MyAmericanFuture

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

September 20, 2017: Legends of the Fall: The Body and Stand By Me



[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American images of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn. Add your thoughts on falls, seasonal or symbolic, for a crowd-sourced post sure to be as popular as pumpkin spice (if such a thing is possible)!]
On the novella that’s explicitly about the “fall from innocence,” and the film adaptation that’s less so.
In 1982, frustrated by his inability to publish works that weren’t part of the horror genre in which he had risen to fame, Steven King decided to release four such novellas as one collection, Different Seasons, with each novella linked to one of the four seasons. The most famous, thanks to its cult classic film adaptation, is almost certainly the collection’s first piece, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (seasonal subtitle: Hope Springs Eternal). But nearly as well-known, thanks in large measure to its own popular film adaptation Stand By Me (1986), is the collection’s third piece, The Body (seasonal subtitle: Fall from Innocence). (The collection’s summer novella, Apt Pupil: Summer of Corruption, has also been made into a recent film, and is, in its portrayal of a teenage boy corrupted by a former Nazi war criminal, a candidate for this week’s series in its own right.)
On the surface, The Body and Stand By Me are almost identical: in each forty-something novelist Gordie Lachance narrates the story of a teenage adventure with his three best friends, a trip that the four boys take after hearing about a dead body out in the woods near their hometown. Moreover, each ends with (among other things) Gordie informing the audience that his best best friend, Chris Chambers, worked his way out of a poor and violent upbringing to reach college and law school, only to die in a random and tragic stabbing, a detail that certainly symbolizes the loss of childhood innocence as the protagonists move into the often brutal and cold adult world. Yet the change in title from the novella to the film illustrates a broader thematic shift: Rob Reiner’s movie is far more centrally concerned with the camaraderie and joys of teenage friendship (its last line is “I never had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”, which appears in the middle of King’s book and is thus emphasized far more in the film); while King’s novella depicts the world’s brutalities much more consistently, including a savage beating that all four boys receive at the hands of an older brother and his friends.
Which is to say, at the risk of oversimplifying the two works, Reiner’s film is ultimately pretty nostalgic about the world of childhood, while King’s novella complicates and to my mind ultimately rejects that kind of nostalgia. Concurrently, the two could be read as depicting the loss of innocence in very different ways: Reiner’s film portraying it as a moment of genuine shift, from one kind of life and world to another; and King’s as more of a realization about the darkness of the world we have always inhabited, even as young people. I think there’s a place in our narratives and images for both stories, and that they complement each other nicely; but I also think that King’s story is a bit truer to the world of young adulthood, which while certainly free of various adult responsibilities and pressures can still be (as the Knowles and Cormier books from Monday’s post illustrate) as fraught and perilous as the darkest realities of adult life.
Next fall tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

September 19, 2017: Legends of the Fall: American Pastoral



[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American images of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn. Add your thoughts on falls, seasonal or symbolic, for a crowd-sourced post sure to be as popular as pumpkin spice (if such a thing is possible)!]
On a novel with over-the-top moments that practically scream “loss of innocence,” and the quieter scene that much more potently captures it.
To follow up the main idea from yesterday’s post, I experienced a very different kind of teenage literary loss of innocence when I decided to read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) for pleasure in early high school (what can I say, I was a nerd and the son of an English professor to boot). I can still quite distinctly remember arriving at Chapter 2, “Whacking Off,” and encountering for the first time just exactly how far Roth is willing to go—how obscene, how graphic, how flagrantly over-the-top. For reasons not quite known to me, in my second semester at Fitchburg State I chose to put Portnoy on the syllabus of a junior-level seminar on “Major American Authors of the 20th Century,” and got to see 25 undergrads—24 women, by chance—having their own such encounters with Roth, the novel, and that chapter in particular. Let’s just say it wasn’t just me.
Roth’s late masterpiece American Pastoral (1997) is a far more realistic and restrained work than Portnoy, but nonetheless Roth includes a couple of distinctly Roth-ian over-the-top scenes, both symbolizing quite overtly his novel’s overall themes of the loss of innocence that accompanied the late 60s and early 70s in American culture and society. In the first, the novel’s now middle-aged protagonist, Swede Levov, meets with a seemingly innocent young women to try to learn the whereabouts of his missing daughter Merry; the woman turns out instead to be a brazen and cynical 60s radical, and she meets the Swede naked, graphically exposing and probing herself in front of him (while daring him to, in essence, rape her). In the second, the tour-de-force set piece with which Roth concludes the novel, a family dinner full of shocking revelations and betrayals is set against the backdrop of the televised Watergate hearings, and culminates with a crazy drunken woman stabbing an elderly man in the head with her fork.
These scenes are as surprising and shocking as intended, and I suppose in that way they make Roth’s point. But if he intends the theme of the loss of innocence to be tragic as well as disturbing and comic (which those two scenes are, respectively), then I would point a far quieter and to my mind far more potent scene. In it, the Swede finally finds Merry and sees her again, for the only time between her teenage disappearance (after she bombs a local post office in political protest and kills an innocent bystander) and his own later death. He asks a few questions, but mostly what he does is listen (to her stories of all the horrors she has experienced in the years since the bombing) and observe (her literally fading life as a converted Jainist, one for whom any contact with the world is destructive and so self-deprivation and -starvation comprises the only meaningful future). As a parent, I can imagine nothing more shattering hearing and seeing such things from one of my children—and in the Swede’s quiet horror and sadness, Roth captures a far more powerful and chilling loss of innocence.
Next fall tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?

Monday, September 18, 2017

September 18, 2017: Legends of the Fall: Young Adult Lit



[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American images of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn. Add your thoughts on falls, seasonal or symbolic, for a crowd-sourced post sure to be as popular as pumpkin spice (if such a thing is possible)!]
On two iconic YA novels that fractured my innocence right alongside that of their characters.
The early teenage years—those of late middle school into the beginning of high school—seem to resonate particularly well with the idea of a loss of innocence. I’m sure that kids who grow up in far more difficult situations than I did, or who have to deal with loss at a young age, or otherwise are confronted with the world’s darker realities experience the shift from innocence to experience, naivete to maturity, earlier. But even those of us who make it through childhood unscathed are going to come up against the harsher sides to life at some point, and ages 12-15 seems like a pretty common such milestone. I say that partly as a kid who was badly hazed by his cross country teammates during his freshman year of high school—but also partly the one who read John Knowles’ A Separate Peace (1959) and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) and Beyond the Chocolate War (1985) in 8th grade.
I’d be lying if I said I remember much at all of the three books—that’s about 30 years, and a whole lot of books, under the bridge. But what I do remember are a couple of specific and very dark moments, of literal and symbolic falls: the seemingly accidental fall that Knowles’ protagonist Gene purposefully causes his friend Finny to take, a fall that eventually leads to Finny’s death (among other destructive effects); and a profoundly disturbing suicide scene in Cormier’s sequel, one that locates readers in the perspective of a young student leaping to his death after being ostracized and abused for his homosexuality by his peers and even a teacher. Obviously those weren’t the first literary deaths I had encountered—in 6th grade English I read Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None (1939), for crying out loud!—but they might have been the first in which kids my own age were killed, at least in such purposeful and brutal ways (ie, not the accidental drowning in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia [1977], traumatic as that was for this young reader).
Perhaps it was that sense of proximity and (in a way) threat to myself that led these particular moments, and the novels in which they occur, to hit me as hard as they did. Perhaps it was that all three books are deeply concerned with what it means to be a teenage boy, in some of the better but (I would argue) mostly some of the worst senses. And perhaps it’s a tribute to their interesting and almost entirely implicit engagement with the wars during which they’re set—Knowles does have his characters engage with World War II toward the end of his novel; I don’t believe Cormier mentions Vietnam at all, certainly not at length, but his titular war certainly gestures in that direction. War, after all, has long been one of the most overt and catastrophic ways in which young men—and their societies—lose their innocence; in my reading of these young adult novels and their effects on me, I was led to feel such effects far more intimately than might otherwise have been the case.
Next fall tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?