Sunday, May 15, 2011

On Lloyd Alexander

    Lloyd Alexander is my favorite author because his books, his language, his characters and the flow of his stories are all an inseparable part of me.
    I’ve been reading him for so long (starting at age 10), that rereading one of his books is like a return to childhood, but it’s not just nostalgia--I never stopped reading them. My first was The Iron Ring (I remember lying on my bed burning through the book while I was supposed to be practicing piano) and it remains my favorite, but after that first ‘gateway book’  I read every one of his novels that my library had on its shelves. From that first title to his lauded Prydain Chronicles and Westmark trilogy, to the somewhat-obscure The Town Cat and Other Stories and more recent works like The Rope Trick, his writing has accompanied me throughout much of my life.
    I use his language without even thinking about it anymore--his viewpoints and words he uses to convey that worldview have shaped the way I interact with the world. Ever since reading The Iron Ring, I’ve been using the word ‘dharma’ to refer to a rather involved and difficult-to-explain concept having to do with the way a certain person is supposed to act, a code of conduct, a set of morals and ethics and above all else, an intrinsic sense of the way one ought to act. The concept of dharma is based on the Indian idea of the same name, but Alexander probably puts his own spin on it rather than simply translating the idea, and it’s his version to which I refer. And in The Gawgon and the Boy, the titular boy privately thinks of his older sister’s group of girl friends as ‘the tulip garden’ because of their colorful hats, simple beauty and the way they seem to exist only in sets.
    Many of his supporting characters could easily star in his or her own stories. The Iron Ring’s Adi-Kavi was a lousy king’s crier who left his profession to live in an anthill, The Arkadians’ Joy-In-The-Dance was a nervous young soothsayer with a legendary but absent mother, and The Prydain Chronicles’ Fflewddur Fflam was a runaway king turned would-be bard whose magical harp always betrayed his self-aggrandizing lies.
    Alexander makes frequent use of literary archetypes: the hero, the sage, the noble warrior, the fool, the villain, the betrayer, and many others. Reading his books, you’ll run across many of these over and over. But each character is just that--a character, not a stereotype or merely a figure. These characters tend to be drawn with broad strokes, but nonetheless are real living breathing people with his or her own quirks, faults, virtues--and  personality traits that evoke entirely different archetypes. For example, The Arkadians’ Fronto the poet-turned-donkey is clearly the fool, yet at times he reminds me of Rajaswami, the wise teacher of The Iron Ring.
    His books can be serious and madcap, sometimes dealing mostly in one or the other but often balancing both. On one hand you have the nonstop wackiness of Gypsy Rizka with its town full of lovers and cheaters, family feuds and unexpected reunions, with crazy Rizka herself in the center of it all. On the other hand, you have the serious political uprising of Westmark, somewhat reminiscent of Les Miserables, with its band of freedom fighters, stories at the barricade, subtle psychological character nuances and hefty doses of tragedy. Examples of books that have a more even balance of both high spirits and serious thought include The Iron Ring, which has in its cast of characters some funny ones such as Hashkat the talking king of the monkeys, Garuda the hilariously-indignant and ever-bedraggled eagle, and Jamba-van, a wise hermit bear who likes to break crockery when he gets aggravated. The novel also has serious characters, such as hero king Tamar who chooses to honor a promise he made in a dream, Jaya the harsh foreign king to whom Tamar may or may not have sworn his life, the unnamed low-caste ‘untouchable’ man who teaches the young king about the nature of pride and compassion when Tamar is forced to work with him at the burning grounds of the dead, and the noble fugitive king Ashwara, who must fight the evil Nahusha to regain his rightful throne which his cousin has usurped, but swears to kill only Nahusha himself and not the man’s soldiers.
    Some of Lloyd Alexander’s best books have references to specific countries and cultural epics, without trying to be a work of historical fiction, or even retelling old myths. The Iron Ring is set in a land not unlike ancient India, and king Ashwara’s attempts to combine ethics with warfare evokes the actions of both warrior Arjuna and deity Krishna in the Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’. Certain aspects of the Prydain Chronicles may remind the reader of Welsh legends and the Mabinogian, while the culture in The Arkadians is reminiscent of  both ancient Greek and American Indian tales.
    Perhaps the best description of Lloyd Alexander’s writing philosophy is that by setting his stories in so many different countries and giving his characters so many different life paths, he desires to show us that no matter who we are, where we come from or how we live, we all have more to unite us than to pull us apart, we can celebrate our differences instead of squelching them in the name of unity, and love of all kinds, whether it be familial, romantic or platonic, has the power to bridge all divides. That kind of message stays with you for the rest of your life.


    By the time my family moved out of the suburbs, only one out of all six of us children (my older sister who manages to always be the exception that proves the rule) had a single friend, despite the multitude of children living in the neighborhood.
    I’ve considered many possible reasons why I never had any real friendships with the neighborhood kids: the kids rejected my whole family for being different, the kids didn’t think of being friends with me, or I just was bad at making friends. Over the years I have thought (and still think) that the chief cause of neighborhood friendlessness was that my family was ‘too different’.
    We did not own a television set; the only times we watched tv was at relatives’ or babysitters’ houses, or when the family rented a tv for a month or two every four years for the competitions leading up to the Winter Olympics. We were forbidden to watch television at friends’ houses, back when we went to other kids’ houses.
    The day I began to realize that I and my family was ‘different’ was a sunny day in late summer. The sky was clear and cloudless. My sister and I were at the house of the girl across the street. Her name was Brittany and she was quite the popular girl, with many little friends. That day she and her friends were talking
about ‘what they were going to be’: a fairy, a princess, a mermaid or any one of the countless other pretty creatures that little girls love. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but being about five I piped up anyway. I said I was going to be a fairy too. My sister nudged my arm and whispered that no, we weren’t going to be fairies or anything at all; they were talking about Halloween costumes. Considering that my family has never celebrated Halloween, or any kind of Halloween substitute, dressing up as anything was never on the family agenda. A few days later, my sister and I explained our religious beliefs governing why we didn’t celebrate Halloween to Brittany. After that afternoon, she never invited us to her house again. One by one, the few other houses in the neighborhood stopped as well. 
    My mother kept having children. Not only that, but also she had a practice of giving birth at home when possible. We’d come to the suburbs with the acceptable number of three children--two girls and a boy. Over the years my mother gave birth to three more boys in succession, each at home and each contributing to the ‘weirdness‘ that characterized our family. Every other family on the block had only one or two children, and few could comprehend having six children, much less considering them a ‘blessing‘ like my parents did.
    None of us kids went to school, public or private. My mother taught each of us at home. Try being friends with the local kids when you’re a child of the only homeschooling parents  in the entire community.
  My older sister has a different opinion of why we didn’t have friends. She thinks the main reason we didn’t have friends in that neighborhood was that since we didn’t go to the schools those kids went to, the kids didn’t see us there. Since kids are generally simple-minded, it simply didn’t occur to them to bother making friends with us. This may have been true to some extent, but I tend to believe that they did shun us for being different; if it simply never occurred to them to socialize with us, we would never have spent time at their houses. But we did, and the more strangenesses our family revealed over the years, the fewer houses welcomed us. However, my sister had a totally different experience than the rest of us kids--she happened to be the only one of us who actually had a friend the entire time we lived there, and she had a natural air of authority, so all the neighborhood boys (whether they liked our family or not) did what she told them. I am not at all sure her opinion counts.
    I recently thought of another possible cause of our lack of friends in the neighborhood--that we simply did not know how to make friends, or at least were bad at it. We spent a lot of time at babysitters’ houses, the babysitters had kids, sometimes lots of kids, and sometimes those kids came from families that had similar backgrounds as our brood: homeschooled and religious. My mother thought we would naturally make friends with those kids on our own, yet we couldn’t manage to do so.
    Not having little friends to run around with didn’t bother me a lot--at the time I had no idea that kids were expected to be constantly playing with myriad non-family friends. However, my experience in the suburbs has provided a significant contribution to lifelong feelings of being an outsider, unwanted and unwelcome.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Making Monsters in the Name of God

    Jonathan Demme’s 2004 update of the classic film The Manchurian Candidate presents an extraordinary woman whose once-heroic desire for the good of her country drives her to commit unspeakable atrocities. Believing the ends justify the means, and that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, she turns from a hero to a monster who is the exact kind of enemy to the American way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which she so earnestly opposes.
    Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep) sees herself as a hero, willing to do whatever it takes to make America a better place. She believes that America needs a strong leader who will guide the country and improve quality of life for all its citizens, that her idealistic son Raymond (Liev Schreiber) is just that man, and that the ends justify the means of getting him into that position. She aspires to be just like her father, John Prentiss, who she describes as a bold risk taker, not needing others’ approval but acting of his own accord, someone who “…never asked ‘Is this ok? Is this ok?’ He just did what needed to be done.”
    Legendary actress Meryl Streep, who portrays Senator Shaw, agrees:
“[She is] bursting with intelligence, ambition, a clear idea of how to move the country forward, but she’s thwarted. . .I think she thinks she’s patriotic, deeply patriotic. She is someone who is a believer. It goes to the core of her being, and she is sure. There’s no neurosis about her. And that made her an interesting character for me because I play people who are sort of torn by contradictory emotions, and Ellie really isn’t. She’s a fundamentalist idealogue in the way that people maybe are forced to be in politics, because otherwise you’re perceived as weak.”
    Eleanor Shaw is definitely not weak, nor could anyone think of her as such. She is strong and confident, unwilling to take no for an answer and unintimidated by even the most daunting of tasks--to get Raymond into the White House, first as the vice president, then as the Commander-in-Chief. She sees herself as a soldier on a crusade, her Holy Land is America and her God is John Prentiss. She wants the greatest good for her country and she thinks that is Raymond. But subconsciously, it’s not her son Raymond she wants in power, but her father. Through her mind-control, she has made Raymond as close an imitation as possible to her father, her hero, her God, and, by extension, herself .
    However, there is another definition of hero. In the film Serenity, Zoe Washburn (Gina Torres)  describes a hero as “someone who gets other people killed.” Eleanor Shaw doesn’t hesitate to kill. Working through mega-corporation Manchurian Global, she has an entire military platoon kidnapped, tortured, brainwashed and ultimately put under complete mind-control, to the point where each soldier would kill even his own squadmates if ordered to do so. She not only has military men killed, she orders the assassination of anyone--soldier, politician or ordinary citizen--who shows any indication that he or she has started to figure out what she is doing, which is maneuvering Raymond Shaw into position to become the new President of the United States.
    She is convinced she’s doing the right thing for America, that her ends of the greater good justify her means of taking lives and breaking others, but she doesn’t truly know what she wants. She thinks she wants Raymond to lead America, but she doesn’t want the real Raymond with whose politics she disagrees, the man who wouldn’t even be in politics if he weren’t literally forced to do her commands, she wants her father to lead. John Prentiss is dead, so she does everything she can to turn her son into her father. When she looks at Raymond, she sees the man she has made him--an amalgam of her father and herself. Whatever is left of the person Raymond once was, she sees as an aberration, something to be kept under control and preferably erased permanently. She has taken a good man and replaced him with an abomination, and as clear as she can see the path to the White House, she has no understanding that the man she truly wants in the Oval Office is her father.
    Eleanor’s relationship with Raymond is evidence of the depth to which she doesn’t understand her own motivations and desires. The movie heavily implies that she engages in non-consensual sexual relations with her son. He may not physically struggle or explicitly refuse her advances, but the brainwashing and mind-control she has inflicted on him has fundamentally compromised his self-awareness and free will to the point that he is unable to say no, and thus unable to give real consent.
    She’s made her son into a monster. Due to the behaviour modifications that the Manchurian Global scientists performed on him, he has very little to no will of his own, which hardly makes him fit to lead the free world. She’s become a monster too, making her father into such an idol that she carries on an incestuous relationship with her brainwashed son who she has molded in his father’s image.
    Eleanor Shaw might have benefited from talking to the antagonist, a man known only as the Operative (Chiwetel Eijofor), in the film Serenity. Like Senator Shaw, he believes the ends justify the means, but he understands that he, as the person carrying out the atrocities, is a monster, unfit to live in the world in whose name he commits his crimes. “Me and mine gotta lay down our lives so you  can live in your perfect world?” asks a grieving man. The Operative replies: “I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there. I’m a monster. What I do is terrible but it must be done.” He understands that the monsters we make don’t go away once we get what we want, they stay around and ruin the future for which we strive so hard.

Works Cited
Streep, Meryl. Interviewed by Ethan Aames. “Interview: Meryl Streep on The Manchurian Candidate.” Cinema Confidential. 28 August 2004. Web.
The Manchurian Candidate. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Paramount, 2004. DVD.
Serenity. Dir. Joss Whedon. Universal Pictures, 2005. DVD.


    We as humans have ideas that what we have isn’t enough, that what someone else has is ‘more’ when it is just different. This can lead to consumerism and all manner of destructive behavior, and is generally regarded as not a good thing.

    For example, society and the media both encourage us to covet romantic love, devaluing family and platonic love and elevating romantic love higher than others by telling us that we should all have it, that without a romantic partner we are incomplete and alone. But most of us have something just as good--deep enduring love of family and/or friends, and as long as we have them, we are not alone. The enduring love of family or that best friend over the years is worth so much more than a high school boyfriend who gets forgotten a few years later.

    We have an innate desire to be what society considers beautiful, whether the current standards prize symmetrical or asymmetrical features, long, short, straight, curly or wavy hair, sleekness or curves, spareness or bounty of body.  But most of us already have what we need, and likely what someone else desires and considers beautiful--a reasonably strong healthy body with working appendages and functioning five senses.

     In my own life, I was a rather isolated kid, reading countless books about ‘normal’ people, and naturally wanting what they had: three or more friends (and even more casual acquaintances) they saw multiple times a week, adult role models other than their parents, parents who cared if their kids were normal, and the delicious thrill of blowing off prom to go to a laid-back anti-prom party. I tried to be thankful for what I had: one or two friends I saw a couple times a year, a large family with whom I was friends, two sets of living grandparents, not to mention basic necessities of life such as enough food, clean water, and a warm house.

    We should be content with what we have, but at the same time our drive to want more can lead to vast improvements in our own lives, in society and sometimes eventually the whole world. Womens’ dissatisfaction with the current laws in the early twentieth century resulted in their right to vote, own property and more. English colonists living in the thirteen colonies, dissatisfied with their king’s broken promises, wrote a certain historical charter and became Americans. Poor kids from uncaring families driven by a desire for better, put themselves through college, marry and are better mothers and fathers than their own parents were to them.