are fused.

It’s no coincidence that human fears find themselves being the inspiration for all kind of fiction – from rape to death, and Lucy is no different. Ultimately, it’s a movie about surviving death and is religious propaganda for that reason.

Name me a religion which doesn’t offer the survival of death as one of the benefits?

The film is mash-up of other movies: Limitless (2011) and The Matrix (1999) most obviously, but there’s also allusions to The Hulk (which is really Stephenson’s Jekyll and Hyde) and (why not) I Spit on your Grave (1978, 2010) for the hot-chick-revenge-movie angle.

There’s also – and who could miss it – the tedious feminist line in that the film starts with Lucy being trapped with handcuffs and forced to do something against her will by a man; then gets tortured, beaten and so on, by men and gets something stuck inside her against her will. I mean, like – hello?

All the classic elements are there. The only nice guys are Morgan Freeman as the fatherly scientist and the ugly French cop who plays the token ugly and gets (better than nothing) a brief snog with Miss Scarlett.

I read someone slagged the film off because it uses the myth that humans access but 10% of their brains, but it can never be right to attack a fiction writer for writing fiction, and this criticism is misplaced – the movie is good fun, but it’s not hard science fiction – it’s more just disguised religious fantasy fiction.

If it was better (and it’s not bad) I’d have more to say about it.

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Two Letters

Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris

Letter from a Christian Citizen – Douglas Wilson

Richard Dawkins once said he thought that Darwin’s theory of evolution wasn’t a problem for sophisticated theologians, that it was the ordinary religious person who knew just how much damage Darwin did to the idea that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Theologians can always use their skill with words to make the simple complicated. In a way, Dawkins’s comment was a compliment to the ordinary lay person. It’s not for no reason that many scientists can be impatient with philosophers.

It’s not for no reason that many religious persons attack the theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory is hated by the religious because it proves the biblical account of creation is untrue. From page one, the Bible is wrong: the Earth, the Solar System, the hundreds of billions of galaxies and the Universe itself were not created six thousand years ago. Many religious persons accept that evolution happened because to argue it did not is to look ridiculous. These persons are of little faith. The real Christian – I mean the Christian who really believes the Bible – cannot accept Evolution as an explanation for life on earth because once page one has been accepted as nonsense the whole thing falls. Ken Ham, a proper Christian and President of Answers in Genesis understands this. When asked about this in Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous he gave what was an honest (and therefore impressive) answer:

“If you’re saying, this part over here, it says God made land animals and Man on the same day is not true, then ultimately, why should I believe this bit over here?”

That, in thirty two simple words, is the reason many religious persons not only will not accept evolution happened but cannot accept evolution happened. Let the sophisticated religious philosophers and theologians argue all they want – genuine Christians are far more honest. Father George Coyne, Ph.D, of the Vatican Obeservatory, told the film-makers on the question of the age of the earth:

“If you’re a scientist, you cannot accept that. [..] Evolution, in the Darwinian sense, is no longer a mere hypothesis”

Fr. Coyne was quoting John Paul II.

The likes of Ken Ham – the real Christians – are, as I have said, avoiding the ridiculous. This is what Ken Ham’s beloved Genesis would look like if he took the same position as Fr. Coyne and John Paul:

And in the ground placed He in abundance teeth, jaws, skulls, and pelvises of transitional fossils from pre-Adamite creatures. One he chose as his special creation He named Lucy. And God realized this was confusing, so he created paleoanthropologists to sort it out. And just as He was finishing up the loose ends of the creation God realized that Adam’s immediate descendants who lived as farmers and herders would not understand inflationary cosmology, global general relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, biochemistry, paleontology, population genetics, and evolutionary theory, so He created creation myths.

Harris says in respect to creationists:

“This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbours believe the cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue”

Douglas Wilson quotes this passage in his reply. This is what Wislon says immediately after closing the Harris quote:

But notice what you are doing here: the Sumerians invented glue? Glue didn’t just happen? Why couldn’t it just appear the same way the sexuality of moss did and the eyeballs that see in color and the superbly engineered ankle and the majesty of the great white sharks all did? Glue is so complicated it needed to be invented?”

All Harris did was reject the idea of a young earth. Does Wilson’s response actually deal with the young earth question or avoid it? He doesn’t say “The Sumerians didn’t exist” Doesn’t Wilson have to claim this? He uses a quote from Harris about the age of the earth but chooses not to mention the thing the quote is about: the age of the earth. He’d rather allude to “irreducible complexity” by mentioning glue. But his “glue question” is silly. Can Wilson not think of anything that was invented? Central-heating, thermal underwear and the light-bulb come to mind.

The age of the earth, however, is not the most important question in either book and arguments for a young earth are hardly important ones in any case. That Wilson doesn’t want to “get into it” with Harris on this is not worth worrying about too much. The position Wilson takes, the position many religious persons take to the point of eye-rolling cliché is this. Consider Wilson’s question to Harris after some brief chat about slavery in the bible:

Now here is my question. Given your worldview, what is wrong with this? There is nothing wrong with it on your principles, where the universe is just time and chance acting on matter. Why does it matter if the master matter acts on the slave matter? Who cares?”

This question abut morality is a favourite of the religious. Wilson puts it to the late Christopher Hitchens many times in the road movie they made and it is worth hearing it put in different ways to get a proper handle on the implications of it. The basics of it run thus: if there is no God, there is no absolute right and wrong – only individual preferences. So when an atheist says (extreme example alert) raping baby girls is wrong the religious person can ask “who says?” or, as Wilson likes to phrase the question “by what standard?” This question is the one worth thinking about.

Morality, to an atheist, is an on-going (probably never-ending) conversation about how to treat persons in society, how to govern a society and how to treat the environment and its wildlife – and goodness only knows how much else. Understand that Wilson, when he mentions “morality” is talking about that which God does and says. That’s it. That’s all “morality” means to Wilson. What God does is moral because God does it. For Wilson, morality has nothing to do with keeping humans safe from harm or pain of any kind; it has nothing to do with preserving human life. This is what Wilson had to say to Harris about hurricane Katrina:

What He did to New Orleans was holy, righteous, just and good. Some of it may have been an obvious chastisement for those who would build a major city below sea level in hurricane country and then attempt to govern it through corruption and vice.”

This is impressive faith, but unimpressive logic. The idea that God sends a hurricane as punishment is alright until the accidental concession that the city was built in “hurricane country” to begin with. Wilson should have closed his point after his first sentence because the first sentence tells you everything you need to know: on his premises humans are expendable.

What you will see and hear happening in some debates between religious persons and atheists on the “morality question” is the religious person, though he is eager to play the morality-card, will play it very close to his chest and is happy for the audience to indulge in their own sort of “fallacy of equivocation” on morality for rhetorical purposes. In other words, the religious will let you think morality is a sort of “being nice to people” when for them it means something quite different.

Many religious are not just happy to let this go without clarification, they perpetuate the confusion by playing the absurd Stalin and Mao cards. When a religious person does this he is lying to himself or he is lying to you or both. An atheist can murder another person, quite in cold blood, and feel safe from punishment in the afterlife. But the atheist murderer’s atheism doesn’t make him want to kill. This is a small but important point. Wilson is writing to Sam Harris, an atheist. Sam Harris doesn’t want to murder people. That’s the Stalin argument over with, but the religious continue with it because they like it even though making it involves profound dishonesty about motivation and ignores centuries of religious murder.

It’s no shock that morality better mean something other than a complicated version of “be nice to people” to Wilson because non-human animals, from Sperm whales to Rhinos, will protect their young and the injured in their herd. Wilson won’t be writing a letter to a sperm whale asking “by what standard” do those in your herd encircle the weak or injured for their protection?

It doesn’t matter what an atheist says morality is, or where an atheist says morality comes from or what it’s based on. We know what the Christian – the serious Christian at any rate – thinks about morality and it has nothing to do with protecting humans from any kind of physical suffering or injury. Morality is about the sayings and doings of God. If God said raping baby girls was necessary then Wilson would say what?

The atheist should stop debating the religious on morality because they are talking about something else. The word means different things to each side. But while the religious keep playing the morality-card they are being dishonest if they are unclear about what they actually mean when they use the word.

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A Tragedy of Manners

In a Yellow Wood – Gore Vidal

The most sorrowful tragedies are true ones, are always pulled from an experience a human had to endure. Depending how closely you are prepared to look, the most sorrowful tragedies are being endured, right now, under the masks one stares at everyday across the office and the mask one stares at in the mirror. If one can develop enough skill – and Vidal’s agony-ridden protagonist, Robert Holton, is just such a fellow – then the tragedy of one’s situation can be filtered through a sanitising intellectual process and changed into a decision made instead of an imposition born of fear.

Holton is a low-level worker in a New York brokerage and the last word in playing it straight. World War II is a recent memory – but Holton has managed to forget most of the “virility of war” and has set his meter running in the chilly-blue instead of the hot-red which consumed him while abroad and in uniform. When he was in uniform, boy, he really lived. Now he must conform, knuckle down, and be incredibly grateful for any “opportunity” to climb the corporate ladder. Vidal shows us Holton’s attitude to work and his past as quickly as page four, as Holton dresses to face the day ahead:

He searched through the bureau drawers for a shirt. He found a white one and put it on. Before the war he had worn coloured shirts but now plain white ones seemed more sound. And then it was a good idea not to be too vivid when you worked for a brokerage house.

This is not a change of taste being described, but a rewritten character being shown. One wonders what the war did to this man that he had the colour drained from him. His future is decided and can not be altered, no matter the price:

Robert Holton, though he had never been much of an athlete, had a good build. Sitting at desks, however, would ruin it sooner or later and the thought made him sad. There was nothing he could do, of course, for he would always sit at desks.

As Holton dresses and ponders his figure the morning light glows “yellowly through the window shade.” Those diverging paths are fast approaching Robert Holton. He has no idea of the choice to come his way before the day is over; has no idea the twisting kaleidoscope which moves us all in turn is about to take its turn with him. Though he remains unaware as he prepares for work, this morning he has woken in his yellow wood.

The path which leads to the brokerage house takes him past his breakfast stop, a small diner where he is served by the same waitress each morning. Marjorie Ventusa, the waitress in question, is in love with Robert Holton. They know each other enough to engage in a little flirty banter, but they never dare to step outside the cells they have made for themselves; they offer just enough to polish the surface of the other’s mask. As Holton begins to tuck into his breakfast, he asks:

   “When you going to go out dancing with me?” Robert Holton asked, sawing a piece of bacon in half with a blunt knife.

   “I’m pretty busy,” she said; she always said that when he asked her that question. He would say it because he thought it was funny and she would answer him as though she thought it was funny too. She wished that he meant it now.

Does he ask her because he thinks it’s funny? No, he asks her because she always answers the way she does, there is no danger, and she answers the way she does because he asks her only because she thinks he thinks it’s funny. That is a mistake on her part; Holton asking her to go dancing has nothing whatsoever to do with humour. The reasons are heartbreaking. We are beginning to get a sense of the tragedy of manners that can evolve when somebody believes they are not worthy of being sincerely asked to go dancing, and the ripple affect it can have across the psyches of many others. One wonders, also, why Vidal chose to tell us the knife was blunt.

Holton is joined for breakfast by a female co-worker, Caroline Lawton. She is similar to Marjorie but the differences are the point. Caroline has the same fears as Marjorie, but Vidal injects her with an icy – yet almost comical – narcissism. Marjorie asks this woman, who is clearly a rival, for her order:

   “I’ll have grapefruit juice. That’s all I want. I’m reducing,” she said to Robert Holton and she patted her slim waist.

   “What on earth are you reducing for?”

   “You think I look all right this way? She asked, pretending surprise.

Her comments are not put into context until three pages later when, sitting at her desk, Caroline goes digging in her desk drawer:

Here were several compacts in various stages of use. A slightly crushed box of pale green Kleenex, a carton of cigarettes, and a box of fairly expensive candy. The lid of the candy box was off and Caroline Lawton decided that, since her breakfast had been small, a little candy wouldn’t hurt her.

Can this novel have been published in 1947? It all seems so modern. I know women like her. Her character is on display throughout the paragraph: from the candy being expensive, to the lid being off, to her deciding she deserved it because her breakfast had been small. Here we have an eyelash fluttering air-head narcissist in action; she flops from one self-centred moment to the next without bothering to remember the previous one. I really do know women like her.

Caroline and Holton toil under the stewardship of Mr Murphy, the head of Statistical Section; Caroline is Mr Murphy’s secretary, Holton an entry-level clerk. There are others who share the joys of the office and whose surface politeness is a delicately constructed sham, but Caroline is the master, or so she often tells herself.

There is a psychological cocktail of boredom, compromise, denial, dissatisfaction and loneliness swirling behind the eyes of these characters. They are pitifully aware of their wounds, yet have developed the greatest skill in hiding from others any sense those wounds exist. Their effort is spent convincing others of their happiness, cleverness and their all-round contentedness with life. There is comedy here, but it tastes sour. That sourness comes from the truth.

But Holton is the main course. Here is a quiet man, a simple man whose boat rocking days are long behind him. “I suppose if it were easier to take a job than refuse it I’d take the job. I’m easy to please” he tells the lovely Caroline, hiding the point (from her but, more importantly, himself) that this is not an example of being easy to please by claiming it is. He lived a life during the war. He spent his time in Europe knowing a great many women and tasting the pleasures life offers; but now, back on home soil, the decision has been made to live an existence of muted and desolate obedience. In more ways than one his shirts are now not simply white; they are – as we have seen – plain white.

After lunch, Holton is visited at the office by Jim Trebling, his best pal from his military days and the man with whom he broke many European hearts. Soon, the banter between old comrades turns to the fairer sex:

   “Do you remember Carla?” asked Jim suddenly, his mind adjusting to the present.

   “The girl in Florence? Sure, I remember her. What was her name…Carla?”

   “That’s right.”

   “She was very nice looking, wasn’t she?”

   “Yes.”

   “Sure, I remember her.”

   “I thought you liked her quite a bit,” said Trebling, not looking at Holton.

   “I suppose I did. We ran into a lot of people, though. There were so many people.”

   Trebling agreed that there had been a number of people in Europe, people they had known.

This is a passage worth getting into for a moment. Holton appears absurd by attempting to relegate Carla to a vague memory. “What was her name..?” he asks, just after being told it. How he would love to waive his hand and consider her a woman of no importance, but he cannot do this convincingly. Trebling, with manners more delicate than would be found today, offers a cold “that’s right.” This is exquisite. He could press the point, demand to know what on earth his friend was talking about because they both knew how taken with her he was, but this would force his friend into a corner he clearly has no wish to be in, so he allows Holton the space to be comfortable by accepting the basic facts. Holton, noticing this piece of good manners, makes another grab for acceptable fantasy. “She was good looking, wasn’t she?” I do beg your pardon. Wasn’t she? I think they both know she was a little more than good looking, but Trebling, now sensing his friend does not want to “go there” must look away before deciding to push just a little. He covers a statement of fact in the blanket of assumption, smoothing the edges: “I thought you liked her quite a bit,” he tells Holton, one step down from stating a fact. Holton must accept his feelings for Carla, but rushes off the point straightaway after. “I suppose I did. We ran into a lot of people, though.” Trebling, coldly accepting the mathematical truth, agrees there had been a lot of people in Europe and they had known some of them. This is of it’s time. These days, all Trebling would have to say is “Man, what the fuck?” but Trebling is a man with a sense of mood and some delicacy. Whoever she was, Carla made a significant impression on Holton, but he is suffering from the strangest denial of his feelings for her. What can it hurt to admit to his comrade how this woman moved him? After all, she was left behind in Europe after the war and there is no chance of them seeing each other again. Is there? The pathway in the yellow wood is leading somewhere. Trebling is the kaleidoscope’s warning. Start thinking certain thoughts, Mr Holton, because a choice is rushing toward you.

Holton’s day takes what is not necessarily a turn for the better when he attends a cocktail party after the office closes. He walks back to his hotel to change for this engagement and notices, as a nurse with a baby carriage passes by, that the horror of the design for life affects not just those who are trapped in wage-slavery:

It was late, probably much too late for her to be out with the baby. As she passed him he caught a glimpse of the child and saw that it was staring vacantly ahead, concentrating on growth.

Is this the last word in horrific cynicism? It suggests all kinds of tube-fed dystopia. One wonders how many writers owe their careers to this small aside. Back at his hotel, Holton ponders the conversations with Trebling:

In Europe there had been many women. He often was surprised now when he thought of how many he had known. There were periods when he had never been satisfied. Both Trebling and he had gone about it like hunters.

Okay, now we’re beginning to get the point. The second and third sentences are the ones to consider. This is significant because of the word “surprised” and because of those periods when he had never been “satisfied”. I mean to say, all those women and no satisfaction; my dear fellow, why ever not?

He arrives at the cocktail party; the hostess, Mrs Helena Stevanson, belongs in a Wildean drawing room where the sweet and pretty air and etiquette keep the resentment under control. A typical exchange between a guest breaking away from her hostess:

   “It’s been lovely seeing you, Helena darling. I’ve got to join my escort now. I came with Clyde.”

   Beatrice said this triumphantly but gained no victory.

   “You came with Clyde. How wonderful! I’m dining with him tomorrow.”

There is a wonderful low-high-low rhythm to Helena’s line, but is something missing here? Would the tone of the politeness be better served with a question mark after Helena Stevanson’s rather flat statement “You came with Clyde”? It would lift the tone of voice to match the exchange, but without it one wonders if Helena, dining tomorrow with Clyde, will hear a tale or two about Beatrice’s sexual habits?

Helena flits between guests, spending a snatched moment offering air-kisses and exaggerated good manners, and even manages to torture our friend, Robert Holton. This after just bringing up the subject of Holton’s mother:

The was an awkward silence. Robert Holton never found it easy to talk about his mother and Mrs Stevanson had decided, obviously, that it was the only thing she could discuss with him.

To move from the awkward silence Holton is pushed toward some guests who are slightly more exotic because they are foreigners. They exchange handshakes and Holton pays not much attention until he shakes hands with Mrs Bankton:

   “How do you do,” said Robert Holton.

“How do you do,” said Mrs Bankton. Her voice startled him. It was deep and foreign and she had said the “you” as if she had really meant him.

Holton stumbles for a moment, then presses on, fascinated:

  

   He stammered, “I know you. I know you but…”

   “But who am I?” She laughed and gestured with her long white hands.

   “Yes, who are you?”

   “Carla.”

Trebling was the warning that something was afoot. The universe usually gives us a warning before making us pay close attention and Holton’s attention is now tightly focussed. They talk, they reminisce about the colourful time they spent in Florence during the war years but are joined by a writer – another terribly earnest chap – who insists on taking Holton and Carla to dinner at a little place he knows. Holton accepts, and Carla is forced to because she has plans for Holton, and they depend on their being close. They take a cab to their dinner destination, are given a good table and listen to the music while they watch the people on the stage before their dinner arrives:

The music was becoming soft and sentimental. Full round chords gushed around them and people danced on the stage. Men danced with women and women with men for there was not really much courage among these people.

You get a sense of their surroundings, I think. Carla is happy to be there because she is married to a man who uses her as camouflage for his taste for more earnest encounters than she is equipped to offer. She wants Holton to understand her position – and does indeed tell him – hoping he will be moved by her predicament. There is a deep irony here. Poor Carla seeks out the man with whom she shared her first breathless, gasping moments, hoping to rekindle the passions they shared as an antidote to the sterile state of her marriage; but she does not suspect that Holton has buried similar tendencies to her husband’s, and her mission is doomed. She will not save her situation.

Soon, the headline act takes to the stage and the three of them watch:

More dancers appeared. This time they were real women and the men who came out with them were dressed as men. They did a serious near-ballet but, because they didn’t know how to dance very well and because they didn’t particularly care, the dance was funny and Holton laughed. Lewis and Carla didn’t laugh: for different reasons.

Could Lewis’s lack of laughter be due to surprise and Carla’s due to fear? I do wonder. Perhaps here the first vague sense that her mission is going to be an unsuccessful one percolates up into Carla’s conscious mind? After much talk, and the third man’s excusing himself for a back-stage meeting, Holton and Carla leave together. Carla has but one thing on her mind.

Holton is still playing it straight; the choice to be conventional seeps out of every pore:

   “How cool it is!” said Carla, as they walked along the street. “I couldn’t breathe in there.”

   “It was a crazy place,” said Holton, looking straight ahead as he walked, following the traffic lights. Carla occasionally drew him off the curb and into the street but he always managed to obey the green lights.

She is taking him to her hotel where she hopes to convince him to leave this life behind and go with her to live in Italy; back, perhaps, to Florence where they shared their tender moments. While they walk, they talk – talk of Carla’s husband – and Carla’s pesky subconscious digs her in the ribs. She, like most in one form or another of denial, has a conscious mind which is lightning-quick in offering logical comfort:

   “I’d like to meet him.”

   “He’d like to meet you, too.” She laughed. “I might lose you to him.” She stopped herself quickly. She shouldn’t have said “lose” because they were supposed to be just casual friends; at least that was the basis he seemed to want. She mustn’t frighten him.

Oh yes, of course. That was what she meant when she said “lose”, wasn’t it? Vidal – and it shows throughout this novel –has a remarkable nose for the psychological, for just how the mind works and how the conscious mind, the critical faculty, is for self-defence as much as reasoning. Of course, more sour truth is forced down the throat of the reader.

Their walk toward the hotel, for part of it anyway, is observed by a character from earlier in the day. The waitress who serves him his breakfast, Marjorie Ventusa – and is in love with Holton, remember – is out and about in the city and spots him from a safe distance.

Marjorie was about to go into the movie when she saw Robert Holton crossing a street on the other side of the square. She had a sudden impulse to call to him, to make herself heard over the hundreds of people. Then she saw that he was not alone. She saw that he was with a dark pretty girl: a woman from the world where he lived.

A shame she thinks they live in different worlds. If only she could just say it. Perhaps she’ll mention something at breakfast, tomorrow? Perhaps he will. For now, Holton is heading for Carla’s hotel, and doesn’t spot the waitress of whom he asked that morning “when you going to go out dancing with me?”

At the hotel she plays the card she has been waiting to play all evening; indeed, she plays the card she came to New York to snap down on the table. They talk, post coitus, of her less than satisfying marriage, and talk turns to specifics:

   “I can leave him.”

   He shook his head. “I couldn’t marry you.”

She was lost. She was falling now. It seemed as if the room had become cold and foreign and she had come to a hostile country. There was no longer an answer to make: the answer had been made. She tried not to let her face show what she felt.

   “Why couldn’t you marry me?”

   “I haven’t any money.”

   “I wouldn’t want that. You wouldn’t want to be married to a broker and live in New York.”

   “Why do you have to be a broker?”

And that’s the rub, right there. Why must he be a broker? Why are there no other choices which come to mind? His answer is coming from a restricted, pre-decided pool of possibilities. With his answer one understands that Carla’s campaign was doomed to failure.

As they lie, naked, Carla accepts there is no hope and Vidal gives us an image of the heat draining from their encounter as the last hope she had for Holton drips out of her:

She was defeated at that moment. The dream she had been fashioning disappeared and there were no traces of it left, only a lingering sadness and an open wound.

An open wound? Well, that’s one way of describing it. Carla wants Holton to leave America and go with her to Italy. Holton, because Carla is everywhere at this moment, manages to get as far as considering it:

   “It’s a temptation,” said Holton suddenly.

   “What is?” They separated.

   “To go to Europe with you, to live with you.”

   “It could be done.”

   “Maybe…No, it wouldn’t work.”

   “Why?”

   “It just wouldn’t be practical.”

   No, she thought, it wouldn’t be practical.

It would not be practical and that is the point. It would be vibrant and full of joy; it would be dangerous and crazy; it would be intense and tender; and it would be a step toward living for love, art and whatever brings joy. But Holton has a point. It would not be practical.

So that is that. We joined Holton as he wakes and gets dressed for work; we join him at breakfast as he flirts – as much as is safe – with the waitress. We follow him to a cocktail party where he meets the woman – trapped in an emotionless, and almost certainly sexless, marriage – for whom he was the first man. He rejects the colourful offer of living a life of passion and freedom in Italy because to do so would not be practical, and then he leaves her to return to his rooms. He has to be at work in the morning, after all.

He dreams of Carla and Trebling – Trebling, by the way, takes Caroline out for the evening and they, too, stroll across Times Square at the same time as Holton, Carla and Marjorie, but that is another essay – and eventually falls into sleep, happy with his choice because he has decided to be happy with it.

Carla is not so much there to represent the choice between a life of conformity – making money, keeping your head down, obeying the boss and so on; and their opposites which are living for love, for fun and for freedom, as she is the possibility his nature is not what he feels it is. His feelings for her complicate his private equation; they offer factors he has no wish to calculate. To give this possibility a face and a name and a heartbeat simply offers more tragedy. Her tragedy. Vidal is ruthless. And he isn’t finished yet. Holton still has to go for breakfast the next morning and have Marjorie serve him.

So, at breakfast, then:

“Got anything good for breakfast? I feel pretty worn out today.”

   “I guess you were out last night.”

   He nodded. She couldn’t stop asking him now; she couldn’t stop thinking about Robert Holton and the dark haired girl.

   “Probably one of those big parties, I guess.”

   He nodded and said, “Sure, one of those big parties.”

   She was not sorry that he lied.

She was not sorry because his lie allows Marjorie to construct a pitiful glimmer of hope:

She had to look serious even though she was happy. He had at least not wanted to tell her that he was out with another girl.

Oh my word, the agony. That such a little thing could make her happy; that such a thing could stimulate the desire to remain professional! Who is easy to please, here? Marjorie has the last word in intricately constructed self-denial. Her ego uses logic to fashion hope at the expense of emotional sincerity. How Vidal knows these fragile humans! The man is merciless.

Marjorie serves the breakfast and Holton eats it, but – he knows her a little, remember – he still finds time for the obligatory flirting, that flirting which offers just enough to polish the other’s mask:

He ate and then she put the dirty dishes on her tray. Then he said, “When’re you going to Italy with me?”

That is why his asking her to go dancing has nothing to do with humour.

Something of a Bitch

“She would be beautiful, but that her eyes seem to have no ray of life; they almost seem to lack the power of sight. Her gait is curiously measured, as though her every movement were produced by some mechanism like clockwork. She plays and sings with the disagreeably perfect, soulless timing of a machine and she dances similarly. Olimpia gave us a very weird feeling; we wanted nothing to do with her; we felt that she was only pretending to be a living being, and that there was something very strange about her.”

 –          ETA Hoffman – “The Sandman.”

“For a woman to have anything about her she must be something of a bitch.”

–          Lemmy.

Many times I have heard (and thought) “the book is better than the film.” It’s usually true. I’m unsure if it’s true in respect to The Stepford Wives. This is not to say the film is better, but the film is certainly different.

The film is about sex, or rather, the lack of it. In the movie the husband gets rid of the little woman because (for whatever reason) she won’t sleep with him. But it’s not so simple in the book because Walter and Joanna do have relations. The most obvious difference between the two is politics.

The Stepford Wives is a novel about (and was written at the time of) “Womens’ Liberation.” The lead character, Joanna, is a feminist. She wants her husband, Walter, to work on changing Stepford’s “Men’s Association” from the inside quite soon after they move to the town. I mean to say, where’s the “Womens’ Association”? (She’s got a point, as it happens. Where’s the “White Police Association”?)

He says he will begin making suggestions and whatnot to the members but doesn’t want to start laying down the law after being in town only five minutes. After his first visit to the “Men’s Association” he returns somewhat “in the mood” and negotiates some excellent business with the wife. So good are the negotiations, in fact, Joanna exits the bathroom and says she’s “still weak.” This is a beautiful line for an avowed feminist to speak. Think about it.

Orwell made the same point in Keep The Aspidistra Flying when he wrote just after Gordon and Rosemary’s little tiff about men and women:

Gordon and Rosemary never grew tired of this sort of thing. Each laughed with delight at the other’s absurdities. There was a merry war between them. Even as they disputed, arm in arm, they pressed their bodies delightedly together.

So they did and so do we. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

So what is the motivation (in the book) for Walter to have his wife stabbed to death in another robot’s kitchen? It’s obviously not sex. It’s not the freedom to “have” sex with the woman; nor is it the freedom “have” sex with many women; no, the novel is about “power.” The book makes fun of men.

I once saw Quentin Tarantino give an interview to somebody in Scotland while his movie Death Proof was out. The questioner said that some reports of the movie “suggested” that his film “glorified” something called “violence against women.”

Tarantino answered that these reports “suggested” the person who wrote them hadn’t seen the movie. He was being understated.

Same with The Stepford Wives.  It might be a novel about “violence” against women, or it might be a novel which makes fun of men. Satirical humour relies on the reader to “get it.” This means being able to think deeper than the surface.

The movie (probably to avoid being dated to a particular era) makes not much of the political goings on of the time, yet – because the movie-husband gets rid of the wife for her lack of “output” – still retains it’s satirical ground while being (almost) devoid of politics. It’s smartly done, the movie.

Ira Levin could have wanted to write a novel about the “rise of women” in the early 1970s and not had Hoffman’s The Sandman  to be going on with. The novel would have been quite different. Certainly he could have written a novel about this but The Stepford Wives owes everything to The Sandman.  A straight-line can be drawn from a romantic German’s writings (“Sandman” is from 1816) to Levin’s satirical horror of Women’s Liberation.

What’s worth noting is that the “women” in Levin’s book are said to be the type of woman that a chap desires; in Hoffman’s story, Nathaneal is the poor fellow who has to carry the irony. His obsession with Olimpia is not to his credit. Times change, obviously, but so to, it seems, does the taste of men.

Televised Literature

Let me tell you something. Nowadays everyone’s got to go to shrinks, and counsellors, and go on Sally Jesse Raphael and talk about their problems. Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type?

–         Tony Soprano

I’ve been looking for a new tip-top TV show to get into. There are reasons for this. My mother suggested I watch Homeland. She told me it was very good. I watched the first series and left it there. It started very well but became ridiculous. I liked the idea of an American marine becoming a Muslim while in captivity and then working against his own side when he finally gets free, but as series one continued the writers lost their bottle. Brody’s motivation was “revealed” to be the death of the young son of his captor in a – you guessed it – American bombing raid. His distress at the boy’s death, natural enough of course, is meant to have been enough for him to take a suicide mission designed to kill half the US administration while they’re hiding in a bunker from a sniper whose fire is calculated to drive them there in the first place. In addition – and even more ridiculous – is the idea he’d leave his own child fatherless for such a reason. There’re two problems with Homeland’s premise: one is the motivation they give Brody, the second is the motivation the writers took the trouble to avoid giving him: religious motivation. I told my mother that I’d stopped watching it because it was ridiculous for these reasons. This is not to say the show is poorly made because it’s not: the acting is outstanding and the money has been spent; actually, it’s not even badly written, but the ridiculous, cowardly premise ruins the whole thing for me. Remember, Homeland is fiction, but it’s not a fantasy story – it’s a realist drama and Brody’s “motivation” isn’t realistic.

Then I tried two shows which are structured and written in exactly the same way. House and Lie to Me. Hugh Laurie became famous playing Dr. House and I hear the show was a huge success with many series being made. He’s a guy who finds the cures for puzzling medical conditions. Tim Roth is Cal Lightman, founder of the Lightman Group. Dr. Lightman is a psychologist and deception expert who finds out who’s lying or hiding something when odd or puzzling criminal cases are too baffling for the FBI or police or his corporate clients. Both chaps have a regular team of subordinates who become routinely frustrated and bemused (but always impressed come the end of the episode) by their unorthodox boss.

Gregory House is supposed to be “grumpy” or “cantankerous” but I can’t see it at all. There’s no spite under the sarcasm: his worst put-downs are in the words but not the delivery. He’s far too nice. I thought this was a problem with Laurie’s accent, but it’s not. His accent is irritatingly good. He uses the same US accent that Kenneth Branagh used in Dead Again. It’s that accent which requires the words to gargle about in the back of the throat for a moment before being offered. The sound which covers the search for words is the British “erm” or “um” which in American is pronounced “arm” with a wet, gargling “R” sound. I assume this technique is meant to make the speaker sound realistic because even the sound of him searching for words has an American accent. Excellent technique, granted, but it irritates me for some reason.

Cal Lightman doesn’t have this problem because while the show is set in Washington, the character is English. Lie to Me is (loosely) based on the work of Paul Ekman, the psychologist who developed the Facial Action Coding System and is a genuine expert in spotting hidden emotions. There’s nothing to distinguish between the shows in terms of structure: there is the expert, his team, the main case and one or two sub-plot cases per episode. The difference is Tim Roth’s performance as compared to Hugh Laurie’s. He plays Lightman like an educated football hooligan: the idea he might “kick off” any moment is always there. Roth shifts about on his feet when stationary and talking to a suspect quite a lot; he drops his shoulders and tilts his head in that English “what did you just say?” type way, like he’s looking for an excuse to give you a smack. Although both shows are made in that drama-by-numbers-network-gloss style, Roth’s performance pushes Lie to Me above the level of House and I’ve no idea why it ran only for only three seasons.

I tried Breaking Bad at the suggestion of a woman from my office. The premise sounded good fun: a chemistry teacher, diagnosed with lung cancer decides to make and sell crystal meth to raise funds for his family after his death. I “sweated” the whole thing on Netflix over two weeks. Walter White is a superb character and is played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston whose low-key portrayal is set against many other excellent characters. There’s Jesse “biatch” Pinkman; the insane, psychopathic Tuco; the icy yet somehow charming Gus Fring; his enforcer, the world-weary “seen-it-all” Mike (one of the best characters in the show); the deranged (and frighteningly calm) Todd Alquist and the hilarious shyster lawyer, Saul Goodman. It’s a show where the characters are not just names, the characters actually have character. As good as Breaking Bad is I can’t believe many fans of the show were happy with the ending.

I tried The Americans but managed only a few episodes because the idea of KGB agents roaming about America wearing false facial fuzz and breaking every rule of tradecraft was too much to bear.

I had a go at The Following in which Kevin Bacon plays a former FBI agent trying to round up the weird, cultish followers of a serial killer he put away. This show is annoying. First, the loon is played by James Purefoy which irritates because he’s British and the evil guy having a British accent is now a cliché in US films and TV. Second because Purefoy has a smug, oily look smeared over his face which might not come from his acting. The Following is another example of a drama-by-numbers-network-gloss type show.

And, again on my mother’s recommendation, I managed series one to three of Dexter – a truly weird show which doesn’t know if it’s a comedy or a horror. The premise of Dexter is as daft as Homeland. Okay, the poor little lamb saw some horrid things while in a freight container, and, okay, he was a small chap at the time so you could forgive his growing up a little odd. But that’s the problem. The flashback scenes with Dexter and his pops discussing his lack of “empathy” and “feeling” and what not are ridiculous. A person is not born with what Dexter was meant to have lost. Dexter treats Dexter’s “condition” as a physical, unchangeable reality – like having one leg or one arm. That he’s an iceman in his teens is actually daft considering his adoptive father’s kindness. But one has to be slightly kinder about Dexter than Brody from Homeland because Dexter isn’t quite as realist as Homeland is meant to be.

Dexter is interesting for the question upon which the show is based: why do we like what he does? He only kills the bad guys and this is popular enough for someone to write the cheques for eight series even though he tortures and mutilates humans. This is a show which reflects back to the viewer a serious problem with the human animal. Read your Stanley Milgram. This can be unsettling because the comedy in the show disarms us somewhat.

I tried Nurse Jackie for two series before getting bored but I’m going back for more. She is what I’d call a bad good-guy – the opposite of Dexter who is a good bad-guy. That’s she’s a bad good-guy doesn’t make her necessarily likeable. Jackie is a drug addict who cheats on her husband with the pharmacist who illegally supplies the drugs for her back pain. The pharmacist doesn’t know she’s married – indeed only one of her colleagues does because she ditches her wedding ring prior to showing up for work. Only her trusted best friend, Dr. O’Hara, has any clue about her domestic set-up and knows also she’s seeing the pharmacist. Jackie seems an amoral, lying, cheating junkie but her character is also caring, worried for others aware of her own dishonesty. There are similarities between Jackie Peyton and Dexter Morgan and Gregory House and Cal Lightman: they are all flawed but brilliant or flawed but caring; unconventional in their approach to work, have a healthy disrespect for the “rules” and find themselves “on thin ice” rather a lot. They are variations on the same (or similar) theme.

I had some hope for Mad Men and lasted about three episodes. It looks beautiful but it wasn’t interesting enough quickly enough to hook me. I should probably re visit Mad Men and give it another chance; this is one show where I’m sure I’m not being fair.

The problem with these shows – and others I haven’t mentioned – is, as good as some of them are on their own terms, I watched all of them after watching the show I consider to be the greatest television show: The Sopranos.

It is seventy one hours of television spread over eighty-six episodes across six series.

Any show could be as well acted, many of those I’ve mentioned are. All are well written and have budgets large enough to match the requirements of the script, but none of them – none of them – can touch The Sopranos.

The premise is a simple one: the pilot episode begins with Tony Soprano having his first therapy session with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a psychiatrist recommended by Soprano’s family doctor. He tells her about his “panic attack” and the loss of consciousness which followed. It is during this session, via voice-over and flashback, we learn that Tony’s business isn’t in the mainstream and his day starts by hitting a debtor with his nephew’s car outside the man’s office and punching him right in the exposed bone to make a point. This first encounter between Melfi and Soprano is beautiful. He’s tells her him and the guy “went for coffee” while we get to see what really happened. She stops and reminds him the doctor who referred him to her is also his next-door neighbour, and does he get her point? By the second episode Tony’s problems are subtly laid bare for all to see. Consider this plain exchange between Tony and his mother:

Livia: “I phoned your house. Some operator answered the phone. I couldn’t understand a word she was saying.”

Tony: “Ma, how many times I gotta tell ya? That’s not an operator. That’s an answering machine.”

This is early in the episode and occurs just after Tony is irritated by a staff member struggling to work the new phones. It doesn’t sound important because there’s a small fire in Livia’s house and this seems more important. We easily forget this exchange and Tony’s dialogue because of what follows.

However, toward the end of the episode, Tony walks out on Melfi again, irritated by what she’s suggesting. Tony is unhappy because his mother won’t speak to him after he moves her to an expensive nursing home.

Melfi: “Can you admit to yourself that, yes, you’re sad, but you’re very angry and full of rage.”

Tony: “I’m sad!”

Melfi: “It’s hard to admit that you might have feelings of hatred toward your own mother, isn’t it?”

Tony: “You’re out of your tree.”

Melfi: “Listen to me carefully. Of course you love her. What I’m trying to say is own the anger instead of displacing it. Otherwise, it defines your life.”

The next (and final) scene of the episode is in the strip club where poor Georgie is back on the phone while Tony is sat at the bar, just watching. He’s still struggling to work the device and is talking to Tony in relaxed way down the bar:

Georgie: “Shit.  A– what do you call it?– a menu. “Press two if you know your party’s extension.” Is that an operator or an answering machine? Let’s see. Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? “Press zero.” Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello – ”

He doesn’t get to finish because Tony loses his temper and smacks the telephone receiver a couple of times into Georgie’s head. It’s easy to think Tony’s patience vaporised after the last time Georgie failed to work the phone properly. It didn’t. He’s reacting to something Georgie said which reminds him of the frustration he feels with his mother, and Georgie’s head takes the place of Livia’s. Tony, as Melfi just warned him against, is “displacing” his anger.

This scene then closes with the girls in the strip club looking on for a moment, then – and this might be part of the problem – those darn ladies begin their bewitching dance again and we can ponder Melfi’s warning “It defines your life” as the screen fades slowly to black. It’s a wonderful visual suggestion about a man’s relationship with women; the power they have and the dysfunctional relationship he has with his mother.

That is the keystone to the show: Tony’s rage at his mother is displaced and his life (and career) is built on that displaced anger. It’s the character’s tragedy: an exceptional person, a leader of men, follows his father into the business, yet his success in the business, that he makes it all the way to boss, is thanks to his mother not loving him. His success is built on sadness. The ironies and the tragedies in The Sopranos run very deep indeed.

What marks the show out from others is the writing. Many shows are written well – some superbly – but I can think of no show written like The Sopranos. The show was written, or came to be, at any rate, in the same way a composer will write melodies for vocalists. Composers will write for the person’s voice and The Sopranos was written, that is the dialogue and the characters’ personalities, were written for the face of the actor who was playing whatever character.

I realised this after watching Boardwalk Empire and deciding there was “something” wrong with it. Steve Buscemi starred in Boardwalk Empire and also, briefly, in The Sopranos. His face didn’t fit the Boardwalk character, I thought; his face was too friendly, too comedic. It was these very traits which marked –out the character he played in The Sopranos.  In that show his character – a professional gangster – was always goofing about, doing impressions and comedy voices and cracking jokes; in Boardwalk he was serious but I couldn’t take him seriously. He wasn’t scary. I was sure that not a word of Buscemi’s Sopranos character was written before he was cast; yet his role in Boardwalk seemed not to be “tailor-written” as it were. It took a long time to find what I was looking for. Vanity Fair did a retrospective piece on The Sopranos and the writing-for-the-face technique was mentioned. I saw this online and decided to congratulate myself for having some sensitivity to the writing and the acting. But I thought this was odd given that Boardwalk Empire was created by Terence Winter, the man who wrote over two-dozen episodes of The Sopranos.

Another aspect of the writing aspect worth noting is the merging of Tony Soprano’s two lives: the family man and the gangster. In series one an entire episode, College, was dedicated to showing the problems caused by “crossover.” By the final season the writers had condensed this into a fine art. In one episode, Tony discusses how to get a rival killed: who to use, the tactics and so on, then tells his mob subordinates in the next sentence he has to go to get “some tyres for Carmela’s car”: an example of the abnormal and normal in his life being shown through terse dialogue. With the dialogue there is one technique used in The Sopranos I haven’t noticed anywhere else.

The writers often would have characters repeating another character’s dialogue. For instance: Tony might say to Christopher, ‘Think about the big picture” when demanding he stop robbing a construction site because there is more money to be made long-term, and Christopher then, later in the episode, repeats the same line to his girlfriend about another matter. This simple technique shows the characters are actually listening, not just repeating robotic, plot-driving words. It makes them vulnerable and therefore more realistic. Such a simple thing has a huge impact and I’m amazed more writers don’t do it.

There is always talk about this ‘classic’ novel or that ‘classic’ film and sometimes with justification; The Sopranos should be spoken about in ‘classic’ terms because it is televised literature.