May 23rd, 2007

Narrating lives

A fascinating article in yesterday's NYT Science section on how narrative is wired into our brains, and how the choice of a p.o.v. character — the one who plays YOU, in either third or first person — can impact one's mental well-being.

A brief recap:

"To better understand how stories are built in real time, researchers have recently studied how people recall vivid scenes from recent memory. They find that one important factor is the perspective people take when they revisit the scene — whether in the first person, or in the third person, as if they were watching themselves in a movie.

"In an experiment published in 2005, researchers had college students who described themselves as socially awkward in high school recall one of their most embarrassing moments. Half of the students reimagined the humiliation in the first person, and the other half pictured it in the third person. Two clear differences emerged. Those who replayed the scene in the third person rated themselves as having changed significantly since high school — much more so than the first-person group did. The third-person perspective allowed people to reflect on the meaning of their social miscues, the authors suggest, and thus to perceive more psychological growth.

And their behavior changed, too .... The recordings showed that members of the third-person group were much more sociable than the others."

This raises some intriguing questions for writers.  Like, does writing in the third person mean you're better adjusted than someone who usually chooses a first-person narrative?  "Call me Ishmael"  — dude, the guy is obviously suffering!  Or do our mental states alter when we shift from one voice to another?

The article doesn't mention the rarer, more experimental use of a second person narrator, or shifting p.o.v. to tell the same story.

London to Brighton... a superior British thriller from new director Paul Williams. This story, alternately touching and brutal, of two young prostitutes on the run is a beautifully realized piece of social realism.

From the gitgo, we're drawn into a decaying underworld--two girls burst into a public bathroom at 3 in the morning. 11-year-old runaway Joanne (Georgia Groome) sobs uncontrollably and 25-year-old Kelly (Lorraine Stanley) tries to repair her battered face. Earlier that night, her pimp Derek sent Kelly to round up an underage girl for a millionaire, Duncan Allen. She comes across Joanne and persuades her to do the job. When Allen’s body is discovered later on, Derek must locate the girls or face the wrath of Allen’s reptillian son, Stuart. Kelly and Joanne flee to what they consider a safe haven. Brighton.

Thereafter, the narrative follows fsirly formulaic lines and a climatic twist is telegraphed. But an incredibly sharp script and William’s bold direction overcome these limitations. There’s not a single uninteresting shot, and the performances he elicits from the actors are extraordinary. An abusive father and her time on the mean streets haven’t erased Joanne's innocence. Once she reaches Brighton, all she wants to do is swim in the sea and play arcade games. The two girls open up to each other and Kelly takes the mother's role. There’s a bleak humor throughout, mainly courtesy of Derek, a not so bad bad-ass who's in over his head. At one point he tries to convince his girlfriend to do his friends, saying, “I think we’ve got a future, me and you. I really do. You understand that? Do you? Right. Then get in there and fuck those two.”

This is a film with huge buzz that stands up under scrutiny. It's available now online at Xploited Films, but whether you go for the pricey DVD or wait a year to rent it...see it.
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Sixties Novels, Part 17

HERMAPHRODEITY, Alan Friedman, Knopf, 1972

Here's a case of a one-hit wonder that just might find resurrection.

From the information in the front of this book, we learn that the author had published previously a critical work entitled THE TURN OF THE NOVEL in 1966. HERMAPHRODEITY itself seems to represent his full energies and ambition of the intervening six years, with multiple copyrights seeming to hint that it appeared first in bits and pieces in various literary mags. But after this book--nothing else.

The digital trail for Alan Friedman finds him contributing book reviews to THE NEW YORK TIMES during the 1980's. We also learn that he held the post of Director of the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. But teaching writing often prevents accomplishing same, and such seems to be the case here.

Then, in 2002, we get the rather touchingly hopeful vanity-press POD reprint of HERMAPHRODEITY.

So much emotion riding on one book across four decades....

But here's the possible good news: if you google long enough, you also start to see HERMAPHRODEITY cited in bibliographies devoted to intersex or transexual or gender dismorphism studies. Maybe the book has a new life there! If so, fame and fortune will find Friedman still around: "He lives in Escondido, California, with his wife and two sons."

As to its contents and style: the novel is subtitled "The autobiography of a poet," and concerns an androgyne named Millie/Willie Niemann, whose fake list of published books buttresses the front matter of this novel. (The title comes from Ben Jonson's rare use of the word.) It seems well-written, and even quasi-Nabokovian in its main conceit. But surely it had the misfortune to be overshadowed by Gore Vidal's similarly themed MYRA BRECKENRIDGE from 1968.

One final note: the paperback reprint from Avon that I own has a killer cover by Gene Szafran. How I loved his SF covers as a kid! Very Sixties!