Sep 11, 2013

On Never Forgetting

Today is not a good day to turn on the TV, look at the Internet, or listen to any kind of talk radio. For the past eleven years, Americans have commemorated the events of September 11, 2001 by re-watching news footage, listening to haunting 9-1-1 recordings, and otherwise reliving the largest terrorist attack in US history. More importantly, we share with each other our personal recollections of that morning, offering firsthand narratives as a way to connect to and reflect upon a shared tragedy. 

These stories are known as flashbulb memories, the supposedly ultra-clear mental impressions left by particularly traumatic events, and they are not unique to 9/11. Just as most adults alive today can recall exactly where they were when they first heard the World Trade Center towers had been hit, members of previous generations reported especially strong recollections of what they were doing when JFK and MLK were shot, or when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and they engaged in the same sort of ritual social recitation of those memories in the years following those events.

The thing is, as clear as those memories may feel to us, they are actually no more accurate or resistant to decay than regular old non-traumatic memories (and that’s not saying much). One of the most famous examples of how these memories can fail us comes from a psychologist named Ulric Neisser who, while researching the flashbulb phenomenon, realized that his own recollection of the Pearl Harbor attack was inaccurate. Neisser reported vividly remembering listening to a baseball game on the radio when news broke of the attack, even though baseball games are not played in December. In his research, Neisser found that other subjects had similarly faulty memories of Pearl Harbor, even though those memories felt accurate to the people who held them.

So where do these faulty memories come from, and why do they feel more accurate than regular memories? One of the important factors at work here is something called constructive processing. We think of our memories as being like photographs, something that we can pick up and examine and then store away for later, but this is not the case. Memories are closer to Play-Doh sculptures; every time you pick one up to look at it, you nudge it around a bit, change it slightly, leave a few fingerprints. The nature of these fingerprints depends on the context in which you recall the memory, and can be affected by things as simple as the words you choose to relate them. The earlier on a change gets made, the more it is reinforced with each successive recollection. Paradoxically, the more we rehearse a memory, the more certain we become of its accuracy.

One of the obvious effects is that we tend to take historical events and shape them into stories that more closely fit our ideas of what a story should look like; in other words we impose familiar narrative structures on them. What makes 9/11 so interesting is that we have an extensive audiovisual record of the event, which you might think would act as a failsafe against the fallibility of human memory. If I remember something slightly wrong, the video is there to correct me.

However, it’s important to consider how we are given access to these recordings. While it’s possible to go watch hours and hours of unedited footage, most of us don’t do this. Most of us are exposed to the 9/11 record through TV, which means we are getting some producer’s idea of which video clips and retrospective interviews can be fitted together to form the best, most gripping story. If anything, it’s accelerating the push of information from history to mythologized history (to say nothing of the effect of a decade of politicized retellings of 9/11, which 38% of Americans still believe had something to do with Sadam Hussein).

I don’t say this to suggest we stop reflecting upon September 11. I think it’s perfectly healthy to observe the anniversary of tragedy by reminding ourselves what we went through and how it felt. As Neisser described it, “"The flashbulb recalls an occasion when two narratives that we ordinarily keep separate -- the course of history and the course of our own life -- were momentarily put into alignment… we line up our own lives with the course of history itself and say I was there.” But if we are going to bear the burden of Never Forgetting, we should also pay some mind to what it is we’re remembering.

Aug 5, 2013

Sentient Settings

Today a student, who is reading Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (in which a team of scientists come into contact with a sentient body of water) asked me if I knew of any other stories that took place within a living, thinking environment. Since we were already talking about space stations, my mind went immediately to HAL 9000, and then to a list of other space narratives in which heroes become trapped within a misbehaving vessel, a list that includes almost every long-running science fiction TV-show ever. (Even The X-Files, which never really took place in space, managed to trap Mulder and Scully in a malevolent elevator.)

The typical evil-spaceship story involves an artificial intelligence system that is either secretly programmed with a sinister agenda by someone high up in the military/corporate chain of command or, through some sort of Skynet-esque leap in robo-logic, decides that the best way to satisfy its directives (whatever those may be) is to kill off its inhabitants. Star Trek: The Next Generation told this story a number of times, but always managed to find an interesting way to do so. In the episode “Emergence,” the Enterprise runs amok when it becomes, for lack of a better word, pregnant, while the episode “Tin Man” tells the story of a lonely, last-of-its-species bioship attempting to commit suicide.

What’s interesting is that many of the series that have evil-ship episodes also have biological ships, and yet with the exception of “Tin Man,” it’s always the purely mechanical ones that go nuts. This is because the psychotic AI antagonist is representative of our mistrust of our own technological advancement and the hubris of creating even simulated life. The ships gone awry are just shinier, bleep-blorpier versions of Frankenstein’s monster, their futuristic engineers the post-post-post-post-post-modern Prometheuses. (Promethei?)

But space ships are not the only settings that come to life and try to kill their inhabitants, and before we had such things as misbehaving computers, we had haunted houses. The earliest literary haunted houses were the crumbling gothic castles of works like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, or Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” These are not just houses, but ancestral homes, and their supernatural states are closely tied to corruption within the lineage. As the horror genre evolved, haunted houses began to develop their own primitive psychologies, most of them suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress. From the House of Seven Gables to the Overlook Hotel, most modern haunted houses have been the site of some great evil or injustice, which the heroes of the story are made to relive, usually to their demise.

What connects these narratives to their forebears, and separates them from their space-age cousins*, is their sense of the past. Where the evil spaceship story looks to the future and frets at where we might go, the haunted house story ponders the cost of where we have already been.

*I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up Event Horizon, which manages to be both an evil-spaceship story and a haunted house story at the same time.

Jul 27, 2013

Their Bodies, Our Selves

Somewhere in between (one might even say “sandwiched”) recaps of The Daily Show and discussions of exactly how victimized we should all be feeling by Anthony Weiner’s penis, Salon managed to publish an interesting article this week on, among other things, the implications of a common type of personal narrative, the weight loss story.

As you might have guessed from the title, “I Choose to be Fat,” Laura Bogart’s piece is an affirmation of the author’s body type and an exploration of the cultural bias to constantly view the obese through the lens of weight management. Some of us might not think of shows like The Biggest Loser, or A&E’s delightfully trashy Biggest Loser/Intervention hybrid, Heavy, as being overtly fat-shaming (look at all those determined, hard working, sympathetic fat people!), especially when compared to the other ways the overweight are characterized in popular fiction (variations on Jabba the Hutt, or Melissa McCarthy) but would we be as accepting of a heartwarming reality show centered around gay conversion therapy? Or how about a team-style competition in which Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper use tough love and unrelenting stick-to-itiveness to train a bunch of Japanese people to pronounce the letter “r?” It’s apparently okay to insist that fat people dramatically alter themselves to meet societal norms because we have a general consensus that being fat is an undesirable thing to do, but part of what informs that consensus is the image, perpetuated by these shows in the first place, of fat people being made miserable by their bodies (and by our reactions too their bodies).*

And yet, I don’t actually think that shame is what weight loss narratives are really about. In a culture in which a majority of people are overweight and, to quote Bogart, “not interested in sacrifices,” there has to be more to the appeal of this type of story than reinforcing stereotypes. We are a nation of Honeys Boo Boo, fat and unrealistically proud of ourselves; we’re not going to watch something that tells us we should do better.

At their core, I think these are stories about control, and they use weight loss as a medium because it’s concrete, visual, and relatively quick. Life happens to us the same way that fat happens to us: confusingly, and seemingly without our awareness or consent. Life is stolen bicycles and infected ingrown hairs and riding a train to work, thinking about how you were supposed to be a supermodel zoologist who is friends with Bono, and then a homeless man throws up in your lap. (It is also the gentle laughter of children and the first sip of an ice cold beer on a summer afternoon, but mostly it is the thing on the train). In the face of this, we tell each other the story of the man or the woman around whose waistline some unwanted life-things had accumulated, and who, through sheer force of will and a few crunches, was able to wrest from the universe some small amount of control over it all. It beats the hell out of reading The Secret.

*I would also like to point out that many people do not have the luxury of choosing their obesity; they just happen to live in a country in which food manufacturers have more lobbyists than the poor.

Jul 9, 2013

Art, Artists, and Assholes

I am about to hop on a plane to spend a couple days on the other side of the country, but I thought I’d take a moment to briefly touch on a subject that is in the news today: Orson Scott Card.

For those unfamiliar, Card is the author of Ender’s Game, the hugely influential 1985 young adult science fiction novel, as well as a member of the board of directors for the National Organization for Marriage, and an outspoken critic of gay rights in general. In 1990 he wrote that gay people, “cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within society,” a comment that has stuck with him throughout the years, despite his efforts to distance himself from it. In March, DC Comics delayed indefinitely the release of a Superman comic book after Card’s involvement with the storyline prompted a fan boycott and the illustrator withdrew from the project.

Now a second boycott is planned for the release of the film adaptation of Ender’s Game in November. Card issued a statement this morning, saying: “With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state. Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”

In other words, it’s become clear that I’ve lost; I promise to shut up if you don’t wreck my career.

But Card has not (as of this posting) resigned from NOM, nor have the organizers of the Ender’s Game boycott backed off. The merits of the boycott have been hotly debated in the sci-fi community, which has been very heteronormative historically, but also prides itself on its sense of social justice.

I have heard a few arguments against the boycott, usually that we must “separate the artist from the art,” or that people should not be persecuted for their political beliefs (there’s that sense of social justice again.) But we must also put our decisions in a practical context. We might find Wagner’s views problematic, but he is quite dead and unable to act upon them. Orson Scott Card is alive and well, and if you decide to see his movie, you need to own up to the fact that part of your $11.50 will be going to fight marriage equality, and not in an abstract way. It will directly fund the legal defense of things like Prop 8, or the Indiana law passed this week that makes applying for a gay marriage license a felony. That is what NOM does with its money, and it gets its money in part from Card.

We also need to be careful about downplaying the truly repugnant nature of Card’s actions by labeling them “political beliefs.” Supporting filibuster reform is a political belief; Card has dedicated much of his life to marginalizing and dehumanizing a group of people.

At heart, arguments against a boycott rest on the assumption that I owe it to Orson Scott Card (or any other artist) to see his movie, and that by refusing to do so, I am acting unreasonably, when in fact the opposite is true. It’s my time and money; if anyone wants me to spend it on their project, they need to convince me it is worthwhile to do so. My reasons for seeing or not seeing a film are entirely my own, and I have no obligation to justify them to anyone. I decided not see After Earth because it looked terrible, and I have decided not to see Ender’s Game because fuck Orson Scott Card.

Jun 15, 2013

Thoughts: Man of Steel

At some point, many of us realize that our enjoyment of a movie is relative to our expectations. Years of being disappointed by the films we were most excited to see have even taught some of us to modulate our expectations in advance as a defense mechanism. I’ve never been a Superman buff, but I knew that the newest telling of this story, Man of Steel, comes from Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder, the filmmakers behind Inception and Sucker Punch, respectively, so I went in primed for a mess of needlessly convoluted, sometimes self-contradictory mythology. (I know you loved Inception, but that plot had more holes in it than Oscar Pistorius’s bathroom door). What I wasn’t prepared for was the kind of lazy storytelling that is sadly becoming the rule rather than the exception in modern science fiction.

The movie opens well enough (though not everyone in my viewing party agreed) with a lengthy sequence involving the destruction of Krypton. My first thought upon seeing Rusell Crowe and Michael Shannon run around doing space-battle in foam-rubber armor was that this is a completely ridiculous movie that would never have been made if it hadn’t already existed as a comic book. But that’s a bit like saying if chocolate syrup tasted like mustard we wouldn’t put it on our ice cream; the whole point of making a Superman movie is to play to our preexisting familiarity with the story. This works to the filmmakers’ advantage as well as their detriment. One of the difficulties in adapting source material that has been adapted so many times (really, so many times) is the expectation of novelty, but not too much novelty. It’s a balancing act, and it’s the reason I enjoyed the Krypton scenes. Leaning heavily on Snyder’s sense of visual flair (his films may be incoherent messes, but they are gorgeous incoherent messes) the movie managed to make me forget that for the first 31 years of my life, the destruction of Krypton looked like this:



Credit also goes to Russell Crowe for stepping into Brando’s shoes (and the rest of the cast, who are very good in general.) There are a few unfortunate visual choices here (notably prison pods that look like flying butt plugs) but for the most part Krypton blows up real good.

From there we cut to the movie you saw in the trailers (and if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve basically seen the next third of the movie). Taking a page from the Wolverine playbook, little Kal-El has grown into a moody, indestructible ice road trucker who gets into bar fights and hitchhikes in the snow. I believe Hugh Jackman’s chest was actually on loan for the filming of these scenes. This is the highlight of the film for me. The least appealing part of the Superman mythos has always been his bland perfection, and it is nice to see Superman struggle with something that can’t be outrun or leapt over. Intercut with these scenes are snippets from Superman’s childhood in Smallville, which are sweet and sun-dappled and my first point of contention with the film.

As touching as the Kent family scenes are, they are also pandering and outdated. I understand that Superman needs to grow up on a farm (or in this case, a “farm,” since these scenes are set in the kind of stock footage visual shorthand for rural America that looks more like a Sarah Palin campaign ad than anything resembling an actual modern farm, even one in the 1980’s) but if you decide to set your Superman reboot in 2013, you need to commit to that decision. Magneto needs to spend his childhood in Auschwitz, so X-Men: First Class takes place in the 1960’s. If Clark Kent needs to grow up on a 1940’s farm, set your movie in the 70’s. Or, reevaluate the farm idea, which you are allowed to do (it is a reboot, after all). I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this incongruity if it weren’t for the inclusion of the line, “I grew up in Kansas, that’s about as American as it gets” toward the end of the film. Less than 1% of the US population lives in Kansas, so no, living there is not a characteristically American thing to do. Only 15% of the population even live in rural areas. If I were a filmmaker trying desperately to deliver a modern take on an American myth, I would start there.

Instead, the writers have chosen to “update” the story by going full-on Damon Lindelof on us, bombarding the narrative with nonsensical obstacles and then just sort of shrugging and saying, “Science?” whenever an explanation is needed.

(Spoilers from here on out…)

Let’s start with Superman’s powers. Although the specifics have changed a bit over the years, the most widely accepted explanation for Superman’s powers has been that Krypton orbits a red sun, while Earth orbits a yellow sun. It’s not great, but we’ve bought into it long enough that our collective disbelief has been permanently suspended. The red sun hypothesis is apparently not good enough for Christopher Nolan, though, who has to add in the idea of atmospheric nutrients (“Science?”) without getting rid of the sun stuff.

This leads to a number of narrative inconsistencies once General Zod shows up and the action is moved through settings with different atmospheric conditions. Superman is powerless aboard Zod’s ship (Kryptonian atmosphere) while Zod is powerless on Earth. Okay. But. Zod and his crew also have masks that allow them to breathe on Earth. Also fine, I suppose, except that the masks don’t change the nature of the sun, yet they do seem to instantly give Zod and his crew Superman-like abilities, which are supposedly the result of years of exposure to that sun. If Superman’s powers come from the atmosphere, why include the sun at all? If they come from exposure to the sun, or a combination of the sun and the atmosphere, then Zod’s breathing mask should not give him those same abilities.

However, the masks are a minor issue compared to the specifics of Zod’s plan, which is to use a gravity ray to increase the mass of the earth (“Science?”) and establish those all-important atmospheric nutrients so that Krypton can be rebuilt there. This unfortunately requires the destruction of mankind, as well as a sample of Kal-El’s DNA (which holds all of the genetic information for every Kryptonian ever). When offered a deal of peaceful cohabitation (you know, not destroying everyone on Earth) Zod refuses on the grounds that it would mean years of painful adaptation to Earth’s atmosphere. But why is Zod so intent on Earth in the first place? By his own admission, it’s not a planet readily habitable, and even if he did terraform it completely, it would still be orbiting a yellow sun (which everyone, including the filmmakers, have just forgotten about at this point). Also, he mentions “thousands” of colonies that Krypton had established on other worlds, which were presumably more habitable than Earth. He has even visited some of them in his search for Kal-El. Why not go back to one of those places? I’m sure that Superman would give him a blood sample if he promised not to rebuild his civilization on the ashes of the place where Clark Kent keeps all his stuff. Third, Zod and his crew all seem to go through this supposedly years-long process of adaptation within a few hours of losing their breathing masks. Seriously, by the end of the movie, they are all Superman. If their plan succeeds, though, they will lose these powers.

Which brings me to my biggest sticking point: laser beam eyes. True, they may not be the most important of Superman’s powers, but they are representative of how little thought was put into the internal logic of this film. Laser beam eyes basically mean that if you can see something, you can kill it, and Superman has them. Yet there are several times when Superman looks at Zod – looks at him right in his unprotected face with the very same eyes that are also laser beam eyes – for extended periods of time, trying to figure out a way to stop him. When Zod develops laser beam eyes of his own a few hours later, he uses them to try to kill a family cowering in a bank vault. In a scene that is emblematic of all of the problems I had with this film, Superman rushes in and grabs Zod by the head. The laser beam moves slowly across the room, inching closer and closer to the huddled family like something out of a James Bond parody, as Zod struggles to free his head from Superman’s grasp. At no point does it occur to Superman, Zod, or the lazy, lazy writers that he could just look to the side.

Apr 22, 2013

Alone Together

Apparently, at some point last year, I realized that thirty-one years is too long a time for a person to live without seeing the campy 1963 suspense film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I don’t remember when I came to this decision, or how or why, but I know that I must have because the DVD showed up in my mailbox recently, cocooned within a red Netflix envelope. I suspect alcohol, foul play, or some combination of the two.

It’s hard not to make Rear Window comparisons any time you see a wheelchair-bound protagonist, especially when things start getting murder-y. Certainly both films mine suspense from the hero’s isolation and immobility. They also, interestingly, give us antagonists who murder a pet, though Baby Jane goes the extra mile and serves it up as dinner, a trope that harkens back to "Titus Andronicus" and persists through movies like The War of the Roses and Fatal Attraction.

As villainous as she is, though, Bette Davis is also at times the character we’re rooting for, which makes watching her smuggle Elvira’s body out of the house a much different experience than watching Raymond Burr do the same thing. It also affects how we interpret her actions toward her sister; we may sympathize with poor Joan Crawford, but our desire to see her set free is offset by our desire to see what new torture she will endure next.

In this way, Baby Jane is perhaps a closer relative of the film adaptation of Misery, which similarly gives us a captive celebrity and an engrossingly insane nursemaid. Both movies comment on the toxicity of fame, though from decidedly different angles, and they share a series of similar scenes involving telephones, escape attempts, and oblivious interlopers. The action in also largely confined to a single bedroom in both films, though this creates tension in two different ways. In Baby Jane we are teased by the neighborly Mrs. Bates and the countless times she comes this close to catching on, while in Misery we feel the dreadful weight of mile after mile of impenatrable snow separating us from civilization.

There’s a second, less flattering parallel to be drawn as well: torture porn. Films like Hostel, Saw, and Human Centipede* present us with captive protagonists and inventive tormenters, and the suspense comes from our wanting to know not if things will get worse, but how. As I’ve already noted, I think this is part of the appeal of Baby Jane, but not all of the appeal. In movies like Hostel, we are given anonymous antagonists (or, in the case of Saw, an antagonist with a motivation so ridiculous it would be better if he were anonymous) because the who here doesn’t matter as much as much as the what

And it is entirely the who that matters in Misery, Baby Jane, and Rear Window; these are movies that are first and foremost about relationships. Rear Window is about the relationship between neighbors, and how urbanization separates people from each other even as it forces them closer together. Misery is about parasocial relationships as well as the relationship between artists and their work (and between Stephen King and cocaine). And What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is about the relationships we have with our past selves and the people who knew them. We may think of the settings of these films in terms of what has been removed – mobility, society, ankles – but this only allows the filmmakers more room to focus on the central relationship. Because these stories are not so much about being isolated as they are about being isolated together.

 *Some people group Michael Haneke’s Funny Games in here as well. Maybe it’s the artful cinematography or the presence of big-name actors, but I would disagree with the classification of that particular movie as anonymous torture porn, though it certainly follows the formula.

Mar 28, 2013

The Places We Get Lost

Today I’d like to talk about mazes and the stories that contain them. It doesn’t seem like a maze would make a very interesting plot device; after all, the most complex choice a person has to make in a maze is left or right, and there’s no way for that to be an educated decision. And yet…

Perhaps the best-known maze narrative is that of the Cretan Labyrinth, constructed for King Minos by the architect Daedalus as a place to keep the Minotaur. The Minotaur, by the way, was the offspring of Queen Pasiphae and a bull, a coupling made physically possible through the use a wooden cow suit/apparatus, also built by Daedalus. So Daedalus was sort of the original Steve Jobs, creating both the product and its market.

Into the Labyrinth are thrust seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls, tributes in what turn out to be very literal hunger games – they are meant to be food for the Minotaur. But one of these boys, the crafty Theseus (who has volunteered as tribute to take the place of a younger boy), catches the eye of the King’s daughter, Ariadne, and she gives Theseus a ball of string and advice on how to make his way through the maze. Theseus ties one end of the string to the Labyrinth door and unspools it as he makes his way to the center, where he finds and kills the Minotaur. (In some versions he sneaks a sword into the maze with him, in others he strangles the creature with the string. I prefer the latter.) He then traces the string back out and… well, things do not go so smoothly for Theseus and Ariadne after that, but at least he is out of the maze.

Mazes also show up in Hindu, Native American, and Egyptian mythologies as entrances to the underworld. What these and other maze stories have in common with Daedalus’ Labyrinth is that they all present an obstacle that cannot be overcome physically; a hero must reason his or her way through a maze. Usually there is some trick to the maze, or the hero is bestowed with a seemingly ordinary object that somehow allows him to defeat it. (What are Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs but a starchier version of Theseus’ string?) And those of us who grew up in the 80’s probably still know the correct directional sequence to get Link through the Lost Woods.

About those woods: like mazes, forests often serve as places for heroes to get lost. This usually has more to do with their connection to the dark and otherworldly than it does with the presentation of a solvable puzzle. Forests are spirit realms, or gateways to them; they are where Sir Orfeo finds the Faerie King, Simon meets the Lord of the Flies, and Dante is hunted by his she-wolf before being rescued by Virgil. Dante’s “dark woods” are particularly interesting because they are an early example of the symbolic value that mazes took on as psychological realism crept its way into our storytelling traditions. As our heroes developed inner states, their surroundings increasingly became reflections of those states. Accordingly, Dante’s labyrinth is one of his own making.

I’d like to pause here to consider a specific maze trope, the hedge maze, which is sort of a combination of constructed labyrinth and haunted wood. Although not nearly as popular today as they were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, hedge mazes have maintained their place as a recognizable element of fiction. A few characteristics unique to hedge mazes: 1) They are designed as social places, meaning unlike their mythological forbears, people rarely enter them alone. 2) There is often an element of pursuit, sometimes by a character previously thought to be an ally – see The Shining, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, or Coppola’s take on Dracula. 3) Hedge mazes tend to be attached to mansions and castles, which introduce issues of class.*

Mazes continue to show up in contemporary film quite a bit, usually in science fiction, because it’s difficult to find a way to work a maze into a story that isn’t at least a little speculative. Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth is about a young woman who must find her way through a muppet-filled maze in order to rescue her baby brother from Nancy Grace (as played by David Bowie). And it's perfect. The 1997 film Cube gets a lot of mileage out of a single set and the premise of a three-dimensional maze that rearranges itself even as the people trapped inside try to figure out its rules. My one problem with this film is that it keeps changing those rules while pretending not to. Lastly, Christopher Nolan’s Inception is notable for presenting the building of a maze, rather that the solving, as the heroic act. Inception is also notable for being an incoherent pile of nonsense.

The most ambitious (and I would argue most successful) modern maze narrative has to be Mark Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, which traps its characters inside a suburban home with a continually expanding interior. Rooms and hallways and staircases appear at random (as do references to Minotaurs) and as the characters become more and more separated from each other, more hopelessly lost inside the maze of their own home, the text itself becomes a labyrinth:

What keeps this from being a gimmick, though, is that as the layout begins to tangle, the story becomes a meditation on constructing stories, and book itself turns into a critique of narrative structure and the place of the novel in modern literature. It brings to mind the introduction of Lost in the Funhouse, where John Barth instructs the reader to cut out and tape together a Mobius strip as a way to understand the act of storytelling. Danielewski gives us a different metaphorical task; he drops us the Labyrinth without so much as a ball of string.

And to me, this makes perfect sense. Because anyone who has ever tried to write a story will tell you, you spend most of your time trying to find the way out.

 *From Vlad Tepes to Elizabeth Bathory to the Marquis de Sade, we love stories about rich people taking sexual pleasure in torturing the poor, especially if it happens in a castle. America has its own such story, complete with a maze, in Dr. H. H. Holmes, who built a “murder castle” in Chicago in 1893, which featured “over 100 windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions” for the purpose of trapping, torturing, and murdering women. Holmes is the subject of Erik Larson’s 2003 book, The Devil in the White City.