Monday, September 16, 2013

How to Write: The Best Stories, Part Two - 'The Name of the Wind' by Patrick Rothfuss and Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight'

Listening to: Final Fantasy 7 soundtrack
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This is the second installment of my favorite stories series. A glaring gap in my prior entry was of the literary breed. How can an author not have a book on his list of favorite stories? Unbundy your undies and read on.

THE NAME OF THE WIND
Cover of "The Name of the Wind," by Patrick Rothfuss. Source.

"I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me." -From the book jacket of The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind is New York Times bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss's first novel. And what a novel it is. NotW and its sequel, The Wise Man's Fear, are the only fiction novels I've voluntarily read in the past four years. I put down Wicked. I put down Fellowship of the Ring. I did not put down Kvothe the Bloodless (my favorite of his many monickers). I picked up a copy of the book from an indie book store in downtown St. Louis in November of '09 at the urging of my friend Allie. I was skeptical. As I wrote in my previous post, I'm not interested in dropping inordinate amounts of time over bad stories; the story had better be good, and the storytelling medium had better be used well. To allude to Stephen King, I don't believe writers are short-order cooks, serving up small portions of the literary equivalent of bacon and eggs. All-too often in writers' circles, there is garbage being circulated about how writing must always be concise, story-driven, and character-driven, and these sort of statements are often framed in such a way that they are (apparently) diametrically opposed to masterful, poetic English. This is of course a crock; no one of these things is mutually exclusive, and all writing that bothers to engage the senses well is not by default "purple prose." Patrick Rothfuss dropkicks this crock in the face in the NotW where he expertly weaves beautiful English with strong characters and compelling storytelling. When I was three months into An Autumn Veil, it was reading the NotW that gave me the confidence to write how I want to write and to not sell out to the status quo.

Several years ago, my friend Kristina and I were having a discussion of who I should model my beard after; who should be my "beard hero." I said William Riker. She said Patrick Rothfuss. A few months later, she purchased a copy of NotW at a book signing where Pat was present, told him a bit about my journey as a novelist, and had him sign the book for me. His signature reads,

Dear Danny, DO IT! WRITE! Your Beard Hero, Pat Rothfuss

I rest my case.

The Good: Mature, engaging storytelling. Strong, humorous characters. Pat is not afraid to get emotional with his heroic protagonist, nor is he afraid to take the time and effort to compose truly beautiful English that works in tandem with his excellent characterizations to create an all-around satisfying experience. I love this book.

The Bad and Ugly: After having read the story, I skipped over the part in Tarbean on my next read-through because I wanted to get Kvothe to his Sea of Stars and the University. The book's early chapters aren't tedious the first time through, but on a second go-around, I'm eager to get things really cooking.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN'S THE DARK KNIGHT

Film poster for the Dark Knight. Source.

Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy as a compendium of films avoids some of the finagling Tim Burton engaged in in Batman and Batman Returns (Burton's films engaged in artistic license; Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever and Batman & Robin engaged in bastardization). While each of Nolan's films are excellent in their own right, the second installment stands above the first and third much how The Empire Strikes Back stands above A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. TDK is not only the greatest superhero film of all time, but it is a first-rate crime drama and an ethical meditation on the implications of suspending civil liberties for the sake of security in the face of a foe who will be stopped by nothing short of force of arms. In the vein of our postmodern era, the film refuses to provide us trite answers to these burning questions that are especially relevant in a post-9/11 America. Batman does provide us answers, though. Batman maintains hope in the people of Gotham and is ultimately vindicated in Gotham Harbor, but the Joker's anarchistic thesis is never neatly answered, and the villainizing of the caped crusader over the death of Harvey Dent, which carries forward into the The Dark Knight Rises, is perhaps the Joker's last laugh. The truth Batman stakes his faith on (namely, the collective will of the Gothamites to do something good) ends up turning him into a hunted criminal, for he himself rightly understands that the people of his beloved city are so fickle that finding out Harvey Dent did something bad may very well turn them into amoral followers of the Joker's philosophy. If Batman himself knew this enough to let himself be martyred, did he really defeat the Joker?

Tangentially, Nolan's Batman series is one of the few series in which the collective effectively functions as a character. There is Batman, Alfred, Fox, Rachel, Gordon, Joker, etc, but there are also the Gothamites. They are a microcosm of us all. "No more dead cops!" they shout at Harvey Dent during the press conference where he falsely reveals himself to be Batman. This outcry is so authentic that it almost seems cut into the film from a real press conference.

At the end of the day, I'm not sure Batman was correct in maintaining hope in humanity. I think the Joker was correct. The Joker tells Batman during the interrogation scene that "When the chips are down," the so-called "civilized" people of modern society would eat each other. History has provided countless examples of altruism, but altruism survives because of hope. This is Batman's retort on top of the skyscraper. The Joker's is this: "You're right...until their spirit breaks completely." Hope motivates so long as it is seen as attainable. Without the promises of hope, can altruism truly exist? The frightful truth of apocalyptic fiction is that deep inside of ourselves, we know it can't.

The Good: The inspired soundtrack of Hans Zimmer; cinematography, acting, daring storytelling that raises philosophical and ethical questions, stellar cast, and it's the freaking Batman. Heathe Ledger's chilling portrayal of the psychopathic Joker rightly earned him a posthumous Oscar; it is hands-down the best portrayal of the iconic character (some may debate Mark Hamill is better; I'll allow it), and arguably one of the greatest film performances of all time.

The Bad and Ugly: Not that I hated Maggie Gyllenhall, but it's always disappointing when an actor doesn't return for their role. And Batman's idealism seems foolhardy across the blue-gray amoral backdrop that underlies the series.



Related to my own storytelling, Patrick Rothfuss's brilliant and daring use of English in proves, gosh darn it, that authors do not have to be short-order literary cooks. On the other hand, it took him ten years to publish after he finished. Scary, yes, but he has in the course of a few years become both a NY Times bestseller and a reigning Duke of Nerdom. I guess it's a fair exchange.

Nolan's series is inspiring on multiple levels. As it relates to my own work, its greatest influence is how it raised questions and provided competing solutions. I think in art, we need that. I have striven to create characters who fundamentally disagree with each other on what is wrong with the world and how to right those wrongs. One of the main conflicts in An Autumn Veil is precisely about this issue: will working within the bounds of law and order really yield desired results? And if we choose to go beyond the rule of law, how far should we go? What are we sacrificing in the process?

How many people have to die before we achieve success?

Agree? Disagree? Something nice to say? Leave it here.

Thanks for reading.



D
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5 comments:

  1. I strongly recommend you read A Song of Ice and Fire series. I read Name of the Wind and Wise Mans Fear after reading all 5 novels of ASOIAF and for the first hour or two of reading, I was disappointed at weak Rothfuss sounded compared to Martin. Even halfway through the second book I stopped an reflected; I am incredibly engaged in the narrative and everything that is happening to Kvothe, but I am not even a tenth as immersed in the world as I was in ASOIAF.

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  2. Batman's great - lot of lessons to be learned from it

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  3. First off, Danny, love your site. It's always great to find a fellow writer, even one a bit farther along the path than I. Second off, I'm thrilled you recommend Rothfuss because I have just recently begun looking into reading his works after listening to him on a writer's panel. (He was the writer, and I was watching a video on youtube, but we can pretend otherwise.) Now I have another reason to read his books--and your blog.

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    1. Thanks William, sorry it took me so long to get to this comment.



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