— From EF —
When I go back and read our writing from past decades, some things make me feel, well, odd. We wrote and produced Tapdancer 23 years ago, a dystopian comedy in which a very straight investment broker commits the crime of defacing a billboard (America Is Burgerland!) and is arrested. This is from our novelized version:
His night in jail hadn’t been so bad, actually. Not up to Triple A standards, but at least he had the cell to himself. They’d just shipped a truckload of choice inmates to a commercial prison in the suburbs — Tennessee, to be exact — so he’d missed the weekend crowds.
Though he wasn’t pleased with his predicament, it occurred to him that the experience might be fruitful. What better way to get a hands-on feel for a major new growth industry? Prisoners had always been considered a shameful social liability. No longer: now they were a valued commodity. Taxpayers had no objections to their dollars going toward locking people up, so the competition for those dollars was fierce. As repositories, the franchised prisons in rural settings offered attractive savings and had the extra benefit of separating inmates from the bad influence of their local ties, such as wives and children. He remembered an NPR feature that explained all the sad details and stimulated lots of investment.
(If you’re curious, the audio version is on the Independent Eye website, Episodes 81, 82, and 83. Despite its manic darkness, I think it’s one of the funniest things we ever did)
Fast forward to last fall, from the news site Truth-Out:
As of November 20, 2013, California housed 8,302 of its state prisoners in private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. It sends more prisoners out of state than Hawaii, Idaho and Vermont combined.
And this is from the magazine Mother Jones:
All the big private prison companies—CCA, GEO Group, and the Management and Training Corporation—try to include occupancy requirements in their contracts, according to the report. States with the highest occupancy requirements include Arizona (three prison contracts with 100 percent occupancy guarantees), Oklahoma (three contracts with 98 percent occupancy guarantees), and Virginia (one contract with a 95 percent occupancy guarantee). At the same time, private prison companies have supported and helped write “three-strike” and “truth-in-sentencing” laws that drive up prison populations. Their livelihoods depend on towns, cities, and states sending more people to prison and keeping them there.
I wonder what other horrible fantasies from our writing have been taken up profitably by the entrepreneurs. Maybe we should apologize, but I don’t know to whom.
— From the Fool —
They killed a bunch of convicts in Missouri and Texas. They tried to get the right drugs to kill them with at the drugstore, but they were all out. So they had to experiment.
The hard part is killing people nicely. Do it the old ways, they flop around or look ugly. That makes people think we shouldn’t do it at all. We need to kill them but be nice about it.
The point is to set an example. We have show the guy who’s about to kill his wife that it’s okay if he does it so it doesn’t hurt. And that he’s weighed the evidence and agrees with himself unanimously. And only if she deserves it.
Seems like, if we have to do it, the best way would be, they get drunk all day. Then after supper a big huge splat of dope, and they’re gone, feeling great.
But I guess dope is against the law.
Or attach a big bomb to the guy. That’d be quick, and his head couldn’t tell how the rest of him felt — it’d be far away. But maybe the guys who had to clean up would have bad dreams.
Or figure how to kill the guy accidentally. Like, give him a water pistol, banana, wallet, anything pointy, call 911, and let the cops take him out, without meaning to. Accidents happen. How could they know his banana wasn’t loaded?
I don’t get it. Sometimes I want to call 911 and report my brain.
— From CB —
I’m just finishing reading Jane Eyre. Since starting to write fiction, I’m trying to fill in the gaps of my own reading, though the gaps widen with every billion books published daily, while I toddle up to add another page.
For me, the first three hundred pages were a bore. The orphan has a hard life, and the rich people are snots, big surprise. Still, any story of childhood pulls you along: you want to know who she becomes. Predictably, she falls in love, and you expect complications because you still have three hundred pages to go. Then suddenly the orchestra booms; it’s absurdly, impossibly melodramatic; and we’re back into Gothic fiction — dark secrets, a concealed lunatic, a haunted hero. In an eye-blink it becomes great writing.
I’ve read a fair bit of 19th Century fiction and wondered why it’s only Dickens whose characters, for me, burn into my memory. He’s as much a realist as Zola, yet his people are so much more sharply etched: Daumier caricatures writ large. The gifted caricaturist looks with eyes that penetrate more deeply, not more superficially, and summons courage to render the soul of his subject in as few lines as possible. And Dickens was willing heir to the intense coloration of the theatre of his time, steeped in melodramatic fullness of feeling. The more improbable the plot, the truer. A few drops from that phial sufficed to animate Jane Eyre.
Were there ever such characters as Pip, Steerforth, Scrooge, Mr. Micawber, Miss Faversham, or the dozens upon dozens of others? Well yes, I think there were and are. I think we don’t look deeply enough at the people who pass us daily. And as artists, we hesitate, for the sake of “credibility,” to render them as intensely as they truly are. Of course we’re vaccinated against melodrama, except in action movies and pulp romances, where it huffs and puffs unashamedly. But I’m hungry for a theatre, a serious literature, or a puppet show that embraces it — art that transcends the cool detachment (with a tinkle of irony) that pervades so much storytelling today.
And to render the contradictions: Micawber’s dignity alongside his fecklessness; Huck Finn’s humanity struggling with his survivalist bigotry; Jane Eyre’s inbred servility battling her independent integrity. I guess I’m not so much arguing for a more vivid literature as that we look into the faces we pass daily with greater depth perception. How would they survive living in a Dickens novel or on that river raft or with the lunatic recluse in her third-floor cell? How would we?
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© Bishop & Fuller 2014