The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

This Post Has Picked Itself Up, Dusted Itself Off and Started All Over Again

By Andrew Tibbetts

Of Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots, the last, Rebirth, has the most contemporary vibe. These days there’s a run on ‘rebirth’ stories. In pop-culture, we love a good comeback. On day-time talk shows, we like to see people getting over drug addiction, infidelity, trauma. We eat up the self-help books that will ignite our own change processes. We look back fondly to the freedom of impossible childhoods and the warmth and security of improbable prior times. We want our innocence back. We want the future back, a future we can be positive and excited about. We want to be a tiny baby.

As an ur-narrative, this ‘rebirth’ line is among the least complicated. Someone dies and is reborn. Of course ‘death’ is metaphorical. What ‘dies’ can be someone’s career, someone’s marriage, someone’s emotional life, someone’s faith in her own self or in humanity.

The classic story is Scrooge’s. A man dies emotionally due to a love affair gone wrong. He becomes a kind of money-grubbing monster at odds with his fellow man. A supernatural lesson occurs and he changes. His humanity is reborn. The story ends with him being kinder, happier and connected to his community instead of alone.

For a writer, there are several options depending on how far back you want to go. You can run the gamut in chronological order creating a story in the shape of an inverse mountain, a giant ‘U’. You can begin with your character fully alive, show him gradually beaten down by adversity, reach her lowest point, and gradually climb his way out to eventually regain her zenith. (And no, you don’t have to them transition genders as you go!) The recent comedy smash Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is a fine example of this broad curve. A race car driver loses and then regains his mojo.

The trouble with this curve is that you get your most depressing moments at the point where other movies climax (i.e., in the middle!) In fact, after establishing the high point at the very outset, it’s all downhill for the first half of the movie, the first half of that ‘U’. And not every movie is blessed with Will Farrell’s genius at making depression and anxiety bracing and hilarious!

A much better route is Dickens’ Christmas Carol approach. Begin in the middle and make the turnaround dramatic. We meet the character, poor Ebenezer, at his lowest. That initial half of the ‘U’ is presented in brief flashbacks as part of the rising second half, i.e., we learn how sweet Scrooge was before his insides died and we learn what killed Scrooge’s heart, only after he is already on his way to regaining them (That modern genius, Dr. Seuss, does the same thing with the Grinch, and he doesn’t even bother too much with the explanation. Ron Howard adds the flashbacks for the movie, to little effect.)

My favourite rebirth in Canadian Literature is not a particularly classic example. It’s too complicated by other layers, but you’ll see that rebirth ur-line underneath if you look hard. I’m thinking of In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. Not everyone is reborn touchy-feely! Sometimes it’s a wrathful phoenix that rises from the ashes. But fear not, this story has a kind of double death and double rebirth. It’s genius.

I’ve been a might ticked off by the predominance of ‘aftermath’ literature, especially in Canadian Literary circles. Stories that begin with their most dramatic moments in the past. Perhaps I need to look again at these stories to see the ‘rebirth’. Or perhaps, if I’m correct, and these stories do suck, it’s because they don’t allow their characters much of a journey back up the other side of the ‘U’. You know those stories: a man watches too much television after his fiancé is murdered, a woman cuts pictures of babies out of magazines and eats them after having a miscarriage, a teacher cannot return to work after a school shooting, a woman whose drinking problem escalated after being raped thinks about going for therapy but decides not to. We enter these stories in their dull post-traumatic silence and leave them there. This isn’t a plot. It’s a sketch of a psychological state.

I wouldn’t mind a few of these sketches. To cleanse the palette. In fact, if I watch too much TV I quite appreciate them: FANTASTIC! A story where nobody learns anything and nothing gets any better for anyone! HURRAY!

If I read too many Canadian Literary Journals, I get the opposite feeling. PLEASE, I beg these characters, get off the couch! Why don’t you seek bloody revenge at least? Do something! Let’s have a ghost or an explosion or a community burst into song. Let the rebirthing begin!

I think the preponderance of aftermath-stories-that-don’t-go-anywhere in literature and the glut of touchy-feely-rebirth-stories in pop culture are two sides of the same coin. Our western world is exhausted. It feels like there’s been too much shit. And it feels like we don’t have the resources to fix it. High culture is too cool to get ‘pollyannaish’ about rebirth and pop culture is too frightened to look the exhaustion in the face.


Anonymous Ruth Taylor said...

I always enjoy reading your analyses, Andrew. I liked the callout for The Skin of a Lion, my favourite of the Ondaatje I've read (and yes, two deaths, two births). Do you ever go out to the waterworks? They're quite amazing.

Wed Feb 13, 07:10:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

This is just wonderful, Andrew. I love rebirth stories -- Scrooge's is probably my favourite. I think you're bang on about our collective exhaustion. Sometimes it's too hard to even imagine a more positive future. Sometimes our characters don't get off that couch for fear they'll off themselves.

Thu Feb 14, 12:31:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I think I just finished a rebirth story: Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicles.

Thu Feb 14, 06:48:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger jsnider said...

Hi Andrew, I really liked this piece. It made me think.

It also made me realize that, so far, my main characters in my short stories don't necessarily remain on the couch, but they don't really attain a rebirth either. But, they are always trying to become reborn.


Despite everything I've been through I always see the glass as half full and likely this is reflected in my characters as well.

But, you're right about the books that are most dramatic in the past -that's very anticlimactic for me.

The past is the past, but 'let's get on with it' is what I say!

Thu Feb 14, 10:40:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Oh, yes! Great post, Andrew.

And hey, don't we all have those kinds of stories: "Yeah, yeah, witnessed a triple-murder (again)" blase characters drinking at the bar. It's the flashback epidemic. Trying to get over that one, myself.

I find it's especially painful to watch these blase characters in film. Every first-time indie director seems to have done one. But, rebirth... Do you remember all those horrid ghost/rebirth movies from the '90s? I've not yet recovered from them.

Thu Feb 14, 03:29:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger MelBell said...

Oh I love this, Andrew. Gets me thinking, inspires me.

And you're so right about the "psychological sketches" being fobbed off as stories. It's tiring.

Thu Feb 14, 09:39:00 pm GMT-5  

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