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Woof, Belgravia, Doris, Person of Interest - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 19, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Woof, Belgravia, Doris, Person of Interest

The novel Woof could have been a disaster. First of all, it has the feel of a Young Adult novel -- or even a kids' book. The main character, Birdie Gaux (a Cajun name pronounced "go"), is eleven, and she chooses a dog from the animal shelter as her birthday present.

She names the dog Bowser, and they proceed to try to solve the mystery of a stolen trophy fish. Naturally, the adults who know why the fish might have been stolen won't tell her anything because she's a child.

Here's why the novel could have been disastrously bad: It is narrated by the dog, Bowser.

No, he's not tapping it out on an old typewriter with his paws. He's just telling it, in colloquial English. One of those things dogs can't do.

But here's why it isn't bad at all: the author, Spencer Quinn. Quinn has already authored a series of mystery novels about another dog-and-human pair, the Chet and Bernie series. I've never read those books, or heard of them. Woof is volume one of the Bowser and Birdie series.

When creating the voice of a dog, Quinn walks a very narrow line -- but he does it perfectly. He takes the dogginess of the narrator, Bowser, seriously. He doesn't turn it into a series of pathetic jokes about taking off to chase a squirrel. But he does show the limitations and strengths of being a dog.

Dogs are smart. They do understand human language to some degree. There are things they remember perfectly. But Bowser doesn't remember things he never understood in the first place. And even when he gets the sense of something Birdie tells him, once he's not doing that thing anymore, it takes real effort to remember it.

He's not good at foreseeing the negative consequences of impulsive actions. And he doesn't instantly recognize when someone is a threat -- unless it's another dog marking the tree in Birdie's front yard. That's a threat he has to deal with, and thoroughly.

Bowser loves nothing more than being with Birdie. But that doesn't mean he has adopted her agenda. She wants him to come along on a late-night ramble? He's cool with that. But when they scout out the bait shop of the family's worst rivals, he has no idea that they're doing something dangerous.

So, while he always means well, he sometimes gets them in worse trouble. Finding the right thing at the wrong time, for instance, gets Birdie picked up by the police chief -- who assumes she's lying, and that she's been doing a bunch of illegal things in order to further some plot of her grandmother's.

Bowser's narrative reports a lot of human dialogue. Most of it he doesn't understand, but we get it verbatim, which allows us to follow a story that Bowser himself doesn't understand. This is a narrative trick that Quinn handles flawlessly.

There's nothing in Woof that would make it inappropriate for readers from age eight on up. I can't speak about any other books of Quinn's, partly because the Chet and Bernie series has an adult human protagonist.

There's nothing in Woof that would make it inappropriate for adult readers, either. The mystery is clearly laid out and clearly resolved. The issues matter, the villain is believable, and both Bernie and Bowser are engaging heroes. The novel is brief, and if you listen to the audiobook, James Frangione handles the voice of Bowser with delightful candor and subtle irony.

And if, like me, you don't wuv widdo doggies and you have zero patience with people who consider themselves to be their dogs' "mommy" or "daddy," you won't be sickened by a bunch of sentimental twaddle about dogs. Bowser may be narrating a novel, but he's a dog, not a person, and the book never loses track of that.

I recently heard a comedian's routine about Lassie and the amazing amount of information she (always played by a male collie) can convey with a couple of yips and a tail wag. Bowser can't do that. Explanations are not possible for him, partly because he doesn't really have any complicated messages to convey.

The entire contents of his most frequent conversational gambit is this: "Hey! Here I am!" Is that authentic dogspeak or what?

And at the end of the book, Birdie doesn't have to shoot the dog. So we're all ok, right? You're not going to have to cry, and the story doesn't depend on your loving all things doggish.

It's a good story, very well told. You'll probably enjoy it, and your kids will, too, whether they're dog-lovers or not.

*

Maybe you know that Julian Fellowes is the creator and writer of Downton Abbey. What you might not know is the Fellowes is something like the world's foremost expert on the history and culture of the English upper class.

I first became aware of Fellowes with his wonderful book Snobs. It's the way I learned that the genuine upper class never eats out at restaurants; in fact, restaurant dining is proof that you are not upper class.

That's because the upper class all have cooks, and if they want to "eat out," they'll go to the home of a social equal, where they will be served whatever the cook in that house serves. The idea of choosing from a menu is worse than gauche.

I don't know to what degree Fellowes takes poetic license, but my impression is that he strives for absolute accuracy in his depiction of class distinctions. That's one of the reasons why Downton Abbey was so moving and entertaining -- we really did feel as if we were entering into another world.

Most writers of novels about upper class life are faking it -- completely. I don't mean just the "women's historicals" of today, which are thinly disguised pornography, full of absurd anachronisms.

I mean novels like The Scarlet Pimpernel, which is humiliatingly bad in its depiction of the culture (every movie or TV version of Pimpernel is better than the book, because it skips right over the author's deep ignorance and stupidity).

Jane Austen gets the culture of her novels exactly right, because she wasn't writing historical fiction, she was writing about the culture she lived in.

But when, less than a century later, Benjamin Disraeli wrote novels about the upper classes, he had no knowledge of upper class life -- he simply repeated what he had learned about the upper class from reading other people's novels, most of which were also fakes. His novels sold very well, but he soon gave it up and became a politician, and then Prime Minister, so that he did get a good solid dose of exposure to the upper class -- including Queen Victoria. Then he was made Earl of Beaconsfield, thus becoming authentically upper class himself.

But I assume he still committed solecisms all the time, because he had not grown up in the upper classes and therefore the customs of that society were not ingrained in him.

Julian Fellowes, however, is a first-rate anthropologist in his observation and reporting of the English upper class. He's also a very good storyteller, so the foreground as well as the background of his novels and screenplays work very very well for an audience that wants to be entertained as well as educated.

Here's some wonderful news for fans of Downton Abbey who are hungry for more. Julian Fellowes is in the process of publishing Belgravia, a novel in serialized form.

You can buy the installments as ebooks on Amazon for $1.99 each, or as Audible.com downloads for $2.95 each.

I may not be a math wizard, but knowing that there are at least eight episodes, and Amazon Prime customers can by the entire novel as of July 5th for $18.97, you're not likely to save any money doing it this way.

I've listened to the first five installments and I have to tell you, the book is wonderful. Each installment is a long chapter, and the story moves well. Fellowes understands the obligations of serialization, so each episode contains a complete incident that significantly advances the movement of the tale.

The first chapter takes place at a famous ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. Nobody knows where Napoleon is, but they're in a Belgian city that is not in immediate danger.

The daughter of Wellington's resourceful quartermaster has fallen in love with an officer who happens to be the son and heir of a noble family. The match is impossible, of course, no matter how beautiful the girl; but the quartermaster, an inveterate social climber, encourages his daughter all the same.

The chapter ends with the soldiers rushing off to battle. The girl is waving good-bye to her beloved, when she sees something -- we're not told till the next chapter what she saw -- that causes her far more distress than merely parting.

The next chapter skips twenty-five years, but we're very quickly brought up to date, and as we change viewpoints (Fellowes dare to use a nearly omniscient viewpoint, which few modern writers handle well), we begin to see how radically the social classes misjudge each other.

We decide very quickly which characters to approve of and which we wish to slap just a little, to wake them up to the mistakes they're making. But Fellowes provides us enough context that even when we don't admire some characters, we understand why they behave as they do.

There's no way for me to share another scrap of the plot without annoying you with spoilers. Let me simply report that Fellowes enters into the terrain of Thackeray's Vanity Fair and holds his own very well.

I realize that for many male readers, I have already planted the kiss of death on Belgravia, what with formal balls and star-crossed lovers. But for those men who enjoy Austen or Thackeray, I can promise you a delightful ride. Most female readers will need no more encouragement; and I say that with full respect, knowing that few woman readers are content with fluff. There must be substance, and Belgravia has it. There will be much for your book group to talk about.

If you become impatient waiting for installments to come out, wait till the fifth of July to buy the novel. But if you enjoy the fun of serialized fiction, climb aboard. You can read or hear the first four or five chapters right away; it will all come to fruition soon enough.

*

My wife and I were looking for a movie to watch last Friday night. The reviews of Money Monster were not promising, but we saw some encouraging comments about Hello, My Name Is Doris, starring Sally Field and Max Greenfield (Schmidt in New Girl). We decided to give it a try.

The premise is simple enough. Doris (Field) is a spinster who cared for her aged mother through the last years of her life. Both Doris and her mother had a hoarding problem (though the set decoration shows that the production designer has never actually seen a hoarder's home).

The mother has just died, and Doris is at loose ends, though her brother wants to clean everything out of the house, sell it, and allow Doris to use her half of the proceeds to get an apartment in the city, much closer to work. Doris does not protest, but inwardly she seethes: The "junk" her brother wants to clear away is her stuff, and the house he wants to sell is her home.

At work, where she does something or other with a computer in a cubicle, Doris falls instantly in love with John Fremont, the firm's new director of something-or-other.

So far, this may sound interesting, but I can assure you that the writers have ruined everything, from the first moment on.

First of all, the story is constantly interrupted by absurd daydreams in which John responds favorably to Doris's obvious infatuation, involving a lot of unfunny physical comedy. When we come out of each daydream, Doris is in some awkward posture that is meant to be funny, and other people notice that she's been taking a timeout. In other words, she needs a therapist who can prescribe medication.

But worse than this is the constant condescension toward Doris -- even worse than the way the title character was treated in the Jack Nicholson snob hit About Schmidt. When younger people write about old people, they are often incapable of compassion or understanding, but Hello, My Name Is Doris is downright mean to Doris.

Field's makeup, posture, and voice turn Doris into an awkward dolt. At no point in the first half-hour of the show are we given anything like an understanding of what her own life means to her.

Instead, she is treated as a true clown, in the original meaning: A bumpkin coming to the big city for the first time. She has no idea what Facebook is; a friend from work has to show her how to friend John Fremont and gain access to his page. This despite the fact that Doris has worked with computers every day for years, and works where she can easily hear conversations among co-workers, which would certainly have included many references to social media.

I know several women who have spent years caring for elderly parents; some of the women are single, and some are married. Nothing about such a life cuts them off from the outside world; in fact, many in this situation rely on Facebook and other social media as a window on the wider world.

If Doris had been closed off in her and her mother's house of hoarding, maybe her ignorance could be believable. But going to work every day, riding the ferry, walking the city streets, she sees contemporary fashions and hairstyles. Maybe she doesn't care, but she certainly knows how to walk and talk in an adult way, instead of Sally Fields's obnoxious little-girl awkwardness.

This contemptuous, trivializing treatment of the main character makes it very difficult to sympathize with her or care what happens to her -- because we don't believe in her. Maybe we'd understand her obsession with John Fremont, if she fell in love with him after a reasonable amount of interaction; but she becomes obsessive -- to the point of stealing his pencil -- during a single elevator ride when their bodies are pressed close together.

That's it. Love at first physical touch. Now, such things may well happen with people who are desperately lonely. But Doris has friends and acquaintances. It is far more likely that she would have found this inadvertent physical contact with an unfamiliar young man to be obnoxious, especially because he doesn't have the good manners to pretend that the encounter isn't happening.

Instead, he's chatty and "charming" in the charmless way that makes me wish I had a taser with me. (Yeah, yeah, I know, TASER is trademarked and they use capital letters. But I think the word has entered the English language as a generic word, like aspirin, and needs no capitalization. I don't own stock in the company and they don't pay me to protect their trademark. Losing trademark is what happens when a product is too successful; my business is using the English language as it's actually spoken.)

Nor do I find John Fremont to be so good-looking as to overwhelm all onlookers. If I saw some sign that he was unusually good at his job, perhaps I'd find him more likeable -- but his introductory speech to the staff that will be working with him is so horribly inept that I'm quite sure the writers have never actually seen a competent manager speak to the workers who will report to him.

The reason that my wife and I walked out of this badly-written "comedy" was deeper than the simple incompetence of the writing and directing. We know people who have paid the steep personal cost of caring for parents through their final years. It can be as all-consuming as caring for a two-year-old, but is complicated by the fact that the parent is used to being a responsible adult, free to make decisions and have them stick.

Those who have made this sacrifice -- whether they're married or not -- deserve respect and praise and gratitude, not the stupid ridicule of a clownish portrayal in an inept movie. I was ashamed to be watching it. It was as if I were participating in the bullying of people I admire and care about. My wife felt the same way, and so we ended the shame by leaving.

I don't know how other moviegoers felt, but that Friday night, almost all the audience was our age or older. At least a few of them were the elderly being taken care of by a devoted child -- I knew that because the elderly women helping the even-more-elderly women make it into the theater called them "mother." They were not laughing at anything.

I am sure of that because nobody was laughing. Now, maybe there was a nervous titter or two, now and then, but there were never any real laughs.

The audience was being slandered by this movie, attacked by it. We were old and, so far, getting older; we know what it feels like to be out of touch with some new technology that has suddenly become a necessity, though we never felt any need for it.

That generational disconnect is painful, when the younger generation treats us like fools for not having "kept up," though we're old enough to regard "keeping up" as the high-school foolishness that it really is.

So ... whom did the filmmakers think this movie was for? Younger and middle-aged audiences would find nothing in the premise or the promos to make the movie interesting to them. The only people who might want to watch Sally Field play an elderly woman in love are old folks.

And, as we learned with Enchanted April, it's quite possible to make a movie that shows understanding and compassion for love that comes so late in life. The last thing that theater-goers would expect from Hello, My Name Is Doris is the ridicule, abuse, and ignorance that are heaped upon the elderly main character -- by the writers, the director, and the actress alike.

What were they thinking?

They were thinking, "Hey, it's a movie and it's funny." The kind of idiotic attitude that gets a Reagan-with-Alzheimers script floated through the studios. Nobody thinks: Who will love this story? No, let's be briefer. When it comes to Hollywood's movie-making decisions, nobody thinks.

"Hey, she has these Walter Mitty fantasies about making love to this young guy, and they play out really funny." Sold! Even though people who have such fantasies don't drop into a fugue state and adopt funny poses, unless they really suffer from a serious psychological disorder.

Comedy that ignores reality is doomed to fail. Comedy that attacks its only possible audience is so stupid that it deserves to fail.

So far, the movie has made $13 million in the U.S. If most audience members hadn't had senior citizen discounts, the number would be higher. But I wonder how many of the ticket buyers then told all their friends, "Oh, you'll love it!"

Maybe, by walking out, I missed some redemptive scenes. But guess what? No movie, ever, deserves more than a half hour of the audience's time without engaging them in a story and giving them some trust in underlying truthfulness of the script.

My time is worth too much for me to be willing to waste it by continuing to watch trash, just in case it might get less trashy.

*

When Person of Interest began its run on television, it had a remarkable cast -- Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, Taraji P. Henson, and Kevin Chapman as a group brought together to help save people from dire fates predicted by a supercomputer.

The computer, programmed by Harold Finch (Emerson), is designed to identify potential terrorist threats. There really are computer programs that do this. They are regularly used by Las Vegas casinos to identify cheaters, and the NSA uses similar algorithms in monitoring patterns in telecommunications.

But Finch was unhappy with the fact that the program also identifies regular citizens about to fall into great danger -- but simply ignores them as "irrelevant" to the primary mission of identifying terrorist threats. So Finch arranged for the Machine to phone him from time to time with "numbers" -- coded references that allow him to identify the people and send help.

The rest of the characters are the team that Finch assembled over time. Along the way, they lost Henson (her storyline had run its course) and added Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi, two excellent actresses playing women who have joined in service of the mission.

There is also an evil government organization seeking to get rid of Finch's Machine and replace it with "Samaritan," an even-more-powerful program that is determined to eliminate threats by eliminating human freedom from the equation.

What drove the series were the weekly episodes -- the particular person whose personal crisis required intervention. Sometimes the person was the victim, sometimes the perpetrator.

But the writers kept falling in love with their overarching storyline. For the first couple of years, it was about "H.R.," a corrupt group in the police department. The problem was that we tuned in for the episodes -- the people needing help -- and not for the war with "H.R."

So they ended that storyline and killed off Henson's character, then replaced it with an even more tedious and far more confusing overall storyline involving the struggle to save the Machine from Samaritan.

If only they had studied Law & Order a little more and realized that tiny doses of overall storyline are plenty. What we tune in for is a story complete in this episode, a story about a person in trouble who needs help from people with muscles, brains, and way better information.

Sure, the writers can get tired of the episodic "formula," but that's what drives series television. Characters we care about, getting into dilemmas and dangers with the best intentions in the world. If you have a hit series, stick with the formula.

Think of how Lost died. The episodes became less and less about immediate problems of the characters, and more and more about the confusing, contradictory, and ultimately stupid storyline about "what's really happening."

Now it's the last season of Person of Interest, and the first couple of episodes consisted of nothing but mindless action -- shooting and getting shot at by Samaritan's minions -- and hopelessly ignorant computer talk about what the Machine needs and wants and the psychological state of this piece of software.

The less you know about computers, the harder it is to follow anything that's going on; the more you know about computers, the harder it is to treat the show with any respect at all, since the writers have no more understanding of how actual computers work than I have about how to pet Schrodinger's Cat.

There is no reason why the vast program and dataset of the Machine would ever have been hyper-compressed and loaded into volatile RAM, requiring that the memory chips be constantly powered up. But if such an insane decision were made, it is equally stupid to have the power supply fail and then revive the program like a drowning victim after a few minutes.

When it comes to RAM, gone is gone.

But we laugh and keep watching because this is the fifth season, the last season, and, as with Lost, we have to see how it comes out, even though we have zero trust that the ending will make any sense or have any integrity.

For me, the series nearly died when they turned Amy Acker's insane, evil character, Caroline Turing, into "Root," the prophet of the Machine. It was the same kind of moral turnaround that George Lucas made with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi: Suddenly we're supposed to feel fine about a murderer and torturer.

Acker is a wonderful actress, skilled and charismatic. But her character is a monster that we're now supposed to care about, and I'm not playing.

So many mistakes were made in this series.

But at least the network gave them a half-season in which to tie up the loose ends. Too bad they're doing such a weak job of it.

Still, there are a few glimmers of what the series was at its best. Episode 3 actually had a storyline of its own that made sense, reminding us why we ever watched the series. Maybe there'll be more that transcend the stupidity of the overall storyline.

My wife and I are still committed to seeing it through to the end. But our patience is not infinite. Too well we remember how sad the ending of Lost made us. Such a wonderful start, only to lead to a bathetic ending. I hope Person of Interest manages to salvage more before the end.

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