Thursday, January 12, 2006

An introduction to tragedy

Yesterday, I caught the end of The Moody Blues' Nights in White Satin, and it made me think -- as it always does -- of a summer in the early 1970s, the livingroom of my first house, a slow morning, our old console hi-fi, Derek & the Dominoes' Layla (the original version, of course, not that acoustic horror Clapton later perpetrated), Nights in White Satin, and the end of John Christopher's The City of Gold and Lead. The City of Gold and Lead is the second of Christopher's Tripods trilogy, which was H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds written down for kids. (A reviewer over at Amazon made that observation, not me. But it irks me to have this pointed out to me thirty-some years later. Damn it, I should have noticed.) The story itself is unimportant. Earth has been subjugated by aliens who roam the planet in giant mechanical tripods. They live in domed cities and enslave human children. A group of friends, all young boys, enter one of the cities as part of a plot to defeat the Tripods . . . Spoiler alert. (But Christopher wrote the trilogy in the late 60s/early 70s. If you haven't read it yet, I doubt you will now.) . . . and some of the kids don't make it out. I'm finding it difficult to put into words the magic of that ending. You know how middle books in a trilogy are supposed to be the weakest of the three? Not this one, not for me. The first and third books combined didn't have one-tenth the impact of this book, all because I had never before read a book with such a sad ending. I'd read disturbing books before. Julia Cunningham's Dorp Dead creeped me out, but had (as best I can recall) an uplifting ending. I'd read Golding's Lord of the Flies, but I don't think I understood the ending until I reread it as an older teenager. The only comparable experience I'd had was not with a book, but with Nicolas Roeg's film Walkabout, which I saw at its Los Angeles premiere in 1971 (hey, I got around. And, might I add, Jenny Agutter's naked body made quite the impression on 9-year-old me). If you've never seen Walkabout, I won't spoil it for you. Find it, rent it. It disturbed me for days. It still disturbs me. The ending of The City of Gold and Lead didn't pack the same emotional punch as Walkabout, but I have never forgotten my reaction: Sadness, of course. Surprise, that a book could end this way. More surprise, that a book could make me feel this way. It changed the way I looked at books. I began to realize how much I enjoyed the emotional reaction evoked in me by a good book, and how pleasurable it could be to feel such powerfully unpleasant emotions. I'd like to say this was the first of many such experiences, but sadly, for me such books have been few and far between. Yet the ones which have stuck with me are all tragedies. Your turn. D.


Blogger Jona said...

Is this the one where people have a 'skull cap' thing attached under their hair?
I don't think I've read the book but there was a TV series (years ago!) with giant tripod aliens roaming around a ruined earth, and a group of kids infiltrate a city, and... I can't really remember any more, but your description prompted the memory!

1/13/2006 12:25:00 AM  
Blogger Pat said...

Well, I've got a couple in mind, but they're both spoilers (though one was written in 197x, so again, if you ain't read it yet (and I know you haven't, Doug, we've discussed elsewhere your allergy to the phrase "apotheosis of all deserts"), you're probably not going to).

#1: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Under the mountains, the gunslinger is forced to choose between continuing his pursuit of the man in black, and thus the Tower, and turning back to save his (symbolic) son Jake, who is dangling by his fingertips above a seemingly bottomless pit. He chooses the Tower, leaving Jake to fall. Jake's last words have stuck with me forever: "Go then. There are other worlds than these." (It may bear explaining that Jake was a young boy in "our" world, till death sent him into the gunslinger's "world that has moved on".)


#2: One for the Morning Glory, by John Barnes

Prince Amatus, as a young child, drinks "The Wine of the Gods", about which there is a saying: "He who drinks the Wine of the Gods before his time will thereafter be half a man". Naturally, the entire left half of his body disappears. The king, enraged, has the four people responsible executed.

A year and a day later, a group of four travelers arrive in the kingdom and are hired to replace the four executed "companions" of the Prince.


In order for the Prince to regain his entirety, these new Companions must die, one by one. In most cases this is tragedy; in one, it is a blessing, as one of them turns out to be a vampire. (She also looks exactly like Amatus' dead mother, which, as one of the characters points out, may mean nothing, and it may mean everything.)


Those two have stuck with me, through continued re-readings.

1/13/2006 06:05:00 AM  
Blogger Robyn said...

An old classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. As a kid growing up in the South, this book made me take a long hard look at the unthinking, almost unknowing racism I'd grown up with. Not as bad as the 30's/40's when the book is set, but still...I cried right along with Jem and Scout as they realised that evidence be damned, a black man in the South was not going to be set free. Even after the guilty verdict, as their lawyer father Atticus leaves the courtroom, the black community relegated to the balcony stands as he passes. That scene still gets to me as much as when I was twelve.

1/13/2006 07:02:00 AM  
Blogger Kate R said...

oh that movie was amazing. I remember it and I think I saw it that year too. And weren't you ten in 1971? Huh?

okay so there's nothing like death to make an impression. What I do loathe is tagged on death. The bus. The little cough that turns out to be pneumonia five scenes later. Annoying as hell.

Yeah, death does just leap out of nowhere sometimes but in fiction? If there isn't a good solid reason (solid as in plot, not bus) it's as stupid as any deus ex machina, only stupiddeter er more reprehensible because it's screwing with emotions which is always a delicate process and should be approached with care.

But in that movie and in Lear and a thousand other places (maybe not Steel Magnolias dammit) it's the right ending.

1/13/2006 07:28:00 AM  
Blogger Pat said...

Song running through my head:

"Waste and tragedy have come to run their fingers through your hair
Waste and tragedy could never hold a candle to your fair
And golden hair, girl"
--from "Waste and Tragedy" by the smalls

Just saying.

1/13/2006 07:47:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Yes, Jona, BBC made an adaptation. I think you're right on target.

Pat, that Barnes novel sounds interesting. I'll look for it. As for The Gunslinger, I think I've developed an allergy to King in general.

Robyn, good selection. I had my son read TKAM not long ago, and he wasn't much affected by it, but he may be too young.

Kate, I have a late birthday -- and I seem to recall it was spring or summer when I saw Walkabout. So I was 9 ;o) One of my least favorite deaths in fiction: A Separate Peace. Oh, boy, did that ever seem forced and phony. As for movies, wasn't it Terms of Endearment where Debra Winger out of the blue gets cancer in the end and dies? Or am I thinking of another early 80s chick flick?

1/13/2006 08:39:00 AM  
Blogger Kate R said...

You forget I know EXACTLY when your birthday is...september 25.

1/13/2006 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Oh yeah . . .


1/13/2006 06:54:00 PM  

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