“Pages want to be filled” –Stanley Plumly
Lately (and by lately I mean over the past five years or so), I’ve become transfixed by two things: postmodern maximalist literature (read: big fucking books written after 1970) and serial television. I would actually go so far as to argue that they produce the same effect across two different mediums, that great serial television and long, long novels employ the same techniques toward the same effect, but in different mediums. And they both completely obsess us. They drive us day after day to watch hours of Netflix, to lug around huge tomes like Infinite Jest or 2666 or The Luminaries or Seiobo There Below on the subway while looking like assholes, to have us struggling and stuttering when we’re asked things like “doesn’t that seem like a waste of time,” because really, no, it doesn’t, but it’s not easy to say why I can justify watching 30 hours of TV in a weekend or spending a month reading a novel, but I know it’s vital. I know it is.
Yes, both require time, considerable time, hours and hours of our lives invested in both plots and characters, but also in the cities of their settings, the minutiae of daily lives, and the large-scale, totalizing cultural patterns that exist in the narrative’s “eye.” (Sorry, I don’t know how to talk about both the scope of a novel and a TV show simultaneously in a non-pretentious way… it is, after all, an ‘eye/I’ that we’re watching all this though… Okay, my head’s out of my ass now). And, ultimately, as simple as it seems, that is what unites these two mediums; they take a lot of time, and give themselves the space to be simultaneously obsessed by individuated lives while archetypalizing (is that a word?) those thousands of individual patterns to make a larger statement about the “eye’s” culture(s).
For too long, people have tried and tried to equate film and novel, and it just doesn’t work. Novels, in general, are too complex. I’ll assume that you all read in high school and acknowledge that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was a colossal pile of crap. Yes, you can hack out the basic plot of a novel for a movie, and yes, you can create period sets and costumes and just really evoke the shit out of culture of the text, but you’ll never get it. And you’ll never get it for this reason: film, like poetry, can rarely (if ever) accommodate more than a handful of characters. Think about it.
Poems can rarely handle more than one character and, while exceptions do exist, primarily revolve around a single “I” speaking the text. Everything included, then, is meant to weigh on the I, to create empathy with the I so that you, the reader, can experience the revelation as the “I.” While I know better than to make totalizing statements about “what poems do,” I’ll say that, majority of the time, in English language poetry from the mid 18th century to now, the object has been to create empathy with a speaking I (“Dead white-guy poetry,” I think they call it). As I’m sure you already know, movies are, by and large, the same. Rarely can a film tell the story of more than one person, unless the other parties involved are directly linked to and involved in the action of the primary character, the hero (think any of the Ocean’s movies, for example). In film, the hero’s narrative controls the landscape of other characters, creating a singular story.
This is where those train-wreck movies like Love Actually and Valentine’s Day fail; they create too many narratives that become, in a way, abstract. They fail because they take on the architecture of a maximalist novel (or of serialized television), but they don’t have the space to become stories; instead, they watch as hypothetical, as constructed; we feel their intentions because we are having the same single-sentence synopsis (“You will find the love you deserve on Valentine’s Day”) reiterated 10-12 times over the course of 100 minutes. Sure, these movies are great cash-grabs, packing the screen-time with more celebrities than I can even pretend to know (I’m more of a TV guy, remember?) but they have always failed and will always because there’s no texture, no space, no way to allow these characters to transition from an undergraduate thesis statement to living, breathing characters.
Postmodern maximalism, on the other hand, is all-space all the time; it comes with a commitment of its own. Its investment lies not in telling a quick, punchy story; you will literally never read a book over 600 pages and think “wow, that went by fast,” and this will never happen for a reason: one cannot sustain that kind of attention or argument (because, honestly, all art is argument) on plot alone. Instead, these works (just like serial television) rely on small details of characters, what they eat for breakfast, what kind of drugs they take, a complete filmography documenting the life’s work of their auteur father, etc. They rely on multiple compelling plots coming to the surface, creating mirrors of one another to make a single, more complex point (the “eye’s culture” as I pretentiously claimed before) without actually saying it aloud. Think about it this way: maximalist literature and serial television work less to “tell a good story” than they do to build a kind of collage, you know the kind, where they use a bunch of little pictures to make a big picture. That’s what this kind of art does; it’s meta.
But so the fuck what, right? What do you care? Postmodern pastiche and cultural meta-analysis belong in one place (and that’s up the asses of bearded white guys with thick plastic glasses, amiright?) Well, yes, you are, in a way. But think about it my way (says the bearded white guy with thick plastic glasses): these serial TV shows are drawing us to our Netflix queues (do they still call them that?) day after day for these binges. I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t hear someone talking about Girls, The Wire, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad and there’s a reason for that. I don’t know what it is, but I think this is my forum for guessing, and I’ll take a shot. We’re fucking tired of the simplicity of narrative transmission. That doesn’t mean the old way is bad (or that postmodernism is better than anything else, because jesus shit, it’s really not); it simply means that, for most of us consuming this stuff, we’ve grown up in a “multicultural, multilingual, linguistically and epistemologically decentered” world. We live in a world of relativism where there is no Truth, no God, only small, subjective truths and gods. And maximalism represents that complexity.
We don’t have a hero because there are no heroes; instead, we have a foreboding structural presence (whether it is economics, bureaucracy, neo-liberal capitalism, or the entertainment) that drives all of our poor stories to play out in one way or another while we, as silly as we are, try being human despite it all.
Image credit: The Guardian