A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

The People v. OJ Simpson Is a Triumph of Realism

by evanmcmurry

[mild spoilers to multiple shows ahead]

There’s a quiet moment toward the end of the ten-episode The People v. OJ Simpson when Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, having almost hooked up and then become bitter enemies over each others’ mistakes, shake hands. The camera lingers for a moment on the sight of the hands themselves, one white and one black, clasped—an image that then forms a silent contrast with rancorous scenes of the similarly multiracial defense team in a state of contemptuous dissolution. In the end, Johnny Cochrane watches Robert Shapiro badmouth him on television, as removed from his trial partner as Clark and Darden were connected. It’s a smart complication of the show’s racial politics, as those explicitly fighting racial injustice are mired in disharmony while the two district attorneys tough out a comity the defense has been positing as institutionally impossible.

It’s also notable because it’s the type of understated moment not seen in the other shows that bejewel the contemporary golden age of television. The People v. OJ Simpson is better than its shiny rivals, and set against them its realism emerges as its operative quality—all the more impressive as the series chronicles events ubiquitously described at the time as “surreal.”

Surreal is a good description of any sampling of recent television or television-adjacent fictions—House of Cards, Sherlock, Daredevil, to take a few. For shorthand, let’s call this Netflix Style: aesthetically sophisticated, elaborately plotted, slickly produced, and ridiculous. All three begin as enthralling serials; all are soon slipping over plot twists and character reversals to the point of slapstick. The shows differ in subject matter and tone, but they crack along the same fault: each eventually, if not repeatedly, sacrifices the logic of its protagonist to the desires of the metastasizing plot.

Daredevil is the most ludicrous. The first season features multiple instances in which the show seems to forget Matthew Murdock is blind, until a late episode reveals he’s not actually blind, but sees according to some sort of sonar something-or-another. The character’s limitation, that which gave him both his urge for justice and his more interesting death drive, turns out to have been a ruse. He can see! This recalls, and fails, Aristotle’s plausible-possible rule, which isn’t just academic: that rule keeps narratives honest. The decreasingly-believable plot demands undermine the characters, but the characters’ lack of integrity allow the plot to run away with them.

Sherlock had even more trouble (though admittedly more fun) maintaining the continuity of its protagonist: the detective’s supposed anti-socialism, originally posited as the Hyde to his Jekyll-ish hyper-observational prowess, is in every instance discarded to make room for uncharacteristic abilities necessitated by the over-complicated mysteries. Lo and behold, it turns out for the purposes of one episode that the anti-social hero maintains a large army of observers spread across England with whom he seems quite social. He (actually they) can see! Is this possible? Technically, I guess. Plausible? Not from what we’ve seen of the character so far.

Except that in the end Sherlock seems capable of just about anything. So does Matt Murdock, so does Frank Underwood (granted omnivision via NSA surveillance, naturally). Presented with blind characters, these shows opt to magically bestow to their characters sight rather than watch them feel their way on their own.

The players in The People v. OJ Simpson can’t see, either, at least not until it’s too late. In fact the series is, on its basic level, a continual problem of not-seeing, as the two sides compete to present select information to a dozen sequestered people court-ordered to cover their eyes and ears. In the most important turn, Judge Ito denies them the ability to see all but one line of the Fuhrman tapes. At one point Ito himself rejects reading a transcript to maintain his impartiality.

But the limitations, rather than presenting the characters with obstacles they avoid via author-granted superpowers, inspire them: Johnny Cochrane’s best moments involve cleverly implying to the jury evidence or context they’re prohibited from viewing. Acting on his wits is what Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is supposedly celebrated for in his series, except that it’s always a deus ex machina, rather than a smart play, up his sleeve.

It could be argued that this is a categorical error: superpowers were invoked the last graph, and the three Netflix Style shows here are all essentially superhero shows—or, as in House of Cards, a supervillain show. Engorgement is what puts the super in superhero, and Sherlock’s box of tricks or Daredevil’s blacklight sight or Frank Underwood’s endless reserve of tactical cynicism could all be seen as the larger-than-life powers of people interesting precisely because they are not beholden to ordinary limitations.

But they should be beholden to their own limitations: the old science fiction rule—you can have life on other planets, but nobody should be able to suddenly shoot lasers halfway through the story—seems to apply here. In other words, no magic sonar sight in episode eight. To take a more earthly example, Underwood is clearly a Nixonian character, but Nixon became his most interesting at the limits of his machinations. For all he was a crook, he was not terribly versed in criminality, and his naively asking an aide how to launder a million dollars is, in retrospect, an unexpectedly pathetic moment; he sounds like a Quaker kid from Whittier trying to play mobster, rather than the mobster himself. Frank Underwood would just order it done, and probably have a guy to do it, and burner phone to call him with in his lapel pocket. The vaulting of human limits makes a character less, not more, interesting.

It’s obviously easy to ascribe OJ‘s realism to the fact that it is based off real events, and surely the over-covered happenings of the Simpson trial constrained a number of narrative decisions (though the show, like all others, takes plenty of dramatic license). But as anybody who’s ever watched a clichéd biopic or Oscar-bait reenactment of Great Moments in History knows, the historical record is no guarantor of realism. In fact, the whole “inspired by a true story” tag seems to cause—allow?—producers to jam their tales into formulas. This is what Walk Hard satirized: the interchangeability of pop icons’ unique lives once rendered by the biopic machine. In the clash between between existence and archetype, what Iris Murdoch calls the comfort of form wins. These narratives based off real people fail precisely because don’t treat those people as real.

The People v. OJ Simpson succeeds because it grants its characters the integrity of their own existence, perfectly encapsulated when Marcia Clark recalls an assault that originally spurred her quest for justice. What Clark had been imagining is what would have actually transpired in any other show: that the experience had given her a sort of sixth sense of the jurors’ minds, the better to craft the perfect closing argument. She can see! OJ plays it the opposite way, this experience blinding her the whole time to what the jury was actually thinking.

In short, she succumbed to, rather than transcended, her limitations. That’s the opposite of a superpower. But it should be noted that Sherlock Holmes and Matt Murdock and Frank Underwood are capable of everything except that handshake.

Charities Buried under Unwanted Copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (Again)

by evanmcmurry


With almost enough copies of Fifty Shades of Grey to build its own sex dungeon, a branch of Oxfam in Swansea has asked people to stop donating the erotic novel or any of its sequels. “We appreciate all your donations, but less Fifty Shades and more 60s and 70s vinyl would be good,” wrote Phil Broadhurst, the shop’s manager, in a post on Facebook.

This is at least the second time charities have complained of a Fifty Shades deluge.

You Probably Shouldn’t Drink Guy Fieri’s Cabernet

by evanmcmurry

  1. “bomb-ass pinot”
  2. “I love everything from Enya to Pantera” is the Poochiest thing the man’s ever said.

Previous FITF entries on wine you should not drink: Bob Benmoshe CabRed Sox Cab, Hitler Cab, Rupert Murdoch Cab.

Simpsons Blimp References, Ranked

by evanmcmurry

1. “Oh, and once I saw a blimp!”

2. “Hey there, blimpy boy.”

3. “Whoever takes down that blimp doesn’t have to learn fractions.”

4. Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming.

A Running Taxonomy of Ta-Nehisi Coates Freakouts

by evanmcmurry

I’ve identified four so far, and the book just came out. Feel free to add your own!

* Professional Jealousy (Freddie DeBoer, Cornel West): upset over Coates’ success.

* Race-Based Panic: (that Federalist article, the right): upset at African-Americans achieving positions of cultural prominence formerly reserved for the William F Buckley types.

* Identity Politics: (the left) upset over Coates’ perceived lack of intersectionality.

* David Brooks: (David Brooks) upset because the stick up his ass has a stick up its ass.

Names in “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of an American Consensus,” Ranked

by evanmcmurry

12. Rosser Reeves

11. McGeorge Bundy (it’s a weird name!)

10. Roscoe Drummond

9. Estes Kefauver

8. Nolan Frizzelle

7. Denison Kitchel

6. Endicott Peabody

5. Effie B Semple

4. Casper Weinberger

3. Lyman Lemnitzer

2. Holmes Tuttle

1. Wirt Yerger

Confessions of a Reluctant Ulysses Fan

by evanmcmurry

* Originally published on June 16, 2012 on Ology.com, republished here.

Happy Bloomsday, world! And while it didn’t look like any of you out on Ave A last night were busy forging in the smithees of your souls the uncreated conscience of your race, you should at least take today to celebrate the better of the two Irish holidays—St. Patrick’s day having now become Green Mardi Gras—by cracking the copy of Ulysses on your shelf, or at the very least eating with relish the inner organs of beast and fowls.

In the spirit of honesty I will openly confess that there is no way on God’s big green dumb earth that I ever would have finished Ulysses had I not taken a graduate school class devoted, as explicitly stated on its syllabus, to the completion of Ulysses. I’d tried reading it prior to that, and like so many frustrated, busy people before me had gotten promptly lost in the pretentious fog of Chapter Three and decided there were better things to do with my life.

I question that decision now that I’ve finished the book. Ulysses is so big, so hungry and capacious and commodious a text, that it contains all of life within it, or the most of life that could possibly fit into the novel form, and comes as close as any text I’ve ever read to recreating the whole of existence. There may not be better things to do with your life, as Ulysses is just about life itself.

It is also the most pretentious book ever written, literally and objectively: Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet as conceits, and aspired to write a text that would be their equal. That’s a pretty big pretense. Times 800 or so pages, divided into chapters that do not mirror but interact with the travels of the great fabricator Odysseus, each with its own literary and linguistic style meant to both perfect and exhaust its respective form, and you have the biggest pretense in literary history.

If this sounds tiring, it is. Joyce himself was so depleted after the completion of the manuscript that he didn’t write another word for a year. Modernist writing was so spent after Ulysses that it began a decades-long period of retraction, via the increasingly narrow works of Beckett, into the nouveau roman, which could slip between couch cushions. Whether Joyce so perfected the form of the novel that he rendered it obsolete—Chandler’s definition of a classic—or whether he simply made fiction writing a drag is debatable, but there’s no real debating that the modern novel was enervated as a result of Joyce’s monstrous iteration of it.

But life too is exhausting, and Ulysses, a celebration of mimesis in all its capacities, wears us out in service of introducing us to Leopold Bloom, for whom modern existence is a wonderful and trying and ceaseless experience. Bloom must eat, Bloom must sell advertisements, Bloom must keep at bay the knowledge that his wife Molly is to cheat on him that day with dandyish Blazes Boylan, who constantly appears at the periphery of Bloom’s vision, darting in and out of doorways in his bespoke suit. Bloom must also carry with him constantly the memory of his son, the death of whom has frozen his marriage in a celibate stasis.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Bloom must contend with being Jewish in an Ireland corrupted by anti-Semitism, and must prove his Irishness to the boors of the burgeoning nationalist movement, and he must also eat again—Bloom consumes as much as Stephen Dedalus does not—and continually assemble his existence out of these fragments on a moment by moment basis, pummeled on all sides by the 20th century concepts of nationality and class and gender and race, ideas that come at him at bars and on the street, from inside his head and from advertisements on the walls. Joyce presents existence as a panoramic assault, and if reading Ulysses is a challenge that takes twelve academic weeks, that’s all the more to render the struggle of Bloom’s daily life.

When Bloom finally arrives home, however, the novel settles into its best and most beautiful chapters. The relief, on both the part of the protagonist and the reader, is palpable. The last hundred pages or so of Ulysses are some of my favorite in literature: not only do the charades of the Citizen and sinister frivolity of Buck Mulligan no longer nag the book, but the language itself, burdened for 700 pages with both the conceits of its many tasks and the dull realist duty of carrying its characters through the text, finally relaxes into some of the most enjoyable experimental writing ever written. As much as Ulysses was mimetic of the challenge of existence for 16 chapters, its last two are embodiments of the wonder and joy of it, all the more so for having come after one of the most grueling reading experiences you’ll ever encounter.

I’ve never bought the whole Bloom-Dedalus father-son thing—it’s one too many conceits in a novel already bursting with them—but the modest, compromised reunion of Molly and Leopold, sleeping foot to face in their marriage bed, one of them fresh from adultery, struck me not only as strangely sweet, but as a culmination of the book’s long rail against the ideological constrictions of modern life. From page one, bit characters have proposed to Bloom and Dedalus teleology after teleology, a prescript of actions according to the scriptures of history or Catholicism or Ireland or the British empire. Everybody must act a certain way to bring about the kingdom of Heaven, or must ascribe to a certain set of behaviors to bring about the Irish revolution, and so on. Nobody in this world is free: everybody is beholden to some overarching set of ideas that leads them toward some historical end.

This necessity for a linear progression to an end—this order with which the nineteenth century had been obsessed—was so encoded in the language of Joyce’s time that it was indistinguishable from language itself. In a narrative, be it the narrative of a realist novel or the History in which Catholics and Irish nationalists and British officials project their telos, words are nothing but symbols in a relationship, meaningful only in the event that they advance a cause towards an end. Words, to the ideologies assaulting Bloom, must be in service of something, be it God or Ireland or Britain. Like people, language is not free.

Joyce gleefully overturns this convention, smashing words together into little combustions of sound and resonance that refer to nothing but their own expression of themselves. The novel heaps with neologisms—it weighs in at 265,000 words, far fewer than the Fountainhead, for perspective’s sake, but is made up of well over 30,000 distinct words, far more than the Fountainhead. Joyce invents words like shamewounded and peacocktwittering and shellcocoacolored. When Molly says that Ben Dollard has a “base barreltone,” she makes a play on bass—she doesn’t think much of Dollard, hence “base”—makes a play on baritone by including the image his voice evokes in her, that of a barrel—and combines these multiple meanings, images, and symbols into one little description of a bit character. The phrase is a celebration of euphony and multitudinous meaning. It doesn’t refer to any hierarchical structure like the Church or the state or the plight of the Irish people, and it doesn’t advance the plot of the book. It’s a linguistic revolt, refusing to do anything but ring.

Ulysses has thousands of these moments, but none so wonderful as Leopold and Molly Bloom falling asleep together at the end. The Blooms are not a happy couple, and I remember a fierce debate in my Joyce class as to whether they’d still be married come next June 16. Their desires are irresolvably different: even as Leopold is considering bringing Stephen Dedalus around as a son, Molly is thinking of sleeping with him. But still they combine, like shamewounded or peacocktwittering or shellcocoacolored or base barreltone, into a momentary creation of private meaning. Joyce combined words into a euphonic revolt, against the linear compulsion of the ideologies suffocating Ireland, and he made Leopold and Molly into the literal embodiment of that rebellion. Molly and Leopold come together at the end of Ulysses like a brand new word. To Joyce, this was the most wonderful thing human beings could do.

Names in Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Ranked

by evanmcmurry

13. August Belmont
12. T. Lyle Dickey
11. Erastus Corning
10. Hiland Hall
9. Lyman Trumbull
8. Orestes Brownson
7. Anson Burlingame
6. Manton Marble
5. Ebon Ingersoll
4. Scuyler Colfax
3. Thurlow Weed
2. Orlando B. Ficklin
1. Ichabod Codding

Did Khrushchev Start the Cuban Missile Crisis Over a Disneyland Snub?

by evanmcmurry

“What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken over the place that can destroy me? Then what must I do? Commit suicide? This is the situation I am in — your guest. For me the situation is inconceivable. I cannot find words to explain this to my people.”

—Nikita Khrushchev, upon learning Secret Service would not let him visit Disneyland, 1959

Three years later Khrushchev would send missiles to Cuba. Who knew if this slight was weighing in the back of his mind?

Spies Who Sound Like Spies

by evanmcmurry

Names in Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, ranked:

12. Enrique Prado
11. Tony Poe
10. Pote Sarasin
9. Tennant Bagley
8. Cofer Black
7. Tucker Gouglmann
6. Rip Robertson
5. Bill Coffin
4. Big Minh
3. Rocky Stone
2. Zultan Thury
1. Dick Drain

Most succinct description of the CIA: “cloaked yet flamboyant.”