An American Dream or How Picking the Wrong Point of View Can Blow Your Story

Last night, I attended a preview of Seattle Opera’s An American Dream, which aims to tell the story of World War II’s Japanese-American internment in opera form. The music was strong, shot through with hints of Bartok, Stravinsky, and Debussy. The cast was uniformly good. Sadly, because of the librettist’s poor storytelling decisions, An American Dream isn’t the great opera about the Japanese-American incarceration that we’ve been waiting for.

An American Dream concerns the Kobayashi family. The family patriarch owns a farm on Bainbridge Island, and because he and his family are about to be shipped off to the internment camps for the crime of being Japanese-Americans during World War 2, he ends up selling his house and farm at a fire sale price to a white couple. He and his wife and daughter are then carted off. His daughter, Setsuko, does manage to leave a treasured doll behind, concealed under floorboards.

In our next scene, the white couple is moving boxes into the house, singing about how tedious moving is. This struck me as odd. I guess I could understand going for something mildly comic to relieve the tension, but as the singing and moving-in continued, I began to wonder why, in a story about the internment, we’d abandoned the family being interned to watch white people bitch about lugging boxes. If we must have a song about the hassles of moving, why weren’t we watching the Kobayashi’s move into their new digs at Manzanar or Topaz or Granada or wherever the hell they ended up? Why didn’t we get to see them try adjust to life in the camp? Since the government separated Mr. Kobayashi from the rest of his family (an unusual move in the internment camps that An American Dream never bothers to explain), why aren’t we getting scenes of him, and his wife, trying to pry information out of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that they’re now trapped in? Why don’t we get to see them facing the camp’s bogus tribunals or filling out the insulting loyalty questionnaires? How did our opera about the injustice of Japanese-American internment become a story about two white people squabbling over whether to give the recently discovered doll back to Setsuko after the war is over?

I’ll leave to one side the issue of why stories of injustice or atrocity have a hard time getting on stage or screen unless white people are somehow involved. Instead, I want to focus on what lousy story craft this is.

An American Dream promises to take us inside the internment camp experience. Just to get into the theater I had to pass through a registration procedure meant to mimic what Japanese-Americans faced going into the camps. (Seattle Opera’s execution is more than a little cheesy and heavy handed, but let that pass.) After this, I made my way through two floors of exhibits about the camps and camp life, including a documentary in which former inmates tell their stories. Before An American Dream starts we hear from three aging Asian Americans whose lives were impacted by the internment policy. By now, An American Dream had written a big check, and I wanted to cash it. As an audience member I was ready to be taken inside the internment experience. I was raring to having its full emotional force laid on me.

Instead, the check bounced. An American Dream tells us that tragedies happen to the Kobayashi family, but after they lose their house, all of them occur offstage. Mrs. Kobayashi dies…offstage! After the first scene, Mr. Kobayashi, who presumably had been through three years of excruciating legal trouble and separation from his wife and daughter (which presumably prevented him from comforting his wife during her final days), never gets to sing another note, though he is allowed to appear at the end of the show, looking sad. Setsuko gets the bulk of her family’s stage time, but she never sings much about her inner life, opting instead for a kind of generalized sadness, with lots of flowery language thrown in to give her an unearned sense of depth. (One of the questions Satsuko sings about is whether a house is just a place full of shadows, which sounds nice but has little to do with anything actually going on in her life.) Did Satsuko make friends inside? Did she journal her experiences?  How did she keep up her studies? Did she fall in love? Did she have a tough time with the guards? An American Dream doesn’t seem to care. Maybe that’s why Seattle Opera decided to put up all those exhibits and make ticket holders participate in that silly registration procedure. If they weren’t going to put the internment experience on stage, they had to put it somewhere.

Storytellers everywhere, take note. Most of the best stories take us to places and emotions that are tough to reach. Telling those stories means selecting the point of view that can take us to them. In An American Dream‘s case, that means sticking with the characters who are to be incarcerated. They’re who we care about. They’re the ones we came to see.

Draft Two Of the Book’s Done.

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Beneath this title page are 192 other pages containing the text of my next novel, here for the first time on actual paper. I wanted to record it in pristine condition, because I’m going to be marking it up no end over the next few weeks.

Because this is draft two, I’m freer to talk about the book. So I’ll entertain three questions about it. (The only question I won’t answer is one asking for a plot summary.)  Ask them in comments or on social media, and I’ll answer more or less truthfully.

Damon Linker is Concerned About the Height of Young People’s Happiness (Sigh)

Why do it do this to myself? Why do I read The Week. I know Damon Linker’s there. I already think of him as a gasbag and a twit. Nobody’s paying me to research his work. Reading him and giving him more than a passing thought must be akin to my impulse to tug at a hangnail.

So, come tug with me, gentle reader. (Yes, I suspect there’s only one of you, at this point.)

Today in Stuff Damon Linker Is Fretting About is Tinder, which I’m told is some kind of dating app that people use to meet people.

The sexual revolution is finally complete.

At least it is among those interviewed for a chilling feature in the September issue of Vanity Fair, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse.'” For these millennial graduates of elite colleges who are living and working in New York, the anything goes, non-judgmental attitude about sex that’s spread throughout the culture since the mid-1960s has combined with technological advances (smartphones and dating/hook-up apps like Tinder, Happn, and Hinge) to produce a way of living unthinkable until about five minutes ago in civilizational terms.

Welcome to a world in which sex has been completely disconnected from norms of fidelity and courtship. At work and at play, men and women spend their waking hours gazing at their phones, continually swiping left or right, dividing potential sex partners into two categories (Yes or No) on the basis of a snapshot. A handful of messages later — for some the exchanges consist entirely of pre-verbal flirtation conducted with emojis, for others it includes photographs of genitalia that serve as a kind of second interview — and a “date” has been set. It’s often a date without dinner or a movie or a show or a walk or a concert or even a single conversation. Just copulation with an optional kiss.

Then it’s over, maybe in less than an hour, maybe to be repeated again in a few days, weeks, or months, but in many cases not.

Okay. Let’s break this down. The Vanity Fair article that’s gotten Linker in a lather is one of those trend pieces designed to get people to think that the behavior of a certain subculture is much more common than it really is. In this case, we’re talking about the Tinder habits of Manhattan yuppies. Linker falls for it, extrapolating far beyond the incredibly narrow social world of the article’s subjects to conclude that all these kids today just can’t stop having furtive sexual encounters with strangers.

And yes, Linker thinks the kids are all disgusting.

I suspect many of these liberals — Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers (like myself) — will find this vision of dating as a series of technologically facilitated one-off hook-ups with near-strangers to be pretty appalling. I know I do. There’s just one problem: In order for this reaction to amount to more than an old fogey’s sub-rational expression of disgust at the behavior of the young, it has to make reference to precisely the kind of elaborate account of morality — including binding standards of human flourishing and degradation — that liberals have worked to jettison, in the name of sexual liberation, for the past half-century.

I’m not quite sure why making reference to an elaborate account of morality would rescue Linker, or anyone unlucky enough to be like him, from the charge of making old fogey rationalizations. Most of those elaborate accounts of morality–including binding standards of human flourishing and degradation– were developed by old fogies, so that the sexual habits of the young (particularly young women, whose sexual agency is a favorite target for fogies of all ages) would be less likely to offend their delicate sensibilities.

But for me, the key bit here comes when he suggests not just that he personally finds this form of dating appalling, but that many liberals do too. Speaking as a liberal Gen-Xer, I confess I don’t find the dating practices described in the article appealing. I’ve tried hooking up a few times in my life. (Yes, a few. I’ve never gotten out much.) And it wasn’t for me. As Jerry Seinfeld once put it when weighing the prospect of a threesome, “I’m not an orgy guy!”

But appalling? That’s an awfully strong word to throw around. I prefer to reserve it for genocides and war crimes and torture, not for discussing who Phil from Accounts Receivable did on Saturday night. Actually, I have a hard time even summoning up an interest in the habits of Phil From Accounts Receivable’s naughty bits . They may not match my own, but unlike Linker, I lack sympathy for the idea that the human race ought to be a multiplied me. I prefer monogamy. It suits my temperament, and I think I’ve chosen my companion advisedly. But I don’t assume that everyone would flourish in it or think of people as degraded because their erotic interests don’t align with mine.

But Linker is appalled, and he begs us to please think of his children:

The world recounted by Sales — or, more likely, a world even less judgmental and even more saturated by even more advanced forms of technology — will be their world. And yet I want so much more for them than that. Though “more” isn’t really what I mean. Not quantity. Quality. Something higher, nobler, less tawdry, more deeply fulfilling and longer lasting than a life devoted to satisfying fleeting desires for physical pleasure and status.

I’m glad Linker has managed to arrange his monogamous, child breeding life as he likes it. Truly, I am. If his children decide they want that too–and, like many “kids today” they just might–bully for them. But doesn’t he recognize how obnoxiously self-flattering it is to define his preferences as “higher, nobler” than those of others?

Let’s let him elaborate:

I want them to enjoy the fulfillment that can only come from devoting themselves to something that transcends the self — a spouse, a child, a family. I want them to experience falling in love and feel their hearts opened to hopes of a higher, more enduring form of happiness. I want them to experience the rarer and more precious goods that follow from the disciplining of their baser instincts (like the animal desire to copulate with a different sexual partner every night of the week) in order to reach an end that’s pursued for its own sake rather than for the instantaneous rewards it brings.

“Transcending the self” and reaching ends pursued for their own sake rather than for instantaneous rewards sound like exciting pastimes, particularly when contrasted with “baser instincts” and “animal desire”. But Linker presents these pursuits and desires as mutually exclusive, as if a hedonist would be so distracted by the constant boinkfest that is his or her life that they can never achieve anything that lasts or devote themselves to something beyond their own sexual gratification. (Linker restricts these somethings to children, spouses, and families, but this strikes me as arbitrary.) Does Linker’s take have merit?

Nope.

Albert Einstein devoted himself to figuring out the laws that govern space and time and in doing so changed everything about how we see both. He also wrote books on politics, religion, and international peace and, for good or ill, got the U.S. atom bomb program started.

He was also…well…a hound.

We can also discuss brilliant naughty people like Rousseau, Schroedinger, Martin Luther King, Tallulah Bankhead, Angelina Jolie (In the past, at least. So I’ve heard), Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, James Joyce, Mozart, FDR, Dorothy Parker, Marlene Dietrich and many many more who devoted themselves to the sciences, politics, humanities, and arts, pursuits that require plenty of discipline in putting off instant gratification for the sake of long term goals. Some of them also had happy family lives, while others didn’t. Such is the way of people who throw themselves into their work.

I guess Damon Linker wasn’t around to inform them that they have to restrict themselves to being pervs because…um…old fogey reasons.

I think we can stop here. Linker’s made way too big a deal of the Vanity Fair article, and I’ve surely made too big a deal of him. Since he begged me to think of his children, though, I do have some good wishes for them. I hope that can they take what’s helpful from having grown up with a man as silly as Linker and drop the rest. I also hope they’ll find useful and interesting work and social lives that deliver whatever form of happiness suits them.