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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Stand By Me

The cold symptoms are deepening, but still have not reached the depth of which I know they're capable. My mind is still mostly sharp, and my nose is running only very slightly. Want me to keep you posted on my symptoms and secretions?

I got three pages written yesterday, limping a bit further through the desert of chapter 28. I was trying to rush, trying to go fast--to write with the same careless aplomb with which I knock out these blog-posts. A little bit of Stephen King in my gas-tank.

And speaking of whom, last Saturday's show in Paul's 80s Festival was the 1986 movie Stand By Me, the Rob Reiner film based on King's novella The Body. It was the third or fourth time I'd seen it, and, as with all superior films, it was even better on this viewing than on the previous ones. The genre is actually adventure: in small-town Oregon in 1959, a band of four young heroes sets out on a quest to find the corpse of a boy their own age (12) who has been killed in the woods, hit by a train. By fibbing to their parents, they manage to embark on the quest secretly and unsupervised, and must face their adventure with only their kid-smarts, along with a few cigarettes and a handgun boosted from one of their dads.

(Looking at the film on Saturday, I was surprised to see how strong its correspondence was to my own TV show The Odyssey, complete with a treefort club at the beginning--this must have been an unconscious influence on us as we set up our own story in 1989-91. Warren and I always felt our main debts were to The Wizard of Oz and Star Trek--now I would have to stir Stand By Me into the mix as well.)

The hero, Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), who narrates the story as an adult (Richard Dreyfuss) in 1985, has recently experienced the loss of an older brother (John Cusack), whom his parents loved more than they love him. The story is Gordie's journey to come to grips with his brother's death, and life and death in general. (In this sense the movie covers
--much more powerfully--territory similar to that of the 1981 movie Ordinary People.)

This time I was struck by how much the movie centers around death, since the story itself and its young heroes are so full of life. The story itself is launched by the adult Gordie reading that his boyhood friend Chris has just been killed trying to foil a robbery in a fast-food restaurant, catapulting Gordie back in his mind to 1959 and their journey together to find the other boy's body. Gordie is not alone in struggling with family issues: two of his companions also have hard relationships with their fathers. At some deep level, their journey into the woods is a trek to father-atonement (another link with The Odyssey).

Although they are trekking into the forest, they follow train tracks, so there is a sense of path, as in The Wizard of Oz with its Yellow Brick Road. The symbolism of the path is different from the symbolism of hacking one's way into wild bush, as the Grail heroes did: this road has been built, but built by adults--by fathers. It's not a footpath or road, though: it's for trains--big, impersonal, masculine machines. They're powerful and get you where you're going, but they're also deadly if you get in their way. They don't stop for children.

Trains are one image-system in the movie; another is bridges. When the boys first set out, they cross a little rail-bridge: the threshold of adventure. Their most dangerous adventure en route is when they decide, after argument, to cross another rail-bridge: much longer and much, much higher. What is a bridge? It's a way to cross what is otherwise uncrossable--it carries you to a place where you could not go without it. From childhood to adulthood perhaps, or from one's everyday consciousness to the deeper zone of the unconscious forces within. I think of the Chinvat Bridge in Zoroastrianism: a narrow bridge in the afterlife that each soul must cross, but which only the good can reach the far side of, the bad plunging to the abyss. In this adventure, the two image-systems come together: a train shows up on the bridge, chasing them from behind, terrifying them and almost killing them. The boys have taken their lives in their own hands, and are branded as worthy for the rest of the adventure by surviving this brush with death--the same death that claimed their quarry.

It's a true heroic quest: the boys are up against forces that are bigger than they are, both within and without; they have to dig within themselves to meet the challenges, with no guarantee of survival. It's not a playground, it's real life.

This is a really well-written and well-produced show. It's got a permanent spot in Paul's 80s Festival.

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  • I stumbled upon your blog while doing some browsing. Although I am an aspiring novelist, historical novel is not my cup of tea. Yet, when I read a few entries, I am fascinated by the depth of your thinking and writing. I soon read everything under the label 'Literary theory'.

    Most of them gave me new insights, but I particularly liked the one under the title 'write when ready'. All experts and books command you to write a certain pages a day and within x days, your novel is ready. My experience is that I am still fleshing out the story, making connections and slowly the picture is emerging. If someone asks me how many pages you have written, the answer is zero. Now, I know that this pre-writing stage is mandatory. Your piece validated my experience.

    Keep sharing your experiences.


    By Blogger Suresh, at May 03, 2007 2:14 AM  

  • Thanks very much for the comment, Suresh, I appreciate it.

    It's interesting how much advice there is out there on how to write, and yet it seems no two writers work alike. I'm glad you've found my thoughts beneficial, and it's very nice for me to get feedback. Another reason to continue...

    By Blogger paulv, at May 03, 2007 9:10 AM  

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