the left hand of darkness: epistolocity unleashed

Last month, for book club, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic sci-fier The Left Hand of Darkness. Set on the planet Gethen, the novel takes the form of several documents brought together as a kind of report, including the observations of an interplanetary envoy, the diary of a native, and bits of recorded Gethenian mythology.

This sort of novel is called “epistolary.” As a word, “epistolary” usually refers to snail-mail correspondence, but as far as I can tell, the category of epistolary novel is not so literally about letters: Included in this class is any novel that presents itself as a series of ordinary documents, like journal entries, e-mails, or even encyclopedia articles — not exclusively letters. So, for example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula “is told in epistolary format, as a series of letters, diary entries, and ships’ log entries, whose narrators are the novel’s protagonists, and occasionally supplemented with newspaper clippings relating events not directly witnessed” (per our friends at Wikipedia).

picture by via cc

photo from thomas munter via cc

What’s important, it would seem, is that the epistolary novel purports to be a literary fragment taken right from the imaginary world it depicts. It is not given to the reader as a normal narrative, but as though it were a bit closer to being documentary evidence.
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david denby reminds me why i don’t write about important things

In the introduction to David Denby’s collection Do the Movies Have a Future?, he imagines the answer, at least for the purposes of the theatergoer who likes a certain kind of quality film: “Well, maybe. Sort of. Perhaps. If certain things happen.”

I think it says a lot that the question is so big and the answer so tentative.

Maybe unsurprisingly, the gist of his opening essay is that the movies are becoming crasser, more commercial, and more frenetic, and he feels that this is definitely bad. He is made “crazy” by this, and mourns what movies use to be like, how a more adult entertainment used to rule the theaters, in a time when Oscar-worthiness was better correlated to popularity. He paints for us a picture of marketing tie-ins and branded entertainment and movies filled with too many explosions and not enough dramatic tension, and this is a world that dismays him. He takes Iron Man 2 as his example, and explains that while Robert Downey, Jr. is entertaining, the movie boils down to well-produced bang-bang without any emotional heft.

photo by Nur Hussein via cc

photo by Nur Hussein via cc


I’m with him in all of this, and in fact I’m also unhappy with popular culture in the new century. But Denby wants to make a grander argument out of his unhappiness. In this state-of-the-movies address, he develops a scathing critique of the cultural moment, one that is implicitly founded on the notion that things have gone very wrong with the art of film. It’s not enough that he himself is unhappy; like many people, Denby assumes that the thing that makes him unhappy is a symptom of a larger wrong. He may not say it outright, but it becomes plain through his extended lamentation that he considers the decline of his preferred theatergoing experience something worse than a minor annoyance.
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the great gatsby as a test case for what we lose in adaptation; not a post in which i grumble about the superiority of any medium over another, i promise

Greg Olear, writing for The Weeklings, makes a good argument that Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is gay. I’m a sucker for unlikely theories about books and movies, but even more so when they rely on a close reading of the evidence. Also, since Baz Luhrmann’s movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby is finally coming out this week, Olear’s argument has gotten me thinking about the fundamental differences between the art of film and the art of writing.

Before I get to that, I’ll have to convey to you the gist of Olear’s argument, especially the way he uses Nick’s point of view to make it. A big chunk of Olear’s evidence comes from the way Carraway describes each of the other five major characters in the novel. Part of the argument comes from how Nick casts a pretty detached eye on the women, even though they are all supposed to be desirable in their own way. As an example, there is a passage where Nick describes Jordan Baker (a golfer), the woman he gets involved with: “She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.” Olear summarizes it this way: “Other than the word small-breasted — which de-emphasizes the golfer’s feminine attributes — this could be a description of a man.”

Meanwhile, when Nick talks about Tom Buchanan he is struck by “the enormous power of that body.” This does seem telling, since in my experience as a straight dude, we don’t normally characterize other guys this way unless we’re talking about football players.

But I’ve just now re-read the passage that Olear uses to make his case that Carraway is “in love” with Gatsby, and I find it unconvincing — it seems to just be a description of a man who has quite a bit of charisma, but straight men can recognize that in other men just about as well as gay men can. To me, the description seems to convey mostly a general sense that Gatsby makes everyone feel better in his presence and is able to use his charm to uplift everyone he meets; we all know people like this, and it’s not at all clear that Carraway is attracted romantically to him.


photo by Rakka under cc

Whether I agree with Olear or whether Nick Carraway really is gay doesn’t matter so much to me, though. Instead, what occurred to me while reading was about how any of this would be communicated on film. My conclusion is that it can’t. The paragraphs Olear cites are a great example of what a book can do that a movie can’t even under the best of circumstances.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how novels can go into a character’s head in a way that feels intimate; what I’m thinking of here is similar to that phenomenon but still distinct. I do this thought experiment: What would we get if a filmmaker set out to do the most faithful rendition of the book possible, sans running commentary in voice-over by Nick Carraway? (It would just be cheating if he were allowed to read the book over the images.) Well, we’d have a long movie, but even with all the extra hours of scenes, we probably still wouldn’t know that Nick thinks of Tom Buchanan’s body as having “enormous power” or that Jordan Baker’s bearing reminds him of a cadet’s. We can see through Nick’s eyes or from Nick’s perspective in the film, but seeing isn’t the same as describing.


photo by advertisingelyse under cc

Frankly, I feel as though film is inevitably more objective than the written word, since it is divided from the connotations of words. I’m worried there’s a grand theory of film that has already proven me wrong, but I’m okay with that possibility, because damn if it doesn’t seem intuitively true. An image by itself can’t convey the dense forest undergrowth of mental associations that Nick makes when he eyeballs other people. I hate to talk about the essential qualities of an art form, but I have to admit, at times like these, I want to talk about what a novel does best vs. what a film does best. I can only hope Baz Luhrmann’s film can make up for what can only ever be lost in the transition.