The other night I had the chance to revisit Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 film (I know Spike Jonze directed it, but this is Kaufman’s movie all the way). It takes us into the mind of a neurotic screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman as he struggles to “adapt” Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief for the screen. Charlie worries about everything, pretty much: his hairline, his physique, his interactions with women, but mostly he agonizes about his project, a “movie about flowers.” Not wanting to corrupt the screenplay’s source material, he envisions a movie in which things don’t happen, people don’t change or realize anything. “In the end, it’s about disappointment,” he says.
Complicating matters, Kaufman’s (fictional) twin brother Donald, who lives with Charlie, also abruptly decides to become a screenwriter. After attending Robert McKee’s Story seminar — an actual screenwriting seminar, and the actual McKee appears in the film — Donald returns home with a preposterous idea about a serial killer with multiple-personality disorder, one that naturally wins him a hot girlfriend, riches, and praise from the industry. The twin brothers begin to collaborate on a script that moves farther away from Charlie’s initial vision of a plotless “movie about flowers” and into the familiar conflict-and-crisis mode of Hollywood storytelling that is brilliantly parodied toward the end of the film. Adaptation is also, needless to say, simply a great character study which also gives us a window into Orlean’s fascinating book and the obsession at its core.
It also succeeds, I think, at dramatizing a conflict many writers deal with. On the one hand, the desire to be truthful, to represent life as it is lived (or at least experienced by the writer’s mind). On the other hand, the knowledge that storytelling is strategic lying, presented for the purposes of entertainment and distraction, and in the hopes of gaining fame, wealth, immortality, and hot girlfriends/boyfriends. Kauffman gets this tension really well and he gives both sides a voice in his script. (Indeed I heard Kaufman say to a deferential Swedish interviewer at the Ingmar Bergman Institute that the main character of Adaptation was the screenplay–if anyone changes and grows in Adaptation it is the adaptation itself.)
For example, screenwriting guru McKee gets to convincingly defend his own principles:
Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your —-ing mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every —-ing day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every —-ing day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the —- are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!
On the other hand, especially in the thrall of a seemingly endless winter as we seem to be, these narrative formulae and storytelling tricks can lose their luster. Life sometimes feels static, caught in a loop. You can find McKee convincing on the natural drama of real life, the need for characters to meaningfully change, the artist’s responsibility to consider and manage audience expectations; at the same time, these kinds of calculations can be completely off-putting and at such moments, reading a work of fiction becomes almost impossible due to the background noise of gears grinding. At some moments in our lives we just want the movie about flowers. Flaubert famously wrote that he wanted to “write a book about nothing … held together by the internal strength of its style.” Sometimes the absence of B.S. is the paramount quality we are looking for, even if that strips away plot, character, conflict, and most of the other fundamentals of storytelling. (Another thing Adaptation shows brilliantly is how boring “thrillers” can be.)
So, even though I’ve had some trouble sticking with longer narratives lately, Padgett Powell’s You & Me hit the spot when I finally picked it off the shelf last night. (Almost as if it had been waiting for me, like a good bottle of wine, for the last two years.) It was the tonic my bleak late-February mind needed, the brisk dose of anti-narrative, of pure voice, that got me attuned to the language again. You & Me is a set of dialogues between two “weirdly agreeable dudes” sitting on a porch somewhere in the South. They consider various plans–taking a walk, donating everything in the house to Salvation Army–but end up deciding against them. They stay on the porch. They keep talking, That is all. A sample of its music:
Why do we talk?Why would we not?I suspect that is why we talk: what would we do if we did not talk?Precious little else, darlin’.My point.Your point is that we do nothing but talk …And that if we cease, we do nothing, are nothing.Well, given how little we talk about, we are next to nothing already.I dispute you not. (You & Me, p. 77)
I imagine most readers vacillate in terms of their feelings toward fictional narrative. Just as a dedicated historian might take a break to read a pulp mystery, the hardcore fiction reader probably has to stop once in a while for a dose of nonfiction or a collection of poetry. I’m curious what other fiction readers turn to at these times, when the traditional tropes of fiction don’t satisfy them. When all they want is writing that doesn’t go anywhere, that spins its wheels beautifully. I’m thinking about a few other books now as well, such as Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, and Lydia Davis’s stories, Melville’s “Bartleby”, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, Beckett’s Malone Dies. These books that serve us as a palate cleanser and carve out some much-needed negative space in our reading minds.