Mark Athitakis Newsletter #29

Spoiler alert.

Front Matter

I’m not watching Game of Thrones. I don’t say that in the sense of “I’m better than your silly interest in Game of Thrones.” I say it in the sense of “I can’t afford HBO on top of everything else and the HBO Go password somebody passed along to me a while back stopped working so I’m not watching Game of Thrones and instead I’m waiting for the new season of Bosch.” But I enjoy reading people’s tweets about the show, which tend to unwittingly express a particular anxiety about cultural consumption: We want to have a “pure” and unadulterated experience with a work of art while also wanting to share in the experience collectively.

Which is to say: To speak of Game of Thrones is to be anxious about spoilers. But what’s a spoiler? “Giving away the ending or an important plot point” would be the common answer. The giving away is a function of time, though---spoilers have expiration date---which suggests that spoilers have more to do with cultural work’s value in the marketplace than any inherent artistic worth. If I tell you that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, or that Rosebud is Kane’s childhood sled, few would feel that their experience of The Empire Strikes Back and Citizen Kane has been wrecked. Enough time has passed that everybody who’s interested in those movies know the ending anyway. And perhaps just as important, those movies aren’t diminished by your knowing these things; is it impossible to enjoy Citizen Kane because you know about the sled, or even to enjoy it less?

Still, professional responsibility obligates me to take spoilers seriously and not reveal late-breaking plot points in a novel I’m reviewing. This got tricky lately in the case of Susan Choi’s new novel, Trust Exercise. The novel, concerning students at a high-pressure arts school, is about the warring perspectives of our teenage years---Choi explores the profound effects of how we’re treated and perceived in high school, yet it’s also a time when we’re most compelled to keep secrets, mindful of gossip and judgment. Choi artfully shows how that atmosphere of raw emotion can linger well into adulthood, and that’s all important to discuss if you’re going to explain to a reader what the novel is “about.” But that also means noting that nearly halfway through the book there’s a change in perspective---the novel you’re reading is actually a novel written by one of the graduates of the school.

Is saying this a spoiler, or just discussing the architecture of the book? A reader tweeted at me, concerned that I had ruined the book:

I didn’t think I had:

But like I said, these are judgment calls. As Laura Miller pointed out in her review of the novel, explaining the structure is essential to discussing its themes: “Spoiler-ish as this summary may sound, it seems a necessary spur to get readers unfamiliar with Choi’s work through the novel’s unexceptional first lap.” I strongly disagree with that “unexceptional” business, however; though the opening section gives off a whiff of unreliable narration, its observations of arts-school life are elegant and considered. No novelist would risk making close to half a novel bad on purpose, and for what it’s worth, I found the second half of Trust Exercise a little more dull and “plotty” as it moves toward its big reveal.

Which I won’t disclose, because good book-reviewing citizenship requires not giving away the ending. (This is why writing longer literary essays, or writing on older books, can be so appealing---you can talk about endings.) But not all spoilers are created equal, because not all works of narrative art are. Bad M. Night Shyamalan fare like Signs winds up sounding ridiculous when you explain what happens (Aliens! Water-averse aliens invading a planet whose surface is 70 percent water!) because bad art’s value resides exclusively in the kind of reveals that demand spoiler alerts. Media screener DVDs of the fifth season of The Wire---the final, no-good, garbage season---came with a please-no-spoilers note from producer David Simon: “[T]he newspaper arc will be a more intriguing and meaningful journey for viewers if they do not know, in advance, exactly how or why Detective McNulty or Reporter Templeton bend and violate the ethics of their respective professions, or how they ultimately are used by each other as a result.” This was another way of saying that those characters behaved so unbelievably that the producer had to stand in critics’ way in the hopes that viewers might find the show’s arc “intriguing and meaningful,” rather than the nonsense that it was.

The first half of Trust Exercise is a novel written by one of its characters. It’s such a good novel that it can bear you coming to it with this knowledge. You should read it.

What I’m Reading

Matt Jones considers what I’d thought of, thanks to John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, as the Yucca Mountain problem---how to communicate the existence of a toxic waste site millennia from now, when our environment and means of communication will likely be incomprehensible to our present-day selves. But the problem isn’t unique to Yucca Mountain. Michael Massing makes the business case for the humanities, as one must now. Colin Dickey explores themes of death and grief in the latest dire film version of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. In Poets & Writers, William Giraldi explores the ugly nature of writerly envy through the ages (print-only). Roxana Robinson, author of a fine new historical novel, Dawson’s Fall, describes the uncanny process of reading its audiobook.

What I’m Writing

At the prompting of the Washington Post, I revised Newsletter #23 into a longer, hopefully more considered riff about Millennials, novels, and how we perceive literary greatness. It’s attracted more than 100 comments; maybe I’ll read them someday. For On the Seawall, I reviewed Colin Asher’s new biography of Nelson Algren, which I highly recommend, though the book makes a stronger case for Algren as a social critic than a fiction writer: “As an advocate for Algren’s fiction, Asher can be as disappointing a salesman as Algren’s father was a mechanic — his discussions of the novels themselves are mainly extended plot summaries that make Algren’s characters seem like flotsam on a turgid river, followed by sketches of the critical reception they received. Those reviews were increasingly distant as the years went on.”

Thanks for reading. I’ve just started reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; send spoilers and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter. I have a website. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.

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