14 August 2009

Cut Out The Chase

If you are a student or a former instructor of mine, please skip the next two sentences.

I am reading a book I was supposed to have read in a course I took. Actually, I never finished the course, and there are other things I was supposed to have read but didn't.

So why am I reading Frank Norris' The Octopus now? Well, it's there--or here, as in my place. And, well, the cover of the book is so off-putting that I have to check out what's inside.

Imagine Brokeback Mountain without even the slightest gesture that can be construed as acknowledging its characters' homoeroticism. Or almost anything Hemingway ever wrote, if his male characters were just a little bit more interesting and his female characters even more peripheral. Or Thomas Wolfe, if his lyricism were only slightly less gratuitous and his characterisations were just a little bit deeper. Or John Steinbeck, if he focused on the maleness of his male characters rather than the fact that they were farmers, canners or whatever.

It is indeed a strange book. Actually, it's totally conventional for its time in the way the Norris uses language and tells the story. It makes me think of what William Blake said about John Milton, the poet who wrote Paradise Lost: that he was of the devil's party and didn't know it. Likewise, Norris's book is so obsessive in the way it portrays male characters that it would make my boyfriend (if I had one) jealous. But somehow, I get the feeling that Norris may very well have been clueless about the homoerotic undertones of the relationships--or, more precisely, the way he portrayed those relationships--in his book.

Now, since I'm not in the class for which I was supposed to read the book, I'll stop talking about what I would have been discussing in that class. Instead, I'm going to discuss something I noticed about myself, or, at any rate, the way my perceptions are changing, in the course of reading this book.

One of the many characters is Dyke (!), a former railroad engineer who was fired for union activity. He becomes a farmer, but his former employers try to take land away from him, and other farmers and ranchers, through unscrupulous manipulations of the law. Eventually, Dyke stages a hold-up on a train and hides in the mountains until agents catch up with him. Now I'm reading about the chase: Because of the way the story has been going, you know that Dyke is going to be captured.

If Paradise Lost is compelling in large part because Satan is portrayed in greater depth, and therefore more interestingly, than God or even Adam or Eve in the poem, chase scenes are almost always only as captivating (pun intended) as the character who's being chased. If the one being pursued is completely evil and does not merit, even in the slightest way, sympthy, then there's no reason for the chase.

Of course, the best example of what I am talking about is in Les Miserables, in which Jean Valjean is pursued by Inspector Javert. Even the most resolutely conservative capitalist feels at least some sympathy for Valjean as he winds his way through the Paris sewers in his attempt to evade Javert. How could anybody actually want Javert to capture Valjean?

However, I don't find myself rooting for Dyke in quite the same way, although he is, in essence, no more a criminal at heart than Valjean is. It's not that my politics have so radically changed or that my heart has hardened. Rather, I think it has to do with the chase scene itself.

It's rendered in great detail, and I could feel an almost visceral sense of the movement. But even if the chase itself were rendered better--I don't think it could have been, at least not by much--I wouldn't have been so interested in it as I have been in others.

I think my lack of engagement with that scene had to do with something that Regina said: I'm not running away anymore. I used to get thrills out of chases in movies, TV programs and in other media. I identified with whoever was running from; to me, they were always victims of whatever was chasing them. And in so identifying with the ones who were chased, I "borrowed" their anger, frustration and fear.

But now I have no need to borrow other people's guilt and anger and sorrow...or anything else. So the chase scenes, perhaps, won't mean so much to me as they once did.

That's a scarifice I'm happy to make.

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